The 50 Best Songs of the 1970s
- Must have been released in years 1970 through 1979
- No jazz included
- Limit one song per artist
- Listed alphabetically
Archie Shepp - Attica Blues - 1972. Leave it to a jazz legend from the 50s/60s to put out possibly the fiercest funk of the 70s. A righteous, careening outrcry of surging rhythm—this was Black Pride.
Bill Fay - The Sun is Bored - 1970. I’m astounded so much drama can be packed into a sub-three minute song. It sounds like a full orchestra as backing band, punctuated by timpani and crash-cymbal exploding crescendos. And then it’s over.
Budgie - In the Grip of a Tyrefitter’s Hand - 1973. The GROOVE of this song! Budgie were ostensibly a metal band but the rhythmic sensibility on display here—nothing complicated, just an instinctual hook—eludes most heavy bands. And Burke Shelley’s yelped goofball lyrics (the song’s title is a clue) somehow make the thing complete.
Camille Yarbrough - All Hid - 1975. Atop a motorik bassline of perpetual sixteenth notes, Yarbrough takes America to the woodshed. Her scathing word strings are perfectly augmented by Cornell Dupree’s probing guitar thrusts in one channel, that duel a disembodied clavinet in the other. As convincing as societal indictment in song ever got.
Can - Vitamin C - 1972. For me Can’s greatness is achieved through the interplay of Damo Suzuki’s voice and the incomparable Czukay/Liebezeit rhythm section—perfectly demonstrated here. One of the tightest/loosest grooves ever put to tape.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - Bellerin’ Plain - 1970. The drums are doing their own thing but they keep the bass in line. A howling loonatic shaman raises spirits with alliteration scrawled on a cocktail napkin. Polyrhythm by way of staggered stuttering guitars, on over to winged marimba breaks. Sloppy jalopy steered by Captain art maker.
Chico Magnetic Band - Phantasm - 1972. Metallic crunch abruptly yields to pastoral lull and just as abruptly back to crunch. Chico sings like some displaced hippie gone off his rocker. This is one of the great heavy-psych numbers I’ve heard.
Chrome - March of the Chrome Police - 1979. Delicious sci-fi scuzziness, feeling like it was recorded in a junkie den post apocalypse. It’s futuristic-primitive gutter punk from space.
Contortions - Contort Yourself - 1979. What really makes this spastic JB send-up go—besides the obvious, like James Chance’s affected holler and sax blurts—is how a snaking slide guitar is set against locked-in rhythm guitar.
Eddie Hazel - So Goes the Story - 1977. I love the funk that doesn’t play by the funk rules. Here we have a blistering guitar solo from start to finish (Eddie Van who?)—weaving its way through a lurching beat, piercing vocal chorus, and Bootsy’s rubber bass.
Edgar Broughton Band - The Birth - 1971. Jethro Tull but with conviction and imagination? The Birth is a sinister acousti-blues romp, probably recorded in the woods where covens gather. Edgar’s best Cap'n Beefheart howl, too, for good measure.
Elf - Hoochie Coochie Lady - 1972. By ‘72, boogie rock had been done to death. This boogie rocker is a triumph, though. It absolutely rips—beefy guitar riffs with saloon piano tinkling, and RJ Dio’s majestic wail over top.
Eno - Needles in the Camel’s Eye - 1974. Shimmering, twisted, and irresistible. One of the best-ever slices of subversive pop.
Faust - It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl - 1972. So wonderfully deliberate and minimal it could easily pass for early Velvet Underground. Tribal drum banging and monotone singing hypnotize, and then towards the end when the sax enters, you find yourself grinning and you play it again.
Fela Kuti - Alu Jon Jonki Jon - 1973. Prolific and consistent as he was, you could go with almost any of the 70s Fela groove jams. But for me this one seems to pulsate with a tad more energy and bite. Pushing it over the top: maestro Kuti’s ridiculous organ solo comprising the final four or so minutes.
Flamin’ Groovies - High Flying Baby - 1971. Exceptional loose-and-loud rock that reportedly made even the Stones (fresh off recording Sticky Fingers) blush. With its dual guitar bombast and countrified swagger it’s easy to hear why.
Flower Travellin’ Band - Satori I - 1971. There’s a spirituality here—like a connection to the natural world and its place in the universe—not found in typical heavy music. Satori is fearless. It goes out there further than, say, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin were willing/able to go. It’s scarier, more compelling, and altogether superior.
Franco Battiato - Areknames - 1973. This is an exquisite, downright spooky, synth-driven number from one of the true Italian masters. I’d liken it to a holy mass from Mars, with Martian ghosts (ghost Martians?) as priests.
Gang of Four - Natural’s Not In It - 1979. One of the best products of the aggressive-taut-angular aesthetic that took hold towards the end of the decade. It’s at once precise and askew, and I think it’s that opposition within the song—almost like the drum beat is battling the guitar line—which makes it feel so arresting.
Germs - We Must Bleed - 1979. So much of what was called punk, especially from England, seemed formulated for mass consumption. Enter the Germs from L.A. I love this song because it is dirty and menacing, a gloriously unhinged mess. Darby Crash sings as if the city is burning around him. And the extended (by Germs standards) outro, with the instruments barely staying on the tracks, is somehow a thing of beauty.
Hampton Grease Band - Hey Old Lady - 1971. Reckless abandon. Col. Bruce Hampton supplies the nutso sing-shouting (I PICK UP GARBAGE AND WHAT’S IT TO YOU), while Harold Kelling and Glenn Phillips go toe to toe in some kind of tortured-guitar cage match. A dizzying blast of southern-fried garage chaos.
Hawkwind - Silver Machine - 1972. The way the instruments come forth out of the whooshing synth opening—like some vessel emerging from a mist—is fabulous. And then we’re off, hurtling through space. It’s a dense, claustrophobic rocker, intensified with Lemmy’s growl-yowl.
John Cale - My Maria - 1975. A hosanna of a song, bursting with brass, electronics—the whole works. Cale’s knack both as arranger and manipulator of sound is on dazzling display, as are Chris Spedding’s lightning-bolt guitar stabs.
Karen Dalton - Are You Leaving for the Country - 1971. Karen sings this so beautifully. Hers was by no means a from-the-rooftops “classic” sort of voice, but it had more emotional heft than perhaps any I’ve heard. I feel real pain and longing every time I hear this.
Kevin Coyne - Mummy (live) - 1976 - What a scorcher. I really like Coyne’s studio recordings, but he never quite achieved in the studio what he did on his live record In Living Black and White, from which this song is taken. His voice here crackles beast-like, his lyrics are spitfire. His ace backing band is in tune with every minute vocal inflection, every improvised segue. All of this might very well be the result of superb recording/mixing/mastering of the performance—but the performance itself really is one of the most convincingly ferocious you’ll hear.
Kim Jung mi - Haenim - 1973. A gorgeous, haunting number beginning as delicately sparse and culminating in an exultant rapture. Throughout, Shin Jung-hyeon’s triplet-laden guitar sorcery serves as the integral lifeline. The song’s climax occurs through a resounding multi-tracked vocal chorus.
Lula Cortes & Ze Ramalho - Trilha de Sume - 1975. This is an ominous freak-samba cauldron. As I listen I feel enveloped by a layered percussion chorus and looping bass groove in the heart of some sweltering rain forest. Cortes and Ramalho’s voices, repeatedly trading spots between the left and right stereo channels, function as apparition-like tour guides.
Magma - The Last Seven Minutes - 1978. Magma devotees might raise their eyebrows at this choice, and I’m OK with that. For me this is the finest single slice of Magma (if we were talking about album sides, I’d go with one of the sides from MDK or Kohntarkosz). It bursts its seams with energy and chops and maniacal genius.
Mama Bea Tekielski - Le Secret - 1976. If you’ve seen the John Cassavettes movie A Woman Under the Influence, you’re aware of the tour-de-force performance by Gena Rowlands. I kind of feel like this is Tekielski’s own A Woman Under the Influence. She doesn’t so much sing as wail, hiss, plead, and moan. For those vocal pyrotechnics to work, a sensitive band is required—and the roomy, elastic funk they back her up with here does the job nicely.
Mick Faren - Outrageous/Contagious - 1977. A haggard holdover from the London psychedelic scene shows the young-and-snotty bunch how it’s done. This is crusty, guttural (and essential) punk from an actual punk.
Neu! - After Eight - 1975. The duo take their groundbreaking but simple groove aesthetic and give it snarl, with phenomenal results. Where previously it had been atmospheric and even pleasant, it now has an abrasive menace. Ground re-broken.
Os Mutantes - Haleluia - 1970. The power of human voice(s) as instrument. The choral harmonizing here is splendid—beginning quietly and building steadily to a din. It’s some kind of psychedelic opera-samba.
Pere Ubu - Final Solution - 1976. I sometimes wonder if this towering anthem was a sort of happy accident. Pere Ubu in the '70s made odd music that, though I love it all dearly, can come off as alienating. But holy shit, THIS SONG. It’s almost as if they decided, for one song, they would do heartfelt, for-the-people emotion. Of course, all that said, it’s still only as epic as a group of scornful weirdos from Cleveland can manage to be. In any case, it’s likely the song of the decade for me.
Roky Erickson - Starry Eyes - 1975. It might be hyperbolic to use “transcendent” for a jangly, 60s-styled pop song. But Roky’s vocal delivery makes it so. His lyrics are mostly inane but he sings them out with this ragged yearning that sears them into your consciousness.
Roxy Music - In Every Dream Home a Heartache - 1973. Somber dark noodling, as if from a lounge inhabited by David Lynch, cuts out… Elvis-Lugosi singer in an almost-whisper: “but you blew my mind"… BASH! the instruments return, now like thunder. One of the indelible moments of rock and roll.
Roy Harper - Hallucinating Light - 1975. A bittersweet murmur of a song. Harper sings as evocatively as he ever has, but it’s guitarist Chris Spedding (once again) that takes it over, with his dancing, wavering notes around a sparse, echo-drenched solo for the ages.
San Ul Lim - Laying Silks and Satins on My Heart - 1978. It’s this song’s beginning I’d like to talk about. The entire piece is great, but the phenomenal intro segment is what makes it. A military-precise drum beat on top of a provocative but simple bass line starts it off—seemingly utilitarian, but just so locked-in, tight, and spacious that it exudes this confident power. And then, when a fuzzed and dissonant guitar joins in, intermingling, the military precision becomes wigged-out, glorious clamor.
Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Faith Healer - 1973. Epic, glam-drenched hard rock without any inhibition whatsoever. The suspenseful opening segment perfectly gives way to the meat of the song. What Bon-era AC/DC might have sounded like had they borrowed from Roxy Music’s repertoire.
Shuggie Otis - Aht Uh Mi Head - 1974. Cloudy funk strangeness that probably alienated genre consumers upon release. The use of the beat-box as percussion was never more effective (even in Sly’s hands). It’s a striking song that transports me.
Slapp Happy - The Drum - 1974. Yes, Dagmar Krause’s sublime voice carries this song, and the lilting melody really hooks you. But there is more—it’s got this beguiling avant-hippie feel, like if the Incredible String Band had collaborated with Red Krayola, and it works so very well.
Soft Boys - Leppo and the Jooves - 1979. A buoyant, galloping post-punk workout. I love Robyn Hitchcock’s word play and cadence here, the way his vocals rise and fall with the rhythm.
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Sparks - Amateur Hour - 1974. They were perhaps the first (and only?) American act to achieve the flamboyant, unabashed yesternow rock aesthetic that the Europeans (Roxy, Bolan, Bowie) had crafted. This song in particular blends pounding heaviness with theatrical whimsy so well that something singular is produced. Setting it apart even more is vocalist Russell Mael’s operatic falsetto.
The Stooges - TV Eye - 1970. Proto…everything? Brutal music, played by (heroic) troglodytes, at a brutal point in history. A post-Woodstock call to arms in America the Bleak.
Suicide - Girl - 1977. Surreal urban-decay lament on love and lust. Drum machine and keyboards so simplistic that it doesn’t seem right. But then it occurs to you it’s actually got a mesmerizing emotional depth.
Terry Allen - Lubbock Woman - 1978. Allen likely intended this as a satirical, if heartfelt, depiction of a pathetic South-Texas caricature. And it does work on that level, just like Randy Newman songs and Robert Altman movies do. But it’s also a visceral listening experience. Putting it over the top is a startling coda—a three-part vocal harmony that gathers speed and intensity all the way through the fade.
Throbbing Gristle - Five Knuckle Shuffle - 1978. One of the most frightening songs I’ve heard. It’s unholy mayhem achieved through a web of sonic devices. Deliberate synthetic rhythm, a la the German bands, is the foundation for calibrated steel-wool dissonance. Add Genesis P-Orridge’s contempt-for-everything moans and, all told, it’s hell on earth captured in song.
Tim Buckley - Down By the Borderline - 1970. A select few would dare attempt this kind of vocal performance, let alone pull it off. Luckily for us, Buckley had the courage and ability he did. It’s a bucking bronco of a song, the rhythm component sounding almost like the more wild electric material Miles Davis was doing at about the same time. It’s not a stretch, then, to say Buckley’s voice emotes on the level of Miles’ trumpet.
Townes Van Zandt - No Lonesome Tune - 1972. Townes sings this in a knowing, world-weary voice that hits me hard. And the way the pedal steel, mandolin, and piano come together to play out the closing minute is lovely.
Wire - Reuters - 1977. The opener on Wire’s debut LP is a searing manifesto. Bruce Gilbert’s guitar is alternately dissonant and crunching and Colin Newman’s voice a controlled rage. All of the song elements are layered with such care that the resultant cumulative whole is sonic nirvana—while still being punk as hell.
Yvonne Fair - Love Ain’t No Toy - 1975. An unbridled funk stomper that is one of the absolute high points of the genre. Perhaps it’s Norman Whitfield’s magical touch as a producer/arranger/writer, or the world class backing band that’s assembled (featuring guitar stalwarts Dennis Coffey and Wah-Wah Watson), or Yvonne’s blazing vocal delivery, or the unique incorporation of a beat box for percussive oomph. Probably all of these things—but man, this one leaves a mark.