The 50 Best Songs of 1971
by Justin Farrar | November 27, 2013
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.
Would classic rock even exist without 1971? Seriously, get a load of all the hits: "Brown Sugar," "L.A. Woman," "Layla," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Stay With Me," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Aqualung" and (my personal favorite of the bunch) "Maggie May." More than 40 years have passed and we're still crossing paths with these tunes in our day-to-day lives. Back in the early '70s, they helped transform rock 'n' roll into a global commodity. But in the process of achieving this large-scale success, the music was forced to surrender the unity that defined it for most of the previous decade. Rock in 1971 was furiously sprouting offshoots. There was hard rock (Alice Cooper), progressive rock (Yes), country rock (New Riders of the Purple Sage), jazz rock (The Mahavishnu Orchestra) and the beginnings of what would come to be called glam rock (T. Rex).
Of these myriad offshoots, the ones that sat atop the pecking order in terms of Rolling Stone-approved hipness were the singer-songwriters. Serene and poised, with a love for denim and knitted accessories, sensitivos like Joni Mitchell and Carole King weren't about loud guitars and social revolution, but rather acoustic warmth and personal introspection. Oh, and they also worshiped the Golden State -- as Ms. Mitchell crooned, "But my heart cried out for you California." Just think about the sheer number of 20-somethings, longing for a paradise far removed from their suburban boredom in the Midwest, who headed west simply because of those words.
Soul and funk were splintering as well (though not quite as radically as rock). While the R&B charts still boasted plenty of classic soul balladry, including "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," "You're a Big Girl Now" and "Let's Stay Together," Isaac Hayes, Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and numerous other artists were busy expanding the genres' sonic boundaries. Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" sported a bombastic arrangement that had more in common with progressive rock than either soul or funk. Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" -- one of the great stoner jams of the '70s -- betrayed the wild outfit's love for the feedback-drenched acid rock of Jimi Hendrix.
Not surprisingly, 1971 was yet another banner year for Sly & the Family Stone, whose "Family Affair" (as well as the entire There's a Riot Goin' On album) were the most sonically adventurous things Stone had yet unleashed. But Riot also wallowed in alienation, apathy and paranoia, insidious qualities that had been creeping into the African American experience ever since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the government's covert subversion of the Black Power movement. Just as prophetic in this regard were The Undisputed Truth's tour de force "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and War's downright terrifying "Slippin' Into Darkness." James Brown and his extended family of J.B.s should also be mentioned. After all, 1971 was a banner year for them. In addition to the singer's own "Make It Funky" trilogy, the man who is credited with discovering him, Bobby Byrd, released the masterful "I Know You Got Soul."
As you make your way through the playlist expect to encounter several long-form cuts. From Pink Floyd's "Echoes" to The Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East rendition of "Whipping Post" to Miles Davis' hard-grooving "Right Off," there are some deep-listening epics begging to be explored. Of course, if you don't enjoy extended cuts, feel free to skip over them. Their inclusion is my way of acknowledging FM radio's integral role in shaping pop tastes in the early '70s. The 23-minute "Whipping Post," for example, wasn't a hit record on AM radio, but because the hippie disc jockeys on the FM dial played it incessantly, it became one of classic rock's defining cuts. I wish those days would return!