1. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac
The 11 songs here are impressive without even factoring in the intense crucible of events that surrounded this album’s recording and release. During a period of fracturing and breakups, the group fortunately managed to make a work that transcended it. Buckingham’s in rare form with “Second Hand News” and “Go Your Own Way.” Stevie Nicks hands the group its only #1 single with “Dreams,” and Christine McVie delivers “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun.” The finest songs here, though, are collaborative efforts. “The Chain” is power personified and one of the few tracks to be credited to every band member, and “I Don’t Want to Know” is one of their best songs, period. If you like the songs here, check out “Silver Springs,” which was taken off the album and relegated to a B-side during production.
2. Animals – Pink Floyd
Animals isn’t exactly an underrated album. However, it was released between two of Pink Floyd’s biggest albums and so got less attention than it deserved. Its place just outside the spotlight might be cemented by the fact that the entire album is basically three songs, each over ten minutes long and not very conducive to radio play. But…wow. In each of the three, Roger Waters identifies a section of society as said animals. “Dogs” is a complex weave of multiple guitar solos and instrumental sections, the lyrics criticizing those who only have their minds of money and power. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” calls out multiple political leaders of the time. “Sheep” has an attention-grabbing synth element and ending, while including a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer. Who knew capitalism was this fun to critique?
3. Aja – Steely Dan
If Steely Dan was heading anywhere, it was here. From the first few beats of “Black Cow” you know this is something special, and that’s only reinforced by its sleek harmonies and instrumental breaks. “Aja” and “Peg” both have astounding drum parts. “Deacon Blues” is so perfect you could teach a college class on it. “Home at Last” and “I Got the News” are two more piano-driven beat exercises, and “Josie” is an excellent closing song. By this point Steely Dan had perfected its method of studio recording. Unfortunately, it would be another three years before they released another album, ending their six-year streak.
4. Talking Heads: 77 – Talking Heads
Talking Heads arrived on the music scene with a refreshing, albeit sometimes unnerving mix of self-assurance and jerky neuroticism. The opener “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” and the album’s preceding single “Love → Building On Fire” are two anthems of the budding New Wave movement. “New Feeling” and “The Book I Read” are two more excellent cuts that demonstrate their versatility. The big hit, “Psycho Killer,” is a terrifying insight into a psychotic mind fueled by a memorable bass part. The best song here, though, is “Pulled Up,” which juggles two good guitar lines and David Byrne’s frenetic vocals. All in all, this album is an excellent introduction to one of the best bands of the period (I’m sure nearly all of their albums will end up in one of these lists or another).
5. Low – David Bowie
Bowie, again the musical chameleon, embraced an intriguing mix of rock and post-punk while recording in Berlin. This album and “Heroes,” #8 below, were the results. The two hits from the first half, “Sound and Vision” and “Be My Wife,” are pretty accessible and are great examples of the versatility of his style. “Breaking Glass” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car” are good too. The majority of the album, including the entire second half, is made up of instrumentals. Some, like “A New Career in a New Town,” are wistful and mesmerizing, while others like “Warszawa” and “Subterranean” echo a strange kind of stillness and despair.
6. My Aim Is True – Elvis Costello
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what genre Elvis Costello belongs to. In a lot of respects this album fits into the New Wave, post-punk atmosphere of the Talking Heads, but in the songs’ short length and catchy melodies there is a hint of a Beatles pop influence. Perhaps such searching for labels isn’t the point. This is his best album, and one only needs to listen to “Alison” and “Less Than Zero” to find out why. “Miracle Man,” “No Dancing,” and “Sneaky Feelings” are all pop brushstrokes that come together to form an eclectic palette. It’s hard to believe he was still working his day job even after the first two singles from this album were released. A quick rocket to fame, indeed.
7. Out of the Blue – Electric Light Orchestra
ELO, as the group is often abbreviated to, had by this point achieved a massive amount of commercial success from singles like “Evil Woman,” “Livin’ Thing,” and others, and under its frontman Jeff Lynne struck an interesting chord between orchestral experimentation and Beatlesque pop. On this double album they risked big and won big. “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” were two of the biggest singles taken from it, along with “It’s Over.” The group had plenty of room to experiment from “Across the Border” to “Wild West Hero.” The four-song “Concerto for a Rainy Day” beginning the second half culminates in the very well-known “Mr. Blue Sky.”
8. “Heroes” – David Bowie
This album was recorded about 500 yards from the Berlin Wall. Bowie, after seeing two lovers embracing near the wall, wrote a song imagining that one was from the western part of the city and the other from the eastern–a triumph, however momentary, over adversity. That song, the title track, stands tall as one of the definitive songs of his entire career and the late 70s, with its weighty rhythm and powerful vocals. “Blackout” and “Joe the Lion” are the other good songs from the first half, and “Sons of the Silent Age” benefits from a tasteful sax part. The second half, also composed of only instrumentals, isn’t quite as gripping as Low but is somehow even more experimental, like in “V-2 Schneider” and “The Secret Life of Arabia.”
9. The Clash – The Clash
It’s telling that this is the third debut album on this list. As the decade edged to a close, the emerging English punk scene made its indelible mark on artists to come. While the Sex Pistols raged on about “Anarchy in the UK,” The Clash were more quietly idealistic (although the music itself is in no way quiet). Is this album a bit repetitive? Not as much as any by The Ramones, but close. The main draw here is its historical impact and the genius that was to come from the group. Of course, not to say there aren’t any good songs here. “White Riot” and “London’s Burning” are genuine classics, not only of the genre but in general, and “Janie Jones” and “I’m So Bored with the USA” are equally entertaining.
10. Running on Empty – Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne had had a good run of albums ever since 1972. One of the greatest in the singer-songwriter genre, he’d built a reputation on more acoustic pieces with intelligent lyrics, which was perhaps typified on 1974’s Late for the Sky. Here, Browne turned that formula a little on its head with a live album (more live-ish at points) that engaged with the theme of living and touring on the road. “The Load Out” is a picture of roadies endlessly packing and unpacking the stage. “You Love the Thunder” is definitely a hidden gem, and the closer “Stay” is pretty recognizable. The title song, which is a bit of an autobiography, is his best and a bittersweet image of the dreams we chase in our youth.
Honorable Mentions: News of the World – Queen, Even in the Quietest Moments… – Supertramp, American Stars ‘n’ Bars — Neil Young
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