Friday, December 17, 2004

The Top Ten ... er, Sixteen Albums of the 1970s

In no order (well, chronological) --

The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars

Who: David Bowie
What: The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars
When: Released June 6, 1972
Why: One of the great concept albums ever made ... I guess. I do know that I love every song on this album -- whether or not they make any sense as a whole. While "Ziggy Stardust" and its companion star, "Suffragette City" have garnered the most notoriety over the years, it is the first side of the original vinyl that contains the unsung heroes of the album. This is especially true of the opener, "Five Years," a description of the world's reaction to the news that it is on the clock and that it has "five years left to cry in." Will the world be saved by the Starman waiting in the sky? The one with the snow-white tan? Who the hell knows, but it's great music regardless. More here.

For Your Pleasure

Who: Roxy Music
What: For Your Pleasure
When: Released March, 1973
Why: Roxy Music was in many ways the birth of the new wave that would engulf music (at least for me) later in the decade. Bryan Ferry influenced an entire generation (or two) of theatrical frontmen, none of whom could match his world-weary tuxedoed ennui. This album was a confident step forward from the scattershot debut. It also had something none of Roxy's succeeding albums could boast -- Brian Eno in the band. The combination made for a song set that still sounds as fresh and interesting as the day it was released. The centerpiece of the album has to be "In Every Dream Home A Heartache," Ferry's ode to a blow-up doll. More here.

Houses Of The Holy

Who: Led Zeppelin
What: Houses Of The Holy
When: Released March 28, 1973
Why: What would a '70s list be without a Zeppelin record. The paradigmatic band of the decade, this album remains the best of the lot for me. "D'yer Mak'er" was one of the first singles I ever bought (b/w "The Crunge"). Talk about a perverse choice for a single (leaving aside the fact that it wasn't until much later that I had any idea what the title meant)! More here.

Call Me

Who: Al Green
What: Call Me
When: Released July, 1973
Why: The Reverend was the greatest soul singer of the greatest generation of soul singers. The peak of his collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell was this unparalleled set of nine soul classics. Really, though it was seven soul classics and two soulful reworkings of country classics (Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away"). The album closer betrays the eventual direction of Green's career ("Jesus Is Waiting"), but the album reaches its most delirious heights on the eponymous opener and the penultimate song ("You Ought To Be With Me"). No other singer's pleas for romantic reconciliation and redemption could ever come close to matching The Rev's silky delivery -- nor could any other musicians match the Memphis pros who provide the solid foundation for Green's soaring tenor/falsetto. More here.

Tonight's The Night

Who: Neil Young
What: Tonight's The Night
When: Released June, 1975
Why: Actually recorded in 1973, but considered far too dark and brooding to release on the heels of Harvest, this album explores the black midnight of the soul in the starkest terms. A perverse testament to the life and death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten (and of roadie Bruce Berry), the album is bookended by versions of the title cut -- the finale clearly recorded after more than a few shots of tequila (Neil forgets the words halfway through). The entire album seems to have been recorded in the middle of an epic bender, which was basically the case. The quiet centerpiece of the album -- "Borrowed Tune" -- features nothing more than Neil's voice, harmonica, piano and enough self-doubt, self-pity and self-destruction to fill a concert hall. Has there ever been a more despondent set of lines (at least for a talent the size of Neil Young's) than "I'm singing this borrowed tune / I took from the Rolling Stones / Alone in this empty room / Too wasted to write my own." More here.

Another Green World

Who: Brian Eno
What: Another Green World
When: Released November 1, 1975
Why: Although his ambient projects were still a couple of years off, this was clearly the album that set Eno off on his journey to find the ultimate in mood music -- "music as ignorable as it is interesting." While much of the album does consist of memorable songs ("St. Elmo's Fire," "I'll Come Running," "Golden Hours"), even more notable were the ambient tracks ("In Dark Trees", "Becalmed," the title track) -- shapeless and formless, but incredibly beautiful and enticing. This album clearly still influences ambient composers to this day. More here.


Who: The Ramones
What: Ramones
When: Released 1976
Why: If the album's opener ("Blitzkrieg Bop") didn't tell you that something new was afoot, the second track ("Beat On The Brat") sure as hell did. Into the static void of mid-70's rock came the raging maelstrom of the Ramones -- and the void never knew what hit it. More here.

Never Mind The Bollocks

Who: The Sex Pistols
What: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols
When: Released October, 1977
Why: I'll admit that they weren't much more than a novelty when they hit the States -- and most notoriously across the South (Georgia, Tennessee, Texas) -- for what ended up as a two-week tour in January of 1978. Their influence, however, seems to have only grown in the intervening years. As far as a recorded legacy for the most notorious band in history goes, this record is about it. Oddly, 27 years later, most of the songs still hold up as some kick-ass music -- novelty be damned. More here.
More Songs About Buildings And Food

Who: Talking Heads
What: More Songs About Buildings And Food
When: Released July 14, 1978
Why: When smart people have enormous creativity, this is what happens -- the best record ever made. While their first album, Talking Heads '77 was more than serviceable, their sophomore record was something else altogether. Nervous, edgy, downtown music, exemplified by the kickoff of Side 2, "Artists Only," which sums the creative process in one outstanding phrase -- "I'm cleaning my brain." Just for grins, of course, they throw in perhaps the most distinctive cover song in rock history, a nervous, edgy, downtown version of "Take Me To The River." The importance of the gesture is easily lost in the midst of time, but for an (at the time) lily-white new wave art-rock band to reach across the racial divide (so evident in music circa 1978) to put their own stamp on a song by the greatest of all soul singers -- needless to say it was a bold statement at the time, and represented the band's first tentative step in an entirely new direction. More here.

This Year's Model

Who: Elvis Costello
What: This Year's Model
When: Released July, 1978
Why: My first "release day" new wave album purchase in the summer of 1978. As good as Costello's debut was, this effort (backed by the Attractions) was definitely a Great Leap Forward -- both the music and the lyrics contained a razor-sharp edge that was not to be found on My Aim Is True. The first couplet of the album -- "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wanna touch / I don't wanna see you 'cause I don't miss you that much." -- on "No Action typifies the vituperative nature of much of the album. This vituperation reach its zenith on the record's final cut, "Radio Radio," Costello's roaring renunciation of the radio world that had no place for a spiky talent like his. Some things never change. More here.

Armed Forces

Who: Elvis Costello and The Attractions
What: Armed Forces
When: Released January 5, 1979
Why: Costello's follow-up to This Year's Model found the music slightly mellowed (although hardly mellow). Steve Neive's organ takes over center stage musically, front and center on songs like "Senior Service" and "Moods For Moderns." Hovering over it all, however, was the same bad attitude that powered the earlier record. Hearing songs like "Oliver's Army" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" makes you wish that there was someone out there today who was able to write such forceful dissections of public manias. More here.

The B-52s

Who: The B-52's
What: The B-52's
When: Released July, 1979
Why: One of the seriously great party albums of all time. The opening fade-in of "Planet Claire" let you know very quickly where this band was headed -- a rollicking mix of surf guitars and spy-movie smirkiness all covered over with a space-age patina. I can guarantee you this -- there were not many album covers around like this one in 1979, you knew that this band was different. You also knew that this band was a good time. You also knew, after you heard "Rock Lobster" for the first time, that your head would never again be quite the same. More here.

Fear Of Music

Who: Talking Heads
What: Fear Of Music
When: Released August 3, 1979
Why: I can quite definitely remember being non-plussed and rather confused by this album after buying it in the summer of '79. Having grown to love the band from their first two albums, I wasn't quite prepared for what I heard after first putting it on the turntable in Nedley's basement. "I Zimbra" ... what the hell is that about? Why do so many songs sound like disco? Luckily, I listened to the album a second time, and it all started to fall into place. "I Zimbra" was merely the next step following "Take Me To The River," and "Cities" and "Life During Wartime" were the next steps following that. In the end I grew to love this album as the inseperable twin of More Songs About Buildings And Food. And of course the twin of a beauty like that is a beauty itself. More here.

London Calling

Who: The Clash
What: London Calling
When: Released December 14, 1979
Why: The Clash all growed up. A brawny, muscular record of a band which is reaching full flight, understanding the full expanse of what they're capable of. While the cover ranks as one of the best ever, it really belies the range of the talent displayed within. Some punk, some grandiose grandstanding, a bit of honky-tonk, a lot of reggae influences -- the styles were diverse and breathtaking. The first time I heard it I knew I would be listening to it a lot, and for a long time. I was right. More here.


Who: Gang Of Four
What: Entertainment!
When: Released 1979
Why: An album that truly sounded like no other when it was first heard. An album with no curves, only straight lines and 90-degree angles -- jagged like a broken bottle aimed at your head. The "devout Marxist politics" were, as is almost always the case with such things, just so much precious posing, but the music -- now THAT was radical. More here.


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