The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s

Music Lists 1970s
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goodbyeee.jpg 25. 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

songsinthekey.jpg 24. 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 BeatlesWhite 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

afterittt.jpg 23. 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

theclasshhhhhh.jpg 22. 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

joniisblue.jpg 21. Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)
It’s no coincidence that the title of Mitchell’s fourth album echoes the title of Miles DavisKind 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

44120056.jpeg 20. 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.jpeg 19. 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

maggotbraincover.jpg 18. 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

vanmorrisonmoondancecover.jpg 17. 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

theresariotgiononnnn.jpg 16. 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

rumoursnewcover.jpg 15. 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

innervisionsalumcoverr.jpg 14. 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

whosnextcov.jpg 13. 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

ziggyyyy.jpg 12. 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

letitbeeeee.jpg 11. 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

sexpistolssss.jpg 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

tvmarqueee.jpg 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

ramonessss.jpg 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

bitchesbrewwin.jpg 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

ledzepp4.jpg 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

borntoruncoverrr.jpg 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

darksideofthe mooonn.jpeg 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

exileonmainn.jpg 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

whatsgoinonnn.jpg 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

bloodytrackscover.jpg 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

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