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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.

44120056.jpeg20. Elvis Costello, My Aim is True (1978)
Costello’s debut album bridged the gap between the roiling punk energy of the mid-70s and the staid tradition of literate, intimate, popular songwriting that traces from the Gershwins, Berlin and Porter to Buddy Holly and Lennon/McCartney. The record (with the country-tinged ballad, “Alison,” the straight-up rockers “Mystery Dance” and “I’m not Angry,” the politically charged “Less Than Zero”) only hints at the eclectic breadth and scope of Costello’s future catalog, and it sets the musical and fashion stage for the so-called New Wave. Not Costello’s greatest work, but a landmark, highly influential first album.—Mark Baker

pink-floyd-the-wall-cd-cover-19812.jpeg19. Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979)
The legacy of Pink Floyd was not cemented with just The Dark Side of the Moon. The Wall is one of the greatest concept albums of all time. It tells the tale of Pink, a troubled young man raised by an overprotective mother, who is trying to break down the wall in his mind that has been constructed by the authoritative figures in his life. It’s a painful story that most can relate to or at least comprehend, not only because so many have suffered similar pains in life, but because it comes from the story of a real person. Lead singer, bassist and founding member of the band Roger Waters wrote the album based on experiences in his own life. The themes that present themselves throughout the album stitch the story together, making a cohesive 26-track album. The tour that followed the album’s release took it to new heights, turning it into a rock opera. The psychedelic music that Pink Floyd so heavily influenced is present throughout the entire album. Pink Floyd and The Wall not only changed a genre of music, but music itself.—Clint Alwahab

Maggotbrain.jpg18. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain (1971)
Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain opens with a kaleidoscopic 10-minute suite that ruminates on the pratfalls of drowning in one’s own shit. It only gets weirder from there. Clinton apparently didn’t think much of sampling infant coos on the implacable call to arms “Wars of Armageddon;”“You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” bedecks a classic 20th Century parable with rolling juke pianos and static flourishes of electronic organ. “Can You Get to That” seesaws on the dueling voices of Gary Snider and Pat Lewis, taking on the air of a violent fantasia. Maggot Brain doesn’t always make sense, either technically or thematically, but it’s big and florid and overwhelming—imagine staring into a gilded, floor-to-ceiling mirror while on DMT.—M.T. Richards

VanMorrisonMoondance.jpg17. Van Morrison, Moondance (1970)
On his third solo release, the Belfast troubadour reached a hallowed space between the irresistible pop structure of “Brown Eyed Girl” and the impenetrable poetry of 1968’s Astral Weeks. Moondance was calculating in its musical precision, but unrestrained in its radiating and joyful imagery, as exemplified in songs like the title track, “Caravan,” and “Crazy Love.” Even decades removed, Moondance still serves as the one-disc, single-artist soundtrack to ‘70s FM radio. —Hilary Saunders

220px-Slyfam-riot1.jpg16. Sly & The Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)
With the world crumbling around Sly Stone—including dissolving relationships and political pressure from the Black Panther Party—he and his group nose-dived into the era’s drug culture. During this period, they picked apart their already-successful psych-soul blueprint to make a darker, more somber record. Stone teetered on the edge during the making of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, holding on long enough to create one of the formative post-flower-power psychedelic albums. Within this work, Sly and the Family Stone offer a disillusioned look at the changing landscapes around them, sharing a loosely conceptualized and cynical outlook depicting the signs of the times.—Max Blau

220px-FMacRumours.PNG15. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
By 1977, hitmaking couple Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had lost each other in a psychotropic haze. On Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, that haze is thick enough to suck the air out of the room. These 11 tracks saturate in bad faith. “Second Hand News” and “Don’t Stop” put on a happy face, but even they evoke violent sensations: the stinging drip of a cocaine high; the lurking, painful realization that your wedding vows were meaningless. This tension climaxes in “The Chain,” where all five members air out their grievances in a somewhat bizarre dance of kabuki theater. The Nicks-anchored “Dreams” is even darker, employing a theme of inconsolable suffering. From the slo-mo churn of “Oh Daddy” to the boogying disco shuffle of “You Make Loving Fun,” Rumours hasn’t aged a day in 35 years. It might be a snapshot of a band in peril, but it refuses to yellow.—M.T. Richards

220px-Steviewonder_innervisions.jpg14. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions (1973)
By spring 1971, “Little” Stevie Wonder had grown tired of Motown’s upbeat factory sound. The Vietnam War, riots and assassinations put the nation in peril, yet much of Stevie’s music still resembled that sugary soul of the 1960s. Stevie, now an adult, had heavier things to say. By 1973, Stevie’s new direction would reach its pinnacle: Innervisions is arguably his best work, and one of the decade’s definitive albums. It tackled drug usage (“Too High”), inner city blight (“Living For The City”), and religion (“Jesus Children of America”) with refreshing clarity, and solidified Stevie Wonder as a national treasure.—Marcus Moore

220px-Whosnext.jpg13. The Who, Who’s Next (1971)
It’s kinda hard to believe Who’s Next, The Who’s rawest, most powerful and perfect album, came out in 1971. Barely out of the flowery 1960s (and fresh off their psychedelic—and cluttered—rock-opera, Tommy), guitarist-songwriter-vocalist Pete Townshend set to work on Lifehouse, a futuristic follow-up concept album so epic in its proposed scope, it made Tommy’s deaf-dumb-blind-pinball-playing narrative look meager by comparison. While Townshend’s outlandish ideas eventually got away from him, it worked out for the best: Who’s Next, a bastardized version of the original concept album, is hard rock’s definitive masterpiece, crammed top-to-bottom with classics like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Bargain,” “Baba O’Riley,” and, well, everything else.—Ryan Reed

220px-ZiggyStardust.jpg12. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
It’s an end of days story, the earth is out of resources. We all are, as my grandmother would say, up shit creek without a paddle. Along comes Ziggy Stardust, an alien returned for our waning days to bring a message of hope. I tend to think bringing giant space-spiders along with you to convince people everything is going to be alright is a questionable decision, but what’s inarguable is the greatness of the album both in terms of concept execution and rock ‘n’ roll range. It’s as timeless as any record of the era, proven by its acoustic recreation for The Life Aquatic, and its historical reinterpretation for The Velvet Goldmine.—Jeff Gonick

220px-LetItBe.jpg11. The Beatles, Let it Be (1970)
The thing about Let It Be is that it was recorded in the death throes of a band no longer at the top of its game. Many fans don’t realize—because the songs are still, for the most part, all classics—that they were actually playing stylistic catch-up on the album. In Get Back, the large tome detailing the recording of Let It Be, there’s an instance where John tells the other Beatles that they “have to make it sound more like The Band.” The Beatles were no longer groundbreaking or cool when they made Let It Be, but some of their greatest songs came out of the process. The last album they released ended up being a fitting snapshot, a manifestation of every major trope of their music and careers: the sweetness of a McCartney/Lennon love ditty (“Two of Us”), John celebrating Yoko and his ever-present new life (“Dig A Pony”), George Harrison’s growth and presence as a songwriter (“For You Blue”), the Scouse charm and humor that earned them a base in the first place (the Liverpudlian folk song “Maggie Mae”), their ability to pick at our consciousness (“Across the Universe”), their occasional non-sequitur weirdness (“Dig It”), the life-affirming rockers (“Don’t Let Me Down,” “Get Back”). And then, there’s the title track, still ever capable of making the hardest fan weep. “The only currency in this bankrupt world,” we’re told in the gospels of Almost Famous, “Is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” If that’s the case, the Beatles made us all exponentially richer.—Lindsay Eanet

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