The 30 Greatest Albums of 1974

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The 30 Greatest Albums of 1974

Though 1974 remains one of the, on paper, weaker years of its decade, it still was able to provide some of the very greatest records of its time and era. The first American Music Awards ceremony happened just weeks before the Grammys; Led Zeppelin started their own record label; the Ramones and AC/DC played their first-ever gigs; Buckingham and Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac on New Year’s Eve. Marquee albums from Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Big Star and Funkadelic prop the wide spectrum of popular music on their shoulders, while underrated releases from Miles Davis, Roxy Music and John Cale flicker not far behind. We asked the Paste music writers and editors to vote on their favorite albums from 50 years ago so, without further ado, here are the 30 best albums of 1974.

30. Fleetwood Mac: Heroes Are Hard to Find

What is a Fleetwood Mac album without some behind-the-scenes drama commanding the production? After disputes over Bob Weston cheating with Mick Fleetwood’s wife, the group was in shambles as their manager worked to revive the group from imminent doom. Cue the combined songwriting efforts of Bob Welch and Christine McVie. Though it’s hard for me to give flowers to any Fleetwood Mac album without Stevie Nicks commanding the mic, Heroes Are Hard to Find is a gem of the brief-but-brilliant Welch/McVie-led version of the Mac. Although often overlooked as a transitional album for the band, Welch’s influence brings their then-characteristic bluesy funk while, at the same time, Christine weaves an ethereal beauty and airy energy into the band’s roots. “Heroes Are Hard to Find” comes out swinging with a vivacious horn section—a stark deviation for a band that favored a more subtle production—while “Coming Home” propels you through Welch’s psychedelic riffage. McVie’s tracks “Come a Little Bit Closer” and “Prove Your Love” shine as the pop rock predecessors to the legendary Fleetwood Mac waiting in the wings, as this was the final album before the pivotal duo of Buckingham and Nicks arrived. Fleetwood Mac has always been a shape-shifting outfit, and Heroes Are Hard to Find just happened to morph them into a perfectly blended creative vision with Welch and McVie at its core. —Olivia Abercrombie

29. Grateful Dead: From the Mars Hotel

By the time the Grateful Dead released their seventh studio album, they’d been on quite a tear. Riding the momentum of their 1973 album Wake of the Flood, the eclectic jam-band all-timers put out From the Mars Hotel in June 1974 and then took a then-indefinite hiatus from live shows that October. Par for the course of the Dead’s history, the album is largely a product of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s songwriting collaboration, but From the Mars Hotel features some truly splendid contributions from bassist Phil Lesh—including the especially vibrant “Unbroken Chain,” which includes great vocal harmonies from Donna Jean Godchaux. While From the Mars Hotel is not one of the Dead’s marquee albums, it’s still incredible. Everyone familiar with the band’s oeuvre knows “Scarlet Begonias,” but tracks like “China Doll” and “Money Money” boast a roots-oriented, psychedelic Americana bent the Dead was really surfing on at the time. —Matt Mitchell

28. Merle Haggard & The Strangers: If We Make It Through December

By the time Merle Haggard released his 16th studio album, he was already regarded as one of the most important country musicians of his time. But If We Make It Through December is the record that cemented Haggard’s immortality among the genre’s wide, vast, complicated legacy. With successes built off the back of the lone single (and one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time) “If We Make It Through December,” the album yearns and delights and hums through ballads and oddities that converge and contradict. Haggard only wrote three tracks on the record, but his and the Strangers’ covers of “To Each His Own,” “Come On into My Arms” and “This Cold War With You” are charming and understated. Dennis Hromek’s backing harmonies are beautiful, and the record’s amalgam of fiddle, organ, horns, lap steel and about seven different guitarists sounding so good is nothing short of a miracle. —MM

27. Queen: Queen II

Knowing that the working title for Queen’s sophomore album was Over the Top just feels correct. Released only a year after their eponymous debut, Queen II brought a stylish polish to their rock ‘n’ roll sound to create a unique operatic experience. Their second studio album gave us all of the Queen calling cards—multi-layered overdubs, dynamically rich guitar solos and ethereal harmonies. It’s a miracle that the album succeeded in being so technically ambitious, considering it was recorded between some of the quartet running off for summer exams and maintaining 9-to-5 jobs. Pairing tongue-in-cheek songs about fairies with staggering guitar work while testing the limits of production ambitions, Queen II was the perfect pocket for Queen to find their groove. The fascinating divide between the album’s “Side White,” dominated by Brian May’s songwriting—with one track from Roger Taylor closing it out—and “Side Black,” written entirely by Mercury, brings to life a loose concept regarding good and evil within an utterly mythical sonic narrative. Between the uniquely layered chaos of “Ogre Battle,” the bombastic energy of “Seven Seas of Rhye” and the choral heft of “The March Of The Black Queen,” the album is nothing short of fantastical. —OA

26. John Cale: Fear

Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale’s exceptional 1974 album Fear came during a momentous and turbulent era in his career. Following his departure from the Velvet Underground, Cale heavily focused on producing music for artists such as the Stooges, Nico, Nick Drake and more. Upon moving to London, Cale began to work on a series of solo albums. Fear is the first in a trilogy that Cale would create and release within a year-long period, and the LP was created in collaboration with music auteurs such as Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Richard Thompson. Its tracks lean into a jangly blend of art-rock and pop with a varied and cathartic pacing. Straight-shooting rock tracks such as “Gun” are filled in with raucous guitar riffs in contrast to poignant, glassy pop tunes like “Emily,” which meanders in its sweeping and boundless sound. Cale masterfully bends the space within the tracks, creating a multifaceted album layered with wondrous eccentricities, and Fear embodies all the most erratic and warm tendencies of Cale’s unconventional approach to composition. —Grace Ann Natanawan

25. Miles Davis: Big Fun

Big Fun marked a turning point for Miles Davis’s infamous electric period—it heralded the reintroduction of his signature Harmon mute and was the first to heavily incorporate Indian instruments such as the sitar, tabla, and tamboura after experimenting with them on the previous year’s On The Corner. Though largely ignored at the time, Big Fun’s strength is right there in the name; It’s Davis letting loose and allowing his intricate compositions to meander, croon, and disorient. The exploratory sound present in Big Fun is partially thanks to Davis’s longtime producer Teo Macero, who suggested an overdubbing treatment for Davis’s trumpet and McLaughlin’s guitar. The resulting scattershot whining may feel aimless upon first listen, but later critical appraisal deemed Big Fun’s cohesive tape its adventuresome spirit. It’s what you might imagine the lounge band jamming out during a boozy cruise down the Ganges sounds like. —Austin Jones

24. Roxy Music: Country Life

In the first four years of their career as a band, Roxy Music put out five albums. It was an impressive clip for one of the most impressive English groups of the 1970s. While Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure and Stranded helped establish Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson as art rock gods, the often-under-looked Country Life remains my favorite Roxy Music record to revisit. Catalyzed by hit single “All I Want Is You,” Country Life makes good on Ferry’s eccentricities especially—underscored by tunes like “Out of the Blue” and “The Thrill of It All,” which so perfectly encapsulate the band’s glammy roots that unabashedly flirted with searing, strapped rock ‘n’ roll. Ferry’s vocals could evoke such a theatrical zenith, and those emotions erally fly on Country Life. Manzanera’s guitar-playing is terrific across the board here, too. On a song like “Out of the Blue,” you’re hearing one of the best axemen of his time shredding like a madman. It’s tough-as-nails poetry coming out of those fingers. —MM

23. Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Though Winter in America has been scrubbed from streaming services, its impact endures. Written and recorded by vocalist and poet Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brian Jackson, the album marks one of Scott-Heron’s greatest triumphs—a masterclass in soul, blues, jazz and prog fusion, done up in a tapestry of tracks zeroing in on Black life in inner-cities in the 1970s. Scott-Heron and Jackson’s co-production was stripped-down, and the two musicians put extra emphasis on African sounds. “Rivers of My Fathers,” “H2Ogate Blues” and the two-part “Peace Go with You, Brother” bookends make Winter in America one of Scott-Heron’s greatest albums—existing as multi-dimensional tour-de-force that offers a devout sense of hope and humanism. Upon its release, Winter in America received a limited distribution in the States—getting an original vinyl copy of the record is nearly impossible, unless you want to cough up a pretty penny. Despite that, it sold 300,000 copies thanks to its lone single “The Bottle,” and it has gone on to impact neo-soul and rap greatly. —MM

22. David Bowie: Diamond Dogs

Sometimes, I think it was divine intervention that we were robbed of a straight-up Orwellian concept album and got David Bowie’s own garish, dystopian future instead. Diamond Dogs found Bowie blasting off from the glam rock of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and Hunky Dory, as well as thankfully moving on from the vapid disappointment of Pin Ups, to the realm of proto-punk on the precipice of the explosion of snarling rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1970s. While it’s not often thrown into the conversation surrounding Bowie’s best albums, Diamond Dogs occupies an essential space in the rock ‘n’ roll alien’s discography and legacy—with its nihilistic themes and raw, chaotic musicality that inspired the likes of Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails. From the counterculture anthem “Rebel Rebel” to the glorious triptych of “Sweet Thing,” “Candidate,” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise),” the apocalyptic epic remains an unflinching icon for disruptors and anarchists all the same. —OA

21. Barry White Can’t Get Enough

Greatest Albums of 1974Listen, Can’t Get Enough is one of the greatest disco-soul albums of all time. I’ll ride for Barry White, the greatest bass-baritone singer ever, any day of the week. Featuring two Top 5 singles—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”—Can’t Get Enough is a 30-minute masterpiece that transformed White’s solo career into that of a titan with more than 100 million records sold. The sonic centerpiece of the album, the 10-minute “I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” is a medley of beautiful, bold intervals of R&B ecstasy and hard-won scales of brilliance. White would bookend the album with the two-part “Mellow Mood,” and the overarching sensual energy draped across every track has become the defining spirit of Can’t Get Enough—but the record is much more than that, beaming with a vibrant, danceable confidence that few soul singers of the era even flirted with. Barry White was a man of the people, may we all rise up one day to meet the waters of his oft-underrated genius. —MM

20. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic

Greatest Albums of 1974Before Steely Dan released Aja in 1977, Pretzel Logic was definitively their best-ever album. Put out eight months after Countdown to Ecstasy, the record brandishes some of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s most recognizable (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) and brilliant (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) songs. It’s one of those Steely Dan projects that is better as an 11-song unit than just singles, arriving like a bonafide full-length concerto that is much more entrancing and pleasurable when heard in full rather than in segments. The songs are odd yet resonant, a type of accessible balance only Becker and Fagen could ever really pull off with such flying colors. The title-track stands in a league of its own, and their cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” is as magical as you might imagine. 50 years later and “Monkey in Your Soul” and “Night by Night” get silkier with every revisit. Pretzel Logic is a clear example of one of America’s greatest bands forming their own language in real-time. —MM

19. Dolly Parton: Jolene

Greatest Albums of 1974They often say that lightning can’t strike in the same place twice, but from what we’ve seen of Dolly Parton and her legendary hair, it’s pretty apparent she can defy the laws of physics whenever she pleases. She did the impossible again when she (allegedly) wrote two of her biggest hits, “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” on the same day. She dramatically sang goodbye to her partner in crime in the latter because she set out entirely on her own only a year later, cutting ties with her long-time duet partner Porter Wagoner. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the album’s namesake because of its cultural impact, but the sub-30-minute album is packed with other shiny gems, like “When Someone Wants To Leave,” “Living On Memories Of You” and “Lonely Comin’ Down.” Jolene is a Southern soap opera of love, heartbreak and betrayal, all emphasized by the soulful croon of Parton’s massive vocals. —OA

18. Kraftwerk: Autobahn

Greatest Albums of 1974Though many lamented Kraftwerk’s departure from their kraut-rock origins, Autobahn may be the band’s most important record; it was proof to the world that electronic music was more than just atmospherics to score genre entertainment as in A Clockwork Orange or Doctor Who but something musical, dare I say even poppy! The album mostly centers around the titular “Autobahn,” a 22-minute psychedelic road trip down Germany’s dizzying highway, infamous for its lack of speed limits for long stretches. Autobahn was unfortunately a bit of a punchline at the time—the band invited critics to fahren auf der Autobahn and listen along, to which they were ridiculed and locked out of the German press—but nowadays you’d struggle to find many fans passionate about their older works, while the zooming synths on “Autobahn” have become an iconic signature sound associated with the group. Its influence may have taken a few years to truly become an undeniable force, but in retrospect it’s easy to deem Autobahn one of the most important records of the 20th century. —AJ

17. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping

Greatest Albums of 1974Where (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) made Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock legends, Second Helping was the record that turned them into bonafide commercial titans. Propped up on the back of their Top-10 hit single “Sweet Home Alabama,” Second Helping had firepower on the charts and would eventually go Double Platinum in the 1980s. While “Sweet Home Alabama” is its own enigma—arriving as a response to Neil Young’s criticisms of the south on “Alabama” and “Southern Man”—the real treasures of the record exist elsewhere, primarily in “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” “The Needle and the Spoon” and “Call Me the Breeze,” the latter of which being one of the coldest rock tracks of its era. Rolling Stone lambasted Second Helping for lacking the “sophistication and professionalism” of the Allman Brothers Band, but I think the general consensus around the album has wised up over time. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” contains some of Ronnie Van Zant’s best songwriting, as he taps into rock tropes and tells the story of a young man idolizing a Black blues picker who eventually dies alone—but there’s a stroke of empathy resonating in the track that is kind and generous. Lynyrd Skynyrd were far more mature than their critics positioned them as, and Second Helping is just one of those records that boasts so much charm, blues and guitar goodness that it’s easy to forget how quickly it helped make the band larger-than-life. —MM

16. Sparks: Kimono My House

Greatest Albums of 1974Sparks’ breakthrough album, Kimono My House, overflows with vibrant glam rock-infused silliness that takes massive creative strides in its own unique direction. Comprised of brothers Ron and Russel Mael, Sparks moved from Los Angeles to London to immerse themselves in the UK’s growing glam rock scene while working on Kimono My House. The resulting album is thunderous, shimmering and larger than life, with all the humor and mystique of a bumbling vaudevillian show. Throbbing basslines and compact guitar riffs layer the LP with a dynamic and compelling sound. The duo’s towering, theatrical vocals ring out brightly in high falsettos and wavering runs, especially on centerpiece track “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.” Kimono My House had a major influence on musicians such as John Frusciante, Steven Jones and Morrissey, quickly becoming one of the most cherished and revered glam rock albums of its time. —GN

15. Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets

Greatest Albums of 1974How many versions of Brian Eno have we known in the 50+ years he’s been in the public eye? Next time he turns around, is he the person who truly popularized ambient music as we currently know it? Is he a super-producer to some of the most influential artists of all time? Is he the flamboyant non-musician giving Roxy Music an edge that would reshape rock music forever? Sandwiched between all of the masks we’ve seen him wear over time, there was a brief period where Eno was the most influential solo experimental pop musician working—creating the blueprint for what almost every new wave band would try to replicate 15 years later—until he felt it was time to move on.

In those few years, and starting with what is arguably his masterpiece, Here Come The Warm Jets, Eno crafted an eccentric, absurdist collection of songs which leaned into the theatricality of glam just as much as it did avant-garde music. A song like the allegedly-subconscious Bryan Ferry diss track “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” feels like three songs shoved into one, but still works from a well-constructed musical foundation that allows it to hang together as a single piece. The catchy intensity of opener “Needle in the Camel’s Eye,” “Baby’s On Fire” and the closing self-titled track mask a sinister core with layers of noisy guitar that feel like they’re setting the template for what every art rock-adjacent band sounds like to this day, while “On Some Faraway Beach” and “Some Of Them Are Old” hint at a poignant emotional center under all the cacophony. Though plenty have tried, no one has perfectly recreated the inventive, erratic atmosphere of Warm Jets. Eno’s been onto the next for half a century, and we still haven’t caught up. —Elise Soutar

14. ABBA: Waterloo

Greatest Albums of 1974Any album titled after a song that wins Eurovision is a gem in my book. When it’s an ABBA album? Well, you’ll have to find someone who doesn’t have “ABBA GOLD” tattooed on their knuckles to argue against it. But truly, Waterloo is one of the greatest Europop records of all time, and it showcases ABBA’s first real swing at stardom. The Swedish four-piece would fully go global a year later on their self-titled album, but Waterloo is the first dash of pop immortality that they so deeply embraced (and a feat that so many bands pine for). The title track will never be anything but a solid gold hit, and songs like “King Kong Song,” “Honey, Honey,” “My Mama Said” and “Hasta Mañana” are some of the most colorful and catchy in the quartet’s catalog. Waterloo is one of the prettiest pop albums ever released, as the four-part layered vocals are a well-oiled machine of harmonic ecstasy. I’m listening to “Waterloo” right now and it’s the best song I’ve ever heard. It’s 1 AM and I feel like dancing. —MM

13. Richard & Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Greatest Albums of 1974Richard Thompson’s first album to feature his then-wife Linda, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is landmark singer-songwriter triumph—and Linda succinctly steals the show throughout. The title-track alone is worth the price of admission, but Bright Lights Tonight is spiritual, as the Thompsons fill their best album with thieves and drunks—executing a billowing, phantasmic, generous portrait of hopelessness unlike anything the orbit of folk-rock had ever truly experienced up until that point. Songs like “The Calvary Cross” and “The Great Valerio” and “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” ache with cynicism and one-in-a-million beauty. Richard’s writing was at an apex, and no one could haunt his words quite like Linda when she grabbed a mic. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight glows a different color than any other record on this list, standing still in a league of its own with the charm of a miserable street urchin who can’t stop singing his song. —MM

12. Big Star: Radio City

Greatest Albums of 1974Radio City begins with a guitar revving its engines, a slide that starts things up and never stops. Big Star’s 1974 sophomore album, which turned 50 this month, clears its throat with “O, My Soul,” a surfy, funky jaunt that’s the rock and roll equivalent of all of the lights flickering on at an arcade. “Go ahead and shake if you wanna,” sang Alex Chilton, then 23-years-old, having already learned how to shake, rattle and roll as the teenybopper frontman of The Box Tops. With that whirling organ part and Jody Stephens’ raucous, choppy drumming, the album’s opener finds Chilton trying to strut his stuff, projecting confidence to mixed success. “When we’re together, I feel like a boss,” he admits. “O, My Soul” chronicles a search for the transformative properties of pop—a lover, a hit song or a car—because Chilton was always in search of music’s catharsis. On the Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton,” Paul Westerberg proposes that Radio City can define what you’re feeling even when you can’t, that Big Star’s music can fill in your blanks. On “Back of a Car,” Chilton sings about having music so loud that you “can’t tell a thing” or “can’t find the lines.” Big Star’s songwriting always centered around these young, big emotions and the way they intersected with the joy of music. After Radio City, those feelings have been rarely articulated so perfectly since. —Ethan Beck

11. Funkadelic: Standing on the Verge of Getting It On

Greatest Albums of 1974Out of Plainfield, New Jersey, came one of the greatest funk groups to ever do it. Though they began as one of George Clinton’s two P-Funk bands (alongside Parliament), Funkadelic proved they were their own beast when they released their self-titled LP back in 1970—one with enough razor-sharp energy, and even sharper humor to stand alone. Standing On The Verge of Getting It On marked the return of Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had departed the band two albums and three years ago, after contributing a 12-minute guitar solo extravaganza on their 1971 Maggot Brain. Long live Maggoteer, lead guitarist, and vocalist Eddie “Smedley Smorganoff” Hazel, because his impassioned, incisive playing is the centerpiece of Standing On The Verge of Getting It On. If there was anyone who didn’t believe in what Funkadelic was doing or didn’t dig it, their 1974 record had to have convinced them. “We have come to help you cope,” Clinton sings on the title track, “Out into another reality, you will be / Through our music we’ll bring you hope.” After 1974, Funkadelic no longer stood on the verge of anything. No, it was already on.Madelyn Dawson

10. Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different

Greatest Albums of 1974When I think of people who arrived to us ahead of their time, Betty Davis is the first to come to mind. Although funk music was more mainstream by the mid-1970s, the public certainly wasn’t ready to hear a woman—never mind a Black woman—singing so freely about sex on the radio, which ultimately led to her career being cut drastically short. In that brief recording career, Davis gave us the nasty funk of They Say I’m Different, with its unflinching references to bondage in “He Was a Big Freak” and prostitution in “Don’t Call Her No Tramp.” There was nothing dainty about Davis’ banshee shriek of seduction, so you know she means it when she says, “I’m gonna try him out until the sunrise.” This follow-up to her self-titled debut was an exhibition of empowerment on all sides, as Davis decided to self-produce the LP—which led to an even richer display of her sound and attitude. Though it lacks some of the polish of her debut, They Say I’m Different stands as her statement of unabashed sexual expression and a middle finger to misogyny—punctuated by some damn groovy tunes. All I can say is that Davis easily gives James Brown a run for his money when it comes to filthy, funky pleasure. —OA

9. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan: Rags to Rufus

Greatest Albums of 1974Can you imagine being such a good singer that the band you’re in decides to change its name to reflect your involvement? When you’re Chaka Khan, such an event is easy to get wrapped up in—as Rufus would, in the mid-1970s, change its name to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, because Khan’s budding star-power was too big to brush aside. The band’s first album of 1974, Rags to Rufus, is one of the best funk albums of all time, period. Top-5 hit “Tell Me Something Good” (written by Stevie Wonder) went on to win a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group, while Khan and Ray Parker Jr. teamed up to write “You Got the Love” together and score another Top-20 hit. But my favorite track to revisit is the first one, “You Got the Love,” as it’s one of Khan’s coolest vocal performances ever. Pair her singing with some knee-buckling chords from guitarist Al Ciner and you’ve got a slam dunk. “Sideways” and the title-track’ll get you on your feet, only for “Smokin’ Room” to turn the tempo down in the album’s finale (thanks to some real beautiful orchestration composed by Clare Fischer). —MM

8. Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel

Greatest Albums of 1974Released just a few months after his death, Grievous Angel marks Gram Parsons’ second and final studio album. Despite the widespread critical acclaim it received, the record didn’t land commercially (it peaked at #195 on the Billboard 200) and mirrored the low sales of Parsons’ other project, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Nevertheless, Grievous Angel is a masterpiece that showed the world who Emmylou Harris is, as the wondrous singer performs harmonies on eight of the nine songs. “Love Hurts” is the clear standout that most folks are familiar with, but Parsons’ take on “$1000 Wedding” and “Hearts on Fire” are charming strokes of country brilliance, while his six-minute “Medley Live from Northern Quebec” features the incomparable “Hickory Wind.” But it’s “Return of the Grievous Angel” that makes Parsons’ work with Elvis Presley’s “Taking Care of Business” band so deftly masterful. When you hear someone say “cosmic country,” they’re talking about Grievous Angel and its singular, stop-you-in-your-tracks pastoral of time-worn country music. —MM

7. Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness’ First Finale

Greatest Albums of 1974I will take any time to bring up Stevie Wonder’s album run from 1972 through 1976, which saw him put out Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life in succession. The fact that Fulfillingness’ First Finale is likely the “worst” of the bunch is a telling detail in Wonder’s genius, given that, well, it’s a near-perfect soul record. It won Wonder a second consecutive Album of the Year Grammy and topped the Billboard albums chart. Like its predecessor, Fulfillingness’ First Finale takes a political edge—especially on the #1 hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which takes direct aim at Nixon (and features backing vocals from the Jackson Five). “Boogie On Reggae Woman” features some of Wonder’s silkiest arrangements of the decade, while much of the record in general takes a much sparser, bleaker approach than his other, more uptempo projects. But the results are no less magical. In fact, I’d argue that Fulfillingness’ First Finale could easily go 10 rounds with not just any soul record of the 1970s, but any record in Wonder’s catalog altogether. —MM

6. Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Greatest Albums of 1974In 1974, Leonard Cohen did the impossible: He found a way to follow up three near-perfect albums—Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate—without utterly humiliating himself. Rather, he indulged his morose yearnings in an often gentler, more complex soundscape. New Skin for the Old Ceremony brought violas, mandolins, banjos, guitars and drums of all sorts to exist beside Cohen’s achy warble. Sure, the record’s themes and sounds can get exquisitely bleak at times, but musically the project presents itself as a counterpoint of hope. “Chelsea Hotel #2” (written by Cohen about a fling with Janis Joplin) oscillates between desire and abnegation, as Cohen sings “I need you / I don’t need you,” but it finds some of the love it seeks through music. “We are ugly,” he croons, “but we have the music.” And even 50 years later, the music of New Skin For The Old Ceremony itself is able to move generations of outcasts and lovers towards the swing and sway of the breaks in Cohen’s voice. He urges, “Take this longing from my tongue” and, just as he gives himself and his desire to the music that carries it, he, too, hands it off to the rest of us. Hell, I bet there’s still some longing left in these songs, waiting for the next generation to take it. —MD

5. Ohio Players: Fire

Greatest Albums of 1974My heart belongs in Dayton, as Ohio Players made one of the coolest funk records ever when they released Fire in November 1974. They’d put five projects out already, including the incredible 1973 LP Ecstasy, but Fire hit #1 in the US and went Platinum—setting the stage for the band to break out in a big way in 1975 with “Love Rollercoaster.” Few groups have ever been so cool, as the Ohio Players would often feature mostly-nude Playboy models on their album to echo the full-throttle eroticism of the music they made. Fire is a tier above any other good funk record you can think of right now, bolstered by an all-timer title-track and songs like “Smoke,” “What the Hell,” “Runnin’ from the Devil” and the seven-minute soul concerto of “I Want to Be Free.” Diamond Williams, Billy Beck, Merve Pierce, Rock Jones, Sugarfoot Bonner, Pee Wee Middlebrooks and Satch Satchell struck while the iron was hot and made an album populated with songs heavily indebted and obsessed with objects of desire, passion and white-hot sex-appeal. Few records from that era of funk hold up as sublimely as Fire, and it’s a quadrophonic wet dream. The fact that the Ohio Players would turn around and release their best album less than a year later cements them as one of the greatest to ever do it. —MM

4. Linda Ronstadt: Heart Like a Wheel

Greatest Albums of 1974Pop country icon Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel cemented the rising singer as a star and timeless vocal powerhouse. The album earned Ronstadt her first #1 album in the United States, staying on the charts for almost an entire year with the lead single “You’re No Good” and a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved”—each reaching #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well. The LP clocks in at just under 32 minutes, and it breezes by even quicker. Like all of Ronstadt’s work, it centers around the artist’s masterful and hypnotic vocal performance—and she flips between a variety of genres, expanding her palette further into the realm of pop and beyond. The album marks a distinct turning point in Ronstadt’s career, in which she steps further away from country and ventures into new and fruitful territory. Her versatile, expansive vocals fit with ease into each track, adding a smoky depth to the velvety instrumentation. Heart Like a Wheel paints a stirring portrait of a maturing singer coming into her own after years in the industry. —GN

3. The Meters: Rejuvenation

Greatest Albums of 1974Few American bands have deserved more flowers than the Meters, who came out of New Orleans and completely transformed funk music forever. They were a backing group for folks like Lee Dorsey and Dr. John over the years, and their work is, by far, a mark of origination. When Mick Jagger saw them play at the release party for Wings’ Venus and Mars, he asked them to open for the Rolling Stones from 1975-76. Few funk bands have ever done it like the Meters, and their 1974 album Rejuvenation is a marquee entry into the genre’s history. Part-funk and part-swamp rock, Rejuvenation lives up to its title, as songs like “Just Kissed My Baby” and “Hey Pocky A-Way” celebrate the co-lead vocalist triumphs of bandleaders Ziggy Modeliste and Art Neville while ushering the choral flourishes of female backing vocalists into the fray. The Meters have continuously been one of the most influential bands ever, and that much is true for Rejuvenation—as the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Africa,” Public Enemy sampled “Just Kissed My Baby” on their album Yo! Bum Rush the Show and the Grateful Dead often performed “Hey Pocky A-Way” in the late-1980s. Incorporating country, R&B, gospel and Mardi Gras rhythm into their sound, Rejuvenation is the Meters at a zenith. —MM

2. Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark

Greatest Albums of 1974There is a key moment in any songwriter’s career where they cross the line between “us” and “them”—meaning when they’re writing about the lives of their audience, which they too once lived while working on their earliest material, versus when they start writing about their less-relatable new lives as prominent musicians. Even the best songwriters have failed to stick the landing on this transition, but with her own turning point captured on Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell firmly cemented her legacy as a defining artist of the medium. In one of the most successful crossover moves in music history, Mitchell blended the unparalleled lyrical prowess she’d showcased on 1971’s Blue and 1972’s For the Roses with a lush, more muscular folk-pop musical palette—not only proving she could make hits, but revealing the first hint of jazz influence which would carry over into her later, more experimental output.

Showing her mettle as a titan arranger and producer, it also marked the most defiant shedding of Mitchell delicate songbird image listeners had seen to date, sticking rollicking, playful gems like “Raised on Robbery” or “Free Man in Paris” alongside the razor-sharp character studies of “People’s Parties” and “Down to You.” Even in its tales of lavish travels or the music industry at large, she is able to tap into emotional truths that feel both rooted in their time and context while also transcending all of those things. No contemporary artist we attempt to hold up in Mitchell’s likeness can compare to what she accomplished on this record—even Mitchell herself, destined for more expansive work going forward, could never reach this combined commercial and critical peak again. The fact that it didn’t define her legacy forever speaks to why she’s the best we have. —ES

1. Neil Young: On the Beach

Greatest Albums of 1974Recorded after Tonight’s the Night but released a year before it, On the Beach is Neil Young’s opus—the object of his lifelong griefs and affections. As Shakey struggled to grapple with the limelight from Harvest’s commercial successes and the criticisms he faced for his antics on the Tonight’s the Night Tour, he penned a 40-minute lament in retaliation against the crossed wires of his fame and misfortune. Not quite as sparse or raw as Tonight’s the Night but as deeply melancholic (maybe even more so), On the Beach begins with a sad boogie (“Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later it all gets real”) in “Walk On” and ends with a startling admonishment of critics, Nixon and Young’s former band Crosby, Stills and Nash (“It’s easy to get buried in the past when you try to make a good thing last”) in “Ambulance Blues.” In-between, Young delivers an elegy for his relationship with Carrie Snodgress on “Motion Pictures,” criticizes the sycophantic nature of the oil business on “Vampire Blues” and speaks about meeting Charles Manson in 1969 on “Revolution Blues.”

“On the Beach,” however, is the record’s emotional core. A grievous portrayal of loneliness and media scrutiny after tumbling into celebrity, Young pulls no punches and sets the record straight: “He is mad at, unsatisfied with and alienated by his place in the world. “I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone,” he sings. “Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach.” There’s a particularly stirring sense of doom on On the Beach, which endures as a mangled, eroding, horrific bummer that’ll haunt you forever. It’s vulnerability nailed to a crucifix. —MM

Listen to a playlist of our favorite songs from these albums below.

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