Every year offers music both good and bad, but some years have a special pull. In My Favorite Music Year, A.V. Club music writers choose the years that speak to them most deeply, however fresh in memory or far in the past.
“No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977,” growled The Clash’s Joe Strummer in “1977,” the B-side of the band’s debut single “White Riot.” Strummer and crew were trying to make a sweeping statement about the past, present, and future of rock ’n’ roll. But on a strictly factual level, they were right: Not only did Elvis Presley die in ’77—granted, four months after “1977” came out—neither The Rolling Stones nor the former members of The Beatles (save for Ringo Starr) released albums that year. Also absent in ’77 (album-wise, anyway) were Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen was in the middle of a three-year break. Hell, even The Eagles sat ’77 out—except, that is, for a little single called “Hotel California.”
The charts were still filled with pop stars, cock-rockers, and earnest singer-songwriters (although some of them were among the best). With a few exciting exceptions, R&B had settled into a laid-back groove. Country was mostly in a hair-sprayed holding pattern. Even country-rock, so ubiquitous in the early part of the decade, was on its way out as the Eagles shed their twang. Punk helped filled the void. That said, bestsellers like Rumours and Billy Joel’s The Stranger were just as edgy and subversive in their own ways. On the flip side, plenty of punk bands were little more than revivalists—not that ’77 didn’t desperately need a dose of raw, rebellious rock ’n’ roll. But it wasn’t the only young genre bristling with energy at the time; reggae and electronic music were also gaining traction. In that sense, ’77 was a year with one foot in the grave and the other in the future. The result was an embarrassment of musical riches whose sheer ass-kicking quotient never fails to blow me away.
With as much as ’77 has to offer, though, I wound up picking all punk albums for my top-five list. It wasn’t an easy decision. I agonized (seriously!) while trying to decide what records to choose. I kept trying to fit absolutely incredible albums by Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Bob Marley, and Elvis Costello onto my list—albums that I truly and deeply love. But there were only five spots. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be writing about my favorite music year, and that punk was the main reason I chose ’77. So I owned up to my bias. As much as I adore so many kinds of music, it’s punk that I still reach for first—when I’m not listening to, say, Elvis, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones.
JASON HELLER'S TOP FIVE OF 1977
1. The Clash, The Clash
Poised perfectly between traditionalism and iconoclasm, The Clash’s debut beat the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks to the shelves by a full six months. Bollocks is great—but The Clash is so, so much better. Leaner, tighter, sharper, and catchier, the album solidified punk rock as a form of rabblerousing agitprop that could be as witty as it was revolutionary. The band would eventually top itself with London Calling, but only barely. The album’s definitive moments, tellingly enough, are derivative ones: In “Clash City Rockers,” the band spoofs theme songs (like The Monkees’) as well as The Who’s right-angled riff from “Can’t Explain,” while simultaneously reveling in self-mythology and the rock canon of the ’60s; and in “Police & Thieves,” the band tackles Junior Murvin’s roots-reggae anthem with a tender viciousness that set the tone for the band’s later genre-splicing. A lot of hairsplitting continues to go down regarding the album’s original 1977 release in the U.K. (which features classics like “Cheat” and “48 Hours”) and the slightly revised version that appeared in the U.S. two years later (the one with “Clash City Rockers”). For the record: They both rule.
2. Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia
The Ramones released two full-lengths in ’77, and together they form the best 28-song stretch of music the band ever produced. Each track here is a gem: From the violent bubblegum of Leave Home’s opener, “Glad To See You Go,” to the atomic-powered pop of Rocket To Russia’s closer, “Why Is It Always This Way,” the band vastly improves on the muddy and unsure sound of its ’76 debut. Emboldened by a groundswell of grassroots support, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy attack their instruments with a Neanderthal passion that’s far more focused, frenetic, and fun. And the Ramones’ tragic dichotomy would never be more poignant: Here was a band made up of misfits and sadsacks who were nonetheless addicted to the immaculate craft and sugary buzz of rock ’n’ roll’s Golden Age. The Ramones aren’t generally known for their breadth and depth. And yet, here they are—from horror-movie gore and pop-art camp to tenderhearted loss and sheer motherfucking nihilism—on full display.
3. Wire, Pink Flag
Punk had a love affair with paradox, and Wire’s Pink Flag was one of the movement’s most striking self-contradictions. Not only did Wire chisel out the shortest, fastest, quintessentially punkest songs of the class of ’77, the band was the most abstruse and cerebral of the bunch. And to top it all off, Pink Flag invented post-punk well before punk rock proper had run its course. With a Molotov cocktail in one hand a scalpel in the other, the band channeled the detached weirdness of prog’s oddest fringes while laying down a severe, anti-rock template for thousands of art-punk and hardcore groups to follow. And the songs themselves? Pure deconstructionist glee topped off with hooks that penetrated every dimension at once.
4. Richard Hell And The Voidoids, Blank Generation
Like Wire, New York’s Richard Hell used his brain a lot. Only he kept his in his pants. The debut by Hell’s Voidoids is a chaotic, hyperventilating masterpiece of existential psychosis that displays an off-kilter virtuosity—and, at times, a jazziness—that punk was supposed to be totally against. The tension was more than just tangible; it was sublime. Hell had previously been a member of Television and The Heartbreakers (both of which released immortal debuts in ’77, neither featuring Hell), and Blank Generation falls almost exactly between the two, combining Television’s jittery guitar interplay with the ballsy, bruising rock of The Heartbreakers. But Blank Generation does more than split the difference; it owns that sacred spot where hormones, noise, and poetry collide.
5. The Damned, Damned Damned Damned
Despite the fact that everyone from Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd was a fan, The Damned has been relegated to footnote status in the history books. It’s a whopper of a footnote, though: Not only did the band release the first British punk single, “New Rose,” in 1976, Damned Damned Damned was the first British punk album. All that is academic, though, compared to the album itself: With a lust for transgressive Detroit rock ’n’ roll (The Stooges’ “1970” is re-titled “I Feel Alright” and slammed against a brick wall here), these 12 songs are feral, primal, and lurid. The Damned would go on to dabble, successfully, in everything from goth to psychedelia, but Damned Damned Damned epitomizes the dark, crude, impishly depraved side of ’77 punk.
Released in February of 1977, Rumours became a phenomenon. But no amount of overexposure can diminish the album’s greatness: Encompassing peaks of anger, valleys of depression, and all points in between, it remains Fleetwood Mac’s definitive statement. Also on the charts in ’77—to a far lesser extent—were David Bowie’s first two collaborations with Brian Eno, Low and Heroes. Together, the brooding, abstract albums form a pillar of Bowie’s oeuvre, not to mention creating a template for new wave. Another big influence on ’80s rock is Cheap Trick, which released its first two albums, Cheap Trick and In Color in ’77. The former is brash and punky; the latter is polished and melodic. Both draw from The Beatles while stripping rock down to its horny, goofy essence. The Beatles also factored heavily into the sound of Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra, whose double album Out Of The Blue is a sprawling, orchestral triumph. And although country-rock was on the wane in ’77, its Confederate cousin, Southern rock, reached a tragic apotheosis in the form of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s gritty Street Survivors—released days before a plane crash killed three of the group’s members, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant.
Reggae had been making inroads for years before ’77, especially in England. But it was Bob Marley & The Wailers’ righteous Exodus that turned Marley from star to icon. Marley’s former Wailers bandmates, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, released classics of their own: Tosh with the hard-edged Equal Rights and Wailer with the deep roots of Protest. Meanwhile, Culture gave ’77 its calling card with the outspoken yet upliftingly melodic Two Sevens Clash. On the dub front, King Tubby unleashed the full force of his mixing board on Augustus Pablo’s otherworldly East Of The River Nile. Not to be outdone, the already legendary Lee Perry produced three of ’77s most brilliant reggae albums: The Congos’ haunting Heart Of The Congos, The Heptones’ proto-dancehall Party Time, and Junior Murvin’s plaintive, soulful Police And Thieves, the title track of which is famously covered on The Clash’s debut.
If glam rock has an official time of death, it would have to be Sept. 16, 1977, the day Marc Bolan of T. Rex died in a car crash. Glam had already begun to fizzle out by then, though, despite the best efforts of shining lights like Roxy Music, which was on hiatus during ’77 while frontman Bryan Ferry released his fourth solo album, In Your Mind. As with Before And After Science, Eno’s ethereal yet edgy solo album from ’77, In Your Mind is art-rock rendered lean and accessible—a transition that progressive rock was also seeing. Yes’ Going For The One was the band’s turning point toward a sharper, cleaner sound, and the self-titled solo debut by former Genesis leader Peter Gabriel broke dramatically from that group’s flowery excess in favor of more direct songs like the spectral “Solsbury Hill.” Prog still had its holdouts, though, including Canada’s Rush, whose A Farewell To Kings is one of the band’s (and the genre’s) best, and even yielded a fluke hit single, “Closer To The Heart.” By ’77, Pink Floyd was in a league of its own, and the band continued its uncompromising stance by following 1975’s hit Wish You Were Here with one of its most challenging albums, Animals.
Punk was supposed to render prog obsolete—Johnny Rotten infamously was invited to join the Sex Pistols after writing “I hate” on a Pink Floyd t-shirt—but of course, it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean the Pistols’ lone album, 1977’s Never Mind The Bollocks, is anything less than a classic. 1977 saw plenty of scrappier punk records come out of England, including Eater’s The Album, The Vibrators’ Pure Mania, The Boys’ The Boys, and Cock Sparrer’s “Runnin’ Riot,” the 7-inch that set the stage for the Oi! movement. Of the U.K.’s non-album punk releases, the most important were Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP—the blueprint for the DIY punk movement—and “Orgasm Addict,” the band’s infectious debut single. Then there was The Jam, the Paul Weller-led band that released two raucous slabs of hard-driving punk ’n’ roll, In The City and This Is The Modern World, before truly finding its voice on 1978’s All Mod Cons. The Stranglers, whose sleazy, organ-drenched sound is a bracing oddity in the ’77 punk canon, released Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes. And two bands that would soon become new-wave innovators made punk-accented but far artier debuts: Ultravox with Ultravox! (and Ha!-Ha!-Ha!) and Japan with Adolescent Sex.
England wasn’t the only place where punk was raging in ’77. In Australia, The Saints’ (I’m) Stranded and Radio Birdman’s Radios Appear stripped down and sped up the blistering Detroit sound laid down years earlier by The Stooges and The MC5. In Canada, The Diodes’ self-titled debut was the opening shot of a soon-to-be-vibrant Canuck punk scene. And in New York, there was much more going on than just the Ramones and Richard Hell. Punk rock at its nastiest came in the form of New York punk records like Young Loud And Snotty by Cleveland transplants the Dead Boys; Manifest Destiny by The Dictators; and L.A.M.F. by Johnny Thunder’s post-New York Dolls band, The Heartbreakers. But the New York scene wasn’t all numbskull crotch-grabbing (not that there’s anything wrong with that); Blondie’s catchy second album, Plastic Letters, came out in ’77, as did Television’s elegantly jagged art-punk opus, Marquee Moon.
Despite the fact that East Coast punk’s aunt and uncle, Patti Smith and Lou Reed, released no new albums in ’77, they influenced two of the scene’s quieter yet no less daring offshoots. Talking Heads’ debut, Talking Heads: 77, was a quirky, embryonic promise of greatness to come. And although the band hailed from Boston rather than New York, Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers cemented Richman’s sweet, achingly nostalgic sound with Rock ’N’ Roll With The Modern Lovers. West Coast punk, meanwhile, was rocketing in the opposite direction. In ’77, San Francisco’s Crime—whose 1976 single “Hot Wire My Heart,” later covered by Sonic Youth, was the West Coast’s first punk record—put out the 7-inch “Murder By Guitar.” Also in SF, one of punk’s greatest frontwomen, Penelope Houston, debuted on “We Are The One,” the blazing first single by her band The Avengers. Farther south in California, the first singles by The Dils (“I Hate The Rich” and “198 Seconds Of The Dils”), The Weirdos (“Destroy All Music”), and The Zeros (“Wimp”) made history. The biggest noise in L.A. that year was the Germs’ debut single, “Forming”—a disjointed mess of riffs and grunts punctuated by the remedial, existential poetry of Darby Crash.
The biggest early warning of ’77, though, was Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True. While the album resulted in his first hit, “Alison,” and a handful of his most enduring tunes, he was about to up his own ante considerably with a string of masterpieces starting with 1978’s This Year’s Model. My Aim Is True isn’t at that same level, but it’s the sound of a brilliant, fiery young songwriter putting all his pieces in place.
Heavy metal hadn’t yet become an unstoppable force by ’77, but two records helped fuel the bulldozer. The first was Judas Priest’s Sin After Sin. It’s not the band’s strongest album of the ’70s, but it did give the world “Dissident Aggressor,” a proto-thrash piledriver later covered by Slayer. 1977’s other big metal breakthrough is Motörhead’s self-titled debut. Lemmy’s gruff trio wouldn’t come into its own until Overkill in 1979, but Motörhead helped empower a generation of nascent headbangers. On the hard-rock front, AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock, Kiss’ Love Gun, Thin Lizzy’s Bad Reputation, and Blue Öyster Cult’s Spectres all spawned big hits and burned away the vestigial hippie-ness that hard rock harbored (especially Led Zeppelin). Zep itself was between albums in ’77, but Seattle’s Heart more than made up for it with the stomping, Zeppelin-esque Little Queen. And speaking of queens: The Runaway’s Queens Of Noise cranked up its own noise with the help of teenaged rockers Joan Jett and Lita Ford, and Queen’s News Of The World gave the world “We Will Rock You,” We Are The Champions,” and the thrashing "Sheer Heart Attack."
Synthesizers were by no means new to rock in ’77. But a handful of artists were using them to build the launch pad for the synth stars of the next decade. New York’s Suicide released its self-titled debut, an ominous mix of droning electronics and Velvet Underground-worthy angst. Across the pond, a cell of performance-art radicals, Throbbing Gristle, put out its first album, the nightmarish The Second Annual Report—a record that helped launch industrial music. And Germany was undergoing a new phase when Kraftwerk dropped its techno-pop bombshell, Trans-Europe Express. The album edged further from the band’s long, hypnotic songs and closer toward the synth-pop sound that would soon be swiped by everyone from Gary Numan to Depeche Mode. Elsewhere in the Fatherland, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of Cluster teamed up with former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno for, aptly enough, Cluster & Eno—one of the many amazing albums of ’77 (Bowie’s Low and Heroes being two others) that Eno helped create in Berlin during that time. Bowie also produced Iggy Pop’s first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life, while in Berlin, which combined Pop’s lizard-brain snarl with a menacing sophistication.
Disco, of course, dwarfed all these things. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever dominated the popular consciousness in 1977. Despite the backlash, though, the Bee Gees’ ingenious mix of pop songcraft and lush disco is incredible—and let’s not forget that heavy-hitters like Kool & The Gang and KC And The Sunshine Band are also featured on the album. But in ’77, disco was starting to mutate. Chic’s self-titled debut—and its clipped precision and almost sculptural guitar work (thanks to six-string maestro Nile Rodgers)—would inspire much of ’80s R&B and pop. Another prophecy was hidden in the otherwise unremarkable I Remember Yesterday by Donna Summer. The album’s robotic dance track, the Giorgio Moroder-produced “I Feel Love,” is easily one of the best and most influential singles of ’77. Solid full-lengths like Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’N All and The Commodores’ self-titled album also came out—but the true stunner was Parliament’s Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome. One of the group’s strongest albums, Funkentelechy is best known for “Flash Light,” a futuristic slab of mad genius that still echoes.
Runner-up: I was born in 1972—the same week that Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” topped the charts. But the fact that Young’s commercial and artistic zenith, Harvest, was the unofficial soundtrack to my birth isn’t the only reason 1972 is my runner-up. That year also saw the release of David Bowie’s and The Rolling Stones’ greatest albums—The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Exile On Main St., respectively—not to mention Big Star’s #1 Record, Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You, self-titled debuts by Blue Öyster Cult and Roxy Music, T. Rex’s The Slider, Lou Reed’s Transformer, Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young, Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Hawkwind’s Doremi Fasol Latido, and three of the best soundtracks ever: Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye, and The Harder They Come by a host of reggae greats including Jimmy Cliff.