10 Best Hit Songs of the 1970s

I’ve listed the ten worst songs of the 1970s, so it’s only fair to look at the highlights of the decade. If rock music came of age in the 1960s, the 1970s saw a proliferation of genres. Funk, disco, progressive rock, hip hop, acoustic singer-songwriters, reggae, and punk were all among the style emerging, or coming to fruition, in the 1970s.

All of these songs made the top 40 in either the UK or the US. Most are the signature song of their artist as well. Two late cuts from my list were David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ and Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, while Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was ineligible because I already included her in my 1980s list. Many well-loved rock bands from the era avoided singles – Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin are best heard in the form of their full-length LPs.

10 Best Hit Songs of the 1970s

#10 London Calling – The Clash

from London Calling, 1979
The Clash’s London Calling is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, and its greatest moment is the opening title track. The Clash had largely outgrown punk by 1979, and the apocalyptic vision ‘London Calling’ is more akin to classic rock. There’s a fantastic bassline from Paul Simonon, simple but driving, and Joe Strummer’s lyrics are grimly humorous. “London calling, see we ain’t got no swing/Except for the ring of the truncheon thing.”

#9 Fire and Rain – James Taylor

from Sweet Baby James, 1970
James Taylor turned his life experiences into a #3 hit song. ‘Fire and Rain’ addresses his battle with heroin addiction, the suicide of a childhood friend, and his struggle with depression. It also made Taylor into the figurehead of the emerging singer-songwriter scene of the early 1970s, gracing the cover of Time Magazine. Carole King’s piano adds class to the track, while Taylor’s warm voice and acoustic guitar are as charming as ever.

#8 Waiting in Vain – Bob Marley

from Exodus, 1977
Jamaica’s Bob Marley is the best-known exponent of reggae. While most attempts at fusing pop and reggae haven’t produced great results, Marley cranked out a string of irresistible hits for Island Records, until his untimely death in 1981, captured on the famous compilation Legend. ‘Waiting In Vain’ only just scraped to #31 on the UK charts, but it’s a poignant love song. Marley remained married to long-suffering wife Rita, but he wrote this song to Jamaican beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare.

#7 Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) – Buzzcocks

from Love Bites, 1978
Manchester’s Buzzcocks were a punk band, but their glorious run of singles showcased a finely-tuned grasp of pop melody. While they didn’t make a dent in the US, ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ hit #12 in the UK. Buzzcocks leader Pete Shelley took the song’s title from the movie Guys and Dolls.

#6 More than A Feeling – Boston

from Boston, 1976
Arena rock isn’t my preferred genre of music, but Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’ is a classic. Tom Scholz created the track in his basement studio, and it’s notable for its attention to detail. The layers of guitars and the harmonised guitars make the track hold up for repeated listens, while Brad Delp’s lead vocal is impressively athletic. When Nirvana had their breakthrough hit 15 years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ featured a strikingly similar riff to ‘More Than A Feeling’.

#5 Sara – Fleetwood Mac

 from Tusk, 1979
When Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac on New Year’s Eve in 1974, they transformed a well-respected band into a commercial juggernaut. “Wait a minute baby/Stay with me awhile/Said you’d give me light/But you never told me about the fire” are the evocative opening lines for Nicks’ majestic ‘Sara’. According to Nicks, ‘Sara’ was originally sixteen minutes long and had nine extra verses.

#4 Heart of Glass – Blondie

from Parallel Lines, 1979
New York’s Blondie started as a new wave band but they were always forward-thinking and eclectic – 1980’s ‘Rapture’ was an early attempt at including hip hop. ‘Heart of Glass’ glistens with its Euro-sophisticated disco sound, topped with Debbie Harry’s coolly detached vocal. Drummer Clem Burke initially refused to play ‘Heart of Glass’ live, but conceded when it became a hit.

#3 September – Earth, Wind & Fire

from The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, 1978
‘September’ is an outpouring of joy. The lyrics are inconsequential nonsense, which simply intensifies the bouncy groove. ‘September’ bears many of Earth, Wind & Fire’s hallmarks – Phil Bailey’s falsetto, joyfulness, and a lush arrangement. It’s Earth, Wind & Fire’s most famous song but it didn’t appear on a studio album – it was a new track released on the band’s 1978 Best Of.

#2 Rocket Man – Elton John

from Honky Château, 1972
Elton John was unstoppable during the first half of the 1970s, scoring hit after hit. It’s not unreasonable to label ‘Rocket Man’ as John’s signature song – it provided the title for his 2018 biopic. It was also the lead single on the album that signalled John’s ascent to mega-stardom – Honky Château was the first in a long series of US number-one albums. Honky Château marks the first time the Elton John Band were allowed to play on an entire album – Davey Johnstone’s pedal steel in the verse, and his acoustic strum in the chorus, provide the key textures, along with the group’s harmonies.

#1 What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

from What’s Going On, 1971
After serving as a drummer and vocalist in the Motown machine during the 1960s, Marvin Gaye took charge of his career in the early 1970s. His most famous album, What’s Going On, was released in 1971, spearheaded by the title track. ‘What’s Going On’ was inspired by police brutality at a Vietnam protest. Gaye’s double-tracked vocal is gorgeous, while the song is propelled by a sinuous James Jamerson bassline.

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  1. So is the criterion for this list that it had to be a hit? Or could it be a deep track? And if it’s a hit, how are you defining that? Number one? I ask because I can come up with 10 million songs from that era but if I know the parameters I can narrow it down

    • These were all singles, and a top 40 hit in the UK or the US (although any other country would be fine). Apart from Marley most were pretty big hits – even the edgy cuts from the Buzzcocks and The Clash only just missed the UK top ten. But I think ‘Heart of Glass’ was the only number one, and only for a single week – while ‘What’s Going On’ topped Cashbox but not BIllboard.

        • You’re totally right – although it was #1 on Cashbox, not on Billboard. I looked back and I was just looking at the wrong chart on Wikipedia – it was for a 1994 remake. I stand corrected and will update the article.

          • I always used to wonder why some songs got to number one in Cashbox but only like number two on Billboard. Cuz I noticed that happened a lot. And then a while ago I read something that explained the reason for that, but now I can’t remember what the reason was. I wish I could remember. I think it had something to do with record sales in certain stores or something like that. Billboard didn’t count certain sales and Cashbox did. Or something. Idk.

          • A quick Google search said that “According to Randy Price, who runs the Cash Box charts “fan site,” Cash Box was strictly a sales-based chart until the late seventies, whereas Billboard combined sales and airplay from late 1958 on.”

          • Okay. I knew it had something to do with that. There was another one too called Record World. I think that’s what it was called.

  2. Wow so many choices !

    But this list is bulletproof. No way you can find a hole in it IMO.
    To call them “Hit songs” doesn’t do them justice, since they are all part of the multigenerational music fabric now.

    The only songs you might not hear with as much regularity today are the Buzzcocks and Jackson Brown songs – but if anyone ever learns of the backstory to “Fire and Rain” they immediately tear up the next time they hear it.

    Also, there is a CNN/HBO serial documentary series about “What’s going on” out now and it’s relevance to “black lives matter etc”. I saw the ad last night.

      • Ya I get that.

        Today there are no more “A” and “B”sides, obviously.
        Also “radio single “means a different thing today than in the past.
        Today, You might have a number one billboard song that billions love but billions have never heard of. It’s life now. That was never true before:

        in the (50s.60s,70s,80s) everyone listened to the same songs, more or less.

        The “Deep cuts” concept remains today only because the whole concept of a music “album” continues to exist.

        Long live the album.

        • I used to think albums would disappear, but now I think they’re a convenient way of creating an natural playlist.

          I agree about fragmentation – there are only a few huge inescapable singles and the rest is all in little niches.

      • Oh, man, that’s absolutely right. If there is a death in the music world that pains me, it’s his. He sure would have a lot to say nowadays.

  3. Ok. Well, again you’ve managed to eat up my precious time. But what choice do I have when the gauntlet is thrown? I combed through the Billboard Hits lists to make sure they all met the criterion.

    10. Bridge Over Troubled Water – S&G
    9. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
    8. More Than a Feeling – Boston
    7. Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits
    6. Roxanne – Police
    5. Ramblin’ Man – Allman Brothers Band
    4. Reelin’ in the Years – Steely Dan
    3. Brown Sugar – Rolling Stones
    2. Hotel California – Eagles
    1. Layla – Derek and the Dominos

    Honorable five – Born to Run – Springsteen, She’s Gone – Hall and Oates, Radar Love – Golden Earring, Lola – Kinks, If You Could Read My Mind – Gordon Lightfoot

    • You could always post it on your own site sometime, if you ever run out of ideas.

      Layla is a good one that didn’t cross my mind while I was making the list – I was surprised that it made #12 in the US but didn’t crack the UK top 40. Your list has more head-banging guitar solos than mine does.

  4. Great list! Can’t argue with any of them. And the difference between the best and worst list is like different universes.

  5. Great list, Graham. I also dig Jim’s list. There are so many choices, even if you limit it to hit singles. I feel it’s pretty much mission impossible. With that being said, below are my top 10. Tomorrow, that list could look different!

    I simply couldn’t leave out my favorite band of all time, even though I don’t think the tune I selected is their best. But it surely was a big hit. I’m afraid my list is also heavily skewed toward the first part of the ’70s.

    Last but not least, as most of you know, I just can’t rank stuff, so here are my picks in no particular order:

    – Let it Be – The Beatles
    – Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
    – What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
    – Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who
    – Layla – Derek and the Dominos
    – Superstition – Stevie Wonder
    – Money – Pink Floyd
    – Hotel California – Eagles
    – Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac
    – Night Fever – Bee Gees

    • I noticed from my list that I had barely anything from the mid 1970s – it was mostly from either end of the decade. Superstition, Brown Sugar, Won’t Get Fooled, and Layla are all great ones I couldn’t fit.

  6. You’re on fire with good and thought-provoking posts this week. Okay, I rise to the challenge . . . and I’m going with things that I still play a lot and that I am certain I would have first heard while listening to “American Top 40” on radio most Sunday morning throughout the decade, so “hits” and “singles” . . .

    “Tear the Roof of the Sucker (Give Up The Funk),” Parliament
    “Peg,” Steely Dan
    “Nights on Broadway,” The Bee Gees
    “Float On,” The Floaters
    “Band on the Run,” Wings
    “Paradise By the Dashboard Lights,” Meat Loaf
    “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” The Manhattans
    “Black Water,” The Doobie Brothers
    “Hocus Pocus,” Focus
    “Fantasy,” Earth, Wind and Fire

    • I wanted to squeeze Parliament in, although Flashlight would have been my first instinct. I don’t think I’ve even heard of The Floaters. You’re not the only person to mention Band on the Run, and I have a big soft spot for Black Water.

  7. You are stronger than I am…I could not cut Life On Mars?… the ones I would add would be Born To Run and Band on the Run… but it’s hard to be wrong on this one. Good list Graham.

  8. Omg. It’s a fools errand to try to choose only ten from such a decade!
    But good on you for such a great list.
    Can I chime in?

    1. The Who -Baba O’relly
    2, Blue Oyster Cult – Seasons don’t fear the reaper (More cowbell!)
    3. Bruce Springsteen- Born to Run.
    4. Supertramp – “ School”
    5. Pink Floyd – “wish you were here”
    6 , led zeppelin- “when the levy breaks”
    7. Elton John “Tiny Dancer”
    8. The Band “the weight”
    9. Neil Young “heart of gold”
    10. Rush “Closer to the Heart”.

    • I like all of those ones, although I think The Weight came out in 1968? There are a few late 1960 albums like The Band and Led Zeppelin that really feel like they belong to the 1970s.

  9. No one asked, but here’s my Top 10:

    1. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
    2. Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues
    3. Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel
    4. Dreams – Fleetwood Mac
    5. It’s Too Late – Carole King
    6. Stayin’ Alive – Bee Gees
    7. Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty
    8. Danny’s Song – Anne Murray
    9. Love Hangover (long version) – Diana Ross
    10. Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

    • I should have asked at the end of my post for lists. There are a few that have popped up a lot. I would note that the Moodys tune originally came out in 1967, but maybe it was rereleased later?

      Year of the Cat is a great call, and that sax riff on Baker Street is all time.

      • “Nights in White Satin” was first released in November 1967, and reached #19 in the UK, but did not crack the Hot 100 in the U.S. On its re-release in 1972, the song peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, so was a ‘hit’ in the 70s in my book.

          • I think it fits in perfectly with the big, symphonic music of 1971-72 heard in songs like “Stairway to Heaven”, “Layla” and Procul Harum’s “Conquistador”, another track originally from the 60s. It first appeared on their 1967 debut album, but was later released as a single in 1972 from their live album “Procol Harum”.

    • I don’t personally like that moody blues song at all- but Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart are both great choices.
      Vintage 70s but both waaaay ahead of their time.

      If they released “year of the cat”, or “ Baker Street” today as an Indy hit on “Alt Nation”. nobody would blink an eye.
      And they wold both be on Madison’s Alt 18 countdown next Saturday

      • There was a Foo Fighters cover of Baker Street that my friends were into – fair few years ago now. Al Stewart does feel similar to acoustic Sufjan Stevens – same gentle delivery.

  10. Ok here’s my top ten in no particular order – looks like I trend towards second half of 70s

    Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
    Cruel to be Kind – Nick Lowe
    More than a Feeling – Boston
    Train in Vain – The Clash
    Is She Really Going out with Him – Joe Jackson
    Surrender – Cheap Trick
    Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
    Message in a Bottle – The Police
    Fire and Rain – James Taylor
    Werewolves of London – Warren Zevon

  11. UPDATE: On reading other lists, I realized I inexplicably left ‘Stairway” off. No way can that be allowed to happen. So, sadly, I had to push “Bridge Over Troubled Water” down to 11. “Werewolves” just misses too. And “Rosalita” was never a single, at least not in many countries.

    10. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
    9. More Than a Feeling – Boston
    8. Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits
    7. Roxanne – Police
    6. Ramblin’ Man – Allman Brothers Band
    5. Reelin’ in the Years – Steely Dan
    4. Brown Sugar – Rolling Stones
    3. Stairway to Heaven – LZ
    2. Hotel California – Eagles
    1. Layla – Derek and the Dominos

    • Did you know Stairway wasn’t a single until 2007 when it was released as a digital single? I guess that means it still counts – your list,
      your rules.

      • Yes, I remembered that after I posted. They typically didn’t release singles. Oh well. I’ll bend the rules a little for ‘Stairway.’ It was (and is) a massive hit if not by Billboard standards. In the meantime we’ll ponder the complete lack of anyone mentioning ‘Smoke on the Water.’

        • I’ve barely heard it on the radio for some reason – I still really enjoy it, because I only really hear it under my own volition. While ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has lost its allure with overplay for me – 15 year old me would have argued it was the best song ever written.

  12. That’s an impressive list. Few favourites there (although I find James Taylor a bit bland, I like Sweet Baby James and think Fire and Water is a helluvagood song… also, it’s difficult not to agree that What’s Going On deserves top billing). I think mine would look something like this:

    Blondie – Heart of Glass
    The Temptations – Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
    Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
    Pink Floyd – Money
    Stevie Wonder – Superstition
    James Taylor – Fire and Rain
    Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
    The Rolling Stones – Miss You
    Neil Young – Heart of Gold
    Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

    • I think James Taylor only has a handful of great songs, but when he’s on he’s really good.

      I like all of your list – feels like two songs from the same album to me as I know the Stones’ cover of Just My Imagination way better than the original.

    • Did you make the especially or did you already have it? I guess I should count up all the songs mentioned in comments and make a list of every song that was cited twice. What Is Life was one of my very first favourite pop songs.

      • I didn’t crank it out all at once. I started it a couple years ago and I’ve just been adding to it whenever the subject comes up and I think of something else to add. I think it originally started out as 200 songs or something. And now it’s like over 500 because I keep thinking of things that need to be on it. Last night I added about 15 songs I think just because your post got me thinking. That’s how it happens. Heh heh

    • Thank you! I’ve been enjoying your debut album series but I haven’t been able to comment on it because I haven’t heard any of the albums you’ve covered so far – hopefully some I have an opinion on will pop up soon.

  13. When 1970 arrived I had just turned 11, so I went from boy to man in this decade.
    The songs are not necessarily the best, they are ten that chronologically soundtracked my life.

    1. Band Of Gold – Freda Payne (“since you’ve been gone…”)
    2. Get It On – T. rex (“you’re dirty and sweet…”)
    3. All The Young Dudes – Mott The Hoople (..”hey you , you with the glasses…”)
    4. Virgina Plain – Roxy Music (“..make me a deal and make it straight…”)
    5. Working On A Building Of Love – Chairmen Of The Board (..” I read a book the other day..”)
    6. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting – Elton John (..”it’s seven o’clock and I wanna rock…”)
    7. Young Americans – David Bowie (…”well, well, well would you carry a razor…”)
    8. No Woman No Cry (live) – Bob Marley & The Wailers (…” then we would cook cornmeal porridge…”)
    9. Blitkrieg Bop – The Ramones (…”they’re forming in a straight line…”)
    10. White Man In Hammersmith Palais – The Clash (…Ken Boothe, UK pop reggae…”)

  14. It’s spooky you put this list out overnight. I was literally working on my best songs of the 70s list! Narrowed it down to 20 at the moment and surprisingly only Sara by Fleetwood Mac is on it. I’ll probably cut it in favour of Go Your Own Way. Amazing how many great songs appear in the 70s. It was a revolutionary time for rock n roll. By the way, I do love More Than A Feeling. Probably my favourite track by Boston.

      • The Stone’s best 70s singles were Bitch, Happy, Angie, Heartbreaker, Wild Horses. Those are the ones I put on my list anyway. Oh yeah, I’ve been working on it and I’m up to 623 songs. That’s how you can tell it was a great decade. Any decde that goes over 500 is a great one. The only other one is the 60s so far.

          • I don’t know why but it’s just not one of my favorites. Same thing with the Some Girls album. I just don’t care for it but I don’t know why. I prefer Black and Blue which I think was their last good album.

  15. Excellent! Thanks so much for doing that Graham.
    Although the box is bigger, the strange thing is now that I can only see the top half of the text I am typing and it is extremely difficult to re-read what I have typed.

  16. On Sunday night CNN is airing their documentary “What’s Going on?” To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the album’s release

    Tomorrow 8 PM EDT.

    Should be great

  17. So many options…

    Night Fever by Bee Gees
    Grease by Frankie Valli
    Roxanne by The Police
    Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits

    The best song ever that really should have been a hit: I Found That Essence Rare by Gang of Four

    • Well, Night Fever is the better choice over Staying Alive, which is usually the one that people pick when they need to throw a disco song in somewhere. You are right that Night fever is better, and its the Bee Gees best song on the album I think, although not as good as You Should Be Dancing which actually had already been a hit a year before. .and easily the best new one on Saturday Night Fever, which is also the album that everyone usually chooses as their representative disco album. But it’s not even a very good disco compilation. All the good tracks on it were previously hits and are available elsewhere on better albums, and the only new songs that were any good were the Yvonne Elliman one and Night Fever.. And you’re definitely right about Sultans of Swing. You can’t really argue with that one.

  18. First of all thanks for your site – I’ve spent the best part of the last 2 days reading, laughing, agreeing much more than disagreeing, learning, listening and thinking. You’re my latest favourite waste of time!

    So a best of the 70s list excluding those you already included (London Calling, Fire and Rain, Rocket Man and Heart of Glass)

    – Do It Again Steely Dan
    – Pinball Brian Protheroe
    – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick Ian Dury and the Blockheads
    – Why Did You Do It? Stretch
    – Superstition Stevie Wonder
    – Life On Mars David Bowie
    – Message in a Bottle The Police
    – Sultans of Swing Dire Straits
    – Black Magic Woman Santana
    – Woodstock Matthews Southern Comfort

    and it was very hard to leave out Brown Sugar, Layla and Solsbury Hill…. but

    • Hi Martin, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ve never heard of Brian Protheroe, let alone Pinball but am listening now. I have a soft spot for Ian Matthews’ 1970s stuff but haven’t really touched it on this site yet.

  19. When you make these best songs lists, do you ever go back and change them? Like let’s say you made it like 5 years ago and then you look at it again, and it would be totally different if you made it today? Or do you always just leave them the way they are? I had to re-do mine cuz its about 4 or 5 years old and what I think now is totally changed. Songs that were way down in the 200’s are up near the top now. That’s the problem with making them too long. There’s just much to think about. Too much work. Have you ever changed this list or is it the same as it always was?

    • I haven’t changed this one at all. There are a few other lists around my site that I would like to change though – the best guitarist one really should have Hendrix, and mainly doesn’t because I ran out of time when I was writing which is a very bad reason. Also want Duane Allman in there. And best songs of the 1990s needs an overhaul too – didn’t spend enough time thinking about that one, and a few songs don’t feel right to me.

      • I recently changed my ’90s one too, cuz I never really put it in the right order in the first place.

  20. Arrival – I Will Survive
    Eric Burdon & War – Spill The Wine
    Mick Jagger – Memo From Turner
    Family – In My Own Time
    John Barry – The Persuaders Theme
    Badfinger – Day After Day
    Elton John – Goodbye Yellowbrick Road
    Maureen McGovern – The Morning After
    Slade – How Does It Feel?
    Eddie & The Hotrods – Do Anything You Wanna Do

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