Fifty years ago, I was fortunate enough to be coming of age at a time when the quality and diversity of popular music was figuratively off the charts and literally dominating the charts.
A convincing claim can be made that 1971 was the peak year for rock album releases.
It was the first year that Americans bought more albums than singles. I was thrilled by this development, because it seemed to indicate that, like me, more and more people were interested in hearing artists’ complete artistic statements instead of just the one hit that Top 40 radio stations were playing (ad nauseam).
Rock ‘n roll wasn’t universally loved when it arrived on the charts in 1955, not by a long shot, but over the next 15 years, it grew exponentially in popularity as the music and its audience matured. It grew like a massive oak, branching out into multiple mini-genres – folk rock, acid rock, R&B and soul, bubblegum, country rock, electric blues, even (already?) roots rock. Quite the cornucopia of styles.
By 1971, the table was set with a sumptuous buffet of musical options from which to choose. The Stones and The Who were at their creative peaks. The Beatles may have split, but there were some mighty fine solo albums to savor. San Francisco jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Santana honed their psychedelic/Latino improvisations, and hard rock bands like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper offered up hefty slabs of power chords.
The progressive rock coming from England – Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis – was pushing boundaries and challenging listeners to really listen, and the ever-evolving rhythm-and-blues scene kept people dancing as Motown and Memphis branched out into funk and Philly soul. Dozens of confessional singer-songwriters emanating from Laurel Canyon in California added emotional depth and warm melodies, and the Southern rock of The Allman Brothers Band laid the foundation for their many imitators to come.
The glam rock of David Bowie made its showy entrance, and artists such as Poco and Commander Cody kept the burgeoning country rock genre cooking. Elton John released three albums in less than 12 months, and bands like Badfinger and Three Dog Night represented the pleasant middle ground. And, as always, there was bland pablum for the unhip.
It was all there, from Bloodrock to the Osmonds.
In all, there were more than 500 rock-related albums released in 1971, in excess of 40 per month, and from that plentiful list, I have identified 35 that rocked my world (and maybe yours) at the time. Some of them are relatively obscure choices, while others continue to be named among the finest albums of all time. It was crazy difficult, but I somehow managed to whittle down those 35 LPs to my Top 15, with the other 20 relegated to my “honorable mentions” category. No doubt your list might be different. A Spotify playlist at the end features four tracks from each of the Top 15, and a second playlist offers two tracks from each of the honorable mentions.
What a year it was 50 years ago! Here they are, in no particular order:
“Blue,” Joni Mitchell
When Rolling Stone assembled a new “Top 500 Albums of All Time” list last year, updating its 2002 rankings, I found it very revealing that this record jumped from an already impressive #30 all the way to #3, proof positive of Mitchell’s enormous influence on artists in the ensuing decades since its release. Her deepest confessional songs are here, performed with relatively simple arrangements featuring Joni on guitar, piano or dulcimer. “Carey” was a modestly successful single, but several other tracks have made greater impact, including “Little Green,” about the daughter she gave up for adoption; “A Case of You,” about her adoration of fellow poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen; and “River,” which has become a Yuletide standard covered by dozens of artists. A brilliant, brilliant album.
“Who’s Next,” The Who
Who woulda thunk that a failed film project and a nervous breakdown would have ended up resulting in such a monumental album? Following “Tommy” turned out to be an agonizing ordeal for Pete Townshend. He envisioned an existential rock opera in which “one perfect universal note” would metaphorically bring each audience together in a “celestial community.” It almost drove Townshend crazy trying to translate his ideas into reality, but along the way, he wrote some of The Who’s most memorable music: “Baba O’Riley,” “The Song is Over,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and more. Roger Daltrey’s vocals were in tip-top form, and producer Glyn Johns gets loads of credit for making The Who sound better than they ever did before or after.
“Imagine,” John Lennon
The harrowing, bare-bones tracks found on his soul-baring “Plastic Ono Band” solo debut in 1970 won praise from critics, but some fans found them difficult to swallow. Lennon decided the follow-up would be “more sugar-coated” so it would be more commercially successful. He found just the right balance of vitriol and love, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr sitting in, and Phil Spector manning the boards. The title track has taken its place as a utopian anthem of the last half century, while “Gimme Some Truth” aims darts at the hypocrisy and corruption of political leaders. Lennon really let Paul McCartney have it with both barrels on “How Do You Sleep?”, then showed his gentle nature on “Oh My Love” and “Oh Yoko.”
“(Untitled)/IV,” Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page said he knew while writing “Stairway to Heaven” that it was going to be a massive rock song for the ages, but its impact still managed to exceed all expectations, as did the album as a whole. Robert Plant’s vocals were at their very best on these tracks, from the crazy time signatures of “Black Dog” to the stunning Joni Mitchell tribute, “Going to California.” Page and John Paul Jones dueling on acoustic guitar and mandolin gave “The Battle of Evermore” an eerie Middle Eastern feel, and John Bonham’s always thunderous drumming achieved new heights on their cover of the 1920s blues tune “When the Levee Breaks.” This album, official untitled but referred to as “IV,” never fails to disappoint, even after hundreds of listenings.
“Tapestry,” Carole King
One of the most prolific hitmakers of the Sixties, writing perfect pop songs for others to make famous, King needed to be coaxed to finally become a recording artist in her own right in the Seventies. After a tentative first album, she collaborated with lyricist Toni Stern to compose an outstanding batch of tunes for her second effort, “Tapestry,” which went on to become one of the best selling and most widely praised albums of all time. In addition to covering two of her earlier songs — The Shirrelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” — King and top-flight L.A. session musicians recorded such gems as “I Feel the Earth Move,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and the #1 hit “It’s Too Late.”
“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
Gaye had been one of the elite acts in Berry Gordy’s Motown stable since the early ’60s, but he grew restless by 1970, eager to sing weightier material about the troubled world around him. “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” he asked. He fashioned a song cycle that matched edgy lyrics with a delicious urban groove and, despite Gordy’s protestations that it wouldn’t sell, it became one of the most popular albums of the ’70s. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Happening Brother” and the iconic title track are the highlights of this pivotal album. Much of the LP was used in the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 2020 Vietnam vet film “Da 5 Bloods,” proof of its enduring impact.
“Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon,” James Taylor
Fine songs and sincere performances made Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” LP one of the real treats of 1970. Some artists stumble when following up a hugely successful record, but Taylor found a way to up his game with the down-home appeal of “Mud Slide Slim,” recorded with many of the same people who were working on Carole King’s “Tapestry” album down the hall in the same L.A. studio. James had the biggest hit single of his long career with her tender “You’ve Got a Friend,” and surrounded it with more autobiographical beauties like “Long Ago and Far Away,” “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Places in My Past” and the melancholy “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox.” This album takes me right back to 1971 more than any other on this list.
“Aqualung,” Jethro Tull
This was the album that quickly took Tull from warm-up act to headliner. Of all the British “prog rock” bands, Tull has always been the most diverse, offering hard rock and delicate acoustic tunes with equal assurance. “Aqualung,” in fact, offers both in the same song. Some labeled this LP a concept album because of three rockers that disparage organized religion (“My God,” “Hymn 43” and “Wind Up”), but the rest of the tunes focus on other matters, including overpopulation (“Locomotive Breath”), homelessness (the title track) and selfless love (“Wond’ring Aloud”). Ian Anderson’s phenomenal flute work and distinctive singing, and Martin Barre’s electric guitar, really shine throughout this album, setting the stage for a string of Top Ten albums over the next five years.
“At Fillmore East,” The Allman Brothers Band
In 1969, guitar ace Duane Allman put together a powerhouse band steeped mostly in blues and jazz influences, featuring two lead guitarists, two drummers and younger brother Gregg on organ and vocals. Their first two studio albums were brimming with great originals and covers, but this was a group that seemed to do their best work on stage, so they recorded shows in New York in March 1971 and released the best tracks as a double live album that still ranks as one of the very best concert LPs ever released. “Statesboro Blues,” “Whipping Post,” “Stormy Monday” and especially “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” positively crackle with intensity and immediacy. This package continues to send chills up and down my back every time I hear it.
“Madman Across the Water,” Elton John
In many ways, 1971 belonged to Elton John. His gorgeous debut single “Your Song” was a big hit in February, and his first two albums (“Elton John” and “Tumbleweed Connection”), although both released in 1970, got a lot of exposure throughout 1971. Add to that a soundtrack to a little-known French film (“Friends”) released in March and a vibrant live record (“11-17-70”) released in April, and you’ve got a veritable feast of Elton’s wondrous music, but he wasn’t done yet. In November came “Madman Across the Water,” a classic LP if only because it featured three of his very best songs: “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon” and the dramatic title cut. I played this album incessantly and have returned to it dozens of times through the decades.
“The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” Traffic
At only 15, Steve Winwood first made a splash as lead singer and keyboardist for the Spencer Davis Group, and then formed Traffic two years later. The band offered a wonderful mix of folk, rock and jazz elements that brought them much success in England but not as much here. By 1970, their LP “John Barleycorn Must Die” reached #5 on US album charts and was a favorite of FM radio DJs coast to coast. For me, though, it was the brilliant “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” album that sealed the deal. Winwood’s vocals and keyboards were augmented by new percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah on an enticing, eclectic batch of songs like “Many a Mile to Freedom,” “Rock and Roll Stew,” “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and particularly the mesmerizing, 12-minute title track.
“Sticky Fingers,” The Rolling Stones
1969’s “Let It Bleed” may be my favorite Stones album, but “Sticky Fingers” is a very close second. This was the era when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were writing their best songs and the band was making their best recordings, with new guitarist Mick Taylor adding cool professionalism to the Stones’ muscular mix. “Brown Sugar,” with its instantly identifiable riff and controversial lyrics about slavery, oral sex and rape, might just be the quintessential Stones song, but there’s so much more. “Bitch,” the country-tinged “Wild Horses,” the acoustic drug tracks “Sister Morphine” and “Moonlight Mile,” the mind-blowing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — they all add up to a salacious package of some of the biggest, baddest, bawdiest Stones music ever made.
“Off the Shelf,” Batdorf and Rodney
This amazingly talented duo never got the exposure they deserved, and I’m not sure why. Insufficient promotion by Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records? Maybe. Indifferent radio program directors? Could be. All I know is this debut album (they made two more before breaking up in 1975) is one of my Top 25 favorite albums of all time. The vocal harmonies and the guitar stylings of John Batdorf and Mark Rodney are simply spectacular, as good as or better than any of the singer-songwriter artists of that era. Batdorf wrote some wonderfully buoyant songs, full of sunny optimism: “Oh My Surprise,” “One Day,” “You Are the One” and especially the incredible “Can You See Him.” If you’re not yet familiar with this record, by all means, get moving!
“The Yes Album,” Yes
By 1973, when Yes went off the rails with a self-indulgent double album comprised of four dense 20-minute songs, this talented band of Brits epitomized the excess that helped doom progressive rock as a genre. Before that, though, they were an absolutely astonishing group that found the perfect balance between complex arrangements and catchy hooks on three back-to-back-to-back LPs in 1971-72. Many people prefer “Fragile” or “Close to the Edge,” but I am partial to “The Yes Album,” which introduced me to the ethereal voice of Jon Anderson and the amazing guitar-keyboards-bass-drums interplay of Steve Howe, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Listen to “Yours is No Disgrace,” “Starship Trooper,” “Perpetual Change” and the single “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Superb!
“4-Way Street,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The “Crosby, Stills and Nash” debut in 1969 and CSN&Y’s amazing “Deja vu” 1970 follow-up are both pretty much perfect records in my book. An excess of talent and ego tore the group apart too soon, and they went their separate ways to make some pretty decent albums on their own (see the honorable mentions below). Fortunately, they recorded a few of their concerts from their 1970 tour and assembled 16 tracks for this glorious, sometimes ragged, often exhilarating double live LP. You get a liberal dose of acoustic songs (“Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” and “Chicago,” Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Crosby’s “Triad” and “The Lee Shore”) and strong renditions of electric tunes (“Southern Man,” “Carry On,” “Ohio”). What a spread!
Here are the 20 honorable mentions, some of which may very well have made your Top 15 list: