For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:
– Land of 1000 Dances: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1966
– Groovin’: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1967
– Dance to the Music: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1968
– Time of the Season: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1969
– All Right Now: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1970
I must confess: after overseeing last year’s list, I didn’t have the highest hopes for the content of the year-end Hot 100 of 1971. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the output of 1970’s list, but rather that I’m still very much a young punk at heart. While I have recently come to appreciate and accept pop music for what it is, warts and all, the general feeling I initially grab concerning pop music of the 70s is one of boring, vanilla monotony. This is probably most apparent with the inclusion of the two bubblegum singles by The Osmonds – “One Bad Apple” (#4) and “Yo-Yo” (#51) – as well as the two solo efforts by Donny Osmond himself – “Go Away Little Girl” (#7) and “Sweet and Innocent” (#32). Sealing a reputation as obvious responses to the Jackson 5 phenomenon, all four of these songs may be quite catchy, but only in the most superficial, clearly manufactured definition of the word. On the flip-side of things is the soft-rock of Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” (#59), which also treads on some incredibly safe territory and is pretty easy to forget about upon the first listen. These are just some of my personal biases that may have held me back from looking at every one of these songs objectively, if only temporarily.
Yet after listening and re-listening to all of these songs, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the bland production and style of such songs may turn me off, there’s no denying that the start of the 70s demonstrates a peaking of the quality of songwriting itself. No longer are singable melodies and impressive instrumentation enough to catch the public’s ear; the lyrics should be poetry as well. Composers such as Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis have brought us some real poetic gems of their own with songs performed by the likes of Gene Pitney, Dionne Warwick, The Carpenters, and B.J. Thomas. Much more notable at the start of this decade, however, are artists who have had huge successes with their own self-penned works; artists such as Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Carly Simon, among others. The former, in “Maggie May” (#2) presents his ambivalent feelings towards an older lover, with lyrics such as, “The morning sun, when it’s in your face really shows your age / But that don’t worry me none in my eyes, you’re everything”. Moreover, the latter, with her single “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” (#47), presenting a dark collage of enticing imagery representative of broken relationships: “Their children hate them for the things they’re not / They hate themselves for what they are / And yet they drink, they laugh / Close the wound, hide the scar”. Truly, the age of young idealism is far behind us.
One of the most exciting parts of this year (at least for me personally) is the representation of women across the list for ’71. With forty women represented across this chart, this quantity is rivaled by only 1963’s list (which had fifty-one women). However, these forty women being represented across thirty-six entries marks 1971 as the closest we’ve come to equality of representation between both male and female performers. These numbers are helped by a healthy dose of nostalgia – both The Fuzz’s “I Love You For All Seasons” (#45) and Mac & Katie Kissoon’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” (#71) are particularly great throwbacks to the girl-group era of the early 60s. Along with this, there was also a proliferation of female singers(-songwriters) in this year specifically. Besides Simon, this year saw, among others, a lovely soft-rock effort from Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (#36), Joan Baez’s gospel-tinged cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (#20), Lynn Anderson’s fabulous “Rose Garden” (#41), Janis Joplin’s legendary posthumous hit “Me and Bobby McGee” (#11), and Carole King’s honest, painfully beautiful “It’s Too Late” (#3) – the latter being the highest ranking single on this list by a woman.
As with any year, the feats of women can also be found within their contributions in a band, group, or musical duo. Introduced the previous year, The Carpenters still maintain a heightened sense of popularity; with three entries by the duo, Karen Carpenter is the most represented lady on this year’s list. With such honey-soaked efforts as the gentle “For All We Know” (#35), the beautifully desperate “Superstar” (#30), and the melancholy “Rainy Days and Mondays” (#37), it’s not hard to see why. One of the best covers from this year comes from Ike and Tina Turner’s rendition of CCR’s “Proud Mary” (#55) – though it’s Tina alone who really shines on this one. Brenda and the Tabulations’ “Right At The Tip of My Tongue” (#97) is rather sweet; on the other hand, their ’67 single “Dry Your Eyes” is also totally worth a listen. The whispy vocals of Jackie Ralph on The Bells’ sexy single “Stay Awhile” (#57) is pretty unusual, but somehow really works. Finally, Toni Wine and Linda November sing backup for Tony Orlando as “Dawn”, for their catchy-as-all-hell single, “Knock Three Times” (#10).
As noted in the past couple of posts, there has been a noticeable return to traditional forms and values, as shown in elements as basic as the overall sound of certain songs. With the age of the hippie long behind us, it’s safe to say that this was a relatively more conservative time in US culture. With this kept in mind, perhaps this may come to explain just why there are so many songs with explicit religious references within their lyrical content, particularly of a Christian nature. Sure, religious content has been nothing new to the Hot 100 – “A Wonderful Time Up There”, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, and “Deck of Cards” being a few past examples taken off the top of my head. Yet at the same time, one has to wonder what events had to be set into place in order for Judy Collins’ a capella rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” (#80) to find its way among pop music much more commonly found among these charts.
Along with it being a less radical time in this country’s history, maybe the cause could stem from the popularity of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” from ’70, deeming record companies fit to follow suit with this trend. That could probably explain Ocean’s equally as melodic “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (#33). Maybe it even goes back even further, to the ’67 success of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day”; the combination of these two songs serve as the most probable inspiration for George Harrison’s musical praise to Krishna, “My Sweet Lord” (#31). Yet the simplest explanation might just be that it’s due to occur along with the trend and direction of soft-rock’s popularity at the time. While Bobby Goldsboro’s “Watching Scotty Grow” (#78) may not be explicitly religious in theme, its patriarchal, voyeuristic attitude is solidified with its final line, “Me and God watching Scotty grow”. Moreover, Noel Paul Stookey’s “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” (#92) lifts up literal Bible verses in order to emphasize the purity of a wedding, yet another tradition steeped in conservative values. Personally speaking, these latter two songs present some of the flimsiest, trite songwriting I’ve seen in any song from these lists; despite this, incorporating spirituality into these songs could benefit the music in many great ways, as seen this year and in previous years.
While one could argue that this year isn’t the greatest in terms of the overall sharpness of its soul, R&B, and funk releases. Indeed, with some exception, superpower record company Motown could be said to present at a less prominent caliber than it had been in previous years. While The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” (#40) is an undeniably awesome record, the same could hardly be said for “Mama’s Pearl” (#86). Moreover, even though the worst of Stevie Wonder is still pretty good Stevie Wonder, “If You Really Love Me” (#48) simply lacks the definitive bite at which his previous singles were so great. Yet a saving grace comes in the form of Marvin Gaye, whose album What’s Going On remains one of the finest, most beautiful works within the genre. His singles “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (#62) and “What’s Going On” (#21) are found on this list, injecting some of the most poignant realism to be found in any of these charts thus far. Moreover, 1971 was a big year for Isaac Hayes, as his terrific “Theme From Shaft” (#89) becomes not only the first song on the Hot 100 to feature a curse word (“Damn right!”), but also winning him an Oscar, the first won by a Black non-actor.
While it’s true that the amount of soul and R&B isn’t as abundant as it previously was, there are still a good number of truly fantastic songs here. Al Green makes his debut this year with his relatively minimalist yet rather sensual “Tired of Being Alone” (#12). The Honey Cone’s “Want Ads” (#13) and “Stick-Up” (#70) give us two shining examples of just the kind of trajectory that girl groups have taken in much more recent years. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (#17) and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (#77) seem to weirdly compliment each other in both their terrific, bouncy grooves and their upfront approach to their content (“Sock it to me, mama”, “Mr. Big Stuff / Who do you think you are?”. The Undisputed Truth’s ominous cover of The Temptations’ “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (#14), as well as The Beginning of the End’s absolutely fun “Funky Nassau” (#75), make me so sad that both of these groups are one-hit-wonder artists. Aretha Franklin shows that she’s still rocking it up with two splendid covers: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (#52) and “Spanish Harlem” (#49). Finally, Bill Withers slows things down a bit with his mournful croon “Ain’t No Sunshine” (#23).
Music historians widely regard the 1971 as the year of the rock album, given that many albums considered among the greatest of all time found their release in this year. Among others, this includes Led Zeppelin IV, Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, and L.A. Woman. At the same time, however, especially with the rise in popularity of the singer-songwriter as an individual, rock music finds itself playing second fiddle. Still, some truly iconic songs find their place in this year’s Hot 100, including The Who’s epic “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (#84), Motown group Rare Earth’s exuberant “I Just Want To Celebrate” (#66), and two songs from The Doors – “Love Her Madly” (#94) and the eerie “Riders on the Storm” (#99), which entered the charts on the exact day of Jim Morrison’s death. This year also found three of the four members of the Beatles occupying the chart at the same time; besides Harrison, we’ve also got a few singles from Paul McCartney – “Another Day” (#60) and the profoundly Beatles-esque duet with Linda McCartney, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (#22) – as well as an early glam rock attempt from Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy” (#43). Nonetheless, rock riffs combined with classical forms of folk, jazz, or blues seem to be especially popular among the mainstream music-loving crowd; this is particularly evident by Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking” (#81), Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds’ “Don’t Pull Your Love” (#42), Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” (#28) and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” (#74), The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman” (#58), and Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” (#63). Once again, the nostalgic desire to return back to traditional styles reigns supreme.
As I’ve said before, soft rock is all the rage at the start of this decade. Bread’s “Make It With You” exemplified this trend perfectly in ’70, and this year’s “If” (#61) continues to do so, with its quiet, lush sound and absolute poetry in its lyrics. Cat Stevens also serves as a great example of the trend, particularly in regards to his signature tune, “Wild World” (#73). Even The Bee Gees – who would be known for a completely different style of sound later in the decade – found their initial footing with their two piano-driven soft rock singles “Lonely Days” (#82) and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (#5). Yet, perhaps its notable that the most popular single from this year was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (#1), a simple, high-powered rock song that called for general good feelings and celebration among all. Perhaps the desire for late-60s values hasn’t completely disintegrated after all.
Now is the time where I’ll make a few brief points before I move on to my top songs from this year.
- Continuing with the trend of themes of religion in popular music – namely Christianity – comes the rather odd popularity of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Just like numerous songs from Hair made its way onto the Hot 100 in ’69, a similar phenomenon happens here with this musical, albeit to a lesser degree. Here, only two songs from Jesus Christ Superstar are found here: the lulling ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (#50), performed by Helen Reddy, and the funky lead anthem “Superstar” (#26), performed by Murray Head and the Trinidad Singers. I haven’t researched this, but when paired with The Carpenters’ “Superstar”, this may also be the first year containing two songs of the same name that are completely different, lyrically and stylistically.
- Just as I feared, ’71 is the year of The Partridge Family. I was never all the familiar with them, but have always associated them along the same vein with The Brady Bunch, who I became too familiar with as a kid. Truthfully, the two singles that appear on this list – “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted” (#53) and “I Woke Up In Love This Morning” (#88) – aren’t performed by the actors from the television show, but rather a group of relatively anonymous musicians known collectively as The Wrecking Crew. They’ve also provided arrangements for a mess of other artists and songs, primarily through the 60s, many of which have won Grammys and are generally considered among the greatest songs ever recorded. Look them up; they’re really important.
- Going back to The Partridge Family for a second… Something tells me that “I Woke Up In Love This Morning” would make an excellent mash-up with The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)”, if placed in the hands who knew what they were doing. Just something my bizarre mind conceives when listening to this crap.
- I started this challenge with an intent, among others, to find some really peculiar, forgotten stuff with interesting stories behind their popularity. Undoubtedly, one of the more stranger songs on this list is The Buoys’ “Timothy” (#87). I won’t give away too much here of what the song is about, except that it’s got one of the gnarliest twists of any song I’ve encountered on here, greatly contrasting with its light-hearted and bouncy melody. It’s also one of the first songs whose popularity only increased once every radio station started banning it for its obscene content. This makes it one of the prime examples of the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
- While Paul Revere & The Raiders are surely no newcomers to the Hot 100, releasing a fair share of great music over the course of a few years, their most important contribution is probably their rendition of “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” (#6). While songs in the past have only demonized the image of the Native American – “Mr. Custer” and “Running Bear” being notable examples – this song offers a bit of a humanist perspective into the violence and oppression this group of people have faced. I’m so over the white-washed perspectives of these types of popular music and am grateful for most any song that diverges from this norm.
- On the other hand, the devaluation of Black people only continues with the inclusion of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (#18) on this list. In particular, this sexualizes and marginalizes Black women, especially with the tasteless references made to slavery and overall subjugation of the Black female body. The worst part is that this song is still widely considered among the greatest songs of The Stones’ career, catering to a public that continues to reject social critique of the music they find “catchy”. What a disgrace.
- Past years have found superstars of the classic age of pop music finding a resurgence in popularity amongst a new generation of fans. Such examples have included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Louis Armstrong. Likewise, 1971 marks the first time in over twelve years that Perry Como has found his way in the top ten. Indeed, “It’s Impossible” (#100) is one of the more beautiful soft ballads that has found its way on the charts in a few years; it’s not hard to see how it touched the hearts of this new batch of listeners.
- I feel like it’s obligatory to at least mention John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (#8) in this blog post. Up until this point, for some reason, it’s the only song in the top ten that I have yet to even mention. I have no particular reasoning for this, I don’t dislike the song, and I don’t dislike John Denver. But seeing that it is a rather important song, especially for the state of West Virginia, I see it fit to mention it here. It is, indeed, a song.
And now, without further ado, here are my top six songs of 1971.
Honorable mentions: “Riders on the Storm” (#99), “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (#84), “I Just Want To Celebrate” (#66), “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (#62), “If” (#61), “Rose Garden” (#41), “Ain’t No Sunshine” (#23), “Maggie May” (#2)
Did I ever mention that I’m a big fan of The Temptations? After previous years have given us such weird, psychedelic soul masterpieces as “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Ball of Confusion”, perhaps it may be a little unpredictable that the group would come back to beautiful, minimalist form. I imagine that this was around the group’s downfall as a whole, but that’s not without their giving us this lovely swan song to behold. Not to mention that I’m always a sucker for songs that seem happy and loving on the surface, yet are actually, secretly very, very sad.
5) “Proud Mary” (#55)
I mentioned earlier that this recording is more of a showcase for Tina Turner than it is for Ike – and my point still stands. Ike has absolutely nothing on the powerhouse vocals and overall presence of Tina, who marks her name all over this record. Certainly impressive, considering that the general public had already recognized this as a signature tune from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Yet with the uptempo spin on the song’s second half, replete with horns and some rather funky percussion, it’s certainly the case that this song has undergone a revival of its own. Own it, Tina.
4) “Me and Bobby McGee” (#11)
I’ve been familiar with the album Pearl and “Me and Bobby McGee” for a few years now, but it wasn’t until I started this challenge did I realize that this song was a cover. I’ve always associated it with Janis, particularly with it being one of the finest recordings she had exerted before her untimely death. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” sounds like a line from some of the best Beat era poetry and sums up the song in the finest way possible. I still believe that Janis is one of the most genuinely humanly vocalists of all time and this song only further strengthens her example – particularly her extraordinary vocal breakdown around the final parts of the song. It’s hard not to get moved by such a godly figure.
3) “It’s Too Late” (#3)
Contrary to Joplin, I had actually never familiarized myself with Carole King before starting the Billboard challenge. I’m not so sure why – but perhaps my previously negative connotations with early 70s pop is to blame. In any case, I now know that I love her. I had no clue that she was responsible for dozens of top ten singles all throughout the 60s, and the maturity that comes to a head in “It’s Too Late” makes this evident. This breakup narrative she carves in her song is so painfully genuine, only listeners who can truly relate to those feelings could fully appreciate the song for the masterpiece it is. For those who can’t, this song serves as a bit of a cautionary tale for the capacity of a relationship, no matter how strong, to reach this level of hopelessness – or at least it should. In any case, it’s a fine piece of music and I’m looking forward to discovering more from King.
2) “Never Can Say Goodbye” (#40)
In all honesty, I’m such a sucker for music from The Jackson 5, particularly because much of their more famous singles are also the most fun to sing and dance to. “Never Can Say Goodbye” remains no exception – even though I forever struggle to reach all of Michael’s high notes. The message of the song (one of very grown-up heartache and anguish surrounding a breakup) counterbalances their squeaky-clean image. This could’ve gone horribly wrong – as work from The Osmonds’ has proven – but all of this is saved by the beautiful, layered arrangement provided by producer Hal Davis. And once again, this song deals with some rather depressing topics, yet continues to fill me with inexplicable joy whenever I listen to it. It’s true that some of my favorite songs from the year are seldom the “best” of the year, yet I think that personal connection only helps the cause that much more.
1) “What’s Going On” (#21)
Regardless of any personal bias, however, I am pretty confident that this song is, objectively, the best song of this entire list. The entire album What’s Going On seems to surround itself with this distinctly warm aura that I’ve yet to encounter in any similar album; this is especially pronounced in the album’s title track. The production work is absolutely beautiful, layering vocals upon horns upon percussion upon easygoing chatter. It’s not a clean arrangement, but that’s what makes it so charming. I couldn’t imagine that there was anything else relatively similar coming out around this time. It’s true that the message that this song is trying to get across isn’t anything particularly new or radical (“War is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate”). Yet when Marvin sings, you listen and you believe every word he says. That’s the strength and power that his soothing, earthy voice has over the listener – one that, for me, is surely welcome in its entirety.