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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1970s

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Continuing on with a celebration of fifty years of great music, we move now into the next decade: the 1970s. The ten year span saw a variety of fresh musical expressions that were merely fetal concepts in the 60s reach the masses in great numbers: punk, disco, prog, glam, funk and arena rock, as well as early forms of electronica and the buds of hip hop. Soul and R&B were fading in both quality and popularity, while from the ruinous ashes of punk and disco’s aftermath came the dance pop and New Wave that would eventually define the next decade. Before you begin, check out the list of the best 60s songs and albums if you’ve missed them. And if you’re caught up, read on to see the Top 100 Songs of the 1970s.

The same song rules from the 1960s countdown still apply here (no more than five songs per artist, no live tracks unless a studio version doesn't exist, etc.), and same as before, the songs chosen reflect an amalgam of critical eye and fandom inclusion. The vast number of also-rans is even greater this time around, for no better reason than a much larger pool of choices. Those that fell short include (in alphabetical order): the Allman Brothers Band, “All Right Now,” “American Woman,” the B-52s, “Baker Street,” “Black Betty,” Boston, “Brass in Pocket,” James Brown, Can, “Can’t You See,” Chic, Leonard Cohen, Alice Cooper, Devo, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” Electric Light Orchestra, Peter Frampton, Goblin, Grand Funk Railroad, “The Harder They Come,” Heart, “Hold Your Head Up,” “A Horse with No Name,” Jethro Tull, Judas Priest, “Jungle Boogie,” King Crimson, Magazine, “Maggie May,” “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” Meat Loaf, Joni Mitchell, Modern Lovers, "One Chord Wonders," Penetration, Pere Ubu, “Piano Man,” “Radar Love,” the Raincoats, Lou Reed, the Runaways, “Slow Ride,” Sly & the Family Stone, Patti Smith, Steve Miller Band, Cat Stevens, “Stranglehold,” “Stuck in the Middle,” “Sweet Emotion,” James Taylor, “Teenage Kicks,” Thin Lizzy, George Thorogood, Johnny Thunders, T. Rex, “25 or 6 to 4,” Van Halen, Tom Waits, Joe Walsh, War, Wire and ZZ Top. As I’m sure you can already tell, it was a difficult process if I couldn’t find room for any of them—and that doesn’t even include dozens of other songs from artists already represented below.

But enough regret over what was left waiting in the wings; let’s get to the best of the 70s. Feel free to comment on what I got right and wrong in your mind and share what your favorites from the era are. Here are mine:


100runningonempty100. Running on Empty
by Jackson Browne
from Running on Empty
1977 / Rock


Long-distance runners tried to co-opt this song for their own, lingering on imagery of the open road and the noise of “just running on.” But they weren’t wrong to share Browne’s vision, since the sport takes on an existential crisis of never reaching a destination (no, not even the proverbial or literal finishing line). So, too, does Browne pay tribute to the trials and weary grind of musicians on the road, trying to make a living bringing other people joy even after the energy and exhilaration have sapped from the performers. There’s another good reason for its stability—the propulsive rhythm driven by static drums and a galloping backbeat conveys both headlong velocity and the drag of fatigue.


99youreallivegottonight99. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
by the Cars
from The Cars
1978 / Rock


The misconception of studio interference with a power pop song is that they’d automatically polish it until every instrument and note fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, leaving a trail of chalky candy hearts and rainbow glitter in its wake. However, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” may be waxed into a sleek package, but Roy Thomas Baker’s production knows how to ensure its New Wave template isn’t too slippery for the fingernails, sneers and heart to latch on. Greg Hawkins’ keyboard flourishes are a flawless hook and Ric Ocasek sings the sarcastic words with an arch detachment, but the simple stop-start riff is pure boulder-crunch and there’s a wavy tin echo that makes it sound like homemade pop—throbbing, fuzzy and never quite as decadent as you remember it. Give ‘em a broken bass, two-tom kit and a three-string guitar and these guys could still pen the catchiest damn songs you heard during New Wave’s golden era.


98rhiannonmac98. Rhiannon
by Fleetwood Mac
from Fleetwood Mac
1975 / Pop


Sometimes scorned as exemplifying “corporate rock” and being a hit that pushed forward the need for punk rockers to rebel against the music machine, there’s nothing generic about this song’s elements that would be deserving of displacement. Amplifying the spooky grace of Stevie Nicks’ dark arts gypsy aesthetic, her witchy vocal performance suits the arrangement, which glides along a subtle and dark dream dual guitar melody that never overplays its hand in incorporating ooh-aah back-ups. But it’s not discomforting pop; instead it soothes you into a treacherous place with an ethereal discord—Muzak in a madhouse? Even the indulgently prescient myth-mortalizing of its lyrics doesn’t overcome the tune’s most fundamental harmonic appeal. In fact, Fleetwood Mac never released a more engaging single.


97americanpie97. American Pie
by Don McLean
from American Pie
1971 / Folk

Best known as a tribute to the “day the music died,” there’s never an explicit reference to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper or a plane crash at all. Even when the “three men I admire the most” are mentioned at the end, it says they “caught the last train for the coast” instead of a single engine to Moorhead. Rather than clarifying, McLean sings at great length about an enormous variety of subjects and settings, which may or may not be metaphorical or even correlating (McLean refuses to specify). But for an eight-and-a-half minute song, it has six long verses that everyone in the world can recite when it comes on and a refrain that everyone learns in the fetal phase. I got so sick of this song after a while, but there’s a reason why it was played so much that I had a need to rebel against it. And I still usually sing along anyway.


96ghostrider96. Ghost Rider
by Suicide
from Suicide
1977 / Punk


Manhattan’s Suicide was about as dark and nihilistic as the duo’s name suggests, but instead of thrashing and burning like their fellow punk anti-idealists, they lived in gothic darkness and keyboard-driven nightscapes. “Ghost Rider” coasts on a simple, repetitive key riff with enough static to remind us that it’s still in real life; it’s like a 50s biker anthem dragged down into a squalid hellhole that would make CBGB look like Studio 54. Between Alan Vega’s beeping “baby baby”’s, the haunting message of “America’s killing its youth” and the fundamentally freaky choppy echo screams, Martin Rev lays down a densely harrowing but unnervingly exhilarating sonic storm. Goth rock, synth pop and industrial music all owe this one song a tremendous debt.


95lessthanzero95. Less Than Zero
by Elvis Costello
from My Aim Is True
1977 / Rock


Misunderstood by American fans as being Lee Harvey, Costello’s Mr. Oswald from “Less Than Zero” was really Oswald Mosley, the infamous English Parliament member who created the BUF (British Union of Fascists). Rewritten for JFK’s supposed assassin later, it was less important about whom the subject was than how Costello literately railed against him. Indeed, Costello was probably punk’s smartest ally, losing none of the anger but adding immediately gratifying layers of multi-genre sensibilities. “Less Than Zero” is inflected with pop and reggae, and as an aggressive but catchy anthem, it rarely gets any better than, “He said he heard about a couple living in the USA/He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet,” and the irresistibly twitchy bounce of the refrain’s hey-ooh-hey-ey’s.


94dirtywork94. Dirty Work
by Steely Dan
from Can’t Buy a Thrill
1972 / Pop


This AM-friendly slice of pop-siphoned Philly soul comes from a rock act that had difficulty in keeping their edge. Indeed, Steely Dan could at times slum in unfortunate Eagles territory, and the allusions they summoned wouldn’t stick well to a refrigerator. But the sax and clavinet melody that opens “Dirty Work” is really quite sublime, and despite the lyrical languor that whittles the complications of infidelity down to mere science, the point of view is memorable, coming at the situation from the person doing the cuckolding. Even though the band stopped playing it after 1973 when vocalist David Palmer left the band, it’s still hard to believe that this minor hit has been mostly forgotten today; it is the band’s best song, after all.


93southernman93. Southern Man
by Neil Young
from After the Gold Rush
1970 / Rock


Influenced by an experience in 1969 where a pair of men beat up Young outside an Alabama bar for having long hair, there’s no doubt that “Southern Man”’s words have a preachy tone, and unfairly paint a broad canvas over a few bad eggs in the carton. But a history of racism and abuse will feed into stereotypes, and the imagery, as amplified by a vivid piano and guitar stomp that bleeds out with blood and fire during the second half, is troubling because there is haunting (and embarrassing) truth in each word. Good enough, in fact, to inspire Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reply via “Sweet Home Alabama.” Both acts respected each other, though; if only similar fondness and reconciliation could exist between the “Southern Man” and the “Black Man.” But there I go being preachy…


92sultansofswing92. Sultans of Swing
by Dire Straits
from Dire Straits
1978 / Rock


With the booming popularity of disco and the visceral response of punk, Dire Straits were taking risks debuting their stripped-down but conventional guitar rock in 1978. But bad timing meant nothing if the tune was as good as “Sultans of Swing,” which floated working class respect, pub rock charms and one of the finest understated guitar combo riffs ever recorded for a hit record—and a hit record it was, climbing into the Top 10 in both the US and UK (and thumbing its nose at every future Dire Straits hit to come). It’s the guitar you remember, and as far as fingerstyle picking is concerned, few could match Mark Knopfler. The lyrics and vocals distinctly Dylan-esque, the musicians constantly filling and reacting to some other element, it overcame its simple 4/4 rhythm to deliver the swing to back up its name.


91everfalleninlove91. Ever Fallen in Love?
by Buzzcocks
from Love Bites
1978 / Punk


Despite being founded on anti-commercial “integrity,” punk has always been a genre built for singles, and no punk outfit before or since delivered the goods like Buzzcocks. They let others trade in on politics so they could embrace angst-ridden love and sex, the substance that fills the minds of the young far more than anything resembling CNN. “Ever Fallen in Love” takes its central theme from the musical Guys and Dolls (hardly “punk” of them, but whatever), lets Pete Shelley sing it in a rich, warbling tenor, and plasters the whole thing with a terrific E chord riff that shakes free its crankiness after every other verse line. It’s a prime example of a song being so straight-to-the-point, uncomplicated and universal that almost every songwriter in the world wishes they had come up with it.


90maybeimamazed90. Maybe I’m Amazed
by Paul McCartney
from McCartney
1970 / Pop


During the bitter and troublesome breakup of the Beatles, McCartney retreated to his music to exorcise himself. Sometimes his feelings blossomed into bitter tirades, but on this occasion, he managed a musically powerful and inherently lovely tune devoted to his beloved wife for seeing him through the hardship. Known for his “silly love songs,” it could have been very easy for Mac to treat lines like, “Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you,” and, “Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you,” as lumberingly inane romantic gestures, but he sells every syllable. And the electric guitar between verses is fiery enough so that even macho men can get down to the sweet sentiment.


89tupelohoney89. Tupelo Honey
by Van Morrison
from Tupelo Honey
1971 / Folk


I’ve remarked that “Tupelo Honey” is the best Astral Weeks song to have not appeared on Astral Weeks, but that gives short shrift to a song that is ultimately timeless in its expression and essentially unclassifiable in its execution. After all, Bob Dylan said that “Tupelo Honey” has always existed and Morrison was simply the “vessel and earthly vehicle” for it. It’s a transcendent love song, composed like a hymnal, shuffling like great jazz (Morrison borrowed drummer Connie Kay from Astral’s session players for the recording) and playfully drifting across twang-less country and pastoral folk. That playful quality gives it the juice; no matter how serio-romantic he might be, there’s a light and tender touch to each moment that exudes the joie de vivre of love’s richest memory.


88ifthereissomething88. If There Is Something
by Roxy Music
from Roxy Music
1972 / Rock


Opening with a honky-tonk free-for-all, “If There Is Something” initially sounds destined for obscurity with its jocular lightness and a buried vocal from Brian Ferry. But then about a minute-and-a-half in, it flicks over and delivers a ropey riff that overwhelms and Ferry becomes fraught and desperate, bleeding his warbling tone over the notes. The motif returns in auspicious fashion and churns on and on for another five minutes, exploring a half dozen interesting variations on that one idea. The famous live version for the BBC runs almost twice as long. But it’s not some bloated epic; Roxy Music was too savvy for that. It’s an impression planted in your central nervous system that’s always moving ahead to an unlit passage but never leaves you behind.


87reaper87. (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
by Blue Öyster Cult
from Agents of Fortune
1976 / Rock


It’s tough to talk about “The Reaper” without mentioning umlauts and cowbells (damn it, I just did it), but there’s no doubt that Blue Öyster Cult was a group of eccentrics, so it’s fitting that they would compose a song that deflates the ultimate tragedy of death and presents a grimly ironic upside—presented with all of the darkness and faux-seriousness they could muster, of course. Inanely regarded as a suicide pact codex, it’s not even the tongue-in-cheek spirit that makes it so memorable; it’s that hypnotic riff that keeps coming back every time the song threatens to derail into nightmare. Beware the radio edit that made the song a hit…and shamefully deletes the awesomely freaky guitar solo.


86onenationgroove86. One Nation Under a Groove
by Funkadelic
from One Nation Under a Groove
1978 / Funk


A jittery, polyrhythmic funk classic, “One Nation Under a Groove” begs us to “dance your way out of your constrictions.” You didn’t need to look punk rock’s way to find artists rebelling against disco. George Clinton was sick of the single stroke hooks that passed themselves off as dance grooves, so he had to bring it back to something that actually moved. And “Groove” moves, to be sure, right past the dance floor and through the doors, spilling out on the street. It’s like you gotta bring it to the whole neighborhood, city, country, world. It’s always been kind of silly when funk maestros treated the meter as a reason for being, but when asked, “Do you promise to funk, the whole funk?” the only response is yes…er, dig?


85badcompany85. Bad Company
by Bad Company
from Bad Company
1974 / Rock


Written with a similar score motif and subject as the 1972 revisionist western of the same name, the title track of Bad Company’s eponymous debut is easily their best. It’s a stalwart showcase for a stormy piano that stylishly evokes the grim wilderness and dark deeds of its premise and features the strongest vocal performance Paul Rodgers ever gave. Bad Company followed the typical route of supergroups and rattled off a couple more good songs and several dreadful radio rockers that sullied their otherwise good name (“Feel Like Makin’ Love”), but this one’s the real thing, and has deserved its reputation as a classic rock workhorse.


84brownsugarstones84. Brown Sugar
by the Rolling Stones
from Sticky Fingers
1971 / Rock


An album with cover art as scandalous as Sticky Fingers needed a hit song as outrageous as possible to satisfy customers both fanatic and curious, and sure enough, the world got “Brown Sugar.” The stomping hard rock, sizzling horns, saloon piano clomp, barrelhouse blues and unbridled enthusiasm got the audience to grind and groove to the irresistible formula, and by extension, celebrate a laundry list of taboos that may or may not have been intentional. Interracial sex, slave trade, slave rape, oral sex, S&M (to say nothing for the connotation of heroin), it’s nevertheless a song so appealing that even the prissiest of listeners can’t help but break down to that raunchy riff.


83lostsupermarket83. Lost in the Supermarket
by the Clash
from London Calling
1979 / Punk


You don’t expect to hear a voice as soft as the one in “Lost in Supermarket,” certainly not from a punk band and definitely not from Mick Jones. Written almost entirely by Joe Strummer and handed over to Mick to sing on, the furtive nature of the vocal tones—part melancholy, part wistful and part exasperated—sells it even better than the great hook. Somewhat slower, more toned-back and overtly melodic than much of London Calling’s other offerings, “Lost in the Supermarket” describes an increasingly impersonal world, one without heart and soul and identity. Those descriptions certainly wouldn’t be leveled at this song, one of the Clash’s most unexpectedly rewarding (and one of their all-time best, for that matter).


82letitrain82. Let It Rain
by Eric Clapton
from Eric Clapton
1970 / Rock


One of several songs written by Clapton and Delaney Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie) for his solo debut, “Let It Rain” closes out the auspicious but uneven album on a high note. The last two-and-a-half minutes are just an exceptional showcase for rhythm and lead guitar intermingling and building. While the focus of that main riff churns over and over again, the piano underneath crests and crashes with the mood and the lead continuously strikes out on its own before returning to the rails a few seconds later. All of the elements are woven together for a rich harmony; its progression and strum sound like it oughta be folk, but you won’t mistake what Clapton and Bramlett are up to for anything but white-hot barroom blues.


81boysdontcry81. Boys Don’t Cry
by the Cure
from the Boys Don’t Cry single
1979 / Pop


Most people don’t equate the Cure’s early, tenser post-punk roots with the gloomy goth image they harvested later in the 80s, but take away the sprightly jangle rhythm of “Boys Don’t Cry” and you’re left with the romantic isolation that gave them the ears of a million angsty adolescents to come. In fact, that crisp and wiry riff hides a lot of the anguish the narrator is experiencing, much the same way Robert Smith sings about covering “it all up with lies” and “laughing, hiding the tears in [his] eyes.” Besides, the Cure always had better pop sensibilities than most of their peers, even when they were "oppressively dispirited" in the early 80s and tilted towards stately epics circa Disintegration, and this one’s a classic whether you wear raccoon rings of black eyeliner or not.

List continues on next page.

 

 



May
17
2009
Matt Medlock

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