Today we offer a very subjective list of exceptional albums recorded during the decade of the 1970s with exceptional sound quality. This is not necessarily a way of ranking albums on musical or performance merit (although much of that certainly exists within this group), but simply an assessment of the sonic quality of each record during the climatic apex of the analog age.
#9. A Night at the Opera by Queen
With their fourth album, A Night at the Opera in 1972, Queen launched an extraordinarily ambitious production initiative which resulted in the most expensive album ever recorded to that point. Along with producer Roy Thomas Baker, the four piece rock group utilized methodical overdubs to replicate rich orchestral and choral effects to accompany a wide range of musical styles, many of which had not previously been adopted by hard rock bands.
Listen to “Death on Two Legs” by Queen:
#8. L.A. Woman by The Doors
In late 1970, The Doors were a band in turmoil as lead vocalist Jim Morrison was convicted of indecent exposure and the group was having trouble booking gigs because of the fallout. Further, with one more album required to fulfill their contract with Electra Records, the band’s long time producer walked out on the sessions, leaving production to the group members and long-time engineer Bruce Botnick. In a cost-saving effort, the band decided to leave the studio and record the album in the relaxed setting of their rehearsal space above an old antique store near the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. They also enlisted Elvis Presley’s bassist along with a blues rhythm guitarist to fill out their live sound. The result was a surprisingly fresh and authentic sound which closed out the band’s career with their most acclaimed work.
Listen to “Love Her Madly” by The Doors:
#7. Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell
On her 1974, self-produced album Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell made an intentional break from the pure folk sound of her earlier albums for a more contemporary pop sound. On this album, Mitchell was backed by a talented group of Los Angeles musicians known as the “L.A. Express” and together they forged a rich and creative sound with diverse instrumentation and pleasant but creative melodies.
Listen to “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell:
#6. The Cars by The Cars
Baker’s second produced album on our list may be one of the best produced albums of the era, a breakthrough which set the template for a “new wave” sound for years to come. As a result, The Cars 1978 debut, with an impressive mix of approachable, catchy tunes, a modern musical approach, and exquisite sound, brought the group instant worldwide recognition with just about all of the nine tracks receiving significant radio rotation.
Listen to “Bye Bye Love” by The Cars:
#5. Tusk by Fleetwood Mac
With it’s release in 1979 following the massive success of Rumours, Tusk was far from Fleetwood Mac’s most renowned or accessible album. But beyond the experimental expression of this album, there exists some very unique sounds and musical themes which, in nice contrast to the warm acoustics, ultimately gives the album a fantastic sound. Led by the creative efforts of Lindsey Buckingham, this pure sound cannot be understated in its uniqueness.
Listen to “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac:
#4. Hotel California by The Eagles
Hotel California became The Eagles most indelible work for a variety of reasons, starting with the timeliness and edginess of its compositions and culminating in the overall sound of the album. Spearheaded by the odd combination of the band’s pop/country sound with the logically incompatible psychedelic blues of the Joe Walsh sound. But somehow Bill Szymczyk, who had previously worked with incarnations of both parties, made the musical marriage work. The Eagles also added a dual lead guitar attack to their potent, harmonized vocals for a 1976 masterpiece.
Listen to “New Kid in Town” by The Eagles:
#3. Boston by Boston
Boston’s fantastic debut was less the labor of a true “band” but the nearly-decade long project by audio scientist Tom Scholz, an M.I.T. graduate who used his skills to build a home studio in Massachusetts and experimented with the innovative sounds which would define this album. After about seven years of submitting demos and getting rejected by labels, Epic Records signed Sholz and vocalist Bradly Delp under the condition that a full band be assembled to perform live. While some recordings were made in a professional studio, the vast majority of what ended up on Boston was from Sholz’s original home demos.
Listen to “More Than a Feeling” by Boston:
#2. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
In all honesty, we could have chosen one of many Pink Floyd albums for its exquisite sound. But 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon is the group’s true 44-minute masterpiece which sits in a unique place in rock history. Composed mainly by bassist Roger Waters, the album bridges the late era psychedelic sound with a new wave, electronic phase topped by the methodical, bluesy lead guitars of David Gilmour. Further, the group employed the innovative use of spoken word and scat vocals as well as early analog synths and artistic, beat-driven sound-collages which all work to make this a unique listening experience.
Listen to “Time” by Pink Floyd:
#1. Aja by Steely Dan
Beyond being one of the top albums to come out of this decade, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put an immense amount of effort in directing the production of Aja, one of the most pure albums to have ever been released. Everything on this album is where it needs to be, something as simple as a cheesy-sounding synth used on “Peg”, is utilized to give the song a little something extra. Most notably is “Deacon Blues”, a song of despair and internal crisis, that highlights this album as one of the best sounding songs of all time, with everything so calculated and pure. Which begs the question, how can something so seemingly cold and calculated, produce so much soul?
Listen to “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan:
Here are a few more 1970s albums which we considered but barely missed making our Top 9 list:
Fragile by Yes (1971)
Harvest by Neil Young (1972)
Selling England by the Pound by Genesis (1973)
Crime of the Century by Supertramp (1974)
Fly By Night by Rush (1975)
Out of the Blue by ELO (1976)
Van Halen (debut) by Van Halen (1978)
With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.
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