Various Artists

Top of the Pops, Vol. 74

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As befits any era that emerges out of the single greatest upheavals in modern rock history, 1979 was a year of adventure, boldness, and derring-do -- and the last in which such qualities marched hand in hand with the British Top 40. More recent years, after all, have seen the listings utterly co-opted by the forces of mass marketeering -- the end of the 1970s, on the other hand, was a time when the most half-baked notions of art and experimentation still had a chance of mixing it with the big boys, and frequently did. How else to explain the phenomenal success of Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric?," the sound of a former Mach Ten punk rock snotnose suddenly discovering the joys of synths and electronics, and reinventing himself accordingly? Today, he'd be shunted off to the back page of some cult-inclined fanzine. In 1979, he became, however fleetingly, a God, and the presence of "Are Friends Electric?" on Top of the Pops, Vol. 74 reminds listeners of just how all-pervading Numan was. It's a great version as well, tapping into the series' own long-held fascination with new sounds and textures to produce a version that is just as alienating as the original, and maybe even a little colder. Yet it is by no means the greatest revelation on the album -- that honor is reserved for Public Image Ltd.'s "Death Disco," quite possibly the unlikeliest inclusion ever on a Top of the Pops album. Mutant funk meets a mutated "Swan Lake," while the vocal yowls a lament for a deceased parent -- in PiL's hands, "Death Disco" was chilling enough, but squashed here between "Born to Be Alive" and "Light My Fire," it's dislocating enough to shatter the calmest equilibrium. The remainder of the album cannot hope to compete, but serves up some great covers anyway -- a quirky "Breakfast in America," which renders a bratty song even brattier; a cute "Up the Junction," reminding listeners that Squeeze didn't always sacrifice Beatlesque melody for nerdish cleverness; and a positively anthemic romp through "Go West." There's also a riotous thump through "C'mon Everybody," transforming a post-Rotten Sex Pistols potboiler into a thing of rude beauty, while a take on Chic's "Good Times" chases the original in terms of joyous intent.