The greatest year for music was the year you came of age

Donald Clarke: You can’t beat 1981. Others will argue for 1967, 1989, 1995 or 2020. Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong

In his 2016 book Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth, among the most engaging of music writers, argues that most of us feel the greatest year for music was the year we came of age. "For you … the music of the year in which you turned 21, or 18 or 16 or whenever you felt most alive, still speaks to you in a way that no other does," Hepworth writes.

This is a sane argument. I am happy to claim 1981 as music’s annus mirabilis. The lessons of punk had been digested and the diners had moved on to interlocking schools of experimental cacophony and ironical pop. Great records were released on independent records, but we were a few years away from “indie music” emerging as a dull jingly genre. It was the year of Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing, Black Uhuru’s Red, The Human League’s Dare, Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca, The Fall’s Slates and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here. You can’t beat 1981. Then again, others will argue for 1967, 1989, 1995 or 2020. Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong.

Hepworth disagrees. "There is an important difference in the case of me and 1971," he writes. "The difference is this: I'm right." If the author is to be believed, we are, this weekend, entering the golden jubilee for "rock's golden year" (apologies for the double-denim quality of that sentence). More specifically, he argues that 1971 saw the release of more defining albums than any other year. You will know about it by the end of 2021. Endless reissues and dewy-eyed retrospectives are on the way. That was the year in which, after long periods knocking feebly at the door, David Bowie gained entrance to the citadel with Hunky Dory and – a UK release in 1971, a US release in 1970 – the very different The Man who Sold the World. The Rolling Stones proved they were still a force with Sticky Fingers. If pomp and bombast was your bag, Led Zeppelin were there to bustle your hedgerow with the LP that wasn't actually called Led Zeppelin IV. The Who ditched plans for another overblown rock opera and salvaged the results into the deafening Who's Next.

Greatest albums ever

A retrospective confirmation of Hepworth’s argument arrived earlier this year with the publication of Rolling Stone’s latest attempt at listing the 500 greatest albums ever. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released in May of that year, was at number one. Expect many pointy-headed essays on how Gaye, to the dismay of Motown, delivered an album that worked social commentary in with his slinky melodies. At number three we found Joni Mitchell’s indestructible Blue. Emerging a few weeks after What’s Going On, the record built upon its initially modest commercial success to become the most admired work by that generation of singer-songwriters. Albums such as Carol King’s Tapestry and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On joined Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV (still not really called that) in the top 100.


The mythmakers of punk would have you believe that the early 1970s was about little else but Rick Wakeman playing two keyboards at the same time

No argument for 1961 or 1981 or 1991 can get past the fact that, 50 years ago, the LP had just established itself as the premier pop-culture art form. Ten years earlier, artists focused on singles, and albums were hastily hammered-together affairs comprising a few hits and plenty of filler. By the beginning of the 1970s, musicians had become wedded to the notion of the long player as a coherent unit with a beginning (the playful All I Want, in the case of Blue), a middle (the uncertain California) and an end (the recollective The Last Time I Saw Richard). Before the advent of the CD, they also came in two acts. Both sides of Bowie’s Hunky Dory began positively – with Changes and Fill Your Heart – and ended with epic adventures in existential gloom: Quicksand and The Bewlay Brothers.

Mythmakers of punk

Just as few critics grasped that contemporaneous US cinema was going through a golden period until a decade or so later, this musical annus mirabilis went largely uncelebrated. The mythmakers of punk would have you believe that the early 1970s was about little else but Rick Wakeman playing two keyboards at the same time. Rick did indeed join Yes in 1971, but we also got Little Feat's eponymous first album, Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey, Sandy Denny's North Star Grassman and – an album whose reputation has soared – Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors. Take that, so-called 1967.

Anybody who argues that music has gone to pot should be flogged in a public place. One can, however, reasonably argue that the album will never seem so important again. The CD damaged it. Digital did worse. The music on Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters or Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways may compare with the best of 1971, but nobody is conspicuously brandishing the cover of either while standing at the bus stop. We were still doing that when Red and Heaven Up Here came out.