Sunday, February 7, 2016

Best Albums of the Decades lists Part III: The '70s

When I look back on my life, I consider myself more a child of the '70s than of any other decade. My high school years were in the '70s, as well as those of my first attempt at college (I attended for 2-1/2 years, then dropped out for a decade before going back to finish up). And most of my favorite bands came into their own in the '70s as well.

And as far as music goes, the '70s had one other thing going for them: The perfect album.

Before the '60s, and well into them, it was all about the hit single. Then, somewhere midway through the decade, as artists began to write their own music instead of relying on the talents of outside songwriters, they started to realize they could make more of a statement with their music than 3 minutes worth of pop song. Albums began to be viewed as possible cohesive units of music, as bands like The Beatles moved from releasing collections of singles and throwaway tracks to releasing records that formed a more complete whole, such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

At the same time, the growth of FM radio stations in the U.S. and pirate radio in England provided outlets for music that didn't fall into the category of the 3-minute single to receive airplay. Track's like Iron Butterfly's 17-minute long "In-a gadda-da vida" could reach audiences they never could have in the past.

In the '70s, the album came into its own. Singles still prospered, as they do today, but FM radio and LP albums were where the action was at.

To me, the "perfect album" is exactly what it sounds like: an album where pretty much every track is at least good, and a few are great. And pound for pound, I'd have to say that there were more "perfect" albums in the '70s than in any other decade. Go up on, and you'll find a whole bunch of DVDs devoted to the making of various classic albums. Most of these are albums from the '70s.

I won't even try to name them all, but here are some of my favorites: Who's Next by The Who, Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen, Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan and Tasty by Long Island local favorites The Good Rats all come to mind. Note the variety of genres, from harder rock to pop rock to folk. Even a band like Blondie that is usually associated more with '80s music had their "perfect" album hit in the late '70s, Parallel Lines.

Consequently, picking a Best Album and Runner-Up for the strongest rock decade ever isn't easy. Nevertheless, once again I've picked two albums that I don't think someone could seriously argue with. You may have different picks yourself, but you have to admit that these are highly credible choices for the very best albums of the decade.


Runner-up: Quadrophenia by The Who

For the second time in two decades, The Who come in with an entry that isn't a "perfect" album, but is ambitious and high-soaring enough to come up as one of my top two albums of the decade. Yet another rock opera, this one is even less stageable than Tommy. But oh my god, the highs!

Once again, Pete Townshend the songwriter hits on all cylinders, providing driving rock anthems like "The Punk Meets the Godfather," comic classics like "Bell Boy" and beautiful ballads like "Sea and Sand." Then he takes us to entirely new heights, opening the album with what is essentially an amazing overture, "I Am the Sea," and closing with a number that taps into something akin to Star Wars' force, something spiritual and deep, "Love, Reign O'er Me." The combination of the whirling synthesizers and Roger Daltrey's most powerful vocal ever on this last number takes rock music to an entirely new place.

I'm sure this album is considered the best album of the decade by many, even though Who fans have the luxury of arguing over whether it's even The Who's best album, or is it surpassed by Tommy or Who's Next. Someone once wrote that a thousand Def Leppard's will come and go, but there will only ever be one Who. No disrespect meant to Def Leppard fans, but I agree. Living here in the 2010s and looking back, The Who were in the very top echelon of bands in a decade of amazing bands and musicians.

Best Album (and Best Album of All Time): Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Sales figures and popular sentiment may hold that Dark Side of the Moon was Pink Floyd's best album, and some might even argue for The Wall.

But to my mind, no album reaches the heights of Wish You Were Here.

Now, to be fair, I have a couple of memories that give me a sentimental attachment to this album beyond my objective judgment.

The first was Mike's poker game.  I spent many a happy night in my twenties playing nickel ante poker with my friends at the apartment of my high school friend Mike's. Mike had a great record collection, and for years before I actually owned this album myself, whenever it was my turn to pick the music, I always included Wish You Were Here in the mix. You could always buy another dollar's worth of chips at Mike's, and do it while sucking down your favorite adult beverage (or maybe partaking in some slightly less legal fare). And Mike's music was always the best.

The second memory was the Christmas season I spent as an assistant manager at the Consumer's Distributors store in Forest Hills. Since the whole crew was young, including the manager, we allocated some funds to buy four 8-track tapes to keep the music rocking while we worked. Two I don't remember (I think one of these might have been the 8-track for Saturday Night Fever, but it was a long time ago), but the two I loved best were Jethro Tull's Songs From the Wood, and, of course, Wish You Were Here.

Happy memories aside, though, Wish You Were Here is ridiculously good by any objective standard. Clocking in at a tight 5 tracks total, the weakest song on the album is probably "Have a Cigar," which has garnered a ton of radio airplay over the years. (Not exactly a weak sister, eh?). This song also has the classic line, supposedly sung by a sleazy record company executive, "The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/By the way, which one's Pink?"

The album is sandwiched by the two parts of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond", Parts I-V at the beginning, and Parts VI-IX at the end. Yes, I know I said I don't have the patience for instrumentals, but the slow build up here is something completely different. Gilmour's slow guitar is at its best here, just rolling over you in waves. It's like the buildup to a slow and explosive orgasm/

The other two tracks, "Welcome to the Machine" and "Wish You Were Here" are two of the best songs in all of rock music. "Welcome to the Machine" is what I always thought music would become in the future, maybe after Skynet became self aware. And "Wish You Were Here" is simply stark and beautiful, with some of Waters' best lyrics ("We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl/Year after year).

I never get tired of this album, and I don't think I ever will.

Next Post: The '80s