1974- the year of Funk! Well at the very least ’74 was a year that offshoots of the traditional rock and soul genres dominated the musical landscape. Every year in the seventies was chock full of amazing songs & albums- ’74 was certainly not one of the 2 or 3 best years of that decade but it is both important and underrated, and was likely the key year in both the outlaw country movement and the most important transition year between Philly soul and Disco as well as southern soul into a much harder edged funk.
If you like Funk as a genre I can think of no better year for you than ’74. Though there were not necessarily many standout albums, almost all of the following key players/groups in the movement had multiple hit songs- James Brown, Parliament & Funkadelic, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Ohio Players, the O’Jays, Kool & the Gang, the Commodores, the Meters, Average White Band, the Isley Brothers & Gil Scot-Heron (who some people call the godfather of rap). Most of the above groups were really just getting started and would define the genre throughout the rest of the genre. James Brown, who almost indisputably invented Funk, experienced his last truly banner year in ’74 before petering out several years later- unable to reinvent himself during Disco’s dominance. Isley Brothers & Meters got their start in the early and late 60’s respectively and would continue to create relevant music after ’74. Other less funky soul legends like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips & Al Green continued to create great soul music in ’74 as well but both Knight & Green were at the tail-end of their musical relevance- Green would go on to create spiritual music throughout the latter part of the decade and Knight would continue to have hits but in a much more adult-contemporary vein. Stevie Wonder’s brilliance transcended the changing musical climate-his music would not drop in quality until the early 80’s.
By ’74 Disco had not been invented yet as a radio formatted genre but the seeds which created the sound had been planted. Taking the smooth Philly soul sound at its template artists like Barry White, Gloria Gaylor & the Philly Soul house band MFSB had huge pre-disco hits in ’74 with songs like “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe”, “My First, My Last, My Everything, “Honey Bee”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”, “TSOP” (which later became the Soul Train theme song), and “Love is the Message”. Along with other pre-disco “hits” like “Rock Your Baby” by George McRae, “Doctor’s Orders” by Carol Douglas, “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle, “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth, these songs would form the basis to the new sound fomenting in gay urban disco’s in cities like San Francisco & New York City. Three years later the sound would take over the country peaking after the release of the “Saturday Night Fever” movie and soundtrack. Though at the time early disco was namely an American phenomenon, the early songs of the ultra-popular Swedish group ABBA fit nicely into the new genre as well.
On the rock end of things the most popular sounds in the early 70’s were the mellow, folky sounds of the baby boomer singer-songwriters and the younger, much more aggressive hard rock and heavy metal groups. Though commercially ’74 was still a big year for the singer-songwriters with artists like Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot & Carly Simon having hugely successful singles on the chart, many of the genres best artists were either hitting artistic roadblocks or branching out into new directions. James Taylor released his least successful album to date and John Lennon’s “Walls & Bridges” album was largely unsuccesful as well particularly compares to the amazing “Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine” one-two punch at the beginning of the decade. Joni Mitchell was headed into a much jazzier direction and released the wonderful “Court and Spark” in ’74 which in retrospect was the last even vaguely commercial release of her career. Elton John released his weakest album “Caribou” in the middle of his amazing early-mid 70’s 5 or 6 album run. As relatively weak as “Caribou” is compared to his other albums during that time period like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, and “Honky Chateau”, it still contains “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” and “Bitch is Back”. Heavier singer-songwriters like Neil Young & Eric Claton had excellent albums in ’74 as well with the bleak but amazing “On the Beach” and “461 Ocean Blvd.”- perhaps the best album of Clapton’s solo career. Other notable albums by singer-songwriters in ’74 were “Good Old Boys” the third classic album in a row by master-satirist Randy Newman, the debut album “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” by husband & wife team Richard & Linda Thompson (Richard late of the brilliant British progressive-folk group Fairport Convention) & the second full length album “The Heart of Saturday Night” by L.A. eccentric Tom Waits, who was moving further away from a traditional singer-songwriter toward the idiosyncratic half beat poet/half carnival barker style he would eventually become his trademark.
Country music was also splitting into many different factions. Artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson developed a sound known as “Outlaw Country”- an antidote to the squarer and more cookie-cutter sound that dominated country radio throughout the sixties. Nelson’s “Phases and Stages” was a landmark outlaw-country album even though at the time it was relatively unheard by the masses. The harder-edged, more authentic style fit in well with the southern rock sound of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat. Skynyrd nearly matched their note perfect debut album with “Second Helping”, another classic which also contains one of the band’s two standard songs in “Sweet Home Alabama”. The softer countrypolitan L.A. sound of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt would also prove hugely successful in the mid 70’s- one of the most dominant sounds in music of that part of the decade which would unfortunately be watered down more and more to the point of excruciation as the decade wore on. Florida born Jimmy Buffett released two stellar albums in ’74 as well. He would practically invent his own genre and cottage industry with his mix of light country-rock and island music to go along with his sharp, witty writing and party-hearty image. Gram Parsons, called the godfather of alternative country, would sadly die of an overdose just before the release of his best album “Grievous Angel”, certainly a contender for album of the year in ’74.
By ’74 Glam Rock, a huge British musical trend throughout the early 70’s, was dying out and Punk Rock had not really begun yet as a mass movement despite the release of the pre-punk New York Dolls underrated second album “Too Much Too Soon”. ’74 was an interim year where many of the seeds of Punk & post-Punk were sewn. David Bowie’s dark “Diamond Dogs” plays like an epitaph slamming the door shut on the entire Glam movement. Brian Eno, the wildly creative Roxy Music keyboardist had left Roxy the previous year and recorded his first two solo albums- “Here Come the Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”. To date they are his two most song-oriented albums and marked the transition between his glam-rock and his more experimental and/or ambient phases. Roxy Music stepped it up as well with “Country Life” a return to form after the solid but comparatively lackluster “Stranded”. Though they didn’t fit nicely into the pre-post-Punk ( 🙂 ) niche, the power-pop trio Big Star released their second classic album in a row with “Radio City”. It sold even less than the debut and was only heard by the coolest of the cool. Big Star is likely the first real cult band- they did not have an avant-garde sound (at least not yet) and were actually trying to get on the radio and be successful but wouldn’t achieve true fame and notoriety until years after their demise. How “Back of a Car” and “September Gurls” weren’t huge top 40 hits I’ll never know or understand. In Germany Kraftwerk would come out with a huge worldwide hit in “Autobahn”- at the time thought of in the U.S. as a novelty but in time would be understood as one of the most influential sounds in music. All of the music was played on computers- no Kraftwerk then no synth-pop, techno or hip-hop and much of R&B. So many of you can blame Kraftwerk! Cluster, another progressive Germany group would veer away from the space-rock of their earlier days with “Zuckerzeit” another huge early influence on techno music- particularly in the IDM vein.
King Crimson straddled the line between progressive rock and hard rock/heavy metal. Their leader Robert Fripp would also go on to do important work as well with the aforementioned Brian Eno. Though far brainier and more musically complex than most Metal at the time, Crimson certainly rocked hard enough to be known as a heavy metal band. ’74 saw the release of both the “Starless and Bible Black” and “Red” albums ending the first and most influential incarnation of the band with a bang. Though neither had their best years in ’74 British Heavy Metal groups Deep Purple and Black Sabbath both had solid album releases with “Burn” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” respectively. And the newer, also quite progressive and flamboyant band Queen emerged with their second & third albums (Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack). In America a new group of hard rock bands gained traction. The heavily Glam-influenced KISS released their self-titled debut (and still best album) along with their follow-up “Hotter than Hell”, Boston’s Aerosmith came out with their second album “Get Your Wings”- the first of their best trio of albums released in their entire career, and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Secret Treaties”- their third album but the first that anyone noticed.
And all of that without any mention of Bob Marley & the Wailers, whose “Natty Dread” is one of Reggae’s defining albums. They wouldn’t fully break until ’77’s “Exodus” but “Natty Dread” is just as good of an album and an important stepping stone into bringing the Reggae genre to the masses. To my ears “Natty Dread” fights it out with “Grievous Angel” for album of the year 1974.
Bob Marley & the Wailers- Natty Dread
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Brian Eno- Here Come the Warm Jets
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Big Star- Radio City
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Aerosmith- Get Your Wings
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King Crimson- Red
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Roxy Music- Country Life
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Genesis- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
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Stevie Wonder- Fulfillingness’ First Finale
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Shuggie Otis- Inspiration Information
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*This is a reissue with bonus tracks and different front cover art
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New York Dolls- in Too Much Too Soon
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Lynyrd Skynyrd- Second Helping
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Neil Young- On the Beach
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Joni Mitchell- Court and Spark
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Richard & Linda Thompson- I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
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Gram Parsons- Grievous Angel
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Steely Dan- Pretzel Logic
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Randy Newman- Good Old Boys
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Brian Eno- Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
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David Bowie- Diamond Dogs
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