I know that in the intro to last year’s best list, I made a big to-do about ‘76 being THE year for ‘70s pop, an era-defining smorgasbord of enduring radio classics. I do stand by that, of course, but I also have to admit that you could probably make just as strong a case for ‘77 in that regard. No forgotten greats here, folks- you KNOW the following 10 songs, whether you want to or not. I’m honestly not sure if there are any years after this where my top 10 favorites will be so roundly beloved and eternally popular, so savor the lack of Hot Takes™ while you can. We’re taking yet another dive into the biggest and best the 70s has to offer- On with the show!
#10: Hall & Oates- Rich Girl
The thing to keep in mind about Hall & Oates is that their songs really don’t have a whole lot going on under the hood. They made their name with poppy, polished takes on philly soul and modern R&B, and much of their work has the same sort of broad, anonymous quality as most of the big soul labels of the era, sounding like it could have just as easily come from a half-dozen contemporaneous artists. They were no more and no less than perfectly competent as singers and lyricists, so if everything else wasn’t exactly in its right place they probably would have just been just another blandly passable pop-soul act with little staying power. But god damn it, everything else was exactly in its right place, here and across more of their singles than anyone could have realistically predicted. All the melodies? On point. All the harmonies? On point. Every little string accent and keyboard chord? On. Fuckin’. Point. Not an ounce of compositional fat, and a single-minded focus guiding every element. “Rich Girl” is frighteningly catchy from top to bottom, and as far as earworms go there’s a lot more to it than your average radio hit. The chorus is actually more like 3 separate hooks all jammed together into one mega-hook, and because it’s clever enough to not have to rely on rote repetition or simplicity it’s easy to mindlessly hum it for a day or two without getting sick to death of the tune. The lyric, a “Like a Rolling Stone”-lite tirade against a woman coasting on familial wealth, is also enjoyable for what it is, but ultimately it’s just a means to an end- the end being a tightly-written, instantly memorable pop tune.
#9: Fleetwood Mac- Go Your Own Way
Fleetwood Mac’s legendary 1977 smash Rumours is very famously a “breakup album”, and this is one of the most straightforward breakup songs on the disc, and arguably one of the better breakup songs in the entirety of the modern pop canon. “Go Your Own Way” is not a song that offers a resolution or an easy answer; it’s all desperate promises and regrets forming in real-time. That opening verse, “Loving you / isn’t the right thing to do / how can I ever change / things that I feel?” speaks directly to the tangled, volatile mess of longing and confusion that follows in the wake of two people, well, going their own ways. It does a phenomenal job of locating and articulating a nebulous middle ground between bitter, pleading, angry, and accepting that feels complex and relatable and all too human. The lyrics are what elevate the song to something truly special, but the music is what made it one of the most enduring radio hits of the decade, and golly, is this one an all-timer! The verses sound strident and confident, while still carrying an incredible tension thanks to Mick Fleetwood’s excellent drumming. The chorus brings it all home, erupting into an absolutely mammoth hook made to be angrily belted out on your evening commute after a particularly bad day at the office. Lindsey Buckingham’s voice soars like it never had before (and frankly never would again), John McVie’s bassline adds crucial coloring and melodic depth, and Christine McVie’s organ provides a simmering, cinematic backdrop for the whole thing. All in all, it exemplifies why Rumours is one of the most beloved pop albums of all time- it takes a writhing knot of conflicting emotion and angst and sticks it to a tune that makes it all go down easy.
#8: Jimmy Buffet- Margaritaville
The competition may not exactly be stiff, but this is probably my most controversial pick for this list. “Margaritaville” is a song that tends to elicit extreme reactions- you either love it or you haaaaate it. I certainly see the argument for both sides here. This sort of laid-back, tropically-inflected country-pop is the sort of thing that should instantly get my hackles up- how many times have I bitched about songs that sound self-satisfied and lazy? This should be the ur-example of those complaints, so why is it on my best list rather than my worst list? Well, because if you take the time to really listen to the song, it almost plays like a subversion of the gulf coast soft-rock Buffet himself popularized with this very song. I can’t imagine kicking back with a fruity mixed drink to this- hell, it makes me never want to touch the sauce again. The narrator of “Margaritaville” is a completely despondent, heartbroken man, and all the partying and drinking he does here is explicitly framed as unsuccessful attempts to avoid being alone with his own thoughts. In the chorus he literally says he’s “wasting away”, and the rest of the song really drives home that he’s lost in an endless haze of alcohol and kitschy tourist-trap memorabilia; it’s the least glamorous a post-breakup bender has ever sounded. The music serves as an appropriate soundtrack to this debaucherous downward spiral, but it also doesn’t contradict the sadness at the core of it. It sounds pleasant and Key West-y, but the undercurrent of desperation is there in the melancholy lilt of the melody and especially in Buffet’s detached, almost slurred vocal delivery. Sure, it doesn’t play quite as well in the context of Buffet’s overall body of work, which mostly expresses similar sentiments without any irony or subversion, but at least on its own, the bleak, booze-addled core of “Margaritaville” remains very compelling to me all the same.
#7: Fleetwood Mac- Don’t Stop
In a lot of ways, “Don’t Stop” is not as good as “Go Your Own Way”. It’s a lot less lyrically nuanced, the chorus doesn’t quite hit with the same impact, and overall it’s just a little less of a showstopper. And yet, at the end of the day, I still have to give this one the edge, if only by a very, very narrow margin. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s a much happier song, and though I would generally consider myself, if anything, biased in favor of more angsty or negatively-minded music, if I have to choose between a great sad song and a great happy song, I’ll lean towards the one that’ll leave me in a better mood. It helps, of course, that “Don’t Stop” is far from being one-note in its upbeatness, taking an optimistic and reassuring tone that encourages the listener to live for the moment. For another, perhaps more importantly, this is just such a perfect, airtight pop song- a tad less ambitious, sure, but it meets those ambitions it does have so flawlessly that I can hardly complain. I mean, seriously, how genius is that B7 chord at the end of each section? The first three lines of each section follow the predictably pleasing pop chords- the I, the V, the IV- then that B7 comes in and just ramps up the tension to propel the song smoothly into another round. I could genuinely listen to it all day, especially with that jaunty beat and sturdy bassline giving it such a likeable and fun energy. Even if it’s not the very most thoughtful or emotionally impactful song in Fleetwood Mac’s catalogue, “Don’t Stop” is still far from thoughtless, and brings enough radio-gold tuneage to more than back itself up.
#6: Stevie Wonder- Sir Duke
In September of 1976, Stevie Wonder released the double-album Songs in the Key of Life, considered by many to be his masterpiece. The record saw Stevie taking the surplus of vinyl space as an opportunity to more fully explore musical styles that had interested or influenced him, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the jazzy “Sir Duke”. The song is a direct tribute to the great swing and big-band players of the 30s and 40s: Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and of course Duke Ellington, who Wonder named the song after. Naturally, he takes a ton of cues from these aforementioned artists in the composition and arrangement here, particularly the horn section that could have come straight out of a Cab Calloway number. As an amateur music historian myself, I really appreciate Stevie taking a moment to nod to some of the old greats (and releasing that nod as a single, no less!), but the bigger reason this song is such a success is that it’s so joyful and enthusiastic about doing so. The first verse doesn’t even mention any specific artists, it just talks about how great music as a concept is. Frankly, this is a big reason I’ve always connected with Stevie’s work on a personal level: He thinks music is so awesome. And I agree! Music is awesome, it’s incredible that people of all stripes can come together and appreciate a good song or a great live performance, and though most of Stevie’s music carries this attitude tonally, here it’s outright stated. The song also shows where Stevie’s deeper appreciation for these artists comes from. Their music was fun and bouncy and it brought people closer, and that’s exactly what he’s aiming for with “Sir Duke”: to make something people really will “feel all over”. Between the playful, funky verses, the more tense half-step melodies of the pre-chorus, and the massive hook the chorus delivers, he does a damn near faultless job of it, and with Nathan Watts’ subtly virtuosic bass playing to give the song a solid rhythmic anchor, “Sir Duke” manages the impressive feat of sounding both fresh and modern for its time, and like a classic jazz throwback that any of the swing-era greats would have been proud to call their own.
#5: ABBA- Dancing Queen
On some level, I love “Dancing Queen” simply because I was once, not so long ago, a teenager, and “Dancing Queen” is, on both a textual and emotional level, a very teenaged song. I don’t mean that to be pejorative in the least, either; this song captures something very quintessential about the experience of youth culture in one’s youth. And, because it’s ABBA, it all comes down to the chorus, specifically one line: “You can dance, you can ji-ive, hav-ing the time of your li-i-ife”. God, doesn’t it just take you back? I know I was lucky enough as a teenager to have a handful of moments that felt the way that line makes me feel: like I’m capable of anything, like the world is my oyster, like this one glorious, shining moment exists just for me to savor. It’s truly intoxicating, and I’m never not impressed by how well the band pulls it off here. I think a huge part of it, too, is that they’re singing not about something that happened to them, but singing directly to you. ABBA wants this song to make us all feel like the dancing queen- the whole song is a glittery, sparkling showcase for you, yes YOU, the listener, to be the belle of the ball, the stunningly beautiful dancer who can sweep anyone off their feet without a second thought. The vocal melodies soar, the piano accents gleam, but most importantly it’s all specifically to make you feel pretty and special and talented for four minutes, and hell, even if they didn’t succeed (which they do), isn’t that one of the purest and most kind ambitions a pop song can have? So many songs written in the second person are vindictive and accusatory, or otherwise treat the target as an object rather than a subject. “Dancing Queen” is uplifting and celebratory of its audience in a way that far too much dance music falls short of, and every time I hear it all I can really think is, “you’re goddamn right I’m a dancing queen”. And yes, I do feel the beat of the tambourine.
#4: Eagles- Hotel California
“Hotel California” is, in my opinion, a commentary on American culture that could only hit as hard as it does coming from an act so irksomely, overwhelming American. The Eagles were the ultimate embodiment of every soft, unchallenging, middle-of-the-road sensibility this decade produced, and here they are crafting an epic, dark tale of madness and greed and the impossibility of innocence in the modern era? The call truly is coming from inside the house here, and I think that’s one of the biggest keys to its success. The lyrics are impressionistic and somewhat disjointed, sure, but that’s why this is a song and not a poem. The cadence of the verses, the minor-key melody and Don Henley’s strained voice all do their part to carry the song where the words fall short, filling in the gaps and creating something that leaves itself open to a multitude of interpretations while still crafting undeniably strong imagery and a half-dozen of the most memorable individual lines in 70s rock. I mean really, I could have just written this entire blurb about what a great closing line this song has- The perfect summation of that inescapable, all-consuming thing so many label “the American dream”. Of course, I also have to mention Joe Walsh’s career-defining solo that closes out the track, 2 full minutes of every single trick in the guitar solo handbook and then some. It delivers all the wild-eyed excess the preceding story has (rather cryptically) outlined, and ends things on a fittingly unresolved note, fading out rather than properly concluding. As the years go by, and “Hotel California” becomes ever more a part of the very same culture it gazes so fearfully upon, I find it only keeps solidifying its status as a gripping inside look at the dark side of the gloss and glamor of the 70s.
#3: Electric Light Orchestra- Telephone Line
I’ll always have a lot of respect for songs that fill a niche in the pop music canon that had previously gone unnoticed and unaddressed. For any given scene you can find in a typical big Hollywood movie, I think we need at least one song that’s just the most stupidly on-the-nose soundtrack choice for that moment. Imagine a rom-com at the end of the second act. Our protagonist gets sad-drunk and, as they start desperately dialing their ex’s number, the opening synth burbles of this song fade into the foreground, and you smile and roll your eyes at just how obvious it all is. Maybe it’s just me, but I love moments like that, and that’s the exact kind of moment “Telephone Line” feels tailor-made for. We need a pop song out there about being sad and calling up your ex, and “Telephone Line” is pretty much the best version of that song I can think of. I love the dynamic between the mopey small-talk of the verses and the larger scale of the chorus- There’s an almost voyeuristic nature to listening to Jeff Lynne stumble his way through lines like “don’t you realize the things we did were for real / not a dream”. He comes off incredibly self-conscious about how pathetic and inconsequential he sounds, but the chorus finds a bit of deeper truth there all the same. One of the hardest things about a break-up is the way it doesn’t fit into a grand narrative- sometimes a relationship just comes to an end, and all you’re left with is the hundred little things you had planned that will now never happen. It’s that futile search for a resolution that really drives this song, though it should kind of go without saying that it’s pretty excellent musically too. The orchestral elements lend a cinematic swell to the chorus, and Lynne makes yet another strong case that he’s one of the most underrated balladeers around, crafting everything around a creative and sticky tune and incorporating the little facsimile ringtone into the song surprisingly well. It’s pretty much everything Lynne did well as a songwriter, delivered with style and conviction, and that by itself is pretty damn tough to beat.
#2: Stevie Wonder- I Wish
It’s a testament to how incredibly great “Superstition” is that this song, which basically amounts to “Superstition Part 2”, was still one of the best things to hit the charts all year in ‘77. Of course, calling it “Superstition Part 2” is pretty reductive- you could hardly mistake the one for the other- but before this, just about every Stevie single had offered something totally unique, a flavor of funk or soul or R&B that he hadn’t previously made a crack at, and “I Wish” is arguably the first time he repeated himself. This one’s a funk-rock throwdown in a very “Superstition”-y vein, with a similar forceful beat and exclamatory horn section. But hey, if you’re gonna repeat yourself, that’s a song that no one in their right mind should complain about having two of, and there are enough changes here to make “I Wish” totally worthy of its place in Stevie’s (at the time) nearly-flawless singles catalogue. For one, there’s an actual chorus here, and a pretty incredible one at that. The aforementioned horns really steal the show, almost acting as cartoon action bursts that just make the already-great melody and instrumentation that much more dynamic and impactful. That’s certainly how I imagine it whenever the song plays: nothing short of a brazen, block-lettering “POW!” in a big starburst shape can adequately capture the energy of those trumpet stabs that hit during the chorus here. The lyrics are also totally different, a fondly nostalgic look back at a rough-and-tumble childhood with solid imagery and details that give it some of the thematic heft that “Superstition” managed to get by without. In the context of Songs in the Key of Life, it may act as a perfect set-up for the ruthless deconstruction of nostalgia on “Pastime Paradise”, but on its own it’s still great. I appreciate how uncomplicated the yearning for a simpler, more carefree time is, and I really like that the song actually has the bombast to sell that nostalgia- if this is what Stevie’s childhood sounded like, then I can hardly blame him for wanting to go back. Ultimately, it’s not a repeat so much as a refinement, and though “Superstition” is nearly impossible to top, “I Wish” comes a hair’s breadth from doing just that, a second helping that manages to put a fresh twist on the first and ends up just as delicious and satisfying.
#1: Queen- Somebody to Love
As you may recall, for the 1976 best list I practically wrote a whole-ass novel on how amazing and incredible and great I think this song’s spiritual predecessor “Bohemian Rhapsody” is. If I haven’t made it excruciatingly clear, I do, in fact, think that it’s one of the very best songs of the 1970s, and one of the best rock songs of all time.
“Somebody to Love” is better.
I’ll try my best to keep it brief: “Somebody to Love” has one of the most perfect melodies I’ve ever heard in a pop song. The lead and backing vocals intertwine to stunning effect, playing off each other, calling and responding and ultimately resulting in a tune that’s thoroughly satisfying as well as endlessly interesting, somehow entirely memorable despite not actually repeating many of its core melodic phrases more than a few times. It manages to constantly iterate on itself throughout its runtime in a way that both develops the song musically and accentuates the emotions at the core of it. The whole thing just aches with melancholy and desperation and loneliness, thanks in large part to Freddie Mercury, who delivers the finest vocal performance of a career stuffed with performances that put the vast majority of rock singers to shame. Everyone in the world needs somebody to love, and I think almost all of us know pretty intimately the feeling of having that need go unfulfilled. Here, Mercury manages to give voice to that very specific yet universal part of the human condition, to the way someone’s entire life can feel less than complete without this thing that, at the end of the day, no one person owes to them. Queen’s trademark melodrama and grandiosity is part of the appeal here: this is a needy song, because deep down we’re all kind of needy in one way or another and maybe, just maybe, that isn’t actually something to be ashamed of. “Raw” is not a descriptor people tend to associate with this band, but I think “Somebody to Love” really does have a rawness to it that few Queen songs have, even as every guitar fill and piano chord lands cleanly and flawlessly where it ought to. I love the guitar solo, I love the main piano line and the way the bassline moves underneath it, I love love love that absolutely dazzling vocal run Mercury lets out right near the end, but most of all I love that rawness, that naked admission of need that somehow manages to feel invigorating and empowering all the same. Like all the best pop, it succeeds because, in spite of all the inner turmoil it describes, it leaves you feeling a little happier and a little stronger and a little less alone than you were before. It’s my favorite Queen song, my favorite hit of 1977, and one of the best pop songs of all time.