What did 1970 sound like?
Judging by this list of number one hits from that year, unsurprisingly mellow… and surprisingly funky.
The tricky part about ranking these songs is that, in several cases, overfamiliarity has lessened their impact. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “My Sweet Lord” are hardly “bad” songs. They may even be great ones. But I rarely choose to listen to either because I feel like I’ve heard pretty much all they have to give me. I understand that makes them comfort listening for some, but I personally want pop music to continually reconfigure my insides. And so, it’s the singles that still surprise me that topped my list.
21. "Everything Is Beautiful," Ray Stevens
Is it though? Is it really?
20. "I Think I Love You," the Partridge Family
David Cassidy belonged on your bedroom wall. Maybe on your TV set. Never on your radio. He declaims as if he’s banging his shoe on a U.N. podium and enunciates like he’s straining to read the fine print on the cue cards. For years, I’ve fantasized that there’s something of a pop gem concealed beneath this teen idol’s paranoid pomp. And yet Voice of the Beehive, a turn-of-the-'90s group of weirdos I adore, couldn’t salvage it, while Perry Como sounded right at home. Not all trash can be recycled.
19. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," B. J. Thomas
Did Burt Bacharach and Hal David really write this trifle with Bob Dylan in mind? So sez B.J. Thomas, and while his claim is uncorroborated, it’s fun to imagine Bob, fresh off his country turn with Nashville Skyline, ambling into movie-cowboy mode, puzzling his worshippers further, maybe even showing up at the Oscars. Couldn’t have been worse than Self Portrait. Or B.J. Thomas.
18. "American Woman,” the Guess Who
Yes, I know “she” is #actually a metaphor for U.S. imperialism or… something. But 50 years of rock riffage later, Randy Bachman’s machine-gun six-string sounds less fierce than it must have at the dawn of soft-rock radio. And 50 years of rock misogyny later, the titular epithet still sounds like a nasty choice—Burton Cummings barks with the wounded defensiveness of a jerk whose girlfriend just asked him when he's gonna get a real job.
17. "Venus," Shocking Blue
Before the Mamas and the Papas, Cass Elliot belonged to a folk-pop trio called the Big 3 that gave the lyrics of “Oh Susanna” a different (and worse) melody for their single “The Banjo Song.” Seven years later, this moody Dutch group lifted that same tune for a novelty hit that sounded like nothing less than bubblegum Jefferson Airplane. Pop music is weird, huh?
16. "The Long and Winding Road,” the Beatles
Blame Phil Spector all you want for those grandiose overdubs—the problem is that they fit the song perfectly. This performance is the work of a genius who never met a melodic detour he wouldn’t take realizing he’d never have to listen to anyone tell him no ever again.
15. "(They Long to Be) Close to You," the Carpenters
Denounced as the epitome of white-bread commercialism in their heyday, this duo has had a strange critical afterlife. Queer listeners have excavated subversive meanings from Karen’s exaggerated normalcy. Less fortuitously, admirers of precise popcraft have doted on Richard’s fussy arrangements, which still remind me of the decor in those houses where everything is so immaculately placed you can’t help but put your feet up on the sofa or throw a wet towel on the bed. When I can ignore the fact that she’s singing about how her beloved endures a bird-encircled life of dodging falling stars, Karen’s calm does intrigue me—title aside, it embodies an absence of longing, as though contemplating “desire” offers a satisfaction no mere emotion could provide.
14. "Cracklin' Rosie," Neil Diamond
I respect this guy as an institution, as a sex symbol, as a craftsman. And when he had a nice little Wrecking Crew groove underneath him, he was indeed Brooklyn’s answer to Elvis. I mean ’70s Elvis, of course. Let’s not get carried away here.
13. "My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison
Yes, but did the Shirelles have such cute little slide-guitar parts, Your Honor? All legal considerations aside, “doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang” lifts my spirit higher than “hallelujah” or “Hare Krishna” do.
12. "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)," Three Dog Night
A crew of good-natured corporate rockers turn Randy Newman’s story of a naïve square stumbling into a drug party into… something not entirely unlike a Coasters song?
11. "Make It with You," Bread
I have a soft spot for David Gates’s mix of candor and euphemism. That sexy song title is his way of suggesting a possibility of long-term commitment, not just getting you in the sack—though now that you mention it…. I also appreciate the double meaning of his band’s name: an essential foodstuff and cold hard cash.
10. "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Diana Ross
The audacity of it all. Producers Ashford and Simpson recast their classic Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell pledge of devotion as a TV variety show number with such aspirational theatricality even the ever-upwardly-mobile Berry Gordy had his doubts. Each element—the stagy recitations, the wordless choruses, that dramatic piano, the climactic chorale—is jarring initially. Then it works on its own terms. And finally you accept those terms.
9. "War," Edwin Starr
Motown busting loose with a bona fide protest song was a culturally significant watershed, its success a reminder that no matter what militarist revisionists tell you, the Vietnam War wasn’t just unpopular with a few college kids. Let me sacrilegiously admit, though, I prefer Springsteen’s live version: The E-Street Band pounds with more fittingly martial arsenal, and Bruce not only provides context but sounds way more pissed. And if you’ve heard this one enough, let me recommend Starr’s more explicit follow-up, “Stop the War Now.”
8. "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Simon & Garfunkel
This secularized pop-gospel ballad is an indubitable standard, and yet I’ve never heard a version I absolutely love—not even Aretha’s, because she’d rather be the storm than the shelter. So I’ll set aside my reservations about & Garfunkel’s troubled warble and admit that sometimes Art lived up to his name.
7. "The Love You Save," the Jackson 5
This petty yet exuberant concern-troll of a single remains the freshest of the Jacksons’ four initial chart toppers in some respects—the least dulled by oldies radio overexposure, anyway. The possessive double standard (“they’ll label you a flirt”—oh my!) is beneath them, but “look both ways before you cross me” is pure gold, the breakdown is straight funk, and they were one hell of a singing group.
6. “Let It Be,” the Beatles
A piano lullaby with verses and chorus lovely enough to soothe the most troubled water. But it could still use a bridge.
5. "ABC," The Jackson 5
In just under three minutes, Motown’s newest singing group both epitomized and transcended kiddie pop without ever sounding childish.
4. "The Tears of a Clown," Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
Wild to think that for three years this carnival of masked emotion wasted away as a mere album track, with no one at Motown recognizing its hit potential. The lyric is, in some way, Smokey demanding credit for a depth of expression his surface elegance might overshadow, while the music is a measure of Stevie Wonder’s artistic growth: If the pulse recalls his youthful glories, the chord changes on the pre-chorus hint at the genius to come.
3. "I'll Be There," the Jackson 5
In case you haven’t noticed from this list, radio listeners were seeking intense reassurance as the new decade began. Unlike the competition, though, Michael’s strong but supple vocal insisted that love and support could not just ease your nerves but also enrich and expand your life and the range of emotion you would experience. Jermaine’s adequately executed bridge is there to provide scale.
2. "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," Sly & the Family Stone
Sly Stone was the most idiosyncratic of all funk godfathers. James Brown and George Clinton created blueprints from which entire genres of music could be constructed, but Sly’s no-less-integral rhythmic innovations offered an example rather than a roadmap. Here, he heroically wrestles Satan into submission, then celebrates by triumphantly chanting the titles of his former hits. More importantly, he demonstrates that when guitar, horns, drums, and voices interlock with disciplined precision they express a kind of joyful freedom that’s neither wildly anarchic nor basely libertarian. You might say this is what democracy sounds like.
1. “I Want You Back," The Jackson 5
For the first 20 seconds of the most exhilarating debut single in pop history, Motown reconfigures contemporary soul as a vehicle for AM radio dominance. What happens next is a little trickier to discuss without resorting to troublesome evasions of critical responsibility like “charisma” or “star power.” What immediately set 12-year-old Michael Jackson apart, beyond his obvious skills and talents and artistry, is that he sounded more fully present than any ordinary pop singer would, more absolutely committed to the moment, more open to the possibilities of what might happen next. And that’s also why today this song might momentarily make you forget how gruesome that future would be. Stars: They’re nothing like us.