Let’s break out the high heel platforms and curling irons because it is time to celebrate the best albums that glam gave the world.
I’ve long been a fan of the phenomenon known as glam rock. It is a true oddity in music history. Today, the genre is commonly derided as an Oscar Wilde inspired movement away from the substantial, socially important music of the 60s toward pure aesthetics. I take umbrage with that argument. While glam rockers may not have been urging people to protest foreign wars, their movement was no less socially important. Throwing off traditional gender roles, I would argue that the aesthetic did far more for concepts like feminism and queer theory than any musical movement before it. As for the music itself; pure brilliance. Just take a look at some of the musicians that were either spawned by or heavily influenced the glam genre; Elton John, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Lou Reed, the New York Dolls, Queen, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, and (of course) David Bowie.
So, I’ve decided to do a list about the best albums in glam rock history. There is just one tiny problem. What the hell is glam rock? Let’s take a look at the definition offered by All Music Guide:
Often confused with ’80s hair metal (at least by American listeners), glam rock was an almost entirely British phenomenon that became wildly popular during the first half of the ’70s. Glam rock was fairly simple, crunchy guitar rock put across with outrageous theatricality. Most of the music was unabashedly catchy, with melodies drawn from teenage bubblegum pop and hip-shaking rhythms from early rock & roll. In general, glam rock fell into two schools. The most prevalent one was the intentionally disposable trashiness of T. Rex; leader Marc Bolan pioneered glam’s fashion sense and crafted music that was all sexy, silly fun — or, to put it another way, music where the surface was the substance. Artists like Gary Glitter, Sweet, and Slade followed the T. Rex aesthetic, in the process creating a substyle known as glitter (which was even more exclusively British). But for a style which relied so heavily on image, glam had a surprisingly arty side too, epitomized by David Bowie and Roxy Music. This school was more grandly dramatic and ambitious, both sonically and lyrically; glam was an opportunity for these artists to manipulate their personas at will, making their senses of style part of the overall artistic statement, and exploring the darkness lurking under the music’s stylish, glitzy surface. Apart from them, the lone American glam-rock band was the New York Dolls, whose raw, Stonesy proto-punk sounded different from their British peers, but whose trashy aesthetic and transvestite wardrobe clearly put them in the same camp. Glam effectively began with T. Rex’s 1971 hit Electric Warrior, but 1972 was its real breakthrough year: T. Rex consolidated its popularity with The Slider; David Bowie released his classic Ziggy Stardust and produced Mott the Hoople’s star-making All the Young Dudes album; Roxy Music issued their groundbreaking debut; and the New York Dolls embarked on their first tour of England.
I’ve got a few problems with this definition (we’ll see that there was definitely more than one American glam band), but let’s take it as a general guide for what will be included here. One of the key problems with defining any genre is knowing where to stop. Should any rock star who wore something shiny on stage be included? Lou Reed wore lots of eye-liner, but could you seriously put him in the same group with Queen and T. Rex? For my part, I’ll be trying to take this into account for the list. I’m not saying just how good the album is, but how well it represented the genre as a whole.
As usual, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure. Over twenty hours of glam-filled listening pleasure made the list this week. Now, without further adieu, let’s start listing some dandys before my panty hose start bunching up.
Remember what I said about the Dolls not being the only important American glam group? Sparks is my number one argument. San Francisco’s Ron and Russell Mael have had a long, fantastic career (they are still making good albums today) as Spark. While I have several favorites in their catalog, this was the big one. Kimono My House became a popular release reaching #4 on the UK Albums Chart. The single has been a surprise hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” made #2 in the UK Singles Chart. It was held off the top spot by The Rubettes bubblegum pop song “Sugar Baby Love” which remained at #1 for four weeks. Sparks’ second Island-era single “Amateur Hour” reached the top ten in the UK later that summer.
Outside the UK Kimono My House and its singles made a significant impact across Europe notably in Germany where both singles reached #12. In the US, the album reached #101 on the Billboard 200. The groups two Bearsville albums had garnered critical praise but few sales, the only significant chart performance had been “Wonder Girl” which was minor regional hit and had crept into the lower reaches of the Cashbox chart at #92. Kurt Cobain named Kimono My House as one of his favourite albums of all time. I probably would give it that much praise, but who am I to argue with Kurt Cobain?
Allmusic called New York Dolls “a noisy, reckless album that rocks and rolls with a vengeance” and cited it as “the definitive proto-punk album, even more than anything the Stooges released. It plunders history while celebrating it, creating a sleazy urban mythology along the way.” In 2003, the album was ranked No. 213 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The track “Personality Crisis” is ranked No. 271 on the same magazine’s list “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. In August 2010, Morrissey submitted a list to the online publication The Quietus detailing his favorite albums. In it, he declared New York Dolls as his top favorite.
I would imagine more than a few of my friends would hand out the stink eye for making this selection instead of one of the Roxy Music records that included Brian Eno. I just can’t see picking either of those first two records over this. Country Life is the fourth album by British rock band Roxy Music, released in 1974 and reaching #3 in the UK charts. It also made #37 in the United States, their first record to crack the Top 40 here. The album is considered by many critics to be among the band’s most sophisticated and consistent. Band leader Bryan Ferry took the album’s title from the British rural lifestyle magazine Country Life.
In 2003, the album was ranked number 387 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was one of four Roxy Music albums that made the list (For Your Pleasure, Siren and Avalon being the others). I think Country Life is the record that cemented the sound and legacy of Roxy Music. Today, the tuxedo adorned, slightly off lothario Bryan Ferry is archetypical, lampooned by The Mighty Boosh and adored by artists like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. I would argue we can thank Country Life for that.
Every Picture Tells a Story is the third album by Rod Stewart, released in the middle of 1971. It went to number one on both the UK and U.S. charts and finished third in the Pazz & Jop critics’ poll for best album of 1971. It has been an enduring critical success, including a number 172 ranking on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and inclusion in both 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (2005) and 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (2008). In 1992, the album was awarded the number-one spot in Jimmy Guterman’s book The Best Rock ‘N’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love. Every Picture Tells a Story was ranked 99th in a 2005 survey held by British television’s Channel 4 to determine the 100 greatest albums of all time.
I don’t think I have to justify this pick at all. As a matter of fact, I am kind of wondering to myself why it isn’t higher on the list. Under the working titles of Vodka and Tonics and Silent Movies, Talking Pictures, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics in two and a half weeks, with John composing most of the music in three days while staying at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. He had wanted to go to Jamaica he has said, in part, because the Rolling Stones had just recorded Goats Head Soup there. Production on the album was started in Jamaica in January 1973, though after difficulties with the sound system and the studio piano, coupled with disturbance due to the Joe Frazier and George Foreman boxing match taking place in Kingston, and violent political tension due to the poor economic situation, the band decided to move before any productive work was done. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was recorded in two weeks at the Château d’Hérouville in France, where John had previously recorded Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. Only a version of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was recorded in Jamaica, but that recording was discarded and the final, released version of the song came from the sessions at the Château.
According to the album’s producer, Gus Dudgeon, the album wasn’t planned as a two-record collection. In total, John and Taupin composed 22 tracks for the album, of which 18 (if one includes both “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding”) were used, enough that it was released as a double album, John’s first (three more such albums would follow up to 2011). The songs, mostly around the theme of nostalgia for a more humble childhood and an older American culture as seen through eyes of the movies, included “Bennie and the Jets”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, using memories of a Market Rasen pub Taupin frequented when younger, the 11-minute “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, and the Marilyn Monroe tribute, “Candle in the Wind”. “Grey Seal” was previously a B-side of the 1970 single, “Rock n’ Roll Madonna”, and was re-recorded for the album. “Harmony”, the album’s final track, was considered as a fourth single, but was not issued because the chart longevity of the album and its singles brought it too close to the upcoming releases of Caribou and its proposed accompanying singles. It was, however, popular on FM playlists of the day, especially Boston’s WBZ-FM, whose top 40 chart allowed for the inclusion of LP cuts and B-sides as voted for by listeners. “Harmony” spent three weeks at #1 on WBZ-FM’s chart in June 1974 and ranked #6 for the year, with “Bennie and the Jets” at #1 and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” behind “Harmony” at #7.
Initially regarded as having some good tracks, but being too diverse, not holding together, and being too long and patchy, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has come to be regarded as John’s best and most popular album, and is his best selling studio album with worldwide sales of at least 15 million copies. Three singles were released in the US: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Bennie and the Jets”, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. It was certified gold on 12 October 1973, platinum through 5x platinum on 23 March 1993, 6x platinum on 11 September 1995 and 7x platinum on 26 August 1998 by the RIAA. The album was ranked #91 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was also placed at #59 in Channel 4’s 2009 list of 100 Greatest Albums.
The title track, “All the Young Dudes”, was released as a single prior to the album and charted worldwide, becoming the “ultimate ’70s glitterkid anthem”. “Sweet Jane”, a cover of the Velvet Underground song from their 1970 album Loaded, was issued as a single in Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United States, though not in their home market of the UK. “One of the Boys”, originally the B-side of “All the Young Dudes”, was also released in North America and Continental Europe. “Ready for Love” was later reworked by Mick Ralphs’s later band Bad Company on their self-titled debut.
In 2003, All the Young Dudes was ranked number 491 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. All Music Guide gave the album a five star rating and legendary rock critic Robert Christgau gave it an A-.
Marc Bolan was an absolute watershed for rock music in the seventies. It isn’t a minority opinion that he is the reason glam became a genre. Beginning as a hippie folk duo, T. Rex became a figurehead for the entire movement the second Bolan picked up an electric guitar. Bolan was either name checked by or worked without almost every artist on this list, even counting Ringo Starr among his champions. Of course, in true rock star style, Bolan mostly argued with his lot, once telling David Bowie that he was “King of the Mods”, before either were famous. Electric Warrior was the sixth album by T. Rex (being the second album under that name with the first four billed as by Tyrannosaurus Rex). Electric Warrior reached number thirty-two in the US Billboard 200; it went to number one for several weeks in the UK Albums Chart, becoming the biggest selling album there in 1971. In 2003, it was ranked number 160 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The album contained two of T. Rex’s most popular songs, “Get It On” and “Jeepster.” In the United States, “Get It On”‘s title was modified to “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” to distinguish it from Chase’s song “Get It On,” which was also released in late 1971. (The printing of the song title “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” on the back cover of original Reprise Records U.S. copies of Electric Warrior is obviously in a different typefont from the surrounding text, with the song’s original title retained when printing the lyrics.) “Get It On” was T. Rex’s biggest selling single and their only US hit reaching #10 in the Billboard Hot 100.
Bolan, in a 1971 interview contained on the Rhino Records reissue, said of the album “I think Electric Warrior, for me, is the first album which is a statement of 1971 for us in England. I mean that’s… If anyone ever wanted to know why we were big in the other part of the world, that album says it, for me.” The album was rather famously recorded off the cuff, while the band was touring across the United States. Songs were recorded in multiple locations, with lyrics often being recorded off of the slips of paper Bolan had scribbled them on. The sleeve was designed by British art design group Hipgnosis. In the November 2001 issue of Vanity Fair Beck chose it as one of his 50 favorite album sleeves. As for a lasting musical influence, just sit down and watch an Electric Warrior-era T. Rex performance followed by a White Stripes performance. You will be surprised.
Revisionist music history suggests that Hunky Dory was the greatest David Bowie album. I think that’s a crock. Hunky Dory is a great album, but if it weren’t for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the history of rock would be a lot different today. The album presents, albeit vaguely, the story of a rock and roll character called “Ziggy Stardust”. Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence. Ziggy Stardust is the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, wild in drug intake and with a message, ultimately, of peace and love; but he is destroyed both by his own excesses of drugs and sex, and by the fans he inspired.
The character of Ziggy was initially inspired by British rock ‘n’ roll singer Vince Taylor whom Bowie met after Taylor had had a breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien; though Taylor was only part of the blueprint for the character, other influences included the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Kansai Yamamoto, who designed the costumes Bowie wore during the tour. The Ziggy Stardust name came partly from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and partly, as Bowie told Rolling Stone, because Ziggy was “one of the few Christian names I could find beginning with the letter ‘Z'”. He later explained in a 1990 interview for Q Magazine that the Ziggy part came from a tailor’s shop called Ziggy’s that he passed on a train, and he liked it because it had “that Iggy [as in Iggy Pop] connotation but it was a tailor’s shop, and I thought, Well, this whole thing is gonna be about clothes, so it was my own little joke calling him Ziggy. So Ziggy Stardust was a real compilation of things.”
The Ziggy Stardust sessions began just a few weeks after Hunky Dory was released. The first song recorded for the album, the cover “It Ain’t Easy”, was recorded in September 1971. The first session in November produced “Hang on to Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” (later shortened to “Star”), “Moonage Daydream”, “Soul Love”, “Lady Stardust”, and “Five Years”. Also recorded during the November Ziggy Sessions were two more cover songs intended for the as-yet untitled album. They were Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” (re-titled “Round and Round”) and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (re-titled “Port of Amsterdam”). A re-recording of “Holy Holy” (first recorded in 1970 and released as a single, to poor sales, in January 1971) was initially slated for Ziggy, but was dropped in favour of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. “Round and Round” was replaced by “Starman” and “It Ain’t Easy” replaced “Amsterdam” on the album’s final running order. All three were eventually released as b-sides. “Velvet Goldmine”, first recorded during the Hunky Dory sessions, was also intended for Ziggy, but was replaced by “Suffragette City”. RCA released it in 1975 as the b-side to the UK re-release of “Space Oddity” after having it remixed and mastered without Bowie’s approval.
After recording some of the new songs for Sounds of the 70s with Bob Harris (which appear on Bowie at the Beeb) as the newly-dubbed Spiders from Mars in January–February 1972, the band returned to Trident. They recorded “Starman”, “Suffragette City”, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” by the end of the month. “Starman”, released as a single in April (and not intended for the final album at first), has never appeared in its original “loud” mix on CD. It differs somewhat in that it “features a subdued ‘morse code’ section between the verse and the chorus” compared to the original released in 1972. “Suffragette City”, the b-side to “Starman”, was mastered for the album with a three-note coda leading in from “Ziggy Stardust” to make the songs sound linked. They were never played as such by Bowie in concert.
Upon its release on 6 June 1972, Ziggy Stardust reached number five in the UK and number seventy-five in the US. The album was eventually certified platinum and gold in the UK and US respectively. The only single from the record, “Starman”, charted at number ten in the UK while peaking at the sixty-fifth spot in the US.
In the issue of Rolling Stone from 20 July 1972, writer Richard Cromelin gave the album a favourable review of “at least a 99” (assumed out of 100); the review was written in a way that even though he thought it was a good album, he did not believe in the lasting power of it or the style in general. In his review Cromelin writes “we should all say a brief prayer that his fortunes are not made to rise and fall with the fate of the ‘drag-rock’ syndrome”.
In 1997, Ziggy Stardust was named the 20th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998, Q magazine readers placed it at number 24 and Virgin All-time Top 1000 Albums ranked it at number 11, while in 2003 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 48. It was named the 35th best album ever made by Rolling Stone on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2000 Q placed it at number 25 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. In 2004 it was placed at number 81 in Pitchfork Media’s Top 100 Albums of the 1970s. In his 1995 book, “The Alternative Music Almanac”, Alan Cross placed the album in the #3 spot on the list of ’10 Classic Alternative Albums’. In 2006, the album was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best albums of all time. This was the first vinyl LP I ever purchased, and it still hangs in a frame on my wall. I can’t see any argument against Ziggy Stardust being Bowie’s most important masterpiece. So, what could possibly be better than this?
Ziggy Stardust might have been the first vinyl record I ever owned, but A Night At The Opera was the first album period. I don’t just think this was the best glam rock album, I think it is one of the very best albums ever made, period. Co-produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen, it was, at the time of its release, the most expensive album ever recorded. A commercial success, A Night at the Opera has been voted by the public and cited by music publications as one of Queen’s finest works. The album takes its name from the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, which the band watched one night at the studio complex when recording. It was originally released by EMI in the UK, where it topped the charts for four non-consecutive weeks, and Elektra Records in the US, where it peaked at number 4.
It would be impossible to discuss A Night At The Opera without considering its most lasting work. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was written by Freddie Mercury with the first guitar solo composed by Brian May. All piano, bass and drum parts, as well as the vocal arrangements, were thought up by Mercury on a daily basis and written down “in blocks” (using note names instead of sheets) on a phonebook. The other members recorded their respective instruments with no concept of how their tracks would be utilised in the final mix. The now famous operatic section was originally intended to be only a short interlude of “Galileos” that connected the ballad and hard rock portions of the song. During the recording, the song became affectionately known as “Fred’s Thing” to the band, and the title only emerged during the final sessions. Despite being twice as long as the average single in 1975, the song became immensely popular, topping charts worldwide (where it remained for an unprecedented nine weeks in the UK) and is now widely regarded as one of the most significant rock songs in history and single-handedly brought the band back into prominence in the 90’s after its inclusion in the film Wayne’s World.
Brian May has asserted in subsequent years that, had A Night at the Opera not been successful, Queen would have disbanded. Upon release, the album was a commercial success, debuting at No. 1 in the UK and topping the charts for four non-consecutive weeks. In the US, it debuted at No. 4, the band’s strongest showing at that time. Rolling Stone wrote, “Like all heavy-metal groups, Queen’s most easily distinguished trait is a knack for manipulating dynamics. But what sets them apart is their selection of unlikely effects: acoustic piano, harp, acapella vocals, no synthesisers. Coupled with good songs. Queen’s obviously the strongest contender in its field.” Melody Maker called the album a “must-have”, encouraging listeners to “turn it up loud and enjoy”, while the Winnipeg Free Press wrote, “The group’s potential is practically limitless, indicating that Queen is destined to finally take its place among the small handful of truly major acts working in rock today.” Robert Christgau was less enthusiastic, giving the album a “B-” rating.
Reviews in notable publications such as Allmusic, Mojo and Q Magazine, have seen the album receive five-star ratings. Allmusic, who chose the record as an “album pick”, wrote, “It’s prog rock with a sense of humor as well as dynamics, and Queen never bettered their approach anywhere else”; Allmusic chose “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)”, “Sweet Lady” and first single “Bohemian Rhapsody”, as the best tracks on the record. Mojo called the album “An imperial extravaganza, a cornucopia; a band of hungrily competitive individualists on a big roll of friendship and delight.” Q were similarly receptive, writing, “It’s a record to which all four contributed fine songs, and one of extremes – among the crashing rock and proggy wigouts were love songs, acoustic whimsy, a trad-jazz pastiche and a brace of vaudeville show tunes.” The magazine opined that the eight minute “Prophet’s Song” is “as good as Bohemian Rhapsody”. Uncut awarded the album only 3/5 stars, but offered a mostly positive review, commending “the extent of the band’s barmy diversity.” Pitchfork awarded the album a rating of 8.9/10, writing, “No punches pulled, no expense spared: A Night at the Opera was Queen at the top of the mountain.” Rhapsody’s Mike McGuirk wrote, “Generally considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time, A Night at the Opera’s overlaying of heavy metal, genius stereo gimmickry, Broadway swish and British pomp is as vital and riveting to listen to today as when it was released in 1975.” The BBC said of the record, “Christmas 1975 was to be forever remembered as Queen’s. And A Night at the Opera remains their finest hour.”
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns HERE.