Comparatively speaking, 1975-76 is a dead zone for Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; in fact, there are almost as many Suggested Alternatives as legitimate selections. Overall, ’75 has more good stuff happening than ’76 – not by a wide margin – but it’s a shady part of town, and we’re going to roll through most of the stop signs in the neighborhood.
Grandpa says if you weren’t alive in 1975-76, more specifically, if you don’t remember being alive, a lot of this introduction is going to be lost on you. It may be impossible to know exactly what I mean by 1975-76 was an odd time to be alive, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Partridge Family, or the Bay City Rollers, or John Denver.
2015 is a spectacular and terrifying time to be alive. Our impossibly weird, isolated and quirky modern life is anything but odd. People are odd, sure. We’ve turned this joint into a non-stop funhouse of uncertainty and chaos. And so, in some ways, I miss the primitive social atmosphere of the 70s, when you met people, and you talked to them before making an assumption about their character(s).
While riding the subway this morning, I saw people tapping away at their mobile devices, furiously, apparently happy to experience the world through selfies, hashtags, emoticons and spellcheck, as opposed to looking at other people and observing how they behave, and it seemed so egregiously banal to have memories in the first place. To paraphrase Louis C.K., we’ve forgotten how to be bored.
Meanwhile, the record industry in the mid 70s was throwing crates of LPs from the back of a moving truck. Bands like Kansas, R.E.O. and Styx were making shitty records every six months. Thus, significant clusters of stink bombs have been dropped during this period.
In terms of straight-up rock music, let me ask, do the names Robin Trower, Camel, Black Oak Arkansas, Armageddon, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Rick Derringer, Elf, Trooper, Skyhooks, Man, Angel, Dr. Hook, Tavares, Pablo Cruise or the Strawbs mean anything to you? No? Excellent. Let’s keep it that way. You’re much, much better off.
Moreover, 1975 itself was shit in so many ways, but the emergence and ultimate triumph of Adult Contemporary, i.e. soft rock, was by far the worst thing to happen in music since Frank Sinatra picked up a microphone. All kidding aside. The most toxic, insidious element of soft rock is its purest strength: a melody so catchy it can’t be avoided, and shows up at the most inopportune time. Today, we call them “earworms.” I don’t remember what they were called in 1975 except “Top 10 hits.”
“Love Will Keep Us Together” – The Captain and Tennille
“Rhinestone Cowboy” – Glen Campbell
“Philadelphia Freedom” – Elton John
“Before the Next Teardrop Falls” – Freddy Fender
“My Eyes Adored You” – Frankie Valli
“Shining Star” – Earth, Wind & Fire
“Fame” – David Bowie
“Laughter In The Rain” – Neil Sedaka
“One Of These Nights” – Eagles
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- John Denver
The top 5 songs are bonafide soft rock, no question, with “Cowboy” and “Teardrop” being on the mellow country tip. “Shining Star” is straight up disco. “Fame” is trippy, but still pretty spreadable and creamy. Neil Sedaka and John Denver meant well, I reckon; but “One of These Nights” is country disco. At any rate, all of the above tracks are soft rock champions.
Billboard used to only cover U.S. record sales and radio airplay. I dunno what those people are doing over there now. Anyway, here’s what was insanely popular in the rest of the Western world, which really does matter, by the way.
“I Can Help” – Billy Swan
“I’m Not In Love” – 10cc
“Fox on the Run” – Sweet
“Paloma Blanca” – George Baker Selection
First of all, George Baker?!? The Dutch guy with that “Little Green Bag” jam in Reservoir Dogs? Have you heard “Paloma Blanca”? Holy Christ, it’s fucking insanity.
I’m afraid that so far you don’t understand why soft rock upsets me so much.
For the bulk of rock’s history up to this date, there was a very clear generational divide between the kids and the adults. In the very beginning, the kids listened to rock n’ roll, and the adults fucking hated it. Everybody was happy, more or less. People inherently want to know which side they’re on; they thrive on Us vs. Them. And if rebellion and teenagers don’t go together, then I have been hoodwinked by this “life” game.
If my parents had said to me, “Hey, what’s that groovy new Ted Nugent jam you’re listening to?” I would have chucked Free-For-All (1976) before sunrise. What I wanted to hear was “Turn that shit down!” It’s what all kids want to hear. That’s the way rock n’ roll was supposed to work. Now, I dunno. Shit’s fucked up. Let’s move on.
Beginning in the 1960s, many major American radio formats split mainstream rock music into soft and hard rock. Deriving mainly from folk rock, soft rock puts more emphasis on melody and harmonies, with lyrical themes focused on stupidity, love, everyday life, cowardice, psoriasis, bestiality, camouflage, and relationships gone south, and/or this guy or girl is going to do whatever it takes to keep working that thankless job of trying to get you off, baby. Soft rock was based on the same phony wholesome bullshit that fooled people into watching the The Waltons. Again, another reference you might miss if you weren’t watching American TV in the 70s. Sorry.
Major early soft artists included Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Hollies, James Taylor and Bread.
And these clowns, though hardly considered major artists:
Silver – Wham Bam
Most of all, soft rock is the sum of all the shitty parts of soft and rock. Pillows are nice when they are somewhat soft—call it firm. Skin is nice when it’s soft. Rock, by definition, is hard. The dichotomy of the phrase used to drive me crazy. Anyway, the general consensus is that the soft genre was “born” in the summer of 1970 when the Carpenters’ conquered the airwaves with “(They Long to Be) Close to You” – not coincidentally from an album You Must Hear Before You Die (see 1969-71) – which was followed by Bread’s “Make It with You”. Bread. Worst, yet most descriptive band name ever.
Soft rock eventually reached its commercial peak in the mid-to-late 1970s with acts such as: Billy Joel, Elton John, Chicago, Toto, Barry Manilow, Anne Murray, America, the Bellamy Brothers, Eric Carmen, Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Air Supply, Seals and Crofts, and Fleetwood Mac. And for a while there, everybody dug Olivia Newton-John.
By 1977, some radio stations had switched to an all-soft rock format, and listeners were paying attention. In the early 1980s, the Power Ballad reversed the Earth’s axis and radio formats reflected this change, evolving into “adult contemporary” or “adult album alternative”, including artists such as Journey, Asia, and Genesis, but steering away from any kind of less upsetting rock bias in either direction.
Anyway, that’s how it happened. Here’s why. Eventually, the First Wave of rock n’ roll kids could have been anywhere from 12-21 yrs. old when Elvis Presley hit the scene (1956). They eventually had no choice but to become the adult demographic with the most disposable income, i.e. hit their mid 30s – early 40s. Adults, basically. First Wavers they still enjoyed a good old-fashioned boogie, but their tastes had been refined. They had spouses, kids, mortgages, careers, e. coli…
The Second and Third Waves would rock far too hard for the original Wavers who needed something softer, but still technically classified as a type of rock. They weren’t dead; they were just middle-aged. Now I know how they feel. Thus, the preference of the adults became the government cheese. Like Jaws and Rocky, Billy Joel was coming to a theater near you, soon.
Simultaneously, two positive developments were bubbling under the surface. First, people were starting to dance again, primarily the Second Wave kids, who were approximately 13-17 yrs. old during the height of Beatlemania (1966). By 1976, the pedestrian hippies had consolidated to a pack of wolves that followed the Grateful Dead from town to town. Stoners and no-good-niks gathered to see Uriah Heep open for Montrose at the Aragon Ballroom.
The second and most important development is of course, punk rock. But in 1975-76, scenes were unclear and sloppy. Rock had yet to be re-polarized by the emergence of punk and ultimately new wave. Popular music wasn’t necessarily aimless; it was just idling, waiting to go somewhere, tapping its foot and chain smoking. Cocaine was everywhere. First and Second Wavers were like, “I can’t shake my ass to Black Sabbath” and they were right. Disco appeared on the horizon and the next thing you knew, it was a thing, right there in your living room.
Do you remember the first time you first saw your parents “Do the Hustle”?
I’m going to be straight up with you, people. In 1976, I was seven going on eight years old, and I absolutely loved with all my heart about half of what I heard, whether it was Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” or C.W. McCall’s “Convoy.” Everywhere I went, I heard shit music, and that’s what people seemed to like, and being an agreeable and impressionable youngster, I liked shit music, too.
Therefore, it’s true. I have participated in the activity known as disco dancing. And I listened to shitloads of soft rock. If you were alive in 1976, how could you not?
Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10 Singles of 1976
“Silly Love Songs” – Paul McCartney and Wings
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – Elton John and Kiki Dee
“Disco Lady” – Johnnie Taylor
“December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” – The Four Seasons
“Play That Funky Music” – Wild Cherry
“Kiss And Say Goodbye” – Manhattans
“Love Machine (Part 1)” – The Miracles
“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon
“Love Is Alive” – Gary Wright
“A Fifth of Beethoven” – Walter Murphy and The Big Apple Band
Top 5 International Singles of 1976
“Dancing Queen” – ABBA
“Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
“If You Leave Me Now” – Chicago
“Fernando” – ABBA
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”
It’s bad enough to look and recognize these songs for what most of them are, pure garbage. It’s worse when you lived through the time when they permeated the airwaves. Nowadays, I’m sure there are covens of hipsters whose ironic worship of ABBA and Paul McCartney & Wings is somehow lost on me. I hear that shit and I’m like, “Cut it. Cut it. Cut it!”
As I was saying at the beginning about the music industry and crates of LPs being tossed from trucks, out of those three Kansas studio LPs released in an eighteen-month period, only Leftoverture (1976) contains the one jam we all want to hear, “Carry On My Wayward Son.” And really, do we need to hear it again? To be fair, Rush released three studio records plus a double live LP during the two-year period, but the only one we need to hear is 2112 (1976).
Chicago was on record number ten, or X, as they liked to call it. Rod Stewart was Cat Stevens. CSN&Y was now down to Crosby & Nash, which is like Happy Days without Richie and the Fonz. Oh wait, that was called Joanie & Chachie. Even Lynryrd Skynyrd put out a half-assed record (Gimme Back My Bullets, (1976)).
Even though Presence (1976) didn’t make the original 1001 Albums list, it happens to be my personal favorite Led Zeppelin record. It’s also not a Must Hear unless you really dig the band. Trust me, if you didn’t care for Zeppelin before hearing this album, you really aren’t going to care for them about a minute into “Achilles Last Stand”.
Krautrock suffered as well. Can had a hit in the U.K. with “I Want More” in 1976. It’s not very good, either.
The only good thing I can say about the period is that punk is right our doorstep.
Strikethrough indicates what you probably think it does
Green indicates highly recommended listening
Underlined indicates questionable but ultimately acceptable record
Blue bold italic indicates ABSOLUTELY MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Note: Suggested alternatives are from the same year as the contested entry unless otherwise indicated.
Also, anything in red indicates hazardous material
Albums You Must Hear From 1975-1976…Or Not
Aerosmith – Toys In The Attic (1975)
As good as it gets as far as this band is concerned. Sure, it’s missing some earlier and later hits, but this is all the Aerosmith you’ll ever need in album form that isn’t a greatest hits collection.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Natty Dread (1975)
Another misplaced album – it was released in October 1974 – but probably the most essential Bob Marley record you could own if you had to only have one.
Brian Eno – Another Green World (1975)
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run (1975)
Born To Run is basically the Sgt. Pepper of the singer-songwriter genre. Nobody will ever make this record again. Whether you like it or not, from start to finish, this album sounds like it matters. It reminds me of a classic novel on par with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You pick it up and you can’t put it down. And like reading most Mark Twain novels, you heard Born to Run in high school. If today I heard this for the first time ever, I’d be like, “When did Fonzie form a fuckin’ rock band?”
Curtis Mayfield – There’s No Place Like America Today (1975)
David Bowie – Young Americans (1975)
I’m sure a lot of deep Bowie fans are going to spit and want to slap me, but Young Americans is not a complete must hear. “Fame” is the only gem, and the title track is embarrassing. The Whitest Dude on Earth has no business messing with plastic soul and paper-thin funk. Period. Can Sir Bowie do cocaine? Sure. He’s good like that. Young Americans is second only to Black Sabbath – Vol. 4 in terms of how well you can hear the cocaine.
Leslie West – The Great Fatsby (1975)
Honestly, I’ve never made it all the way through this album but it never fails to make me smile. Fatsby is one of five contenders for Greatest Album Title and Cover of All-Time. Leslie West, formerly of Mountain, may have been a marginalized guitar player. To this day, “Mississippi Queen” stands as one of the most bad-ass songs in the pantheon. Unfortunately, Mountain – Climbing! (1970) didn’t quite make the cut. But give Fatsby a chance! Or 15 minutes.
10cc – The Original Soundtrack (1975)
Dion – Born To Be With You (1975)
For the record, Dion DiMucci has repeatedly disowned, disavowed, and discredited this album; he’s called everything from “unfinished” to “unlistenable.” For once, me and an artist who worked with Phil Spector can agree on something. At the same time, this record has only ever seen the light of day because Pete Townshend and a couple of other cats raved about it. Those dudes can be wrong, too. I’m not onboard with all things related to the SS Townshend. At any rate, I’m wondering if you should sit through this record, as I just did, and it occurred to me how fucking stupid that sounds.
Thin Lizzy – Fighting (1975)
Keith Moon – Two Sides of the Moon (1975)
Two Sides of the Moon features contributions from Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, David Bowie, Joe Walsh of The Eagles, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, Klaus Voorman, John Sebastian, Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles), Spencer Davis, Dick Dale, Suzi Quatro’s sister Patti Quatro and future actor Miguel Ferrer. It should be on your turntable. You should hear it just for the lone original song credited to Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Richard Starkey, “Together”. And if there is one other dude who can get away with a chuckling version of “In My Life”, it’s Keith Moon.
Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s The Way Of The World (1975)
Emmylou Harris – Pieces Of The Sky (1975)
Joni Mitchell – The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)
Keith Jarrett – The Koln Concert (1975)
EW&F = “Shining Star” and that’s it.
Emmylou H. = All of side one. She sings real purty.
Joni = Maybe the first song?
Jarrett = As much as you can stomach. It is the best-selling piano album of all-time. If I’m being honest, and it’s clear that I have absolutely nothing to gain by being disingenuous, then the truth is the only reason I bothered to listen to this record is because of a David Foster Wallace story, “Girl With Curious Hair“, which takes place almost entirely at a Keith Jarrett concert, and all of the main characters except the protagonist are on LSD.
Art Garfunkel – Breakaway (1975)
Man, I was only two years old, but nobody took the break-up of Simon & Garfunkel harder than this cat. Let’s cut the shit. Artie is my favorite vocalist of the folk-rock genre, hands-down. Paul wrote some great songs, but left to his own devices, he started to believe his own bullshit. Paul could sing OK, but Artie elevated “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from a folky-gospel dirge into a choir of angels descending from heaven unto earth. Granted, Breakaway is about as soft as soft rock gets. But it’s Artie. I love him unconditionally. He is the voice of my childhood, and he’ll always get a free pass.
Neil Young – Tonight’s The Night (1975)
Neu! – Neu! 75 (1975)
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Slam dunks. No comment.
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive (1975)
This album represents the precursor to a torrent of double live LPs heading our way. It would be absolutely ridiculous to call this a Must Hear because it sold a shit load of copies, and hence, made an indelible impression on the music industry. Are there any jams on it? Maybe. Kind of. That depends primarily on your definition of jams.
Aside from two classic rock radio cuts, this album is 90 minutes of embarrassing choogle, from “Something’s Happening” to “Doobie Wah” and a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Kiss – Alive! (1975)
For as long as I can remember, which means since 1975, there has been an on-going discussion as to how much of this record is actually “live.” In his autobiography Kiss and Make-Up, Gene Simmons stated that very little corrective work was done in the studio. Gene Simmons is full of shit.
Somewhere along the way, producer Eddie Kramer stated that the only original live recording on the album is Peter Criss’ drum tracks. Criss has also claimed, in his 2012 autobiography Makeup to Breakup, that the only original live recordings on the album were his drum tracks.
During the program Classic Albums, the band admitted that changes had been made; vocals overdubbed; guitar solos re-recorded, etc. Even the crowd sounds were manipulated. Of course, they considered the changes minor, and presented various excuses for their production decisions. In particular, they had difficulties capturing vocals due to the natural jumps, dancing, and other stage activities.
In other words, Alive! is a live album in name only. Same with Frampton Comes Alive.
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
If you were ever going to hear me say anything good about Pink Floyd (post-Syd Barrett), it would probably have something to do with this album.
Rahul Dev Burman – Shalimar/College Girl (Soundtrack) (1975)
R.D. Burman is an Indian film score composer, considered one of the seminal music directors of the Indian film industry, i.e. Bollywood. You might as well listen to Amit Kumar. Or Kumar Sanu and Anauradah Paduwal or Kishmore Kumar.
AC/DC – T.N.T. (1975)
The Tubes – The Tubes (1975)
“White Punks on Dope” has to be the best song of 1975, hands down.
Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information (1975)
The Dictators – Go Girl Crazy! (1975)
Both of these records are Must Hear because neither artist came anywhere near this particular genius, before or since.
First of all, Shuggie? Otis? Best two names in combination ever.
Second, Handsome Dick Manitoba? I’d book myself on a three-week cruise if he was the director. The Dictators are only reason I ever cared about professional wrestling. Their cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” is atrocious, but “Back to Africa” is fucking hilarious.
I mean, seriously, you don’t need to hear this album all the way through. It’s amateur shit. But you should hear it because it’s a precursor what we call punk. Kind of. The Sex Pistols are the same band with Johnny Rotten on vox and an inferior guitar player (Steve Jones).
Tim Buckley – Greetings From L.A. (1975)
Look, I hate to belabor the issue, but when I’m scratching these records, I’m not saying you don’t need to hear Tim Buckley. You do need to hear some of anybody’s work in order to make your own judgment. All I’m saying is that 45 minutes spent sitting through Greetings From L.A. could be better spent listening to or doing something else, i.e. it is not a Must Hear.
Tom Waits – Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)
Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975)
ABBA – Arrival (1976)
Tom Waits…sigh. You let him start hanging around and next thing you know… He shows up with a band and plays your living room. Nighthawks At The Diner is probably the best live album of the period.
Red Headed Stranger is the Willie album to hear before he went Stardust, which also might be a Must Hear. We’ll see.
You should hear about 30 seconds of Arrival and then slap yourself in the face as hard as possible.
Aerosmith – Rocks (1976)
Look, I know that many, many cats think this is the best Aerosmith record, and maybe the best hard rock album of the year. I think you’ll be OK if you never hear “Nobody’s Fault”, which might be the heaviest thing the band ever did, because hair metal will start to make sense.
Boston – Boston (1976)
The only reason you shouldn’t listen to this album all the way through is if you were born prior to 1970, or you’re under the impression that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an original song. That said, it contains virtually all of Boston’s best cuts and in some way could be considered a greatest hits collection.
If You’re Feeling Fruity Suggested Alternative:
Steve Miller Band – Fly Like an Eagle (1976)
Kinda surprised that Fry Rike Regal isn’t a Must Hear. But then, after sitting through it again, I’m not surprised.
David Bowie – Station To Station (1976)
Joan Armatrading – Joan Armatrading (1976)
Upon losing my entire record collection in 1987 to exceedingly flawed decision-making, there was an entire decade where I didn’t own a turntable or any vinyl LPs. For a couple of those years, my roommates were Bob and Ron of Bob and Ron’s Record Club, cats who took record collecting as seriously as you might imagine. I didn’t really need to buy any records with those two cranking out jams 24/7.
It wasn’t until my uncle Jim called me one day out of the blue in late 1997 and asked if I would be interested in his old turntable and receiver. As an added bonus, he offered his vinyl collection. And so, that’s how I wound up getting back into the vinyl game.
During an early record-buying excursion in the vicinity of Wicker Park, I wound up in Reckless Records, where I scoured the cut-out bins for hidden gems. So I went up to the counter with this Joan Armatrading record and approached the clerk (or the owner, I dunno), who was this tall, long-haired hefty cat who I’d seen working sound tech at Cabaret Metro, I can’t remember his name. I want to say Gus, but…anyway. Me and this cat had a vague acquaintance, and I had asked his opinion before.
“What do you know about this?” I asked, setting the LP on the counter.
Gus picked up the record, raised it to chin height, and let it fall flat back on to the counter. “What do I know about it? I know that you’re not buying it.”
“OK. But what? I was under the impression she was like the black Joni Mitchell.”
“Well, you were wrong. Are you familiar with Tracy Chapman?”
“Yes. ‘Fast Car’.”
“Hootie and the Blowfish?”
“I’m not selling you this record.”
Back to the cut-out bins.
Joni Mitchell – Hejira (1976)
While almost everyone else was running headlong from anything remotely related to jazz or jazz fusion, Joni Mitchell slowly but surely found her inner sophisticated lounge singer. I don’t think it’s tragic or anything. Mitchell has one Must Hear Album.
Everybody talks about Rumours being the great touchstone of the 1970s, but if I’m forced to listen to this band, I’m going with this one.
Jorge Ben – Africa Brasil (1976)
Kiss – Destroyer (1976)
I’ve never heard of Jorge Ben, and I’ve never knowingly heard a note of his music. And as easy as it would have been to Google the fucker and sample a jam or two, I’m not going to do it.
Destroyer contained a massive hit single named after a woman who happened to share the name of my adopted sister. If it had only contained “Rock n’ Roll All Nite”, Destroyer could have completely explained the Kiss phenomenon. It’s not their worst record by a time zone. Anyway, in 1976 they also put out Rock and Roll Over, which contains my favorite Kiss song, “Calling Dr. Love” – by far the Greatest Moment in Cowbell History – and would be my one Must Sit Through Kiss Studio Album.
Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1976)
Ted Nugent – Free for All (1976)
AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap (1976)
Parliament – Mothership Connection (1976)
Peter Tosh – Legalize It (1976)
Look, I’m about as pro-ganja as you can get, but I’m telling you the title song is the only jam on Legalize It. The rest is forgettable at best.
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
The other night, I watched a Ramones show from 1977 at Hammersmith Odeon and was shocked at how good they were.
Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
The first handful of Rush records are pretty sketchy, but fun. 2112 is when they put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Side one is composed of the seven-part title track suite; while side two contains some of the Rush’s best material to date, including “Twilight Zone” and “A Passage to Bangkok”, which was pretty smart on their behalf, because a continuation of the 2112 theme might have worn a little thin by the 50th minute or so.
Deep breath. OK. I love Stevie Wonder. At several times in my life, the only thing I listened to was Stevie Wonder. I have listened to all four sides plus the EP of Songs In the Key of Life more times than anyone can count. You need to hear about half of this Double Album Syndrome and the rest can he perused at another time.
I said all that bad shit about the Byrds and look-ee here. The Byrds on Viagra. Although we’re going to get a couple of great Tom Petty records in the near future, I love love love this record. It’s one of those LPs that just seems pure and uncomplicated. Kudos to TP & the H-breakers.