In one corner, Graham Parker and the Rumour's "Squeezing Out Sparks," the 1979 Pazz & Jop champion. In the other, Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Armed Forces," the follow up to Elvis' 1978 P&J champ "This Year's Model," which finished 5th in the '79 poll. Christgau awarded the former album with a rare A+ (downgraded to A when he published his guide to 70s albums), saying "guitar, drums, vocals, lyrics, and hooks (and more hooks) mesh into ten songs so compelling that you're grateful to the relative lightweights for giving you a chance to relax." The Dean gave Elvis an A-Minus, calling the new album "a good record, to be sure, but not a great one."
Let's start with Costello. The key to appreciating "Armed Forces" is actively avoiding comparisons with its predecessor, which to these ears remains one of the greatest albums in the history of rock. "This Year's Model" was the apex of Elvis' "angry young man" phase, and the music on it crackled with an intensity that few albums have matched, before or since. On the follow-up, Elvis is just as angry, but the musical approach is less direct - less a full frontal assault than a late-night raid, sneaking behind enemy lines under the cloak of darkness. Songs like "Oliver's Army" and "Green Shirt" sound on first listen like a retreat, but they are anything but. This is the sound of Elvis and the band discovering how far they can stretch, and if the results may at times sound a little fussy ("Senior Service" and "Busy Bodies"), a close listen to the lyrics is all the reminder one needs that Elvis is after bigger game than on the previous record. And the album's closer, the immortal "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," brings everything into focus as the band turns the Nick Lowe song into one that is entirely theirs and makes it very clear exactly what is at stake. Of course, Elvis would almost throw it all away a few months after the album's release, with his infamous racist, drunken tirade in response to a bar argument with members of the Delaney and Bonnie band. The incident seems mostly forgotten today, but its impact on Costello's work at the time was significant.
Meanwhile, Parker's album is fueled by the very rage and venom that was the engine for "This Year's Model." For most of the record, the Rumour's play as if their lives depended on the outcome, wringing the most out of every tune and verse. The first three songs set the tone - "Discovering Japan," "Local Girls" and "Nobody Hurts You" (harder than yourself) - set a pace that would fit right in on the most rocking of Stones albums. The second side isn't as strong, but on the album's closer "Don't Get Excited," Parker and the Rumour come full circle right back to the power and intensity of the beginning. It's a great enough song that it almost makes you forget the album's worst song, "Waiting For the UFO's," which came right before it.
So which album is better? It's a really tough call, but at the final bell I have to award Elvis the split decision, for his album's overall consistency. But they're both solid A's in my book.