Elvis Costello's Armed Forces is the best album so far in 1979. The tenacious rock collection is joined on the Midyear Top 5 by LPs from Rickie Lee Jones, Graham Parker, the Roches and Donna Summer.
While our best rock artists demonstrate far more artistic vision than the disco contingent, individual disco records gave us some of AM radio's most enjoyable moments so far in 1979: Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Amii Stewart's "Knock on Wood."
The reason so little disco is on the midyear list is that most disco albums are woefully inconsistent. The creative and commercial emphasis in the field is on singles.
The encouraging thing about today's pop market is that it is broad enough to make best sellers out of artists as diverse as Costello and Summer — not to mention artists as idiosyncratic as Rickie Lee Jones and the Roches.
That's the big difference between now and 1977, when only three of the midyear Top 10 albums were able to crack the commercial Top 100.
This message is slowly getting through to radio stations, where programmers are showing increasing willingness to play the aggressive or new-wave rock that they all but blackballed two years ago.
Bad Company, Foreigner, Kansas and other passive rock forces continue to sell millions of records, but the momentum seems to be swinging to more arresting rock outfits such as Cars, Police, Cheap Trick, Blondie, Joe Jackson and Dire Straits. All have had AM hits in recent months.
As the audience for those acts expands, AM stations — still the key to massive record sales — may finally open up more regularly to even more challenging figures like Costello, Parker, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Patti Smith.
Despite stylistic differences, Costello, Jones, Parker and the Roches have one thing in common: they are outstanding songwriters. Summer's material is less distinguished lyrically, but her music is zestful and the production work by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte is among the classiest of the '70s.
Together, these artists best reflected during the last six months the originality, imagination, craftsmanship and accessibility that is at the heart of the most engaging pop music.
The Midyear Top 5 in order:
ELVIS COSTELLO's Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709) — Costello is our most provocative link with rock's classic rebel tradition. The songs on his third and most compelling album deal with emotional combat. They lash out at social forces and destructive personal relationships. It's a feverish, unflinching approach that mixes the social fury of John Lennon's first two solo albums with the haunting dissection of Bob Dylan's choicest works.
RICKIE LEE JONES' Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros. BSK 3296) — Like Costello, Jones has detractors. The arguments against her range from allegations that she writes too much like Tom Waits to complaints that she looks too Much like Joni Mitchell to charges that she romanticizes too much like Laura Nyro. Comparisons are common with new artists. But the more you are exposed to someone's music the more you should be able to detect the subtleties and shadings that give the music definition. Jones' music is especially rich with character. The exteriors are often hardboiled, but there's compassion underneath. Jones is the brightest new arrival so far this year.
GRAHAM PARKER's Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista AB 4223) — Parker's music sounds so much like Costello's that the first three people I played this album for all guessed it was Costello. But Parker made his first record a year before Costello so he's not a copy. And the differences between the two British rockers soon becomes apparent. Parker's urgent vocal style is similar to Costello's, and his lyrics often touch on the same frustrations, but Parker's outlook is broader and more defined. Where Costello surrounds his feeling with such instrumental and vocal fury that the specifics become blurred at times, Parker's approach is cleaner. Still, the songs hit with blackjack authority.
DONNA SUMMER's Bad Girls (Casablanca NBLP 27150) — This is Summers' second concept album in as many years, but the design here is quite different from the earlier Once Upon a Time. That album was a Cinderella tale of a young woman's search for identity and love. The theme this time — romantic reflection — is thin. The real concept is Summer's stirring synthesis of contemporary pop styles. Disco is the most obvious element in the brew, but it's just one of several spicy elements, including rock, mainstream pop and even a dab of country. The boldness and grace of this collection push Summer ahead of rivals Barbra Streisand and Linda Ronstadt as the most adventurous of U.S. best-selling female singers.
THE ROCHES' The Roches (Warner Bros. BSK 3298)— Just when new-wave rockers like Costello and Parker remind us of the value of passion and energy, these three sisters from New York have come along to show us once again the joys of sophistication and charm. The folk-based music in this debut album is so deceptively simple on first listening that it's easy to dismiss it as too slim and cutesy. But there is a lot of wisdom and wit tucked into the songs about hidden desires, failed adventures and wounded emotions. Like Randy Newman, the Roches deal in sly observations that attack the pomposity in us all. The technique is self-deprecating, but the result is uplifting.