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The 20 best rock albums of 1979

The 290 greatest rock albums of 1979
(Image credit: Future)

In 1979 all 257 passengers and crew on an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight were killed when it crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, and Iran became an Islamic Republic.

In February it snowed for 30 minutes in the Sahara Desert, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was overthrown in April, the The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in September, and armed terrorists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November.

In music, Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious was found dead from a heroin overdose in New York, Ozzy Osbourne was fired by Black Sabbath, and The Who played their first show with new drummer Kenney Jones. Just six months later played a set in  Cincinnati, unaware that 11 fans had been crushed to death prior to the show.

These are the 20 best albums of 1979.

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AC/DC - Highway To Hell (opens in new tab) 

AC/DC (opens in new tab)’s first masterpiece was also their last before the death of Bon Scott (opens in new tab). It’s impossible to imagine a better swansong. Highway was the band’s best set of songs so far, with 10 air-punching anthems that propelled them from the Australian club circuit to the heights of the US chart. 

It’s just a shame that Scott never saw how successful the record would be.

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Aerosmith - A Night In The Ruts (opens in new tab) 

Although an average album by Aerosmith (opens in new tab) is better than a great one by almost anyone else, Night In The Ruts actually deserves more credit. 

Despite Joe Perry jumping ship during its recording – musical and personal differences with Tyler were cited – the band dug in to produce a lean and muscular record, particularly on No Surprize and Bone To Bone.

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Bad Company - Desolation Angels (opens in new tab) 

As the decade played out, Bad Company (opens in new tab) updated their resolutely primitive rock sound to incorporate snatches of synthesiser and acoustic guitar. 

The concept sounded like the beginning of the end, but the resulting record was the strongest since the band’s debut, with Paul Rodgers (opens in new tab) pulling out all the stops and the band striking gold on tracks like Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy. 

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Cheap Trick - Dream Police (opens in new tab) 

Although this production didn’t capture the band’s blood and thunder like their live album at the Budokan (released earlier that year), Dream Police was both Cheap Trick (opens in new tab)’s commercial peak and their creative high-water mark. 

The stellar musicianship doesn’t hurt, of course – Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen are on top form throughout – but Dream Police’s true appeal lay in its shifting moods.

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The Clash - London Calling (opens in new tab) 

The occasional lapse into white-boy reggae aside, The Clash (opens in new tab)’s masterpiece was all the better for the fact that it transcended punk. Ska, rockabilly and jazz all sat effortlessly alongside the prescribed three chords on this double album, and if that sounds pretentious on paper, then it sounded irrepressible on vinyl. 

Worth it for the title track alone, London Calling was studded with gems, from The Right Profile to Spanish Bombs.

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The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette (opens in new tab) 

More than quarter of a century on, we’re still trying to come up with adjectives to describe The Damned (opens in new tab)’s third album. 

It’s a resolutely – almost stubbornly – British masterpiece that dips into countless unlikely sources (including the melody from the Shake & Vac advert, according to Captain Sensible), and managed to make us think on Anti-Pope and snigger on These Hands.

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Dire Straits - Communique (opens in new tab) 

Released as Mark Knopfler turned 30, 1979’s Communique was a collection of character sketches whose quiet cynicism implied the Dire Straits (opens in new tab) frontman had no idea they would later be performed on the stadium circuit. 

The album lacked a killer single, but songs such as Where Do You Think You’re Going? and Portobello Belle would waltz effortlessly into the band’s canon of classics.

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Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (opens in new tab) 

Costing the band two years and a million dollars to record, Tusk (opens in new tab) betrayed the pressure Fleetwood Mac (opens in new tab) were feeling following Rumours (opens in new tab)

Endless changes of tack over a sprawling tracklist give the album an incoherent but undeniably exciting feel, with Lindsey Buckingham’s exquisite folk-rock writing to the fore

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The Jam - Setting Sons (opens in new tab) 

The Jam’s reputation as a singles band sometimes meant their albums didn’t receive equal credit. Setting Sons deserves praise, though. 

Paul Weller (opens in new tab)’s fourth was a concept album (about a reunion between friends) that couldn’t always be bothered to stick to the concept, but featured some of his best lyrics and most biting portraits of Britain.

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Judas Priest - Unleashed In The East (opens in new tab) 

Rob Halford had the flu when Judas Priest (opens in new tab) played their 1978 shows at the Koseinenkin and Nakano Sunplaza Halls in Tokyo, which lead to his vocals being slightly  ‘touched-up’ before Unleashed In The East was released the following year. 

If you can forgive this flouting of live album etiquette, you’ll find a record that nails Priest’s essence in a way that their studio albums managed only fleetingly. 

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Led Zeppelin - In Through The Out Door (opens in new tab) 

Led Zeppelin (opens in new tab)’s seventh and final album (not including the posthumous Coda) hinted at the direction the band might have taken had they not been derailed by John Bonham (opens in new tab)’s death the following year. 

Recorded at the Polar Studios in Stockholm, In Through The Out Door fused vintage Zep chest-beating (In The Evening) with convincing forays into synth territory (All Of My Love), and serves as a frustrating reminder of how much gas the band had left in the tank.

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Motorhead - Overkill (opens in new tab) 

Thanks to its blurring of the lines between metal subgenres, Overkill refused to settle neatly into a pigeon-hole, instead establishing Motörhead (opens in new tab) as the band who prowled around the periphery of NWOBHM (opens in new tab) and growled at anyone who suggested they might like to come in. 

Regarded by many as the band’s debut proper, Overkill is still the definitive scream into the void.

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Pink Floyd - The Wall (opens in new tab) 

Whichever way you look at it, The Wall (opens in new tab) was enormous. Since its release, Pink Floyd (opens in new tab)’s masterwork has gone platinum 23 times, making it the top-selling album of the decade. 

A 26-track journey through the mind of a jaded rock star (Roger Waters (opens in new tab), to be specific), The Wall broke Floyd’s soundscapes into actual songs and yielded the weirdest ever Christmas No.1 in Another Brick In The Wall (Part II).

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Marianne Faithfull - Broken English (opens in new tab) 

Nobody saw Broken English coming. After nearly a decade in the shadows, Faithfull’s comeback traded the handclaps and falsettos of her youth for an unflinching account of her years on the edge. 

If her scorched delivery and explicit lyrics were shocking – particularly on Why’d Ya Do It – it was impossible to look away.

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Rainbow - Down To Earth (opens in new tab) 

Having binned the lineup of Long Live Rock’N’Roll and brought in vocalist Graham Bonnet, Ritchie Blackmore (opens in new tab) emerged from the studio with an album that owed more to bluesy hard rock than the ‘fantasy-metal’ of his work with Ronnie James Dio (opens in new tab)

The big one was Since You Been Gone (written by Argent’s Russ Ballard), but All Night Long charted higher at UK No.5.

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The Ramones - It’s Alive (opens in new tab) 

The ultimate live punk album? We can’t think of many to top it. With barely a breath drawn by the band between songs, this is the sound of London’s Rainbow Theatre – so often the setting of cosy all-star jams – being battered into submission by the world’s fastest setlist. 

Three decades later, and the sweat still doesn’t smell stale.

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The Scorpions - Lovedrive (opens in new tab) 

It probably dismayed Scorpions (opens in new tab) guitarist Uli Jon Roth when his former band responded to his departure with their best album so far. 

With Matthias Jabs on guitar, and erstwhile axeman Michael Schenker (opens in new tab) dropping back in for a couple of solos, Lovedrive was knocked out at double speed and maximum volume, with tracks like Can’t Get Enough and Coast To Coast proving the Scorpions hadn’t lost their sting

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Thin Lizzy - Black Rose: A Rock Legend (opens in new tab) 

With only The Very Best Of Leo Sayer standing between this album and the top of the UK chart, Black Rose: A Rock Legend proved a notable success for Thin Lizzy (opens in new tab), and was arguably the band’s most varied record to date. 

Alongside odes to his new daughter Sarah and the funk-driven S&M, Phil Lynott (opens in new tab) told dark tales of mean streets and substance abuse, while the newly rejoined Gary Moore (opens in new tab) was on blistering form throughout.

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Van Halen - Van Halen II (opens in new tab) 

Van Halen (opens in new tab)’s second album was knocked out in six days, and consequently exudes the charm that comes from boundless technique, minimal thought and no reverse gear. 

The two hits – Dance The Night Away and Beautiful Girls – both strayed into pop territory, but at its heart this record is another formidable slice of flair-metal, and the unmistakable sound of a bar being raised.

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The Undertones - The Undertones (opens in new tab) 

An album that had few aspirations beyond making you jump up and down, The Undertones made no apologies for its naivety or the limited scope of its musical worldview. 

This was the sound of pockmarked youth crystallised into a medley of three-chord classics. Teenage Kicks remains the pick, but Jimmy Jimmy and Get Over You give it a bloody good run for its money.

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