Like a second-grader who can’t wait to give his mother her potholder for Christmas, I will as usual proceed immediately to the most important order of business, a personal list of the 30 finest American-release LPs of 1976 (with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10). I made this list with my very own ears and brain; body and feet pitched in occasionally as well, and the hands typed.
1. Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones: Have Moicy! 15. 2. Eno: Another Green World 15. 3. The Wild Tchoupitoulas 12. 4. David Bowie: Station to Station 11. 5. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin Wind 11. 6. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life 10. 7. Kate & Anna McGarrigle 8. 8. Ramones 8. 9. The Modern Lovers 5. 10. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Night Moves 5.
11. The Rolling Stones: Black and Blue. 12. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends. 13. Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees. 14. Hi Rhythm: On the Loose. 15. The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time. 16. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment. 17. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia. 18. Phoebe Snow: It Looks Like Snow. 19. Gasolin’. 20. Arlo Guthrie: Amigo.
21. George Jones: Alone Again. 22. Al Green: Full of Fire. 23. The Stills-Young Band: Long May You Run. 24. Billy Swan. 25. Al Green: Have a Good Time. 26. James Talley: Tryin’ Like the Devil. 27. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune. 28. Elvin Bishop: Struttin’ My Stuff. 29. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Back My Bullets. 30. Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver.
Industrially speaking, this is an odd list — six, maybe eight of these records made top 10 in the trades, while none of the first three even cracked top 200. But reference to the more prominently displayed list on this page indicates that maybe it’s not so odd. There you will find the 1976 edition of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, compiled (with the invaluable assistance of Stephen Holden) from the ballots of 66 rock critics nationwide. The point of bringing in so many opinions (there were 38 last year and 24 in 1974) was to mitigate the cliquishness that is inevitable in this sort of survey, and a broadening of taste did result: best-sellers like Jackson Browne, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, and Rod Stewart did especially well among new and out-of-town participants, while certain “critics’ records” — Warren Zevon, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Kate & Anna McGarrigle — started to drop precipitously once the veterans had been tallied, as did Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, still a “New York record,” and watch out America. Nevertheless, I find that nine of my top 10 albums ended up in the Pazz & Jop top 15. Apparently, people who make it their business to think about the records they listen to are reaching comparable conclusions everywhere.
To my mind, those conclusions didn’t end up as pessimistic as has often seemed likely this past year. It’s clear that critical tastes and ideas have a tendency to spread and prevail — Blue Oyster Cult and Steely Dan, while always commercially self-sustaining, got valuable early support from well-known critics. It’s also encouraging that eight of the present top 30 are debut albums (there were five in 1975 and three in 1974). Critics’ faves may never dominate the charts — note, though: Average White Band finished 16th in 1974, before “Pick Up the Pieces” broke the group; Fleetwood Mac did the same in 1975, long before anyone imagined it would turn into the best-selling LP in Warners history; this year number 16 is the aforementioned Dr. Buzzard — but it seems clear that valuable extensions of what I like to call semi-popular music will continue to be available, however briefly.
Two artists dominated the poll this year, and two others deserve special mention. Songs in the Key of Life is flawed and excessive, hence controversial among critics, but the consensus is that Stevie Wonder has overwhelmed his own capacity for foolishness. His vote this year transcends tokenism; as Tom Smucker commented: “I never liked any of his other albums. I voted for this because it reminded me of Pet Sounds.” But if this was the year of Stevie Wonder it was also the year of Graham Parker. In 1975, Bob Dylan (whom see, limping in at 26) finished first and fourth; in 1976 Parker did almost as well, polling a total of 449 points (for two albums) to Wonder’s 292. Whether this critical juggernaut will translate into sales can’t be certain, but I’m taking bets. Because of rock’s pervasive sexual politics, the odds aren’t quite as impressive for Kate & Anna McGarrigle, whose debut album actually beat Wonder’s among veterans of 1975’s Critics’ Poll, and whose poor sales can be blamed at least partly on the birth of Kate’s second child, who canceled their promotional tour single-handed. Finally, this was the year Jackson Browne graduated from cult status — not only is his album a huge seller, it also placed third on 22 out of 66 votes, whereas Late for the Sky finished eighth on six out of 28 votes in 1974.
With the possible exception of Linda Ronstadt and Jeff Beck fans, critics aren’t as easy on their perennial favorites as is sometimes suspected. In fact, only 11 of the 29 artists on this year’s list made previous ones; relatively familiar and well-respected names like Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Arlo Guthrie, and Blue Oyster Cult are new. But for me the most important function of this annual poll isn’t to reassure those hardy music professionals who manage to improve upon mediocre music, however essential they may be to the continuing health of the music, as to single out wonderful records that are all too likely to disappear. This year, three from the often courageous but lately disappointing Island label are especially noteworthy. The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a party record of primitive New Orleans rock and roll that rewards close listening, although it is recommended that you stand up while concentrating. I have never played it for anyone who hasn’t found it delightful, and it is still available at better retailers. Eno — who together with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, and Steely Dan is the only artist to have made all three polls — is finally beginning to win across-the-board critical support, but he is not selling and he is no longer with Island as a solo artist. Another Green World is not rock and roll, but even though Tom Hull describes it as “the only music to date to qualify as furniture,” it’s not Muzak either. It is melodic, electronic, and modular, without many lyrics, and people who hate the very idea of “progressive rock” (like me) are addicted to it. Seek it out now. Finally, there is Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, an uneven (in my opinion) but bracingly abrasive folk-rock album, sort of a hard version of the best Fairport Convention. If you long for a song as righteously nasty as “Positively 4th Street” — that would be “Hard Luck Stories” — rush out to the best record store you know right now, and good luck, for Island, unaccountably, has already cut it out, even though another Richard Thompson album is due for release shortly.
Now let me perform a similar service for a few of my own neglected favorites. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends is genuine country-rock, a collaboration between the Nashville scion (always an excellent singer himself) and Southern rock musicians like Toy Caldwell, Charlie Daniels, Chuck Leavell, and Pete Carr that is much, much more than a studio jam exploitation. Hi Rhythm’s On the Loose is one of the wackiest soul records of all time, far more compelling and significant than either of the two predictably expert albums released by boss man Al Green this year, and I bet it’s soon impossible to find even in black neighborhoods or King Karol. Finally, there is my numero uno, Have Moicy!, which I’m told is available at Music Inn on West 4th Street and I know for a fact is hawked for four bucks by Peter Stampfel at the Unholy Modal Rounders’ weekly Tuesday night gig at Broadway Charly’s. This record includes 13 songs and I love every one of them; just when you worry that Peter’s gonna drive you up the ceiling, Hurley or Jeffrey Fredericks cools you out. It’s on a small folk label called Rounder, and although I would estimate that no more than 15 of the 66 critics polled have even heard it, it finished a tragic 31st in a 30-place poll. I promise this is the last time I mention it unless I can think of another excuse.
I doubt there’ll be space for any individual lists this year, but my thanks to all participants:
1974 veterans: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Emerson, Vernon Gibbs, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Kit Rachlis, Wayne Robins, Frank Rose, Bud Scoppa, Geoffrey Stokes, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.
1975 additions: Georgia Christgau, Peter Herbst, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Meyer, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Tom Smucker, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters.
1976 freshpeople: Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Lauren Agnelli a/k/a Trixie A. Balm, Billy Altman, Anonymous, Michael Barackman, Ken Barnes, Jon Bream, Jean-Charles Costa, Walter Dawson, Steve Demorest, Joan Downs, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore, Jim Girard, Patrick Goldstein, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Steven Levy, Bruce Malamut, Jon Marlowe, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, R. Meltzer, John Milward, Teri Morris, Kris Nicholson, Richard Riegel, Joe Roman, Michael Rozek, Susin Shapiro, Ariel Swartley, Timothy White.
Late ballots: Colman Andrews, Patrick Carr, Matt Damsker, Peter Knobler.
Top 10 Albums of 1976
1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)
2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)
3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)
4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)
5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)
6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)
7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)
8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)
9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)
10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)
— From the January 31, 1977, issue
Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published earlier this year.