This month's Disc Derby is different. Rather than the usual mix of pop styles, the entries are strictly rock 'n' roll. And the quality is so high that we end up with more than the usual three winners.
For those who have been lamenting the lethargic state of rock in recent months (years?), the upswing is a good sign.
Elvis Costello heads the field, but the new albums by Nick Lowe, Lou Reed and Patti Smith are solid enough to have won many of the previous Disc Derby contests.
It's the tightest bunching of noteworthy records since Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel and Fleetwood Mac hooked up last spring. Even the also-rans are competitive. The lowest grade any of the 10 albums receives is a MAYBE.
The Disc Derby is an extension of the YES/NO test, which was designed to separate special merit albums from routine-or-less works. The Derby ranks the top records to provide an extra guideline.
Elvis Costello's This Year's Model (Columbia JC 35331) With his hornrimmed glasses and mild-mannered reporter appearance, Costello doesn't look much like a rock star. But his music is right in step with the classic rock pulse. His vocals bristle with a conviction and bite that we rarely find in rock in the 70s. Thanks to crisper production touches, Model with its tales of frustration and desire is even more potent than last year's solid My Aim Is True. There's a sensual urgency to "Pump It Up" that should make the song a show-stopper live, and Costello's taunting "Radio, Radio" is a call to arms that deserves the cheers of anyone who is disillusioned with the dreariness of Top 40 radio. YES.
Doctors of Mtdness' Doctors of Madness (United Artists UA-LA87I-J2) Doctors is the British band that an NBC-TV news team pointed to a couple of years ago as an example of how sharpies can manipulate the poor, unsuspecting rock audience. The commentators suggested the just-formed band was a bunch of no-talents. The irony is the group hasn't become a hit in England, but it's music is pretty good. So much for NBC news, and the sharpies.
The Doctors' style on its first LP — available until now only in import copies — leaned heavily, but often productively, on David Bowie's stirring, pre-Young Americans period. Kid Strange was a good writer and singer, and the quartet's violinist had a name tailor-made for mid-'70s rock decadence: Urban Blitz. The group didn't move forward in its second album, however. The two albums have been brought together in this package. Some of the stuff from the first album still sounds terrific and some of the things from the second album remain commonplace. But Bowie fanatics should give it a try. It's closer to the super emotional strains of Ziggy and Aladdin Sane than Heroes. MAYBE.
Generation X's Generation X (Chrysalis CHft 1169) This invigorating power pop outfit from England kicks off its debut album with a rousing version of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth." The track has such striking rock splendor that it makes you want to sign up for the band's fan club. When Generation X follows with its own, uplifting "Wild Youth," you know you're onto something. Billy Idol's vocals have authority and snap. The arrangements mix the frantic rejoice of the early Sweet with punk/new wave social comment. The result is a strange, but mostly inviting blend of tough guy and bubble-gum images. Not everything keeps pace with those opening tracks, but the band's experimental, echo-assisted "Wild Dub" is a classic exercise in appealing pop-rock textures. YES.
Nick Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia JC 35329) This album is so much fun that I've listened to it more than anything else on the list. There's an innocence and intelligence here that parallels the late Gram Parsons' work with the Flying Burrito Brothers. There's also a strong sense of clashing cultures. Where Parsons mixed what once seemed incompatible country and rock elements, Lowe merges lightweight pop strains with wry rock sensibilities in records that can be enjoyed on both the simplest and most sophisticated levels. The tracks are uneven, but the best reflect a delight with the record-making process that is hard to resist, YES.
No Dice's No Dice (Capitol ST 11733) Unlike most new British bands these days, this foursome is neither punk nor power pop. It's more a marriage of the old party-time spirit of the Faces and Rod Stewart's recent, morning-after reflections. Lead singer Roger Ferris even injects some grainy Stewart-ish touches to give the whole thing a touch of class. No Dice has an above-average songwriter in Gary Strange and an especially appealing guitarist in Dave Martin. The group stumbles when it gets too far into the blues, but "Someone Else's Gold" and "Crystal Clear" show it has a poignant side to match its basic rocking approach. MAYBE.
Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance (Blank 001) There's so much surface noise on my copy of this album that I almost went back for another copy, but the noise may be intentional. Everything else on this debut LP by a boldly original Ohio group is framed in the oddest of electronic textures. Besides, what's a little surface noise when measured against the eerie, graveyard moans and other gurgling laboratory effects? David Thomas sings with enough growling, almost subhuman intensity to make him Mr. Hyde to Capt. Beefheart's Dr. Jekyll. Much of the music is as unsettling as a fingernail against a chalkboard. Because of that, Pere Ubu is probably going to have a hard time finding a large audience. Still, it has enough humor, spirit and "modem age" psychedelia to fascinate the adventurous. MAYBE.
Lou Reed's Street Hassle" (Arista AB 4169) The comeback artist of 1978. Despite occasional sales spurts and flattering critical notices, Reed's music has been trendy and insignificant in recent years. The highly influential spark plug of the old Velvet Underground group hasn't made a good album since Berlin in 1973 until now. Street Hassle is a gem. Unwieldy and ragged at times, it has provocation and bite. The title selection, which alternately cries out for and rejects romantic involvement, carries Reed's old "Walk on the Wild Side" persona even further into the backstreets of human emotions. A bold, powerful collection. YES.
Patti Smith's Easter (Arista AB 4171) Another candidate for the comeback artist of the year. After the disappointment of Radio Ethiopia, Smith has regained the control and passion of her 1975 debut album. Smith has always had commanding rock instincts, but she channels them more effectively than ever here into solid, accessible rock songs. "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" has enough fury to match the Sex Pistols, while "Because the Night" the current single is as elegant a rock ballad as anyone has done in years. The album is bogged down by occasional moments that are either plain or naggingly obscure, but the high points match Costello and Reed. She'll be at the Santa Monica Civic Friday. YES.
Stiff Records' Live Stiffs (Arista STE 0001) Stiff is the eccentric British label that best epitomizes the independence and charm of the new wave not punk movement in England. In just two years, it has given us LPs by the angry Elvis Costello, the likable Nick Lowe and the irrepressible Ian Dury. All three are featured on this live album recorded last year during a promotional tour by Stiff artists. The Costello and Lowe tracks make the collection a must for those who like This Year's Model and Pure Pop..., but the other tracks by Dury, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis' Psychedelic Rowdies aren't strong to make this a must for everyone. Those unfamiliar with the Stiff artists should start with either the Costello or Lowe solo LPs. MAYBE.
Wire's Pink Flag (Harvest ST 11757) There's something too pat about this British band's approach, but still I'm fascinated by the album. The group has crammed 21 songs or fragments into an Orwellian look at a largely cold, impersonal, disintegrating society. Though the musical textures are often alluring, the group puts the most stress on its words. You might think of Wire as what Pink Floyd would have become if Floyd's personnel had been English Lit majors rather than science and electronic shop freaks. In fact, the "Pink Flag" album cover is reminiscent (minus the cow) of Floyd's old Atom Heart Mother cover. The lyrics border at times on double talk, but somehow it seems quite reasonable. 1 don't know where Wire can take this documentary rock style, but this is certainly a noteworthy start. YES.