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.
First off, it must be said that trimming 1979 down to just 50 songs was painful, and you'd be in pain too if you owned as many skinny ties as I did at the time. Because 1979 was very much the year that New Wave conquered American Top 40 charts, classic rock fans, and suburban bowling alley discos. Among the deserving artists identified with said quasi-genre who didn't wind up surviving this playlist's cut were, let's see: Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker (whose rarely mentioned Squeezing Out Sparks was the year's most critically well-received album), Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Herman Brood, 999, Tonio K., Tin Huey, the Kings, Fabulous Poodles … I'll stop there, but the list could go on. Most of those got at least fleeting U.S. radio play in '79, and you might well want to check them out sometime.
Truth is, many of these New Wavers weren't new; they were pros who'd done a lap or two around the block or pub and were now latching onto trendier style. They also weren't alone. Moon Martin had recorded in the rootsy band SouthWind; Flash & the Pan were ex-Easybeats. The most inescapable New Wave-associated single in 1979 was The Knack's "My Sharona," which exploded out of nowhere in June and topped the pop chart for six weeks starting in August, the longest of any song that year. But lead Knacker Doug Fieger had played bass in country rock and prog groups since 1970 -- not unlike Debbie Harry, who had sung backup on a folk rock album back in 1968 but who finally reached pop's pinnacle in 1979 with Blondie's Eurodisco move "Heart of Glass."
"Heart of Glass" was the tip of another 1979 iceberg: Namely, New Wave and disco falling in love and making babies -- at the height of the Disco Sucks backlash, no less. On July 12, a baseball doubleheader in Chicago hosted the vinyl bonfire known as Disco Demolition Night. But that didn't stop everybody from Ian Dury (age 37) to Marianne Faithfull (age 33) from trying out punk-disco hybrids. Meanwhile, "dance-oriented rock" from the B-52's, Lene Lovich, avant-garde novelty weirdos Flying Lizards and others gave nerdy 18-year-olds (for instance Barack Obama) a more supple beat to pogo and/or spot bikini whales to. Concurrently, disco acts like Donna Summer and (on his self-titled breakthrough LP) Prince were adding hard rock guitars, and hard rockers like Van Halen were deciding it was OK to dance the night away with a hint of Latin sway. And yet more rock journeymen calling themselves the Skatt Brothers were crossing Village People with KISS, which begat some violently proto-industrial night-stalking leather-bar metal-disco.
Even country was dabbling in syncopation (see Eddie Rabbitt's yacht-rocking-in-a-quiet-storm "Suspicions"), and disco itself was holding its own, optimistic and inspirational and as resilient as ever in the cases of McFadden and Whitehead, Gloria Gaynor, Chic and their studio subjects Sister Sledge. Funk from the East Coast streets, meanwhile, was predicting less posh days to come: Chuck Brown and the Sugarhill Gang, respectively, brought D.C. go-go and N.Y. hip-hop into the Top 40 for the first time, even if the latter was mostly a prefabricated stand-in for what Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five were doing on their own explosive debut record.
Of course, all of this only scratches the surface. As this mix makes manifest, there was no lack of action in the worlds of arena hackwork from dirty white boys; post-folkie rock from beatnik girls of both coasts; Afro-Caribbean rhythms from punk bands and reggae poets and jazz saxophonists and actual Brazilians; trance-like pulses from minimalist composers and Eurodisco producers; and pop muzik of all stripes. Rock 'n' roll will never die, Neil Young predicted, trying to come to terms with New Wave just like Fleetwood Mac were. He may or may not have been right, and it probably doesn't matter. In 1979, there was definitely more to the picture than met the eye.