"The Seventies Reconsidered: 50 Essential Albums of the Decade"
by Steve Pond
These aren't the fifty best albums of the Seventies. Instead, the point of
this list is to give some sense of depth and breadth of the decade's music,
so, for starters, we've limited it to one album per artist. In addition, a
couple dozen more records are mentioned at the end, because when it comes
time to make lists, the little guys tend to get overlooked.
1. SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: There's a Riot Goin' On (1971)
Sly Stone drained the joy out of his music and produced a brutal, enormously
disquieting record that was the sound of a man, a career and a country being
torn apart. It hit Number One before anybody knew what was happening.
2. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Born to Run (1975)
He said he wanted to make an album with the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the sound of
Phil Spector and the voice of Roy Orbison. Born To Run's words weren't much
like Dylan's, its sound didn't really ape Spector's and Springsteen's voice
was nothing like Orbison's -- but all the same, its impact was as if he had
accomplished just what he had set out to do.
3. DEREK AND THE DOMINOS: Layla (1970)
A tale of two guitarists: Eric Clapton, anguished over an unrequited love and
determined to capture his pain in music, and Duane Allman, who dropped by to
say hello and was drafted into service. Among white blues-rock albums,
Layla is probably closest to the real blues: It's the sound of a desperate
man making majestic, beautiful and horribly sad music.
4. THE SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols (1977)
The sound of four desperate men making crude, ugly and horribly angry music.
They really did want to spit in the face of the record industry, the middle
class and the British Empire -- and despite the air of staged outrage that
soon surrounded them, they really did make dangerous music.
5. NEIL YOUNG: Tonight's the Night (1975)
Young once said this album was about "life, dope and death," but he got the
order wrong. He also added a crucial caveat: "If you're gonna put a record on
at eleven in the morning, don't put on Tonight's the Night. Put on the
6. BOB DYLAN: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
7. THE ROLLING STONES: Exile on Main Street (1972)
8. JOHN LENNON: Plastic Ono Band (1970)
These are the only Seventies albums from the Sixties' kingpins that deserve
to stand alongside Blonde on Blonde, Beggars Banquet and Revolver.
Dylan's album, reportedly prompted by a split with his wife, was lovelier,
more mature and more openly emotional than anything he'd done, leavened with
just enough righteous anger and convoluted narratives.
Weariness rather than maturing characterized Exile on Main Street, two
records of relentless, brutal, and crude rock hits -- "Tumbling Dice,"
"Happy," "Rip This Joint" -- to lure listeners into the murk.
For the former Beatles, things were trickier. George Harrison had the first
big hit (with the overblown but admirable All Things Must Pass) and Paul
McCartney had the most success (though only Band on the Run was a complete
triumph), but John Lennon hit the hardest and cut the deepest. Mostly, he did
so on his first solo album, recorded in his post-Beatles flush of freedom and
written under the influence of primal-scream therapy. A diatribe against
everyone who wronged him and every false dream he ever believed in, Plastic
Ono Band is monumentally self-absorbed, completely honest and wholly
9. MOTT THE HOOPLE: Mott (1973)
This is the best album from the best band of the early Seventies. It starts
with a hard-rock anthem ("All the Way From Memphis") and ends with a strange,
chilling ballad ("I Wish I Was Your Mother"); in between, this hard-luck band
of British journeyman rockers sang about themselves and their pop-culture
obsessions, filling nearly every song with irrefutable hooks. Marketed as
Bowie-style glam rock, this was something rarer and more valuable: hard rock
overflowing with heart.
10. VAN MORRISON: Into the Music (1979)
At least four Morrison albums -- 1970's Moondance, 1972's Saint Dominic's
Preview, 1974's Veedon Fleece and this album -- are among the decade's
essential works. But everybody knew Morrison was great in the early
Seventies; his reputation had faded by the time he recorded Into the Music
-- which made the astonishing twenty-minute stretch ("And the Healing Has
Begun," "It's All in the Game" and "You Know What They're Writing About")
that closes the album all the more triumphant.
11. AL GREEN: Call Me (1973)
That definitive versions of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and
Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" could exist on the same album as
Top Ten pop and R&B hits is a tribute to the peculiar genius of Al Green.
Call Me is his classic, though four years later he summoned up another,
more spiritual masterpiece: The Belle Album.
12. RANDY NEWMAN: 12 Songs (1970)
Newman scoffs at anyone who thinks this is his finest moment. He's wrong. He
made several indispensable records during the decade, but nothing else so
deftly summoned up the worldview of this fiercely literate songwriter who
insisted on finding the seductive side of every perversion and the creepy
side of every tradition. It was one of Ry Cooder's finest moments, too.
13. THE CLASH: The Clash (1977)
Lacking the single-minded ferocity and sheer impact of the Sex Pistols, the
Clash settled for making the most varied and assured record of Britain's
early punk scene. With a fierce political intelligence and a musical sense
that embraced reggae as well as thrash, the group raged about everything from
the ruined British economy to the U.S.A. to its record company.
14. GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR: Howlin' Wind (1976)
The music was pub rock: i.e., rock played by hard-drinking British musicians
brought up on classic R&B. The singer was a punk: no safety pins or torn
shirts, just a stubborn, passionately angry and accusatory young man,
shouting down everyone in his way -- which is to say, everyone up to and
15. DAVID BOWIE: Station to Station (1976)
He could have been the decade's dominant artist, but Bowie switched direction
too often and alienated his fans too eagerly. He left behind a string of
Seventies bench marks -- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Low, 'Heroes',
Lodger, -- but the chilly, hard-rock/funk/synth-pop blend of Station to
Station deserves special mention as Bowie's initial daring step in the
direction that would produce his most lasting work.
16. VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Harder They Come (1972)
17. BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: Live! (1975)
Reggae was lauded as the Next Big Thing into America in the early Seventies,
but that never happened -- though records as remarkable as Toots and the
Maytals' Funky Kingston, Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey, the Mighty
Diamonds' Right Time and Culture's monumental Two Sevens Clash deserved
far more than a cult audience. The two great reggae collections of the decade
are the soundtrack from The Harder They Come and virtually the entire
recorded catalog of Bob Marley, reggae's only real star in America and a
prophet virtually everywhere else. On The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff's
best songs sit alongside classics from Toots, the Slickers, the Melodians and
others. As for the Marley catalog, Live! is a good place to start because
of its well-chosen repertoire and its picture of an evangelical frontman and
a furious band at the peak of their powers.
18. STEVIE WONDER: Innervisions (1973)
Motown's most stubborn individualist listened to everything from reggae to
funk to Dylan and sappy ballads and incorporated it all into his
synthesizer-driven, multilayered music. Light on sentiment and long on urban
horror stories, Innervisions brought out the tougher side of this virtuoso
19. ROD STEWART: Every Picture Tells a Story (1971)
Does anybody remember when Rod Stewart had this much compassion, warmth and
soul? Does anybody remember when his rock & roll sounded so unforced and
natural? And finally, does anybody know what happened?
20. MILES DAVIS: Bitches Brew (1970)
This isn't exactly the album that invented jazz rock; it's more like
Elvis's first records, which were the place where rock first flowered
unmistakably. Fusion players have yet to improve upon this turbulent
blueprint -- though a few years later, Jeff Beck came up with a more
rock-derived alternative on Blow by Blow and Wired.
21. VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Sound of Philadelphia (1988)
What Motown was to the Sixties -- an apparently inexhaustible font of
stylish, memorable hit singles -- Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia
International label was to the early Seventies. Sleek and sinuous, the hits
just kept on coming: "Back Stabbers," "When Will I See You Again," "Me and
Mrs. Jones," "Wake Up Everybody.".. This two-record British compilation
collects more of them than any other single source.
22. JONI MITCHELL: Blue (1971)
Intimate and frankly confessional -- but also elusive and thorny at times --
this uncommonly graceful album was as good as the Seventies singer-
songwriters got; the only contenders were Mitchell's own Court and Spark
and Hejira, Paul Simon's first solo album and Leonard Cohen's New Skin
for the Old Ceremony.
23. LED ZEPPELIN: Physical Graffiti (1975)
Seldom known for restraint and taste, Led Zeppelin raised a blues-derived
racket with such artful excess that this band defined the hard-rock genre.
Which is why Physical Graffiti - an immoderate, overweening, explosive
two-record set -- may be the group's quintessential record: It's nowhere near
as focused as Led Zep IV, but it makes a bigger, grander noise for a longer
24. ROXY MUSIC: Siren (1975)
Bryan Ferry sand like a world-weary sophisticate constantly fighting his
ennui; the other band members churned out a noisy, grandiose hard-rock sound
as if they wanted to drown out their singer's campy crooning. At its best,
the result was both arty and riveting; its best came on Stranded, Country
Life and this album.
25. THE NEW YORK DOLLS: In Too Much Too Soon (1974)
26. THE RAMONES: Rocket to Russia (1977)
27. TELEVISION: Marquee Moon (1971)
28. TALKING HEADS: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
New York City, 1974-1978. It started with the Dolls: willfully crude punk
precursors, louder and harder and glitzier than anybody else and equally
unstoppable on their own odes to alienation and their trashy covers of soul
classics. Then the Ramones: more single-minded than the Dolls and able to do
one thing (play loud, hard and fast) very well and do it again and again.
And once those two groups of brats from the boroughs had helped create New
York punk, artier types got involved: Television, with Tom Verlaine's grating
voice and minimalist lyrics set against his and Richard Lloyd's alteratively
lyrical and raging guitars; and Talking Heads, who on Buildings and Food
diluted David Byrne's nervous twitches and rampaging irony with Eno's
electronic washes and a love for the likes of Al Green.
29. ENO: Another Green World (1975)
Arty little synth-pop tunes from the artiest (and the least flamboyant) synth
wizard of the time. Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger
Mountain (by Strategy) were livelier and more startling; this recording was
more meditative and impressionistic and perhaps more influential.
30. PAUL SIMON: Paul Simon (1972)
With its spare, simple and finely drawn sketches about life in Manhattan --
plus a side trip to Jamaica for "Mother and Child Reunion" -- Simon's solo
debut was a quietly assertive statement of identity that bore little
resemblance to the grandeur of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and showed no
need at all for the other voice that sang on that record.
31. ELVIS COSTELLO: This Year's Model (1978)
In 1978, England's Capitol Radio named Elton John Male Singer of the Year. He
said the station had goofed: "I honestly felt that of the people who had
emerged, Elvis Costello was the most important -- by far the best songwriter
and the best record maker." John was right.
32. CURTIS MAYFIELD: Superfly (1972)
Hired to score this blaxploitation film, Curtis Mayfield wrote bracing, edgy
music that delivered just the kind of fierce, rhythmic momentum the movie
needed -- then he added lyrics that showed the whole hustler-as-hero genre
for the scam that it was.
33. THE ALLMAN BROTHERS: Eat a Peach (1972)
The early Allman Brothers practically created Southern rock, leaving a legacy
that only Lynyrd Skynyrd (on Second Helping and Street Survivors)
deserved to inherit. With Duane Allman on part of the album, the band summed
up the genre; on the rest of the album, recorded after his death, they
expanded the genre to make room for their tragedy.
34. PATTI SMITH: Horses (1975)
An overwrought, silly and exhilarating fusion of rock and poetry. Smith was a
born rock & roller and also a mystic whose muses included, in no particular
order, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Rimbaud, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Van
Morrison and Jesus.
35. BLONDIE: Parallel Lines (1978)
Glorious trash -- plus the first New Wave-disco song, "Heart of Glass."
36. PERE UBU: Dub Housing (1979)
This Cleveland band specialized in noisy, disjointed and shambling urban
blues -- rock & roll that always seemed at the edge of chaos (in the music)
and hysteria (in David Thomas's yelping vocals).
37. PARLIAMENT: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1977)
A typical George Clinton extravaganza: messy, nonsensical and fiercely
danceable. Funk as inexplicable as it is irresistible. Equally noteworthy:
Up for the Down Stroke, Mothership Connection.
38. STEELY DAN: Katy Lied (1975)
A typical Donald Fagen-Walter Becker production: immaculately well played,
deeply cynical and wickedly twisted. Mainstream pop rock as inexplicable as
it is irresistible. Equally noteworthy: Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel
39. MARVIN GAYE: Let's Get It On (1973)
His other great concept album of the Seventies, What's Going On, was about
the inner city; this one was about sex. Social awareness was an integral part
of the most mercurial and seductive R&B singer in pop music, but sex always
did bring out the best in him.
40. JOE ELY: Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978)
A map to the wind-swept west Texas barrooms where George Jones and Buddy
Holly meet for a beer, Joe Ely's second album was the decade's most
sure-footed country-rock collaboration. MVP Award goes to Butch Hancock for
his brilliant songs. Other country landmarks: Guy Clark's Old No. 1, full
of terse, understated country classics that would inspire Lyle Lovett,
Michelle Shocked and lots of others; Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger,
an allegorical song cycle that was the decade's most influential country LP;
and Terry Allen's Lubbock (on Everything), the fractured musings of a Texas
41. ELTON JOHN: Honky Chateau (1972)
This album was the epitome of the insanely catchy, wondrously disposable pop
music that John made in his mid-Seventies heyday. His first Greatest Hits
album was an even safer bet, but 1975's hard-rocking Rock of the Westies
was his bravest triumph.
42. WILD TCHOUPITOULAS: Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976)
Backbeat by the meters, voices by the Neville Brothers, ageless songs from
the streets of uptown New Orleans come Mardi Gras time. Along with the
Meters' Rejuvenation and Dr. John's Gumbo, this record stands as the best
of the Crescent City in the Seventies.
43. LOU REED: Berlin (1973)
This album was not as universally admired as the Velvet Underground's
Loaded or Reed's ambitious Street Hassle, and it was not as successful as
his Transformer. But this album was dank, grim and equally despised and
admired, which may make it his quintessential LP.
44. JOY DIVISION: Unknown Pleasures (1979)
The sound that launched a thousand gloomy, synth-driven bands, Unknown
Pleasures was the desolate, forbidding flip side of the other postpunk
landmarks pointed the way to the Eighties, such as the string of brilliant
singles by the Pretenders that foreshadowed the early 1980 release of their
debut album and Entertainment!, the Gang of Four's brittle, propulsive and
pioneering blend of punk and funk.
45. JACKSON BROWNE: The Pretender (1976)
Tales of loss, disillusionment and uneasy redemption set to the beat of the
toughest music Browne had made. The Eagles' Hotel California was more
ambitious, Linda Ronstadt's Heart Like a Wheel more flawless, Warren
Zevon's first two albums funnier -- but The Pretender is the essential
touchstone for the Southern California rock of the decade.
46. AEROSMITH: Rocks (1976)
At the time, cynics pegged this band as a blatant Rolling Stones retread and
not much more. Turns out Aerosmith was rocking harder and more convincingly
than the Stones by this point.
47. DONNA SUMMER: Bad Girls (1979)
Two records full of lean, aggressive songs with a beat that wouldn't quit. As
much rock as it was disco, this was a crossover the rock audience wasn't yet
ready to hear.
48. BIG STAR: Radio City (1974)
49. FLEETWOOD MAC: Rumours (1977)
These are two near-perfect pop albums -- both full of songs about girls and
boys, both undercut their gorgeous melodies with a dollop of twisted grit.
But Big Star (mastermind: Alex Chilton) had considerably more grit and twist,
which may be why Fleetwood Mac (mastermind: Lindsey Buckingham) sold about 20
million more copies.
50. VARIOUS ARTISTS: Have a Nice Day, Volume 10 (1990)
This recent anthology perfectly encapsulates the sublime wackiness of Top
Forty radio in 1973: pop inanities ("It Never Rains in Southern California"),
novelty hits ("Dead Skunk"), genuinely great songs ("Drift Away"), dreck
("The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia") -- plus the surpassingly lame
DeFranco Family. Welcome to the Seventies, indeed.
Here are some glorious one-shots and overlooked gems. The Adverts: Crossing
the Red Sea With the Adverts; The Alpha Band; the Buzzcocks: Singles
Going Steady; Captain Beefheart: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller); Rosanne
Cash: Right or Wrong; Ry Cooder: Paradise and Lunch; Dirk Hamilton: Meet
Me at the Crux; Michael Hurly: Have Moicy!; Jules and the Polar Bears:
Got No Breeding; Little Feat: Dixie Chicken; Nils Lofgren; Kate and
Anna McGarrigle; The Modern Lovers; the Persuasions: Chirpin'; John
Prine; Public Image Ltd.: Metal Box; The Roches; Otis Rush: Right
Place, Wrong Time; the Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes; Southside Johnny and the
Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone; Swamp Dog: "otal Destruction to Your Mind;
Billy Swan; James Talley: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got
a Lot of Love; Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights
Tonight; T. Rex; The Wild Magnolias; Wire: Pink Flag.
- Rolling Stone, 9/20/90.
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