The 50 Best Songs of 1978
Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
If you were a white guy in a rock band in 1978, you had had it pretty good so far. But it may have felt like the walls were closing in on you. From one side you had punk seemingly negating everything you stood for, while its more accessible younger sibling, New Wave, started to make commercial inroads. Meanwhile, you had disco doing its mirror-ball best to put you out of business. For 1978's first 24 weeks, the biggest album in the country was the late-'77-released soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever; a few months later, the Grease soundtrack -- not disco, obviously, but certainly not rock, either -- topped the album chart for 12 weeks. Add a week at the top for Donna Summer, and that left only 15 to split between The Rolling Stones, Boston, and soft/faux rockers Billy Joel, Gerry Rafferty and Linda Ronstadt. On the singles chart, a mere three records stayed at No. 1 for six weeks apiece: songs from the Bee Gees, their younger brother Andy Gibb, and Chic.
Yet rock critics that year, for the most part, acted like disco -- not to mention soul, funk, reggae, jazz and most other genres associated with people of color -- didn't exist, or at very least, didn't rank among the year's best music. Results for 1978 were almost definitely the whitest, and maybe most rock-oriented, in the four-decade-long history of the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics poll: The highest-placing album by a black artist, Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove, finished at No. 27, and only one other black artist's album made it into the Top 30.
The year 1978 also has the distinction of being the last one in which the Pazz & Jop critics did not vote for singles, so we'll never know where, say, The Trammps' "Disco Inferno" (which, truth be told, rocked harder than almost any rock that year) or Chic's "Le Freak" or Sylvester's "Dance (Disco Heat)" or, for that matter, less explicitly disco but still prime R&B -oriented selections from Raydio to Ashford and Simpson would have placed. A Rolling Stone critics poll that year admittedly, and maybe deservedly, awarded Best Single honors to the Bee Gees' never-say-die "Stayin' Alive." But the Bee Gees were, let's not forget, onetime '60s rockers keeping up with the polyester times -- not to mention white guys. And R.S. critics' top six 1978 albums went to The Rolling Stones (onetime '60s rockers now dabbling a bit in disco themselves with "Miss You"), Bruce Springsteen, late '77 holdover Jackson Browne, Pazz & Jop winner Elvis Costello, The Ramones, and onetime '60s rockers The Kinks. The mag's runner-up singles were all rock numbers by Caucasian folks, too -- unless "Miss You" counts.
So, rock's Old Guard was still doing just fine. As Robert Christgau pointed out in his Pazz & Jop essay that year, punk was having the effect of kicking the old guys' butts into gear; so was disco, and both helped explain why Some Girls was such an inspired Stones album. The headline of Christgau's essay (incidentally, the piece of writing that did the most to spur yours truly into rock criticism) was "Triumph of the New Wave," both thanks to Costello's hardest-rocking album, This Year's Model, winning top honors and to respectable finishes by any number of other skinny-tie wearers. The triumphant also included "'twixt wave and (main) 'stream bands like The Cars and Cheap Trick," who were totally breaking through and making AOR fun-fun-fun again; and Patti Smith, who took a Springsteen cover into pop's Top 15 far out of poet-friendly Manhattan; and Blondie, who'd be topping pop charts soon enough.
So naturally, old weirdos like Nick Lowe and Ian Dury, along with young goofballs like Plastic Bertrand, found New Wave a suitable bandwagon to jump on; even weirder oldsters like Captain Beefheart and forecasters-of-the-future Kraftwerk got pulled along by the tide as well, whether they intended to or not. At the more obscure, extreme end of New Wave was no wave, not to mention bombsite and/or art-school Brit upstarts like The Adverts and Wire (and The Mekons and Kleenex and Essential Logic, etc.), who were praised for attempting to reinvent rock 'n' roll from scratch. Which disco was doing a much better job at, actually, but still.
Thing is, even disco, punk and critic-sanctioned white-dude rock were only the tip of 1978's iceberg. Life was going on all over, just like always, often under the radar: Eurodisco, Afropop, jazz, country, metal, love ballads, novelty songs. Van Halen, correctly convinced heavy rock wasn't on the way out, put out their debut, which went merely Top 20 on Billboard but which sure sounds more relevant 35 years on than high '78 P&J finishers by, say, The Who or Neil Young do. And Van Halen weren't even as metal as '78 got, no matter how few were listening: Punk hadn't killed off Germany's Scorpions yet, for instance. For them -- or for art-rock rookie Kate Bush or miracle Jamaican teen duo Althea and Donna or historically minded West Indies-via-Germany bizarro-disco wedding troupe Boney M, all of whom had huge U.K. (and in two cases continental) hits that went nowhere in the States -- punk wasn't even an issue. Pop-country hair queen Crystal Gayle probably never gave punk much thought, either, nor Youssou N'Dour, then 18 years old and recording with his combo Etoile De Dakar in Senegal. Nor Steve Martin, whose Top 20 history shtick "King Tut" almost sounds now like a year-early harbinger of rap.
Brainiac singer-songwriting eccentrics Randy Newman and Warren Zevon also had by far their biggest hits in 1978 -- also with novelty songs, sort of. So did Joe Walsh -- the funny Eagle -- whose "Life's Been Good" took a whiz on rock stardom more hilariously than even The Ramones ever could. And then there's the cowboy, Indian chief, hard hat, cop, biker and soldier who populated The Village People: black, white, novelty, disco, macho men and as gay as the day is long, though mid-America was still fairly clueless about that last aspect. "Triumph of The New Wave"? Honestly, 1978 was the triumph of all sorts of things. Trimming this playlist of the year's greatest and/or most relevant tracks down to 50 wasn't easy, but I did my best. I am the fly in the ointment. We are the robots. Are we not men? We are Devo. Whether you're a mother or whether you're a brother, you're stayin' alive. Surrender, but don't give yourself away.