Last month we looked at the Best Rock Albums of 1976 and 1977. This month we move forward to 1978 and what is arguably the last truly mammoth year for rock music. Debut albums from The Police, Toto, The Cars, and Dire Straits were contrasted by the last great albums from the likes of The Who (Who Are You), Bob Seger (Stranger in Town), Foghat (Stone Blue), and The Rolling Stones (Some Girls).
Stunning sophomore efforts were unleashed by Elvis Costello (This Year’s Model), The Talking Head’s (More Songs About Buildings and Food) and Foreigner (Double Vision). Queen went on a “Bicycle Race” with Fat Bottom Girls” on “Jazz”, while Bruce Springsteen found “The Promised Land” in the “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. Rainbow unleashed Ronnie James Dio on “Long Live Rock and Roll” while The Ramones just wanted to be sedated and have something to do on the “Road to Ruin”. Any of these albums are deserving of being on this list.
While the decade still had a year to go, 1978 saw the traditional sounds we recognize as classic rock being choked out by new wave, punk and disco. The tide was turning, but the music remains as indelible and powerful as it was when it was created and set the back drop for our youthful memories.
Journey – Infinity: The fourth album by the Bay Area based rockers is in many ways its first. The first three albums were inspired by the jam bands of the late 60s and early 70s. Guitarist Neal Shon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie had previously played with Santana while bassist Ross Valerie had recorded with Steve Miller, and drummer Ansley Dunbar with Jeff Beck.
“Infinity” marked the first Journey album recorded with a notable producer, Rot Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars). It was also the first to feature new vocalist Steve Perry who would share duties with Rolie. The two distinct voices gave the album textures the group had not previously offered. The album was also the band’s first to featured their now trademark layered harmony vocals.
The album spawned their first hits songs with “Lights”, “Wheel in the Sky”, and the duo of “Feeling That Way/Anytime”. It showcased the band’s first true ballad with “Patiently”, the pre-cursor to “Open Arms” and “Faithfully” that would follow soon after. The lighthearted “Lă Do Dā” was another fan favorite.
“Infinity” began Journey’s, well, journey into the pop/rock mainstream, and signaled the last album for Dunbar who was later replaced by Steve Smith. The album peaked at #21 on the Billboard charts, but it was the record that launched one of the biggest band’s in rock.
The Rolling Stones – Some Girls
10. The Rolling Stones – Some Girls: This album marked what many fans and critics alike hailed as the beginning of the end for The Stones: Their last superb effort, or the first of their lesser albums. It was the band’s sixteenth studio offering (14 in the U.K.) and was produced by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards aka The Glimmer Twins. It was the first to feature guitarist Ronnie Wood (The Faces, Jeff Beck) as a permanent member.
The album saw the release of four top 40 singles; the #1 hit “Miss You”, the #8 “Beast of Burden”, “Shattered” and “Respectable”. The album hit #1 on the pop charts that year and upon re-issue in 2011 returned to #46 and launched a new #2 hit single with the bonus track, “No Spare Parts”. The song “Far Away Eyes” became another fan favorite. The Stones recorded over 50 songs for the album, some of which would surface in various forms on their follow-up albums “Emotional Rescue (1980) and “Tattoo You” (1981).
In a 1995 Rolling Stone interview Jagger offered of writing the album:
“The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness. And then, of course, there was the punk thing that had started in 1976. Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris—there was punk there. Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterward.”
Bob Seger – Stranger in Town
9. Bob Seger – Stranger in Town: While many consider Seger’s previous effort, “Night Moves” to be his seminal album, it’s hard to argue with his 1978 follow-up. This was Seger’s second album with The Silver Bullet Band and tenth overall. While the album listed The Silver Bullet Band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section played on at least half the album instead. It was the second album of Seger’s to sell in excess of six million copies making it a consecutive multi-platinum record. The album peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts and launched four top 30 hits with “Old Time Rock and Roll”, “We’ve Got Tonight”, “Hollywood Nights” and the top 5 hit, “Still the Same”. While not released as a single, “Feel Like a Number” also became a radio favorite. It was Seger’s last brilliant record and one of his two iconic efforts. In 1980 he would release his only #1 album, “Against the Wind” which many would argue is his most mindless and least palatable offerings.
Billy Joel – 52nd Street
8. Billy Joel – 52nd Street: Similar to Bob Seger’s one-two punch of “Night Moves” and “Stranger in Town” Joel followed up his seminal album, “The Stranger” with the knock out classic, “52nd Street”. It was the second to be produced by the legendary Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe), and for trivia buffs it was the first record to be officially released as a compact disc on October 1, 1982.
“52nd Street” continued a string of successful singles for Joel with “My Life”, “Big Shot” and “Honesty” all landing in the top 25. The album peaked at #1 and Joel won two Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The track “Honesty” was also nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy. Ironically, his previous album “The Stranger” was still on the Billboard charts when “52nd Street” hit #1.
The album has sold more than seven million copies to date and continues to sell well every year.
R.E.O. Speedwagon – You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish
7. R.E.O. Speedwagon – You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish: Not only was it one of the greatest album titles of all time, it marked the breakthrough for this Illinois quintet. The band was founded in 1967 and keyboardist Neil Doughty remains the band’s lone original member. The record was the band’s seventh studio effort but the first to feature new bassist Bruce Hall and the rest of the seminal line-up that also included Kevin Cronin (vocals, guitar, piano), Gary Richrath (lead guitar), and Alan Gratzer (drums). “Tuna Fish” was the band’s first top 40 album and it’s first multi-platinum effort. It featured the hits “Roll With the Changes” and “Time For Me to Fly”. It also included fan favorites “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight”, “”Lucky for You”, and “Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight?”.
Rolling Stone magazine, renowned for scathing reviews of now iconic albums wrote: “Without undue strain, rock & roll zealots could argue that REO Speedwagon makes everything sound too damned friendly, that the band’s music lacks any genuine tension. But what helps free the group from such criticism is its vivacious professionalism and finely crafted songs, both of which are definitely in abundance here.”
Boston – Don’t Look Back
6. Boston – Don’t Look Back: The first of two Boston band’s on this list and the second album by this breakthrough quintet. The sophomore effort by the Tom Scholz guided outfit is nearly as impressive as the 1976 debut. After the massive success of their eponymous debut, “Don’t Look Back” would sell over four million copies in its first month alone and has since sold more than seven million overall, making it Boston’s second multi-platinum record.
The album launched a top 5 hit with the title track and more radio staples with “Feelin’ Satisfied”, “A Man I’ll Never Be”, “It’s Easy” and “Party”. Where the album fell short was in length. There were only eight tracks and the album clocked in at just over 30 minutes, and even Scholz remarked, “it was ridiculously short. It needed another song.” The album hit #1 on the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, this marked the pinnacle of the band’s success. They would not release another album for eight years, by then the momentum was lost and rock and moved on without them. Still it remains a must own for classic rock fans, and it stands as powerful today as it did 35 years ago.
Blondie – Parallel Lines
5. Blondie – Parallel Lines: While the New York underground club circuit was already aware of this sextet led by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, it would take the release of this, their third album, to bring mainstream success. “Parallel Lines” was the second of two albums released by Blondie in 1978. The first, “Plastic Letters” did little to forward the band’s public awareness. “Parallel Lines” immediately blew up rock radio with the hits “Hanging on the Telephone”, “One Way of Another”, and “Heart of Glass”. The album was produced by Mike Chapman who at that point had made a name for himself as a songwriter. That year alone he scored huge hits with Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Nick Gilders “Hot Child in the City”.Chapman promised Blondie a hit album and he delivered. The band referred to him as the seventh member of Blondie and would go on to produce several more successful albums for the band. The album would chart at #6 on the charts and become a platinum selling affair. Interestingly in the liner notes for the vinyl version of album, there are lyrics listed for a “Parallel Lines” song, though no such song exists on the record.
Styx – Pieces of Eight
4. Styx – Pieces of Eight: The second in a series of multi-platinum albums for the Illinois based rockers, “Pieces of Eight” once again found them near the top of the Billboard charts. This time at #6. The album featured the monster hits, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” and “Renegade”, both penned by guitarist Tommy Shaw. They would score a minor hit with keyboardist Dennis DeYoung’s “Sing For the Day” as well. Guitarist James “JY” Young kicked off the record with his powerful anthem, “Great White Hope”. DeYoung had another strong effort with the title track, while he and Young successfully tag-teamed for the excellent, “Queen of Spades”.
While the record wasn’t quite as cohesive as its predecessor, “The Grand Illusion”, it still packed enough solid songwriting to make it a triple platinum affair. Ironically, the album’s theme, according to DeYoung, would address “not giving up your dreams just for the pursuit of money and material possessions.” This, at a time when the band was enjoying its most prosperous success.
Styx continued its trend of self-producing its albums. The cover art was created by the London art duo, Hipgnosis who created album covers for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Genesis, UFO, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard, and the legendary “Dark Side of the Moon” cover for Pink Floyd. DeYoung stated in a 1991 interview that he initially hated the cover but has grown to like it.
The Cars – The Cars
3. The Cars – The Cars: There is something about bands from Boston, Massachusetts. They have a knack for creating decidedly unique sonic signatures. Boston and Aerosmith come immediately to mind, among many others. Beanpole frontman Ric Ocasek and his band led the way for America’s new wave of rock when they dropped this explosive debut on us.
The nine track album spawned six radio hits including three top 40 singles with “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “Just What I Needed” and “Good Times Roll” along with “Moving in Stereo” “Bye Bye Love” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”. All six still receive heavy radio airplay. It is one of many outstanding debut albums released in the 70s, and it went on to spend 139 weeks on the Billboard charts, selling more than six million copies earning it a multi-platinum rating from the RIAA.
The album was produced by Roy Thomas Baker who at the time was most famous for his platinum work with Queen, Journey, Free and Nazareth. Baker would go on to produce the first four Cars albums.
Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight
2. Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight: The Chicago quartet’s third effort magnificently combined the best elements of their two albums, blending edginess with pop sensibility to create what may well be their best album. Fan favorite “Surrender” anchored an album that is packed with deep cuts like “On Top of the World”, “Stiff Competition”, “High Roller”, “Auf Wiedersehen” and an incredible cover of The Move’s “California Man”.
As with their 1977 album, “In Color”, Tom Werman produced. Likewise the album cover once again featured vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson on the cover while the flipside featured guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos. While the front cover has Zander and Petersson standing in front of a nondescript background, the back cover portion (part of a continuous, wrap-around shot on the original LP) reveals that they are standing inside a public restroom where Nielsen is brushing his teeth and Carlos is fixing his tie in the mirror. Nielsen has a cassette copy of “In Color” sticking out of his back pocket.
Heaven Tonight is known as the first album ever recorded with a 12-string electric bass, and Petersson the first 12-string bassist.
Van Halen – Van Halen
1. Van Halen – Van Halen: What began as demos with Gene Simmons of Kiss turned into a recording deal helmed by producer Ted Templeman. Templeman had already produced debut records for The Doobie Brothers and Montrose when he convinced Warner Brothers to sign the Southern, California bar band. He followed his string of successes with what was not only the greatest rock album of 1978, but one of the top 10 albums that changed rock and roll. Van Halen would use his talents on their first six albums.
Much like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and many other great rock debuts, critics largely panned the album as crap. Like Zeppelin, Rolling Stone was extremely harsh in its 1978 reception only to later hail it among rocks greatest albums of all time. Rock radio and music fans immediately embraced the group’s raw energy and fresh approach. As Guns N’ Roses would do a decade later, they became the next big thing in hard rock music and Eddie Van Halen became known as a guitar God from the moment people took one listen to “Eruption”.
The band landed three radio hits on “Runnin’ With the Devil”, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” and their cover of The Kinks, “You Really Got Me”. Like all seminal albums it was the deeper cuts that solidified the album’s excellence: Tracks like “Jamie’s Cryin’”, “Atomic Punk”, “Feel Your Love Tonight” can all be heard on classic rock stations. The whimsical cover of blues guitarist John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man” gave them another hit and a touch of humor. There simply wasn’t a weak track on the record, and every song sounds as impressive today as it did 35 years ago. Van Halen’s debut has sold more than 10 million copies and continues to sell more copies yearly than most new bands. The album has sporadically re-entered the Billboard 200 which it did as recently as 2012.