What I love about this countdown is the sheer diversity of the lists. In this list alone, we’ve got a healthy serving of power-pop, futuristic electronic music, bombastic rock, and the most sensitive of singer-songwriters. And there were a handful of daring DJs and programmers who might have dared to actually play these ten artists on the same radio station-something that would be unheard of today in the age of micro-formatting. Let’s start the next phase of our list with a perennially unappreciated pop/rock band whose legacy looms large over the alternative rock boom of the ’90s.
Oh, and here’s Part One, for those of you who missed it. It’s funky.
90. Radio City (Big Star, 1974)
Following up their debut, entitled “#1 Record” (which was hardly the case), Big Star went into the studio the the Fall of 1973 to record Radio City. Radio City, while similar to its predecessor in its lack of chart performance, proved to be their definitive record. All 12 people who purchased this LP in 1973 eventually went on to start a band (Peter Buck, Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, etc., to name a few). Though it was (and is) highly influential and critically acclaimed, the album never got its deserved place in the history of mainstream pop, mainly due to poor distribution from its label.
This is my favorite of the 2 original Big Star albums. With only 3 members (Chris Bell had left the group after #1 Record), they are all able to stretch out as musicians. Its like a typical ‘70s singer/songwriter pop record, but with balls! Just put on “Back of a Car” to see what I mean. Clearly, no “Best of the 70s” list would be complete without Big Star’s Radio City. (May)
89. Trans-Europe Express (Kraftwerk, 1977)
In composition and lyric, Kraftwerk was seemingly obsessed with technology throughout their catalog. Like much of their other work, the pioneering electronic group was able to craft a sonic representation of a particular technology that so effectively conveys its character and nature. Kraftwerk’s ode to high-speed rail travel does this particularly well. Album opener “Europe Endless” begins with soft, light electronic tinkering, then gradually builds into a smooth, swift, chugging ride on the tracks; the title track engages a similar, perhaps even more explicit aural simulacrum. Elsewhere on the album, Kraftwerk engages further cultural critique on image, celebrity, and publicity on the haunting “The Hall of Mirrors” and the rhythmic jerk of “Showroom Dummies.” Although Kraftwerk is best remembered for laying the groundwork for decades of electronic music, less publicized is their direct impact on hip hop. Five years after the album’s release, Afrika Bambaataa used “Trans-Europe Express” as the basis for his seminal “Planet Rock,” furthering the legacy of Kraftwerk’s 1977 album. (Dr. Gonzo)
88. Unknown Pleasures (Joy Division, 1979)
At first glance, Unknown Pleasures may seem out of place on this list but it did in fact come out in the 70’s. This darkest of dark masterpieces might sound out of place in any decade… in fact it sounds otherworldly. Ian Curtis’ moody, expressive lyrics & Bernard Sumner’s atmospheric guitars gave the music its emotional weight, while the rhythm section of Peter Hook & Stephen Morris forged a punk tempo with strangely danceable beats. It’s in this contrast that Unknown Pleasures finds its greatness: youth & passion meets darkness & despair. (Luc)
87. Modern Lovers (Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, 1976)
Before he embarked on a solo career and established himself as the most lovable guy in America since Fred Rogers, Jonathan Richman and his band of Modern Lovers released this, their debut album, in 1976. “Released” is the operative word, because The Modern Lovers consists of demos the band recorded with John Cale in 1973. By the time of the album’s release, the Modern Lovers had long since split, and Richman was well on his way to writing about little insects and Martian Martians.
During the recording sessions for The Modern Lovers, Richman hadn’t quite yet developed the whimsical, childlike persona for which he later became well known. Instead, his ethos was that of a geekier Lou Reed with a sense of humor. Richman’s deadpan vocal delivery combined with the band’s low-fi aesthetic and Cale’s steady yet stripped-down production led to the creation of one of the seminal albums of the proto-punk era. Artists ranging from the Sex Pistols to David Bowie have covered tracks from The Modern Lovers. “Roadrunner” has been a college radio and house party staple for nearly four decades. And “I’m Straight” has become an anthem for generations of square guys who have ever desperately but assertively wanted to steer their crushes clear of stoner boyfriends and “take their place.” (Michael Cunningham)
86. Breakfast in America (Supertramp, 1979)
Breakfast in America is an important album in my musical development in that it was the first rock album I ever purchased. I was living in Canada and as big as the album was in the U.S., it was HUGE in the Great White North. And I listened to that record non-stop for months, it seemed. Supertramp had been around for almost a decade and had scored minor hits with songs like “Dreamer,” “Bloody Well Right” and “Give a Little Bit,” but Breakfast in America just exploded. The album hit #1 in the U.S., Canada and around the world and went multiplatinum. The band’s old prog-rock sound had gradually given way to a more pop-oriented feel, with plenty of Wurlitzer piano and sax in the mix. The band’s two songwriters and singers, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, had differing styles and the combination made for interesting songs. Hodgson’s high-pitched delivery lifted big hits like “The Logical Song,” “Take the Long Way Home” and the title track, while Davies’ deeper growl effectively propelled album cuts like “Gone Hollywood” and “Just Another Nervous Wreck.” And they worked well together, trading verses on “Child of Vision.” Alas, those differences also spelled doom for Supertramp. The band’s 1982 followup, …Famous Last Words, was a commercial stiff and featured Hodgson and Davies drifting even further apart; Hodgson left not long afterward. Davies soldiered on with the band, but it never again reached those dizzying Breakfast in America heights. Even now in this age of unlikely rock reunions, Hodgson and the Davies-led Supertramp haven’t reconciled; both continue to tour separately. (Jay)
85. Highway to Hell (AC/DC, 1979)
To the casual fan, AC/DC is defined by the 1980 album Back in Black and the subsequent releases that pretty much just tried to remake it. But true fans of the hard rock legends treasure the band’s early years as much, if not more, than the commercially successful Brian Johnson era. Led by flamboyant frontman Bon Scott, the Australian band released six excellent albums from 1975 to 1979 before Scott’s tragic death in 1980. The last album, 1979’s Highway to Hell, hit #17 in the U.S. and had the band poised for major success (it subsequently has gone seven times platinum). AC/DC sounds like a band clearly in its prime, ripping through classics like the title track, “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It).” Scott had a lot more range than Johnson, able to screech as well as his successor but also able to convey the snotty tongue-in-cheek attitude that permeated much of the band’s early material. Naturally, Angus Young’s lead work and brother Malcolm’s rhythm playing dominate the AC/DC sound. Several years after its release, the band was surrounded in controversy after serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez was revealed to be a fan of AC/DC and the Highway to Hell album closer “Night Prowler,” a dark, bluesy romp. The album was the first big success for producer Mutt Lange, who went on to produce Back in Black as well as numerous other hit albums. Ultimately, Highway to Hell was the final chapter in the first era of AC/DC and provided the springboard for its future success. (Jay)
84. Cheap Trick (Cheap Trick, 1977)
By the fall of 1976 Cheap Trick was nearly three years into their career, playing over 250 dates a year with nearly thirty songs written that were regularly performed live. With a work ethic befitting their Midwest upbringing, Rockford, IL natives Rick Nielsen (guitar, vocals), Tom Petersson (12-string bass, vocals), Robin Zander (lead vocals, guitar) and Bun E. Carlos (drums) were already legends on the area live circuit, with a passionate and loyal fanbase. To say that these guys were ready for the next step – recording and releasing their debut album – is an understatement.
The band was brought to Epic Records by producer Jack Douglas, whose resume already included three classic and huge-selling Aerosmith albums, Get Your Wings (1974), Toys in the Attic (1975), and Rocks (1976). Going into the Record Plant with Douglas the band had several dozen songs ready to go and the goal was to get on tape the best songs matched with their live energy. Raw and direct, the goal was met.
Cheap Trick might be a perfect album, capturing every facet of the band’s musical personality with a frenzy, but the performance never overpowers the songs. And what songs this album has! In the original vinyl the album features a “Side A” and “Side One” – a cheeky way to let folks know that the music in the grooves is so good, there’s no B-side. From the first cut – and according to the band’s sequencing that would be “ELO Kiddies” – the listener gets the goods right away. The song opens with Carlos’ whomping drum licks cribbed from Gary Glitter, and Petersson’s rumbling 12-string bass making you wonder just what the hell you’re hearing. Nielsen’s multi-layered and melodic guitar arsenal buzzes along and Zander’s sneering vocals spit out sarcastic and cynical lyrics like “So you miss some school; you know that school’s for fools; today money rules, and everybody steals it!” The hook instantly sticks in your brain, sounding part bubble-gum pop but with a hard edge: “Hello kiddies, hello kiddies, what’cha gonna do with your stomach burning…” coupled with a pandemonium that builds throughout the song, as Zander screams and growls to the finish, “…you know they’re out to get you!”
Its an upbeat, powerful and energetic debut – but with a dark and edgy lyrical vibe. “ELO Kiddies” ends with the sound of kids playing and laughing, segueing neatly into the sleazy and slamming “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School.” And yes, its sleazy, as Zander sings Nielsen’s lyrics like “I’m thirty but I feel like sixteen; how would you like some candy? I’m thinking more than a kiss, so please spank me, grab me.” Whoa! Musically, its another tour de force; the guitars and bass driving with the pounding drums providing the engine.
Lyrical darkness continues in the eerie “The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)” which was originally called “The Ballad of Richard Speck” until the Epic legal department figured a song about an infamous midwest mass murderer would mean a lot of headaches. The song’s lyrics rival anything early Black Sabbath came up with. Despite the dark vibe to many of the songs – cynicism and sarcasm abound in songs like “Taxman Mr. Thief” and “He’s A Whore” – the melodies and the hooks are upbeat, memorable and simply amazing. Possibly the most memorable hook is in “Oh Candy” – the whole song makes you sing out loud and sounds so happy. But you’ll be singing about the tale of a good friend of the band’s who committed suicide! Cheap Trick is like Jekyll and Hyde.
Other highlights include the aforementioned “He’s A Whore” where Nielsen’s storming riff and Peterson’s 12-string bass will make you jump up and down for 2:43. The cover of an obscure Terry Reid song “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece” builds with Petersson’s 12-string sounding like a rhythm guitar, the song’s tempo building amongst some of Nielsen’s best guitar work, a whirling vortex of riffs and soloing. There’s one ballad on the album, the mid-tempo, hauntingly beautiful “Mandocello” (the title refers to an eight-string instrument that combines guitar, mandolin and cello) which essentially features three hooks, closing out on with one of Nielsen’s finest and melodic solos.
The schizophrenic album didn’t sell much and fans and critics couldn’t really figure it out: too heavy for the burgeoning New Wave sound, not heavy enough for metalheads, too melodic for punk. All told, Jack Douglas perfectly captured a band ready to explode; perhaps it was too edgy and loud for what Epic had in mind for the band. The next two albums In Color and Heaven Tonight were glossier and more commercial-sounding affairs produced by another hit maker, Tom Werman. From there came the seminal, legendary live album At Budokan which launched them to superstar status and from which their legacy is still cemented by. Even then the debut album still didn’t really get its due as In Color and Heaven Tonight had several songs that became big hits in Japan – and only songs from those two records made up the bulk of that original release of At Budokan.
Today, the benefit of time and 10+ years of critics taking a renewed interest in one of America’s finest, often overlooked bands have finally given this album its due. The album is routinely mentioned as one of their finest and a 1998 remastered edition with bonus tracks finally showcases the greatness that is – and always was – Cheap Trick (Steven)
83. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (Paul Simon, 1973)
Is There Goes Rhymin’ Simon better than Paul’s self-titled post-Garfunkel debut? That’s debatable, but it’s a lot more fun. There’s a certain fatalism to Paul Simon; Rhymin’ Simon taps a rich vein of optimistic nostalgia with first track, “Kodachrome” (an absolute corker, what with its witty turns of phrase and skittish, galloping rhythm), and it rarely deviates from that track, with even the conversational ballad “Something So Right” eventually turning into an unblushing, naked declaration of love and happiness. Here, it’s the little textures that make the record count, the way Simon incorporates a dozen different genres into his usual eloquent approach to songwriting; “Was A Sunny Day” is a progenitor of whitebread reggae pastiches, “Tenderness” and the maternal, exuberant “Loves Me Like A Rock” weave r&b grooves into the proceedings, and the undervalued, pitch-perfect “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” lurches along on a woozy, apocalyptic approximation of N’awlins jazz. Simon’s plainspoken voice and knack for something resembling musical comfort food often leads us to take him for granted; and yet, he’s something of a renaissance man, a poet, a nimble arranger, and a constructor of solid-to-great albums. There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, like so many other Simon records before and after it, is as good as proof as any. (Drew)
82. A Day At the Races (Queen, 1976)
Often regarded as a little-brother record of sorts to the classic A Night at the Opera, Queen’s A Day at the Races isn’t quite as potent as Opera. It’s not often as dynamic; it even clunks from time to time, as with the overly on-the-nose awkward racially-charged prog jam “White Man”. (Even lead-off track “Tie Your Mother Down”, while a fairly enduring tune in Queen’s ouvre, is a fairly standard-issue glam-rock number; it’s commendably energetic, but little more.) And yet, keeping in line with Queen’s modus operandi, Races boasts some thrilling highs: “Somebody To Love” remains their all-time best ballad and one of the greatest power ballads of all time, easily matching Opera in sheer breadth and pomp (Freddie’s vocal, wounded and powerful in equal measure, is one of his top five performances on record), “You Take My Breath Away” is a lush, lovely Beach Boys serenade tarted up with Queen’s operatic inclinations, and little nods to Opera‘s prancing, hammy throwbacks abound in songs like “The Millionaire Waltz” and the immortal “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”. And hey, even A Night at the Opera doesn’t end on anything as strong as Races‘ swooning, ominous “Teo Torriatte”. A Day at the Races ain’t perfect, but when it hits, it hits hard. (Drew)
81. Sweet Baby James (James Taylor, 1970)
Sweet Baby James was the sophomore release from James Taylor in 1971 after a debut album that suffered due to Taylor’s hospitalization for drug-related issues. However, the self-titled debut had primed the pump for critics who generally loved the more contemporary folk sound that Taylor recorded, and Sweet Baby James rose to number three on the Billboard Top Albums chart on the strength of “Fire and Rain.” The album was so well received that “Carolina in My Mind” from the debut album was re-released and became a minor hit.
The magic of Sweet Baby James lies in the way that Taylor took a genre like folk that was very much of the 60s and brought it up to date with a more contemporary spin. Songs like “Fire and Rain” are thematically of the folk genre, but the combination of the Beatles influence in production (Taylor recorded his debut album at Abbey Road Studios) and Taylor’s grounded delivery helped keep the folk torch going for others like John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot to carry on. Even a 19th Century song like “Oh! Susanna” sounded somewhat relevant, along with rural-themed songs like “Country Road” and “Sweet Baby James.” You can credit some of that modern relevance to of-the-moment performers like Danny Kortchmar, Randy Meisner and a woman on the verge of breaking through named Carole King, but the weight of the credit goes to Taylor, who comes across as an everyman that listeners were able to relate to. To interpret it another way, Sweet Baby James reflected a man dealing with his demons of the past while looking forward. (John H.)
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