“Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly”
—Joni Mitchell, “River”
OK kids, our post today is a quick lesson in music history — the 10 best records of 1971, all of which, by virtue of chronology and tenacity, are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these records have stood the test of time; all sound as fresh today as they did back then. (Caveat: these choices are highly subjective and aren’t ranked in any way.)
I will betray my age and provenance here by stating that the 70s were, all things considered, the best decade for rock music since Chuck Berry duck-walked across a stage. From “After the Goldrush” in 1970 to “London Calling” and “Fear of Music” in 1979, the 70s were a decade that spawned a plethora of iconic performers and genres. Any decade defined by artists as diverse, eclectic and consequential as Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and the Ramones and Funkadelic can legitimately be called “great.”
As I said, my predilection for these bands betrays my age (69) and provenance (West Coast). Despite its eclecticism, 70s music was a universe that you could basically get your arms around; you were familiar with a majority of the artists, you could easily track new releases, and there were no “platforms” beyond vinyl, tape and radio. Technology changed everything. With new tools like SoundCloud and CD Baby, a million new bands took wing. In the 70s there weren’t more than a dozen major labels that distributed music. On SoundCloud alone there are more than 200 million tracks to choose from. Assigning an average length of 4 minutes per song and assuming my math is right (a dubious assumption), it would take 1,522 years to listen to all of them. SoundCloud is the epitome of musical democratization. A friend, Chuck Krambuhl, and I wrote a song together (which Chuck brilliantly produced in a local studio) and I uploaded an MP3 of the song here, along with some original art, in less than 60 seconds. All of this is to say that the musical universe exploded in the 21st century with the advent of digital technology and there are no doubt a thousand Neil Youngs and Sly Stones out there if you have the time, energy and navigational skills to find them. After all, who knows if we’d be listening to Post Malone today without SoundCloud (or Justin Bieber without YouTube)?
But, to paraphrase Hemingway, I’m sticking with what I know. And musically speaking, 1971 is one of my BFFs. The 70s were a great time generally. We’d let go of all the hype about the 60s and started getting down to business. But the best of the 60s — social consciousness, spiritual diversity, a new connection with nature — flourished in the 70s (as it continues to do today, which is why the 60s were such an influential decade, but that’s a topic for another post).
We had to make some tough decisions here at JEP; not everybody can be in the Top 10. But records that didn’t make the list were excellent nonetheless. The singer-songwriter genre really took shape with “Tapestry” by Carole King, “Just As I Am” by Bill Withers and “Teaser and the Firecat” by Cat Stevens. Glam rock broke through with T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior.” A couple of 60s mainstays, the Doors and Traffic, showed they had staying power with great records (“LA Woman” and “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” respectively). Bowie continued his amazing evolution with “Hunky Dory,” the Mahavishnu Orchestra helped define jazz-rock fusion with “The Inner Mounting Flame” and I’m not sure we’ve figured out to this day what Sly Stone was doing with “There’s A Riot Going On,” but it sure sounded good. Two fountainheads of the 60s, John Lennon and The Who, also put out excellent records (“Imagine” and “Who’s Next”). Kit would have challenged me on this, but I didn’t include “Pearl” just because I’ve never forgiven Janis for leaving Big Brother. And it broke my heart to leave these off the list — the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” and the Allmans live at the Fillmore. But hey, life is hard, and sometimes you have to make hard decisions.
So enough already. Here’s the cream, in my humble opinion, that rose to the top of a very high-quality musical year.
Elton John’s third or fourth album (depending on how you’re counting), “Madman Across the Water,” seemed like a companion piece of sorts with 1970’s “Tumbleweed Connection.” While it didn’t have the consistency or the sustained vision of that record, “Madman” delivered classics like “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” “Razorface” and the tour-de-force title track. The cinematic sweep of the arrangements and lyrics stand out, as does the artful and aggressive use of strings. Even the minor cuts, like “Holiday Inn,” shine. For my money, Elton was nearing the apogee of his career at this point. It wasn’t quite downhill from there, but he never seemed to regain that mixture of innocence and experience that defined his early career.
A couple of years ago I was in a record store in Durham, NC just looking around and a gorgeous song came on, 10 minutes of chanting, bell-ringing ecstasy. It was “Om Rama” from “The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” a record on which Alice said she was “articulating deep feeling and deep experience in life, in spiritual life, in God.” The seeds of that record were planted in 1971 with “Journey In Satchidananda,” Alice’s ethereal blend of modal jazz, Eastern instrumentation and the brilliant saxophone of Pharaoh Sanders.
“Surf’s Up” answered existential questions about The Beach Boys that we didn’t even know we had. The ambiguous promise of “Pet Sounds” was fulfilled with the title track and “Til I Die,” meditations of deep gnostic spiritualism that seemed to offer a panoramic view of our inner life. The Beach Boys would never capture a wave so big and glassy ever again.
Two scenes separated by 40 years: Sometime in 1971, when I was living at the beach in San Diego, a friend gave us tickets to go see a band called Pink Floyd, who were touring in between “Meddle” and “Dark Side.” Inside San Diego Civic Auditorium, Pink set the controls for the heart of the sun and we were never the same. Fast forward to 2010. Kit and I were shopping for a new stereo system and the sales guy put “Meddle” on as part of the test drive. He cranked it up and we plopped the money down right there. The universe is big and Pink Floyd made music to fill it.
Yes were like Pink Floyd with PhD’s. Master musicians, elaborate instrumentation and cosmic themes, but they never forgot to make it rock. And they were hard workers! They released both “The Yes Album” and “Fragile” in the same year. “Fragile” is the signature record, but I have a soft spot for “The Yes Album” because it was so visionary, exuberant and coherent.
George Clinton is a genius, and probably the secret father of Prince. “Don’t Fence Me In,” wrote Cole Porter in 1934, a notion George made his guiding principle. “Funkadelic” was free-range funk, psychedelia, experimentalism, house party, gospel and R&B all tied together with a big fat groove. This record could have earned its status with the title track alone, a classic, face-melting 10-minute guitar clinic put on by Eddie Hazel, who, legend has it, was told by George Clinton to “play like your momma just died.” He did.
We didn’t choose “Sticky Fingers” because of the cover, absolutely not. It’s the songs — “Sister Morphine,” “Sway,” “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers.” Oh, did I mention “Brown Sugar?” But, yeah, the cover was pretty cool.
With “Blue,” Joni Mitchell fulfilled a vision first glimpsed in “Ladies of the Canyon” the year before. She was like a precursor to Nora Ephron or a hippie version of Dorothy Parker, artful and quick-witted. Joni’s early records, especially “Blue,” offered music at an elemental, confessional level. Listening is still an intimate experience. To get a sense of what Joni was like back then, and the enormous emotional power she wielded, watch her classic performance of “Coyote” in “The Last Waltz.”
If it’s possible, “What’s Going On” sounds more relevant today than it did in 1971. Marvin brought a social consciousness into R&B, but he did it with a velvet voice and a gliding groove. In 1971, it was the kind of record that opened your heart and your mind and also made a good soundtrack for date night. No mean feat!
The best album Led Zeppelin ever made came out in 1971 — and no one knew what to call it! Led Zeppelin IV? Zoso? Untitled? Four Symbols? Whatever. There are so many classic songs on this record. Every one, in fact. “Stairway to Heaven” is the tent pole. The past 50 years have buried the song in hagiography and overplay, but it still retains its elemental power. “When the Levee Breaks” is a monster (must be played LOUD though). In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to put a musical score to some of the “blues books” of the Old Testament — the trials of Job, for instance, or the lamentations of Noah. “Levee” would definitely be at the top of the list.
Another album was launched that year amidst a farrago about its title. The Grateful Dead’s second live album, “Grateful Dead,” was known colloquially as “Skull and Roses” after the iconic Alton Kelly/Stanley Mouse drawing on the cover. This was an accommodation after the band tried, and failed, to name the album “Skullf—k” (what a bunch of pranksters those kids were!). This record caught the Dead in their “saloon band” period. Pigpen was still with us and in fine form. The sound is clean and lean, the band never loses its focus and “Bertha” remains one of the best opening tracks of all time. This record also contained a little notice that turned out to be the seed of the Deadhead community: DEAD FREAKS UNITE: Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed. Dead Heads, P.O. Box 1065, San Rafael, California 94901. The rest, as they say, is history.
(If any of you are paying attention, you’ll note there are actually 11 records in this Top 10 list. I told you my math skills were dubious!)