20. PINK FLOYD- WISH YOU WERE HERE (1975)
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It’s hard to believe that “Wish You Were Here” was Pink Floyd’s ninth album. Up until their previous album, the worldwide smash “Dark Side of the Moon”, Floyd was a relatively unknown cult band. The wild success of “Dark Side” enabled Floyd to pretty much do whatever they wanted for their follow-up as they now had a legion of followers ready to lap up whatever material Floyd spit out. Thankfully “Wish You Were Here” was hardly a disappointment, though it is a very different album from “Dark Side of the Moon”. It’s a five song concept album about founding member Syd Barrett and his deep descent into psychosis, which left Barrett unable to perform, contribute to the band, or remain an active member of society. Tracks “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have A Cigar” seem to place at least part of the blame for Barrett’s downfall on the music business at large and the pressures that it brought on him. The title track as well as the “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” song suite that begins and ends the album are love letters and elegies of sort to Syd. The suite takes up twenty-five minutes of the album on its own and the other three tracks are on constant rotation to this day on Classic Rock radio. Though Floyd had lengthy song suites on prior albums, “Diamond” is arguably their most successful. “Wish You Were Here” is close to a perfect album. I love all five tracks and the album exemplifies the band’s improvisational skills, David Gilmour’s amazing guitar solos, along with Floyd’s burgeoning ability to craft a brilliant pop song.
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19. NEIL YOUNG- AFTER THE GOLD RUSH (1970)
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During the recording of “After the Gold Rush”, Neil Young was coming off both a successful 2nd solo album “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”, released in 1969 and featuring the epic & sprawling hard rock of his band Crazy Horse & his first album with Crosby, Still & Nash “Déjà vu”, who were then probably the biggest band in America. Outside of “Southern Man”, the brilliant anti-racist admonishment of the American south, “Gold Rush” was a much quieter affair than his previous solo album, just in time to inadvertently capitalize on the singer-songwriter phenomenon happening in the early 70’s. This was likely just a stroke of good fortune as Young was never one to follow trends, but the considerable success of “Gold Rush” set the stage for “Harvest”, two years later which would become and remain his biggest ever album. The majority of the songs on the album were played in a country-folk style, often focusing on romantic love in a far more optimistic way than most of Young’s stuff. Other than “Southern Man” an exception to that rule is the title track, one of his most mysterious songs and a personal favorite that seems resigned that the end of the world is coming due to environmental catastrophe. But he imagines that the human race will survive on another planet- heavy! “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, “I Believe In You”, and “Tell Me Why” also rank with his best work. Great Neil Young songs are spread out on many of his albums, and “After the Gold Rush” has less ‘hits’ than some of his others, but I feel that this is the best collection of songs of any album in his discography.
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18. LED ZEPPELIN- III (1970)
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Led Zeppelin III tends to be the forgotten album from Zeppelin’s early period. Only album opener “The Immigrant Song” sees any significant radio play today and albums I, II, & IV did so much to set the template for blues based power rock and heavy metal in the 70’s that they were destined to overshadow the quieter and sneaky great III. To me the quality of Zep III puts it right up there with the others. In high school I burned out on others so much that it became my favorite Zeppelin album for a time. Zeppelin was a great band and all of their albums are at least somewhat musically diverse, but III was where the band really stretched out and grew musically. They dabbled more in stripped down traditional acoustic blues and folk music. Though the garbled and unwieldy “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is a miss for me, every other song on the album is a winner. “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way” are two of the bands best acoustic ballads and “Celebration Day” and “Out on the Tiles” are two great under-recognized stompers along with the aforementioned “Immigrant Song”, certainly one Zep’s signature cuts. Both “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Gallows Pole” are two of their better blues cuts. All and all this album is as diverse as the great “Physical Graffiti” and it’s half as long. Like almost every other Zep album, it’s totally essential.
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17. THE CLASH- THE CLASH (1977 U.K./1979 U.S.)
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Where the Sex Pistols were angry and nihilistic, the Clash were angry, and idealistic. They wore their leftist political ideals on their sleeves like a badge of honor. The Sex Pistols and the Damned came before them in the U.K., but the Clash did more than any other band in punk’s first wave to expand the parameters of punk. Though their debut album was more stripped down and straight ahead punk than their later stuff for sure, even in their early days they brought diversity to the table as exemplified by their great cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”. The Clash begins with the barely two minute anthem “Janie Jones” and never loses steam, closing the record out with the autobiographical “Garageland” 13 songs later. Clash classics “White Riot”, “London’s Burning”, “Remote Control”, “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” & “Career Opportunities” are all here. Just reading the song titles tells you that the Clash were a call to arms. In the late 70’s the Clash were called ‘the only band that mattered’. Years later they are as popular as ever. Their sound and message has resonated with younger generations arguably more than any other punk band. Though the debut was a huge success in the U.K. it wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1979. The U.S. company deleted “Cheat”, “Deny”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours” from the track listing- all are lesser songs on the album. In their place they added U.K. singles “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, “Clash City Rockers”, “Jail Guitar Doors” & “I Fought the Law”. “White Man” is my favorite Clash song. “Clash City” rules and their cover of “I Fought the Law” is epic. Though it is a bastardized version of the band’s original vision of the album, it’s tough to deny that the U.S. version is better as it plays like an early Clash’s greatest hits.
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16. JOY DIVISION- UNKNOWN PLEASURES (1979)
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Joy Division was formed in England, in 1977 during the height of the U.K. punk explosion. Though they had a similar spirit and attitude, unlike other punk groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash & the Damned, Joy Division’s music was not fast or aggressive. They get deserved credit as the first post-punk group, which set off its own explosion in ’78 and ’79, and the were also the biggest influence on goth music, if not the first goth group. Joy Divison’s first singles were released in ’78, but “Unknown Pleasures”, their first full length album, didn’t come out until 1979. They clearly worked out any kinks in the early singles as their debut is one of the most fully formed and perfect debuts in rock history. There was simply nothing before it that sounded anything like it. The best description I can come up with is a mixture of punk rock, dub reggae and German Krautrock groups like Can & Faust. The best songs are “She’s Lost Control”, “Disorder”, “Shadowplay” & “New Dawn Fades”, but every song on the album resonates. No song on the album is as recognizable as their most popular singles“Transmission”, “Atmosphere” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart”- “Unknown Pleasures” is best absorbed as a whole rather than a collection of songs. It’s lack of cultural saturation makes it a great album to go back to, with the ability to still surprise. Joy Division would go on to release only one other album and a few more singles before the unfortunate suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. The rest of the band would go on to form the equally influential New Order. Those two bands alone are so influential on modern indie rock music that eliminating them from history would be unfathomable.
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15. THE ROLLING STONES- STICKY FINGERS (1971)
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Blues, Jazz, Country and lots and lots of drugs. “Sticky Fingers” is vintage Stones and it’s almost unbelievable to me that they actually have albums I like more- the level that the Stones were on- particularly between -68-‘72, was just sick! “Sticky Fingers” has a classic riff driven rock cut to open each side. “Brown Sugar”, one of their signature cuts opens side 1 and the lesser known sleazy “Bitch” opens side 2. The rest of the tracks on the album are much more experimental. The underrated boozy & drugged out “Sway” follows “Brown Sugar”. Next is “Wild Horses”, one of the bands most beautiful and well-loved ballads. The 7 minute jazzy jam “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” is one of my all-time favorites and shows the Stones stretching out and jamming perhaps more than any other song in their discography. The forgettable blues cover, “You Gotta Move” closes side 1. After “Bitch” on side 2 are a great pair of haunting acoustic ballads “I Got the Blues” and “Sister Morphine”, followed by the boozy country sing along “Dead Flowers”. The great coked up howler “Moonlight Mile” ends the album with one of Mick Jagger’s best performances. With only 10 tracks the Stones show how amazingly diverse they are. The dark, ominous tone of the albums and many references to hard drugs were a window into the Stones own decadence and were also indicative of many of the narcotics-related problems happening among many of their musician peers at the time.
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“There’s A Riot Goin’ On” is, in a way, the black version of “Sticky Fingers”. Also released in 1971 in the wake of Kent State, Nixon and the death of hippie idealism, “Riot” is even more drugged out and much more pessimistic than “Sticky”. Sly was coming off the hugely successful “Stand!” album in 1969 which had numerous hits and was a true crossover between white and black audiences. The #1 hit in 1970 “Thankyoufalletinmebemicelfagain” only added to their winning streak, but its irony foreshadowed the hopelessness of “Riot”. “Stand!” was upbeat and a call for brotherhood. Though it called out racists and asked for change it couldn’t have been more optimistic. “Riot” sounds like a band coming apart at the seams and in the throes of addiction. The tone is one of disgust and resignation that the social progress of the sixties not only wouldn’t keep moving forward but would in many ways had started to reverse. The lead single “Family Affair” went to #1 but unlike civil rights songs of the 60’s like “Keep On Pushing” and “Everyday People”, it actually sounds smoked out and paranoid. “Riot” is also a musically brilliant album. It’s funky as hell for sure, but also miles away from the upbeat funk of early Sly, James Brown or the Meters. The grooves and vocals are slurred and stoned out. It may sound like a mess but the songs are consistently great and the hooks are memorable if not radio ready. Never has an album sounded so much of its time, while also influencing so music for years to come. It truly sounds better with each passing year. Listen to music of today like Shabazz Palaces or the latest Roots album. “Riot” is their direct descendent.
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13. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND- GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, NJ (1973)
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Most of my top twenty albums of the 70’s are fairly unsurprising. Even the few fairly obscure titles are almost universally beloved and acknowledged as great by the people who know them. If I have a truly polarizing pick in the bunch it’s probably “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ”, Bruce Springsteen’s debut album. Many people and critics seem to think this album is too neo-Dylan, too wordy, trying too hard. It also bears the misfortune of containing the clunker “Mary Queen of Arkansas”, probably the worst of Springsteen’s early songs. But aside from “Mary” I hear an amazing collection of songs- many of them all-time Springsteen classics. For me it doesn’t get much better than “Growin’ Up”, “Blinded By the Light” (later covered by the Manfred Mann Earth Band who had a big hit with it), “For You”, the epic “Lost in the Flood”, the classic rock radio staple “Spirit in the Night”, and “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City”. The lyrics are poetic, hyper-detailed and often exaggerated to a hilarious degree. Springsteen, like Dylan, is a lover of words. He can be verbose and on Greetings, more is definitely more’, but his lyrics create dazzling images. They are so detailed and descriptive that you really get to know the characters and places in his song. And that’s exciting. Springsteen was singing about a particular people, a particular region, even a particular boardwalk beach town. So specific but universal enough that any kid could relate. The youth in his songs are at the edge of adulthood when every night and act seems momentous. And you can’t wait to hear what happens to them next.
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12. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS- THIS YEAR’S MODEL (1978)
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Like many second albums, “This Year’s Model” was mostly made up of leftover material from the first album’s sessions. Unlike most second albums, “This Year’s Model” sounds wildly different from Costello’s debut “My Aim Is True”. The reason is simple. Costello ditched his backing band (Clover) and the stripped down production of “My Aim Is True” and hired a new band, the Attractions, made up of Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, who I think are absolutely one of the mightiest bands in rock. Now the music behind Costello matched his anger and aggression and “This Year’s Model” actually sounds like punk rock- though Costello’s music was always a bit too complex to be easily labeled. Costello has many great albums but start to finish “Model” is my favorite. The hits are “Pump It Up” and the incendiary album ender “Radio Radio”- a diatribe against the “hand that feeds him”, but there are plenty of album cuts that are just as worthy. “The Beat”, “I Don’t Want to go to Chelsea”, “Lipstick Vogue”, “No Action” & “This Year’s Girl” are all personal faves. Every track is under 4 minutes and the whole album whips by at a breakneck pace- there are no ballads ala “Alison” here. It may not be the most musically diverse Costello album but it’s the most fun.
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11. THE RAMONES- THE RAMONES (1976)
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Punk rock music certainly has its antecedents. There was “Rumble” by Link Wray in the late 50’s, the Kinks “You Really Got Me” and countless garage-rock bands in the 60’s found on various Nuggets and Pebbles compilations. In the late 60’s and early 70’s there were the Velvet Underground, MC5 and especially the Stooges- and then the New York Dolls and the Modern Lovers first recordings in the early 70’s. But the first true punk rock record, as we know punk music today, was the Ramones debut in 1976. The Ramones, who hailed from the Forest Hills section of Queens, worshipped the sounds of fifties rock n’ roll, sixties girl groups and the aforementioned Nuggets-style garage rock. They despised any note of pretension in rock and wanted to boil the music down to its essence, like it was at its inception in the 50’s- 2 to 3 minute burst of energy, simple lyrics about being young, lusty and rebellious. The result is 14 songs built on speed and aggression, the majority under 2 minutes long and none over 2:40. Unlike so much later Punk, the Ramones didn’t sound angry and were almost entirely apolitical. Their main concerns were the concerns of a teenager- the opposite sex, escape & boredom. Their so stupid they’re smart lyrics are hilarious. Each song focused primarily on one topic- “Beat On the Brat”, “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”, the great ballad “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”. They simply described what was happening leaving the listener to fill in the rest- and usually there wasn’t anything else. Every track on the album is awesome. Some other signature Ramones tracks are album opener, “Blitzkrieg Bop” (my fave!), “53rd & 3rd” about gay male prostitutes, “Judy Is a Punk” and “Chain Saw” and a great cover of sixties gem “Let’s Dance”. The Ramones first four albums are essential. After that, they are hit and miss. But none is more essential than their debut, one of the true touchstones of both punk and rock music.
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