“The future is purchased by the present.” – Samuel Johnson
The Grammy™ for record of the year went to Captain & Tenille for ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ and the Grammy for best song went to Stephen Sondheim for ‘Send In The Clowns’. It wasn’t an accident. Overall, 1976 was truly a forgettable year in music, and the list of laughably bad albums is two to three times the length of the good ones. This was big-production-rock’s last hurrah before the punk meanies crashed the party and made the guitarist an everyman (or everywoman). A quick scan of the charts show that heads needed to roll, and roll they soon would.
Clearly the most redeeming quality about 1976 isn’t the music on record (though some of that is outstanding) but the movements that were underway and nearing explosion. In addition to punk’s incubation in a scummy Bowery club, rap was being created out of virtually nothing in the South Bronx, disco was starting to find a wider audience than clubgoers with frosted noses, and something called reggae was gaining real traction in the U.S. In spite of all its excesses (or quite possibly because of them) this year was a flashpoint in music and nothing would be the same after.
There was other music that went unheard but would soon resonate; The Band held their legendary farewell concert The Last Waltz in ’76, but the music wouldn’t see general release until two full years later. Additionally, Neil Young had several great songs in the can and ready for release, but he balked at the last second. These songs would form the backbone of his legendary late 70’s albums, and can be heard in their original form on the bootleg Chrome Dreams, a sure top 5 album here had it been minted.
Also, a number of normally reliable artists made either gigantic missteps or merely failed to meet their own high standard. And there were a number of others who released landmark albums in both ’75 and ’77, but nothing (or nothing of note) in ’76 (including Neil, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Little Feat, and many others). Focusing on just the calendar year, it looks pretty bleak, but looking at the larger continuum, this was just a down year within an exceptionally strong musical era.
So maybe I’m just making excuses for the really ugly kid in class, but if you look at the whole picture, it was a pretty significant year for music; Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Kansas, Styx, Bad Company, Linda Rondstadt and the rest notwithstanding. For good or bad it was a year when anything was possible, and people were grabbing the power in music in ways that would still have revolutionary implications 30 years later.
The Best Albums Of 1976…
Ramones – Ramones
#1 – Not just the finest album of ’76, Ramones’ self-titled debut may very well be the most important album of the entire decade. It put Punk on the map, set the blueprint for the look and sound of an entire genre, and – most importantly – it’s filled to the brim with top-notch songs that still sound fresh, tough, and ahead of the curve 30 years later.
Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life
#2 – The high point of an incredibly productive decade for Wonder, SITKOL is a massive, double album (and ep) length masterwork that touches on all the delight, pain, and emotions that go into the struggle of living life. From the joyful nostalgia of ‘I Wish’ to the downcast resignation of ‘Pastime Paradise’ it’s all in there.
Parliament – Mothership Connection/The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein
Funkadelic – Hardcore Jollies/Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic
#3 – George Clinton was mighty busy in ’76. Parliament’s Mothership Connection took funk interplanetary and owned the dance charts for much of the year. Spawning single after single, the album plays like a Best-Of. And to keep the Bicentennial party moving, Funkadelic released the typically weird Hardcore Jollies, which includes the oddly satisfying “Comin’ Round The Mountain” and the cerebral “If You’ve Got Funk You’ve Got Style”. And if those weren’t enough, Parliament also released The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein and Funkadelic added Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic, leaving little doubt as to who were the hardest working bands in outer space.
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
#4 – Boston’s Modern Lovers recorded these tracks in 1972 (with John Cale producing), but the results didn’t see daylight until ’76, when Beserkley Records stepped in, purchased the masters from a befuddled Warner Records, and put out this gem. While not precisely punk (nor precisely anything), tracks like ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Pablo Picasso’ would go on to be covered endlessly by punk bands. Unfortunately, the original Lovers had split before the album was released, but for a one-off statement, it’s tough to top The Modern Lovers.
Led Zeppelin – Presence
#5 – The most criminally underrated album in the Zep canon, Presence was recorded and mixed in just 18 days in Munich, Germany in November of ’75. In Hammer Of The Gods, Jimmy Page claims to have laid in every guitar overdub in two marathon overnight sessions on studio time borrowed from the Stones. ‘Hots On For Nowhere’, ‘Royal Orleans’ and ‘Tea For One’ prove that not all of their finest songs got played to death on the radio.
AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap/High Voltage
#6 – The raunchiest album of the Bon Scott era (and that’s truly saying something), Dirty Deeds features stag-ready tracks like ‘Big Balls’, ‘Squealer’, and the title track, but also features their best slow jam, ‘Ride On’. For good measure, AC/DC also dropped High Voltage, which added ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)’, ‘T.N.T.’, ‘Live Wire’, and ‘Little Lover’ to the mix. Put them together and you’ve got one of the most rockingly productive years of any band in the ‘70’s.
KC & The Sunshine Band – Part 3
#7 – The rainbow on the cover naturally led to a pot of gold singles inside. For many, this album was the introduction to the disco era, and it’s the rare album that has footing in both funk and disco. With singles ‘(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty’, ‘Baby I Love You (Yes I Do)’ and ‘Keep It Comin’ Love’, this was the de facto sound of dancefloors everywhere, the groove behind the spirit of ’76.
Burning Spear – Man In The Hills/Garvey’s Ghost
#8 – Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) has long been overlooked as a reggae pioneer. His 1975 release ‘Marcus Garvey’ made him only the second reggae artist (after Bob Marley) to release an entire album of original compositions. In ’76, Spear followed that up with a pair of fine releases, Garvey’s Ghost, (a dub version of Marcus Garvey), and Man In The Hills. If you’re wondering where to look in reggae after Marley, start here.
Steely Dan – The Royal Scam
#9 – Their first three albums dabbled in wry observation and ironic reflection, but Steely Dan obviously had some axes to grind on The Royal Scam. From the scathing title track to the bitter ‘Sign In Stranger’ to the upraised middle finger of ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and the world weary ‘Haitian Divorce’ the Dan never sounded angrier – or better. And while they would make albums that sold more, they’d never make another with this much fire and brimstone.
Aerosmith – Rocks
#10 – Before they nearly imploded their career in a haze of drugs and alcohol, Aerosmith were capable of the most swaggering groove this side of the Stones. Rocks finds them at the height of their powers, with rock star attitude to match monster riffs. This album sold through the roof and was primary inspiration for the next generation of hard rockers; it allegedly caused a young Slash to pick up the guitar.
Bob Marley – Rastaman Vibration
#11 – If 1976 was a breakthrough year for many reggae artists in America, Bob Marley clearly remained the genre’s leading ambassador. Every song on this album is politically motivated, and some of Marley’s strongest statements, including ‘War’, ‘Rat Race’ and ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’ are found right here. Still, in spite of the heavy messages, Rastaman Vibration feels more like celebration than sedition.
Lee Perry & The Upsetters – Super Ape
#12 – Lee Perry lent his trademark production to a string of fine albums throughout the decade – perhaps none more so than Super Ape. The apex of his ‘70’s Black Ark Studio output, this album jumps from song to song and – much like the giant gorilla on its cover – leaves a large imprint at each step. Perry would later burn the studio down in a fit of (depending on who you ask) rage, madness, or self-protection, but not before creating a body of work unmatched in scope or quality by any other Jamaican producer.
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak/Johnny The Fox
#13 – Thin Lizzy was one of the first hard rock bands to use the twin lead guitar formula, and front man and bassist Phil Lynott wrote songs that were street tough but sparkled with literary observation and wit. But aside from Jailbreak’s monster hit ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ Lizzy flew under the critical and popular radar for much of the 70’s. The fact that artists as diverse as The Cure, Metallica, and Huey Lewis have covered their songs is testament to one of the most versatile and overlooked bands of the decade.
Tom Waits – Small Change
#14 – Waits’ fourth full-length LP, featuring jazz legend Shelly Manne on drums, sees him perfecting his drunken-piano man act on tracks like – naturally – ‘The Piano’s Been Drinking’ and ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’. The epic title track describes in detail the murder of a petty thug, and is Waits at his storytelling best.
Graham Parker – Howlin’ Wind
#15 – Graham Parker emerged from (or more to the point, survived) the English pub-rock scene to stand nearly alone at the crossroads of folk and punk. His debut, Howlin’ Wind, is filled with great songs, excellent hooks, and stinging vocal deliveries. These literate, intensely sung songs were well-received at the time, but Parker would go on to be overshadowed by Elvis Costello and overlooked throughout much of his unfulfilled and disappointing career.
Various Artists – Car Wash Soundtrack
#16 – It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember the movie, this album was more than the soundtrack to a cornball comedy – it was the soundtrack of its era. The title track is a cultural pearl that will be handed down for generations to come, but there is much more to love here: from the sultry ‘I Wanna Get Next To You’ to the funky ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’ to the Richard Pryor skits, it all kills.
Black Sabbath – Technical Ecstasy
#17 – Many Sabbath fans decry this as the beginning of the end, but on the next-to-last album before Ozzy left, they slowed the pace without losing any urgency. ‘Dirty Women’ is a slow burner to match ‘War Pigs’ or ‘Iron Man’, and the Bill Ward sung ‘It’s Alright’ is simply beautiful and unlike anything else in their catalog.
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
#18 – Let it be said: very few singers in the history of popular music can match the beauty and grace of Marvin Gaye. Throughout his career, Gaye sang a great deal about heaven – both above the clouds and below the belt. I Want You is the perfect middle ground of sacred and profane, with Marvin singing like a perfect angel about getting down. Being bad never sounded so good.
KISS – Destroyer
#19 – In a career more storied for pyrotechnics and naughtiness than music, this is without a doubt KISS’ finest studio effort. The epic ‘Detroit Rock City’ is nearly worth the price of admission alone, but throw in ‘God Of Thunder’, the rarely played ‘Great Expectations’, and their biggest hit, ‘Beth’ (which peaked at #7 on the Billboard charts), and you’ve got a great album, even without the crazy makeup, fire-breathing, and 7-inch tongues – but that stuff is great too!
Peter Tosh – Legalize It
#20 – Peter Tosh might be the most enigmatic personality to emerge from the Jamaican music scene. He cheerfully sang “legalize it/and I will advertise it” about ganja, but always seemed to be the edgiest of reggae stars, and many of his songs took on tough topics in uncompromising terms. This tough stance would make him a star second only to Bob Marley in reggae, but his fame came with a price. On September 11, 1987, he was murdered by an acquaintance. Legalize It stands as one of Tosh’s finest moments.
Joni Mitchell – Hejira
#21 – While Joni Mitchell can come off as whiny, on Hejira, she sounds tough, confident and playful. From the opener, ‘Coyote’ onward, there’s spirit at work that belies the gloomy cover photo. ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ features a guest harmonica shot from Neil Young, and the admission “W.C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fay/And I’m not familiar with what you played”. More people should be familiar with this.
12 more that just missed the cut…
Lee Oskar – Lee Oskar
Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More From The Road
J.J. Cale – Troubador
Steve Miller Band – Fly Like An Eagle
Earth, Wind & Fire – Spirit
Rolling Stones – Black & Blue
Augustus Pablo – King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive
Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson – Wanted! The Outlaws
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
War – Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Bunny Wailer – Blackheart Man
And some stars that didn’t align…
In 1976, a number of normally reliable artists released albums that ranged from slightly disappointing to utterly perplexing (or, in Neil Young’s case, nothing at all). A few notable examples:
Bob Dylan – Desire * By no means abominable, (like Self-Portrait) or annoying, (like the religious era) – just not very good by Dylan’s admittedly massive standards.
Eric Clapton – No Reason To Cry * I can think of one.
Grateful Dead – Steal Your Face * Possibly the worst in a long string of bad albums from this group. How the Dead could release a bad live album is beyond me.
David Bowie – Station To Station * This tops some polls as the best album of the 70’s, but I’m not hearing it.
Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains The Same * With all the amazing soundboards Zep had to choose from, why they’d release this tepid piece of crap remains a true mystery.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Give Me Back My Bullets * This isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty clearly the least great release by the pre-plane crash Skynyrd.
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams * If only…
10 Things That Happened In Music In 1976…
BIG DEAL – Promoter Bill Sargent offers The Beatles $30 million to reunite for one concert.
MASKED MEN – Kiss add their footprints to the “Walk Of Fame” outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
NOT FORGOTTEN – The Band play their final show together at Winterland in SF. Martin Scorcese films it for what will become The Last Waltz.
FUCKING ROTTERS – The Sex Pistols infuriate the British public (and inspire that classic Daily Mirror headline “The Filth & The Fury”) when their profanity-laced tirade is broadcast live on television on December 1st.
BOOTS ON – Former Yardbirds singer Keith Relf dies from electrocution while playing his guitar on May 14th.
BIGGER DEAL – Lorne Michaels offers The Beatles $3,000 to play together on Saturday Night Live. Lennon and McCartney reportedly are watching the show together in NYC and consider walking to the studio to take Michaels up on his offer.
LONG LIVE THE BLUES – Bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf, Mance Lipscomb, and Freddie King pass away.
FUTURE SHOCK – CBGB OMFUG, a music venue in New York’s rundown Bowery district, turns a profit for the first time in club history – foreshadowing the explosion of Punk music in the late ’70’s.
FUTURE SHOCK II – The first international Punk festival is held at London’s 100 Club on September 20th and 21st. Performers include The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and The Vibrators.
BLOW OUT – Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards is arrested and charged with possession of cocaine after a car accident. The substance was found by police in Richards’ wrecked automobile.
10 groups that formed in ’76…
U2 (under the name Dublin)
[The above are liner notes for my mix 1976: The Year In Mucus. Take a look at the cover art.]