As the books closed on The Sixties, I didn’t know that several of my favorite artists would be breaking up over the next twelve months. The Beatles, especially, but also Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul & Mary. But not to worry — new talent would soon dominate my horizon, gently grabbing me by the throat and forcing me to take notice.
1970 was the year I learned an important truth about rock music. Instead of staying in the same lineups year after year, many rock musicians enjoyed playing with different combinations of people. Guitarists, keyboard players, singers and rhythm sections eagerly sought out opportunities to record with friends and strangers alike. It was a benign free-for-all, and we all were the beneficiaries of the musical experimentation. Everyone showed up as guests on each other’s records, a practice that became the norm still in vogue today.
In reviewing the list of more than 380 albums released 50 years ago this year, I was impressed by the diversity of genres and the number of new artists making their debut, from Emerson Lake & Palmer to Emitt Rhodes, from Jimmy Buffett to Black Sabbath. From this unwieldy offering, I separated “the wheat from the chaff,” as David Crosby would say, and came up with about 25 albums that most inspired and influenced me. The hard part was selecting the final dozen; most of my “honorable mentions” could easily have made the cut on someone else’s list.
I get criticized sometimes for listening to the music of long-ago decades instead of what’s more recent, but I can’t help it. When it comes to music, I am a joyful captive on the carrousel of time, and I feel no need to apologize for it!
Immerse yourself in the selections from these albums. Then go find the whole records and listen to them in their entirety. Fifty years ago was such a grand year for music!
Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon and Garfunkel
At the tender age of 13, my friend Ben and I had dreams of becoming the next Simon and Garfunkel, playing guitars and harmonizing our way through a repertoire of folk and acoustic rock. We learned virtually the entire S&G catalog, from early rudimentary works like “April Come She Will” through more sophisticated tracks like “America.” When “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came out in the first weeks of 1970, it was almost overwhelming to us how awesome the songs were, especially the iconic title tune, carried, for the first time on an S&G track, by piano. Unable to do it justice on guitars, we focused instead on “The Boxer,” released nine months earlier as a hit single. Just as special to me was “The Only Living Boy in New York,” followed by “Song for the Asking” and “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright.” It was obvious that Simon was blossoming as a songwriter, toying with rock beats (“Baby Driver,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied”), South American rhythms (“El Condor Pasa”) and even impromptu drumming on a piano bench (“Cecilia”). The album won multiple Grammys and sold more than 25 million copies.
“Moondance,” Van Morrison
Full confession: For much of the ’70s, my knowledge and appreciation of Van the Man’s music was limited to his ubiquitous 1967 single “Brown-Eyed Girl.” I wasn’t hip to this excellent LP until many years after its release. My loss. He was as important a part of the singer-songwriter movement as others whose work was far more successful commercially. Morrison largely abandoned the folk-jazz explorations of 1968’s “Astral Weeks” for the R&B/folk rock he would prefer for most of his career from then on. “Two horns and a rhythm section — that’s the kind of backing I like best,” he said in 1972. Side One of “Moondance” in particular (the first five songs) ranks right up there as one of the best album sides of the year — “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic” all ended up as FM radio staples for years to come, carried by Morrison’s delicious growl.
“Deja Vu,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
If ever an album deserved to be fleshed out into a double album, this is it. The “Crosby, Stills and Nash” album had demonstrated the songwriting prowess of all three musicians, and now they’re going to add Neil Young to the mix? Two songs apiece from these four gents was simply not enough, not when their egos were always working overtime, and that in large part was why they broke up only three months after “Deja Vu”‘s release. Too bad some of the songs that ended up on each of their solo debuts (“Southern Man,” “Love the One You’re With,” “I Used to be a King,” “Cowboy Movie”) didn’t show up here instead. But what a collection of 10 classic folk rock songs, covering so many moods and emotions: contentment (“Our House”), anger (“Almost Cut My Hair”), pathos (“Helpless”), searching (“Carry On”), mystery (“Deja Vu”), despair (“4+20”), unconditional love (“Teach Your Children”). And to top it off, the foursome concocted a brilliantly ferocious rendition of Joni Mitchell’s spooky “Woodstock.”
“Elton John,” Elton John
This gorgeous album was released in April 1970 but I didn’t acquire it until I received it at Christmas. It was the beginning of a three year love affair, when I embraced every album he released up through “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in September 1973. But this American debut (he’d released an earlier one, “Empty Sky,” in the UK only) is still my favorite of all his work. “Your Song,” of course, was what first drew me in, but there’s so much more here. Bernie Taupin’s thought-provoking lyrical imagery on “First Episode at Hienton” and “The King Must Die,” Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements on “Sixty Years On” and “The Greatest Discovery,” the full band arrangements on “Take Me to the Pilot” and “The Cage,” the gospel vocals on “Border Song,” even the jaunty country beat of “No Shoestrings on Louise.” Most of all, I was captivated by Elton’s vocal acrobatics throughout the album.
“Ladies of the Canyon,” Joni Mitchell
Thanks to “Big Yellow Taxi,” Mitchell’s perky protest against paving paradise, I gambled my hard-earned $3.99 and bought “Ladies of the Canyon” upon its release, hoping there might be a couple more tunes to my liking. What sheer delight to find a dozen brilliant songs, comprising a truly breakthrough album for the Canadian songstress. I went on to buy every LP Joni ever released, and I place her at the very top of my list of favorite songwriters and artists. “Morning Morgantown” remains one of the prettiest songs in her catalog, and “For Free” is pure lyrical genius, describing her feelings as a professional musician hearing a talented street performer playing for spare change. “Willy” is a tribute to her then-lover Graham William Nash, and “Rainy Night House” describes a night with her dear friend Leonard Cohen. “The Circle Game,” written when she was just 23, is a coming-of-age tale that had been covered by Tom Rush. Finally, there’s her original arrangement of “Woodstock,” which still brings chills.
“Sweet Baby James,” James Taylor
This nearly perfect album arrived as I was learning to play guitar, and it became my close companion for many months, and for the rest of my life as well. Taylor’s voice and mine shared the same range, and his songs were relatively easy to learn (even if I couldn’t match his often intricate guitar work). And what compelling songs they were, full of heart-on-his-sleeve confessional lyrics and irresistible melodies. “Fire and Rain” got all the airplay, reaching #3 on the charts, and “Country Road” turned into my signature song. “Blossom,” “Sunny Skies,” “Anywhere Like Heaven” and the title tune (which Taylor refers to as “a cowboy lullaby”) established him as one of the emotional centers of the laid-back music scene. But he had muscle, too — the kick-ass blues track “Steamroller” and the full-band closer “Suite for 20G” presaged the kind of records he would make a few years later.
“Benefit,” Jethro Tull
In June 1970, I wasn’t yet the Tull fanatic I would become once “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick” came out, but I’d been sufficiently intrigued with the group once I heard a local band offer their rendition of “Teacher.” I took the plunge on “Benefit,” and was flabbergasted at the ingenious combination of excellent hard rock and delicate acoustic guitar, woven together by Ian Anderson’s distinctive vocals and haunting flute. Electric guitarist Martin Barre fully established himself on this LP, particularly on “To Cry You a Song,” “Son” and the raucous “Play in Time.” Anderson now dismisses many of his lyrics on this album as “immature and embarrassing,” but I beg to differ. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me” tells what it must have been like to be the Apollo astronaut who remained in the space capsule while his pals were walking on the Moon; and “Inside” and “With You There to Help Me” emphasize the importance of companionship. “Benefit” captures Jethro Tull on the rise. If you missed it, check it out.
“John Barleycorn Must Die,” Traffic
I must confess again that I was late to the party when it comes to Traffic, the creative British folk-jazz-rock group steered by the great Steve Winwood. Their first two records went under my radar, so my introduction to Winwood came on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the acoustic gem he contributed to the “Blind Faith” LP in 1969 during a lull in Traffic’s career arc. In fact, Winwood’s next move was intended to be his first solo album, but he found himself missing the accompanying musicians he’d grown accustomed to, so he invited Traffic compadres Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to the studio, and it became “John Barleycorn Must Die,” Traffic’s splendid third album. The infectious piano riff on the opening instrumental track “Glad,” the undeniable baritone sax lick on “Freedom Rider,” Winwood’s plaintive vocals on the line “Staring at the empty pages” — all these elements and more combine to make a delicious stew of jazz and rock and traditional English folk I feasted on throughout the summer and fall that year.
“Tea For the Tillerman,” Cat Stevens
Born in London to parents of Greek and Swedish extraction, Steven Demetre Georgiou showed great promise as both a painter and musician at a young age. At 21, he contracted a case of tuberculosis that almost killed him, but his convalescence in the hospital surrounded by people dying gave him a new perspective on life and spirituality. Cat wrote more than 40 songs, most of which became the material that appeared on “Tea for the Tillerman” and its 1971 follow-up, “Teaser and the Firecat.” Both LPs are terrific, but I prefer “Tillerman” because the songs resonate with me more. “Father and Son” is musical perfection as a dialog hampered by disagreement, and in “Wild World,” which reached #11 on the US singles chart, Stevens tenderly warns his departing lady about the pitfalls and challenges ahead. “On the Road to Find Out” covers similar territory, and “Where Do the Children Play” bemoans the industrialization of the environment. Stevens sings these wonderful tunes in a distinctive voice that alternates effectively between ethereal and forceful.
“Blows Against the Empire,” Paul Kantner
I’m betting very few of my readers are hip to this compelling album. I wasn’t introduced to it until four years later in a college dorm, with the aid of cannabis, as the artist no doubt intended. As one of the three principal players in Jefferson Airplane, Kantner brought earnest vocals and rhythm guitar, but mostly he brought songs of fantasy and rebellion. When the Airplane took a break in early 1970, Kantner gathered his many California kindred spirits and put together an extraordinary sci-fi concept album about hijacking an interstellar starship to abandon Earth and head in search of new life in distant galaxies. A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but there are some stunning songs and performances here. “Let’s Go Together” is a joyous tune of shared community and purpose, with Grace Slick’s soaring vocals in full control; “A Child is Coming” celebrates new life, featuring a duet between David Crosby and Kantner ; “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” again feature Crosby on vocals and 12-string guitar; and “Starship” is the glorious finale. Don’t miss Jerry Garcia’s contributions on banjo and pedal steel guitar.
“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” Derek and The Dominos
It’s hard to imagine now, but this titanic double album of quintessential blues rock was neither a critical nor a commercial success upon release in November 1970. Since the breakup of Cream in late 1968, Eric Clapton had wanted to shun the limelight, working with Delaney & Bonnie and company as just a session guy. He used these same musicians on his debut solo LP in spring 1970, then continued with them throughout the summer, eventually convening in Miami to record the songs he’d been writing with keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. As they recorded in Miami that summer, the great Duane Allman happened to be in town for a gig, so Clapton attended the show and then invited Allman to sit in on the sessions. The resulting chemistry between the two guitar virtuosos made for some of the finest recordings in Clapton’s storied career, notably “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Key to the Highway,” and of course the iconic title song. It’s interesting to note that “Layla” the single wasn’t a chart success until August 1972 when it reached #10 upon re-release.
“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison
1970 brought us five new albums from the Fab Four: The final Beatles album (the underwhelming “Let It Be”); two bare-bones solo debuts from the two halves of rock’s greatest songwriting team (“McCartney” and “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”); Ringo’s mostly forgettable collection of standards (“Sentimental Journey”); and by far the best of the bunch, George’s sprawling triple album “All Things Must Pass.” Released just in time for Christmas and announced via the stunning international #1 hit “My Sweet Lord,” this album offered a cornucopia of marvelous songs, from “What Is Life” to “Isn’t It a Pity,” from “Let It Roll” to “Awaiting on You All,” from “I’d Have You Anytime” to “Wah-Wah.” It was recorded by “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector with the help of a dozen musical pals like Ringo, Eric Clapton, Gary Wright, Billy Preston, Dave Mason and members of Badfinger and Derek and the Dominos. Clearly, George had been stockpiling great tunes during the final Beatles years, and they all came spilling out to us here.
It pained me to consign some of these superb albums to “honorable mention” status (particularly “After the Gold Rush” and “Tumbleweed Connection,”), but hey, I had to draw the line somewhere…
“After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young; “Woodstock original soundtrack“; “Alone Together,” Dave Mason; “Tumbleweed Connection,” Elton John; “Chicago II,” Chicago; “A Question of Balance,” The Moody Blues; “Led Zeppelin III,” Led Zeppelin; “Sit Down Young Stranger,” Gordon Lightfoot; “John B. Sebastian,” John Sebastian; “American Beauty,” The Grateful Dead; “Eric Clapton,” Eric Clapton; “Abraxas,” Santana; “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Joe Cocker & Leon Russell; “Let It Be,” The Beatles; “Black Sabbath,” Black Sabbath.
The Spotify playlist offers three tracks from each album selection, and one track each from the honorable mention group, thereby giving a pretty solid representation of 1970’s best music.