Reflections on the Best in Pazz & Jop, 1974
It’s a fine list but one with limitations
The second Pazz & Jop Critics Poll appeared in the January 20, 1975 issue of The Village Voice. Music critic Robert Christgau had polled 24 critics on their favorite American-release albums of 1974 and tabulated the top 30. It’s an interesting reflection of the music scene in the early to mid-Seventies, but like all reflections, it’s distorted by its medium. Here, I take a look at the list, with a focus on albums in my vinyl collection.
A Few from the Top 10
The number 1 record, however, is one I don’t have in my collection. I wish I did, because I’m checking out Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark for the first time on YouTube as I write this and I can tell it’s the kind of album, as many from the late Sixties and early Seventies are, that would spoon all night with my sound system. For an indication of how great this folk-rock opus is, look no further than Wikipedia. The “Professional ratings” box for the album has 9 ratings, and the lowest are 9/10 from music historian Martin C. Strong and an A (the highest being A+) from Robert Christgau. All the rest, including Rolling Stone, rate it perfect. I’m hearing that for myself, so I have no objections.
Number 4 has a similarly blissful vibe. Stevie Wonder released Fulfillingness’ First Finale at a time when he was churning out hits, expanding his horizons, and reinventing R&B. Every track is warm and smooth, and every instrument resonates with the human touch, even when Wonder steps away from the piano to tickle the synthesizer. I don’t remember hearing Wonder until the Eighties, when he had further refined his pop sensibilities, but some of these tracks must have been imprinted on my subconscious when I was a small child.
Bob Dylan is a little further down the list, but he makes up for it by appearing twice. At number 18 is Planet Waves, which I’m likely to put on for the slow version of “Forever Young.” Critics also liked his triple-disc live album with The Band, placing Before the Flood at number 6. It has many of Dylan’s classic tunes — “Just Like a Woman,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” — but some listeners may find his forceful singing to be jarring. To my ears, his loose relationship with pitch works better when his delivery is more laidback, even offhand.
In a piece introducing the 1974 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, Christgau reflected on its biases, noting a lack of jazz and black artists, not that there was a shortage of worthy material. In R&B and soul, one of my favorites from 1974 is Sly and the Family Stone’s Small Talk, and a couple I’ve been meaning to spend more time with are Al Green’s Al Green Explores Your Mind and Ramsey Lewis’s Sun Goddess. One album that did make the list, falling at number 29, is Skin Tight by Ohio Players. The sexy and stylish gatefold is one you can’t resist opening every time you put on the record.
David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is another one with a great gatefold, showing a half-canine Bowie hangin’ with some bulldog-women, but this is another one that didn’t make the list. Apparently, not everyone was immediately enamored of Bowie’s changing styles and personae. Christgau himself called it “escapist pessimism concocted from a pleasure dome,” which sounds great to me, but he concludes by advising readers to “say nay” to this particular piece of “plastic” and compares it unfavorably to Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (number 14). Nonetheless, I say “yea” and often drop the needle on “1984” and “Big Brother.”
There’s also an absence of prog, psychedelia and heavy music — and this in the Seventies! E.L.O. released Eldorado, which contains the painfully beautiful hit “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” and Genesis released the lengthy psychotrip The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the band’s final album with Peter Gabriel. “Carpet Crawl” on that one is so moving that I hesitate to play it. Wishbone Ash, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Kansas, Grateful Dead, Blue Öyster Cult… This is but a small selection of the riches flooding record stores in 1974.
My Favorites from 1974
Such wonderful music in the year of my birth… Fascinated with what the world was like when I was around but too young to remember it, I used to write a series of posts on music from that time. A couple of the albums I covered made the critics poll — Roxy Music’s Stranded and Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel, numbers 7 and 11 — and I once analyzed the cover art on It’s Only Rock ’n Roll by The Rolling Stones, number 5. Looking back, however, I find that none of my favorites from 1974 made the Pazz & Jop top 30.
One of those favorites is Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade. I grew up hearing Joel’s Eighties hits all over the radio, and I’ve been able to pick up many of his records for pocket change since becoming a vinyl junky, but I find this is the one that I play the most, no tracks skipped. Favorite songs include “Los Aaaaaangelenos! All come from somewhere!” and “Roberta.” I also love the streetscape painting on the cover by Brian Hagiwara. Joel had a gift for hard-knock portraiture — now if only we could get one of Hughie Campbell.
Another favorite is John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges. Lennon adopts funky Seventies influences on this one, but it’s his soulful pop-rock that hits hardest. Tracks like “#9 Dream” and “Steel and Glass” are examples of why I rate his solo work the highest of all the Beatles, even if I do enjoy George Harrison’s Dark Horse and Ringo’s Goodnight Vienna from the same year. Lennon also contributed to 1974 in music via a surprise appearance at Madison Square Garden with Elton John, but the album wouldn’t come out until later.
My number 1 record from 1974 is Gryphon’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three. Gryphon is the kind of band in which recorder, bassoon and crumhorn are as important as guitar, drums and bass. On this the group’s second album, the band uses these instruments to take folk-prog notation of a fantastical game of chess, from “Opening Move” to “Checkmate.” The style ranges from medieval to abstract, impressing with narrative and composition more than showoffery. It’s a treat that I suspect many music fans have yet to discover.
You can view the 1974 Pazz & Jop Critics poll top 10 along with Christgau’s comments on The Village Voice here. Links to all the lists since 1971 are on RobertChristgau.com here. The winners of 2021 don’t include many albums that have excited me — at least not yet — but I’m glad to see Lana Del Rey on there for Chemtrails over the Country Club. She reminds me of the solo artists of the Seventies, so I wonder what she would choose as her favorite from that era.
As I wonder about yours. If you have any thoughts on the albums I’ve mentioned above or want to raise anything I haven’t mentioned, by all means let me know via a comment below or on Twitter at @Gleaming_Sword.
Thank you to Steve Devine for inviting me to write about the music of my birth year. I apologize for taking so long to post this, and I encourage readers to check out his post on music from 1967 in Plethora of Pop. Also, thank you to Renee Elizabeth Winfield for telling me about the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll and Robert Christgau.