The 30 Best Albums of 1979

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The 30 Best Albums of 1979

Forty years ago, America was filled with tube tops and harness boots, the Atari and the Walkman. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the U.K. elected Margaret Thatcher. The snowboard was invented in 1979, as was the modern superhero movie with the release of Superman. In music, it was the year of the Disco Demolition, when Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl blew up a crate full of dance music, declaring the death of disco, but like his beloved rock, it would prove more resilient than he hoped. Donna Summer had three of the Billboard top 20 songs of 1979, alongside acts like Chic, The Doobie Brothers, Gloria Gaynor and, of course, The Village People. Yes, 1979 was the year of “Y.M.C.A.”

But disco was only a part of the music scene in 1979. Post-punk and New Wave were in full blossom with boundary-pushing albums from Talking Heads, B-52’s, Joy Division and Gang of Four. Michael Jackson was turning his Motown roots into music for the masses with Off the Wall, and artists like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Funkadelic, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young were all exploring new sounds. There was great music coming from every corner of the musical landscape, though most of it was ignored by pop radio at the time.

We’ve compiled the best albums of 1979, voted on by Paste’s music writers and editors. These are the albums that have endured these last 40 years and, in many cases, helped shape the next generation of musicians. We’ve also included live audio and video tracks from Paste’s Music Vault archive on many of these.

Here are the 30 best albums of 1979:

specials-st.jpg 30. The Specials, The Specials
This British 2 Tone outfit combined the rhythms of classic Jamaican ska with the brash energy of punk and sparked a minor revolution. Long before ska became the purview of dorky ’90s teenagers sporting checkered Vans, The Specials, decked out in their “Rude Boy” outfits, condensed a career’s worth of hooks, horns, and righteous left-wing fury into one tremendous debuts. The iconic hit was “A Message to You, Rudy”—a spirited reboot of Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 single—but the LP is crammed with other gems, including the anti-party banger “Nite Klub” and the stirring equality anthem “Doesn’t Make It Alright.” The record owes some of its sound to producer Elvis Costello, who had his hand in not one but two of the best albums of 1979. —Zach Schonfeld

marianne-faithfull-broken.jpg 29. Marianne Faithfull, Broken English
The daughter of an Austrian baroness, this swinging London socialite was first discovered by Rolling Stones Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, who provided her first Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-penned hit “As Tears Go By” in 1964. After flirtations with film, drugs and even Jagger himself, Faithfull disappeared for a decade, reinventing herself as a smoky-throated chanteuse on 1979’s New Wave gem, Broken English. It’s a mix of punk and rock and balladry with generous amount so synthesizers from Steve Winwood, but it’s Faithfull’s smoky, cracked voice singing vulnerable songs about sex and heartbreak that led to a Grammy nomination and critical acclaim. —Tom Lanham

acdc-highway.jpg 28. AC/DC, Highway to Hell
“Hey, mama! Look at me! I’m on my way to the promised land!” snarls Bon Scott on Highway to Hell’s bulldozing title track, unconsciously writing his own epitaph on AC/DC’s sixth and last album before the lead singer’s death six months later. From its opening guitar riff, Highway to Hell is relentlessly, unapologetically crass—what, you thought “Beating Around the Bush” was about shrubbery?—but if Scott’s cackle at the conclusion of “Shot Down in Flames” is any indication, damned if they aren’t having fun doing it. —Katie Cameron

rlj-st.jpg 27. Rickie Lee Jones, Rickie Lee Jones
Ricki Lee Jones’ self-titled debut offered the initial hint that a wandering ragamuffin with a bohemian mindset had the skill and savvy to create work with decided commercial appeal. Her wanderlust had taken her to her eventual boyfriend Chuck E. Weiss, about whom she penned the hit that would grace that first album, “Chuck E.’s In Love.” Evidence of Jones’ eclectic influences saturated the album, with certain styles pervading the effort overall—jazz, folk, cabaret and a general nocturnal glow that reflected her carefree credence and decidedly nonconformist attitude. It made for a memorable initial impression, underscored by her beret-wearing, beatnik-mimicking image. Some saw the album as an attempt to establish herself as Waits’ alter-ego, but it clearly eclipses the comparisons bestowed on her at the time. It certainly served her well, resulting in sales of some 2 million copies, near unanimous critical kudos and the launch of a career that made her an enduring chanteuse for the decades that followed. Few albums, before or since, offered their namesakes such singular status. —Lee Zimmerman

ewf-i-am.jpg 26. Earth, Wind & Fire, I Am
In 1979, disco peaked—then it plateaued. Earth, Wind & Fire released their ninth album of schmaltzy grooves about a month before “the day disco died,” a.k.a. July 12, 1979, a.k.a. Disco Demolition Night, the evening a posse of Chicago baseball fans gathered to combust a crate of disco records as a giant middle-finger to the popular-yet-divisive genre. It’s remembered as the supposed, symbolic termination of the disco craze, but Earth, Wind & Fire weren’t even close to done. Even as disco declined, Maurice White and his team of funk lords saw ample chart time in 1979 for their I Am classic with The Emotions, “Boogie Wonderland,” still one of their most beloved tunes, and it would be another two years before another of their biggest numbers, “Let’s Groove,” even arrived. The former remains a stellar, untouchable hit, second only to the epic “September.” Of course disco isn’t dead—Earth, Wind & Fire have been taming the flame all along, even now as they continue to tour. And I Am, a dance album of the flashiest variety, still burns quite bright. —Ellen Johnson

the-cars-candy-o.jpg 25. The Cars, Candy-O
The Cars’ first album in 1978 ranks among the all-time great debuts: at least six of the nine songs are outright classics. In fact, The Cars was so good that it’s easy to forget about the follow-up, but Candy-O deftly shrugs off the sophomore slump. The songs are uniformly strong, with standouts including opener “Let’s Go,” the underrated single “It’s All I Can Do” and the overlooked album track “Double Life.” Though Queen collaborator Roy Thomas Baker returned to produce, Candy-O is subtler and a little less slick than The Cars, without losing any of the melodic punch that helped make New Wave into the new pop in the late ’70s and early ’80s. —Eric R. Danton

supertramp-breakfast.jpg 24. Supertramp, Breakfast in America
Supertramp reached their commercial peak with Breakfast in America. Whirring with the Wurlitzer-powered piano hooks that would come to define the band’s music, the album distanced Supertramp from their prog-rock roots toward a concise, radio-friendly sound. Breakfast in America produced four hit singles, including “Goodbye Stranger,” “The Logical Song” (don’t miss the sound of the Trouble Pop-o-Matic in the background!) and the album’s ode-to-kippers title track. Despite growing tensions between founders Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies during the album’s production, the latter two tracks would be Supertramp’s first (and only) hits to climb to Top 10 status on U.K. charts. —Katie Cameron

graham-parker-squeezing.jpg 23. Graham Parker & the Rumour, Squeezing Out Sparks
This was the finest moment of Parker’s still-underrated career, a near-perfect example of how rock ’n’ roll can dissolve the boundaries between the personal and the public. The songs’ young, male narrator may be confronted by a pregnant girlfriend, a nuclear-haunted Japan, a snobby neighborhood girl or the restless hunt for excitement in a dull suburb, but he responds to every challenge with the implacable insistence that “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” as one of the best songs puts it. Displaying a classic rock’n’soul voice and backed by the great pub-rock band the Rumour (aka the Brinsley Schwartz band), he made a convincing case. The album was later re-released with a live version of the songs—one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll concert recordings ever. —Geoffrey Himes

emmylou-blue.jpg 22. Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl
Having broken into the country charts with Gram Parsons-inspired progressive-country music, Harris decided to try her hand at the traditional stuff. Tackling material associated with Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Jean Ritchie and the Louvin Brothers with old-fashioned arrangements, Harris proved herself a natural, her crystalline soprano capturing that tension between working-class yearning and Christian fatalism that fuels the best country music. Rodney Crowell wrote a song and played guitar; Ricky Skaggs played fiddle; the Whites sang harmony; Brian Ahern produced, and Don Everly and Tanya Tucker sang duets. The result was three more top-10 country hits. —Geoffrey Himes

xtc-drums.jpg 21. XTC, Drums and Wires
XTC’s third album Drums & Wires rumbles with polychromatic pop, a skittish punk energy and fierce grooves. Their off-kilter fusion of art rock and New Wave swells with Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding’s mercurial pop yelps and pointed guitars. One of the key cuts is the jovial lead single “Making Plans for Nigel,” quirkily told from parents’ perspective as they unilaterally decide that a career as a steelworker is what’s best for their son. “Ten Feet Tall” is another highlight with its jocular romantic teases, and it showcases the band’s whip-smart wordplay. The coltish pop sound of Drums and Wires (the band’s first album to chart in the U.S.) is rooted in a bold, drum-centric sound, and the addition of their second guitarist Dave Gregory allows space for their transfixing guitar interplay. —Lizzie Manno

van-morrison-into-music.jpg 20. Van Morrison, Into the Music
Into The Music arrived at an opportune time for Van Morrison. The legendary songwriter, already solidified as one of the greats thanks to early career-makers Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, emerged in 1979 from a slew of lackluster releases with the terrific Into the Music, one of the more spritely albums of his expansive and ever-evolving career. It truly is a deep-dive into music of all sorts—jazz, blues, rock and even some unexpected honky-tonk spirit—and a pivot towards adult contemporary. Coming off the largely forgettable Wavelength, Morrison made a lively leap back into critics’ good graces with the album, which acquired praise from outlets across the board. It’s a happy album, both thematically (“Bright Side Of The Road,” “You Make Me Feel So Free”) and instrumentally (trumpets, violins and even a penny whistle all get a chance to shine). Morrison even fashions his own kind of giddy pregame anthem on the chipper horn number, “Stepping Out Queen,” still one of his most fun tunes. Of his 40 studio albums, this is hardly the best, but if Van Morrison the Optimist is someone you’d like to get to know, Into the Music is a fantastic place to start. —Ellen Johnson

wire.jpg 19. Wire, 154
Wire sounded like a different band on their first two albums, but their third (and final, until a mid-’80s reunion) often sounds like two different bands itself. Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s experiments over the first half of the ’80s in Dome and other projects are foreshadowed by songs like “I Should Have Known Better” and “A Touching Display,” which are all slow, foreboding atmosphere and ominous narration. Meanwhile Colin Newman sings the more straightforward songs like “Two People in a Room,” “The 15th” and “Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W,” which sound like the Wire of Chairs Missing with more synths and guitar effects. It’s a challenging set of songs that navigates the middle path between art-rock and postpunk. —Garrett Martin

the-raincoats.jpg 18. The Raincoats, The Raincoats
If the prototype for post-punk is a bunch of British art students in the late ’70s forming a garage band that incorporates dub beats and an odd collection of world music instruments, then Raincoats are the most post-punk band of all time. By the time they released their self-titled debut, they were a quartet of women, playing dissonant, non-commercial songs with odd harmonies and mesmerizing critics. —Josh Jackson

funkadelic-uncle-jam.jpg 17. Funkadelic, Uncle Jam Wants You
It’s hard to touch the mind-numbing psych-funk of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, but Uncle Jam Wants You (a play on the U.S. army slogan) offers something entirely different. They venture into disco and soul, and although their hi-fi synths are a bit garish (as is the album cover, though Huey P. Newton’s militant pose is pretty badass), they persevere with piercing guitar solos, contagious rhythms and lustrous soul vocals. The 15-minute number “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” which was notably sampled on De La Soul’s hit song “Me Myself and I,” is a groovy odyssey made for the dancefloor. It’s an album steeped in slick jams, meticulous grooves and volleying vocals, and though it’s not trippy by Maggot Brain’s standards, it’s still an incredibly numinous listen. —Lizzie Manno

bowie-lodger.jpg 16. David Bowie, Lodger
The final record in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy doesn’t have the rep of Low and ‘Heroes’, but it might be the most adventurous of the three albums Bowie made with Brian Eno. Looking for a spark, the two embraced Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, working within specific limitations to challenge themselves. Musicians played different instruments than they typically would, chord structures were repurposed for multiple songs, and some songs begin as mirror images of older Bowie hits. Lodger also delves into world music on songs like “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin.” The result finds triumph in chaos, and surprisingly sounds like the most straight-forward and accessible of the Trilogy. Standouts include “Look Back in Anger,” which smears some of Eno’s atmospheric noise over a locomotive of a rock song; “Boys Keep Swinging,” the closest the record had to a hit, whose deadpan investigation of masculinity sounds as relevant today as it did 40 years ago; and “Red Sails,” which sounds like various song ideas scattered over a Neu groove. —Garrett Martin

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