by John Ellis
One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
A part of me feels like the fair thing to do would be to credit President Carter with the albums from his post-presidency/Noble Prize winning years – you know, the years for which he’s not universally scorned; but, that’s not how this series works. I don’t feel too bad, though. His administration’s contribution to pop music’s oeuvre was considerable. Although, if he had focused more on bands and musicians from America, maybe he would’ve been re-elected.
Besides stoking the fires of the Cold War and bringing honesty back to the White House, President Carter was also busy making sure that the country was on the road to recovery from the blight of disco. Punk musicians, of course, we’re more than happy to accept the President’s clarion call, and bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Dead Kennedys released some of punk’s seminal albums under Carter’s kindly gaze. The punks weren’t the only bands to rally around the leader of the free world, though. Venerable dinosaurs like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones demonstrated that they hadn’t lost a step. And, President Carter oversaw the rise of post-punk; a genre that completed the foundation for the great indie scene of the 80s.
Honorable Mentions: Animals, Pink Floyd; Talking Heads:77, Talking Heads; Rocket to Russia, Ramones; Peter Gabriel III (Melt), Peter Gabriel; My Aim is True, Elvis Costello; Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), David Bowie; Ace of Spades, Motörhead; Los Angeles, X; Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division; Van Halen, Van Halen; The River, Bruce Springsteen; Back in Black, AC/DC; Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Dead Kennedys.
- Highway to Hell – AC/DC, August, 1979.
Of the many hats that President Carter has worn during his life, one of the more controversial hats has been that of a Baptist deacon. With that in mind, it may seem odd that Carter presided over the release of one of the favorite musical whipping boys of Baptist ministers – Highway to Hell, but it shouldn’t. President Carter believed strongly in the principle of separation of church and state. His lack of hypocrisy, demonstrated by his support of an album that prompted many after-church bonfires, should be applauded. Oh, and Highway to Hell rocks!
- Some Girls – The Rolling Stones, June, 1978.
From our 21st century perch, it seems laughable that in the late-70s the Stones were considered by many to be old and washed up. Of course, far fewer people (if any) considered the Rolling Stones ready for the county-fair/casino circuit after the release of Some Girls. Rejuvenated by a focused Mick Jagger and the addition of Ronnie Wood’s slide guitar, the Stones churned out their ballsiest and bluesiest album in over half a decade.
- Exodus – Bob Marley, June, 1977.
With much of the country stressed over rising inflation, turmoil in the Middle East, and the escalation of the Cold War, President Carter wisely turned to the Rastafarian musician Bob Marley to calm the nerves of the citizenry. Although smooth and relaxed, Exodus does contain a poignant stream of the intersection of faith and politics in the lyrics.
- Pretenders – The Pretenders, January, 1980.
President Carter put his foreign relation skills to good use with The Pretenders debut album. Proving that England and America were not just allies in name only, but also able to work together and produce excellence, Pretenders kicked off the new decade with a jolt of pop infused punk.
- The Clash – The Clash, April, 1978.
The tag “The Only Band that Matters” may have been promotional hyperbole cooked up by the label’s advertising department, but The Clash is one of the extremely few bands that, without being accompanied by hysterical laughter, could even be considered for that made-up distinction. Why? Well, besides the important fact that they produced really great music, The Clash provided the catalyst, not to mention the blueprint, for much of the early 80s’ underground music scene. And it began with their self-titled debut, proving that anger and disenfranchisement do not need to be unintelligible and unintelligent.
- Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols, October, 1977.
Johnny Rotten probably hates being included in lists like this one; and I wish that I could oblige him and leave him and his unfortunate band mates off of this list; but, alas, I can’t. The Ramones may have swung punk music’s first major blow at the music establishment in 1976, but the music world, much less the world at large, was barely ready for the vitriolic shit-kicking of the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten’s sneering, barely discernible vocals forced society to confront the reality that things were not ok, and hardcore was born.
- Remain in Light – Talking Heads, October, 1980.
Like President Carter, Remain in Light served as a bridge between the 1970s and the 1980s. Experimental, surrealistic, and utilizing blistering African rhythms, Remain in Light flipped the world of punk music on its head and demonstrated the potential of New Wave; although, sadly a potential that was never reached again by New Wave.
- Closer – Joy Division, July, 1980.
With Closer, Joy Division produced an emotionally haunting album that is as beautiful as it is disturbing. The suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis is buried deep within the album’s lyrics, and the searching bass finds the listener and doesn’t let go until the story is told.
- The Wall – Pink Floyd, November, 1979.
The fact that fans love and hold in such high esteem an album that arose in part out of the band’s disdain for their fans is one of the great musical ironies of all time. Although, to be fair, The Wall is a brilliant concept album executed with Pink Floyd’s usual high level of musicality. The two guitar solos in “Comfortably Numb” are worth the price of the album alone, but the listener isn’t going to want to skip the previous eighteen tracks of this seamless rock opera to get to the song. By the way, the seven tracks that follow “Comfortably Numb” shouldn’t be ignored either. If you’re doing the math, that’s twenty six tracks that are all so good that you won’t realize that you just spent almost an hour and a half listening to one album.
- London Calling – The Clash, December, 1979.
What happens when a punk band flexing their varied and substantial musical chops releases a post-punk album with politically charged yet poignant lyrics? Well, London Calling is what happens – one of the most acclaimed albums ever. With the album, The Clash not only demonstrated that the punk ethos needn’t be chained to the three-chord “punk sound,” the English band also proved that weaving in other musical influences may be the most punk thing to do.
 It needs to be pointed out that if you actually listen to “Highway to Hell” it doesn’t take a literature degree to discern that the “authorial intent” of the song is that of a warning, not praise.
 Don’t misunderstand; I really like this album, but my disdain for Johnny Rotten makes me wish that I didn’t.
 Well, Roger Water’s, not necessarily the band’s.