So, sue me! I have left off my list two of possibly the biggest selling albums of the year: Wings at the Speed of Sound and Rod Stewart’s A Night on the Town. Wanna know why? I find them tedious and boring, even though I am currently listening to the former right now. They are just not these great artists’ best albums.
Unfortunately, I could not justify leaving space of Wild Cherry’s debut album, even if it does contain their brilliant one hit “Play That Funky Music.” Same goes for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and their fun The Roaring Silence (with their Springsteen cover “Blinded by the Light) and Klaatu’s “are they The Beatles incognito or not?” debut. I love them all, but they are not classics. They represent curious albums that for some reason hold a dear place in my heart.
No, classic albums have a clear artistic statement being made by the artist. Maybe it takes years to discover it, maybe it’s immediate. They may have massive commercial appeal and maybe they did not, at least during their time. But, most have gone on to (or continue to) influence other artists, future trends or all of the above. Plus, in all honesty, I divide music into two specific categories: good and bad. And, what may be perceived to be “good” by me, may be horrible to you, and vice versa. That’s the true beauty of music. Whatever touches your heart and soul, that’s the music which is important to you and me.
So, let’s finish off the year of the bicentennial.
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers (1976). This album was actually recorded in 1973 with former Velvet Underground man John Cale as the producer. This album is full of geeky lyrics, stripped down VU-influenced rock that fit perfectly into the new punk scene that was developing in the NYC underground. Now, the Lou Reed detached cynicism is replaced with Jonathan Richman’s nerdy obsessions, subject matter that was new to rock music yet would soon become common place. Just listen to the Ramones, Talking Heads, Weezer or any other nerd rockers from this moment onward. Oh, the band includes a future member of Talking Heads, guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison.
Parliament – Mothership Connection (1976). George Clinton’s band of cosmic funkateers seemed to drop on Earth as some mix of Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention and Kiss just in time to bring the funk to the masses. These acid-drenched, cocaine-fueled musicians tore the roof off the sucker and burnt the mother down with this album. Finally, the future was now!
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive (1976). Kiss’ Alive! may have won the hearts of teenage boys everywhere, it was Frampton Comes Alive that sold the most copies, ever at the time. Of course, there was much to appeal to the masses: good songs, great performances, likable personality and Frampton’s good looks. 1976 was Frampton’s year.
Peter Tosh – Legalize It (1976). Want to know how deep the talent was in Bob Marley’s Wailers? Peter Tosh left the band at the end of 1975, and Marley still released some awfully good music. Of course, Tosh released this ode to marijuana that remains one of the finest examples of reggae music ever released. Tosh going solo allowed him to develop his own self-righteous voice.
Queen – A Day at the Races (1976). Many critics incorrectly have side this album was a simple rehash of A Night at the Opera due to the similar album title and artwork. I’d argue that this album was a the beginning of the band transitioning from rock gods into rock immortals. Seriously, how is “Somebody to Love,” broadly an ode to gospel music, specifically a nod to Aretha Franklin, just an obvious followup to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” other than the layered vocals? And, ANATO didn’t have a rocker like “Tie Your Mother Down.” Sure, they are similarities, but that’s the Queen sound, not redundant ideas.
Ramones – Ramones (1976). If The Stooges, New York Dolls and Patti Smith all are considered to be the pre-punk calling cards, that’s because the Ramones’ debut is when the dam broke open. Yes, the Ramones were NYC caricatures, but that was all part of the joke. The music was the real thing. Afterwards, musicians of the Eighties and Nineties all praised how they learned to play their instruments by putting the sound through one speaker to learn the guitar and vocals and the other for the bass and drums. Now, that’s how you spread the gospel of punk in the modern world.
Rush – 2112 (1976). After having the world open upon hearing Kiss, teenage boys in my middle school were ready for the next thing. And into that void comes a Canadian band to talk all about getting authority figures off our backs. And, 2112 became something of an underground phenomenon, as the album was passed around from boy to boy until it reached me. Suddenly, I was discovering Ayn Rand and reading her books. And, just as quickly, I was discarding her “philosophy” as being too simplistic and lacking a workable way to be extrapolated to a macroscopic world. Man, was I ever a complicated kid.
Steve Miller Band – Fly like an Eagle (1976). If modern Pink Floyd were the blues for the Space Age, then the Steve Miller Band represented blues for SkyLab, not as exciting and deep but still modern sounding. Miller really captured the artistic and commercial zeitgeist of blues for the modern man by incorporating synthesizers. Today, it might sound a little dated, but that’s cool. It still sounds and smells like 1976.
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1976). This double album AND an EP is Wonder’s masterpiece. For Prince fans, this album represents BOTH his 1999 AND Sign ‘o’ the Times simultaneously. You get everything that Wonder was working on previously, such as funk, soul, easy listening, as well as more controlled synthesized music, jazz flourishes and even an ode to the big band era in the timeless “Sir Duke.”
The Runaways – The Runaways (1976). You younguns just don’t understand this fact. This was the first all-teen female rock/punk band ever (apologies to the ladies of The Shags and Fanny). Yes, the band was marketed as jail-bait by the pervy Kim Fowley. But, he did put together a talented band, with punk godmother Joan Jett, punk-glam-chic Cherie Curie, metal goddess Lita Ford, and the excellent rhythm section of bassist, future Jeopardy champion, Jackie Fox and supremely talented drummer Sandy West. Together, these ladies knocked down the door opened by the Wilson sisters of Heart.
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976). Bassist Phil Lynott, the obvious Irish-rocker poet heir to Van Morrison and a graduate of the Springsteen school of wordplay and sincerity, brought his Irish hard rock vision to the States. Unfortunately, his music did not find the large following in the States that it deserved. But, those who heard them became musicians themselves. If they had been on any other Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot other than the 2020 list, they would be shoo-ins for induction.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976). See if you can discover the influences of this band on their debut? Let’s see, hmmm, there’s The Byrds’ Rickenbacker jangle and their vocal harmonies, but there’s something Stones-ish in their rhythm section, their guitars are steeped in the blues, and I hear some definite punk attitude in the lyrics and Petty’s vocals. Oh, but the band is so much more than all of their influences. This is the beginning of a brilliant band. Oh, my proof? “American Girl” and “Breakdown,” of course.
Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon (1976). Technically, this is Zevon’s sophomore release, but it does seem like a whole new career when compared to his stinker of a debut. This album has the harder-edged West Coast sound of Ronstadt, Browne and the Mac that was so popular at the time. But, it is full of all the cynical sass that made Zevon a favorite of late night king and Ball State alum David Letterman. The album includes two songs that Ronstadt will beautifully sing straight, without a trace of the acerbic wit of Zevon’s originals” “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” I still cannot believe that he is not in the RRHOF. Next to Chic, Carole King and session bassist Carol Kaye, that is the biggest snub in history.
And that’s the way I see 1976. Next time, we will be starting my high school years.