Last December, I wrote a column on the ten best Christmas songs of all time. In that column, I mentioned that I might offer my opinion on the ten best summer songs of all time the following summer. Well now here we are in summer 2013, and you know what? I’m just not ready to write the summer songs column. I’ll have to take some time to think about it. There’s a lot to consider: The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and certainly some newer material. That one’s gonna require some thought.
But I would like to take this opportunity to put forth my list of the ten best albums of the 1970s. Why the 1970s? Well first, I grew up in the ‘70s. It’s “my” era. I know those albums better than any others. And more importantly, I’m reading a fascinating book on the 1970s called “The Great Funk,” by Thomas Hine, in which he praises Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life” as one of the most influential albums of all time. As I read, I couldn’t help but agree. That is certainly one of the best albums of all time. But were there even better albums in the 1970s? My brain was in full “thinkin’” mode. And now I respectfully submit Andy’s Ten Best Albums of the 1970s.
Before we begin, a few caveats. First, these are “pop” albums – not “rock” albums. Why make a differentiation? Because while I certainly admire a lot of the rock music that came out of the ‘70s, I don’t want to get into an opinion war with the Q95 crowd. I know “Point Of Know Return” by Kansas and “The Grand Illusion” by Styx are both great albums, but I really don’t know which is better. I don’t care which Rolling Stones album was the best of the ‘70s. To me, they were all good. I could care less which Bob Seger album was the best. I just don’t know enough about all the intricacies of rock music to rate rock albums. I’m sure there are other writers at the Current who can. My expertise is in pure pop music. I was still listening to Right On WIFE long into the WNAP era of the ‘70s.
So, my list will include pop albums. Another caveat is that I’ve cheated somewhat. These are actually the best albums of the ten-year period 1969-1978. I realized my favorite album of 1979, Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America,” wouldn’t even make this list; plus there are a couple 1969 albums that are so great I simply had to include them. You’ll see why later.
And finally, this list includes NO greatest hits collections. Had I included greatest hits (or “best of”) albums, half the list might have been greatest hits compilations. Think about it for a minute. You decide to listen to Elton John. What album do you listen to? Greatest Hits Volume One or Greatest Hits Volume Two, right? That’s a pretty easy decision, at least in my case. No one single Elton John album measures up to simply listening to all his hits, one after the other. Most of the other material on Elton John’s albums was not as good as the hits; in other words, Elton John did a great job of releasing his best music to radio. Another album that would certainly have made my list would have been the Eagles’ Greatest Hits. While the Eagles certainly had some great albums, I’d rather hear all their great hits in a row, rather than any single Eagles album. So, no Q95 albums, no greatest hits collections, and we substitute 1969 for 1979. Hey, this is my list. So these are the rules.
No. 10 – “Tapestry,” Carole King (1971): By the end of 1971, this album had topped the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as the biggest-selling album of all time. To date, it is still the biggest-selling album by a female. And it still sounds classic. It’s chock-full of great songs by the renowned singer-songwriter, but my favorite is still the album’s biggest hit, “It’s Too Late.” While the sheer hopelessness of the lyrics packs an emotional punch, the tune itself is somewhat bright and cheery, signaling better days ahead. At the time, divorce was becoming more common, and this song seemed to comfort women and give them the strength to move on.
No. 9 – “A Night at the Opera,” Queen (1976): While any of the songs on “Tapestry” could have been hit records (and many of them were), almost nothing on this album was designed for radio airplay. In fact, the biggest hit from “A Night At The Opera” was the decidedly-weird “Bohemian Rhapsody” – a six-minute faux-opera foray into the mind of the 1970’s homosexual. Yes, this album is the first truly “gay” album, and it spoke to the societal outcast effeminate homosexual rather than the body-builder homosexual made popular by the Village People a few years later. But even if you don’t read anything into the lyrics, this is a great album, featuring everything from hard rock to sing-songy British ditties, and melodies that meld into one another. This is the best of the mock-opera sound of the early Queen albums.
No. 8 – “Main Course,” The Bee Gees (1975): I’ve always loved the Bee Gees – even through the Disco Sucks movement of 1979 & 1980. Why? While they’re probably the least talented musicians on this list, they never professed to be anything more than a pop music group. It’s true that some of their songs bordered on rock or soul, but the most appropriate label for their music was simply “pop.” And that label (apparently) didn’t embarrass them. They continued to produce slick pop arrangements long after disco died at the end of the decade. “Main Course” is my favorite Bee Gees album. While it announced their conversion to disco, it also contained much of the British pseudo-folk music of their early career – and as usual, some great melodies. It also features almost none of the falsetto which would become one of their staples during the second half of the ‘70’s.
No. 7 – Blood Sweat & Tears, Blood Sweat & Tears (1969): This was actually their second album, but the first to feature the great David Clayton-Thomas on lead vocals. It also ranks as one of the crowning achievements of the all-too-short-lived Rockin’ Brass era of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s. The Ides Of March, Chase, Tower Of Power, the Buckinghams, and The American Breed all put out some great music, but this album was in a league of its own. Perfectly blending a rock band with a brass jazz band (and to some extent, a woodwind quartet), this album planted three songs inside the Billboard top two, yet still managed to merge into one larger work. It’s not just a collection of songs; it’s a 45-minute adventure. And this one still sounds fresh and new.
No. 6 – “The Stranger,” Billy Joel (1977): Billy Joel released so many great albums, but here again, this one is its own larger work, drawn together by repeating themes (musically and lyrically). Much as the Beatles had done with “Abbey Road,” not all the songs on this album are “finished.” By that I mean some of the songs are only a couple verses long, and last just a minute – but he finds ways to encompass all his songs into an arcing work, all neatly tied together in a figurative bow. And as usual, Joel’s greatest quality is his story-telling. After listening to this album the first time, I felt like I knew the people he sang about. Ironically, many of these songs were the basis for the Broadway show “Movin’ Out,” a musical staging of many of Joel’s story songs.
No. 5 – “Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack,” Various Artists (1977): The great mistake many people make when discounting this album is assuming this is a Bee Gees album. It is not. It included all of four new Bee Gees songs. Granted, they are four of the best songs the Bee Gees ever recorded, but the real stars here are the instrumentalists. Bandleader and arranger David Shire’s “Manhattan Skyline” is so aptly named that I could think of nothing else when I first heard it – and I didn’t even know the name of the song! This is disco at its peak. This album took disco from a strictly soul genre (think Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”) and a novelty genre (think “Disco Duck” and “Play That Funky Music”) into a real force in the music world. This album topped Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” as the top selling album of all time – a record it held until Michael Jackson topped it in 1983 with “Thriller.” Unfortunately, the “Saturday Night Fever” music was so good, and so popular, it was overplayed at radio stations, and during the Great Blizzard Of 1978, we were all holed up in our homes with nothing to do but watch TV and listen to the radio. We heard this music over and over and over again. But it’s still the best disco music ever. The disco music of later in 1978 and all of 1979 took itself too seriously (think Donna Summer and other “disco divas” of the era), and eventually caused disco to crash and burn. Unfortunately, the career of the Bee Gees crashed with disco, but they continued to produce some of the best in pop music for years to come.
No. 4 –”Songs in the Key of Life,” Stevie Wonder (1976): Stevie Wonder won the Grammy for Best Album four out of five years in the middle of the ‘70’s (1972 for “Talking Book,” 1973 for “Innervision,” 1974 for “Fulfillingness First Finale,” and 1976 for his masterpiece, “Songs In The Key Of Life”). No other recording artist has come close to matching this feat. His 1970’s music brought the problems of the ghetto to a wide audience, yet still managed to celebrate life and long for a world filled with love. “Songs In The Key Of Life” is almost two full hours of stories, laments, and celebrations, peppered with outright bursts of joy. While some of them go on too long, it is still a joy to listen to these songs after all these years. One of the funniest lines ever spoken at the Grammies came in Paul Simon’s acceptance speech for winning the Best Album award for 1975’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Simon began his speech by saying, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.” While certainly humorous, this wasn’t any faint praise. Stevie Wonder’s mind and musical talent came together in the 1970’s to produce some of the greatest popular music ever recorded.
No. 3 – “Abbey Road,” The Beatles (1969): The Beatles’ swansong is sometimes knocked for featuring a bunch of “incomplete” songs. But much as with Queen’s and Billy Joel’s albums, that’s what makes it so great. To look at the playlist for side two, you’d think it were over an hour long. But upon listening to it, you realize most of these songs are just a minute or two long. That doesn’t bother me. If they’ve said all they need to say, let’s move on to the next song. I also love the transitions from one song to the next. Musically, they are almost more interesting than the songs themselves. I’ve often wondered if the Beatles could have topped “Abbey Road” if they’d stayed together. I guess we’ll never know, and I’ve come to realize it’s almost better that way. This is the greatest album by the greatest popular music group of all time. They’ve never sounded better, and I could still listen to this one any day.
No. 2 – “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon & Garfunkel (1970): Out of the noise and confusion of the mid-1960’s came a sound so unique it grabbed listeners by surprise and forced a listen. The group was Simon & Garfunkel, whose introspective lyrics and haunting melodies made them spokespersons for the entire baby boom generation. Their music only continued to improve until they, like the Beatles, released their swansong in early 1970. It begins with the title cut, the song I will always rank as the greatest popular music song of all time – and Paul McCartney agrees with me on this one. It’s a five-minute spiritual with a similar message to the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” only with the added dimension of the offer of comfort and support during trying times. In the midst of the tragedy that was the Viet Nam War, no message could have been more important. The song begins just above a whisper and builds to a dramatic orchestral finish. At this point, the album is just getting started. What follows is the best music Paul Simon ever wrote. It’s heavy on orchestration, rather than the stripped-down single-guitar sound of their earlier music. It also features some of the brass accompaniment Simon used in his solo career. It falters just a bit toward the end of side two, but on the whole, this is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.
No. 1 – “Chicago Transit Authority” and “Chicago II,” Chicago (1969 & 1970): This is why I had to include albums released in 1969 as part of my list. You see, Chicago’s first album was released in 1969, with the follow-up a year later, and I really can’t separate the two. They simply go together. These two double-albums comprise the very best rockin’ brass music ever made. It’s similar to Blood Sweat & Tears, but it’s happier and a little more unbridled. Since each album is a double-album, these four discs comprise almost three hours of the best pop music ever recorded. Back then, Peter Cetera didn’t sing all the lead vocals. That chore was spread amongst Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Cetera, and the late Terry Kath. As with many of my choices, much of the early Chicago music meandered from one melody to another, and would sometimes double back on itself like a Quentin Tarantino movie. While it’s not a greatest hits collection, many of their greatest songs are contained in these two albums. And these albums feature long versions of the Chicago songs that were played on the radio in 1970. Many of my favorite Chicago songs take on a new life while listening to them as presented within the context of these first two albums. While Chicago continued the brass sound through the 1970’s, they never topped their first two compilations.
Now before you sit down at your computer to write hate mail, remember this is my list. It’s based on my opinions. Do you have different opinions? If so, feel free to let me know your favorite albums.