The way the ‘70s started stands in fairly stark contrast to the way the ‘60s did. While 1961 was still so mired in the cultural trappings of the previous decade that, to many, it barely even qualifies as “The Sixties”, the ‘60s felt almost entirely vanished from the pop charts by the closing weeks of 1971. That may sound a bit rich coming from me since, as you’ll quickly find, a good half my best list for this year consists of artists who were already well-established by the end of the sixties, but even those songs felt possessed of a distinctly current sensibility, whether it was Marvin Gaye reinventing himself as a sharp-eyed social critic or George Harrison finally throwing his creative floodgates wide across three LPs of joyfully shaggy folk-rock. By the end of ‘71 it was undeniable that chart pop was at the dawn of a new era, but nobody was yet sure exactly what era it was, and across the year we saw artists of all stripes throwing their hats into the ring in an effort to define what sounds would guide music into the future. Regardless of which artists emerged victorious on the charts (hint: it wasn’t all good ones), these are the ten new directions that shone brightest across this year. On with the show!
#10: The Who- Won’t Get Fooled Again
1969 saw the release of the Who’s narrative-driven rock opera Tommy, a strange, half-formed conceptual opus that pushed mainstream rock into more high-minded territory than had ever been attempted before, and almost fell to pieces in the process. As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, and drugs abuse and creative disagreement splintered the Beatles apart and came a hair’s breadth from doing the same to the Stones, a more agreed-upon creative pecking order allowed Townshend to keep his band hanging together while setting his sights on an even more ambitious follow-up to Tommy, a multi-media behemoth tentatively titled Lifehouse. Synthesizers! Longer songs! A post-apocalyptic plot tackling virtual reality, ecological collapse, and neo-sufist mysticism! It was… a bit much, and predictably, the project ended up well past the point of actual feasibility, forcing Townshend and his bandmates back to the drawing board. The result was 1971’s Who’s Next, a grounded, straightforward rock album built out of salvaged material from Lifehouse and stripped of any conceptual baggage that might have bogged it down in pretense. The best material from the album tempered Towshend’s soaring ambition with a newfound confidence and focus that elevated it to instant-classic status, and lead single “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a prime example of this. Like “Revolution” before it, this is a song that attempts a critique of revolutionary ideology, but by being willing to grapple more tangibly with the messy, violent reality of revolutions, and the ways they can go awry and produce a new status quo no better than the old one, it emerges far stronger on a conceptual level. It is held back a bit by Townshend’s somewhat limited pop acumen (he was never as handy with a hook as Lennon), and by the single edit disposing of the second verse along with some less crucial instrumental passages, but the thoughtful lyrics, in combination with Townshend’s excellently-integrated synth work and one of Roger Daltrey’s all-time best vocal performances, make “Won’t Get Fooled Again” one of the most compelling and worthwhile hard rock tunes of the early ‘70s.
#9: Isaac Hayes- Theme from ‘Shaft’
“Theme From Shaft” is proof that, along with surf rock and spy movies, funk and action flicks are one of the best pairings in showbiz. It kicks ass in exactly the right way, with the timbres in the hi-hat shuffle and guitar riff evoking a sleek, effortlessly cool aesthetic, while the backing piano and viola strains add a sense of tension and danger that gets you itching for a gun-toting badass to show up and relieve it by laying waste to whoever gets in his way. And, while John Shaft himself never shows up in this track, Isaac Hayes makes for a more-than-adequate substitute. Anyone familiar with Hayes’ acclaimed late 60s/early 70s albums knows he was one of the most charismatic vocal presences in all of funk music, and “Theme from Shaft” is no exception. Here, Hayes plays the role of a hype man, delivering lines about Shaft’s skills (both in the streets and in the sheets) with a sense of silky, suave surety, and it’s surprising how many endlessly quotable lines he managed to cram into only a few two-line verses: “Can ya dig it?”, “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, and of course, “They say this cat Shaft is a bad motherf-shut your mouth!”. Speaking of which, the backup singers here deserve their own shout-out, adding the perfectly airy counterpoint to Hayes’ genial baritone throughout the second half of the track. Movie tie-in singles have been a staple of the hot 100 for most of its history, but almost none stand better on their own- or serve as such a convincing pitch for their parent film- than “Theme from Shaft”.
#8: Wilson Pickett- Don’t Knock My Love
As much as I flat-out adore so much of the funk music of the mid-to-late 70s, there’s still something special about the time period in the late 60s and very early 70s, where funk was still in the process of forming into a distinct genre. Much of that early funk carries an emotional intensity and gravitas more characteristic of 60s soul, and a great example of this is “Don’t Knock My Love”, which, fittingly, is an early funk song performed by a 60s soul artist. Wilson Pickett’s performance here feels indebted to Jackie Wilson’s explosive “Higher and Higher” from 1967, and that high-energy delivery, complete with scratchy, soulful yelps and ad-libs, makes for a great pairing with the bold horns and tighter groove he’s working with here. It’s also a classic case of great music elevating just-okay lyrics: the narrator is telling his partner to leave him if they’re not as passionate about the relationship as he is, and while it’s not bad by any means, it’s nothing too special- a little short on ear-grabbing details, a little thinly-sketched overall. Still, the music and Pickett’s energetic vocals lend a sense of both urgency and confidence to the words; it comes off as a lot less pissy and confrontational than it could have, and the confrontationality that is there feels justified by the intense music. It’s not quite substantial enough to go toe-to-toe with the very best funk of the decade, but it’s fun and assured enough for me to be glad to hear it every time it comes on, and it ends Wilson Pickett’s tenure as a hitmaker on a well-deserved high note.
#7: George Harrison- My Sweet Lord
George Harrison’s behemoth triple-album All Things Must Pass is regarded by many people (myself included) as one of the best albums released by any former Beatle. To me, the key to ATMP’s success is that it is just a flat-out ecstatically happy album. Even the more melancholic cuts (“Isn’t It A Pity”, “Run Of The Mill”, the title track, etc.) are stuffed with the resounding joy of Harrison’s newfound creative freedom as a solo artist. Across the entire album, he sounds thrilled by the mere act of making music, humbled and grateful for the opportunity, and the album’s lead single, “My Sweet Lord” is a great encapsulation of this. It’s compositionally indebted to gospel hymns and early-60s girl-group pop, providing an upbeat and uplifting template for Harrison’s paean to the heavens. Notably, the song takes measures to reach across religious denominations, the title phrase mingling with hebrew hallelujahs and hindi hare krishnas. While it’s more than fair to interpret this as a call for unity between people of different faiths, to my ears it just sounds like Harrison has too much love and gratitude in his heart for any one god. Krishna, Elohim, Allah, whatever- Here, they’re all part of the same divine holiness that we all want to strive to get closer to, the destination of our collective journey to understand and make peace with the universe we exist within. That universality helps lend the song a power beyond any one religious tradition, as does Harrison’s beatific vocal presence. “My Sweet Lord” is such a simple, blissful affirmation of faith that, by the end of each listen, even a staunch secularist like myself is always feeling a bit of that holy spirit.
#6: Marvin Gaye- Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
The story of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been told many times over, and I don’t want to waste too much space summarizing the Wikipedia article here. It’s your classic Bon Iver story: artist’s personal life falls completely to pieces, he holes up in his house, grows a beard and emerges a year later with a masterpiece to last the ages. Of course, that’s the (very) short version, but you get the idea: Gaye went through some rough stuff, and ultimately decided that he couldn’t keep singing about simple heartbreak and romance. No, he needed to make something hard-hitting, something that made salient commentary on modern society and brought attention to important issues. What’s Going On has been widely hailed as one of the greatest albums ever made. Whether or not I personally agree with that is neither here nor there, but I will say that Gaye and his team picked the perfect songs off of it as the teasers to hook listeners in. “Mercy Mercy Me” is easily one of Marvin Gaye’s best singles, and captures so much of the excellence and timelessness of its parent album. For one, it’s simply gorgeous on an aesthetic level. Every instrument and voice here is rendered in breathtaking detail, blended together flawlessly, and it perfectly transitions that ebullient Motown sound into more thoughtful, melancholy territory. That brings us to the lyric, an unabashed environmentalist anthem. It’s built on plain-spoken, direct details: fish full of mercury, radiation in the ground, poison in the wind. The contrast of these harsh lyrics with the verdant sonic palette is so fitting; Gaye’s words are symbolically sullying this lovely song, just as oil refineries and nuclear reactors are sullying our beautiful Earth, and the overall impression is so heartbreakingly sad that it’s genuinely surprising that this got as much radio play as it did. Artfully delivering an environmentalist message in a pop song is no easy feat, and the fact that Gaye pulls it off so well here is nothing but a credit to What’s Going On’s towering reputation.
#5: Bill Withers- Ain’t No Sunshine
Bill Withers might be the earliest artist to appear on the year-end hot 100 who could justifiably be called “retro”. Even in a time where it seemed like every possible nook and cranny of soul music was being explored, Withers felt like an outlier, an artifact of an earlier time. Given that practically all modern pop music can be traced back to the blues, it’s actually been pretty uncommon to hear an actual blues song on the pop charts since at least the beginning of the 60s, and “Ain’t No Sunshine” goes back even further than that. In presentation, it may be more-or-less modern with that string arrangement and the cleaner-sounding acoustic pickups, but in spirit, it feels like something that could have come from Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, maybe even Woody Guthrie. Part of that might be the song’s simplicity and directness- the narrator misses his woman, and Withers’ unpolished yet perfectly emotive delivery does most of the heavy lifting, with no fancy ten-dollar words or turns of phrase to muddy the waters. It also might be that improvised “I know, I know, I know” breakdown. Supposedly, it was intended as a placeholder for an eventual second verse, but everyone in the studio knew there was something in that simple three-word repetition: the blues, just pure feeling with as little technical interference as possible. “Ain’t No Sunshine” might not be the very best hit of the year, but with how well it captures that old blues magic, it might just be the most timeless.
#4: John Denver- Take Me Home, Country Roads
The 70s is best known for the rock and R&B it spawned, with progressive rock, funk, punk rock, disco, and heavy metal all having this decade to thank for much of their most beloved and influential texts. Slightly more overlooked, at least by most mainstream critics, is the phenomenal decade country & western music had in the ‘70s, with the zenith of the outlaw country movement forcing Nashville to innovate to keep up with legitimate competition from booming regional scenes in California and Texas. While few would argue that John Denver had either the raw vocal power of a Waylon Jennings or the piercing lyrical wit of a John Prine, he was the perfect ambassador for the genre to the world of chart pop, with his knack for distilling the spirit of country music into three-minute blasts of pastoral imagery and soaring, infectious melodies. “Country Roads”, ranking among Denver’s most enduring material, is an excellent display of his strengths as an artist. There are countless country songs which extol the virtues of the songwriters’ hometown, but primary songwriters Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert tap into something here that only a select few manage to fully convey: a sense of belonging. It’s right there in the chorus, “Country roads, take me home / to the place I belong”, and the rest of the song builds off the emotions that come with having a sense of belonging tied to a particular place, whether it’s Denver’s voice arching ecstatically into the highest note of the chorus to convey the euphoria of returning to the place you’re from, or the more hushed moments in the verses capturing the wistful bittersweetness of knowing just how far away from home you are. One thing country music can do better than almost any other music is capture the ways our emotions are tied up in the places we’ve been and the geography of our lives, and “Country Roads” is proof that pop immediacy needn’t be sacrificed to do so.
#3: Richie Havens- Here Comes the Sun
It’s been a minute since I had any really spicy, against-the-current takes for this project, hasn’t it? Well, here’s one: this is THE definitive rendition of “Here Comes the Sun”. Of course, I don’t say that to disparage the Beatles’ original, which easily ranks among George Harrison’s best work with the band. It feels like a sort of counterpoint to “Hey Jude”, conjuring the same blissful warmth and positivity, but in a much more mellow, relaxed form, and what I adore about Richie Havens’ rendition is the way he so deftly maintains that tone of joyful mellowness, while also blending in some of that “Hey Jude” intensity. And it’s so different, too! Havens strips the song down to just the chord progression and lyric, and rebuilds it from the ground up using his forceful, rhythmic acoustic strumming, a few tasteful lead licks, and a sprinkling of wooden percussion. It’s much less poised than Harrison’s meticulously pretty original, but it still feels like Havens really ‘gets’ this song. You can tell he really worked to capture the emotions of relief and happiness presented in the lyrics, the weary edge in his voice casting the entire song in a whole new light and adding an emotional complexity that brings it to the next level. Even if you disagree with me about which version is better, it shouldn’t be at all controversial to say that this should be held up as a high-water mark for pop covers, a radical reinterpretation that nonetheless feels entirely true to the spirit of the original.
#2: Carly Simon- That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be
After listening to all her big hits and a smattering of album material, I’m honestly at a bit of a loss as to why Carly Simon has slipped through the cracks of the 70s pop canon the way she has. If you’re into pop music for the craft of songwriting, if you’re always on the lookout for a standout set of lyrics or a striking, unique melody or arrangement, you owe it to yourself to take at least a cursory listen through Simon’s back catalog, because she produced some of the most sharply written, deftly performed pop of the decade. This, her debut single, shows Simon entering the pop world fully-formed and very near the peak of her lyrical prowess. “That’s The Way…” is such an emotionally nuanced, thoughtful song that it almost feels like it doesn’t belong on the pop charts, a startlingly bleak survey of loveless, ossified relationships only held together by inertia and long-expired social norms. Simon makes no overt critiques of the systems that produce such relationships here, but she doesn’t even really have to; the vignettes in each verse are tied together by the narrator witnessing her own inevitable slide into the exact same situations with a sense of both inevitability and dread. The most fiery polemic wouldn’t hit with the impact of lines like “Their children hate them for the things they’re not / they hate themselves for what they are”, lines that simply hold a mirror to the ugly realities of the world and let the listeners judge for themselves. The music does a fantastic job of highlighting the lyrical density on display, building the vocal melody around haunting minor gestures and leaving the arrangement fairly spare, so the listener’s attention can remain on Simon’s words. It only livens up during the chorus, and even then only somewhat, adding a somber, mid-tempo drumbeat and a bit more fire in her vocal delivery. Overall, this song is a whip-smart examination of the way we think about relationships, told in such vivid, human terms that it never for a second feels like a lecture- Truly a masterclass in lyricism and songwriting.
#1: Marvin Gaye- What’s Going On
“What’s Going On” is every bit as good as people say it is, and if you know anything about this song’s reputation you know that that’s saying a lot. Like “Mercy Mercy Me”, “What’s Going On” is a stunningly realized anthem centering around a pressing sociopolitical issue- or, in this song’s case, multiple issues. It casts a pretty wide net, touching on, among other things, anti-war sentiments, oppression of black Americans, and the conservative backlash against the countercultural movement at the time. Adequately addressing all these thorny, complex topics is a pretty tall order for any song, but Gaye ties it all together with one simple notion: We could all stand to be a little more compassionate towards our fellow humans. At the root of all these problems, Gaye and co-writers Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson saw a lack of love, an absence of that thing which many would argue is one of the strongest forces for good in existence. Their solution was to communicate and move forward together, and they led by example by asking, well, what’s going on? If we all took the time to understand protesters, soldiers, everyone on a human level, to hear their stories and their passions, surely nothing could come of it but a softer, more caring world, right? As a writer, I may be uniquely susceptible to a proposition that communication (language, essentially) is the key to overcoming even our biggest structural failings, but it’s presented with such striking conviction and empathy (not to mention more melody and feel-good rhythms than you can shake a stick at) that its endurance and appeal is obvious just from listening to it. Make no mistake, there is a time and a place for angry, even wrathful political music: stuff that can activate your negative emotions to convince you to take a stand for what’s right or fight back against unjust systems. But by that same token, there ought to be room in the protest-music canon for material that asks us to summon better angels, that appeals to our most positive, kindest impulses. In that field, “What’s Going On?” remains, to me, the standard against which all music of this stripe must be measured.