Sunday, September 20, 2009

Top Albums of the 1970s (Pt. 2)

This part will showcase my favorite albums from the decade that brought us everything from pet rocks to Saturday Night Fever from #30 down to #16. (The top 15 will come in sometime this week.)

Besides pet rocks, though, the '70s had a lot to offer. As I said in the previous installment, the decade was incredibly diverse musically. Whereas most of the pop and rock of the '60s had taken on a relatively similar sound, music began to take widely different paths in the '70s. Soul music became darker and funkier than, say, Motown, and rock music turned into prog rock, punk, and then post-punk. Meanwhile, all sorts of electronic and experimental music were being invented and perfected. And don't forget hip-hop; that came around in the decade's closing years. So, while many look back on the '70s and remember Foghat and The Trammps, people like Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, David Byrne, Holger Czukay, George Clinton, etc. etc. etc. were the ones putting an indelible stamp on all interesting music to come. Enjoy.

30. Neu!--Neu!
Spacey synths? Check. Motorik beat? Check. From Germany? Check. Looks like we have a work of krautrock on our hands. These characteristics came to define nearly every experimental rock/electronic group to come out of Germany in the 1970s. From Can to Popol Vuh and everyone in between, krautrock became a truly unique sound. But what makes Neu! so much better than most? It was one of the first to sound like this. By 1972 (when it came out), Kraftwerk had not yet reached their peak and Can was not working much with electronics yet. Neu! synthesized the approaches of both groups to create a tight instrumental electronic album that provided heavy influence for Bowie (see #29 for example) and post-rock in the '90s. Neu! was one of the first and is still one of the best.

29. David Bowie--"Heroes"
David Bowie's famed Berlin Trilogy of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger showed Bowie at his most experimental and coked out. Coincidentally, they are three of his best albums. (I, sadly, haven't heard Lodger, but I'll assume it's quite good.) Anyways, as David Bowie was living in Berlin; hanging with Iggy, Eno, and Fripp; and doing massive amounts of drugs, he stumbled upon a sound that fused his signature glam rock with prog rock, krautrock (see above), electronic, and funk. It certainly shares an aesthetic with Low, which came out only nine months (!) before, but it establishes enough of its own identity to be a classic. "Heroes" is most famous for its undeniably brilliant title track, the only hit Bowie produced during his tenure in Berlin, but the rest of the album is a wildly bizarre and varied pop masterpiece.

28. The Pop Group--Y
Similar to Public Image Ltd.'s Second Edition, The Pop Group's Y is a difficult, experimental, dubby post-punk album that is a classic because of its ambition. Throughout the whole album, The Pop Group prove that their name is about as ironic as a name could possibly get through their formless forays into krautrock and dub and dark explorations of punk and funk. At times, it sounds minimal: Mark Stewart's authoritative voice droning over a simple beat and bassline. At other times, it is pure chaos; there is often a cacophonous blend of squealing saxophones, sharp guitars, and heavy percussion. It must have sounded unique upon release (the only notable contemporaries that I know of are Public Image and This Heat), and no one has really been able--or even tried--to copy it, proving its uniqueness.

27. Can--Future Days
Future Days is the final album in Can's trilogy of unbelievable albums featuring Damo Suzuki on vocals. Released in 1973, shortly after Ege Bamyasi, Future Days is the most ambient and spacious of those three albums. (The third is 1971's Tago Mago). The album is even less rock oriented and more jazz oriented than any other Can release, but it still keeps the rhythmic experimental rock sound that was established previously. There are four tracks, and three of them are eight and a half minutes long or more. This makes Future Days easier to get completely lost in than its more song-based predecessor. The triton on the cover symbolizes the album's oceanic quality. At times, the mix is so muddled and washed out that it feels like it was recorded underwater. This only adds to Future Days's awesomeness.

26. Iggy Pop--The Idiot
Had there not been the chain of Iggy Pop to David Bowie to Brian Eno to David Byrne in the 1970s, music would be radically different right now. (And it would not be as good.) The Idiot is Pop and Bowie's most collaborative effort, and, though it is indeed an Iggy Pop album, David Bowie's influence is all over. This is a very good thing. The Idiot combines Iggy's punk spirit and sarcasm with Bowie's experimental funk-rock sensibilities. The result is Pop's snarky commentary weaving in and out of minimalist funk landscapes that are dark, dense, haunting, and truly bizarre. Nothing else in Iggy's (or even Bowie's) catalogue is so dark and apocalyptic. Not even Raw Power (or Low). The album gives the listener an idea of what it felt like to be a drug-addled artist in the '70s better than anything else. The Idiot is crazy and crazy good.

25. Devo--Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
A lot of normal folks think of Devo as insufferably weird '80s one-hit wonders. What those normal folks don't know is that Devo were also insufferably weird and amazing '70s post-punk/new wave pioneers. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo's range of influence over the next decade or two is startlingly apparent. Their obsession with devolution, science, and getting laid paved the way for the geek rock bands of the '80s like Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants, The Feelies, and more. Their heavy synth use and ear for a great hook greatly influenced the synth-pop and new wave that was so popular. And their experimental punk edge has influenced anyone who has ever claimed to be post-punk or dance-punk. The album is fun, weird, uplifting, and challenging. Most of all, it's exceedingly smart and relatable and original.

24. Miles Davis--Bitches Brew
In A Silent Way showed that Miles in the late '60s/early '70s was pretty different from Miles in the '50s. Bitches Brew showed that Miles was doing way too much cocaine and being way too brilliant. A double album, Bitches Brew is a wildly expansive, dense, and chaotic work of jazz-funk-rock fusion. The electric pianos of Corea and Zawinul provide the avant-garde backbone for McLaughlin's psychedelic guitar playing and, of course, Miles's strong and sporadic trumpet. It is said that people like McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Holland pushed Miles to be more experimental, but none of those people ever did anything as wild or as good as Bitches Brew, proving that maybe Miles was the driving force after all. Bitches Brew is long (nearly two hours), but it enthralls throughout, and it's for sure one of the best jazz albums of all time.
"Pharaoh's Dance, Pts. 1, 2, and 3"

23. The Velvet Underground--Loaded
It pains me to list a VU album anywhere outside a top ten (or even top five), but, to be fair, Loaded is not their best album. It's probably fourth. That said, no other band in history has put out four albums as good as VU's first four, which means Loaded is pretty darn amazing. It streamlines the already straightforward rock sound found on The Velvet Underground, but loses essentially none of The Velvets' genius. Loaded is indeed loaded (I couldn't resist) with big rock hooks and riffs, and they are some of the most memorable hooks and riffs in the history of rock. Lou Reed's lyrics are more lucid and relatable than on any other VU release, which goes well with the more straightforward music. Lots of bands played this style of music at that time (1970), but The Velvet Underground were the only ones who made it interesting because they played it with the utmost intelligence.

22. Iggy & The Stooges--Raw Power
Iggy Pop is pretty awesome. "[He's] a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/ [He's] a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb/ [He is] the world's forgotten boy/ The one who searches and destroys." Nowhere is this more apparent than on Raw Power. The album, produced by who else but David Bowie, is The Stooges' triumphant return and finale. They had tackled garage rock and proto-punk on their debut and free jazz and avant-garde rock on the follow up, but then they fell into a deep hole of drugs and other bad stuff. Iggy was a forgotten boy. But then they came back with Raw Power, an album as dark as Fun House with as much energy as The Stooges. This album is often credited with inventing punk, which makes sense because of its primal nature, but Raw Power is far more complex musically and lyrically than any punk album I've ever heard.

21. Steve Reich--Music For 18 Musicians
Steve Reich had already established himself as one of the most unique, innovative, and best modern composers by 1978 through pieces like "It's Gonna Rain," Drumming, etc., but with Music For 18 Musicians, he cemented his place as the best composer post-1960. This is a defining work for minimalism and classical music in general. It phases and pulses its way into an ethereal, blissful atmosphere that has been cheaply imitated by countless composers since. The marimbas, clarinets, voices, and everything fit together perfectly. As I said, it has influenced nearly every modern classical composer, but what is even more impressive is its influence on modern rock and electronic music. Post-rock and Minimal electronic would be nothing without him. His music, specifically this piece, transcends classical music to become just an amazing work of art.

20. The Modern Lovers--The Modern Lovers
I've referenced this album in several other lists when talking about albums that perfectly capture what it means to be a person between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. Among these albums (The Replacements' Let It Be, Weezer's debut, and a few others), The Modern Lovers sums up the feelings that go along with young adulthood best. Jonathan Richman's nasally delivery of charmingly innocent lyrics is instantly relatable. He is funny, smart, sarcastic, and emotional as he talks about getting girls (or not getting girls) and listening to the radio--the fundamental aspects of both life and rock n' roll. The Modern Lovers also has good music going for it in addition to perfect lyrics. It provides a simple mix of simple guitar playing and simple beats that was hugely influential to the entire punk movement. Whether or not you've heard it, The Modern Lovers is the soundtrack to your life.

19. Brian Eno--Here Come The Warm Jets
My path to Here Come The Warm Jets was probably different from most people's. I had already heard My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, Another Green World, and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy before hearing Jets. I no longer thought that anything Brian Eno could do could shock me or weird me out. I hate admitting I'm wrong, but I was wrong. This album is not very similar at all to any other Eno solo release. It is an electronic, avant-garde, glam rock, prog rock mindtrip. It's simultaneously more accessible and more challenging than any other Eno album because the songs are catchy and glossy, and yet insufferably bizarre. The songs often make no sense musically or lyrically, but they draw the listener in nonetheless because they are so unique. Here Come The Warm Jets sounded nothing like anything else in 1973, and it sounds nothing like anything in 2009.

18. Wire--Chairs Missing
Wire's trio of albums from 1977 to 1979 rivals David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy and Can's Damo Suzuki Trilogy for best album triptych ever. Like the other two, all three albums are awesome. Unlike the other two, Wire changed their sound a lot with each successive release. Whereas Can and Bowie kept similar M.O.s throughout their respective trilogies, Wire transformed from a nearly straightforward punk group on Pink Flag to a completely avant-garde post punk group on 154. Chairs Missing is somewhere in the middle of that. It has songs that are dense, chaotic, and arty like the ones on 154 and ones that are more punk oriented like the ones on Pink Flag. It also, however, has the poppiest of Wire's songs. Several of the tracks are more clean sounding and actually have smart, discernible hooks. It was a sort of transition album for Wire, and it allowed them to try everything while still being cohesive and great.

17. Can--Tago Mago
If Future Days is Can's jazz album and Ege Bamyasi is their pop album, then I guess Tago Mago is their rock album. Jaki Liebezeit's drumming is, as usual, fierce and funky. Karoli, Schmidt, and Czukay provide spacey rock atmospherics to accompany the beat, and Damo Suzuki makes his debut with his signature slurred, chaotic vocals. Julian Cope said that the album sounds "like no one before or after," which is mostly true. I say mostly because countless people--even talented folks like The Feelies or Tortoise--have imitated aspects of the album. The thing is, though, no one (other than Can themselves) ever has been able to truly recreate the sounds found on Tago Mago. As the album goes on, it switches from krautrock to krautexperimental, but Can is influential and amazing even when they are completely freaking out. Tago Mago is a really stunning piece of art.
"Halleluhwah, Pts. 1 and 2"

16. Serge Gainsbourg--Histoire de Melody Nelson
This is the only album in my top twenty of any decade where I don't actually understand a single lyric. As you might guess, the whole album is in French. But one does not need to know French to get a feel for what Monsieur Gainsbourg is saying. His frustratingly cool and sensual voice (frustrating because I'm jealous of it) penetrates the music, and, at once, the listener can feel what he is saying, even if he or she cannot understand the words. The main aspect of Histoire de Melody Nelson, though, is its music. Funky, psychedelic, minimal rock guitar and drumming is accompanied by dense, beautiful string arrangements to create the most organic (and best) orchestra/rock fusion ever. The album is strangely mesmerizing, and I've found that it's pretty easy to listen to several times in a row. Forget that it's not in English, because this is one of the sexiest, weirdest, and most beautiful albums ever. In any language.

That's what I think. What will be in the top 15? Who knows? (I do.)

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