1974 - The Finest Year For Popular Music... Ever?

Aug 15, 2020
The title of this article poses a question, but do I have an answer?

Well: yes, no... maybe? I don't know if there is an answer to that question but if there was, 1974 would surely be a strong contender.

1974 is the year of my birth so I set myself a lockdown project of exploring in depth the music released during those twelve months - a voyage of discovery, if you will, going further afield from the classics I was thoroughly familiar with to see what lay beyond.

Of course it afforded an opportunity to get reacquainted with some favourites. 1974 saw the posthumous final album from cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons, a peerless set of songs entitled Grevious Angel that provided overwhelming evidence that he'd left this mortal coil far, far too soon. Stevie Wonder continued into his imperial phase with Fulfillingness' First Finale and Aretha was at the height of her powers with Let Me In Your Life. Big Star released their second pop rock masterpiece, Radio City, which included the timeless 'September Gurls', a virtual blueprint for so many bands' musical style in the decades that followed.

Neil Young put out his classic On The Beach (the midway point of his so-called 'Ditch Trilogy') and ex-Byrd Gene Clark delivered what many would consider to be his masterpiece, No Other.

But what hadn't I heard before? Lots, as it turns out, and much of it is fantastic, from groups I'd never heard of to other artists I'd generally dismissed, and those I'd always intended to listen to more of but never found the time. 

I could list much more (1974 was a heck of year for music!) but instead I've whittled it down to five discoveries that I believe are worthy of a listen or two.
 
Cover for Sneakin' Through The Alley With Sally - Robert Palmer
 
ROBERT PALMER - Sneakin' Through The Alley With Sally

Robert Palmer is much more familiar now for his mid-eighties MTV phase, where his slick delivery of 'Addicted To Love' while identikit models writhed behind him afforded him superstar status during that decade. But his musical history dates back much further, and, after rhythm and blues outfit Vinegar Joe split in 1974, he set about recording his first solo album for release later that year. For inspiration he ventured to the magical musical cauldron of New Orleans, hooking up with Little Feat's Lowell George and roping in The Meters as his backing band, resulting in a blend of bluesy, soulful rock'n'roll that's very reminiscent of Little Feat (George is a heavy presence on the album besides his playing, from the cover of 'Sailin' Shoes' to co-writing 'Blackmail'). Palmer wrote (or co-wrote) four of the eight tracks here and holds his own against more seasoned musicians like George and Art Neville and, even though it was eventually recorded in three separate locations, it holds together cohesively. Palmer's career marked him as something of musical chameleon but he's entirely successful in capturing the feel of New Orleans here with this impressive, authentic debut.
 
Cover to They Say I'm Different - Betty Davis
 
BETTY DAVIS - They Say I'm Different

Miles Davis' ex-wife had her creative peak during the early to mid seventies but her provocative, sexually open persona ensured commercial success eluded her and she only ever achieved cult status despite her clear talent. They Say I'm Different, recorded in California in 1973, was released in 1974 and the deep down and dirty, sexually-charged funk on the eight original tracks is some of the most forceful and magnetic the decade had to offer. Lyrically suggestive, with vocals and playing that are seductive and raunchy, it's an irresistible mix, the musicianship filtering the primal energy of blues through the prism of infectious, compulsive funk. Davis is a formidable presence throughout, in complete command of her songs, by turns ravishing and frightening, the way she screams "CHUCK BERRY!" on the title track's ode to outsiders is a breathtaking, hairs-on-end moment. She may not have had the sales she deserved (she retired from the music business in 1979) but you can spot her influence across the years and her brief period of rampant creativity produced some astonishing results.
 
Cover to Rejuvination - The Meters
 
THE METERS - Rejuvenation

Pure, unadultered funk from some of New Orleans' finest. Formed by Art Neville in the sixties, they had a prodigious output during the 1970s. Rejuvenation is thoroughly irresistible, a tightly constructed series of songs from a supremely confident unit of funksters with total mastery of their craft. The rhythms are solid but allow for a looseness at times, slipping in some jazzy textures when they get to stretch things out into a jam - Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli really let go on the soulful, pleading 'It Aint' No Use'. Neville left a few years after to form the Neville Brothers so this really is their peak line-up at their very best.
Cover of It'll Shine When It Shines - The Ozark Mountain Daredevils
 
THE OZARK MOUNTAIN DAREDEVILS - It'll Shine When It Shines

Largely overlooked now, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils were part of the burgeoning country rock scene of the early seventies - and its southern rock offshoot - that eventually went mainstream due to the extraordinary success of The Eagles. It'll Shine When It Shines features their biggest (and only significant) hit 'Jackie Blue', a pure breezy blast of pop, originally an instrumental that was regendered from male to female at the behest of legendary producer Glynn Johns. Much of the rest of the album doesn't exactly stray outside the formula - it's not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination - but, listening to it now, almost 50 years later, it does strongly evoke the era: long hair, sun-soaked fields, the aroma of hemp... To give you a further sense of what to expect, you can well imagine 'Jackie Blue' featuring on Peter Quill's Awesome Mixtape Vol.3 ...
 
Cover for Machine Gun - The Commodores
 
THE COMMODORES - Machine Gun

Before they perfected their smooth-edged mix of funk and soul (which singer Lionel Richie capitalised on in his subsequent solo career), The Commodores were a much rawer proposition, as evidenced by this, their debut album. The opening title track - a propulsive instrumental - is fairly familiar these days, and rightly so, and with the second track - the lyrically questionable 'Young Girls Are My Weakness' - out of the way, the record finds its groove with the uplifting gospel-infused funk of 'I Feel Sanctified'. There's plenty of rhythmic invention on these tracks, and it's fairly impossible to sit still listening to the album - at this stage of their career there's not an awful lot to differentiate The Commodores from other similar artists of this period, but the confidence of the songwriting and playing means they most definitely hold their own. They really set out their stall with some of these tracks ('I Feel Sanctified', 'Assembly Line' & the strutting 'Superman' in particular), and you can tell they mean business.
 
...
 
It doesn't end there though. Delve further into 1974 with Minnie Riperton's  magical Perfect Angel, or Shuggie Otis' soulful Inspiration Information, or Chaka Khan leading Rufus towards funk bliss with Rags To Rufus. And you can still go further, discovering along the way what a fertile and creative period this was. 1974 may or may not be the finest year for popular music ever but it's unquestionably one of the best. Dig deep!

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