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Is 1972 the best year ever for great albums? From Aretha and Stevie to Bowie and the Stones, quite possibly

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The artists who made landmark albums in 1972 include, from left, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder.
The artists who made landmark albums in 1972 include, from left, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. (Photo illustration by Gloria Orbegozo /The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

Great albums are recorded and released every year, but I can make a very strong argument that 1972 saw more truly great albums released than any year before or since.

To be more precise, I can make dozens of very strong arguments. I’ll start with five.

“Amazing Grace” by Aretha Franklin. “Exile On Main Street” by the Rolling Stones. “Talking Book” by Stevie Wonder (whose similarly classic “Music of My Mind” album came out earlier the same year.) “The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” by David Bowie. “Sail Away” by Randy Newman.

Of course, I could make just as strong an argument by citing five equally classic 1972 albums.

“On the Corner” by Miles Davis. “Harvest” by Neil Young. “Give It Up” by Bonnie Raitt. “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield. “Return to Forever” by Chick Corea.

Or consider these. The Allman Brothers Band’s “Eat a Peach.” The Staple Singers’ “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.” Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything.” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes.”

Or these. Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues.” Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” Sandy Denny’s “Sandy.” Paul Simon’s “Paul Simon.” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

Remarkably, that’s just scratching the surface in a year that also saw standout debut albums by a heady array of artists.

Some of 1972’s most notable maiden efforts came from Steely Dan, Weather Report, Joan Armatrading, Roxy Music, the Eagles, Stephen Stills & Manassas, Malo and Big Star. Matching them stride for stride were the debuts by Jackson Browne, Bette Midler, Bobby Charles, Tanya Tucker, The Raspberries, Pure Prairie League, Neu! and JJ Cale.

Moreover, 1972 was such an artistically fertile time that some artists released two terrific albums apiece that year, including Wonder, Franklin, Green, James Brown, Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa. Not to be outdone, jazz piano dynamo McCoy Tyner had three albums that came out in 1972, all of them first-rate.

Did I hear all three of those Tyner albums that year in my mid-teens? I did not.

But becoming aware of them later the same decade, and of other albums by other artists, was no less of a thrill. And it reinforced to me just how bountiful the musical riches of 1972 were and continue to be.

For good measure, a significant number of outstanding live albums were also released in 1972. Some of my favorites include The Band’s “Rock of Ages,” The Mothers of Invention’s “Just Another Band from L.A.,” Grateful Dead’s “Europe ‘72,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited,” Slade’s “Slade Alive,” Richie Havens’ “On Stage,” Deep Purple’s “Made in Japan,” Donny Hathaway’s “Live,” King Crimson’s “Earthbound,” Jimi Hendrix’s posthumously released “Hendrix in the West,” and, well, you get the idea.

Of course, I’m an avid fan of many of the the sublime albums that came out in previous years, be it 1959 (Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” Charles Mingus’ “Mingus-Ah-Hum” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”), 1965 (Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal,” Otis Redding’s “Otis Blue,” The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”), and before and after. But I still give my nod to 1972.

If the music of that year seems especially resonant to me, it is.

I turned 16 early in 1972 and was already several years into my lifelong journey as a devoted musical sponge, eager to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible.

Albums were a key gateway. So were the many concerts I attended, starting at age 12 with The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, while growing up in Frankfurt, Germany.

On an almost weekly basis, brand new worlds of aural wonder seemed to open up with every other album I added to my growing collection. As each door opened so did several more, which in turn led to several more, and on and on.

That continuum of musical connections — of direct and indirect reference points, of roots and tributaries, traditions and innovations, detours and destinations — continues for me to this day.

So does discovering new artists, who are adding to that continuum in large and small ways. In 2021, I was happy to welcome arresting albums by such varied artists as West Virginia singer-songwriter Sierra Ferrell, young Milwaukee-bred bluesman Buffalo Nichols, genre-blurring Pakistani musical maverick Aroog Aftab, English polymath Emma-Jean Thackray and Southern California-raised teen troubadour Olivia Rodrigo.

I felt much the same way in 1972 when I first heard Scottish blues-rock belter Maggie Bell with the band Stone The Crows, New Zealand blue-eyed soul group Max Merritt & The Meteors, English singer-songwriter Michael Chapman and — via an Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ album — North Carolina jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw.

New albums for $2.50

In hindsight, I had some advantages in 1972 that I was oblivious to at the time.

Albums then cost only $2.50 each at the U.S. military PX and audio equipment stores where I did a lot of my shopping in Frankfurt with my $5 weekly allowance. Thanks to the dollar’s strength against the German mark at the time, albums didn’t cost too much more “on the economy” (as we referred to any and all German stores).

There were close to a dozen competing bands comprised of students at Frankfurt American High School, where I attended 10th grade. Music was such a dominant force that students who boarded at the school’s dormitory chartered a bus to attend a concert by Procol Harum, Heads, Hands & Feet and (a last-minute addition) Alice Cooper. One of my ninth grade class trips when I attended the nearby Frankfurt International School was to a concert by Cat Stevens and a then obscure trio called America.

My friends in the two bands I drummed in during 1972 — Judd Seuss in Frankfurt and Teeth in Twentynine Palms, California, (where I lived that fall) — were similarly consumed by the quest for musical discovery. We shared our favorites and took turns introducing each other to unfamiliar songs, albums and performers we cherished.

Since my bandmates in the short-lived Twentynine Palms group Teeth were all a decade or so older than me, they had a far broader sonic palette to draw from and share.

Through them, I was introduced to the 1971 debut album by pioneering jazz-rock fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra. They also helped me learn to play and to really feel the essence of Santana’s version of “Jingo,” a 1959 classic by Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji.

I also learned that the best way to quickly improve as a drummer is to be the least accomplished member in a band of veteran musicians, but that’s another story.

My strong connection to many of the albums I first heard in 1972 remains a matter of record. And I can argue with equal passion that the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book,” Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” deserve to top a list of that year’s albums as much as any of the other similarly indispensable albums I have invoked in this article.

Likewise, I can make just as strong a case that any such list of 1972 albums should also include Elton John’s “Honky Chateau,” Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” Santana’s Caravanserai,” Nina Simone’s “Emergency Ward,” Freddie King’s “Texas Cannonball” and Wishbone Ash’s “Argus.”

All of them sound just as vital to me today as they did back then. They are compelling musical works that exude passion, skill and creativity. And, like the best art, they are portals to a specific time and place that — in many instances — also transcend their time and place.

I could easily make a list of my 72 favorite albums from 1972, with the caveat that it would still be incomplete. Instead, let me sing the praises of five outstanding — but comparatively overlooked — 1972 albums.

Each made just as big an impression on me then as the better-known albums I have already cited. They still do so now.

Joni Mitchell, “For the Roses”

Because it was released directly in between two of Joni Mitchell’s most sublime albums, 1971’s “Blue” and 1974’s “Court & Spark,” “For the Roses” is too often seen as a lesser work.

To the contrary, this beguiling dozen-song album is a vital bridge between her sophisticated folk-music stylings and the more deep dive into jazz she was soon to take. And it was the first to team her with leading jazz saxophonist Tom Scott, who appeared on several other Mitchell albums in the 1970s.

Filled with exquisitely crafted tales of love won, lost and imagined, “For the Roses” boasts both Mitchell’s first Top 40 hit, the wonderfully wry “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio,” and an exceptionally chilling lament about the ravages of heroin, “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.”

The emotional intimacy of her uncommonly penetrating lyrics, which target her own foibles as directly as those of her lovers, is matched by her soaring vocals. Like few of her contemporaries, Mitchell imparts a world of meaning in a single line, or — sometimes — with just one perfectly phrased word that cuts right to the core.

Ornette Coleman, “Science Fiction”

Modern jazz visionary Ornette Coleman’s enchantingly otherworldly “Science Fiction” was like nothing else in 1972. It sounds no less singular or astonishing now.

The only album I know of that features both groundbreaking Indian vocal star Asha Puthli and American poet (and Jimi Hendrix biographer) David Henderson, “Science Fiction” easily lives up to its name. Coleman’s expertly deployed fusion of Afrofuturism, jazz, contemporary classical and what has since come to be known as world music was so far ahead of its time that it sounds just as fresh and vital today.

His keening alto saxophone sounds steeped in the ages — and eager to go beyond them. The exemplary musicians who perform with him include fellow sax master Dewey Redman and bass giant Charlie Haden. What they achieve together suggests a swirling sonic future that was already starting to blossom half a century ago.

When Coleman declares, during “Science Fiction’s” beauty-from-chaos title track, “My mind belongs to civilization,” it sounds like a statement of fact, not a boast.

Gentle Giant, “Three Friends”

Few years have yielded as many memorable progressive-rock albums as 1972, from Yes’ “Close to the Edge” and Pink Floyd’s “Obscured by Clouds” to Genesis’ “Foxtrot” and Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.” Of them, it is Gentle Giant’s third album, “Three Friends,” that I return to most often.

This English quintet was so popular at Frankfurt American High School during my 10th grade year that the best student band at the school played cover versions of songs from Gentle Giant’s self-titled 1970 debut album. In 1972, friends of mine who lived near Frankfurt tipped their collective hat by forming a band called Frantic Dwarf.

The only release Gentle Giant made with the nimble drummer Malcolm Mortimore as a member, “Three Friends” brings a harder edge to the band’s ingeniously constructed blend of intricate rock, jazzy sonorities, Renaissance-era madrigals and neo-classical music (which, at times, suggests Bartok by way of Hendrix). The use of a Mini-Moog synthesizer on the title track of “Three Friends” is commendable for its fuss-free artistry, while “Peel the Paint” boasts what is likely the heaviest unison guitar and tenor sax riff I have ever heard.

Of special note is Gentle Giant’s deft command of hocketing, a 13th century singing style in which different notes are assigned to different voices. The same technique was adapted about two decades ago by the group Dirty Projectors — which featured San Diego-bred singer Amber Coffman — but Gentle Giant’s use of hocketing remains the gold standard for proudly left-of-center rock.

Frank Zappa, “The Grand Wazoo”

What did shape-shifting musical maverick Frank Zappa sound like leading a big band that combined members of his band, The Mothers of Invention, with some of the top players in jazz of the early 1970s?

“The Grand Wazoo” offers a rousing answer that explodes with brassy velocity one moment and glides with finely calibrated poise the next.

The stellar lineup includes keyboard dynamo George Duke and sax great Tony Ortega on various woodwind instruments. One of Zappa’s most fully realized works, then and now, the album offers an unlikely but thrilling marriage of funk and opera (on “Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus”), two jazz waltzes, a bluesy shuffle and more.

The band, which never toured, rehearsed at length to be able to nail the devious twists and turns in the music with a winning combination of precision and abandon. Zappa, who died in 1993, released 62 albums in his lifetime. “The Grand Wazoo” remains one of his best and most enjoyable.

Glencoe, “Glencoe”

This wonderfully talented four-man U.K. band never rose from obscurity, although two of its members later achieved broad European success in Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Glencoe’s debut album showcases the group’s ability to play and sing with impressive finesse and muscularity, to rock out one moment, then glide through a tender ballad the next, and make each sound like perfectly matched companion pieces.

On the piano-led “It’s,” the band slyly references The Beatles with the couplet “One more magical mystery tour is waiting to take me away, I’m not going to miss the bus again,” while the finely wrought vocal harmonies on “Look Me in the Eye” are worthy of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at their best.

With uniformly strong songwriting that draws from folk-rock one moment and funk and country the next, “Glencoe” remains an undiscovered gem worth digging up. Sadly, the band’s second and final album was nowhere as accomplished, due primarily to a lack of memorable material. But in the realm of unsung debut albums that deserved to be widely embraced, this is a prime contender.

And five more from 1972

Charlie Christian, “Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian”

Various Artists, “The Harder They Come”

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, “Child’s Song”

Rory Gallagher “Live! In Europe”

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, “Clear Spot”

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