1. Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones
This double album is pretty much the Stones’ White Album. It shows them, to an impressive degree, embracing a variety of different musical influences, from country to blues and even gospel, in “I Just Want to See His Face.” The big songs here are “Rocks Off” and “Happy,” as well as the album’s best, “Tumbling Dice,” which also has faint gospel undertones. The last four tracks, though, is where the album really shines. “All Down the Line” and “Soul Survivor” are typical Stones songs, while “Stop Breaking Down” is an interpretation of a Robert Johnson standard, and “Shine A Light” is just powerful. “Let It Loose” and “Casino Boogie” are pretty good also. In short, there are a myriad of memorable grooves and riffs here, but the fact that they seamlessly meld together is another kind of remarkable.
2. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
Bowie’s finest hour placed him once for all firmly on the public stage, and also solidified one of his many stage personas. As a concept album, it has an even odder premise than The Who’s Tommy, but for some reason it works. There’s enough variability in style and instrumentation to keep you engaged–the two most well-known songs, “Starman” and “Suffragette City,” are two different patterns cut from the same cloth. The two opening songs, “Five Years” and “Soul Love,” serve a fitting introduction, and the ending, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” is another classic.
3. Can’t Buy A Thrill – Steely Dan
Steely Dan’s debut contained everything that would make them great, even if they had not yet perfected their studio technique. The album hinges on its two hits: “Do It Again” is an unusual opener driven by Latin rhythms, and “Reelin’ in the Years” sounds like typical pop but has a strong guitar part that makes it stand out. The two songs sung by David Palmer, “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),” sound a little out of place, but I enjoy them anyway. “Kings,” “Midnite Cruiser,” and “Change of the Guard” are just three more examples of the slick musicianship that can be expected from the group. The album leans more towards rock than their characteristic jazz rock, but it’s still a very solid contribution. They would only get better from here on out.
4. Harvest – Neil Young
This album is, in a word, sincere. Young, for the moment, sheds his protest songs for a heartwarming look at simpler life. The beginning harmonica wail of “Out on the Weekend” pretty much tells you all you need to know. The title song and “Heart of Gold,” one of Young’s most well-known songs, continue to develop the theme. “Alabama” is the acerbic twin of “Southern Man,” and admittedly doesn’t fit perfectly here, but it still works. The orchestral parts on “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” are also a little overdone. But that is all redeemed on the final song, “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” which reminds me of a slightly less intense version of “Down by the River.”
5. Europe ’72 – Grateful Dead
Given that this is a live triple album, there are some filler songs here, and others, like “Truckin'” with its instrumental prologue and epilogue, are padded out to uncomfortable lengths. But, thankfully, most of it is gold. “Cumberland Blues” and “He’s Gone” are pretty much the best openings an album can get. “Ramble On Rose,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Tennessee Jed” are all six-minute-plus songs bolstering the second half: although sometimes they can seem pretty drawn out, if you’re knee-deep in the rhythm or just have it in the background it doesn’t matter. The real shining moment is, without a doubt, the combination of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” Rarely have I heard two guitars interplay so well together, and Phil Lesh’s soaring basslines just piece it all together.
6. Obscured by Clouds – Pink Floyd
This truly is the long-lost Floyd album, which is a pity because it was released only a year before The Dark Side of the Moon and shows the group getting into form for that masterwork. Four of the tracks are instrumentals. While they aren’t bad (the title track and “Mudmen” are actually quite good), they’re not really what you’re here for. “Wot’s… Uh the Deal?” is a slower song similar to “Fearless,” even better in my opinion. “Free Four” is one of Roger Waters’s first biographical songs about his father, a theme that would continue to recur on The Wall and elsewhere. “Childhood’s End” is a great track, lyrically and otherwise, and is pretty much “Time” in embryonic form, with Rick Wright playing a similar organ part on both.
7. Talking Book – Stevie Wonder
According to most critics I’ve read, this album (or his other album from this year, Music of My Mind) begins Stevie Wonder’s “classic period,” and I have to agree. Pretty much everybody knows “Superstition” and its nigh irresistible drum and clavinet parts. The other famous song from the album, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” is more calming and focuses, like many of the other tracks, on Wonder’s vocal skills. From here on out you can clearly trace Wonder’s growing levels of experimentation in his compositions, and it’s also very impressive that, being blind, he still manages to play the bulk of the instruments.
8. Bare Trees – Fleetwood Mac
This album, guitarist Danny Kirwin’s last with the band, was FM’s last solid showing before 1975. The one-two punch of “Child of Mine” and “The Ghost” sets things up, although the title track is probably the best song here due to its melodic variability. Bob Welch delivers his signature song, “Sentimental Lady,” which is pretty memorable. The two instrumentals not so much, though. Christine McVie, who is definitely one of the most underrated female musicians of the time, sings “Homeward Bound” and “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love.” The closing song “Dust,” also composed by Kirwan, features as its lyrics poetry written by WWI soldier Rupert Brooke.
9. Eat A Peach – The Allman Brothers Band
It’s unfortunate that this album, their peak studio work, was interrupted by the death by their lead guitarist, forcing second guitarist Dicky Betts into the spotlight. Two songs are pulled from the previous year’s Fillmore East shows, “One Way Out” and “Mountain Jam,” the latter over a half-hour long (yep, that’s right). “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Melissa” are both good reflective numbers, the latter in particular. “Blue Sky” is dominated by two guitar solos from Allman and Betts respectively, and the acoustic “Little Martha” at the very end is a nice touch to Allman’s legacy.
10. Close to the Edge – Yes
Leave it to Yes to make an entire album out of three songs…twice. The 18-minute title track and first half, divided into four “movements,” is a trip. The first couple minutes are a bit chaotic, but after that it evens out, and the vocal harmony sections are entertaining enough. The two songs of the second side are more acoustic based–“Siberian Khatru” is great. It is progressive rock, so a certain sheen of pretension is inevitable, but this is a worthy listen for the musicianship alone. It’s obvious by listening to it that far too many hours were put in at the studio to piece this album together.
Honorable Mentions: Jackson Browne – Jackson Browne, Everybody’s In Show-Biz – The Kinks, Machine Head – Deep Purple
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