Thursday, March 26, 2020

Grading the top 100 songs of 1973

1. Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree - Tony Orlando and Dawn: B-
Someone told me I was too easy of a grader, and these ratings will confirm it. This is a cheesy, overplayed song, but it's really well-crafted, and that's enough to charm me, to an extent.

2. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown - Jim Croce: A
I love Jim Croce. He was a fabulous songwriter who was just getting started when a plane crash took his life. This song was an instant standard, getting covered almost immediately after it rose up the charts. It's catchy as heck and easy to sing along to.

3. Killing Me Softly With His Song - Roberta Flack: A+
Early '70s Roberta Flack is just so, so good. She managed to retain her jazzy sophistication, even on a pretty straightforward pop song, making it very special.

4. Let's Get It On - Marvin Gaye: A+
After showing Motown that it was okay to go political, Gaye decided to show just how sexy Motown could be. A classic performance and a truly sensual song.

5. My Love - Paul McCartney and Wings: B-
Such a sappy song, but I can't give it a lower grade than "Tie a Yellow Ribbon". This song conjures specific memories of long car trips down to Nashville in my dad's blue '68 Malibu. My mom preferred to spend long stretches of these car trips in silence. I wanted to hear the Top 40 radio wherever we were. Whenever I hear this song, I'm back in the backseat of that car.

6. Why Me - Kris Kristofferson: B
This song never rose too high on the charts, but it stayed in the Top 40 for a long, long time. And there may have been some sort of math mistake by the chart geeks at Billboard. I'm more of a fan of Kristofferson the songwriter rather than the singer, but this is one of his better performances.

7. Crocodile Rock - Elton John: B+
A fun song, but I'm not sure if it's as good as 10CC's '50s pastiches. And in the context of what Elton was putting out at the time, this is relatively lesser offering.

8. Will It Go Round in Circles - Billy Preston: A
This another song that really hit me at age 7 and never let go. The song is pure fun, with Preston pounding the piano and keeping the rhythm going, and showing off some vocal chops.

9. You're So Vain - Carly Simon: A+
I wonder if Carly would have recorded this song if she knew that it would eventually be covered by Faster Pussycat? Well, that wasn't her fault. And this is so classic, and, as I learned many moons later, sounds even better on the album, where it just pops after another song in a cool fashion. Her vocal is so full of personality -- she felt these words strongly.

10. Touch Me In the Morning - Diana Ross: B
A song that could satisfy Ms. Ross's soul fans and bring in a whole MOR crowd. She gives it her all, but she has a lot of better solo sides.

11. The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia - Vicki Lawrence: A+
This is one of the all-time great '70s story songs, written by Lawrence's husband, who thought it sucked. Vicki didn't, and although his publisher tried to flog the song to other singers, Lawrence went out and rented a studio herself, hired the Wrecking Crew, and totally nailed the vocal.

12. Playground In My Mind - Clint Holmes: D
This piece of smarmy doggerel get docked one notch because of the fact that jerks teasing me would sing the "My name is Michael" refrain to me.

13. Brother Louie - Stories": B
I LOVED this song back in the day, even picking up on the socially relevant theme. I was a young liberal. Many years later (and now many years ago), I heard the original by Hot Chocolate (yep, the "You Sexy Thing" group), which is so much better. It makes this version sound strident.

14. Delta Dawn - Helen Reddy: B+
I think this came after Tanya Tucker's version. It's a great song, and Helen Reddy was one heck of a singer, and she does well by it.

15. Me and Mrs. Jones - Billy Paul: A+
A classy slice of Gamble and Huff, who clearly knew the right singer for this pleading tale. And wow, Billy Paul puts on one the real bravura performances of the era.

16. Frankenstein - The Edgar Winter Group: A
I saw They Might Be Giants play this live once. It wasn't nearly as good, but it still was fun. A contender for best rock instrumental ever. That eerie synthesizer breakdown in the middle is so cool, and when I finally heard it on the FM dial, I learned it panned from speaker to speaker.

17. Drift Away - Dobie Gray: A+
If you're not going to have many hits, you might as well have big ones. In the '60s, Gray scored with "The In Crowd", which was an inadvertent celebration of cliqueshiness. This is the better of Gray's two smashes, as it's a true gem of country soul.

18. Little Willy - Sweet: A-
This was the first U.S. Top 40 hit for Sweet, and the last single on which session musicians played the instruments instead of the band (and, as subsequent singles and existing album tracks showed, they were great players). This was the song that began their transition, as a singles band, from pure bubblegum, to a rock band. The b-side, "Man From Mecca" was about the head of a theater chain who banned Sweet, because they showed a porno film clip countdown at their shows, which, at the time, were crammed with young teenagers.

19. You Are the Sunshine of My Life - Stevie Wonder: A+
This was another instant standard. Steveland just skirts the edge of being a little sappy, but the melody of this sucker is just too irresistible, and the performances are so good all around.

20. Half-Breed - Cher: B
This was during the time that Cher did a bunch of tacky character and story songs that were very well suited for her melodramatic vocals. I'm guessing this song wouldn't fly today.

21. That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2 - The Isley Brothers: A
Leave it to the Isleys to repurpose one of their old songs into a contemporary jam that features some of the greatest guitar work ever to grace AM radio, courtesy of Ernie Isley. Funky, and kind of Curtis Mayfield-ish.

22. Pillow Talk - Sylvia: C+
The future boss of seminal rap label Sugarhill Records, taking on a bit of younger voice to sound more salacious. Catchy, but annoying.

23. We're An American Band - Grand Funk Railroad: B+
This is the album where they're buck naked in the gatefold. And they were ugly dudes. I'm sure this wasn't the first rock band on the road song, but it certainly set the template so many other lunkheaded rockers followed.

24. Right Place, Wrong Time - Dr. John: A
A great slice of funky New Orleans voodoo from the good Doctor. His thang wasn't tailor made for the Top 40, but that he managed a big hit that wasn't an outlier from his overall work is pretty sweet.

25. Wildflower - Skylark: C
A bit of soulful MOR from Canada. I admit that the title didn't jar my memory, but a trip to YouTube brought it all back. The longer I listen to this, the lower the grade gets. This is kind of icky.

26. Superstition - Stevie Wonder: A+
The story goes that Stevie wrote this for Jeff Beck, and I still can't hear it. Because of the funky clavinet, the horn section, the swing, and Stevie's amazing vocal, it's just impossible for me to imagine.

27. Loves Me Like a Rock - Paul Simon: A-
Paul Simon's whole thing since flying solo is trying to find new rhythms to back his folk-rock songs. Here, Simon goes to church, and he doesn't co-opt gospel, but let's it give this record a lot of life.

28. The Morning After - Maureen McGovern: C+
Very well sung, but it's hard to dig a song that makes me think of Shelly Winters swimming in a sinking ship.

29. Rocky Mountain High - John Denver: A-
This is the song that introduced me to John Denver. Even though he music wasn't country, it was close enough, and his records were produced more like country records. The opening verse of this song is pretty killer.

30. Stuck In the Middle With You - Stealers Wheel: A+
On one hand, this song wasn't typical of Gerry Rafferty's work, either before or since (I haven't studied enough of Joe Egan to say the same about him). But Rafferty wrote lots of great songs, and this Dylan-gone-pop track is second only to that one with the saxophone.

31. Shambala - Three Dog Night: A-
I have a memory of seeing these guys do this song on ABC's In Concert show. They dressed in some interesting outfits. This is one of my favorite Three Dog Night songs. Not funky in the slightest, but funky for them.

32. Love Train - The O'Jays: A+
Wow, a lot of top grades just less than a third of the way in. One-hundred-and-eighty degrees away from songs like "Backstabbers", this was driving, hippy soul, without being cloying in the slightest.

33. I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby - Barry White: B
Barry was a great stylist, and I loved his bits on David Letterman, but a lot of his hits were interchangeable - I enjoy them, but don't die to hear them all that often. Of course, it's interchangeable babymaking music.

34. Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose - Tony Orlando and Dawn: C
This doesn't get as much slack as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon". Kind of a second-rate show tune.

35. Keep On Truckin', Pt. 1 - Eddie Kendricks: B+
This song is more groove than hook, with Kendricks' heavenly voice on top. It's a good groove. I wonder if Eddie Kendricks ever met R. Crumb.

36. Dancing in the Moonlight - King Harvest: A
One hell of hit for this one-hit wonder out of...Paris? Yep, they looked like bikers, and sounded like a grade A soul band. One of the band members even wrote this classic.

37. Danny's Song - Anne Murray: B
She slots right in between Karen Carpenter and Helen Reddy on the Mount Rushmore of '70s female soft rock singers. Such a warm voice, and this version beats the Loggins & Messina original.

38. Monster Mash - Bobby "Boris" Pickett & The Crypt Kickers: B
Yep, this damned song charted again in 1973. The two best things about this song: 1) was Sam's mom on Freaks and Geeks singing a bit of it, and, b) inspiring a very funny Mr. Show sketch.

39. Natural High - Bloodstone: B+
A sweet soul ballad, with nice harmonies, and a great falsetto lead vocal. There were oodles of these ballads out back then -- wonder why this one hit?

40. Diamond Girl - Seals and Crofts: A-
I won't dock this a notch for Jim and Dash's pro-life advocacy, which came after this release, and is very, very slightly mitigated by the fact they were Ba'hai, and so, at a young age, I learned what Ba'hai was. Rock critics at the time hated their soft-rocking ways, but they could pen some nice hooks, and this was the nicest.

41. Long Train Running - The Doobie Brothers: B+
Such a great riff. The Doobies had one foot in boogie, and one in pop, and when they combined the two here, it made for a really good track.

42. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) - George Harrison: B+
In some ways, the quintessential George Harrison song, at least in terms of lyrical content. This is pretty singer-songwriter-ish, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

43. If You Want Me to Stay - Sly and The Family Stone: A
I don't recall hearing this on the radio in Chicago back in the day. It wasn't until I bought the band's greatest hits before I left for college that I heard it. A slinky, insinuating funk ballad, if there is such a thing as a funk ballad.

44. Daddy's Home - Jermaine Jackson: B-
Jermaine was a good singer, but he happened to be in a band with an all-time great singer. The producers didn't try to make this cover of a 1961 R & B hit sound very contemporary, and Jermaine sounds alright. It's just nice. It was a hit in the '80s for Cliff Richard.

45. Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) - Gladys Knight and The Pips: A-
I need to keep adding to my Gladys Knight collection. She was truly one of the great singers of her era. She had the ability, with her Pips, to take ordinary pop songs and make them soul. This was a better than ordinary pop-soul song and she really elevated it.

46. I'm Doin' Fine Now - New York City: A-
New York City was from New York City, but they had to go to Philly to work with Thom Bell to do this song that apparently Bell decided not to give to The Spinners. Other than the lead vocal, this sounds like a Spinners record -- which isn't a bad thing.

47. Could It Be I'm Falling In Love - The Spinners: A
And The Spinners had to leave Motown (they were from a Detroit suburb) to really taste success with Mr. Bell, and he gave them great song after great song. This might be the best of the bunch, with superb singing, and melody and groove. Sophisticated soul.

48. Daniel - Elton John: B
Another good, but not great, Elton John song. Years down the road, Elton wrote a similar sounding song called "Little Jeanie" that I like better for no particular reason.

49. Midnight Train to Georgia - Gladys Knight and The Pips: A+
This song has a great history. Writer Jim Weatherly recorded it as "Midnight Plane to Houston". Then Cissy Houston's producer changed it to "Midnight Train to Georgia", but it was closer to the folk-pop original. Then Gladys and her people got a hold of it and turned it into a classic -- the lyrics were there, but not the soul and passion.

50. Smoke On the Water - Deep Purple: A
Yes, I learned to play the riff on both guitar and piano. Everyone did in those days. Deep Purple was not as prominent as Led Zeppelin, but more so than Black Sabbath, in 1973. They were the most conventional of the three, but those three were the trinity of heavy metal at the time. Purple was really the bluesiest in the end. Anyway, this song has become a cliche, but it's a classic.

51. Cover of the Rolling Stone - Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show: C+
This was one of the big hits written for Dr. Hook by children's writer Shel Silverstein. This is a song I loved as a youngster that hasn't aged well. The lyrics are mildly amusing and the joke-y performance grows tired quickly.

52. Behind Closed Doors - Charlie Rich: A
The road to stardom for the Silver Fox was long and winding. The countrypolitan Rich is who I first knew, a guy who could wring every bit of emotion out of a lyric. Only in recent years have I explored his earlier music, an amazing combination of blues, jazz, and country. The guy was a genius and it's nice he got a payoff, even if it didn't capture his full artistic range.

53. Your Mama Don't Dance - Loggins and Messina: C-
This is one of the quintessential "guys who can't rock trying to do a rock and roll song." It's so forced and dumb. It wants to be "Crocodile Rock", when it's ultimately a song lame enough for Poison to cover.

54. Feelin' Stronger Every Day - Chicago: A-
Chicago is a band oft-reviled by critics, who found their early albums pretentious. Indeed, they were pretentious, but over the top and thrilling. That artistic bent flattened over the years, but Chicago had great singles for many years, and this is one of them. This was before Peter Cetera became way too nasal (instead of just nasal), the jazz-pop of the first half of the song gives way to the rocking ending, and it's great music to drive down Lake Shore Drive to.

55. The Cisco Kid - War: A-
A lot of War songs started as jams that they worked out in the studio, and then, with the help of their producer, shaped into more manageable form. This has a cool Latin-funk vibe, and Lee Oskar makes his harmonica sound like some alien woodwind instrument. And there are at least two great sing-a-long parts on this track.

56. Live and Let Die - Wings: B+
Even by Paul McCartney standards, the lyrics on this song are painfully stupid. The music is bombast, with as cascade of ideas, the flash overwhelming. For many artists, this would be a career highlight.

57. Oh, Babe What Would You Say - Hurricane Smith: C
When he was Norman Smith, he was a respected record producer and engineer, working a lot of cool albums. As Hurricane, he managed to hit the pop charts with songs that seemed to be more suited for the '20s and '30s. It's a head scratcher for sure.

58. I Believe In You (You Believe In Me) - Johnnie Taylor: B
Taylor was one of the last success stories on Stax Records, and his best songs are chugging good Southern soul numbers. This shows the softer side of Taylor. He pulls off the ballad, but it doesn't play to his strengths.

59. Sing - The Carpenters: C-
Not even Karen Carpenter can save one of the most saccharine songs of the era, for which I blame Richard Carpenter.

60. Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got) - The Four Tops: B+
The biggest hit The Four Tops had after leaving Motown was originally recorded by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. It definitely casts them somewhere closer to Philly soul. It's a really good tune, and The Four Tops rarely disappoint.

61. Dueling Banjos - Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel: B+
R.I.P. to Mr. Weissberg, who passed away recently. One of the most memorable instrumentals of the '70s, the last great era for charting instrumentals. People tend to forget the b-side, "Squeal Like a Pig".

62. Higher Ground - Stevie Wonder: A
This is arguably the weakest of Wonder's smash hits in 1973, and it's an amazing song. The use of the clavinet and synthesizers is brilliant. It's funky, but not funk -- it comes from another dimension.

63. Here I Am (Come and Take Me) - Al Green: A+
One of Green's punchiest hits, with the patented groove laid down by Willie Mitchell and the band, and that great horn chart. Of course, the Reverend Al is on point.

64. My Maria - B. W. Stevenson: B+
This is a nice slice of swamp-pop from the chunky, hirsute, long-haired country singer. The sting of seeing Three Dog Night's version of "Shambala" outsell his original was mitigated by this hit.

65. Superfly - Curtis Mayfield: A
Why isn't there a statue of Curtis Mayfield in Chicago and buildings and parks? He was a true original, mixing gospel and soul, and in the '70s, funk, in a blend like no other. This movie soundtrack was his commercial apex as a solo artist, and there's still no one like him today.

66. Get Down - Gilbert O'Sullivan: A
Gilbert O'Sullivan had a run of hits in the States, and did even better in the U.K. He is an endless well of wry, witty piano pop songs, with just enough cheer to cut the pessimism of most of his lyrics. This is Gilbert at his perkiest, and he's still putting out fun albums today.

67. Last Song - Edward Bear: D
It's a shame that the song before this one wasn't the last song they ever wrote. Blame Canada.

68. Reelin' In the Years - Steely Dan: A+
An uncharacteristically rocking number from the first edition of the Dan. The only concession to the era was the super guitar part from Elliott Randall, and in most respects, it wasn't like anything else at the time.

69. Hocus Pocus - Focus: A+
This is another song that I associate with hearing blast from the AM radio into the backseat of the Malibu while tooling down the highway. In particular that weird bit that is like alien Muppet scat singing, which evolves into whistling, and the whistling gets more urgent, and then that amazing guitar part crunches in again. A demented classic.

70. Yesterday Once More - The Carpenters: B+
If I blamed Richard Carpenter for "Sing", then he deserves credit for this number that he co-wrote. The buttery chorus is perfect for his sister's velvety voice.

71. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy - Bette Midler: B+
Yes, I loved this one back in the day for sure. It's a gimmicky, novelty thang, but Bette does it so well. A good song is a good song, no matter what era.

72. Clair - Gilbert O'Sullivan: B
I'm not sure if this is jaunty and undercut by sadness, or sad and trying to be peppy. Either way, it totally creates tension with the lyrics. I wonder if Pet Shop Boys were Gilbert O'Sullivan fans.

73. Do It Again - Steely Dan: A
This song has a real psychedelic feel that didn't carry over to later Steely Dan records. This is the song that introduced the charms of Donald Fagen to the airwaves, and no one has ever tried to imitate his distinctive persona. I wonder if Pet Shop Boys were Steely Dan fans.

74. Kodachrome - Paul Simon: B+
Simon would probably be hit with a copyright suit for the song's title in this era. This is a very well-crafted piece of tunesmithing. Not one of my all-time favorite Simon tunes, but I like it.

75. Why Can't We Live Together - Timmy Thomas: A+
This sounds like it was recorded in booth at a strip mall for five dollars, but that's a big part of what it makes it so compelling. The super spare instrumentation is eerie and then matched, if not exceeded, by the sheer anguish of Thomas's pleading, soulful singing. This one of kind song was the first hit for TK Records, the future home of KC and the Sunshine Band.

76. So Very Hard to Go - Tower Of Power: A
This track from the Bay Area sophisticated soul band gets to its chorus hook in an unexpected way, and has the good fortune to be sung by a wonderful vocalist in Lenny Williams.

77. Do You Want to Dance? - Bette Midler: B
Doing this Bobby Freeman tune, which is probably best known via The Beach Boys' version, as a slow, sultry R & B-near-disco number is a clever conceit. There's not enough song there to justify it, but Midler has enough stuff to make it work.

78. Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu - Johnny Rivers: B+
Rivers finally had the big hit with this Huey "Piano" Smith song that should have been a big hit years before. It strips away the New Orleans, but doesn't mess with the core song. It's nice, like many of Rivers's hit covers.

79. Ramblin' Man - The Allman Brothers Band: A-
The first thing I ever heard by the Allmans, this country rock song was in no way indicative of the true essence of the band, but it's a fun song, with really specific lyrics from Dickey Betts.

80. Masterpiece - The Temptations: B+
By this point, Norman Whitfield's songs and production for The Tempts had become fairly well set in stone. If you liked "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and Curtis Mayfield's similar music, you'd probably like this. The smoothness of the singing mitigates the hamhandedness of the lyrics.

81. Peaceful - Helen Reddy: A-
This Kenny Rankin tune was a hit for Georgie Fame in the UK, and was recorded pretty early on by Bobbie Gentry, and it fit Gentry like a glove. It's a pretty ballad that doesn't go over the top, and Reddy gives it a sympathetic vocal.

82. One of a Kind (Love Affair) - The Spinners: A-
The Spinners run of hits on Atlantic is just so good. This song had a nice, percussive backing, and the band's harmony on the super memorable chorus is locked in.

83. Funny Face - Donna Fargo: D
This is cute to the point of being ugly.

84. Funky Worm - The Ohio Players: B-
This is basically novelty funk, with the Players laying down a groove, that sets up an ARP synthesizer solo. The old woman narration hasn't aged well.

85. Angie - The Rolling Stones: B+
A sappy ballad from the Stones. A well-crafted sappy ballad, which Jagger sells pretty well. I like their ballads on Tattoo You much better.

86. Jambalaya (On the Bayou) - The Blue Ridge Rangers: B+
One way to keep Saul Zaentz from taking your publishing is to do an album of covers. So that's what John Fogerty did on his first solo project. And he had a hit with this steel guitar filled cover of the Hank Williams classic.

87. Don't Expect Me to Be Your Friend - Lobo: C
Lobo (real name: Kent LaVoie) was the one of the main architects of what became known as soft rock. This song is like the heel of a slice of Bread (the band), but doesn't have that special thing that David Gates had that made Bread's songs so good.

88. Break Up to Make Up - The Stylistics: A-
Thom Bell produced them and this song was co-written by Bell, Kenny Gamble, and Linda Creed. The Stylistics were so expert at the '70s soul ballad, where the lead singer sounded like he was about to cry, but still was going to be able to carry through the day. He was that strong.

89. Daisy A Day - Jud Strunk: C-
Strunk was a singer and comedian. This sounds like John Denver filtered through The Clancy Brothers, which does neither an favors.

90. Also Sprach Zarathustra - Deodato: B-
Making the Strauss composition, which had featured in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (A Space Odyssey) into a really hip piece of elevator music counts as some sort of accomplishment. Produced by the great Creed Taylor.

91. Stir It Up - Johnny Nash: A
Bob Marley never had a Top 40 hit in America, but some of his stuff was covered successfully. Nash and Marley were mates (in fact, Bob accompanied Johnny on an early-'70s tour of England, playing guitar), and while this isn't heavy reggae, it's still reggae on the pop charts, on one of Marley's poppiest songs, with Nash sounding great.

92. Money - Pink Floyd: B+
I've heard this song too much to be objective. I respect Pink Floyd more than I love a lot of their music. I'm probably grading this classic too low.

93. Gypsy Man - War: A-
Another song that might have a title/lyric change if it were recorded today. In 1973, War was really on top of their game. This nearly five and a half minute single cut out about half of the album version. War managed to find a way to combine smooth and sad melodies (with their underrated harmonies) with their percussive, mild funk.

94. The World Is a Ghetto - War: A+
This song just avoids being too hamhanded lyrically, and is done with such passion. War managed to make music that slotted in well with Curtis Mayfield and The Temptations, but never sounded imitative. They had their own bag.

95. Yes We Can Can - The Pointer Sisters: A
This was the song that introduced many folks to the Pointer Sisters. A great retro number from Allen Touissaint, the ladies sing the hell out of it. Their '70s stuff still sounds great, even though it wasn't until the next decade that they really took off.

96. Free Ride - The Edgar Winter Group: A-
I knew that Dan Hartman (who later hit with "Instant Replay" and "I Can Dream About You") wrote and sang this tune. I didn't know that Ronnie Montrose played lead guitar on it. I presumed it was Rick Derringer, who produced the tune. This is so '70s, with a strong riff and a great chorus.

97. Space Oddity - David Bowie: A-
I used to find this song a little too filled with bathos. The song doesn't have a true chorus, but that "sitting in a tin can" bit that serves that purpose is just so lovely and awesome.

98. It Never Rains In Southern California - Albert Hammond: B+
A solid piece of soft-rock tunesmithery. This was on Ronco's Good Vibrations album -- 22 artists! 22 hits! -- which was the only one of those TV-advertised compilations that I ever owned.

99. The Twelfth of Never - Donny Osmond: D
I hadn't heard this treacly ballad before. Yecch.

100. Papa Was a Rolling Stone - The Temptations: A+
Norman Whitfield actually wrote the song for The Undisputed Truth, and their version is basically a dress rehearsal for The Temptations' version. Everything about this version is just an upgrade on the nice job done on the original. The Temptations just had greater vocal presence, and Whitfield's made the backing of The Temptations's version just a bit less frantic, making it more dramatic. This ended up so low because it came out in the fall of 1972, and so it's chart action was split between two years. It didn't make the Top 100 of 1972, even though it was a number one smash.

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