1970: The Year in 50 Classic Rock Albums

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At the start of a new decade, as freeform radio was becoming more prevalent, music buyers were starting to buy albums in greater numbers.

We looked back at hundreds of albums released in 1970 and whittled the list down to the 50 that we think were the year’s best. Many of these titles remain cornerstones of any essential classic rock record collection, with works by George Harrison, Traffic, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Chicago, CSN&Y, and more, sounding as fresh now as when we first removed the vinyl from the shrink-wrapped album jacket.

We’re not ranking them; they’re arranged alphabetically by artist. How many of the 50 do you own?

The Allman Brothers BandIdlewild South—Their second album (“Midnight Rider,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”) rewrote all preceding notions of what rock from the South could be.

The BandStage Fright—Less “rustic” than its predecessor, more rocking, somewhat darker, it set them up as more of a mainstream band and gave them some hot new material to try out onstage.

The BeatlesLet It Be—Recorded before Abbey Road but released after it, this is where it all ended. In some ways, it was taking them back to their roots; in other ways, it owed little to what we’d known as the Fab Four only six years earlier.

Black SabbathParanoid—Their second album (the self-titled debut was released earlier in the year), this was the blueprint for heavy metal. Talk about rock anthems—this album was stacked with them.

The Byrds(Untitled)—Only Roger McGuinn remains from the early days, but the sound is still unmistakable on this half-studio/half-live double album.

ChicagoChicago—Also known as Chicago II (after they dropped “Transit Authority” from their name), this double album was ambitious and wide-ranging. Includes “25 or 6 to 4,” “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.”

Eric ClaptonEric Clapton—With the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith all behind him, the guitarist/singer/songwriter decided it was time to make his own statement (“After Midnight,” “Blues Power”).

Joe CockerMad Dogs & Englishmen—The traveling road show to end all traveling road shows cut this live double set that personified the rock ’n’ soul party.

Creedence Clearwater RevivalCosmo’s Factory—Their fifth album was a monster seller, spending nine weeks at #1 (“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”).

Crosby, Stills, Nash & YoungDéjà Vu—The poster boys for the rock supergroup upped their game with the addition of Neil Young. Songs like “Woodstock,” “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” still define the hippie ethos.

Miles DavisBitches Brew—Featuring brilliant players like John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, it was as electric as any rock album and helped usher in jazz fusion.

Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs—Eric Clapton’s short-lived group created an all-time classic with this studio set. The title track was inspired by the guitarist’s infatuation with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife.

The DoorsMorrison Hotel—Their fifth (of six) studio album, it was less meandering and experimental than its predecessor. Its lead track, “Roadhouse Blues,” became an FM radio staple.

Bob DylanNew Morning—Following the head-scratcher that was Self Portrait, Dylan’s 11th studio album wasn’t as country as Nashville Skyline, and wasn’t folk, but it surely wasn’t like his ’60s rock either.

Aretha FranklinSpirit in the Dark—At the time it wasn’t one of her biggest sellers, but many now consider it among her finest works.

Related: 10 classic ’70s songs you won’t forget

FreeFire and Water—For “All Right Now” alone, it would be a rock classic, but this album that served as the breakthrough for the Paul Rodgers-fronted British quartet is solid from start to finish.

FunkadelicFree Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow—Funk music was still finding its way at the start of the new decade, but this second album by George Clinton and his troupe of spaced-out virtuosos went a long way toward defining where it could go.

Grand Funk RailroadCloser to Home—They were controversial in that some rock fans didn’t know what to make of a trio that took rock down to the raw basics in this time of excess. Others couldn’t get enough, and gave them their first of eight top 10 albums. For more about GFR, go here.

The Grateful DeadWorkingman’s Dead—Having embodied the San Francisco psychedelic trip, they took a deep breath, looked toward CSN and The Band for inspiration, and turned to a more folksy/country sound. They’d repeat the formula later that year with the equally sublime American Beauty.

The Guess WhoAmerican Woman—The Canadians were enjoying a string of hit singles but weren’t considered much of an album band—until this one soared onto the top 10.

George HarrisonAll Things Must Pass—He’d released two experimental solo albums that received little notice. Then came this triple-LP that showed, even more than his work with the Beatles, that he was a true leader. It stayed at #1 for seven weeks.

Jimi HendrixBand of Gypsys—After three albums with the Experience, he wanted something different. Working with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, he cut this live New Year’s Eve show in New York that presented a whole new side. Sadly, he’d be gone before the end of the year.

Hot TunaHot Tuna—Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady needed something to do when Jefferson Airplane wasn’t working. They made this acoustic blues album in a small club. Nearly five decades later, they are still Hot Tuna.

The James GangJames Gang Rides Again—This hard-working mainstream rock band out of Ohio hit its stride with this top 20 album. Guitarist Joe Walsh would leave the following year, eventually to join the Eagles, but for many this was a highlight of his career.

Jethro TullBenefit—They started out as a jazz-rock band in Britain—their leader even played a flute!—but by their third album they’d hardened up somewhat, featuring tougher guitar lines and darker lyrical themes.

Elton JohnElton John—His songs, co-written with lyricist Bernie Taupin, were both sophisticated and accessible, his piano playing masterful, his singing warm and intoxicating. Hits like “Your Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” made him a star. He’d return later in the year with the country-oriented Tumbleweed Connection.

The Kinks—Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One—With albums like Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, Ray Davies proved one of our most astute observers and craftsmen. On his latest concept album, he takes aim at everything from the music biz to society itself, and the band delivers a tour de force.

Paul Kantner/Jefferson StarshipBlows Against the Empire—By the turn of the decade, Jefferson Airplane was already heading toward a crash. Singer-guitarist-songwriter Kantner gathered a bunch of his California friends on an album that mused about humankind living in other worlds. It was nominated for a prestigious sci-fi award.

Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin IIIII was a hard act to follow, so Zep was wise not to go in the same direction, instead incorporating more acoustic elements into songs that tended more toward the poetic and introspective than bludgeoning hard rock.

John LennonPlastic Ono Band—His debut solo album (not counting three with Yoko) was raw and confessional in spots, vulnerable and tender in others. Songs like“Working Class Hero” and “Mother” were among his most poignant post-Beatles work.

Dave MasonAlone Together—After vacating Traffic, the guitarist-singer-songwriter gathered a bunch of his friends and put out this collection of tracks that proved he had plenty to say on his own.

Randy Newman12 Songs—His 1968 debut had shown him to be a promising new voice amidst the developing L.A. singer-songwriter pool, but this followup reveals Newman’s unique vision. Includes his take on”Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which Three Dog Night made into a hit.

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Paul McCartneyMcCartney—Paul didn’t even let his soon-to-be-ex-bandmates know he was making a solo album. With the exception of vocal harmony from wife Linda, he played and sang everything himself. The result was a homey, minimalist collection of fine tunes, including the original “Maybe I’m Amazed.”

Joni MitchellLadies of the Canyon—She’d begun developing a devoted audience, and her peers raved about her, but this third album served notice that a major star had arrived. Includes classics like “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “For Free.”

Van MorrisonMoondance—His 1968 Astral Weeks was intricate and dense even though it was entirely acoustic. Here the Irish enigma morphs into a full-blown major singer-songwriter. Every song is a gem, including the title track, “Crazy Love” and “Into the Mystic.” The also-excellent His Band and Street Choir would follow later in the year.

MountainClimbing!—The debut by the group fronted by guitarist/singer Leslie West and bassist Felix Pappalardi took heavy to new levels, but they were also capable of melodic tunes like “Theme for an Imaginary Western.”

The Rolling StonesGet Your Ya-Ya’s Out—The Stones’ 1969 tour of the U.S. was an event of gargantuan significance in the rock world, and the souvenir recording is still considered by many to be among rock’s most perfect live albums.

SantanaAbraxas—Their debut the previous year was seismic, a perfect marriage of rock and Latin rhythms, all fronted by one of the most original guitarists on the scene. The followup refined the approach, giving us hits like “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va.”

Simon and GarfunkelBridge Over Troubled Water—Their farewell studio set remains one of their finest, a diverse and powerful creation. The title track alone is a masterwork, and it’s kept company by other ace tunes like “The Boxer” and “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

SpiritTwelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus—Although it didn’t fare as well on the charts as their three previous releases, the California band’s ’70 effort continued to display solid musicianship and songwriting: “Nature’s Way” and “Mr. Skin” are memorable tracks.

Cat StevensTea For the Tillerman—Following Mona Bone Jakon, released earlier in the year, the British singer-songwriter truly began to find his voice on this one, which included literate but radio-friendly songs like “Wild World” and “Father and Son.”

Related: Links to tours for 100s of artists – including many of the acts on this list

Rod StewartGasoline Alley—His tenure as vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group brought him recognition, but who knew that he had such depth and versatility in him? The title track and “Cut Across Shorty” are two highlights. That same year the debut by Faces, with Stewart singing lead, was also issued.

James TaylorSweet Baby James—Discovered in the U.K., he cut an album for the Beatles’ Apple Records, then came home, where he made this sophomore gem. Produced by Peter Asher, it went a long way toward defining the singer-songwriter movement of the decade ahead.

Ten Years AfterCricklewood Green—After their game-changing appearance at Woodstock, guitarist Alvin Lee and the others were expected to make nothing but blistering rock packed with speedy guitar solos. This showed they had more going on. Best track: “Love Like a Man.”

TrafficJohn Barleycorn Must Die—Traffic was down to a trio by now, with Steve Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, and they used the occasion to indulge in more jamming. But some of the songs—including “Glad” and “Empty Pages”—were among their most accessible.

Various ArtistsJesus Christ Superstar—Rock fans weren’t known for embracing musicals, but this was a very different kind. An early project of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, its brash story line and bold performances took it to #1.

Various ArtistsWoodstock—The festival was such a spectacular cultural marker that the documentary film had to be a huge success as well. Then came the triple album, stuffed with highlights from the Who, Santana, Joe Cocker and many other performers. It was #1 for four weeks.

The Velvet UndergroundLoaded—This would be the end for the New York City band that became much more influential after it split up. Loaded isn’t as ear-opening as their debut or White Light/White Heat, but songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” are now firmly ensconced in the rock lexicon.

The WhoLive at Leeds—Nothing less than one of the all-time killer live rock albums, it captured the original band in all of its fiery glory. For their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and the nearly 15-minute “My Generation” alone, it deserves landmark status.

Neil YoungAfter the Gold Rush—Throughout his career, the Canadian has thrived on challenging himself to keep trying different things. But at this early date it was something of a surprise when his third solo release, which followed the first raucous Crazy Horse LP, was mostly on the soft side—except for the finger-pointing anthem “Southern Man,” that is.

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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6 Comments so far

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  1. yankeedog
    #1 yankeedog 22 April, 2018, 10:11

    It’s horrifying that the Jackson 5’s “ABC” isn’t on the list…

    Reply this comment
  2. carollover
    #2 carollover 22 April, 2018, 14:11

    I would add Emerson Lake and Palmer’s debut (it DID give us Lucky Man) and The Yes Album, Steve Howe’s first with them.

    Reply this comment
  3. Billy K.
    #3 Billy K. 23 April, 2018, 04:34

    Bottom like is, in any one year during this decade, you are hard pressed to come up with even 10 exceptional albums. Yet in 1970 alone, there was a whole slew of them…and not all of them are even on this list.

    Reply this comment
  4. John Rose
    #4 John Rose 23 April, 2018, 08:10

    Good list, but I would find room for The Moody Blues’ “A Question of Balance.” I’m a huge Beatles fan, but I’ll say that despite some classic songs the “Let It Be” album is consistently overrated on lists like this.

    Reply this comment
  5. Dirtman
    #5 Dirtman 25 August, 2018, 12:46

    Definitely, or their first album.

    Reply this comment
  6. Versus
    #6 Versus 24 September, 2018, 10:31

    Mis grupos favoritos de ese año fueron The Kinks y The Rolling Stones.

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