Jim's Gems, 1973: Bowie, The Who, Planxty and more in an incredible year 
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Jim's Gems, 1973: Bowie, The Who, Planxty and more in an incredible year 

Jun 03, 2023

Lou Reed and Bowie feature at the top of Jim Comet's list of best albums of 1973.

The year was 1973. The post-'60s hangover was starting to abate. Many of the hopes, dreams, and aspirations and much of the optimism of the previous decade had disappeared and people were starting to realise that the world was in a much worse condition than they'd realised. Musically, it was all about the album and many artists went a little deeper, adapting to the changing times and marketplace. New artists were also emerging all eager to shake up the status quo and spearhead musical change.

1. Lou Reed, Berlin

Nobody does decadence like Lou Reed and when he collaborated with producer Bob Ezrin on the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Transformer he broke the mould. Though recorded in New York, Berlin tells the story of Jim and Caroline and their struggle with drug abuse, domestic abuse, prostitution and finally suicide in the depressing surroundings of post war Berlin. These issues are dealt with in a very graphic and matter-of-fact way by Reed, the ultimate street poet. 'The Kids' and 'The Bed' make for difficult listening. Musically it’s a bit like a symphony by the Velvet Underground. Ezrin managed to combine the traditional instruments with the strings to great effect.

The album, while not exactly a bag of laughs, completely flopped when it was originally released and it took years for Reed to recover artistically. However its now regarded by many, myself included, as his finest solo work.

2. David Bowie, Aladdin Sane

For the follow up to the ground breaking Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was far more interested in the artistic journey than simply writing hits. A trait that would define much of his career. The songs for the new album were mostly written on the tour bus travelling across America overnight on the first Ziggy US tour. They used the bus as he was terrified of flying.

It’s a much more chaotic. darker and more intense affair than Ziggy which probably reflects how his lifestyle was at the time. Drugs were slowly starting to creep in, as with many other big artists of the time. The addition of pianist Mike Garson completely transformed the Spiders' sound, adding a decadent jazzy burlesque feel that completely dominates the record. Garson would remain with Bowie on and off until the end.

3. Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup

In 1968 the Stones released the first in a string of five classic albums that would cement their legacy and define their career. However, by the time they moved to Jamaica to record the fifth album in that series, all was not well in the camp.

They had been practically kicked out of France after the recording of Exile On Main Street, Mick Jagger was increasingly preoccupied with his jet-set lifestyle, and the drugs were starting to take their toll on Keith Richards. The recording sessions complete with drug busts, run-ins with local police and mafia were shambolic.

How the album actually got made is in itself a minor miracle. Musically, it's dirty, druggy, sloppy and sounds all over the shop. In other words, classic Stones. My own opinion is that it’s their last hurrah and arguably their finest album.

4. The Who, Quadrophenia

Following the success of Tommy The Who released their 3rd rock opera Quadrophenia in 1973. The story follows Jimmy a teenage mod, whose character is loosely based on our own Irish Jack, as he struggles for acceptance in the world and tries to live up to both society’s and his parents expectations of him. For a brief weekend in Brighton it all works out but life and reality both bring him down to earth and he tries unsuccessfully to recapture that one moment.

His constant struggles with his own mental health echoes that felt by many teenagers today. Musically it was their most ambitious project to date, the songs being much more complex than before with particular emphasis on the breakdowns. The addition of woodwind by John Entwistle makes the sound even bigger. Throughout the record the sea acts as a constant metaphor for a calmness and refuge that would never be reached.

5. Isley Brothers, 3+3

The 11th album by one of the most underrated groups in pop history was recorded in the same studio as Stevie Wonders Innervisions and at roughly the same time so there was huge crossover between the two records. The original group, which had now expanded from a three- to a six-piece, took their songwriting to a completely different level with the smash hits 'That Lady' and 'Highways Of My Life'. The latter is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

The album also includes a cover of the Doobie Brothers' 'Listen To The Music' and the Seals And Crofts hit 'Summer Breeze', which would become an anthem and would always be associated with them. I think this album has been a constant in my record box for the last 10 years.

6. Tom Waits, Closing Time

Every Tom Waits album sounds like it should be listened to at 4am sitting at the counter alone in a dark dingy underground bar with just a bottle of whiskey for company. Therefore calling his debut Closing Time was a stroke of genius and it was that very genius that singled him out from his more extrovert contemporaries on the LA scene in the early '70s. David Geffen very quickly spotted that he could write songs like no other and added him to his ever growing stable which included CSNY and The Eagles. 'Ol’ 55', 'Grapefruit Moon' and the stunning instrumental title track (recorded in one take) are all included on what has to be one of the finest debuts ever.

7. Planxty, The Black Album

This first came on my radar when Leagues O'Toole aired a No Disco Planxty special in 2003. I had no awareness of them before this. Now I was hooked. Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Liam O Flynn and Andy Irvine, aka 'The Beatles Of Trad', got together in 1972 during the recording of Moore's album, Prosperous, and decided to use their combined talents to fulfil a vision they had of where they could take traditional music.

Indeed they succeeded in taking the genre to a much wider audience and changing the public perception of what many thought was a very conservative and safe scene. This is far from their best album, but it's their first and what better place to start.

8. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

Of all the big Motown artists nobody made the difficult transition from the 1960s to the '70s quite like Stevie Wonder. I’m never fully convinced he gets credit for that. From around 1968 onwards he started to take full ownership in the direction his music was taking, and he really started to take flight when he began working with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Marqouleff on 1972's Music Of My Mind.

On this the follow up they continue with that journey, but the sound is expanded taking in a more jazzy and worldly feel combined with a more spiritual outlook. Tracks like 'Living For The City', 'Boogie On Reggae Woman' and 'Golden Lady' would be hugely influential in shaping the direction of modern soul.

9. Bob Dylan, Pat Garret And Billy The Kid OST

Dylan's forgotten album was mostly written on location in Durango where this classic Peckinpah western was filmed. It’s a deep slow moving tale which uses the legend of Billy The Kid as a metaphor for the decline of both the old wild west and indeed the western itself.

Kris Kristofferson shines as The Kid and it features appearances by western stalwarts like Slim Pickens and Sam Elliot. The music is mostly instrumental and sparse which really lends itself to the slow moving almost melancholic nature of the film. There’s lots of silences and words that remain unsaid. The standout track is of course 'Knocking On Heavens Door' which barely made the film. Among the out takes was a song called 'Rock Me Mama', which didn’t make the film but resurfaced many years later as 'Wagon Wheel'.

10. Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon

I’m never sure if Dark Side is an album or a rite of passage. Personally, I came very late to it. It was summer of 2008 in Lake Garda Italy when we were pregnant with our daughter Lucy that I began to properly listen and the record and particularly the lyrics on songs like 'Breathe' and 'Time'. They seemed very appropriate in our current circumstance and I found that to be really moving and profound.

Other themes abound on the record as well and while many would disagree with Waters' world view, a lot of the album's timelessness is down to his ability to constantly reinvent itself feel relevant to the modern world.

Two that nearly made it

Roxy Music, Stranded: Their third album but for me the one that kick-started it all and marked them out as serious contenders.

James Brown, Black Caesar/Slaughters Big Rip Off/The Payback: Two soundtracks and arguably his finest studio album in what was a vintage year for the Godfather Of Soul.

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