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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-BruceSpringsteenDarknessontheEdgeofTown.jpg30. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
In 1977, Springsteen’s songwriting made a dramatic shift, breaking with his previous romanticism to write with a hard-edged realism and in a populist vernacular about and for the working-class kids he’d grown up with and still saw in his audience. The result was some of the best songs he’d ever write: “The Promised Land,” “Badlands,” “Racing in the Street” and the title track. The fact that Springsteen insisted that he could “still believe in the promised land” after all the injustices he’d described created the dramatic tension that drove the record. And the songs blossomed from their overly studied studio versions into liberated and liberating live versions, best represented by the bonus DVD of a Houston show on the 2010 box set, The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story.—Geoffrey Himes

220px-PattiSmithHorses.jpg29. Patti Smith, Horses (1975)
First impressions have always been important in discussions about art, from Elizabethan literature to more contemporary jams. And good Lord, does Horses make an entrance: that dirge of a piano riff, and then Patti Smith, with a slow burn, that line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.” With the piano and guitar as kindling, the backbeat stoking the flames, that burn builds and builds to the explosion of “Gloria,” the chaotic “ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong” of Smith’s heartbeat. And from there, you’re in love, with Gloria, with Patti. Horses is the kind of album people try to talk about and it always turns into a sermon or a sales pitch. When people talk about an artist or an album having “saved their life,” this is the kind of record they mean. It’s the kind of album we wish parents would standard-issue give their children as a means of encouraging personal growth and survival. And as further evidence of Horses’ importance, Smith is still making records decades later, and they’re still great.—Lindsay Eanet

220px-A_Day_at_the_Races_(Queen).jpg28. Queen, A Day at the Races (1976)
Coming off of the heels of A Night at the Opera (and their biggest hit of all time, “Bohemian Rhapsody”) Queen decided it best to not let the success linger and released A Day at the Races just little over a year later. Like so many of Queen’s albums, this one was an assorted blend of current metal and classical music and meant to be played in the largest arenas in the world. The album weaves through blaring guitars, cathedral pianos, fast and furious vocals and deep ballads, but it’s Freddie Mercury’s gospel-baroque hits of “Somebody to Love” and “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” that sent millions of fans over the edge. Once you flip the record and hear the multi-layered vocals and complex melodies, you know the boys in Queen weren’t suffering any slump in the hits department. “Lover Boy” is a short and sweet ragtime moment that doesn’t seem like much, but then turns into another show-stopping sing-along. —Adam Vitcavage

220px-All_Things_Must_Pass_1970_cover.jpg27. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass (1970)
While his mate John Lennon was quick with the catchy hooks for the peace and love movement of the times, it was George who answered with specific instructions, exemplified in songs like “Awaiting On You All”: “You don’t need a love in, you don’t need a bed pan. You don’t need a horoscope or a microscope to see the mess that you’re in.” Co-producer Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound brings a layered depth (listen to “Wah-Wah”) to Harrison’s impressive cache of talent, which included Ringo, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Dave Mason, Billy Preston and the infamous saxophonist Bobby Keys, whose signature licks were heard on many a 1970s album, like the Stones’ Exile On Main Street. Harrison’s devotion to the Hindu god Krishna permeates the 20+ tracks. The innocently plagiarized “My Sweet Lord” still stands as a symbol of the personal musical exhilaration Harrison must have experienced with his post-Beatles explosion of songwriting, long kept in the shadows by the hugeness that was Lennon and McCartney.—Tim Basham

220px-TalkingHeadsMoreSongsAboutBuildingsandFood.jpg26. Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
More Songs About Buildings and Food launched what would become a career-spanning relationship between Talking Heads’ leading man David Byrne and Brian Eno, whose tight production has been credited with helping the band expand their audience beyond their original stomping grounds at CBGB. The album features some of Byrne’s most delightfully quirky song topics, including songs written from the point of view of art school students (“Artists Only”) and a track about a couple who gets so sick of lousy TV that they simply go out and make their own shows (“Found a Job”). The Talking Heads and, later, David Byrne went on to make a long series of great records, and More Songs About Buildings and Food was their introduction to the wider world.—Rachel Bailey

220px-Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_Road.jpg25. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is perhaps the best example of the magic that was the Elton John-Bernie Taupin songwriting partnership. It produced some of John’s best-known tracks, including the rollicking “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” the Marilyn Monroe tribute “Candle in the Wind,” the titular ballad and the karaoke staple “Bennie and the Jets.” John seamlessly shifts from brash to mournful over the course of its 17 tracks, and the result is not unlike when Dorothy steps into the Technicolor land of Oz for the first time.—Bonnie Stiernberg

220px-Songs_in_the_key_of_life.jpg24. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
To celebrate his independence from the Motown machine, Wonder released this album, even more extravagantly packaged than the Beatles’ White Album. He produced and wrote or co-wrote all 21 tracks, handled the lion’s share of instruments and vocals, and released the results as a two-LP, gatefold album with a 24-page booklet and seven-inch EP. All this hubris was justified by the terrific music—catchy as hell, impeccably performed and often very funky. There were four top-40 singles, including two #1s (“I Wish” and “Sir Duke”), plus his much-covered standard, “Isn’t She Lovely.” This closed out Wonder’s five-year, five-album run of peak performance, but it closed it out with a bang.—Geoffrey Himes

220px-After_the_Gold_Rush.jpg23. Neil Young, After the Gold Rush (1970)
Along with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, After the Gold Rush is one of the greatest break-up records ever made regardless of intention. Even though it has nothing to do with the album, which was inspired by a Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman screenplay, I liked to imagine that it was written to capture the feeling too often ignored by movies and music. The truth of loss that comes after the magic, after the bum-rush of serotonin and possibilities, after you realize the holes inside haven’t been plugged, that the overflow of emotion you poured in ran right out.—Jeff Gonick

220px-The_Clash_UK.jpg22. The Clash, The Clash (1977)
At the beginning of the 1970s, John Graham Mellor was, at various points, a gravedigger, a busker in the London Underground, a pinch-hitter vocalist and guitarist for bar bands. Then came the release of The Clash’s eponymous first album in ’77, a year associated forever with the explosion of punk rock. Mellor would become Joe Strummer and lead his band charging onto the scene with their debut, 35 minutes of pure energy, challenging the youth of Britain and the world to listen and to get up and dance (er, pogo). The Clash is an important reminder of how diverse the influences on the scene were, especially for a style of music that seems so simple. “Police & Thieves” recontextualizes the words of reggae greats Junior Murvin and Lee “Scratch” Perry; the harmonica and guitar fuzz on “Garageland” recalls the American R&B and early rock that Joe Strummer played in pubs when he was getting his start. But what stands out are the lean, guitar-driven howlers and sing-a-longs, like gleeful opener “Janie Jones,” “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” Indeed, The Clash took their influences and environment and all the things that were pissing them off and turned it all into a riot of their own.—Lindsay Eanet

Bluealbumcover.jpg21. Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)
It’s no coincidence that the title of Mitchell’s fourth album echoes the title of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, for the singer-songwriter similarly uses modal minimalism and augmented chords to lend a translucent glow to romantic melancholy. Written in the wake of her break-up with longtime lover Graham Nash, these songs have such sturdy melodies and stories that they can afford to be stripped down and stripped bare in the studio, often to nothing more than Mitchell’s soprano and acoustic guitar, dulcimer or piano. The results include her catchiest tune since “Both Sides Now” (“Carey”) and the decade’s best new Christmas song (“The River”).—Geoffrey Himes

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