The Countdown

The top 20 albums of 1971, from Carole King’s Tapestry to The Doors’ LA Woman

As Carole King's Tapestry turns 50, Graeme Ross remembers David Hepworth's case for 1971 being the greatest year for rock music. He counts down 20 of the year's best albums that could very well prove that claim

Friday 12 February 2021 13:10 GMT
Carole King working at the piano in 1970, the year before Tapestry was released
Carole King working at the piano in 1970, the year before Tapestry was released (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In his hugely enjoyable and informative 2016 book 1971 – Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth made a compelling case for the titular year as the best ever for rock music. Hepworth’s assessment was based primarily on the quantity and quality of albums released rather than singles – 1971 was, after all, the year of Clive Dunn’s “Grandad” and Benny Hill’s ditty about Ernie the Milkman.

From half a century’s distance, it’s difficult to disagree with Hepworth’s assertion when considering the sheer breadth and depth of album releases in 1971. It’s clear now that the doom merchants of the era who predicted that a post-Beatles musical landscape would be redundant were well wide of the mark. This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the key albums of 1971 – Carole King’s Tapestry; it seems an appropriate time to revisit that storied year and offer the following evidence that Hepworth may well have a point with this countdown of 1971’s top twenty albums.

20. Paul and Linda McCartney – Ram

Paul and Linda McCartney
Paul and Linda McCartney (Getty)

Reviled by critics upon its release, Ram has since enjoyed a complete turnaround in reputation. Excellent rockers such as “Smile Away” and melodic beauties “Heart of the Country” and “Back Seat of My Car” sit easily alongside the fabulous time changes of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” on an album now considered one of McCartney’s finest.

19. Jethro Tull – Aqualung

A prog-rock landmark entirely composed by Ian Anderson, confirming that Jethro Tull was very much the flute-playing front man’s band. Several tracks such as “Hymn 43” reflected Anderson’s distaste for organised religion, while the epic title-track prophetically addressed homelessness, and “Locomotive Breath” is a riff-tastic marvel.

18. T Rex – Electric Warrior

The album on which Marc Bolan finally found his formula by straddling the gap between Fifties rock’n’roll and full-on heavy rock. Glam rock was born. Classic singles “Jeepster” and “Get it On” are included, and the trippy “Cosmic Dancer” seemed to crystallise Bolan’s persona in a single song.

17. Can – Tago Mago

The pioneering Krautrockers virtually created a new genre of avant-garde electronic funk on this infinitely influential record. Full of long, hypnotic improvisations encompassing repeated rhythms and grooves, heard to best effect on the stunning “Halleluwah”, this is one double album that never outstays its welcome.

16. Sly and the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On

On this jaundiced state-of-the-nation address, the feel-good, laid-back groove of Sly Stone’s early recordings had given way to drug-induced cynicism. Even deceptively lighter tracks like “Runnin Away” and “Family Affair” possessed an undercurrent of gloom, but none of that made this dark, brooding classic any less essential or influential.

15. David Crosby – If Only I Could Remember My Name

With the cream of the west coast mafia helping out and some unusual song formats, Crosby’s solo debut was considered self-indulgent on release but is anything but. It’s mystical and spiritual, containing several startling instrumentals with wordless, layered vocals, and features some of Crosby’s finest post-Byrds compositions including “Laughing”, and the surreal epic “Cowboy Movie”.

14. John Lennon – Imagine

A very personal album containing some gentle, heartfelt songs such as “Jealous Guy”, “Oh My Love”, “How”, and the utopian title track, "Imagine", is much more accessible than its predecessor John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. However, Lennon was also brutally direct on “How Do You Sleep?”, his notorious attack on Paul McCartney.

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13. The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

A stunning comeback that addressed environmental issues on several songs, while also embracing the band’s illustrious past on the sublime “Disney Girls” and the deathless title track. With Brian Wilson in retreat, brother Carl shone on “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” although Brian, despite his dysfunctional state, owned the jewel with “‘Till I Die”.

12. The Doors – LA Woman

On his last album, Jim Morrison’s voice was just the right side of wasted and therefore perfect for the blues rock direction of LA Woman, exemplified by opening track “The Changeling”. The magnificent title track has become an unofficial anthem for Los Angeles, and “Riders on the Storm” continues to exert its spectral influence on pop culture.

11. Gene Clark – White Light

The Byrds’ greatest talent never received the credit he was due as a country-rock pioneer during his lifetime. This exquisite record passed almost un-noticed in 1971, but is filled with beautiful, moving songs such as “The Virgin” and “With Tomorrow” that once in the mind, are impossible to dislodge. Clark’s cover of “Tears of Rage” is exemplary.

10. The Allman Brothers Band – Live at Fillmore East

Often touted as the greatest live album ever, Fillmore East found this fabled band in their absolute element. Incorporating jazz and blues influences, they reached hitherto un-heard of improvisational peaks on covers of “Stormy Monday” and “You Don’t Love Me” and their own standards such as the 23 minute “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”.

9. Nick Drake – Bryter Layter

A totally beguiling album thanks to Robert Kirby’s lustrous orchestrations and Drake’s resonant delivery and introspective lyrics. There’s a light jazzy feel to “Poor Boy” and “At the Chime of the City Clock” while “One of These Things First” (possibly an ode to reincarnation) and “Northern Sky” are perhaps Drake’s most perfect songs.

8. The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers

The Stones at their most brazenly assured with the bar set high on strutting opener “Brown Sugar”. “Wild Horses” ranks as their greatest ballad, killer riffs and punchy brass drive “Bitch”, and “Sister Morphine” still chills the soul. The reflective “Moonlight Mile” closes an album that tops many Stones best lists.

7. Carole King – Tapestry

Carole King on the cover of her 1971 album, Tapestry
Carole King on the cover of her 1971 album, Tapestry (Ode Records)

Classic songs including “It’s Too Late”, “You’ve Got a Friend” and “A Natural Woman” ensured Tapestry’s status as the archetypal early Seventies singer-songwriter album. King’s confessional lyrics and confident vocals on Tapestry captured the mood of the times just as surely as her classic pop songs had soundtracked the previous decade.

6. Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells a Story

A virtually flawless album boasting definitive covers of Dylan, Motown and Tim Hardin, plus two wonderfully poignant Stewart originals “Mandolin Wind” and “Maggie May”, and his greatest rocker (the title track). Stewart’s finest hour is so great that his career trajectory from then on begs the question – “Rod, what the Hell happened?”

5. The Who – Who’s Next

Who’s Next found all four members of The Who on top of their respective games on their most balanced album. Pete Townsend had discovered the synthesiser, heard to great effect on stand out tracks “Baba O’Riley” and the monumental “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Even the ballads rock (“Behind Blue Eyes”) on a strong candidate as the greatest hard rock album of the seventies.

4. David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Bowie at his most eclectic, just before Ziggy Stardust and superstardom. “Changes” could almost be his theme song, “Life on Mars” a cinematic marvel. “Quicksand” is downbeat but essential, “Oh! You Pretty Things” enigmatic. Elsewhere, on the album many Bowie aficionados consider his greatest, he celebrates Dylan and Warhol and his Velvet Underground influenced “Queen Bitch” rocks up a storm.

3. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV

A perfect distillation of the delta blues, heavy metal and folk of Zeppelin’s previous three albums with some good old-fashioned Rock and Roll thrown in for good measure. Containing some of their most celebrated songs – “When the Levee Breaks” with John Bonham’s thunderous drumming, “Black Dog”, and of course “Stairway to Heaven”, this is Zeppelin’s crowning glory.

2. Joni Mitchell – Blue

Few artists have ever revealed so much of themselves with such soul-baring intensity as Joni Mitchell on Blue. Joni sang of heartbreak, love and loss on transcendent songs such as “Carey”, “Little Green”, “River” and “A Case of You” and produced one of the landmark records of the entire rock era.

1. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

This ground-breaking concept album was Gaye’s own personal reaction to Vietnam and the planet’s social and environmental ills. Such a shame that the issues it addressed are still with us today. With Gaye’s silky smooth vocals and the spiritual feel of the music pleading for some kind of divine intervention, What’s Going On proved an artistic triumph and a game-changer for the music industry.

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