Gold Medal: Natty Dread by Bob Marley and the Wailers
This has been my favorite reggae album since I first heard it. Released after Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh went their separate ways, this is the first album with Marley taking full creative control. Natty Dread is the perfect blending of the genre’s polar emotions: protest and chill. Underneath Marley’s incredible voice, the arrangements are top-notch, featuring incredible guitar work as well as horns and female background vocals. It’s captivating from being to end, never falling into the “all sounds the same” camp of so much reggae. Instead, the nine tracks fly by, with highlights like “No Woman, No Cry” and “So Jah Seh" representing the best Bob Marley ever recorded.
Silver Medal: No Other by Gene Clark
Better than anything the Byrds ever made, Gene Clark’s solo masterpiece is one of the most underappreciated albums in existence. After founding and later leaving the Byrds, Clark recorded a handful of country-tinged albums, culminating in this crowning achievement. What makes this album so fantastic is the perfect harnessing of energy with of every song. Each track starts out innocent and unassuming but blossoms into a gripping climax that sends shivers up the listener’s spine. Recorded impeccably with the help of Thomas Jefferson Kaye, the album is a wash of wonder. This is arguably the best country-rock has to offer.
Bronze Medal: Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s first album with a full band, Court and Spark presents Joni stepping elegantly in to the world of jazz without leaving her singer/songwriter roots. One of the finest voices of her generation, Joni Mitchell proves herself here (as always) as a master storyteller who can get more emotion across in her music than just about anyone else. This album showcases a stellar cast of session musicians, mixed together brilliantly. After meticulously writing and recording the album, Joni produced her most commercially and critically successful album yet. It’s remarkable yet somehow unsurprising that she made such an ambitious jump seem so easy.