Whew…now we’re caught up.
30) The Stranger (Billy Joel, 1977)
Billy Joel became a pop superstar with 1977’s release of The Stranger. After critics praised previous release Turnstiles, Joel entered the studio with Grammy Award winning producer Phil Ramone. They emerged with nine tracks, four of them Top 30 hits, multiple Grammy Awards and reputations for making pop hits.
The Stranger is most often thought of as an album of ballads, likely because of the popularity of “Just the Way You Are”, a true love song with extended sax breaks that fits any generation and has made its way into The Great American Songbook. The track became Billy Joel’s first bona-fide hit and its extended stay on the charts drove the song to winning Song and Record of the Year Grammys. .
The Stranger showed off a collaboration between Joel and Ramone that resulted in one smooth pop hook after another. The album also showed Joel’s immaturity as a lyricist. Hits like “Only the Good Die Young” and “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)” showed off a silly, snarky side of Joel’s writing. Removed from the comfort of the sprawling story songs he adored, Joel attacked targets with a childish agreeability that lacked the biting edge of contemporaries like Sting and Elvis Costello.
But Joel could write a hook and with Ramone’s steady hand keeping tracks to radio friendly times, The Stranger became America’s favorite album, dueling with Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and disco singles that were soon taking over the charts. Billy Joel’s lyrics may have been simplistic and mocking with the exception of “She’s Always A Woman” and “Vienna”, but The Stranger was fueled by AM singles radio. Those tiny transistor radios propelled The Stranger to gold record status in 2 months and platinum in 3.
As Turnstiles become Billy Joel’s proof to the music industry that he could create a musically cohesive album, The Stranger marked his ascendancy to pop stardom. Billy Joel released seven more pop albums over the next fifteen years along with the usual collection of Greatest Hit compilations and live recordings. By the time he retired from recording contemporary music in 1993, Joel had racked up 33 Top 40 singles, including three #1 hits.
That string of hits began with The Stranger, which may still arguably be his best pop composition. With half of the tracks becoming hit singles, the entire album serves as an early greatest hits album, one in which the tones and rhythms are familiar even if some of the songs are unknown 35 years later. (George B.)
Nothing motivates Dylan to write a great song like estranged love. On Blonde on Blonde (1966), Dylan offered a handful of bitter tunes about erstwhile lovers, but Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece of bile and vitriol. Dylan was going through a turbulent breakup with his wife Sara, and the subsequent resentment pours out of him on the album. On “Idiot Wind,” he suggests that there’s “an idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth. You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” However, the more subtle assholery of “You’re a Big Girl Now” demonstrates just how petulant, condescending, and patronizing one can be in public towards one’s spouse. In the hands of a less skillful songwriter, the line “I’m going out of my mind with a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart ever since we’ve been apart” might seem like the schmaltzy drivel of a drama queen’s high school journal. When Dylan sings it, however, his tongue is firmly wedged in his cheek. There is no hint of sincerity in his voice, and the listener knows that he does not believe her to be a “big girl” in any sense of the word. I’m not sure of the actual biography (Dylan is notoriously vague and misleading about his personal history); however, I doubt that Sara would have been able to take him back even after Dylan wrote a relatively sincere love song in her name on his next album, Desire (1977), released just twelve months later. The title of Blood on the Tracks evokes imagery of someone having been hit by a train. Ostensibly, the blood is Bob’s, but the album suggests that Dylan was at the helm. (Michael Mario)
If there’s a record that should’ve come packed with a baggie of weed, some rolling papers, the keys to a VanDura, and a coupon for a case of Stroh’s, it’s this one. It is quintessential suburban stoner music, created with pinpoint precision by a dude with a Master’s from MIT, and sung by a grizzle-bearded angel who took us far too high and left us far too soon.
That we can all listen to “More than a Feeling” and “Foreplay/Long Time” on anything other than an eight-track is probably a crime against nature. That we can all sing the lyrics to those two, and “Peace of Mind,” and “Something About You” and “Smokin'” and—is there a song on the record the entire population of the United States born before, say, 1992 doesn’t know? That we can agree on that, if we can agree on anything, is saying something. That we can probably lay the praise/blame for the invention of classic rock radio on the popularity of Boston, speaks to our collective need for sustenance that only this record can provide us. That we can still hear and enjoy this music, after a million and a half plays and half that many foggy associated memories is testament to the power of the compositions, the playing, and that voice.
Brad Delp might be wearing wings right now, but we’ve all flown with him for close to 40 years, and for that I say bless him; bless his pipes; bless Tom Scholz and Sib Hashian and Barry Goudreau and Fran Sheehan; bless these songs and bless that axe-shaped spaceship that left this world, borne on the power of music, and let us all escape with it. (Rob Smith)
27) All Things Must Pass (George Harrison, 1970)
Let me just get this out of the way now – All Things Must Pass is my favorite of any solo Beatle record. For years, Harrison’s songwriting contributions had been roundly dismissed by the Lennon-McCartney powerhouse, generally resulting in a concession of one Harrison track per album. This resulted in Harrison having a backlog of material when The Beatles disbanded, much of it pouring from the acrimonious Get Back sessions (as meticulously chronicled in Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt’s excellent book on those sessions). Thus, when The Beatles officially broke up in 1970, Harrison had an album’s worth of material ready to go. Three discs’ worth actually (the first 3LP rock album, according to some sources).
These aren’t simply subpar cuts undeserving of the spotlight on a Beatles record, either. This is a lengthy collection of some of the most finely crafted rock songs of the era. Drawing from his influences and contemporaries (Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Band, et. al.), the compositions show complexity and maturity that frankly runs deeper than much of what ended up on Let it Be. Many songs articulate Harrison’s spirituality in ways that are much more nuanced than earlier compositions such as “Love You Too,” “Within You, Without You,” and “The Inner Light.” The single “My Sweet Lord” is the most blatant example, but similar themes run through “Hear Me Lord,” “Awaiting on You All,” and “Beware of Darkness.” Other tracks address a social tensions (“Isn’t it a Pity”), relationships (“What is Life,” “I’d Have You Anytime,” “Behind that Locked Door”), and death and loss (“All Things Must Pass,” “Art of Dying”). Toss in Phil Spector’s bombastic production, and it all adds up to an incredible collection of songs that remains the high water mark in Harrison’s solo catalog. (Dr. Gonzo)
26) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John, 1973)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was classic Elton John before Elton John was classic. Did that make sense? Forty years after the album debuted and you can still play this album and not feel like you’re in the 70s. Four hit singles, “Bennie and the Jets” and the title track, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” are still great! The ballad “Candle in the Wind” became a hit – again – 24 years later and then there’s the upbeat “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. Though I was born in the latter part of the 70s this album continued to get play in the Johnson household. Since it was my mom who owned the album I thought I’d ask her to tell us why she helped me pick this as my No. 3 album of the 70s.
In 1973 I was 16 and after my newspaper route I’d head to the local “Red Barn”, a place we’d go to drink sodas, hang out and listen to the top 40s. I also remember listening to this album while I did my homework at night. My favorite was always “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” but I especially liked ba ba ba “Bennie and the Jets”!
KJ’s Weird Note about this Album: For some reason, when we’d run in PE in Elementary school, the rhythm of my breathing always sounded like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. No matter how hard I would fight it, by the end of the second lap around the track I was singing, “Saturday! Saturday! Saturday!” as our teacher clocked us cruising by. (KJ…and his mom)
25) Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek & the Dominoes, 1970)
It is perhaps the perfect album. On Layla, two of the great late Sixties-vintage white boy blues guitar players (one E. Clapton and one D. Allman) find each other and find inspiration in each other and find the truly authentic voices on their instruments everyone assumed they had, but never truly heard until these songs were recorded. On this album, the competent backing band of a competent pair of musicians and singers (Delaney & Bonnie) is elevated to something akin to the angel Gabriel’s rhythm section. The album is perfectly sequenced, building through the sad but inviting opening of “I Looked Away,” through the tear-drenched “Bell Bottom Blues,” through authoritative covers of Jimmy Cox and Big Bill Broonzy and Freddie King songs, through a majestic spin through Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” reaching a crescendo with the seven minutes of “Layla,” before parachuting back down to earth with the album-closing “Thorn Tree in the Garden.”
It’s that last bit that really shows off the genius of Tom Dowd, who produced this thing—how tempting it must have been to just build everything up to “Layla,” to string the listener through that song’s layers of heartache, all the way through the piano-driven coda, to those beautifully definitive final notes, with Allman’s slide sending its last breaths feathering out into the ether. But once you’ve been up there, you need a place to land, and Bobby Whitlock’s “Thorn Tree” is the perfect way to do it, giving this amazing, intense record a short, gorgeous epilogue. If an album as thoroughly satisfying as Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has to end, best to end it like this, with longing, tears, and desire—just like every note that preceded it. (Rob Smith)
Has any other artist had as remarkable a run of studio records as the one Stevie Wonder cranked out from Talking Book to Songs in the Key Of Life? Nobody has ever not called Stevie a genius — if they did, they’d be utterly incorrect, obviously — but let’s stop to consider the implications of the fact that very few people have ever called Talking Book his best album. An album that’s not only stuffed with ideas, but overflowing with ideas that — and this is the difference between invention and innovation — that work, every single time; an album so rich in sound, in groove, in irresistible hookiness, that it’s almost impossible to take in on a single listen; an album so perfectly crafted and executed that it would be an untouchable jewel in the crown of, essentially, any other artist. Talking Book is an album that’s all of these things and more, and Mr. Wonder released at least two albums that are generally accepted as being even better? That’s downright insane, but that insanity has led to some of the most vibrant, innovative, jaw-dropping musical compositions of our time; and a bunch of ’em are on Talking Book, from irresistible, evergreen funk classic “Superstition” to the way sunny opener “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” crashes into the aggressive, paranoid funk-rocker “Maybe Your Baby” (a titanically underrated example of schizophrenic pop music that shifts narratives and perspectives sneakily, a concept that wouldn’t be replicated as perfectly until perhaps Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”); from the glorious squawking keyboard tone that floats just above “Big Brother” to the way “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” creates the most beautiful, soaring ballad of all time and the most joyous, infectious funk number of all time and then stitches them together like a glorious Frankenstein’s monster. Talking Book sounds like the greatest album of all time, and it’s not even Stevie Wonder’s best album. I don’t know how that’s possible; all I know is that Stevie Wonder is a national treasure, and you will damn well respect him even if he’s releasing an In Square Circle. Because, dude, Talking Book. (Drew)
23) Tapestry (Carole King, 1971)
I’m having a little trouble trying to take how I feel about Tapestry and put it into a paragraph or two. From the cover paragraph, which finds Carole King sitting pensively on a windowsill with a cat to the perfectly written songs like “It’s Too Late” and “So Far Away,” Tapestry is as perfect an album as there is in existence. The key word is warmth. Listening to Tapestry is the audio equivalent to snuggling under your thickest. oldest, warmest blanket. Although Carole King had been a songwriting giant for well over a decade, Tapestry was her coming out party as an artist. And while The Shirelles and Aretha Franklin recorded the definitive versions of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” Carole’s versions served as a reminder that those were songs she composed, and she didn’t fare too badly with them even as she switched positions and landed behind the mic.
The “singer/songwriter” movement of the Seventies reached its apex with Tapestry. It would go on to spend over 300 weeks on the Billboard charts, including 15 consecutive weeks at Number One. That latter feat is still a record for female artists. Carole, rightfully, took home an Album of the Year Grammy — all behind one absolutely iconic album. (Big Money)
22) The Cars (The Cars, 1978)
The Cars album The Cars is home to a whole handful of songs that you didn’t even know you knew (or maybe that’s only me.. I apologize in advance for my age). First off, “Good Times Roll” sets the mood of the whole album with the simple essences of the era just “let the good times roll, let them knock you around.” With twangy guitar picking and hand claps, “My Best Friend’s Girl” carries a melodic rhythm that you can’t help but dance to, sometimes beneath the starry sky. One of their most popular songs “Just What I Needed” is on their debut album. Proving just how much of a great album this is, this song is still used in commercials today. The lyrics are catchy, and the downward strummed guitar and bass under the surging guitar completes the song. “Don’t Cha Stop” is the midpoint of the album, but why would you even consider stopping? The way the songs transition carries the whole album all the way through. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “Bye Bye Love” are other songs you’d probably recognize the chorus of if you weren’t completely familiar with The Cars. The whole album has twists and twangs of guitar rock and new wave synth pop combined with Ric Ocasek’s soft vocals that blend together effortlessly, making The Cars one of the top albums of the 70s. (Cassandra)
When George Harrison recorded All Things Must Pass, he had five years of pent-up frustration to get out. John Lennon must have thought, Amateur. His first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, mines the thirty-year-old composer’s entire life, starting with the father who abandoned him as a four-year-old, continuing through the mother wrenched from his life as a teenager and ending with the Beatles, the group from which Lennon sensed even then he would be spending the rest of his life trying to extricate himself. Everyone knows Plastic Ono Band grew out of Lennon’s self-described “primal scream period,” when he underwent therapy aimed at peeling away his formative traumas like a carpenter stripping paint with turpentine and a razor; the album he was inspired to make from the experience had essentially the same purpose. The ensemble he put together for the album matched its stark purpose: most of the tracks are accompanied by Lennon on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo Starr on drums, with piano from Phil Spector and Billy Preston. Lots of people have tried to position Plastic Ono Band as a precursor of something: punk, or confessional singer-songwriter, or lo-fi, or whatever. But really, the album remains as distinctive and un-repeatable as its creator. Much of Lennon’s solo work has either aged poorly or else reflects an artist struggling to find a message to match his ambitions. Plastic Ono Band is timeless both for its unadorned sound and the breathtaking honesty of its writing, and if you can hear it and still wonder why the Beatles had to break up, you’re not listening hard enough. (Dan W.)