Record Player and Woman's Hand
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50 Classic Albums Turning 50 Years Old

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Record Player and Woman's Hand
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It Was a Very Good Year

Was 1971 the best year for rock ’n’ roll ever? That’s what some critics and fans argue — and with good reason. Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and The Who were at their creative and commercial peaks; Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Nillsson all released instant-classic albums; Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, and Bill Withers all issued debut albums (though not all of them hit it big at first); and three of the four recently broken-up Beatles released records that year as well. Yeah, 1971 was a pretty good year for music. Here are 50 of the best albums of 1971, according to critics, fans, and sales charts.


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Hunky Dory | David Bowie
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Hunky Dory | David Bowie

Rock ’n’ roll’s greatest chameleon was still coming into his own — Ziggy Stardust wouldn’t land on this planet for another year — when he released his third album, the first on the RCA label that would be his home for the duration of what would be perhaps his most productive decade. Stellar arrangements from guitarist Mick Ronson transform “Life on Mars” from just another good cut on the record to one of Bowie’s all-time classics.

Tapestry | Carole King
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Tapestry | Carole King

Carole King has been writing songs — for other singers — since she and then-partner Gerry Goffin were in their teens, cranking out hits in New York City’s legendary Brill Building. But it wasn’t until she divorced Goffin in 1969 and released her solo album “Writer” the year after that she stepped into her own spotlight. Her follow-up album, “Tapestry,” sealed the deal. With songs like “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” the record became one of the top sellers of the decade and earned Grammys for Best Album, Best Record, and Best Song of the Year, a first for a female artist.


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Pearl | Janis Joplin
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Pearl | Janis Joplin

By the time Joplin’s second solo album hit record stores in January of 1971, she had been dead for three months. Best known for the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson, it also contains the Bobby Womack-penned “Trust Me,” and Joplin’s own composition, “Mercedes Benz.” This a capella track was the last song she recorded in the studio before overdosing on heroin on Oct. 4, 1970.


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L.A. Woman | The Doors
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L.A. Woman | The Doors

Lead singer Jim Morrison was not in a good place when they began recording what would be their final album together. Beset by legal charges, abusing drugs and alcohol, and growing estranged from his bandmates, Morrison and The Doors nevertheless pulled it off. In just one week, the band recorded the basic tracks for the entire album, including the memorable singles “Riders on the Storm” and “Love Her Madly.”

Nilsson Schmilsson | Harry Nilsson
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Nilsson Schmilsson | Harry Nilsson

Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson first found widespread fame with the 1969 song “Everybody’s Talkin’” — John Lennon saying he was the Beatles’ favorite singer didn’t hurt Nilsson’s reputation, either — but his biggest commercial breakthrough would come in 1971 with “Nilsson Schmilsson.” It was a virtuoso singer-songwriter performance, ranging from sincere ballads (the Grammy-winning “Without You”) to novelties (“Coconut”), and one Nilsson would never surpass.

Straight Up | Badfinger
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Straight Up | Badfinger

Badfinger’s first hit, “No Matter What,” was written by Paul McCartney; the band was signed to the Beatles’ Apple label; and George Harrison produced and played on some of this album’s tracks, including the hit “Day After Day.” But the Beatles-lite label that some critics stuck Badfinger with is underserved, as “Straight Up” proves.

A Nod Is as Good as a Wink... to a Blind Horse | Faces
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A Nod Is as Good as a Wink... to a Blind Horse | Faces

Formed by members of the Small Faces and the Jeff Beck Group, this British band included Rod Stewart, Ron Wood (who would later join the Rolling Stones), and Ronnie Lane. Their third album — and second release of 1971 — “A Nod…” is considered by many to be their best thanks to songs like “Stay With Me.”

Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart
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Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart already had a solo recording contract by the time he’d joined Faces, and his sophomore recording made him a star. The best-known cut, “Maggie May,” spent more than a month at No. 1 on the pop charts in the U.S. and U.K., but the album also included other gems, including “Mandolin Wind” and the title track.

Sticky Fingers | The Rolling Stones
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Sticky Fingers | The Rolling Stones

Its notorious cover art was by Andy Warhol — the original edition came with working zippers — and for the first time featured the band’s now-iconic “tongue and lips” logo. It contains classics “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “Dead Flowers,” and was the top-selling album in the U.S. for four weeks in 1971. Good as this album is, the Stones would better themselves the following year with their double-album epic “Exile on Main Street.”

Coat of Many Colors | Dolly Parton
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Coat of Many Colors | Dolly Parton

Is there any other song more closely associated with Dolly Parton’s life than the title track from her eighth album? Doubtful. Parton’s tale of her mother sewing a coat from multicolored rags as she relates the biblical tale of Joseph’s own rainbow-colored garment is a classic of country music. The album’s other hit single, “My Blue Tears,” Parton has rerecorded twice for subsequent albums. 


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Led Zeppelin IV | Led Zeppelin
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Led Zeppelin IV | Led Zeppelin

Released in November 1971, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album would go on to become their biggest seller. A classic rock radio staple, the album has sold more than 37 million copies since and spawned numerous hits, including the iconic “Stairway to Heaven” and drummer John Bonham’s tour de force on “In My Time of Dying.” 

Who’s Next | The Who
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Who’s Next | The Who

Hot on the heels of their rock opera “Tommy,” The Who released “Who’s Next,” and from the opening synth line of the first cut, “Baba O'Riley,” it’s clear this album would be a tour de force.The only Who album to make it to No. 1 on the U.K. charts, it’s considered by many fans and critics to be the band’s best recording.  With the exception of John Entwistle’s “My Wife,” all of the songs were written by Pete Townshend, who had originally conceived them as part of a sci-fi rock opera and film project dubbed “Lighthouse.” Noteworthy cuts include “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes.”


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Imagine | John Lennon
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Imagine | John Lennon

What is John Lennon’s best song? You could argue that it’s the title track to his second solo album, “Imagine.” The song is also his best-selling single. But other songs on this album are also Lennon classics, including “Jealous Guy” and “Gimme Some Truth.” And of course no record of his would be complete without at least one goofy love song to his muse and wife (“Oh, Yoko!”).


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Ram | Paul and Linda McCartney
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Ram | Paul and Linda McCartney

In the wake of the Beatles’ acrimonious split, Paul McCartney retreated to his farm in Scotland with his wife, Linda, and their growing family. The result was this ode to domestic bliss. Most critics (and ex-bandmate John Lennon) hated it at the time of its release, but fans sent it to No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 2 in the U.S. Over time, critical reception has evolved, and “Ram” is now considered one of McCartney’s better solo efforts.

The Concert for Bangladesh | George Harrison and Friends
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The Concert for Bangladesh | George Harrison and Friends

Perhaps the most ambitious project led by one of the former Beatles, George Harrison’s epic “Concert for Bangladesh” is a triple live album from a two-night, all-star performance held at Madison Square Garden in New York City to benefit refugees fleeing the Bangladeshi civil war. With support from rock icons including Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Bob Dylan, the concerts and album raised more than $12 million for relief efforts, and the record itself won a Grammy for Album of the Year.


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At Fillmore East | The Allman Brothers Band
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At Fillmore East | The Allman Brothers Band

Recorded during a two-night engagement in March of ’71 in New York City, this album captures the essence of the jam-style Southern rock — including the 22-minute “Whipping Post” and 19-minute “You Don’t Love Me” — that the band would become known for. Regarded as one of the premier live rock albums of all time, “At Fillmore East” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2004.


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Tarkus | Emerson, Lake & Palmer
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Tarkus | Emerson, Lake & Palmer

“Progressive” or “prog rock” is not held in high esteem by many rock fans these days. But if you are a fan, this is the album to own, the urtext of prog rock (or pure musical excess, depending on your opinion). The recording, a quasi-concept album about a tank-shaped armadillo that dies in battle and then is (maybe) reborn, includes the 20-minute, seven-movement title track, which takes up the whole of side one. 

Fragile | Yes
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Fragile | Yes

Speaking of prog rock, Yes is the ying to ELP’s yang. This album, the band’s fourth, marks the arrival of the band’s “classic” lineup with the addition of keyboardist Rick Wakeman. It contains two staples of classic-rock radio: “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround,” both of which feature Wakeman’s prodigious keyboard skills.

Cold Spring Harbor | Billy Joel
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Cold Spring Harbor | Billy Joel

The future Piano Man was still years away from stardom when his debut album was released, and when it was, Billy Joel wasn’t happy. The vocals were distorted during the album’s mixing, and thanks to a lousy recording contract, Joel didn’t even own the rights to his music. (Both issues would take years to rectify.) The album sold poorly, though it did contain the future hit “She’s Got a Way.” A live version of that song was issued as a single in 1982 and cracked the Billboard Top 25.

Blue | Joni Mitchell
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Blue | Joni Mitchell

The breakup album to beat all breakup albums, Joni Mitchell had plenty of material to work with when she began working on what would become one of her best albums (if not the best). Mitchell had ended an intense relationship with Graham Nash and was in the midst of a fling with James Taylor, and both men are the subject of songs on the record (“My Old Man” and “This Flight Tonight,” respectively).

Carly Simon | Carly Simon
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Carly Simon | Carly Simon

As years go, 1971 was a very good one for Carly Simon. She released both her self-titled debut album and the follow-up, “Anticipation.” Simon’s eponymous first recording contained the Top 10 single “That’s Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” and she was named Best New Artist at the Grammys. Seven more albums with even bigger hits would follow in the decade.

Madman Across the Water | Elton John
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Madman Across the Water | Elton John

Elton John’s star was just beginning to shine as he released his fourth album. Given the rest of his output in the 1970s with songwriter Bernie Taupin, “Madman” is a lesser classic in the Elton John catalog. But it contains the memorable “Tiny Dancer, as well as the title track and “Levon.” 


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Tago Mago | Can
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Tago Mago | Can

If you don’t know about Can, don’t feel bad; a lot of American music fans aren’t familiar with these German pioneers of experimental rock. But among some critics and purists, Can enjoys a cult-like status for their improvisation-driven recordings that borrow elements from jazz, rock, and the avant garde. Bands including Radiohead and the Sex Pistols have cited this double album as influencing their own musical direction. 

Histoire de Melody Nelson | Serge Gainsbourg
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Histoire de Melody Nelson | Serge Gainsbourg

Another cult classic in America — and another concept album — “Melody Nelson” is a legend in France and regarded as his finest work. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, the songs relate a fictional romance that Gainsbourg has with the teenaged title character after he accidentally hits her with his car. Improbable as it seems, the album is regarded by critics as a landmark of French pop and cited as an influence by Beck and Michael Stipe, among other musicians.

Trafalgar | Bee Gees
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Trafalgar | Bee Gees

If nothing else, the Brothers Gibb were remarkably productive as a band. They had already released eight albums when “Trafalgar” arrived in record stores in 1971, and they would enjoy far greater commercial and artistic success later in the decade. Still, this album gave Bee Gees fans at least one classic, the No. 1 hit “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”


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Just As I Am | Bill Withers
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Just As I Am | Bill Withers

Bill Withers’ debut album contains one of the all-time gems of soul music, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” not to mention an impressive list of backing musicians, including Stephen Stills and Booker T. Jones and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T and the MGs. But what makes it all the more remarkable is that Withers recorded the album in fits and starts while holding down a full-time job at a Los Angeles aircraft plant (the album cover shows Withers outside the factory, lunchbox in hand).

What’s Going On | Marvin Gaye
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What’s Going On | Marvin Gaye

By the end of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was more than ready to move beyond the Motown pop that had defined his career and use his artistry to address the social ills that beset the nation. The result was “What’s Going On,” a nine-song meditation on the Vietnam War, inner city poverty, racism, and drug abuse. The album, which contains the classic title track and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” became Motown’s best-selling recording to date (Gaye would surpass himself with 1973’s “Let’s Get It On.”)

American Pie | Don McLean
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American Pie | Don McLean

Singer Don McLean has released some two dozen albums in a career that reaches back to the late 1960s, but his most enduring hits are found on this, his sophomore release: the title track (often known as “The Day the Music Died”) and “Vincent.” The album was dedicated to Buddy Holly, whom McLean eulogizes in the mournful, innocence-lost lyrics of “American Pie.”

Teaser and the Firecat | Cat Stevens
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Teaser and the Firecat | Cat Stevens

The fifth album by British singler-songwriter Yusef Islam (aka Cat Stevens), this album contains three of his most memorable hits” Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Peace Train.” In 1972, Stevens published a children’s book with the same title about a boy named Teaser and his pet cat who set about restoring the moon to its proper place in the heavens after it has fallen to earth.

Maggot Brain | Funkadelic
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Maggot Brain | Funkadelic

This is the third album by George Clinton’s psychedelic funk rock bank Funkadelic. This unforgettable album opens with a doom-laced monologue and then launches into the 10-minute title cut, featuring guitarist Eddie Hazel’s epic guitar licks. (Noted rock critic Robert Cristgau called the recording “Funkadelic's most incendiary freak-out ever.”) The album closes with the equally epic 9-minute “Wars of Armageddon.”

‘Shaft’ Soundtrack | Isaac Hayes
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‘Shaft’ Soundtrack | Isaac Hayes

With his rich baritone and shaved head, Isaac Hayes was a presence in the studio and in person. Already an established soul singer on the legendary Stax Records label in Memphis, Hayes connected with director Gordon Parks to create this double album, which is best known for the hit “Theme From ‘Shaft’.” The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and would win Hayes the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as three Grammy Awards.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On | Sly and the Family Stone
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There’s a Riot Goin’ On | Sly and the Family Stone

This album rocketed to No. 1 on the pop and soul charts upon release and contains the No. 1 hit “Family Affair.” The pessimistic tone was a departure from the band’s earlier, more upbeat releases and a reflection of both the social tumult of the era and the internal strife between Stone and his bandmates. Fans welcomed the return of Sly, sending the album to No. 1 on the Billboard pop and soul charts.

Electric Warrior | T. Rex
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Electric Warrior | T. Rex

Best known for the hit singles “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” and “Jeepster,” this record is considered one of the founding records of the glam rock movement, all wrapped up in fuzzy guitars and thumping bass lines, cheeky lyrics, and glitter-dusted singer Marc Bolan’s come-hither crooning. The album spent eight weeks on top of the British pop charts, but only peaked at No. 32 in the U.S.

Pieces of a Man | Gil-Scott Heron
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Pieces of a Man | Gil-Scott Heron

Gil-Scott Heron’s masterwork is an amalgam of jazz, soul, R&B, and spoken word that critics today consider a precursor to rap and hip-hop. It’s best known for his pop-culture-political-rant poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the album’s opening track. But tracks like “I Think I’ll Call It a Morning” and the title cut prove Heron was a gifted singer as well.

Muswell Hillbillies | The Kinks
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Muswell Hillbillies | The Kinks

The Kinks 10th album is an homage to the working-class London neighborhood where founder Ray Davies and his sibling bandmate Dave hailed from. Though the critics praised it, fans were less enthused by the record, which sold poorly in both the U.S. and U.K., where it didn’t even make the pop charts.

America | America
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America | America

Take three sons of U.S. Air Force officers stationed in the U.K., add a heaping dose of late ’60s folk-rock influences, mix well, and you have America. Their self-titled debut spawned the hits “Horse With No Name” and “I Need You,” and spent a comfy five weeks as the best-selling album in the U.S., according to Billboard. 


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Journey in Satchidananda | Alice Coltrane
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Journey in Satchidananda | Alice Coltrane

Even non-jazz fans know who John Coltrane was, but far fewer are familiar with his wife Alice’s own artistry, which was rooted equally in the secular world of jazz and spiritual realm of Hinduism. The album, her fourth, is named in honor of Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, Coltrane’s spiritual guru.

Al Green Gets Next to You | Al Green
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Al Green Gets Next to You | Al Green

Al Green’s star was on the rise as he released his sophomore album, which is best known for his cover of the Temptations’ “Can’t Get Next to You” and his breakout original composition, “Tired of Being Alone.” That song hit No.4 on the charts and has since been covered by singers including Tom Jones and Michael Bolton.

Sky’s the Limit | The Temptations
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Sky’s the Limit | The Temptations

The Temptations had been with Motown for a decade by the time they released their 14th album in 1971, and the strains were showing. Lead singer and co-founder Eddie Kendricks quit the band after recording just one song for the album, citing years of intraband acrimony, and bandmate Paul Williams would soon be forced to drop out due to failing health. The first single off the album, "Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World),” flopped. But some of that Motown magic still existed. The next single, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” flew to No. 1.


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Carpenters | Carpenters
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Carpenters | Carpenters

The third album by the California brother-sister duo, “The Carpenters” would also be their best seller, full of the lush harmonies and pristine studio production that became their signature sound. It contains four of their biggest hits — “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “For All We Know,” “Let Me Be the One,” and “Superstar” — and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. 

Nursery Cryme | Genesis
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Nursery Cryme | Genesis

Way before Genesis was a slick pop band fronted by Phil Collins, it was an art rock outfit fronted by Peter Gabriel, and Collins was the new guy who would eventually replace drummer John Mayhew. With songs about the planet being attacked by a giant hogweed, the Greek myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, and Victorian children being decapitated while playing croquet, “Nursery Cryme” was, not surprisingly, neither a popular recording nor a critical darling. But the classic lineup of the band was now set, and they’d cut three more records with Gabriel before he went solo as well as release nine albums as a trio in the ’80s and ’90s.

John Prine | John Prine
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John Prine | John Prine

John Prine’s unique blend of country, rock, folksy humor, and social commentary was evident from his first album with songs such as “Hello In There,” “Paradise,” and “Sam Stone.” As biographer Eddie Huffman put it, ”Everything his fans would come to love about him … could be found, fully developed, in its forty-four minutes and seven seconds.”


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Love It to Death | Alice Cooper
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Love It to Death | Alice Cooper

Known for his over-the-top morbid theatrical performances, exaggerated dark eye makeup, and gender-bending costume, Detroit shock rockers Alice Cooper began to hit their stride on their third album, thanks in part to their first hit single, “I’m Eighteen,” and Cooper’s on-stage antics, which included him escaping from a straightjacket and his mock execution in an electric chair.

Jack Johnson by Miles Davis
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Jack Johnson | Miles Davis

Although jazz and film have long had a symbiotic relationship, this was Miles Davis’ first and only true movie soundtrack — songs of his had appeared previously in movies — created for the Academy Award-winning documentary about Black boxing pioneer Jack Johnson. Musically, Davis continued to explore the fusion of jazz, funk, and rock he pioneered in his previous release, “Bitches Brew,” and critics today consider the album one of his finest.

Bonnie Raitt | Bonnie Raitt
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Bonnie Raitt | Bonnie Raitt

Some music fans know Bonnie Raitt and her slide guitar from her string of hit albums in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but that chart-topping success came after nearly two decades of toiling in relative obscurity. Fans consider her eponymous debut, recorded at a former summer camp on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, one of her best. “It wasn’t Animal House, but it was very much like a summer camp,” Raitt said in a 2013 interview. “It was just a blast.”

Judee Sill | Judee Sill
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Judee Sill | Judee Sill

Judee Sill died of a drug overdose long before she began to receive the popular acclaim her fans always insisted she deserved during her turbulent lifetime. Her solo debut, one of just two albums released prior to her death in 1979, features the song “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” which Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Rita Collidge all performed on. Singers Liz Phair and Shawn Colvin have both cited Sill as an influence.

Aqualung | Jethro Tull
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Aqualung | Jethro Tull

A mix of heavy rock, folk, and jazz, all filtered through the tail end of the psychedelic music scene, Tull’s fourth album is also their best-selling one. The recording features the iconic title track, as well as “Hymn 43” and “Locomotive Breath.” 

Masters of Reality | Black Sabbath
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Masters of Reality | Black Sabbath

Today, this album is regarded as one of the foundations of heavy metal, but when it was released most critics panned it — the U.K. band’s third — as noisy and monotonous. Most of them would change their assessment in time, but for fans of heavy rock in general and Ozzy Osborne fans in particular, “Masters…” was a landmark recording. The record hit the Top 10 in both the U.S. and U.K.

Songs of Love and Hate | Leonard Cohen
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Songs of Love and Hate | Leonard Cohen

Musician, poet, author, Buddhist: Leonard Cohen was a man of many moods. His third release contains the memorable “Famous Blue Raincoat,” as well as “Joan of Arc” and “Avalanche.” Although it didn’t sell particularly well in the U.S., it broke the Top 10 in the U.K. Singers Judy Collins, Tori Amos, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have all recovered covers of songs from this album.

Live in Cook County Jail | B.B. King
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Live in Cook County Jail | B.B. King

Blues guitarist B.B. King performed for the inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail in 1970 at the request of the prison warden. The performance was recorded and released as an album the following year, where it went to No. 1 on the R&B charts (the only album of King’s to do so). King would perform at dozens of other prisons over the coming decades and frequently advocated for the rights of the incarcerated.


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