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The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s

May 14, 2012  |  12:55pm
The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s
The ’70s sometimes get a bad rap: Often these years are remembered as the musical era that brought us disco at its absolute gaudiest. But there was far more going on in the decade than polyester, sequins and cocaine; the 1970s saw the rise of the singer/songwriter, the birth of punk rock, reggae’s infiltration of the mainstream and the long, strange trip led by some of psychedelia’s finest.

In fact, it’s a decade so musically diverse, we had quite a time whittling it down to our top albums. When we polled our staff, interns and writers, over 250 albums received votes, but ultimately these 70 emerged as clear favorites.

220px-Lynyrdskynyrd.jpg60. Lynyrd Skynyrd, (Pronounced ‘lĕh-’nérd ‘skin-’nérd) (1973)
(Pronounced ‘lĕh-’nérd ‘skin-’nérd) introduced the world to both the quintessential Southern rock band at the height of its powers and the epic “Free Bird,” empowering decades of slow-witted would-be hecklers with the ability to provoke audible groans from any audience throughout the world. More importantly the album features two of the absolute greatest rock songs of all time, “Simple Man” and the elegiac “Tuesday’s Gone.”—Garrett Martin

220px-MelodyComment.jpg59. Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)
It takes less than half an hour for the French maestro to take us through a semi-autobiographical concise exploration of seduction. Serge Gainsbourg was always known for his varied musical styling from album to album, or sometimes even song to song. However, Histoire de Melody Nelson’s consistency gives the album the sense that it is one long musical piece with different scenes. The term “concept album” is thrown about quite often, but Gainsbourg was more interested in telling a story than creating a perception. The musician’s funky bass lines, orchestral strings and a slam-poetry vocal delivery helps paint the harrowing story of Gainsbourg crashing his Rolls Royce into a teenaged beauty on her bicycle and the ensuing affair, creating a sense that the entire ensemble of songs is taken from a modern performance meant to be performed in opera houses instead of a studio. Only Serge Gainsbourg and his real-life muse Jane Birkin could have allowed the world into such intimate emotions. -Adam Vitcavage

images-10.jpeg58. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976)
If there was a Socratic ideal form of how we (mis)remember the ‘70s, it’d probably look a lot like The Modern Lovers. Bright, airbrushed guitars, lovably sloppy vocals and an aw-shucks inebriated charm—their 1976 self-titled debut still sounds like accidental genius. It’s difficult conceding that the Lovers were barely more than a myth when it finally hit shelves. Jonathan Richman has gone through many guises and many adorers in his life, but his lasting legacy will forever be centered on those first, gleefully wry sessions.—Luke Winkie

Hejira_cover.jpg57. Joni Mitchell, Hejira (1976)
In 1976, after spending years in the limelight, singing and playing hippie-friendly anthems like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game” for people who came of age in the ‘60s, Joni Mitchell needed time off to reflect and reassess. Her solution was to drive across America by herself, and the time away gave birth to the songs on Hejira, a word that loosely translates as “traveler” in Arabic. Songs like “Amelia,” “Coyote” and especially “Song for Sharon” expressed a new depth and maturity in her lyrics that perfectly fused with the challenging new music she was composing. Supported by a stellar who’s who of modern jazz musicians including Jaco Pastorious, Tom Scott and Larry Carlton, Mitchell’s guitar playing that had previously comprised of little more than folk strumming attained a mastery of expressing, phrasing and tone that has lost none of its power or innovation with the passage of time. Rhythmically complex, daring and beautiful, Hejira’s travelogues of despair and illumination have inspired many to consider it the finest album in her discography.—Doug Heselgrave

220px-Entertainment!.jpg56. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
On Gang of Four’s debut, their post-punk mixed with funk is a clear inspiration for bands ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Maximo Park, yet the album’s Entertainment! moniker is quite sarcastic. The album discusses issues like Marxism, Irish prisoners and guerilla warriors, mixed with songs about love and lust. With tracks like “Natural’s Not In It” and “Damaged Goods,” Gang of Four makes dancing to heavy issues not unusual, but rather encouraged.—Ross Bonaime

220px-Harry_Nilsson_Nilsson_Schmilsson.jpg55. Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)
At a 1968 press conference announcing the formation of Apple Corps., The Beatles were asked about their favorite American artist and group. The Fab Four answered “Nilsson” to both questions. Harry Nilsson may have been a one-man operation, but it’s easy to mistake his perfectly harmonized, multi-tracked vocals for a whole group of talented singers. By 1970, Nilsson had already recorded what would become his most famous songs (“One” and “Everybody’s Talkin’”), but his best album would come a year later with Nilsson Schmilsson. On “Early in the Morning,” the singer shows off his skills as a true melodist, while “Jump into the Fire” is a blistering rock ‘n’ roll tune. Nilsson’s cover of Badfinger’s ballad “Without You” serves as the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the record for which he took home the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. But count on Nilsson to provide a lighthearted counterpoint to melancholy with one of the record’s most memorable moments, “Coconut.”—Wyndham Wyeth

220px-Bridge_Over_Troubled_Water.jpg54. Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
With the release of their glorious swan song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel began the 1970s with a devastating finale. And what a way to go out: Though they’d already laid the groundwork on 1968’s subtly expansive Bookends, Simon & Garfunkel’s last—and best—album is also their most eclectic. Opening with the gospel-tinged title track, which featured Garfunkel’s all-time finest lead vocal, Bridge Over Troubled Water never relents its focus, even as it sprawls: “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” is a mystical folk gem; the ramshackle pop of “Cecilia” is the very definition of a sing-along; meanwhile, the aching, psychedelic ballad “The Only Living Boy in New York” is simply the greatest song they ever released—sort of like having your heart demolished and swiftly re-assembled in just under four minutes.—Ryan Reed

220px-Unknownpleasures.jpg53. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (1979)
There might not have been a better band to usher in the ‘80s than Joy Division, a forward-thinking group of English rockers whose sum was more than its individual parts. Vocalist Ian Curtis had an unmistakable, dry vocal delivery that blended perfectly with Bernard Sumner’s atmospheric, yet always distorted and punchy guitar parts. Peter Hook still inspires slews of pick-wielding, gnarled bass parts, and Stephen Morris brought a dancier take on gloom-rock rhythm. It’s hard to think of another debut in the decade that took as many chances and was as self-assured as Unknown Pleasures.—Tyler Kane

220px-BigStarThird.JPG52. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
When it was recorded Memphis’ Ardent Studios in 1974, Big Star’s third album couldn’t generate enough interest from record labels to get a proper release. It took UK fans’ and critics’ enthusiastic response to the rerelease of the first two records in 1978 for the music to ever see the light of day. But the sprawling power-pop masterpiece would have quite an effect on young musicians like R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. Over one album, Alex Chilton’s lyrics span the range of human emotion, but both the highs and lows are accompanied by perfect pop hooks.—Josh Jackson

Talking_Heads-Fear_of_Music.jpg51. Talking Heads, Fear of Music (1979)
Fear of Music was leaning out of the ‘70s, dropping in August of 1979, and that epochal advantage can certainly earn a lot of asterisks. But David Byrne’s premier pop moment in the Talking Heads canon still feels remarkably singular. The pure exotic pleasures of “Paper” and “Cities” brushed right up against the sardonic “Life During Wartime,” but it all feels remarkably kindled, free of that overshadowing density of their most “important” work. We used to call it New Wave, but now it’s just a lovely template.—Luke Winkie

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