I couldn’t resist. That Pitchfork list has been sticking in my craw the past few weeks. While I find myself in agreement with many of their choices, the act of picking utter nonsense like The Slits just doesn’t sit well with me in light of how much great music was made in that decade. I’m sticking mostly to pop, rock and strains of country music here, as trying to incorporate jazz, blues, latin, folk, classical and other genres would just be too much to handle. Besides which, with genres like jazz and latin, there are people much more qualified who could put together lists that would blow mine away in terms of depth of knowledge.
This is in no way a complete or ranked list: frankly Pitchfork hit a lot of high points, as do publications like Rolling Stone or Mojo when they put out lists like this. I’m glad people are gathering that tracks like “Marquee Moon” by Television or “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers deserve a higher place in history. But to completely deny music and genres that were popular at the time is bullshit. It’s petty and childish, in the way so many critics are. As there are 50(ish) tracks here, the logic for each will be brief. I could easily include a few hundred more tracks.
Love and Affection, Joan Armatrading. A black woman performing folk songs deep in the heart of the 1970’s. Completely on her own terms, with an audience large enough to keep her on a major label for years and still have a career now.
Ride a White Swan, T. Rex. Ground zero for glitter rock, when an artist who had been a full-blown hippie in his previous incarnation decided it was time to rock. It got no more basic than this track and expanded outward from this point.
My Best Friend’s Girl, The Cars. I recall one of the guys from Television carping about The Cars, how they somehow stole Television’s sound and vibe and got major record-label backing to push it over on a mass audience. No. The Cars were pulling together strains of their first album while Television was getting started. And they were much more pop oriented, with cool nods to the past, like that little rockabilly riff and hand claps in this track. This was perfect pop music in 1978; all they had in common with Television was a co-lead singer with a nasally voice.
Pablo Picasso, The Modern Lovers. Pitchfork picked the wrong track, although there’s nothing wrong with “Roadrunner.” “Pablo Picasso” is much better at defining the bridge they made between The Velvet Underground and so much of what would follow in the 70’s. I can’t even recall how I disseminated this information in the 70’s. I most likely didn’t and wasn’t fully clued in until the 80’s. Happened a lot with now "legendary" bands.
Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Traffic. I guess Traffic was too 60’s for Pitchfork. This was genre-bending stuff, not quite jazz, not quite prog, not quite rock, not quite soul … but possessing all these elements.
Rio, Michael Nesmith. No one knew what to make of Mike Nesmith in the 70’s. He put out a string of excellent countryish albums that showed he was more than a knit hat in a kids' TV show, and then came “cosmic cowboy” stuff like this that defies classification.
Never Gonna Give You Up, Barry White. Really, any White hit would do. This one has that pulsing intro, the orchestra tuning up, the trademark heavy breathing, baby, baby, baby, the harpsichord, those great drum breaks that mark nearly every key track of his. It’s worth your while to research the critical reception he received at the time. It wasn’t pretty.
All through the City, Dr. Feelgood. Pub rock formed a nice, lightly-traveled bridge between rock and punk in the U.K. Most of the guys were aging hippies, too old to take punk seriously, much less lower their abilities to play it. This track in particular presages the feel of punk thanks to Wilco Johnson’s guitar work.
Rock Me Baby, George McCrae and Rock the Boat by The Hues Corporation. A 1-2 punch in the summer of 1974 that signaled the full shift from soul to disco. A song like “Heart of Glass” by Blondie would not have been possible without “Rock Me Baby” to serve as template.
American Pie, Don McLean. This track must seem like a joke to your average critic. A joke that I recall being played nightly at a bar while I was at college, and damn near every person in that bar knew a majority of the words, which was quite an accomplishment. This song was taken very seriously in its time. Now? It had a nice knack for trying to take what Dylan was doing on a much higher, more complex level and bring it down to an everyman’s level. It worked! It was this or “Taxi” by Harry Chapin, which accomplished much the same thing.
My Big Chief Has a Golden Crown, The Wild Magnolias. Totally unaware of this at the time, but absolutely brilliant take on New Orleans and the Mardi Gras.
I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe), Genesis. Genesis seemed to get more respect than your average prog band, probably because Peter Gabriel had sense enough to leave when he got bored and had an equally successful solo career. This track in particular shows why they were important, the merging of various styles, the vaguely African chanting that weaves throughout the song. (And while Cameron Crowe has used the song to death in his movies, "Solsbury Hill" deserves a nod for being the best single by a departed band member.)
Death of a Ladies Man, Leonard Cohen. I don’t think Cohen was all that influential by this point in his career. With some artists, they weren’t influential simply because no one else could do what they were doing. No one else could write lyrics anything like this. This sounds like it was created in the deep pit of the 70’s, married to that template solo Beatles production by Phil Spector.
Strange, Wire. Didn’t know this band at the time, recall a friend in college playing it for me, stating that R.E.M. had covered it. Loved it from the first moment. Why Wire wasn’t as big as The Clash, I don’t know (other than the political grandstanding). Try “I Am the Fly” too … it’s hard to believe these were made in the 70’s.
Roxanne, The Police. See Dr. Feelgood. But this wasn’t pub rock. It was a bunch of pub-rock aged guys pretending they were punks and throwing in reggae for good measure. As cynical as it seemed, there was something fresh and exciting about those first two Police albums. In America, along with bands like The Cars, Blondie and The Talking Heads, this was how “new wave” was born and became far more influential than punk.
Tulsa Time, Don Williams. It was this or “Call Me the Breeze” by J.J. Cale. Just a cool meeting place between country and rock by a more country-leaning artist.
Call Me Nigger, Swamp Dogg. Totally unaware of this at the time, shocked when I first heard it. Again, crossing so many genres that even if I had heard it, I wouldn’t have known what to make of it. Swamp Dogg seems to have fallen by the wayside in the past decade, inexplicably.
Uneasy Rider, Charlie Daniels. Perfect juncture of a hippie coming to realize he loved country music, and would go on to be a far more country artist in the next few years. Perfect counterpoint to “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” by Jerry Jeff Walker.
Starship Trooper, Yes. There are so many worthy tracks by Yes who didn’t single-handedly create prog, but probably became the most visible practitioners of it in America. Like so many kids who grew up in the 70’s, I came to loathe prog at a certain point in the 80’s, but somewhere down the road it registered what an idiot I had been to do so. Much as with Leonard Cohen, prog wasn’t all that influential simply because most musicians who came afterwards couldn’t play it. All those punks who took pride in having rudimentary musical skills … I just can’t listen to most of that shit now. It’s boring.
Stay with Me, The Faces. It’s hard to pick one Rod Stewart track, but I’d rather go with The Faces and that sense of fun they brought to their music and performances. Maybe rock should have died at some point in the early 70’s, but it was groups like this hitting their stride that guaranteed it wouldn’t.
Wild in the Streets, Garland Jeffreys. Unclassifiable. A black man who veered towards reggae and soul, when not trying his hand at folk, lands upon a stomping rock anthem that captured something about New York City at its low point. He never did anything like this again.
The Bertha Butt Boogie Part One, The Jimmy Castor Bunch. Novelty numbers were a huge genre in the 70’s, great fun, and often perfect pop moments, such as this. I can assure you, a song like this penetrated rural Pennsylvania; we used to sing it in summer while playing baseball in the schoolyard.
Keep It Comin’ Love, KC & the Sunshine Band. Harry Casey doesn’t get the respect he deserves for creating a disco scene in Miami that was just as vibrant and cutting edge as anything that was going on in New York or elsewhere at the time. For me, this is the epitome of that sound, although there are a half dozen other tracks just as worthy.
Autobahn, Kraftwerk. Pitchfork picked the wrong track. I can assure you, the first time any rock fan heard this in the 70’s, his mind was blown, it sounded like nothing before. I recall one friend riffing on that squiggly, synthesized yodel applied to the word “autobahn.” While people draw lines now between stuff like Kraftwerk and prog rock, the lines weren’t so clear back then. These were just long, fluid tracks that floored so many listeners, be it King Crimson or Kraftwerk.
Cherchez La Femme, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. August Darnell seems to have followed Prince like a shadow, despite having much more success early on, reasonable success in the 80’s, but no “Purple Rain” style breakthrough to elevate his legacy in the culture. He deserves better.
In the Light, Led Zeppelin. It’s hard to pick one, but a lot of fans seem to agree that Physical Graffiti was the culmination of that sound, all the elements coming together in a prolonged, double-album blast. I always had a hard time with Plant’s vocals and lyrics, but they somehow make sense with the music. There’s a reason people in droves are buying multiple reissues of all their albums, some for the first time.
Free Bird, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Have you listened to this track lately? For decades, I couldn’t, it had just been hammered to death by AOR radio. It really is a stunning piece of work, the slow build, the lead guitar work, the shift into a driving rock finale As I noted previously, the concept of completely ignoring Southern Rock marks critics as reverse rednecks to me, their urbane snobbery turned so dogmatic it strongly resembles the mentality you’d find at a Klan rally.
Sam Stone, John Prine. So many tracks that would apply here. Much as with Loudon Wainwright III, an artist who so easily used humor and adult emotions in his work that he’s impossible to duplicate. Why isn’t anyone writing songs like John Prine anymore? Because no one can, it’s not a generational thing.
Jive Talkin', The Bee Gees. I should pick a Saturday Night Fever track, but this was the first, the song that signaled the shift for the band from aging 60’s pop artists to disco. Surely the most daring transformation of any rock band. As brilliant now as the first time I heard it as a child. Changed everything about the 70’s.
With You in Mind, Frankie Miller. Giving a nod to the late Allen Toussaint, who wrote and produced this track, for a white artist with a better voice driving home a solid blues ballad. Miller could have been as big as Rod Stewart but just didn’t seem to have that extra something that had little to do with the music itself.
In Every Dream Home a Heartache, Roxy Music. Hard to pick just one track. Ferry seemed like a more emotionally complex Bowie, willing to show depth in ways not possible for Bowie and, in this case, cast himself as a very strange bird. This somehow avoids being a novelty song despite the topic being perfectly suited for that purpose.
Baby Hold On, Eddie Money, Feels Like the First Time, Foreigner and More Than a Feeling, Boston. The dreaded “corporate rock.” My only quibble now with this genre is how dumb so many of the lyrics are. The music? In many cases, top shelf, like the arrangement on the Money song. That opening synth/bass/drum/rhythm guitar riff builds so organically. Foreigner, a perfect intro, still recall hearing this and “Cold As Ice” and being immediately struck. The Boston song is the definition of pop rock. Sure, a lot of it is silly, but if you mean to tell me The fucking Slits were better than this … you’re just wrong. "In need of an ass kicking" wrong.
Rose Garden, Lynn Anderson. Possibly the first track that signaled the shift to “pop” country from straight country. The decade would end with a track like “Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton that were pretty much straight pop music (but charting country).
Blue Sky, The Allman Brothers Band. A travesty that a band this steeped in so many genres would get short-sheeted by hipster critics playing dumb decades down the road. Because of their southern-ness? The hair? The popularity with rock radio? I don’t know why something like “Marquee Moon” by Television would be held in such high regard when that was a derivation of what The Allman Brothers had been doing for years.
Saint Dominic’s Preview, Van Morrison. To get a better perspective of what Van Morrison was doing in the 70’s, place him next to contemporaries like The Beatles or The Stones. All of them grew exponentially as musicians through the late 60’s, but Morrison also figured out how to work adult themes into his music, in this case being in his early 30’s and feeling the security of his teens and 20’s fading behind him. John Lennon started down a similar path, but didn’t stick to it the way Morrison did.
Personality Crisis, The New York Dolls. The concept of an entity like Pitchfork skipping this track in a “best of 70’s” list is mind-bending. Punk would not have happened in England without this track, or surely not sounded like it did. Were they playing stupid as they did with southern and corporate rock? To what end?
Vietnam, Jimmy Cliff. Bob Marley didn’t just happen. Jimmy Cliff blazed a trail with The Harder They Come, and solid tracks like this just before then. The real trailblazer in America was Johnny Nash with “Hold Me Tight” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” Not to take anything away from Marley.
Jealous Guy, Donny Hathaway. Could be any number of tracks by him. A good example of an artist hijacking a cover and taking it in very positive, new direction. The Faces covered Hathaway’s cover of this Lennon track, but nowhere near as good.
Heart of Darkness, Pere Ubu and Jocko Homo by DEVO. A salute to Ohio, and how far out in front of a lot of things it had to be in the early 70’s. Not even getting into The Dead Boys or The Rubber City Rebels. A nice 70's moment: I recall when DEVO came on Saturday Night Live, playing their cover of "Satisfaction." Dad sometimes went to bed early and left us kids watch the great late-night TV options of the time, but he stayed up this time, when DEVO came on. I recall him sitting up on the sofa, looking over at me splayed out on the living-room carpet, and for once, the look on both our faces said, "Fuck this shit." It really took something to offend multiple generations like this in the 70's!
Beth, Kiss. I couldn’t stand KISS (and was just the right age to “get” them). But for them to put out a formulaic 70’s ballad when they were trying to make their bones as cartoon hard-rock heroes was unprecedented. Couldn’t even call it the first power ballad as there isn’t a shred of guitar on the track. Would that honor go to “Only Women Bleed” by Alice Cooper?
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Paul Simon. Of course, he was way too tasteful and respected to have Pitchfork type critics recognize him. His early 70’s singles were always interesting, always different, a growing artist trying out different styles. Not to mention a nice slice of 718 life he knew very well.
New Kid in Town, The Eagles. I need to pick something by them, particularly from this album. The heat’s off … you can like The Eagles now. (Of course, critics have been trained not to.) This particularly cool nod towards Roy Orbison (which happened constantly in the 70’s) show-cased everything good about the band: solid songwriting, great lead and background vocals, tasteful pop music performed at the highest level. What a sin. Their influence would be huge on country music over the next few decades. Think that’s tragic? Yeah, well, this song has had a much larger influence on what modern-day country has become. Maybe not so tragic in this light?
Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meat Loaf. Jim Steinman did it: he wrote the best rock opera, stole Pete Townshend’s concept. “A Quick One” sounds like an unfinished demo next to this track. This isn’t rock opera with classical or operatic pretensions, like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or a prog workout spanning multiple genres. Every section is rock and roll. Fun, well-written and perfectly set in that hazy place between rock and real-life mythology: it was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today. (cough) Never mind.
My Baby Gives It Away, Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane. Townshend wanted so bad to be a punk, but he knew it wasn’t possible. The Who had become rock stars, and he recognized the prison it had become. This was a slight respite, a nice follow-up to “Squeeze Box,” with the help of Ronnie Lane, who got a much-needed cash infusion to his sadly under-valued solo career after The Faces. Townshend’s first solo album was also brave in the same respect.
The Piano Has Been Drinking, Tom Waits. Waits wouldn’t hit his stride until the 80’s, but his “previous career” as beatnik balladeer was nothing to scoff at, some inventive songwriting. These videos show the kind of mischief he raised in the 70’s playing off that image. I’m surprised he and Marvin Hamlisch didn’t get along better as they had similar influences. (Hamlisch deserves a nod for writing the best James Bond theme, despite stiff competition.)
Mistral Wind, Heart. Of course, your average hipster music critic could never admit the importance of a band like Heart over The Slits. A lot of bands wanted to be Led Zeppelin in the 70’s. Strange that two sisters from Seattle came the closest. This track in particular, I suspect when Jimmy Page heard it, he must have smiled. This is a perfect Led Zeppelin song.
Life’s Been Good, Joe Walsh. Aside from the drug and alcohol abuse, or maybe because of it, Walsh was the rock-star archetype: a rogue, journeyman, had his own successful solo career, played lead guitar in one of the biggest bands. This track encapsulates how enjoyable it was to be a rock star … compare and contrast to your average Pink Floyd ballad!
Goodbye to Love, The Carpenters, Maybe I’m Amazed, Paul McCartney and Without You by Harry Nilsson. The triumvirate of 70’s balladry, each as important as the other, the blueprints for a genre that dominated the decade. The guitar solos in “Goodbye to Love” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” were mimicked countless times afterwards, as was that gentle piano chord progression that Nilsson created. You can’t stand this short of shit? That’s fine. A lot of people hate hiphop, but “Rapper’s Delight” is still a great song.
Lean on Me, Bill Withers. Pitchfork got the wrong track. By far his biggest hit, crossing gospel, folk, soul … something Withers did routinely. Has there been anyone like this since?
Une Nuit a Paris, 10CC. Not quite prog. Pitchfork go the right track (“I’m Not in Love”) but this track was a showcase for the band’s talents. Did every “best track” from the 70’s need to be in some way influential? It couldn’t just be good music, indicative of the time period, simply memorable in and of itself? Being pretentious in the 70’s made a lot more sense when bands actually had the musical talent to back it up. Punk didn’t kill that concept, but it ensured that most rock bands in the future with similar pretensions would go about their work on a lower level of musical talent, mostly in the lead vocal department. Thanks, punk. Thanks a lot.