The 1970s: It was the decade that punk and disco landed like a bludgeon against the bourgeoise stronghold on the arts as virtuosity made way for music of attitude and individualism. It was the decades that saw David Bowie unleash a constant swirl of singular masterpieces and inspire millions with his creative character studies. It saw Joni Mitchell make everybody cry with the folk explosion’s last hurrah on Blue, Californian rock ‘n’ roll went out in style with LA Woman, and the emergence of new masters on albums like London’s Calling, Marquee Moon, Paranoid, Horses, Rumours and an endless string of others. In short, it was the great decade of art in history.
The latter half of the 1960s saw the explosion of the pop-culture dream rally against the onset of societal tragedies. The dream succeeded more than many would give credit to, however, the ‘70s had to find their feet in a flash as the embers of counterculture waned. This waywardness and the notion that the shackles were descending, and things were getting stilted scattered music off in all directions. This was the glory of the era.
Gil Scott-Heron heralded the future of rap, The Stooges and their scallywag cohorts echoed the dawn of punk, Funkadelic and their sonic frenzy bled into a new blend of disco and timeless classics still had a place to stay as Bob Dylan startled once more with Blood on the Tracks. Everything was kicking off and the central tenet of it all was individualism. However, this meant that certain shy folks were left floundering.
With everybody absorbed in the giant glut of the gleaming mainstream, it was easy for the meek, peculiar or otherwise indisposed to fall through the cracks and remain shackled to the back rooms of history. Now, however, these lesser-known epics have been heroically summoned from the slumber of the ‘70s underworld to finally present these perennial bridesmaids as the brides they were born to be.
In this special compilation edition of our Unlucky for Some feature, we’re looking at the 1970s as a whole. Hopefully, there are some tracks in here that you haven’t heard before or at least interesting songs of old, but ultimately, I simply hope they are all appreciated for the gems that they are. You can catch a playlist of these ‘hits-that-never-were’ at the bottom of the piece (NB not all of the listed tracks are on Spotify).
The 100 most underrated songs of the 1970s:
100. ‘Sticky Living’ – B.B. Blunder
At the time of writing B.B. Blunder receive 15 monthly listens on Spotify and about 14 of those are from me, presumably the other one comes from someone who was searching for B.B. King. The band are an almost unknown off-shoot of the Blossom Toes, an underground British rock act from the ‘60s. When the Blossom Toes broke up, guitarist Brian Godding and bassist Brian Belshaw were joined by Godding’s sister-in-law Julie Driscoll on vocals as well as Kevin Westlake on drums to turn out some of the most quintessentially ‘70s guitar music that there is.
Gloriously over the top and genuinely terrifically produced, ‘Sticky Living’ centres one hell of a groove and some endlessly catchy cowbell-ing around a fantastically unfocussed extraneous structure. It is a rhapsodic piece of music that proved too chaotic back in the day, but it’s certainly worth a second chance.
99. ‘Love Is Blind’ – Jo Mama
If anyone knows who Jo Mama are then please provide some answers on a postcard? And if perchance you somehow know them then please let them know that they’re still appreciated. This record was a lucky find in that bin of condemned second-handers that you often find in the back corner of a record shop. The battered sleeve offers precious little information and there’s nothing much online either, except a tour poster where their name features alongside Carole King and James Taylor. Once again, at the time of writing ‘Love is Blind’ has amassed the ridiculously small figure of 3,360 Spotify plays, and I can’t figure out how that’s possible let alone fair.
None of this is important, however, when you listen to the sweet little piece of pop perfection that the track proves to be. This is no sketchy outsider music; the vocals are comparable to aforementioned Carole King and the chorus is a gorgeous upsurge of melody. ‘Love is Blind’ doesn’t deserve to be in the condemned bin by any stretch but I’m glad it was.
98. ‘Crazy’ – Valerie Carter
Mention Valerie Carter’s name to anyone lucky enough to be living in Laurel Canyon when music burst out in brilliance in the Hollywood valley as though some creative manna from heaven was seeping out of the local faults, and most people will tell you how fantastic she was. She worked alongside greats like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt. However, for reasons surely explainable only by a sheer saturation of talent, her solo work is pretty much unknown to the wider public.
However, in recent times her soft soulful ways have been given a new lease of life with various re-releases. Taking to song like a bird to flight, her breezy, fluttering vocals are as effortless as they come. ‘Crazy’ is a classic ‘70s production reminiscent of an even more mellowed Minnie Riperton, Carter never breaks beyond a sultry croon and the night-drive music slowly follows suit. With only 18,000 monthly Spotify listeners out there, the world surely needs more of the balm of her wholesome prettiness right now.
97. ‘The Next Big Thing’ – The Dictators
One of the most defining features of punk was that it put the laughter back into music and made guitars fun again. With ‘The Next Big Thing’, The Dictators wanted to make this clear from the outset as the less-than business-like Andy ‘Adny’ Shernoff shouts out, “I didn’t have to do this, I didn’t have to show up here, with my best financial holdings, I could’ve been basking in the sun in Florida, this is just a hobby for me, nothing you hear, a hobby!”
Thereafter the proto-punk anthem is a volley of energy that put youthfulness back into the mix of music. Scratchy and scruffy, it isn’t going to pass any musicological beauty tests, but it served up something that punk did beautifully: it sounded like a group of people having a great time.
96. ‘Do the Du (Casse)’ – A Certain Ratio
A Certain Ratio had a huge influence over the ensuing Manchester post-punk scene that followed the end of the ‘70s and they are all too often unheralded for it. Their unique production style is now ubiquitous and rightly so.
The band are named after a line from Brian Eno’s ‘The True Wheel’ and it is clear that they have a similar enthusiasm for sonic engineering. This song blasts out of the blocks with a rhythm section that yearns to be sampled and thereafter layers a groove and chanted vocal take that creates one hell of an embalming atmosphere. The track is innovative but never gets ahead of itself and remains gloriously simple throughout.
95. ‘Journey’ – Duncan Browne
‘Journey’ was a little-known English folk musician Duncan Browne’s Bob Dylan inspired opus. It reached number 23 in the charts but nevertheless, it was deemed a commercial failure and he was dropped to the ranks of a session musician thereafter.
There is a strange sort of youthful edge to the music that you don’t often get with authentic folk. The psychedelic flourishes embellish the Appalachian-Esque track with total originality. But with only 5260 monthly plays, it’s a crying shame that not more people are enjoying his very singular folk ways.
94. ‘What is Hip?’ – Tower of Power
Tower of Power had been rumbling in the Oakland underground since around 1968, but it wasn’t until funk freed itself up in 1973 that the horn-based band really got blasting.
‘What is Hip?’ soars on glorious attitude, taking Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly vibes and amping them up to the next level. With Lenny Williams taking up mic duties for the record the band are energised with a befitting vocal conduit to focus the horns. It’s the sort of track that gets you out of PJs and into dancing shoes before it’s even halfway through.
93. ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ – Camille Yarbrough
There is something special about hearing a sample in its original form. Suddenly a refrain that you have heard a thousand times over is transformed, and when it comes to ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ it is transformed beyond measure. In fact, it even brings a fresh meaning to Fatboy Slim’s iconic rework.
As stripped back as you can get, the musical nudity of the track gives it a bold vulnerability and allows for a sexy swell as the foreplay flips from an ode of gratitude to a gasp of passion. That is testimony of not only a brilliant song but a truly brilliant nuanced performance from Camille Yarbrough and her brassy vocals.
92. ‘The Sound of The Suburbs’ – The Members
‘The Sound of The Suburbs’ peaked at a relatively high number 12 in the UK singles charts, but failed to make an impression in the States and has since somewhat faded into obscurity. But its timeless buzz remains.
The Members propagated a particularly melodic style of punk, for all the snarling verses in this song the chorus is akin to something that Nick Lowe might have produced in his Jesus of Cool days. The track is a fine example of all of the best elements of punk – the wit, attitude and energy – but it is wrapped in a very rhythmic hook. It is clear that The Members are punks that can play a bit too. ‘Sound of The Suburbs’ is a little youth culture ditty that still sustains its vigour.
91. ‘I Dig You’ – Demis Roussos
Only about four years separate Demis Roussos crafting biblical prog rock masterpieces with Vangelis in Aphrodite’s Child and becoming the hairiest man on roller-skates at the discotheque. The disparate nature of the two anthems is a sure-fire sign of a man with his finger firmly on the pulse of music.
‘I Dig You’ is transportive, in every which way. It not only rockets you back to an era of open-necked shirts and crushed velvet, but it also transports you to a dancefloor no matter where you are. 405 views for a tune this hip-snaking is simply ridiculous.
90. ‘The Night’ – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Owing to the majority of his popular output, Frankie Valli is largely remembered as an artist akin to Barry Manilow. But back in 1972, the falsetto voiced Frankie put out a little-known album called Chameleon which contained one of the finest northern soul songs you will ever find with ‘The Night’.
Opening with one of the greatest bass sounds you will ever hear, the endlessly sample-able rhythm section of this song is a force to behold. From the get-go, the booming bass sets the song off to a flyer as though someone has given steroids to the race track rabbit. Thereafter, the social club sentiments are ushered in for a song that uniquely couples the club scene with some sort of proto-hip hop production.
89. ‘September Gurls’ – Big Star
There are some Tennessee locals who describe Big Star as the Memphis Beatles and when they are doling out power-pop perfection like ‘September Gurls’ it’s easy to see why. The track bristles with much of the same simultaneous melodic pleasantries and yet paradoxical cutting edge that the Fab Four propagated before them.
Sadly, things worked out rather differently for Alex Chilton and co, and only a year after ‘September Gurls’ they were no longer an entity. However, on tracks like this and many others, you can certainly hear their influence on Tom Petty and the likes who followed in their American rhythmic rock footsteps.
88. ‘Crazy on You’ – Heart
In certain publications, it is now implied that this was an instant hit, but a little research shows that, like so many classics throughout history, retrospect creates the illusion of immediate success on a song that was actually very slow in getting off the ground. Originally this peaked at #35 in the US charts, which is hardly the realm of a classic.
The song opens with an ahead of its time flamenco introduction called ‘Silver Wheels’ plucked out with perfection by Nancy Wilson, one of the greatest female rock guitarists of all time. Thereafter, it uniquely meddles acoustic and electric work to produce a quintessential late seventies musical maelstrom.
87. ‘Showdown’ – Thin Lizzy
In 1972 ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ had landed Thin Lizzy a monumental hit in their native Ireland, and whilst it travelled just fine, it was rubbing shoulders with strong international competition. Thus, the band were swamped under the melee of 1970s rock greatness.
As a result, in the pre-Jailbreak obscurity, a lot of Thin Lizzy tracks were lost to the sands of time. ‘Showdown’ is one of the very best of them. The grooving instrumentation and momentous build-up to a guitar solo that embodies coolness more closely than being able to pull off crocadile boots is the perfect piece of harmless rock ‘n’ roll reverie. What a track!
86. ‘I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face’ – Arthur Russell
While this stunning Arthur Russell breakup track first appeared in the 1976 edition of this feature, in fairness, there is no knowing whether this song was actually written in 1976 because it belongs to an undated bundle of demoes that he knocked up in his constantly creative, but far from structured lifetime.
However, it captures a slight sound of the era and is in chronic need of some recognition for being the most honest break-up song of all time, and I can’t say it fairer than that—a lyrical masterpiece. Russell boldly outs himself as a horrible, cowardly man in a track laden with the irony of so-called strong men acting like children in relationships.
85. ‘Introduction’ – WITCH
On the Zambian band’s official website, it explains: “WITCH was a Zambian music rock (Zamrock) band formed in the 1970s. Widely seen as the most popular Zambian band of the1970s, WITCH (an acronym for ‘We Intend to Cause Havoc’) were formed during Zambia’s golden post-independence days, and were headed by Emanuel Jagari’ Chanda.”
Their sound is reflective of the vibrant scene that spawned it, where the infusion of rock ‘n’ roll met with a post-independence search for a national identity and produced amazing results. Tragically, the explosion of sound would be short-lived owing to the HIV pandemic, but before that sadness struck it established itself as one of the greatest scenes in modern music.
84. ‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’ – Bobby Womack
Throughout the ‘70s, Womack released a prolific slew of records that were often crowded with soul standards and reinventions of pop, folk and rock songs. These reimagined classics always sat alongside at least one or two songs that Bobby had penned either by himself or a producer.
With ‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’ Bobby showed that he’s as gifted at crafting a song as he is performing one. There are traits in this song that have been repeated forevermore in the legions of R&B tracks to follow. From the spoken word set-ups to the screeching ‘ah baby’s’ and the string-clad crescendo there is so much of this song that inspired the generations that followed.
83. ‘Pardon Me’ – Emitt Rhodes
If the Paul Is Dead conspiracy had any truth to it (obviously it doesn’t, it’s totally berserk), then Emitt Rhodes should surely have been the first name on the list to fill Paul’s shoes (or lack thereof). Rhodes released two solo albums in 1970 and 1971 after the break-up of his first band the Merry Go-Round, and then, sadly, having failed to surpass underground success he wasn’t seen again until 2016 with a new record Rainbows End.
It is hard to concisely encapsulate this track without continuing the McCartney comparison. From the pop-perfect songcraft to the eerily similar vocal stylings, he shared so much of what McCartney had except a George Martin on production. Both of Rhodes’ solo records were produced at home with himself credited as playing every instrument, and perhaps in retrospect, it is this slightly homemade quality that stopped him from sustaining any real mainstream success but listening back these days it adds a welcome charm.
82. ‘Chase’ – Giorgio Moroder
In an era where inventiveness threatened to lap the racetrack rabbit and get ahead of itself, Giorgio Moroder kept the scientists of sound true with his rhythmic sensibilities. The Godfather of Disco was a postmodernist of the dancefloor, pioneering techniques alongside the evergreen of timeless rhythmic repetition.
‘Chase’ is a fine example of the results of his wizardry. The one-word title is perfect. With the track, Moroder put the listener behind the wheel of some cruising car ala Ryan Gosling in Drive. The word ‘cool’ often doesn’t get the credit it deserves for churlish, nerdy reasons, but the Italian composer kicks up a plume of dust as he blazes a trail into the future, sporting an aviator-clad grin.
81. ‘The Pretender’ – Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne wrote ‘These Days’, made famous by Nico among others when he was only 16-years-old. That’s a fact that does two things; a) ruins the integrity of the solemn masterpiece (very sorry about that) and b) shows that Jackson Browne was born with some sort of dysfunction that allowed him to alchemically craft a songwriting masterpiece on a whim.
‘The Pretender’ might not be as heartfelt as tracks like ‘These Days’ but it is an ineffably solid piece of songwriting, that shows off his ability to entwine melody and lyrics like he’s simply tying together his shoe laces.
80. ‘Do That Stuff’ – Parliament
The weirdest funk visionaries in town know how to throw a party, both literally and sonically. ‘Do That Stuff’ rolls along on a bassline that could rattle a cheap speaker like an old Skoda driving over a cattle-grid, and piles in with the usual ensemble chanted vocal that always gives their songs a sense of play and freedom as the atmosphere of a smoke-filled studio breathes out from under the stylus.
The summer of 1976 was a fun time indeed, and The Clones of Dr Frankenstein would’ve been on heavy repeat. Why it only charted at #22 is surely just down to the fact that one copy sufficed for an endless garden party of hundreds of happy comers and goers.
79. ‘Trouble, Heartache & Sadness’ – Ann Peebles
In the early ’70s, Willie Mitchell’s legendary Memphis soul record label, Hi Records, was pumping out soul by the feather-weighted tonne. Peebles packs a punch that defies her diminutive size. Her voice floats over the soft classical soul soundscape in a breezing tale of a doomed love life.
Sadly, this tender classic never charted, even though it should have been a mainstay on any soul station worth its salt. The album Straight From The Heart peaked at 188 in the US and that is frankly a crime that needs investigating.
78. ‘Vitamin C’ – CAN
Krautrock came right out of leftfield to cause one hell of a musical stir. Whilst ‘Vitamin C’ may not be as experimental as most of CAN’s back catalogue, it suffices as the best entry point possible to explore the musical madness that they have on offer.
Early krautrock may have proved to be a bit too far removed from the western norm for some, but its impact cannot be denied. CAN pioneered a new style of music that would branch out into all sorts of creative fields and this track is one of the most gilded pieces that they alchemy produced with their potent genre-blending and technological advancements.
77. ‘Dambala’ – Exuma
Perhaps the best insight into the Bahamian musician known as Exuma comes from a quote of his given in an interview with Record World upon the release of this song: Exuma said the “‘electrical part’ of his being ‘came from beyond Mars; down to Earth on a lightning bolt’”. He then described his songs as “all music that has ever been written and all music not yet written. It’s feeling, emotion, the sound of man, the sound of day creatures, night creatures and electrical forces.”
In truth, there is indeed something otherworldly and timeless about his. output and that is far from limited to the berserk drum sound on this track. ‘Dambala’ is a song that boldly ventures towards profundity, and it does so in sweet sonic style.
76. ‘Ride Captain Ride’ – Blues Image
While Exuma’s output might understandably avoid typical radio play, ‘Ride Captain Ride’ is such a quintessential seventies jam that its fade to obscurity seems frankly inexplicable. The song itself is inspired by the number of keys on the band’s singer and chief songwriter, Mike Pinera’s piano. “OK, I need a first word,” he once said, “And what came into my head was ’73.’ I liked the rhythm, and I went, ’73 men sailed up, from the San Francisco Bay.’…The song sort of just wrote itself from there.”
Rarely has an origin story been more befitting, ‘Ride Captain Ride’ is a song with such an easy rhythm that it sounds like it was written in five minutes flat, but in the best possible way. It’s almost a cliche of the era, but sometimes things become common parlance for very good reason.
75. ‘Viens’ – Francoise Hardy
With Jean-Luc Godard’s best days teaming up with Brigitte Bardot behind him, the Francophilia lingering in the air from the peace and love of the ‘60s flowed from new wave cinema into music. While Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg may have been the best-known exports from France, Francoise Hardy was right up there. This track is exactly as you’d like music from la République in that era to be – some romantic soaring piece of over the top symphonic pop.
There is no telling what the song is about – unless you speak French of course – but that’s the joy of listening to it, you get to play out your own little smoky Seine scene of star-crossed lovers and secret rendezvous. In truth, it might just be about something as banal as bread but there’s a frisson of thrills in the melody regardless.
74. ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ – The Distractions
There are certain songs that just seem to fail inexplicably, ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ is certainly one of them. The song currently lingers in the doldrums of Spotify with only 16,699 plays and it’s hard to understand why.
There is precious little information available about The Distractions online. The song is gorgeously catchy and whilst production might be a bit sketchy, surely that was simply the sound of punk coming to the fore. The only explanation I can offer for its lack of attention since release is that the singer was too competent for his typically snarling scene. This song is one of Manchester punks best and should be forgotten no longer.
73. ‘Hammond Song’ – The Roches
The Roches consist of three sisters, Maggie, Terre and Suzy. Their style is instantly notable with choir-like vocal harmonies that somehow seem nakedly soul-bearing over such simple melodies. There is something that musicologists are yet to put their fingers on about siblings singing together.
In 1979 they produced an album with Robert Fripp (King Crimson and David Bowie etc.) and his perfectly melodic chord progression and resonantly delicate strumming offer the perfect platform for the soulful sisters to soar over. The track may be jarringly unusual in its three-part inflexion of pitches but it is stirringly emotional and a gladdening summer accompaniment.
72. ‘Malibu People’ – John Phillips
‘Malibu People’ is the sort of song that makes you forget about the construction of chords and all the other choices that go into crafting a work of art. There is a math to music structure and Phillips’ arithmetic is perfect down to the decimals. It was self-evident from his days with The Mamas and the Papas that he had the knack of crafting classics on a whim, and he once again achieves brilliance seemingly at a saunter.
The song rolls by on such a sanguine breeze that it has to imagine his life was beset with such controversy. If you’re after a track to soundtrack a trip to the beach, then this should happily worm its way toward heavy-rotation. Malibu folks really do know how to live.
71. ‘Son of a Lovin’ Man’ – Buchanan Brothers
Very few pieces of music capture the zeitgeist of the era quite as perfectly as ‘Son of a Lovin’ Man’. Quentin Tarantino popped the track in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for that very reason. Something about the song simply brings forth fondue parties like they’re going out of fashion.
The record is also one that was seemingly fished from the most obscure depths by the director. So little is known about the record that it could basically reside in a museum of the era like some unknown relic, but boy oh boy is it a toe-tapping jam worth visiting.
70. ‘Chimacum Rain’ – Linda Perhacs
There are underrated songs, then there are songs so underrated that the perfection achieved goes so unnoticed that the songwriter has to return to being a dental nurse and depart the industry. Fortunately, for everyone’s sake, Linda Perhacs was rediscovered by reissue enthusiasts in 1998 and she’s back making music after years in the wilderness with her 2014 release The Soul of All Natural Things.
The title of that 2014 album offers a great insight into the sort of psychedelic folk that she writes. There is a poignancy to her music that the narrative of her life only imbues further. That sense is twisted once more by the flourishes of the musically unexpected that bounce into the track potholes and windfalls.
69. ‘Shoot Out on the Plantation’ – Leon Russell
Over the years, Leon Russell’s work has been celebrated by everyone from Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys to Elton John for his effortless ability to craft toe-tapping grooves which came from working with likes of The Ronettes, The Crystals, Glen Campbell, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and Frank Sinatra before he went solo.
‘Shoot Out on the Plantation’ is an almost maddening sounding piece of music as Russell mixes boogie-woogie rock ‘n’ roll with country overtones and lays down a wildly overblown Southern vocal take. The song drives at 100mph towards the brink of bizarro without ever going too far over the edge. If this sonic shoot out of genres doesn’t rattle some endorphins loose then a visit to your doctor is due.
68. ‘Night People’ – Allen Toussaint
Allen Toussaint is a difficult musician to explain, and that is part of the triumph of ‘Night People’. Incorporating R&B elements of his New Orleans foundation, alongside funk and disco flourishes, with a fair glug of honky-tonk, his cocktail of sound is a heady one. But boy does it go down easy on the rocks of nighttime.
His wayfaring ways behind the scene as a producer of the likes of The Meters, Dr John and Labelle meant that throughout his career his own output was sporadic. Nevertheless, that also meant that when he stepped into the spotlight it was always singular and done with individualistic sincerity.
67. ‘The River’ – Michael Farneti
America’s boom of private pressing was usually indicative of a misguided lust for fame or the outlet of an outsider artist, but Michael Farneti’s homemade magic in 1976 reveals the wholesome heart of it. The tender tones incur charming thoughts of someone trying to keep the noise down for those in another room as the song offers up bedroom-bound vibes complete with a lava lamp.
Aside from all that atmosphere, the poetry that Farneti croons is simply beautiful. Too many people do try to hold back the river, but Farneti’s art is a figurative lilo that assures you that going with the flow is the only way to go if you want to ward of the fluster of folly.
66. ‘Needles In The Camel’s Eye’ by Brian Eno
For those that think Eno’s work in front of the mixing desk is purely Music for Airports or even elevators for that matter, this adrenalised proto-post punk anthem brings the Roxy Music energy to emerging Television vibes.
Taken from his debut solo album Here Come the Warm Jets released in January 1974, following his departure from Roxy Music, he brings a unique mix of sounds to his forward-thinking approach and opens up a sonic blast of the future. The record reached a tragically disappointing 151 in the US, but as Eno states himself, he’s quite happy that a lot of his influence is felt second-hand.
65. ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’ – Roy Harper
Following on from that sense of English spirit, you don’t get more ‘greenfield thinking’ than Harper’s classic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’. It is a title that grabs the attention in an instant—how refreshing it is to break up the endless stream of love songs with a beautiful bit of poetry about the fairest sport there is.
As Harper explained: “My childhood memories of the heroic stature of the footballers and cricketers of the day invoke the sounds that went along with them. Paramount among these was the traditional Northern English brass band, which was a functional social component through all four seasons, being seen and heard in many different contexts. My use of that style of music on ‘Old Cricketer’ is a tribute to those distant memories.”
64. ‘Couldn’t Get Right’ – Climax Blues Band
A name like Climax Blues Band comes with a certain attitude, the track ‘Couldn’t Get It Right’ is the gilded embodiment of that attitude. It swaggers with blues style like a Smurf after a makeover. Groovy bass, cowbell throughout and one hell of a hooky chorus, what more could you want?
The song is now perhaps best known for the Fun Lovin’ Criminals version, but back in the day, the Stafford-based UK blues band scored a fairly big hit with this sleazy classic. The rise of punk may have stopped their glossy tones in their tracks thereafter, but for a while, this song was rightfully booming with its long-locked brilliance.
63. ‘Going Down’ – Freddie King
It may well be one of the more well-known tracks on the list, but if you haven’t heard it then you’re in for one hell of a bone-shaking electric blues ride. Originally written by a band called Moloch in 1969, this was one of those songs that skirted about in the undergrowth, mutating with each new interpretation until it was transfigured into Freddie King’s definitive version. It might have allowed King to rub shoulders with Led Zeppelin, but it never garnered him much chart success.
The track is a pounding blitzkrieg of pure blues-rock energy, built around a riff that could shake a fleck of sirloin trapped in a molar loose. Frankly, there has never been a song more primed for a scintillating Martin Scorsese climax than this.
62. ‘You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman’ – Terry Callier
By the 1970s, the blues had just about been swallowed up by rock ‘n’ roll, but Terry Callier’s track is transportive to a simpler time, as it delves into the roots of jazz, blues and folk to imbue a rollicking bassline with earthy tones.
Taken from his 1972 record What Color is Love, the album was met with critical adulation, but commercially it totally flopped. Sadly it would seem that the Chicago-based singers stop-start career in music that dated back to 1962 meant it was difficult to amass a consistent following and drum up the necessary excitement to launch a record. Circumstance aside, the music that he produced was timeless, and this soaring piece of fire and brimstone blues embodies that.
61. ‘Squire’ – Alan Hull
His songwriting has been compared to Bob Dylan in a recent BBC documentary and he landed a few hits with Lindisfarne, but Hull’s solo work simply hasn’t received the attention that it deserved. Perhaps it was too quirky, perhaps it just didn’t fit into the right record racks, or perhaps the irony of his character studies were missed?
Thankfully, this is gradually being redressed thanks to folks like Sam Fender championing the local hero that went before him. The ‘Squire’ is a good place to start with Hull’s solo work, with a wry smile, he espouses the wit of a shifty dandy who requires property and wealth, and seemingly a refill of tobacco for his pipe.
60. ‘I Must Be In A Good Place Now’ – Bobby Charles
‘I Must Be In A Good Place Now’ is the musical equivalent of laughing gas, administered by a very laidback and silky-voiced dentist. The album artwork sees Bobby Charles reclining against a tree on a riverbank while a dog laps his face, and it couldn’t possibly be more fitting. This is how we all want our retirement years to sound.
Bobby Charles may well have featured on the iconic The Last Waltz bill for The Band’s farewell performance captured by Martin Scorsese, and rubbed shoulders with a string of other high-profile musicians, but he always seemed to be the bridesmaid and never the bride. After his self-titled debut in 1972, he didn’t release another record for over 15 years, and with peaceful ditties like this up his sleeve, that is quite frankly a sin.
59. ‘Only You Know’ – Dion
Dion’s work has gone on to inspire the likes of Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, but upon release, ‘Only You Know’ was panned towards the ash heap of history. Sure, the sound carries echoes of a bygone era, and the peculiar distant Phil Spector production gives it an odd air, but all of this surely only adds to the interest and lets the songwriting of Dion come to the fore.
His old work with The Belmonts had long been replaced at this stage by a more solemn and considered approach, but the old pop sensibilities of rhythm and performative bravura remain. This makes for a unique sound that proves hard to place in the best way possible.
58. ‘Water Get No Enemy’ – Fela Kuti
It is accepted by most people who have delved into Kuti that as well as being a bombastic character, he is an exceptionally talented musician. However, he is far from the easiest musical maestro to get into. His wild style can often produce wild results that bewilder rather than beguile.
Thankfully, his 1975 anthem ‘Water Get No Enemy’ proves to be the perfect starting point to pop on while you’re cooking, shake a few hips, and accidentally burn the house down. Beyond the toe-tapping rhythm is a terrific sense of atmosphere that offers up epic escapism and colourful joy.
57. ‘Such a Night’ – Dr John
Dr John was New Orleans Voodoo king. He took the blues and reincarnated the kaleidoscopic Haitian colours that helped to spawn it, in a throwback to a time when rhythm was near enough the central tenet of religion. ‘Such a Night’ is like Otis Redding’s Bay-based classic had it been set in the sultry streets of the French district instead.
The song ripples with laidback evening vibes, and an inherent sense of fun. Waltzing along on a mellowed bass riff, Dr John lends a Van Morrison-like vocal take and captures the fizzing feel of a hot afternoon in the city with a few funky denizens.
56. ‘Synthetic World’ – Swamp Dogg
Swamp Dogg has always had a cult following for his carefree ways and propagation of offbeat humour and eccentric promotional style. Recently, he has rightfully enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence, having worked alongside the likes of Bon Iver.
With ‘Synthetic World’ he achieves the sort of soulful swing so sweet and effortless that it is like cutting butter. The organ sound is euphonic and the melody waltz along with self-assured swagger. What’s more, it may well contain the best croon of the word “Bayou” ever put to record.
55. ‘Half Baked’ – Jimmy Campbell
As the post-modernists discovered, you can tell a story in more ways than mere coupling prose and narrative. Juxtaposition and playing with the form can add sparks that inform while they explode, as disparate tones meddle like oil and water. In this little-known break-up ditty, Jimmy Campbell takes that message to the extreme.
For the first section, he wallows in the melodrama of post-break-up despair, before immediately breaking into full rock ‘n’ roll swing. The belting chorus after that sobbing verse is like that text you get from a mate who has just split from his girlfriend and announces he has “ran to Windsor.” With only 1600 views, this song clearly hasn’t received the love it deserves, much like Campbell himself.
54. ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ – Idris Muhammad
‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ is a near-nine-minute odyssey that remains hot enough to fry an egg on throughout. The anthem pulls together jazz, funk and disco with so much artistic talent that it seems any sound that Idris Muhammad and his bandmates thought up was only an instant away from materialising.
The track may have received a sample inspired rebirth of late, thanks to the likes of Jamie xx and Nas, but sadly upon release reviews were inexplicably lukewarm. Whatever mystic factor kept it from reaching its rightful celestial heights originally have since well and truly eroded, leaving behind a symphonic masterpiece of pure musical elation, fuelled by the rarefied combination of incredible talent, soul-oozing sincerity and a keen eye for a groove.
53. ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ – Eddie & The Hot Rods
‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ is a song that embodies working-class vitriol. However, if you shut your ears off to the lyrics, you discover that beneath the blood guts and spilling spleen, there’s a reverie of melody that seems to capture the in-house nostalgia of memories not yet made, that sepia-toned sanguine feeling that seemingly abides through youth until those wistful daydreams never matched, crystalise as the real thing in the lines around the eyes of adulthood.
Although it is ostensibly a political song about the thankless grind of working-class life, the mantra seems to perfectly encapsulate the moral of Alan Sillitoe’s novel, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, which portrayed perfectly the blueprint the Hot Rods were working from: “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda. I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think or say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me. Ay, by God, It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop the bastard government from grinding your face in the muck.”
52. ‘Seabird’ – Alessi Brothers
Certain tracks just seem to have some unplaceable quality to them that predestines them for a more fitting rebirth. The idea that the subtle layered ‘Seabird’ was once underrated imbues it with something fittingly spiritual, as though it defined an era so clearly it was entirely transparent until the dust of nostalgia settled on it.
The track was released as a single in 1977 it charted at 96 in Australia and didn’t get a look-in anywhere else in the world. The brothers may have had a hit with ‘Oh, Lori’ later that year but the brilliance of its predecessor proves that sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
51. ‘Number One Song In Heaven’ – Sparks
“They don’t really look like a band,” British talk show host Jonathan Ross declares, “They just look like people who’ve been let out for the day.” The Sparks brothers are perhaps the weirdest duo in pop and when they teamed up with the ‘Godfather of Disco’ Giorgio Moroder they took their theatrical synth sounds to new levels.
The song is a fantastic toe-tapping journey into some of the campest synth music there is. The charm that pulls you through the mayhem is the witty lyricism of the songwriter and Hitler lookalike Ron Mael and his Marc Bolan-looking brother Russell.
50. ‘Sailing On’ by Toots & The Maytals
For my money, not enough time and effort has been poured into finding the perfect hangover cure. They are an awful affliction and without them, life would be infinitely improved. However, Toots & The Maytals have at least offered up a sonic balm.
The song is so sanguine in its flip-flop shuffling feel that it just makes any situation that little bit sunnier without ramming the good vibes down your throat and testing a sensitive gag reflex. I often don’t know what the hell Toots is saying, but I know for certain it’s beautifully carefree.
49. ‘Nobody’s Fool’ – Dan Penn
There was a certain sort of sound dominating studios in the early 1970s. It was a sort of layered symphonic AM-radio sound where horns and strings whisk in from nowhere and boy it was glorious. ‘Nobody’s Fool’ sees this quintessential ’70s music trifle at its absolute tastiest.
Often working behind the mixing desk rather than in front of it, Penn’s is a name that will crop up on many more vinyl sleeves than you’d imagine, from Aretha Franklin to the Box Tops, but this solo piece of slinky soul is a thing to behold.
48. ‘At Seventeen’ – Janis Ian
Relatability is a beautiful element and lord knows millions have felt the same as Janis Ian over the years. As she told songfacts of ‘At Seventeen’: “I never went to a prom, but I did go to my 6th-grade dance. That’s the trick, it’s just like acting. How many people are playing Hamlet whose father is a king? You take your own experience, find something similar in it and draw on that. Even though I didn’t go to the prom, I knew what it was like not to get asked to the dance.”
Far from infantile, the song has a timelessness to it making it a crutch for any generation to prop themselves upon when self-esteem might be dwindling. It is this air of vulnerability that gives the song its unflinching sincerity.
47. ‘Accidentally like a Martyr’- Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon’s third album Excitable Boy was a massive success thanks to the mammoth hit ‘Werewolves of London’ but hidden beyond the fun of the lead single was a slew of introspective songs that showed off the magnificent depth of his songwriting. With Jackson Browne co-producing and helping out on instruments, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie dropping in with rhythm section royalty and the likes of Karla Bonoff providing backing vocals, the record was always going to sound crisp.
However, ‘Accidentally like a Martyr’ it is one of only two tracks on the record for which Zevon gets sole songwriting credits. This level of separatist sincerity is palpable on the track. The musicology proves he is surrounded by stellar talent but it is the story he tells that shines through the brightest. The lyrics allure through the racket like Humphrey Bogart on the corner of some crowded bar, resulting in an unfurling melody with plenty of braced potholes along its memory lane.
46. ‘Shutout’ – The Walker Brothers
Scott Walker and his brothers knew how to capture an atmosphere (or rather ratmosphere) and they never did it by half. Taking inspiration from David Bowie’s Low and Heroes the Walker Brothers burst into some sort of dystopia with an adrenalised beat and Scott’s usual matador-like composed rattling of literary wordplay.
With a feel that is almost reminiscent of the film The Warriors, which came out a year later, there is a playfulness to the song that is almost always underreported when it comes to the wry smile of Scott Walker. He was not unaware of his brash bravura, in fact, he was basically in a boyband in the early 1960s so popular tastes and pop sensibilities were not lost on him and they forever remain somewhere in the vast cacophony of his output. Night Flights might be a near-mystic album, but the driving force behind tracks like ‘Shutout’ is rollicking rhythm.
45. ‘The Sound Of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter’ – Penguin Café Orchestra
There is no saying why, but this song coaxes so many paradoxical emotions, and that’s why perhaps the best I can do in terms of encapsulating its lucid empyrean magnitude is to bring in a David Byrne quote that sits somewhere in the ether of the song’s many conjurings.
The Talking Heads frontman once said: “I sense the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical, and poetic than we currently believe,” he once said, “but just as irrational as sympathetic magic when looked at in a typically scientific way. I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry–poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs–is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” And that just about sums her up wondrously.
44. ‘It’s Your World’ (Live) – Gil Scott-Heron
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became Gil Scott-Heron’s counterculture mantra. At the start of the live version for this track, he elucidates his philosophy in a laidback rally cry: “A lot of times people think something is being taken from them, they think their woman’s being taken, they think their money’s being taken. The question is whether or somebody has been taking your mind. Because we have a feeling that when you are free here [presumably points at his mind], and free will exists, there is always a possibility of becoming physically free, but it starts up here.”
Regardless of whether or not you go in for that sort of thing, it can’t be knocked that Gil Scott-Heron was out there like some musical renaissance, weaving art forms and social sagacity like a plate spinner, and as the Brian Jackson composition that backs him can attest to, he did it with more style than Jacques Dutronc in a Jean-Luc Godard movie.
43. ‘Cannock Chase’ – Labi Siffre
Labi Siffre is the ultimate artist known for the wrong songs. ‘So Strong’ and ‘I Got The’ may well be the big hits that brought him to public attention but it is his gentle folky guitar work that comprises most of his back catalogue and it is quite frankly a thing of thrillingly tender beauty.
‘Cannock Chase’ embodies his work. It is a transcendent song of sweet innocence, heart and sincerity that welcomes the sun in through the window. “There’s a bird in the tree singing his song, just for me / Just for me,” is the sanguine lyric that allegorically sums up the hymn to spiritual sunshine, the personal exultation that Siffre seems to have peacefully strolled into is ours to share.
42. ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ – Fanny
“They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time,” revealed David Bowie in an interview with Rolling Stone back in 1999. He even once sent a letter to the band detailing his admiration and looking back it is easy to see why he loved him. Their fearless full-throttle approach to playing is searing hot and the songcraft on ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ is sublime.
Whether the world wasn’t ready for women to rock so riotously or they were simply failed by fate is another matter, but what remains clear is that the seismic influence they had on the world of music and the epic records they produced, has never been reflected in any which way. ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ is a full-on fistfight of music, put forth by one of the very few true iconoclasts.
41. ‘Clean Up Woman’ – Betty Wright
In many ways, ‘Clean Up Woman’ is the quintessential ’70s R&B song. It features all the tropes from soft undercutting horns to searing diva vocals and all the rolling basslines in between. In many ways, if TLC’s ubiquitous ’90s hit ‘Scrub’ was born 20 years earlier, then this would be it. By no means does this mark the track out as unoriginal; it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but there’s scarcely a better ‘pre-night-out shower’ groove going.
After the release of the song, Betty Wright sadly seems to have been somewhat drowned out by a slew of bigger soul names, but this track shows why she should still be considered right up there. Soul was an empowering genre and the glowing feminity in this anthem is a testimony of the fortitude that bolstered the sonic flow with a hefty dose of substance.
40. ‘Sweet Song’ – Al Green
Nobody, not nobody sings them like the Reverend Al Green. He is a ‘soulman’ who could sing the phonebook and whilst of course you wouldn’t listen to it unless your mind had been warped and turned abstract like the concept of love, it would nevertheless be better than just about anyone else singing it and unique in all the world.
With that sort of voice, it’s easy to see why many of his silk-woven songs never became singles, but quite how ‘Sweet Song’ never made it off the cutting room floor is as inexplicable as your postman’s unwavering determination to always wear shorts.
With a very similar sound to that which was achieved on the gorgeous Gets Next to You record, it can only be assumed that this comes out of those same 1971 sessions, but it was never heard outside of the studio until the 1990 release of You Say It! Raw! Rare! And Unreleased!. Whether that means I’m taking a liberty by including it on this list is up to you, but I’m sure once you pour that spiritual syrup into your ears you’ll soon be forgiving. The only detraction from the wonderment being a lingering confusion about how someone figured it fitting to almost ascribe this one to the ash heap of history from which it thankfully now soars like a sexy phoenix.
39. ‘You’re Not Standing Like You Used To’ – Kate Wolf
Kate Wolf turned away from music in her late teens owing to shyness, but thankfully she overcame that in later years and offered up some stunning tunes in her career which was tragically cut short when she died of leukaemia at the age of 44. This defiance and humility seems to ingrain her songs with a retiring air that suits the folk genre like tailored Gingham.
‘You’re Not Standing Like You Used To’ is a track imbued with tenderised realism as Wolf tempers the heartache of seeing someone you care for spiritually slumped with a soft and caring hand that is reflected in her intoned guitar playing. This poignancy is coupled with a driving baseline that adds bulk to the beauty of the sombre song.
38. ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ – Nick Lowe
‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ is somewhat of an oddity. As Nick Lowe explains himself, “There’s one song of mine called ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,’ which was a fairly big hit in Europe, and people ask me for that sometimes, and I just don’t do it. It’s a really good record, but there’s not actually any song there. It was a half-baked idea I had when I went to the studio, and the bass player and drummer sort of put a little sauce in it.”
Continuing: “But if I played it with just an acoustic guitar, the audience would probably give me a little clap in recognition, but by verse two, they’d be looking at their fingernails, waiting for the next one. There really isn’t anything to it.” As a master songwriter, the bare bones of the song’s structure does indeed stand out from his catalogue, but there is no doubt something about the cobbled flourishes that give it a unique punk-jazz feel.
37. ‘Video Life’ – Chris Spedding
In a fitting segue from Lowe’s oddity, there isn’t much to the structure of Chris Spedding’s little known belter either. The triumph of the song exists in the rarefied reaches of energy and atmosphere. It achieves the alchemical feat of somehow revelling in the realm of nostalgia.
You can’t sit down and aim to write a track like ‘Video Life’ you have to catch the right whim of creative flow and hope that you can cling to its coattails as it mystically weaves a sense of shared memory into a melodious swirl of retrospective eudemonia. The famed Sex Pistols producer grasps this thistle of glossy-eyed youthfulness with two firm hands and doesn’t care to flinch.
36. ‘Magnet’ – NRBQ
Magnet is the perfect song. That is not to say it is the greatest song, but it is perfect in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be a chord, drum beat or note out of place. It is a piece of music that absolutely delivers everything it set out to, and what it sets out to deliver is a little slice of sunshine and happiness.
This little parcel of pop perfection, taken from the album Scraps, may well have flopped to such an extent that it’s not all that easy to find out about the band, which is an oddity given how easy-going and unchallenging the track is. Although they may have failed to capture chart success, they did bend ears in the industry and grasped the hearts of musical fans, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Dave Edmunds.
35. ‘It’s Alright to Cry’ – Rosey Grier
It’s the Pixar equivalent of a pop song. It might be aimed at pre-teen boys but like Haribo, kids and grown-ups love it so. A tale in the fashion of a Sesame Street sing-along that has a message perhaps even more fitting for the adult male – ‘it’s alright to cry, it just might make you feel better’. Far from just a novelty record, it remains an even more poignant message today in an era where suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
That’s a memo that was seized upon in the 2006 Ryan Gosling film Half Nelson that brought the song to wider attention. It is taken from the 1972 record and multi-media project Free to Be… You and Me conceived by actress Marlo Thomas. She convinced big stars of the day like Diana Ross and Roberta Flack to sing on the album promoting gender neutrality, individuality and tolerance.
Written by Carol Hall, ‘It’s Alright to Cry’ is the first song in the third act and Rosey Grier performs it with such sincere heart that it’ll perk up any disposition with its comforting reassurance. It’s a truly kind-hearted song with a frankly killer bassline. It will not only bolster any song collection with something a bit sweeter but hopefully, it might bring a smile when you need it most.
34. ‘Fallin’ in Love’ – Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds
In May 1975, a whole host of folks were puckering up in front of the mirror getting ready for a date night with the smooth tones of Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds spinning on their record players. The song still conjures that vignette to this day—you hit play and there is suddenly a puff of perfume in the air and the smell of lacquer in a disco perm.
With harmonies to rival any from the era, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds offered up a sort of Los Angeles brand of plastic soul that swayed with the same butter-cutting ease as the real thing. It’s a track so seamless that even the most ardent fan of Brazilian forro couldn’t begrudge its gorgeous blanketed tones and sultry seduction.
33. ‘Mind Your Own Business’ – Delta 5
A band with two bassists, one guitarist and nothing else is the perfect example of the rough and ready happening scene of the time. It was hip to be rogue and Delta 5 perfectly embodied that. The band consisted of an all-female line-up of Julz Sale, Ros Allen and Bethan Peters who were an integral part of a contingent of art instigators, along with Gang of Four and Mekons that emerged from the Leeds funk-punk socialist scene.
‘Mind Your Own Business’ is a pounding piece of low-end groove brilliance. The bass rumbles around to a high-hat tapping drum loop whilst the band members chant unsynchronised layered verse over the top. The song is a deadpan take on feminist sarcasm, “Can I have a taste of your ice cream,” they robotically yell like an incantation, “No, mind your own business,” comes the blunt answer.
32. ‘Duchess’ – The Stranglers
Although The Stranglers are one of the biggest bands from the period, their 1979 record The Raven is often unfairly maligned. The album may not have been their best of the era, but it still had some tracks that other bands would have killed for. It can snarl with the best of them in a slurry of attitude but it never lets that get in the way of the craft.
‘Duchess’ is a catchy piece of brilliance built around Hugh Cornwall’s brilliant knack of crafting a catchy chorus. The song is another example of the excellent musicianship that set them apart from the rest of the punk scene. The success of this single was sadly hindered by the fact that the BBC banned the video as they deemed it blasphemous for showing the band dressed as choirboys – how times change!
31. ‘The Lady With The Braid’ – Dory Previn
It is a song that tells a familiar tale – the subtle art of gently cajoling a dinner-date into a one-night stand. The nervous and frantic stream of consciousness moves from room to room and situation to situation with increasing desperation and perfectly observed fidelity to realism. “Would you care to stay awhile and save my life?” she quips, only to try and regain some composure by adding, “I don’t know what made me say that / I’ve got this funny sense of humour.”
The track is taken from the album Mythical Kings and Iguanas, which received critical praise and even relative commercial success upon release back in 1971 but seems to have faded somewhat into obscurity.
Aside from being a treat of utterly original and totally resonant lyricism, it is also a triumph of musical arrangement; the bassline waltzes us through the story, the delicate guitar picking adds the texture, while the meek but quietly dignified vocals perfectly play-off the theme, and the soaring strings spare everyone’s blushes. Whilst Bowie may have been breaking new ground on what a song could be sung about, this offers an honest and original twist on a timeless tale of tortuous courtship.
30. ‘Magnolia’ – J.J. Cale
‘Magnolia’ is one of the most romantic songs that there has ever been. It is so softly beguiling that it almost seems unfit to have been pressed onto something as bulky as vinyl. J.J. Cale may well have been declared by many musicians as one of the most influential guitarists of all time, but that says nothing of the gorgeous songwriting skills that he dispenses to dance on top of his gentle plucking.
Upon release, ‘Magnolia’ was usurped by its B-side, ‘Crazy Mama’, in terms of chart success, but in retrospect, it is easy to see why listeners championed ‘Magnolia’ ahead of it. It would seem that the song is simply too tender and dreamy to survive the raucous punch-up of the radio. If the track was any more tranquil, you wouldn’t be allowed to operate heavy machinery while listening.
29. ‘Shake Some Action’ – Flamin’ Groovies
‘Shake Some Action’ is a much-welcomed throwback tune to the melodic masterpieces of the mid-sixties early psych scene. It is a sound signalled by the title of the track, which originates from a line from the 1965 film None but the Brave. Interestingly it might have gazed back fondly on a golden age in 1976, but it still carries that same sense of nostalgia even now.
The song captures something unknowable in its driving rhythm; it sounds like youth gratefully being seized upon and thriving on the sanguine energy of a spiritual summer. There is more to ‘Shake Some Action’ than can be distilled from the study of its musicology or lyrics; its constitution captures something that we can only really call atmosphere without taking things too far into metaphysics.
28. ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ – Roxy Music
This is the sort of song that drives the getaway car itself. Brooding with a sound that Nick Cave later made gothic, it takes a trembling atmosphere and glugs gasoline over it. Somehow within Roxy Music’s gilded back catalogue, this masterpiece gets less recognition than it deserves.
The song teeters to a crescendo akin to heist movie heights. The guitar work is scintillating and the lyrical philosophy that gets you there is a piece of brilliance that often gets overlooked once the swarming tail-end really gets going. Similar to another Unlucky for Some classic by Aphrodite’s Child, this single has the sort of spine-shattering tingles that simply cry out for a cinematic visual accompaniment.
27. ‘Dayton Ohio, 1903’ – Harry Nilsson
With Nilsson Sings Newman, what you have is one of America’s greatest ever singers in Harry Nilsson singing the songs of one of America’s greatest ever songwriters in Randy Newman, and somehow it extends beyond the sum of its parts. Both artists share such an expert knowledge of their craft that they can afford to be naturally playful with it, and the result is one of the greatest records of the ’70s full stop.
‘Dayton Ohio, 1903’ stand out on the album as the epitome of what it’s all about. In less than two minutes it whisks up a lullaby that could rock a can of Red Bull to sleep, offer a hug to a cactus and gently blow the rain away from a wedding. Nilsson’s pipes are in perfect order, but they don’t have to be pushed to pretentious possibilities and Newman’s song is a thing of subtle self-contained perfection. A genuine gem for everyone to enjoy.
26. ‘Something on Your Mind’ – Karen Dalton
Karen Dalton is one of those unique musicians whereby you recognise in an instant who you’re listening to. Her style is inimitable, with abrasively soulful vocals and 12-string rhythms skirting around soaring violin sections. This sense of timeless authenticity ensured that she was a firm favourite in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil, but struggled to escape the congested insular world of folks underground.
‘Something on Your Mind’ is her most accessible piece taken from her ’71 record In My Own Time, and resides as a firm favourite of Nick Cave. The song worms its way through a medley of instrumentation to a state of bold deliverance from the tricky flippancy of the many potholes that the future throws up and makes a folly of all-too-quickly forgotten past.
25. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ – Ian Dury & The Blockheads
‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ might have been written in 30 minutes in earnest by Chas Jankel, but it was a song that Ian Dury had been cogitating on for about three years. Reflecting on the abuse he faced owing to his disability, the brilliance of the song is that it shrugs off the slings and arrows of torment in style and together with Jankel, they found exultation beyond circumstance.
With rose-tinted eyes, Dury turned a caustic tongue-lashing by an old lecturer who labelled him a lunatic owing to his polio into a wry triumph of defiant individualism as he delivers the line “It’s nice to be a lunatic,” in a style so cool that frozen cucumbers are in awe. The influence of the track still reverberates massively today, and it is high tide it is remembered as one of the finest from the era.
24. ‘Diamonds & Rust’ – Joan Baez
As Bob Dylan would exclaim recently on stage: “Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. A truly independent spirit, nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. For her kind of love and devotion, I could never repay that back.”
This very notion is what makes ‘Diamonds and Rust’ soar amid the pantheon of odes and breakup pines that music has offered up. If Dylan and Baez embodied that folk is about timeless universality, then the pastiche that Baez paints with her stirring epic is something that transcends the specificity contained within and arrives at the sort of allegory that anyone can connect with—even behind a tree long since felled the grass remains greener. Perhaps that is why the beauty of the pipe and slippers opus has only blossomed since it was released, even if it did somehow inexplicably fail to chart in the top 30 originally.
23. ‘Up The Junction’ – Squeeze
There is a place in any era for great storytelling and that’s what Squeeze provide with this classic from their iconic Cool For Cats record. Once again, the track may well be one of the better-known songs on this list but its place is warranted because as far as narrative songs go it is one of the greatest of all time and until it is widely held in that regard it can always be considered underrated.
Chris Difford’s Clapham Junction fairy tale gone awry encapsulates a work class story in the folksong style of old. He pens it, however, without cynicism or disdain and offers a semblance of hope via the contrastingly upbeat melody. It is a timeless classic that often doesn’t draw the plaudits it deserves because quite frankly Johnny Clash would be happy to sing this one.
22. ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ – Loudon Wainwright III
As arguably the most underrated songwriter of the 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III mastered the art of character studies. Always laden with charm and a sense of depth his best tracks are often comic tales of tragic souls judged without cynicism.
A case in point is ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’—the story of a poor soul whose life falls apart after his dog got run over, his wife left him, he got sacked, lost an arm in the war, his creative attempts were laughed at, and then he was innocently sent to jail. All the while he couldn’t cry. Then one day, he was shipped to a home for the insensitive and insane. Therein he cried for 40 days and 40 nights until he died of dehydration. If things sound dower, then the diegesis of heaven’s happy ending was always awaiting. From up in the firmament, he watches everything go his way. His creative works are now lauded and he is reunited with his arm and his dog.
It’s a tale that does what great artists like the Coen brothers have done with their joyful creations—it braces the inevitable tragedy of life with the cushion of comedy that allows us to exuberantly laugh in spite of it.
21. ‘Readers Wives’ – John Cooper Clarke
In John Cooper Clarke’s poetry, nothing is commonplace. A platitude is about as placeable – to put it in his own unique terms – as a scientific term for the back of the knees or Chinese cheese. His love poems mention leccy meters and if he ever penned a leccy meter poem it would no doubt mention love.
What exactly is a punk poet and is it reductive to call him one? Firstly, yes, he is, and secondly absolute not. He is a ‘punk’ poet for one very good reason—he exhibits the artistic tenet of individualism like no other, leaving the sonnets in song to Leonard Cohen, as Cohen has got the market covered anyway. But with an eye for the main chance, Cooper Clarke wonders who is writing songs about cheap cottage-industry porn mags? Well, I can give you one name: Dr John Cooper Clarke. And I can’t guarantee that it’s the best song about cheap cottage-industry porn mags, but I’d place a bet that’s in the top one. Just check out that beauteous piano, it’s up there with the chesticles of Crissy from Chester (March 1976 edition)!
20. ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’ – Moondog
Some songs can be described as hymnal, but ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’ is quite simply a hymn—albeit Moondog disavowed any traditional faiths when he was blinded as a boy when a bomb that he found in a field went off in his face, so there is no knowing who exactly it is a hymn for. Nevertheless, the same revered spiritualism soars throughout. However, what makes it all the more touching is the lack of dogma and solemnity, it is as spiritual as music gets (just about) but it is brimming with a sense of boundless life.
50 years ago, if you walked up New York’s Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Street, then the chances are, you would be greeted by the peculiar sight of a Viking simply standing on a box, holding a spear. Most of New York’s busy denizens simply absorbed this oddity as one of the city’s most eccentric vagrants and went on their way — completely unaware that this blind Norseman was quite possibly the greatest composer of the 20th century. Moondog was a true original, a hero and revered numen to boot, this song is his humble opus.
19. ‘Outdoor Miner’ – W.I.R.E
The music scene of 1979 was being heavily encroached upon by an explosion of British post-punk bands, twisting the energy of the CBGB boom with their own infusion of ideas. Written by Colin Newman and Graham Lewis, ‘Outdoor Miner’ appears on the second album of the eternally prolific but not always consistent genre-spanning band W.I.R.E.
The very notion of a track about an insect, or more specifically a Serpentine Leaf Miner, tells you a lot of what you need to know about the band. There is a distinct intellectualism behind the lyricism, but it is the swelling euphoria of the sanguine melody that passes the odd impetus off as post-punk poppy perfection. The song feels like an ‘80s indie movie if that’s not too much of a mad thing to say, complete with a glossy-eyed notion of green fields and youthful adventure.
18. ‘I Hear You Calling’ – Bill Fay
Bill Fay is another paradigm of why this feature exists. His work is now revered for its wholesome and wholehearted brilliance, but in a rounded encapsulation of life, he also has the wherewithal to temper his spiritualism with a smile. Fay is a wise old friend whose charm prompted the band, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, to chant, “And Bill Fay is my J.C Bose, Village fair hermit hair he’s my English rose.”
The line “All my time is lying on the factory floor” seems to hold the weight of a lifetime and sadly prognosticated a future away from music. That is until he graced Jools Holland and his crooked hands delivered a piano ditty that pried at the whys and wherefores of the unchanging world, but there is far too much beauty to the piece to be maudlin as he blesses listeners with a rhapsodic balm of catharsis that makes you almost gladdened that life is tragic after all.
17. ‘If I Could Only Fly’ – Blaze Foley
Sometimes the backstory and the song coalesce in such a way that both elements are imbued with an emboldened sense of poignancy. This is exactly the case with ‘If I Could Only Fly’ and the work of Blaze Foley in general. He was dubbed ‘The Duct Tape Messiah’ for the patchwork strappings that held his boots together and this urban cowboy’s legend is one that seems to have been weaved by some mystic figure of fate that meddles in the misfortune of folk forebearers.
The song is pure heartbreak hotel material. There is a raw, yet wistful pain to Blaze’s voice that synergises perfectly with the melody. It is a deeply sad song, but somehow it offers comfort too, and the lyrics at play are simply fantastic. Legendary songwriters like John Prine have admired his brilliance but few outside the Texan Outlaw scene have heard his work.
“You know sometimes I write happy songs, Then some little thing goes wrong, I wish they all could make you smile,” is the crystalised refrain of a lifetime in amber, and its humble majesty could haunt an empty mansion.
16. ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’ – Randy Newman
Randy ‘The Musical Dean of Satire’ Newman, the master of many Pixar movie musical moments, proclaims that he has only ever had a tiny global fanbase that fluctuates around a peak of 200,000 when it comes to his solo work. Taken from his masterful Good Old Boys album, ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’ is a solid introductory single that the wider public failed to pick up on.
With wry humour and even a laugh out loud moment for that matter, Newman achieves the rarest of all artistic feats by combining comedy and solemnity without either one diminishing the other. The result is the sort of perfectly melodic life-encapsulating masterpiece that makes many other works seem a bit one-track-minded in the belligerent way they go about things. As Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Everything about life is a joke. Don’t you know that?”
15. ‘Willow’ – Joan Armatrading
The fatuous field of love songs is crowded with cliches, but Joan sings of a love (or perhaps infatuation) so deep-seated that she’s willing to forgo her own desires to even make her man happy with another woman if that’s what it takes, proving that the phrase ‘I only want what’s best for you’, can, in fact, sometimes be genuine. The pastures of the soul-pop love ballad are bountiful but can bear such samey fruit, Willow stands aside from the welter of vapid platitudes as an act of total originality, making it all the more heartfelt.
Nick Cave is a man who knows a thing or two about songwriting and he says it’s all about counterpoint, “Putting disparate images beside each other and seeing what way the sparks fly.” Joan is in agreement and you’d struggle to find a more exacting moment of counterpoint in song than when she bears her vulnerability as a strength and cries out ‘I’m strong’ with just barely enough power to sustain the delicate but soaring note.
Willow was never released as a single, the album Show Some Emotion reached number six in the UK album charts and 52 in the US, but it soon slipped off the shelves and nothing released from it broke the top ten anywhere. It’s hardly the immediate pop hit that warranted a barnstorm but its bittersweet beauty is something to cherish.
14. ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ – Richard & Linda Thompson
Richard Thompson’s first effort with his then-wife Linda is one of those musical rarities that for some reason was a commercial failure and completely critically overlooked, despite being a retrospectively brilliant work. It’s not particularly challenging and the way it joyfully combines atmosphere with melody is a crowning feat, but for whatever reason, it flopped.
The peak point of the record may well be this simple grooving ditty. Its triumph exists in the fact that it perfectly sounds like pre-night out energy, as the title clearly intended. There is nothing worse than when a song sets out to deliver something and fails, but there is nothing better than when it effortlessly succeeds: ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ is a consummate victory. Mixing lyrics and sound in this cinematic sense to form part of an expressionist piece is not easy, even if Richard & Linda Thompson make it seem like popping a cork.
13. ‘Didn’t I’ – Darondo
Darondo has a voice that could shift clouds. On ‘Didn’t I’ his lived-in vocals purr with experiential perfection. At no point in the song is this utterly amazing vocal take anything less than utterly sincere, the impression that there is nothing performative about his soaring singing simply never dips. That is before you even get onto the groove, so silken and perfect that it could shake up and pour out the Negroni itself.
During the 1970s Darondo was a Bay Area numen, but like some spiritual deity, he seemed fated to stay there and never achieve global acclaim. This track sold 35,000 copies mostly in California and it was played extensively on local radio. But remarkably one of the greatest hard-luck soul songs ever written never seemed to travel.
Fortunately, Darondo doesn’t seem to have minded, he was content opening for James Brown and cruising around in a white Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, in his fur coat and snakeskin shoes. There are various stories of how that image came to be in Bay Area bars, but aside from that hearsay, Darondo is so cool on ‘Didn’t I’ that the vinyl itself seems to spin with a bit of swagger.
12. ‘It’s Not Easy’ – Ofege
On the liner notes to Nigerian band Ofege’s album Try and Love is the extraordinary story of how a group of teens made a chronically overlooked (at least globally) psychedelic classic.
“There was the school’s band with electric amplified instruments we would beg to be let into, borrowing their drummer who was bluffy all the time,” writes frontman Melvin Ukachi Noks. “In one of the times with the musical instruments, a shy, quiet, strange and completely unknown and unseen classmate of ours appeared from nowhere and sat on the drums and played. I was bowled over at the end of the song.”
The band then began to take shape and they ‘Ofeged’ (which means to go AWOL) from school. Ultimately, they ended up recording a classic that bristles with the charming refrain of “I want to lose my mind every day.”
11. ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ – Tom Waits
When it comes to his 1978 record Blue Valentine, Waits’ stripped-back tales seem to slur and stagger their way through the speaker, as beer breath wheezes from the laboured piano keys like the sound from a drunken accordion. It is a credit to Bones Howe’s minimal production that the songs seem to be recorded a million miles away from a studio despite the crisp audio. Of all these dive bar anthems, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ is one of the best songs Waits has ever written. And that makes it one of the greatest songs of all time, period.
In the song, Waits narrates a first-person letter from a prostitute to an ex. She writes of how she has fallen pregnant, cleaned herself up and is safe in a loving relationship. Then slowly details of how she still misses Charlie and thinks of him every time she drives by a gas station because of all the grease that slicked back his hair, reveal that all is not as it meets the eye. This funny unspooling story, the dogeared delivery that lends it an air of dogged realism, and the beautiful melody that makes books seem disgustingly silent, whisks up a work of art that you could drop a bomb into and never hear it hit the bottom.
10. ‘Going Back to My Roots’ – Lamont Dozier
I don’t say this lightly at all, but as far as hip snaking songs go ‘Going Back to My Roots’, even gives Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ a run for its money. It may be better known than a few other songs on this list, but for that aforementioned hip-snaking assertion it will never be well known enough. If you listen to this walking down a busy street it will have you snapping off double finger pistols and pirouettes like Peter Parker’s infamous Spider-man 3 evil dance scene or Alan Partridge at his cringe-inducing best.
The ’70s saw an increase in working hours, thus, disco flourished as the weekend tonic. It was the flipside of punk in an era that pioneered so many working-class developments in the arts. This track captures the Friday night feel and then some, guaranteeing it as spiritual medicine to remedy just about anything dower, not just as a cathartic release from the daily grind. Tragically Dozier’s Spotify only receives 50,000 monthly listens – I think it’s time to ‘recharge our collective souls’.
9. ‘To Feel in Love’ – Lucio Battisti
By rights, pleasant should be a platitude amid the superlatives we use to describe music at its finest, but pretence gets in the way of striving for something so simple and daft side-steps of dissonance and drab middle eights enter the mix. Battisti’s beauteous ode to the summery balm of being smitten is a triumph for note-perfect joy that flows with the same unimpeached exuberance as a beer garden IPA.
The musical contours of the track are secretly complex, but just as the science of bedsprings is lost on the sleeper, the dreaminess of this Italian anthem from 1977 sails as smoothly as a high-end yacht through the azure blue waters of the Amalfi Coast. Wind would flow through the locks of Bruce Willis and Genghis Khan could be calmed to acquiesce from pillaging and, instead, plunder the forever freebies of the sweeter side of life if only this song was blasted from the clouds as the theme-tune for another sanguine morning in loving utopia.
8. ‘Baby’ – Donnie & Joe Emerson
The music industry is an area fraught with so many circumstantial pitfalls that some tracks, no matter how brilliant they may be, never stand a chance. Donnie and Joe Emerson grew up in Fruitland, Washington, a place with a population of 751. You could just about fit the entire town on the same flight, thus, when it comes to gathering up the necessary organic hype to make a wider impact the brothers were heavily handicapped from the get-go. When ‘Baby’ was released and didn’t gather up much traction the boys simply had to jump back on the tractor and get back to work.
The song plays off this notion of small-town pop escapism perfectly. It couldn’t possibly be further away from the idea of a tireless working day. Certain songs act as the perfect sunshine accompaniment, but others pipe summer directly into your ears. ‘Baby’ schmoozes up to you in a sultry fashion, doles out a dose of Vitamin D, whisks up a sweet breeze and pops an ice-cold beer in your palm.
It is the sort of Valium-laden track that could subdue a riot and turn it into an orgy of spaced-out harmony, beautiful and brilliantly opulent. And quite simply, it is as sexy as music gets without coming off corny. This song was the perfect way to herald in the ‘80s and it was sadly failed by fate, until now.
7. ‘Cause’ – Rodriguez
Thanks to the wonderfully life-affirming documentary, Searching for Sugarman, Rodriguez’s music is little-known no longer. That being said, a list that delves into the golden year’s unchartered depths and doesn’t include a track from the man who formerly thought he hadn’t shifted more than about 10 albums would seem desperately incomplete. Rodriguez might not fit the bill anymore, but his initial failings were so symptomatic of an era congested with greatness, that it wouldn’t seem right not to squeeze him in given his incomparable talents.
As his old record producer, Mike Theodore, remarked: “With the exception of maybe Dylan, nobody was writing like Rodriguez”, leaving him flummoxed by the failure and listing hypotheticals like, ‘should it have been a harp and not an oboe’.
With lyrics like: “Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them,” or the tragic final line, “Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?” it’s easy to see how he was baffled by its failure. This poised poetry is simply as good as it gets, as Rodriguez crafted one of the greatest lyrical compositions ever put to record, imbued with an eery sense of its own fabled fate.
6. ‘Forget About’ – Sibylle Baier
Technically, Sibylle Baier’s songs were not underrated, they were merely sheltered from the gaudy light of the mainstream to preserve their pillow-propped belle in the beauteous comforts of stowed away box of nostalgia.
The German artist recorded the tracks on the album Colour Green using a reel-to-reel tape machine in her family home. The recordings themselves seem intimately wrapped in the duvet-trapped dreaminess from which they were conceived and chronicled. She handed out a few of these deeply personal tapes to friends and retired the masters to a box in the basement. Thereafter, she got on with the business of living. 30 years later, her son discovered the tapes and there’s simply no imagining the billowing of emotions and wonderment he experienced when he first hit that fateful play.
This song, in particular, is a singular masterpiece wrapped up in the miasma of sincerity and pleasure that surrounds it. Almost impossible to replicate owing to the gentle embalming of the backstory, it resides as a piece of music that genuinely seems to have been fished from the floating firmament—impossible to reproduce and entirely singular in its dainty humility. Love in the Shakespearean mainstream is all sunshine and rainbows, but for the most part, it is gas bills and cheap glasses of wine, Baier’s song proves the latter is just as romantic as we embrace the simple, glowing salvation of another from the dull drudgery of life.
5. ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ – Robbie Basho
Speaking of spiritual songs, Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ is so beautiful and reverent that I almost thought it was far too reductive to place it on a list, of all things. However, I ultimately concluded that if it brings the song to more people who need to hear it then my own consternation about sharing it in this way is pointless. I wouldn’t mention this personal fretting if it wasn’t an indicative measure of the song itself.
You might not like the song, it’s not for everyone, but I do believe that you will remember the first time you heard it. I also believe that you won’t have heard anything quite like it. And lastly, I can guarantee that some of you will fall into its snare as though you have been waiting to hear it all of your life. And that is just about the highest praise you can give a piece of music. This is someone reaching for the ether with absolute integrity and the song he casts down from that lofty height is an outstretched hand to his own exultant space, that is art in the truest sense.
Lesser known than his friend and contemporary John Fahey, Basho is an American primitive folk guitar hero who died tragically in 1986 at the age of 45. In that time, his music tapped into something that makes American primitive seem less like a genre label and more like a channelled soul. With a voice that harks back through eternities in a howling wolf-like fashion, the swelling brilliance of his sheer guitar mastery conjures up more than a man and his guitar should be able to contain, it’s as though he could stop his fingers and shut his mouth and the song would go on playing. I would apologise for it not being on Spotify for the sake of the playlist below but it almost seems fitting.
4. ‘Khala My Friend’ – Amanaz
In the midst of Zambian independence, a cultural revolution was born and a small group of miners and former colonial freedom fighters formed a band called Amanaz. Amanaz would record a song called ‘Khala My Friend’, which, to betray a personal opinion, is my favourite song from the continent. Sadly, however, it is also a record that mirrors the bittersweet reality of the scene itself.
The glowing brilliance of emergent Zamrock would come to an abrupt end. Zambia would be ravaged by HIV in the 1980s and nearly all the bands would die. In a country new to records, much of the music would die with it. Nevertheless, that ever-determined barnacle would still cling on and about five years ago the master tapes for Amanaz would be rediscovered and reissued, to be heard by the vast majority of the world for the very first time.
The melody jangles away in the background, instruments harmonise then pull apart like the best poetry where every word is somehow inevitable yet deeply confounding. And over this sweet sweeping serenity comes a voice that sounds so lived in, so caring and considerate, singing “the world is full of misery” and yet with the next line delivers the words “my friend” and “I’m gonna miss you” with such truth and such unabated soul-bearing, that it not only reminds the listener of what friendship, platonic or otherwise, can be, but it celebrates companionship with a splendour that rises above the malaise of the previous line towards bouyant euphoria.
3. ‘The Four Horsemen’ – Aphrodite’s Child
I urge you to listen to ‘The Four Horsemen’ all the way through, I urge you to picture yourself behind the wheel of a high-performance motor vehicle at 2am (perhaps in LA), and I urge you to play it loud. The full adrenalised sonic maelstrom of the song will do the rest.
Surely the only reason this epic hasn’t featured in an explosive getaway scene is owing to a chronic Aphrodite’s Child deficiency on the CV’s of soundtrackers the world over. It is Procol Harum’s ‘Conquistador’ on speed with biblical overtones in both senses of the word. What was best about the early ’70s prog and psychedelic guitar is perfectly embodied in the final rollicking crescendo that absolutely guarantees at least a few high-powered headbangs.
Whilst the Greek band may well have failed to reach dizzy global heights, a couple of its members may not be amiss to you; Demis Roussos went to have solo hits with disco epics like ‘I Dig You’ and a slurry of middling pop tracks while keyboardist Vangelis Papathanassiou thankfully dropped that surname and became the very same Vangelis who scored Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner among others. Regardless of what they did later in their careers, there is simply no topping this scintillating nearly-forgotten rock masterpiece that could summon a frantic surge of energy from a torpid turtle.
2. ‘Hit or Miss (Live)’ – Odetta
Odetta was a numen who bridged the gap between folk, blues, and soul; as a founding figure of the Greenwich Village scene from its late 1950’s outset, she was a prolific actress and such a key component of the Civil Rights Movement that she was dubbed the voice of it. With all that in mind, she’s hardly enshrined in history the way that she should be.
The above is a list of prominent engagements, but it says nothing of her voice and the near unrivalled amount of soul she pours into her art. There is no finer example of this fervent artistry than ‘Hit or Miss’, both in its performative expression and content. She booms out, “Can’t be nobody else / I gotta be me,” as she plays and sings like nobody else ever could.
Although he’s also said this concerning about ten other artists, Bob Dylan cites Odetta as the reason he ‘traded in his amp and electric’ and took up ‘folk’ back in the ’50s. And poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognise time.”
Thus, it is sufficient to say that Odetta has had plaudits both posthumously and in her performing heyday. Her influence is ubiquitous in both the fields where she plied her craft and society as a whole, but somehow, she never came close to breaking the top 10 of anything, anywhere. Such was her zest for creative output it would seem the success of the end result hardly mattered, but it is still a travesty, nonetheless.
Hit or Miss is a one listen track. Within a minute it’ll have you touting the trope ‘I don’t know what it is, but she’s got it.’ It does what a lot of the best folk songs do, it bristles with such defiance that you’re almost glad of life’s lows so that exultancy can lift you from them.
1. ‘Fallin’ Rain’ – Link Wray
Link Wray was the man who influenced Jimmy Page and Pete Townsend to pick up a guitar, Mark E Smith, the misanthropic frontman always short on praise, described Link Wray and Iggy Pop as the “only people [he] ever looked up to,” and Iggy Pop himself stated that Wray’s track Rumble changed his life. This adulation from contemporaries confirms his position as a rock music luminary, but for the most part, this has not led to widespread acclaim. Even John Lennon regarded him as one of “the great unknowns of rock & roll.”
After a string of releases in the ’60s following the 1958 success of ‘Rumble’, his self-titled 1971 debut with Polydor Records represented a slight departure from that rock-heavy sound. It was a departure that divided his small band of followers, and one which made Wray remark, “In a way, I couldn’t care less if the album didn’t sell a single copy. We’re happy with it and we’ve done it our way.” The change may have upset a few, but it undoubtedly resulted in some of his greatest songwriting and in ‘Fallin’ Rain’ perhaps his greatest song.
The track is an exercise in the difficult art of juxtaposition and one which achieves it with aplomb. The delicate and sweet melody and vocals sit in contrast to the horrors he’s singing about. This dichotomy brings to mind one of Wray’s more bombastic quotes, “God is playing my guitar, I am with God when I play”, the bittersweet sounds and distanced narration of hardships equally invoke the bombastic notion of a God lamenting a world gone awry and its beauties. It is this divinity and scope that makes it not just an unheralded achievement in sui generis ‘70s songwriting, but simply one of the greatest songs from any era, period.