This is a sequel to a blog I ran last year entitled “80 from the ’80’s,” here. This time it’s “70 from the ’70’s” — 70 albums from the 1970’s that still sound great today. It’s not intended as a “best of” list; rather, a more personal take on a great decade of music, including some albums and genres that don’t always make these kinds of lists (no offense, Led Zeppelin IV).
This time, I’m stoked to include picks from several guest contributors. They include record store people, radio people, pop culture aficionados, and high-caliber music geeks. They’ll be introduced below, and their choices interspersed throughout.
Like last time, I’ll start with a few compilations. The remaining albums are listed chronologically by year of release. I hope you enjoy the list!
Various – No Thanks! The ’70’s Punk Rebellion (2003, 4-cd). 4 full discs of essential ’70’s British and American punk, defined broadly, with an excellent in-depth booklet discussing the era and the movement.
Various – Texas Funk: Black Gold from the Lone Star State 1968-1975 (2005). The 70’s were a great decade for a lot of types of music — reggae, hard rock, folk rock, prog, jazz fusion, heavy metal, and perhaps above all, funk. This is a stellar compilation of hard-grooving regional funk from the Jazzman label, which is known for its collections of obscure regional funk (how cool is that?).
Various – No New York (’78). An incendiary compilation of the leading lights of New York’s brief No Wave scene. Four songs each from four bands. James Chance & The Contortions kick things off with their brand of jarring funk. Unhinged vocals that sound like a bleating saxophone, a bleating saxophone that sounds like unhinged vocals. It’s like if James Brown were possessed by the devil and told the JB’s to play out of tune. Next you have the death lurch of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Frontwoman Lydia Lunch, still a teenager at the time, yowls with hellish effectiveness over the grim, writhing arrangements. Side B begins with perhaps my favorite band of the No Wave era, Mars. With their otherworldly energy and alien soundscapes, it’s possible they really came from Mars just to share their music. Closing out the LP are DNA and their blasts of atonal punk. The menacing keyboards, and the atonal, manic guitar playing make for a potent sonic stew and excellent finale for the tightly wound ball of dark energy that is this compilation.
Brion Rushton is a human living in Boise, Idaho. For the past six years he has hosted Strange Feeling on Radio Boise, a program devoted to exploring unexpected and often ethereal connections between rap, classical, new age, metal, and electronic music.
The Meters – The Very Best of the Meters (1997). A great single-disc “best of” compilation featuring many of the legendary Meters’ best tracks. Five tracks date from the late ’60’s, the remaining 11 from the ’70’s. Pretty essential, if you don’t own their records.
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Roadrunner, Roadrunner: the Beserkley Collection (’04, 2-cd). A stellar 2-disc sampler of Richman and the Modern Lovers throughout their run on the tiny Beserkley label in the ’70’s.
The J.B.’s – Funky Good Time: the Anthology (1995, 2-cd). Classic early ’70’s funk from James Brown’s backing band. A funky good time, indeed.
Various – Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6 (1997, 2-cd). Modern compilation of early ’70’s Nigerian recordings rescued from obscurity. Highlife, funk, blues, afro-beat, and interesting fusions. There’s a volume 2 to this set, which I haven’t heard, but is likely also worth checking out.
Aretha Franklin – Spirit in the Dark (’70). This might be my favorite Aretha Franklin album, despite the fact that it doesn’t contain any of her best-known hits (which is probably why this one is often overlooked). This is prime Aretha in the midst of her great run on the Atlantic label from ’67 to ’72. It has everything you want in a classic soul record, from powerful lead vocals to rich back up harmonies to funky guitars and brass. Backed by session legends, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the Dixie Flyers, who knew how to deliver the goods.
Black Sabbath – Paranoid (’70). Apocalyptic and blues influenced, it became the blueprint for hundreds of bands. Overplayed for good reason, “War Pigs” is still relevant over 45 years after it was written.
Ambrose Richardson, lifelong Idaho resident and music lover. Rainbow in the dark.
The Pentangle – Cruel Sister (’70). Worth the price of admission merely for Jacqui McGee’s stunning a cappella rendering of “When I Was in My Prime,” this is a great set of largely-traditional, mostly-acoustic English folk music, washed in a faint haze of psychedelia. Not to mention, it features two of the greatest British folk and blues guitarists of all-time, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch.
Hot Tuna – Hot Tuna (’70). Acoustic folk-blues played by Jefferson Airplane sidemen Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady that doesn’t sound anything like Jefferson Airplane. More like two-fifths of the Grateful Dead doing an unplugged semi-tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. Or something like that…
Chambers Brothers – Feelin’ the Blues (’70). This is the kind of record that’s fun to stumble across in an old vinyl bin: a group you’ve maybe heard of once or twice but know little about; a promising-looking album cover, an obscure label. You think, “this could be either really good or really bad.” You go with your gut, take a chance, then get rewarded with eight tracks of stellar psychedelic blues, gospel, r&b, and soul that doesn’t sound quite like anything else in your collection and immediately fills a gap you didn’t know existed.
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (’70). Davis’s (and producer Teo Macero’s), trippy, groundbreaking, acid-jazz-rock fusion masterpiece.
Randy Newman – 12 Songs (’70). Randy Newman was under-appreciated even in his heyday, and is often forgotten today. But he was a major songwriter in the ’60’s, and released a handful or more of really good albums between 1968 and the mid-’70’s. This was his second, and is still a great listen today. Newman sounds like he grew up listening to old R&B, boogie woogie, and ragtime piano records, and folds that influence into more modern rock, folk, blues, and soul, combining it all with sharp, cynical, and witty lyrics.
Joni Mitchell- Blue (’71). Classic, quiet, no-fuss Joni. Vocals, piano, guitar and dulcimer make up this 4th album by Joni Mitchell. Her poetry needs no flourish and her soaring voice and it’s effortless octave leaps hit you right in the gut. It’s enough to bring me back to this album time and again. The words speak volumes of the quintessential search of love and love lost that we all can relate to.
This album begs you to hop on a plane and grab a drink in dark cellars with foreign friends while you try to forget what you’ve left behind. Blue is Joni’s home and the place she seems to thrive. Look through the prisms of Blue and you just may see yourself. Thrill seeking, full of trust and love, but still lurking around the dark corner of never finding what you’ve been looking for. This album and the rawness of it’s story makes it forever relevant.
Laura Fredericks is a Bowling Green State University alumna-turned-townie who has been lucky enough to manage the landmark record Store, Finders Records, in Bowling Green, Ohio for the past decade. When she’s not slinging records, she’s having fun with her husband and preschooler, who no doubt has her own opinions about music (and everything else, for that matter).
John Fahey – America (’71). Solo acoustic steel-string guitar exuding a sort of sepia-toned, pastoral beauty that indeed manages to sound a lot like America, or at least a simpler, more rural, former version of itself.
B.B. King – Live in Cook County Jail (’71). B.B. King in top form with a full band playing before a “captive” audience in a Chicago jail. A worthy companion to King’s other great live record, “Live at the Regal.”
Willie Nelson – Yesterday’s Wine (’71). After writing hits for, well, just about everyone in the ’60s, but before he became the world famous Red Headed Stranger in the mid-’70s, Willie Nelson recorded a grip of solo records for RCA. None of them really did anything. Commercially, anyway. But tucked in the middle of his three year stint with the label was this unassuming stunner. A concept album about a man’s journey from birth to death, Nelson spins homilies on morality, love, heartbreak, aging. The tempo and volume rarely rise above a crawl and a whisper but this record feels so heavy. Singing with a vulnerable quaver about the human condition in a plain, homespun fashion has that effect, I suppose. – Brion Rushton
Joe Henderson – Joe Henderson in Japan (’71). The great jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson playing an intimate live set in Japan, along with a really good local rhythm section, at the peak of his post-bop prowess. Note, “intimate,” in this context, does not mean “mellow.” While it has its mellower moments, this is to a significant extent a fire-breathing set, with Henderson stretching out on four long tunes, ending with the blistering “Junk Blues.” Henderson would veer off into funk and fusion for several albums after this before returning to his earlier hard bop/post bop sound, albeit in a more mellow, seasoned form.
The Concert for Bangladesh – Various Artists (’71). The entirety of the story of how the concert came together, as well as the subsequent film and album are legendary. What is often forgotten is that concert organizer George Harrison managed to get all the artists, all the producers, and all but one record company to donate their services to get the album to stores – and all this happened in less than 5 months. The album itself broke the mold in that it was a triple album that garnered the highest retail cost in history ($12.98) at the time. Live Aid! and subsequent “cause” concerts were made possible by the extraordinary success of George Harrison in using rock & roll to alleviate the pain and misfortune of others.
Jay Smith is the Director of the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, SD. He has a BA in Popular Culture, an MA in American Culture Studies and an MA in Public History. His favorite project from his career in museums was an exhibit about the history of the Norm Petty Studio in Clovis, New Mexico where Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and others made their first recordings in the 1950s. Smith is currently working with his staff on an exhibit about the 1970s set to open in November.
John Hartford – Aero-plain (’71). Hartford’s sometimes goofy, eccentric, yet seemingly earnest cult Americana classic.
John Prine – John Prine (’71). Prine’s first and best album. A true folk/country classic, including “Sam Stone,” one of the saddest tunes ever laid to wax.
The Persuasions – Street Corner Symphony (’72). Virtuosic a cappella music at its best, evoking 30’s era Golden Gate Quartet one minute, contemporary R&B and soul the next, a little doo-wop after that, all while feeling seamless. I’m taking this one to the desert island with me. Seek this out on vinyl if you’re able. The sound is sublime.
Popol Vuh – Hosianna Mantra (’72). Popol Vuh was a German ambient electronic group that released numerous well-regarded albums in the ’70’s, early ’80’s, and early ’90’s. On this one, they went with a mostly acoustic sound with violin, piano, oboe, tamboura, and cembalo (a small harpsichord), along with some electric guitar. The result is gorgeous, ambient, trance-like music that might just scratch a deep itch you didn’t know you had.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon (’72). Drake’s last of three studio albums, none of which, astoundingly, sold more than 5,000 copies on their initial release. This is also the least embellished of the three — largely just Drake and his guitar. Like all of Drake’s music, it’s sad and dreamy and evokes images of rolling clouds casting shadows across post-apocalyptic landscapes.
Brinsley Schwarz – Nervous on the Road (’72). “Pub rock” was a relatively short-lived English concoction, emphasizing a return to rock simplicity, minimal production values, and small venues, in response to all the studio wizardry, electronica, and large arena acts emerging in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Brinsley Schwarz was one of the better-known progenitors of the genre, which doesn’t say much, since none were particularly “known.” But these guys should have been bigger. This is really good R&B-inflected roots rock with hints of boogie woogie and swamp that sounds loose, live, and intimate.
Can – Ege Bamyasi (’72). The ’70’s were a seminal decade for experimental music, and German “kruatrockers” Can was at the leading edge, combining early electronica with rock, pop, and funk rhythms in a fusion that foreshadowed and influenced much of what came after.
George Carlin – Class Clown (’72). It’s hard to remember, now, that comedy records were once a big thing. Television in the ’70’s was still pretty vanilla. There was no HBO or cable or YouTube. Comedians on t.v. were required to keep it “G” or “PG,” and were usually limited to brief appearances on shows like the Tonight Show. To hear their really funny stuff, you had to buy their records. Even those were fairly tame by modern standards, but comedians like George Carlin liked to push the limits. This was a hilarious record at the time, and is still funny today. And it also pushed the boundaries, no more so than on Carlin’s classic controversial cut, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”
Space Opera – Space Opera (’73). Did you ever wonder what it would sound like if you crossed The Byrds with King Crimson and Lynyrd Skynyrd? No? Well, Space Opera is here to answer the question you never asked. Soaring 12-string guitars flying through labyrinthine arrangements, fueled by their Southern upbringing. Hailing from Texas, Space Opera released just this one album before calling it quits for the next thirty years. I hear a message in the frenzy of intertwining guitar solos on the final song, “Over and Over”: play this record again, over and over. – Brion Rushton
Chieftans – 4 (’73). Often considered the high water mark of iconic celtic traditionalists, the Chieftans. If the more raucous sound of celtic revival bands that came after is a little harsh on your ears, you might go for the more chamber-folk sound of the Chieftains, a sound that endured for half a century.
Fela Kuti & the Africa ’70 – Gentlemen (’73). Fela Kuti practically invented Afrobeat – a fusion of West African music and western jazz and funk – and was an international superstar back in the ’70’s. A prolific recorder — he put out roughly 30 albums in the decade — Kuti always brought the beat and always had something to say. It’s hard to pick one album from his prodigious output, but this is a good representation of his sound, I think, and is excellent. Check it out, then go google him to read about his remarkable life.
Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (’73). Rootsy, funky, swampy, and soulful, Little Feat managed to capture a bit of the zeitgeist of multiple early ’70’s genres on this album, combining laid back roots rock with New Orleans funk and soul.
Neil Young – On the Beach (’74). For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find myself returning to this Neil Young album more than any other. It’s more than a bit dark, but also has a certain personal warmth, its minimal production values perhaps enhancing its sense of intimacy.
Maggie Bell – Queen of the Night (’74). Scottish soul rocker Maggie Bell sounded like the heir-apparent to Janis Joplin. Why she didn’t make it bigger is a mystery.
Joe Pass – Portraits of Duke Ellington (’74). Pass may have become a superstar through his solo album, “Virtuoso,” which is great, but I’ll take this warm trio date if for no other reason than it’s impossible take away the legendary bassist Ray Brown and actually improve one’s sound.
Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (’74). The first album from British folk rockers Richard and Linda Thompson, and one of their best.
Jim Hall – Jim Hall Live (’75). Jazz guitar great Russell Malone once said of Jim Hall, “[m]ost guitar players go for the jugular vein. Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too.” G-spot or not, this is Jim Hall in his prime, in an intimate live trio setting, pouring it out like hot buttered rum.
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (’75). One of Dylan’s finest records. Reminiscent of much of his late ’60’s output, but coated in a fine mist of ’70’s harvest gold which gives it a certain autumnal warmth.
The Prophets – Conquering Lion (’75). Not just my favorite reggae record, but one of my favorite records of all time. Led by the inimitable Vivian Jackson (Yabby You), Conquering Lion is an unwavering testament to his faith as a Jesus-believing Rastafarian. At times solemn, at other times joyous, but at all times deep and entrancing. Just like his convictions. Convictions that find their sonic match in the bewitching rhythms and sublime bass lines winding through them. Essential listening. – Brion Rushton
Pat Metheny – Bright Size Life (’76). The ’70’s were a big decade for jazz fusion, particularly jazz-rock fusion. And while much of it was highly virtuosic, it often leaves me, as a listener, wishing it was “more” of one or the other. (Jazz and rock are an odd marriage, I think, since they are so rhythmically opposed). Metheny’s “Bright Size Life” somehow found a sweet spot, however, sounding like neither jazz nor rock, but its own thing, with a warm, mellow, nostalgic vibe that at once sounds very ’70’s but also timeless. ‘One of electric bass legend Jaco Pastorius’ first recordings, as well.
Maddy Prior and June Tabor – Silly Sisters (’76). Gorgeous harmonies from two of British folk’s vocal royalty, sometimes a capella, other times backed by stellar musicians. A celtic classic.
Toots & The Maytals – Reggae Got Soul (’76). Not Toots’ best-regarded ’70’s album (that’d probably be “Funky Kingston”), but I’d argue it stands toe-to-toe with anything. Just a great, laid-back, soulful, feel-good reggae album by one of the genre’s kings.
Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby (’76). Sometimes overlooked in the Reed discography, this is as solid as anything he put out in the ’70’s, and in fact is a worthy companion to the more heavily-lauded “Transformer.”
Blondie – Blondie (’76). Blondie took over the world two years later with the glistening pop classic “Parallel Lines.” But I find it more fun to listen to the group’s less-polished debut, which was very much grounded in girl rock, with splashes of new wave and punk.
The Heptones – Night Food (’76). Ska legends The Heptones, drifting easily into more straight-ahead reggae territory.
Ramones – Ramones (’76). Debut album from New York punk rockers that changed everything. Loud, fast, catchy, idiotic, and fun (possibly, but not necessarily, in that order).
The Bothy Band – Old Hag You Have Killed Me (’76). The Bothy Band helped launch the celtic revival of the ’70’s. This one has a little bit of everything for fans of the genre, and is also considered a celtic classic.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas – The Wild Tchoupitoulas (’76). You can’t not feel happy when listening to this one-off gem by a group of Mardi Gras indians backed by the Neville Brothers, before the Neville Brothers were a thing. A blissful, laid back fusion of New Orleans funk, folk, r&b, and island rhythms.
Townes Van Zandt – Live at the Old Quarter. Houston, Texas 1973 (’77). Townes Van Zandt released over a dozen live records. Not only is the best of the bunch, it’s probably his best record, period. Over 90 minutes of heartbreaking songs, bad jokes and endearing banter. The stripped down version of “Pancho and Lefty” stands above all others. – Ambrose Richardson
The Jam – In The City (’77). Debut album by one of the great mod-punk bands of the ’70’s, the Jam.
The David Grisman Quintet (’77). Grisman was at the leading edge of “newgrass,” a sound grounded in traditional bluegrass, but incorporating many other influences, from jazz and swing to folk rock to classical. But this isn’t merely some historical statement. It holds up great today.
Talking Heads – Talking Heads ’77 (’77). The Heads’ first album. They would eventually become a little more of everything — poppy, danceable, and global in their sound — but they never fully abandoned the art rock foundation of their music, on display here, which remains one of my favorite Heads’ albums.
Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (’77). Costello’s first album, and still one of his best. A mix of a lot of the best of what was going on in the late ’70’s — a little bit punk, a little bit retro, part anxious new-wave, part pub rock, even a few island rhythms, all packed in Costello’s catchy hooks.
Rush – Hemispheres (’78). Moving Pictures is considered by many to be the trio’s greatest accomplishment, but Hemispheres truly changed the face of progressive rock. Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson pushed themselves beyond their limits to create one of the most complex and technically daunting rock albums of not just the 1970’s, but of any era. Peart’s Nietzscheian inspired lyrics along with the overall elegant, powerful instrumentation take the listener on an unparalleled journey through one’s mind, examining the delicate balance between the left and right portions of the brain (hence the name Hemispheres). Such profound artistic expression like Hemispheres is rarely achieved and it is still a benchmark for progressive music nearly 40 years after its initial release.
Brian Collins. Brian graduated Bowling Green State University with a degree in Popular Culture, focusing primarily on music. A lifelong fan of progressive music, he currently works at Finders Records in Bowling Green, Ohio, helping cultivate the community’s love of everything music.
Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full of Blues (’78). I know, I know . . . this was a novelty act, and I’ll admit it may be a nostalgia pick. But for some of us growing up at the time, it was the first real blues album we ever heard. And now that I’m older and have heard many more, I can say with fair confidence that it’s a pretty darned good one. Belushi sounds like a cross between Otis Redding, Joe Cocker, and Randy Newman, which ain’t bad company, and the backup band is truly top notch. When you get down to it, this is pretty classic soul blues, despite being led by a couple of goofy white dudes.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Babylon by Bus (’78). While reggae music’s popularity had been steadily growing in the United States since the late 1960s, Bob Marley & The Wailers’ tour of the United States and subsequent live album captured the moment in time when a genre of music captured a mass audience commercially, culturally, and musically all at once. The intensity of the music, the joy of Bob Marley’s performance, and the infusion of Rastafarian beliefs into the expression of the lyrics proved to be a very popular mix for a generation of fans – and literally hundreds of reggae bands that toured the United States in the following years. Reggae music itself influenced many artists of the day from Blondie to UB40, and its echoes are felt in the work of many contemporary performers. – Jay Smith
Patti Smith – Easter (’78). The poetry and wrath of the great Patti Smith, in perhaps her most approachable form, even spawning the minor hit, “Because the Night,” a Springsteen-penned tune later covered by 10,000 Maniacs.
Rolling Stones – Some Girls (’78). I’m not sure why this album feels like such a guilty pleasure. Maybe it’s the disco-tinged opener, “Miss You,” or the raunchiness of the title track, but in any event, and despite it all, it’s hard not to enjoy this album, which may have been the Stones’ last great record.
Buster Benton – Blues Buster (’79). Benton’s early influences included Sam Cooke and B.B. King, and both can be heard here on his second album. (Check out the Cooke-ish “Lonely for a Dime,” or the Lucille-like guitar intro to “Love Like I Wanna”). Benton referred to his music as “disco blues,” but that description, mercifully, doesn’t serve it well. This is soul blues with flashes of funk. It’s infectious and danceable at times, but a quantum leap ahead of (and distinct from) the commercial “disco” of the time.
Tony Rice – Acoustics (’79). Another piece of obscure gold, Tony Rice, one of the great acoustic guitar pickers of all-time, dazzles in an instrumental acoustic set that builds on what David Grisman was doing with his quintet (above, which Rice also played with before recording this album). One of my go-to picks for a “newgrass” fix.
Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) African Marketplace (’79). Ibrahim leads a 12-piece band through a set of joyful and nostalgic-sounding South-African folk-jazz numbers, in the best sort of acoustic jazz fusion.
Madness – One Step Beyond (’79). Madness is often relegated to the scrap heap of one-hit-wonder early ’80’s new wave bands, but that doesn’t do them justice. They were, early on, a groundbreaking new wave/ska revival band. This was their first, and possibly best, album.
The Specials – The Specials (’79). The quintessential ska/new wave album of its time, and perhaps all-time.
Slits – The Cut (’79). An unpolished fusion of outspoken feminist post-punk and dub, with sharp lyrics, spiky guitars, catchy hooks, and intermittent island grooves. A weird little record, but an influential one, and also fun to listen to.
Graham Parker & the Rumor – Squeezing Out Sparks (’79). Top to bottom, a top-notch set of new wave/pub rock gems from a guy who was, for a time at least, Elvis Costello’s equal.
The Klezmorim — Streets of Gold (’79). First album by this stellar early revivalist klezmer band from the Bay area. The original album has never been released on cd as far as I know, making it a juicy vinyl bin score (although a cd compilation entitled “First Recordings: 1976-1978” made an appearance sometime back in the ’90’s, which included half of this album, plus other early tracks).
So, there you have it – 70 from the ’70’s. A big thanks to Brion Rushton, Ambrose Richardson, Laura Fredericks, Jay Smith, and Brian Collins for lending their enthusiasm and expertise to this project. A quick shout out, too, to two of the best independent record stores you’ll find anywhere — Finders Records in Bowling Green, OH and The Record Exchange, in Boise, ID — and to Radio Boise, far and away the choicest spot on the dial for music in Boise and beyond.
So what about you? What are your favorite go-to albums, forgotten classics, guilty pleasures, and obscure gems from the ’70’s? Please feel free to chime in. And as always, thanks for reading :).