Funky Worm: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1973

For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:

– 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
– Roundabout: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1972

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While working on the post for last year’s list seemed to suck the life of out me, this list seems to have had the exact opposite effect. Indeed, the Hot 100 of 1973 seems to spring with the sharp vibrancy that the previous year strangely lacks. So far, it seems that the music scene of the 70s is coming to mirror that of the 60s, in that the early parts of the decade seem pretty boring, only to come bursting with creativity come mid-decade. Yet 1973 in particular seems to have a little something for everyone here – vigorous funk jams, ambitious hard rock anthems, soothing soft rock, sensual soul singles, various pop atmospheres, poetic country and folk songs, even distinct throwbacks to traditional forms of popular music like swing, ragtime, jazz, and classical. While the objective quality of these examples vary from song to song, it’s clear to see that not only are the rock, pop, and R&B sectors of the music scene expanding in creativity and its ability to experiment, but its audience – those listening to and purchasing these records – are become more accepting of such radical changes that have occurred since the 50s.

And that’s not even accounting for the various bands, artists, albums, and songs that have become a major influence on popular music, despite rarely to never finding a place on the Billboard charts. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, for example, is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time – and rightfully so – yet the humble placement of their single “Money” (#92) hardly reflects that. It’s a great song without a doubt (well, maybe not the lyrics, but who could deny that bass riff and sax solo?), yet it fails to properly uphold the album’s masterful, psychedelic reputation. Same goes for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (#97), a terrific song which is not only Bowie’s first appearance on a year-end list, but actually was originally on his self-titled album from 1969. The easiest explanation for this phenomenon is that it often takes several years for public audiences to collectively accept songs and albums (and books and films and other works of art, for that matter) as full-fledged masterpieces. A similar reasoning goes behind why I never listen to the songs on these lists only once – most of the time, multiple listens and reevaluations are absolutely necessary.

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We can use this prelude as a segue-way into the hard rock portion of this year. While the distinction between soft rock and hard rock has been determined among listeners for quite a while now, this year marks the first time that the latter has noticeably carved itself out as a distinct subgenre. As a rule, hard rock is typically a more louder and aggressive style of rock than, say, the early rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, yet still remains rooted in its blues influences overall. The electric guitar is emphasized as the main instrument (as opposed to the acoustics of soft rock), and hard rock compositions usually rely on repetitive riffs of varying degrees of complexity. The vocal delivery of the lyrics are also relatively loud and aggressive, rarely wispy, as emphasized in The Edgar Winter Band’s “Free Ride” (#96) and Sweet’s “Little Willy” (#18). However, the vocals could also run across varying modes of styles and influences – as evident in the yodeling and falsetto opera of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” (#69) – or there may not be any vocals at all – which Edgar Winter’s experimental instrumental “Frankenstein” (#16) exquisitely demonstrates. Predecessors of this subgenre are many, but some notable examples include the power chords of Link Wray’s “Rumble” from ’54, the game-changing distortion of 60s garage rock and The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, The Beatles’ unusually loud “Helter Skelter”, and Steppenwolf’s influential hard rock blueprint “Born to Be Wild”.

As briefly mentioned before, this year seems to be the year of the hard rock anthem. One of the most quintessential can be found here, that being Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” (#50), with its iconic riff and real-life story that has become the stuff of legend. Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” (#23) is also largely autobiographical, demanding a greater emphasis on its percussion and its marching chorus. These traits do extend beyond hard rock, however; Loggins and Messina themselves tap into a nostalgic remembrance of rock ‘n’ roll’s early days through the boogie-woogie swing of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” (#53). Fusion bands are also ever present here, with Steely Dan and War finding their way on the list with two and three entries respectively. The former’s jazz-rock flair can be found in the smooth “Do It Again” (#73) as well as the more upbeat “Reelin’ in the Years” (#68). The latter, on the other hand, took it a step further with their unique blending of rock, funk, jazz, blues, and other multi-cultural genres, also reflected in their multi-ethnic lineup. “Gypsy Man” (#93) isn’t one of War’s strongest, but “The World is a Ghetto” (#94) and “The Cisco Kid” (#55) are some of the finest demonstrations of their truly distinct, colorful style. Shades of funk could also be found with The Doobie Brothers’ fantastic “Long Train Runnin'” (#41), while The Allman Brothers Band go for a more country-rock route with their classic jam “Ramblin’ Man” (#79).

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It doesn’t take a genius to note that, just as it’s always been, the rock scene isn’t particularly welcoming to women. With the exception of War, every song I’ve listed in this post so far is credited solely toward White men and only White men. That’s not to say that the credit isn’t deserved, but rather that the music industry and its audience remain unchanged in their overall impression of what kind of person deserves the most praise and sales for their talents. Across all genres, this year’s Hot 100 only garnered twenty women across twenty entries. This numbers are extremely similar to those of 1965 during the peak of the British Invasion, another phenomenon that wasn’t welcoming to women. I’ll admit that this year’s delivering of female-fronted singles aren’t really the best, but this could hardly be sufficient justification to deny women equal representation and recognition as their male counterparts.

Just like the previous year, Roberta Flack remains the highest-ranking women on the list with her sumptuous classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song” – although this one only came at #3. Only four other women find their way in this year’s top twenty, including Carly Simon’s fantastically feisty “You’re So Vain” (#9), Diana Ross’ lovely “Touch Me in the Morning” (#10), and Vicki Lawrence’s singular Southern Gothic hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (#11). Helen Reddy is also present here, with two rather mediocre singles, “Peaceful” (#81) and the popular “Delta Dawn” (#14); however, I’m personally baffled at the exclusion of her feminist anthem “I Am Woman”, which reached #1, earned her a Grammy, and is widely considered her signature tune. I’m not the biggest fan of Anne Murray, but it’s pretty difficult to knock her tender rendition of “Danny’s Song” (#37). Cher’s “Half-Breed” (#20), on the other hand, I can’t get on board with – though perhaps its due to how the mock-Indian chants in the background are very reminiscent of “Running Bear”. Still, the game is saved by The Pointer Sisters’ fun “Yes We Can Can” (#95) and Gladys Knight & The Pips’ two entries, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (#45) and the absolutely beautiful, soulful “Midnight Train to Georgia” (#49).

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In my opinion, some the most exciting trends and tendencies in the music scene of 1973 are found within the realms of R&B, soul, and funk. At the very least, these are where the most fun can be had, and are also the ripest examples of what is often considered the best things about 70s music. Stevie Wonder alone continues his uninterrupted stream of quality with three classic tunes: the exuberant “Higher Ground” (#62) (recorded right before a life-threatening accident), the soulful ballad “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (#19), and “Superstition” (#26), which is quite possibly the funkiest song of all time. 1973 also marks a solid return for The Temptations, with the their two brilliant, Whitfield produced singles “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (#100) and “Masterpiece” (#80). These two recordings demonstrate the popular trend of “cinematic soul” taking over the airwaves these days, a style that prioritizes production design over vocal abilities of its artists and it recognizable by its long instrumental intros (explicitly seen with “Theme From Shaft” in ’71). Another one of the most exquisite examples of this is The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” (#21), a sexy work of art that features nearly six minutes of smooth vocals and even smoother guitar and bass rhythms. Of course, not all were on board with this new sound – former Temptations frontman Eddie Kendricks sticks to more of a straight R&B/funk groove with his solo effort “Keep On Truckin'” (#35).

It’s no surprise, of course, that a variety of R&B, funk, and soul sounds would erupt from this particularly vibrant year. Philadelphia soul has been on a rise as of late, but The Stylistics’ infectiously sad “Break Up To Make Up” (#88) suggests that its peak may be underway. It’s also evident that songs in these categories are becoming freer and more explicit in its sexual undertones – as demonstrated by Marvin Gaye’s lovemaking anthem “Let’s Get It On” (#4), Barry White’s tenderly erotic “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” (#33), and Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk” (#22), which generously incorporates orgasmic sighs and moans throughout. Also emerging on the much smoother side of things are Billy Paul’s ode to an illicit affair, “Me and Mrs. Jones” (#15), Sly and the Family Stone’s downtempo “If You Want Me To Stay” (#43), Timmy Thomas’ crooning, minimalistic “Why Can’t We Live Together” (#75), and Bloodstone’s positively intimate “Natural High” (#39). Also notable are The Spinners’ two jazzy singles “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” (#82) and “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” (#47), Four Tops’ awesomely romantic “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)” (#60), The O’Jays’ ode to 60s idealism “Love Train” (#32), and Ohio Players’ goofy-yet-influential, synth-driven “Funky Worm” (#84). Surely there is far too much going on in this year than I have the time to even half-adequately cover – this should do for now.

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But with so much going on in these genres, does that mean that soft rock has become untrendy at last? Well, not quite – although the quality and overall visibility of this genre is relatively subdued in this particular Hot 100. Some of the best can be found in Paul Simon, who continues to demonstrate his composing chops with the bright and groovy “Love Me Like a Rock” (#27) and his equally lovely “Kodachrome” (#74). The Carpenters also continue their 70s reign this year; although “Yesterday Once More” (#70) is not a personal favorite of mine, the simple, charming “Sing” (#59) manages to win me nonetheless. Some of the catchiest songs from this genre also come from the most unlikely places, such as Edward Bear’s fatalistic lone hit “Last Song” (#67), Jim Croce’s singable piano jam “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (#2), and Hurricane Smith’s quirky, pleading “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?” (#57). Gilbert O’Sullivan finds himself on this list for the second year in a row; “Get Down” (#66) is an absolute dud, but his love song to his niece “Clair” (#72), while no “Alone Again (Naturally)”, is still rather clever and lovely in its own special ways. Finally, it would be a sin not to mention the efforts of the always great Elton John, who truly shines here with his two singles “Daniel” (#48) and “Crocodile Rock” (#7), the latter of which is an all-time favorite of mine.R-1456532-1329573428.jpeg

At this time, I’ll make a few final points before I move on to my personal top of the year:

  • Tony Orlando and Dawn continue their success this year with their cabaret-influenced “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” (#34) and “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, the latter of which reached the top spot of the year. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I personally can’t get on the praise bandwagon for either of these two and I certainly can’t see how “Yellow Ribbon” is considered one of the al-time greats. Their earlier singles “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” are both great songs; this point in the group’s career, however, I’m not so much on board with.
  • The instrumental tracks this year are few and far between; the good news, however, is that all three of them are truly splendid. I already mentioned The Edgar Winter Band’s “Frankenstein”, which is truly a wild ride of epic proportions, a bit in the vein of Led Zeppelin, I’d dare to say. Secondly, Deodato’s neo-jazz reworking of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (#90) is just plain groovy and hard not to love. Finally, Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s recording of the country standard “Dueling Banjos” (#61) is the stuff of legend, practically tailor-made for any chase scene set out in the old West.
  • One of the more obviously out-of-place songs on this entire list is Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” (#38) – the ten-year-old novelty single parodying a particular era of music truly out of date at this point. But while the reappearance of The Surfaris’ “Wipeout” a few years after its debut is a little questionable, this one can be easily explained by the single’s rerelease and new resurgence in popularity among a new generation of listeners. And as it continues to be popular to this very day, it’s clear to see that “Monster Mash” truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
  • In my critical writing, I tend to not focus too intently on things I disliked. While it’s true that I try not to dwell on negativity in general, I’m just not as great at articulating exactly why I hated a particular piece of media. Most of my reasons tend to lie with the systematic kyriarchy rearing its ugly head. I do think, however, that it could be useful to at least tell what my most hated song of the year is, which is what I think I’ll start doing from now on. This year, the honor goes to Jud Strunk’s “Daisy A Day” (#89). It’s got a few things going for it I’m not always fond of: cloying, country sounds; sappy, try-hard lyrics; plainly annoying vocals. On top of this, I’ve grown extremely tired of media that revolves around dead women in some way or another; in this particular instance, the dead woman in question is a twist ending. Pseudo-romantic fluff like these just rubs me the wrong way entirely, and it’s not hard to see why Strunk never had a successful music career after this terrible single.
  • This year also brings to us the second time the theme song for a James Bond film finds its way on the Hot 100, this one being Wings’ “Live and Let Die” (#56). As a Bond song, this one is one of the better ones, demonstrating an eclectic orchestral arrangement and some instantly memorable hooks. It is also one of the better tunes from the band itself; however, it doesn’t nearly hold a candle to Shirley Bassey’s stunning theme from ’65, “Goldfinger”.

And now without further ado, here are my top six of the year.

Honorable mentions: “Space Oddity” (#97), “Money” (#92), “Angie” (#85), “Higher Ground” (#62), “Midnight Train to Georgia” (#49), “Long Train Runnin'” (#41), “Stuck in the Middle With You” (#30), “That Lady” (#21), “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (#19), “Frankenstein” (#16)

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6) “Let’s Get It On” (#4)

One of the most sexually-charged songs of all time, “Let’s Get It On” eventually became Marvin Gaye’s more successful single for Motown and it’s easy to see why. I think its particular strengths lie in its arrangement. The opening guitar lick is so damn tasty and continues to upkeep the song’s seductive groove throughout its entirety. And Gaye himself is at the top of his game here. When he croons lines like “Giving yourself to me can never be wrong / If the love is true” in lovely multi-layered form, you believe every word of it. The song is so good at its lovemaking schtick, it’s become cliché.

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5) “Crocodile Rock” (#7)

Elton John is one of the musical greats, particularly in his ability to implement his piano-playing talents into a variety of styles and moods. “Crocodile Rock” may not be his best song, but it’s one of his most fun. It also seems to follow along with the trend of songs looking back at rock ‘n’ roll’s early days, also seen this year with “Your Mama Don’t Dance”. This one is just so ridiculously catchy and an instant earworm – only helped by that silly, weird, charming “la-la-la-la-la” hook. As a kid, I always wondered if that particular part was sung by muppets – until I finally stumbled across his classic bit on The Muppet Showf. Expectations met.

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4) “You’re So Vain” (#9)

Simply put, one of the best “fuck you” songs ever written. Carly Simon has this knack for writing about perfectly human song subjects amongst a web of quirky phrases and perfectly-crafted wordplay. In this instance, it’s a case of a genuine heartbreak projected with the aid of of its classic sardonic wit – “You’re so vain / I’ll bet you think this song is about you”. The moral of the story is, “You weren’t worth falling for, but I’m going to be okay”. At least that’s what I get out of it. Coincidentally, I started listening through this list the same day that it was revealed, after forty years, that this song is (partially) about Warren Beatty. Nonetheless, I think the subject matter is one to which practically anyone’s who’s ever dated an asshole could relate.

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3) “Me and Mrs. Jones” (#15)

With all due respect to Marvin Gaye’s plea for sexual liberation,  the rich sexiness of Billy Paul’s major splash this year is so invigorating not to give all the praises toward. In my opinion, he was completely robbed of a career. I’m still not completely sure what went wrong after the success of his Grammy-winning hit (for now, I’ll blame disco), but it seems to be an unfortunate mistake. It’s the classic story of a forbidden love affair, yet with the appeal of the magnificent production design, as well as Paul’s powerful vocals, it’s hard not to really feel a connection to the people in the narrative. The story may be very simple, but there’s just something about it that makes me want more – a sequel, perhaps. It’s a smooth song, though less “let’s get it on” and more “let’s make this work”. There’s just something about it I keep coming back to.

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2) “Superstition” (#26)

Like I said before, this is probably the funkiest song of all time – there’s probably some science that proves this somewhere. While numerous artists have managed to continuously find their way onto the Hot 100 through the past decade and a half (Elvis Presley, The Temptations, etc.), Stevie Wonder is probably the one artist who has yet to overstay his welcome. In fact, it was so difficult for me to narrow my top Wonder song down to just one, as all three of his songs on this list are favorites of mine. Yet it somehow all comes down to “Superstition” – that bouncy guitar hook, those flamboyant horns, Wonder’s iconic voice. And all this for a song about little more than to say that superstitions are pretty pointless. Leave it to Stevie to make a song about just about anything and turn it into absolute gold.

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1) “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (#3)

I’m not going to hide anything – it is true that I was very familiar with The Fugees’ cover of this song long before I was even aware of Roberta Flack’s original. Even right now as I listen to it, I’m tempted to include Wyclef’s “one time”/”two times” hook to the chorus. I think my familiarity and love for this cover only makes me love the original even more. Its minimalism – especially during a time of high production standards of R&B singles of the day – causes the lyrics to overflow in painful honesty and humanism seldom seen from other songs of the year. Her performance in the recording and repetition of its chorus gives the impression that the song will never end, much like painful, longstanding heartache itself. It’s clear that Flack is one of the finest vocalists of this particular generation and the sophistication of her singles overshadow just about anyone else in her midst.

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