To be honest, this was one of the more difficult lists I’ve had to compile. If ever there was a schizophrenic decade, it was the 1970s, a ten-year span that saw the majority of the greatest rock albums ever made, right along with the most banal and insipid. It was an iconoclastic era, a broken image of splintered fractionalization, of wretched excess and then oversimplification in opposition, and hundreds of great musical ideas that were seldom put into practice for any length of time. But before I slip off into a Dickensian "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" diatribe, let us consider my thought processes in making this list, the first 35 albums of the greatest 70 albums of the 1970s (diabolical, I know).
As in the previous article The Greatest Rock Albums of the 1960s, Part I, there is no enumeration in this list, because a great album is a great album, whether it is 8th or 18th on a list. Hell, I could talk about 200 albums all deserving of recognition as eminently important and each great in one form or another; but time is fleeting, and in the words of Robert Frost, I have "miles to go before I sleep". However, with some degree of certainty (and depending on my listening habits for the day), I can say that the first ten albums listed are, in my estimation, the greatest of the 1970s. Inevitably, someone can argue minutiae, or even claim another album from a specific band deserves greater adulation than the one chosen, and I can sympathize - up to a point - and then I would suggest making your own damn list for your own personal edification. But, as with most such compilations, you can't please everyone - nor should that be the basis for consideration. One reviewer's landmark is another's dung heap, and I am merely digging for gold in the manure pile. Yet from a comparative standpoint, one can't but help discern - no matter what one's musical proclivities may be - what is distinctive, what is amazing and what is truly great from a compositional, instrumental or vocal standpoint.
The evident transformation in the mid-to-late 1970s towards the punk/new wave ethic did indeed offer intriguing, rebellious and thought-provoking albums, and a new musical direction was certainly necessary, given the collective and nearly simultaneous brain fart of many of the great rock bands of the 1970s: Led Zeppelin released In Through the Out Door (the worst album of the bunch) and John Bonham died (probably of embarrassment), Pink Floyd released the prophetically titled The Final Cut, ELP made Love Beach (with one of the tackiest album covers in rock history), Yes decided to piss off fans with the mediocre Tormato and Drama, The Rolling Stones and Queen went disco, Genesis started making absurd pop albums, and Tull alienated many fans with the A album before going completely off the deep end and releasing the wretched Under Wraps (where it should have remained). Let's also not forget the corporate rock scene of the late 70s as well, with the commercial merger of the ForeignerStyxBostonJourneyREO abomination conglomeration. Basically, the rock industry suits gained unprecedented control of the recording process, yoked bands with a one-size-fits-all marketing plan and, like musical mosquitoes with floral ties, sucked creativity and innovation dry. It would take decades for any discernible change, mostly due to the enormous potential of the Internet.
But whether you see the "punk revolt" as a hard-edged return to rock's roots that saved rock and roll from its own bloated pretensions, or a regressive and simplistic three-chord reiteration by untalented slackers growling guttural nihilisms, is a matter of conjecture, and the point where most rock music fans begin to deviate in their opinions. One thinks that either the resultant musical mutation of the MTV 80s sucked monkey balls, or that hiccupping vocals or Flock-of-Seagull swooping hair was meaningful, even revelatory. I tend to lean towards the former, as I see little of intrinsic value in the latter, particularly when one considers the musical virtuosity of the progressive rock movement of the early 70s (undeservedly underappreciated and ignored by a coterie of conniving critics), the seminal rumblings of early punk from the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges (or even the untalented, dress-wearing New York Dolls), the glam rock and/or art rock of Bowie, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music and Alice Cooper, great blues rock of Derek and the Dominos, The Allman Brothers, Robin Trower and The Stones, the rise of the singer/songwriter movement, hard rock, heavy metal, space rock, southern rock, jazz rock, kraut rock, and a host of other musical innovations that were not defined by addled genres back then. Because things were simpler...either rock was good or it sucked - without the qualifiers, quantifiers and equivocations.
As with most of my articles, certain caveats apply. For instance, I am only listing those albums considered "rock" or "rock and roll" in the specified era, not soul, jazz, jazz-fusion, blues, country or polka; therefore, I won't be discussing superlative and undeniably great albums like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On or Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Willie Nelson's Redheaded Stranger or Muddy 'Mississippi' Waters Live. The list is apples-and-oranges enough without plopping in every genre known to humankind, and I am uninterested in the revisionist cant that nearly everything recorded in the last 40 years is "rock". And unlike The Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums (which is a revisionist mess and subjective in the extreme), I ignore greatest hits packages altogether, and have kept live recordings to a minimum (those live albums that can exist solely by themselves in an artist's catalog, and which surpass the artist's studio recordings).
But I promised myself I would eliminate as much rhetoric as possible and get to the point. So, here are the first 35 greatest albums of the 1970s (the next 65 album installment can be found here...The Greatest Rock Albums of the 1970s, Part II):
The Who - Who's Next
The greatest rock album of the 1970s and one of the five best ever made. I didn't stutter. I didn't mince words (much). If one considers rock music in its simplest formula, with guitar, bass, drums, powerful singer and overt rebelliousness, then there really is no contest here. Nearly every song on Who's Next is epic (it is, indeed, the most epic-filled rock album of all time), and most of the songs on Who's Next are memorably anti-establishment (even the album cover is an epic "fuck you" moment). From the frenetic violin closing of the monumental "Baba O'Riley" (known to casual listeners as "Teenage Wasteland") to Roger Daltrey's immortal primal scream on the anthem of all anthems "Won't Get Fooled Again", this is an album made to be played at maximum volume and feel damned good about it in the process.
Of course, there is more to Who's Next than merely guitar, bass and drums, but Pete Townshend's use of piano, organ and keyboards (VCS3 and ARP synths) is brilliant in its minimalistic effect as a colorful backdrop for the thunderous anthemic avalanche known as The Who (and you can't get a much better rhythm section than Keith Moon on drums and John Entwistle on bass). Yet there are stunning moments of reflection and beauty on the album, as evidenced by "Behind Blue Eyes", "Getting in Tune" and "The Song Is Over". Throw in another epic like "Bargain", the acoustic-driven "Mobile" ("I don't care about pollution, I'm an air-conditioned gypsy" - Oh, the irony!), and John Entwistle's delightfully wicked "My Wife", and Who's Next offers the fundamental blueprint for a legendary rock album.
Even its original concept, the overambitious "Lifehouse Project" (a rock opera album, a scripted film and a live concert event all rolled into one) - doomed to failure and almost causing Pete Townshend's suicide - gives the album a larger than life quality. But The Who managed to record a greatest hits package while simply trying to record their next album; which, I suppose, is why it is called Who's Next.
Worth the price of admission: Won't Get Fooled Again, Baba O'Riley, Behind Blue Eyes, Bargain, Song Is Over
Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Sonically perfect, The Dark Side of the Moon (or DSotM if you're acronymally inclined) is a masterpiece of studio recording. People have literally worn out their vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes and CDs and continued to repurchase this album in the newest format available. Along with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, DSotM is perhaps the greatest studio recording of all time, with more technical innovations than occurred during the NASA lunar program. Okay, I am exaggerating about NASA, but there is a direct tie to the studio work of The Beatles and Pink Floyd: Alan Parsons, the studio engineer for The Dark Side of the Moon, was also responsible for engineering work on The Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be albums (it is Parsons who was completely responsible for the multitude of clocks ticking and chiming at the beginning of the song "Time" - he had gone to an antique shop and laboriously recorded the distinctive sounds of several old timepieces).
The working title for this album was Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics, mirroring Roger Waters' idea that the songs should deal with things that "make people mad": war, anger, isolation, greed, regret, aging, death and mental illness. And madness pervades the songs, played as continuous pieces of music on both sides of the album. Of particular note is the clever interplay between the songs and the accompanying background dialogue that runs throughout - sometimes mumbled, sometimes drunken, and other times forthright - culminating in the final ironic statement: "There is no dark side of the moon, really; as a matter of fact, It's all dark." There is the quirky "Money" (with the cash register tape loop and odd 7/4 beat), the melancholy truth of "Time", the incredible vocal improvisation of guest-singer Clare Torry on "Great Gig in the Sky", the anti-war sentiment of "Us and Them" (with the soulful sax of long-time Floyd collaborator Dick Parry), and the almost biblical cadence of "Eclipse". The greatest concept album, in my opinion, and one of the best "headphones-only" albums ever.
Worth the price of admission: Time, Us and Them, Great Gig in the Sky, Brain Damage/Eclipse.
David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
So, let me get this straight, Ziggy Stardust is the story of "the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence", but unfortunately becomes overly enamored of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and the rabid fans who egg him on, and he eventually burns out and destroys himself? My friends, only the rock chameleon David Bowie could invent a story so ludicrous but have it succeed so wildly. Perhaps because Bowie was so outlandishly alien in his appearance and proclivities that a suspension of disbelief was not required to imagine him in the role. After all, he was later cast as a melancholy alien in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. But if one was to measure a superlative concept album like Ziggy Stardust merely by plot, then The Wall and Quadrophenia would also be mercilessly flayed by constipated literary critics, measuring plots points down to the last comma and question mark.
But aside from stretching the limits of science-fiction to Rocky Horrorific proportions, from the first tentative chords of "Five Years" to the violin and cello outro of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" this album packs a galactic wallop. One can divine the height of glam-rock (and bands like Mott the Hoople are ever indebted to Bowie), hard rock and punk all given the delicious deviant twist by Bowie in his guise as Ziggy. Of special note is the rasping, razor-sharp guitar licks of Mick Ronson. Not one bad song in the whole damn lot, and songs like "Lady Stardust" and "Moonage Daydream" are revelatory, but my particular favorites are the one-two-three punch of "Ziggy Stardust", "Suffragette City" and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide". Just remember, "you don't eat if you've lived too long". Bowie's masterpiece.
Worth the price of admission: Hang On to Yourself, Star, Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, Lady Stardust.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
The perfect storm of Led Zeppelin music, more mature than Vols. I and II, but maintaining the hard rocking mania of those albums, while at the same time infusing the more acoustic elements of Vol. III. The results are phenomenal, a bold blend of rock, blues and English folk that blisters and balms at intervals. Incredibly, both Zeppelin IV and another classic album of the 1970s, Jethro Tull's Aqualung, were being recorded simultaneously in the same studio, which precisely mirrors the astounding creativity of the rock scene during that era. As far as the album itself, even the cover was unconventional, marking the first time a major band did not advertise its name or a title anywhere on the cover. Referred to as Volume IV, Runes or ZoSo (the first of four symbols that graphically define characteristics of each band member), the unnamed and untitled album was said to be "professional suicide" as Jimmy Page later recalled, and sparked a good deal of controversy amongst greedy record execs who insisted it was a terrible business idea. Naturally, the nameless album has sold 32 million copies worldwide.
And although the album is nameless, it certainly is not featureless. Volume IV includes the greatest one-two punch to start off a hard rock album ever recorded, the relentless "Black Dog" and the booming "Rock and Roll" (Lordy-lordy, do I enjoy John Bonham beating the hell out of the drums!). Then there is the reverential nod to Tolkien "The Battle of Evermore", which features the mystical duetting of Robert Plant and the late, great Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, the vaguely Middle-Eastern air of "Four Sticks", the pastoral "Going to California" and the hippy marriage of marijuana and Middle-earth in "Misty Mountain Hop". But, to my ears, the best song on Vol. IV is "When the Levee Breaks", an important composition because, unlike direct lifts of blues songs on Vols. I and II, it is a totally different take on the blues, an unworldly progressive jam with fantastic phased harp (backward looped at times), echoing drum backbeat and an innovative guitar line that changes at every 12 bar interval. Oh yeah, and then there's that "Stairway to Heaven" song, which you may have grown tired of hearing (decades ago), but which you cannot ignore as one of the truly great rock songs of all time.
Worth the price of admission: When the Levee Breaks, The Battle of Evermore, Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Going to California.
The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street
A toss up between Exile on Main Street and Let It Bleed as the Stone's best album. I think I actually favor the more cohesive sound and feeling of Exile, and in particular I enjoy the stripped-down and raw nature of most of the blues tracks. Keith Richards and Co. are in fine drunken swagger on such tunes as the roadhouse rave-up "Rip This Joint", Slim Harpo's sinewy "Shake Your Hips", the country blues "Sweet Virginia", and Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down". Although it sounds amazingly focused, the recording sessions in France were anything but cohesive and well-rehearsed; in fact, it's amazing the album was completed at all, considering Keith Richards' astounding heroin addiction (it was said that weekly thousands of dollars in heroin passed through the mansion The Stones were recording in), and the other members, Jagger, Wyman, Watts and Mick Taylor only made occasional visits to lay down tracks. It wasn't until the sessions moved to Los Angeles and Mick Jagger took charge that the album was engineered in its present form.
And oh what a form it is! Richard's song "Happy" was purportedly recorded in one drug-induced sitting in the basement of the French mansion (with overdubs added later at a safe distance), the songs "Shine a Light", "Tumbling Dice" and "Loving Cup" found there inspiration in a evangelical church Jagger attended in L.A. (although it seems almost blasphemy for Mick to step inside a church), and the list of hall-of-fame worthy pianists who played on the album is mind-boggling: Dr. John, Billy Preston, Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins. There are so many great songs on this double album that any list I offer would be extensive. So I'll be brief. In additions to several songs I've already mentioned, other favorites include "Sweet Black Angel", "All Down the Line" and "Ventilator Blues". Exile on Main Street represents the last masterpiece The Stones made before mediocrity set in. Mick Jagger started hangin' with Bianca at Studio 54 and turned to disco. After that, they became a parody of themselves, or, in Keith Richards case, a parody of a pirate. Too bad. Great album.
Worth the price of admission: Tumbling Dice, Rip This Joint, Shake Your Hips, Sweet Virginia, Happy.
Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks
One of Dylan's finest albums, and my personal favorite. Blood on the Tracks was a comeback album of sorts, as Dylan suffered through a drought of creativity and cohesion in the late 60s and early 70s. There was not much on par with the great mid-60s albums Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, and some of Dylan's releases during the period (like Self Portrait and Dylan) were nothing short of dreadful. But along came the album Planet Waves, which offered a brief glimpse of rejuvenation, and then the stunning Blood on the Tracks, which represented a full-fledged renaissance (to be followed by another great album Desire, before Dylan drifted off again into idiosyncratic inconsistency).
As if Dylan wished to lay bare his personal demons, free from ostentation and grandiose instrumentation, Blood on the Tracks is as spare and lean, musically speaking, as they come, and the personal nature of the songs offer a gratifying glimpse into Dylan's sometimes obscurant psyche. Certainly, Dylan's lyrics are, as always, suffuse with allegory and symbolism, but there is a fragile nature to the compositions that is uncharacteristic of Dylan's former brash bravado and cynicism. The best love songs Dylan ever wrote are on this one, each tinged with sorrow and regret, and the sparse accompaniments add to the solitude and inner reflection Dylan espouses in his lyrics. "Tangled Up In Blue", "Shelter From The Storm", "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", "Idiot Wind" and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome" are masterpieces of the songwriter's craft. There is an outpouring of poetry here ("And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn") that is unprecedented in rock lyrics, transcending the genre and once again showing why Dylan has so often been considered a poet laureate of the genre.
Worth the price of admission: Shelter from the Storm, Tangled Up in Blue, Buckets of Rain, Simple Twist of Fate (the paucity of original versions of Dylan tunes on YouTube is abhorrent).
The Clash - London Calling
To call this a punk album is simplistic...or disingenuous. London Calling is, rather, a political dissertation sung at street level (or the gutter, depending on one's social status), with elements of punk, ska, rockabilly, reggae and pop melded into an angry synthesis of disparate elements that mirrored the disaffected subculture of lower-class youth in Britain at the time. It is a damning document of that period, with more social awareness (and greater compositional skills) than the more nihilistic rage of the Sex Pistols. And it is the political nature of London Calling that sets it apart from the inchoate rantings of the Sex Pistols or vacant three-chord assaults of The Ramones, and I again must stress that the musical content is far greater than the other paragons of punk. London Calling may well have embraced the punk ethic, but it also acknowledged the constraints of that limited musical form, and went far beyond the base and elemental structure of punk and progressed onward (again, something The Six Pistols or The Ramones never managed). It is with amusement that I note, many years later, Green Day was castigated for leaving the "punk establishment" (a contradiction in terms, but you get what I'm saying), but The Clash had already opened the door at the height of this supposed anti-movement.
The album cover of London Calling is, in itself, compelling and iconic, an approximation of the graphic style of the cover of Elvis Presley's first album, juxtaposed with the violent burst of guitar-smashing rock energy of The Who. This nod to the past is evident in the kaleidoscopic amount of influences, allusions and covers (Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac", and "Stagger Lee", a version of the old folk tune as played by the reggae band The Rulers, integrated into "Wrong 'Em Boyo"). The album seethes with tried and true concepts of rock 'n' roll rebellion and political protest, but updated by The Clash. They aren't sing about love and peace and flower power. Hell no! This is the 70s, with its own laundry list of societal woes: unemployment, drug abuse, alienation, class warfare, racism, the rejection of parental authority (which is eternal), and coming to grips with adult responsibilities (which I still dread).
Worth the price of admission: London Calling, Brand New Cadillac, Wrong 'Em Boyo, Rudie Can't Fail, The Card Cheat.
Carole King - Tapestry
The greatest single album from a female singer/songwriter ever produced. Nothing against Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell, but from a compositional standpoint, Tapestry is astounding. In addition to being one of the greatest selling albums of all time, songs King composed and which appear on the album garnered singles hits for King personally ("It's Too Late"/"I Feel the Earth Move" and "So Far Away"/"Smackwater Jack"), as well as additional top ten hits for other artists: The Shirelle's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", and James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend". Incredibly, although Carole King was already an influential songwriter (with her main collaborator Gerry Goffin, and also Jerry Wexler and Toni Stern), she had to be coaxed into making her own album by James Taylor. Thank goodness Sweet Baby James knew a great thing when he heard it!
There is a frailty and sense of urgency in the vocals - an earnestness that is genuinely touching. Certainly, Aretha Franklin and Barbara Streisand have issued unforgetably powerful releases of Carole King songs, but the immediacy of the recording and the simplicity of the instrumentation on Tapestry gives the album a homely feel, as if Carole King was playing piano in your living room (if you could fit a Steinway in your living room), and was merely playing for a few friends over for the weekend. That the album itself was considered empowering for women was echoed in King's statement (during the time she was writing songs for the album with lyrcist Toni Stern) that "we women didn't need to follow our men anymore". It may seem trifling in the 21st century, but such a consideration was a fundamental concern in 1971, and Tapestry was a major influence for hundreds of female songwriters to follow.
Worth the price of admission: It's Too Late, I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, You've Got a Friend.
Neil Young - After the Gold Rush
Critics rarely rise above their own stupidity; they merely cover their tracks and act like they were right all along. For instance, Rolling Stone Magazine attacked After the Gold Rush when it was first released in 1970 saying, "none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface." Of course, the hypocritical rag eventually did a complete about-face, suddenly proclaiming the album a "masterpiece" (about 5 years after the rest of the world). Whatever. Assholes. With so many excellent Neil Young albums to choose from in the 70s (and one would have to put him and David Bowie together on a pedestal as single artist/performer of the decade), I finally chose After the Gold Rush as representative of Neil's earlier albums (and then further down this list Rust Never Sleeps for a later album). Harvest, the album that follows After the Gold Rush is certainly great, but I believe it mirrors its predecessor in both style and delivery (one could call it Gold Rush II or After After the Gold Rush).
The acoustic and electric balladry of After the Gold Rush is timeless and a perfect take on Neil Young's eccentric genius. From the apocalyptic and spare "After the Gold Rush" (which has more allegory and allusion in a few stanzas than a whole canto of Dante's Inferno) to the poppy and pretty "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", to the haunting "Don't Let It Bring You Down", to a sad interpretation of the Don Gibson/Chet Atkins standard "Oh Lonesome Me", to the upbeat "Cripple Creek Ferry", the album is a milestone in rock history and blueprint for Neil Young albums to follow; so much so, that the biting look at American racism "Southern Man" is copied in both premise and execution in the song "Alabama" on Harvest. As I've stated elsewhere, Neil is my favorite Martian.
Worth the price of admission: After the Gold Rush, Don't Let It Bring You Down, Southern Man, Birds, Oh Lonesome Me.
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
One of the few albums in rock history to actually live up to an absolutely ridiculous amount of pre-release hype (which usually destroys albums thus over-marketed), Born to Run is an electrified Bob Dylan epic played through a Phil Spector "Wall of Sound". It is an immense, intense, incredible ride through the swamps of Jersey and onward down the highway to Anywhere, USA. If anyone besides Dylan could make Americana a Homeric adventure, it was Springsteen. Of course, his schtick and obligatory headband, leather jacket and blue jean uniform with matching American tunes got quite wearisome by the time he got to Born in the USA, but it was refreshing and innovative in 1975. Buoyed by the bellowing bluster of Clarence Clemons on sax, Springsteen's sound was unique for the mid-70s, until, of course, the inevitable clones like John Cougar (nee' Mellencamp), Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, The Iron City Houserockers and John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band began coalescing into a genre known as "Heartland Rock" (eventually sucking Bob Seger and Tom Petty into that abysmal vortex as well).
The standout songs are the now legendary title tune, "Jungleland", and "Thunder Road", but there really isn't anything less than good on Born to Run. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, "Backstreets", "She's the One" - they all have their stunning moments, and aside from the cohesive, layered sound, the album is extraordinary for the carefully planned interrelationship of songs: an epic bit of escapism to start off each side ("Thunder Road", "Born to Run"), and ending with bitter ballads of love lost and the hero beaten ("Backstreets", "Jungleland"). The silly hype that surrounded Bruce at the time (prominent critic Jon Landau in The Real Paper gushed, "I saw rock 'n' roll's future—and its name is Bruce Springsteen!") was a tad presumptuous, and not quite sibyllic prophecy-wise, but the album Born to Run is damn good, for all that blarney.
Born to Run, Thunder Road, Jungleland, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, She's the One.
The Allman Brothers - At Fillmore East
With all due respect to Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers were the first and greatest of all Southern bands, and At Fillmore East is a remarkable recording: a big ol' heaping helping of Southern-fried blues, and one of the top five live albums ever. The 2003 release of the Deluxe Edition of the Fillmore East Concerts finally puts the shows in the proper context, and includes all the pertinent songs from the concerts (for decades, the missing songs were available only in separate anthologies or on the Duane Allman requiem Eat a Peach). Forget about the Grateful Dead and their vaunted propensity for extended jamming, The Allman Brothers run circles around them (that, and Gregg Allman can actually sing, which is something no member of the Grateful Dead seemed able to accomplish in key). In any case, Duane Allman is wicked on slide-guitar, Dicky Betts does his best fleet-fingered accompaniment, and the addition of Thom Doucette on blues harp is an added bonus. Of course, the dual drums of Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson add another dimension to the Brother's sound that would later be exploited by bands such as Genesis. The Allman Brother's propensity for improvisational jams proved highly influential to later bands (Wilco, Phish, Gov't Mule, etc.) who integrated some of that downhome Southern style into their live acts.
Worth the price of admission: One Way Out, Trouble No More, Whippin' Post, Hot 'Lanta, Stormy Monday, Mountain Jam, Pt. I.
Black Sabbath - Paranoid
Yes, the album cover is incredibly silly, and no, this isn't my favorite Sabbath album (those would be Sabbath Vol 4 and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), but Paranoid represents the crux of all things Sabbathic, and is the defining album of the band, and perhaps of all heavy metal. Everything metal nowadays is merely Sabbath sped up with inane death growls (and I discount and ignore every band with those stereotypical death growls). But Sabbath, like Old Nick the devil himself, has spawned legions of disciples, due in great part to this album (it is their most accessible release). The heavy metal anthems on Paranoid have become standards, as cozy and comfortable as an old pair of slippers (well, as cozy and comfortable as one can get with song titles like "War Pigs" and "Rat Salad"). The proto-punk blast "Paranoid" (rather like Sabbath's version of Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown"), "Iron Man" (upon first hearing bassist Geezer Butler's heavy riff, Ozzie Osbourne said that is sounded "like a big iron bloke walking about", and thus the title), and the heroin epic "Hand of Doom" are all noteworthy tunes. Oh, and by the way, the fairies in "Fairies Wear Boots" refer to skinheads. The band despised them, and mocked them in this song.
Worth the price of admission: War Pigs, Paranoid, Planet Caravan, Hand of Doom, Iron Man.
Queen - A Night at the Opera
An essential Queen Album, and their masterpiece. There is a sequential amping up of great elements that appear in parts and pieces on Queen's three previous releases - the stepping-stones for the stunning release of A Night at the Opera. Even the cheesy English vaudevillian numbers, "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" (all one minute of it) and "Seaside Rendezvous" (with the kazoo solo) are immensely fun. The album has its share of hits, "I'm in Love With My Car", "You're My Best Friend", "Sweet Lady" and, of course, the monster tune "Bohemian Rhapsody". But my favorites are songs with less airplay, but which are infinitely more satisfying, like "'39" (my personal favorite), "Good Company" (great ukulele!) and "Death on Two Legs" (the greatest 'Dear John' blow-off song of all). The two epic pieces on the album are "The Prophet", with the patented Queen overlayed vocal harmonies(TM), and "Bohemian Rhapsody". The song is the defining moment in Queen's history - their "Stairway to Heaven". To this day I am sure there are radio programmers and record execs who still scratch their heads as to how a six minute-long rock operetta (actually composed in rhapsodic form), became such a sensation. And like all operas in England, the album ends with "God Save the Queen" offered in an austere and respectful manner.
Worth the price of admission: Death on Two Legs, '39, Good Company, Sweet Lady, The Prophet's Song.
Jethro Tull - Aqualung
The brilliance of Aqualung is that it transcended what was termed 'hard rock' back in 1971. Rather than the droning four-chord assaults of such bands as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Jethro Tull presented virtuosity, variation and volume in Aqualung, making it one of the greatest examples of 1970s rock. The lyrics are dryly witty and sarcastic at times, particularly regarding Christian hypocrisy (like in "My God", "Hymn 43" and "Wind Up"), whimsical ("Mother Goose"), reflective ("Wond'ring Aloud"), or vulgar ("Cross-eyed Mary"), but the overall effect is a seamless travelogue of England itself, where we hobnob with whores, pedophiles, losers, and bums, as well as schoolboys, nurses, and bishops at tea. The title song is a microcosmic mini-epic of the album itself, reminding us that the death of the homeless beggar, snatching his last rattling breath with "deep-sea diver sounds", is the reason the song is called Aqualung in the first place (an 'aqualung' is a breathing apparatus used by deep-sea divers with a distinctive echoed gasping sound as oxygen is breathed in from a mouthpiece). John Evan's ominous piano intro on "Locomotive Breath" is stunning, but what really sets Aqualung apart from the run-of-the-mill 70's stock rock albums is Ian Anderson's numerous introspective interludes on acoustic guitar that act as narrative asides winding through epic heavy rock passages, and is integral to the overall cohesion and ambience of the album.
Worth the price of admission: My God, Up to Me, Aqualung, Locomotive Breath, Cheap Day Return/Mother Goose.
Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman
Once upon a time, long before he adopted an unforgiving, wrong-headed and ultra-conservative brand of Islam, Cat Stevens was one of the best singer/songwriters on the planet. Say what you will about Cat Stevens' adoption of the Islamic faith (he's now known as Yusuf Islam), Tea for the Tillerman is one of the greatest acoustic albums ever recorded, as well as being part of one of the best film soundtracks ever made (4 songs from the album can be heard in the touching black comedy Harold and Maude, along with several other Stevens songs). Cat Stevens' recording history can be seen as a spiritual journey in search of the Truth (which led him eventually to becoming a Muslim), and nowhere is this more plain than on Tea for the Tillerman. Songs such as "Wild World", "On the Road to Find Out", "Father and Son" and "Miles From Nowhere" all speak to a yearning for internal peace and harmony. Add in the achingly beautiful "Sad Lisa" and the social conscience of "Where do the Children Play?", and Tea for the Tillerman is one of the best acoustic rock albums in both instrumental artistry and sublime melodies, with a lyrical depth and meaning for the lost generation after the Vietnam War who, like Cat Stevens, were searching for themselves. You may disagree with his current views, but Tea for the Tillerman is a truly remarkable achievement.
Worth the price of admission: Father and Son, Miles from Nowhere, Where do the Children Play, Wild World, Sad Lisa.
Yes - Close to the Edge
One of the three or four essential albums from Yes and their progressive masterpiece, Close to the Edge is a cohesive, masterfully played and remarkably balanced recording. The album Fragile may have sold more albums and garnered more airplay, but it is fragmented with fluff that is nowhere apparent on the visionary Close to the Edge. "And You and I" in particular is hauntingly beautiful, and I don't believe Jon Anderson's voice has ever been used to such great effect. "Siberian Khatru" is an obvious nod to Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" ("Le sacre du printemps"), and the composition serves its major influence well, offering up a complex structure full of polyrhythms and polytonalities with Howe, Wakeman and Squire trading off dueling barrages of sound. Part III of "Close to the Edge" ("I Get Up/I Get Down") is a great passage of this monumental album, particularly the august and cathedral filling organ sequences of Rick Wakeman, but, as I inferred earlier, "And You and I" is, in my estimation, the single greatest composition Yes ever released. During the "Eclipse" section of the "And You and I" suite, Yes reaches a crescendo so stunning that few bands have ever reached such heights - not even Yes, who descended into obscurant complexities on their next two albums (Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer).
Worth the price of admission: And You and I, Close to the Edge (I Get Up, I get Down/Seasons of Man), Siberian Khatru.
John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band
This album is devastating, simply devastating. It may have lost some of its effect in the last 40 years, but in context with its release in 1970, everyone one knew that this album was the final nail in the Beatle coffin - which was an incredibly huge thing at the time. This was a cathartic album for Lennon, an attempt to exorcise demons: his dead mother, his stardom, his isolation, the long shadow of The Beatles, etc. It is a deeply felt and psychologically intriguing album. It merits inclusion with the greatest rock albums of all time on the strength of the songs "Working Class Hero" (Lennon drops the F-bomb!) and "God" (the renunciation of messiahs of any sort, including Jesus, Hitler and The Beatles). This aint yer mother's Beatles, and it transcends anything except George Harrison's All Things Must Pass as far as Post-Beatle solo material. As far as Lennon's mother fixation, Roger Waters dealt with the death of his father on at least three or four albums. Lennon at least kept it to one album (and the song "Julia" from the White Album). "Mother" represents the summation of the primal-therapy sessions Lennon attended prior to the recording of this album, and he lets out all his repressed feelings in anguished screams. Balance that with the simple and beautiful "Love", and you have a riveting look into Lennon's psyche.
Worth the price of admission: God, Working Class Hero, Mother, Remember, Love.
My Aim Is True - Elvis Costello
Again, the critical choice would be the follow-up album This Year's Model, but Elvis Costello's great debut My Aim is True is more varied and shows Elvis's ability to go from mellow to malicious in the space of a song. It doesn't hurt that the best song Costello ever wrote "Alison" appears here (beautiful, and certainly one of the best new wave compositions ever), and the reliance on big thumping drums and bass are not necessary as they are on nearly every song on This Year's Model. You want a rock song with a bite? Try "I'm Not Angry". Reggae/Ska? How about "Watching the Detectives". Apocalypse with punk beat and blues slide? "Waiting for the End of the World". 50s-style new wave? "Welcome to the Working Week". A song about strange fashion sense involving celestial beings? There's "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes". And then of course, one of my favorites, "Blame It on Cain", which shows Elvis's deliciously twisted humor. Elvis Costello was what he would later call "an overnight success after seven years", and worked at his day job as a data-entry clerk while he was recording (having to take sick days whenever he and his backing band, The Clovers, had practice), and still worked his 9 to 5 even after singles from the album were released. The moral: Never quit your day job until your album goes gold.
Worth the price of admission: I'm Not Angry, Alison, Watching the Detectives, Waiting for the End of the World, Welcome to the Working Week, Blame It on Cain.
Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
For an album released right after a monumental hit like The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here is just as memorable, and not Floyd's greatest album only by degree (perhaps because it offers a bit less musical distinction than DSotM). But Wish You Were Here's title song is perhaps my favorite Floyd tune, and one can't help feeling some regret listening to that song. "Welcome to the Machine" showcases Richard Wright's underrated abilities, as he creates a cyborg-like feeling of sterility and isolation that outdoes anything from The Wall. "Have a Cigar", a sly dig at the recording industry, is sung by Roy Harper (unfortunately known more for being named in the title of "Hats of to Roy Harper" on Led Zep III), who does a wonderful turn as a smarmy, kiss-ass record exec who knows about as much about music as he does of the band ("The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think -- oh, by the way, which one's Pink?"). "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is an epic 9 part tribute to Syd Barrett, who actually appeared in studio during recording sessions, but was so drastically changed from the effects of drug abuse and his subsequent mental illness, that the band at first did not recognize him. It is fitting that "Shine on" contains a funeral march in 4/4 time during Part IX (the band never saw Barrett again afterwards, as Syd went into self-exile and lived in seclusion until his death in 2006).
Worth the price of admission: Wish You Were Here, Have a Cigar, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Part I, Welcome to the Machine.
Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell
Yes, yes, yes - I'm quite aware of the critical adulation and the compositional importance of Joni Mitchell's Blue album, but after much hemming and hawing, I put Court and Spark in place of Blue because I firmly believe the song selection is better and more accessible here. And Blue is not as witty as Court and Spark either. For instance, a Joni Mitchell album is the last place where one would expect Cheech and Chong to show up, but lo and behold! they appear on Court and Spark. Buoyed by the hit single "Help Me", Mitchell's jazzy and brilliant dialogues and monologues are enhanced by stellar backing musicians: "Free Man in Paris" (David Crosby and Graham Nash), "Raised on Robbery" (Robbie Robertson) and, as I mentioned previously, even Cheech & Chong on "Twisted". Interior miniatures like "Car on the Hill" and "Down to You" make Court and Spark a fascinating album, and certainly my favorite from Joni Mitchell's folk-rock period. This is also a transitional album, offering a decidedly more jazz-inflected approach than on previous albums. Mitchell's tendency towards creating jazz compositions would become more pronounced on her next studio release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, leading to further experimentation on the albums Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.
Worth the price of admission: Free Man in Paris, Car on the Hill, Help Me, Down to You, People's Parties/Same Situation.
The Who - Quadrophenia
The Rock Opera was long a province reigned o'er by The Who and their leviathan scion Tommy. Yet the somewhat exaggerated reverence and undeniable genius of The Who's Tommy has overshadowed a better album: Quadrophenia. Heresy, I know, but I believe that Quadrophenia presents Peter Townshend and The Who as mature composers, and the music itself is far more complex and emotionally intense. The album deals with Jimmy Cooper, a 'mod' with schizophrenia (in this case, four different personalities, Sibyl, and each is represented in song) living in 1964 London. The album tells the story of Jimmy's disillusionment with his parents, society and eventually his mod lifestyle. After a particularly destructive binge, Jimmy takes a train to the Brighton, a Brit sea resort, to relive happier times. But depression, drugs and alcohol overwhelm him and we see him rowing a boat out to sea, ostensibly to drown himself. The outstanding songs on this double album are "I Am the Sea/The Real Me" "Quadrophenia", "The Punk and The Godfather", "5:15", "Bellboy" (featuring Keith Moon's manic and marvelous Cockney vocals), and the grande finale "Love, Reign 'Oer Me", a monumental song and the great pinnacle of the Who's career.
Worth the price of admission: 5:15, Quadrophenia, The Punk and the Godfather, Bell Boy, Love, Reign O'er Me.
Genesis - Foxtrot
Counter to the opinion of most progressive music zealots, who would have either Selling England by the Pound or The Lamb Lies Down Broadway on this list, I believe Foxtrot is far less constrained by Peter Gabriel's eccentric vagaries and flights of fancy. There is no absurd "Battle of Epping Forest" or mundane "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" as on Selling England, nor is there a full album-side of obscure mythological drivel like on The Lamb. And although these other albums have stunning moments, they also have tedious half-hours. Foxtrot is a more cohesive album than previous efforts from Genesis, and less prone to mind-numbing obscurities as on later albums (although I consider Trick of the Tail, minus Gabriel, as their 2nd best album). "Watchers of the Skies" and "Can-Utility and the Costliners" are absolutely beautiful compositions, and 'Horizons' is one of the nicest thefts of a Bach cello suite in the history of rock (not that there were that many). Of course, the centerpiece of the album, "Supper's Ready" is a 23 minute-long magnum opus, full of allegory and biblical allusions and a stunning grand finale mirroring John of Patmos' Revelations. There is nothing in the progressive canon more proggier. Foxtrot is an album by which all other prog-rock releases can be measured.
Worth the price of admission: Can-Utlity and the Coastliners, Horizon's, Supper's Ready (Complete), Watcher of the Skies
Derek and the Dominos - Layla and other Assorted Love Songs
One of the greatest blues-rock recordings of all time. As a guitarist, I have to tip my hat to Clapton and Allman, who offer something beyond the "super-group" hype of lesser combinations (Blind Faith leaps instantly to mind), and the result is an astounding set of songs. The depth of sorrow in the blues here is palpable, an anguish that often is missed in white-boy blues (as if simply knowing the notes results in a good blues recording -- it does not). I would point to three transcendent blues covers, Little Walter's "Key to the Highway" (one helluva dueling lead jam), Freddie King's "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" and Jimmie Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" as prime examples of Clapton not merely knowing the blues but revelling in it and living it. And as far as covers go, the version of Hendrix's "Little Wing" is gloriously dramatic. And then there is the song "Layla". The composition is brilliant, with its two separate movements, the first featuring Clapton's signature guitar riff, and the second with Jim Gordon's piano coda, interspersed with the improvisational duetting of Duane Allman's slide and Clapton's slowhand bent notes. Couple these elements with Clapton's languishing lyrics of unrequited love, and "Layla" is one of the iconic songs in rock and roll history.
Worth the price of admission: Layla, Nobody Knows You When You're Down out, Key to the Highway, Thorn Tree in the Garden, Why Does Love Got to Be so Sad, Little Wing.
Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
On their fifth and final album as a duo, Simon & Garfunkel could have rested on their laurels simply by showcasing the stunning "Bridge Over Troubled Water", one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded in any genre, as well as offering one of the greatest vocal performances by Art Garfunkel (his singing of final note is one of the classic moments in rock history). But there is more to this album than a single song. For instance, "The Boxer" is an epic that outdoes even Dylan in the folk-rock storytelling department ("I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises"). "The Only Living Boy in New York" and "Song for the Asking" are both exquisite personal miniatures, and "Cecilia" and "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" reflect Simon's burgeoning interest in world music, which he would explore in greater detail during his solo career. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" and "Baby Driver" are both up-tempo and humorous, while "Bye Bye Love" looks back on The Everley Brothers, a group Simon & Garfunkel patterned themselves after very early in their career. Like The Beatles, who ended their partnership at around the same time, Simon & Garfunkel went out on top of the charts.
Worth the price of admission: Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer, The Only Living Boy in New York, Song for the Asking, Baby Driver.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was not originally planned as a double album, but the amazing amount of remarkable songs culled from the sessions at Château d'Hérouville (where Elton also recorded Honky Château and Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player) made this release a no-brainer. In any case, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the height of the songwriting collaboration of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and is a nostalgic and epic look at the collaborators' youth. The fond rememberances embrace the movies ("Candle in the Wind", "Roy Rogers" and "I've Seen that Movie Too"), old-school bands ("Bennie and the Jets"), and their first pub experiences ("Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Sweet Painted Lady"). The epic here, of course, Is "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding", but my favorites are "This Song Has No Title", "Grey Seal", "Harmony" and the explicit "All the Girls Love Alice. As I mentioned, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road represents the acme and apex of Elton John's career. He got increasingly more annoying after this, eventually hitting rock bottom with such boorish blandities as "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Island Girl". Bah!
Worth the price of admission: This Song Has No Title, Grey Seal, All the Girls Love Alice, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.
Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps It can be said, with some justification, that Pink Floyd's morose magnum opus The Wall marked the death of 1970's rock music. If that is the case, then Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps nailed the coffin shut. A decade that began with the death of the Beatles ended with Neil's brilliant reinvention of himself. The album walks the knife's edge between electric guitar savagery and beautifully rendered acoustic imagery. The dualistic paen to Johnny Rotten "My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)"/"Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)" mirrors the schizophrenic song selection to a tee. But there is also an autobiographical allusion to Young's career. His last few albums released in the 70s were fair-to-middling efforts, and Neil Young was heading for irrelevance. But unlike other great 70s bands that went into the 80s with a whimper, Young released a backlash of violence that outpunked punk, yet drew from his vast acoustic repertoire to offer an album that renewed the faith of longtime fans and won over a whole new generation of listeners. The lush imagery of such songs like "Thrasher", "Ride My Llama" and "Pocahontas' are as good as anything from his After the Gold Rush period, and side two, features the indictment of war, Powderfinger, the wry social jest "Welfare Mothers", and rockers "Sedan Delivery" and "Hey Hey, My My", offering both sides of Neil Young's persona: folk troubadour and rocking Crazy Horse.
Worth the price of admission: Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), Thrasher, My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), Powderfinger, Sail Away.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
As a die-hard blues fan, I have more of an affinity for Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac of the 1960s (an underappreciated epoch in the band's history); however, you have to tip your hat to Mac for Rumours, which is an undeniably great album, and the phenomenal sales of the Rumours was not due to some fad or blind luck (this aint the Ace of Base), but the skill of a solid contingent of songwriters in the band, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and, in particular, the fey and beautiful Stevie Nicks. Nicks, either in total or in part, had a hand in the three best songs on the album: the sultry "Dreams", the netherworldly "Gold Dust Woman" and the group effort "The Chain", with its haunting harmonies, intricate guitar, and the classic bass line of John McVie. That the album was made at all is amazing, given the fact that half the group was sleeping with the other half, but not the partners they were originally sleeping with, and separations and cocaine abuse caused tension and animosity in the studio. Nearly all the songs reflect the personal traumas, anguish and anger of the time. There's hits like "Go Your Own Way" and "Don't Stop", as well as Christine McVie's beautiful "Songbird" and Buckingham's acoustic piece "Never Going Back Again."
Worth the price of admission: Gold Dust Woman, Never Going Back Again, The Chain, Songbird, Dreams.
The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street are the Stones' best albums. Those three consecutive studio albums (with the live Get yer Ya-ya's Out sandwiched in-between) represent the Stones at their peak. I was never enamored of Mick Jagger's voice nor his rooster strut, nor have I considered the Rolling Stones to be "The Greatest Rock Band in the World(TM)", particularly since they were overshadowed by The Beatles in the 60's and Led Zeppelin in the 70's. For me, longevity does not equate to greatness.That doesn't mean, however, that the Stones did not produce great albums. A case in point would be Sticky Fingers, which offers such standout songs as the countrified "Dead Flowers" (which answers the question: what do you give your dead girl friend?), the raunchy slide of "You Gotta Move", the reflective "I Got the Blues", and the feverish "Sister Morphine" ("Why does the doctor have no face?"). Other notable songs on the album are the hit "Brown Sugar", the great acoustic tune "Wild Horses", and the jazzy extended jam "Can't You Hear Me Knocking". Besides the sleazy blues on Sticky Fingers, my personal favorites on the album are "Bitch" (great, memorable guitar line) and and the ferocious "Moonlight Mile".
Worth the price of admission: Dead Flowers, Bitch, Can't You Hear Me Knocking, Wild Horses, You Gotta Move.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
This is my favorite Zeppelin album. Is it their best? Tough call, but I suppose Led Zeppelin IV (ZoSo) deserves the nod based on reputation and influence alone. Physical Graffiti is certainly ambitious and sprawling , but I have to scratch my head when I read reviews bemoaning "throw away songs" and "filler" on Graffiti. I can only shrug and wonder what they think about Led Zeppelin I, II, III and Houses of the Holy, all of which have a higher incidence of filler, or at least odd choices ("The Crunge" and "D'yer Maker" automatically come to mind). From the ethereal acoustics of "Bron-Yr-Aur" to the piano and mandolin blues of "Boogie With Stu" (complete with the crazy trash can cymbals), from the Eastern influence of "Kashmir" to the monstrous funk of "Trampled Under Foot" (an apt title if ever there was one), Physical Graffiti represents Led Zep at their creative crest. This is 1970s hard rock at its best. How often can any band rattle off songs like "In the Light", "Ten Years Gone" (both favorites), "Custard Pie", "The Rover", "The Wanton Song", "Black Country Woman" and "In My Time of Dying", along with the other tunes I've already mentioned, and not consider this an essential album? Presence and In Through The Out Door mark Zeppelin in gradual decline. Not so with Physical Grafitti.
Worth the price of admission: Bron-Yr-Aur, Ten Years Gone, In the Light, Trampled Underfoot, The Rover, The Wanton Song.
Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick Thick as a Brick should rate highly simply for having the best album cover ever designed: a fold-out newspaper complete with articles, comics, ads, crossword puzzle and a rather bawdy connect-the-dots game! One cannot underestimate the effect Thick as a Brick had on folks growing up in the 70s. It was irreverent! It was rebellious! It mentioned both blackheads and peeing oneself in the night in one line! Only in the early 70s could this album (and Tull's follow-up A Passion Play) be released and go to #1 on the charts. It had no single! It was 44 minutes of continuous music! How do we market the goddamned thing? Hell, we can't get radio airplay because there isn't a single! The epic poem around which the music is composed concerns the trials and travails of growing up, and is slyly superb throughout. And it is very sly: according to Ian Anderson, Thick as a Brick was a send-up of progressive rock of the time, holding up a cynical mirror to Tull's pompous rock counterparts (and the band itself). Even the album cover parodies the small minds of small town journalism. The music itself is extraordinary - a chiaroscuro of heavy electric and acoustic interludes - a progressive masterpiece from a band that never considered themselves prog. The entire package succeeds magnificently. Many reviewers didn't get the joke, and took it at face value, which is even more ironic. Or thick as a brick, as the case may be.
Worth the price of admission: Thick as a Brick (in its entirety).
The Doors - L.A. Woman
L.A. Woman, the last Doors studio album (released in 1971), was their best since their Strange Days release in 1967 (although I have sentimental attachments to both The Soft Parade and Morrison Hotel). Three months after the release of L.A. Woman, Jim Morrison's bloated corpse was found floating in a Paris bathtub (either that, or his death was a cover-up and he can be seen eating at a Burger King in Kalamazoo with Elvis). In any case, the album contains some of Morrison's best poetic imagery, particularly on the two rock epics "Riders on the Storm" (with its eerie lyrics punctuated by thunderstorms and jazz cadence) and "L.A. Woman" (with the greatest anagram in rock history Mr. Mojo Risin' = Jim Morrison). But blues is king on L.A. Woman. I fondly recall my indescribable, jaw-dropping joy upon hearing "Been Down So Long" for the first time. Of course, I was stoned out of my mind at the time, but that's beside the point. The album is literally seething with blues, like the demented "Crawling King Snake", the devilishly playful "(You Need Meat) Don't Go No Further" sung by Ray Manzarek (finally available on the 40th anniversary remaster), and the ode to impotence "Cars Hiss By My Window". Add in the hit "Love Her Madly" and the ominous "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" and you've got one phenomenal swan song.
Worth the price of admission: The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat), Been Down So Long, Riders on the Storm, L.A. Woman, The Changeling.
Alice Cooper - Killer
Killer was an album that parents and principals utterly loathed (and the more adults hate a rock album is directly proportional to how great an album is, isn't it?). Don't believe me? Play "Dead Babies" to an adult unfamiliar with Alice and watch their skin crawl. It is a delight! If you listen to a secondary song on Killer, like "You Drive Me Nervous", for instance, the chord structure, lyrics and delivery seems especially composed to drive parents crazy. And even more so than the atmospheric and deadly Cooper masterpiece Love It to Death that preceded it, Killer is a recording that truly influenced the likes of Marilyn Manson, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (who praised Killer as the greatest album of all time). This is the true beginning of rock theatrics, before Peter Gabriel's Genesis or Kiss. This was dangerous (even banned in a few countries) and subversive before subversiveness became commonplace in the MTV era. And aside from the big hits on the album, "Be My Lover" and "Under My Wheels", the greatest songs here are the magnificent "Halo of Flies" (Alice's progressive magnum opus), the Jim Morrison-goes-western swagger of "Desperado", and the epochal grande finale "Dead Babies/Killer" (which should always be played consecutively). Remember the Coop!
Worth the price of admission: Halo of Flies, Desperado, Dead Babies/Killer, You Drive Me Nervous, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
Larks Tongue in Aspic - King Crimson
The platform from which Robert Fripp launched such memorable musical experimentations as Starless and Bible Black and Red; in fact, one could say Lark's Tongue was the first of a trilogy of albums with like objectives. Yet, for all the furious fretwork and metallic moments of the album Red, it is merely the logical outcome of the ideas derived from Lark's Tongue in Aspic, save that the latter maintains the sense of harmony and acoustic passages from earlier Crimson albums, such as In the Court of the Crimson King. In addition, David Cross's violin and viola add another intriguing layer to the musical mix, particularly the passages of the instumental "Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part I" that were influenced by Ralph Vaughan William's classical composition "Lark Ascending". Three superb vocal tracks, "Book of Saturday", "Exiles" and "Easy Money" feature bassist John Wetton singing the lyrics of Richard Palmer-James (formerly of Supertramp). Lark's Tongue in Aspic is a remarkable synthesis of progressive rock, jazz-fusion, heavy metal, orientalism and classical composition, full of surprising and exotic percussion by Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford, and the biting, eccentric guitarwork of Robert Fripp, who influenced a wide array of bands, such as Tool, Nirvana, Mudvayne, Iron Maiden, Porcupine Tree, Voivoid and Bad Religion.
Worth the price of admission: Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part I, Book of Saturday, Easy Money, The Talking Drum, Exiles.
Iggy and the Stooges - Raw Power
Except for The Sex Pistols and a few other notable punk bands, there is nothing that holds a candle to this as far as nihilistic rock anarchy; in fact, having heard Iggy and the Stooges or MC5 in the late 60s/early 70s, I could never really understand the supposed punk revolution of the mid-to-late 70s. It had already been done - and done better - by a blood-stained, rabid and spitting Iggy, and nearly everything else is wash, rinse, repeat. Raw Power from 1973 was produced by David Bowie, and his slight touches add a bit of panache to the utter madness (but not so Bowiesque as on Lou Reed's Transformer where, thankfully for Reed, Bowie took over and saved the album). From the first blasted notes of "Search and Destroy" to the last bit of guitar distortion on "Death Trip", this is one rollercoaster heading down a bottomless pit. Songs like the pure punk of "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell" and "Raw Power", and the bluesy "I Need Somebody" are the reasons Kurt Cobain said that Raw Power was his favorite album, and why Henry Rollins has a "Search and Destroy" tattoo. The name of the album should actually be "Raw Distortion" as that is the overriding quality of the recording, relieved only by the acoustic "Gimme Danger" which is very reminiscent of the band Love, if Love had Iggy Pop singing instead of Arthur Lee.
Worth the price of admission: Search and Destroy, Raw Power, Gimme Danger, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, Penetration, I Need Somebody.
Deep Purple - Made in Japan
Deep Purple was once the loudest rock 'n' roll band on the planet, and if ever a band's essence was encapsulated on a single album, then it would be Made in Japan. Nearly every cut on this live album is better than the studio versions; in fact, Made in Japan is so good that, honestly, if you own this you don't really need another Deep Purple album. There's the maniacal Hammond of Jon Lord on "Lazy" (not to mention Ritchie Blackmore playing a vamp on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf"), Blackmore's blistering lead on "Highway Star" (the measuring stick for aspiring young lead guitarists in the 70s), Ian Gillan's ear-piercing shrieks on "Lazy", the prog fan epic "Sweet Child in Time", and even the 190 minute long "Space Truckin" (I jest, it only seems 190 minutes long -- it's probably 75 minutes long, tops) is cosmically fun. That early 70s combo of Strat and Marshall stacks (modified by Marshall to kick out even higher wattage), with the incredible fuzzy warmth so characteristic of Blackmore, is a sound to treasure. And we mustn't forget "Smoke on the Water"! Well, we actually can't forget "Smoke on the Water", seeing as it has been played so often on the radio that the memory of it is indelible. Gillan sums up the performance when he asks a soundman, "Yes, can we have everything louder than everything else?"
Worth the price of admission: Highway Star, Child in Time, Lazy, Strange Kind of Woman.