Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything – Plato
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Top Albums of 1971
August 17, 2021 – MercuryNews.com
If you could only listen to the popular music of a single year in history, what would you pick?
Actually, never mind. The correct answer is 1971 and no other will be accepted, because 50 years later, the music of 1971 remains as vital, as influential, as unsurpassed as ever it was.
Sure, the top single of the year was Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World,” and depending on how you feel about talking bullfrogs that may or may not be your thing. But if you were to spin the AM radio dial that year you’d have also heard Rod Stewart singing “Maggie May,” Carole King with “It’s Too Late,” or Al Green crooning “Tired Of Being Alone.”
It’s the albums of 1971, though, where things really sparkle. Some were hits from the day they arrived, others overlooked at first. And the best remain influential across the decades and genres.
Here then, in no particular order, are the 12 most influential albums of 1971, each of them paired with a thematically similar record to know as well.
1. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye: Consistently at the top of lists of best albums of all time and you’ll get no disagreement here. Already a star in the Motown template, Gaye forced the label to let him make a record that addressed the social issues that concerned him, from the Vietnam War to poverty, environmental crisis to police violence. A socially conscious album that speaks to and about the soul, it continues to inspire and influence today in the work of artists such as John Legend and Kendrick Lamar.
Now hear this: With “Roots,” Curtis Mayfield touched on similar themes — peace, Black power, social consciousness and the environment — against a backdrop of sweet soul music.
2. “Blue,” Joni Mitchell: Another of the all-time greats, “Blue” is a quintessential singer-songwriter album, an achievement few if any have matched. A break-up album, written after a long relationship with Graham Nash, and a short but intense one with James Taylor, the emotions are immediate and raw in songs such as “My Old Man,” the title track, “River” and “A Case of You.” Mitchell’s simple accompaniment of guitar, piano and Appalachian dulcimer only increases its beauty.
3. “Led Zeppelin IV,” Led Zeppelin: Officially untitled, the fourth album from Led Zeppelin featured the best of everything the band wanted to do: blues rock (“Black Dog” and “When The Levee Breaks”), hard rock/heavy metal (“Rock and Roll” and “Misty Mountain Hop”), folk and traditional influences (“The Battle of Evermore,” “Going To California”), and, of course, the sprawling epic of “Stairway To Heaven.” Their biggest seller, and for many their best album, this launched the band into the orbit it occupied for the rest of the decade.
4. “Tapestry,” Carole King: King already had a decade of success as a songwriter with former husband Gerry Goffin by the time “Tapestry” arrived in 1971 to establish her as a critically acclaimed and commercially success solo artist. With original songs such as “You’ve Got A Friend,” “It’s Too Late,” and “I Feel The Earth,” warm voice and strong piano-based arrangements it’s no wonder “Tapestry” become one of the best-selling albums of all-time and a model for singer-songwriters.
5. “Hunky Dory,” David Bowie: With “Hunky Dory,” Bowie started to figure out who he was or wanted to be after he returned from a failed tour of the United States. The album contains some of his most-loved songs, tracks such as “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Life On Mars?” His band also firmed up with guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey — all of whom in 1972 would be the Spiders from Mars backing Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, which supercharged his stardom.
6. “Sticky Fingers,” the Rolling Stones: With this classic album, the Rolling Stones proved you could have a second act in rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles had broken up. The Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones was dead, their Altamont festival a disaster. But here, on their own label, free of a despised manager, they delivered a collection of classic songs that included “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Moonlight Mile.” With the first appearance of the Stones’ lips-and-tongue logo on the album they also taught those who followed a bit about branding, too.
11. “At Fillmore East,” The Allman Brothers Band: Live rock albums still were relatively new when the Allman Brothers Band recorded three nights at the Fillmore East in New York City in March 1971. While the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Grateful Dead and the MC5 had all found success with live LPs, “At Fillmore East” stands above those for its musical significance, capturing the band in peak form, and historical resonance -— just months after the July release of the album, guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash, leaving this a final testament to his greatness.
Now hear this: “Aretha Live at Fillmore West” captures Aretha Franklin and her band in San Francisco, where in addition to classics such as “Respect” and “Doctor Feelgood” she covered rock numbers including Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”