In the case of pop music aesthete Joe Jackson, my normal policy to limit my focus to music actually released during the '80s will need to be set aside. After all, without carefully considering Jackson's first two 1979 albums recorded with the hard-driving Joe Jackson Band, an observer is left with a woefully incomplete image of this artist. Although Jackson quickly became a journeyman stylistically, the first decade or so of his career displays cohesion in terms of musical quality and consistent output. Here's a chronological look at the finest songs from Jackson's most commercially and critically successful period.
Despite a regrettable appearance in a recent Taco Bell TV commercial, this fierce guitar rocker stands as one of the finest tracks of the immediate post-punk era. Significant credit must be given to the tough, up-front guitar work of Gary Sanford, but without Jackson's caustic vocal delivery and his biting lyrics, the band would sound like just another punk rock-inspired outfit. As usual in music, it's the unique nature of combinations that often makes the difference, and this tune's aggressive riffing and inventive rhythms assist Jackson's sparkling chorus in exploding wondrously. "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" may be a fine introduction to Jackson's talent, but this track makes a strong case as his most vivid sonic attack.
Though released in early 1979, Jackson's brilliant debut, Look Sharp!, built a sustained impact throughout the year and into 1980, especially in America. The record features so many sterling tracks that it's extremely difficult to distill my choices for this list, but I'm going with "Fools in Love" as the album's most sophisticated take on ska-influenced pop that seriously foreshadows Jackson's later forays into all corners of the musical map. Other tunes hew more closely to the established new wave sounds popular at the advent of the '80s, but this one reveals not only the singer-songwriter's adventurous stylistic streak but an early understanding of pop songcraft that essentially has no limits. Few debuts have ever been this impressive.
Jackson accomplished an unbelievably swift and assured turnaround for his sophomore release, I'm the Man, a record that emerged in the U.S. barely six months after his well-received debut. Featuring a growing complexity but also a definite knack for striking tight, confident combinations of rock and pop, the album's crowning achievement may well be this moody, intoxicating track. Wisely spotlighting Jackson's distinct vocals but especially his wryly observational lyrics about relationships, gender expectation, and romantic disappointment, this is a song that pierces the heart as well as the brain. Lack of success as a single comes as no surprise here, as typical pop music fans may tend to shrink from material this serious and direct.
5. "Beat Crazy"
Though the piano-drenched Night and Day yielded Jackson's biggest U.S. hit of all in the No. 6 1982 hit "Steppin' Out," I much prefer that record's equally elegant "Breaking Us in Two" to the former tune, which has always struck me as graceful but a bit cold. Jackson's melodies continue to be as compelling as ever on these two tracks, but the style and tone of this album matches its title in terms of presenting polar opposites. This record is in no shape or form rock music of even the softer variety, and it occupies the space of pop music in only the most Cole Porter, highbrow sort of way. And yet "Breaking Us in Two" stands out as one of the most underrated but powerful mood-builders of the decade's expanse of pop offerings.
Jackson continues to experiment on his 1984 release, Body and Soul, this time bringing out the horns and tapping into for the first time a truly soulful R&B groove. It's nice to hear the singer reclaiming even a modicum of the edge of his earlier material, but beyond all the stylistic jumps the bottom line is that once again Jackson works from his usual strength of top-notch songcraft. A capable singer as well as a vaunted "artist," Jackson allows his music to shine most brightly when he minimizes the detachment that tends to result from a musician being so overwhelmingly talented. His first three records held that urgency, and this may be the first time Jackson revisits that passion on an '80s recording. A jolt of musical pleasure.
After years of a subdued presence in Jackson's music, the guitar makes a rather fierce return on this biting track from 1986's Big World, which again amps up the sonic immediacy. It may not have been inevitable that Jackson's more pop-oriented material of the early '80s be less potent lyrically, but that did seem to be the case for several years. But as a truly important social commentator, Jackson successfully moves away from his more personal focus to get back on his sardonic observational soapbox, and the music world is all the better for it. I'm a biased fan of rock music, so this may not count, but I have to say I greatly prefer the crotchety, sharp-witted Jackson who thrives fronting rock bands to his music-school alter ego.