Including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and more
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Unburdened by the break-up of The Beatles and emboldened by his Primal Scream sessions with Dr Arthur Janov, Lennon didn’t so much release as unleash his first solo album on an initially shocked world. Armchair shrinks had a field day with the Oedipal undercurrents of “Mother”, the sense of betrayal animating “I Found Out” and “Working Class Hero”, the existential despair of “Isolation” and the renunciations in “God”. Throughout this unprecedented outpouring, the abandon of Lennon’s singing (if that term even applies) is counterbalanced by the mantra-like regularity of his piano; an exposed-nerve of a record that sounds as raw today as it did at the time.
7 James Taylor
Sweet Baby James
(Warner Bros, 1970)
How ironic that this seemingly mellow album – which single-handedly spawned the soft-rock singer-songwriter movement – is steeped in this fragile artist’s torment in vivid, if allusive, reflections on his struggle to survive in an uncaring universe. Sweet Baby James (the very title suffused in vulnerability) was born out of Taylor’s time in a mental institution, having sought escape in heroin, shattered by the suicide of a friend. The latter experience is poetically recounted in “Fire And Rain” (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”), while in the title song he’s daunted by the prospect of going on (“Ten miles behind me and 10,000 more to go”).
8 Loudon Wainwright III
Although he was just 24 when this debut first appeared, Wainwright was already displaying the sage introspection of an older man that would become a fixture of his music for the next four decades. “In Delaware when I was younger/I would live the life obscene/In the spring I had great hunger/I was Brando, I was Dean,” he sings on the opening “School Days”, while “Hospital Lady” paints a portrait of a sickly pensioner whose only lover is “old daddy death”. The songs are laced with humour, but the dominant tone is one of melancholy, a yearning for places and people left behind (“Ode To A Pittsburgh”, “Central Square Song”), while “Glad To See You’ve Got Religion” envies those happier with their lot (“Me, I’m still in trouble/Sorry, sick and sad”).
9 Kris Kristofferson
Kristofferson was into his mid-thirties when he released his first solo album, by which time he was well-versed in the difficulties of making something of himself as a singer-songwriter. The rueful “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” revealed the loneliness and disappointment that he was experiencing in Nashville. Armed with just acoustic guitar, “To Beat The Devil”, ostensibly written for his friend Johnny Cash, also served to highlight his own fear of failure in Music City, while foreshadowing the self-destructive tendencies that would blight Kristofferson’s life throughout the next decade.
10 Joni Mitchell
John Lennon and James Taylor may have bared their souls before her, but Joni Mitchell brought a shimmering splendour to her nervy dissections of love and loss on her fourth album. Amid cascading guitars, Appalachian dulcimers and lilting piano, Mitchell – who described herself as being “vulnerable and naked” during the sessions – holds nothing back on breathtakingly eloquent songs like “Little Green”, reliving the act of giving up her infant daughter for adoption as a desperate 21-year-old (“Child, with a child, pretending”), and “A Case Of You”, in which she throws caution to the winds, knowing how it will end (“Go to him, stay with him if you can/But be prepared to bleed”). The ne plus ultra of confessional singer-songwriter works.