1971: You’ll Never Be Free

As this current year is its semicentennial, I’d planned on crafting this playlist long before the Apple TV miniseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything dropped. While one could make a similar argument for any single year (indeed, I’ve read a book about 1966 and have seen others for nearly every year in-between), this series made a solid enough case, from Sly Stone to The Rolling Stones and unexpected deep dives into Gil Scott-Heron, The Staple Singers and Bill Withers, not to mention ample coverage of Tapestry, Bowie, Joni, Elton, Marvin, etc.

Even over eight hours, a few things are bound to fall through the cracks. Thus, my inclusion of lesser-revered ’71 gems such as the epic opener of Serge Gainsbourg’s masterful concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, the climactic, penultimate track of British folkie Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, novelty hits from Redbone and James Brown and the best song from Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love and Hate, a proverbial “difficult third album” I’m just beginning to appreciate years after first struggling with it.

All that, plus three out of four ex-Beatles (sorry George, “Bangla Desh” isn’t up to snuff) and AM radio gold from The Fortunes (a fake Four Seasons sounding better than the real thing at this point) and the Carpenters (Karen’s slipping-into-darkness reverie was made for something like “Superstar”.) I could’ve spotlighted Al Green’s strangely jubilant “Tired of Being Alone” or Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (from the indelible opening credits of Harold and Maude), but, even if you’ve heard it (or seen Goodfellas) a million times, Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” retains its one-of-a-kind spark: with a groove as insistent as the one in “Hot Pants”, it’s a frenzied declaration of lust/love from a madman wailing “WE CAN MAKE EACH OTHER HAPPY!!!” repeatedly into the void. I still love that this was his follow-up single to number-one ballad “Without You”.

My 1971 Spotify playlist: