Bouncing back from the relative doldrums of ‘74, ‘75 was largely a return to the quality I’ve come to expect from the charts of this era. Oddly, as disco fever began sweeping the nation, I found that most of the best music of this year came from unexpected places, possibly as a function of being a bit of a transition year between the genre free-for-all of the early 70s and the total disco mania of the later 70s. Sure, the following best list still contains the requisite tracks representing the golden eras of funk and rock, both of which were still going strong this year, but a surprising number of my favorite songs this year are tracks that I tend to forget about until they come on out of the blue and I’m surprised by their greatness all over again- not so much the “classic 70s music” that everyone thinks back on fondly as the underappreciated pop gems that have mostly eluded the spotlight in the decades since. Maybe it’s just the old critic’s folly of trying to find a cohesive throughline where none may exist, but ‘75 feels like a year ripe for re-examination, so let’s do exactly that, starting with the best of the bunch. On with the show!
#10: 10cc- I’m Not in Love
“I’m Not in Love” is, first and foremost, impressive as a feat of studio engineering. After the song failed to gel together in its original, bossa nova(!) form, Eric Stewart and the rest of 10cc decided that the song needed to be completely rebuilt from the ground up, and they proceeded to do exactly that, using tape loops of their own voices to create a dreamy, mostly a cappella facsimile of the majority of the composition. Apart from making it sound light-years ahead of its time, the decision to build so much of “I’m Not in Love” around sampled vocals gives it another distinct feature: a feeling of surprising vulnerability. Generally, the more processed and synthesized a piece of music sounds, the less raw and human the emotions being presented come across, but by using the human voice to build the song’s glossy, crystalline soundscape, 10cc found the perfect aesthetic vehicle for the lyrics, which disguise a tender confession of love as a cold, callous dismissal. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a huge Flaming Lips fan, and it makes perfect sense why this song made an appearance on their curated playlist for Late Night Tales in 2005. Other than the obvious shared affinities for studio experimentation and honey-sweet melodies, Graham Gouldman’s bass playing on the middle eight here feels like the direct genesis of a dozen-plus of Michael Ivins’ best basslines, and Eric Stewart’s singing has an unassuming yet hyper-emotive quality that makes him more a proto-Wayne Coyne than most of the better-known artists the Lips cite as influences. I suppose that hearing so much of my favorite band in it doesn’t make for an especially compelling argument for “I’m Not in Love”’s quality, and it does have that sheen of 70s soft-rock mushiness that brings it down a notch in my book, but the unique sonic palette and clever lyrical angle is still more than enough to make this song a worthwhile and enjoyable listen, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of anything it may have inspired.
#9: The Amazing Rhythm Aces- Third Rate Romance
Those of you out there who recognize this tune are most likely familiar with Sammy Kershaw’s cover of it from 1994, but nearly two decades before that version hit #2 on the country charts, an up-and-coming country rock outfit called the Amazing Rhythm Aces took it all the way to the top 20 on the pop charts, and though time has seemingly mostly forgotten them, “Third Rate Romance” still stands as one of the most sharply-written country tunes of its time. The song is built around a striking little vignette: Two strangers meet in a restaurant and agree to hook up, but then, instead of a night of steamy, passionate lovemaking, the song instead fumbles through the uncomfortable, seedy reality of the situation, ending with the woman awkwardly walking into a shitty, cheap-o motel room with her soon-to-be lover. This is a song about two people settling for ‘good enough’ and seemingly not even really getting that. The first repetition of the hook is sandwiched in between two brutal gut-punches, each spoken by one character to the other: “You don’t seem like my type, but I guess you’ll do” and “I can even tell you I love you, if you want me to”. Jeez man, that’s bleak. The way they don’t even pretend that the situation is any more romantic than it is, the sense that neither one really wants to do this but they’ve both already made up their minds that they’re gonna get laid tonight because god dammit they deserve a win for once- yeah, third rate romance, indeed. The Amazing Rhythm Aces really do this song the justice it deserves here, too: Russell Smith’s slightly awkward, nasally voice is a great fit for the tone, guitarist Barry Burton contributes some stellar leadwork and an unfussily brilliant solo, and the rhyme scheme has a fluidity to it that masks its surprising complexity. For any fans of real songwriters’ songwriters like Warren Zevon or John Prine or even Tom Waits, don’t be deterred by the “pop crossover” label- this is one worth rediscovering.
#8: The Isley Brothers- Fight the Power
If there’s one thing the Isley Brothers can be given credit for, it’s their ability to change and adapt with the times. They had been making music together for over 2 decades when they recorded this song; eldest band member Kelly Isley was pushing 40, with several of his brothers not too far behind. But the fact that they were rapidly becoming the old men of R&B only makes the blast of tight, funky grooves that is “Fight the Power” all the more impressive- It really does sound as current and vital as anything else on the radio at the time, if not even more so. In keeping with the band’s clear-cut admiration for James Brown, here they pull one of Brown’s favorite moves: making this a double-sided single, with the B-side being a continuation of the A-side rather than a separate second track (It’s also the kind of full-bodied funk workout Brown himself was sadly getting less and less able to successfully pull off in the mid-70s). Of course, because I’m me, I dig the hardline anti-authoritarianism of the lyrics, but I honestly think the more important part of “Fight the Power”’s success is its danceability, how it managed to smoothly incorporate that message into the kind of track pretty much anyone would be willing to get up and groove to. Sure, it may not quite match the raw, righteous fury of some of my favorite punk rock tunes, but good luck reworking any of those into a 10-minute “disco purrfection” remix! I’ll always appreciate songs that manage to be as populist in their aesthetic as they are in their messaging, and “Fight the Power” is a great example of why.
#7: Gladys Knight & the Pips- The Way We Were/Try to Remember
I was a little biased towards this song from the get-go, having been introduced to it as the sample at the core of the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic 1993 single “Can it Be All So Simple”, but I actually ended up loving “The Way We Were” even more than I was expecting to based on that. While I first interpreted “Can It Be…” as using the sample to contrast the polished music of the Wu-Tang members’ childhoods with the gritty, hardscrabble upbringing their lyrics describe, “The Way We Were” is actually a much more on-the-nose choice than I realized, a thoughtful deconstruction of nostalgia and the romanticization of the past. In fact, much the same way that RZA used this song to sonically evoke his own childhood, Gladys Knight & the Pips evoke their own “good old days” here with a sweeping orchestral-pop style that calls back to the very best of Brill Building pop, with Knight even quite presciently predicting that “these will become the ‘good old days’ of our children”. But once again, as with “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” from last year, it’s Knight’s sheer vocal power that clinches this song’s place on the list for me, showing off her full grand-diva chops across the downtempo, contemplative ballad, building to a powerhouse climax in the final verse that a Whitney Houston or a Celine Dion would be proud to call their own. “What’s too painful to remember / We simply choose to forget” is a line that really deserves to be belted too, and it’s a pleasure hearing Knight do so with as much finesse and bombast as you could ever hope for. A stellar performance, a moving arrangement, and a timeless sentiment- this one’s got it all. Shame that spoken intro’s a bit cheesy.
#6: Linda Ronstadt- When Will I Be Loved
The biggest testament, I feel, to the strength of Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of “When Will I Be Loved” is that if, five minutes before I sat down to write and research this very review, someone had held a gun to my head and asked me to guess if it was a cover or an original, I’d have confidently said it was an original. Good thing violent criminals don’t go around forcing people to answer 70s pop trivia questions, because I was dead wrong- this was originally by the Everly Brothers! You’re telling me this song wasn’t even originally written by a woman? Even listening to it with that knowledge, I can scarcely believe it. It just comes off so honest here, Ronstadt puts so much feeling and personality into her performance that it really just sounds like a young woman singing candidly about her own personal romantic experiences. That right there is the difference between a good pop singer and a great pop singer. Can you take a simplistic tune with generic heartbroken lyrics that some random guy you’ve never even met wrote and make it sound like it’s all about things that happened specifically to you? Because that’s exactly what Ronstadt does here, and anyone who’s ever played in a cover band knows that it’s no easy feat. I don’t want to short-change Phil Everly too much; the song’s bones are certainly fine enough, but it’s really the little changes here that make it shine: the major lift Ronstadt adds to the vocal melody on “I”, sublimating the herky-jerky blues lick into a more fleshed-out country-rock guitar arrangement, and bringing in session musician extraordinaire Andrew Gold for a jangly solo that connects the track’s sunny AM-pop sound to the earlier rock it’s rooted in. Unfortunately, Ronstadt would never make a song her own quite like this again, but “When Will I Be Loved” still stands as a testament to just how much a great performance can elevate a song.
#5: Sweet- The Ballroom Blitz
Queen’s breakthrough single stateside, “Killer Queen”, is not on this list. Don’t worry, I promise I’m a boring asshole who thinks Queen is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and I’ll gush at length about many of their extremely overplayed singles soon enough. In ‘75, though, there was one band that briefly managed to out-glam the once and future kings of glam rock with one of the most gloriously ridiculous rock songs of the decade, if not of all time. ‘Alright fellas… Let’s GOOOOOO!!!!!’ “The Ballroom Blitz” is a song that shouldn’t work at all, let alone work as well as it does. Steve Priest’s absurd, histrionic vocals on the bridge here are the kind of thing that would single-handedly tank most lesser songs for me, and the pre-chorus operates at a similar level of over-the-top energy. Here’s the thing though: Sweet aren’t trying to sound silly here. No, they don’t give a shit if they sound silly or not, and though they undeniably do sound silly, cartoonish even, their unshakeable confidence that they can pull it off is the very thing that allows them to do so. Yes, this song where the band gets introduced like chippendales dancers and the bassist wails “She thinks SHE’S the passionate one!!!” in the most foppish, flouncy falsetto possible is the coolest hit single of the year, and I mean that completely earnestly. Just hold your breath, wait for that crunching, pop-metal riff to kick in- fuck yeah. That riff is the stuff of every rock fan’s wet dreams, the perfect blend of punkish snarl and pop sparkle, slashing out the most satisfying, sugar-rush power chords you could ever hope for. Sure, the structure is a touch too ungainly for the charging energy the song wields. Sure, the vocal production’s a bit iffy here and there. If you’re paying close enough attention to notice any of that, you’re listening to this song wrong. Through-and-through, this is music for the Bills and Teds and Waynes and Garths of the world, and if you aren’t moved to bang your head and/or break into a big, goofy grin by this, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Party on, dudes.
#4: Glen Campbell- Rhinestone Cowboy
Sometimes, covering a song can add a whole new dimension to the album without the artist even intending to do so. “Rhinestone Cowboy” was originally performed by a modestly successful studio songwriter named Larry Weiss, and featured a fairly straightforward lyric about doggedly pursuing your dreams even after years of paying your dues. Apparently Glen Campbell really connected with the song, but his version casts it in a decidedly different light. Just to be clear, at this point in his career Campbell had absolutely no place singing about how one day he’ll have it made. Hell, he’d been one of the biggest names in country music for a full decade! If anyone could lay claim to the title of “Rhinestone Cowboy” in 1975, it would be Glen Campbell, and in a bizarre way, that’s the secret to the potency of his rendition for me. In his hands, with his cinematic, big-budget string section and his smooth, strong voice, the song becomes not a fantasy of what the narrator hopes to achieve one day, but the anthem of a man who’s achieved everything he always wanted and still isn’t quite satisfied. I don’t really think the line about “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know” is meant to come off as shockingly sad as it does here, but the effect is striking nonetheless, perfectly summing up the hollow victories of fame and fortune with a massive pile of adoring fan mail, a hundred thousand fake friends and not a single mention of any real ones. The glitz and glamor of the song may ring superficial, but part of why it ends up so affecting is the conviction Campbell projects in its substance. He sings “Star-spangled rodeo” like it’s manna falling from heaven, and the instrumentation is as star-spangled as it gets, but he still sounds like he’s yearning for something, grasping towards a success he’s already surpassed. I’m not usually a fan of art about showbiz, but Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” cover succeeds by being one of the more unintentionally revealing looks at the artifice of the industry I’ve come across in pop.
#3: Carl Douglas- Kung Fu Fighting
“Kung Fu Fighting” has a reputation as a “guilty pleasure” song, but frankly I pity anyone who feels the least bit guilty about enjoying this thoroughly delightful bit of novelty disco. “Guilty pleasure”, of course, means that you enjoy it despite being aware that it isn’t actually especially good, but I would argue that “Kung Fu Fighting” is not only good, but the absolute perfect version of what it is. If there’s another song that does what this song does better than this song does it, I haven’t heard it. This is what all novelty music should be. It’s goofy, it’s silly, it’s over-the-top and not particularly dignified, but everyone involved still treats it like a real song. This is especially true of Carl Douglas himself, who performs every line with the giddy enthusiasm of a ten-year-old who’s just seen a Bruce Lee movie for the first time, and the melody and instrumentals are so happy and catchy that it’s easy to get right on that childish emotional wavelength with him. I’ve also heard complaints that the song is… well, maybe not racist, but certainly not the most respectful towards Chinese culture. Y’know, I think I’ve played the morally outraged scold enough times on these lists that I can credibly say that anyone who’s genuinely offended by “Kung Fu Fighting” might be kind of overthinking it. This song clearly does not harbor a single drop of malice or bigotry in its dumb little heart, and to be honest I don’t think its fanboyish exuberance would gain all that much from a more nuanced understanding of Chinese martial arts. Hell, the song isn’t even really about China in any substantial way, it’s mostly just about how badass kung-fu movies are, and I think that it handles that subject with a perfectly appropriate level of deference. “Kung Fu Fighting” is stupid and simplistic in all the ways I want a pop song to be, and as far as songs that feature the “oriental riff” go, I’ll take it over “Turning Japanese” any day.
#2: Electric Light Orchestra- Can’t Get It Out of My Head
The most important thing to know about Jeff Lynne is that he was a massive Beatles fanboy. The entire career of Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra can be pretty cohesively examined through that lens: Lynne wanted his band to be the next Beatles, and of all the artists that were trying to be the next Beatles in the mid-70s, Lynne was arguably the most devoted student of their songcraft and ethos. If there’s any one Beatle Lynne was a kindred spirit of, it was Paul McCartney, and “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is one the most McCartneyesque moments in his entire oeuvre, a stately piano-pop ballad with a killer melody and a sturdy rock backbeat. Also like McCartney, Lynne was a fastidious producer who always seemed more at home in the studio than onstage. Listen to how subtly those backing vocals are integrated into the mix, or to that little music-box keyboard break on the bridge, and you can hear Lynne’s ambition behind the boards starting to bloom into something noticeably Beatlesque, yet entirely his own. Despite how much they wore their influences on their sleeves, ELO have never really gotten pegged as wannabes or rote copyists, and I think that’s partly because Lynne’s lyrical interest in encounters with the fantastical or inexplicable had no clear precedent in the pop world. Even many of his more pedestrian love songs had an element of being confronted with an awe-inspiring, incredible force, and “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” takes things in a much more tangibly surreal direction. The narrator of the song sees some mystical phantasm on the coastline one night and finds himself unable to return to his mundane daily life- the image of the “Ocean’s Daughter” is the thing he can’t get out of his head, and even as life continues around him, his mind is forever changed, electrified by the excitement of the supernatural. The song’s parent album, El Dorado, is themed around characters escaping into fantasy words, and this song does an admirable job of conveying both the very real appeal of doing so, and the danger of leaving the real world by the wayside in the process. Jeff Lynne wasn’t a great singer, but when it counted he could really put his heart into it, and the third verse here is one of his finest moments as a vocalist. You can feel how desperate to return to his memories of the encounter the narrator is, and how joyless and bland his life outside of it is. ELO’s more upbeat material may be destined to soundtrack movie trailers until the end of time, but for me it’s their more melancholy, reflective numbers like this that show them at their best, putting the talents of one of the foremost pop auteurs of the era on full display.
#1: Frankie Valli- My Eyes Adored You
Well. Well, well, well. Here we are. My favorite hit song of 1975. Frankie Valli. I know, I’m surprised too. Way back on those early 60s worst lists, Frankie Valli and his group The Four Seasons were one of several banes of my musical existence, delivering a handful of squeaky-clean vocal pop trifles garnished with one of the most headache-inducing falsettos I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing. Then Beatlemania hit, and that, I figured, was that. Over a decade’s worth of music later, when I came across another Frankie Valli joint out of the blue while going through this years’ year-end list, I gave a huff and an eye roll, queued it up and pressed play, steeling myself for yet another no-brainer worst-list contestant. And then I was blown away. This song is just… It’s beautiful, there’s no other word for it, it’s utterly beautiful! Valli’s singing is beautiful, the cheesy string-laden arrangement is beautiful, and the vocal melody is especially beautiful. The way the first line in the chorus hangs so patiently until the second line fully resolves the melody and just sweeps you off your feet? Sheer class, clearly the work of a master songwriter. I guess the obvious improvement is that Valli is using his normal tenor range instead of shrieking through the very top of his head voice, and is thus able to imbue actual feeling and pathos into his performance. That’s just the presentation, though, and if the song underneath it all wasn’t any good it wouldn’t amount to much. No, the real prizewinner here is the lyric, an ode to a could-have-been childhood sweetheart that manages to dodge any and all mopiness or petulance and achieve bittersweet, wistful perfection. Valli really does elevate the material here in a way he probably never could have managed in his heyday, too. Crazy thought, but a 40-year-old might be much better suited to performing a song about reflecting on a simpler time in their life, and wondering about all the chances they might have missed, than a 27-year-old is! In my mind, pop music was made for this kind of grand, swing-for-the-fence emotionality, and “My Eyes Adored You” just knocks it out of the park.