Treble’s Top 200 Songs of the ’70s

30. Led Zeppelin
When the Levee Breaks
(1971; Atlantic)
Available on Led Zeppelin IV (ZoSo)

Led Zeppelin was always about dark and light, rhythm and melody, restraint and release, empty space and full sound. “When the Levee Breaks” begins in a dense atmosphere of darkness. This is blues music, but it ain’t the ditty Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie originally penned in 1929. As strong as their original composition was, the radically rewritten recording that closes out Led Zeppelin’s quintessential fourth album demonstrates why they are the mightiest band in the rock pantheon. John Bonham’s beat is effortlessly assertive, the hook around which the whole song wraps. Backward echo on Robert Plant’s harmonica make it sound less like an instrument and more like a call from across the void. Plant sings like a seer on the mount proclaiming the people’s fate: “If it keeps on raining/The levee’s gonna break.” His vocals are genuinely ominous. There’s a Paganistic elementality within the song, a fearful recognition of nature’s destructive power. When Jimmy Page’s guitar shifts tones at 2:26 of the track, light finally shines through and divine communion ensues. Though life may be harsh and short, the possibility of ecstasy exists in each moment, and Plant jubilantly howls within the revelry of the moment. This takes us to the halfway mark, whereupon they reset and roll the whole thing over once more with a few extensions for added emphasis. Layer in some psychedelic effects and extra slide guitar to wind everything down and you have an epic expression of human existence captured in music. This sort of transcendence is usually limited to the spontaneous immediacy of live performance, which makes it ironic that Zep rarely performed the song live, as it was so difficult recreate the sound of the original. – Jimmy Falcon


29. Blue Öyster Cult
Don’t Fear the Reaper
(1976; CBS)
Available on Agents of Fortune

There are three reasons why “Don’t Fear The Reaper” deserves its place here, and only one of them is “More Cowbell.” One is its spine-gripping riff, with an arpeggiated hook more reminiscent of jazz than classic rock or metal, Blue Öyster Cult created a hit that was as epic as it was catchy. The other is the breakdown. The first time I heard “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” I assumed the song ended before the three-minute-mark, yet I was mesmerized with the intro for what I thought was the next track, but at the end of that epic, spontaneous breakdown, BOC seamlessly settled right back into the original groove, only to resurrect this layered beauty of a classic rock tune. – A.T. Bossenger


28. Michael Jackson
Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough
(1979; CBS)
Available on Off the Wall

One of the first songs Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones agreed to put on what eventually would become Off the Wall, it’s important not just for its quality as a dance groove. Sure, its happy falsetto, disco arrangement, and good-time lyrics share DNA with Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” but “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” set the template for a lot of Jackson’s greatest moments to follow. It featured a wide assortment of his vocal tics and inflections that traveled all the way from innovation to stark parody, the memorable grunts and screeches that emphasized sexuality, emotion, even just the effort of singing. The music video used technical wizardry of the day. It was also a public exhibition of his solo dancing and celebrity magnetism. Whatever childlike proclivities he lost in the past or would gain in the future, seeing and hearing “Don’t Stop” signaled the start of Jackson’s most adult work. – Adam Blyweiss


27. Fleetwood Mac
Go Your Own Way
(1977; Reprise)
Available on Rumours

For years, the most interesting thing I noticed about Lindsey Buckingham’s voice on “Go Your Own Way” is the visceral way he shouts his own backing vocals. But now, I’m taken aback at how young he sounds. Although he was about 27 when he recorded the track that would catapult Fleetwood Mac into superstardom, Buckingham sounds very much like the callow, brooding young men who populate every other indie-ish movie with a twee soundtrack. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s singing about his crumbling relationship alongside Stevie Nicks, his very own manic pixie dream girl). In different hands, I imagine “Go Your Own Way” might have sounded more like prototypical Bright Eyes. Luckily, the hands of Mick Fleetwood are here to pound the drums into oblivion, slowly but surely provoking Buckingham into doing the wailing with his guitar. Over the racket, the chorus sounds like a sing-fight between Buckingham and Nicks, and that’s way more fun than hearing another white guy tell us he can’t change the way he feels. – Liz Malloy


26. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Lookin’ Out My Back Door
(1970; Fantasy)
Available on Cosmo’s Factory

For most people, the spirit of the ’60s abruptly died in a haze of violence one tragic December day on a racetrack in California, but in 1970 CCR were still churnin’ out the good time tunes. John Fogerty, a gifted songwriter with more emotional range than he gets credit for, penned a long line of down-home country rock classics. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” shows off his whimsical side with a kaleidoscope of surrealist lyrics. They could be the innocent fantasies of a child or drug-induced hallucinations. Either way they’re offset by the straightforward musical construction of the track, which rocks pretty hard in a plank stompin’ kind of way. The song is good up to 2:15, at which point it becomes great, with one of the best tempo changes since “That’ll be the Day” by Buddy Holly. Two guitar solos in two and a half minutes also ain’t bad. You’re gonna wanna hear that one again. – Jimmy Falcon


25. Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run
(1975; Columbia)
Available on Born to Run

Few songs will shake one’s bones harder than Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” From its All-American storytelling, to the rowdy yet nigh-orchestral ensemble, all the way to Clarence Clemons’ moving sax solo, this track combines a full history of popular music into less than four minutes, from Bob Dylan and The Band to James Brown and The Who, all held together by The Boss’ uniquely Jersey-bred flair. The absolute best moment comes with the breakdown around the three-minute mark. Horns swell, the tempo falls apart, and the song seemingly comes to an unsatisfying end before the true climax comes to smack you in the face. More than simply one of Bruce’s finest moments, “Born to Run” inspired a generation of American rockers to think just a little bit differently about the bravado with which they kicked out their jams. – A.T. Bossenger


24. Buzzcocks
Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)
(1978; United Artists)
Available on Love Bites

Take a lesson from Pete Shelley: if a relationship needs an exit strategy, it’s probably not worth it. The “natural emotions” that rise to the surface on the Buzzcocks’ high-energy romantic tragicomedy “Ever Fallen In Love” is a cautionary tale that’s probably familiar to most folks, but with its bare display of emotion, an intriguing novelty in punk rock at the time. As the band rips through one of their strongest melodies (at nothing less than an Indy Car’s pace, no less), Shelley shares his troubles over a pint: “You spurn my natural emotions/ you make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt/ And if I start a commotion/ I run the risk of losing you/ and that’s worse.” But is it though? A lot of people take desperate measures to avoid being lonely. Few of them manage to sound this good. – Jeff Terich


23. Curtis Mayfield
Move On Up
(1970; Buddah)
Available on Curtis

Still a member of The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield decided in 1970 it was the right time to release a solo album. “Move On Up” was the heart of Curtis, somewhere between the sweetness of the pop soul he had made his name with and the funk he was feeling his way toward, and it shows him at his most indomitable, fully aware of the fucked up state of the world around him, but optimistic, with faith in the power of people to manifest their dreams against the odds. As if the song itself weren’t enough, the first four minutes of it, where Curtis sings, the horns blow and the hand drums get pounded, give way, on the far superior album version, to a four minute groove, an extension in turns impassioned and pensive, channeling the lyrics from earlier by some mad musical osmosis, clear-eyed and intoxicated with hope. Intoxicated with hope: that is “Move On Up,” precisely. I doubt that any other song has ever been so much so. – Tyler Parks


22. Rolling Stones
Wild Horses
(1971; Rolling Stones)
Available on Sticky Fingers

Before Exile On Main St. there was Sticky Fingers, an instant Rolling Stones classic that very well could have stood as their greatest hour, were their legacy to end there, and most definitely contained some of their greatest songs. In particular, “Wild Horses” introduced a whole new approach from the band in contrast to their prior, raw takes on blues and psychedelia. The country-tinged song is rumored to be about Mick Jagger’s break up with his then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, though Jagger refuted those claims, but he nonetheless performed his vocal from a place of great emotional turmoil. With a melody and a phrase developed by Keith Richards and Gram Parsons, this is an essential track from an essential band that crafted a newly harmonious and elegant sound. It’s one of a few classic pop songs that captures deep emotional pain in such a beautiful way. – Giovanni Martinez


21. The Police
Message in a Bottle
(1979; A&M)
Available on Regatta de Blanc

Reggatta De Blanc was probably not an album that many saw coming. While The Police displayed an obvious admiration for reggae in their earliest work, their sophomore album, and the ubiquitous single that accompanied its release, brought newly added layers of depth to their eclectic new wave sound, as well as standout instrumental performances from Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers (that riff isn’t as easy to play as it sounds). Yet what’s most impressive about “Message in a Bottle” is its longevity. While it’s sound pulls influences from styles that have had unfortunate shelf lives in mainstream popular culture on a grander scale, its influence has trickled down into later generations of noteworthy acts. Its tropical yet punk-edged aesthetic was resurrected by groups like No Doubt, while finding surprise disciples in the space-gaze of M83. Guess Sting & Co. weren’t alone in being alone. – A.T. Bossenger

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