HALF A CENTURY AGO: 30 great albums of 1974

30 ? Really ? asks Norman Warwick

In 1974 I was 22 and a half years old and hadn´t then quite found the two great loves of my life: John Stewart, singer writer and my wife Dee. I had pretty much abandoned one night stands with pop and was just beginning to delve into the country music that would open the gates to Americana. Dee at that time was absolutely faithful to Cliff Richard though she is now two-timing him with Ed Ames, the late singer she found on the Spotify dating agency.

So when Paste published its review of the albums of fifty years ago and announced they had selected thirty great albums I was somewhat sceptical. I couldn´t believe that what I consider to have been a year in the musical wilderness could have produced that number of great albums. When I read the selections and the paragraphs about why each album had been selected it demonstrated the enthusiasm and excellent writing skills and musical knowledge. I found them very persuasive: sufficiently so to send me off in search of many of them. In fact, I was even surprised to learn that some of the selections are actually in my music collection, so 1974 produced a few introductions of artists who have sustained their hold on me.

The editorial introduction to the Paste piece did say that:-

Though 1974 remains one of the, on paper, weaker years of its decade, it still was able to provide some of the very greatest records of its time and era. The first American Music Awards ceremony happened just weeks before the Grammys; Led Zeppelin started their own record label; the Ramones and AC/DC played their first-ever gigs; Buckingham and Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac on New Year’s Eve. Marquee albums from Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Big Star and Funkadelic prop the wide spectrum of popular music on their shoulders, while underrated releases from Miles Davis, Roxy Music and John Cale flicker not far behind. We asked the Paste music writers and editors to vote on their favourite albums from 50 years ago so, without further ado, here are the 30 best albums of 1974.

The Paste selectors, as is their style, ran down from 30 to 1and the first album that I recognised as one of my own was:-

25. Miles Davis: Big Fun

I´m not sure quite why I bought the album. Davis was being loudly lauded at the time and I was curious as to why. I knew nothing about Jazz other than the odd Georgie Fame cross- over hit, perhaps. This album remains on my playlist but hasn´t really stood the test of time for me, although it did serve its purpose of being a tentative step on to the jazz scene that these days I embrace as a genre on my playlists. For Paste, though, it seems to have been something more.

Big Fun marked a turning point for Miles Davis’s infamous electric period said Austin Jones.—it heralded the reintroduction of his signature Harmon mute and was the first to heavily incorporate Indian instruments such as the sitar, tabla, and tamboura after experimenting with them on the previous year’s On The Corner. Though largely ignored at the time, Big Fun’s strength is right there in the name; It’s Davis letting loose and allowing his intricate compositions to meander, croon, and disorient. The exploratory sound present in Big Fun is partially thanks to Davis’s long-time producer Teo Macero, who suggested an overdubbing treatment for Davis’s trumpet and McLaughlin’s guitar. The resulting scattershot whining may feel aimless upon first listen, but later critical appraisal deemed Big Fun’s cohesive tape its adventuresome spirit. It’s what you might imagine the lounge band jamming out during a boozy cruise down the Ganges sounds like.

I had by passed albums  by Fleetwood Mac (pre Linsey Buckingham), Grateful Dead (Man From Mars) Merle Haggard  (not knowing then how much his music would come to mean to me), Queen, (was any song of theirs ever as good as Seven Seas Of Rye?). and John Cale.

Before I found another album to squeeze into a very thin shaded area on my Venn Diagram, I had also discounted albums by artists such as  Roxy Music, Gil Scot Herron, David Bowie, though I did eventually start building a small collection of  his ever-changing work, and Barry White before finding something that I loved, as did the Paste team.

20. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic

Before Steely Dan released Aja in 1977, Pretzel Logic was definitively their best-ever album, wrote the Paste reviewer. Put out eight months after Countdown to Ecstasy, the record brandishes some of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s most recognizable (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) and brilliant (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) songs. It’s one of those Steely Dan projects that is better as an 11-song unit than just singles, arriving like a bonafide full-length concerto that is much more entrancing and pleasurable when heard in full rather than in segments. The songs are odd yet resonant, a type of accessible balance only Becker and Fagen could ever really pull off with such flying colours. The title-track stands in a league of its own, and their cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” is as magical as you might imagine. 50 years later and “Monkey in Your Soul” and “Night by Night” get silkier with every revisit. Pretzel Logic is a clear example of one of America’s greatest bands forming their own language in real-time.

The reviewer´s assessment was spot on and I couldn´t have expressed nearly as clearly as to why I have had this album since 1974 and it is certainly in the top ten of my most frequently played.

As I whizzed through the Paste list I waved to Dolly Parton and Jolene, knowing that although I missed them in 1974 I have loved the two of them for many years now. I saw Kraftwork  race  by in the outside lane of the Autobahn but to be honest I never bothered chasing them down.

Then I fell over another album that I purchased at the time and that has remained important to me to this day.

17. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping

Without checking I can´t quite remember the linear narrative that led me to the record shop in 1974 to buy my copy of this album. I´m not sure how these two memories are aligned, but I can recall seeing a fantastic cartoon screen fill on Old Grey Whistle Test to a track called Don´t Ask Me No Questions. It has remained my favourite LS track . There are no other albums of theirs that I ever purchased but somehow the group still feel important to me and that one particular track introduced me to a genre I might have otherwise overlooked.

Where (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) made Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock legends, Second Helping was the record that turned them into bonafide commercial titans. Propped up on the back of their Top-10 hit single “Sweet Home Alabama,” Second Helping had firepower on the charts and would eventually go Double Platinum in the 1980s. While “Sweet Home Alabama” is its own enigma—arriving as a response to Neil Young’s criticisms of the south on “Alabama” and “Southern Man”—the real treasures of the record exist elsewhere, primarily in “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” “The Needle and the Spoon” and “Call Me the Breeze,” the latter of which being one of the coldest rock tracks of its era. Rolling Stone lambasted Second Helping for lacking the “sophistication and professionalism” of the Allman Brothers Band, but I think the general consensus around the album has wised up over time. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” contains some of Ronnie Van Zant’s best songwriting, as he taps into rock tropes and tells the story of a young man idolizing a Black blues picker who eventually dies alone—but there’s a stroke of empathy resonating in the track that is kind and generous. Lynyrd Skynyrd were far more mature than their critics positioned them as, and Second Helping is just one of those records that boasts so much charm, blues and guitar goodness that it’s easy to forget how quickly it helped make the band larger-than-life. —MM

I am not proud of saying that I always thought of Sparks as a novelty act on Top Of The Pops, so I never accepted their invitation to Kimona My House, and I pretty much missed out on Brian Eno, who, before we came to live here was the opening act at Cesar Manrique´s incredible underground lava-tube theatre here on Lanzarote.

To be honest, I wasn´t sorry when Abba met their Waterloo. I had no interest in the group at all though after being persuaded to listen more closely, I have to acknowledge the excellence of their music. It´s just not to my taste, really.

And so I came, luckily for me, to

13. Richard & Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Richard Thompson’s first album to feature his then-wife Linda, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a landmark singer-songwriter triumph said Paste writers, before also adding that Linda succinctly steals the show throughout. The title-track alone is worth the price of admission, but Bright Lights Tonight is spiritual, as the Thompsons fill their best album with thieves and drunks—executing a billowing, phantasmic, generous portrait of hopelessness unlike anything the orbit of folk-rock had ever truly experienced up until that point. Songs like “The Calvary Cross” and “The Great Valerio” and “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” ache with cynicism and one-in-a-million beauty. Richard’s writing was at an apex, and no one could haunt his words quite like Linda when she grabbed a mic. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight glows a different colour than any other record on this list, standing still in a league of its own with the charm of a miserable street urchin who can’t stop singing his song.

Other than few hearings of him on radio and unknowingly hearing him on a couple of Fairport albums, this was my first introduction to Thompson. In later years he would give the best concert I have ever seen, with Danny Thompson. He is one of Britain´s finest songwriters along with Wes McGhee, Elvis Costello and Gary Hall. Thompson is that rare artist who is not only a great (prolific) songwriter but also a writer of great (profound) songs.

I travelled on through the Paste list like The Grand Old Duke Of York, not sure whether I was marching my men to the top of the hill, or marching them down again.

When I was 22, and still developing my tastes in music everybody recommended the album Radio City by Big Star. Everyone said I should listen to it. So I did. Everyone was wrong ! Nevertheless, fifty years after this release, a new generation of journalists have probably sent me scuttling to Spotify to listen again.

Notwithstanding, I strolled along the list, leaving Funkadelic still standing on the verge. Also, almost getting it on, was Betty Davis who Paste described as ahead of her time and Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan.

However, then came the album that I now realise made 1974 such a seminal year for me.

8. Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel

Released just a few months after his death, Grievous Angel marks Gram Parsons’ second and final studio album. Despite the widespread critical acclaim it received, the record didn’t land commercially (it peaked at #195 on the Billboard 200) and mirrored the low sales of Parsons’ other project, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Nevertheless, Grievous Angel is a masterpiece that showed the world who Emmylou Harris is, as the wondrous singer performs harmonies on eight of the nine songs. “Love Hurts” is the clear standout that most folks are familiar with, but Parsons’ take on “$1000 Wedding” and “Hearts on Fire” are charming strokes of country brilliance, while his six-minute “Medley Live from Northern Quebec” features the incomparable “Hickory Wind.” But it’s “Return of the Grievous Angel” that makes Parsons’ work with Elvis Presley’s “Taking Care of Business” band so deftly masterful. When you hear someone say “cosmic country,” they’re talking about Grievous Angel and its singular, stop-you-in-your-tracks pastoral of time-worn country music.

I had been listening to the Byrds quite a lot from 68 or so to 1974, and I thought Gram´s contribution to Sweethearts Of The Rodeo was exquisite. I had heard Flying Burritos too, and so bought this album. It was a defining purchase that led me to Emmylou and her collaborations with Gram, and I bought into that whole Joshua Tree scene. In My Hour Of Darkness, just when I needed a push in the right musical direction, there was Gram Parsons.

I stepped over Stevie Wonder, who was on the Paste list, to read what they had to say about another album I had actually purchased in 1974.

6. Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Knowing that I loved the singer-writer genre it seems strange that before this I had not bought any Dylan album but to be honest no albums were necessary. We heard Dylan wherever we went to party in those days. I had enjoyed what little I had heard of Cohen on the radio, but this abum caught my eye and blew me away.

According to Paste – In 1974, Leonard Cohen did the impossible: He found a way to follow up three near-perfect albums—Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate—without utterly humiliating himself. Rather, he indulged his morose yearnings in an often gentler, more complex soundscape. New Skin for the Old Ceremony brought violas, mandolins, banjos, guitars and drums of all sorts to exist beside Cohen’s achy warble. Sure, the record’s themes and sounds can get exquisitely bleak at times, but musically the project presents itself as a counterpoint of hope. “Chelsea Hotel #2” (written by Cohen about a fling with Janis Joplin) oscillates between desire and abnegation, as Cohen sings “I need you / I don’t need you,” but it finds some of the love it seeks through music. “We are ugly,” he croons, “but we have the music.” And even 50 years later, the music of New Skin For The Old Ceremony itself is able to move generations of outcasts and lovers towards the swing and sway of the breaks in Cohen’s voice. He urges, “Take this longing from my tongue” and, just as he gives himself and his desire to the music that carries it, he too, hands it off to the rest of us. Hell, I bet there’s still some longing left in these songs, waiting for the next generation to take it.

I didn´t put my hand in the fire to buy an Ohio Players album, but Paste them reminded of the other seminal reason why , when I was 22, it was a very good year.

4. Linda Ronstadt: Heart Like a Wheel

It turned out that everything Paste says about Linda Ronstadt in this piece is absolutely correct and accurate. Thinking back, though, I think I had seen her on Old Grey Whistle Test and thought wow! That was the word I always sighed, too, whenever I looked at her album covers, and that may have played a part in my purchase of this album.

Since then, though, her music has become a major part of my life, whether she has been singing country, Tex Mex or Opera. I loved her work with Dolly and Emmylou on the Trio albums and I loved the fact that she covered a Mike Nesmith song, and I loved her beautifully and modestly written autobiography.

So, here´s what Paste had to say:-

Pop country icon Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel cemented the rising singer as a star and timeless vocal powerhouse. The album earned Ronstadt her first #1 album in the United States, staying on the charts for almost an entire year with the lead single “You’re No Good” and a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved”—each reaching #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well. The LP clocks in at just under 32 minutes, and it breezes by even quicker. Like all of Ronstadt’s work, it centers around the artist’s masterful and hypnotic vocal performance—and she flips between a variety of genres, expanding her palette further into the realm of pop and beyond. The album marks a distinct turning point in Ronstadt’s career, in which she steps further away from country and ventures into new and fruitful territory. Her versatile, expansive vocals fit with ease into each track, adding a smoky depth to the velvety instrumentation. Heart Like a Wheel paints a stirring portrait of a maturing singer coming into her own after years in the industry.

The Meters apparently enjoyed Rejuvenation in 1974 whilst Joni Mitchell was playing Court And Spark and Neil Young was On The Beach.

It was a year, though, that shaped what would be an adult life working and playing on the roads less travelled across the music and arts scene. In that ´career´ I have seen hundreds of concerts, interviewed scores of singer-writers, and built a massive music collection only to see it drown in the great floods of 2015. On any given day I might namedrop Gary Hall and Wes McGhee as the best of the British, but then there was John Stewart, and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith and Emmylou,…oh,  and Katy Moffatt, and Kate Wolf, none of whom, in commercial terms, came within hand-holding distance of a top thirty !

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