Friday, March 29, 2013

Psychobabble’s Thirteen Greatest Albums of 1973

The pre-punk seventies take a lot of lumps from Rock critics, but just look at what an interesting year 1973 was. Many of the sixties’ biggest stars were still doing exceptional work. For some of them, it would be the last time that statement would hold true. A new ruckus was also rising in the more outré corners of the scene with incalculably influential artists such as The Stooges and New York Dolls giving come-hither glances to the ones who would revive Rock toward the end of the decade.

13. Preservation Act I by The Kinks

Or maybe you won’t. After all, Ray Davies’s whole Preservation saga doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. The Kinky visionary had been planning to turn his masterpiece, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, into a sprawling, ambitious production with a proper storyline from its inception back in 1968. In the mid-seventies he finally brought that dream into being, though there isn’t any discernable plot in Act I. The scene is set with the wordless “Morning Song,” which wanders into “Daylight.” OK, so we’re in the Village Green. Now let’s meet some of its locals, such as the unrequited love “Sweet Lady Genevieve” and Johnny Thunder, the Rock & Roll rebel without a cause of “One of the Survivors” (the one hold over from Village Green Preservation Society). “Here Comes Flash” introduces the villain of the piece while “Sitting in the Midday Sun” lets us spend some time with the contented tramp who’ll serve as our guide. By the time we get to “Demolition” we’re only beginning to get a taste of the municipal topics that will be the plot’s main idea. Then Act I is over. Because it’s all introduction and precious little plot, Preservation Act I can focus on the things we actually want to hear on a record: good songs. And contrary to popular opinion, most of the songs on this album are excellent. The same cannot be said of two LPs worth of Act II, which gets deeper into plot and largely abandons Ray Davies’s specialty of penning perfect, concise, stand-along pop songs (of course, there are still a few terrific tracks in “Artificial Man,” “Money Talks,” and “Mirror of Love”). The poor reputation of Act I seems to stem from its failure to deliver a proper plot and its link to an inferior second act. And yes, a couple of tracks are pretty weak (particularly “Money & Corruption/I Am Your Man,” tellingly one of the few pieces that gets a bit more into plot), but how anyone cannot be moved by such beauties as “Daylight,” “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” or “Where Are They Now?” is beyond me.

12. Grand Hotel by Procol Harum

Procol Harum had undergone a major change between 1971’s Broken Barricades and 1973’s Grand Hotel when Robin Trower went solo. Losing a key member can derail a band or it can give it a fresh lease. The latter seems to be the case for Procol Harum as Grand Hotel erases many of the previous album’s issues, which included meandering music and some of Keith Reid’s most impenetrably pretentious lyrics. For some fans that got off on Procol’s Goth poetry and persona, Grand Hotel may be a little too earth bound. Songs about breaking up with a girlfriend, eating dumplings, or getting an STD are beneath the band’s usual phantasmagoric bent. Nevertheless, the tracks are all very good and the production is majestic enough to elevate a song about how awesome it is to stay in a ritzy hotel above its stupid topic. In light of the success of Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Procol continue working orchestral and choral parts into their arrangements, which provide a grandeur that balances the mundane lyricism. Towards the end, Reid gets on more familiar ground with the chilling death tale “For Liquorice John,” the futile war song “Fires (Which Burn Bright)” (with its unexpected and haunting guest vocal from Christianne Legrand), and the pain-wracked “Robert’s Box.” Extra points for getting a choir to sing a line as goofy as “TV Caesar, Mighty Mouse, gets the vote in every house.”

11. Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings

 There are few things bitter Rock critics like more than seeing an idol take a pratfall off his pedestal. When Paul McCartney started his solo career with a modest, homemade collection of knickknacks called McCartney, taking pot shots at him became the critic’s favorite sport of the seventies. Granted, a lot of his records fell well below Paul’s big talent. That he’d put out five minutes of smarmy “whoa-whoa-whoaing” called “My Love” and get a number one with it nearly justifies the hate. But some great music got lost in the anti-Paul frenzy, and the critics’ knee-jerk condemnation of RAM was totally undeserved. However, even the most blinkered critics had to reassess their stance when Paul McCartney and Wings released Band on the Run. This is one of the great pop albums of the seventies and a reminder of what Paul did so well when he was in The Beatles. He never had John Lennon’s rep for intellectualism or introspection, so pointing out the trivial lyricism isn’t really fair or relevant. Rather, Paul’s genius laid in his ability to assimilate and own a wide variety of pop forms, from the trad balladry of “Yesterday” to the skull-crushing Rock & Roll screech of “Helter Skelter.” He gets similarly eclectic on Band on the Run, often using his former band as the basis for his pastiches. The title track is a mini-Abbey Road medley. “Bluebird” revives the acoustic sounds and liberating themes of “Blackbird.” “Mamunia” revisits themes John explored in “Rain.” On “Mrs. Vanderbilt” Paul goes on a “Bungalow Bill” safari. “Helen Wheels” falls in the tradition of great McCartney rockers from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” even recalls the most far-out Beatles tracks, toying with the mantra of “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and the sound collage of “Revolution 9.” Most touchingly of all, he pays homage to his former partner’s solo career. When John Lennon, Paul’s harshest critic, gave his approval of “Let Me Roll It,” that must have validated Paul more than all the praise all the critics laid on Band on the Run.

10. Goats Head Soup by The Rolling Stones

While the critics were cutting McCartney a break, they were getting out their razors for a band that usually got a pass. In 1980, The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup got a one star—one star—review in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. That’s pretty excessive. I’ll agree that the record didn’t measure up to the Stones’ recent hot streak from Beggars Banquet to Exile, but how long can any group keep up that kind of momentum? Goats Head Soup was originally criticized for its muddy sound and the way the band seemed to be trading in legit menace for straight-up posing. Comparing the cardboard Halloween decorations of “Dancing with Mr. D.” to the epic intensity of “Sympathy for the Devil” would be like pitting Cheetah the Chimp against King Kong. So what? There is too much good stuff on Goats Head Soup to dismiss it so completely (one star!). What “Dancing with Mr. D.” lacks in convincing evil it makes up for with a gnarly riff and an enthralling Charlie Watts groove. Some of the band’s best ballads can be found here: Keith’s junkie valentine “Coming Down Again,” the neat hit “Angie,” and the spellbinding tone poem “Winter.” “Silver Train” is a first-rate Chuck Berry boogie. OK, so “Star Star” is dumb vulgarity and “Hide Your Love” is filler. “Can You Hear the Music?” is a failure to recapture the psych alchemy of Their Satanic Majesties Request, but I for one think the failure is a noble one. The overall murk is something to sink into rather than shower off. Goats Head Soup’s greatest crime is its failure to be an album as good as Beggars Banquet or Exile on Main Street. If every album were held up to such standards, there’d be a hell of a lot more one-star reviews.

9. Raw Power by The Stooges

While acolytes of Dylan and The Band were “getting it together in the country” in the late sixties, The Stooges were stuck in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was anything but a rustic retreat. In sharp contrast to the good-timing country-rock sounds of ’69, The Stooges was urban, angry, muscular, lean, and scary. So was, is, and always will be Iggy Pop. His Jim-Morrison-to-the-lewdest-extreme-persona found its ultimate expression in The Stooges’ third album. Raw Power is loud, abrasive, violent, and clawing with real menace. It also has the best songs on any Stooges record. “Search and Destroy” sets out the nihilism, directionless hostility, and loudness of punk better than any song before it. “Shake Appeal” delivers punk’s speed and “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” its hatred of your eardrums. Raw Power isn’t just unrestrained noise though. There is shade and texture too in the acoustic guitars of the seductive “Gimme Danger” and David Bowie’s tinkly electric piano on “Penetration”. “I Need Somebody” brings the tempo down to a bluesy bump and grind. In this way, Raw Power also presages punk, which was always more eclectic and creative than its ostrich-headed critics would ever admit.

8. Mott by Mott the Hoople

Like The Stooges, Mott the Hoople were Rock and Roll traditionalists at a time when progressiveness was paramount. The most glorious expression of their love of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis is their penultimate album. Bouncing off the success of “All the Young Dudes”, the David Bowie-penned title track of their previous record, they made an album of wall-to-wall material worthy of that smash hit. Bowie’s influence is very present in the album’s best tracks: “All the Way from Memphis”, “Whizz Kid”, “Honaloochie Boogie”, “Hymn for the Dudes”, “Ballad of Mott the Hoople”. Mott’s heavier leanings bully to the fore on “Violence”, a song as direct in its absurd threats as Raw Power. Unlike The Stooges (though not exactly unlike the next band on this list), Mott the Hoople was very self-aware and very witty, and Mott is early proof that punk attitude and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. “I Wish I was Your Mother” proves that attitude and aching beauty are not exclusive either.
7. New York Dolls by New York Dolls
They looked like a glam parody with their explicit cross-dressing that made Bowie and Bolan look restrained. David Johansen’s pouting and strutting and Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain’s guitar weaving suggested they could be a goof on the Stones. They quoted early-sixties girl groups, covered Bo Diddley, and sang about sanitation problems and kissing. They were so extreme in their presentation and out of step with their highfalutin times that New York Dolls were often mistaken for a straight-up joke band. When a whole generation of punks took them dead seriously, those five big-haired clowns had the last laugh. Their debut album doesn’t necessarily deliver what a rube expects to hear on a punk album. New York Dolls is groovy, funny, and almost quaint in its mythologizing of New York City’s subways, drugs, and monsters. Reducing the significance of New York Dolls to its role in inspiring punks is a huge mistake. You won’t hear historical significance when you spin it today—you’ll hear songs that will make you want to hip-check every lamp in the room, break every window, and make out with the one you love best. You’ll want to do everything the wildest Little Richard record’s make you want to do. You’ll want to rock and roll.
6. Paris 1919 by John Cale

What a shock it is for Velvet Underground cultists when they hear John Cale’s first album. From tearing off chalkboard-scraping viola drones to crafting a gushing mash note to rootsy revivalists The Band. Packaging that record with the misleading title Vintage Violence and a disturbing sleeve on which Cale looks like a masked serial killer was a cheeky move, but it was no prank. Cale’s third album is even more polished, with clear nods to such consummate pop craftsmen as Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. Paris 1919 is the album for people who thought White Light/White Heat was too scary, yet hints of the artist’s less accessible tendencies are still evident in a thick Welsh accent that regularly skirts its intended notes and disturbed lyrics like “Ten murdered oranges bled on board a ship lend comedy to shame.” Cale kicks up some dust on the glammy “Macbeth,” but the rest of Paris 1919 is elegant, if unrestful. The lovely “Hank Panky Nohow” is an expression of religious paranoia. The floating “Andalucia” is an aching tale of unrequited love. The chamber pop title track is about the unresolved resolution of World War I. Paris 1919 is a Band on the Run for the angsty intellectual.

5. Innervisions by Stevie Wonder

On Innervisions Stevie Wonder landed on the perfect middle ground between the lengthy experiments of Music of My Mind and the sharper pop sensibilities of Talking Book. While there isn’t a hit here as exhilarating as “Superstition” or a ballad as perfect as “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” the consistency will still knock you back a stride. Only “All In Love Is Fair” is a bit of a sappy misstep. Otherwise, Innervisions puts all of Stevie’s strengths on display: his fusion (“Too High”) and hard funk (“Higher Ground”), his way with a psychedelic landscape (“Visions”), his pop (“He’s Misstra Know It All”) and Latin (“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”) leanings. The record is also a huge leap forward for his lyrical and formal skills as he moves away from the mystical love songs that dominated his last few discs to dig into an anti-drug PSA, a criticism of the Nixon administration (his first, not his final), and in one of his most perfect and ambitious creations, racism in the American justice system. Innervisions would be a great album if it only contained seven high-drama minutes of “Living for the City.” That Stevie made this intricate recording, a veritable aural movie, as a one-man band makes it an almost unfair flaunting of talent. Shit, if I had talent like that, I’d be flaunting it too.

4. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

After Syd Barrett drifted off, Pink Floyd made some interesting records, but they often seemed more like sketch books than fully realized statements. While Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and to a certain degree, the mostly Syd-less A Saucerful of Secrets, were wholly satisfying, records such as Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother were basically experiments. The more potentially focused Meddle lost the plot with the long, boring “Echoes” wasting space on Side B. More and Obscured by Clouds had a lot of good songs, but their roles as movie soundtracks made a good share of filler excusable. However, Pink Floyd was working toward something this whole time, and something very different from their Syd-era successes. In 1973, all of their meandering sound experiments stopped meandering; all of their formless musical ideas found form. They were richly rewarded when The Dark Side of the Moon became the biggest album in the solar system. This is a pretty strange record to achieve such popularity. It’s almost more like a movie than an album, with its orienting and disorienting sound effects, its thematic unity, its carefully organized moods, and its seamlessness. Or maybe it’s more like an album than any other album. When all is said and done, Sgt. Pepper’s and Tommy work because they are collections of great songs, not because they’re “concept albums” or “Rock operas.” You could isolate, say, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Pinball Wizard,” and they still make great pop singles. Singles were pulled from Dark Side, but the album really needs to be heard as a single piece to get it, to hear how the chilling “On the Run” or the devastating “Great Gig in the Sky” function in the whole. Not that Dark Side doesn’t have great stand-alone songs. “Breathe,” “Time,” “Us and Them,” and “Money” are some of the band’s best, but even those need their surroundings to be fully effective. In essence, The Dark Side of the Moon is such a great and greatly appreciated album because it makes the most of its medium, it is wholly and completely an album while most others are collections of singles.

3. Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

While Pink Floyd was getting deeper into conceptualism in 1973, the conceptualist David Bowie was flushing out his system with one of the year’s best collections of singles. On the platform heels of his space opera Ziggy Stardust, Bowie abandoned storyline and toughened up his Rock & Roll to make the totally exciting Aladdin Sane. Blowing out of the wings with one his best Stones tributes, “Watch That Man,” Bowie never lets up the intensity. The title track is both noodly and taut, creepy and gorgeous. He pumps amphetamines into “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” makes “Drive In Saturday” the snakiest, sexiest fifties pastiche of all-time, and turns your head into a lottery hopper on the Diddley-esque “Panic in Detroit.” Bowie works similar magic on the blues with “Cracked Actor” and “The Jean Genie.” Much of the record’s intensity steams off the unprecedented level of creative sex. A year after Jagger complained about impotence on “Rock’s Off,” Bowie was more than happy to take the phallic torch and thrust it into the future. On “Drive In Saturday,” he eulogizes the old idol, playing the part of a post-apocalyptic being who gets his mojo back watching old pornos and videos of a young Mick at work. He updates “Let’s Spend the Night Together” with additions more explicit than the Stones offered in ’67. Elsewhere are unfiltered references to blowjobs, wanking, and picking up tricks, but it’s mostly celebratory and never sleazy. Aladdin Sane is a great big, pansexual fuck fest, a Rocky Horror Show without the defusing irony, a record made for hip shaking and pelvic thrusting. For my money, it’s Bowie’s best.

2. Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin

Houses of the Holy tends to get overshadowed by Led Zeppelin’s pummeling debut, their classic-riddled fourth album, and the glut of treasures on two discs of Physical Graffiti. But if I was going to play a non-fan his or her first Zep album, I’d reach for Houses of the Holy. While so many of the band’s albums are forged in greys and blacks, Houses is totally Technicolor. Only with the Floydian keyboard drones of “No Quarter” does the band fall back on their brooding menace. Otherwise, the album is playful as a puppy. Maybe that’s not what you want from your heavy metal bands, but calling Led Zeppelin a heavy metal band is as reductive as calling The Beatles a Mersey Beat group. Led Zeppelin were always a lot more eclectic than that, and that eclecticism gets full airing on their fifth album. We bounce from the jangly gallop of “The Song Remains the Same” to the show-stopping romance of “The Rain Song” to the Ren-Faire folk/metal fusion of “Over the Hills and Far Away” to the freaky funk parody “The Crunge” to the seasonal pop exuberance of “Dancing Days” to the daffy reggae “D’yer Mak’er” to the sinister “No Quarter” to the classic Zep riffing of “The Ocean.” No two moods are alike. Though a couple of these tracks are throwaways, only the plodding and overlong “D’yer Mak’er” doesn’t really work. Everything else is a smash, and Zeppelin sound like they had a blast making such varied, effervescent music. They made records that were weightier, scarier, and more serious. Led Zeppelin is known for all those things. They are not, however, usually thought of as fun. Houses of the Holy demonstrates otherwise.

1. Quadrophenia by The Who

We’ve seen quite a stew of music in 1973: the loose conceptualism of Preservation Act I, the grandeur of Grand Hotel, the immersive murk of Goats Head Soup, the craftsmanship of Band on the Run and Paris 1919, the synthesized futurism of Innervisions, the intensity of Aladdin Sane, the pure album-ness of The Dark Side of the Moon. All of those raw elements coalesce on the year’s defining record. Its topic, however, spins the clock back a decade to a time when gangs of nattily attired Mods roamed the Earth. In truth, the Mod angle is just window dressing, an excuse for Pete Townshend to reexamine his favorite themes: youth, identity, individuality, and spirituality. As has often been said, the sprawling and complex Quadrophenia couldn’t sound less like the lean R&B the Mods fancied. Although the songs are generally more accessible and work better on their own than the ones on Dark Side of the Moon, Quadrophenia is denser and requires more work to get into and digest. But don’t let that deter you, because it is rewarding work. Jimmy the Mod’s journey is all our journeys: sorting out who we is and what we believe. Consequently, Quadrophenia is The Who’s most emotionally engaging and human concept even as the banks of synthesizers lend it all a sci-fi quality. Sift through the synths and uncover an embarrassment of wonderful songs: “The Punk and the Godfather,” “I’m One,” “The Dirty Jobs,” “5:15,” “Drowned, “Bell Boy,” “Love Reign O’er Me.” Quadrophenia has often been described as more of a Pete Townshend solo album than a proper Who record, but everyone makes tremendous contributions. Roger’s performance has sometimes been criticized as tone-deaf bluster. His nuanced readings of “Love Reign O’er Me,” “Doctor Jimmy,” “Is It in My Head,” “I’ve Had Enough,” and “Sea and Sand” annihilate that complaint. Keith Moon’s drumming is at its stormiest, and on “Bell Boy” he turns in a vocal that could actually be called sensitive. The MVP is John Entwistle, who painstakingly overdubbed the brass parts and whose bass playing finally achieves the full expressiveness on record he always allowed it on stage. If Quadrophenia lacks one thing, it’s fun, which is why I’ll never spin it as much as Sell Out or A Quick One or even Who’s Next. It is a record that demands time and attention and a particular mood. But it has never been bettered as proof of something Pete Townshend was telling us since the beginning of his career: Rock & Roll can be serious art. 

Seven More Great Albums from 1973

Close to the Edge by Yes

Hard Nose the Highway by Van Morrison

Holland by The Beach Boys

Lark’s Tongue in Aspic by King Crimson

Pin Ups by David Bowie

The Wicker Man Original Soundtrack

The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle by Bruce Springsteen

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