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by Chuck Eddy

April 15, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1975

by Chuck Eddy  |  April 15, 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.

"Our long national nightmare is over," Gerald Ford had promised his fellow Americans the previous August, as he was sworn in as the most un-elected president ever, replacing the only president who ever resigned. But 1975 still had plenty of nightmare left: State Department bombed by Weather Underground, FBI gunfight on a South Dakota Indian Reservation, Saigon falling, Jimmy Hoffa vanishing and Patty Hearst un-vanishing, Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore seemingly celebrating the International Year of the Woman by both trying to shoot the awkward new president within a couple weeks in September -- and on top of it all, lingering ripples of Watergate and the energy crisis. Music fans supposedly tried to escape through disco, which was starting to put songs atop the pop chart. But even disco felt on edge, nowhere near as carefree as its rep: One of the year's greatest chart-toppers, Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," told the story of a Creole prostitute working hard for gray-flannel tourists' dollars down in New Orleans.

"Do you remember your President Nixon?" David Bowie asked in "Young Americans" -- a British glam rock elder statesman gone blue-eyed soul and obsessing on the U.S., just like Elton John in "Philadelphia Freedom." On the cover of Shirley and Company's Shame, Shame, Shame album, a cartoon depicted now-grown-up New Orleans R&B singer Shirley Goodman wagging her finger at the disgraced ex-president. Australian grown-ups the Bee Gees' first huge disco hit might have been directed at him, too: "Jive talkin', you're tellin' me lies." In "Bad Luck," Philly soul group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes fretted about Americans losing everything as prices go up so "I can barely afford a morning paper," but one day Teddy Pendergrass opens the pages anyway and sees a president getting replaced. The Isley Brothers wanted to "Fight the Power" -- "all this BULL-sh*t going 'round" -- and Gil Scott-Heron looked at labor unionists demonstrating against apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa, but suggested that Philly and Detroit were no different. The Spinners in "Games People Play" and Tavares in "It Only Takes a Minute" talked about days hopelessly eaten up by missed connections and the unemployment line, respectively.

Crossing into the pop Top 10 from the country side, Mexican American warbler Freddie Fender simply lamented "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights." The band WAR, meanwhile, came up with an eternal Chicano anthem about a "Low Rider" who "don't use no gas" because he drives so slow -- one way to cope with OPEC raising crude prices. "Gasoline shortage won't stop me now, oh no!" New York smart-asses The Dictators pledged in their worrisomely titled "Master Race Rock" (give 'em a break -- they were Jewish!), bragging about causing oil spills and sleeping all night and day (presumably wasted, whether or not in the Freddie Fender sense) because TV stinks now anyhow: "Country rock is on the wane/ I don't want music, I want pain!"

Still, 1975 had cool radio hits bridging rock and country, from the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Michael Martin Murphy, Glen Campbell, rockabilly-tinged honky-tonker Gary Stewart and power-popper Dwight Twilley, Sammy Johns (parking his petroleum-guzzling "Chevy Van" to love some sweet hitchhiker '70s-style), Waylon Jennings (weathering Nashville red tape over an almost Lou Reed-like drone in "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way"), even Loretta Lynn (celebrating birth control in "The Pill," when country radio would still let a lady get away with such thoughts). Lynyrd Skynyrd, the world's greatest redneck band, even pulled off the world's greatest gun-control protest with "Saturday Night Special," though it wasn't so much country rock as a bridge between funk and metal like what Aerosmith and Nazareth were up to.

But as for wanting pain, The Dictators were on to something. Young (white) Americans of the urban and suburban guitar-rock ilk sounded like ticking time bombs. Bruce Springsteen might've been feeling triumphant out on Highway 9 in his own fuel-injected suicide machine, but weird provincial rookies like Pere Ubu ("no turning back on a suicide ride" while they dropped bombs over Tokyo), Crack the Sky (warning "Surf City here come the sharks" while deciding racing's not their life anymore) and the Tubes ("hang myself if I get enough rope" after they've "wasted time in every school in L.A.") sensed the jig was up; so did cynical post-rookies Steely Dan, awaiting gray men diving from the 14th floor in "Black Friday." Punk supposedly hadn't quite started yet -- though debuts by The Dictators and Patti Smith would soon be grandfathered or grandmothered in by the CBGB crowd, and the Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" was in retrospect a harbinger of blitzkrieg boppery to come -- but The Tubes were "White Punks On Dope" anyway.

The true burnouts out in 7-Eleven Land, meanwhile, seemed to be embracing Master Race Rock for real: Ted Nugent getting you in a stranglehold to crush your face, and even more so KISS, whose Alive! reminded a few already-aging boomers of Nuremberg. Folk-rocking hippie heroes Bob Dylan and Paul Simon had retreated into bittersweet memory mode; even 24-year-old Janis Ian was remembering getting picked on at 17. And one quadrant of R&B -- typified by Kool & the Gang's "Summer Madness" and Smokey Robinson's obviously prescient "Quiet Storm" -- was withdrawing into hazy, flute-y, synth-y space. Over in Germany, Kraftwerk went even further, inventing techno and living down their fatherland's unfortunate Master Race legacy by fabricating a monotonous 24-minute cruise on the Autobahn. Hey, say what you want about VWs -- they got excellent mileage. And so should this playlist of 50 essential songs from 1975, so by all means take it out for a test drive. Tramps like us, baby we were born to run out of gas.

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