Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Psychobabble’s Thirteen Greatest Albums of 1971

1971. The Beatles are no more. The Stones are regrouping. The Who are reinventing. Glam emerges as Rock's sparkly new hope. Self-indulgence is king. The "Stairway to Heaven" jokes may now commence. Psychobabble surveys the wreckage and selects thirteen of the years best records.

13. A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse - The Faces

By the time  Faces released their third album in late ’71, Rod Stewart had become a smash solo success, earning international hits with Every Picture Tells a Story and the number one single it spawned, “Maggie May”. Stewart’s stardom would eventually crumble his cult band while still in its infancy. But first Faces enjoyed a huge boon when A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse became their first album to crack the top ten. Faces album may not have been better than Rod, but they do trump him in terms of the diversity afforded by Ronnie Lane, who takes the lead on the lazily rocking “You’re So Rude”, the lovely “Debris”, and the chummy “Last Orders Please”, which could pass for a number by the band’s earlier incarnation as Small Faces. Elsewhere Faces just do what it is they do with greater confidence than ever before, torching the barn on “Too Bad” and the really ugly-spirited hit “Stay With Me” or settling down around the campfire to wrap their Jim Beam breath around “Love Lives Here”. Even the toss-offs—an endlessly vamping version of “Memphis Tennessee” and “That’s All You Need”, which finishes off the record with  scorching slide guitar work courtesy of Ron Wood— are pretty great. Pound for pound, the best thing Faces ever slapped together.

12. Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart

There wasn’t a ton of variation among Rod Stewart’s excellent first four albums. Each one shuffled original and cover songs interpreted with loose, largely acoustic arrangements that owed as much to traditional British folk as they did to Chuck Berry. This unique and totally winning formula hit its peak with Stewart’s second and third albums. Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story are equally good, though only the latter packs in a ridiculous number of Stewart standards. The bleary-eyed yet grinning “Maggie May” became his defining song. The exquisitely picturesque “Mandolin Wind” and the magnificent title track, the singer’s ultimate folk and Chuck union and a brilliant showcase for Micky Waller’s lyrical drumming and Maggie Bell’s wild and raw voice, are tremendous songs and tremendously important to Stewart’s importance. Anyone who doesn’t believe the future face of late-seventies/eighties superficiality ever had any artistic credibility need only hear these two songs. No others make the case for Stewart’s powers as a genuine balladeer and rocker more convincingly.
11. Electric Warrior - T. Rex

As Tyrannosaurus Rex, Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn played hippie folk piped up from Middle Earth. When Bolan infused his freaky fantasies with stinging Les Paul riffs and hired bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend to round out his group, Tyrannosaurus Rex became T. Rex and glam rock danced itself out of the womb. The band’s second album in their new incarnation expanded their following from a few devoted elves and trolls to the world. Throughout the summer of ’71, radios ‘round the globe buzzed with “Get It On”. Bolan’s fusion of Chuck Berry riffs, Mike Love’s hot rod-philia, and surrealistic witchcraft was an unexpected but brilliant stroke in the years after psychedelia had died the death. Kids slapped aluminum stars on their cheeks, poured themselves into patched bell bottoms, and grooved along with such inspired gobbledygook as “You’ve got a hub cap diamond star halo,” “Dragon head, machine of lead, Cadillac King, dancer in the midnight,” and “You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair.” Bolan hisses his weird words over an expansive universe of Phil Spectorian reverb. Electric Warrior was Rock & Roll’s past and its future mashed up into a confection that sweetened the teeth of soft poppers and hard rockers, fellow glam hounds and future punks, Elton John and John Lennon, David Bowie and The Damned. Marc Bolan was a mystical uniter whose nonsense spoke louder than any rhetoric. Electric Warrior was his mission statement and masterwork.

10. What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

Berry Gordy founded Motown Records to make exquisite records featuring black artists and bundles of money. Throughout the sixties, the label did exactly that. However, wonderful records like “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “Baby Love”, and “How Sweet It is (To Be Loved by You)” hardly reflected the breadth of the American black experience throughout the decade. Centuries of oppression finally gave way to the Civil Rights Movement, and as all true revolutions are, it was often tragically, outrageously violent. A man of deep thought and deep convictions, Marvin Gaye had more to say about his world than how sweet it is to be loved by you, and he upset the Motown formula by pouring his anguish, observations, and hopes into his music. What’s Going On was practically the anti-Motown album, both because of its atypically personal and political lyrics and because it smeared away the label’s concentration on hit singles by blending its nine tracks into an extended suite. Gaye the Hitsville hit-maker could still spin radio-ready gold, and the gorgeous, immensely moving title track became a massive hit, and more importantly, a socially conscious standard as significant as “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’in the Wind”. Berry Gordy hated it on first listen and was reluctant to release an album with such disregard for the Motown formula. When Gordy took a gamble on the record and won, Motown finally caught up with the times, setting the stage for thoughtful, innovative, groundbreaking records to dominate Motown/Tamla’s records in the new decade.
9. Hunky Dory - David Bowie

The great glam shape-shifter David Bowie spent his early career deciding whether he was a purveyor of corny music hall (David Bowie), psychedelic folk rock (Space Oddity), or icy hard rock (The Man Who Sold the World). After realizing he was pretty damn good at all these things, he made his first great album. Hunky Dory isn’t flawless— “Eight Line Poem” is a non-starter and the Kinks pastiche “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart” emphasize his more precious tendencies—but it is by far more assured than the records that preceded it. And that small handful of subpar numbers are consumed by an abundance of astonishing pieces in which Bowie sculpts a completely original fusion of Broadway flair and anthemic Rock & Roll: the curriculum vitae “Changes”, the gay call-to-arms “Oh! You Pretty Things”, the breathtaking sci-fi epic “Life On Mars?”, the slow burning “Quicksand”, the eerie “Bewlay Brothers”. His trilogy of peer biographies on Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan expand his sound further while checking off notable influences on his earlier work made obsolete by his newfound innovation. With Hunky Dory, David Bowie took his place as the single most important solo performer of the ‘70s.

8. Smash Your Head Against the Wall - John Entwistle

John Entwistle suffered from the worst case of George Harrison Syndrome this side of George Harrison, and was the case with All Things Must Pass, composition is Entwistle’s chief concern on Smash Your Head Against the Wall. While this album could have been nothing more than a showcase for his superhuman bass skills, he allows showy musicianship to play second string to his songwriting, which is thoroughly unique and startlingly mature. Getting a bit of riffy heavy metal out of the way with the fine opening track, “My Size”— a sequel to his definitive Who song “Boris the Spider”— The Ox mellows out and diversifies. Brooding Muscle Shoals-style soul, forlorn folk, dirges, piano-based epics, and ballads provide backdrops for Entwistle’s droll takes on aging, alcoholism, simpleminded faith, and death, death, death. He certainly wasn’t the only artist obsessed with death in the early ‘70s—Black Sabbath, The Stones, Nick Drake, and Procol Harum filled LPs with gloomy ruminations—but no other dealt with it with such cunning po-faced humor. “Ted End” is a tale of a poorly attended funeral ripe for illustration by Edward Gory. “Heaven and Hell” is a pithy mockery of afterlife superstitions. “My Size” voices the murderous revenge impulses of a spider. The album’s flat, murky sound perfectly compliments its grave obsessions, and further distinguishes it from The Who’s bright, spacious albums. John Entwistle was determined to establish himself as a solo artist distinct from his band on his debut, and like George Harrison, he succeeded brilliantly. Also like Harrison, he never matched its success again.

7. - Led Zeppelin

Following the zonked blues workouts of their first two records and the mystical folk experiments of their third, Led Zeppelin’s mythic status was pretty well in place by the time they released their fourth one. The guys are well intoxicated on their grizzled bluesmen-cum-medieval warlords-cum-dime-store Satanists-cum-sexual-pillagers persona throughout untitled or Led Zeppelin IV or Runes or Zoso or whatever you want to call it. This is the record that best sums up what made the band huge stars and what makes a lot of their stuff sound kind of silly today. Robert Plant’s simulated orgasms and Tolkien references are fairly embarrassing. “Stairway to Heaven” might be Rock & Roll’s most worshipped and mocked indulgence (honorary mention to “Free Bird”, of course). Calling the hippie-dippy “Going to California” dated is kind. But smoke a couple of bowls and down a six-pack or two and these gripes evaporate. As self-conscious as Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is (right down to the band’s belief that they were so godlike they didn’t even have to lower themselves to name the damn thing), a complete lack of self consciousness when listening to it reveals why it became the stoner soundtrack of the decade. “Going to California” may be goofy, but it is very pretty. “The Battle of Evermore” is completely transporting, and Sandy Denny proves a commanding foil to Plant. “When the Levee Breaks” still rattles the fucking walls. “Black Dog” is all snaky intricacy and bludgeoning power. “Misty Mountain Hop” is a much needed display of self-effacing humor. “Four Sticks” is possibly the scariest thing in the band’s oeuvre. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album confirms everything that inspired awe in their followers and struck terror in their detractors. You just might have to get wasted to appreciate it today.

6. Surf’s Up - The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were always inconsistent on LP. Capitol Records’ hunger for new product and reluctance to accept Brian Wilson’s maturation resulted in great records (All Summer Long; Today) being interspersed with limp ones (Shut Down Vol. 2; Party). Pet Sounds, an album that jolted Rock & Roll’s evolution forward like few others, seemed to finally put The Beach Boys in the same league as The Beatles, The Stones, and Dylan, but the collapse of SMiLE doomed them to continue jerking back and forth while their contemporaries sprinted toward the horizon. SMiLE left the guys bitter and the half-baked Smiley Smile was a weak consolation prize. Wild Honey and Sunflower were well-realized records, and Friends was a great one, but 20/20 was pasted together with no greater care than their pre-Pet Sounds discs. Such indifference continues to be an issue on Surf’s Up. If the title recalls their sun & fun early work, the somber painting of a Native American on horseback on the cover suggested otherwise. As Brian’s creativity and mental health continued to wane, the other guys struggled to pick up the slack and push the group forward in fits. Al Jardine explores left wing ideals on the ecologically minded “Don’t Go Near the Water” and right-wing ones on the anti-welfare “Lookin’ at Tomorrow”. The cutesy toss offs “Take a Load Off Your Feet” and “Disney Girls (1957)” sit uncomfortably alongside Mike Love’s agit-prop rocker “Student Demonstration Time” (a track that irritated a lot of people, especially Brian). But a potential mess is rescued by the Brothers Wilson. The record’s ace-in-the-hole is the title song: the unfinished, intended centerpiece of SMiLE. By cobbling together a demo and backing track recorded in ’66 with newly cut passages and vocals, The Beach Boys completed a true masterpiece, dark and deep as the sea. Brian channeled his distress into the haunting, fatalistic “’Til I Die” and showed Jardine how to handle environmental concerns with dramatic gravity on “A Day in the Life of a Tree”. The record’s greatest surprise is Carl Wilson’s emergence as the band’s new guiding light. Not only did he oversee the completion of “Surf’s Up”, but he produced two superb songs of his own: the inspirational “Long Promised Road” and the spooky, psychedelic “Feel Flows”. Perhaps no other Rock record displays such disparity between its great tracks and its subpar ones, and perhaps no other Rock record remains so powerful despite that.

5. Muswell Hillbillies - The Kinks

Almost immediately after scoring their big comeback hit with “Lola”, The Kinks bid “fuck off” to Pye Records and signed to RCA. During the post-“Lola” gap they became a very different band. The intimate quartet that recorded delicacies such as Face to Face and Village Green Preservation Society expanded to include a horn section that would fully integrate into the band for subsequent performances and recordings. The Kinks certainly sound bigger on their RCA debut, Muswell Hillbillies. Beginning in near silence, opening track “Twentieth Century Man” builds to a massive squall, and the energy level rarely abates from there. The Kinks’ fascination with outdated styles of music, little town life, working class tribulations, technological paranoia, and afternoon tea still informs their music thoroughly, but the shy waver in Ray Davies’s voice is gone. That horn section further beefs up the sound with the ragtime riffs it scatters throughout “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and the funeral march thump of “Alcohol”. Even when the core Kinks go it unadorned on stuff like “Skin and Bone” and “Muswell Hillbilly”, they’re fat and fierce. A new era of sound and arrangement notwithstanding, Ray Davies’s songs are as excellent as ever: “Have a Cuppa Tea” is among his most joyous and “Oklahoma U.S.A.” is one of his prettiest. Muswell Hillbillies gets The Kinks’ RCA era off to a ripping start, yet to many fans, it was their last truly great record.

4. Ram - Paul and Linda McCartney

Someone had to take the fall for The Beatles’ breakup. The most sniveling journalists pitched their poison pens at Yoko and Linda. The rest blamed Paul. He was the first to quit and the first to release a solo record. When that record proved to be a sketchy miscalculation (didn’t he realize how the first ex-Beatle album would be scrutinized?), critics shredded it. Giddy from finally having a reason to knock a Beatle down, they greeted his second record with equal viciousness. McCartney was hurt, and justifiably so. Hearing Ram decades removed from the national-tragedy level hysteria surrounding The Beatles’ dissolution, it’s hard to see what the critics hated and impossible to miss the craftsmanship. So what if a good deal of the lyrics make no attempt at profundity? Since when was that Paulie’s objective? The tunes are his most effervescent since “The White Album”. The recording is a perfect union of Abbey Road-style invention and Let It Be-style grit. Both of those albums would have benefitted from such balance. And how could anyone dip into such a diverse dish without finding something that suits his or her fancy? McCartney is the consummate chameleon throughout, paying homage to Brian Wilson (“Back Seat of My Car”) and Buddy Holly (“Eat at Home”), playing the down-home farm boy (“Heart of the Country”) and the moonshine-mad bootlegger (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), and giving us the best Beatles song since the band’s breakup (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”). Those who criticized Ram as a cheerful exercise in style over substance chose to ignore the lacerating spite in “Dear Boy”, “3 Legs”, and the flame-throwing “Too Many People”. John Lennon didn’t. He regarded those tracks as sucker punches from his former partner (he had a point regarding “Too Many People”), and responded with the really mean “How Do You Sleep?” on Imagine. No one seemed to mind that Lennon’s record was guilty of a lot of the criticisms lumped on Ram: saccharine production and puerile lyricism (though Lennon got a pass because of his stabs at political observation and self-examination). 40 years on, one of those albums still sounds 100% fresh, and it isn’t the one on which a rich man tells us to “imagine no possessions.”

3. Stormcock - Roy Harper

There’s nothing quite like Stormcock. The only conceivable precedents are Bert Jansch’s melancholy folk and Van Morrison’s deeply personal excursions on Astral Weeks. The four epics that comprise Roy Harper’s fifth album are unparalleled in their drama and lyrical depth. You’d need a Ph.D. to decode these songs without the writer’s help. Fortunately, he has been conscientious enough to explain that the first three tracks are exposés of the rampant hypocrisy and rot in the justice system (“Hors d’ Oeuvres”), religion (“The Same Old Rock”), and our culture of violence (“One Man Rock and Roll Band”). The finale is a call for unity within and without the self (“Me and My Woman”). Harper’s words are as challenging to penetrate as Ulysses, yet their wit, cinematic descriptiveness, and sly raunch are totally accessible. In contrast to his dense lyrics, Harper’s music unravels simply. His arrangements are desert barren, often nothing more than his fluid acoustic guitar and achingly emotive voice. At times tiny details sparkle through, such as the piano on “Hors d’Oeuvres” or the Mellotron on “Me and My Woman”. Special guest Jimmy Page lays commanding acoustic leads over “The Same Old Rock”. Overall, Stormcock is quiet, but no sane person would describe it as easy listening. It is a demanding but richly rewarding expression of controlled rage and one of rock’s most unique, beautiful creations.

2. Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones

Artistically, The Rolling Stones were riding a high wave in 1971. They’d popped back from their controversial psychedelic period and the drug trials swirling around it to score huge critical and commercial smashes with the LPs Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed and the massive singles “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonky Women”. New guitarist Mick Taylor helped tighten up their sound with his elegant, weaving riffs. Getting back on the road reunified them just when they were nearest collapse. Their personal lives were a different story. The ‘60s ended with the death of Brian Jones and the tragic mess of Altamont, which cast the band as villains in the press even though they had little to do with the event’s planning and nothing to do with the Hell’s Angels' role as “security.” Hard drugs were slithering into the fold. Mick Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull nearly died from an O.D. and was drifting further and further from him. The ambivalence of their situation is all over the band’s first studio record of the ‘70s and the first on their own Rolling Stones Records imprint. “Wild Horses” conveys the push and pull of realizing a relationship is over yet not having the heart to put it to rest. “Sway” describes the undertow of self-destruction. “Moonlight Mile” is a wrenching portrait of homesickness. “Dead Flowers” is a weary junkie’s kiss off. The music is weary too. Aside from the button-pushing rockers that open each of its sides—Jagger’s offensive-for-its-own-sake “Brown Sugar” and the rabidly horny “Bitch”—this is The Stones’ slowest, quietest record. Acoustic blues and country, Western and Eastern folk are the predominant sounds. Even the electrified “Sway” and passages of the winding epic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” feel more fatigued than furious. At times the band sound as though they’ve broken down completely, as they do on the campfire blues cover “You Gotta Move” and the show-stopping “Sister Morphine”, Marianne and Mick’s terrifying account of a man who wakes up in a hospital bed after a car accident. The singer sounds utterly cracked, barely able to utter the song’s disturbing lyric. Underneath all the pain and sleaze is a thin current of fight that makes Sticky Fingers truly harrowing, and that is often attributable to the band’s most stable member. Charlie Watts’s drum fills shattering through the stupor of “Sister Morphine” and swelling through the surface of “Moonlight Mile” are beautiful, powerful moments. The Stones would soon return to their former punkiness on Exile On Main Street, but Sticky Fingers reveals a great band struggling, and as such, it is one of their most fascinating records.

1. Who’s Next - The Who

How do you follow up a career-making, genre-pioneering record like Tommy? Live albums are fine stopgaps, as Live at Leeds proved, but The Who still needed another studio release to keep the flames of their new success stoked. Pete Townshend’s solution was to outdo his first full-length rock opera with a futuristic double-L.P./stage/cinema project. Lifehouse spawned a glut of incredible songs and much head-scratching from the rest of the band. No one could quite understand what it was all about in ’71, but when Townshend finally got around to lucidly explaining the story in the liner-notes of a 2000 box-set devoted to the project, it turned out to be a freakily prescient sci-fi epic that foretold virtual reality, the Internet, and the environmental crisis that threatens our planet today. Townshend’s inability to adequately explain Lifehouse and a disastrous attempt to stage a free-floating concert of the material at the Young Vic theater in April 1971 put the project on permanent hiatus. Salvaging eight Lifehouse songs, and adding a new one by John Entwistle, the band put together Who’s Next. The album must have felt like a devastating compromise to Townshend at the time, but its success is inarguable. Their roadwork behind Tommy turned The Who into a completely different sounding, heavier, more confident band. Having veteran engineer Glyn Johns behind the board cleaned up and punched up their sound immeasurably. But the most dramatic advance on Who’s Next is Townshend’s discovery of synthesizers, which add subtle textures to “Bargain” and “The Song Is Over” and transform “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” into sparkling laser-light shows. Townshend’s writing is remarkable throughout the record, and his songs don’t really suffer from the loss of a cohesive storyline. “Baba O’Riley” does not make much sense outside of the Lifehouse concept, but the self-pity of “Behind Blue Eyes”, the soul-searching of “Bargain”, the resignation of “The Song Is Over”, the elated wanderlust of “Goin’ Mobile”, and the righteous mistrust of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” speak for themselves. Entwistle’s pile-driving “My Wife” injects the record with a dose of diabolical humor. Who’s Next is also a triumph for Roger Daltrey, who never sang better. Previously considered the band’s weak link, he brings staggering anguish to “Bargain”, majesty to “The Song Is Over”, wrenching sensitivity to “Behind Blue Eyes”. I cannot improve upon John Swenson’s description of Daltrey's scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as “a moment of pure rock transcendence.” The record’s overexposure on classic rock radio means it no longer sounds as radical as it once did, and for certain fans (such as myself) the current consensus is that The Who Sell Out is the band’s best album. But heard with fresh ears, Who’s Next is still as monumental as the monolith the guys are pissing all over on the record jacket.

Nine More Great Albums from 1971
Broken Barricades - Procol Harum
Imagine - John Lennon
Meddle - Pink Floyd
Message from the Country - The Move
Monkey Man - Toots and the Maytalls
Percy -The Kinks
There’s a Riot Going On - Sly and the Family Stone
Tupelo Honey - Van Morrison
The Yes Album - Yes
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