Classic Rock Albums Turning 50 Years Old In 2024
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Popular music undergoes numerous stylistic changes and trends, making it perhaps the most dynamic art form. With a history spanning nearly a century, it has left a lasting mark on recent memory, a phenomenon unimaginable to earlier generations.
Fundamentally, popular music revolves around novelty, aiming to surprise listeners and generate viral moments that ascend the charts, only to be swiftly overshadowed by the next trend. This was especially true in the early days of the music industry, as labels became unforgiving in dropping artists who couldn’t keep pace with evolving musical styles.
Nevertheless, with the dominance of albums as the primary mode of music release since the 1960s, there has been a growing inclination among listeners to look back. “Best of” compilations persist on the charts for extended periods, and the business models of major record labels increasingly rely on remastered, remixed, and reimagined classic albums.
Essentially, a “classic” is any album that withstands the test of time, and any record that continues to captivate listeners five decades after its initial release deserves commendation. Here are 12 classic albums released fifty years ago and continue to resonate with audiences today.
1. Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell (January 17, 1974)
Renowned folk artist Joni Mitchell is celebrated for her consistently impeccable body of work, boasting notable albums like Blue (1971) and For the Roses (1972). The allure surrounding these albums, each surpassing the 50-year mark, has only intensified over time, captivating new generations of listeners who uncover Mitchell’s prowess as a master folk artist.
In 1974, Mitchell unveiled her subsequent offering after the said pair of albums. This iconic addition to her repertoire, titled Court and Spark, marked a significant departure from her folk roots both thematically and musically.
The album opens with the evocative title track, “Court and Spark”, a poignant ballad exploring the complexities of love pursuit. Throughout the album, enduring themes of love, fleeting relationships, and freedom persist, accompanied by Mitchell’s expansion of her musical palette.
Court and Spark achieved remarkable success, securing the No. 2 spot on the Billboard chart and attaining double platinum status. Revered by fans, it features standout tracks such as “Free Man in Paris”, often hailed as one of Mitchell’s finest compositions.
2. Jolene by Dolly Parton (February 4, 1974)
Over the decades, Dolly Parton has solidified her status as a national treasure, with her country singing career reaching its pinnacle in the 1970s. To some, it might seem that her colossal fame has eclipsed her musical contributions in the 21st century.
However, for those in the know, Parton’s songwriting prowess has always been unquestionable, exemplified by her 1974 album Jolene, featuring her two most significant songs: “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”.
Although the title track, an up-tempo plea to “please don’t take my man”, was only a moderate hit upon its release, it has since become one of Parton’s signature songs, despite its now somewhat outdated portrayal of gender dynamics.
Surprisingly, it earned Parton two Grammy nominations for Best Country Vocal Performance in separate years: 1975 and 1976. That said, the album’s other hit, the soaring ballad “I Will Always Love You”, is the song that arguably had an even more profound impact on Parton’s legacy, albeit taking some years for it to unfold.
3. Rush by Rush (March 1, 1974)
Rush, a now-beloved album by the Canadian prog rock titans Rush, achieved the designation of “classic” despite its initial modest sales on the first pressing. In 1974, Rush, characterized as a “bar band from the city” of Toronto by guitarist Alex Lifeson was relatively unknown.
The band, formed during their high school years in 1968, had garnered a local following in Toronto. Despite being a popular live act with a hard rock style inspired by Led Zeppelin, record labels showed no interest in offering them a recording contract.
In response, Rush took matters into their own hands, establishing their label, Moon Records, and independently recording and releasing their debut album with minimal resources. According to Popoff, Rush stands out in Rush’s discography, known more for ambitious progressive rock akin to bands like Jethro Tull.
Nevertheless, tracks like the album’s closer, “Working Man”, persisted in Rush’s live performances even after their sonic evolution. This particular song also received significant radio play, leading to the band’s decision to re-release the album through the American label Mercury Records.
4. Apostrophe (‘) by Frank Zappa (March 22, 1974)
As the frontman of the experimental art-rock group Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa had been pushing the boundaries of listeners’ expectations since the mid-’60s. Despite earning widespread respect from critics and fans for his exceptional guitar skills, prowess as an arranger, and distinctive sense of mischievous humor, Zappa had yet to achieve a breakthrough into the mainstream.
This long-awaited moment finally arrived in 1974 with the release of Apostrophe (‘), a concise 30-minute album that encapsulated the full spectrum of Zappa’s artistic offerings. The album kicks off with a suite of four songs, prominently featuring “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its playful humor, the album successfully entered the top 10 of the Billboard 200 and eventually attained gold certification. Apostrophe (‘) received acclaim for its satirical elements, with social commentary taking a more prominent role towards the end of the album.
Particularly noteworthy is the track “Uncle Remus”, which addresses the deceleration of the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s, showcasing Zappa at his most socially conscious. Despite facing criticism at the time for perceived commercialization, this iconic record has stood the test of time and is now regarded as one of Zappa’s enduring classics.
5. Second Helping by Lynyrd Skynyrd (April 15, 1974)
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album, Second Helping, solidified the straightforward sound they introduced in their debut, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), released in 1973. Both albums were produced by Al Kooper, a former musician for Bob Dylan, with Second Helping receiving a slightly more polished treatment, contributing to the enduring radio-friendly nature of many of its songs.
Tracks like “Workin’ for MCA” showcase Lynyrd Skynyrd’s prowess in hard-rocking, while others like “The Needle and Spoon” reveal their socially conscious side. However, the standout track is undoubtedly the opener, “Sweet Home Alabama,” which not only broke into the top 10 on the singles chart but also continues to be an anthem for the band’s home state.
The lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” serve as a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, which the principal songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant, deemed an unfair portrayal of Southern identity. Young later admitted that his song was “condescending”.
Tragically, a plane crash three years later would tear the band apart, claiming the lives of three Lynyrd Skynyrd members, including Van Zant. Nevertheless, albums like Second Helping endure as a testament to the remarkable chemistry the band established in a short span of time.
6. Diamond Dogs by David Bowie (May 24, 1974)
Many fans perceive David Bowie’s career as characterized by a nearly creative peak phase, commencing with his 1971 studio album Hunky Dory and tapering off around 1980 with Scary Monsters.
In hindsight, Bowie’s 1970s album series appears as formidable as the Beatles’ discography a decade earlier—an impeccable body of work emerging during a period when the artist seemed infallible. Yet, this perspective is easily formed in retrospect, during an era when Bowie was widely acknowledged as a pop genius.
At the time, especially concerning his 1974 endeavor Diamond Dogs, things may have appeared different. The album’s origin story unveils its challenging genesis. Fresh from retiring his iconic Ziggy Stardust character, Bowie was exploring new artistic directions.
Upon its release, Diamond Dogs received a tepid response. However, as the decades unfolded, it garnered recognition as a pivotal transitional record in Bowie’s repertoire, showcasing his innate ability for transformation—the hallmark of his artistic identity. Simultaneously, the hit single “Rebel, Rebel” demonstrated Bowie’s capacity to deliver chart-toppers even as he delved into deep conceptual territory.
7. Caribou by Elton John (June 24, 1974)
While Bowie grappled with consistency amid the myriad changes of the 1970s, there was another British rocker for whom steadiness appeared second nature: Elton John. From 1972’s Honky Chateau to 1975’s Rock of the Westies, the dynamic pianist achieved an impressive feat—seven consecutive No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200, solidifying his status as one of the decade’s top-selling artists.
Among these triumphs was 1974’s Caribou, sharing its name with the Caribou Ranch recording studio in Boulder County, Colorado. John and his team sought refuge there to craft a successor to the platinum-selling Goodbye Yellow Brick Road from 1973.
With the pressure on to deliver before embarking on a tour of Japan in February of that year, Caribou seemingly came together effortlessly, showcasing, as his best work does, the seamless collaboration with his lyricist Bernie Taupin.
The album’s lead single, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, featured vocals from the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, alongside Toni Tennille. It became a major hit and continued to be a staple in John’s live performances.
8. Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band (June 20, 1974)
As the mid-1970s rolled along, Bob Dylan faced a shift in his once-praised standing, transitioning from a former critical darling to an artist with a somewhat tarnished reputation. His 1970 double album, Self Portrait, had stirred division among both critics and his fanbase, who still cherished his earlier classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone”.
Eager to reconnect with his audience while safeguarding his vital creative freedom, Dylan turned to his longtime collaborators, The Band, who were also grappling with creative challenges in the early 1970s.
The collaborative efforts of these two musical forces materialized in a highly anticipated live tour, producing the noteworthy relic of 1974, Before the Flood. Dominated by Dylan classics and enriched with a selection of compositions by The Band, the album offers a glimpse into the future Nobel Laureate’s inclination for reimagining his classic songs, infusing them with new dimensions.
The tour proved immensely successful, receiving acclaim from both critics and commercial success, securing high positions on the album charts. This double album played a critical role in restoring the reputations of both artists.
9. Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison (October 5, 1974)
Van Morrison’s inaugural solo effort, Astral Weeks, bewildered his fanbase upon its 1968 release, serving as a significant and somewhat experimental departure from the blues-inspired garage rock he had mastered in the earlier 1960s with his band, Them.
Despite confounding expectations, the album garnered critical acclaim, setting the stage for a solo career where Morrison retained his status as a critical favorite, even as he explored various inspirations in the subsequent years.
This creative stretch for Morrison, spanning from 1968 to 1974, concluded with the release of Veedon Fleece in 1974—a record that, at the time, faced criticism from numerous reviewers who deemed it a misstep. During the creation of this masterpiece, Morrison was navigating a divorce from singer Janet Planet, resulting in a suite of songs that intricately balances bitter experiences with redemptive regret.
The album’s tracks traverse the spectrum from the exquisitely delicate, exemplified by “Come Here My Love”, to the grandiose, as seen in “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”. While Veedon Fleece may have fallen short commercially, its individual songs have endured as beloved among Morrison’s fanbase.
10. Hotter Than Hell by KISS (October 22, 1974)
KISS, the hard rock titans from New York led by Gene Simmons, have become such a musical institution that it’s challenging to fathom a time when the band faced struggles. Their eponymous debut album, released in February 1974, proved to be a commercial disappointment, failing to capture the vivacity and dynamism for which the burgeoning band was known in their lively live performances.
As they geared up to record another album that summer, KISS found themselves on the brink of losing momentum, with their record label, Casablanca Records, grappling with a significant cashflow crisis.
In October, Hotter Than Hell didn’t immediately provide the escape route the band and label were seeking. However, in the long run, it evolved into one of the most iconic albums of KISS’ career. Despite initially charting lower than their debut, the tracks on Hotter Than Hell, including fan favorites like “Got to Choose” and “Parasite”, later formed the material for the 1975 live album Alive!—a moment often identified as KISS’ commercial breakthrough, securing their enduring success.
Consequently, Hotter Than Hell remains cherished by fans, standing as a classic that established the template for subsequent KISS albums.
11. Sheer Heart Attack by Queen (November 8, 1974)
For the majority of casual rock fans of today, Queen isn’t primarily associated with delivering classic albums; instead, they are renowned for their catalog of instantly recognizable hit singles such as “We Are The Champions”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, and, most notably, “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
However, this widespread recognition came later. In 1974, Queen had yet to firmly establish themselves on both sides of the Atlantic, vigorously working towards forging a distinctive sound that would be uniquely theirs.
It was their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, released some months after Queen II, that propelled them to the next level. This second album of 1974 featured tracks like the immensely successful “Killer Queen”, their highest-selling single at that point, achieving significant chart success in both the U.S. and the UK.
“Killer Queen” introduced the iconic theatrical tone that would come to define Queen’s signature style. While the band appeared to intensify their heaviness in songs like “Stone Cold Crazy”, it was also evident that by this juncture, Freddie Mercury and Brian May had evolved into exceptional composers of infectious hooks, making the album more melodic and catchy than anything they had released before.
12. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis (November 18, 1974)
The early 1970s marked the pinnacle of progressive rock, a genre characterized by virtuosic and exploratory music, only to be overshadowed by the punk explosion that swept through the music scene in the latter part of the decade.
Despite critics today often dismissing much of what appealed to progressive rock fans during that period as bloated and self-indulgent, there are some albums that unquestionably warrant recognition, with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from 1974 one of them.
While the concept album had become familiar to the record-buying public since the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, few albums exhibited such a profound sense of thematic unity as this masterpiece from Genesis. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway unfolds as a rock opera across two LPs, narrating the tale of a hustler named Rael who arrives in New York City.
Within the album’s bombastic, inventive, and outright unconventional instrumentation, frontman Peter Gabriel’s story is revealed in fragments through episodic songs bearing titles like “Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist”. Even upon repeated listens, the unfolding events remain enigmatic, prompting The New Yorker to liken the album to “The Ulysses of Concept Albums”.