Oh my god. Oh my god. We’re finally here. Nineteen seventy-three, in my humble opinion the single, undisputed greatest year in the entire history of the Billboard hot 100. I’ve had to make some pretty painful cuts for nearly every best list since the mid-60s, but in ‘73, a year where the stars somehow aligned to bring successful material from almost every one of the most luminously talented pop acts of the day within one twelve-month span? Yeah, culling this year’s best list down to an even ten entries really was like pulling teeth. Songs that would have handily taken the number-one slot in almost any other year had to be shunted down all the way to the bottom of the list, and a heartbreaking number of wonderful songs wound up left off entirely. “Long Train Runnin’”? “If You Want Me to Stay”? “Rocky Mountain High”? “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)”? “Smoke on the Water”? Sorry, but they’re all missing from this list, casualties of the sheer overwhelming volume of classic soul, country, funk and rock that ‘73 delivered unto us. But hey, that’s one hell of a great problem to have, and I’ve been eager to get to this one ever since I first listened through the ‘73 year-end list over a year ago, so let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the absolute cream of the crop, the finest offerings of this magical year- On with the show!
#10: Curtis Mayfield- Superfly
Just to really give you an idea of just how unbelievably great 1973 was for music: This song was only my tenth-most-favorite single of the year! 1972 was the year that funk went from a promising outgrowth of classic soul to a force in its own right, and Curtis Mayfield was one of the first to fully capitalize on this with his masterful soundtrack for Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly in July of that year. There’s nothing I’ve found to evidence this claim, but I think Curtis Mayfield heard “Theme From ‘Shaft’” in ‘71 and set out to one-up Isaac Hayes across the board, because the title track from Superfly expands on nearly every idea presented in “Theme From Shaft”. It takes the core conceit of describing the film’s protagonist and gives us a much more emotionally nuanced and in-depth look at the character of Youngblood Priest. In fact, it’s just overall a really stark, impactful portrait of the inner life of a drug dealer, touching on his emotional isolation, his moral conflict, and his desire to get out of the game and make a better, more honest life for himself. It’s what all “anti-drug” media should aspire to be- honest, human and empathetic rather than didactic and self-righteous. The music also jams hard, of course, with the opening bass line leading into a killer groove and the horns and guitar providing a needed edge of cinematic drama without compromising the noir darkness of the track. It’s at the bottom of the best list because it doesn’t really have a strong hook or anything to really tie it all up with a bow, but everything else, from the funky instrumentation to Mayfield’s effortlessly chill vocal delivery to the gritty, hard-hitting lyrics, is so great that “Superfly” is a resounding success all the same.
#9: Steely Dan- Do It Again
“Steely Dan is actually surprisingly dark” is a tune I’m sure we’ve all heard before, whether it’s from the hipsters who rehabilitated the Dan’s reputation after years of being considered lame dad music, or the older folks who originally fell in love with them in their ‘70s heyday. They’re all correct, though: Steely Dan is pretty damn dark. Donald Fagen was, as a lyricist, endlessly enamored with humanity’s most unsavory impulses, and he had a real knack for exploring them with a poet’s flair for imagery and a pitch-black sense of humor. I appreciate Steely Dan a lot, both for their highly skilled musicianship and for their aforementioned lyrical complexity, but to be honest I wouldn’t exactly call myself a big fan. Too much of their material feels polished to the point of lifelessness, and it’s often hard for me to find an emotional entry-point into their music’s dark depths when the veneer is so unfailingly glossy. “Do It Again” is the biggest exception to that, largely because those dark depths are so much closer to the surface than usual. For one, it’s darker musically, utilizing congas and washboard for a strikingly off-kilter percussion line, and anchoring the composition in a sickly, minor-key wurlitzer riff. Furthermore, the lyrics are a bit less inscrutable than usual- still fairly cryptic, but not buried under as many layers of sarcasm and oblique imagery. Each verse is a different, gruesome vignette: a murderer walks free after killing a thief in cold blood, a man pursues wicked women who mistreat him, and a gambler goes back to Vegas after swearing to quit. The chorus connects it all beautifully, relating these three disparate stories to one central idea: an inescapable cycle of vice and violence. These three bastards will repeat the same mistakes over and over again until it kills them, and the persistent use of second-person pronouns frames the whole thing as a direct warning to the listener. Of course, since it’s Steely Dan, the whole thing is also played with machinelike precision and given a spotlessly shiny production job, but since the actual music does so much to carry the uneasy atmosphere of the song, the intended effect is thankfully not diminished much by this, nor by the omission of Fagen’s “plastic organ” solo. Morality plays are rarely this viscerally grim or this immaculately presented.
#8: Carly Simon- You’re So Vain
Too many discussions around Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” center on the question of who Simon wrote the song about, since Simon was a bit of a tabloid fixture at the time and had been romantically involved with many high-profile celebrities when the song was first released. I genuinely could not care less whether it’s about Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty or whoever else. “You’re So Vain” is great because it’s the perfect take-down of a specific kind of asshole I think everyone knows at least one of. A common criticism of this song is that “you’re so vain / you probably think this song is about you” isn’t a good insult because, well, the song is about him, right? I honestly think that’s kind of a shallow critique, though. Like, imagine the kind of person who, upon hearing a song tearing into some guy for being a completely selfish jackass, thinks “wow, someone wrote a song about me!”. That’s exactly the reaction this character would have to hearing this song, the sort of infuriatingly self-absorbed “lol you’re so obsessed with me” smugness that just drives people up the wall. It’s a frighteningly effective way to get the listener on Simon’s emotional wavelength, relating to her disdain and exasperation towards this guy. There are also lots of good, songwriter-y details here that help paint a detailed picture of the song’s subject: sleeping with his friends’ wives, gallivanting around in his stupid tilted hat and apricot scarf, admiring himself in the mirror. Ugh, what a jerk. Apart from the lyrics, “You’re So Vain” is also Simon’s catchiest and most energetic single to date, probably the first song of hers that can properly be called “fun”. The chorus especially is a beast, thanks to a great string arrangement and some surprisingly creative backing vocals that seemingly do something different with every repetition. It’s a pretty sour song lyrically, so it helps that the music is a bit sweeter to counterbalance that, else it might have come off a bit too vindictive to connect with. Nine times out of ten, I prefer introspective angst to angry score-settling, so I’d probably still say I like “You’re So Vain” just a little less than “That’s the Way…”, but this is still a great song, and it showed that Simon had real range outside of her downbeat early work, and the ability to explore and grow as an artist and songwriter.
#7: Marvin Gaye- Let’s Get It On
Okay, now we’re really getting into “would easily be my #1 pick in any other year” territory. Jesus Christ, I really cannot stress enough how jam-packed with amazingly great music 1973 was. Anyway, the opening ten seconds of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is the most iconic musical moment of the ‘70s, right up there with the intro to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the climax of “Stairway to Heaven” and the chorus of “Dancing Queen”. In those first few seconds, Gaye manages to create such a powerful atmosphere of lust and passion that the song has practically become musical shorthand for sex. It’s no mean feat, then, that the ENTIRE SONG is as indelible and great as those opening seconds. Marvin Gaye was a man with an extremely complicated and fraught relationship with his own sexuality. This stemmed from a strict religious upbringing, and this song’s eponymous parent album was largely an exercise in Gaye finally coming to terms with himself as a sexual being, using his newfound spirituality as a vehicle for exploring the nature of intimacy. This is likely a big reason why “Let’s Get It On” is as ecstatically, blissfully happy as it is. It’s the sound of a man becoming free, accepting himself and trying to share himself with another person. When he sings “I’ve been really trying, baby / trying to hold back this feeling for so long”, you can really hear the years of repression and guilt in his voice, and when he sings “There’s nothing wrong with me loving you”, it sounds like he’s genuinely realizing it for the first time. It’s an incredible performance all-around; Gaye inhabits the lyrics here to a degree rarely heard in pop. Furthermore, the instrumentation ranks among Motown’s best. The Funk Brothers deserve a standing ovation for their work here: lush, expansive, and of course sexy as all get-out, they flawlessly match the tightrope balance between careful poise and joyful abandon that is Gaye’s vocal delivery here. And, as a cherry on top, the narrator here is, though pleading and insistent, also unfailingly respectful of and sensitive to their partner’s boundaries (“I ain’t gonna push, won’t push you baby”). It’s the sex-positivity anthem to end them all, and though Gaye (presciently) insists in the album’s liner notes that “SEX is SEX and LOVE is LOVE”, the title track proves to be perhaps the most artful and vibrant mingling of the two that the pop charts have ever seen.
#6: Pink Floyd- Money
Except for the Beatles (and even then it’s a close race), I’m genuinely not sure if there’s another act I’ll discuss for PGTY that’s as critically adored and enduring as Pink Floyd. There’s no possible way I can compress their immense legacy into a pithy sentence or two here, so let’s just leave it at that. One might expect that such a band cracking the top 40 would require some kind of watering-down of their fierce, uncompromising creativity, and from a certain standpoint, you could make the case that that’s what happened here. Gone is the explorative psychedelia of “A Pillow of Clouds” or “Atom Heart Mother”, replaced by a lurching, mechanical take on the blues-inflected hard rock of the day. Still, though it represented a shift towards a more broadly palatable sound, Floyd remained a completely singular creative force on “Money” and its legendary parent album The Dark Side of the Moon. The rhythm of the song is introduced by a cut-and-paste series of thematically fitting sound effects- cash registers ringing and whirring, coins clinking, purses zipping and unzipping. Not since Getz/Gilberto’s “Girl From Ipanema” has a pop single been so attuned to the nature of sound itself, so inventive in crafting a unique sonic atmosphere. As with anything regarding Pink Floyd, this point has surely been beaten to death by now, but it kind of can’t be overstated how creative and gifted these guys were as producers. From the way David Gilmour’s guitar chords shudder and shimmer across the mix, to the thick, rubbery bounce of Roger Waters’ bass (the bassline here is utterly phenomenal, by the way), to the light touches of distortion on the vocals, “Money” is outright ear candy. While I’m more than willing to give songs like this a pass for their sound and composition alone, I’m still a lyrics person at the end of the day, but of course Pink Floyd succeeds with flying colors in that regard, too. I’m not quite familiar enough with Floyd’s earlier material to say for sure, but 1973 seems to be the year Roger Waters started coming into his own as a ruthless and sharp-witted social critic, delivering a sardonic overview of consumerism and our culture’s obsession with wealth. The narrator’s unquenchable greed drips through every line (“Ah, don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit”), but the song isn’t entirely without mirth, either; the casualness of lines like “Think I’ll buy me a football team” is as dry and understated as all the best British humor (or, I guess, humour). Is it on par with the stratospheric heights of Wish You Were Here or Animals? It’s certainly up for debate, but as a pop breakthrough for a markedly non-pop act, “Money” is miles beyond what almost any other such band has managed in the forty-plus years since.
#5: The Allman Brothers Band- Ramblin’ Man
I’ve been a fan of the Allman Brothers Band for a long time, since long before I had any kind of taste for country in general. Part of that is just the rather embarrassing fact that, as a younger teenager who was more than a little insecure about their taste in media, I probably felt more comfortable liking music I could pretend wasn’t actually country. A bigger part of it, though, is that The Allman Brothers were just an incredibly great band, fusing the hard-living outlaw country of the day to more loose, free-flowing rock, psychedelia and even jazz fusion. They had wickedly sharp technical chops, a keen ear for warm, inviting melodies, and an absolute powerhouse of a frontman in Gregg Allman- what’s not to love? Their big hit “Ramblin’ Man” is also probably their most ‘country’; the jazzier, trippier side of the band is much less pronounced, but it more than makes up for it with buoyant catchiness and energy. Dickey Betts had, at this point, stepped up to fill the shoes of their late lead guitarist Duane Allman, and his more straightforward, blues-rooted lead work defines “Ramblin’ Man”, arguably even more so than Gregg Allman’s vocal and lyrical contributions. He and future Steve Miller sideman Les Dudek fill the whole track with careening solos and instantly hooky fills, and they drive home the sense of freedom and expanse to really capture the restless roaming of the track’s narrator. I’d wager that’s why even the stingiest radio edits of this song keep almost all the solos in: they’re just as important to the theme and character of the track as the rest of it, if not even more so! Not only is this a country tune that can stand toe-to-toe with Merle Haggard or Billy Joe Shaver’s best, it’s a veritable clinic in how to use solos as both a showcase of technical ability and a thematic enhancement to the song surrounding them.
#4: Billy Paul- Me and Mrs. Jones
This is an easy one: I can just point you to the excellent One Hit Wonderland episode on this song and say “This. This is my opinion on “Me and Mrs. Jones”. To summarize: this song presents an emotionally complex and strikingly mature look at infidelity (when I say you need proper framing to make a good song about cheating, this is exactly what I’m talking about), and Billy Paul’s background in jazz gives him a unique edge as a performer, approaching the more low-key sections with a naturalistic phrasing that really brings the lyrics to life, and of course bellowing the title line with an aching passion that’s just undeniable. The music captures both the passion between the narrator and his titular paramour, and the pain of the circumstances that mean they can never be together the way they both want to be. I really don’t have too much to add here: One Hit Wonderland, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, look it up on Youtube dot com, chop chop. I’ll add that the little sax break about halfway through is a lovely touch, and doubles as a nice homage to Paul’s origins. I’m always a little disappointed they didn’t give Don Renaldo a proper solo there, because I think he could have delivered a real show-stopper, but hey, if there’s any one word that sums up this song it’s “restraint”. Is Renaldo’s stifled contribution here a brilliant musical metaphor, or just a serendipitous coincidence? Who knows, but either way “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a high watermark for mid-70s soul, and an excellent showcase for a talented performer that never really got his due.
#3: Stevie Wonder- Superstition
For a year that was full to bursting with talented musicians in their prime, it’s no small matter to say that 1973 belonged, without question, to Stevie Wonder, who capped off ‘72 with his watershed release Talking Book and followed it up a mere 9 months later with the masterful Innervisions. Most musicians would do unspeakably terrible things for so much as a chance to have one album reach the heights of these releases, and here was this 23-year old whiz kid blasting out two such albums less than a year apart. With all that said, I think Talking Book (while very good in its own right) is pretty clearly the lesser album of the two, not as ambitious or lyrically distinctive and plagued with a few too many slow-paced, sugary ballads. Still, there is one song on the album that served as the first full taste of what this guy could really accomplish when he was firing on all cylinders.
Naturally, it was the lead single.
“Superstition” is a total barn-burner of a track, clearly rooted in funk and soul but taking the attitude and energy of hard rock and showing what use it can really be put to. The groove to this song is flat-out unstoppable, an impossibly tight blend of percussion, synth bass and clavinet that commands practically any human being with functioning legs and ears to get up and shake their booty to it. The horn fanfares give a crucial punch of zest and bravado each and every time they kick in; the song is so single-mindedly dedicated to that all-important groove that any other musical ideas in the song have to add to it or else work around it, and Stevie is, of course, savvy enough to know this. Speaking of Stevie, his vocal performance on this track is an unequivocal career highlight, smoothly and effortlessly nailing the vocal runs throughout the song and slowly folding in a grittier smolder to his delivery that keeps the track building in intensity until the very end. “Superstition” is widely (and justly) considered one of the greatest pop singles of the 70s, if not of all time. The fact that Stevie actually managed to top it is nothing short of miraculous- but I’m getting ahead of myself.
#2: David Bowie- Space Oddity
You know, I’m generally not too hot on love songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against them, you know, categorically or anything, but as far as my personal listening habits go, the stuff I throw on for pleasure when I’m not slaving away at this project, I just don’t listen to much music about romance. One of my favorite bands, The Flaming Lips, are renowned for songwriting that eschews traditional pop song topics to focus on sci-fi storytelling, high adventure and outlandish characters, sometimes even all three at once. The Lips count David Bowie as a primary influence, but whenever I listen to Bowie, I honestly only hear bits and pieces- a certain chord change here, a guitar tone there. In “Space Oddity”, Bowie’s first pop breakthrough, I hear that lyrical sensibility, definitive proof that songs about astronauts or robots or hypnotists can be just as important and emotionally resonant as any song about love or sex. “Space Oddity” is obviously great on its own terms, but it should also be noted that so many wonderful pop and rock songs tackling odd, unconventional topics have this very song to thank for showing what was possible outside a traditional lyrical framework. It’s a real watershed moment, both for rock music and, I think, for our cultural relationship with the concept of outer space. I’ve mentioned that (as far as I can tell) the early-70s conception of space was largely as an exciting new frontier, full of fun possibilities and adventure. “Space Oddity” was one of the first times, at least in the mainstream, that the cosmos was presented as such an isolating, frightening place. There’s something about this song- I think it’s the little flute trill that comes in after “…tin can”- that flawlessly captures both the majestic beauty of space and how pitifully small and weak that majesty can make one person feel. The character of Major Tom, surely one of the most indelible in all of music, is so vividly realized on an emotional level; the listener really feels what he’s feeling, from the apprehension to the awe to the panic. There’s also something horrifying about the way the U.S. single edit fizzles and fades out as “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” repeats. I’m not sure I like it more than the full album version (though the mono mix is, in my opinion, miles better), but it certainly drives home the harrowing end of the story in a really stark way that the album cut kind of skirts around. As with many songs I cover on these best lists, this is not a song that you need me to tell you is great, but still, god damn is “Space Oddity” great. It’s weird and thorny and tragic in a way most pop is far too safe and unchallenging to be, and the miraculous fact that it was not only successful, but massively influential, ought never to be taken for granted.
#1: Stevie Wonder- Higher Ground
I’ll just come out and say it: Innervisions is one of my favorite albums ever. Like, an all-time-classic, listen-to-it-a-thousand-times-without-getting-bored, desert island record. In my eyes, it is without fault. So of course, a song from that album would naturally wind up high on this list, but honestly I’ve had a really hard time trying to write about “Higher Ground”, trying to explain why I think it’s one of the greatest pop singles of all time. For one thing, one of the best things about great pop music is that it generally doesn’t require a lot of deep, intense thought or explanation to enjoy. There is value in superficiality, and on a superficial level, “Higher Ground” is wonderful, so much so that it’s easy to just get stuck on that. Sure, the groove isn’t as forceful or intense as “Superstition”’s, but this song does much more interesting things with its groove, and it doesn’t really need that intensity. To that point, the first version of this song I heard was actually the 1989 Red Hot Chili Peppers cover, which I used to like a lot, but sort of hate now that I’m more acquainted with the original. The RHCP version is so damn overpowering; it takes the supple, sunny groove and just slathers this awful, aggressive funk-metal all over it, when the song’s core appeal lies in how it balances that funk tension with a sense of uplifting spirituality. And that’s where “Higher Ground”’s deeper value comes in- the lyrics offer a view of life and death that’s optimistic and reassuring, but still doesn’t allow those who commit wrongdoing to escape culpability. Through the idea of reincarnation, Stevie Wonder offers both reassurance that our good deeds will one day be recognized by a higher power, that we can redeem ourselves and make ourselves spiritually better, and a warning that we can’t escape the consequences of our immorality. It’s framed with a certain inevitability, but it’s not fatalistic. Essentially, the message of the song is “what goes around comes around”. And what’s so great about this song is that the deeper message about spiritual rebirth and moral consequences is still complementary to the music, but isn’t at all necessary to enjoy it. I love the lyrics here, but I also just like funky pop song what has a nice melody, y’know? It works as an artistic statement, and it works as a fun banger that gets a crowd moving. I honestly don’t know what more you can ask for from a hit song.