The best music of 1974 didn't hurl itself at you like it did in previous years. Most of the big rock records, in fact, were more subtle in their assaults, preferring jazz inflections, singer-songwriter ruminations and general wiseass commentary to full-on guitar explosions. There was still plenty of that, don't worry. But the Top 10 1974 Rock Albums grew up a little, finding deeper and more understated shades in their grooves.
'It's Only Rock 'N Roll'The Rolling Stones
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After the amazing creative burst that resulted in four classic albums between 1968 and 1972, the Rolling Stones started to burn out on 1973's 'Goats Head Soup.' When they returned a year later for 'It's Only Rock 'N Roll,' they were packing more muscle, delivering a tougher, more rock-driven record than its predecessor. But guitarist Mick Taylor was on his way out, and the band was getting tired, It would be another four years before the Stones sounded this alive.
'The Heart of Saturday Night'Tom Waits
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On his second album, Tom Waits was still honing his beatnik, ruffled-jazzbo persona and a decade or so away from the trashcan percussion and apocalyptic vocals that made him one of music's most fascinating characters of the past 30 years. But his songwriting is sharp, and his vision pretty clear, on 'The Heart of Saturday Night,' a Sinatra-like late-night swing through various low-class joints with high-class expectations.
'461 Ocean Boulevard'Eric Clapton
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In the four years between his first solo album and his second, Eric Clapton formed and disbanded Derek and the Dominos, retired from touring and fought a heroin addiction that pretty much kept him away from music. '461 Ocean Boulevard' signaled a comeback that yielded one of his strongest solo albums, which makes room for the usual blues jams, gospel rewrites and even a No. 1 reggae cover with Bob Marley's 'I Shot the Sheriff.'
'I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight'Richard and Linda Thompson
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Richard Thompson already had a growing reputation thanks to his work in Fairport Convention. But on his second solo album, and first to give co-credit to wife Linda, he emerged as one of his generation's best songwriters and guitarists. But he doesn't hog the spotlight on 'I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight'; Linda checks in with one of the most heartbreakingly gorgeous songs ever recorded, 'Withered and Died.' Eight years later, the Thompsons would chronicle their disintegrating marriage on their other masterpiece, 'Shoot Out the Lights.'
'Grievous Angel'Gram Parsons
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After stints in both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons released his debut solo album, 'GP,' in 1973. Eight months later, he was dead of a drug overdose at age 26. He was working on his second record at the time, and 'Grievous Angel' pulls together songs from those sessions. Along with singing partner Emmylou Harris, Parsons turns the LP into a twangy, mournful and occasionally celebratory look at a life that burned out way too fast.
'Good Old Boys'Randy Newman
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Randy Newman's most biting album scoops up a messy American South that the region most likely hoped would just fade into the past by 1974. But with songs like 'Rednecks,' 'Birmingham' and 'Louisiana 1927,' pop music's sharpest satirist buries himself deep in New Orleans roots music, pulling up an ugly history of political, racial and cultural upheaval. Nobody is spared, not even the people who side with Newman's way of thinking. Oh, and it's really funny, too.
'Pretzel Logic'Steely Dan
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Steely Dan dig deeper into the jazz music they not-so-secretly admired on their third album, setting up riffs and licks that are as slick as they are tricky. Still, this is the pinnacle of laid-back cool, even with all the virtuosity on display. Lyrically, 'Pretzel Logic' is as smugly sophisticated and offhandedly smartass as any rock record ever made, but it's never forced. Like so much Steely Dan, it sounds so effortless.
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Following the release of Big Star's 1972 debut, '#1 Record,' cofounder Chris Bell left the group, leaving Alex Chilton to assemble the follow-up from some of Bell's leftover song fragments and rousing new originals cowritten by the remaining band members. The result is the best power-pop album ever made, a hook-stuffed set of chiming rockers and plaintive ballads that updates the Beatles for the Watergate era.
'Court and Spark'Joni Mitchell
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Joni Mitchell was already one of the most beloved singer-songwriters of the '70s when she made her sixth album, which reached No. 2 (her best-ever showing) in 1974. But the restless artist began her move away from her folk roots on 'Court and Spark,' slipping jazz rhythms and vocal tricks into the music, which is slick, sophisticated and at times warmly subtle. Mitchell has expanded on this sound in the 40 years since the album's release to the point where it's easy to forget where she started.
'Late for the Sky'Jackson Browne
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Even though Jackson Browne was only 25 when he recorded his third album, the songs on 'Late for the Sky' sound like they were aged in heartbreak and sorrow. A breakup record at its core, 'Sky' is filled with regret and faded hope. It's a cornerstone of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene of the '70s, an album that wears its scarred heart on its sleeve in songs like ‘Fountain of Sorrow,’ ‘Before the Deluge’ and the excellent title track.
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