1. Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder
This album, also the recipient of a Best Album Grammy, is considered the peak of Wonder’s “classical period,” and influenced just so many artists of the genre even until today. Much of the album has been sampled: just take a listen to “Pastime Paradise” and see if it rings a bell. The album really is an embracing of life in its many varied aspects, from the hardships of poverty (“Village Ghetto Land”) to the birth of a new child (“Isn’t She Lovely”). “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” are two hits deserving of their fame. “Have a Talk with God” and “Ordinary Pain” are good also. And the one-two punch of “As” and “Another Star” is the perfect way to round everything out, although an extra four-song EP was sold with the original album including even more.
2. Desire – Bob Dylan
In the wake of his famous Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan was able to carry over momentum from the previous year into this rather unusual album. It really stands out to me from anything else he did, probably because of its emphasis on including backing vocals and violin parts. The drama from his ending marriage still carries over from Blood on the Tracks in a couple songs such as “Isis” and the ending “Sara,” which is perhaps the most famous track here. “Hurricane” is the thought-provoking tale of a racially motivated arrest (and a true story). “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Oh, Sister” are quite good as well.
3. The Royal Scam – Steely Dan
This is my favorite Steely Dan album, which for me is a tough call, but I have a couple reasons. Compared to Aja‘s longer songs, here the band was able to strike a near-perfect chord between longer improvisations and catchy hooks. None of the songs here were real hits, but “King Charlemagne” comes close. The album features more prominent guitar work, mostly the handiwork of session musician Larry Carlton, like in “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Everything You Did.” “Sign In Stranger” and “The Caves of Altamira” are two more absolutely stellar jazz pieces, and “Haitian Divorce” has a tone all of its own.
4. Station to Station – David Bowie
Bowie once remarked he had little memory of recording this entire album due to the drug addictions he had at the time. Somehow it all worked out, though. The ending product is dark and inscrutable, a twisted underground version of the LA it was recorded in. It was a definitive transition to the punky Berlin albums that would follow. “Golden Years,” the major single, and “Stay,” my personal favorite here, bear a passing resemblance to the manufactured soul of Young Americans, but it’s only passing. The winding title track characterizes the “thin white duke,” another one of Bowie’s many stage personas. The ending song, “Wild is the Wind,” has often been called one of his finest vocal achievements, and I have to agree.
5. Presence – Led Zeppelin
At this point Led Zeppelin was beginning to fall behind the curve that they had set seven years prior. Live releases like The Song Remains the Same showed they could still pack the stadiums, but their last two albums were not exactly considered cutting-edge and singer Robert Plant’s confinement to a wheelchair due to a car accident didn’t help. But sometimes talent can surprise you. “Achilles’s Last Stand” is a nonstop powerhouse that makes ten minutes seem like four. “For Your Life” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” continue the tone, Bonham’s drumming especially on point. “Tea for One” has for me always been one of their most mind-bending songs. Overall, this album really does not deserve to be overlooked. It doesn’t have the sheen of their earlier work, but I would rank it alongside Houses of the Holy.
6. Hotel California – Eagles
By their fifth album Eagles had largely shifted away from the country rock that would make their first greatest hits compilation the second best-selling album of all time. The addition of James Gang member Joe Walsh added some needed pep to the lineup, the result being “Life in the Fast Lane,” which is low-key the best thing here, and, of course, “Hotel California,” which I can only really enjoy listening to once in a while but has one of the most highly rated guitar solos of all time. “New Kid in Town” is a page out of their past but is still refreshing, “Victim of Love” is pretty underrated, and “Try and Love Again” is the last song that bassist Randy Meisner would sing/write for the band.
7. Frampton Comes Alive! – Peter Frampton
Frampton had certainly paid his dues before this “big break,” both as a member of Humble Pie and throughout the release of his first four solo albums. In this live double album, pulled primarily from three different concerts in San Francisco and New York, he compiled pretty much all of his hits. “Something’s Happening” is an electrifying opening, as it has been at his shows for decades until he announced his retirement from touring in 2019. “Baby, I Love Your Way” and “Show Me the Way” were two more hits that deserved a resurgence as the two lead singles from the album. “Do You Feel Like We Do” is the energetic closing song, doubled in length from the original and displaying his signature guitar talk-box style.
8. Boston – Boston
One of the most best-selling debut albums of all time was envisioned by pretty much one guy, Tom Scholz, who pioneered a new kind of guitar-driven studio approach that took America by storm at a time when disco was rapidly enveloping the music market. “More Than A Feeling” is the kind of hit many artists spend whole careers searching for, thanks to vocalist Brad Delp, and the album’s two other singles, “Long Time” and “Peace Of Mind,” are equally as memorable. “Rock and Roll Band” and “Hitch A Ride” are the highlights of the second half. Is this album a one-off? Yes. Did it contribute to the overblown stadium rock to come? Yes. But it’s undeniably enjoyable all the same.
9. Fly Like An Eagle – Steve Miller Band
The Steve Miller Band, from its first album in 1968, was originally a cornerstone of San Francisco psychedelic rock, but only achieved commercial success (with the 1973 #1 single “The Joker”) after switching to a more mainstream rock style that emphasized catchy guitar riffs and synth instrumentals. “Rock’n Me,” which reminds me of several Beach Boys songs, provided the group with its second #1 single. The title track and “Take the Money and Run,” another one of my favorites, are two more irresistible songs that practically border on pop. “Serenade” and “Wild Mountain Honey” are also great, and “Dance, Dance, Dance” is one of the band’s few forays into the country genre.
10. The Pretender – Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne, by this fourth album, still had a lot to contribute, but the suicide of his first wife threw the songs here into a new tragic light. “Here Come Those Tears Again,” the first single, is catchy despite its subject matter. The title track is a surprisingly hard-hitting social critique, and “The Fuse” is by far the most overlooked song he ever made for how good it is. Can the lyrics here become too sappy and shallow? Perhaps some of the time, but only when viewed from certain angles. This is my favorite album of his both because of its triumph over adversity and versatility.
Honorable Mentions: A New World Record – Electric Light Orchestra, A Day at the Races – Queen
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