Choice Bits From a "Sorry" Year
The sane time to pick the year's best albums is in March, after the
Christmas late-comers have sunk in, so regard this list as more
tentative than usual. I'm sure there are a few obscure albums awaiting
my attention right now that I will end up valuing more than many of
the lesser records named below. The bottom five or so are pretty
sorry, but then, in some ways it's been a sorry year.
My most important reservation is simply that I sense my tastes
changing rapidly. A few records that received my normally foolproof A
early this year didn't survive the general flabbiness of white rock
and the culture to which it speaks--one of them, Todd Rundgren's
Something/Anything, has come to sound completely empty to
me. On the other hand, two records by black artists that sounded
commendable but unexciting to me at first--Bill Withers' Still
Bill and Ann Peebles' Straight From the Heart--are now
among my favorites. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few months such
shifts were even more pronounced.
Basically, this means that I am coming to distrust the "concept
album" idea. All this ever meant was that an album embodies a
conscious sensibility at a definable stage of development, and any
good collection of songs can do that, concept or no.
This year, I elected to disqualify all albums by deceased artists,
including Janis and Jimi. If I hadn't, Mississippi John Hurt and Otis
Spann would have been in my top 10 with previously unreleased music
six and 11 years old. Johnny Shines rates even though the material on
his album is four years old because he is still an active artist in
pursuit of his idiom. I wish I could compliment some of rock's
so-called artists as easily.
The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling
Stones). Incontrovertibly, the year's best, this fagged-out
masterpiece is the summum of Rock '72. Even now, I can always get
pleasure out of any of its four sides, but it took me perhaps 25
listenings before I began to understand what the Stones were up to,
and I still haven't finished the job. Just say they're Advancing
Artistically, in the manner of self-conscious public creators
careering down the corridors of destiny. Exile explores new
depths of record-studio murk, burying Mick's voice under layers of
cynicism, angst and ennui: "You gutta cungdro through/I'm gonna sing
them uh you/I've got the bell bottom blues/It's gonna be the death of
Paul Simon (Columbia). Simon can think as well as
feel, and it shows up not only in the lyrics but the music. Many
singer-songwriters are affecting jazzy arrangements every bit as limp
as the acoustic soft-rock of yore, but Simon's music is tough and
spare whether its intention is grating or good-timey. One of the few
albums this year with two good Top 10 singles on it. Political lyric
of the year: "Peace Like a River."
Manfred Mann's Earth Band (Polydor). After four or
five months of continual play, this turned into one of my standards--I
play it once or twice a month and it always gets me off. One of those
future-rock records that will probably spawn no heirs, even by the
group that made it, it is most remarkable for Mann's synthesizer
inventions and the high quality of its lyrics, both original and
Mott the Hoople: All the Young Dudes
(Columbia). Despite intensive recent play, I still find new stuff on
this record every time I hear it again. My most recent discovery is
Ian Hunter's "Sea Diver." A hopeful sign: The two best songs on the
album are non-originals on side one, but side two, with songs from
three band members, wears better overall. A future-rock group that may
yet top itself.
John Fahey: Of Rivers and Religion (Reprise). My
freak fave of the year. This is not a rock record. It doesn't even
have words. Just blues-derived acoustic guitar music, mostly
unaccompanied. I've never played it for anyone who didn't like it, and
if you're in the mood for something peaceful, take a chance on one of
the last underground geniuses.
Rod Stewart: Never a Dull Moment (Mercury). Rod's
consistency may eventually become tiresome, but this is his best
yet. The cuts that sound weak at first get stronger while the good
ones maintain. Our greatest troubadour, he picks them as good as he
Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum). I hated
this when it arrived a month ago, and I'm not positive what I think of
it now, but I am sure of this--in terms of sheer aesthetic bravado, it
is the year's coup. Mitchell has integrated the strange shifts of her
voice into an almost "classical"-sounding music that lacks the
attractiveness of good-timing romps like "All I Want" but becomes
hypnotic if you give it a chance to work. Lyrically, she is mature and
reflective, but very insular, which means that after a while she may
sound thin or shrill. Meanwhile, a remarkable work.
Bette Midler: The Divine Miss M (Atlantic). I'm
still not sure the biggest, most humane talent to emerge this year can
be translated to vinyl, but this record seems to please every
non-bigot (a bigot is a professional counter-culturist) who hears
it. Vulgarity and taste in the same package--I have the feeling we'll
need both to survive the decade.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Hot Licks, Cold
Steel and Truckers Favorites (Paramount). In which
approximately eight zany ex-hicks ball the jack through country-rock:
"Let the Alabama moon shine its light on me/Way back in those old
Kentucky hills of Tennessee."
Bill Withers: Still Bill (Sussex). I underrated
this at first because of its pretensions, I think--Withers added a
little explanatory note to each lyric, for instance. Now I realize
that such earnestness makes Withers the exciting artist he is--proud,
black, upwardly mobile, and always conscious of his emotional
integrity in the midst of it. Also, he writes and sings real good, and
Ray Jackson's arrangements are distinctive.
- Aretha Franklin: Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic).
- Van Morrison: St. Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros.).
- Paul Pena (Capitol).
- Johnny Shines (Blue Horizon).
- Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Tamla).
- Ann Peebles: Straight From the Heart (Hi).
- Bonnie Raitt: Give It Up (Warner Bros.).
- Joy of Cooking: Castles (Capitol).
- Curtis Mayfield: Super Fly (Curtom).
- Spirit: Feedback (Epic).
- Loudon Wainwright III: Album III (Columbia).
- Bob Weir: Ace (Warner Bros.).
- Randy Newman: Sail Away (Reprise).
- Dr. John: Gumbo (Atco).
- Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (Hi).
- The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Last of the Red Hot Burritos (A&M).
- Elton John: Honky Chateau (Uni).
- Creedence Clearwater Revival: Mardi Gras (Fantasy).
- The Kinks: Everybody's in Showbiz (RCA Victor).
- Buddy Guy and Junior Wells: Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues (Atco).
N'day, Dec. 31, 1972