I’ve heard it said that the music you’re listening to when you’re fifteen is the music you’ll be listening to for life. I didn’t think this was true in my case, but then why do I have more records released in 1972 than in any other year?
We're truly in the album era now. While it's hard for everyone to agree on what the real masterpieces are, there are countless very worthwhile albums. And they're all over the place.
Here are my picks for the masterpieces:
Paul Simon's first solo album is a great record. No, I mean it. It’s one of the greatest records of the seventies. It's not just one of those Grammy winning records that nobody really listens to. It’s warm and wise, like sitting by the fire in the middle of winter.
I know I just finished telling you about how great "Blue" was, but now I'm telling you that I like "For the Roses" even more. It was my first Joni Mitchell album, and it took a few listens to follow the melodies, what with Joni swooping up and down all the time. This is an ambitious, arty record, and I'm sure there are people out there who hate it. I think it's brilliant. Songwriting doesn't get any better than "Woman of Heart and Mind" and "Blonde in the Bleachers".
Do I really need to tell you about Steely Dan? God, I hope not, but let me at least steer you away from the later lounge jazz records, to their earlier jazzy-but-still-rock period. Their first few albums are so good that the very first one - "Can’t Buy a Thrill" - kind of gets lost in the shuffle. It's so good, in fact, that it's worth hearing "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years" - two of the more overplayed songs ever - all over again
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume Two is one of the greatest, well, greatest-hits records ever made. It's got the second wave of great Dylan songs along with a few unreleased songs. "Down in the Flood" is my favorite.
Another one of the greatest greatest-hits records is the "Kink Kronikles" (link) Like the Dylan record, this one scoops us some obscure album tracks along with the better known songs from that particular era.
The triple album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is not for the casual record buyer. It is perfect for someone determined to learn more about bluegrass and early country music. “Dark As a Dungeon” is my favorite, but maybe you prefer “Tennessee Stud”. Or the title song. The singing and playing are stellar.
Young Bonnie Raitt sings as well as Linda Rondstadt and plays a mean slide guitar. Her music is more bluesy, and her taste in covers is better, too. "Give it Up" is probably the best record from the early part of her career. At first, I didn’t love this record, thinking I’d be getting pretty, when what I got was tough bluesy and soulful. Good then, and even better today, it’s aged quite gracefully, thank you very much.
I guess Pete Townsend was getting bored being in one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever, so he put out a sort of solo record “Who Came First”, which picks up right where side one of “Who’s Next” leaves off. “There once was a note pure and easy…” He’s got several friends, like Ronnie Laine, helping out, including on vocals. This is one of the sweeter records to come out in the seventies.
Not to be outdone, John Prine goes in the opposite direction with his second album, “Diamonds in the Rough”. Previously he used a small country combo. Now it’s just him and a couple of guitars. It’s not exactly pretty, but I find it riveting. "The Great Compromise" is one of the best Vietnam songs ever, but for me “Rocky Mountain Time” is the highlight.
It took for the movie soundtrack of "Super Fly" for me to become aware of Curtis Mayfield. (I thought the Chambers Brothers wrote "People Get Ready".) The title tune has some of the most insightful and saddest lyrics I've ever heard. One of the best soundtracks ever.
David Bowie ch-ch-ch-changes so much that it’s easy to forget that one of his best albums was "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars". “Five Years” still sounds great.
Nick Drake’s last record before his death – “Pink Moon” - may be quieter than his others, but it’s no less powerful. Short, lovely, and in retrospect, so very sad.
Well Worth It:
Do you remember the song that goes like this?:
It's sooooo Hard,
It's sooooo hard,
It's so hard,
Livin' without you
No? Well I guess that's what I'm here for. I finally found the song - written by Randy Newman, by the way - on "Manfred Mann’s Earth Band". You remember them, don't you? Let me help. In the sixties, they had the hit "Do Wa Diddy Diddy". In the later seventies, they went completely over the top with a cover of Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light". This is about half way in between, and seems to balance it all very nicely.
Stevie Wonder goes out on his own again with "Talking Book", and the results keep getting better. “I Believe When We Fall in Love” is my fave.
Eric Anderson was one of those poor folkies left in Dylan’s wake. He’d put out some good songs but never quite got any real notice, until “Blue River”. He achieves just the right balance of folk and rock. It’s got that old favorite “Is it Really Love at All?”.
I'm more a fan of the crazy/mystical Van Morrison more than the seemingly oxymoronic "soulful Irishman". "St Dominick’s Preview" kinda combines the two. And for that reason, it's a bit schizophrenic, what with a few pop/soul numbers surrounded by the long, strange "Listen to the Lion" and "Almost Independence Day". Guess which ones I like best? How about you?
After all these years, I didn’t think Bob Weir’s “Ace” would hold up. But Weir was savvy enough to open with something that’s got bass and drums going for it. The Dead couldn’t always be counted on for fast. He makes the most of his limited vocal range. “Playing in the Band” shows that they could still make compelling music in the studio, and “Cassidy” not so much a song as it is a miracle.
Side one of Jerry Garcia’s first solo album gets all the notice, but has anyone else noticed the absolutely transcendent “To Lay Me Down” tucked away amongst the weird stuff on side two? Not a perfect record, but a really good balance of good old songwriting and experimentalism.
Todd Rundgren’s “Something Anything” is one of the first one man does it all albums. Mostly, anyway, but it’s quite an achievement. A double album of pop songs and “fun in the studio”. It has a number of hits, like “Hello, It’s Me”, “I Saw the Light” and “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”. But it’s also got hidden gems like “The Night the Carousel Burned Down” and “The Viking”. My only Todd record, but I think I got the best one. Now if he only got it down to a single record, we’d have a certified classic.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Steve Miller Band started out with “Fly Like an Eagle” or “The Joker”. In fact, he goes back as far as 1967 along with band mate Boz Scaggs. Steve could always be counted on to put at least one radio ready song on each of his albums. Luckily, he pulled a bunch of them together for “Anthology”, which covers 1968 to 1972. My only qualm about it is that it completely skips their first record. But I like it more than anything he made since.
Steve Goodman could always write tuneful and funny songs, but not always at the same time. I didn’t care for his first record, and his third record is good enough, but his second, “Somebody Elses Troubles” is just right. Clever funny tuneful emotional. And it’s got “The Dutchman”.
On “Manassas”, Stephen Stills redeems himself, albeit with lots of help from Chris Hillman and Al Perkins. They'd go on to totally tank with their second album, but here they put it all together.
Side One of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Don Quixote” is just great. Side two slides a bit, and it’s where you spot his big weakness. His music is just too nice. The anti-war “Patriot’s Dream” is a good example. Whereas Dylan’s “Masters of War” comes out and says he hopes they die, Gord goes into a long explanation as to why war sucks. But overall, very pretty, and side one’s got some real feeling to it.
Just Out of Reach:
Then there are those records that are lodged somewhere in memory but no longer within ear’s reach.
First, there’s Yes’s "Fragile", one of many casualties of the broken 8 track player syndrome. I recall this being pretty good, albeit in it’s shuffled, truncated 8 track kind of way. They would go completely over the top later that year with “Close to the Edge”, but because they could write tunes it’s a hard record to not like.
Unlike Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, which is EASY to hate, even though I like it. But man, they had no taste at all.
When I moved out of my parents house, I took a lot of records with me, some of which my brother could have argued belonged to him. (Perhaps because they, well, belonged to him.) One I couldn’t slip past him was the Flying Burrito Brothers “Last of the Red Hot Burritos”. I’m still trying to track down a reasonably priced copy of to see if it’s really as great as I remember. Al Perkins pedal steel replaces Sneaky Pete’s country licks with rock and roll. Different, maybe not better, but to my mind, just as good.
But this is all too long ago. Take out your copies and tell me what you think.
It Was a Very Good Year (Sort of):
I don’t see a lot of crowd pleasers here. That’s just because it’s the seventies, not the sixties, when such things happened to be brilliant, too.
It was more like the year when you began to play records in your room alone. And who could blame you? If you went outside, you were liable to notice that Nixon was getting re-elected. So these records provided me with some solace from that, not to mention the emotional turmoil that haunts a fifteen year old.
So tell me now, what got you through that year?