Monday, October 17, 2005

Underrated Music of the 1970s

The 1970s are an interesting decade musically. Obviously, rock and roll is at its height in the 70s. Like any decade, the sheer amount of bad music is stunning, but the amount of good music is quite good as well. It wasn't such a great decade for jazz or country though. Jazz was struggling to find its voice after the death of Coltrane and the flame-out of fusion and the first wave of free jazz. To some extent it never again found its voice as a genre, having been taken over by the likes of Wynton Marsalis and others who have ultimately added nothing to jazz except to ossify it. Country was in a weird space. There was a lot of high-quality stuff coming out, such as Conway Twitty (more on him later) but there sheer amount of shit is unbelievable. This was the decade of Anne Murray, Barbara Mandrell, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Kenny Rogers. I once heard Steve Earle talk about coming to Nashville in the late 70s and how hard it was because he wasn't going to be writing songs for Barbara Mandrell. Nonetheless, even in jazz and country there is a lot of good stuff that came out of the 70s that doesn't always get listened to these days.

What I find fascinating is the sheer amount of underrated music from the decade. How do I define underrated? I think is has to be underrated by people who love music but have missed these albums. I can't call an album that hasn't sold a million copies underrated per se. It is true that many more people should listen to Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. But many audiophiles do listen to this. What albums do these people with really great taste in music not know so well? Here's a short list.

1. Loudon Wainwright III, Unrequited
This is one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. It's not as good of an album as Blood on the Tracks but it also has the advantage of having a great sense of humor, not only about the breakup but about other topics as well. It kind of starts a little slow with a song that Columbia tried to make a hit single, but by the 3rd song, you are into the meat of the album. Songs like "Kick in the Head," "Whatever Happened to Us," and "Mr. Guilty" give you a sense of how he feels. But at the same time, his bitterness led to my favorite song lyric of all time. In "Whatever Happened to Us" he sings, "You said I came too early, but it was you who came too late." I howled the first time I heard that. The album is made even better by his mixing in other funny songs with the breakup songs. In "Untitled" he sings in a over the top stupid English accent about men having sex after working out. It was originally titled "The Hardy Boys at the Y" but the people who own the Hardy Boys' rights threatened to sue. And yes, it was before the Village People as well. The albums ends with an amusing song that has taken on whole new meanings in later years. This is "Rufus is a Tit Man" about his baby Rufus breastfeeding on Mom and how jealous he is. Of course, what's amusing is that Rufus is many things, but a tit man is not one of those. Very much not.

2. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Dancer with Bruised Knees
Who was Loudon writing about in Unrequited? None other than Rufus' mom, Kate McGarrigle. Which leads us to this album by the McGarrigle sisters. This is a really great singer-songwriter album. "Southern Boys" works very well even if it is loaded with southern stereotypes like eating squirrels. The real reason this is on here though is for "Walking Song," which to me is one of the greatest songs ever written for people over the age of 25. It's basically a song about a couple of old friends getting together after not seeing each other for awhile and catching up. It's just Kate singing with a piano. I'm not describing this well at all but it's just a wonderful song. Without the song, the album is still above average. The songs in French I can take or leave but it's solid 70s folk-rock stuff. With "Walking Song" it's probably their best album.

3. Wayne Shorter, Supernova
Technically this was recorded at the very end of 1969 but I believe it was released in 1970. Anyway, this is the forgotten album of the fusion movement. Of course, most fusion was crap. But Miles Davis' 70s stuff is great, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters album is rightfully lauded, and at least Mahavishnu Orchestra avoided most of the cheesiness that infected bands like Weather Report and musicians like Stanley Clarke. For some reason, people never talk about Supernova. To be honest I was skeptical until I actually heard it. I figured it would be as irrelevant as most of Wayne Shorter's work after he left Miles' band. But my brother insisted that I listen to this and I was instantly hooked. Great grooves, interesting Jobim cover, overall underrated album.

4. Conway Twitty
No one talks about Conway anymore. Perhaps this is because he died young. Perhaps it is a consequence of his early career as an Elvis knockoff. But in the 1970s, Conway Twitty put out some great songs. For some of the work, you have to have a tolerance for 70s country, which I like mostly but is not for everyone. But even if you don't care for 70s country in general, the duets with Loretta Lynn probably marked the high point for both of them and are just great. "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" is one of the all-time great country songs. "As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone" is a hilarious piece where Conway calls Loretta to break up and Loretta keeps interrupting him to sing about it. "You've Never Been This Far Before" is probably one of the creepiest songs ever, especially when sung by Conway in his 40s. "Linda On My Mind" is a top notch cheatin' song and of course you can't go wrong with "Tight Fittin' Jeans."

5. Bruce Cockburn, High Winds White Sky
A lot of people listen to Bruce Cockburn but I rarely ever hear anyone talk about this album. Usually, people get into his later, more political stuff. At this early date (1972 I think) he is a pretty straight-ahead folkie, but with those great songwriting skills. Songs like "Let Us Go Laughing", "Golden Serpent Blues", and "Shining Mountain" certainly compare more than favorably to his later work.

6. New York Dolls--They're pretty new to me actually. My friend Scott describes them as a mix of The Rolling Stones and The Clash. Good rocking stuff. It is perhaps possible that they are not really underrated but I think they are because my knowledge of rock is not as good as it should be. But when I mentioned to Scott that I was thinking of doing this post, they were the first band he mentioned.

I'm really interested to hear what underrated 70s albums readers would like to bring up.

UPDATE (10/18/05)--Billy reminds me of one album that I forgot to mention, Guy Clark, The South Coast of Texas. This is an excellent album by one of the most underrated songwriters in America. It wasn't an album that gets talked about a lot, even by Guy Clark fans. But I think it's great. It's pretty much all about Texas, from fishing ("South Coast of Texas") to falling in love with a local waitress as a kid in west Texas ("Lone Star Motel") to immigrating to Texas ("New Cut Road). Songs like "Crystelle", "Rita Ballou", and "She's Crazy For Leavin'" are just good quality country songs. Billy makes the argument that his first album Old No. 1 should be on here and that's a legitimate argument for the songs on that album are truly great. But this is the classic underrated album, so much so that it is out of print except on a 2 disc set of 3 of Clark's 70s albums that splits South Coast of Texas between the two discs. Top notch stuff.