Criminally overlooked albums of the Seventies

Regular readers of this blog know I love to shine a light on “lost classics” — excellent songs from little-known or less-than-great albums, or neglected deep tracks from commercially and critically successful LPs.

It has always been a labor of love for me to scour the vaults looking for the tunes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s we heard a few times and forgot all about, or tracks we never heard in the first place. What a joy it is for a music lover like me to discover “new” music from the old days!

The Seventies in particular was an extraordinarily fertile period for great music. In my search for lost classic songs, it has been my pleasure to come across some “lost classic albums” — LPs that barely made the Billboard Top 200 album charts when they were released, but are, in my opinion, consistently strong musical collections that should have been widely praised and purchased. I have gathered 12 lost classic albums of the 1970s that almost certainly flew under your radar at the time but are very worthy of your attention today.

The Spotify playlist at the end offers five tracks from each of these dozen records, but I encourage you to dive deeper into these albums if you like what you hear.

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“Off the Shelf,” Batdorf and Rodney, 1971

The singer-songwriter era of the early ’70s brought us some beautiful music and introspective lyrics from the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens and others, but the most criminally overlooked artists of that period, in my opinion, were John Batdorf and Mark Rodney.  Their virtuoso acoustic guitars, great vocals, Batdorf’s superb songs and pristine production values were all in abundance on their amazing debut album, “Off the Shelf,” as well as the follow-up, “Batdorf and Rodney,” and, to a lesser degree, their final effort, “Life is You” (1975).  Tunes like “Oh My Surprise,” “You Are the One,” “Where Were You and I,” “Let Me Go,” “One Day” and especially the effervescent “Can You See Him” all deserve a place among the highest-regarded songs of the genre.  Batdorf continues to release quality new music (four albums since 2006) as a solo artist, but I keep returning to “Off the Shelf.” A phenomenal record.

“Lazarus,” Lazarus, 1971

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary discovered this trio of musicians (Billie Hughes, Carl Keesee and Gary Dye) from Texas, got them a recording contract and hired them as his warm-up act in 1971.  Their self-titled debut album has some of the most stunning harmonies and melodies I’ve ever heard — “Blessed,” “Warmth Of Your Eyes,” “Listening House,” “Eastward,” “Rivers” and “Whatever Happened.”  They later toured behind label mate Todd Rundgren to promote their second album, “A Fool’s Paradise,” but sadly, they never caught on with the buying public.  In the ’80s, singer-songwriter Hughes developed a strong following in Japan and Europe, where he found success writing for film and TV.  His song “Welcome to the Edge” was nominated for an Emmy for its role as theme song for the soap opera “Santa Barbara” in 1991.  He died in 1998 at age 50.

“The House on the Hill,” Audience, 1971

Howard Werth and Keith Gemmell were the chief musical talents behind Audience, a British art rock band that was well received by critics but never achieved chart success in the U.K. nor the U.S.  They played in support of Led Zeppelin in 1971, and were paired with Elton John’s first producer Gus Dudgeon in making what I consider to be their finest of four albums, “The House on the Hill.”  Werth’s voice is admittedly an acquired taste, but his electric classical guitar stylings and Gemmell’s impressive playing on electronically altered sax and flute resulted in several outstanding original recordings, including “Indian Summer,” “Raviole,” “Jackdaw,” “Nancy,” “You’re Not Smiling” and the 7-minute title track.  This is a superlative album well worth seeking out.

“Songs For a Tailor,” Jack Bruce, 1969

For three years (1966-1968), Jack Bruce was one of the hottest musicians in the world, playing bass and handling lead vocals for Cream, the British power trio that also featured a young Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker.  Cream broke up in 1968, and Clapton went on to more success in Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos and a lengthy solo career.  Baker moved to South Africa and was only marginally involved in music afterwards.  Bruce continued playing in various jazz bands and jazz-rock trios throughout the ’70s and ’80s that involved the likes of Leslie West and Robin Trower, and their output was average at best.  However, Bruce’s first solo album, 1969’s “Songs For a Tailor,” is a bonafide gem, with stellar playing and excellent songs like “The Clearout,” “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” “Ticket to Waterfalls,” “Weird of Hemirston” and “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune.”

“Howlin’ Wind,” Graham Parker, 1976

Growing up in London in the Sixties, Parker was influenced by Beatles pop, pub rock and Motown soul, and all those influences showed up when Parker and his band, The Rumour, released their high-energy debut LP, “Howlin’ Wind,” in 1976. Although he’s mentioned in the same breath as fellow Brit New Wave pioneers Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Parker didn’t reach the chart heights of either of them. In fact, he never found much fame in the U.S., but if you give “Howlin’ Wind” a listen, you’ll hear shades of the R&B stylings of Van Morrison and the melodic, heartfelt rock of Bruce Springsteen in his songs, especially “Soul Shoes,” “White Honey” and “Between You and Me.” This LP and its strong follow-up the same year, “Heat Treatment,” are perfect party albums that you probably missed when they came out, but it’s never too late to become a convert. Check him out.

“Emitt Rhodes,” Emitt Rhodes, 1970

This multi-talented multi-instrumentalist is a classic example of a musician who got royally screwed by the industry.  Emitt Rhodes had been a member of two fledgling Sixties bands, The Palace Guard and Merry-Go-Round, and after they disbanded, Rhodes continued writing and recording songs to fulfill their contract with A&M Records, but they chose not to release his songs.  Instead, he invested in recording equipment and set up a home studio in his parents’ garage, playing all the instruments and singing and producing his own album.  He got a contract with ABC/Dunhill, and the album reached #29 on the charts in 1971, and was a big hit with critics as well.  “Fresh as a Daisy,” “Somebody Made for Me,” “Long Time No See,” “Lullabye” and “With My Face on the Floor” all have irresistible Beatlesque hooks and vocals that recall Paul McCartney.  A&M then released his earlier work, which confused buyers, and ABC demanded he release a new album every six months, a grueling pace that he found impossible to meet.  Discouraged, he soon quit the business but built a career as a producer/engineer.  The “Emitt Rhodes” LP is a hidden treasure.

“Ahead Rings Out,” Blodwyn Pig, 1969

Original Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams was a blues purist and didn’t enjoy life on the road, so he and Tull frontman Ian Anderson had a falling out over Anderson’s non-blues songs and a punishing tour schedule.  Abrahams left and formed Blodwyn Pig, who released two albums before folding.  Their first, “Aheads Rings Out,” released in the waning days of 1969, offers the explosive “See My Way” and several excellent blues tracks like “It’s Only Love,” “Dear Jill” and “Summer Day.”  Although the album got little attention in the U.S., it reached #9 in England, rivaling Tull’s concurrent “Stand Up” LP that year.

“No Other,” Gene Clark, 1974

With high-profile musicians like Roger McGuinn and David Crosby around, it’s not surprising that Gene Clark was sometimes the overlooked jewel of The Byrds’ lineup. Clark served as frontman and one of the lead singers, writing or co-writing some of their finest tracks (“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “She Don’t Care About Time,” “Eight Miles High”), but his stage fright and fear of flying led to his premature departure. He signed with Geffen Records in 1973 as a solo artist, but his remarkable tour-de-force LP “No Other” got the cold shoulder from David Geffen, who refused to promote it, and it consequently tanked on the charts, which devastated Clark. The album has undergone a dramatic reappraisal in recent years; AllMusic’s Thom Jurek calls it “a sprawling, ambitious work that seamlessly melds country, folk, jazz-inflected-gospel, urban blues, and breezy L.A. rock in a song cycle that reflects the mid-’70s better than anything from the time.” I confess the album went under my radar at the time, but I’ve since become a huge fan. So much great music to absorb here!

“Blows Against the Empire,” Paul Kantner, 1970

Singer/guitarist Kantner has been the mainstay in every phase of the great San Francisco band — Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship.  He fancied himself something of a countercultural revolutionary, and was obsessed with science fiction, so he combined those two interests and came up with a song cycle about hijacking a starship and starting a new world on some distant planet, since Earth appeared doomed to him.  Kantner’s solo concept album “Blows Against the Empire” was a bit silly lyrically, perhaps, but the music was excellent, thanks to the participation of several key musicians:   Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jack Casady, David Freiberg and Harvey Brooks.  Songs like “Let’s Go Together,” “A Child is Coming,” “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” and “Starship” are as good as anything on earlier Airplane albums and later Starship LPs.

“Kongos,” John Kongos, 1972

Born in South Africa, John Kongos had some modest success there in the Sixties with a number of groups before moving to England in 1969.  He enjoyed two Top Five hits there in 1971 — “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” and “Tokoloshe Man” — but they never reached the Top 40 in the US, and the album they came from, “Kongos,” reached #30 in the UK but failed to crack the Top 200 album list here.  Too bad — the songs are engaging and beautifully produced, recalling early Elton John at times, particularly “I Would Have Had a Good Time,” “Gold,” “Tomorrow I’ll Go” and “He’s Gonna Step on You Again.”  This one might be tough to find but well worth the effort.

“Sunburst Finish,” Be-Bop Deluxe, 1976

One of Britain’s better progressive rock/art rock bands that never made much impact here in the U.S. was Be-Bop Deluxe.  Despite their name, they didn’t traffic in bebop music, preferring blues-based British rock not unlike David Bowie.  Three of their seven albums reached the Top 20 in the U.K., but none did better than #60 in the U.S.  Singer/songwriter Bill Nelson had a knack for great song riffs and quirky science-fiction lyrics, and it all came together nicely on their 1976 LP, “Sunburst Finish,” which includes great tracks like “Ships in the Night,” “Fair Exchange,” “Crying to the Sky,” “Sleep That Burns” and “Life in the Air Age.” If you’re a fan of Ziggy-era Bowie, you’ll enjoy this LP for sure.

“What If,” Dixie Dregs, 1978

Although their albums failed to chart, The Dixie Dregs have had an appreciative following from their founding in the early ’70s up to the present day. Led by guitar virtuoso Steve Morse, the group focuses almost exclusively on instrumental tracks that are so eclectic as to almost defy categorization. One critic tried, calling them “a cross between The Allman Brothers and Mahavishnu Orchestra,” which correctly pinpoints their leanings toward Southern rock and jazz fusion. And yet, there are elements of country and bluegrass here as well. You’ve got to hear it to believe it. The Allmans’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell brought the group to the attention of Capricorn Records, who released “Free Fall,” “What If” and “Night of the Living Dregs” in the late ’70s. “What If” is their most artistically proficient, and it’s an album I played often when the rest of the world had fallen for disco fever.

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