Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Albums of the 1970s

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Another decade comes to a close in the fourth chapter of 50 Years of Great Music, looking now at the albums of the 70s before moving on to the Reagan-ites. If you thought the 60s album list was chockfull of winners, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

It was the decade of decadence and the double LP, concept albums and boundary crashing. We begin with the death throes of the hippie ideal and end with the last gasp of the reactionary polar twins punk and disco. In between, size really did seem to matter, almost entirely of the adage “bigger is better.” Even while influences trace into the 50s and 60s (and sometimes even earlier), new ideas and sounds were being invented every other month it seemed, and all of it right before image began eclipsing art in most mainstream music. For the concept of album-as-statement, no decade saw the magnificent highs and laughable lows like the 70s.

It was also an almost unbearably strong bunch. I can say with some confidence (without having even touched three of the five decades yet) that this one will wind up being the toughest to narrow down in terms of great ones I had no room for. If albums like Aladdin Sane, The Who by Numbers, Out of the Blue, Aqualung, Metal Box, Off the Wall, Bat out of Hell, and Damn the Torpedoes can’t even be included in the honorable mention, you know it must be one hell of an overcrowded group.

First, the twenty-five that just missed the cut in alphabetical order:

After the Gold Rush by Neil Young [1970 / Rock]
All Mod Cons by the Jam [1978 / Punk]
Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & the Attractions [1979 / Rock]
Autobahn by Kraftwerk [1974 / Electronica]
Blue by Joni Mitchell [1971 / Folk]
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John [1975 / Pop]
Country Life by Roxy Music [1974 / Rock]
Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young [1970 / Folk]
The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! by the Dictators [1975 / Punk]
Idlewild South by the Allman Brothers Band [1970 / Rock]
The Image Is Cracked by Alternative TV [1978 / Punk]
Meddle by Pink Floyd [1971 / Rock]
Muswell Hillbillies by the Kinks [1971 / Rock]
A Night at the Opera by Queen [1975 / Rock]
Paul Simon by Paul Simon [1972 / Folk]
(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) by Lynyrd Skynyrd [1973 / Rock]
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! by Devo [1978 / Rock]
Specials by the Specials [1979 / Ska]
Spectrum by Billy Cobham [1973 / Jazz]
Stained Class by Judas Priest [1978 / Metal]
Station to Station by David Bowie [1976 / Rock]
Suicide by Suicide [1977 / Punk]
Sweet Baby James by James Taylor [1970 / Folk]
Talking Book by Stevie Wonder [1972 / Soul]
Talking Heads: 77 by Talking Heads [1977 / Rock]

And now for the one hundred that managed to secure a spot on my list. Enjoy.


100record100. #1 Record
by Big Star
1972
Pop


With the British Invasion in the rearviewmirror, Big Star led the power pop crusade in the new decade (though the Raspberries kept up admirably). It’s hard to figure how Alex Chilton’s gravel-toad voice transformed into a pleasingly genuine waver, but it matches the sweet and jangly tunes that fill up #1 Record. The music may lack much separation from the Beatles (“The India Song” could have been a Sgt. Pepper leftover) and the content trends towards the innocent days of the Beach Boys, but they can handle their inspirations; after all, they had an enormous effect on plenty of pop bands to come. How this record failed to sell well is beyond me—everyone alive knows “Thirteen” and “In the Street.”


99stickyfingers99. Sticky Fingers
by the Rolling Stones
1971
Rock


The Stones always sounded like a pretty dangerous band even when they came off like puppy dogs (rare as that was), but Altamont seemed to give them a brand new kind of malevolence. Digging the careening riff of “Brown Sugar” and the keening country twang of “Wild Horses” is fine, but if you ingest “Bitch” and “Sister Morphine” enough, your pupils are gonna turn red. I could also mention how the Fred McDowell tune “You Gotta Move” is one of their best non-hits and how “Moonlight Mile” is a surprisingly lovely closer, but why waste the time? A freaking zipper is the legacy from outsiders, but the nastiness isn’t only of perversity. About the only reference to Altamont I can spot is on “Dead Flowers,” which pretty much treats it like a joke. Now that’s attitude.


98animals98. Animals
by Pink Floyd
1977
Rock


They might scorn nihilism “on the Wing,” but Animals can be an ungainly and depressing experience for outsiders. You can handle the “Sheep” thanks in no small part to Richard Wright’s bubbly keyboards at the outset, but if you return to the “Dogs” and the “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” the oppression really starts to set in. But then Pink Floyd was built for cultists and newbies would gravitate towards their more radio-friendly fare first. Whether or not he’s showing an Orwell fetish, breaking down society into three classes of animals is still pretty disparaging, even for Roger Waters, but David Gilmour may not have had a better front-to-back showcase for his guitar storm. I’m not sure what kind of animal this LP is, but it definitely has claws.


97paris191997. Paris 1919
by John Cale
1973
Pop


Despite cooperation with the Stooges and Velvet Underground, John Cale was still little more than a cult figure in 1973, and before and after Paris 1919, he was known for the noisy abrasion he brought to rock music. But Paris has been described as his gentlest, most traditional and most accessible work, an unusually shiny beacon in the catalog of one of experimental music’s most daring aficionados. Lush, sweeping and literate (despite his typically inscrutable lyrical concoctions), Paris 1919 surrenders to lilting melodies and posh orchestration, all the while retaining the imperceptible resonance of “one of the rule-breakers.” Indeed, songs like “Graham Greene” and “Macbeth” retain some of that gritty rock edge, but they’re underscores instead of tyrants; meanwhile, “Hanky Panky Nohow,” “Andalucia” and others simply couldn’t be lovelier. More like Nick Drake than Lou Reed; not that there’s anything wrong with that. 


96neu7596. Neu! 75
by Neu!
1975
Electronica


The motorik pulse of loping (and looping) opener “Isi” suggests that Neu! might simply be trying to compete with a post-Autobahn Kraftwerk, but listening to the Bowie-inspiring “Hero” and the spiking fuzz of “E-Musick” proves they were in their own world. The nature of the duo helped finesse such an extraordinary recording—Klaus Dinger liked to rock and Michael Rother preferred ambient drones. A precursor to Eno teaming up with Bowie? Makes sense considering the circumstances, but this is simply one of the best krautrock records around, and certainly more accessible than what Faust and Cluster were up to (a lot of the cultists always seemed like extremists in this case, anyway). Throwing in a Jagger-esque yelp on Side B might have been an accidental masterstroke, and accidents rarely happen in this kind of program.


95manwhosoldworld95. The Man Who Sold the World
by David Bowie
1970
Rock


Sometimes jokingly referred to as Bowie’s “metal album,” The Man Who Sold the World gets that influence not from tuning or distortion or volume but from atmosphere. It has numbing time signatures and a dark and dense flavor, creeping and dreadful. Tony Visconti’s production can be muddy and despairing at times, and he and Mick Ronson composed almost all of the song arrangements themselves. The obsidian edge even provided a template for goth and dark wave, particularly in the way that performance (and persona) can be used for the show but not the self. But despite being seen from afar as oppressive, Bowie finds skewed humanity in even his most inhuman sketches, and songs like “The Width of a Circle,” “Running Gun Blues,” “All the Madmen” and the title track still rank with his best.


94b52s94. The B-52s
by the B-52s
1979
Rock


The B-52s’ eponymous debut struck just as the first wave of post-punk was starting to crash, but the quirky and kitschy flavor must have made the entire genre taste sweet all over again. The goofiness is tempered by a stark sound—despite the bouncy rhythms, there’s a spare, roughtrade distinctiveness buried beneath it all. Sure, you could call it a flamboyant pop culture rave-up, but that sounds like an affectation. It’s no more absurd than funk’s boardroom pitch, and this gang isn’t content with jerking around with white funk anyway. Pop, surf, punk, experimentalism, it’s all tossed in a blender for the sake of sheer audacity and having a good time. “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire” are, of course, classics, but “Dance This Mess Around,” “6060-842” and “52 Girls” deserve the same immortality.


93machinehead93. Machine Head
by Deep Purple
1972
Metal


How many heavy metal albums have a better start and finish than Machine Head? “Highway Star” is a bona fide head banger, matching Ritchie Blackmore’s churning riff with Jon Lord’s electrifying organ, nearly reaching the epic grandiosity of anything else released by the other two major hard rock progenitors of the time (Zep and Sabbath). Then there’s the colossal drum solo that announces “Pictures of Home,” the bluesy jam of “Lazy,” and the “mother of all guitar riffs” on “Smoke on the Water.” All pale before the might of closer “Space Truckin’,” though, which ought to seem like the greatest fucking song ever to any stoners out there who prefer Kyuss to Phish. Ian Gillan is one of the most underrated vocalists in hard rock history and he hits every note just about perfectly on Purple’s massive magnum opus.


92teaforthetillerman92. Tea for the Tillerman
by Cat Stevens
1970
Folk


Before Cat Stevens adopted the name of Yusuf Islam, he searched for spiritual meaning and guidance on Tea for the Tillerman, which gave him the direction but not the destination. The album was stuffed with angst and annoyance despite the spare musical beauty, which stylishly combines the rustic charm of folk rock and the intimate gentleness of chamber pop. And for all of the songs’ deliberate hush, they’re quiet in dense ways, giving the singer/songwriter a gorgeous chime and billowing melody to hang his frustration on. Some may deem the archly dramatic effect to be obvious, but I can only assume it was intentional—subtle writing sometimes needs a hammer (with graceful hooks aplenty). “Into White,” “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Wild World” are the obvious highlights, but “On the Road to Find Out,” “Hard Hearted Woman” and “Father and Son” should be in the same conversation.


91superfly91. Super Fly
by Curtis Mayfield
1972
Funk


The images of blaxploitation films are ones of hustlers, dealers, pimps and P.I.’s, but no matter the famous faces of the genre (Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, etc.), what’s most memorable about them is the soundtracks. And none were better than Mayfield’s sound for Super Fly (sorry, Isaac Hayes). The classics you know (whether or not you recycled the films on VHS) are all here, from “Freddie’s Dead” to “Pusherman” and the title track, but what fills out the space in between is nearly of the same caliber. “No Thing on Me” is one of the most vivid and startling numbers on here and the foreboding entrance of “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” couldn’t have set the mood better. Even the instrumentals are top notch, rife with deep, sinister grooves and stabbing horns. Really, only the romantic interlude in “Give Me Your Love” pales. Considering the relative crass cheapness of the film style as a whole, it should be astounding to see how influential the music was in both immediate terms and on future generations, but should we have been shocked to get a good product from Mayfield?


90oceanboulevard90. 461 Ocean Boulevard
by Eric Clapton
1974
Rock


When he kicked the smack, he also showed the solo jams the door for a time (I doubt they correlated, though). Now clean (but not sober), Clapton placed an emphasis on more traditional structures—whether you find that boring or not is really up to you. But the low-key backing band he assembled for 461 Ocean Boulevard suited his needs, and he’s still in an expansive mood as he toys with traditional roots and blues as well as Bob Marley reggae. The running times may be more compact, but the atmosphere is still relaxed—if it’s not a showcase for instrumental prowess, it can at least claim consistency, which is lacking in most Clapton solo records. His takes on “Steady Rolling Man,” “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Willy and the Hand Jive” are almost enough to make you forget the originals (almost), but old habits die hard, though, and the album’s finest moment is the dreamlike, five-minute slow cooker “Let It Grow.”


89soalone89. So Alone
by Johnny Thunders
1978
Rock


He may have disdained the label of “punk rock,” but it was hard for Thunders to escape based on reputation and brothers in arms. But the first solo outing from the former New York Doll and Heartbreaker is far closer to old R&B, 50s rock and doo wop than the frenzied punk scene of its time. A mix of covers and originals, its eclectic nature makes it far more widescreen than the closed off thrash of contemporaries, but despite a supporting cast of indelible punk figures (Steve Marriott, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Phil Lynott and more), this is Johnny’s show through and through. He tempers these spry and ambling numbers with enough psychosis, gloom and raunch to make sure you don’t forget that Thunders ain’t exactly going for a quaint style, though. And So Alone really is one of the decade’s true overlooked gems.


88rumours88. Rumours
by Fleetwood Mac
1977
Rock


It’s an album that shouldn’t be; who has the temerity to write and sing about breakups with the exes involved? The two Macs were on the outs, Stevie Nicks was estranged from Lindsey Buckingham and Mr. Fleetwood had just separated from his own wife, but somehow they stuck it out in the bitter, accusatory atmosphere, likely because they realized they had some pretty good songs to work with. It doesn’t even matter that I’ve never much cared for “Don’t Stop” or that “Dreams” always sounded like a neutered, more interpersonal variation on “Rhiannon”; such equivocations are remedied by the punchy anthemic rock of “Go Your Own Way,” the confessional/confrontational immodesty of “The Chain,” wavering pop in “Songbird” and lustrous drug drama on “Gold Dust Woman.” It’s hard to hear the acrimony underneath—concealed in billowing pop rock melodies and honeyed vocal harmonies—but troubled times can sometimes lead to great art (or does populism strike that?), and the fact that they made it so digestible without losing that emotional edge is an arresting feat.


87mothershipconnect87. Mothership Connection
by Parliament
1975
Funk


Or, Close Encounters of the Funk Kind. Mothership Connection treaded the line between intelligent and goofy funk/soul fusion, but there was no doubt about the style’s innovation and dance-friendly thump. A tribute of sorts to both James Brown and Gene Roddenberry (Clinton said of the cover art, “I’m a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac”), P-Funk was always about the talk but not the street; the slang and not the actual ghetto. Sci-fi R&B may be hard to take seriously, but the power of the grooves isn’t debatable, and beyond the terrific hit “Give Up the Funk,” there’s also classics like “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication” and the title track—“Swing low, sweet chariot, and let me ride.”


86imagine86. Imagine
by John Lennon
1971
Rock


Lennon said that Imagine was “chocolate-coated for public consumption,” which is the chief reason why it was so popular and yet so often dismissed by hardcore fans. But more than just the addition of strings and the deletion of the savage avant-garde edge that defined Plastic Ono Band, we see Lennon escaping from a shadow of bile to present nuggets of hope and bliss (cue the title track and “Oh My Love”). He indulges bitter passion from time to time (“Crippled Inside,” “Gimme Some Truth,” “How Do You Sleep?”), which also makes it a more uneven effort than what came before it. But even if you prefer Lennon angry than in love, you can’t help but admire the ache of “Jealous Guy” and the tender affection of “Oh Yoko!” I guess the primal scream therapy he underwent shed away none of his songwriting gifts.


85herecomewarmjets85. Here Come the Warm Jets
by Brian Eno
1973
Rock


Never the spotlight provocateur or driving force behind Roxy Music, Brian Eno was still generally regarded as the “sound manipulator.” The vacuum in his departure was felt, but Roxy kept making good music after that. Eno on his own, though, was a revelation only to those who didn’t recognize the influence. His debut on Warm Jets is avant-garde pop that’s somehow both experimental and accessible, a clutch of exciting and complex arrangements and diabolical rhythms tempered with exciting and infectious flair. The breadth of Eno’s talent and artistry can’t be felt by any one album (or even any one period), but Jets is one of his finest samplings. As one of those forward-thinking musical icons, it’s easy to forget just how funny Eno can be, too, as seen on “Driving Me Backwards,” “Dead Finks Don’t Talk,” and the bizarre-but-invigorating “Baby’s on Fire.”


84melodynelson84. Histoire de Melody Nelson
by Serge Gainsbourg
1971
Pop


You can call this Lolita-esque tale of a middle-aged man seducing a teenage nymphet perverted if you like (um, it is), but Gainsbourg was a provocateur, and the lecherous tone is drawn out by a husky French voice that makes it sound as romantic as it is lustful. Its story is sounder than most other concept albums and is smart enough to end before it overstays its welcome. The record runs through lush orchestral pomp, airy pop drones, tinges of sweaty funk and rumbling rock n’ roll, and silent spaces for Gainsbourg to murmur into the listener’s ear so intimately that you can practically feel his breath; you don’t need to know French to know when he is seducing, when he is consummating and when he is mourning. You can hear its influence in dozens of albums today (Moon Safari, Sea Change, His ‘n’ Hers, etc.), but there’s nothing quite like Histoire de Melody Nelson, and even those who feel a need to shower afterwards still acknowledge its greatness.


83lookkapypy83. Look-Ka Py Py
by the Meters
1970
Funk


As one of the key progenitors bridging the gap between R&B and funk music, the Meters didn’t specialize in the epic compositions issued by the Parliament-Funkadelic crews or the first half of the Sex Machine breakthrough, but rather little snippets of grooves that never have a chance to play themselves out. The title track is one of the genre’s definitive compositions, but “Rigor Mortis,” “9 ‘Til 5” and “Pungee” are all the first places to go to get a taste of New Orleans zonk. The rhythm section of Zigaboo “Ziggy” Modeliste and George Porter, Jr. was tough to compete with because the jams never ran out of steam; they even managed to give liquid bass a monster strut. There’s hardly a person alive that hasn’t heard the Meters—they’re one of the most sampled groups in music history—and this is undeniably their masterstroke.


82songsbuildingsfood82. More Songs About Buildings and Food
by Talking Heads
1978
Rock


What begins as a bouncy, percolating and very accessible little album (there’s an unmistakable shine on melodic early tracks like “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and “The Good Thing”) proceeds into more difficult territory as it progresses. But despite the sprawling and adventurous country-twang satire of “The Big Country,” the nervous energy of “I’m Not in Love” and the challenging but very rewarding “Found a Job,” this is an easier entry point into the Heads than either album that preceded or followed it. Their stealthy and elegant take on Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” was a breakthrough hit for them even if it can’t compete with the band’s all-time best (or Green’s original). As a songwriter, David Byrne specialized in the seemingly mundane, but as a singer, he was always paroxysmic. The energy that nervously builds between those states was as much the key to the band’s success as anything to do with Jerry Harrison’s wire-scratch guitar or the hectic rhythm section.


81surfsup81. Surf’s Up
by the Beach Boys
1971
Pop


The Beach Boys managed to salvage another classic from the scrapped SMiLE sessions, and pretended it was their own “A Day in the Life.” But the title is skewed and ironic, and selecting it to also be the name of the album proper might be a case of flagrant false advertising—in other words, Surfin’ Safari and Little Deuce Coupe this ain’t. But you can’t blame the name; just look at the bleak and lonely cover art (based on a James Earle Fraser sculpture, and to some degree, sagebrush Westerns and Don Quixote). As a complete album, it doesn’t really work, but as a patchwork of individual members’ obsessions with Eastern religion, the environment and bleeding heart social concerns, it adds up to a meandering near-masterpiece. “A Day in the Life of a Tree” is pretentious artfulness that can’t be knocked, “Don’t Go Near the Water” works as a syrupy gem for Mike Love and Al Jardine, and “Long Promised Road” is a rare post-60s hit for the group that deserved it (it’s always been easy to scorn “Kokomo,” though).

List continues on next page.

Top 100 Songs of the 60s
Top 100 Albums of the 60s
Top 100 Songs of the 70s

 



Jun
26
2009
Matt Medlock

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