The 50 Best Songs of 1976
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.
Nineteen seventy-six, the year of the bicentennial, may be the last gasp of an unalloyed rock epoch. The charts were swollen with epics like Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! and Queen's A Night at the Opera. Radio burst at the seams with AOR squalls like Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle," Electric Light Orchestra's "Evil Woman" and Boston's "More Than a Feeling." Lurking just over the horizon was a disco explosion portended by "You Should Be Dancing," a No. 1 hit by Australian popsmiths-turned-funky blue-eyed soulsters the Bee Gees. But as the disco craze briefly supplanted rock in our country's jukebox (though never in our hearts, of course), the punk rock movement, marked by The Ramones' seminal self-titled debut, would make a hypocrisy of an era it derided as the age of the Rock Dinosaur.
It soon appeared that these different camps might not get along. And they didn't. The culture wars that marred the end of the decade -- street punks against corporate rockers, funk-a-teers against quiet storm folks, trad jazz defenders against fusionists, and disco queens against everybody -- began in 1976.
And so, after they were dismissed by rock's corporate elite as too-loud noisemakers, The Ramones were never allowed to enter the mainstream. The sleazy funk ecstasy of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte's production on Donna Summer's 15-minute sex-plosion "Love to Love You Baby" went unacknowledged for decades. KISS may have been a novelty par excellence, but they were excoriated for their aggressive marketing schemes and clownish image. Haters couldn't stop the KISS Army, but they effectively dismantled The Runaways, a pioneering all-female band who were wrongly criticized as teenybopper jailbait. The same thing nearly happened to Heart when the album artwork on their platinum debut made some horny misogynists imagine the Wilson sisters were lesbians (?!!).
Across the pond, London art-school dropouts and reformed pub-rockers launched the Summer of Punk, with The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." as an angry opening salvo. Most Americans wouldn't learn about the brewing "Filth and the Fury" until 1977 and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. More diffuse and somewhat less confrontational (at least at first), the U.S. punk scene flourished in New York clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, generating bands like Richard Hell & the Voidoids, but also featuring upstarts from urban centers like Boston (Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers) and Cleveland (Pere Ubu).
Meanwhile, Bob Marley conquered the U.S. market with Rastaman Vibration, his biggest-selling album to date. And the Lee Perry-produced Junior Murvin classic "Police & Thieves" (a song best known for The Clash's cover version) and Peter Tosh's pro-marijuana anthem "Legalize It" were only embers from an international reggae renaissance. Then and now, reggae is misconstrued as druggy Jamaican hippie music despite the anti-imperialist message of Marley's "War," which interpolates a speech then-Ethiopian president Haile Selassie I gave to the United Nations.
Time heals all wounds. Today, in the big tent of popular music, we can find appreciation for not only critics' darlings like Warren Zevon and Stevie Wonder, but also pop craftsmen like ABBA and Elton John. (We're still working on Barry Manilow.) Still, it's worth admiring an era when being a music fan meant zealously defending your tribe against any interlopers, whether you were a rocker or a punk. More than just a pastime for dabblers, it was serious business.