1. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
This one takes the top spot for many reasons. It’s not exactly a concept album, but it is effortlessly cohesive. The musicianship is top-notch–it is Motown, after all, and by this point Gaye had spent close to a decade with the label. Most important, though, is the social commentary. Is it preachy at times? Perhaps, but that’s balanced out by the music itself. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and, to a certain extent, “Save the Children” deal with the environmental crisis. The title track and “Inner City Blues” in particular tackle racial inequality with almost prophetic accuracy. All in all, it just goes to show that music with a message, most of the time, comes out on top.
2. Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
This is actually one of the Led Zeppelin albums I listen to the least, but the songs on here are simply gigantic and deserve acknowledgement. I don’t care much for “Stairway to Heaven,” but…it’s there. “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” are the usual brash affairs you’d expect from the group, but I think it’s the lesser-known songs here (if there really are any) that shine the brightest. “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks” are great, the former being probably my favorite Led Zeppelin song that has the keyboards as the main focus, and “When the Levee Breaks,” what I will dare to proclaim the album’s best song, has one of the most famous drum tracks of all time.
3. Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones
As the 70s began, the Stones continued their exploration of rock’s “roots” they began in 1968. If anything, they deepened it–the album’s overall tone is grittier than possibly any other they’d made. Songs like “Sway” are absolutely dripping with a blues-infused swagger (an odd phrase, yes, but bear with me), and others, like “You Gotta Move,” are even more traditional in form. I don’t like “Brown Sugar,” more for the subject matter than anything else, but “Bitch” is an adequate similar-sounding replacement. And, of course, “Wild Horses” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” are well-known for a reason, the latter being without a doubt my favorite Stones song, all thanks to Mick Taylor’s guitar solos in the second half.
4. Who’s Next – The Who
This album is dominated in the popular imagination by its beginning and ending tracks: “Baba O’Riley,” often misidentified as “Teenage Wasteland,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Both of these have been played to death, but I think they have merit, especially the former, which has a simply unique intro and outro that doesn’t really match anything else of the period for me. “Behind Blue Eyes,” I am a little tired of hearing that one, but that’s only because the intro and its lyrics are so recognizable, it’s the same way with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” If you’re looking for something a little less played, “My Wife” and “Bargain” are really strong tracks. There’s also a couple slower songs like “The Song Is Over” that help monitor the pacing.
5. Meddle – Pink Floyd
Meddle is Pink Floyd’s first great album, largely because of “Echoes,” the 23-minute song that is the second half. Although the live version at Pompeii is the definitive one, the album cut still preserves the grand mentality and ethos that was intended. And the other songs aren’t just filler. “One of These Days” is a strong opener that would sound just at home on Wish You Were Here, minus the latter’s more polished production. “Fearless” is great almost solely because of its guitar part, and it’s a nice change of pace to have them do a slower song and knock it out of the park. Some people call “San Tropez” a throwaway, but I like it also. In general, I feel it’s a rather introspective album that continues their upward ascent.
6. Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses) – Grateful Dead
I think it’s hard to encapsulate the Dead in one album, probably because every one of their songs has a better version elsewhere, in one of their million live sets or bootlegs. But this one comes pretty close to the mark: it’s a live album in their best period, and gives a nod to their many musical influences. Country and folk tinges most of it, especially on songs like “Mama Tried” and “Me & My Uncle.” “Bertha” and “Playing in the Band” are probably the two strongest tracks on the album, and the nine-minute closing song, combining “Not Fade Away” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” is a wonderful example of the Dead’s talent for seamlessly blending songs together and making you wonder where exactly they’re going.
7. Imagine – John Lennon
This album is a little more polished than its predecessor Plastic Ono Band, but it still manages to preserve its sense of authenticity and criticism from the outside. I do still prefer his previous album, but only because it seems a little more cohesive to me as a whole. There’s a little more experimentation with different styles here: “Crippled Inside” is a humorous, although depressing country-ish ditty, and “It’s So Hard” is a blues number reminiscent of “Yer Blues” from the White Album. Of course, the title track is Lennon’s defining song, and others like “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama” and “How?” continue the social commentary you can expect from him.
8. At Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band
Forget Lynyrd Skynyrd, this is Southern rock at its best. The first two numbers alone, “Statesboro Blues” and “Done Somebody Wrong,” are a master class in slide guitar, not even mentioning the fact that it’s Duane Allman. On the later songs the band really has a chance to stretch out: “Whipping Post” goes on for over twenty-three minutes, which is a little much for me but I suppose in a real live setting it’d go by much quicker. What’s certain, though, is that every member of the band was on the same wavelength–the entire Fillmore East recordings, over triple the length of this album, don’t dip that much in quality throughout.
9. Future Games – Fleetwood Mac
I don’t think it’s fair to call FM’s 1971-4 era a “lost period.” Sure, they were pretty unpopular at times, but they had unrecognized talent and many unrecognized songs. Future Games, as with many of their albums, shows the band adapting to a lineup change, one where the burden of creativity fell largely upon guitarist Danny Kirwin. Fortunately, he delivered: “Woman of 1000 Years” and “Sometimes” are two beautiful little ballads, and “Sands of Time” is engaging. Newcomer Bob Welch also makes a strong first impression with the title track. This album, more than any other, is the hidden gem of their discography (I realize I repeat the phrase “hidden gem” a lot, and I apologize, but, I mean, how else am I going to phrase it?).
10. Hunky Dory – David Bowie
This album feels like a contemporary poetry collection: there’s a bunch of little eclectic stories playing out, and you can’t help but follow them, one after the other. “Changes” is the best song from his early years, a youthful anthem that is somewhat mirrored in “Kooks.” “Life on Mars” is another key track, its title connecting it to Bowie’s album of the next year. The album’s larger reliance on piano and orchestra not only reinforces its eclectic tone but also its relatively laid-back atmosphere.
Honorable Mentions: Tapestry – Carole King, L.A. Woman – The Doors, Fragile – Yes, Street Corner Talking – Savoy Brown
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