At year’s end, there are any number of publications that can guide you to the best albums of 2021, but if I’m looking back, my compass points further back to a truly breathtaking year in music, 1971.
I’ve compiled an almost 300-song playlist that reflects a year where rock music was peaking in terms of creativity and influence throughout the culture, a year that saw the release of such jaw-dropping masterstrokes as Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, Tapestry, Led Zeppelin IV, Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore, Hunky Dory by Bowie, and Electric Warrior by T-Rex. 1971 is when Tommy Iommi tuned his guitar down the half-steps and brought out the dark sludge of sound that would bring the heavy to heavy metal on the influential Black Sabbath album, Masters of Reality. It’s also the year that Alice Cooper emerged with his two garage rock classics, Love It to Death and Killer. Harry Nilsson hit peak whimsy with his two career-defining albums, The Point! and Nilsson Schmilsson (lime and coconut, anyone?). With Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, I don’t think he ever put out a better album, and the same can be said of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story (made even more impressive when you consider that his band, The Faces released their two best albums that year as well with Long Player and A Nod Is As Good As a Wink). Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is from 1971, as is Ram by Paul and Linda McCartney and John Lennon’s Imagine. Neil Young and Bob Dylan essentially took the year off, but Joni Mitchell made up for their absence with her confessional masterpiece, Blue.
The influence of rock can be heard and felt across the radio dial in that year. Don McLean infused a little rock and roll into his folk music and came up with his monster hit “American Pie.” Barbra Streisand released her second straight rock-oriented album, the Richard Perry-produced Barbra Joan Streisand. Miles Davis went fully into a rock mode with his A Tribute to Jack Johnson album, and the rock ethos tied with the weight of anti-war sentiment can be heard in the 1971 rock-soul crossover epics What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, There’s a Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone, the astonishing Pieces of a Man by Gil Scott-Heron, and Roots by the pioneering trendsetter in soul music’s socio-political subgenre, Curtis Mayfield.
1971 saw the eponymous debuts of such substantial artists as John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Emmit Rhodes, The Carpenters, Carly Simon, and Little Feat, all albums worth exploring. AM radio offered an eclectic cornucopia of hits from such varied sources as Badfinger (“Baby Blue,” and “Day After Day”), Joan Baez (with her cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), John Denver (“Take Me Home Country Roads”), Delaney and Bonnie’s countrified soul (“Never Ending Song of Love”), Bill Withers’ deeply felt “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the infectious “I Hear You Knocking” by Dave Edmunds, the revamped Hollies boogie hit (“Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”), The 5th Dimension’s introspective “One Less Bell to Answer,” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ dual pop gut-wrenchers, “If I Was Your Woman,” and “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong,” as well my all-time favorite one-hit wonder, “Sweet City Woman” by The Stampeders, all here in the playlist.
It was also a peak year in Prog Rock. Yes hit their breathtaking stride with two albums in 1971, The Yes Album and Fragile. Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their big-selling second and third albums that year with Tarkus and the live Pictures at an Exhibition, Pink Floyd produced Meddle, their most Prog album of their catalog, Genesis added Phil Collins on drums and background vocals, stepping up their game with Nursery Cryme, while Gentle Giant, Caravan, and King Crimson further developed their sound and mission with Acquiring the Taste, In the Land of Pink and Grey, and Islands, respectively.
It was a year that saw damn fine albums from all over the musical map. Singer-songwriters (Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the New Horizon, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners, Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey), while stalwart rockers The Doors and The Kinks both released fantastic albums with L.A. Woman and Muswell Hillbillies, Ten Years After offered their best LP with A Space In Time and Traffic kept up their high quality output with The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.
All in all, a truly head-spinning year for music, making for a fun, rewarding playlist to shuffle. I’ve chosen my favorite tracks which are often the less overplayed cuts from these groundbreaking works. Spotify, like all of the streaming services, allows you to click on the name of any artist or album for further exploration – so I hope you use these offerings as jumping off points.
By the way, you don’t need to listen via the app – Spotify has an online player that utilizes any browser and you can listen to the 1971 playlist via this link. You’ll have to sign up for a free account or sign in, but once you do you can add my playlist to your library by “liking it” (clicking the heart icon at the top of the page).
I will never stop marveling at the richness of that special decade of music, the 1970s. It brings me great gratification to see how long it has endured as a favorite era for young and (getting) old. It’s among my many privileges to have been born at a time when so much incredible music was pouring out of AM radio from every genre, and to have witnessed FM while it was still in its highly personalized, rebellious youth, not to mention to have grown up in the great radio city of Detroit with 3 competing FM rock stations in WRIF, WABX, and WWWW (a.k.a. “W4”) as well as North America’s premiere AM station in CKLW-AM out of Windsor, Canada who played an expanded, hand-picked eclectic playlist from all quarters of the mainstream.
We are living through strange, shifting times with an uncertain future, but it’s only made us more grateful for the gift of another day together and another year to experience our beautiful planet, our cherished families and friendships, and the bounty of human civilization, all made accessible through technology, if not always in person. Thank you for your readership. I raise a cup of kindness to you all with a hope for a rewarding 2012 for everyone.
Photo credit: Astounding 1971 Albums by David Tobocman