When looking upon my portion of my 1000 albums list, I notice that 1971 really is a cross-section of music that has been the foundation of the classic rock radio format that has been forced down our throats since the late-Seventies. And, it’s fine. I know I bitch quite a bit about the state of radio, but it has nothing to do with this music. It’s simply that an age group felt alienated by popular music beginning with the MTV revolution of the Eighties that they felt the need to exert their power and ended up killing the vary thing that made their music so compelling in the first place – allowing music to fuel change and not become a cash cow.
But, I get it! I live in a dream world where the youth’s music actually drives popular culture like it did for me in the mid-Seventies. I guess I have never really bought into this whole “I’ll get mine and the hell with you mentality.” Does that make me naive? No. Cynical? Probably. Skeptical. Definitely! So what have I done throughout my life? Been a major hypocrite by being a major consumer, of course. But, I try to talk a good game.
So, I use music to help me deal with my shortcomings as an individual. Like sport, it is an equalizer. Either you are good or you are not. So, let’s focus on what I feel like are the better albums of 1971.
Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971). Ozzy, Tommy, Bill and Geezer made, if you can believe it, a sludgier, dare I say grungier, album than before. I say that this album may have invented the careers of such diverse artists as Iron Maiden, Queens of the Stone Age and Soundgarden, to name a few. “Sweet Leaf” and “Children of the Grave” are the big ones here.
Carole King – Tapestry (1971). Carole King had all ready solidified herself in the annals of rock history as part of the songwriting team of Goffin and King. Then, she released this monster and everything changed for her. Even if she never released another album, King would have remained a giant in the singer/songwriter world of the Seventies. The new songs, like “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel the Earth Move” fit right in next to her reimaginations of her hits for other artists, such as “(You Make Me Like) A Natural Woman,” for a delightful laidback listen.
David Bowie – Hunky Dory (1971). Bowie had been making some fantastic music prior to this, but nothing like this. “Life on Mars?” is an outstanding acoustic song, but Bowie had me at “Wam bam, thank you Ma’am!” during “Changes.” After this, I became a lifetime Bowie fan.
Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors (1971). Give Dolly her rock due! The woman is a terrific songwriter, and this album is her masterwork. Yes, she wrote other huge songs (“Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5,” “Here I Go Again,” etc.), but this album is such a personal statement of perseverance which makes it stand as Dolly’s landmark.
Don McLean – American Pie (1971). The title song is an immortal tale of the history of rock & roll. Everything about the song is such a touchstone in American culture. I remember singing this song in the early-Eighties with other college students in various locations like the dish room of the dormitory cafeteria or in a bar in Wisconsin. But, the album is iconic as well, especially the cover photo of McLean’s painted thumb.
Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971). This album, along with its predecessor may not have seemed like the big-selling albums of Elton’s career as the albums that will follow over the next three or four years, but they do establish Elton as a major artist. Even if the rest of the album was lame, it would still be known for “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon,” two of John’s most beloved songs.
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971). George Clinton is the Frank Zappa of funk music. And that point is driven home with this fantastic album that set the stage for the likes of hip hop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To hear one of the best guitar solos ever recorded, look no further than the title track in which Clinton allegedly told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play “like your mamma just died.” Hazel is one of the criminally underrated guitarists of all time (along with Terry Kath of Chicago).
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson (1971). As a kid, you had to love “Coconut.” Then, as an angst-ridden teen, you loved Harry’s version of the Badfinger song “Without You.” But, as an adult, you truly appreciate the genius of Harry Nilsson and realize what a shame it is that he wrecked his life with alcohol, leading to his untimely death in 1994. This guy was a terrific talent, both as an unparalleled singer and a terrific songwriter. This album was his ultimate statement.
Isaac Hayes – Shaft (1971). Hey kids! Isaac Hayes was much more than Chef from South Park. The man was a musical genius who created one of the most enduring blaxploitation film soundtracks ever. Left put it succinctly, Hayes is a bad motherf-! “Shut your mouth!” I’m talkin’ by Isaac Hayes!
Janis Joplin – Pearl (1971). Big Brother & the Holding Company may have put Janis Joplin on the map, this solo album was intended to mark her as one of her generation’s finest vocalists. This is the stuff of legends. “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz” are the big ones.
Jethro Tull – Aqualung (1971). Let me be honest. This is the ONLY Jethro Tull album that I can sit through. But, for some reason, maybe it’s the humor in the title song, I like this one. This is the one time I could get into the use of a flute on a rock album. Plus, sometimes it’s just nice to hear some good cynical lyrics once in a while.
John Lennon – Imagine (1971). Lennon put The Beatles in his rearview mirror on the previous album, so it was no surprise that he was going to make an major statement on this one. And, boy, did he ever! The title song is a secular hymn if there ever has been one. In all honesty, I think he became bigger with this album and song.
John Prine – John Prine (1971). The Bob Dylan of Appalachia released his debut and stuffed it full of his classics that you must hear before you die. There was a major reason that some many musicians of all generations paid tribute to the man after falling victim to COVID-19 in the spring. This is the album where your lesson in his songwriting should begin.
Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971). Surprisingly, this album was Prince’s favorite. But, why not?! It’s is beautiful in its sparse sadness. This album happens to be Mitchell’s best album in a stellar career. The woman bares her soul on this album with songs like “A Case of You,” “California,” “Little Green” and “My Old Man.” Just a stunning display of vulnerability.
See you in a couple of days for the follow up!