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10 Weird Albums Rolling Stone Loved in the 1970s You’ve Never Heard

We praised them 40 years ago — and you should listen to them today!

Carla Bley and Terry Melcher

Carla Bley and Terry Melcher

Michael Putland/Getty; GAB/Getty

Some albums don’t fit neatly into any category: they are experimental, or spoken word, or a fusion of jazz and opera, or actual recordings of whale songs. Nevertheless, these 10 albums from the Seventies have unifying qualities: they were strange, they didn’t sell, we legitimately dug them. Yes, drugs may have been involved in some cases.

Tonto's Expanding Head Band

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, ‘Zero Time’

At the dawn of the age of synthesizers, the instrument was so novel that people recorded whole LPs just to showcase its capabilities. While many of them were charmless, this album was beautiful and contemplative. It was made by a British duo with a custom Moog setup; they also used it on session work for Stevie Wonder and other acts. We thought that even if you owned other electronic records, you might find that this record "divides your collection into two parts — Zero Time and everything else."

What We Said Then: "After all, a Moog theoretically can produce any sound, and produce it instantly, so that a clarinet might scale three mellow ascending notes and then on the fourth note play the sound of the sea giving up her dead. Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart, the realization that this instrument can do all sorts of things to you, now that it has you, is unsettling." — Timothy Crouse, RS 88 (August 5, 1971)

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

The great American poet Allen Ginsberg (Howl) adapted some of the most famous poems by William Blake, setting them to simple melodies and singing them himself. The result was more literary than musical, but listening to him, one couldn't help but get caught up in the rush of words and images. Years later, when some young musicians asked Ginsberg what they should name their band, he told them, "The Blake Babies." Ginsberg died in 1997; U2 borrowed Blake's title for their most recent album.

What We Said Then: "Ginsberg is no singer, but the distinctive sinuousness of his reedy voice is one of the set's most compelling qualities. Nothing here sounds strained or pretentious, which should make it the last word in concept albums. It sounds, rather, like a labor of love, a salute from a young visionary to an ancient sage, executed with delicacy and charm in a vocal style reminiscent of an Anglo-American muezzin." — Lester Bangs, RS 60 (June 11, 1970)

Carla Bley & Paul Haines,

Carla Bley and Paul Haines, ‘Escalator Over the Hill’

A jazz-rock opera on three LPs, with an all-star collection of musicians including Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Don Cherry and Linda Ronstadt. There's allegedly a plot, about expatriates and a Pakistan hotel, but the point was the insanely ambitious sprawl of genres, from Cream-style rock to droning free jazz. Carla Bley went on to a long career as a jazz composer and bandleader; lyricist Paul Haines is now best-known as the father of Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric.

What We Said Then: "Escalator Over the Hill, with its spiffy gilt-lettered box, profusely illustrated libretto and international cast of characters, comes on like a DeMille epic, but leaves the listener enormously satisfied. . . a work that is complex, labyrinthine, but immediately enjoyable." — Bob Palmer, RS 114 (August 3, 1972)

Joseph Byrd

Joseph Byrd, ‘Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer’

Byrd, formerly the leader of the influential avant-garde band the United States of America, made a whole album of marching-band songs and patriotic tunes, as rendered on modern synthesizers. While it seems improbably high-concept, we judged it "bright, lively, spunky and full of charm," making listeners reconsider what had been background music in their lives. Byrd ended up scoring a Robert Altman film, becoming a music professor and working as a food columnist in Humboldt County, California.

What We Said Then: "Byrd refashions everything from 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' to 'John Brown's Body' to 'The Internationale' (here disguised as 'Grand Centennial Hymn') into a warm and casually humorous texture very much like one of Garth Hudson's long organ introductions to 'Chest Fever'; like Hudson at his most inventive and witty, Byrd plays music that a lot of people have heard primarily on merry-go-rounds and at parades." — Greil Marcus, RS 227 (December 2, 1976)

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