The 50 Best Songs of 1970
by Mosi Reeves | February 5, 2013
Welcome to The 50, a new Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 essential tracks from 1970 -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- is the outcome of spirited debate by our entire editorial staff, so Mosi can't assume full responsibility (or blame). Please enjoy.
"We've only just begun," sang Karen Carpenter on her group's breakthrough single. Yet the dawn of the 1970s seemed like the inglorious end to a time of upheaval, or "a long, strange trip," as The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia called it on "Truckin'." Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died of drug overdoses. The Beatles disintegrated amid lawsuits and intra-band strife. And a fan was bludgeoned to death at the Altamont music festival in California, marking the symbolic end of the Woodstock dream of peace and brotherhood.
For the next two decades, our perception of those years as corporatized self-indulgence – the flaccid, bell-bottomed "Me Decade" -- would be unfairly judged against the mythical bohemianism of the 1960s. Of course, we now know better. Thanks to the rejuvenating powers of nostalgia, we've learned that the 1970s were an incredibly fertile period for popular music. Tropicália, Afrobeat, heavy metal, glam rock, punk rock, synth pop, jazz fusion and many other new genres bloomed. All that was still on the horizon in 1970, though there were small rumblings of the evolution to come, from the emergence of Trojan Records and Island Records in Britain, which imported Jamaican sounds like The Wailers and Lee "Scratch" Perry's early reggae and dub experiments, to the arrival of Fania Records in New York, which launched its historic Fania All-Stars concerts featuring salsa stars like Willie Colón, Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz.
But let's not listen to the music of 1970 with too much revisionism -- though at this point, there's really no other way. Instead, let's try to imagine the year as it was probably heard by most Americans. The first No. 1 chart hit of the decade was B.J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," taken from the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid soundtrack. A new TV series, The Partridge Family, got a promotional boost when its family band -- really just David Cassidy, Shirley Jones and a bunch of studio musicians -- topped the charts with "I Think I Love You." But the Monkees-style gimmick was quickly overshadowed by The Jackson 5 and their dynamic 11-year-old singer, Michael Jackson, who pioneered the teen boy-band concept with "I Want You Back."
Back-to-the-land country, folk and blues rock held sway with Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Travelin' Band"), Van Morrison ("Moondance") and The Allman Brothers ("Midnight Rider"). Sometimes the era could feel reactionary, a deliberate rejection of urbanism and societal materialism, as when Joni Mitchell sang, "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot" on "Big Yellow Taxi." It could also seem xenophobic, as when vocalist Burton Cummings sang, "I don't need your war machines/ I don't need your ghetto scenes" on British band The Guess Who's "American Woman." Amid the ongoing debate over that song's allegorical lyrics, the band has denied that it's an anti-U.S. tune. But it's impossible to distort the meaning of "The Fightin' Side of Me," Merle Haggard's growling pushback against anti-capitalist revolutionaries and Vietnam protestors. Toby Keith has called it the "original 'Angry American'" song. While Nixonites and the New Left waged culture war, John Lennon memorably fought himself with the lacerating primal-scream therapy of Plastic Ono Band.
Further trends portended include Jesus hippies via Norman Greenbaum's Christian rock classic "Spirit in the Sky" (a trend that peaked in 1971 with Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell); symphonic orchestral soul via Isaac Hayes' "I Stand Accused" (a style that reached its full potential via Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece What's Going On); and funk via James Brown's "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" and Sly & The Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" (which were followed by 1971 classics like Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and The Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On).
In other words, 1970 was a transitional year, yet a fruitful one that strains the seams of a Top 50 list -- even if we reluctantly have to leave out The Beatles. Which to pick among the Jackson 5's four No. 1 hits, all of them undeniable in their pop brilliance? With so many J.B. anthems to choose from, should we pick "Soul Power," "Funky Drummer" or "Sex Machine"? Why omit groundbreaking songs by Can ("Mother Sky"), Nick Drake ("Northern Sky"), Conway Twitty ("Hello Darlin'"), and Aretha Franklin ("Spirit in the Dark")? These are the tough decisions that a good list is hopefully made of.