This book, says its author David Hepworth, started as a column in the late lamented Word magazine, but I don’t remember reading that. I do, however, remember a series of tweets and a Spotify playlist around September 2012 (and a blog entry – remember blogs?).
The central idea is intriguing: that 1971 was the greatest year for the rock album. So the blog entry/column turns into a full-length book, which takes in the bigger cultural picture (decimalisation, Dirty Harry, the price of a pint etc.), and is a good, entertaining read. I don’t do favourites, but I’m pre-disposed to agree with the central thesis; there is much to be said for the idea that the music of the first 25 years of rock, when everything was new and being done for the first time, was a genuine golden age.
The problem is, however, that I don’t really like many of the 1971 albums.
From the list of albums by British artists, for example (Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Meddle, Madman Across the Water, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV), I only ever owned one, plus a couple of tracks from one other. I’ve never much liked Bowie, Rod, Elton, the FLoyd, or Zep. So while the arguments starts off sounding convincing, my honest reaction to a lot of the music is indifference. Hepworth argues that the above list would be the Mercury Prize nominees, had it existed then, and I’ve no doubt he’s correct. But I don’t think I’ve ever liked a Mercury Prize nominee artist, ever.
But I’m an Americanist at heart, so what of the other side of the rock (me on the) water? Blue (Joni Mitchell), LA Woman (The Doors), Mud Slide Slim (James Taylor), If I Could Only Remember My Name (David Crosby), Songs For Beginners (Graham Nash) and Tapestry (Carole King), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)… and so on. There really are a lot of records came out that year, but very few of them mean anything to me.
Who’s Next is singled out as the best of the best, with ‘Baba O’Reilly’, it’s opening track, given a special place as the best track on the best album of the best year for rock music. ‘Baba O’Reilly’, with its bring-your-own-meaning lyrics and anthemic synth loop, is certainly a show-stopper. But I still think of The Who as a great singles band with a killer 2-hour live set. I’ve no interest in the album as a whole.
All that aside, it’s a book well worth reading. It leaves me with a puzzle, though: for my particular tastes, just what is the best year for albums? Well, I’ll retreat to my usual answer: I don’t do favourites.