Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Psychobabble's Eleven Greatest Albums of 1972

‘60s fashions were nothing but a speck in the rearview by 1972. Nothing but open, earth-toned road laid ahead, and the most important artists of the decade were coming into their own, while the previous decade’s leaders were still capable of spinning out essential works… perhaps for the last time. The glam and the funk, reggae and the power-pop revival touch down, transformers and exiles, pink moons and stardust. These are Psychobabble’s eleven greatest albums of 1972.

11. Transformer by Lou Reed

So Doug Yule still had Squeeze in the pipeline, but everyone knows The Velvet Underground ceased to be as soon as Lou Reed shrugged it off. He quickly signed with RCA for the inevitable solo career, releasing an eponymous debut that suggested he’d lost the focus that made each of his four Velvets albums totally unique and totally masterful. Short on new material, he’d recycled a bunch of songs the Velvets didn’t release but recorded to far greater effect. Apparently, Reed was an artist who required strong collaborators. Enter superfan and superman David Bowie. The product of their collaboration is Transformer. The title implies that Bowie tried to remold Reed as a chameleon-like glam-slammer in his own image. The record definitely has more reptilian sinew than the flaccid Lou Reed, but it isn’t dolled up with the celestial spangles of Bowie’s recent work either. “Make Up” is the only track that lazily panders to glam dress-ups. Otherwise, Transformer stinks of NYC as much as any of the earthy Velvet Underground records did. The city won a new anthem and Reed gave himself a new signature with the jazzy, journalistic “Walk on the Wild Side”. “Vicious” and “Hangin’ ‘Round” are tough rockers that counterpoint lush ballads like “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love”. The record loses some steam towards the end (the soul choir on “Wagon Wheel” succumbs to the corniness it totally side-stepped on “Wild Side”), but the classics that make up the bulk of Transformer are the best tracks of Reed’s solo career.

10. The Slider by T. Rex

Marc Bolan emerged from his psychedelic-folk cocoon as a glam titan when he released Electric Warrior in 1971. With that, the former Tyrannosaurus Rex magically became one of the biggest acts of the ‘70s… and one of the most ‘70s acts of the ‘70s. Facile but utterly magnetic, T. Rex continued the steely attack and stream of nonsense on The Slider. Bolan drops some grand doozies throughout the record: “Just like a silver-studded, sabre-tooth dream,” “She’s a Chevy Chase cheetah,” “The cosmic sea was like a bumblebee,” “Mice eye, dog pie, eagle on the wind.” Once again he dives into fifteen years of Rock & Roll clichés and soups them up like restored hot rods. “Metal Guru”, “Baby Boomerang”, “Rabbit Fighter”, “Main Man”, and “Mystic Lady” are ‘50s gestures draped in silver lame. Bolan isn’t stuck in the past, though. He surveys the current landscape to give it his own distinctively cherubic spin. “Buick Mackane” rivals Led Zeppelin for heavy-duty funk. He tosses respectful nods to John Lennon and Bob Dylan à la Bowie’s Hunky Dory on “Ballrooms of Mars”. He even pays tribute to himself by revamping his biggest international hit, “Get It On”, as the sublime “Telegram Sam”. The Slider is a party from start to finish, though there are some unwelcome guests: shady politicians, cruel boyfriends, yappy monsters. But none of them disrupt the joyful junk, because Bolan knew that when sad, the best thing to do is slide.

9. Everybody’s in Showbiz, Everybody’s a Star by The Kinks

From Face to Face through Muswell Hillbillies, The Kinks skated on a hot streak few other bands could ever hope to achieve. It was bound to break eventually. Everybody’s in Showbiz, Everybody’s a Star was not in the same league as Something Else or Village Green Preservation Society. Ray Davies seems a bit weary, a bit running low on ideas. The rock-band-on-tour concept was certainly in keeping with the obsessions of the band that made Lola Vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, but non-stop gripes about bad food don’t bite as hard as attacks on a corrupt record industry. Still, it’s a pretty great record. The concept has its roots in a tour film that never came to be. Ray’s soundtrack focused on the things that annoyed him about road travel: the monotony, the phoniness, the suffocating hotel rooms, and the shitty food. While the lyrics aren’t always his strongest, the music is a fab extension of the big-band embellished Muswell Hillbillies. The hard-rocking “Here Comes Yet Another Day” is a perfect concert opener. “Sitting in my Hotel” is a classic Davies gut-wrencher decorated with regal, Beatlesque brass. “You Don’t Know My Name” is another firm tug at the heart intensified by Dave Davies’s trademark ragged yowl and a snaky riff. A welcome shift in tone slips in toward the end of the album, when Ray finds some solace and escape in the exhilarating calypso “Supersonic Rocket Ship” and succumbs to a self-enforced attitude adjustment on “Look a Little on the Sunnyside”. Then the masterpiece. Even if the preceding tracks hadn’t been as good as they are, Everybody’s in Showbiz would still be essential listening for “Celluloid Heroes”. Ray’s nostalgic trek down Hollywood Boulevard leaves the listener with a lump in the throat. His voice has never been more fragile, his empathy never more tender. “Celluloid Heroes” easily ranks alongside “Waterloo Sunset”, “Days”, and “Animal Farm” as one of Ray’s most beautiful songs and performances. But wait… the show isn’t over yet. Everybody’s in Showbiz continues rolling on a live second disc, which cleverly illustrates the other side of rock touring with funny, loose performances of recent classics like “Lola” and “Brainwashed” and nostalgic items like “Baby Face” and “Mr. Wonderful” that take on an odd poignancy in light of “Celluloid Heroes”.

8. Fragile by Yes

Prog rock put a lot of asses in stadium seats in the ‘70s, but a disgruntled underground of future-punks would soon render the genre obsolete and leave it forever classified as self-indulgent, soulless, and embarrassing in the Rock & Roll history books. While the punks were welcome antidotes to an increasingly turgid scene, their complete dismissal of prog wasn’t entirely fair. Take the genre’s poster boys. Yes’s songs were long, their lyrics willfully abstract, their playing and structures showy. But so what? Listen to their finest record, Fragile, with fresh ears. You don’t need a doctorate in Euclidean geometry to get sucked into the hard and dirty “South Side of the Sky” or a powdered wig to appreciate the baroque beauty of “Mood for a Day”. The punks could have learned a thing or two from the ferocious, blazingly fast riffs that ignite “Heart of the Sunrise”. And while bands like Genesis and King Crimson seemed to value intellect above all else, Yes knew their way around a pop hook, as the classic singles “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround” attest. They were also capable of scaling back their widescreen vision to make room for pithy showpieces for each band member that link the longer tracks nicely. Fragile proves a little indulgence isn’t always a bad thing…

7. Pink Moon by Nick Drake

…but sometimes simplicity makes the sharpest point of all. Nick Drake’s second L.P., Bryter Layter, was a magnificent production, but the timid singer sometimes seemed lost amidst all the horns, backing singers, keyboards, and strings. Drake lost all but his voice and acoustic guitar on his final album. Pink Moon is stark, its delicacy giving it an undeniable power. The quieter Drake sings, the more methodically he plucks his guitar, the deeper his songs cut. Absorb “Road”, which even reduces his poetry to a couple of sparse phrases. It is a haunting, halting performance. Drake rarely makes his dark mood explicit (the bare-faced self-loathing of “Parasite” is a rare exception). He never, ever over emotes. Yet his whispers are screams, his finger picking as weighty as the most eardrum-busting power chord. He clearly did not set out to draw attention to the soul-wracking pain he was feeling when he casually recorded Pink Moon in a just two, two-hour sessions, but it is palpable in every groove on the record. Even the awestruck title track huddles beneath clouds of mumbled melancholy. Those familiar with Drake’s tragic trajectory may read even deeper into the sadness inside his final album. But even if he had not died of assumed suicide, Pink Moon would still be a harrowing, heartbreaking experience.

6. The Harder They Come by Various Artists

Many audiences throughout the world had no idea what they were hearing when they first saw The Harder They Come on the early-‘70s midnight movie circuit. Hard to believe as it may now be, there was a time when reggae was new and exotic outside Jamaica. Perry Henzell’s film exposed that music to droves of new listeners. Before long, everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Rolling Stones to The Police to The Clash was working reggae sounds into their music. The film’s soundtrack mostly consisted of old tracks, but they were so new to so many people that the record is as fresh and 1972-essential as anything actually recorded that year. The film’s star, Jimmy Cliff, holds the proceedings together, flaunting reggae’s diversity by sampling its exuberance (“You Can Get It If You Really Want”), its toughness (the magnificent title track, which is the only one recorded specifically for the film), and its soulfulness (“Sitting in Limbo”). He also gets off one breathtaking non-reggae track with the gospel mission statement “Many Rivers to Cross”. Cliff is joined by a brilliant selection of classics from genre giants such as The Melodians, Desmond Decker, and Toots and the Maytals, who hijack both the film and its soundtrack with their double-strike of “Pressure Drop” and the transcendentally happy “Sweet and Dandy”. Short on material, Island pulled the questionable trick of repeating “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “The Harder They Come” at the end of the album. But these tracks are so glorious you won’t mind hearing them a second time.

5. Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

After close to a decade of delivering hits to Motown, Stevie Wonder finally won complete artistic freedom in 1971. Like his label mate, Marvin Gaye, Wonder used this opportunity to fashion a personal, visionary brand of soul radically different from his ‘60s hits. On Where I’m Coming From and Music of My Mind, he reached into unexplored territories with expansive songs largely recorded as a one-man-band. However, the songs weren’t always his most well thought-out. On Talking Book, Wonder tightened up his compositions and focused his experiments. If the results aren’t his best album (a case could also be made for Innervisions or Songs in the Key of Life), it’s certainly his most accessible of the ‘70s. As was his way, even the most radio-friendly tracks take unexpected detours. The #1 hit and smoochy standard “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” gets underway with guest vocals from James Gilstrap and Lani Groves. Where’s Wonder? Well, once he steps in to take over, anticipation spills into euphoria. The light samba kicks into top gear. Wonder can’t hold back a tickled giggle, and neither can we as we get drawn into his world, a world where love knows no shame and legs were made to shimmy. Has there ever been a more existentially funky rhythm than the clavinet line he conjures like some Detroit sorcerer on “Superstition”? “Maybe Your Baby” slows the funk down to a muddy grind, getting just as deeply under the skin. “You and I” and “Looking for Another Pure Love”, with its swoony Jeff Beck guitar solo, are psychedelic ballads that float beyond the stratosphere. Then earthly passion and romantic transcendence fuse on “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”, a hypnotic finale that ranks with “God Only Knows” and “In My Life” as one of the great love songs. Wonder’s most outré tendencies would soon get a second wind on Innervisions, but Talking Book is the man’s most perfect balance between accessibility and invention.

4. #1 Record by Big Star

With groups like Yes and Led Zeppelin ruling the mainstream, the early-‘70s rock scene was decidedly in the thrall of post-Sgt. Pepper’s progressive indulgence. The backlash bubbling in the underground ruled by The Stooges and The New York Dolls took its inspiration from radically regressive American garage rockers like Question Mark & the Mysterians and The Sonics. Yet few new bands seemed to be drawing on the middle ground between these two movements; the cleaner yet aggressive mid-'60s power-pop of The Who and The Kinks. Even The Who and The Kinks sounded almost nothing like they did in ‘65/’66. These sounds would make a resounding comeback in a few years with the arrival of The Jam, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Cheap Trick, and the rest. In 1972, there were far fewer power-pop torch holders. There was The Raspberries, and the even better Big Star. Although co-frontman Alex Chilton had achieved some fame with The Box Tops in the ‘60s, Big Star was virtually unknown during their time. Today, they are cult legends, partially because their music has aged so beautifully. Great as Yes and Led Zeppelin could be, their music is tightly tied to ‘70s fashions. Big Star’s unpretentious power pop is timeless. So are Chilton and Bell’s ragged small-town sentimentality, which presages the obsessions of Springsteen and Tom Petty. Tracks like “Feel”, “In the Street”, and “Thirteen” are disarmingly plainspoken odes to teenage loserdom. Hanging out and getting high on the street, spinning “Paint It Black” over and over as a desperate stab at rebellion, dreaming of traveling to more exotic places than the Memphis suburbs to “drink gin and tonic and play a grand piano,” finding a bit of solace with a first girlfriend. This stuff is a lot more relatable to teens than battling druids or orgying with groupies or any of the other rubbish Robert Plant screeched about. Critics loved the record, but poor label support guaranteed it never went to #1. After the similar Radio City and the breakdown document Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star burnt out. The inspiration they passed on to the like-minded power-poppers queuing up behind them still shines on.

3. Saint Dominic’s Preview by Van Morrison

By 1972, the exploratory epic Astral Weeks was looking like a real anomaly in Van Morrison’s career. Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, and Tupelo Honey were as soulful and committed as ever, but their tightly constructed songs were nothing like the freeform excursions of Astral Weeks. Considering the mercurial and defiant path Van Morrison always followed, it’s surprising it took him so long to get back into insular improvisations, but he eventually did with Saint Dominic’s Preview. Morrison cons the listener into thinking he has another Moondance on deck by opening the record with a compact, deliciously digestible trio of R&B-pop led by the exuberant single “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”. Then Van the curmudgeon slams down the mic, stomps off stage. In walks the lion to growl, howl, and snarl for eleven spellbinding minutes. The band follows along dutifully and instinctively, rising and falling in accordance with every bellow Morrison pushes out of his guts. The poetry of Astral Weeks hasn’t quite returned. The untamed emotion is back like a full force gale. The title track is not as mysterious as “Listen to the Lion”, but it too takes its time to get deep into a feeling, set a scene, stir the soul. “Redwood Tree” is a brief return to the tidy rhythm and blues that began Saint Dominic’s Preview. Then Van is back on the mountain, sermonizing cryptically over otherworldly backing, a synthesizer glowing through the darkness like a beacon across the sea. Van sings that it’s “Almost Independence Day,” but independence has definitely arrived already. He’s had his hits, and that was fine, but the untethered artist has returned, and he’d continue roaring across a new string of fascinating personal statements, never allowing listeners to predict his next move again.

2. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

David Bowie really became David Bowie with 1971’s Hunky Dory, sustaining his signature eclecticism across an entire L.P. for the first time and mapping out his shape-shifting modus operandi with the anthem “Changes”. By his next album, he was already done with being David Bowie. The singer assumes his first iconic persona: the decadent, suicidal alien Rock star Ziggy Stardust. Like all great rock operas or concept albums or whatever The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is, greatness lies not in some vaguely sketched plot but in the wonderful songs that relate it. Bowie’s ruminations on extraterrestrials and celebrity drama don’t stick as securely as the superb songs and performances that house them. He gets the right backing with the Spiders from Mars, a mighty and unique band led by sci-fi guitarist extraordinaire Mick Ronson. Bowie’s rockers are amazingly sharp, whether thundering (“Moonage Daydream”), boogying (“Suffragette City”), slashing (“Ziggy Stardust”), or sliding on a slick of sleaze (“Hang on to Yourself”). His ballads are dramatic without flitting toward the show-tuney lightness of his earlier records. In their own ways, “Five Years”, “Lady Stardust”, and “Rock and Roll Suicide” are just as forceful as the up-tempo numbers. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars solidified Bowie’s cred by supplying an ace reservoir material for the concerts that proved his florid dramatic ambitions could meld with throat-throttling Rock & Roll seamlessly. Bowie had a lot more spectacular albums up his unitard’s single sleeve, but his greatest is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

1. Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

We’ve seen a lot of reinvention 1972, when Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, and David Bowie dragged their art into thrilling new places. There’s nothing so radical on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The album spewed out the same kind of mucky Rock & Roll The Stones had been rolling in since hooking up with producer Jimmy Miller back in 1968. There’s just a hell of a lot more of it this time. Exile sprawls across two records, but it isn’t an epic poem like Blonde on Blonde, a wild hodgepodge like “The White Album”, or a hefty concept like Tommy. It’s a deep, dark mire. The real value of the album often cited as The Stones’ greatest is that Exile on Main Street provides one big opportunity to sink into their dirty world, to let the stink of late night jams and smack addled idleness engulf you. Miller’s dense production creates a “you are there” vibe, which is probably a lot more appealing to most folks than the prospect of actually attending the legendarily decadent and difficult recording sessions. A lot has been made of the sessions that took place in Keith’s villa in the south of France while the boys were ducking Britain’s taxman. Those sessions may have given the album’s mythology some extra juice, but a good chunk of Exile on Main Street was cut in Los Angeles. Regardless of which track was cut where, everything hangs together remarkably. In fact, it may take you several listens for the individual numbers to really peak out of the gunk. Once that happens, you will find yourself stuck with a bunch of new friends kicking around inside your brain, refusing to go home and drinking all your whiskey. The lazy lover with the uncooperative equipment of “Rocks Off” is trying to get off with some girl in your bed. The incorrigible gambler of “Tumbling Dice” commandeers the kitchen table for an all-night poker game. The loveable lay-about of “Happy” is sleeping one off on the hallway floor. Sweet Virginia’s in the bathroom shooting up. The drunk is out back shouting up to his angry ex, begging her to come on down and give him just one more drink from her Loving Cup. The construction worker is heading out the door to get toiling down the line. The ruffians of “Rip This Joint” are smashing bottles against the living-room wall. The grizzled rockers of “Torn & Frayed” are jamming in the den. Exile on Main Street is filthy and full of holes, and there are just too many damn people milling about in it. But isn’t all that what makes it a Rock & Roll monument and the best fucking record of 1972?

Eleven More Great Albums from 1972
Carl and the Passions—So Tough by The Beach Boys
Clear Spot by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey by Bruce Springsteen
Honky Chateau by Elton John
Live in Concert with the Edmonton Orchestra by Procol Harum
Music of My Mind by Stevie Wonder
Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd
Still Bill by Bill Withers
Superfly by Curtis Mayfield
Whistle Rhymes by John Entwistle
Who Came First by Pete Townshend
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