Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Billboard Top Ten March 28, 1981

You may have noticed that a lot of my top tens have come from the very early 80s. That's partly because of nostalgia, since that was the period when I first became aware of popular culture. It's also because of a recent fascination I have with that period, which I like to call "Reagan Dawn." After the 60s and 70s there was a real transvaluation of values going on in that period (which I date from 1979 through 1981), creating the new neo-liberal order that has pretty much been dominant since my early childhood. This countdown comes two months after Reagan took the White House, and the shape of the 80s is becoming very apparent, even if vestiges of the 70s are clinging on. So now, on with the countdown!

10. Barbara Steisand and Barry Gibb, "What Kind Of Fool"

Speaking of vestiges of the 70s....Barry Gibb and his disco mane are still going strong as Reagan's America is dawning, although without his brothers. People forget that during the late 70s and early 80s Barry Gibb was a world conquering songwriter and producer. This song is soft rock at its most languid, more sugary than a Peep sandwich. By 1981 the survivors of the 60s wanted to mellow out, but without a trace of the stems and seeds of even milquetoast acts like Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Me Decade of the the 70s began the inward retreat, the greed of the Reagan years would complete it.

9. Hall and Oates, "Kiss On My List"

Hall and Oates are very much the emblematic artists of the Reagan Dawn. Their music bridges the gap between the decades, maintaining a 70s groove but definitely locked into 80s pop modes. By 1984, when Reagan had his landslide, they went all in on the 80s with big gated snare drums and metronomic beats as on hits like "Out Of Touch." I much prefer them at this moment. This song is super catchy, and it also has one of Hall's most affecting vocal performances. It still has soul, which would be drained out of Top 40 music in the decade to come.

8. Grover Washington Jr. (with Bill Withers) "Just The Two Of Us"

Smooth jazz was a perfect genre of music for the Reagan Dawn. The tumult of the sixties over, this was a million miles away from Coltrane or Bitches Brew. Now I am a big fan of both Bill Withers and the saxophone, so this song isn't all bad. Withers gives it his always wonderfully warm and intimate vocal style, but the whole thing is just so light and lacking in any kind of immediacy. It's not jazz so much as relaxation music, ideally suited for shopping malls and dentists offices.

7. Dolly Parton, "9 To 5"

This is a fantastic song from a timely movie. Parton sings it with her country affectations, but the backing is decidedly pop, even soul, rather than country. She way she sings "pour myself a cup of ambition" is just perfect. The song and the film it comes from reflect the growing number of women in the workforce, as well as their marginalized position. Of course, in typical 80s fashion the focus is on individual struggle, rather than collective action. Before I get too "woke" I will say that unlike a lot of music on this countdown, "9 to 5" holds up really well.

6. Neil Diamond, "Hello Again"

In the early 1980s, the Jewish Elvis reached his apotheosis with The Jazz Singer. The soundtrack album was his biggest hit, but the movie is wretched as all hell, including Diamond in blackface in an entirely unneeded call back to the Al Jolson original. I like Neil Diamond's early stuff a great deal, but by this point he was just getting cheesy. On an early tune like "Solitary Man" you believe his lonesomeness, but not on this overwrought number. The Reagan Dawn period was the last gasp of relevance for a lot of artists from the 60s and 70s, Diamond included.

5. Don McLean, "Crying"

Speaking of last gasps, I had no clue that the author of "American Pie" scored another top ten hit, much less one a decade after his signature tune. It's a cover of the Roy Orbison song, perhaps his most impressively operatic. ( I LOVE Orbison, but that's a conversation from another time.) This is an okay cover I guess, but doesn't add anything or offer any kind of interesting take on the original. I've detected a lot of schmaltz on this countdown so far, a musical mode I have theorized coincides with periods of political reaction.

4. REO Speedwagon, "Keep On Loving You"

REO Speedwagon managed to craft the first truly great power ballad with this song, and it made them huge after a decade of woodshedding. They started in the early 70s doing Camaro rock that was a mix of Humble Pie and Deep Purple, but never had a hit album until they popped up their sound a bit in the late 70s with tunes like "Roll With The Changes" and "Time For Me To Fly." This song is a truly brilliant example of fire and ice, Kevin Cronin's lover's lament running smack into Gary Richrath's soaring, shredding guitar solo. (He was one of the most underrated guitarists of his generation.) This was a song that you could both slow dance and pump your fist to. It's a song that launched a thousand fumblings in the back seats of cars in high school parking lots across the nation. I don't think any other power ballad ever managed to top it.

3. Styx, "The Best Of Times"

Coincidentally, "Lady" by Styx could lay claim to being the first power ballad (though it was not nearly a hit on the scale of "Keep On Loving You.") "Best Of Times" comes from the Paradise Theater concept album, one that spoke to a sense of decline in the midst of the shock of deindustrialization. (Remember, Styx are working class guys from the South Side of Chicago.) Styx started off doing an amalgam of hard rock and prog, but this time Dennis DeYoung's songs were getting more theatrical and ballady. This isn't a great song in my book, but the chorus is a nice pop sugar rush and Tommy Shaw and James "JY" Young can play a mean guitar. At the same time, I'm skeptical of the nostalgia undergirding this song, as it fed into the "Let's Make America Great Again" slogan of the Reagan campaign.

2. John Lennon, "Woman"

Lennon was murdered a month after Reagan's election, which I think may have put the death of the 60s in even higher relief. Double Fantasy had a lot of solid songs on it, including "Watching The Wheels," which is one of the great commentaries on middle age to ever hit the charts. "Woman" isn't bad but is, dare I say, schmaltzy. I have the feeling that 1966 Lennon would've mocked this song if he'd heard it. But hey, I do like the sentiment in this sentimental song, and I even believe it.

1. Blondie, "Rapture"

With the number one song, we have the ultimate example on the countdown of the decades being bridged. The backing is disco funky, all mirror balls and mirrors with lines of cocaine on them. However, Debbie Harry attempts a "rap" in the middle of song. It sounds pretty lame by today's standards, but was one of the first examples of rapping on a big hit. When I hear this song I hear New York at the turn of the decade, a city full of grime and crime in the 70s, but also home to amazing music and art. It was about to be swept away by a wave of big money, AIDS, and gentrification. Fitting with the time, Debbie Harry's singing never sounded more decadent, a kind of Weimar moment in a sense. Blondie had eight top 40 hits in America, all in the period between 1979 and 1982, making them perhaps the quintessential Reagan Dawn band. Their arch knowingness, New York sophistication, and genre-bending fit the mood of growing cynicism and general exhaustion, but once the Reagan years' day-glo dreams of shining cities on the hill took shape, there was no place for a band like Blondie.

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