First, just to get a little housekeeping out of the way, I’ve switched to a once-a-week updating schedule, in the hopes that it will allow me to post regularly at least through the end of the summer, and with a little luck I might even be able to get up to the mid-80s or so before I need to take a break again (fingers crossed!). So, the 1970 worst list will be published a week from today, on March 10th, and the ’71 best list on March 17th, and so on and so forth. Also, I’ve decided to make a separate best & worst playlist for each decade I cover on PGTY! If you’re currently only following the one I was updating for the sixties lists, hit that mf Spotify link and follow the newly-created Best of the 70s and Worst of the 70s playlists! Or don’t! I’m not the boss of you, I’m just here to write about great pop music. Speaking of which….
The music critic party line is generally that the 1960s was the best decade for popular music, and as we’ve seen over the course of my previous 10 best lists, there are plenty of examples any discerning listener could point to to back that statement up. Now, at time of writing, I’ve yet to listen through the 2000s year-end lists, and though I had the dubious honor of experiencing much of it firsthand, my recollection of the pop music of the 2010s is still far from encyclopaedic. But I nonetheless feel fairly confident in saying that, as far as I’m concerned, the 1970s was the best decade for pop. For one thing, rather than starting out in a total rut and taking a good 4 or 5 years to really kick into high gear, the ‘70s started in a great place and had little trouble maintaining that winning streak over the course of the decade. I’d also say it was a markedly weirder decade: odd trends and artists kept cropping up before quickly ceding the spotlight to new ones, rock splintered into a dozen unique directions, soul morphed into funk and later disco, and it all intermingled over the course of the decade for an unpredictable and engaging 10 years where it always felt like something different was just around the corner. 1970 kicked off the decade on something of a muted note- it feels like a bit of a comedown from the wildness of the preceding few years, and while there was still more than enough greatness to make for another roundly phenomenal top 10, it also felt like a well-deserved deep breath, like the top 40 was recalibrating itself for another ten years of innovation and reinvention. Let’s not waste any more time ushering in my favorite decade in popular music- On with the show!
#10: The Beatles- The Long and Winding Road
While 1970 marks the end of the Beatles as chart mainstays, the transition of the Beatles from a single, world-conquering entity to four musicians working (almost) fully independently of one another was, I think, much more gradual than it’s often made out to be. As far back as 1965, any attentive listener could distinguish a Paul McCartney song from a John Lennon song from a George Harrison song, and by ‘68 or so the band had, artistically speaking, already gone their separate ways. So, while “The Long and Winding Road” has the distinction of being the final single of the “Beatles era”, so to speak, I see it as more of a turning point in the songwriting career of Paul McCartney. Unlike John Lennon, who fancied himself the Dylanesque voice-of-a-generation, or George Harrison, whose idolization of Chuck Berry and love of eastern spirituality melded together into something entirely new, McCartney always wanted, deep down, to be a Burt Bacharach. There were clues throughout his ‘60s output, but here it’s plain as day: McCartney’s first and only love is the art of the pop song. A beautiful melody, a stirring arrangement, and a sentimental lyric are his primary (perhaps only) goals, across much of his solo career and here especially. There’s nothing ‘rock’ about “The Long And Winding Road”, but that’s key to its appeal. Phil Spector’s strings-n-choirs overdubs have been the subject of much controversy, and McCartney himself hated them so much he broke up the band over them and bitched about it for 30 years until Let it Be… Naked came out in ‘03. I like ‘em. They make the song less intimate, sure, but they also make it bigger, and a song this indebted to traditional pop benefits from the contrast between a very personal, emotional lyric and a very grandiose, climactic instrumental. At face value, it’s a simple love song that doesn’t necessarily merit all the pomp and circumstance, but as a swan song for one of the most important pop acts of the 60s, the more cinematic scope feels very fitting. This was a band that deserved to go out with a bang, and in its own unconventional way, I think “The Long and Winding Road” delivers that bang.
#9: The Ides of March- Vehicle
My praise for “Vehicle” comes with a few pretty big asterisks attached. Lyrically, it’s a little doofy, and trying to entice a woman into your car with “pictures and candy” is a notion that has aged… let’s be polite and say ‘questionably’. The production isn’t particularly impressive either, and the guitar solo suffers from a wonky kickoff that’s reportedly the result of a recording snafu that had to be patched with an overdub. It’s not the most well-rounded song, is what I’m getting at here. But god damn, that horn fanfare is just irresistible. “Duuuuuuuuuun, dun-na DUN-da-naaaaaaa, Duuuuuuuuuun, dun-na DUN-da-naaaaaaa” just instantly gets me pumped up, like pure auditory caffeine. By itself, that funky, brash riff would redeem the song at least to the level of being casually enjoyable, but frontman Jim Peterik brings in the unabashed swagger and confidence to make it a bona-fide home run. In funk and funk rock, lyrics have generally been more about carrying the mood of the song than actually telling a story or anything, and that’s exactly what Peterik does here. The way the vocal melody moves in the final line of each section (“great god in heaven you know I love yaaaa”) just has such a badass sound to it, it could be totally wordless and the energy of the song would still come across the same. Speaking of lyrics, all criticisms aside, I do sort of appreciate the way the song’s tone gives the subject an odd, underdog charisma, like the narrator is being jerked around and treated like a chauffeur for this girl, but he’s totally owning it, like “yeah, I am your vehicle, I’m the best damn vehicle in town!!”. It’s far from perfect, but it’s got pizazz and style where it counts, and that’s enough to get it a hearty thumbs-up in my book.
#8: Edwin Starr- War
The late 60s and early 70s are famous for producing some of the most beloved and enduring protest music in American history, and right at the top of many a list of Vietnam-era protest songs sits “War”, the magnum opus of one Edwin Starr. Originally an album track for the Temptations, “War” had grown in popularity, to the point where Motown was receiving requests to put it out as a proper single. Not wanting to alienate any of the group’s existing fans who might have been more in favor of the war in ‘nam, Motown hedged their bets by enlisting the relatively-unknown Starr to re-record it. As it turns out, they made a good call: Starr’s rendition of “War” rocketed up the charts, seizing the No. 1 spot for three straight weeks, and it isn’t hard to see why it connected so well. This song does not pussyfoot around. A lot of protest songs of this time took more of a tone of pleading for peace, focusing on nonviolence and pacifism rather than explicitly speaking against the war. “War” has no time for that wishy-washy nonsense. It has exactly one thing to say, and it says it as unequivocally and forcefully as possible: War fucking sucks. People killing each other sucks, and we should stop doing it immediately. Its direct bluntness means it borders on sloganeering territory, but that’s the intended effect. Lines like “War can’t give life, it can only take it away” and “They say we must fight to keep our freedom / But lord knows there’s got to be a better way” are so unignorable and confrontational that I actually can imagine a supporter of an overseas war pausing to rethink their position after hearing it, and that’s not something I can say about a lot of political music (even much of the stuff I like). Starr’s performance matches that energy, and the forceful instrumentation accentuates the urgency of the message. 50 years later, war remains good for “absolutely nothin’”, and this song remains a biting condemnation of needless violence the world over.
#7: Melanie- Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)
I wish for the life of me I could remember who said it, but I saw a tweet a while back that said something to the effect of “any art you make should be sincere enough to be at least a little cringeworthy”. The thought really struck me, and I think it makes for a solid jumping-off point for discussing Melanie Safka’s “Lay Down”. Now, I don’t usually talk about B-sides for this project, since they’re usually just some random album track or a deep cut the artist tossed off to fill disc space that hardly anyone actually remembers, but the B-side here, “Candles in the Rain”, is important. Its sibling A-side derives its parenthetical title from it, it leads directly into “Lay Down” on the album, and Safka has even released a re-recording of this song that incorporates the words and music of both tracks into one cohesive medley (I really recommend you give it a listen, I actually think it’s even better than this is). “Candles In the Rain” is the kind of thing a lot of people tend to scoff and roll their eyes at: a lone voice soberly humming a minor-key melody, before an acoustic guitar enters and Safka delivers a dramatic bit of spoken-word poetry about “all men living as brothers”. It’s… well, it’s a bit cringey, the flower-child image played completely straight, the lack of self-awareness genuinely disarming. But therein lies the key to “Lay Down”’s success: that’s what the whole song is about. Safka was inspired to write it after performing at Woodstock and seeing so many different people coming together, united by their shared passion for music and for new ways of thinking about the world. “Lay Down” is a paean to that sort of unguarded, earnest mindset, and sonically matches this by blending Safka’s folk stylings with the gospel soul of the Edwin Hawkins Singers, symbolically opening herself up to new influences. Safka saw what was possible when people let their walls down and embraced living life to the fullest together, and then had the guts to push that framework to its logical conclusion with honest-to-God spoken word poetry. If we want to be free, if we want to throw off the shackles of the world, well, we might end up looking a bit silly, but “Lay Down” argues that that’s ultimately a small price to pay. Cringiness is what you risk when you put your heart on your sleeve, and frankly, I’ll take that over cold, calculating irony any day.
#6: Stevie Wonder- Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
As Stevie Wonder rapidly approached his “Classic Period”, his music was only getting more vibrant, textured and melodious with each passing year. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” represents yet another leap forward for Stevie. While “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” found its compositional strength a bit hampered by an ill-fitting lyric, here the music and words slot together seamlessly. It’s a full-throated love anthem, a proud declaration of devotion and passion, and the music is, fittingly, a flat-out jam, endlessly fun and full of joie de vivre. It actually sounds a lot more like the soul of early Motown, almost like Stevie was trying to prove once-and-for-all that he could do this style of music better than anybody else right before the genre transitioned fully into a new era. If there’s anywhere I can nitpick the song, it’s here, because in an odd way, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” doesn’t feel fully “Stevie Wonder”, if that makes sense. It’s clear he’s still experimenting a bit, borrowing bits and pieces from his peers and predecessors to see what works for him, trying to build a distinct voice as an artist. I can’t put my finger on what ‘60s soul singer those scratchy yelps Stevie throws in remind me of, but it feels a bit like an affectation, and the sitar-sounding thing playing the main riff similarly feels like it was picked more for having an ear-grabbing timbre than because it was truly the perfect instrument for the job. All of this amounts to little more than an explanation as to why this isn’t any higher than #6, though. It’s still a phenomenal song, Stevie crushes it vocally, and it’s the perfect length to feel complete while still leaving you wanting more. I’m about to gush over Stevie Wonder a LOT across the next 7 or so best lists, and the fact that this is just the tip of the iceberg should speak volumes.
#5: Creedence Clearwater Revival- Travelin’ Band
Creedence Clearwater Revival has never really struck me as like, a capital-R Rock band. Sure, they had their rowdier moments, they could get their Chuck Berry on now and again, but in general I always think of them as being more a blues/country band that had some rock influences than the other way around. But one of the biggest exceptions to that is “Travelin’ Band”, a song so rock ‘n’ roll that they actually got sued for sounding too much like Little Richard. And I definitely see why, too: through and through, this song is a modern (at the time) update on the unbridled energy of early rock, given just a hint of the hard-rock edge that was coming into vogue around this time. Mostly that edge comes courtesy of John Fogerty, who turns in the most frenzied, raw vocals of his entire career here, especially those howls he lets out at the end of each verse. It’s not just an empty homage, either, employing that manic energy to convey the chaos and bustle of CCR’s relentless touring schedule, and it really captures the exciting yet overwhelming feeling of hitting the road and grinding out gig after gig, with hardly a moment to stop and collect your thoughts. Furthermore, by sonically hearkening back to the genre’s birth nearly 20 years prior in a song about the lifestyle of a currently-popular rock band, Fogerty established himself and Creedence as a part of that same, living tradition, perhaps one of the more savvy bits of self-mythologizing in rock history. It’s classic Creedence, packing a raucous, thrilling tune with a level of songwriting smarts few in their field have been able to match since.
#4: The Temptations- Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)
It’s about time I finally gave props to The Temptations, a group that’s only been missing my best lists by a nose ever since their 1966 hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. Though they have plenty of great tunes to their name, this one might just be my favorite. Maybe it’s a gimme, given the rather politically precarious point at which I’m writing this (November of 2020), but a song about how the world is completely going to shit and no one knows what to do about it is, I would say, a sentiment that has held up well across the decades. Every member of the band provides a different emotional angle here that enhances and adds depth to the song: Melvin Franklin’s rich, powerful bass, Eddie Kendrick’s light, languid tenor, Paul Williams’ deeper, passionate baritone and especially the ragged, angry energy of Dennis Edwards. It’s crammed full of great lyrics, too, and Franklin’s flawless delivery of “…and the band played on” is probably what first sold me on the song. It’s such a succinct way of communicating the way political turmoil can become the background radiation of our daily lives. Protests in the streets, men on the moon, drugs tearing apart neighborhoods… and still, life must go on. While it does lack the bite that an actual, concrete message or call to action would give it, the massive list of current events that pile up over the course of the song speak so well to the directionless frustration so many were feeling in 1970 (and likely today as well) that I can’t help but love it all the same.
#3: Marmalade- Reflections of My Life
I’m always thrilled to talk about songs that are a little less ubiquitous, a little less thoroughly-canonized, and at the risk of writing a check this song can’t cash, “Reflections of My Life” might be one of my very favorite discoveries from this entire project. The main draw of this song is its absolutely killer bassline, a flowing, twisty thing that never stops delighting and surprising until the very last notes of the song fade out. The term “Beatlesque” gets tossed around a lot, often in inappropriate places, but this song genuinely does have the feel of a long-lost tune from the fab four’s mid-60s heyday, a lovely, melancholic little baroque-pop rumination on the passage of time and the observance of change and turmoil. I can’t be the only one who relates a little too much to “The world is a bad place / a terrible place to live / but I don’t want to die”, right? Lyrically, it’s not exactly sunshine and rainbows, but the melody and arrangement are so appealing and sonically rich that it almost feels like all the little things that make life worth living are crowding around the periphery of the song’s pessimistic core, coloring it with a bittersweet, weary sort of optimism. Thoughtful and pensive without being navel-gazing or mopey, and positively immaculate on a musical level, “Reflections of my Life” is as close to a quote-unquote “hidden gem” as you’re likely to find combing through the hot 100 charts.
#2: The Beatles- Let It Be
I’ll be honest: I’m sick of talking about the Beatles at this point. This is the fourteenth write-up I’ve done for this band, and even for an act as discussable as this, there’s only so much I can add after 50-plus years of unceasing discourse and analysis. Even for “Let it Be” in specific- what do I say here? That it’s one of the most beautiful songs Paul McCartney ever wrote? That it captures the Beatles’ desire to ‘get back’ to their rock’n’roll roots without sidelining McCartney’s passion for clockwork-precise pop? That its religious intimations rank among pop’s most tastefully executed and emotionally impactful, and the music backs it up with a swell capable of winning over even the staunchest nonbelievers? It’s all obvious, it’s all right there, you already knew it before I said a word. I’ll admit that it took me a while to come around to “The Long and Winding Road”; for a long time I just couldn’t get past its stuffy, dramatic non-rock-ness. But I could never deny “Let it Be”, and more importantly, I’ve never wanted to. Though McCartney has spent the past half-century grasping blindly towards the greatness he achieved with the Beatles with only occasional success, he began the decade with some of the most note-perfect pop balladry of all time, and no amount of “Ebony and Ivory” is going to undo that.
#1: Simon & Garfunkel- Bridge Over Troubled Water
There’s a reason why it’s “Simon & Garfunkel” and not “Garfunkel and Simon”. Paul Simon defined the duo’s output in a way his musical partner never did: he wrote all their lyrics, sang lead on almost all their songs, and embarked on a phenomenally successful solo career after the release of this song and its eponymous parent album. But let’s take a moment here to give the proper deference to Arthur Ira Garfunkel. Because on this, his one moment (mostly) alone in the pop music spotlight, his value became crystal clear: the dude could fuckin’ sing. Much has been made of Paul Simon’s cynical streak as a writer; he certainly has his sentimental side, but it is true that he generally writes with a bit of a wink at the camera, a foot or so of emotional distance, and his singing voice works really well for that sort of writing, carrying that slight snarky edge while still remaining warm and likeable. But “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is so nakedly, achingly emotional, almost uncomfortable in its earnestness, and I think Simon knew he just didn’t have the voice to make that work. But Garfunkel? Goodness, this man had the voice of an angel. A clear, ringing tenor, carrying not a whiff of cynicism or ill will, the absolute perfect fit for the unabashed sentimentality on display here. “Stand By Me” is elevated to greatness because it expresses such unconditional faith in the goodness of the human spirit, in the ability of people to come together to ease each other’s hurt. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” taps into that same emotional vein. Like Paul Simon, I’m often inclined to cynicism myself, but art like this, art that can convince me, even if only for a moment, that the innate kindness in each of us will allow us to help each other through the sturm und drang of the world, is a spiritual balm I suspect I’ll never stop appreciating.