Forty years ago, popular music was dominated by disco. Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees had five of the eight biggest singles of the year. The rest of the Billboard chart was filled with lite-pop ballads like Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” and Exile’s “Kiss You All Over.” But music was also in the midst of a post-punk revolution. Several of our favorite albums from 1978 appeared on our lists of the Best Post-Punk and Best Best New Wave albums.
In 1978, Keith Moon played his last show with The Who, while The Rolling Stones returned to form with Some Girls. Blue-collar roots rock sold millions of records thanks to Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen. Funk fans got their first annual festival in Chicago, “One Nation Under a Groove,” just a month after the death of Parliament-Funkadelic singer Glenn Goins at the age of 24. Eddie Van Halen would inspire a generation of would-be guitar gods. Kraftwerk would quietly continue laying the ground work for an electronic revolution. And a handful of punk stalwarts would look to the looming ‘80s with a sense of pop adventure that came to define the radio hits of the next 10 years.
We’ve been taking a look back at music history in decade increments, beginning with the Best Albums of 1968 and continuing with each decade (1988 and 1998 are coming soon). We have exclusive live footage of several of these acts performing around 1978, including the Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Here are the 30 Best Albums of 1978:
30. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Kaya
The Bob Marley on Kaya is not the holy justice warrior of the early 1970s. Album opener “Easy Skanking” is, well, easy. These 10 tracks are mellow odes to love and pot, a smoked-out chill session after the revolution has wound down. But a more contented Marley could still churn out classics like “Is This Love” and “Satisfy My Soul.” Recorded in London just before he returned to Jamaica after an exile in the wake of an attempted assassination, the reggae legend may have been a little burned out on politics as two competing factions back home threatened to throw his island nation in chaos. The result was his highest-charting album in the U.K. and an album made for lazy days somewhere the sun is shining. —Josh Jackson
29. The Ramones: Road to Ruin
Darker and thrashier than the bouncy punk tunes The Ramones are mostly known for, Road to Ruin might not have the quantity of memorable hits of its follow-up End of the Century, but it does have the band’s most famous song, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” which opens up side two. Songs like “I Don’t Want You” (“Baby you said that you’d be true / I don’t care / I don’t care / I don’t care / I don’t care / I don’t want you”) lend the album a more pessimistic vibe. But a cover of The Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” showed the band unafraid to play unironic ballads, and “Sedated” brightened the album up considerably. —Josh Jackson
28. The Saints: Eternally Yours
Australia’s best punk band added a horn section for a few songs on their second album, bringing some R&B power to Ed Kuepper’s roaring guitar cyclones. The brass is a crucial addition to “Know Your Product” and “Orstralia,” two of the album’s best songs, and proof that bands should have been more ready to break through the already-congealed punk orthodoxy of the day. Eternally Yours was one of the first major statements that “punk,” whatever that meant, could be much more than two or three chords and a sneer. It certainly has songs built around both, and singer Chris Bailey’s condescension on the insistently tense minor masterpiece “This Perfect Day” (later covered by The Fall in the late ’90s, in a rare case of Mark E. Smith paying respects to a band of his own generation) is powerful, but Eternally Yours reveals a band audibly challenging itself, and in turn challenging its colleagues and listeners to keep up. —Garrett Martin
27. Public Image Ltd.: First Issue
John Lydon’s scream is different on Public Image Ltd’s First Issue. By the time the album was released in late 1978, the Sex Pistols’ singer had already established his reputation as one of rock’s most snarling frontmen. But as First Issue opens with a sharp, piercing shriek—a cry into an empty yet alluring void—its dark, guttural sound is instantly revolutionary. With Public Image Ltd, Lydon experimented with new themes, including God, death and the seedy underbelly of society. The Sex Pistols were an outright assault, but on First Issue, the vibes are aggressive yet detached. From the stomping guitar screeches of “Annalisa” to the industrial dance-punk of “Fodderstompf,” First Issue set the scene for the cooler, and in many ways, freer era that was ’80s British post-punk. —Loren DiBlasi
26. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town
The 10th time was something of a charm for Bob Seger. On the heels of his ninth album and commercial breakthrough Night Moves, Stranger in Town contained four of the best tracks of Seger’s career: “Hollywood Nights” and “Still the Same” recorded with the Silver Bullet Band, and “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “We’ve Got Tonite” recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (including Jimmy Johnson and David Hood). This was the Detroit roots-rocker’s peak, selling millions of copies and making him the king of every Midwestern roadhouse jukebox for decades to come. —Josh Jackson
25. X-Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents (1978)
As with some of the best post-punk bands of the era, this punk quintet didn’t survive past the bright blast of their debut album (their sophomore LP didn’t arrive until 17 years later). Burning out never sounded quite as great as this, though. Honed to a dangerous point by months of live shows, the London-born group tears through a dozen songs with a casual swing but enough jet fuel in their tanks to propel lead singer Poly Styrene (one of the 25 Greatest Frontwomen of All Time) and Rudi Thompson’s sax playing to dizzying heights. It’s poppy enough to feel like candy, yet weighty enough to leave a deliciously painful knot in your gut after “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” grinds to a halt. —Robert Ham
24. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope
If you never had a chance to experience The Clash while they were in full swing, it may be a little difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. So much has been written about the punk explosion that first erupted in England in late 1976; the names of the players—the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Slits—were as confrontational as the music they played, but right from the beginning there was something that set The Clash apart. They were serious and on a mission from the get-go. Sure, there were some songs of happy destruction, but the band never went in for the nihilism that seduced many of the other early punk bands. The Clash were all about social and cultural change, and even though Give ‘em Enough Rope didn’t stray too far from the loud, crashing, DIY ethics that distinguish early punk, there was something different about them even then. Perhaps it was the intensity of their lyrics or the breadth of their musicality, pr the sense they were willing to push their musical vision and commit themselves to radical social change. —Douglas Heselgrave
23. Van Halen: Van Halen
It’s hard to pick a favorite Van Halen album, but it’s also hard to vote against their debut. Van Halen were a revolutionary hard-rock band because, as Michael Hann wrote in a compelling piece for The Quietus, they largely rejected the blues-based foundation of bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC and instead brought a pop song sheen and sensibility to metal. This was all apparent on their debut, as David Lee Roth’s pristine melodies and the band’s harmonies are as crucial to its success as Eddie Van Halen’s historic (and histrionic) guitar work. Their influence on the hair-metal scene of the 1980s can’t be underestimated—without Van Halen it maybe wouldn’t have even existed. Between “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and the iconic guitar solo “Eruption” (which basically made finger tapping a standard feature in metal solos), Van Halen includes some of the most unforgettable moments in the band’s long career. —Garrett Martin
22. Patti Smith Group: Easter
“Because the Night” is the song everyone knows from Patti Smith’s commercial break-out album. Initially written by Bruce Springsteen, who gave it to Smith to recast and reshape, the pop ballad was an instant hit, but much of the rest of the album is wonderfully weirder, as the new-wave icon ranged from classic rock to beat poetry. “Space Monkey,” co-written with Television’s Tom Verlaine and genre-bending Czech-born musician Ival Kral, features frantic organ, monkey noises and Smith’s unhinged screaming. “Ghost Dance” sounds like a Woodstock-era folk chant. And the lyrics are full of often-transgressive religious imagery, rebirth for the outsider and hope from the fringe. —Josh Jackson
21. Townes Van Zandt: Flyin’ Shoes
No one much noticed Flyin’ Shoes when it came out in 1978, but Townes Van Zandt’s first studio album since 1972 ultimately came to rank among his strongest albums. Van Zandt recorded many of the songs on the album in 1973 for an album that never materialized, hindered by financial issues on the part of his record label and his own oft-ornery behavior. But 40 years later, songs like “Loretta,” the aching “No Place to Fall” and the hard-luck lament “Rex’s Blues” resonate as much as anything Van Zandt wrote, and given his staggering talent as a songwriter, that’s saying something. —Eric R. Danton