Should the Ten Best Albums of 1977 also be the most important? In this era of punk and New Wave, should the reviewer pay more attention to good releases by established performers or rather to albums of impact?
This space will only be concerned with quality and the quality of 1977's releases was fair. Certain albums were indeed top-notch, but too many were overproduced, over-promoted, and over-commercialized. There appears to be a lack of distinction among rock acts, and that holds for punk and theatrical bands as well as traditional groups.
Various record companies do not send their blue-chip albums to Spectator. Instead, they peddle a combination of trash, sleepers and new artist. And since I am not in possession of unlimited time and funds, I could not listen to every release of 1977. Albums that I have heard portions of, but cannot fairly be included in a list that ought to be comprehensive, will be duly noted.
Moreover, this list will be a survey of rock & roll (popular) music albums. Jazz, disco and blues records are not covered in depth.
The 1977 list has room for more newcomers than one might suspect because these artists from whom we have come to expect excellent music did not live up to their reputations. Bob Dylan's Hard Rain, The Rolling Stones' Black and Blue and Love You Live and the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station are only average records from performers who account for some of rock's classic albums.
Their place has been taken by Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. These are two important records, too. They represent New Wave with quality control.
Costello's music is hard core rock & roll — simple enough to be catchy, yet complex enough to be original. Petty's "American Girl" is already a classic number. In fact, Roger McGuinn's Thunderbyrd receives honorable mention largely on the strength of that album's version of "American Girl." But Petty himself is a driving rocker, and Mike Campbell is a fine lead guitarist.
Another fairly new act that breaks the Top Ten is BeBop Deluxe with its live two-record collection Live in the Air Age. Bill Nelson proves himself a first-class writer, vocalist and guitarist. BeBop Deluxe's material is different, energetic and diverse.
There are other new performers who merit consideration, but their chances have been foiled by lack of turntable play. I've been stuck on Graham Parker's first two releases Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment to purchase his and the Rumor's latest, Stick To Me. Wet Willie's Manorisms also deserves a good listening, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers display a fine knowledge of the blues and seminal rock and roll. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' This Time It's For Real is that group's second first-rate release, too.
The following list is in alphabetical order:
The Beatles — Live at the Hollywood Bowl
BeBop Deluxe — Live in the Air Age
Elvis Costello — My Aim Is True
J.Geils Band — Monkey Island
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Bonnie Raitt — Sweet Forgiveness
Santana — Moonflower
Steely Dan — Aja
Jesse Winchester — Nothing But a Breeze
Neil Young — American Stars 'n' Bars
...and then there's Elvis Costello. My goodness what a superb lot of talent — genius, really — he made available on a single album, the ubiquitous My Aim is True. One wonders if he can sustain his own pace. If he can, he'll certainly become the next Bob Dylan, a title presently vacant. (In fact, with Renaldo and Clara, Dylan simply proved that he isn't even the new Bob Dylan any more. Nor the old. Nor even Robert Zimmerman, for that matter). And if Costello flags, if he can't maintain the excruciating pace he has set for himself, well, then we can simply put him down in our pop yearbook as the next John Prine, circa 1977, Which is to say: nothing. Such are the perils of premature genius — or at least chutzpah, which he has in spades. As I have not named ten records, for reasons above stated, I have no ten best list. Sorry, kids, but them's the breaks.
Notable in the 1977 list is the number of relative newcomers, a fact that both heartens and disheartens depending on your nostalgia quotient. Elvis Costello, for example, sprang to prominence so fast it could make an advance man's head swirl. Nor unfairly though. His album, My Aim is True, is simple beauty—and in simplicity there is worth. Obviously having done his homework, Elvis combines old Beetle and Beatle-esque riffs with unelaborate vocals and some fine guitar work. There's not a boring track on the entire album.
Ten Best in no particular order:
1) Elvis Costello — My Aim is True
2) J.Geils Band — Monkey Island
3) The Kinks — Sleepwalker
4) Little Feat — Time Loves a Hero
5) Randy Newman — Little Criminals
6) Graham Parker and the Rumour — Stick to Me
7) Valerie Carter — Just a Stone's Throw Away
8) Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes — This Time It's for Real
9) Jesse Winchester — Nothin' But a Breeze
10) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers