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Best 70s Musicians: 10 Iconic Artists Who Rocked The Decade
© Herbert Worthington

Best 70s Musicians: 10 Iconic Artists Who Rocked The Decade

From soul virtuosos to glammed-up visionaries, the best 70s musicians sent shock waves through pop culture and defined their era.

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As the world awoke from the 60s dream, the best 70s musicians sounded the alarm through a giddy mix of socially aware lyricism and gleefully escapist live performances. From brooding folkies to theatrical provocateurs, these ten great artists inspired us with their boundary-pushing talents and hair-raising audacity.

Listen to the best of the 70s here, and check out our best 70s musicians, below.

10: Neil Young (1975-)

Once hailed by critics as a successor to Bob Dylan, Neil Young quickly proved himself a singular talent who defied such comparisons. Edgy and ever-changing, the best Neil Young songs were rooted in folk-inspired rock, but he wasn’t shy of penning piano-led paeans to Mother Nature (After The Gold Rush) or unleashing barrages of gloriously abrasive guitar riffs (Like A Hurricane). Infusing his music with lyrics ranging from the strident (Southern Man) to the despairing (Only Love Can Break Your Heart), Neil Young seemed to stand alone among the best 70s musicians, offering an outsider’s critique of an industry still reeling from the collapse of 60s idealism. His sometimes acerbic worldview endeared him to a whole generation of punk-inspired musicians, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder among them, earning him the title of “Godfather Of Grunge”.

Must hear: Like A Hurricane

9: Bob Marley (1945-1981)

Raised on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, Bob Marley was a true musical innovator who beautifully melded reggae, ska and rocksteady with the kinetic power of rock’n’roll. Making a splash with his band The Wailers, their 1973 album Catch A Fire gave rise to a tsunami of creativity that helped legitimise reggae music in the mainstream and transformed Bob Marley into an icon. By wedding his philosophy of Rastafarianism to a strong belief in social justice, Marley aimed to unite all humanity in song, taking to the stage like a cross between a religious poet and a mystic soothsayer. His deeply spiritual 1977 album, Exodus, stands as a transcendental opus that exemplifies the healing power of music.

Must hear: Is This Love?

8: Joni Mitchell (1943-)

In a decade dominated by singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell was truly in a league of her own. Her 1970 album, Ladies Of The Canyon, elevated her to prominence among the best 70s musicians – thanks in part to its inclusion of the hymn-like ode to the counterculture, Woodstock – while it’s follow-up, Blue, remains just one of her indisputable masterpieces. As a musician, Mitchell’s sparse folk arrangements largely relied on piano and acoustic guitar, with jazz influences often creeping in through her experimental tunings, while her lyrics exposed a deep wellspring of sensitivity that stood out among the best 70s female singers. Her best-selling album, 1974’s Court And Spark, defined the decade by giving lyrical insight into her sage-like wisdom, doing as much to embody the female experience as Bob Dylan had to express the male one.

Must hear: Big Yellow Taxi

7: Stevie Wonder (1950-)

Despite releasing his first single for Motown Records back in 1962, at the age of 12, it wasn’t until the 70s that Stevie Wonder really came into his own. With an ear for soul and a funky golden touch, the blind boy from Michigan overcame his sensory shortcomings by crafting a holy trinity of Grammy award-winning albums (Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs In The Key Of Life). Whether he was picking up the baton from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in his devastating critique of systemic racism (Living In The City) or celebrating jazz legend Duke Ellington with a funk-pop fandango (Sir Duke), Stevie Wonder changed the game every step of the way. If any 70s icon can claim to be a natural-born musical genius, it’s him.

Must hear: Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours

6: Elton John (1947-)

Together with lyric-writer Bernie Taupin, Elton John was an astonishingly prolific songwriter throughout the 70s, endearing himself to audiences worldwide thanks to classic hits such as Your Song, Daniel and Rocket Man. Moving from glam-rock goofball to pomp-loving performer, his 1973 double-album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, had a dynamite mix of soft-rock epics and superlative piano ballads that launched the bespectacled rocker into superstardom. Knocking it out of the park at his record-breaking Dodger Stadium shows in 1975, John’s flamboyant stage performances were a happy by-product of his endlessly inventive creative output. Not only one of the best 70s musicians, John is a bona fide British music icon.

Must hear: Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be A Long, Long Time)

5: Eagles (1971-)

With their fifth album, Hotel California, selling over 32 million copies globally following its release in 1976, it’s hard to ignore Eagles. Hatched from within the hippie communities of Los Angeles, the California soft-rock band dominated the 70s with their unmistakably sun-kissed sound, expertly bringing together elements of folk-rock, country and rock’n’roll. Led by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Eagles’ sepia-tinged songwriting saw them score five US No.1s across the decade (Best Of My Love, One Of These Nights, New Kid In Town, Hotel California, Heartache Tonight), and their rough-hewn mastery of rootsy Americana took FM radio stations by storm. Without a doubt, the West Coast desperadoes become the most formative influence upon the emergence of heartland rock.

Must hear: Hotel California

4: Fleetwood Mac (1967-)

Following the departure of Fleetwood Mac’s founding member Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie began searching for new musicians to inject some magnetism back into their blues-rock outfit. The addition of melancholic ivory queen Christine McVie, mercurially melodic guitar maestro Lindsay Buckingham and enigmatic Earth goddess Stevie Nicks rapidly helped transform Fleetwood Mac into a pop-rock powerhouse. Soon enough, by the late 70s, they were ready to conquer the world. Despite tensions arising due to the breakdown of personal relationships within the band, Fleetwood Mac recorded their classic 1977 album, Rumours, a triumph that went on to sell 27.9 million copies worldwide following. Easily earning the right to be considered among the best 70s musicians, it’s hard not to deny Fleetwood Mac’s multi-talented musicality of immortal soft-rock gems, with the likes of Go Your Own Way and The Chain epitomising the best Fleetwood Mac songs.

Must hear: Go Your Own Way

3: David Bowie (1947-2016)

As if beamed in from another planet, David Bowie shape-shifted his way through the 70s. Spearheading the glam-rock explosion with his extra-terrestrial persona Ziggy Stardust and, later, the lightning-bolt brio of Aladdin Sane, Bowie slid just as comfortably into the suited’n’booted slipstream of the “plastic soul” era with Young Americans’ ballsy brand of funk and Philly soul. During the creative crossroads of Station To Station, Bowie reinvented himself yet again as the Thin White Duke, before decamping to West Berlin and working with producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno to craft his acclaimed “Berlin trilogy” (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger), a trio of art-rock albums now considered to be his meisterwerke. From 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World through, Bowie spent much of the decade refining – and revolutionising – his musical identity. A true sonic visionary.

Must hear: Starman

2: Pink Floyd (1965-2014)

Emerging like war heroes from the turmoil of 60s psychedelia, Pink Floyd spearheaded the development of progressive rock and garnered critical acclaim in the process. Today, having sold over 45 million copies of their 1973 album, The Dark Side Of The Moon, the British rock giants are seen as boundary-pushing icons whose increasingly ambitious concept albums (Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall) matched sonically adventurous studio innovations with a visual aesthetic that ensured Pink Floyd’s album covers did as much as their music to define the decade. Pioneering a sound that was deeply atmospheric yet lyrically sophisticated, the group’s sky-scrapingly gorgeous solos and elaborately epic jams saw bassist Roger Waters, guitarist David Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright encourage other musicians to embrace more far-reaching production techniques in order to expand the possibilities of music. To this day, Pink Floyd can be credited with helping to introduce a jazz-flavoured relish to the rock’n’roll playbook.

Must hear: Money

 

1: Led Zeppelin (1968-1980)

Led Zeppelin were not a heavy metal band, but it’s hard to imagine the genre ever existing without them. All of the ingredients were there: you can hear it in the rolling thunder of Jimmy Page’s heavy blues riffs, buttressed as they were by John Bonham’s pounding drums. It’s also there in John Paul Jones’ careening basslines, sending Robert Plant’s ear-shattering vocals soaring. From the spine-tingling blend of hard-edged blues (Whole Lotta Love) to their spirited take on English folk (Stairway To Heaven), the best Led Zeppelin songs laid the blueprint for everything a rock’n’roll band should be. It never sounded better than this. From Led Zeppelin III and their untitled fourth album to the decade-closing In Through The Out Door, there’s no doubting that the group outpaced all their rivals in order to top our list of the best 70s musicians.

Must hear: Whole Lotta Love

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