The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s

Music Lists 1970s
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letsgetiton.jpg 50. Marvin Gaye, Let’s Get it On (1973)
Aside from earning its spot as the timeless soundtrack for making out (and more), Let’s Get It On symbolized a provocative, profound evolution for Marvin Gaye. More commercialized than his previous themed album, What’s Going On, Gaye’s 12th studio album took to Motown, soul, R&B, funk and the blues to understand the disparities and connections between sex and love. Songs like the heartbreaking, falsetto-laden “If I Should Die Tonight” balance the titular track, resulting in a complex record of human nature and emotion. —Hilary Saunders

atfilmoreeast.jpg 49. The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East (1971)
One year for my birthday, one of my best friends bought me two very different live albums. One was Ben Folds Live! and the other was At Fillmore East. Up until then, I had never really been a fan of live recordings. I mistakenly thought that all live songs should sound just like their studio-recorded counterparts. I also hadn’t been to many concerts at that point in my life, so I didn’t understand there is a certain energy that is trying to be captured with live albums. But I was willing to give At Fillmore East a try at the recommendation of my friend, especially because I had recently gained interest in blues music, and I was relatively unfamiliar with The Allman Brothers. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend Duane Allman’s gut-wrenching slide-guitar work, and songs like the near 20-minute jams “You Don’t Love Me” and the album closer, “Whipping Post,” begged for repeated listens, despite their length. This can be heard near the end of the former track when the band slows down, gliding into the “Joy to the World” section, and someone in the audience emphatically yells out, “Play all night!” At Fillmore East captures the talent of a band in its heyday that not only played well, but played well together, showcasing the group’s vigor, exquisite timing and precision in what may be the greatest live album of all time. —Wyndham Wyeth

basementtapes.jpg 48. Bob Dylan and The Band, The Basement Tapes (1975)
After Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident in 1967, the singer went into seclusion in the Woodstock area of New York. The members of his recent touring band, The Hawks (later to become better known as The Band), joined him shortly thereafter, and the group of musicians began writing and recording the music that would eventually become The Basement Tapes. Bob Dylan & The Band recorded over 100 tracks during this time, and while most of them circulated for years on bootleg recordings, it wasn’t until 1975 that they were officially released. The album is notable for its sound, which was a distinct turn away from the type of songwriting Dylan had been exploring on Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. The music on The Basement Tapes is characterized by its roots or Americana feel—a stark contrast to the trends of rock music at the time. When everyone else was infusing rock music with psychedelia or using every nook and cranny of the recording studio to create complex production work, Dylan & The Band sent the music world for a loop by going down into the basement and embracing traditional American stylings. You can always count on Dylan to do the exact opposite of what is expected of him. —Wyndham Wyeth

kraftwerktransueropeexpress.png 47. Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express (1977)
Trans-Europe Express is the most consistent album by one of the most important bands of all time. Kraftwerk found the perfect muse for their minimal electronic pop with this concept album about an old European railway system. The album’s influence reached beyond electronic music or traditional pop, and somehow this cold, mechanical, Gemanic art helped birth hip-hop, with the title track memorably incorporated into Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock.” —Garrett Martin

dejuvuuu.jpg 46. Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Déjà Vu (1970)
With the follow-up to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s critically acclaimed debut, the group decided to enlist the talents of Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young. All of the group’s members, including Young, had already established themselves as musical powerhouses through their work with previous bands Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young), The Byrds (Crosby), and The Hollies (Nash), and all were on the verge of launching successful solo careers as well. With the addition of Young, CSN gained an extra voice to add to their already complex tidal waves of harmony as well as another unique songwriter. The result turned the band that is often cited as one of the first supergroups into something even better. Despite the tensions within the band that stunted their potential over the following years, the fusion of country/folk songwriting with psychedelic/hippie flair and pop sensibility caused Déjà Vu to become a standout record of its time and the diamond of the group’s catalog. —Wyndham Wyeth

somegirlsalbumcoverrr.jpg 45. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
The Stones’ decision to make a New York City record in the late 1970s should have gone drastically wrong. Instead, the veteran rock stars, who most thought were on the final legs of their victory lap (one they appear to still be on), turned in a glorious mishmash of punk, disco, blues and country that silenced their detractors and woke up former fans. From the groove-heavy “Miss You” to the campy country of “Far Away Eyes” and Keith’s rollicking “Before They Make Me Run,” Some Girls is a dirty, sexy mess, much like the city that was its muse. —Charlie Duerr

loadedjaasfdddd.jpg 44. The Velvet Underground, Loaded (1970)
Loaded was the final album recorded with Lou Reed, and the band’s clearest attempt at making radio-friendly music. In the time after it came out, Reed distanced himself from the final product, but the trifecta of “Who Loves the Sun,” “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” is among the best three-song openings on any rock and roll record. It’s as good a soundtrack for the first few minutes of a summer day as there is, and guaranteed by doctors to erase a hangover instantly.*
*Maybe. —Jeff Gonick

tomwaitssmallchange.png 43. Tom Waits, Small Change (1976)
Tom Waits’ third studio album, Small Change, had everybody wondering, “Does Tom Waits need a hug?” Waits had become a little too comfortable with life on the road and admitted later on that he had been drinking too much. The jazz influence present in his previous albums did not waiver with this album, but the lyrics became much more dark and depressing. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” is a disheartening, speech-slurred bar tune describing what seems to be wrong with the world but blaming it all on everything that isn’t the cause of the problem. Nothing seems to be going right for Waits in this album. If Waits’ first albums were the upbeat side of jazz, Small Change proved that he understood that it can also express heartbreak and pain. —Clint Alwahab

madman.jpg 42. Elton John, Madman Across the Water (1971)
A year after Madman Across The Water was released, Elton John made Honky Château, which is considered one of his greatest works, has a stronger foothold in the canon, was better loved by critics and is ultimately probably the better album. “Honky Cat,” “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” and “Rocket Man” are classics, indeed, but there’s something special about Madman. It’s a wonderful display of the partnership between Elton John and songwriter Bernie Taupin—Taupin’s ability to tell a compelling story and John using his keys, his voice and his presence to make you care about the characters. There’s the weirdness and sadness of “Levon”—a song full of quirky names and scenarios but a feeling of longing and familial dysfunction all too common, backed with that punch of a chorus. There’s “Tiny Dancer,” which was and will always be great regardless of what sentimental movie scenes soundtrack it, and the powerhouse title track, of course. And even the deep cuts have their moments, most notably the mournful, mandolin-tinged “Holiday Inn.” —Lindsay Eanet

last waltz 2003 cd.jpg 41. The Band, The Last Waltz (1978)
A historic event, such as The Band’s “farewell” concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, filmed for posterity by Martin Scorsese, can either inspire musicians to greater-than-normal heights or distract them into bombastic overplaying. The Band rose to the occasion on this album as their best-known songs were bolstered by adrenaline, by Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements and by the presence of so many friends and heroes. Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John. Neil Young, Eric Clapton and the Staples Singers all sang with the headliners, each benefiting from as good a backing band as they’d ever had. The album even included a studio session: three new songs, “The Weight” and two instrumentals combined into “The Last Waltz Suite.” An expanded version was released in 2002. —Geoffrey Himes

Thumbnail image for algreenlets.jpg 40. 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

awwwpoweralbumcover.jpg 39. 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

suicdieeeeaalbumcvoer.jpg 38. 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

carolekingtapestrycoverrr.jpg 37. 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

johnlennonimaginecoerrr.jpg 36. John Lennon, Imagine (1971)
Perhaps atoning for sins committed in his heavy-handed salvation work on The BeatlesLet 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

thisyearsmodelalbumcover.jpg 35. 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

davidbowielowwww.jpeg 34. 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

lolaversusTHEWORLD.jpg 33. 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

offthefreakinwall.jpg 32. 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

harvestmoooonn.jpg 31. 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

brucedarknesscover.jpg 30. 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

pattismithhorses.jpg 29. 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

.jpg 28. 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

georgiepoo.jpg 27. 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

thoseheadscantalk.jpg 26. 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

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