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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-Letsstaytogether_cover.jpg40. Al Green, Let’s Stay Together (1972)
When Al Green released Let’s Stay Together in 1972, retailers of roses and water beds wore smiles—the album quickly became the soundtrack of lovemaking in America. Green’s astonishing falsetto set him apart in the soul-singer pantheon, with Marvin Gaye his only rival in silky smoothness. President Obama covered “Let’s Stay Together” last January at an Apollo Theater fundraiser, delivering a credibly sweet verse before Green himself performed. How great is Al Green? Back in the day, those capricious Greek gods, wickedly fond of changing mortals into narcissus and spider and other flora and fauna, would have made Green a songbird. He’d be singing outside every bedroom in the world.—Charles McNair

220px-StoogesRawPower.jpg39. Iggy and The Stooges, Raw Power (1973)
Raw Power opener “Search and Destroy” is about as iconic as proto-punk gods Iggy Pop and his Stooges got in the ‘70s. The track, with its sloppy, clipping production ushered in a new era for the band, which featured a new name (Iggy and the Stooges instead of just “The Stooges”) help from David Bowie on mixing, and new guitarist James Williamson. The album—which at this point was the band’s most commercially successful by leaps and bounds—featured not only the decade-defining “Search and Destroy,” but other unforgettable, biting tracks like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” and “Gimme Danger.”—Tyler Kane

220px-Suicide1977.jpg38. Suicide, Suicide (1977)
Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut, in terms of style and influence, is one of the most groundbreaking releases in the history of music. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, when you consider that it’s regarded as the first synth-pop record, and has since gone to inspire legions of bands, from Joy Division to MGMT. What’s interesting is that, unlike most seminal records, it still sounds ahead of its time today. The reverb, bleakness and atonal drone might have turned off much of the general public, but like all great artists, Suicide’s Alan Vega and Martin Rev had the balls to sound like sex, danger, madness and ultimately possibility.—Drew Fortune

220px-Carole_King_-_Tapestry.jpg37. Carole King, Tapestry (1971)
Tapestry was nothing less than the sound of a generation growing up. I was 13 the first time I heard “It’s Too Late.” It shook me, because it was one of the first pop songs I can remember about love dying, divorce, etc. Sure, there were lots of songs about young love not prevailing —“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” that kind of thing. But Carole King sang about adult love not prevailing —about heartbreak and compromise being permanent features of the grownup landscape. Tapestry has always been the ultimate chick album. But more than that, it was a mature album, and the world it described was both as exotic as Tahiti, and as familiar as my parents’ bedroom, down the hall.—Tom Junod

220px-ImagineCover.jpg36. John Lennon, Imagine (1971)
Perhaps atoning for sins committed in his heavy-handed salvation work on The Beatles’ Let It Be recordings, here co-producer Phil Spector brings a simplicity of instrumentation to Lennon’s brilliantly written tunes. Even today, the album retains its freshness (except maybe for that annoying sax solo on “It’s So Hard”—I don’t care if it is King Curtis). Compared to the soaring production of Simon and Garfunkel’s inspirational Bridge Over Troubled Water a year earlier, the title track relies on the profundity of Lennon’s words with a fitting, uncomplicated arrangement of piano, bass and drums and just a dusting of strings. And then there’s Lennon’s formidable vocals. While he moves us with his sincerity on “Imagine” he tongue-lashes his way through “Gimme Some Truth,” immediately starting with an obvious impatience and disgust at the incompetence of our political leaders. Later, in the same manner, he unabashedly burns his ex-songwriting partner Paul McCartney in “How Do You Sleep?” With every song a gem, this is John Lennon at his multi-layered best.—Tim Basham

220px-Elvis-Costello-This-Years-Model.jpg35. Elvis Costello & The Attractions, This Year’s Model (1978)
Elvis Costello had already made a splash with My Aim Is True, but the addition of his own band makes an immediate impact, as the rhythm section of Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas launch right into “No Action,” colored with organ from Steve Nieve, who’d added so much to “Watching the Detectives.” Songs like “Pump It Up” and “Radio, Radio” are as energetic as anything in his catalog. It’s a rock ’n’ roll record that would make Buddy Holly happy to have Costello wearing those glasses.—Josh Jackson

220px-Low_(album).jpg34. David Bowie, Low (1977)
In 1977, David Bowie had shed his Thin White Duke persona and began cleaning up after the severe cocaine addiction that fueled the Station to Station sessions. He relocated to France and then Berlin to begin work on his next album, Low. The record embraced a highly experimental and avant-garde style that was directly influenced by the work of bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! as well as Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno. The result is an LP that is simultaneously compelling and confounding. Polarizing critics and fans when it was released, Low is split into two distinct halves with their own unique sounds. The first is made up less of songs, but rather “song fragments” that seem to start and end from out of nowhere, fascinating the listener nonetheless. The second half is characterized by mostly instrumental sprawling, spacey tracks. Low became the first installment in Bowie’s famous “Berlin Trilogy,” and would go on to become highly influential in its own right through its structure, embrace of electronic sounds, and unique production techniques.—Wyndham Wyeth

220px-The_kinks_lola_versus_powerman_album.jpg33. The Kinks, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970)
Some of the best music in existence was written to poke fun at the music industry, which was the source of inspiration for Lola versus Powerman, including tracks like “Top of the Pops,” “Denmark Street” and “Get Back In Line.” The band’s musings on the modern age are still every bit worth pondering and absorbing as they were back then. “This Time Tomorrow” still induces chills; “Lola” can still get crowds of all ages and at all levels of inebriation going.—Lindsay Eanet

220px-Off_the_wall.jpg32. Michael Jackson, Off the Wall (1979)
Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall marks the icon’s transition from a Motown singer to one of the biggest solo artists of all time, garnering him a Grammy and a quartet of big hits on the Billboard 100. With its single “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” Off the Wall is widely acknowledged as one of the great, enduring pop albums from years past, so it’s easy to forget that the record is also peppered with heartfelt ballads. But the one-two punch of raw emotion (Jackson actually cries at the end of the take for “She’s Out of My Life”) and pop prowess is at the heart of who Jackson really was as an artist, and why his music is still so beloved after so many years.—Rachel Bailey

220px-NeilYoungHarvestalbumcover.jpg31. Neil Young, Harvest (1972)
While an album’s sales are seldom a reliable measure of its true value, Young’s Harvest struck a chord with record buyers. Billboard ranked it the best selling album of 1972, quite a feat considering the year’s release of now-classic albums by Carole King, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and on and on. Even more amazing, I can overlook radio’s oversaturation of the single “Heart of Gold” and hear it for what it is: a song as pivotal to its time as other classics in theirs, like Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” The album was a further affirmation of a sound Young had already begun with After the Gold Rush. The “unplugged”production of songs like “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Harvest” mix surprisingly well with the almost Broadway-like “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” before closing with a CSN&Y-like “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”. Country-rock before it was “alt.”—Tim Basham

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