That '70s Playlist: Reviving an Era
Carlos Ballesteros | Sept. 16, 2016, 9:43 a.m.
A couple weeks ago, Beyoncé celebrated her 35th birthday with a Soul Train-themed costume party. Netflix’s “The Get Down,” a musical fable about the origins of hip-hop set in the South Bronx, has become the preferred method of procrastination for many. On any given day, platform shoes will grace the floors of classrooms, sidewalks, and dining halls across the 5Cs. San Francisco 49ers quarterback and political activist Colin Kaepernick is sporting an afro that looks like, as The Daily News put it, “straight out of an episode of ‘The Mod Squad.’”
In short, the ’70s are in.
The soundtrack to this cultural revival is Pitchfork’s “200 Best Songs of the 1970s,” released in late August. Voted on by the magazine’s full-time staff and contributors, the list is stacked with deep cuts, alt superstars, and relative no-names, taking the decade’s musicality back from the clutches of pop culture tropes and ‘old-school’ fanatics and to show just how funky, stellar, and fucking weird the ’70s truly were. While sometimes obnoxious—seriously, no Bee Gees?—the list does a stellar job at redefining the decade as more than just a cocaine-fueled disco dance party. (Don’t worry, there’s still a lot of that here.)
Kicking off the list from back to front is the title track off Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, released in 1979. By then, Faithfull, whose fame peaked during her relationship with Mick Jagger in the ’60s, hadn’t released a rock record in 12 years. She had also gone through long bouts of homelessness and drug abuse. Faithfull’s terseness in “Broken English” is a reflection of these struggles; in the first verse, she bemoans: “Could have come through anytime/Cold lonely, puritan/What are you fighting for?/It’s not my security.” The album cover—a hazy headshot of Faithfull covering the top half of her face with her forearm, cigarette in hand, faded in blue lighting—further cements her isolation.
The rest of the list’s rock entries reflect the genre’s evolution throughout the decade. Post-punk godfathers Joy Division grace the list twice with “Transmission” at number 10 and “Disorder” at 91. The Talking Heads’ signature new wave hit, “Psycho Killer,” which, at the time of its release in early 1978, was criticized for seemingly referencing the Son of Sam serial killings that haunted New York City a year prior, clocks in at 43. Punk, which took the first half of the decade by the balls, is given the respect it deserves with songs by the Ramones, X-Ray Spex, and The Clash cracking the top 50.
Classic rock enthusiasts are sure to scoff at the list’s lack of tracks from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones. (They combine for a total of six songs on the list, none of which are in the top 20.) Some music forum dwellers argue that Pitchfork is whitewashing the legacy of prominent white, male ’70s acts for the sake of—here it comes—political correctness. Why, they ask, does Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidanada” make the cut while “Stairway to Heaven,” “Paranoid,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” or anything off of Dark Side of the Moon doesn’t?
Cry me a river. Why would anyone—especially the notoriously pretentious Pitchfork—want to make yet another ‘best of’ list that celebrates artists that already dominate old school radio stations, man caves, T-shirt stands and poster sales? Instead, Pitchfork makes room for acts that were as influential as their more prominent counterparts but have been historically overlooked. Experimental kingpin Brian Eno, for example, graces the list twice, as does the late spoken word mastermind, Gil Scott-Heron. The list is also peppered with jazz, country, and even a surprising amount of Brazilian music.
Which brings me to the best part about the list: There’s no way in hell anyone could recognize all 200 songs, which means everyone gets a chance to learn more about the decade. To go through the list (available as a playlist on Spotify and Apple Music) is to immerse ourselves in a time and place that we think we know what it was all about—disco balls, bell-bottoms, baseball T-shirts, Star Wars, and hippies—and realize that it was much more. The list's top five songs are a solid encapsulation of the sounds of the '70s. From highest to lowest: “Life on Mars” by David Bowie (glam rock), “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson (late disco), “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (political R&B), “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer (early EDM), and Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (art pop). These five songs alone are enough to shut down anybody that refers to the decade as musically ‘static.’
The ’70s have longed influence the contemporary music. Hip-hop has sampled countless records from the era—Kanye’s “Touch the Sky” sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” being one my personal favorites—while indie darlings Mac DeMarco and Ariel Pink owe much of their musical aesthetic to the decade's classic pop songwriters. But while the ’70s will always be part of our cultural baggage, it’s newfound appreciation might not last very long. (The ’90s are no longer cool and it seems like the ’80s are on their way out.) So enjoy it while you CAN.