I don't think any great albums surfaced in 1977, but several good ones make it a fine year for rock. Many of the old-timers released vital and exciting sets — Little Feat, Steely Dan, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood, Jethro Tull, Yes, Hall and Oates are the first of many to come to mind — and, even better, quite a few debut albums promise a bright future. Things seem healthier than they have for years. The list below includes the things that impressed me most.
First, old stuff: the re-issue of the year is Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, the second of the late composer's brooding and meditative albums. Drake's audience was small but devoted during his life, and it's great that Island Records, through its budget label, Antilles, is seeking to expand it. Drake would have become a major voice in rock.
Neil Young's Decade seems to me the most wisely assembled anthology of the year. Its structure and song selection are models of how to do this sort of thing, and it is a fitting "best-of" from a unique and great artist. A runner-up is The Best of Roxy Music, several ace tunes from the most decadent of all rockers, including Bryan Ferry's "Song for Europe," and "Love Is the Drug," the closest Roxy ever came to American single-release success.
Genesis' Seconds Out is the year's best live album (the best in many a year, in fact), closely followed by the live portions of Santana's Moonflower. Other outstanding live albums came from BeBop deLux, the Beatles and Loggins and Messina; wretched ones from major bands include those from the Stones and the Moody Blues.
New artists abounded; of them Karla Bonoff and Elvis Costello seem to promise most for the future. My favorite new bands are the slick and polished Foreigner and the jazzy, laid-back Sea Level.
The most impressive "comeback" album of the year is the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station, closely pursued by Jethro Tull's Songs From the Wood. In both cases the bands have achieved a new vitality by exploring facets of their musical personae hitherto unexploited, the Dead organizing their notorious openness into theme and variation, Tull finally acknowledging the baroque underpinning that's always been at the heart of their work. One-shots or not, these albums are the most surprising of the year.
The eclectic Peter Gabriel released the best "solo" album of 1977; his eponymous venture into the nether regions also includes, in "Solsbury Hill," the song of the year. Beginning with "Moribund the Burgomaster," Peter Gabriel slams from style to style like the possessed lurch of a drunken visionary. If Gabriel manages to top this, he will join the big-shots in the Pantheon (I think Elton John just vacated his pedestal, so there's room now). Randy Newman's Little Criminals is just about as fine.
Band of the year, appropriately, is Genesis. Two superb albums (the live one noted above and Wind and Wuthering) continue the quartet's always-ace contributions to rock, and special mention must be given to Phil Collins. Not content with replacing Gabriel as lead singer in Genesis, Collins is also the force behind Brand X, whose third album, Live Stock, came out this autumn.
Album of the year? Two choices, one American, one English. Steely Dan's Aja — cold, remote and beautiful — is a masterpiece of production and instrumentation. With Roxy's break-up, I consider Steely Dan the most important new group of the decade, and Aja ranks with Can't Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic as the epitome of the band's isolated, convoluted style. Almost opposite in outlook and technique is Sleepwalker, a bashing, compassionate collection of new songs by the Kinks. From the plaintive beginnings of "Life on the Road" to the gallows humor of "Life Goes On," Ray Davies reasserts his position among rock's greatest and most original talents. If Ray owns the album, his brother Dave nearly steals it with his outstanding guitar work, and the entire band plays with an involvement unevidenced since Arthur.
Then there is Van Morrison's A Period of Transition and Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams and the debut from the Dixie Dregs and Dicky Betts and Great Southern and others that I'll think of in an hour. A solid year — whoa, there was Rough Mix from Townsend and Lane and Roger McGuinn's Thunderbyrd and Meatloaf's But Out of Hell and goodies from the Blue Oyster Cult, Starcastle, the Floyd's Animals, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's Bridges....