12 Reasons Why 1971 Was The Best Ever
There is no doubt that 1971 was a great year for music. Louder Than War’s writers pick their favourite albums from the year and explain what makes them so special.
Fifty years. Half a century. My God, a vast number of people who read this article weren’t even born fifty years ago. Hell, most of the writers of this feature weren’t born. It feels like a significant milestone. One that should be marked accordingly.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to find any tenuous excuses to do so, because although Nathan Whittle is a big fan of 1991 many of us at Louder Than War towers agree that 1971 was quite simply the greatest year of all for album releases. It is so good that you could write a book on it, let alone a feature. (Actually, David Hepworth did – and it’s very good).
So, what makes 1971 so special? What makes it better than the rest? At Louder Than War, we can think of twelve great reasons. Twelve truly iconic albums that are as great today as they were fifty years ago.
Interestingly, for such a vintage year, 1971 didn’t exactly spring out of the blocks. Musically speaking, the first few months were pretty uneventful, save for the release of Carole King’s song machine, Tapestry, which dropped just before Valentine’s Day. Things didn’t really take off until mid-April, when two albums that would become landmarks landed within four days of each other. FOUR DAYS!! Think about that. Over to Jasmine Hodge to open The Doors of our 1971 vintage.
The Doors: LA Woman
With the majority of the album recorded live, the erratic intimacy found throughout the sixth and final album from The Doors makes it heart breaking to listen to following Jim Morrison’s death just a few months after release. There is minimal pretention on L.A. Woman and it is regarded by many as their best piece of work.
With a miraculous ability to maintain a stripped back sound yet a ‘full’ sounding production, L.A. Woman remains up there with one of the greatest albums celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. With a combination of blues, funk and soul, it has been suggested that the best way to absorb L.A. Woman is to listen once for the sound and then listen again for the genius of Morrison.
With a blues voice from Morrison making it’s stamp on iconic tracks such as “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”, the record reeks with sophistication despite the stimulus taken throughout the creative process. The album acts as one of impeccable taste and musical judgement, being considered as one of their best and most disturbing pieces of work. There are wonderfully sensual moments on the record with bluesy rock beats combined with provocative timings and lustful beats. ‘Been Down So Long’ completes this fantasy perfectly and layers it with lyrics argued to be inspired by Richard Farina’s 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.
Lyrically, the album deals with contemporary topics as Morrison paints his words over the classic Doors core. LA Woman will remain up there as one of the greatest pieces of work from The Doors.
In the same week of April ’71, our second classic dropped and it was created by the biggest of them all. Audrey Golden takes up the baton, to talk Sticky Fingers.
Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
I dare you to come up with another album that so perfectly illuminates the physicality of music and the interplay between aural and visual art, with this many all-time great songs. There are certainly albums that constantly remind the record owner about the materiality of modern music and its ability to please and to destroy (obviously, The Return of the Durutti Column falls into this category).
Most definitely, there are other albums with fascinating design work by contemporary artists (such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Speaking in Tongues collaboration with Talking Heads). And there are some albums, sonically, that I think are better from start to finish.
Yet on the whole, Sticky Fingers has it all. The metal zipper that threatens to damage other vinyl surrounding the album. The conspicuous consumption of a certain variety inherent in that Andy Warhol design. Songs like Wild Horses, Sway, and Dead Flowers. And I’m just a sucker for anything involving Gram Parsons. This is the best songwriting the Stones ever did, and it doesn’t feel like it’s fifty years old. They conjure the Delta blues like you’d never guess they could, and they perform a kind of sound that feels just at home in 2021 as it did in 1971. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can trust the late, great Townes Van Zandt, whose cover of Dead Flowers has turned the song, and the album on which it appears, into something akin to an old-time standard.
May arrived, bringing warm weather and spring blossoms. Stateside, Marvin Gaye was in the process of releasing his Magnum Opus, What’s Going On. It was a social commentary that was destined to influence many others over the years, including my own personal album of 2020, SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is).
Paul McCartney: Ram
Let’s briefly rewind a year. In April 1970, Beatle Paul released his first solo album, McCartney. On the day of its release he dropped a ‘self-interview’ into the hands of the media. From that moment on, it was evident that The Beatles were no more. Thirteen months later, people were still coming to terms with that, but Paul McCartney had already moved on. On the 17th May 1971, he released Ram and despite about a million more solo albums and stratospheric success with Wings, Ram is, in Gordon Rutherford’s view, his best solo collection of work ever.
At the time of its recording McCartney was spending much of his time down on the farm. Ram wasn’t recorded at McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre home (it was actually recorded in New York), but it sounds as if it was. It’s homespun, a million miles away from the way Phil Spector overproduced the final Beatles album, Let It Be.
There’s nothing fancy about it. Ultimately, it’s just a collection of outstanding three minute tunes. But whilst it all sounded campfire sing-along, the lyrics were acerbic, particularly when it came to his former writing partner. Indeed, McCartney later conceded that his line about “preaching practices” was a direct dig at Lennon. As was the image of one beetle screwing another on the inner sleeve. (We shall return to the Lennon/McCartney rift later.)
The critics hated Ram, but what do they know. This is an album that contains (along with Maybe I’m Amazed), the best song McCartney ever composed in the shape of Back Seat Of My Car. Overall, it is a beautiful work of art that should be framed and hung in The Louvre.
Summer arrived. It was a hot one. Maybe that’s why things slowed down a bit. The world took a deep breath, closed its eyes and soaked up the rays. Straight out of Laurel Canyon, out on the West Coast, this was the soundtrack, described for us by Audrey Golden.
Joni Mitchell: Blue
This is the Joni Mitchell album. While the album is steeped in the artist’s personal life and is deeply tethered to specific times and places, it also transcends those boundaries. “California” isn’t just California. “Blue” isn’t just a person or a color, but an atmosphere with dozens of shades that carry the listener from a playful mood to one that’s sentimental and melancholy. And “Carey” is so much more than a song about Cary Raditz, with whom Mitchell spent time as she wrote the album. It’s a song that’s a joy to sing and to play as it conjures some far-off place where worries ebb. We’ll go to the Mermaid Cafe, have fun tonight. By the time the album gets to River, I feel like I could cry.
Blue, from start to finish, comforts and roars like a cinematic masterpiece. The songs are visual and evocative, tying us to Joni Mitchell’s memories while reminding us that each of the tracks are linked to our own recollections of the moments and spaces where we’ve heard them.
Let’s flip back to the UK for a fleeting moment, where the hard rockers were continuing to stir it up. Black Sabbath released their fourth album, the mighty Master of Reality in July and that was followed by The Who’s finest hour with Who’s Next in August 1971.
But wait, we were in California. And there was still plenty going on. Like our next album, described by Jasmine Hodge.
The Beach Boys: Surf’s Up
Surf’s Up is the 17th album from The Beach Boys. With Brian Wilson taking a considerable back seat role in the production, the thinner vocals amongst the tracks confirm Wilson’s lack of production presence. Receiving mixed reviews, most considered favourable, some thought this record was missing the harmonious group dynamic as found in previous releases. However, the gentle waves made throughout Surf’s Up are unapologetically The Beach Boys which helps it hold onto its worthy place in musical history.
Originally titled, Landlock, Surf’s Up steals its name from closing track written by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. Originally intended for Smile, an unfinished Beach Boys album that was scrapped in 1967, the track found its way to the album and made its dictating stamp on the name.
With the final three tracks suggested as taking inspiration from The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the album spews a melancholy sadness from it, whilst the synth sounds compliment the harmonies that The Beach Boys will always be known for. There’s an opposite feeling taken from Surf’s Up than the one taken from their most known tracks. Their more pop approach to song writing (I Get Around, Surfin’ USA, California Girls) made their art more digestible to the mainstream pop culture. However, even their sorrow tones in Surf’s Up managed to still reflect a sense of joy that only The Beach Boys can create.
September brought shorter days and cooler nights. And another ex-Beatle had something to say. It’s over to Jasmine Hodge again.
John Lennon: Imagine
Peace, love and politics were at the forefront of Lennon’s solo career. Imagine, the second studio album from one of the most famous and influential musicians on the planet also resonates as his most recognisable and signature song. The emotional track listing includes Jealous Guy and Crippled Inside, alongside with his retaliation to McCartney’s snipes on Ram with a dig of his own on How Do You Sleep. Lennon’s plea for world peace combined with his verbal attack towards McCartney makes for a personal insight to his inner mind.
This seminal record reflects Lennon in most honest form complimented with raw and passionate song writing. We are offered an opportunity to feel the same emotions as Lennon in Jealous Guy with his heart-breaking vocals that create an influx of pain in any listeners chest. Imagine is one of those albums that still stops you in your tracks. Very few albums now can provoke such thought and momentum for change, and we are given communication in its highest form throughout every second.
Lennon continuously pushed the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll throughout his career and continued this in Imagine by maintaining his rock ‘n’ roll flair in It’s So Hard. His incredible ability to continuously grow as an artist was unjustly cut short, and one can only imagine the wondrous art he would have continued to gift us with and whether the world would have been a better place for it. His impact on the masses, myself included despite the fact I was never around to experience it first-hand, is yet to be matched by any other musician which makes Imagine sit very, very comfortably in this list. It is, in my eyes, one of the best records ever released.
Marc Bolan and T-Rex released their finest collection in late September 1971 with Electric Warrior. Then in mid-October, a poet from Belfast with the voice of an angel released his fifth studio album. Irina Shtreis talks us through it.
Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey
One of the blue-eyed soul proponents, Van Morrison entered the new decade fifty years ago with an album that sounded more country than his previous works. Some tracks, though, such as the opening Wild Night, still nod to the soul and R&B of Moondance, his self-produced and commercially successful album of 1970.
Tupelo Honey captures the time of Morrison’s short-term family idyll. The title, deriving its name from a specific type of monofloral honey, refers to his wife Janet Planet Risgbee, a native of Texas where tupelo trees allegedly grow in abundance. Rigsbee is also depicted on the album’s cover. Hence the romantic mood of most of the songs. The emotional intensity reaches its height on You Are My Woman, a captivating ballad with overtones of blues. With the brilliant flexibility of his voice, Van Morrison displays various shades of affection – from adoration to passionate longing.
The title track’s entry evokes a glowing feel similar to that of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. Unlike the latter, seemingly inspired by Chaucer and the motif of time-travelling, Tupelo Honey delivers a clear message of a love song: “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey / Just like honey, baby, from the bee”. Fourteen years later, the same metaphor would have a different subtext: Jesus and Mary Chain might have made a reference, who knows.
As the leaves fell, signifying the Autumn, it wasn’t only the clocks that were changing. Music was changing in many different ways and in just over a week two of the bands who would shape and define the direction of seventies music both released their contribution to 1971. Firstly, Nigel Carr talks about a bona fide seventies leviathan.
Pink Floyd: Meddle
Pink Floyd released their fifth album proper in November 1971. Like its predecessor, Meddle had one side dedicated to a single track. They’d been playing it live for over a year and the version which ended up on the album was composed of various separate experimental sections pulled together as a whole from a sequence of ‘pieces’, much like the patchy, but glorious Atom Heart Mother, which had been a surprise number one album for the band the previous year.
Echoes extends for over 23 minutes, opening with a single repeated ‘ping’ piano note fed through an echo unit during the sessions at Abbey Road studios. The track arches, falls, winds and twists, culminating in a series of orgasmic explosions, which to some, formed an idea in the mind of a young Mike Oldfield. The melody was allegedly (a claim made by Roger Waters) lifted entirely by Andrew Lloyd Webber for Phantom of The Opera. Although he decided not to file a lawsuit, he said: “Yeah, the beginning of that bloody Phantom song is from Echoes”.
Arguably, Meddle is the last great Pink Floyd album, before the almost architectural structures and increasingly dark themes of Dark Side of The Moon and its successors. This was due in part to Waters’ increasing song writing dominance in the band, evidenced here by the opening track to side two, One of These Days, with its leaden opening bass line and thunderous delivery. Following is a glorious and whimsical suite of songs; Fearless, A Pillow of Winds, San Tropez, and Seamus, all of which had their origins steeped in Syd’s legacy.
Meddle is a great album and deserved of further listening. Echoes, whilst pointing to what was to come, still maintained the psychedelic core that set the band on their journey four years previously, and the later part of side two is Pink Floyd having fun. Something that would be sadly lacking in the band’s subsequent releases!
Another monster was waiting in the wings and Gordon Rutherford ushers it in.
Led Zeppelin: 4
The first thing that grabbed your attention was the mysterious, cryptic outer sleeve. There was no album title or track listing. Hell, the band’s name wasn’t even on it. On the inner sleeve, there were four mystical symbols. It was all very nineteen-seventies.
But the chatter around the artwork was soon overtaken by the music itself. This was Zeppelin’s finest hour to date. The album opened with the dual-salvo bombast of Black Dog and Rock And Roll, before gliding into the folk-drenched Battle Of Evermore. The sheer crystalline beauty of the duet between Robert Plant and Sandy Denny is unrivalled in music history. Only PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke came close. Side two brought the lighter touch of Misty Mountain Hop, the raw blues of Four Sticks and the magisterial When The Levee Breaks. Show me a better example of rock drumming than John Bonham’s on that latter track. I’ll wait.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned Stairway To Heaven yet. Semi-derided in Wayne’s World, it has become fashionable to sneer at this song. Whatever. Put your snobbery aside and you will concede that this is a masterpiece where Jimmy Page proves that he is the nonpareil of the six string and twelve strong. At the same time. On the same damn behemoth of a Gibson double neck.
We were now hurtling headlong to the end of an epic year. Racial tensions still simmered stateside as Sly and the Family Stone dropped There’s A Riot Going On. Some other artists were much more introspective. Back to Irina Shtreis to talk us through our next classic.
Carly Simon: Anticipation
While listening to Carly Simon’s arresting second album, it’s hard not to wonder what on earth is inside this woman. The overflowing emotion of songwriting reveals its strong communicative power and breaks the ice where it seems to be unbreakable. While the Grammy-winner title track is considered to be one of her commercially acknowledged highlights, the album contains gems that are even more impactful, whose tunes bewitch you and evoke a sense of magic in the air.
On Summer’s Coming Around Again, Simon’s voice, whose timbre borrows equally from folk and jazz tradition, is carefully framed with delicate piano and intricate bossa nova guitar arrangement. Lightheartedness is balanced with portentousness on the breathtaking Share the End. Reaching its climax with the hymnal-sounding chorus the song leaves a listener with a cathartic feel.
Overall, Anticipation is a statement which conveys emotion clearly and straightforwardly. Musically, though, it is a diverse record where multiple references can be found. Mellifluous harmonies akin to baroque pop and Paul McCartney’s numbers emphasize the longing, which is delivered more intensely on the second part of the record. With its strong self-reflective side, this emotive work raises various questions. Again, what on earth is inside this woman, one may ask. Then question himself/herself “what it is inside me that elicits such a powerful emotion and longing”. And the inner response will be far from sceptical.
On this side of the pond, a bunch of legends from the sixties were continuing to deliver. Irina Shtreis again explains.
The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies
Following their epic Lola vs Powerman And The Moneygoround Part One, The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies might be seen as a deliberate escape from the expected success. Newly signed to RCA in 1971, the band expanded with the arrival of a brass section who contributed to the album’s quirky country blues melancholia. The sudden change of trajectory resulted in poor chart positioning, even in the US, where the band had been praised more than elsewhere. The brilliance of Ray Davies’s songwriting is yet undeniable. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics, attention to texture, playful music-hall feel and poker face clownery – the familiar trademarks of The Kinks are also present on the album.
With the cover depicting a casual scene in the Archway Tavern pub, Muswell Hillbillies delivers a clear sense of genius loci. Evoking associations with British and Irish folk ballads, songs restore habitual atmosphere and characters from day-to-day life – those working-class folk and sceneries that Davies brothers were used to seeing while living with their family in Muswell Hill, North London. The focus on locality uncovers underlying issues. The 20th Century Man is a desperate cry of an escapist trying to forget the “mechanical nightmare” of modern life and get distracted with the routine of his neighbourhood. Starting as an acoustic number with Cash-esque Americana feel, the song takes off with David Davies’ mesmerizing electric guitar sound.
Despite its obvious sense of Englishness, a few tracks preach tolerance and remind that complications of life can be dealt with humour. The nursery-rhyme-like lyrics on Have a Cuppa Tea celebrates one of the traditional forms of leisure that has “no segregation, no class nor pedigree”.
Christmas was coming. But it was the seventies, so nobody was getting fat. ELO dropped a majestic debut and yet another ex-Beatle, George Harrison, released (with a little help from his friends) his Concert For Bangladesh. And finally, a week before Christmas 1971, we got the perfect gift. Audrey Golden describes it perfectly.
David Bowie: Hunky Dory
If I had to choose a pair of songs that feel quintessential Bowie—and I know this is probably going to be controversial—I’d pick Life on Mars? and Queen Bitch. The piano and strings of Life on Mars create a strange and beautiful complement to the guitar distortion and recognizable bass lines of Queen Bitch. And for me, although they seem disparate from one another, together they’re so Bowie.
The stories say that Queen Bitch was Bowie’s homage of sorts to the Velvet Underground. At his 50th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1997, Lou Reed joined him on the stage for this track. Life on Mars lets the listener conjure a bizarre and fantastical Bowie world filled with cinemas, dance halls, and sunken dreams. Both tracks on Hunky Dory illumine Bowie’s ability to create characters like no other. Couldn’t we all imagine our own, distinctive and alien, versions of the “girl with the mousy hair,” that “lawman beating up the wrong guy,” and of course, the Queen Bitch, that “old-time ambassador of sweet-talking, night-walking games”? Speaking of characters, Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) cultivates a literary London that gloriously resists the canon, and it’s a narrative that wouldn’t have been possible without Hunky Dory and its first single, Changes.
Hunky Dory was a departure from The Man Who Sold the World, opening up another space for Bowie to redefine and reshape himself as he did so many times over the course of his career. I won’t tell you all the things you already know—about how the album routinely makes lists of the best albums of all time, or about the various ways it inspired musicians from the 1970s to the present. But I will say this: If you don’t know Seu Jorge’s Portuguese version of Queen Bitch, do yourself a favor and listen to it today.
So, that’s it. 1971 in a nutshell. A year that brought album releases from three ex-Beatles, Bowie, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Who, The Doors, Marvin Gaye, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, T Rex, Sly Stone and The Beach Boys. There’s never been another year like it.