1974 is widely considered one of the worst years in pop music history. Now, I’m pretty heavily biased towards the 70s, so I’d say that calling it one of the worst ever is a bit hyperbolic; there are a good dozen or so years that handily outstrip ‘74 in terms of badness (just wait until we get to the late 80s). Still, I can’t deny that it was a surprisingly weak year in the midst of an otherwise incredibly strong period for pop, and certainly a galling drop in overall quality from the previous year. Maybe part of it was just the impossible task of following up ‘73- though I haven’t seen quite as many people praise the year before this one as effusively as I have, I think that the fact that it had to function as a comedown from the stratospheric heights of ‘73 is a big reason why ‘74 is such a dud year in the eyes of so many. Regardless, just because things weren’t quite as top-notch across the charts doesn’t mean there wasn’t still plenty to love this year, especially in soul and R&B, which managed to maintain much of its winning streak from last year. ‘74 might have been a step down, but it wasn’t all bad, and if you don’t believe me, here’s 10 songs to try and change your mind. On with the show!
#10: Mike Oldfield- Tubular Bells
I don’t know if I could honestly say that “Tubular Bells” is actually one of the best hit songs of the year. As with any year in this era, I had to make a fair amount of cuts for the best list, and if I’m being brutally honest, some of the songs that got cut are probably songs I like a bit more than this one. But most of those songs were R&B, and while this list already had plenty of R&B, neither this nor any other best list I’ve done has anything much like “Tubular Bells”. Now, since I’m far too much of a coward to handle 99.99% of all horror movies, I can’t say much here about The Exorcist, the 1973 film that launched this odd bit of moody instrumental prog onto the charts, but I can say that “Tubular Bells” has exactly the kind of ominous yet alluring atmosphere that I’d probably want to set the tone if I were to direct such a film. The compositional style Mike Oldfield employs here almost calls to mind, more than anything else, the works of minimal composer Steve Reich: all interlocking, circular loops that hypnotize the listener, like an auditory gyroscope. Of course, Reich’s calling was always worlds away from any pop chart, and Oldfield could likely have wound up the same, but his use of a strong bassline outlining a simple chord progression gives the song something the works of Reich and his disciples tend to lack: a strong foundation, something for that eerie main keyboard motif to move against. There’s a more familiar sort of musical push and pull to it that, while not “pop” in any kind of descriptive sense, might have been the key to why it managed to climb the charts, while nearly everything it shared musical DNA with languished in relative obscurity. Of course, another factor might have been the American single of this tune which was released without Oldfield’s consent, a fact he was (understandably) less than thrilled about. I tend to get a chip on my shoulder about music whose existence goes against its creator’s wishes, and I’m still not sure if “Tubular Bells” is quite good enough as a standalone piece to outmatch some of the would-be honorable mentions this year, but at the end of the day this thing is just too damn interesting, too weird and too unlike anything else you hear on these year-end lists, for me to neglect giving it a bit of a spotlight here.
#9: Johnny Bristol- Hang On In There Baby
As I mentioned in my intro, soul and funk had a pretty great year in ‘74, and especially given how other genres struggled throughout the year, it’s no surprise that R&B dominated my best list for this year more than ever before. I have every intention of giving the appropriate praise to the more beloved R&B of the year further down the list, but I’d like to start with the less-ubiquitous sole hit of longtime Motown stalwart Johnny Bristol. Bristol was a key part of the success of many of the best soul hits of the late 60s, so naturally “Hang on In There Baby” carries much of the same effervescent warmth as songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, but with just enough tweaks to the formula to keep it feeling (at least mostly) fresh and in step with the times. The beat’s a little heavier, the strings are a little richer and fuller-sounding, and some of the guitar work alludes to the tighter funk rhythms that were quickly overtaking the genre, but the core is still the same: infectious, melodic and passionate as always. If there’s any weak point here it’s probably Bristol himself: he’s got a pretty solid Marvin Gaye impression going, but it should go without saying that he pales in comparison to the genuine article, and his background as a session guy and studio songwriter translates to a very slight impersonality that pervades the track. It’s a great song, and Bristol performs it ably, but as a performer he doesn’t do too much to put a unique spin on it or elevate it beyond the composition, and it’s hard not to imagine a Smokey Robinson or a Sly Stone really taking this to the next level. Still, it’s hard to go wrong with the guy who helped make some of the best pop songs of the 60s, and it’s more than enough that “Hang On In There Baby” delivers everything Bristol’s impressive resumé would suggest.
#8: William DeVaughn- Be Thankful For What You Got
“Diamond in the back, sunroof top / Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”. Need I say anything else? Even for those of us (me) not previously acquainted with William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got”, that lyric is one of those perfect combinations of words that feels like it’s always existed, just as a fundamental part of the collective American psyche. As several astute listeners have pointed out, the song suffers from a little bit of a contradiction in messaging. The verses are all about how we should divorce our sense of self-worth from the quality of our possessions, but as that glorious refrain so well encapsulates, this is also a song that’s thoroughly enamored with the fantasy of luxury in general and luxury vehicles in particular. I actually kind of love this, it’s like the song starts off all righteous and socially-aware, and then just gets sidetracked and starts fantasizing about how great it would be to drive a Cadillac instead. It’s a really charming, human lyric, and I think it’s telling that it returns to the anti-materialist verse after the first refrain, almost like it’s acknowledging that while having expensive things is actually quite nice, it’s still, in fact, not good to base your whole identity around your possessions. Fittingly, a song this focused on cars also makes for killer cruising music, a chilled-out smooth soul number that borrows heavily from the Curtis Mayfield school of composition, between the bongo-based percussion, liquid guitar leads, and the prominent Hammond organ I’ve already gushed over for a half-dozen other songs. Even though it’s a few shades shy of being on par with Mayfield’s finest, “Be Thankful For What You Got” is still a worthy addition to any 70s soul playlist, and an anthem against consumerism that isn’t too proud to savor consumption a little.
#7: Roberta Flack- Feel Like Makin’ Love
I don’t think anyone has ever made a better sex jam than Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” from last year, but in 1974 plenty of musicians made nonetheless valiant attempts to reach those heights. Among the more successful of those attempts was Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love”- tragically, not a cover of the Bad Company song of the same name, which wouldn’t be released until ‘75. No, this song is a wonderfully mellow, airy bit of pop-soul, and a great example of how to pull off material that’s this laid-back without sacrificing the passion necessary for any sex song worth its salt. This is a category of song where you can definitely get away with overstatement more than usual, so it’s pretty uncommon to hear a sex song this understated. This isn’t an assessment so much of the lyrics, which are unspectacular but effective, as it is of Flack’s performance of them. She sings with an impressively light touch, still using her inflection and voicing to convey all the needed heat and desire, but never raising her voice much above a low croon, resulting in a performance that’s as subtle as it is sexy. This song is also quite the redemption for its author, one Gene McDaniels, who if you’ll recall appeared all the way back on my ‘61 worst list with the execrable “100 Pounds of Clay”. As it turns out, McDaniels is exponentially more sensitive and likeable as a songwriter than he is as a performer, and his arrangement is the perfect match for Flack’s subdued-yet-potent delivery. Ultimately, it’s just a little too low-energy for me to really get hyped over, but “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is still a fantastic song that should serve as a lesson to anyone seeking to make music in this vein.
#6: Barry White- Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up
While we’re on the topic of sex, here we have one of the few songs that could credibly pose a challenge to “Let’s Get It On”’s title as the greatest pop song on the subject. “Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up” features the most brilliant opening of any pop song this year: a string section layering note after note, each new one a half-step higher than the last, to the count of a steady hi-hat pulse. Then: dramatic, low piano notes! White interjects some lustful ad-libs before the piano slide hits and the song opens up into a colorful, expansive funk jam. The effect can only really be described as, well, orgasmic, building up incredible tension before providing a supremely satisfying release. That perfect introduction alone could have propelled this song to success, but everything afterward keeps up the momentum gamely, mostly thanks to a fantastic bassline that provides a solid foundation for the composition, and what I think is a harpsichord (not sure though) giving it a glamorous edge. And of course, there’s the walrus of love himself, mister Barry White. White wasn’t the most limber singer out there, but with his sonorous, sensual bass-baritone, all he really needed to dominate the field of hot-n-heavy bedroom jams was vocal production that properly got across his radio-ready voice and a melody that worked with his range, and on “Never Never…”, that’s exactly what he got. The man sounds like he was just made to sing songs like this, to the point that there are hundreds of comments on YouTube uploads of this song joking that his singing can “instantly make any woman in earshot pregnant”, or something to a similar effect. Of course, in my eyes Marvin Gaye remains undefeated, but any champion needs a worthy foe to square off against, and with “Never Never…”, Barry White manages to provide some seriously stiff competition (pun very much intended).
#5: ABBA- Waterloo
Given the reputation ABBA has accrued over the years as a perfectly polished capital-P Pop act, one of the most interesting things about their breakthrough single “Waterloo” is how much of a credible rock edge it has. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still, at its core, very produced and undeniably Pop in the way most of us associate with ABBA, but that charging guitar riff that kicks down the door on this song has enough reckless energy to make “Waterloo” feel like a far cry from the likes of “Mamma Mia” and the sundry other immaculate studio creations the Swedish quartet would go on to share with us over the remainder of the seventies. Of course, given my obsession with pop songcraft I have a ton of respect for ABBA and what they accomplished, but as with Steely Dan, more often than not I’ve found their material lacking enough of a visceral bite to really draw me in, and the stomping, raucous feel of “Waterloo” manages to break right through that barrier for me without sacrificing the perfectionistic sound the band is now famous for. Without getting too “you speak so well” about it, I’m also quite impressed by how well the lyrics connect, given that the band had, as far as I can tell, been writing in English for less than a year at this point. The whole “love is war” metaphor is fertile ground for songwriters, but if they get overzealous the comparison can get overextended and laborious. Here, ABBA manages to toe that line, comparing falling for their new lover to Napoleon losing the battle of Waterloo, tying it all up with a congenial “I feel like I win when I lose”. It’s a clever lyric, but ultimately just a functional one, because the song mostly rides on its killer chorus and the dense, Phil Spector-inspired production, all revolving around the band’s twin leads, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who both turn in appropriately enthused performances. Even at their rowdiest, ABBA never lost sight of the fact that their greatest gift was still their nearly-unparalleled ear for hooks, and “Waterloo” is as good a showcase of that gift as anything they would go on to accomplish.
#4: Gladys Knight & the Pips- I’ve Got to Use My Imagination
Around 1974 is when you can really see the R&B scene starting to become a lot more polished and produced. That’s not to say that earlier soul music was particularly rough around the edges, nor is it a condemnation of R&B from this time. By and large, “sleek & shiny” was a good look for soul and funk, and much of the music of this era wore it extremely well. But I do think it’s key to why Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” scratches a very particular itch for me that most of their contemporaries couldn’t really manage to. There’s a chunkiness to the beat here that gives its bombast an entirely different flavor from the funk music it was sharing the airwaves with, and the brash, swaggering horn section recalls Aretha Franklin and James Brown at their finest, at a time when both were struggling to find continued relevance in the pop sphere. Often, when an act is billed in this “[lead singer] and the [blank]s” format, the actual band can feel like an afterthought, but the rest of The Pips contribute enough to this track with their harmonies and backing vocals that it really does end up feeling like the work of a band, rather than a singer and some backing musicians. That said, Gladys Knight is undeniably the star of the show here, giving a fiery vocal performance that totally sells the angst of the song. The lyrics as written are pretty standard breakup-song fare, but if you don’t listen super closely it could easily fit just about any bad situation you need to make the best of. As a matter of fact, I looked up the lyrics in the first place because I thought it might be a protest anthem, such is the passion and fervor Knight sings with here. Even if it’s not the most modern or envelope-pushing R&B single of the year, this song packs a punch that few others did in 1974, and as far as songs to help us all “keep on keepin’ on”, it certainly ranks up there with the best of them.
#3: Bobby Womack- Lookin’ for a Love
One of the biggest disappointments in combing through the 70s year-ends is that I didn’t get to listen to more Bobby Womack. The man was easily one of the most expressive and charismatic vocalists of the 70s, and it’s really a shame that more of his material didn’t cross over from the R&B charts, where he was a regular fixture for much of his career. Womack’s biggest hit, “Lookin’ for a Love”, is certainly a few shades shy of the orchestral funk perfection of “Across 110th Street”, but it’s nonetheless an instantly charming and wonderfully catchy little tune that Womack handles as well as any of his more hard-hitting material. While tons of R&B singers can hit throat-twisting vocal runs like nobody’s business, not many of them had the sheer, unbridled power and intensity Womack could bring to a track, and even on the pleasantly upbeat “Lookin’ for a Love”, he just sings with so much personality and conviction that it’s almost enough to just hear him do his thing on record, regardless of what song it is. I can’t think of a single other vocalist that can pull off singing both lead and backing vocals on the same track this well, but here I could scarcely imagine it any other way. Even the lyrics, which I could conceivably call this song’s main weak point, are elevated through the excellent performance. The song is just so happy, so eager to find a person the narrator can share their love and devotion with, and Womack gets across that excitement so well that even the somewhat corny allusions to traditional domestic bliss feel genuine and earned. It’s not especially complex or thoughtful, and maybe I’m giving it a little too much credit just for nailing the basics, but there are very few songs from this year that put me in a good mood quicker or more reliably than “Lookin’ for a Love”, and for that it gets two enthusiastic thumbs up from me.
#2: The Hollies- The Air That I Breathe
I won’t deny that a big part of my affection for this song comes from my being introduced to it via the excellent 2012 dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, during a particular story beat that had me bawling my eyes out (despite, er, evidence to the contrary, I do not consider myself a “cries at movies” person). Still, while I can’t say I’m moved to tears by the song outside of that very specific context, the sumptuous baroque-pop of “The Air That I Breathe” has remained an entirely welcome presence in my musical knowledge ever since that day, the kind of grandiose, shamelessly romantic balladry that too few artists were bothering with around this time. The chorus here is an absolute all-timer, a “Hey Jude”-sized singalong that shoots straight for the heavens and actually comes within spitting distance by expertly riding the swell of a simple I-V chord progression and a generous slathering of opulent strings. The opening verse, by contrast, is much more musically complex and nuanced, adding color and depth with minor substitutions and sevenths aplenty and taking the vocal melody into odd, unsteady discursions. It’s fitting that the busier intro segment contains the narrator enumerating all the things he doesn’t need because his partner’s love is so holistically fulfilling, before the trappings all fall away for the joyous simplicity of “Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”. Like The Association’s “Never, My Love” (probably the closest analogue to this I’ve covered thus far), it’s sappy and overblown in a way that some might find distasteful, but I maintain that “The Air That I Breathe” is about as good as 70s soft rock cheese gets.
#1: Stevie Wonder- Don’t You Worry ‘bout A Thing
And two years in a row, a track from Innervisions takes the crown for best of the year! Let’s get the main thing out of the way: those vocal runs are absolutely to die for. The first time Stevie belts out “but don’t you worry ‘bout a THI-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IIIIING!”? Oh man, there may not be a single other moment in the Stevie Wonder songbook that jams as hard as that one. Even “Superstition”, when that pitch-perfect funk-rock groove kicks into full gear, even the absolutely slammin’ chorus on “Higher Ground”, can’t match the sheer funky goodness of that flawlessly executed vocal run over the wonderfully light, playful latin groove. Part of why that moment hits with the impact it does is the contrast with the rest of the song. “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” is an extremely dense composition, there are a lot of chords and the piano work in particular almost owes more to virtuosos like Chucho Valdés or Chick Corea than anyone Stevie was sharing the top 40 with. When people call Stevie Wonder a musical genius, this is what they’re talking about: no one was writing music this complex and nuanced while managing to give it enough mainstream appeal for lasting pop success. This song specifically is subtle enough that it really took me a while to truly fall in love with it (though I did like it immediately), and ultimately what kept me coming back to it really was that enormous vocal run. The melody here isn’t afraid to get weird and oblique by following the contours of the jazzy chord progression, so whenever that big, bright major run hits, it really pops out and shines as a result, a bold contrast to the more muted and reserved verses that keeps the listener interested. I don’t want to snub the lyrics here, either: an encouragement to a friend (or, more likely, a romantic partner) to take risks and try new things, reassuring them that the narrator will be there for them if they need it. It’s a very sweet sentiment, Stevie performs it as well as anyone could possibly ask for, and the upbeat music complements it beautifully, especially the inspired percussion work. It’s probably a stretch to call any of Stevie’s 70s output “underappreciated”, but “Don’t You Worry ‘bout A Thing” deserves to sit right near the very top of his inimitable output, as one of the high watermarks for one of the most gifted pop musicians of all time.