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Every artist has a peak. It might be their commercial peak or, it might be their creative peak, and sometimes, both occur on the same recording, but not always.
For example, Genesis had their creative and commercial peak with their album Invisible Touch, but their creative peak single was “Throwing It All Away,” which was not their biggest selling single.
Below, we’ve listed ten 70s recordings, in no particular order, that we feel were the peak albums of the artists who blessed us with their efforts. As always, these are completely subjective choices, so feel free to disagree, or agree with us. Let’s get started.
Marvin Gaye — What’s Going On (1971)
When none other than Rolling Stone Magazine lists your album as one of the top ten greatest albums ever made, well, where do you go from there? Released on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On was an anthem to societal ills that remains just as relevant today, if not more so, than it was fifty years ago, and it marked the peak of Gaye’s creative genius. Gaye, also known as the “Prince of Motown” and the “Prince of Soul,” had helped shape the Motown Sound and was its biggest star. This said, What’s Going On marked a departure of sorts from his familiar R&B sound. He was also a co-writer and producer of the album. Berry Gordy, head of Motown, didn’t care for the record, and it was only by Gaye threatening to cease recording for Motown that it was released at all. Music lovers everywhere were blessed by Gaye’s insistence. A blend of Soul, Psychedelic Soul, Jazz, and Pop, What’s Going On resonated across a wide variety of listeners, and marked the peak of Gaye’s creativity, and is still just as fresh and spontaneous today. The opening sounds of a friendly party invite you to come on in and be comfortable, and you are, from start to finish. Marvin Gaye would, in the years to come, go on to have other hit albums, but none that approached this masterpiece. What’s Going On was his absolute peak.
John Denver — Windsong (1975)
For those not around in the mid-70s, it’s hard to fathom just how big — and perhaps inexplicable — an entertainer John Denver was, consistently topping the charts with such offerings as “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Back Home Again,” and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” It’s a bit of a toss-up between Windsong, which was released in September of 1975, and his previous album, Back Home Again, as to which was his peak album, but Windsong gets the nod because it contains the double-A side single “I’m Sorry/Calypso,” (and “I’m Sorry” was his peak single). Released during the height of his popularity, both commercially and creatively, “I’m Sorry/Calypso” was the last of his big number ones. Every song, as well as “I’m Sorry,” “Fly Away,” and “Looking For Space,” the singles off the album, captured the lovely melancholia that Denver’s voice so eloquently, and effortlessly conveyed to the listening world. When he sang about being sorry for the way things were in China, you believed him. When he lamented that, more than anything else, he was sorry for himself, you believed him, especially if you’d suffered through a breakup and were feeling a bit sorry for yourself. Though Denver would continue to put out great songs, and albums, he would never top Windsong. It’s his peak offering.
Lynyrd Skynyrd — One More From The Road (1976)
Almost everyone listening to Rock radio in the 70s, especially in the southern states, was confronted with Southern Rock’s baddest band, Lynyrd Skynyrd (originally known as My Backyard, they renamed themselves after a high school teacher, after changing the spelling). Love them or hate them, they were a force to be reckoned with, and they came out of the gates firing on all cylinders with Lynyrd Skynyrd (Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd), which contained the classics such as the irresistible “Gimme Three Steps,” plus “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and of course, “Free Bird,” which are still staples on Classic and Hard Rock radio stations to this day. While all their albums are good, the finest is One More From The Road, which was released in September of 1976, and would find them at the top of their game; it’s not only a great live album but a great album period. Here are all their greatest hits, and unlike some bands, they were a great live band. When Ronnie Van Zant asks the crowd, “What song is it you wanna hear?” there’s no doubt what the last song will be — Free Bird! When you are the opening act for The Who, and Pete Townsend says that you’re, “Quite good,” then you are quite good! It wasn’t much longer after One More From The Road was released that a plane crash robbed the band of its lead singer, and brilliant songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines. With Van Zant’s death, Southern Rock, the genre he’d pretty much established, in a sense, died as well.
Sweet — Level Headed (1978)
The Sweet, originally called “The Sweetshop,” and better known as simply “Sweet,” were British Glam rockers, who evolved from Bubblegum Rock to Hard Rock, and found great success in the UK, European, and the US markets with hits like “Block Buster,” “Little Willy,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Fox On The Run,” and their peak single, “Love Is Like Oxygen,” which was from their final album with Brian Connolley on vocals. Released in January of 1978, Level Headed was a marked departure from their former sound, and found them going in different musical direction, experimenting with more Pop and Folk-Rock sounds (alongside their usual Glam and Hard Rock), with songs like “Fountain,” “Anthem No.1 (Lady Of The Lake),” “Silverbird” and “Air On ‘A’ Loop.” While many might consider Level Headed inferior to Give Us A Wink, Sweet would never again record anything as good as Level Headed, which yielded their final top-ten hit in the US. That’s why, for us, Level Headed was their peak album.
Little River Band — Sleeper Catcher (1978)
Little River Band was an Australian band originally formed in Melbourne in 1975, and was something of a supergroup, composed of members of prominent local bands (one of which, Zoot, launched the career of Rick Springfield), and were the first — but far from last — Aussie band to have both consistent commercial, and chart success in America. Known as “Mississippi,” they changed their name to Little River Band when members Glenn Shorrock and Beeb Birtles noticed the Little River exit sign while riding in the back seat of a car going to a gig down the Princes Highway, and thought it would make a great name for a band. All the other members agreed. Sleeper Catcher, their peak album (which also produced their peak single, “Lady”), was their fourth album and was released in April 1978. By May of 1979, it was certified platinum by RIAA for sales of 1,000,000 copies, the first Australian album to achieve the feat. The album cover shows the band playing a gambling game called “Two-Up.” The sleeper catcher is a player who retrieves bets left behind by a tardy gambler in the game. They would continue to have success with a total of ten top ten singles in the US, but Sleeper Catcher was their peak, with nary a bad song on it.
The Eagles — Hotel California (1976)
It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that Hotel California wasn’t the peak studio album by The Eagles, both commercially and creatively, an album that saw them moving from easy-going Country Rock to a harder sound, helped along by the addition of guitarist Joe Walsh. Don Henley had a song title in mind called “Hotel California,” and Don Felder took the title and, along with Henley and Glenn Frye, developed it into a song that has been said to be about a lot of things (excess in America, an end of innocence, drug addiction, an insane asylum). Whatever the meaning, the song provided the title to the album, and it was a juggernaut, going on to sell 26,000,000 copies. Released in December, 1976, Hotel California was not only The Eagles’ peak album but also was the beginning of the end for the band. Feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to try and follow up such success only served to deepen the fissures already threatening the band (when you get members fist fighting on stage, you know the end is near). The Eagles follow-up, The Long Run, was also an enormous success, selling over eight million copies, and would have been a peak album for almost any other band, but it would lack a few too many songs to be considered peak (although it contained their peak single, “I Can’t Tell You Why”). There really is a Hotel California, but the picture on the cover is of The Beverly Hills Hotel, which was something of a home base for the band in California. The real Hotel California is in Todos Santos, on Baha California Sur, about a thousand miles south of San Diego.
Elton John — Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
By the mid-70s, Elton John was the biggest star in the world (in fact the term “superstar” was coined for him), and 1975’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy was Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s autobiographical masterpiece, with both at the height of their creative genius. “Hand in hand went music and the rhyme…” from the title track, summed up their symbiotic relationship, with Taupin providing the lyrics, and John the music and the voice. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, takes the listener from Taupin and John’s humble beginnings in the title track (Bernie a shy country boy meeting the city slick Reggie Dwight) to their subsequent exposure, to debauchery (“Tower Of Babel”), drudgery (“Bitter Fingers”), homesickness (“Tell Me When The Whistle Blows”), a feeble suicide attempt by John (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”), and on to honing their craft by churning out songs for various acts (“Writing”), and their eventual triumph of making it as a successful recording act of their own. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy was the last to feature the classic Elton John band, and their follow-up album Rock Of The Westies, sounded quite different (although both debuted at number one, Captain Fantastic being the first in history to do so). Taupin and John would go on to do a great many successful albums and songs, but none would ever be quite as good as Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy.
Supertramp — Breakfast In America (1979)
Breakfast In America was the sixth studio album by the British Rock band Supertramp, which was founded in 1969 by Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their three former albums had charted in the US, but Breakfast In America was a whole new beast, and easily their peak album. The songs were based on their experiences of life in America and were written by Hodgson, and Davies (although Davies supposedly wrote the title track as a teenager dreaming about America, which is likely, as the lyrics are something one might find scribbled on a stall in a boy’s bathroom). Supertramp worked on the album for nearly a year, and all the work proved to be worth it. Released in March of 1979, Breakfast In America hit number one on the Billboard Hot-100 just a month later, with the first single, “The Logical Song,” taking Supertramp to all new heights. The follow-up singles, “Goodbye Stranger,” “Take The Long Way Home,” and the title track, “Breakfast In America,” were all hits, and have made this album a must-have for any serious music lover. Sadly, its very success marked the beginning of the end for the band. They would release only one more album, Famous Last Words, which made the top-five, and its only charting single, “It’s Raining Again,” only making the top-twenty.
Rod Stewart — Foot Loose & Fancy Free (1977)
Just looking at the cover of Rod Stewart’s album, Foot Loose & Fancy Free, which was released in November of 1977, evokes nostalgia for a more footloose and fancy-free time for Rock ‘N’ Roll, before the advent of all sorts of genres that would inundate the airwaves in the following decades. This was the last, and best, of his great 70s albums, and before songs like the Disco-ish “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” took him in a different direction. The peak song off the album, and of Stewart’s career is “You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” a lovely laidback, and affectionate affirmation of love for his wife at the time. There isn’t a bad song on Footloose & Fancy Free, although “Hot Legs” is a bit jarring and overdone at times, it’s still classic Rod Stewart (as long as I don’t have to watch the video).
Cheap Trick — Dream Police (1979)
Dream Police, Cheap Trick’s fourth studio album, was released in September of 1979. The band, formed in Rockford, Illinois in 1973, and was comprised of Rick Nielson (one of the more underrated guitarists), Tom Perersson, Robin Zander, and Bun E Carlos, had planned on releasing it earlier but pushed back the release due to the unexpected success of Live At Budokan (perhaps taking note that Peter Frampton had released I’m In You too soon, before the public was ready for something besides Frampton Comes Alive). To the point of Dream Police’s release, Cheap Trick had toiled mostly in obscurity in the US but had found an almost Beatlemania-like reception in Japan, where Live At Budokan, considered one of the all-time best live albums ever, had been recorded. Cheap Trick, who supposedly got their name from going to a Slade concert where Tom Petersson remarked that, “The band had used every cheap trick in the book,” would achieve great success in the US with Live In Budokan, and Dream Police was the perfect follow up album, producing the hits “Dream Police” (about Big Brother watching you), and the album’s best song, “Voices.” Although the band built up a loyal and almost cult-like following, the 80s, on the whole, were not so kind to them, making Dream Police their peak album (though their peak single — and only number one — “The Flame,” was still in their future).
Down through the long history of recorded music, there have been thousands of artists, from one-hit wonders to world-changing ones, that have given us the pleasure of hearing/seeing them both sing and perform, and sometimes, these special artists hit harder than other times. We hope you’ve enjoyed taking a trip back through these classic peak moments. Let us know what ones we missed, and you might just see it in part two!
Interested in learning more about the albums discussed in this article? Check out the link below:
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Vinylstalgia, by Layne Partin, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/vinylstalgia-archives/
2 thoughts on “Ten 70s Albums That Were The Peak of Classic Artists’ Careers”
Well done and interesting. Two things:
1. “When none other than Rolling Stone Magazine lists your album as one of the top ten greatest albums ever made, well, where do you go from there?” Given that Rolling Stone has always been a fraudulent, manipulating, payola-based propaganda rag, you go nowhere from there.
2. Cheap Trick peaked in the early-80’s with All Shook Up and the even more awesome One On One.
Thanks for the input. I’ll not disagree with you about Rolling Stone magazine.