In sharp contrast with the best songs of the year, I feel like anyone who has been following this series would be able to accurately guess the contents of at least half of this year’s worst list. There are not a ton of surprises here: plenty of returning worst-list entrants and a lot of music embodying the genres and songwriting tics I always seem to find myself lamenting. Overall, I’d probably say this list was a notch or two less painful to endure than the ‘74 worst list, but as you’ll quickly see, to say that’s damning with faint praise would be putting it mildly. There’s not too much else to say about this year’s worst list, we’re just kind of running down the clock until the charts ignite in a disco inferno in ‘76- or, if you’d prefer, putting a cap on the pre-boogie 70s with 10 more pop flops that time forgot. On with the show!
#10: War- Why Can’t We Be Friends?
I wish more War songs impressed me enough to make their way onto a best list, because I swear I really don’t hate this band as much as their track record across my worst lists might suggest. And in the case of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, my distaste for it is even less justified, because it really just comes back to my general distaste for reggae. I can appreciate the message of solidarity between races, and I don’t have much to complain about when it comes to the production or the execution of the material- If 70s reggae-pop is your jam, this song will likely leave you more than satisfied. It really just comes down to an unfortunate intersection of solid-but-not-mind-blowing songwriting in service of a musical style I’ve always had a hard time getting on board with. the tempo hits an aggravating middle ground between energizing and relaxing for me, and the chorus is just that little bit too repetitive to ensure I’m absolutely sick to death of it by the time the track comes to an end. Again, War is a band with plenty of solid tracks to their name, and even this one isn’t irredeemably flawed or anything, it’s just too far afield of my personal tastes to be much more than a mild annoyance in my book.
#9: Harry Chapin- Cat’s in the Cradle
The collective cultural shaming of the archetypal “White Guy With Acoustic Guitar” (WGWAG for short) has pretty rapidly become overexposed in the past 10 years or so. The guy at the house party trying to seduce whoever’s drunk enough to fall for it with a shitty cover of “Wonderwall”? I hate that guy. Everyone hates that guy, because doing so is both easy and fun. Now, though, we must travel back to a time long before the WGWAG was a reviled musical pariah, back to when one of the earliest examples of the genre climbed all the way to number one on the pop charts: Harry Chapin’s deadbeat dad anthem “Cat’s in the Cradle”. The WGWAG is a category with slippery, malleable boundaries, so you could pretty easily make arguments that there are earlier examples of it than this, or that Harry Chapin doesn’t properly count as a WGWAG, but I’m calling it like I see it: “Cat’s in the Cradle” feels like the beginning of something, the flashpoint for a hundred more talentless hacks armed with four chords and an inflated ego. I don’t think this is as bad as most of the songs typically associated with the WGWAG, mainly because it doesn’t sound like a blatant ploy to get in a girl’s pants, but the woe-is-me pity party on display here feels just as narcissistic in its own way. I don’t think being a garden-variety inattentive father is the grand tragedy this song makes it out to be, and the way it focuses exclusively on the dad and how sad he is that he chose not to ever hang out with his kid is lame as hell. I think the final verse falls totally flat because the son is pretty decisively NOT turning out like the father by tending to his own kids when they have the flu, and to cap it all off I just think it’s a crappy melody and Chapin is a weak vocalist that can’t sell it. It’s low on the list because the intentions behind it are at least trying to be good, and there’s some nice string work here that lifts it a bit beyond the baseline, but there’s a vibe coming off of this song, and I think a lot more people would pick up on that if it was Jason Mraz singing it.
#8: Styx- Lady
I’m not a fan of Styx. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I’m a music critic, and music critics as a body have never been particularly keen on Styx. Their sound was, at least nominally, rooted in progressive rock, but they weren’t virtuosic or even especially technical musicians, so they wound up with a tendency towards crowd-pleasing soft rock that turned most of their singles into a stylistic goulash that the majority of music snobs seem to find bland at best and totally unpalatable at worst. For me, the first key to Styx’s badness was singer Dennis DeYoung, who has a particular way of singing that makes me immediately want him to stop. He’s seemingly always reaching for notes that strain his thin, reedy tenor a little too much, and he has an inexplicable penchant for over-enunciating and mispronouncing every other word that leaves his lips, and those two features alone kneecap most of the songs he sings- especially songs like “Lady”, where his voice is way up front and center. Right from that first line, “LAY-ee-dayyy, wen-yor-with-mee-I’m SMY-EL-LEENG”, I mentally tap out. It’s not my bag, I just don’t hear what the fans are hearing there. This song is also badly hurt by the pomp and grandiosity the band tries to imbue it with. This is not a song that can carry that big, portentous chorus or the stone-faced, strident beat that starts up a minute or so in. At its core, it’s a spare, romantic piano ballad; it could have supported some swell and grandeur, but the band lays it on far too thick and it sounds like the song is collapsing under the weight they’re loading onto it. And that’s the second key to Styx’s badness: they were ultimately ambitious beyond their means. They seemed like they were always shooting for Quadrophenia or Sgt. Pepper’s, but the fact of the matter is that they kind of capped out around Canned Wheat.
#7: Morris Albert- Feelings
“Feelings” has one big problem, and that’s that it’s about the narrator’s feelings. It is very explicitly, specifically, and boringly about all the feelings he’s feeling, and if you’re hoping for any actual specification here, boy, so was I! Look, I know pop songs need to have broad appeal, but it cannot be that hard to think up a phrase more ear-grabbing than “my feelings of love”. This song comes across like the most stock, standard, no frills or additions breakup ballad possible, the factory model with no customizations whatsoever. He’s feeling sad, he has feelings of love, he has feelings like he’ll never have you again- goodness, whatever happened to “show, don’t tell”? It’s a shame the very pretty chord progression and some nice piano accompaniments are so wasted on this nothing-to-it, white bread song. At least I can start making good on my promise to myself to stop making all these reviews so damn long here, because this is the worst kind of bad song: the kind that gives you absolutely nothing to say about it, less The Room and more Just Go With It. What, you don’t remember Just Go With It? Exactly.
#6: Paul Anka & Odia Coates- One Man Woman/One Woman Man
Well, at least Odia Coates got proper billing on this one. Somehow, the second-most-notable collaboration between Coates and Paul Anka has escaped the rock-bottom reputation that “Having My Baby” is saddled with, but the improvements here are really only nominal. Coates’ vocals are a bit more engaged and lively, the tune is slightly less saccharine, and… yep, that’s about it! Other than that, this is every bit the successor to “Having My Baby”, right down to the awful, awful lyrics. It can probably be safely assumed that the casual misogyny of that song wasn’t a fluke, because “One Man Woman” has a conceit that’s only barely less repugnant: a man gets caught cheating on his woman, and after a brief scolding she forgives him and he says he’ll start being faithful. It would be inappropriate, I feel, to speculate on Anka’s personal life here, but it’s hard not to read this song as blatant wish fulfillment: The man (whose parts he sings) running around behind his partner’s back only to be easily and quickly forgiven by that partner (whose parts, mind you, he also wrote). Look at how Anka depicts this woman- waiting at home while her partner cheats on her, so desperate for a relationship that she’ll immediately let it slide with a token reassurance that it won’t happen again. It’s unflattering in a way that suggests a total unfamiliarity with the inner lives of any actual women. And this isn’t just how she’s seen through the man’s eyes, either, Anka has Coates voice this cardboard caricature to give it a veneer of authenticity, and the final result is not only uncompelling and flat as a piece of storytelling, but borderline deceptive in the framing. The tune is pleasant enough to mindlessly hum for a few hours at a time, but Anka’s mid-thirties voice can’t do a thing to conceal the fact that his songwriting still feels like it’s coming from a 19-year-old in 1960.
#5: Captain & Tennille- Love Will Keep Us Together
I might have tipped my hand a bit in my “Mockingbird” review two weeks ago, but the Captain & Tennille are right near the top of my list of least-favorite 70s acts, perhaps second only to Donny Osmond. Like Osmond, almost every year-end list entry they touched is slated to wind up on a worst list, and the fact that this is somehow among their less offensive offerings is, in all honesty, thoroughly dispiriting to consider. Also like Osmond, they started sucking immediately. Their breakout single, a cover of Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, put on display their worst traits right off the bat: namely, keyboardist “Captain” Daryl Dragon’s knack for picking a half-dozen of the most ear-bleeding, garish keyboard tones imaginable and jamming them together with nary a thought of aesthetic cohesion or even casual listenability, and singer Toni Tennille’s spot-on impression of a wine mom who’s gotten a little too enthusiastic about karaoke night. Their overall presentation, in addition to being hideously uncool (which is not always a dealbreaker for pop but certainly is here), is also gratingly WASPish and vapid. If the concept of white privilege started a music career in ‘75 it would sound exactly like this- hollow, self-satisfied and obnoxious.
#4: Ringo Starr- No No Song
There are not a lot of people who will ardently defend Ringo Starr’s solo work, and after getting a taste of it I certainly see why. When I first heard his debut single “It Don’t Come Easy”, I was seriously considering putting it on the best list for 1971, but there may not be a single song I’ve heard for this project that suffered more from repeated listens than that one did. On first listen it was running a strong 8.5/10, and by the third or fourth it was barely scraping by with a 6/10, and even typing this now I’m itching to go back and bump that rating down again to a 5.5 or a 5. The nicest thing I can say about his subsequent singles is that it only took one listen each to figure out I disliked them. Partially that’s because they almost all sound exactly like “It Don’t Come Easy”, with the peppy mid-tempo beats and overzealous, horn-heavy pop soul arrangements, but it’s also because they were almost all stupefyingly inane and shallow. If you think “Oh My My” is anything other than a slowed-down “Witch Doctor”, I suggest you pay closer attention on your next relisten (or better yet, don’t), and the less said about “You’re Sixteen”, which came within an inch of making my ‘74 worst list, the better. The aptly-named “No No Song” is a stab at an anti-drug song, but It falls flat on its face because, like everything else Starr did after 1969, it’s emotionally inert, the narrator comes off like a boring yuppie asshole, and the energy of the music has no real direction or purpose to channel it in a meaningful way. Starr’s music is energetic the same way a parade marching band is energetic, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but if you’ve ever been subjected to a marching band when you weren’t expecting or wanting to be, you know that yes the hell it is bad in and of itself, and how dare they have the audacity to put me through this excruciating ordeal? Starr’s low-ambition, good-times-lovin’ exuberance was a breath of fresh air when used extremely sparingly in the Beatles, but all of his solo material just feels like an excess of side dish with no entree in sight.
#3: Olivia Newton-John- Have You Never Been Mellow
I actually can’t even remember what the last Olivia Newton-John song I wrote about for this project was off the top of my head, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t the perfect summation of her music’s impact on me. Hold on a sec while I check… Oh, right, “If Not for You”, the Dylan cover. Man, that song was a snooze! Boring as watching paint dry. But enough about her older hits, how’s “Have You Never Been Mellow”? Man, this song is a snooze! Boring as watching paint dry. Yeah, I don’t think Newton-John was really trying to capture any new hearts with this one, because it’s in a very similar mold to her material up to this point. I don’t want to give the impression that this song doesn’t bring anything new to the table, though, because John Farrar’s lyric here has one notable characteristic that “If Not For You” lacked: self-congratulatory condescension! The narrator of this song sounds like every insufferable headass you’ve ever met who’s felt the need to give you some rambling lecture about mindfulness or meditation or whatever other new-age lifestyle bullcrap they think makes them better than you. “Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried to find a comfort inside of you?” Wow, what an insight, wonder why I didn’t think of it myself. The real kicker, though, is that the song isn’t even that mellow! I could probably get with some hippy-dippy self-help nonsense if it actually sounded like something I could sit back and relax to, but this is just regular old mid-tempo pop with the barest hint of a country twang, like a watered-down ELO tune with a piece of straw grass in its mouth. A lot of people rag on the Eagles for their chiller-than-thou admonishments to “take it easy”, but if there’s one song that deserves that particular ire, this is it.
#2: Donny & Marie Osmond- The Morning Side of the Mountain
You know, it really is pretty weird that Donny & Marie Osmond sang so many love songs together. I get that they were a showbiz family from the get-go, and that their work was filtered through so many layers of artifice and performativity that to even imply that their work held any granule of truth about their personal lives is a stretch at best, but still. It’s hard for me to hear this sickly-sweet, lovey-dovey duet and not just kind of immediately sour on it knowing that the two singers are directly biologically related. I can feel that same disconnect between the material and the performers that I did on “Sweet and Innocent”. You can’t just slap any singer or singers on any song and expect coherent results! 12-year-old kids shouldn’t sing about how a girl is too immature to date them, and teenage siblings should not take on the roles of star-crossed lovers pining for each other from opposite sides of a mountain. People don’t want to hear it. The masses may have signed off on the Osmonds at the time, but the fact that they’ve only seem to fade into the mists of time, even as the poptimism movement has rehabilitated many a once-uncool pop act, shows just how shoddy the craftsmanship and artistry underneath all the cheese and polish really was.
#1: John Denver: Thank God I’m A Country Boy
One of the things I give this year credit for is that there were hardly any real disappointments. Most of the artists I really like from this time were either maintaining their good reputation admirably or sitting the year out in between album releases. In fact, there was only one real heartbreaker I had to sit through for ‘75, but oh boy… It was one helluva heartbreaker. As much affection as I have for John Denver, his 1975 chart-topper “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” is not only his worst hit single by a country mile, but one of the worst country songs of the entire 1970s. I have no patience for songs like these, that only exist to glorify their parent genre and the lifestyle associated with it. I hate rock songs about being a rocker, I almost always hate rap songs about being a rapper, and by the same token, country songs about being a good ol’ fashioned down-home country musician are pretty much universally worthless to me. “…Country Boy” is clearly shooting for rustic, corn-pone charm, but it just comes across as smug and navel-gazing, mostly thanks to that verse about how the narrator “never was one of them money-hungry fools”. For how many times the chorus repeats “I thank God I’m a country boy”, it sure feels like he’s only thanking himself. To make matters worse, Denver sings the entire song at the absolute top of his lungs, braying out every line in an attempt to match the song’s energy. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (still probably my favorite single of his) proved that Denver was a surprisingly dynamic vocal presence when he wanted to be, but here he stays stuck in one gear the whole way through and it’s just tiring. I’ve never liked the lyrics here, but I used to at least be able to say I enjoyed the catchy tune and the music. Now that I’ve listened to it a half-dozen times for this project and gotten it stuck in my head for more collective hours than I care to count, all I can say is “thank God I’m a-done with this”.