30. STEVIE WONDER- SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976)
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The double cd (triple vinyl at the time of its release) “Songs In the Key Of Life” came at the tail end of the most incredible five album run in soul music history, and one of the best of the rock n’ roll era. Most double albums are filled with bloat and excess, but “Songs” is one of the few that carries not a wasted note. The album touches on nearly every political subject relevant at the time- war, poverty, neglect of the poor, racism, spiritual emptiness and crooked politicians. As Wonder had done on past albums he also leaves room for love, human relationships and family. As deep as the album is it’s also fun & funky. When the album moves into contemplative and downbeat territory there is always a bouncy track like the #1 hit “Sir Duke”, Wonder’s joyous tribute to the jazz great Duke Ellington, to bring the mood back up. “I Wish” & “As” were also big hits off the album, while the tribute to his newborn daughter “Isn’t She Lovely” remains a modern day standard. “Pastime Paradise” was sampled by 90’s rapper Coolio for the #1 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” and the 8 ½ minute “Black Man” is THE most poignant anti-racism song I have ever heard. Rather than railing against bigotry, Wonder name checks all of the different colored people who helped build America- red, white, black, brown, yellow, woman & man. I get choked up every time I hear it. Every cut on the album is a worthwhile listen. After owning the album for over twenty years I still don’t feel like I’ve scratched its surface. It’s an embarrassment of riches that will keep you learning and loving it with each passing year.
Buy Sir DukeAmazon
Buy Black ManAmazon
29. MARVIN GAYE- WHAT’S GOING ON (1971)
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“What’s Going On” was the album that changed everything- at least from a Motown and soul music standpoint. The wildly talented Marvin Gaye had been a major player in the Motown machine since just after its inception. He started as a Motown session drummer, began to write and sing some hits under his own name & then became even more successful singing a string of amazing duets with Tammi Terrell & Kim Weston. Along the duets, songs like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, were some of the best and most enduring songs in rock and soul music history. But Gaye wanted more artistic expression and set out to create “What’s Going On”, an album about the Vietnam War, inner city poverty and decay, the worsening environment and other spiritual and social problems. Motown head Berry Gordy initially refused to release the album, deeming it totally uncommercial and anathema to the Motown machine, which until then churned out an assembly line songs about love and relationships (at least on the surface) that were designed and succeeded to cross over to ‘white America’. Operating across color lines was a big part of Motown’s success. Gordy reluctantly relented and released the album and it quickly became a huge artistic and commercial blockbuster, perfectly in touch with the changing times. Gaye had three pop hits in the title track, a #1 smash and one of Gaye’s signature cuts, “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. Though the rest of the album is much less well-known, every track is beautiful and soulful and adds depth to an album that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts. The album’s impact on soul music for the rest of the decade is impossible to overstate. It was a game changer to black music the way Bob Dylan was a game changer to rock music in the 60’s. After its release soul music was able to be taken more seriously as art, and soul artists were given much more control over their own creations. Gaye paved the way for much more great art that came in his wake.
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28. SEX PISTOLS- NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS…HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS (1977)
“Never Mind the Bollocks” was not the first punk album. It wasn’t even the first punk record released in the U.K.- the Damned beat the Pistols to that by a few months. But “Never Mind the Bollocks” was a game changer like no other punk album released before or since The Sex Pistols and “Bollocks” both embody the entire spirit of punk as well as its quick rise and fall. “Bollocks” was the only full length release by the band and yet both the album and band are so influential as well as famous… even your grandma has probably heard of them- or at least she had back in the seventies. Mythology says that the Pistols were just a bunch of degenerate amateurs who couldn’t play their instruments. Though no one would confuse the Pistols with Hendrix or the Beatles, the album is thoroughly well produced and every song on the album is strong- rather than all sounding the same like so much punk & hardcore music, each track sounds like it could have been released as a single. Vocalist/lyricist Johnny Rotten is the essence of contempt as he spits his angry, nihilistic invective at the British establishment. Unlike much of the outrageous, heavy music that can appear cartoonish, Rotten and the Pistols were offering real social critiques. They were pissed and they meant it, man! I honestly dig every track on the album but the punk classics “Anarchy in the UK”, “God Save the Queen”, “Holidays in the Sun”, “Pretty Vacant” and “Bodies” are the best. Quickly after the Pistols ascent, hundreds of punk bands formed in the U.K. creating a scene that metastacized and split into many different factions. The Pistols flamed out just a year later but left a permanent mark on punk & rock n’ roll culture. Any band who played heavy music with something rebellious to say owes the Pistols.
Buy God Save The Queen (Album Version)Amazon
Buy Holidays In The Sun (Album Version)Amazon
27. FLEETWOOD MAC- RUMOURS (1977)
Fleetwood Mac was a fairly obscure (except in their native U.K.) blues rock band who originated in the late sixties and were led by eccentric & troubled guitar genius Peter Green. Green left the band in the early 70’s and the band floundered for a couple of years until they snatched up L.A. singer songwriter duo Lindsay Buckingham & Stevie Nicks for their self-titled 11th album in 1975. The album was a massive success and broke them wide open America, setting the stage for 1977’s “Rumours”. By the recording of the album Buckingham & Nicks, who had been a couple, had split up and Nicks began having an affair with Mick Fleetwood, the drummer. Singer/keyboardist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie were also in the midst of a divorce. Obviously tensions during the recording were high. Add boatloads of cocaine to the mix and you have a situation ripe for drama. Listening to these two couples pour out their pain on vinyl basically as it was happening must have been akin to the voyeurism in watching a modern day reality show. But unlike most of the pathetic non-talents on “The Bachelor” or “The Kardashians, the Mac was laden with talent. Nicks, Christine McVie & Buckingham were all brilliant singers and songwriters, Buckingham was an absolute ace on guitar and John McVie and Fleetwood were a standout rhythm section. ““Rumours”, until it was overtaken by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” a half decade later, became the biggest selling album of all time. Today it remains a top seller and has been re-discovered and adored by each successive generation of music fans. The album produced four huge pop hits at the time “Don’t Stop”, “You Make Loving Fun”, “Go Your Own Way”, and “Dreams” as well as the classics “Gold Dust Woman” and “The Chain”, but every track on the album has pleasures to offer.
Buy Go Your Own WayAmazon
Buy Dreams – Rumours
26. JONI MITCHELL- BLUE (1971)
For whatever this is worth, “Blue” is my hands down favorite album by a female singer-songwriter. And please don’t think of that as a backhanded compliment as I love plenty of female singer-songwriters and “Blue” is also one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums period. For any man afraid to get in touch with their feminine side, I dare you to listen to this album and not love it. “Blue” is not just a title. This is a sad, confessional album about introspection and lost love. But it’s also an album of deep beauty. It was Mitchell’s fourth album, and though it is still in the acoustic vein of her first three albums, she branches out more musically setting the tone for her next batch of albums which moved into jazz territory. Though Mitchell had already had a few hits and was popular among the hippie crowd, “Blue” was the album that truly made her a star. Ironic for such a contemplative, non-radio ready album. My favorite songs are the title track, “A Case Of You”, “All I Want”, “My Old Man”, and “The River”- the saddest Christmas song ever made. But you can’t go wrong with any of them. This album is a masterpiece.
Buy River – Blue
Buy Blue – Blue
Buy River Amazon
25. VAN MORRISON- MOONDANCE (1970)
In the 60’s Irish born Van Morrison fronted the garage-rock group Them, which had 3 or 4 enduring hits, including the classic “Gloria”, then released his first solo album which included the classic “Brown-Eyed Girl”. In 1968 he took a huge left turn and released the brilliant and totally non-commercial “Astral Weeks”, which sold nothing but is now widely regarded as one of the best albums ever recorded. His follow-up to “Astral Weeks”, 1970’s “Moondance” was a more commercial affair but also both artistic and confessional. America was smack dab in the middle of the singer-songwriter craze and was ripe for “Moondance”. “Moondance” is every bit as good as “Astral Weeks”. In fact it may even be better. Where “Astral Weeks” was rooted in folk, “Moondance” is rooted in rock and jazz. Most of the songs deal in the wonders of nature and the vibe of “Moondance” is purely autumnal. The majority of the album tracks are now well known to music fans- the title track, “And It Stoned Me”, “Crazy Love”, “Caravan” and my very favorite Van Morrison track “Into the Mystic” have all become standards. This may be the most romantic album in my entire music collection and it remains popular to this day – its overall legacy has far outweighed its initial impact .
Buy Into The MysticAmazon
Buy And It Stoned MeAmazon
24. STEVIE WONDER- INNERVISIONS (1973)
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“Innervisions” appeared smack dab in the middle of Wonder’s amazing five album run from the early to the mid 70’s and I think it’s his very best- nudging the amazing “Songs in the Key of Life” by a nose. Wonder deals with the same subject matters- drug abuse, poverty, racism, spirituality & the failure of the 60’s dream- as he dealt with later on “Songs”, but this collection of songs is tighter, funkier and captured the zeitgeist of 1973 perfectly. The seven + minute epic “Living for the City” is simply one of his most amazing tracks- the protagonist in the song is a black southern youth who escapes the poverty and racism of the south only to find both different and similar problems in a northern city, mirroring the flight and plight of so many black Americans in the 20th century. The track should be taught in U.S. history classes. The hits on the album were the funky “Higher Ground”, later covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”. Opener “Too High” is another masterpiece, a cautionary tale about doing too many drugs sung by someone with experience. The beautiful second track “Visions” is the perfect bridge between “Too High” and “Living for the City”- the album flows perfectly throughout. Wonder ends the album with “He’s Misstra Know It All”, a direct swipe at President Nixon right as the Watergate scandal was breaking.
Buy Living For The CityAmazon
Buy Too HighAmazon
23. BOB DYLAN- BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975)
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Over the past fifty years Bob Dylan has recorded many amazing and important albums. 1975’s “Blood On the Tracks is my favorite excluding his incomparable material in ’65-’66- “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde On Blonde”, which are really #’s 1-3. I know it sounds like quite a caveat to lavish a heap of praise on an album that may only be my 4th favorite by an artist but this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about. After Dylan’s amazing span of albums in the 60’s he hit sort of a rough patch relatively speaking. None of his early 70’s albums were thought to be up to the quality of his past work. “Blood on the Tracks” changed that perception and announced the Dylan was still one of the most viable recording artists around. The songs on the album were nearly all acoustic, and sung in a folk vein taking Dylan back to his early recordings. But rather than focusing on political material, “Blood On the Tracks” was 100% personal and perhaps as good as look into the window of Dylan’s soul that we will ever get. The album came in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage and the albums lyrics reflected the breakup, at times allegorically and at times more literally. “Tangled Up in Blue”, the opener, has become one of Dylan’s most recognizable songs. “Idiot Wind”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Shelter from the Storm” & “If You See Her, Say Hello” are also all standouts. “Blood on the Tracks” is a beautiful and heartbreaking album. Dylan is probably the poetic writer in the history of rock and “Blood On the Tracks” was when he truly spilled his guts on the page.
Buy Tangled Up In BlueAmazon
Buy Shelter From The StormAmazon
22. PINK FLOYD- THE WALL (1979)
Buy The Wall (2011 – Remaster)Amazon
When I was a teenager I watched my VHS tape of “The Wall” so many times that I broke it. My familiarity with “The Wall” is probably only rivaled by AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, the first four Led Zep albums and a Beatle album or six. It makes it hard to even rank or write about “The Wall” on a list like this because it’s become so much a part of my musical DNA. But here goes… The album is called is called bloated and overindulgent by some, and I’ll admit that not every track on it can stand by itself as a rock masterpiece, but the whole album tells a story and each song is an integral part. The story it tells might by whacked out and convoluted, but the hours I’ve spent overanalyzing every lyric to each song and ever scene in the movie tell me that I wouldn’t change a thing. Floyd were already riding high off of the success of “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals”, and at the time of “The Wall’s” recording, Floyd were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. Up until then, at least throughout the 70’s, Floyd was truly a band effort. But for “The Wall”, bassist and chief lyricist Roger Waters really took control. “The Wall” is a rock opera about a neurotic, narcissistic rock star on the verge of a nervous breakdown and the life and times that led him there. The album is made up of many song fragments that lead into more fully fleshed-out songs, many of which are very familiar to the average classic rock radio listener- “Hey You”, “Comfortably Numb”, “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2”, “Mother”, “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell”, have all been played to death by radio and with good reason. They are amazing cuts and all rank high in Pink Floyd’s canon. But more than these songs, “The Wall” is a fascinating look at an era- roughly World War II through 1979, from the perspective of a British baby boomer rock star. The pain of losing a parent in the War. The tyranny of the British school system. The groupies, the drugs, the counter culture. The excesses of a generation. It’s all here.
Buy Comfortably Numb (2011 – Remaster)Amazon
Buy Goodbye Blue Sky (2011 – Remaster)Amazon
21. DAVID BOWIE- HUNKY DORY (1971)
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Out of all of my friends who are Bowie fanatics each one has a different favorite Bowie album. Pretty much every one of Bowie’s 70’s records including and in between 1971’s “Hunky Dory” and 1980’s “Scary Monsters” gets a nod from one of them. This shows the depth, diversity and the might of the Bowie catalog. I love all of his 70’s stuff from “Hunky Dory” onward but my absolute favorite is Hunky Dory”. “Hunky Dory” was a bridge between Bowie’s early psychedelic-folk period and the Ziggy Stardust Glam-Rock that came later. “Hunky Dory” captures the spirit of both periods. Side 1 contains the immortal “Changes”, “Life on Mars?”, and “Oh! You Pretty Things,” all quieter songs, acoustic & folky, but sung with a feyness and a personality all his own. They were worlds away from the American singer songwriter stuff of the same time period. Much quirkier and glammed up. Side 2 is much harder rocking featuring the ripping hot “Queen Bitch”, a nod to Lou Reed, and “Andy Warhol”,a nod to….you guessed it. It was on “Hunky Dory” that Bowie would begin to explore ambiguous sexuality and outside of 1969’s “Space Oddity”, his first hits are here. His image was coming together, his songwriting now fully formed and he was ready to take over the seventies. Ziggy Stardust was just around the corner.
Buy Life On Mars? (1999 Digital Remaster)Amazon
Buy Queen Bitch (1999 Digital Remaster)Amazon