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.
10. Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
It would’ve been more shocking if the Pistols stuck around long enough to make a second LP. Every marketing gimmick has a shelf-life and the Pistols’ was particularly short. Bollocks is a musical Ouroboros, as its reputation has cycled from “dangerous salvation of rock ‘n’ roll” to “embarrassing cartoon” multiple times over since 1977. If you can ignore big sweeping statements and the misplaced notions of grandeur forced upon it you might be able to appreciate its relatively frills-free take on caustic rock ‘n’ roll recidivism. And hey, at least two people responsible were in on the joke, which is probably two more than The Police.—Garrett Martin
9. Television, Marquee Moon (1977)
Television, NYC’s post-punk godfathers, only made two albums during their late ‘70s heyday (including 1978’s oft-overlooked Adventure), but in many ways, they really only needed to release one. 1977’s masterful Marquee Moon was a commercial flop upon its initial release, but its legacy was cemented immediately; capturing the fluid, technical, dynamic unison of the band’s acclaimed live show, Marquee Moon stuck out like a sore thumb from the blooming punk scene: Compared to The Sex Pistols, whose blistering, chaotic debut was released that same year, Television were an anachronism: Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s clean, interlocking guitar patterns bordered on the psychedelic, with Verlaine’s snotty, head-cold whine burning blisters over the muscular rhythms of bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca. Every moment is devastating, and the winding title track could be the greatest song to ever eclipse 10 minutes.—Ryan Reed
8. The Ramones, Ramones (1976)
No single album did more to define the sound and attitude of punk rock. The immortal debut’s 14 songs cover puppy love (“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”) and its opposite (“I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You”); crime narratives (“53rd & 3rd”) and B-movies (“Chain Saw”) against a backdrop of Johnny’s frantic downstroke, Joey’s yelping croon, and the steady backing of bassist Dee Dee and drummer Tommy. More than 35 years after Joey first hollered “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” at the album’s opening, da bruddahs’ rally call still resonates. —Bryan C. Reed
7. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (1970)
After playing at the forefront of jazz for decades, Miles Davis had nothing left to prove by 1970. When Bitches Brew came out that year, it reflected his belief that things had changed and that it was rock musicians and not jazz players who were extending the boundaries of what was possible. With tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Spanish Key” averaging around 20 minutes each, Bitches Brew successfully fused Miles Davis’ staccato, wailing trumpet with the psychedelic sounds he’d been soaking up by hanging out in San Francisco and opening up for bands like The Grateful Dead and Santana. More than 40 years after it was first released, Bitches Brew is still one of the most aggressive, confrontational and downright beautiful albums ever recorded.—Doug Heselgrave
6. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
It’s difficult to call Led Zeppelin IV the greatest “hard rock” album in music history—only because (in spite of its legacy) it’s much, much more than a “hard rock” album. Led, as always, by the black-magic mojo of guitarist-producer Jimmy Page, Led Zep truly indulged in 1971, branching out into extended progressive-rock (the sweeping, majestic epic “Stairway to Heaven”), medieval folk (the witchy “The Battle of Evermore”) and psychedelic balladry (the emotional centerpiece, “Going to California”), in addition to their trademark electrified blues (“Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog,” “Four Sticks,” “When the Levee Breaks”). Eight tracks, eight classics: It’s one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded, whatever it is.—Ryan Reed
5. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (1975)
After nearly 40 years of consistent veneration from critics and fans alike, there’s little left to say about Born To Run. In just eight tracks, Bruce and the E Street Band constructed a nearly perfect album—dynamic in its instrumentation, euphoric in its lyricism, contradictory in its youthfulness and maturity and iconic in its metaphors and imagery. From the first piano notes in “Thunder Road” through the soul-stirring saxophone solo that closes “Jungleland,” Born To Run captured the collective mindset of a generation and perpetuated it through many more. —Hilary Saunders
4. Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
What else can be said about The Dark Side of the Moon that hasn’t been said already? It’s one of those records that seems to exist in its own little world. There hasn’t been another quite like it before or since its release, and its impact on nearly every aspect of music—songwriting, production, engineering—is still felt even decades later. In regards to Pink Floyd as a band, the album marked a distinct change of direction in the group’s sound, due in large part to the departure of Syd Barrett, who had been the band’s principal songwriter until his deteriorating mental state forced him to leave the group. Barrett’s mental problems also served as inspiration for much of Dark Side’s concept and themes, which focused on issues like madness, the passage of time, conflict and death.—Wyndham Wyeth
3. The Rolling Stones, Exile On Main St. (1972)
Listening to Exile on Main St. hardly creates a sense of highly-crafted musicianship or fine-tuned production. If you read into the history of the The Rolling Stones’ 12th album, it adds to that notion—Mick Jagger is galavanting throughout the French countryside with his soon-to-be wife while Keith Richards is drugged out on heroin. The band struggled to get all of its members to show up for recording sessions day-in and day-out. Out of this period from 1968-1972 emerged an unpolished realism that ebbs and flows throughout Exile, in which The Stones perfected the art of imperfection, basking in their humanity and all its accompanying honesty. There’s an abundance of triumphant moments within these 18 songs, but the transcendence occurs when the band juxtaposes good and the bad, the flawed and flawless. In doing so, The Stones cap off a golden four-album run, exhibiting the band at the peak of their country-gospel greatness.—Max Blau
2. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
If Marvin Gaye had been a better athlete—or less obstinate—we might not have gotten one of the greatest albums of all time. In 1970, after the death of his musical partner Tammi Terrell, the Motown singer tried out for the Detroit Lions. When he returned to music, it was on his own terms. What’s Going On was an epic response to his brother Frankie’s letters from Vietnam—politically charged and musically ambitious, a soul album with jazz time signatures and classical instrumentation. The album’s posture was one of lament for the way things were rather than an angry protest, making the message both clear and difficult to tune out. It was such a departure from Gaye’s radio-friendly pop that his brother-in-law Berry Gordy Jr. initially refused to release it on Motown Records. Gaye had produced the album himself with backing from the Funk Brothers, and presented it as a complete nine-song suite. It was a singular vision and one that hasn’t lost its power over time.—Josh Jackson
1. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)
With good reason, Bob Dylan is most revered for his nearly unparalleled streak of legendary albums in the 1960s (including 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, and 1966’s Blonde on Blonde), but he saved arguably his finest album ever until 1975, making one of rock ’n’ roll’s most jaw-dropping comebacks with the striking, emotional Blood on the Tracks. Despite being recorded in a ridiculous 10 days (barring a last-minute re-tracking of a few songs), the album remains Dylan’s warmest, richest recording—loads of purring organs, shuffling acoustics, and soulful rhythm sections. But as always with Dylan albums, it’s the words that steal the show, particularly on the bitter epic “Idiot Wind” and the haunting, uplifting “Tangled Up in Blue.” Rock’s most critically acclaimed troubadour kept on releasing wonderful albums after Blood on the Tracks—but he never topped it.—Ryan Reed
Check out our Rdio “Best of the ‘70s” playlist below.