The way I see it, 1976 is to 70s pop as 1967 is to 60s pop. We can quibble and squabble all we want over whether this year or that year was “better” or “worse” for the charts, but this has to be the top contender for the year that most defined the 70s: chock-full of blockbuster releases and iconic songs that have stood tall for decades since. Even a fair amount of the songs I didn’t like enough to stick on this list have that timeless sheen that quote-unquote “classic” music tends to gain over the years. Maybe part of it is that it encircles the large majority of the period between disco’s explosion into the mainstream and the point where it became one of the most overexposed trends in pop history (though most of my personal favorite disco music actually comes from a little later in the decade), maybe it’s the fact that rock finally seemed to catch up with R&B after a few years of lagging a bit behind, or maybe it’s the good mojo everyone was feeling as America celebrated its bicentennial. Regardless, 1976 had every bit as much fantastic pop tuneage as I could have hoped for, so let’s boogie on down to the top 10 best hits of ‘76. On with the show!
#10: Barry Manilow- Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again
Barry Manilow will be appearing on both my best and worst list for this year. I know the only Manilow song it’s “cool” to like is “Copacabana”, but for my money this is pretty comfortably my favorite thing he’s ever released. All the things that made the man a punchline for nearly half a century are no less present here- the shmaltz, the soft, old-school pop songwriting, the overblown orchestration, and Manilow’s boringly pleasant voice. So why do I think it’s his best song? Because it just builds. This is a song that puts the “power” in “power ballad”. Every repetition of the chorus is louder, more impassioned, more more, the histrionic pomp reaching all the way past “ridiculous” and settling firmly at “awesome”. Just listen as it swells bigger and bigger and hits the crescendo that occupies the entire final third of its runtime, and the background choir kicks in- “I’ve been high (HIGH!) and low (LOW!)”. I am not too proud to admit that I rock out to that as hard as I do to any actual rock song from this time period.
Manilow did not write this song, but I strongly suspect he saw a lot of himself in it, and I think that shows through in his performance. He had already gone through a painful divorce with his former high-school sweetheart a decade prior, and was less than two years away from meeting his future husband Garry Kief. Manilow has said he was “feeling pretty lonely” in the years leading up to his partnership with Kief, and in this song you can really feel how despondent the narrator is, how hard he’s trying to recapture that spark even though he knows how futile it is. There’s a real undercurrent of fear in the vocal delivery- with the benefit of hindsight, Manilow knows exactly what awaits the narrator if he can’t salvage his relationship. Maybe it’s just that so much of his other material feels so inert by comparison, but Manilow’s performance here feels like the sort of acting that’s great by virtue of not really being “acting” at all.
#9: Earth, Wind & Fire- Getaway
Earth, Wind & Fire are so renowned now as the ultimate good-times funk-pop outfit that it’s a little jarring listening back to their pre-All ‘n All material and realizing how noodly and weird the melodies and instrumentation they were working with really were. That’s not to say “Getaway” is anything less than a bona-fide banger- this thing can still get just about any party jumping in a matter of seconds- but really listen to those opening measures. That’s downright jazzy! Spruce up the arrangement a little and throw in some extended solos and it wouldn’t be too far out of place on a Kamasi Washington record, especially those falsetto vocals spiraling madly skyward during the pre-chorus. Still, for all that jazzy goodness, what clinches it is the way EW&F takes that weirdness and makes it seem like busting a move to it is the most natural thing in the world. The song employs a lot of triplets in the guitar and some of the auxiliary percussion and vocals, but the backbeat of the song is so unmistakably 4/4 that all the contrasting rhythmic patterns only serve to amplify the insistent pulse at the core of it. It also helps that they can always loop back to the big three-note fanfare of “GET-A-WAAAAAAAAYYY”, probably the only part of the song 90% of us can sing along to. Gotta have a good sing-a-long moment.
#8: Sweet- Fox on the Run
Sweet has the unfortunate affliction, at least to my ears, of always sounding like other bands. “The Ballroom Blitz”, for as great as it is, will always sound like Queen worship to me, despite the fact that the two bands were contemporaneous with each other. In the case of “Fox on the Run”, what I’ve always thought it sounded like is ELO, specifically their song “Do Ya”, which also came out this year. However, in this case Sweet actually got there first, having first recorded this in ‘74, and for as much of a Jeff Lynne fan as I am, I have to say that these guys might have actually done it better. See, Lynne wasn’t really a rock star in the archetypal sense. He never quite had the swagger to pull off the sledgehammer hard-rock of “Do Ya”, but Brian Connolly? Now there was a true-blue, all-caps ROCK STAR. He just blows the door off its hinges here with the opening line here: “I!!! DON’T WANNA KNOW YOUR NAME!!!”. Most of my conclusions about “Ballroom Blitz” still hold true here- it’s more something you feel than anything else. That desire to start pumping your fist and banging your head to the beat sits right down in your gut, and Sweet prove to be better than almost anyone at aiming straight for that gut feeling and nailing it every time. It might be a notch less ambitious and ear-catching than “Blitz”, but it delivers that satisfying rock bite so consistently and effectively that I can’t help loving it all the same.
#7: Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes- Wake Up Everybody
By 1976, protest music was rapidly falling out of fashion. As punk rock took shape, politically-conscious lyricism began to migrate away from the pop charts, and for the most part it never really returned. From a certain standpoint, the fact that it’s one of the last songs of its kind makes “Wake Up Everybody” a bit tragic: it’s framed as this impassioned call to arms, trying to get everyone to come together for a brighter future, but it seems that the listening public at the time was less motivated than ever to do anything but dance, and that trend would only continue over the next 15-odd years (to the detriment of all but the rich and powerful). Still, as a sort of coda to the era of “War” and “What’s Going On” (the latter being a very clear influence here), “Wake Up Everybody ” does its job with aplomb, as empathetic and passionate as all the best protest songs are. Harold Melvin sings the song wonderfully, and I especially like his message to the educators of the world to take their job of teaching the younger generations seriously, and to adapt and change with the times to connect with their students. The beautiful production certainly doesn’t hurt either, especially the bright, bold piano and the upbeat percussion. As with “What’s Going On”, the positive message ends up just being the cherry on top of a great-sounding tune with a superb melody.
#6: Aerosmith- Dream On
If you’ve been following these 70s lists, you might be a little surprised to see an Aerosmith song here. After all, I’ve been pretty critical of a lot of this sort of classic-rock stuff in the past, and at least at first blush, this band seems like the very embodiment of everything I find so insufferable about the genre, between Joe Perry’s chunky electric-blues riffin’ and Steven Tyler’s flamboyant sexyman vocal stylings. I guess the easiest rebuttal to that point is just that Aerosmith were more interesting songwriters and musicians than most other bands of their ilk, and while I do think that’s pretty obviously true, it also kind of skirts around why “Dream On” specifically works so well. If 70s hard rock can impart any actual wisdom to us, it’s a very youthful, knuckleheaded sort of wisdom. If you’ve ever had an unexpectedly intense heart-to-heart with a frat boy who’s just drunk enough to give you his totally unfiltered, honest thoughts on the world but not quite drunk enough to start tossing around slurs, you know exactly the kind of life lessons this music is suited to delivering. And that, to me, is the key to “Dream On”’s greatness. Steven Tyler wrote this song when he was still in high school, and the message of “keep following your dreams and persevering” is the kind of thing that would probably sound completely hollow and trite if an actual adult had tried to write it, but there’s something in the teenage poetry here that gets at the very core of why people like rock music, the way it can speak to the teenager in all of us. Plus, y’know, he screams “DREAM ON!!” at the end there, and I definitely like that. Maybe if Steven Tyler had kept screaming “DREAM ON!!” at the end of Aerosmith songs they wouldn’t have started sucking so much after this year!
#5: Queen- You’re My Best Friend
In a literal sense, Queen is not the biggest rock band of all time. They’re certainly up there, but plenty of bands have seen more material success, more influence, or more critical acclaim. But to me at least, they’ll always be the biggest rock band of all time in a spiritual sense. Queen songs sound enormous, these titanic slabs of pure rock bombast that border on physically overwhelming to listen to. They sound like gods. All of this is to say that it’s actually pretty damned impressive that this band managed to pull off a pure pop delight as breezy and sunny as “You’re My Best Friend”. If you can’t get with the self-seriousness and import of stuff like “We Are the Champions”, this is the Queen song for you- a simple love song that cheerfully sways along for a sensible and brisk 2 minutes, 51 seconds. It captures a sentiment that’s as sweet as it is uncomplicated, and though there’s still a bit more to the composition than your average pop lark, it doesn’t flaunt it, tying everything into a natural-seeming and easy-to-follow format. It’s not a song that really blows me away the way certain other Queen songs do, but there’s definitely something to be said for a song you can find just as agreeable and mood-lifting the 200th time you hear it as you do the first.
#4: Wild Cherry- Play That Funky Music
Wild Cherry tried to warn us.
To be fair, they probably didn’t know it at the time. The oldest writing advice in the world is “write what you know”, and that’s very literally what Wild Cherry frontman Rob Parissi did on this song. Wild Cherry were, in fact, an ordinary schlubby bar-rock band, they ended up gigging a lot around Philadelphia, and they had to start incorporating more funk and disco influences to appease the mostly-black audiences they found themselves playing for there. Supposedly, even the phrase “play that funky music, white boy” is an actual thing a black audience member yelled at Parissi one night. Still, I can’t help but view this song not as an autobiography, or as a “celebration of the joys of selling out”, as some have called it, but as a sort of treatise on how rock could have avoided its protracted slide into mainstream irrelevance over the past 30 years. This song has one lesson to teach us: If rock fans want the music they love to persist, they need to change with the times and embrace new sounds, or people will get bored and move on! Sure, Wild Cherry weren’t rock gods on the level of Led Zeppelin or Cream or anything, but they were still quite recognizably rock, and they did it while seamlessly incorporating the funky guitars and dance rhythms of modern R&B and disco. After all, the chorus stresses to “play that funky music right”, and as the many rockers who stumbled their way through disco-era sellouts can attest, getting hip to new styles without looking like a tryhard dork is much harder than it sounds. But these guys clearly did their homework- I feel bad that I’ve only ever spotlighted the Ohio Players on a worst list, because this song that’s pretty clearly taking a lot of inspiration from them is almost a better encapsulation of everything that band did well than most of their actual big hits are. They also managed to lean into their squareness, to the point where the whole song is sort of a lighthearted joke at their own expense, while simultaneously projecting complete and total confidence in their ability to pull off this less-familiar style of music. I wholeheartedly believe that if more modern rock bands looked to this song for inspiration instead of biting Nirvana or Zeppelin or Van Halen, rock would be a much more creatively fertile and flexible genre than it is today.
#3: Dorothy Moore- Misty Blue
“Misty Blue” is the kind of song that’s so boringly perfect that I’m kind of at a loss for how to actually write about it. I genuinely cannot think of a single thing that could make this song a better version of what it is. It’s the kind of aching soul ballad Ray Charles used to be a master of, given a polished, glossy 70s makeover- a high school rom-com glow-up for the girl next door who’s been played by a very obviously beautiful actress the entire time. The way the string section and the piano play off each other throughout the song is totally immaculate- it’s beautifully composed, and almost as importantly it’s beautifully recorded. Dorothy Moore, I suppose, was never really destined to become one of the great 70s soul singers, since she doesn’t do much here that Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin wasn’t already doing several years prior, but what I love so much is how precise her performance is here. She’s using a familiar recipe, but fine-tuning it to a level rarely heard, balancing tenderness with power, technical chops and raw, untrained emoting. She makes the song what it is: passionate and sad and all the other things you feel for The One That Got Away, wrapped up in an aesthetic that sounds exactly how you want those feelings to sound. I want regret and heartache to be this airbrushed and devastatingly attractive, I want those late nights alone to have the air of a second-act low point this song portrays it with. There’s something kind of alluring about heartbreak, you know- that’s part of why we have a million trillion songs about it. There are other songs that I think better capture heartbreak as it truly is, but this song, to me, captures heartbreak as we imagine it to be in our most grandiose, self-narrating moments, and in an odd way that feels just as honest.
#2: Peter Frampton- Show Me The Way
Mitch Hedberg saying that smoking fake weed with Peter Frampton for a scene in Almost Famous was “almost as cool as smoking real weed with a dude who looks like Peter Frampton” is, to this day, one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. I giggle about it every time Frampton gets brought up. That doesn’t really have anything to do with this review, it’s just important to me that you all know that.
Anyway, “Show Me The Way”, the crown jewel of Frampton’s short-lived stint as the biggest rock star in the world. A great rock tune, sure, but more importantly a great pop tune. A fantastic melody and composition- listen to that verse. The way that unexpected B-flat chord at the end there just skews the song in such an interesting direction and really propels it towards that big, singalong chorus- that’s the kind of smart songwriting I can’t help but wish rock musicians still prioritized. I quite like the lyrics, too. It’s mostly pretty broad stuff, but the chorus hammers home a sort of admission of vulnerability; I’ve always interpreted it as the narrator trying to reach out and express himself to his partner, asking her to help him untangle his emotional confusion. When I first heard it, I actually thought it was about the narrator having his first sexual encounter with a more experienced woman, and asking her to take the lead and “show him the way”. I guess there isn’t really a ton in the lyrics to support that reading, but there isn’t much that directly contradicts it either, and it feels fitting for the song’s tone more than its text: energetic but tense, a current of uncertainty underneath the narrator’s passion and Frampton’s heated delivery. At least as far as rock songs with a talkbox goes, I’ll take this over “Livin’ On A Prayer” any day of the week.
#1: Queen- Bohemian Rhapsody
Yep it’s Bohemian Rhapsody guys, my favorite hit of the year is Bohemian Rhapsody. Truly, if there’s one thing this world simply cannot do without, it’s yet another music writer lavishing praise on Bohemian God-damn Rhapsody. I’d love to offer a more interesting or against-the-grain take here, but nope, this song being as beloved and ubiquitous as it is is, in my view, both a proper and inevitable state of affairs. Chalk it up to overplay if you want, but I hear at least a dozen musical ideas here that could have each sustained a quality radio hit all on their own, and these mad bastards had the hubris to stuff every one of them into a single song and the chops and charisma to actually pull it off, musical cohesion and limits of good taste be damned. When you think of this song, what do you think of? The unforgettable opening couplet? Brian May’s solo? “Mama mia, figaro”? The headbangin’ metal breakdown? Okay, now hone your ear in on that piano line in the “mama, just killed a man” section. Tell me that piano line alone couldn’t have gotten this song onto the charts. That’s why the damn thing is overplayed- it has the listening value of a half-dozen songs crammed into one! I don’t blame anyone who’s sick of this song after it’s been spun on FM-103.5 “The Arrow” 20 times a day for 30-odd years, but I’d wager a pretty hefty sum that they’d be a million times sicker of almost anything else after that many plays. “Bohemian Rhapsody” simultaneously sounds like it took hundreds of hours to come up with and bring to fruition, and like it fell from the sky one day fully-formed, at once the product of an unbelievably talented group of creatives at their artistic peak and six straight minutes of pure accidental genius. Sure, the members of Queen probably spent ages fine-tuning every transition here, getting the solo absolutely note-perfect, and tweaking and re-tweaking that iconic breakdown so it would hit with the maximum possible impact, but you’ll never convince me Freddy Mercury didn’t come up with that “I see a little silhouette-o of a man” bit off the top of his head one day in the shower and just ran with it. It’s great in the way all the best rock music is great: It’s campy and adolescent and overblown and trying far too hard and barely-cogent and absolutely none of that matters even a little bit because more than anything else they believe in it. The best singer-songwriters can sound like they’re speaking directly to and about you, and the most bombastic arena rock acts can get an entire stadium of drunken idiots singing along like it’s a damn sea shanty. Queen, in their finest moments, somehow managed to do both. I cannot present a once-and-for-all solution to the contradictions of this band or this song here- hell, I can barely say anything about it a hundred other people haven’t already said in far more clever ways. At the end of the day, I can only give myself over to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, in all its cheeseball glory, each and every time I hear it. Long live Queen.