Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975

The seventies really hit its doldrums at the midpoint. Many of the decade’s best artists either sat out 1975 (such as the Stones, who were officially past their due date anyway) or produced mediocre work. David Bowie created a great title track and little else for Young Americans. Pink Floyd was never as boring as their critics charged they were…at least until putting out the overrated Wish You Were Here. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” would have seemed endless even if it hadn’t appeared on the album twice. Some of the year’s most popular discs—Fleetwood Mac and Dreamboat Annie, for instance— contained a few good buoys floating in a sea of filler. A lot of the year’s best albums were merely good, though there were a few genuinely fabulous ones tucked in there too. So without further shoulder shrugging, here’s the good and the great, a teeth-pulling effort I’m forced to call Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975… or Come on, Ramones, Quit Dragging Your Converse All-Stars and Save Us Already!

10. Venus and Mars by Wings

The critics started getting kinder to Paul McCartney when he released Band on the Run, a collection of well-crafted, well-produced, well-played songs. Although that record was credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, it was his most solitary album since his one-man-band debut. Credited just to Wings, his follow up was his most collaborative to date and the first convincing evidence that Wings was more than a reaction against Paul’s control-freak reputation. His relinquishing of some control actually means Venus and Mars isn’t as strong as Band on the Run. The only song the band’s acknowledged leader didn’t write was Jimmy McCulloch’s so-so bluesy rocker, “Medicine Jar”. Paul handed his own “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” to Denny Laine, leaving that dedicated sideman to sing its idiotic lyrics. More conscientiously he handled the album’s worst offense, the saccharine and patronizing “Treat Her Gently”, himself. Much of the rest of the album rates among Wings’ best. The title track is a mysterious and tuneful prelude to the arena-quaking “Rock Show”. “Love in Song” is alluringly eerie. “You Gave Me the Answer” is a pleasing revival of Paul’s fascination with quaint pre-Rock & Roll pop. The comic booking “Magneto and Titanium Man” is silly fun. “Listen to What the Man Said” is a catchy single with bubbly sax work from legit jazzman Tom Scott, and the soulful “Call Me Back Again” is one of the finest artifacts of the Wings years.

9. Slow Dazzle by John Cale

Between his twin pop masterpieces Paris 1919 / Fear and Helen of Troy, a calculated emotional-meltdown record (he appears in a straight jacket on the cover…subtle) John Cale made Slow Dazzle, which bridges those two phases. On the one hand, you have polished pop such as “Taking It All Away”, “Ski Patrol”, and “I’m Not the Loving Kind”; on the other you have the sheer insanity of the gory, scatological “Guts”, a mannered “I’m co-raaaazy!” cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and “The Jeweler”, a spoken word nightmare about vagina eyes. Somewhere in the middle is “Mr. Wilson” a plea to Brian that freaked out King Beach Boy despite being a rather majestic piece of art, and “Darling I Need You”, a bubblegum stroll about a girlfriend who runs off to join the Snake Handlers. Inconsistency is an issue with Slow Dazzle, which has as much trouble keeping its quality straight as its sanity, but when the record is at its best (“Mr. Wilson”, “Guts”, “Taking It All Away”,  “I’m Not the Loving Kind”), it’s further proof that Cale had the most enduring talent of any ex-Velvet.

8. Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith

The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are among Rock & Roll’s grandest poseurs, heisting the acts (and in Zep’s case, songs) of legit blues and soul artists and sprinting all the way to the bank. That doesn’t mean they weren’t awesome. Making their career by ripping off the Stones and Zeppelin, Aerosmith were never awesome, but they certainly fool me into thinking they are with Toys in the Attic. Turn off your inner critic (and your ability to comprehend lyrics) and you’ll have a hard time not getting duped by the sleazy, bluesy “Uncle Salty”, boogying “Big Ten Inch Record”, jangly “No More No More”, and chugging “Adam’s Apple”. One need not fool oneself to dig the album’s two great singles—proto white-boy rap “Walk This Way” and heavy undertow discharger “Sweet Emotion”. One would have to be comatose to not go a bit crazy when blasted with the title track, which is probably the punkest thing on any of this list’s albums.

7. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John

Perhaps no one was as sure handed with a pop single as Elton John in the early seventies, but with rare exception (Tumbleweed Connection; Honky Châteua), his albums were uneven. Even his most championed LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, is about one-third disposable. Well, writing pop classics isn’t always easy, as Bernie Taupin makes clear on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, not because the songs aren’t good—this is definitely one of his and Elton’s strongest collections—but because those songs chronicle the tribulations of becoming the decade’s most popular songwriting team. John and Taupin were always at their strongest when working with a concept, which is why the Old West-themed Tumbleweed Connection is their best album. Captain Fantastic is easily their second best, detailing their rise from poverty (the title track, “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows”, the wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Better off Dead”) through the arduous process of penning hits (“Bitter Fingers”, “Writing”) and trying to get some attention for their hard work (“Meal Ticket”). The album’s glorious centerpiece, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, gets even more personal as Elton frees himself from a dishonest and likely disastrous heterosexual engagement and resolves to commit to his homosexuality and his dreams of pop stardom. It is grand hits such as this that make all the work he and Bernie detail on this album worthwhile.

6. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan

Like the next artist on this list, Bob Dylan made his most important album of the seventies to unload grief, but if he never sounds as wrenched as Neil Young, it’s because he was only mourning a relationship. He also preferred to allow his words to do all the work. That’s a slight issue with Blood on the Tracks, which might have sat even closer to this list’s number-one spot if Dylan’s band worked a bit harder. Their lackadaisical backing makes the epics “Idiot Wind” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” more boring than they should be, but it also allows Dylan’s lyrics to float to the surface, and they are his most imaginative and personal since Blonde on Blonde. When collaboration is not an issue, Dylan carries the full load with spellbinding intensity (“Simple Twist of Fate”) and tear-jerking beauty (“Shelter from the Storm”, “Buckets of Rain”). “Tangled Up in Blue” is such a good song he could have recorded it with a quartet of kazoo players and it would still be a classic. 

5. Tonight’s the Night by Neil Young

Tonight’s the Night is a blood-letting record in the tradition of Plastic Ono Band, though while Lennon shook out his bad vibes by screaming his fucking head off through some pretty punky (and sometimes very pretty) tracks, Young keeps the mood dusky throughout even when he sounds like he is about to weep or vomit with grief. He had much to grieve over when cutting this unsettling album. He’d recently lost two friends—bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry—to drug overdoses, and references to those tragedies give the album its cracked focus. Young is too much of a craftsman to allow his pain to carry the show, and as ramshackle as Tonight’s the Night sounds, its songs are as sturdy as those on any of the guy’s records. While there is an overall sense that thunderheads are gathering, the structures below are hardly uniform. Young stumbles from the after hours piano blues of “Speakin’ Out” to the sure-footed country thump of “World on a String” to “Borrowed Tune”, a delicate ballad in the tradition of “Birds” and “After the Gold Rush”, to the rocking “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and beyond.

4. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

It wouldn’t be fair to say Born to Run came out of nowhere. Springsteen started strongly with Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, and really found himself with the superb The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle. Born to Run really just continues that upward arch, yet there’s something happening with this record that makes it feel like an unexpected rocket blast to the moon. Perhaps it’s the genius of using Spector’s Wall of Sound as a mold to shape his latest batch of material. Perhaps it’s the excellence of that material, or the giddiness with which Boss and band perform it. This certainly isn’t innovative music, not with the clear references to Spector, Van Morrison (whom Springsteen expertly mimics on the bridge of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”), Dylan, Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Holly. Yet by leaning on those grass roots influences, by apparently spinning Meet the Beatles more often than Sgt. Pepper’s, Springsteen really did as much to pull Rock & Roll away from the artistes as the punks, a lot of whom probably considered him hopelessly uncool (though Joey Ramone was a huge fan). Born to Run still isn’t exactly a cool album, but that’s only because shouting about how deeply in love you are, giggling while escaping your rut, and not wasting a second on calculated cynicism have never been cool.

3. Horses by Patti Smith

There’s nothing about Patti Smith’s status as the creator of the punk era’s first album that makes sense. Punk was all about no bullshit blasts of high-speed venom. Patti’s songs are long, noodly, and audaciously pretentious in their fusion of garage rock and Rimbaud-worshipping poetry. The punks were anathema to old-timer Rock critics. Patti had been a critic obsessed with old timers like Dylan and Keef. The punks were barely out of their teens; Patti was pushing thirty when Horses came out in late 1975. But what else is that album but a signpost that things were changing? The Stones thought they were pushing boundaries with the ham-fisted shocks of “Brown Sugar” and “Star Star”. They didn’t dare take it to the level of “Land”, a terrifying flight of fancy in which a high school boy leaves his body and floats to a paradise where “Land of 1,000 Dances” plays on repeat while his school mates rape him. If there’s another image that explains the transcendent powers of Rock & Roll more vividly and accurately, I have no idea what it is. And what is punk but a recapturing of Rock & Roll’s purest powers? Patti captures those powers throughout Horses: disturbingly with “Land”, joyously with “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly”, furiously with “Free Money”, ecstatically with “Break It Up”. Everyone loves to blab about how many people started bands after hearing The Velvet Underground & Nico. But I wonder how many started them after hearing Horses?

2. The Who by Numbers by The Who

In his autobiography, Pete Townshend claims he wasn’t particularly down in the dumps in 1975, it’s just that Roger Daltrey selected his most morose new material to sing, resulting in an album that has often been likened to a suicide note. That may be true, but it’s really hard to not think the man was teetering on the edge when listening to The Who By Numbers. Song after song, Townshend rages about his own perceived irrelevance, inability to write anything new, hypocrisy, desperation, and alcoholism. In the context of this harrowing material, the sing songy sex-joke “Squeeze Box” comes off as the ultimate act of cynicism; Townshend’s idea of what is required to get a hit single. The Who by Numbers is bleak, indeed, but it is also exhilarating because the band plays it with amazing intensity. Keith Moon thunders with all his facilities intact for the last time. John Entwistle had never been so brilliant in the studio, nor would he ever be again, transforming tracks such as “However Much I Booze” and “Dreaming from the Waist” into gob-smacking showcases for his unparalleled musicianship. His “Success Story” contributes to the album’s concept as integrally as “Fiddle About” and “Cousin Kevin” did to Tommy’s. Daltrey’s singing is confident throughout, using his full range to express all of the anger, self-pity, and defiance of Townshend’s lyrics, even if a lot of critics dismissed it all as bluster. As for The Who’s leader, he is magnificent, his tapestry of guitars and wistful singing rescuing “However Much I Booze” from dourness, making it breezy and lovely. There is no such clash of moods on “Blue, Red, and Grey”, on which Pete steps back from all the pain to view life with beautiful optimism. Apparently he managed to tap into that optimism well enough to survive, so The Who by Numbers wasn’t a literal suicide note, but it is The Who’s last truly brilliant album.

1. Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin had a slight quandary with their sixth album. They’d recorded a bit too much material for a single one and far from enough for a double. Not willing to weed out any of the fine stuff they’d cut, they went vault diving and came up with enough to fill two LPs. Consequently, the band ended up with a pretty messy album, but messiness has been a fun quality of double-albums from “The White Album” to Exile on Main Street. Physical Graffiti ends up hanging together well enough because there aren’t a lot of songs on it that call attention to the era in which they were recorded. OK, we can suss that “Houses of the Holy” comes from sessions for the album of the same name and that “Bron-Yr-Aur” is a leftover from the Led Zeppelin III sessions since its title is the name of the cottage where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant composed that album’s material. “Kashmir” and “In the Light” are similar enough in their looming majesty and employment of synthesizers that we can tell they hail from the same sessions. However, there’s none of the fourth album’s brooding mysticism in winsome stuff like “Down by the Seaside” and “Boogie with Stu” or the back porch folkiness of III in the pavement-demolishing “Rover”. The newly recorded “In My Time of Dying” could have been on Zeppelin’s first album. The ancient “Night Flight” is a boogie as fresh as “Trampled Under Foot”. In the great double album tradition, contempt for cohesion is the controlling concept of Physical Graffiti, but isn’t that Led Zeppelin’s controlling concept too? Stripped bare/overproduced, bluesy/folky, romantic/lascivious, mystical/prurient, anguished/joyous, contemplative/dumber than dog shit, Physical Graffiti is a two-disc summation of everything that made Led Zeppelin awesome, and it outclasses most of the ho-hum class of ’75 by several light years.
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