To commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact. Years are chosen randomly and—to make it even harder on ourselves—rules for inclusion are that neither the songs nor albums they hail from can have landed on the Billboard 200. Selections are hotly debated by our staff, then listed in order of release.

The year: 1973

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1973

1. Tony Orlando And Dawn, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree”
2. Jim Croce, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”
3. Roberta Flack, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
4. Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On”
5. Paul McCartney & Wings, “My Love”
6. Kris Kristofferson, “Why Me”
7. Elton John, “Crocodile Rock”
8. Billy Preston, “Will It Go Round In Circles”
9. Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”
10. Diana Ross, “Touch Me In The Morning”
11. Vicki Lawrence, “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”
12. Clint Holmes, “Playground In My Mind”
13. Stories, “Brother Louie”
14. Helen Reddy, “Delta Dawn”
15. Billy Paul, “Me And Mrs. Jones”
16. The Edgar Winter Group, “Frankenstein”
17. Dobie Gray, “Drift Away”
18. The Sweet, “Little Willy”
19. Stevie Wonder, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”
20. Cher, “Half-Breed”

HBO’s short-lived Vinyl got a lot wrong. That ridiculous, tedious murder subplot. Its use of corporate party-level look-alikes to play David Bowie, Robert Plant, and John Lennon. Putting its loudest, jerkiest character at its very center, and so on. But it got at least one thing right: Pop music had indeed become incredibly, embarrassingly boring in 1973. Whatever rebellion rock had promised in the 1960s had bloated into stadium-filling, private-jet-flying, double-album-recording excess. Folk had similarly lost touch with any sense of revolution, giving way to a litany of singer-songwriters who humbly went by their given names (making that year’s Billboard charts resemble a phone book), but who largely produced easy listening glurge. All that extravagance produced some unquestionably great albums: Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. The Who’s Quadrophenia. Queen’s self-titled debut. But suffice it to say, any year whose top 20 is bookended by Tony Orlando And Dawn’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” and Cher’s “Half-Breed” is one that—like Vinyl’s Richie Finestra—makes you want to snort blow and scream.

But unsurprisingly, Vinyl was exaggerating just a little bit. The show’s pilot finds Finestra “discovering” The New York Dolls as they literally destroy a nightclub, but the band’s debut was already lurking around the bottom of the Billboard 200 that year, alongside other glam, punk, and miscellaneously dangerous albums like The Stooges’ Raw Power, T. Rex’s Tanx, Slade’s Sladest, and two Roxy Music records. Bowie, meanwhile, was one of the biggest, weirdest stars in the world, riding high on ’73’s Aladdin Sane and culminating in his retirement that year of Ziggy Stardust, an incredible power move made by an artist who’d already evolved past the movement he’d helped to codify. (And with glam’s more palatable derivations like The Sweet and Elton John’s American Graffiti-nostalgia-pandering “Crocodile Rock” already creeping into commercial radio, it was, as always, a prescient move on Bowie’s part.)

And although the world had indeed yet to get hip to DJ Kool Herc, who was that year inventing hip-hop down on Sedgwick Avenue, 1973 had a lot more soul than Tony Orlando’s dominance might suggest, with The Wailers’ massive hit Burnin’ bringing reggae into the pop mainstream, and sheet-rumpling songs by Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, and Billy Paul presumably producing their very own mini-baby boom. To utterly contradict what we just said, any year in which Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” lands on the charts can’t be wholly dismissed as boring.

Still, there’s no denying that if you were, like the pin-eyed A&R execs of Vinyl, to cast your sweaty gaze at the top 20 and the general state of popular music in 1973, you too would probably be flailing about, desperately looking for what was next. But if they had only bothered to look at some of the artists on this list, they might not have gotten so worked up about it. Maybe Vinyl would have even gotten a second season.

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Gram Parsons, “A Song For You” (January 1973)

When Gram Parsons’ solo debut, GP, was released in the early weeks of 1973, it was a strong, if quiet, critical success that marked a clear creative rejuvenation for the young country-rock visionary, who was gradually shaking off the drug habits that kept his prior stints with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers short-lived and strained (however inspired). GP contains many of Parsons’ most celebrated songs, including “She” and “Big Mouth Blues,” backed by a top-form, James Burton-led TCB Band. But it’s “A Song For You” that captures the heart of GP: Parsons’ preternatural chemistry with then-little-known singer Emmylou Harris. Parsons’ voice is endearingly fragile on its own, but when Harris joins him on the second verse, they become something greater together. The song’s sorrowful lyrics must’ve hit especially hard by the fall of 1973, when Parsons fatally overdosed at the age of 26. But it’s in albums like GP and the posthumous, charting follow-up Return Of The Grievous Angel where he showed us exactly what he meant by “cosmic American music,” a vision of genre-lessness that altered the course of American music history. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Judee Sill, “The Kiss” (January 1973)

Judee Sill’s story is one of the most turbulent and fascinating of 20th-century American folk music, one marked by death, crime, addiction, pain, and a devastating—and devastatingly neglected—talent. Taking inspiration from Bach, Sill wrote beautifully complex songs for piano that she sung with an engrossing emotional intensity. “The Kiss” is from Sills’ second and final full album, Heart Food, for which the California songwriter handled all orchestration and arrangement duties. The composition stands as one of her best, with melancholy verses giving way to gorgeous, clouds-parting choruses like “sun sifting through the gray,” and Sills’ multi-tracked vocals intensifying the lyrics’ otherworldliness. Despite critical praise and the confidence of David Geffen’s newly formed Asylum Records (she was the first-ever signee), Sills’ albums never sold that well, and by the mid-’70s, she left the music business to work as a cartoonist, before dying in near-total obscurity of an overdose in 1979. Fortunately, reissues, countless covers, and tributes like 2009’s Crayon Angel (featuring Beth Orton, Bill Callahan, and others) continue to keep her legacy alive. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Nomathemba” (February 1973)

By the time Ladysmith Black Mambazo featured on Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland, which rocketed them to worldwide fame, the South African choral group had for years been dominating local isicathamiya and mbube singing competitions and selling well for its longtime label, Johannesburg’s Gallo Record Company. Leader Joseph Shabalala says he first envisioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s distinct harmonies in a dream, and that makes sense: They are truly not of this world. The group’s excellent 1973 debut, Amabutho, sold so well that it became the first South African release by black musicians to go gold, and any of the album’s tracks could belong on this list. But “Nomathemba,” or “Hope,” was the first ever to be realized with Shabalala’s vision in mind—and even here, in these earliest of life-giving melodies, global success sounds inevitable. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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John Cale, “Paris 1919” (February 1973)

Long before he contributed viola death-drones to The Velvet Underground, John Cale was classically trained in composition. Still, his 1973 album, Paris 1919, was an anomaly in his career thus far (or since)—a suite of elegantly structured chamber-pop-by-way-of-Brian Wilson sounds that could not have been further afield from his experimental work with Terry Riley or his proto-punk productions, one that brought the orchestral flourishes of the record’s predecessor, The Academy In Peril, into an even more traditionalist form. Of course, “traditional” is still pretty relative. Paris 1919 has a stately, parlor-room pleasantness to it and a slightly stuffy, literary conceit loosely themed around the Treaty Of Versailles. But take a song like its title track, which unfurls over Vivaldi-esque staccato strings and birdsong to evoke a lovely outdoor wedding—the kind that the lyrics hint never happened, leaving the groom talking to his bride’s babbling ghost. Meanwhile, the World War I imagery involving fallen continents and “blood and tears from old Japan,” mixed into the sketches of crying maids of honor, suggest a deeper metaphor here, even as Cale descends into increasingly dadaist detail. Both song and album are beautifully confounding works of art that invite repeated visits, and it remains a wonder that Cale could produce something like it, then just never do it again. [Sean O’Neal]


John Martyn, “Solid Air” (February 1973)

Scottish singer-songwriter John Martyn was tagged as a folk artist, though by the release of 1973’s landmark Solid Air (followed closely by the same year’s Inside Out), there was hardly anything traditional about his music. Martyn’s jazzy phrasing, his soulfully slurred vocals, and—most importantly—his heavy experimentation with Echoplex effects had warped his music into something spectral and uniquely stilling. While the whole record was a critically acclaimed, albeit cult, hit, nothing quite captures Martyn’s twilight magic like Solid Air’s title track, written by Martyn for his troubled friend (and fellow reductively pegged “folkie”), Nick Drake. Unfurling like slow tendrils of smoke over distantly ringing vibraphone, near-subliminal bass tones, and Martyn’s gentle, slightly dragging guitar plucks, the song offers a message of love and comfort (“I don’t know what’s going on in your mind / But I know you don’t like what you find”) that’s underscored by a melancholy sax solo seemingly resigned to the sad futility of it all. Like Drake, Martyn would enjoy his own revival in later years, as musicians like The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, and Beth Orton paid homage to him with a tribute album, critics began to cite Martyn as a progenitor of trip-hop, and “Solid Air” popped up in mixes by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never. [Sean O’Neal]


Tom Waits, “Martha” (March 1973)

For anyone introduced to Tom Waits via his more recent, far weirder years, his 1973 debut can be a bit of a shock. Waits’ voice was still a few years out from eroding into a gravelly howl, and the tunes are likewise tamer: barroom croons about love and vulnerability and heartbreak, often performed by Waits from behind a piano and simply adorned with horns and strings. Few of these early songs are as powerful as “Martha,” a Waits classic that gracefully tells a bittersweet story of failed love from the perspective of an aging man reaching out to an old flame. Stroking a dusty, detuned piano, Waits plays the role of “Old Tom Frost” to perfection, speaking with sheepishness during the verses’ small talk, but swelling with confidence during the passionate, string-laden choruses, and eventually talking himself into an admission about what really ended their relationship. With a story this good, it’s little wonder this was the first of many Waits’ songs to be covered by another artist, as it appeared the same year on Tim Buckley’s Sefronia. [Matt Gerardi]

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Bohannon, “Save Their Souls” (April 1973)

Hamilton Bohannon went from playing in a college band with Jimi Hendrix, to drumming for Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as Motown’s traveling bandleader, to a career as a genre-melding disco pioneer with a series of dancehall hits to his name. As far back as his 1973 debut, Stop & Go, he was crafting jams built around ceaseless, thudding rhythms, but the back half of that album swerves into a slow, soulful territory he would never explore again. The B-side starts off with the best of them all, “Save Their Souls,” on which Bohannon trades his multilayered wah-wah guitars and energetic bass lines for quivering strings, a laid-back groove, and a gospel chorus of lost souls pleading with God for the absolution of their loved ones. Both danceable and unnerving, it’s one of the eeriest things you can imagine a DJ dropping as the sun rises and the sinners start clearing the dance floor. [Matt Gerardi]


Betty Davis, “If I’m In Luck, I Might Get Picked Up” (April 1973)

Long before there was “Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty” there was “nasty gal” Betty Davis. When she debuted in 1973, the model and singer had already been a part of some of music’s most innovative circles, befriending Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and marrying Miles Davis long enough to influence his foray into funk and jazz fusion on albums like Filles De Kilimanjaro and Bitches Brew. On Betty Davis, she made her own unforgettable entrance, starting with ferocious opener “If I’m In Luck, I Might Get Picked Up.” Although the track was a minor R&B hit, the funk-rock pioneer’s aggressive, hypersexual celebration of black femininity both here and on future albums proved to be too much for the times: George Clinton and the Funkadelic crew could get as libidinous as they wanted, but both religious groups and the NAACP called for boycotts of Davis’ concerts and songs. By 1975’s Nasty Gal, both Davis and her record label “lost interest.” Davis all but disappeared for 35 years, remaining an influential cult figure, but there’s still time (and a brand-new documentary) to correct that. [Kelsey J Waite]


Neu!, “Für Immer” (April 1973)

“Für Immer” translates as “forever,” and while the opening track of Neu! 2 actually only lasts a little over 11 minutes, it does feel as though it could unfurl endlessly into eternity. The second side of the krautrock pioneers’ sophomore album is notoriously a cheat—or brilliantly innovative, depending on your point of view—consisting entirely of manipulated cuts of previously released singles “Super/Neuschnee” that were used to pad it out after the group ran out of money. While this technique basically invented the modern remix album, it’s an experiment that’s more clever than enjoyable, and it’s diminished Neu! 2’s standing somewhat compared to its immediate predecessor and successor. Yet the album contains arguably Neu!’s most perfectly balanced expression of its ever-jousting ideals in “Für Immer,” which finds the midpoint between Klaus Dinger’s motorik propulsion and Michael Rother’s slowly undulating ambient textures, the tones phased and shifted like those rolling wave sound effects in the background by hero producer Conny Plank. It’s dreamy and delicate, while remaining intensely focused, and it rolls on like an unstoppable force. [Sean O’Neal]

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Can, “Future Days” (August 1973)

Damo Suzuki once said it was easy for him to walk away from Can after Future Days because he “wanted nothing from them after that,” believing the 1973 album represented the absolute apex of his musical ambitions. You can sense the “pure magic” Suzuki talked about in its opening title track, a lovely, liquid nine minutes that, like the rest of the record, seems to flow from the German band as naturally as those waves crashing in the background. (What was it about German bands and ocean sounds that year?) “Future Days,” both song and album, found Can in a relaxed, tropical vacation vibe after the regional success of Ege Bamyasi, a sprawling, sun-dappled work that greatly expanded on the roomy ambient textures it had always explored amid its coiled avant-funk grooves. As Suzuki murmurs in his often unintelligible, poetically broken English, stuttering swells of synth rise and fall over Jaki Liebezeit’s inhumanly precise bossa-nova beat and Michael Karoli’s gently wistful guitar bends. The whole thing simply floats, suspended in a haze that had never sounded so inviting and enveloping. It’s a good note to go out on—or if you’re completely new to Can, come in on. [Sean O’Neal]


Secos & Molhados, “Amor” (August 1973)

If our rules for these lists extended to an act’s home country, Secos & Molhados would’ve been disqualified from the get-go. The band remains largely unknown outside Brazil, but in 1973, it debuted there to immediate, explosive success that led to lasting solo careers for two of its three members—including vocalist Ney Matogrosso, who went on to become one of the country’s most famous singers. Where its controversial predecessors in the tropicália movement often borrowed from psychedelic rock, this trio fully embraced the sound and attitude of the glam-rock acts landing hits across the globe at the time. That included wearing make-up and intricate costumes, often influenced by Brazil’s indigenous peoples, as well as playing up sexual ambiguity, something made especially easy by Matogrosso’s androgynous sopranino voice. On “Amor,” a jangling standout from the group’s debut LP, those eyebrow-raising vocals share the spotlight with a bass line that’s as catchy as it is nimble, alongside bursts of shimmering, echoing guitar. [Matt Gerardi]


Faust, “Jennifer” (September 1973)

Some fans derided Faust’s fourth record—and second for Richard Branson’s nascent Virgin Records—as the German group’s “sell-out” album over its slick studio production and its daring to include more conventionally pretty and/or rockin’ songs amid the acid-corroded daydreams of its previous works. That reputation has shifted somewhat, thanks to time, its clear influence on Bowie and Eno’s Berlin albums, and, really, most of those pedantic grouches dying of heart attacks. Besides, it’s hard to stay angry at Faust for experimenting with being enjoyable when it produces lovely little gems like “Jennifer,” a blissfully fuzzy, ethereal love song that presages ’80s/’90s dream pop and My Bloody Valentine-esque shoegaze in the way it quiets Faust’s usual storm into a gentle oscillation of melting bass tones and cascading guitar notes. It’s a song that suggested a whole new direction Faust might have explored, had the band not broken up not long after its release. [Sean O’Neal]

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Cockney Rebel, “Sebastian” (November 1973)

Having spent several years as a music journalist before embarking on his own performing career, Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley had a sense of how to play the publicity game—specifically the importance of being self-aggrandizing, baiting the press into despising and therefore writing about you. Even amid his many larger-than-life glam contemporaries, Harley’s attitude stood out, much as his group’s debut single, “Sebastian,” took their decadence and excess and added a 50-piece orchestra and choir. It was a far cry from the bare-bones, three-chord version that Harley used to busk around the subway, but it was appropriate for the song’s gothic grandeur, a seven-minute epic in which Harley’s nitrous-oxide vocals sizzle through a baroque bed of piano, harpsichord, and droning electric violin and those huge symphony swells, spilling impressionistic LSD poetry flecked with references to “Persian eyes” and “Parisian demands.” It was a huge hit in various European countries—but not England, which only fed Harley’s sense of superiority and thus his legend. He would finally hit No. 1 a couple of years later with the U.K. radio staple “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See),” but Harley was right. “Sebastian” should have gotten there first. [Sean O’Neal]


The 24-Carat Black, “Poverty’s Paradise” (1973)

Two years after Marvin Gaye brought the idea of an R&B art album into the mainstream with What’s Going On, the Stax Records project 24-Carat Black took the concept and swung for the fences on its lone release, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Masterminded by Dale Warren, a classically trained violinist and former Motown arranger, it’s an operatic concept album that takes a hard, direct look at urban poverty. Its songs are a mix of lush, expertly performed funk and cosmic soul epics with the kind of sprawl and compositional daring usually reserved for self-indulgent prog rockers. That latter mold is epitomized in “Poverty’s Paradise,” a 13-minute odyssey that’s as gut-wrenching as it is gorgeous. What few hooks the song has were dug up decades later for sampling by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, RZA, and Naughty By Nature. Meanwhile, several members of 24-Carat Black recovered from the seriousness of Misfortune’s Wealth by forming Shotgun, purveyors of some of the cheesiest, most unsubstantial funk the late ’70s had to offer. [Matt Gerardi]


Jobriath, “Take Me I’m Yours” (1973)

When Gladys Knight introduced Jobriath to a Midnight Special TV audience in 1974 (mangling his name as “Joe-bray”), she called him “the act of tomorrow.” A bit lofty, considering that Jobriath’s arch, theatrical glam-rock was then very much the act of today—or even the act of a few years before, as many pointed out when they derided him as a shameless, American copy of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. It also proved darkly ironic, considering that Jobriath himself soon after faded away, all but forgotten by the time he died, alone at his piano, in 1983. But it was typical of the pomp that surrounded Jobriath—the alien-dandy name adopted by piano prodigy turned dispossessed hustler Bruce Wayne Campbell—whose self-titled debut was announced with an enormous billboard over Times Square. Despite good reviews, it made a rather broadsided target for those resistant to hype, and sales were poor—not helped at the time by Jobriath’s declarations of being “rock’s truest fairy,” the first openly gay aspiring rock star in a climate only then grappling with glam’s androgyny and sexual overtones.

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Those Midnight Special producers wouldn’t even let Jobriath do his planned performance of “Take Me, I’m Yours,” his album-opening ode to S&M. It’s too bad, on all counts: “Take Me,” for all of Jobriath’s obvious Bowie trappings, is more of an Elton John-esque stomper, with the similarly classically trained pianist pounding the keys beneath slinky guitar lines, and adopting a Jagger-esque sneer that’s backed by a huge soul choir to belt out a sexy, though rather tame by today’s standards, paean to being used and abused. Jobriath himself might not have been the act of tomorrow, but he proved to be a huge influence on the music of the future anyway, inspiring artists and fans like Morrissey, Marc Almond, and Siouxsie Sioux, and finally getting his due in the 2012 documentary Jobriath A.D. [Sean O’Neal]


Fela Kuti & The Afrika 70, “Gentleman” (1973)

Four years into their construction of the afrobeat sound, Fela Kuti And the Afrika 70’s “Gentleman” took the group’s experimentation to a higher plane of swagger and fury, one that would finally bubble over (with a little help from raiding Nigerian police) on the following year’s Alagbon Close. “Gentleman” starts with as dramatic and declaratory a musical statement as the band had crafted thus far: the ominous sound of clacking percussion and a rumbling keyboard announcing the arrival of the legendary bandleader himself, who, for the first time ever, opens the song with an echoing, unaccompanied tenor sax solo. It’s a powerful, attention-grabbing introduction, perfect for a track that was meant to grab high-society Nigerian men by their lapels and insult their willingness to hang onto a culture foisted on them by European colonialists. If the record’s cover weren’t enough to make the message clear, Fela puts down his sax and gets straight to the point in the song’s second half, running down these so-called gentlemen who “smell like shit” because they’re sweating so much under their suits. [Matt Gerardi]


Lafayette Afro Rock Band, “Hihache” (1973)

Originally a Long Island-based funk group called Bobby Boyd Congress, Lafayette Afro Rock Band decided the American funk scene was too saturated, and so hightailed it to Paris, where it found a more appreciative audience and a wildly diverse set of global influences to fold into its sound. Its debut (under this name), Soul Makossa, is the sound of the house band in paradise, burning through seven-minute funk jams full of Ethiopian polyrhythms and hot-shit rock guitars. The centerpiece is “Hihache,” a break-beat classic that locks into a simple groove with increasingly head-spinning invention: here a sidewalk-dancing sax solo, there a shapeshifting wah-wah solo. You may recognize it from, well, pretty much anywhere: It went on to be sampled hundreds of times by artists ranging from De La Soul to Janet Jackson to Flying Lotus. [Clayton Purdom]


Clarence Reid, “Living Together Is Keeping Us Apart” (1973)

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Clarence Reid was better known as Blowfly, a masked musician who performed extraordinarily X-rated parodies of popular songs throughout the ’70s and ’80s, with titles like “Girl Let Me Cum In Your Mouth” and “Who Did I Eat Last Night?” But don’t let that deter you from checking out his work released under his own name—like the excellent Running Water, which begins with an amber-tinted soul scorcher called “Living Together Is Keeping Us Apart.” The opening drum break has been repurposed by producers ranging from Kanye West to Dr. Dre, but the song’s pleasures last far beyond that fleet-footed intro, a honeyed lament for a relationship gradually turning sour. The strings—and Reid’s aching voice—suggest better times are ahead, either together or separately. [Clayton Purdom]


The Upsetters, “Black Panta” (1973)

The various threads that led to the invention of dub began in the late ’60s—layered, meditative rhythms, a hazy attitude toward structure and vocals, studio-enhanced psychedelic trickery—but it wasn’t until 1973 that they coalesced into a proper sub-genre, a fusion that occurred pretty specifically on Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Blackboard Jungle Dub. Recorded under The Upsetters, who pretty much consisted of whichever assemblage of musicians were hanging out at his Black Ark studio at the time, the album is a landmark, evident immediately in the sonic assault of opener “Black Panta,” with its wheezing Farfisa and time-traveling drums that’d come to define the genre. (The record’s been re-released and renamed multiple times; the original version is available on streaming platforms as the second half of Perry’s Dub-Triptych. Don’t ask us.) [Clayton Purdom]


Vangelis, “We Are All Uprooted” (1973)

Vangelis is best known for his ’80s soundtracks for Blade Runner and Chariots Of Fire, but all the elements that made those works so indelible were already in place on his solo debut, Earth, an atmospheric, quasi-mystical meditation on transcendence and biological unity. “We Are All Uprooted” acts as something of a thesis statement, full of gentle crashes of thunder, twinkling rain, ethereal flutes, and drums that patter at the gentle rhythm of a sleeping heart rate. The drama (such as it is) comes from the jazzy dance of hi-hats and cymbals across the composer’s great lakes of aqueous synths. Like other early ambient pioneers, it’s too forceful and weird to classify as New Age, the sound of a new style being formed in real-time. [Clayton Purdom]

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