Saturday, October 3, 2009

Top Albums of the 1970s (Pt. 3)

It's finally here. My top fifteen favorite albums of the 1970s. In case you missed part one (#120 to 31), it's here, and part two (#30 to 16) is here.

I hate to pick favorites (no I don't, all I do is pick favorites), but I think the 1970s is my favorite decade for music. Punk, post-punk, and krautrock reigned supreme during the decade, and those three genres make up a hefty portion of my favorite music. In addition, electronic music was perfected, and funk/soul transformed from sugary Motown to apocalyptic Funkadelic. The '70s weren't just about Grand Funk Railroad. These fifteen albums cover a ton of stylistic ground (punk, folk, funk, etc.), but they all sound uniquely '70s.

So scroll down, do some reading, do some clicking, and learn about some truly classic albums.

15. The Ramones--Ramones
This album is punk. Released in 1976, a year before Never Mind The Bollocks or The Clash, this album is the foundation of all punk music. It's fast, chaotic, primal, fun, and constant. Its fourteen tracks blow by in under thirty minutes without a breath. The music is painfully simple; all songs use four chords or less. (Usually less.) It takes most of its aesthetic from the garage rock of the late '60s and early '70s (Stooges, MC5, Modern Lovers, etc.), but the melodies and "ooh's" and "aah's" are pure '60s pop. And although the songs are aggressive, there is definitely a light, poppy element to every single track. The lyrics are as simple as the music, describing the mundane but essential aspects of young adult life in the '70s. Several songs have "I Wanna" or "I Don't Wanna" in the title, and that only helps to make Ramones a juvenile yet innocent masterpiece. This is the most important punk album of all time, and it's a ton of fun.

14. Talking Heads--Fear Of Music
David Byrne has led quite the life. In fact, if I were to map out my idea of an ideal life, it would be eerily similar to Byrne's. (Except for that he grew up in Canada and Maryland. I like Chicago.) The man was one of the pioneers of new wave, crafting brilliant album after brilliant album with Talking Heads in the late '70s and early '80s. (This one included.) He created a unique sound by fusing punk, post-punk, funk, and African music, but then went on to make one of the best and most influential electronic albums of all time. But if making amazing, groundbreaking music wasn't enough, Byrne had to be successful doing it. Talking Heads were (and still are) much more popular than most, if not all, art-rock/post-punk/new wave groups. Since the '80s, Byrne has recorded some music, set up some art installations, toured a little, and basked in his coolness. So it goes to say, Fear Of Music is awesome. It's the band's most experimental--and second best--album.

13. T. Rex--Electric Warrior
Electric Warrior, along with Here Come The Sonics depending on my mood, is my go-to rock album. For whatever reason, since I got the album a few years ago, it has been one of the most listened to albums in my collection. It has a balance of grittiness and beauty, maximalism and simplicity, that makes it perfect for any time. The songs are often over-the-top, but it always works. There are endlessly trashy blues tracks along side thoughtful folk ballads, but they are tied together through the overall feel of glammy, sexual rock n' roll and also by the lyrics and vocals. Marc Bolan is ridiculous on every song. He says things that don't make any sense and then says things that make a ton of sense, things that are very interesting and clever about love, life, and death. (What else?) He seems to realize the album is over-the-top, and he revels in that. Electric Warrior is tough to justify on paper because, technically, it's just an overblown glam rock album. But it's amazing.

12. Brian Eno--Another Green World
Arguably the most important figure in music in the '70s (or ever), Brian Eno also kind of had a little album trilogy. He released Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, and Another Green World in consecutive years from '73 to '75. Like Wire in their late '70s triptych, Eno changed radically throughout his three albums. Warm Jets was a bizarre, experimental trip, Tiger Mountain was a transition that incorporated some of the ambience, and Another Green World was the masterpiece: an album that perfectly combined Eno's pop sensibilities with his experimental sensibilities. Some of the album's tracks are just pop songs, albeit weird ones. Using primitive electronics, Eno creates a glossy yet chaotic world in each song, whether it is pop, ambient, or avant-garde. The album is cohesive because the songs all contain elements of all three of those genres, even if they are all distinct. Another Green World is the sound of a brilliant man at his solo best.

11. Gang Of Four--Entertainment!
Effectively putting an end to the few years that brought traditional punk, Gang Of Four created a new, highly influential, and absolutely amazing brand of punk rock with Entertainment!. The lyrics, which are overtly political and overtly clever, are sung sarcastically and British-ly. Angst and frustration are felt openly on every track. The music, meanwhile, is akin to what some young folks might call "dance punk." However, this came out in 1979, not 2002. Dave Allen's bass is round and minimal, driving most of the music along with Hugo Burnham's drums. Over these percussive, sparse, funky rhythms, Andy Gill adds an instantly recognizable guitar tone. It is exceedingly sharp, jagged, awkward, and awesome, and is one of the main reasons this record is so good. And Entertainment! is great and unique because it provides its title, but, at the same time, it makes you think. It makes you think about the state of this cruel world, and it makes you think about how it's possible that a band make something this great.

10. Television--Marquee Moon
Marquee Moon often gets lumped into the punk category, but it hardly resembles that genre. Sure, the music is angsty and was performed at CBGB's in the mid '70s. Sure, the band members that grace the front cover are dressed like punks and are really skinny. But punk is supposed to be simple, primal even. Marquee Moon is an extremely clean and complex guitar rock album that is not punk at all. Using only two guitars, Television creates some of the most intricate, bizarre, complicated, and unreplicable guitar patterns ever. They use propulsive rock riffs and then layer solos upon solos atop them, which makes a sound that sounds something like rock n' roll, but is much more experimental. Lyrically, Television is pretty impressive as well, which differentiates them even more from punk. They are clever and smart with their commentaries, and singer/guitarist/songwriter Tom Verlaine sings with the utmost sarcasm and frustration. The title track, the obvious standout, represents them the best. A ten and a half minute trip, it is all solos and all incredible.

9. Nick Drake--Pink Moon
I'm not much of a cryer. As far as I can recall, I haven't really cried since 2004. Maybe even 2003. But, in the summer of 2008, while listening to Nick Drake's final album, I might or might not have shed a tear. Pink Moon is so devastatingly beautiful, it has the power to toy with the emotions of someone as emotionless as myself. The music is starkly minimal and pastoral; Drake's voice and guitar are the only sounds on the album (except for a brief piano interlude on the title track). His guitar playing is soft, haunting, and expertly played. His voice is warm and accessible, but it also sounds depressed and even scared, which suits the lyrics. The lyrics, like many other albums, tell stories of love and death, but they provide literate, passionate, and believable depiction of those aspects. This was the last album Drake recorded before ending his own life in 1974, and, as sad as it is, it's easy to tell that he was at odds with the world. He is rivaled only by Ian Curtis in the field of introversion. Gorgeous yet depressing, Pink Moon is probably the best folk album ever.

8. David Bowie--Low
I've spoken of David Bowie's legendary Berlin Trilogy already, but I'll have to do it again. Low kicked off the trilogy in fine fashion in 1977, and it is the highlight of those three albums. It is also the highlight of David Bowie's career, which is saying a lot. The music on this album is Bowie's most free and experimental. The first half of the album blows through intricate, krautrock inspired electronic avant-pop songs. These songs are among Bowie's best. They are coked out, experimental glam rock jams that are highly unique while still being relatively accessible. The second half of the album shows Brian Eno's influence more. Several of the songs on Low's back end are ambient, droning experimental electronic songs that find Bowie wailing in different languages and whatnot. These tracks alienate many Bowie fans, but they are what separate Low from the rest. As weird and druggy as it is, this album breaks down into complete and unadulterated beauty and intrigue. And as instantly gratifying as Low is, it's a grower. It takes many listens to fully realize the scope of Bowie's (and Eno's) genius.

7. Can--Ege Bamyasi
Can is generally considered the best krautrock group (not including Kraftwerk as krautrock) for a reason. That reason: they are the best krautrock group. No other band from Germany (and few other bands from anywhere else) has ever been as innovative, influential, unique, and just plain good as Can. Ege Bamyasi is indeed their most accessible album with Damo Suzuki as lead singer, but it's far from a pop album. The focal point of Can's music, the perscussion, is at its funkiest and grooviest on this album, and their melodies are tightest and most obvious. The songs are, for the most part, shorter than on Tago Mago or Future Days, which also adds to the more accessible nature. But Can are still never afraid to break down into acidic experimentalism or drone for a few minutes. On Ege Bamyasi though, they indulge themselves with more precision than on any other release while still sounding raw and psychedelic. The band earned themselves a hit in Germany with "Spoon," further proving the album's accessibility. Whether or not it's their pop album, Ege Bamyasi is their masterpiece.

6. Funkadelic--Maggot Brain
Maggot Brain, like #10 on this list, is anchored by a ten-plus minute title track that involves unbelievable guitar soloing. But unlike "Marquee Moon," which is filled with glossy and mechanical solos, "Maggot Brain" has a solo (just one) that is so raw and so soulful, that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. (Almost like Nick Drake.) It starts with the almighty opening lines, "Mother Earth is pregnant for a third time, for y'all have knocked her up" before descending into a trippy, bizarre ride through Eddie Hazel's mind and guitar. The title track is certainly the best track on the album (and one of the best songs ever), but the rest of the album is amazing as well. Funkadelic played black rock, and, in doing so, rocked harder than nearly all traditional white rock groups. The rock music, influenced heavily by soul and drugs, was heavy and complex; Eddie Hazel's guitar becomes more powerful than emotional throughout the rest of the album. Without "Maggot Brain," Maggot Brain is still an amazing funk/soul/rock album that is smarter, weirder, and funkier than any other. (But the title song doesn't hurt it.)

5. Joy Division--Unknown Pleasures
At the beginning of Control, the 2007 movie about Ian Curtis's life, a young Ian Curtis is listening to Aladdin Sane. It is made clear that Curtis is a Bowie fan (who isn't?). However, Unknown Pleasures would not suggest this fact. Its thick, underground minimalist punk is about as far removed from Aladdin Sane's over-the-top glam rock as an album can get. Bernard Sumner's jangling, dark guitar provides an apocalyptic atmosphere as Peter Hook's high-pitched bass drives the music ahead in very un-Bowie fashion. The vocals are delivered by Curtis in a scared, weary, epileptic manner. His baritone dishes out musings on death and feeling trapped in a way that is almost too introverted. Curtis knows that the world is an evil place that has been unfair to him, and he conveys that message plainly. Just a year after its release, Curtis ended his own life after listening to another Bowie venture: Iggy Pop's The Idiot. The Idiot has much more in common with Unknown Pleasures. They are both extremely dark and pessimistic. But the music on Unknown Pleasures is still unmatched in terms of feeling.

4. Wire--Pink Flag
The most punk of Wire's albums (they grew more and more experimental with each release), Pink Flag is the true masterpiece of the punk era--not The Ramones (though it is amazing), not Never Mind The Bollocks, not London Calling. It is chock full of brilliant punk songs with an artistic, experimental edge. It has all the attitude and snarkiness of punk rock, but with added literacy. Songs that barely (or don't) crack the one-minute mark are full of angst and genius punk riffs. Those tracks are broken up by three- to four-minute post-punk odysseys to create an atmosphere that is dense and schizophrenic. The lyrics are political, rebellious, and often very funny--even if the growling, British delivery of them (courtesy of Colin Newman) makes them difficult to understand sometimes. Pink Flag works as an album better than any other punk release; it's songs flow into one another perfectly and without much pause. But, at the same time, each song is also amazing when taken out of context. The album runs through twenty-one songs in just over thirty-five minutes, but it contains one of the most fully realized artistic visions ever recorded.

3. The Stooges--Fun House
Fun House is definitely a candidate for heaviest album ever made. The Stooges, just one year removed from making the definitive garage rock statement and practically inventing punk with The Stooges, decided to make another definitive rock n' roll statement that is also one of the first and best avant-garde rock albums. Whereas their debut was mostly about having a great time, Fun House is about not having a fun time. By 1970, The Stooges had apparently changed their worldview. They saw the world as depressing and dark, and that was reflected impactfully on Fun House. It's a truly wild and bizarre rock n' roll album. The riffs are very, very heavy and sludgy, and Iggy Pop's howling is at its most deranged. The addition of a chaotic, free jazz inspired saxophone to several of the songs adds to its apocalyptic feel, and makes the mix that much denser. Upon release, Fun House did not sell well at all, which disappointed the band. But an album this experimental and this ahead of its time shouldn't sell well. And despite not selling, Fun House has proved to be one of the absolute most influential and innovative rock records of all time. Many cool musicians list it as their favorite ever album, and that's because Fun House is, indeed, one of the best albums ever made.

2. Kraftwerk--Trans-Europe Express
It makes me sad not to see this album at #1. (But it would make me even sadder to not see There's A Riot Goin' On at #1.) I talk about albums being innovative and influential and all that crap, but Trans-Europe Express isn't exactly innovative and influential. By the time of its release (1977, the best year ever for music), Kraftwerk had already established themselves as the most innovative and influential electronic group ever. Had they never released Trans-Europe Express, they still would have gone down in history. But Trans-Europe Express is an entirely different beast from Autobahn or The Man Machine. It is a collection of seven of the most pristinely executed pop songs ever written. From "Europe Endless" to "Endless Endless," the album flows through beautiful electronic suites unparalleled by any other artist to ever make electronic music. The lyrics are smarter and more relatable than on any other Kraftwerk release, which is part of what makes this so good, but the music is the key to this album's success. The percussion sounds perfectly motorik; it plods along with the utmost groove and funk, albeit understated groove and funk. Above the percussion are layers and layers of shimmering electronics. The influence this album has is not on electronic programming, but on songwriting and atmosphere creating. This is an album that can be listened to whenever, and it makes you feel empowered because it's so brilliant. Even if Kraftwerk had already proven their electronics prowess, Trans-Europe Express elevated them from best electronic band ever to potentially best band ever.

1. Sly & The Family Stone--There's A Riot Goin' On
There's A Riot Goin' On must have been pretty shocking when it first came out in 1971. Sly & The Family Stone had become famous over the previous five years for putting out fun, uplifting hippie-funk jams with exceedingly positive messages. Just one year earlier, the band put out their wildly successful Greatest Hits that included songs with titles like "Everybody Is A Star," "You Can Make It If You Try," "Dance To The Music," and "Fun." This interracial group of fun-loving San Franciscans had become famous for singing lines like "so on and so on and Scooby Dooby Doo" with a straight face. So when Riot dropped on November 20, 1971, Sly fans must have been pretty surprised. There's A Riot Goin' On is one of the darkest, densest, most schizophrenic albums of all time. (And it just might be the best, too.)

The backstory is intrinsically linked with the album, partially to explain this sudden and dramatic shift in ethos. Simply put, by 1970, Sly Stone was doing a lot of drugs. His world was crashing down on him, and he decided that no one was to be trusted. The fun, exciting '60s had given way to the dark reality that was the '70s, and Sly was unprepared physically and emotionally. Nearly all parts of There's A Riot Goin' On were recorded by Sly himself. The other members of the Family would lay down tracks, and then Sly would just tape right over them with his own playing. (This is why the mix is so muddy and dense.) By the time the album was released, Sly was barely functional, but he had released his masterpiece.

So why is the album so good? It sounds like it would be a mess, right? Well, it is a mess. And that's one of the reasons it is so good. The lyrics are dark and sarcastic. Sly sings them with a mixture of confidence and fear that is truly haunting. It's instantly apparent from the words and delivery that this was a time of extreme turbulence for Sly and for the world. The music on Riot is certainly funk, but it's wildly different from "I Want To Take You Higher." It's sharp, obtuse, dark, busy, and sloppy on most tracks, which fits with the mood of the lyrics. Songs like "Luv 'n' Haight" are deep, funky, and swampy. However, what makes the album so weird and mindbending is that several songs are light and delicate. Songs like "Runnin' Away" are simple and catchy, providing stark contrast to their lyrics. Then there are songs like the title track, which is zero minutes and zero seconds long, and "Spaced Cowboy," which finds the drug-addled Sly yodeling over tape-hiss covered avant-funk. Over the course of the album, Sly makes it clear that the '60s are over, hippies are over, and happiness in general is over. This is no more apparent than on the closer, "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa." The song shares lyrics with the massively popular Family Stone hit "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," but presents the lyrics in a slowed down, dark, creepy seven minute suite. This is an album to be played during the apocalypse (or any time you want to be amazed).

That's what I think. You don't have to agree with order, but you have to agree that those are some pretty amazing albums.

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