Rock ‘n’ Roll has sure been celebrating a lot of golden anniversaries over the last several years. The Beatles’ conquest of America got a lot of attention in 2014. Then in 2017 it was 50 years ago today for Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love. A couple of years after that Woodstock and (bummer, man) Altamont hit the half-century mark.
As the march of time have brought these fifty-year markers into the early Seventies, the focus has shifted more to lists of great albums. If you’re a person of a certain vintage and spend a fair amount of time on the Internet, you were well aware of the embarrassment of riches that 1971 was in the annals of rock and pop music. As soon as we settled into 2022 the best of 1972 lists started showing up in my Facebook feed. That was also a great year: Ziggy Stardust, Exile on Main St., Transformer, Superfly, Eat a Peach, Thick as a Brick, Honky Chateau, Machine Head—I would hardly need to list the artists for anyone who was a music fan then. Also, there were records that became much celebrated in retrospect, like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Big Star’s debut #1 Record. When one of these lists was posted by a FB friend with a sense of humor, I went into wise-guy mood and said they forgot to include Portrait of Donny by you-know-who (Osmond).
After I had scored a couple of ha-ha emojis, I went back to the web page where I had pulled the title. I had Googled “Worst Albums of 1972” and found my way to rateyourmusic.com and their list based on the aggerate scores from hundreds or thousands of listener ratings using a 5-star system. As I scrolled down the list I realized: “Hey, there are some interesting records here!” There were some familiar names (John Lennon, Credence, the post-Jim Morrison Doors) as well as lots of cult bands, experimenters and acquired tastes.
So let’s dive in! You’ve heard T. Rex’s The Slider or Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book plenty of times: maybe there is something to learn about 1972 from looking down the wrong end of the telescope. So here are the titles I plucked from the list:
Die Schönsten Volkslieder der Welt—Heino
How interesting to see our friend Heino holding the top (that is, bottom) spot in this survey. The baritone champion of German “volksmusik” has been in the music biz since 1951 and sold 50 million records and in the social media age he’s gone viral far beyond his homeland. His distinctive look (whitish-blond hair and dark glasses), along with his unintentionally funny album covers, has made him the object of ironic appreciation. His 1972 album (translation: “The Most Beautiful Folk Songs in the World”) led the way with a 0.85 rating, less than one star! This probably happened when people who starting see his face taking over their friend’s profile picture went and actually listened to his tunes. This is unabashedly sentimental Alpine music and must be experienced at least once. Grade: C-
Full Circle—The Doors
It’s probably safe to say that as the second post-Jim Morrison Doors album, the odds were going to be stacked against an album like Full Circle (see album cover above). Rarely has a band been so completely identified by the charisma of its front man, who died in July of 1971. But Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore, Jimbo’s ever-reliable instrumental trio, were working on lots of material by the time of the singer’s inglorious demise, and Elektra Records encouraged them to continue. The Rate Your Music site has this record under the category tags of “Yacht Rock” and “Boogie Rock” which is a bit disheartening for a once-iconic group. On cliched numbers like “Get Up and Dance” and “Good Rockin’” it sounds like the Doors are starting out again as a bar band. When they do try to recapture past glories on songs like “The Peking King and the New York Queen,” Morrison’s way with words is sorely missed. There are some bright moments here: the misterioso “Verdilac” and the swinging “Piano Bird” are helped greatly by the sax and flute (respectively) of jazz giant Charles Lloyd. Grade: C
The Moviegoer—Scott Walker
I know I’m treading on thin ice here with such a major cult figure as Scott Walker. I did appreciate a few of the early hits he had with the (non-sibling) Walker Brothers. But after a while his unrelenting Broadway baritone feels to me suffocating in its monotony. To his many fervent admirers his voice is “emotive” but to me it is emotive only in the way a soap opera is “dramatic.” This covers album of film themes is a tough slog, to the point that even his die-hard fans tend to damn it with faint praise. It would hard to pick out a least favorite song here (every track uses the same torpid arrangement) but his remote rendering of “The Godfather” theme (“Speak Softly, Love”) is an offer I can very easily refuse. Grade: D
Mardi Gras—Credence Clearwater Revival
Back in the day before “haters” we had this thing called “critics.” Their job when it came to records, movies, books etc. was to call them like they see them, and you would weigh that opinion against your tastes and knowledge. Ah, simpler times. Rolling Stone scribe Jon Landau called Mardi Gras the “worst album I ever heard from a major rock band.” Did he hate the band? No, he loved their earlier stuff (who didn’t back then?) and was holding it up to a value judgement. I was a 14 year-old super CCR fan and bought it anyway and convinced myself to like it more than it deserved. This last Credence album was sub-standard for a reason: it was an inside-job work of sabotage by leader John Fogerty, who had spearheaded the group’s remarkable string of Americana rock hits. Second guitarist Tom Fogerty, his overshadowed older brother, had left the band in ’71 and his remaining cohorts (bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford) were also tired of John hogging the show. In retrospect, they claimed only to want a share of the songwriting but John (not the most amiable figure in rock history) insisted they were on their own and he would do nothing else but play guitar on their tunes. They were split evenly, three songs apiece and a cover of “Hello Mary Lou.” The results were predictably mixed. Landau was particularly hard on Cook (though I have a soft spot for “Door to Door”) but Clifford fared somewhat better: his “Need Someone to Hold” is one of the better tunes here. Fogerty contributed their last charting single (“Someday Never Comes”) and the hard-charging “Sweet Hitchhiker,” although that had been a hit song a year earlier. But nothing could save them from the long-simmering internal strife: after a short tour to support Mardi Gras, the band split for good. Grade: C+
Deserted Palace—Jean-Michel Jarre
When I saw Jarre’s name high up (or rather way down) on this list, I went and Wiki’d the semi-familiar name. But he is who is semi-familiar to some is adored, after a fashion, by multitudes on the other side of the Atlantic. The Lyon-born Jarre has sold some 80 million albums and has been the featured act in some of the biggest concerts ever held. An early practitioner of ambient and electronic, this was his first album, recorded when he was 24 and admittedly an album conceived as “library music” potentially for use in films or ads, hence the helpful titles like “Love Theme for Gargoyles,” “Take Me to Your Leader” etc. Since this was 1972 it was back in wacky-world of analog synthesizers and while there may not be a ton of substance here, there are enough entertaining beeps, buzzes and blurps to last a lifetime. Jarre hit his stride when the technology caught up to him and his streamlined trance techno became the soundtrack to outsized spectacles that featured laser-light shows, big-screen projections and fireworks—often for outdoor crowds over a million people (his Bastille Day extravaganzas in Paris are de riguer). But for me, they kind of reek of showboating and have little of the Moog-heavy DIY charm of this debut. Grade: C+
The Sounds of Love …A to Zzz—Fred Miller
Take those blips and buzzes and add some heavy-breathing and you get this mind-wrecking curiosity. True, there were some very sexed-up tunes hitting the airwaves back then, like Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s semi-scandalous “Je taime” and the get-a-room groove of novelty hit “Jungle Fever.” But this misbegotten platter becomes an object of derision just seconds after the needle drops. Still, if you ever wanted to know what Debussy’s exquisite “Pavane for a Dead Princess” sounds like played badly on a wobbly synth, and accompanied by half-hearted carnal moaning, here’s your chance (the whole thing is on Youtube). Received an aggregate half a star on Rate Your Record. Grade: (wt)F
Some Time in New York City—John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band
By 1972, John Lennon’s restless intellect had compelled him to take on any and every issue that rankled the era’s New Left (and they had easy access to he and Yoko, who were living in Greenwich Village at the time). In the couple’s haste to make an album of self-professed “front-page songs” they left listeners sifting through a set of tunes full of preachy sloganeering (followed by a “bonus” record of live jams). Most topics–be it Attica, male chauvinism or the Troubles in Northern Ireland–get two goings-over, once by John and once by tag-team partner Yoko. The John Sinclair song, and the fun Big Apple anthem “New York City,” are good tunes but that’s about it for me. An album that sold poorly and was savaged by the press, Some Time in New York City usually ranks at the bottom of Lennon’s post-Beatles work. As a reminder of the visceral radicalism that permeated the air back then it certainly rates at least one listen but seems destined to remain largely unloved. Grade D+
Individually and Collectively—5th Dimension
I was a bit surprised at the low collective rating for this one. It’s a pretty good record even if the title hints at a less-united group. The giants of supper-club soul do stray a bit from the reliable formula that earned them so many previous hits, with the power couple of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. up front, supported by the strong harmonies of the other three. There is more sharing of the lead vocals on this album with both Florence Larue and Ron Townson acquitting themselves well in the spotlight. The group, famously great interpreters, choose well for the most part, with spirited versions of Elton John’s “Border Song” and Laura Nyro’s “Black Patch.” Still, Individually and Collectively contained what would be their last Top Ten hit (the sublime “I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”) and the album stalled at #58. Grade: B
Jamming With Edward—Various Artists
The other Rolling Stones-related release from ’72 was this somewhat random release. Sure it had Mick Jagger and the Stones’ rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, plus two highly-respected guests in American guitarist Ry Cooder and ace British session pianist Nicky Hopkins (whose nickname was Edward). It was actually recorded back in April of 1969, “while waiting for our guitarist to get out of bed,” according to Jagger’s self-denigrating liner notes. The tapes were then forgotten (which “may have been for the better,” notes Mick) but later unearthed and put out as a budget-priced item on the Stones’ own label in January of 1972. It scraped its way to #33 on the U.S. charts while being universally panned (“A dull document,” sniffed Rolling Stone magazine). It’s really not that bad just nothing special in its performance and lacking in sound quality: when they do Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” it sounds like Jagger’s vocal mic has been wrapped in a beach towel. Befitting its title, Jamming with Edward’s one shining light is Hopkin’s lively piano work. On his lead, the band really catch fire on the closing track “Highland Fling.” But overall this is more like a odd curio that you would only keep on the shelf for sentimental reasons. So let me put Edward back on the shelf while I take down Ziggy again. Grade: B-