This is not intended as a desert island collection, but if I had this group of albums, I’d be a relatively happy man. These albums struck a chord with me and continued to be go-to albums in the following decades. You’ll note, these are all albums from the 1970s.
No Rolling Stones, Who, Yes, Led Zeppelin, ELP, Springsteen, Genesis, Aerosmith or Pink Floyd. Sorry, I went a different route.
Here they are and why.
Tapestry (1971), Carole King
What can you say about this album that you haven’t heard a hundred times? If you want a set of songs, arranged to showcase their emotional core, honest and riveting, this is the album. Almost fifty years later, it is still the best. When you are done listening, you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mack truck.
Harvest (1972), Neil Young
A very commercial album for Young and a number hit in “Heart of Gold.” Young was not comfortable with success and he quickly changed directions and embrace less-polished and more obtuse material. Harvest was recorded over a long period in several different locations with varying musicians. Strangely, the album has a cohesive feel and even though the song styles vary, it all seems to fit together. From hard rockers like “Alabama and “Words” to songs backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Young channels his stories through diverse arrangements.
Band on the Run (1973), Paul McCartney & Wings
One of two non-American album on the list. This album is light and breezy and finally showed what a solo Paul McCartney could accomplish on his own. Most of this album had an acoustic feel, even though electric instruments were all over it. There is an intimacy to the songs and production, perhaps because the main players were McCartney, wife Linda and Denny Laine. The quieter songs, “Bluebird” and “Picasso’s Last Words” are as good as the uptempo singles released from the album. Band on the Run is an album that invites you to play it all the way through and then listen again.
Court and Spark (1974), Joni Mitchell
Mitchell’s most commercial album and highest chart climber. It was also nominated for numerous Grammy Awards. This is a sparkling album, jazzy but tight musical arrangements. “Help Me” cracked the top ten and garnered the most attention on the album, but there are numerous deserving songs on the album. The entire side one has a thematic and musical linkage, songs flowing into the next. Mitchell used jazz musicians on many of her albums rather than the top L.A. session players. Tom Scott, Larry Carlton, Max Bennett, John Guerin and others were used to play her unusual chords and tunings.
Mother Lode (1974), Loggins & Messina
Not their most successful album, but every song is a gem. The album reached number 8 on the chart, but did not yield a hit single. The production on this album is exquisite, the blending of horns, reeds, occasional violin and percussion add warmth to these folk-pop songs. The album exudes warmth, with tight harmony vocals and musicianship that feels like these guys have been playing together for many years. These songs also have a hopefulness and optimism reflective of the times, even though we had emerged from Watergate and the Vietnam War was concluding.
Wind on the Water (1975), Crosby & Nash
David Crosby and Graham Nash often teamed up together, and after a failed attempt at a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, these two recorded their second studio album together. Using a core group of musicians that James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and others used, Wind on the Water ranks at Crosby & Nash’s best effort together. “Carry Me,” “Take the Money and Run” and “To the Last Whale” are the strongest songs, but there is no filler on this album. The songs range from introspective to epic statements about things they believe in, like protecting the planet and wildlife. These songs represent their best songwriting of the decade and rivals their work with CSN or CSN&Y.
Gorilla (1975), James Taylor
Taylor’s sixth album and his most mature. Every song is excellently crafted and performed. Sometimes Taylor’s style gets repetitive, the songs sound too much the same. Here, that’s not the case. His style and the arrangements have enough variation that each one sounds unique. The musicianship is top-notch and the use of Crosby and Nash on background vocals for several songs gives each one an added strength. “Mexico” and “I Was a Fool to Care” are among the standout songs. I believe this to be Taylor’s all-around strongest album of the decade, even better than his multi-platinum JT album.
Face the Music (1975), Electric Light Orchestra
Sort of the transition album between the prog-rock and pop-rock versions of ELO. Band leader Jeff Lynne showed how gifted he is as a songwriter. “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” exemplify what a talent Lynne had for writing melody and arranging. This album also showed how tight these musicians were in squeezing every nuance from the songs. There are several different styles of music on the album, including an instrumental. The album has a grandeur because of the large arrangements, but also an intimate feel because of the emotional reach of the songs. This album also has intimacy because of the predominance of acoustic instruments, but that would change with future ELO albums. When done, you have left with a gorgeous glow, like a warm sunset.
Running on Empty (1977), Jackson Browne
An album literally recorded on the road. A tale of life on the road. Running on Empty is more a traditional rock album, less personal reflection and conceptual to the life of a rock and roll gypsy, both the good and bad. It is also a bit more uptempo than other Browne albums, and his supporting musical cast is the cream of L.A. music.
52nd Street (1978), Billy Joel
A jazzy, New York state of mind, that is what this album gives you. Billy Joel moves from balladeer to master songwriter. This was a sophisticated album, stylishly arranged and the songs allowed to breathe. Joel would have more successful albums, but none better. Give producer Phil Ramone and Joel’s band a lot of credit because this is a group effort. Ramone picked up the Grammy for Album of the Year, which after his death he had delivered to Joel.
On the Border (1974), Eagles
Most fans would probably pick a different Eagles album, but On the Border is my favorite. It does not aim for the stars like Hotel California, and has more variety than other albums, but it delivers on every track. This is not a heavy, conceptual-laden work, just an awesome collection of songs with fantastic guitar work. This is a band hitting on all cylinders and having a good time. It has the classic “Best of My Love” but spend most of the time on uptempo rockers. Not as epic as Hotel California, but more fun.