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by Justin Farrar

February 19, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1972

by Justin Farrar  |  February 19, 2014

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

In retrospect, the early '70s constituted an apex in sound technology. Not only were recording studios and concert PAs improving at an accelerated clip, but just as important was how the high-fidelity home stereo system replaced the tinny transistor radios and record players of the '60s as the pop fan's default music delivery system. Fueled by the hippies' obsession with building a better world through innovative technology (see also a young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates), pioneering sound engineers and designers such as Henry Kloss, Mark Levinson, Bob Carver, Ray Dolby and Jon Dahlquist were pivotal in the emergence of professional-grade audio equipment that middle-class Americans could afford. These nerdy radicals were genuine techno-utopianists devoted to the idea that good sound meant good living.

By 1972 this good sound had permeated every level of pop music, none more so than rock and soul. Both genres churned out singles and albums geared toward full immersion of the senses: big, warm tones, finely etched minutiae and enveloping layers of atmosphere. Putting on a record was more than a mere act of listening; it was taking a journey. Dropping the needle onto Elton John's synthesizer-laced "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long Time)" was the next best thing to strapping into the Saturn V rocket and launching oneself into the stars. Meanwhile, progressive-minded artists such as Hawkwind and Can, as well as fusion innovators Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, ventured even further out, creating challenging music frequently described by underground heads as "cosmic" and "spacey." These journeys also pivoted inward. Sparse and moody, with negative space that almost seems to breathe, "Walk on the Wild Side" was a tour of the New York City streets and denizens that existed inside Lou Reed's mind.

What is now referred to as the "cinematic soul" movement was just as passionate in its embrace of high fidelity. The O'Jays' paranoia-stained "Back Stabbers," The Temptations' 12-minute tour de force "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" and Curtis Mayfield's extravagant "Superfly" aren't just pop songs: They are miniature symphonies resting on an exquisite balance of sonic complexity and emotional immediacy. Nearly as rich and decadent was all the gender-bending glam then roaring out of England. Mott the Hoople's gloriously anthemic "All the Young Dudes," David Bowie's hyper-dense "Suffragette City," even Slade's rollicking "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" all boasted bigger-than-life production and arranging unique to the era.

Even music intended to exude an earthy vibe (funk, hard rock, country rock, folk rock) embraced the high-tech. Boasting both a profound sense of intimacy and all manner of sublime detailing, tunes such as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and the Eagles' "Take It Easy" aren't classic country rock so much as studio-generated representations of the genre's platonic ideal. The same can be said of Tanya Tucker's gospel-kissed "Delta Dawn" and Johnny Paycheck's minimal "Someone to Give My Love To," both of which found Nashville experimenting with a seemingly three-dimensional warmth borrowed from rock and soul. And then there's Stevie Wonder's "Superstition": One of the year's most striking singles, its visceral punch is in part derived from Wonder's cutting-edge use of synthesizer technology (super spiky and mechanical) and the exacting nature of the shrink-wrap-like production approach.

The Baby Boomers certainly are overbearing when yapping on and on about how the music of their generation is so much better than that of any other. Whether this is true can never be proven, obviously. But did it sound better? Our 50 Best Songs of 1972 playlist argues that maybe it did.

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