For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:
– 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
– Joy to the World: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1971
I’m going to do this year’s post a little bit different this time around. Specifically, it’s going to be slightly shorter. The reason for this being that 1972’s Hot 100 has been, hands-down, the most boring year I’ve encountered thus far. Almost every single song I had come across on this list was forgotten soon after my first listen through, with exception to the good number of songs I was already familiar with. This might be due to the popularity of the soft poetic rock and pop that continues to take over this entire first part of the decade. While the previous year seemed to suffer from similar qualms, at least its hits were enough to elevate it so the overall impression was that of a pretty good year. In comparison, songs like Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” (#8) and Wayne Newton’s “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” (#10) are almost infuriating in their cloying faux-sentimentality. Also the line “Girl, you’re a hot-blooded woman child / And it’s warm where you’re touching me” is just gross. Overall, though, the fact that there are not one, but two versions of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” – by The Hillside Singers at #97 and The New Seekers at #93 – essentially a Coca-Cola ad wrapped in artificial, exploitative sentimentality, might show perfectly just how dull of a year this is.
Even all of the good artists seem to suffer from the stranglehold that is 1972’s music scene. I’ve mentioned before that I love The Carpenters, and Karen Carpenter’s vocal talent in songs such as “Superstar” and “(They Long To Be) Close To You” is akin to angels. But this year, they’ve put out “Hurting Each Other” (#65), which frankly does nothing for me. Moreover, I love The 5th Dimension when they’re putting out upbeat pop masterpieces like “Up, Up and Away” and “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In”, not so much “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” (#31), relatively lacking in any true personality. Even Bread, who totally won my heart in past years with “Make It With You” and “If”, fails to impress this year with “Everything I Own” (#52). While there’s no doubt that albums still continue to prosper through the first part of this decade, the generally lackluster quality that has solidified itself as this norm this year is sadly more apparent through this Hot 100.
As far as the rock world is concerned, it seems as though ’72 is the year of the rock anthem. While the singer-songwriter era of pop music still remains focused on emphasizing beautiful lyrics above all else (we’ll get to examples of this later), harder rock bands seemed to have moved onto creating uptempo hits with catchy riffs and repetitive choruses. The pinnacle of this is captured with Derek and the Dominos’ legendary “Layla” (#60), replete with a simple hook, one earworm of a guitar riff, and a lovely instrumental outro. This trend is further exemplified by more quicker-paced glam rock with simple, sing-a-long choruses, such as Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” (#75) (“School’s out for the summer / School’s out forever”) and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” (#56) (“Get it on / Bang a gong / Get it on”). Of course, soft rock is still a trend that still retains its power stance throughout this year, as shown with America’s “Horse With No Name” (#27), as well as with The Moody Blues’ return with “Nights in White Satin” (#32). In keeping with the trend of socially aware music, both Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” (#63) and War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (#23) deal with themes of prejudice, intolerance, and a call for a better world in their own special, unique ways. Finally, an admiration for more traditional forms of rock ‘n’ roll is shown with Commander Cody’s exquisite combination of outlaw country and old school rockabilly in “Hot Rod Lincoln” (#69), further continuing the longstanding nostalgia for popular music’s golden age.
The visibility of women on this list isn’t as exceptional as last year had shown, but on this front it still remains one of the best years ever to appear on the year-end Hot 100. In total, there are thirty-one women presented across twenty-one entries on the list. Along with Cher’s double appearances as both one half of Sonny & Cher (“A Cowboy’s Work is Never Done” (#70)) and as a successful solo artist (“The Way of Love” (#62)), Roberta Flack is the most represented on this list. “Where is the Love” (#58) – also featuring Donny Hathaway – is a wonderful song on its own right, but her chart-topping version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is not only the second song from a female performer to make it to #1 on the year-end list, but also probably the quietest, most minimalistic song to do so, as far as production is concerned. Carly Simon reappears on this list again although “Anticipation” (#72), truthfully, isn’t as strong of a punch as last year’s “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”, though it still properly demonstrates Simon’s talents in songwriting. Aretha Franklin, however, has yet to fail to impress, as her beautiful “Day Dreaming” (#61) gives us yet another fine example of her unmatched vocal talent. Also notable on this list is Betty Wright’s punchy R&B single “Clean Up Woman” (#49), Donna Fargo’s adorably catchy “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” (#55), and Melanie’s positively infectious classic, “Brand New Key” (#9).
Although the golden age of funk is still approaching the horizon, some early hints of this R&B subgenre could be heard in a number of singles from this early part of the decade. The easygoing-yet-danceable vibe of The Isley Brothers’ “Pop That Thang” (#100) is a perfect example of this, as is The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s strange, somewhat novelty single, “Troglodyte (Cave Man)” (#80), Joe Tex’s exciting, instantly catchy “I Gotcha” (#6), and James Brown’s wildly uptempo “Get On the Good Foot” (#99). More lighter forms of R&B also found much success through this year, particularly the smooth style of Al Green who has three entries on this list: “I’m Still In Love With You” (#59), “Look What You Done For Me” (#54), and “Let’s Stay Together” (#11). Bill Withers also makes a reappearance here with “Use Me” (#78) and “Lean On Me” (#7), the latter of which is, along with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” (#47), considered among the greatest songs of all time and practically ingrained in the fabric of popular culture. Following through with the popularity of “Theme From Shaft”, another blaxploitation theme makes its way onto this list, this time from Curtis Mayfield with “Freddie’s Dead” (#82), originally from the Super Fly soundtrack. And once again, the yearning for socio-political awareness and change makes its mark in the R&B world with Sly and the Family Stone’s truly fantastic “Family Affair” (#79), a slightly more somber song than what we’re used to from the gang.
And now, I’ll make a few more brief points before I move onto my personal top songs from this year.
- Possibly in an attempt to feed off of the popularity that Jesus Christ Superstar found in the previous year, one of the top 100 songs of this year is “Day By Day” (#90), a song from the musical Godspell. Although I appreciate its gospel influences and the unique direction it takes with it (more conservative in comparison to “Superstar”‘s clearly funk-influenced production), I didn’t feel any sort of immediate connection with this particular number. It seems to be lacking in a real definitive personality and it, unfortunately, rather forgettable.
- This is the third time that we’ve seen the same song appear in the Hot 100 across three different years, that song being “Sealed With a Kiss”. 1962 was when we first heard Brian Hyland’s version, and then a few years later with a cover by Gary Lewis and the Playboys in ’68. This year, we’ve got yet another rendition of the tune from Teen Idol veteran Bobby Vinton at #87, also the first time he’s appeared on the charts in five years. Although Bobby Vinton isn’t a favorite of mine and this particular cover does nothing new, his voice does work naturally with the song’s easygoing romanticism, which makes sense considering his background as a young performer. Plus, I love the song so much and I feel like I would inevitably enjoy just about any version I happen to come across.
- Inexplicably, instrumental tracks have become popular again, with five of them appearing on this list alone. This is strange, considering that they’ve been relatively absent in recent years; however, the development of rock music probably brought them back to popularity again, given that unlike previous years, none of these are jazz standards or classical compositions. Well, I guess unless you wish to count Apollo 100’s “Joy” (#71), essentially an uptempo electronic rock cover of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Meanwhile, Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio” (#43) and Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space” (#22) continue to anticipate the bombastic rise of funk music that is to come very soon. Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” (#28) is yet another electronic composition, though its innovative usage of the Moog synthesizer makes this one track incredibly ahead of its time. Finally, while some may choose to disqualify The Chakachas’ “Jungle Fever” (#51) due to Kari Kenton’s strategically placed sensual moans, I think its instrumental arrangements are what give this spicy track its true staying power.
- One of the more fascinating discoveries I’ve found on this list is Charley Pride, who charted this year with “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” (#74). The song itself is, frankly, pretty terrible – even for a country song, which is frankly a genre I’m not totally fond of – but Pride himself is unique in this music scene in that he’s a Black man. It seems that country music is a predominately White genre and while I’m not sure I’ll listen to more from him, representation and visibility are also incredibly important and I’m glad to have stumbled across him nonetheless.
- There’s no stopping the chart veterans this year! Elvis Presley’s comeback reign continues with his totally fun country/soul hit “Burning Love” (#48) – although this would unfortunately be his last major hit before his untimely death a few years later. Sammy Davis Jr. also makes a reappearance with the lovably saccharine single “The Candy Man” (#5), which would become his staple. Much more surprisingly, Chuck Berry makes a bizarre comeback with a live recording of the absolutely outrageous “My Ding-A-Ling” (#15). In general, these comebacks are a bit of a mixed bag, but at least the hits themselves are totally worth every second of anyone’s time.
- Youngsters Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond are bound to draw some comparisons, given that their popularity initially sprouted up with their involvement in musical groups with their other siblings. Yet just by looking at their solo output from this year, it’s not hard to see which would have the most successful career. Osmond major hit this year is a cover of Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love” (#67), a recording that doesn’t take many risks to set it apart from its original source material. Jackson, however, practically explodes with enthusiasm in his own cover of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” (#41), while also showing his softer side in a cloying yet lovely original tune, “Ben” (#20). I will say, however, that The Osmonds’ single from this year “Down By the Lazy River” (#36) (written by two of the brothers themselves) is one of the most fun, vibrant songs to come out of this year altogether, which means a lot considering I’m usually unimpressed by the group. (Edit: Since posting this overview, I have written a longer review on “Ben”. You can find it over here.)
Now’s a good time to start with my top six of this year.
6) “Rocket Man” (#40)
I’ve noticed that there’s been a rise in story songs – songs that typically contain a narrative and characters, maybe with a story arc of some sort. Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” (#85) is one example from this year; “Rocket Man” is another. I struggle to pinpoint exactly why I love this song so much, but I’m a huge Elton John fan and I’ve always loved this one. I think it may be the humanistic depiction of loneliness and homesickness I admire so much, as well as the way it pulls out such familiar emotions from an unfamiliar terrain. And like “Space Oddity”, it’s probably the appeal of outer space I love so much as well. Sounds about right.
5) “Vincent” (#94)
I had never heard many songs from Don McLean before I started this list, but listening to “Vincent” for the first time a few weeks ago blew me away completely. I do admire Van Gogh, so it’s nice to hear such a lovely, respectful song written in his honor, especially with its constant references to his best known works. It’s not so much a love letter to the artist as it is a letter of consolation – one in which the speaker is so desperately trying to connect their own depression to that of the ever-grieving artist. Once again: familiar emotions, unfamiliar terrain. This is the kind of song that I almost wish I had the courage to write, and it’s bound to become a new all-time favorite.
4) “Let’s Stay Together” (#11)
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no one else who sounded quite like Al Green before Al Green, and soul performers who came afterward work in desperation to capture the Al Green sound. And this sound is probably most quintessentially captured in his classic “Let’s Stay Together”, a song that is equal parts romantic and sexy. The production is truly one-of-a-kind, and Green’s voice ebbs and flows throughout the track in perfect, seamless progression. It’s hard to imagine any other voice on this particular recording – this track is tailor-made for Green himself. It’s a great song, but it’s also an important song. I’m looking forward to all the steamy hot slow jams to grow from the seeds that this song in particular has planted.
3) “Alone Again (Naturally)” (#2)
Alright, this is more of a guilty pleasure than anything else. When I first listened to this song, I wasn’t feeling it at all. Eventually, I gave it a second, third, and fourth listen, only to find out I actually love it. But why? I’m not too sure. These lyrics are some of the most depressing I’ve ever heard (“As if to knock me down / Reality came around / And without so much as a mere touch / Cut me into little pieces”), sometimes obnoxiously so (“Talk about God and his mercy / If he really does exist / Why did he desert me?”). Though for the most part, these emotions feel so heartachingly genuine, as if I’d easily take solace in his words if I had a particularly bad week. It’s the sad, poetic, downhearted song for folks like me who love listening to sad, poetic, downhearted music. Naturally, I’d love it.
2) “Coconut” (#66)
Harry Nilsson actually has two songs on the list this year. While many would consider “Without You” (#4) to be his masterpiece in songwriting (and I’m obliged to agree), I have a particular fondness for the creative, silly insanity that is “Coconut”. While the previous song could almost certainly bring my mood down on a bad down, there’s no denying that this song could pick me right back up again. I can’t quite follow the story of this song – something about a rancid coconut and a terrible doctor – but the easygoing, catchy rhythms of this song, as well as its Caribbean influences, is enough to get this song on my good side. The way it so naturally progresses from kooky simplicity at the start into absolute madness at the end makes it hard to believe that this song is less than four minutes long. Nothing like a bit of Nilsson to shake up this music scene of listless, boring songwriting.
1) “American Pie” (#3)
Oh wait, this song doesn’t have terrible writing! Not at all. “American Pie” isn’t only the best song of 1972; it’s also one of the best songs of all time, in my honest opinion. It’s the first song that I actually felt really proud for knowing all the words by heart (and I still do!). Written as a partial tribute to the tragic plane crash of ’59 that took the lives of three young musicians, it was probably the one song that introduced me to the classic rock scene as a whole. Overall, however, “American Pie” offers a layered, enigmatic series of images that work perfectly to not only offer a brief history of rock ‘n’ roll, but also display the speaker’s ambivalence and uncertainty toward the contemporary music scene in ways that few songs could ever come close to achieving. Not to mention that it’s fun as hell – the first time one listens to the “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie“ chorus, it’s stuck in their head forever. As I mentioned before, solemn songs that sound happy are always great in my books. In this case, it’s one of the best examples of such. But yes, I still love “The Saga Begins”.