Ellen Willis was the first pop critic for the New Yorker, and she was known for being smart, cool, and utterly in love with music. A fantastic compendium of her criticism comes out on May 1st, just in time for International Workers’ Day, comrades. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a great way to reengage with albums from the ’60s and ’70s — albums we may have forgotten in recent years, as we get distracted by chillwave and whatever other new sub-genres that have emerged from the briny depths of the early aughts. As Willis’s daughter, Nona, writes in the introduction: “Out of the Vinyl Deeps is [a] volume that could single-handedly prove just how effective a mass medium like rock and roll is for revealing human desires and both a national and countercultural identity.”
In the following list, Willis gives up her ten favorite albums from 1974. This piece originally ran in the Village Voice in January 1975, and Willis explains, “To be truly satisfying…a ten-best list should have some sort of aesthetic and historical balance; if it doesn’t, something is wrong with the year’s output of albums or the reviewer’s listening habits.” Bob Dylan made the cut twice, which is a little crazy, but let’s chalk it up to a banner year for the ever-evolving Mr. Zimmerman.
Willis is able to explain her choices with ease, while also bringing the reader in through her incredibly personal approach to criticism. She draws you in to the piece by making it feel like a conversation between friends. It’s as if she invited you over and wants to show you some records she picked up over the weekend that she can’t stop listening to, and after a few minutes you’re a convert too. Without her, we probably never would have fully realized how much pop music can change lives.
1. Bob Dylan, Planet Waves
Willis begins with Dylan’s 14th studio album, saying, “I think that the words on Planet Waves are meant mainly as filler — that Dylan is trying to get out from under his reputation as a poet and force us to concentrate on the music.”
2. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now
She then heads straight for Van Morrison’s double album: “Few live albums are really successful; in most cases they sacrifice the discipline of the studio without achieving anything like the immediacy of a performance. This one, miraculously, does fine on both counts.”
3. Bob Dylan and The Band, Before the Flood
We’re back at Dylan so soon? But Willis has a bomb to drop: “Before the Flood comes so close to re-creating a religious experience that it’s scary.”
4. Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard
If when you think of Clapton all you can think of is “Layla,” Willis tears apart this image and replaces it with a portrait of an artist in his prime. She writes that 461 Ocean Boulevard is “an album with the texture of rock and the feeling of country blues, relaxed without being limp, modest without being diffident, sensual without being especially sexy, white without being racist, good-humored yet ever-cognizant of the link between blues and pain.”
5. New York Dolls, In Too Much Too Soon
Willis writes, “Does this album really capture the spirit of the seventies? Or just the seventies as I wish they were?” In any case, the Dolls gave us glam like no one else could, at a time when the city needed it the most.
6. Rolling Stones, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll
In another section of the book, Willis writes that It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is “another low-key album that yields its pleasures slowly.” She continues, “The album as a whole is interesting in a way that transcends particulars: it suggests not only that Mick Jagger is as insecure about the current state of relations between the sexes as you and I but that he has to come to regard his celebrity less as a source of power in his dealings with women than as an added complication.”
7. Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness’ First Finale
With humor, Willis explains her seventh choice: “Though I continue to be ambivalent about Wonder’s religious pretensions, anyone who can compel me to love a song called ‘Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away’ must be synching into some sort of cosmic reality.”
8. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Not Fragile
What does Willis have to say about BTO? She writes, “No, I haven’t forgiven Randy Bachman for writing ‘American Woman,’ and I’m still not crazy about his sensibility, but even if this album’s exuberant version of heavy weren’t irresistible I would have to consider it on the basis of the title alone.”
9. Gladys Knight and the Pips, soundtrack from Claudine
Willis writes that “the only bad cut is a boring instrumental” on this sound track, written and produced by the legendary Curtis Mayfield.
10. Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel
To end the list, Willis offers an album she holds close to her heart: “There are albums I played more last year, and albums I admired more, but none that moved me more. Parsons was one of the few singers who could make me feel an emotional connection to country music.”
So what do you think of her? Has she influenced your writing or the way you look at music writing, or is this the first time you’ve read any of her work? In our mind, so much of rock criticism is stale these days and reading Willis is like a gasp of fresh air.
New Yorkers should check out “Sex, Hope & Rock ‘n’ Roll – The Writings of Ellen Willis,” a free daylong event this Saturday at NYU which is open to the public and features panelists like Kathleen Hanna (from Bikini Kill), Alex Ross (from the New Yorker), and Rob Sheffield (from Rolling Stone). Details are here.