This list began just as idea based in an understanding that the recording/music industry is so very different from that which has existed in the past. The money has largely fallen out of the business, and reports on the shrinkage of the funds available from recording companies are really something. It's due to the Internet, or digital sales, or ... who knows?
But the changes have also meant that people can literally do it for themselves -- you don't need a major label recording contract or even a distributor to bring your music to a wider audience. And here's the question: Has more autonomy made for better music, or worse? My hypothesis was that that there is more variety these days, and more quality/honest stuff. I decided to test the hypothesis by looking back 40 years, a time when a label and a contract were essential, and the money was just starting to show up by the truckload. The conclusion? Well, see for yourself.
1. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"
An utter and complete classic that is as breathtaking today -- in fact, probably more so -- than when it was released. It gave new energy to the careers of some greats that were quickly fading from view, including Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter. The banter, too, is stunning. We get to hear Doc Watson meet Merle Travis for the first time -- Watson was such a fan that he named his son after Travis -- and gush at each other. Anyway, this is just one of those recordings that may not be for everyone, but for others, it's like a holy grail.
2. Paul Simon - "Paul Simon"
"Mother and Child Reunion," "Duncan" ... Simon struck out on his own and, from the first moment, blazed an impressive trail.
3. Jackson Browne - "Jackson Browne"
Just a kid, but good lord, what a strong debut.
4. Davie Bowie - "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars"
The birth of arena rock. Good or bad, it certainly was entertaining!
5. Allman Brothers - "Eat a Peach"
This album is like living a life in one day, ranging from the grandiose, to the melancholy, to "Little Martha," a gorgeous acoustic-guitar solo by Duane Allman, who was killed prior to the release of the album. If Ziggy Stardust was a little bit ridiculous and overly grand, "Eat a Peach" gives us the sublime. All that and "Melissa" too.
6. Neil Young - "Harvest"
A touchstone in a breathtaking career.
7. Stevie Wonder - "Music of my Mind" and "Talking Book"
Wonder released two albums in 1972, both of which made the Rolling Stone top 500 albums of all time. Together they signaled a greater artistic autonomy for Wonder from Motown, and these albums are where he really hit his creative stride. And it's all just brilliant.
8. Dr. John - "Dr John's Gumbo"
It's like a love letter to a city. And it's a lot of fun, too.
9. Rolling Stones - "Exile on Main Street"
At this point, it's getting ridiculous. Not only are there so many great albums from 1972, there are also so many that made lasting contributions to popular culture. Certainly, this is one of the very best from the Stones.
10. Elton John - "Honky Château"
As I was saying, it's getting ridiculous.
11. Randy Newman - "Sail Away"
Just stop already.
12. Little Feat - "Sailin' Shoes"
13. Jim Croce - "You Don't Mess Around with Jim"
I'll bet you haven't listened to this stuff in a long time, and might roll your eyes at the thought. But I challenge you to sample this online and not think, damn, he was really very good. They just don't make them like this anymore.
14. Steely Dan - "Can't Buy a Thrill"
15. Townes Van Zandt - "High, Low and in Between"
Or this. And indeed, this one proves that the '70s wasn't just about -- or indeed at all about -- big names and big sounds. I suspect that Van Zandt might have a tough go if he were in his 20s today. Thank god that wasn't the case in 1972.