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Best 70s Albums: 20 Great Masterworks Of The Decade
Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best 70s Albums: 20 Great Masterworks Of The Decade

From fearless folk outings to hard-rock missives, the best 70s albums rescued the decade with a courageous ear and a progressive ambition.

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The 70s was a challenging decade, both politically and socially, but when it came to music, innovation burst forth like a levee breaking. Not only did challenger genres such as soul and punk flood the airwaves, but rock’n’roll continued to be a force for cultural change by pioneering the album format’s viability as a vehicle for artistic endeavour. Here is how the best 70s albums summed up the spirit of their time…

Listen to our 70s playlist, and check out our best 70s albums, below.

20: Joni Mitchell: ‘Blue’ (1971)

Undeniably affecting and uncompromisingly sparse, Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album, Blue, established her as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of any era. With poetic flair and unrivalled musicality, the album hops from piano-led balladry to acoustic jazz-pop, displaying a deftness of touch and heartfelt emotion. Reflecting on the dissolution of a relationship, Mitchell’s songwriting offered a window into the melancholy of countercultural womanhood.

What makes Blue one of the best 70s albums is how it not only couched the waning spirits of the flower-power generation in personal terms, it also mesmerised listeners with the quality of Joni Mitchell’s mezzo-soprano voice on the beautifully woozy love ballad A Case Of You. From the deeply romantic Christmas song River to the upbeat ditties of California and Carey, the album signalled the full flowering of a unique talent.

Must hear: California

19: Bruce Springsteen: ‘Born To Run’ (1975)

Hailed as an instant classic, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run perfectly encapsulated of how 70s rock’n’roll should sound. With the Phil Spector-esque “Wall Of Sound” production values of its title track to the blasts of bluesy harmonica of Thunder Road, Springsteen boasted the showmanship of Elvis Presley and the beatnik poetry of Bob Dylan in equal measure.

Characterised by the thunderous power of The E Street Band and the bluster of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, Born To Run takes its place among the best 70s albums for the way in which it reminded listeners of the transcendental potential of rock’n’roll, mixing the trials and tribulations of blue-collar existence with all the drama of a Wagnerian opera. Strong and enduring, it went the distance.

Must hear: Born To Run

18: David Bowie: ‘“Heroes”’ (1977)

The second entry in David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” – a series of experimental albums created with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno after decamping to West Germany – the 1977 album “Heroes” saw him serve up a combination of art-rock and avant-garde pop. Recorded at Hansa Studios within eyeshot of Soviet soldiers manning Checkpoint Charlie, Bowie’s songs captured the dark mood of a divided nation, the album’s title track summoning the image of two lovers under the shadow of a forbidding wall.

With its unique combination of Brian Eno’s ambient instrumentals and Robert Fripp’s jagged guitar work, “Heroes” not only soundtracked the seedy underbelly of the Berlin nightclub scene, but songs such as Beauty And The Beast captured the emotional push-and-pull of Bowie’s mental state at the time. As a totemic influence on the rise of post-punk, it remains an essential Bowie record.

Must hear: “Heroes”

17: Simon And Garfunkel: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (1970)

By the time of their 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, there was no doubting Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s abilities, with the former’s hyper-literate lyrics being perfectly complemented by the duo’s blissful harmonies. Showcasing chirpy pop ditties in the shape of Cecilia and El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could) and including narrative songs such as The Boxer, the record marked the moment that Simon And Garfunkel combined their masterful folk-rock talents into one perfect package.

Bridge Over Troubled Water’s greatest moment, however, lies in its gospel-tinged title track, which swells with all the slow-building glory of a religious hymn. Thanks to Garfunkel’s angelic vocals, the song still sounds heaven-sent, and will stir the heartstrings of any congregation. Selling over 25 million copies, the album was Simon And Garfunkel’s ticket to immortality.

Must hear: Bridge Over Troubled Water

16: Joy Division: ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)

Reshaping punk fury into a gloomy and despondent sonic depiction of Manchester’s grey streets, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures pioneered the post-punk sound thanks to innovative producer Martin Hannett’s ear for unsettling ambience. Frontman Ian Curtis’ baritone voice, meanwhile, melded perfectly with Bernard Sumner’s razor-sharp riffs and Peter Hook’s floor-rattling basslines to create a tone poem to urban decay.

Ranging from the mechanised surge of Disorder to the funereal march of New Dawn Fades, Unknown Pleasures perfectly captured the mood of late-70s Britain. With a Peter Saville-designed cover depicting the radio emissions of a dying star, the album was also an iconic breakthrough for Factory Records, and its status as a gothic rock touchstone ensures its continued place among the best 70s albums.

Must hear: Disorder

15: David Bowie: ‘Low’ (1977)

David Bowie’s first album of 1977, Low mixed electronic music with the art-rock stylings Bowie piloted on Station To Station, imbuing his R&B-inspired sound with a more skittish, angular kick. Atmospheric and forbidding, the album’s first half ranged from the funk-pop oddity of Sound And Vision to the futuristic honky-tonk of Be My Wife.

The influence of Kraftwerk creeps into its second half, which contains the chilly instrumental Warszawa and the ethereal synthscapes of Subterraneans. With Bowie on fine crooning form, and his sense of eccentric songcraft at its peak, Low’s reputation as one of the best 70s albums is proven by just how many new wave and post-punk artists used it as a sonic instruction manual.

Must hear: Be My Wife

14: Bob Dylan: ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975)

Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood On The Tracks is a folk-rock masterwork shrouded in mystery. Claimed by its creator to have been inspired by a collection of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, many critics have interpreted it as a breakup album written while Dylan was in the throes of divorcing his first wife, Sara Lownds. Wherever the truth lies, Tangled Up In Blue is easily one of Dylan’s best songs, while Idiot Wind is a howl of incandescent rage at a failing relationship.

With emotions weathered while taking shelter from the storm and opining how a simple twist of fate can tear one’s heart asunder, Blood On The Tracks proved Dylan could still produce work worthy not only of a place among the best 70s albums, but of being ranked up there with anything he produced the previous decade.

Must hear: Tangled Up In Blue

13: The Rolling Stones: ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971)

The Rolling Stones truly hit their stride in the early 70s, and their 1971 album, Sticky Fingers, remains arguably their finest hour. Adding Stax-esque horns to their mélange of blues, country-rock and rock’n’roll swagger, it found Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on particularly fine form with majestic hits such as Wild Horses.

With a controversial cover, designed by Andy Warhol, that allowed the listener to unzip the crotch on a pair of denim jeans, Sticky Fingers’ musical contents were just as headline-grabbing, consolidating the Stones’ reputation as the bad boys of rock’n’roll.

Must hear: Wild Horses

12: The Clash: ‘London Calling’ (1979)

Despite the Year Zero manifesto of punk rock, The Clash’s 1979 double-album, London Calling, proved that the scrappy noise of streetwise oiks could coalesce into a diverse but coherent musical adventure. Akin to The Beatles’ sprawling “White Album”, London Calling was a genre-hopping voyage into punk, reggae, rockabilly and R&B, showcasing Joe Strummer’s political invective (Clampdown) and Mick Jones’ disillusioned pop nous (Lost In The Supermarket).

With an iconic cover that updated Elvis Presley’s debut-album sleeve for the late 70s, London Calling also positioned The Clash – and, more importantly, punk itself – as forward-thinking inheritors of rock’n’roll’s mission for social and musical revolution. Expertly produced by Guy Stevens, it remains a flawless record that capped off a tumultuous decade.

Must hear: London Calling

11: Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going On’ (1971)

Despite being one of the foremost soul labels of the 60s, Motown Records were seemingly reluctant to inject social commentary into their music. But then, in 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, a politically charged album that revolutionised soul with the anti-Vietnam War protest anthem of its title track and the lament for environmental degradation that is Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).

By decrying Black poverty on Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) and musically infusing jazz and gospel influences, Gaye took a heroic stand. Unsurprisingly, What’s Going On is not only now considered one of the best 70s albums, but also one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s hard to argue with that: the power of Gaye’s social consciousness and his righteous ire still has much to say about the world we live in.

Must hear: What’s Going On

10: David Bowie: ‘Hunky Dory’ (1971)

Paving the way for his ascent to glam rock superstardom, David Bowie’s 1971 album, Hunky Dory, was a playful foray into the Space Oddity songwriter’s carnival-esque imagination. Embracing surrealist art’s cut-up technique to inspire his lyrics, and paying tribute to pop-art heroes such as Andy Warhol, the album saw Bowie reach into his grab-bag of art-rock compulsions and pull out a cohesive body of work.

The Velvet Underground-inspired boogie of Queen Bitch hinted at Ziggy Stardust’s arrival on Earth, while the quirky piano ballad Life On Mars? remains one of the best David Bowie songs, marrying sci-fi eccentricities with the oddball socially-conscious wordplay of Dylan’s Desolation Row. Positioning its creator as a mix of Dylan, Syd Barrett and Lou Reed, Hunky Dory showcases a burgeoning talent on the threshold of rock immortality.

Must hear: Life On Mars?

9: Neil Young: ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)

Neil Young’s 1970 album, After The Gold Rush, established the Canadian singer-songwriter as an inheritor of Bob Dylan’s social conscience. With harrowing songs such as Only Love Can Break Your Heart, it proved the songwriter could triumphantly emerge from the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young to stand alone as a singular talent at the start of the new decade.

Poignant and stark, the songs on After The Gold Rush – particularly its title track – conjure a feeling of a lost Americana: a dustbowl-strewn terrain of empty-handed Wild West cowboys and riderless horses. Elsewhere, fitting in with the disconsolate mood on the rest of the album, the fiery Southern Man attacks racism in the Deep South. Young would go on to greater feats – among them 1972’s country-rock breakthrough, Harvest, and his haunting On The Beach – but After The Gold Rush unlocked that door.

Must hear: Only Love Can Break Your Heart

8: Stevie Wonder: ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ (1976)

By 1976, Stevie Wonder had gone from Motown boy wonder to purveyor of boho soul, constantly experimenting and branching out into funk and jazz-rock. After signing a $13 million deal with the label, he released his 1976 double-album, Songs In The Key Of Life, which, jumping from the hot-footed funk of I Wish to the gospel-tinged hymn of As, remains arguably his most ambitious record.

From Wonder’s Duke Ellington tribute, Sir Duke, to his razor-sharp focus on social justice, on tracks such as Village Ghetto Land and Black Man, Songs In The Key Of Life was to 70s soul what Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was to 60s rock. Winning Album Of The Year at the 1977 Grammys, it found Wonder at the peak of his powers: a superstar gifting us one of the best 70s albums.

Must hear: Sir Duke

7: Eagles: ‘Hotel California’ (1976)

Reflecting the demise of idyllic Lauren Canyon hippiedom as it became a hedonistic cul-de-sac, Eagles’ country-rock classic Hotel California saw the band check in to the mainstream with one of the best 70s albums. “That record explores the underbelly of success, the darker side of Paradise,” founding member Glenn Frey later said. Having sold over 32 million copies to date, the album also offers a window into a decade in thrall to decadence and ennui.

Best of all is the title track itself – a masterclass in storytelling, with a ghostly night man warning, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Immaculately produced, the album as a whole yielded FM radio gems such as the road-tripper’s favourite, Life In The Fast Lane, and the sleepy West Coast vibe of New Kid In Town.

Must hear: Hotel California

6: Black Sabbath: ‘Paranoid’ (1970)

The album that arguably gave birth to heavy metal, Paranoid took a sludgy amble through the swamplands of Black Sabbath’s breed of Brummy blues-rock, as guitarist Tony Iommi’s dark and lumbering riffs, drummer Bill Ward’s nightmarish grooves and Ozzy Osbourne’s trademark banshee wail perfectly captured the gloomy mood of a Western culture that had grown tired of the peace-and-love era.

Making Black Sabbath popular in the US, Paranoid peaked at No.12 on the Billboard 200 and placed the group among the best rock bands of all time. The anti-war screed of War Pigs sat alongside the sci-fi stomp of Iron Man, while the uptempo holler of the album’s title track screamed a new, heavier direction for rock’n’roll. Ensuring its place among the best 70s albums, Paranoid is ultimately responsible for heavy metal as we know it.

Must hear: Paranoid

5: Fleetwood Mac: ‘Rumours’ (1977)

Amid relationship breakdowns and extramarital strife, Fleetwood Mac summoned magic to create their 1977 masterpiece, Rumours. A British blues-rock outfit formerly fronted by Peter Green, the band’s rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie had breathed new life into the group earlier in the decade thanks to the addition of McVie’s wife Christine on keyboards and songwriting duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.

To this day, Rumours is still regarded as one of the best 70s albums, and has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. Fusing West Coast melodicism with driving soft rock, singles such as the somnambulant Dreams, the buoyant pop-rock of Don’t Stop and the fist-pumping soap-opera dramatics of Go Your Own Way saw the band rise above their relationship difficulties and create a record that won a Grammy Award for Album Of The Year.

Must hear: Don’t Stop

4: Led Zeppelin: Untitled (aka ‘Led Zeppelin IV’) (1971)

Led Zeppelin’s fourth album – officially untitled, but alternately christened by fans as “Led Zeppelin IV”, “Four Symbols” and “Zoso” – saw the band reach their hard-rock zenith. Guitarist Jimmy Page‘s affinity with the blues and his interest in the occult swirled together with Robert Plant’s quasi-mystic lyrical exploration of English mythology. Without a doubt, it defined the sound of what would evolve into heavy metal.

Boasting otherworldly ballads such as the immortal Stairway To Heaven, the hellhound blues-rock of Black Dog and the cacophonous beats of John Bonham’s drumming on When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin’s 1971 album catapulted the group into stadiums as hard-rock giants. Their third No.1 album in a row, it also became their biggest seller and currently stands at having sold nearly 40 million copies worldwide.

Must hear: Rock And Roll

3: Pink Floyd: ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

Solidifying Pink Floyd’s status as Britain’s greatest prog-rock band, 1975’s Wish You Were Here was an unsettling voyage into spine-chilling synths and mysterious Minimoog. Full of epic and near-celestial production techniques, the 26-minute nine-part suite Shine On You Crazy Diamond invited guitarist Dave Gilmour to give listeners a trance-inducing display of his innate virtuosity, colliding with lyrics that explored the downfall of the group’s co-founder Syd Barrett.

Earning its place among the very best 70s albums, Wish You Were Here also paid tribute to Barrett though its title track, a folksy acoustic ballad which acted as a tearjerking postcard to the group’s old friend. A concept album that meditated on themes of absence and loss, as well as the pitfalls of the music business, Wish You Were Here stands tall as one of Pink Floyd’s finest achievements.

Must hear: Wish You Were Here

2: David Bowie: ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972)

Though David Bowie would go on to create experimental classics such as Low and “Heroes”, it was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars that truly made him a household name. Adopting the extraterrestrial persona of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie updated the 60s freak-scene subculture for the glam-rock era by pioneering a mixture of performance art and balls-to-the-wall rock’n’roll.

Telling the story of an imminent apocalyptic disaster, the 1972 album swung from sci-fi-tinged operatics (Starman) to doomed romanticism (Rock’n’Roll Suicide), with Mick Ronson’s electric guitar sounding like it had beamed in from another world. A career-making turn for David Bowie, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders from Mars proved that glam rock could be just as cinematic as Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian cult movie A Clockwork Orange.

Must hear: Ziggy Stardust

1: Pink Floyd: ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1973)

Imbuing their sweeping psych-influenced soundscapes with philosophical ruminations on modern life, Pink Floyd’s prog-rock masterpiece The Dark Side Of The Moon is a stone-cold classic. With Roger Waters’ lyrics exploring deeper themes of materialism, mortality and social alienation (Money, Time, Brain Damage), the group created a concept album that gave us a comprehensive hypothesis on the state of society.

Creatively mixing tape splicing and cutting-edge synths with David Gilmour’s divine guitar work, the group pushed sonic boundaries to craft a magnum opus that spent a whopping 741 weeks on the Billboard chart. Easily topping our list of the best 70s albums, The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the best-selling records of all-time, its global sales count currently standing at 45 million and counting.

Must hear: Money

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