Top 15 Albums of 1970

The early 1970s were often a tempestuous time in music history. However, that didn’t prevent a lot of good albums from being made, 15 of which I have ranked here from the first year of the decade, along with a few honorable mentions. I don’t consider myself qualified to be a music critic per se, so this article is purely my opinion. I will eventually continue this series as far forward as I can chronologically before I die of exhaustion. So, without further ado….

1. Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel

Similarly to The Beatles and Abbey Road, Simon & Garfunkel’s last recorded album was their masterwork. Although the album doesn’t include as much political and social commentary as some of their earlier works, it’s an alluring blend of folk and rock, with the usual harmonies and delicate instrumentation that make their songs appealing. And, of course, the title track, along with “Cecilia” and “The Boxer,” are timeless classics that deserve to be repeated. The lesser-known songs are also great (“The Only Living Boy in New York” is my personal favorite song by the group).

2. Live at Leeds – The Who

As well known as The Who were for their operatic experimentations, their roots always lay in straight-on rock-and-roll, in the smashed guitars and drum sets they left on stage. Nowhere else is this more clear than here, where just three instruments form a virtual army that grabs your ears and doesn’t let go. Their previously released songs assume a new ferocity. “My Generation” is stretched out to fifteen minutes, and “Amazing Journey/Sparks” carries a completely different energy than the cut on 1969’s Tommy. Surprisingly, the four covers in the album are some of the strongest material here: “Young Man Blues” holds a place on my list of best rock songs of all time.

3. Cosmo’s Factory – Creedence Clearwater Revival

There’s something undeniably nostalgic about CCR’s songs to me. It evokes nights out in the countryside, by the creeks and the campfires. Whether the song is fast or slow, there’s a distinct Southern swagger to it. There were plenty of hits from this album, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and “Run Through the Jungle” the three biggest. As usual, though, there are non-hits that make the entirety worth listening to, such as “Up Around the Bend” and “Ramble Tamble,” a dizzying seven-minute odyssey. Altogether it’s the group’s best work in its scope and legacy.

4. Led Zeppelin III – Led Zeppelin

For the most part, III lives up to its reputation of being more laid-back and less imposing than its two predecessors. However, the acoustic songs can still knock you back if you’re not careful, and the “normal” rock ones burn with the same aggressiveness. Pretty much everybody knows “Immigrant Song.” “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is one of their best songs, period, and “Out on the Tiles” is fun. The combination of “Friends” and “Celebration Day” points out the group’s growing experimentation that would reach its height in Houses of the Holy.

5. After the Gold Rush – Neil Young

There’s not much to be said about this one except that it’s one of Young’s best in his line of 70s albums that aren’t entirely accessible but make you think pretty hard at times. This one edges out 1972’s Harvest for me for a number of small reasons, but in the end it doesn’t really matter which one you put on top. “Tell Me Why” is a solid opener, and the title track and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” are two other highlights. The mere fact that “Southern Man,” the album’s most well-known song, is one of its “worst,” shows that once you take a dive into Young’s work, and you like it, you’re not coming back.

6. Band of Gypsys – Jimi Hendrix

Another live album, recorded over New Year’s 1970, this six-song offering shows Jimi stretching out and gaining a little elbow room. By now Jimi had grown somewhat tired of playing the same shorter-length hits like “Purple Haze,” and playing with a new group allowed him to experiment more with jazz rock and other genre-bending stuff. I personally don’t mind Buddy Miles’s turns at center stage, “Changes” is a fun little song. The centerpiece of the album is “Machine Gun,” twelve minutes that includes what has to be two of the best guitar solos of all time, if you can even figure out where they properly begin and end.

7. Let It Be – The Beatles

This album would be ranked higher if it weren’t for the fact that it should have never seen the light of day: it was formed out of aborted sessions from over a year prior and released after The Beatles had effectively broken up. The material here is still good. “Let It Be” and “Get Back” are present, although the single versions of both are arguably better. McCartney’s compositions seem to dominate the album, but “Dig A Pony” and “For You Blue” can’t pass a mention, and “I Me Mine,” by Harrison, is particularly underrated. The 2003 version of the album, which features stripped-down version of the tracks missing some of producer Phil Spector’s orchestral additions and other elements, is a worthy listen as well if you just want the music and don’t want to listen to the odd studio chatter every time.

8. Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon

You just have to respect an album with this much emotional honesty poured into it. The opening song alone, “Mother,” is a shotgun blast to the heart, and the following songs only reinforce the power of the simple, relatable personal experience. “Well Well Well” and “I Found Out” crackle and growl with raw power, and “Remember” is one I particularly like. “Working Class Hero,” probably his boldest social commentary, is not for the faint of heart, but it serves a good reminder. Also don’t miss two of the album’s accompanying singles, “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).”

9. Stage Fright – The Band

Is my blind love for The Band making me rank this album higher than it deserves? Possibly, but also…nonsense. It isn’t as good as their first two albums, nothing really could be, but that doesn’t mean it should be panned. “Sleeping” and the title track prove that Richard Manuel was still one of the best vocalists around, and “The Shape I’m In” is a rollicking jaunt reminiscent of “King Harvest.” Sure, it’s a 7/10, but it’s a 7/10 from start to finish.

10. Atom Heart Mother – Pink Floyd

Early Pink Floyd albums are a bit of an acquired taste: I still can’t listen to the bulk of Ummagumma without my ears bristling and sealing shut of their own accord (maybe it really is just terrible). But this one’s different. The title song, a 23-minute suite, is an interesting experience, even if it’s best suited in the background. “Summer ’68” is a shining moment from Richard Wright, and “If” is another hidden gem. Altogether you can see the band’s slow movement towards Meddle and future greatness.

11. Déjà Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s debut album was a defining moment of 1969, and this album followed the same folk-rock format. The addition of Neil Young to the group meant even more talent pushed into a small running length (he certainly delivers with “Helpless,” one of his usual commentaries). The best song on the record, though, is the opener “Carry On,” with its almost immediately recognizable chords and signature harmonies.

12. Sunflower – The Beach Boys

A lot of people think The Beach Boys faded out of existence after Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations.” Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. Sunflower is a strong contender for their best album because it combines their musical talents with more mature songwriting, especially from Bruce Johnston and Dennis Wilson, who were able to assume more prominent roles. “Slip On Through” and “It’s About Time” show the band at a time of surprising adaptability, and “All I Wanna Do” is mesmerizing and ahead of its time.

13. Fire and Water – Free

Despite putting out six good-quality albums, Free is still only really known for this album’s hit single “All Right Now.” All four band members were still young enough to be in college when this one came out, and it’s altogether a solid venture, although “Don’t Say You Love Me” does slow the pace a bit too much for me. The title track is great, though, and I still can’t help but listen to the first four songs together.

14. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek & the Dominos

It can be argued this one-album band wasn’t really a band so much as another vehicle for Eric Clapton’s career, and that might be true to a certain extent, but it can’t be denied the other members had talent. Duane Allman’s guest guitar work is extraordinary, as could be expected, and, well, the title track is what it is. “I Looked Away,” the album’s opener, was another minor hit and is always refreshing, even if the rest of the album is more depressing than anything else.

15. John Barleycorn Must Die – Traffic

Traffic, after its earlier hits like “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (forever immortalized in Avengers: Endgame), became yet another herald of a genre-bending jazz rock that would find its home in the likes of Steely Dan and others. The opening combination of “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” shows the variety of instrumentation, even if it is grounded in Steve Winwood’s organ. “Empty Pages” is the real stand-out track here.

Honorable Mentions: Moondance – Van Morrison, The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie, Tumbleweed Connection – Elton John, Bitches Brew – Miles Davis

Michael Nellis, Copyright 2020


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