Treble’s Top 200 Songs of the ’70s

Treble staff

50. Shuggie Otis
Strawberry Letter 23
(1971; Epic)
Available on Freedom Flight

Only epistolary romance could give birth to a song as bottomlessly drunk on love as Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23.” A girlfriend’s letters written on strawberry-scented paper become a melody equally as sweet as any such heavenly emanation. Otis piles color upon color in the lyrics, playful and dazzled, throws in another ridiculously catchy, wordless melody on the bridge, and then unwinds a trippy synthesizer arpeggio out into the long, Technicolor fadeout. It’s hard to listen to without recalling long, perfect summer days from the past (ones that some of us weren’t alive for, even), equally hard to keep from slipping into the possibilities of such days withheld by the future. Soft Rock psychedelia with a soulful touch: in the end it’s a strange concoction that makes the trees that much greener, the strawberry scent all encompassing, the blue of the swimming pool bright enough to bring things to an elusive but desired stand still. – Tyler Parks


49. The Pop Group
She is Beyond Good and Evil
(1979; Radar)
Available on Y

The Pop Group’s 1979 classic, Y, is a dizzying, confusing, and at times scary album that challenges the listener with something that’s well… beyond. Fittingly, “She is Beyond Good and Evil” is the leadoff track and band’s thesis statement for integrity and non-conformity. The rolling rhythms and pulsating bass provide the perfect foundation for the sporadic art-punk guitar sounds that echo Mark Stewart’s lyrics as they fluctuate between a calm bellow and a desperate shriek. Recently, St. Vincent has been covering the track during her live shows, prefacing the performance with a monologue about the unfortunate state of punk music in the wake of iconic ’70s pioneers. “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” certainly hasn’t lost any of its verve over the years, and as modern artists pay homage to the group, the legend and weight of the record continues to grow. – Donny Giovannini


48. Joy Division
She’s Lost Control
(1979; Factory)
Available on Unknown Pleasures

If I made the rules, Joy Division would have consumed one quarter of the slots on this list. By slowing down the pace and darkening the mood of Brit-punk, the Manchester quartet created a rare, innovative sound that inevitably caught on quickly. “She’s Lost Control” is a particularly brilliant example of the band’s aesthetic, with its showy use of a clean, treble-inclined bass line paired with the slow grind of distorted guitar, not to mention the underhandedly funky appeal of the rhythm section. Fronting the proceedings, the smoothly psychotic baritone of the one and only Ian Curtis, whose brief time on the planet contributed to something much bigger than the band’s brief catalog. – A.T. Bossenger


47. XTC
Making Plans for Nigel
(1979; Virgin)
Available on Drums and Wires

Andy Partridge may be the songwriting glue that holds these guys together, but this song is XTC bassist Colin Moulding’s crowning achievement. Moulding wrote the song in part based on autobiographical experiences with what he called “parental domination.” The character Nigel is his stand-in: He could be a laboring drone in a nanny state, a long-haired rocker on the verge of expulsion from school, or just a shy son who in reality “likes to speak/and loves to be spoken to.” Swirling around the story is a spacious and syncopated arrangement; the guitars toot, the drums echo, and Partridge’s “British steel” yell gets dubby in a fashion more like top-notch ska than proper post-punk. – Adam Blyweiss


46. Nick Drake
Pink Moon
(1972; Island)
Available on Pink Moon

Nick Drake proved the power that can be derived by stripping one’s music down to the bare essentials. Not only does “Pink Moon” wield as much power from just a gentle acoustic guitar and a stately piano as any one of his earlier, more elaborately arranged songs, but the sparseness of the track carries all the way through to the lyrics themselves. The scarcity of words used leaves the listener with an awful lot of questions. Of course, it doesn’t help that even among Nick Drake songs, the words here are quite cryptic. But this is music that gives you so much more by letting you fill in the blanks for yourself. That the song posthumously took Drake’s career to new heights 28 years after its release only helps add to its mystery. Indeed, the only thing certain about “Pink Moon” is that it’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful folk songs ever made. – Chris Karman


45. Bee Gees
Stayin’ Alive
(1977; RSO)
Available on Saturday Night Fever

The Bee Gees’ contributions to funk and disco can be overlooked to some degree, but the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever saw them reinvented as a group not to be reckoned with. But it was, career-wise, a double-edged sword of sorts, since nothing they did ever topped the commercial success of “Stayin’ Alive.” What the Brothers Gibb created here was a song whose elements would resonate down through generations of dance music. Every note played on this tune has rubbed off on every subsequent disco act in some way or form, primarily because its structure is custom built to bring people to their feet and keep them moving. While The Bee Gees have had even greater success writing songs for other artists, this is their shining moment. – Giovanni Martinez


best songs of the 70s Big Star44. Big Star
September Gurls
(1974; Ardent)
Available on Radio City

I loved you/ Well never mind.” It’s pretty Army-issue rock lyrics. But — and you can’t really explain this thoroughly without a 300 page doctoral thesis on negative capability and its role in American pop music, which I don’t have time for and would be a shameless act of erudition — when Alex Chilton sings them, it’s like romance gets a new definition. In the same way “Radio Free Europe” is what you think about when you think R.E.M., “September Gurls,” is in many ways Big Star’s signature moment. (We can talk about Chilton’s masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers another time). It can’t decide if it’s joyous or melancholy and is completely irresistible. Bonus points to the DJs that played it in 1973. More should have. – Stephen Chupaska


43. Brian Eno
Needles In the Camel’s Eye
(1974; Island)
Available on Here Come the Warm Jets

Even if the title of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets was intended as a cheeky reference to urine, it seems coincidentally (or intentionally?) apt given the intensity with which “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” launches the album with propulsion boosters fueled by high octane glam rock energy. Eno’s first big pop statement following his departure from Roxy Music, “Needles In the Camel’s Eye” is about the most eye-popping way an artist can break away from being the eccentric ensemble member and come into his own as a dynamic force of artistic vision. The track positively soars, layers of guitars and a pounding rhythm not only setting it apart as a triumph among glam rock singles, but a precursor to shoegaze as well. There goes a completely different kind of warm jet. – Jeff Terich


42. John Lennon
Imagine
(1971; Apple)
Available on Imagine

Lennon’s plea for world peace in a time of war, social disorder, and philosophical questions is just as plaintive as ever. Painting a socialist utopia, the song succeeds with an earnestness that Lennon rarely displayed. Utilizing a simple, but snagging piano riff, “Imagine” has production as sumptuous as an Elton John song of the same time period, but with the focus entirely on the words and voice of Lennon, in a way only folk music is usually capable. Unlike his previous album, and many cuts on the eponymous release, “Imagine” doesn’t come across as personal to the former Beatle, especially intriguing because it very much is, but almost as a philosophy of its own. Despite its use in many films and being butchered by countless artists and bands (A Perfect Circle being the most egregious offender), the song maintains its strength and meaning because not only does it make us yearn for that utopia, but also convinces us it’s within reach. – Nick Ulbrickson


41. Curtis Mayfield
Pusherman
(1972; Curtom)
Available on Superfly

More cerebral than Marvin Gaye and less bombastic than Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield crafted potent music that spoke of the plight of the black community. Drawing upon all styles, from jazz to soul to rock to Latino music, Mayfield created what’s often considered his masterpiece, the soundtrack to Superfly. But the song that distills the spirit of the album and Mayfield’s depiction of the bleak atmosphere of 1970s Harlem is “Pusherman.” Over Latin beats, a popping bass-line, and swirling strings, his mournful falsetto tells the tale of a drug dealer that hates what he does, and hates himself for being what he is, but finds he has limited options to provide for the people he cares about. It’s a powerful story done in an arresting way, with both craft and pop. While alone it’s a classic song that grows with every listen, within the context of the equally excellent album it’s practically incandescent. – Nick Ulbrickson

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