As mentioned before, I’m hard-pressed to say that 1971 isn’t the single best year for rock & roll. It wasn’t a year of earth-shaking changes in popular music. It’s simply a year in which incredible artists released incredible albums, from Pink Floyd (Meddle) to Joni Mitchell (Blue) to the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) to Carole King (Tapestry) to John Lennon (Imagine). And those are just the honorable mentions!
5. AQUALUNG (Jethro Tull)
Ian Anderson & Co. take their first steps toward prog, resulting in a record that rocks like hell while avoiding “classic rawk” clichés. There’s a loose concept here, with grimy character-sketches taking up most of Side 1 and cynical meditations on organized religion filling in Side 2. But mostly there’s top-notch songwriting and skillful arrangements that balance flute-tinged pastoralism, symphonic ambitions, and barnstorming riffs.
4. RAM (Paul & Linda McCartney)
That Ram somehow produced a #1 hit in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is completely baffling, because this is a weird album. It reminds me a lot of the music that Brian Wilson was making for the four or five years after Smile’s implosion: symphonic mini-suites share space with gem-like miniatures and bizarre throwaways. It’s the sound of a genius doing whatever he damn well pleases, and to hell with what the rest of the world thinks.
3. COLD SPRING HARBOR (Billy Joel)
It’s unsurprising that Billy Joel’s music got the jukebox musical treatment; much of his classic work has a marked Broadway flair. Not Cold Spring Harbor though. This is Billy Joel as sensitive singer-songwriter, a persona he only inhabited for a few years before becoming the Piano Man. And there’s a purity, an emotional honesty, to these early songs that lifts them above even The Stranger or An Innocent Man to my ears (compare “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are”).
2. WHO’S NEXT (The Who)
From the ruins of Lighthouse arose the Who’s greatest album. This is partially because Roger Daltrey’s voice has matured, becoming a throaty roar; partially because Pete Townshend’s songwriting has matured too, channeling all the disillusionment and spiritual frustration of Tommy (and then some) without the goofy rock opera concept; partially because this the first Who album where the recording faithfully captures the band’s immense power. Whatever the reasons, Who’s Next is a record that stands at the pinnacle of what rock & roll can be.
1. LED ZEPPELIN IV [ZOSO] (Led Zeppelin)
Of course: the monster. With this one, Zeppelin take the punishing electric blues of their early albums, overdub a roaring guitar army, fuse it seamlessly to the pastoral British folk that reared its head on Led Zeppelin III, and pump it all up to legendary proportions. It is difficult to assess how huge an impact this album had on my 14-year-old psyche, the age I first heard it. Because even today, you can overplay it into the ground; you can have a thousand first-year guitarists butcher the opening motif in a thousand music store lobbies; but you cannot kill “Stairway” for me.