One of the most popular debates among music enthusiasts is over which year in history was the “best” or “most important” for popular music. Whether it be a discussion of what year had the best records on the charts, what year was most influential for years to come, or otherwise, 1972 always seems to be near the top of the list, particularly when debating the history of rock music. 1972 also contained great releases in the genres of soul and r&b, from artists such as Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John (who may be considered rock by some). Regardless of that, today I am going to look at what I believe to be the five best and most influential rock releases turning 50 this year, in no particular order.
1) Exile on Main Street: The Rolling Stones
After fleeing England to avoid paying taxes, Mick Jagger and company recorded most of this iconic LP at a French villa in the early 70s and released it on May 12, 1972. Having been on top of the music industry for most of the previous decade, the Stones, in this foreign place, felt much like the blues outlaws they grew up listening to, and it shines all throughout this record. Initially obtaining a polarizing reputation by longtime fans and critics, this album has aged as good as any, largely due to versatility, and has become pretty unanimously one of the greatest rock records of all time. Not much can be said about the legacy of this band or this record that hasn’t already, just give it a listen.
2) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: David Bowie
After releasing his debut in 1967, followed by brilliant works in the coming years such as Space Oddity and Hunky Dory, David Bowie was among that late 1960s crop of rock musicians who had begun to take over the world and completely change the perception of what rock even was, along with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd (whose best work was yet to come), the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and others. Bowie had already become known for his eccentric style and voice, as well as unique songwriting, and this record does nothing if not capitalize on those very things, in addition to pioneering the genre of Glam Rock. Described by many as a “rock opera” and one of the first concept albums to succeed in the mainstream, the album tells the story of Ziggy, a fictional bisexual rockstar who comes to earth to save mankind from the impending apocalypse. The album reached number 5 in the UK, primarily due to “Starman,” a classic track I’m certain most of you have heard. If you haven’t listened to the rest of the record track by track yet, now is the time; you’re only 50 years late.
3) Transformer: Lou Reed
Having made a name for himself over the previous 5 years as an exclusive member of the New York City avant-garde music and art scene, which was dominated by Andy Warhol, Lou Reed had already cemented his face and reputation as that of a pure rock star, if there ever was one. Having led the notorious proto-punk rock group The Velvet Underground, a band that saw little commercial success but inspired many sounds on Ziggy Stardust, as well as about every other rock album of the next 50 years, Lou Reed was familiar with the bold, the brave, and the abrasive. While Transformer contains some of his softest, poppiest, and most iconic tracks, such as “Perfect Day” and the iconic “Walk On the Wild Side,” Lou does not stray from his infamous songwriting and experimentation tactics, which is particularly present on tracks like “Vicious” and “I’m So Free” with their heavily distorted guitars and droning bass, a method he likely picked up from former band mate, musical genius, and personal favorite of mine: John Cale. David Bowie’s production also shines on this record, just adding to its overall brilliance. There are moments in art throughout history that perfectly encapsulate a certain mood or setting, and this album is one of those moments. The Jazz influence, angst-ridden lyrics, and unique imagery all fuse together into a glorious depiction of New York City and its grime in the 70s and have left us with a record that is pure rock and roll. Rest easy, Lou.
4) Eat a Peach: The Allman Brothers
Few bands have a history like the Allman Brothers. Achieving commercial success in 1971 due to the release of the live album, Live at Filmore East, a record that some rock scholars believe to be the greatest live album of all time, the band seemed to be entering the pinnacle of rock and roll. Led by brothers Duane and Gregg Allman, the band of six was known for their mind-blowing instrumentation (particularly Duane), infectious grooves, soulful lyrics, and iconic extended jam sessions. Like other bands, drug use had begun to creep into the lives of a few members, and Duane died a tragic death in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971. As Duane had begun to be known as not only one of the best musicians in the world, but one of the greatest guitarists of all time, this was undoubtedly a great loss for the world of music. Nevertheless, the band continued to work and eventually released the album on February 12, 1972, making it the last record featuring Duane’s guitar playing. Unlike their previous LPs, Eat a Peach saw immediate commercial success, and quickly became known as one of the greatest blues/rock/folk fusions in history. For those curious, the album title comes from a quote from Duane Allman: "You can't help the revolution, because there's just evolution ... Every time I'm in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace".
5) Pink Moon: Nick Drake
Alright, I’m definitely breaking the rules for this one, as Nick Drake’s third and final studio LP Pink Moon is pretty far from rock, especially considering what rock sounded like in 1972. Regardless, it is one of the most beautiful, personal, and influential pieces of western singer-songwriter music in history, even if it is folk music in its purest form. The English artist had received minimal commercial success for his prior releases, and hardly ever performed live. Released on February 25, 1972, Pink Moon is certainly Drake’s shortest record, and features only acoustic guitar and Drake’s voice, apart from the iconic piano riff on the title track. The album has become a sort of cult classic, for both the beautifully melancholic music, and the equally beautiful and surreal album art. Nick Drake tragically passed away two years later at the age of 26, but his legacy in folk and songwriting lives on. One of the most mysterious and enigmatic musicians of his generation, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is unlike any other, and it simply had to be on this list.
Many great albums were left off this list, but hopefully these five give you a good starting point. These records are windows into the past, but their brilliance transcends time in every sense. Countless people have been touched by these tracks over the last 50 years, and I look forward to spending the next 50 listening to them.