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 from 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.