Let’s get right down to it: 1971 was a phenomenal year for music. Today, we’re taking a look back at some of the best albums that turn 50 this year. Here are our top three picks!
Sly & the Family Stone - There’s a Riot Goin’ On
Originally planned to be released as Africa Talks to You, There’s a Riot Goin’ On came out as a response to Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On, which had been released six months earlier. Its title hints at the album’s stark departure from the funk band’s previous optimistic style of the 1960s. Influenced by political assassinations, police brutality, and a declining civil rights movement, Sly Stone recorded the album in isolation, incorporating filtered drum machines, extensive overdubbing, and sticky funk grooves that polarized critics upon the album’s release.
Even on more radio-friendly songs like the number-one hit “Family Affair,” the album sounds murky, gritty, syrupy, as if Stone spilled sludge over the tapes. But the album grooves so hard and features so many memorable hooks that, no matter how dark and avant-garde the music gets, There’s a Riot Goin’ On is never depressing or oppressive. Rather, it is playful, spiritual, and empowering in a way only Stone could deliver, and it’s a definitive record that still resonates today.
Joni Mitchell - Blue
Forget 1971. Some cite Blue as the greatest album ever. A folk record, Blue features sparse instrumentation – simple accompaniments on a guitar, piano, or an Appalachian dulcimer – which perfectly compliments Mitchell’s vulnerable voice and poetic lyrics about love, desire, and sadness. Mitchell herself noted the raw emotion laid bare on the album, reflecting: “I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” What truly sets the album apart from other folk albums of its time is Mitchell’s ear for melody and jazz influences, which she would explore further in later albums.
T. Rex - Electric Warrior
A landmark album in glam rock, Electric Warrior incorporates classic rock grooves, mythical folk, and symphonic strings to create a collection of bangers and ballads that led to a massive surge in commercial popularity for the band, dubbed T. Rextasy. Beyond the stellar licks, solos, and pop leanings, it’s easy to see why T. Rex gained such a passionate following: the band’s captivating singer-songwriter, guitarist, and frontman Marc Bolan. Bolan sang like some otherworldly vampire elf who was always in the midst of being showered in gold glitter. His voice – fey, romantic, and flamboyant – drew in listeners who had never heard anything quite like T. Rex before. And unlike many of his contemporaries in the male-dominated rock ’n’ roll scene, Bolan wrote love songs about women free of misogynistic lyrics. Fifty years later, Electric Warrior still casts a spell.
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