I’m defiantly not a fan of early ’70s pop, so I thought I’d challenge myself with this one. Added bonus: I’ve got something to say about all 40 of these songs.
1 1 TIE A YELLOW RIBBON ROUND THE OLE OAK TREE –•– Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando (Bell)-12 (3 weeks at #1) (1) — This piece of dreck was actually the #1 single of 1973. My major problem with much early ’70s pop is that it’s such unmitigated corn syrup, and this is a prime example. And Orlando’s not even a good singer — he sounds like a lounge singer.
2 2 THE CISCO KID –•– War (United Artists)-10 (2) — I’ve never understood War. They notched up seven top 10 singles from 1970-76, and I don’t care for a single one of them. Their version of funk was closer to Sly & the Family Stone than to Parliament-Funkadelic; it’s a bit too jammy and hippie-ish for my taste. This isn’t bad, necessarily, but I find it dull as fuck. Oh, and the album this comes from, The World Is A Ghetto, was, remarkably, the #1 album of 1973.
3 5 LITTLE WILLY –•– The Sweet (Bell)-16 (3) — In the UK, they were an institution, and this was the start of a run of six consecutive top five singles. In the US, they were a curiousity, with four top 10s strewn across seven years, which was still impressively big for a glam band. This has got a delightful crunch to it; I mean, the brilliance of glam was its combination of pure pop hooks with hard rock instrumentation, and Sweet were glam titans, maybe second amongst groups only to T. Rex. (Bowie of course is — well, Bowie, on another level entirely.) “Little Willy” is right in the socket.
4 6 YOU ARE THE SUNSHINE OF MY LIFE –•– Stevie Wonder (Tamla)-8 (4) — It’s easy to diss this as “Stevie lite” fluff, but you’d be mistaken. The arrangement is deceptively complex, Wonder’s production is meaty and full of surprises (headphones! listen with headphones!), and just think about how ballsy it was to let two other singers take the first four lines of the song. The addition of horns on the single mix makes it even better, too; this is a 9 out of 10.
5 4 THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA –•– Vicki Lawrence (Bell)-13 (1) — With different production, this cheating song would’ve been a country smash, which you can hear in Reba McEntire’s 1991 cover version. But lord, this is an anodyne production, and vocal from Lawrence. These days, the title only makes me think of one of the all-time great Julia Sugarbaker monologues from Designing Women — amazingly, from the second-ever episode of the show.
6 11 DRIFT AWAY –•– Dobie Gray (Decca)-11 (6) — I loathe this fucking song. Especially since its 2003 Uncle Kracker cover featuring Gray on guest vocals will live through eternity.
7 9 STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU –•– Stealers Wheel (A&M)-10 (7) — ’73?! For some reason, I generally think of this as more of a mid-’70s record, but here it is. I also generally forget that it’s Gerry Rafferty (“Baker Street”) on lead vocals. And talk about ahead of their time: they made a video for this! Since being posted on YouTube in 2010, it has over 77 million views — think about that for a moment. Along with Rafferty’s appealingly affable vocal, what makes this song, of course, is the soupy little guitar line. It surprises me not a whit that this British single charted higher in the US (#6) than the UK (#8).
8 8 THE TWELFTH OF NEVER –•– Donny Osmond (MGM)-10 (8) — This song, originally a Johnny Mathis b-side, has been recorded a lot. From 1971-73, Donny Osmond was the shit: in addition to his success with his brothers, he notched nine US top 40 singles. Six of those charted in the UK, but they all made the top 5, including a trio of #1s, including this. It’s as predictably syrupy as you’d expect — and WTF did a 16-year-old know about loving someone forever?
9 3 SING –•– The Carpenters (A&M)-11 (3) — I don’t like, and have never liked, this song, specifically because it sounds like a song written for puppets to sing, which it was. (For Sesame Street.) As a pop single, it’s too cute by much more than half.
10 15 FRANKENSTEIN –•– The Edgar Winter Group (Epic)-9 (10) — I’d always assumed that Winter was some hoary old guitarist, so imagine my surprise to learn that on They Only Come Out at Night, he’s credited with “organ, synthesizer, ARP 2600, piano, marimba, saxophone, timbales, vocals, and clavinet.” And even though this instrumental is probably most famous for its fuzzed-out guitar, courtesy of Ronnie Montrose, there’s a lot of seriously weird synth stuff on it — refreshingly so. How the fuck did this hit #1?
11 7 MASTERPIECE –•– The Temptations (Gordy)-11 (7) — Musically it’s “Smilin’ Faces Sometimes” x “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” not surprising since it’s the child of Norman Whitfield. Lyrically it’s a State of the Ghetto address a la “The Message.” And yet somehow, the sum of it is still incredibly underwhelming.
12 14 PEACEFUL –•– Helen Reddy (Capitol)-14 (12) — The follow-up to “I Am Woman” is a prime example of that odd early ’70s hybrid pop sound that mashes together acoustic folk and Broadway orchestrations. The chorus is pretty.
13 17 WILDFLOWER –•– Skylark (Capitol)-12 (13) — Canadian soul-folk-psych-pop; take that as you will. David Foster on keys!
14 25 DANIEL –•– Elton John (MCA)-5 (14) — Folkie-ish Elton John is the worst Elton John.
15 19 REELING IN THE YEARS –•– Steely Dan (ABC)-9 (15) — Goddamn, they were UGLY in 1973. While the yacht rock classicism hadn’t yet developed, the lyrics were already there.
16 16 WALK ON THE WILD SIDE –•– Lou Reed (RCA)-12 (16) — Give Lou credit for getting an oral sex reference onto top 40 AM radio.
17 10 AIN’T NO WOMAN (Like the One I Got) –•– The Four Tops (Dunhill)-14 (4) — I’ll take this over what the Temps were doing contemporaneously, any day. Lushly orchestrated soul gets me most of the time.
18 21 DAISY A DAY –•– Jud Strunk (MGM)-12 (18) — A putrid love song that’s pure schmaltz.
19 22 OUT OF THE QUESTION –•– Gilbert O’Sullivan (MAM)-10 (19) — Gordon Mills’ production has a nice amount of pep in it.
20 26 PILLOW TALK –•– Sylvia (Vibration)-7 (20) — Apparently, she wrote it for Al Green, and it sounds like it. Her voice is thin, but the arrangement is suitably early-’70s-sexy-soul, and most definitely a precursor (in its long version especially) to “Love to Love You baby.”
21 24 FUNKY WORM –•– The Ohio Players (Westbound)-11 (21) — It’s sampled on “Me Myself & I,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” and Kris Kross’s “Jump.” A shame it’s not any good.
22 12 NEITHER ONE OF US (Wants To Be the First To Say Goodbye) –•– Gladys Knight and the Pips (Soul)-15 (2) — I think Knight and her Pips tend to get overlooked in reviews of ’70s soul, and they shouldn’t: from 1967-1975, they had 13 top 20 pop hits, all but one of which hit the top 5 on the R&B chart (and the one that didn’t, hit #6). Their strong suit was rich, orchestrated soul with killer harmonies, especially on heartbreakers; “Neither One of Us” exemplifies that perfectly. If you’ve ever broken things off with someone, this song will (or should) give you a lump in your throat.
23 27 HOCUS POCUS –•– Focus (Sire)-10 (23) — Can we just agree that Dutch rock bands are generally horrible?
24 13 STIR IT UP –•– Johnny Nash (Epic)-13 (12) — It’s very odd to me, how the US has its flights of flirtation with reggae every so often; the primary beneficiary in the early ’70s was Johnny Nash, who was basically a reggae artist for white people the same way that Flo Rida is a rapper for white people.
25 30 THE RIGHT THING TO DO –•– Carly Simon (Elektra)-6 (25) — Riding that coffeehouse piano vibe, with snappy production from Richard Perry — it sounds so deliciously crisp — Simon sings the hell out of this out-and-out love song for her then-husband James Taylor. I love Simon’s lyrics, I love the melody, I love the sound of this. My favorite in this countdown, and one of my favorites of the front half of the 1970s, in fact.
26 36 MY LOVE –•– Paul McCartney and Wings (Apple)-4 (26) — I’m a fan of Paul writing love songs for his Linda, but “My Love” is a reminder that even Beatles wrote schlock.
27 32 THINKING OF YOU –•– Loggins and Messina (Columbia)-6 (27) — Twee soft pop for which I’ll gladly put all the blame on Jim Messina.
28 29 HALLELUJAH DAY –•– Jackson 5 (Motown)-8 (28) — What the fuck is this I can only assume Jehovah’s Witness bullshit? Absolutely the worst J5 single I’ve ever heard; it justifiably didn’t get any further up the chart.
29 31 PINBALL WIZARD / SEE ME, FEEL ME (Medley) –•– The New Seekers (Verve)-11 (29) — A truly odd medley from The Who’s Tommy by the group who brought us “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing.” It’s very Vegas.
30 44 STEAMROLLER BLUES / FOOL –•– Elvis Presley (RCA)-4 (30) — Well, this is also odd: a quasi-parody of white blues records written by James Taylor in 1970, but in Elvis’s hands it actually becomes a legit blues song, that he delivers the fuck out of. If you don’t believe me, check out this live recording from early ’73.
31 35 “CHERRY CHERRY” FROM HOT AUGUST NIGHT –•– Neil Diamond (MCA)-8 (31) — I could happily never hear another Neil Diamond song for the rest of my life. Except for “Heartlight.”
32 43 PLAYGROUND IN MY MIND –•– Clint Holmes (Epic)-7 (32) — A cutesy-poo(p) song sung with a 9-year-old on the chorus that made it to fucking #2, because the early ’70s were by and large a pop wasteland. It sounds like a nursery rhyme because it’s meant to.
33 38 I’M DOIN’ FINE NOW –•– New York City (Chelsea)-10 (33) — A Thom Bell b-list production that sounds like it: good, but nothing to raise the roof over.
34 37 ARMED AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS –•– First Choice (Philly Groove)-9 (34) — Hello, disco! This is a seriously shit-hot (and, for ’73, fast!) groove that the women of First Choice ride like a bucking bronco. That chorus alone sends me to nirvana. This record was most definitely ahead of its time; I feel like two years later this would’ve topped the R&B chart (it stopped at #11) and gotten much higher than #28 on the pop chart.
35 40 LEAVING ME –•– The Independents (Wand)-5 (35) — Stately #1 R&B single that sounds very much of its time.
36 45 IT SURE TOOK A LONG, LONG TIME –•– Lobo (Big Tree)-5 (36) — Oh, this asshole.
37 57 I’M GONNA LOVE YOU JUST A LITTLE MORE BABY –•– Barry White (20th Century)-4 (37) — I mean, if you can’t understand the sheer and utter genius of this song (and for that matter, most of Barry White’s catalog), I’m not sure what to tell you. He was a brilliant songwriter, arranger, and producer, and the man could deliver a song like few others. White understood sensuality on another level than most singers, and he equally understood the power of orchestrating his funky soul with sweet strings. One of the most consistent artists of the ’70s, and quite possibly my favorite. (Heading for #1 R&B/#3 pop.)
38 41 I CAN UNDERSTAND IT –•– The New Birth (RCA)-7 (38) — Roughly a Motown/Stax fusion with a soupcon of JB, only much less exciting in practice than in theory.
39 18 DANNY’S SONG –•– Anne Murray (Capitol)-18 (7) — Folky soft pop from the Canadian songbird. She did better than this; blame Kenny Loggins’s song.
40 42 BLUE SUEDE SHOES –•– Johnny Rivers (United Artists)-8 (40) — One can only wonder what prompted Rivers to record the Carl Perkins chestnut in an early rock’n’roll style in 1973; it’s not bad so much as it’s completely unnecessary. I prefer to (and will) remember him for his 1966 #1 classic.