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How do 1974’s No. 1 albums hold up after a half-century?

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
Bob Marley in concert in 1973.
Bob Marley in concert in 1973. (Gary Merrin/Keystone) Photo Gallery

What a strange year 1974 was in pop music.

A total of 23 different albums reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. And sure, there were some expected presences: Paul McCartney and John Lennon both topped the charts, as did the Rolling Stones, Bad Company, and Elton John twice.

But so did an album of old-timey ragtime piano, thanks to “The Sting” soundtrack. Five of the records were greatest hits compilations, which … why not just buy the original records, people?

Stranger still: One album reached No. 1 nearly two years after it was released, due to the untimely death of its maker.

And let’s not get started on the No. 1 singles of the year, which included such gems as “Seasons in the Sun,” “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Kung-Fu Fighting” and “Angie Baby.”

Anyway, here’s how ’74 went down on the album charts. Enjoy.

  • “The Singles: 1969-1973,” The Carpenters / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Straight outta Downey, the brother and sister duo Richard and Karen Carpenter rang up a sterling set of pop-rock hits in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which included songs such as “(They Long to Be) Close To You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Superstar,” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.” This was their only No. 1 album, though three of the four albums that preceded it got to No. 2 with the fourth settling at No. 4.

New and noteworthy: Carly Simon and then-hubby James Taylor had their own duo hit with “Mockingbird,” a single off Simon’s January 1974 release “Hot Cakes,” which also featured “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.”

  • “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” Jim Croce / Total weeks at No. 1: 5

Originally released in April 1972, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” unexpectedly topped the charts for five weeks in early 1974, though not for the happiest of reasons. After the singer-songwriter Jim Croce died in a plane crash in September 1973, the posthumous release of the single “Time In a Bottle” pulled the album, which included hits with its title track and “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” all the way to No. 1.

New and noteworthy: At the same time Croce reached No. 1, the album “Grievous Angel” by the late Gram Parsons was released. The first months of 1974 also saw the arrival of Joni Mitchell’s classic album “Court and Spark,” which later made it to No. 2 and remains the most commercially successful album of her career.

  • “Planet Waves,” Bob Dylan with the Band / Total weeks at No. 1: 4

With his 14th studio record, Bob Dylan finally scored a No. 1 on the album charts. The record reunited Dylan with his old musical pals the Band, and included two different versions of the great “Forever Young.” Dylan and the Band went out for his full tour in eight years, which was captured in the June 1974 double-live album “Before The Flood,” recorded over three nights at the Forum in Inglewood.

New and noteworthy: Kiss and Rush released their self-titled debuts while “Planet Waves” sat at No. 1 , and ABBA dropped “Waterloo,” its second album but first international release.

  • “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand / Total weeks at No. 1: 2

Barbra Streisand’s album isn’t the soundtrack to her 1973 film of the same name — the title track is the only song that also appeared in the film. Instead, it’s a classy collection of covers that include Stevie Wonder’s “All In Love is Fair,” Paul Simon’s “Something So Right,” and a trio of songs by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who co-wrote the title track with Marvin Hamlisch.

New and noteworthy: March also saw the release of the slightly more rockin’ Eagles’ album “On The Border,” which included hits such as “Best Of My Love,” “Already Gone,” and “James Dean.” Earth, Wind and Fire also showed up here with “Open Our Eyes” and the singles “Mighty Mighty” and “Devotion.”

  • “John Denver’s Greatest Hits,” John Denver / Total weeks at No. 1: 3

We really loved the greatest-hits collections in ’74, with John Denver providing the second of five to go to the top of the charts this year. The folk-pop singer was near the peak of his commercial success here, which the album reflects with tracks such as “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” “Sunshine On My Shoulder,” and “Rocky Mountain High.”

New and noteworthy: Denver’s album might have been at No. 1, but signs of change were there if you looked for ‘em. The Ramones played their first concert ever on March 30 in New York City, while Van Halen played its first gig on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood with an April 5 show at Gazzarri’s.

  • “Band on the Run,” Paul McCartney & Wings / Total weeks at No. 1: 4

Paul McCartney’s third album with Wings wasn’t in a hurry to climb the charts. Released in November 1973, it wasn’t until the singles “Jet” and the title track arrived in January and April 1974 that it slipped in and out of No. 1 for four weeks spread across April, June and July. Still, it’s widely acclaimed today as one of McCartney’s best, as well as one of the best solo releases by any Beatle.

New and noteworthy: Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Second Helping” as “Band on the Run” first reached No. 1, with the hit “Sweet Home Alabama” clapping back at Neil Young for his songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.”

  • “Chicago VII,” Chicago / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

This might be the strangest No. 1 album of the year. Chicago had chart-topping jazz-influenced rock albums in 1972 and 1973 and then decided to drop the rock and make a jazz record. The pop-oriented members pushed back a little and so the double album “Chicago VII” became a compromise: almost all instrumental jazz on the first album, classic Chicago hits such as “(I’ve Been Searchin’) So Long,” “Wishing You Were Here,” and “Call On Me” on the second.

New and noteworthy: Richard and Linda Thompson made their debut as a duo with “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” It stays about as far from No. 1 as any album could but remains one of the finest British folk-rock records made.

  • “The Sting,” Marvin Hamlisch, movie soundtrack / Total weeks at No. 1: 5

Seventy-some years after its peak, ragtime piano finally made No. 1 on the album charts thanks to pianist-composer Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack to the Paul Newman-Robert Redford caper “The Sting.” If you want, you can argue that Hamlisch dominated the album charts in ’74, having co-written the title track to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” But only if you want.

New and noteworthy: The Patti Smith Group released their debut single “Hey Joe,” one of the earlier records you can call punk. David Bowie drops “Diamond Dogs,” providing an antidote to all the soft rock on the charts. Rolling Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman releases “Monkey Grip,” his solo debut, and raise your hand if you knew Bill even did a solo album. Put it down, you’re lying.

  • “Sundown,” Gordon Lightfoot / Total weeks at No. 1: 2

The Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot scored his only No. 1 album in the United States thanks to the strength of singles including the title track and “Carefree Highway.”

New and noteworthy: Parliament release the funk classic “Up For the Down Stroke,” and British art-rock cult heroes Be-Bop Deluxe drop their debut “Axe Victim.”

  • “Caribou,” Elton John / Total weeks at No. 1: 4

Elton John’s fourth consecutive No. 1 album, with two more to follow, might be the weakest of the bunch. But when you kick off things with a song that sizzles like “The Bitch Is Back,” and later a big ballad like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” fans aren’t gonna get hung up on the fact that the album also includes a number literally titled “Stinker.”

New and noteworthy: Neil Young’s “On The Beach” landed in the middle of the monthlong run of “Caribou” atop the charts. One of Young’s darker albums lyrically, over time its earned acclaim as one of his most powerful works.

  • “Back Home Again,” John Denver / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Denver’s second No. 1 album of the year, this time featuring hits that included a pair of his biggest hits, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Annie’s Song,” Denver’s clear tenor and uncomplicated approach to folk music sold millions in ’74.

New and noteworthy: Merle Haggard released “Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album,” which may or may not have originally been called “Merle Haggard Is Running Out of Album Titles.” Minnie Riperton released “Perfect Angel,” which, produced by Stevie Wonder under a pseudonym, included “Lovin’ You,” her signature song.

  • “461 Ocean Boulevard,” Eric Clapton /
    Total weeks at No. 1: 4

Eric Clapton’s comeback after several years lost to heroin addiction saw him establish the laid-back blues-rock vibe that would reestablish his stardom in the ’70s and on. There are a few originals, but mostly Clapton found covers – “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Willie and the Hand Jive,” “Motherless Children” – to which he could apply his bluesy guitar and vocals.

New and noteworthy: Late summer 1974 saw a spate of significant releases, including Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” and Randy Newman’s “Good Old Boys.” Judas Priest debuted with “Rocka Rolla” and the Average White Band’s “AWB” left everyone to “Pick Up The Pieces.”

  • “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” Stevie Wonder / Total weeks at No. 1: 2

This one included hits such as the Grammy-winning “Boogie On, Reggae Woman” with its squelchy synths and slinky bassline, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” still funk but fiercely political. The fourth of five classic Stevie Wonder albums from the ’70s, this is Stevie at his best.

New and noteworthy: Sticking with funky R&B, note that Labelle released “Nightbirds” around the time “Fulfillingess” reached No. 1, giving the world the wonder of “Lady Marmalade.”

  • “Bad Company,” Bad Company / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

From mid-September through the end of November, the album chart had a different record at No. 1 for nine consecutive weeks. First up was Bad Company with its self-titled debut, an album that kicked off with Bad Company’s signature song, “Can’t Get Enough.”

New and noteworthy: Sally was in the zeitgeist with Lou Reed releasing “Sally Can’t Dance” and Robert Palmer slipping “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” into record stores.

  • “Endless Summer,” the Beach Boys / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

This double-album compilation of Beach Boys hits from the first half of the ’60s was supposedly released to cash in on the popularity of “American Graffiti,” in which a few Beach Boys’ hits were featured. That may be, but the album remains one of the group’s best hits collections that isn’t a box set.

New and noteworthy: AC/DC introduced its new singer Bon Scott at a gig in early October, while Barry Manilow’s “Barry Manilow II” introduced hits such as “Mandy” and “It’s a Miracle.”

  • “If You Love Me, Let Me Know,” Olivia Newton-John / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

The title track is the only original here, as Olivia Newton-John’s label tried to bring fans in the United States and United Kingdom up to speed by packaging the best of her previous three Australian-released albums here. Singles included that title track as well as “I Honestly Love You,” which became her first U.S. No. 1 single.

New and noteworthy: Tom Waits’ second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night,” featured Waits’ classics including “San Diego Serenade,” “Diamonds On My Windshield,” and the title track.

  • “Not Fragile,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

BTO’s most popular album, this one featured hits such as “Roll On Down the Highway” and b-b-b-baby, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” It’s title was a riff on Yes’s “Fragile,” with co-founder Randy Bachman joking there was nothing fragile about his band’s music.

New and noteworthy: British band Supertramp made their U.S. breakthrough with “Crime of the Century,” featuring songs such as “Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right.”

  • “Can’t Get Enough,” Barry White / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Q: What can’t Barry White get enough of? A: Your love, babe! The deep bass vocals of White delivered plenty of R&B and disco hits in the ’70s, including this album’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”

New and noteworthy: Bob Marley and the Wailers delivered “Natty Dread,” which featured classics such as “No Woman No Cry” and “Lively Up Yourself.”

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  • “So Far,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Here’s an album that really didn’t need to exist. At the time, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash had all released one studio album, and the group with Neil Young had one more. So why make a compilation when you could just buy the two records out there? Still, the hits are terrific.

New and noteworthy: With “Sheer Heart Attack,” its second album of the year, and the song “Killer Queen,” Queen started to define the classic sound that would make them a massively popular band.

  • “Wrap Around Joy,” Carole King / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Carole King’s sixth album included such songs as “Jazzman,” which reached No. 2 on the singles chart, blocked from the top by Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” “Nightingale” was the second single, and also a fine King song.

New and noteworthy: Beatle Ringo Starr continued the success of his early solo career with “Goodnight Vienna,” and its hits “No No Song” and “Only You (And You Alone)”

  • “Walls and Bridges,” John Lennon / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

Written during his “Lost Weekend” period, “Walls and Bridges” produced “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” Lennon’s only No. 1 single hit during his life, with “#9 Dream” also cracking the Top 10. (And Elton John sang and played piano on the single.)

New and noteworthy: Genesis released “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” the final appearance by lead singer Peter Gabriel in the group.

  • “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll,” the Rolling Stones / Total weeks at No. 1: 1

The Rolling Stones ‘ follow-up to “Goats Head Soup” received equally mixed reviews, though the views have brightened over time. “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” remains a classic single. This was guitarist Mick Taylor’s final LP with the band, with Ronnie Wood stepping in hereafter.

New and noteworthy: Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” continued her commercial rise with singles such as “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.”

  • “Elton John’s Greatest Hits,” Elton John / Total weeks at No. 1: 5

Limited to 10 tracks, this album truly is the greatest of great hits from Elton John’s early career: “Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Bennie and the Jets” among them. It’s almost painful there wasn’t room for songs such as “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.”

New and noteworthy: At the end of December ’74, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac. Hmm. Wonder how that turned out?