Today I’ve given myself the task of picking out the ten best albums of the 1970s, with only one selection allowed for each year. The task was in equal measure pleasurable and gruelling; I found myself having to ruthlessly omit some of my favourite artists and albums as I very quickly remembered what a deliciously brilliant decade the 1970s were for music.
After waving goodbye to the Beatles and the hippie dream, the ‘70s brought on an age of darker and dirtier music as we welcomed heavier forms of rock such as metal and punk. Meanwhile, the abstract creative ideas of the ‘60s seemed to propagate into a wider variety of musical styles as genres were blended amid the burgeoning technological advancement in production and synthesised sound.
In my selections, I wanted to display the evolution of popular music across the decade and disallowed myself from picking any one artist twice. Otherwise, you would have a list chock full of David Bowie and Rolling Stones albums. Rather than crudely allowing my subjective taste to rain on the parade, I’ve left my mind ajar to albums that must take pride of place because of their dominating contemporary impact and ongoing influence.
That said, there are some selections below that don’t follow the usual grain and will likely stick in many a craw. If you find yourself simmering over some of the selections, just remember, it’s only a bit of fun and I found it immensely difficult, especially for 1972.
So, without further ado, please read on and see how many you agree with. Better still, have a go at coming up with your own list using the same limitations. You may discover, as I did, that it’s a little like tackling the advanced sudoku in the Sunday paper.
The 10 best albums of the 1970s year by year
1970: George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
As we kicked off the decade, we said goodbye to the Beatles, the most important rock group in history. For this selection, I was close to picking their farewell album, Let it Be; however, despite containing some great hits, the album is tarnished by the lack of cohesion within the group at the time of recording and was nothing on the band’s previous four albums.
Elsewhere in 1970, The Velvet Underground earned a shoutout with Loaded, their most commercial yet least adventurous album, but for me, the battle came to a head between the three post-Beatles solo albums released in the year. In the end, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass took home the prize for its creative scope and the way it seems to embody so passionately everything the “Quiet Beatle” stood for – a true, epic masterpiece.
1971: Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
Funkadelic were the true pioneers of funk-rock music, and they hit the gold mine with their seminal third studio album, Maggot Brain, in 1971. Best known for its ten-minute title track, the George Clinton-produced masterpiece seems to embody the dark and dingy miasma of urban decay and hedonism that cloaked many US cities in the 1970s.
The experimental sound blended the psychedelic rock sound of Jimi Hendrix with funk along with folk-blues and flecks of gospel music. While 1971 was host to a few other serious contenders, nothing before or after Maggot Brain sounds quite like it. It’s one of the few experimental albums I can keep coming back to without skipping any of the tracks.
1972: The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St.
The Rolling Stones were churning out increasingly impressive albums over the late 1960s, and as they entered the ‘70s, they were undoubtedly the biggest thing in rock music. For me – and most others, as I understand – The Stones reached their absolute peak between 1971-72 with Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St.
Deciding between the two was as easy as flipping a coin, if the coin was solid lead and the size of a car. The two albums are difficult to compare as they are so sonically and thematically disparate. Ultimately, I landed on Exile on Main Street because it seems more permeated with the band’s DNA thanks to the enveloped history of their tax exile in France.
1973: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
As they departed the early psychedelic rock sound of their early years in the 1960s helmed by Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd grew toward the more spacious and atmospheric prog-rock sound that would ultimately define their peak success in the 1970s. The 1971 album Meddle threw a few ideas together but was undeniably highlighted by its 23-minute side two epic, ‘Echoes’. It was the sound of ‘Echoes’ that Pink Floyd ran with as they looked to record The Dark Side of the Moon.
The 1973 album is seen by many as Pink Floyd’s greatest achievement as it marries the maturation of Roger Waters’ conceptual songwriting with the band’s blossoming instrumental chemistry. While containing elements of jazz, gospel and blues music, the album runs from start to finish seamlessly as a deeply absorbing journey through the cheery themes of greed, death, mental illness and the relentless attrition of time.
1974: Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
Joni Mitchell released this sixth studio album to a chorus of critical and commercial acclaim, having established herself as a mainstay of the early ‘70s singer-songwriter wave with Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and Blue (1971) earlier in the decade. The 1974 release showed a distinct shift in style to a highly accessible folk sound infused with jazz.
The album was highly influential on subsequent pop acts of the 1970s, especially Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, who once recalled taking LSD to listen to the album: “I was with my producer, at his house, with a set of speakers that were taller than that fireplace, and I was in a safe place. And I sat there on the floor and listened to that record… That was a pretty dynamic experience.” Meanwhile, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Mitchell recalled Bob Dylan falling asleep when she first played it to him – I suppose you can’t please everyone.
1975: Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Bob Dylan’s form waned toward the late 1960s, following his heyday between 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. Over the early 1970s, Dylan’s commercial and critical peak looked to be sinking on the horizon following 1970’s New Morning. He hadn’t released much to entice his fans apart from a few uneven Self Portrait outtakes and his soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).
Fortunately, the tides changed in 1974 with the release of Planet Waves, which somehow became Dylan’s first-ever number one album. Though 1974’s moderate return to form has since withered into the background, save for ‘Forever Young’, Dylan took this momentum into Blood on the Tracks. The 1975 album came like a bolt from the blue and is now considered Dylan’s greatest album outside of the ‘60s.
1976: David Bowie – Station to Station
David Bowie undoubtedly hit a fruitful peak in the 1970s following the release of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust in ‘71 and ‘72, respectively. For many, and myself, on another day, this list would have featured Ziggy Stardust or Low (1977), but today, I want to show my undying love for this mid-decade masterpiece.
Station to Station saw the genesis of a new alter ego for the Starman, The Thin White Duke, who is stylishly introduced in the album’s eponymous ten-minute opener. The remainder of the record is near faultless with a great balance between the upbeat (‘Golden Years’/‘Stay’) and the slower and introspective (‘Wild is the Wind’/‘Word on a Wing’).
1977: Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Fleetwood Mac created one of the decade’s most popular albums in Rumours. The album is a masterclass from start to finish, with the endlessly talented, feuding bunch of musicians pouring pure emotion into the cauldron. What resulted was a finely balanced selection of candid pop-rock classics.
1977 was another particularly challenging year to choose from. It was home to some cracking albums, including four from the co-habiting David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Steely Dan’s Aja, The Clash, and Sex Pistols’ iconic debut. But I’m hoping you will agree that Rumours is just one of those flawless releases that touched far too many among us to be ignored.
1978: Magazine – Real Life
This gem from the Manchester post-punk pioneers is probably among the more obscure picks on this list. In 1978 punk music was transitioning into its more round-cut and erudite phase, post-punk. Magazine were a band that so distinctly embodied this transition, as Buzzcocks founding member Howard Devoto split off in search of a new sound.
Real Life was a bold and brilliant debut venture for the band that incorporated more complex arrangements and textures to the classic sound of punk. Devoto shows the true depth of his lyrical capabilities with a diverse range of absorbing themes and memorable, often chilling lines.
1979: Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Released in 1979 on the famous Factory records, Unknown Pleasures was the seminal debut album for Ian Curtis and co. The album was produced by Martin Hannett, who incorporated a number of unconventional production techniques into the industrial and gritty sound of the band’s earlier singles.
1979 was home to a vast array of brilliant albums, most of which fall within the then-booming post-punk genre. But for me, none were quite so iconic and influential as this belter, boasting hits like ‘Shadowplay’, ‘She’s Lost Control Again’, ‘Disorder’ and ‘New Dawn Fades’.