The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s

Music Lists 1970s
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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.

Note: As with our best albums of the 1960s, we’ve limited each artist to two albums. That means artists like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie all had some stellar work bumped from the list—but it also means you’ll have more to get angry about, so have at it.

jimmycliffalbummain.jpg 70. Various Artists, The Harder They Come soundtrack (1973)
There was a lot more to the early years of reggae than Bob Marley & the Wailers, and the best of the rest is brilliantly summarized on this soundtrack album for one of the best fictional music films ever made. Once they realized they weren’t going to get any Wailers tracks, the filmmakers chose brilliantly. As the charismatic outlaw/singer/star of the movie, Jimmy Cliff sang half the songs, but there’s not a bad cut in the original soundtrack’s dozen. Included are reggae’s best-ever ballad (Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross”), best-ever pop hook (the Maytals’ “Sweet and Dandy”) and such one-hit wonders as the Slickers and Scotty. The 2003 “Deluxe Edition” reissue adds a second CD with 18 more songs, as smartly chosen as the first disc. —Geoffrey Himes

blondeiparallellines.jpg 69. Blondie, Parallel Lines (1978)
The wondrous pop, rock and disco songs on Parallel Lines weren’t supposed to be on good albums, much less all on the same one. To imagine it is to put “The Loco-Motion,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Staying Alive” on a mixtape and pronounce it a band. Whether pilfered directly from the Nerves (the breathless “Hanging on the Telephone” takes no prisoners) or stitched together, nursery rhyme-like from Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” (few melodies jangle so timelessly as “Sunday Girl” ), Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s shrewd, sexy melodicism on these 12 classics clawed its way into the pantheon from the simple ambition to conquer any radio format they touched. One way or another, they sneered. We’re gonna please ya please ya please ya please ya. —Dan Weiss

pinkmooncoverrrr.jpg 68. Nick Drake, Pink Moon (1972)
Few albums on this list have aged as well as Nick Drake’s final album from 1972, recorded in a pair of post-midnight sessions with just Drake and producer John Wood. The simplicity of acoustic guitar, subtle piano and whispered vocals could have been recorded four decades later—and indeed Drake has sold many more copies of his albums since his death in 1974. And, of course, the heartbreak of which he sings will never become irrelevant. Beauty and melancholy have seldom meshed so completely as on songs that tackle longing, despair and the slimmest rays of hope. —Josh Jackson

devonewalbumcover.jpg 67. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
I think I was 16 when I realized Devo wasn’t a jokey one-hit wonder but one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Not that “Whip It” isn’t an amazing song, but it was a little too goofy and ubiquitous for me to take seriously at that very serious age. If I had heard the spastic art rock of Are We Not Men? first I never would’ve doubted them. It’s not their best album, but it’s the best at convincing serious young rock nerds that Devo were more than a silly footnote. —Garrett Martin

laylacoverrr.jpg 66. Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
For a band that only released one studio album, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon sure made it count. The supergroup recorded both modernized interpretations of classic songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “It’s Too Late,” as well as original compositions like “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” and the eponymous “Layla.” Though originally snubbed, Layla has continued to be recognized as an explosion of blues-infused rock ’n’ roll and a seminal work in Clapton’s career. —Hilary Saunders

trexcoverrrr.jpg 65. T. Rex, Electric Warrior (1971)
T.Rex’s sixth record would be worth talking about even if it was a collection of bad Monkees covers, based solely on the sheer awesomeness of its cover art. If that doesn’t make you want to play the electric guitar, there is something wrong with you. Fortunately, Marc Bolan brought the tunes to back it up. “Bang A Gong” and “Jeepster” are the hits, and great ones at that, but spaced-out acoustic numbers like “Cosmic Dancer” and “Planet Queen” and the fuzzy blues riffs of “Lean Woman Blues” give the album its depth and diversity. Add in lyrics about flying saucers, girls and cars, and glam rock has never sounded so weird and wonderful. —Charlie Duerr

stoogesfunfreakinhouse.jpg 64. The Stooges, Fun House (1970)
Although The Stooges made their first sonic statement with 1969’s self-titled effort, they didn’t do it right until their sophomore album with the rowdy, Don Galluci-produced Fun House. With the band recording in a raw, live setting, they were almost able to capture their untamable live energy onto tape. The Stooges might have reached a much wider audience with Funhouse’s follow-up, Raw Power, but they never again were able to produce the gritty, warts-and-all intensity seen in staples like “Down on the Street” and “T.V. Eye.” And, maybe to tie in with the album’s title, closing track “L.A. Blues” sounds like Iggy and the boys crying out for help on the way to the loony bin—only this time, they’re using wailing guitars; harsh, stick-splintering drums; and Pop’s unmistakable wail. —Tyler Kane

dothecancanagain.png 63. Can, Ege Bamyasi (1972)
Drawing influences from Stockhausen to The Beatles, Can refined their wide range of influences on Tago Mago’s follow-up. The term “krautrock” never fully represented the Cologne collective’s musical breadth, but nevertheless Ege Bamyasi has become one of the sub-genre’s essential recordings. The seven-song record is tense and concise, requiring patience and understanding to fully embrace the group’s experimentalism. But once the allure of tracks like “One More Night,” “Vitamin C” and “Spoon” creeps in, there’s no turning back. —Max Blau

physicalgraffitalbumcover.jpg 62. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (1975)
After starting off their career with five studio albums (I, II, III, IV and Houses of the Holy) that ensured their legacy as one of the decade’s definitive rock acts, Led Zeppelin had no need to prove themselves further. That didn’t stop them from putting out their most ambitious record—a sprawling, 80+ minute double album that encapsulates their earlier blues rock and latter mystical psych-synth sound. On the first half of Physical Graffiti, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham crafted some of their most influential songs, including “In My Time of Dying,” “Houses of the Holy” and “Kashmir.” It’s the record’s latter part, however, that brings it all together with a deep-cutting run featuring the band’s most unheralded songs. —Max Blau

allmanbrotherspeachykeen.jpg 61. The Allman Brothers, Eat A Peach (1972)
The first Allman Brothers Band album released after Duane Allman’s death is a sprawling beast that highlights every one of the band’s strengths. Chief among those are Duane’s mastery of the slide guitar and Gregg Allman’s incomparable voice, but Eat A Peach also underscores the band’s multifaceted songwriting proficiency, from the half-hour “Mountain Jam” to the plaintive pop of “Melissa” to the upbeat guitar calisthenics of Dickey Betts’ “Blue Sky. ”—Garrett Martin

pronouncedalbumcover.jpg 60. Lynyrd Skynyrd, (Pronounced ‘l?h-’nérd ‘skin-’nérd) (1973)
(Pronounced ‘l?h-’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

sergegaincover.jpg 59. 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

modernloverssss.jpg 58. 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.jpg 57. 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

gangoffour.jpg 56. 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

schmilssonnncover.jpg 55. 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

bridgeovertroubled.png 54. 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

unknownpleasurescoverr.jpg 53. 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

irdsisterrrr.jpg 52. 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

fearofmusicyeet.jpg 51. 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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