What was the greatest year ever in popular music?  Your answer, no doubt, will be a function of your age, but “1971” is a very common response to the question during this fiftieth anniversary of that year.

For instance, Hit Parade, a podcast about the Billboard charts that chronicles the “hot” singles and albums, offered a “Spirit of ’71 Edition” in two parts.  As is usual for that show, it was framed around a certain theme — in this case, the seven artists or groups that each had both a number one single and a number one album during 1971 — but there are plenty of references to other songs (and musicians) from across the years.  A trip down memory lane.

For the record (so to speak), here are six of those seven (“songs”, albums):  George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”/”Isn’t It a Pity,” All Things Must Pass); Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee,” Pearl); The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar,” Sticky Fingers); Rod Stewart (“Maggie May,” Every Picture Tells a Story); Isaac Hayes (“Theme from Shaft,” Shaft); and Sly and the Family Stone (“Family Affair,” There’s a Riot Goin’ On).  Host Chris Molanphy has interesting stories about each on the podcast.

A much different and more in-depth look at the time comes from 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, an eight-part documentary series.  While the podcast touches on the cultural backdrop behind the music, the films take a head-first deep dive into it.

On the music front, Motown and the British Invasion were two parts of a much-changed pop music scene in the sixties, as the baby boomers came into their own as a cultural force.

It was a chaotic political time.  The Vietnam War had split the country.  Protests raged.  There were important social movements, including the ongoing battle for civil rights and nascent ones to address discrimination against women, gays, and Native Americans.  Things were changing.

There were hippies and Yippies, flower power and political agitation, and the music reflected it.

But after a few years, as someone said in the documentary, “The love thing was over.”  Manson, My Lai, Altamont, Attica, Kent State, the Weathermen.  Times seemed to get darker as the decade turned — and the drugs definitely got harder.

“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye wondered, in his landmark song and album of the same name, released in May 1971.  Things seemed out of sorts.  People looked to music for answers.

A few months before, in late 1970, the concept album Jesus Christ Superstar was released, heralding an unexpected counter-countercultural development.  “Jesus freaks” came out of nowhere, and a June cover of Time (then the most coveted media placement in the world) announced “The Jesus Revolution.”  Amazingly, Jesus Christ Superstar ended up being the top-selling album of 1971.

The year was full of musical forays in new directions.  Gil Scott-Heron recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which some point to as the first rap song to get wide attention.  “Glam” rock showed its stuff courtesy of T. Rex and David Bowie, who recorded Ziggy Stardust late in the year.  A whole raft of progressive rock (or “art rock”) bands entered their prime creative periods, including Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  The synthesizer found its way into the experimental (Kraftwerk) and the blockbuster (Who’s Next).  Bob Marley’s reggae was gaining traction, especially in the U.K.  The Stooges, Lou Reed, and others were creating what came to be called “proto-punk” once there was “punk” to decipher a few years later.  And jazz rock was branching out in new directions, as was country rock.  (A little band called Eagles was formed in 1971.)

Among Black artists there was everything from the gospel-tinged sounds of The Staples Singers to James Brown (the Godfather of Soul), from Funkadelic (Maggot Brain) to Stevie Wonder, from Bill Withers to Ike and Tina Turner.  (Tina is a complete marvel in the videos, both musically and for everything she endured.)

And songs like “Imagine” and “Stairway to Heaven.”  I could go on.

(Should you want to go further down memory lane, here are the number one albums and singles charts.  Or you can read the Stereogum write-ups on all of the top singles, be they famous or largely forgotten, path-breaking or cheesy.  And you’ll find a bunch of great albums I haven’t cited on this list.)

Given everything I’ve mentioned, there are still some high points missing, especially since it was a time when a number of singer-songwriters were producing legendary work.

For instance, Joni Mitchell’s Blue was ranked third in the 2020 Rolling Stone list of best albums ever.  A New York Times article includes twenty-five musicians speaking “about the LP’s enduring power on its 50th anniversary,” plus some very cool photos.

And then there was Tapestry.

In the list I gave earlier of the artists that had both a number one album and a number one single during 1971, I left one out.  Carole King was a legendary songwriter starting in her teens, with her husband Gerry Goffin writing the lyrics.  At 29, now divorced, she poured everything into her new album.

The chart-topping single was “It’s Too Late,” backed by “I Feel the Earth Move,” both of which got huge airplay.  But the album was full of winners, including “So Far Away,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

King’s low-key honesty struck a chord, especially (but not exclusively) with women.  For one thing, the rock critic Robert Christgau wrote, “If there’s a truer song about breaking up than ‘It’s Too Late,’ the world (or at least AM radio) isn’t ready for it.”

It’s as if the album came around at just the right time.  It stayed on the charts for years and there was hardly a bedroom or a dorm room throughout the land that didn’t have a copy, with its cover photo of King and her cat, sitting by a window.

The tapestries of music that form the aural pictures of our lives are made up of many threads.  Fine, hardly-seen ones that provide backdrop and nuance — and thick, bold-colored ones that return us to a time and place of yore.  It feels good to step back and appreciate the tableau, lucky to witness it all once again.

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