10. Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention - One Size Fits All
Released when bands like Yes and Rush were kings, One Size Fits All is perhaps the closest to straight prog rock Zappa ever got during his instrumental jazz fusion period. Despite this, One Size is fairly unpretentious and retains Zappa’s wit and dementedness. Much like Zappa’s early work with the Mothers of Invention was satirizing late 60’s psychedelic rock and the hippie culture which sprung up around it, perhaps One Size is Zappa lampooning the futuristic self-indulgence of his progressive contemporaries. Regardless, much like Zappa wrote amazing psychedelic pop tracks in that period, the songs on One Size are fantastically composed. The serious progressive rock bands are shamed by a mere dabbler.
9. Parliament - The Mothership Connection
Parliament and Funkadelic were like the two sides of George Clinton’s mind. Funkadelic was the more serious and experimental side, Parliament was the fun side that liked to party. With their fourth album, the fun of the P-Funk masters really shines through. The tight and sparse brass brings to mind the electric soul of James Brown, while Bootsy Collins’ juicy bass slaps and the group vocals are all pure funk. George Clinton’s use of spacey synths is especially prominent here, as well as appropriate considering Clinton’s grand overarching theme of “black people in space”. To paraphrase the man himself, imagine a wacky pimp driving a Cadillac in space have all sorts of encounters, the Cadillac all having crazy silver knobs and levers not traditionally included in that model. That is what The Mothership Connection essentially is.
8. Queen - A Night at the Opera
For years, Queen had been mistreated and taken advantage of by shitty management. With their fourth album, the English quartet had left all of that behind, and had one last chance to achieve a level of success higher than one hit wonder. The passion and drive shows. A Night at the Opera was a shockingly ambitious album, not to mention an expensive one (the most expensive ever made at the time of its release), showing the English quarter pulling out all the stops and letting their creative wackiness free. The record is varied, ranging from straight hard rock, to old tyme honky tonk tributes, to expansive operatic tracks. It’s clear that all four members of the band had a mark they wanted to leave here, but none more than Freddie Mercury, one of the most versatile and purely talented vocalists and rock pianists ever. To announce to the world just how different this album really was, they chose “Bohemian Rhapsody”, an extravagant six minute musical story as the lead single, a move that would assure Queen’s spot in history as one of the most unique voices in 70’s hard rock.
7. The Dictators - Go Girl Crazy!
Steve Van Zandt once made a comment to the effect that The Dictators were one of the strong evolutionary bridges between the proto-punk and the 1977 punk rock explosion. It’s pretty easy to hear what he meant when listening to The Dictators’ garage-y debut Go Girl Crazy! The record has the flamboyant Rolling Stones-esque sound of the New York Dolls, the heavy and extremely noisy guitar sound of the Stooges, and a fresh sense of youthful sarcasm and wickedness that would become a touchstone of the punk movement. While the Dictators aren’t exactly tackling the greatest social ills with their lyrics, they’re definitely having fun. This record would go on to inspire numerous young men and women, especially in New York City, and most obviously The Ramones.
6. Neil Young - Tonight’s the Night
While many of the major rock and folk acts of the late 60s and early 70s struggled a little in the mid-70s, Neil Young proved immune to the effect of the times, releasing some of his strongest work to date. Ragged, desolate, and dark, Tonight’s the Night is some of Young’s more introspective and daring work. After the hope and passion of the late 60’s counter culture, that sort of collective optimism burnt out, and Young’s friends were dying of drug overdose. Feeling the changed, Young released Tonight’s the Night, a messy and decidedly unstately exploration of death and decay. With less pop and a little more country roots, Young spins some of the most haunting yarns of his careers, with some extremely unsettling melodies and emotionally blunt lyrics. This isn’t the beloved straight rocking “Rockin’ In The Free World”, “Cinnamon Girl” Neil Young. This is another entity; a more experimental and cynical man who values spontaneity and getting it on the first take over a more cleanly produced rock and roll track. This is an extremely exciting and scary Neil, and an altogether fascinating and rich experience.
5. Eno - Another Green World
After his departure from Roxy Music, Brian Eno took on a solo career making art rock records. With his third album Another Green World, Eno focuses more on art than rock, creating vivid yet minimalist soundscapes and sparse lyrics. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale contributes an especially abrasive viola track to “Sky Saw”, while veteran progmen Phil Collins and Robert Fripp provide some decent drums and a very imaginative guitar solo, respectively. Eno went way out there with the instrumentation, inventing fanciful styles of play such as “castanet guitar” (electric guitars played with mallets) and “digital guitar” (as Eno described it, “a guitar threaded through a digital delay but fed back on itself a lot so it makes this cardboard tube type of sound.”) But where Another Green World really shines is not its instrumentation but its vision. Wading into musical realms dominated by pompous over-produced nonsense, Eno really stripped down his sound, creating simple ambient ideas with which to play. Electronic musicians of the decade to follow would owe their entire careers to this inventive and ingenious record.
4. Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger
One of the last great country stars, Willie Nelson had that understanding and love for the old timer stuff, as well as a sense of adventure and intelligence shown in the rock and pop bands of the previous ten years. The result of this clash came together on The Red Headed Stranger, a sparse and evocative concept record about an man on the run from the law after killing his wife. Nelson’s lonesome vocals, poetic lyrics, vivid imagery, and stripped down compositions evoke a sense of grandeur and lonesomeness all at once. The story is dug out in short little poems, with the recurring theme “Time of the Preacher” often stuck in between, with different instrumentation each time, depending on the mood. It’s a brilliant little framing devise in a brilliant little album and out-of-nowhere hit, expected to fail due to its old-fashioned Western feel and anti-commercial content and structure. Willie really proved them wrong and fashioned probably the best country LP of all time.
3. Patti Smith - Horses
The strange and hard to define masterpiece debut by New York’s wonderful mother of punk. It is primitive, wonderfully emotive, intense, creative, poetic. Smith’s vocals on here are fiery and wild, with a ragged improvisational quality, particularly on “Birdland”. The result is something entirely unique between jazz and punk, which has never been duplicated and never can. Lenny Kaye’s guitar playing is phenomenal; dirty and garagey. The album is like some beautiful clash of intelligent feminist beat poetry with filthy and fun pop music. While that sounds great on paper, the description completely fails at describing the album’s rare and undefinable feeling. Appropriately, the album was produced by John Cale, who had a certain understanding of the dirty intellectual New York sound, having helped pioneer it several years prior. He fundamentally understood the crudeness this album needed to get across its tone, in a way future producers of Smith’s work would not. The result of the collaboration is something that can never be repeated, not even by Patti Smith herself (as evidenced by her relatively disappointing follow ups). A truly strange and beautiful album, unlike any of her peers.
2. Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
After finding success elusive throughout the early 70s, Bruce Springsteen finally was onto something big when he went into the studio in 1974. Given a huge budget to get every single sound out of his head and onto vinyl, the Boss struggled for months to make his most honest and epic record to date. After a grueling year, he got it. Born To Run is Springsteen’s Sistine Chapel. His lyrics on this record are probably the best of his career (next to maybe Nebraska), and his vocals range from his signature tear-jerking triumphant power, to the sort of cocky swagger on tracks like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, and the the sad vulnerability you hear on “Meeting Across the River” and the ending of “Jungleland”. The E Street Band plays with the kind of reliable quality they would become known for, but the real stand out is “The Big Man” Clarence Clemmons, who plays some of the best (non-jazz) saxophone parts of all time, matching Springsteen’s own intensity and complementing the moods of his songs perfectly. Often the most joyous or sad part of any song on this record is when Clemmons takes a solo. But the real key to this and any other Springsteen record is the songwriting. The Boss’s arrangements are stunning in their scope and power, and include some instruments not often heard in rock, and they’re not just thrown in for the sake of having a lot to listen to. Each note from each source plays an important tonal role in every song. I mean, what would the title track be without that glockenspiel? Bruce spins some powerful yarns, mostly character sketches, from the dark and hopeless to the joyous and fatally optimistic, taking the listener on an emotional roller coaster through Springsteen’s own bitter and occasionally nostalgic teenage dreams. Bruce rejects the traditional monotony of the “American dream” from the beginning, substituting it with a more romantic desire to escape, a theme that plays a big part on the album. Springsteen’s take on this theme changes as the record progresses, however, and by the end the youthful optimism often associated with his work is replaced by something much more poignant. Born To Run is a miracle; an ambitious and beautiful work of true epicness, totally unrivaled.
1. Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks
After nearly a decade of marital bliss and mediocre output, Bob Dylan’s marriage collapsed. The result was his first truly great album since 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, and probably his best ever. The record sounds like a man retreating to something warm and familiar after a traumatic experience; it was recorded mostly with acoustic guitar, with some electric bass, drums, and organ accompaniment on certain songs, in his home state of Minnesota, with a little help from his record producer brother David Zimmerman. The songwriting is perfect Dylan. Poetic and emotional without ever being too obvious or sentimental, choosing to convey his array of feelings with allegories and more obscure references than by blurting anything outright (see, “Sara” on Dylan’s follow up record Desire). The lonely and vaguely nostalgic stripped down sound, and his wonderfully poetic lyrics about loss, anger, and poignant memories pack one fucking hell of a punch. This album resonates with anyone who has experienced the helplessness in the wake of an utter failure, romantic or otherwise. Dylan manages to cut to the core truth of his situation with his gift of words, vocal performance, and production sense. Blood on the Tracks is really Dylan’s most purely honest work, and one of the most fascinating and emotionally draining pop records ever recorded.
Honorable Mentions: “Sabotage” by Black Sabbath, “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television, “Physical Grafitti” by Led Zeppelin, "Neu ‘75" by Neu!, "Rock ‘n’ Roll" by John Lennon