The Top 10 Bands of the 1970s

It’s been a while since I randomly ranked something. So why not list my ten favorite bands of the decade when the rock group was supposedly king? In eighth grade I would’ve told you that the ’70s was the only decade a music fan needed. Zeppelin and Floyd were my world. I’ve gotten less stupid since then, but as you can see here, 13-year-old me is still in there somewhere.

To be clear: solo artists are not eligible. But bands that were crucial to a solo artist’s body of work – e.g. The Heartbreakers, Crazy Horse – are in the running. Why? Because this is the only sliver of the universe that I can control. My cyber-roof, my rules. To the list machine!

Television

10. Television

The sound of a single bird chirping can be pleasant. But combine it with other feathered friends, and it’s an entirely different experience – a psychologically restorative level of ambient noise. Such is the guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. On the two albums that Television released before breaking up in 1978 – the jaw-dropping, all-time-great debut Marquee Moon and its merely fantastic follow-up Adventure – the duo plays like a pair of skylarks, instinctually aware of one another as their riffage soars heavenward. These CBGB regulars did more for punk artists drawn to artful forms of rebellion than any other ’70s band. Two albums were all they needed.

 

Sly and the Family Stone

9. Sly and the Family Stone

If Sylvester Stewart could’ve somehow just retired in 1970, he could’ve spent the rest of his life teaching seminars on how to use effusive, unbridled positivity as a weapon. Instead, he spent the decade dimming the lights, retreating to his home studio/heroin den, refusing to sing a simple song. But before fading into obscurity, he gave us the two finest Sly and the Family Stone albums. The murky, conflicted There’s a Riot Goin On walked through the valley of personal and political corruption. And Fresh came out the other side, doing justice to its title with pristinely funky treatises on thankfulness and peace of mind. In the ’60s, Sly and the Family Stone took us higher. In the ’70s, they helped us cope.

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8. Black Sabbath

“What is this that stands before me?” sings Ozzy Osbourne on “Black Sabbath,” the opening song on his band’s 1970 debut. I’d imagine a lot of listeners felt the same way. Because Black Sabbath was a true original, frighteningly ahead of its time. Like many English bands of this era, the Birmingham quartet was drawn to the intoxicating pentatonics of American blues music. But they were never content to just rip it off. Black Sabbath, and the three equally masterful albums that followed it, favored slower tempos and lower registers, letting each minor chord marinate in its own midnight. In the process, they invented heavy music as we know it. Tony Iommi made it okay for guitarists to value atmosphere more than muscle. And Osbourne showed how the right vocal inflection could make even the hokiest weed pun sound utterly, believably haunting. What stood before us was a revolution.

 

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7. Fleetwood Mac

When I was a young man, the soft, multi-platinum sheen of peak Fleetwood Mac did nothing for me. It just felt harmless and inconsequential to someone who’d never had real adult feelings. But in my thirties, I heard “Over My Head,” seemingly for the first time. That song was the key to a treasure chest of unparalleled grown-person songwriting, made even more profound by the hard-won wisdom in Stevie Nicks’s voice. The band’s trio of ’70s classics – Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk – are full of nuanced, conflicted, reassuringly human observations about love and aging. Qualities that don’t really come into focus until you reach a certain age, and start needing that reminder to keep thinking about tomorrow.

 

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6. Led Zeppelin

Critics were famously dismissive of Led Zeppelin in its heyday. To an extent, the band deserved it, having gotten famous by passing off American blues songs as their own, while not exactly caring about lyrics. But starting in 1970, Zeppelin stopped coasting on these hyper-masculine thrust-fests. The traditional folk and country of Led Zeppelin III, Tolkien-inspired proto-metal of Led Zeppelin and kaleidoscopic cloudburst of Houses of the Holy make for one of the most stunning growth spurts in rock history. The swagger of the world’s biggest rock band is still there, but it has evolved from male confidence to artistic confidence. Instead of giving us every inch of their love, these guys were exploring every corner of their imaginations.

 

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5. Parliament/Funkadelic

Like a Kleenex is a tissue, like a Xerox is a photocopy, Parliament is funk. The music George Clinton’s group released in the 1970s could be experienced on a variety of levels, each of them incredibly rewarding. 1) As the greatest bass-driven, shout-along party music ever recorded, 2) As compositional big band achievements that deserve professorial study alongside Duke Ellington, 3) As an audacious social statement that upended the perception of black culture as an alien presence in America. When Parliament/Funkadelic emerged from its mothership, it was The Day the Earth Got Down. They expanded the possibilities of funk music, inventing new ways to utilize synthesizers and guitar solos, giving a whole new attitude to the art of spoken word.  “Most of all you need funk,” they advised, with a sense of joy and purpose that’s healthier than the air we breathe.

 

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4. Steely Dan

In the beginning, Steely Dan flirted with the idea of sounding pretty. Its 1972 debut had two lead singers – the honey-throated David Palmer and the feistily froggy Donald Fagen. The songs were good enough to work with Palmer’s lite-FM falsetto croon, but luckily, Fagen and his guitarist/songwriting partner Walter Becker had left him in the dust by ’73. Because then they proceeded to geek the fuck out on one fantastic, ridiculously polished record after another. The more money that rolled in, the more Steely Dan became a studio creation, with Fagen and Becker directing top session players to satisfy their every obsession. Their style was always leaping around, from jazz and blues to bossa nova and country, but it always carried that same expensive sheen, and that same knack for insidiously catchy chord progressions. When paired with Fagen’s biting, imperfect voice, singing about cast-offs and criminals and pathetic old men, every fussed-over note gains something that no other classic rock band ever gave us – a sense of humor that’s dry as Ritz.

 

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3. Queen

Lots of bands made rock operas in the 1970s. Only Queen did operatic rock. Because only they had a frontman who could pull it off. Freddie Mercury had the god-given stuff – golden pipes, compositional brilliance, preternatural charm. But he also had that opera singer quality, a technically perfect vocalist that is able to convey how heartbreakingly imperfect life can be, through intonation alone. Like most folks my age, I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the Wayne’s World soundtrack, alongside the likes of Cinderella and the BulletBoys. It was like seeing a unicorn at the zoo. I had no idea what the song was about, but at the end, when Mercury sang “Nothing really matters,” I got a lump in my throat. I’d never heard such a fatalistic phrase delivered with such warmth. Queen could deliver scorching proto-metal songs about ogres and toweringly theatrical pop epochs, with equally hair-raising results. Because Freddie Mercury somehow made it all magical, and real.

 

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2. Pink Floyd

When bands become huge, that success tends to dictate what happens next. Radiohead hid behind electronics; Pearl Jam stopped making videos; U2 explored the depths of its own butt, etc. Pink Floyd was immune to such childishness. Its colossal 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, was already the band’s eighth LP. Its very public fallout with founding visionary Syd Barrett was five years in the rearview. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason had already seen it all. So they had no problem taking years between each ensuing masterpiece, making sure that every synth exuded that specific ethereal warmth; that every guitar solo swayed just enough to hypnotize us; that every bitter observation on war, the record industry, lost friendships and absent fathers was balanced out by just the right amount of British wit. As a result, even 40-plus years of zombified classic rock radio programmers have not been able to kill them. To this day, moments like Wright’s opening synth suite on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” and Waters’ vocal work on “The Trial” make me drop everything and pay attention. Because even with millions in the bank and the world at their fingertips, Pink Floyd didn’t have their pudding until they ate their meat.

 

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1. The JB’s

The year just happened to be 1970 when James Brown introduced his brand new band, after the previous one had left him high and dry over a pay dispute. “The JB’s” included original Famous Flames member Bobby Byrd and a bunch of unknowns, including a young bass player named William “Bootsy” Collins. With stunning immediacy, they introduced a whole new style to the mainstream – a gritty, spacious, heavily syncopated sound retroactively known as “deep funk.” On songs like “Super Bad,” “Soul Power” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” there were no need for catchy choruses. The groove was the hook. For the first time, Brown was playing with musicians that were as raw and fiery as he was. As the decade wore on, and Bootsy left to join Parliament/Funkadelic, ringers like trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker returned to the fold. And the JB’s continued to churn out the world’s nastiest rhythms and riffs, in the process building the foundation of the yet-to-be-invented genre destined to replace rock and roll in the hearts of young America. Rap would not exist  without the 1970 single “Funky Drummer,” where Clyde Stubblefield played the kind of groove that samples were made for – simple, insinuating, poetic. Like the entirety of The JB’s catalog, it’s not impressive in a technical, look-what-I-can-do kind of way. These guys were some of the best players around, but they valued the feel of the music more than the intricacy of their solos. By ceding the spotlight to James, they shone brightest of all.

The Sign of IV

Beyoncé just released an excellent new record. It’s her fourth, and it’s called 4. In August, Lil Wayne is scheduled to drop the fourth installment of his Carter series. It’s called Tha Carter IV. And my script for the next Look Who’s Talking movie is called Look Who’s Talking IV. It’s about four babies sent to Earth by God to battle the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Instead of “rapture,” they way “wapture!” Anyways, in the midst of all this four play (sorry), I thought it’d be fun to look back at some other notable fourth albums from artists who were too lazy to come up with a decent title:

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso, or whatever)

The IV to rule all IVs. On top of mastering the fusion of metal and blues in ways both guttural and poetic, IV was also the ultimate Trojan horse for nerds – after the crazy sexy swagger of the opening cuts “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll,” you get a mandolin-fueled ode to Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the songbird and hedgerow reverie of “Stairway to Heaven,” and a track with “Misty Mountain” in the title.

Scott Walker – Scott 4

Another masterful fourth record, this one from a tortured U.S. expat whose stint as a teen idol and popular crooner in Great Britain left him feeling uncomfortable, and determined to bust out of his MOR shell. It was by far his worst selling album when it was released in 1969, but Scott 4‘s vivid imagery and gorgeous arrangements cast an enchanting gloom, one that profoundly influenced rock iconoclasts to come (Bowie, Pop, Cave, etc.). And if this one isn’t quite dour enough for you, Walker’s 2006 horror-opera masterpiece The Drift (#41 in my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s) makes Scott 4 sound like the Aladdin soundtrack.

Foreigner – 4

Well, so much for good fourth albums. But as far as Foreigner goes, their 1981 smash possessed some of their more tolerable singles, especially “Urgent,” a decent bit of faux R&B that features one of the better rock and roll sax solos of a decade that was lousy with ’em. But you know what? Fuck Foreigner, because whilst doing research for this piece, I learned that they rejected the original Hipgnosis artwork for this album because it was “too homosexual.” The offending shot? A sleeping man with binoculars hovering over his head. Apparently, if it was up to Foreigner, they would be called “straightnoculars.” So, yeah, another reason why Foreigner sucks.

Blues Traveler – Four

As a 16-year-old in 1994, it was in my contract to buy this album. And it wasn’t a bad move, especially when you consider that I purchased Jagged Little Pill a year hence. Blues Traveler were always better experienced live, where their knack for segues resulted in a show that kept the jam-band crowd happy while still pleasing those with actual musical taste. “Run-Around” remains a pleasant enough pop tune, but its follow-up single “Hook” was a more rewarding assemblage of fluttering harmonica over a cheerful Afro-pop guitar riff. Not revolutionary listening, but after many hours spent with Tesla in my Walkman, Four taught me that light and fun can sometimes trump heavy and dumb.

Winger – IV

When asked why he decided to get his band back together in 2006 to make this album, Kip Winger explained, “One day I just woke up and heard the new Winger record in my head.” A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

 

 

Godsmack – IV

Godsmack might be even bigger dicks than Foreigner. Here’s drummer Shannon Larkin, talking about why they named their fourth album IV: “We have this security guy, a big, tough guy named J.C. He’s another Boston guy. And in Boston it’s ‘fou.’ … He’d be hanging around backstage and chicks would walk by and he would rate them from one to 10. But if it wasn’t a 10, there was no one, two, three, five, six.  It was always you were a 10 or a fou. He just pulled the funniest things. Sometimes, he’d just hold up four fingers and wouldn’t have to say it anymore and we’d all just bust out laughing. And then the funniest one, this guy walked by with a chick on each arm and he goes, ‘Hey, bub, two fous don’t make an eight!'” Ah, J.C. Always pulling the funniest things, like telling women that they’re ugly.

Suddenly, This Summer: A Playlist

Today’s the first day of summer! Here are some tunes that’ll be perfect for that unforgettable summer car trip – you know, where you go to Home Depot to buy an air conditioner, so you can close all of your windows and watch reruns until the leaves start to turn.

1. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”
It’s no contest. This is the song of Summer 2011 – masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around; soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”).

2. Prince – “Play in the Sunshine”
Worried that the world’s going to shit and you’re never gonna find true happiness? Take a page from the Prince playbook, and dance your way to enlightenment to this exuberant blast of synth pop  – “Some way, somehow, I’m gonna have fun.”
 

3. Gordon Lightfoot – “Carefree Highway”
This makes me want to drive drunk.

4. Kylie Minogue – “Get Outta My Way”
A beautiful summer day can make you feel invincible. Add an irresistible dance song with defiantly independent lyrics, and you might try to walk on water.

5. Lil Wayne – “Best Rapper Alive”
Speaking of bouts of egomania, this straight-faced claim of greatness from a pre-superstardom Weezy is guaranteed to get the adrenaline flowing while you mow your parents’ lawn.

6. The Velvet Underground – “Who Loves the Sun”
What would the summer be without that crippling moment when you realize that all the good weather in the world won’t keep you warm at night?

7. Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean”
“Singing in the sunshine/Laughing in the rain.” Not the most bad-ass lyrics in Zeppelin’s oeuvre, but when you throw in Page’s gnarly riff and Bonham’s massive beat, you’ve got something earth-shattering.

8. The Beach Boys – “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”
Forget “California Girls.” This beautifully arranged cut (woodwinds!) about forgetting somebody’s number, then remembering it, then calling them and getting no answer, then writing them a letter, perfectly captures the vibe of a lazy summer day.

9. Outkast – “Skew it On the Bar-B”
Whether you’re an old school player or new school fool, this cut showcases Andre 3000, Big Boi and Raekwon at the top of their game – it’s guaranteed to make your barbecue sizzle.

10. The Zombies – “Time of the Season”
A sexy hit single from a British Invasion band previously known for expressions of towering wussery, this song’s percussive “ahhs” and “Who’s your daddy” pick-up lines could be seen as a relic of the late-’60s. But when the warm weather hits, that groove sounds like it was meant for today.