Trying to choose the best records of 1979 is a difficult but encouraging task. The handful of transcendant works -- "Armed Force," "Squeezing Out Sparks," "Tusk," and "Rust Never Sleeps" -- stand out clearly. But beyond those four, another 20 or so are examples of the pleasure and challenge popular music is capable of. Few years have produced such a breadth of accompolishment as this past year.
This marks an exciting reversal. A few years ago it appeared that popular music might go the way of television: lowest common-denominator entertainment controlled by big technology producers with only an occasional slot set aside for "serious art." Unlike TV shows, however, pop-music acts aren't fashioned by studio producers but by the rowdy crowds at every street-corner bar that has a band. Thus it's the one medium where the audience can take some initiative.
It usually takes several years, however, for a street-level initiative to translate itself into transcendant art. This was true of the British initiative of 1977 that created the punk-rock of new wave movement. English kids wanted a rock-'n'-roll of raw emotion and a driving beat to cut through the sentimental sludge coming out of Los Angeles. They got what they wanted, but on the earliest records, the emotion was often cynical narcissism and the beat anti-melodic thrashing.
This year the new-wave desires matured into great music. The emotions were joined by some clear ideas and the beat by some compelling melodies. This combination produced the year's best records: Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" and Graham Parker's "Squeezing Out Sparks," Costello's composing skills finally caught up with his lyric-writing.
Conversely, Parker's lyrical skills finally caught up to his musical skills. Always a powerful Van Morrison-like singer, Parker's songwriting provided detailed images for the emotions swimming in his voice.
As Britain's new wave washed up on these shores, it awoke a similar desire for rock-'n'-roll basic in America's bars. But the American artists who responded curiously transmuted the British anger into typically American optimism. Thus Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers don't repudiate older bands on "Damn the Torpedoes," but strip them down to essentials as if they were old cars.
Another initiative for new music came from the feminist movement that correctly blasted the music industry for the limited roles it afforded women. Most women artists were confined to fairly conservative musical styles. Newly assertive women listeners wanted a more intricate music from a distinctively female perspective. The earliest responses on a new feminist music circuit had good intentions but little subtlety in their rhetoric and hum-drum melodies.
This year these feminist desires yielded some strikingly sophisticated music. Both Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks made important contributions as singers and songwriters to the ambitious sound textures of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk." Both the Roches and Rickie Lee Jones made stunning debuts by matching the best poetry of folk music to the vocal gymnastics of jazz. Joni Mitchell matched her lyrical skills to the last melodies that jazz composer Charles Mingus wrote before he died. Though these women didn't write explicitly political songs, they implicitly represented strong, decisive figures.
In America's black communities came an initiative for an alternative to mindless, mechanized disco. At many nightspots came a call for dance music that was sexier, more versatile, more political, more emotional, more philosophical. They got what they wanted in funk.
Funk had been there all along, but this year it began to self-consciously articulate its elements and ideology. George Clinton -- singer, song-writer and producer for Funkadelic, Parliament and Bootsy's Rubber Band -- claimed the role of Uncle Jam to lead a Funk Army to "Save dance music from the blahs." Inside the exaggerated joke of Clinton's army was a serious mission to put versatility and content back into the dance music. Earth, Wind & Fire took a more serious and spiritual approach, but served the funk cause with gorgeous vocal harmony arrangements on "I Am."
The initiatives taken by audiences and new artists also had an impact on more established acts. Rather than sticking to the safe formula that sold 8 million copies of "Rumours," Fleetwood Mac filled their double album, "Tusk," with a brave array of aural experiments that were at once complex and unpolished. Stevie Wonder too abandoned formulas and searched out new possibilities -- especially for synthesizer music -- on "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants."
Sly Stone, who George Clinton hailed as a father of funk, awoke from a long hibernation with one of the best records of his career, appropriately titled "Back on the Right Track."