Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1978

1978 is the first year so far where I’ve noticed a really significant drop-off in overall quality in the pool of potential selections. The albums here are excellent, and well deserve their places on this list. But they wouldn’t have cracked my Top 10 in, say, 1970 (with the exception of Bruce Springsteen, but that’s because he’s the BOSS). And looking ahead, that’s how the rest of my Top 5 Albums of [xxxx] are shaping up as well. A few brilliant albums here and there, several very good ones, and plenty of great music, for sure. But the Golden Age of Rock & Roll is over.

5. EXCITABLE BOY (Warren Zevon)

Excitable Boy

Warren Zevon is one of the more underrated songwriters of his time, a kind of wickedly sarcastic Jackson Browne. His eponymous “debut” (1976) is, admittedly, a better album; but Excitable Boy is a more than worthy follow-up. We’ve all heard “Werewolves of London” and the title track, which clue us into Zevon’s macabre sense of humor. But as entertaining as such oddities are, it’s his more heartfelt efforts that hit hardest, the historical drama “Veracruz” or the lovely “Accidentally Like a Martyr.”

4. TIME PASSAGES (Al Stewart)

Time Passages

Love songs? Pfft, Al Stewart is more interested in writing minor epics about the French Revolution and the life of St. Thomas More. Year of the Cat was his breakthrough, but Time Passages is his crowning achievement, situating the observational poeticism and keen melodic sensibilities of his early troubadour folk-rock in a classy, smooth-but-never-queasy instrumental landscape. Sure, “Song on the Radio” sounds like a late 70s sitcom theme with that damn alto sax, but I’ll bet it would’ve been a great sitcom.

3. DIRE STRAITS (Dire Straits)

Dire Straits

The art of great guitar playing consists largely in knowing when not to play, when to hold back, when to make it cry and when to make it sing and when to simply let it be. By those criteria, Mark Knopfler is a guitarist without peer. At a time when arena rock was on the ascendent, he would consciously turn down Dire Straits’ amps so that pub-goers could enjoy the band but still have a conversation. And in truth, it’s not hard to imagine these bluesy, understated songs wafting through a smoky venue like the one described in “Sultans of Swing” while Knopfler’s crystal-clear, finger-picked guitar lines cut through the haze like a knife.

2. THE CARS (The Cars)

The Cars

Chances are good you’ve heard every single track from The Cars on classic rock radio at one time or another. And since you’ve probably heard them, chances are also good you know exactly why: perfectly produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the Cars fuse the energy of punk with the detached ironicism of New Wave and the relentless tunefulness of classic guitar pop for one of the great debut albums of all time.

1. DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (Bruce Springsteen)

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Although superficially unrelated, Bruce Springsteen’s 70s albums together create a compelling narrative arc. Greetings from Asbury Park introduces us to Bruce’s vibrant, mythologized New Jersey street characters; The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle looks back nostalgically on those figures even as it bids them farewell. Born to Run then follows them as they bump up against the realities of adulthood and try to overcome them by driving all night, looking for one last kiss, one last thrill. And so we come to Darkness On the Edge of Town, which finds the likes of Rosalita and Little Gun and the rest rather ragged and road-weary, struggling desperately to make their stand against a “twister to blow everything down that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.” But they aren’t bowed yet; in spite of the disappointment and heartache, they still believe in a Promised Land. And that’s what makes them–and Bruce–so great.

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