Project X: Sucking In The Seventies

Brian Raftery | April 16, 2007 - 2:56 am

We here at Idolator are obsessed with charts: Sales charts, best-of charts, even charts that chart other charts. In an attempt to keep track of all the rankings and reports that are compiled on a daily basis, we’ve asked Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos to break down charts from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he finally answers the question: What was the worst Billboard singles chart of the ’70s?

Project X: The Best and Worst Billboard Top 10 Singles of the 1970s

On Dec. 19, 2003, Salon ran a piece called “Rock’s Greatest Week,” in which Eric Boehlert named what to his eye and ear were the greatest and worst Billboard Top 10 Albums lists of all time. I have trouble believing I could find lists as apt as the ones Boehlert chose. Best was December 20, 1969: Abbey Road, Zeppelin II, Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, Creedence, Stones, Santana, and Temptations at No. 1-7 is incredibly strong, even if you don’t think much of Blood Sweat & Tears or Crosby, Stills & Nash at 8 and 9. (No. 10 is Easy Rider, again hard to argue with.) Worst: September 2, 1989, with Richard Marx, New Kids, Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli, Skid Row, Gloria Estefan, and Don Henley all slicing away at the merely meager charms of Fine Young Cannibals and Tom Petty–not to mention Prince, who was by then at the Batman-soundtracking tail of his gargantuan decade-long creative streak.

Whatever my reservations with Boehlert’s writing itself (good reporter, soft critic), his conceit was genius. And since I happen to own a copy of Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Hot 100 Charts: The ’70s (a Christmas gift–thanks again, Mom), I decided to steal it from him. After all, if Boehlert had fun with albums, I can have fun with singles. And since I only have immediate access to one decade’s worth of lists, why not do it that way? So I will. The ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s will wait until I get the books. For now, let us proceed to the ’70s.

My initial idea was to choose a best Top 10 hits list for each year. Systematically, I began noting them for 1970, ’71, ’72–solid, not stunning: seven good songs per list, not bad but not earth-shattering, either. Then I got to October 13, 1973:

1. Cher, “Half-Breed” (MCA)
2. The Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man” (Warner Bros.)
3. Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (Tamla)
4. Stevie Wonder, “Higher Ground” (Tamla)
5. Rolling Stones, “Angie” (Rolling Stones)
6. The Isley Brothers, “That Lady” (T-Neck)
7. Paul Simon, “Loves Me Like a Rock” (Columbia)
8. Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Buddah)
9. Eddie Kendricks, “Keep on Truckin'” (Tamla)
10. Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band” (Capitol)

That’s not merely strong; it’s almost unbelievable–I doubt even the ’60s high week will match this list. Even with “Half-Breed,” this Top 10 is, piece by piece, better than Boehlert’s beloved albums list. Right: “Half-Breed” is precisely as garish/mawkish as you remember it, though its cheese is chewier than a lot of similarly misshapen current hits. There’s something fitting about it appearing next to “Ramblin’ Man,” too: Cher and Gregg Allman were married (and divorced, within two weeks) around this time.

Numbers 2 through 10 of 10/13/73 aren’t just uniformly good; they’re uniformly classics. The degree to which this is true is arguable; the absolute strength of the songs, bunched up together like this, is not. For my playlist, I even used the single edit of Eddie Kendricks’s “Keep on Truckin'” instead of the flabbergasting 12-minute remix from Soul Jazz’s compilation A Tom Moulton Mix. (Moulton’s mix didn’t appear commercially until last year, and I wanted to hear this stuff as it sounded on the radio back then, more or less.) Hell, that week’s No. 11, the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can-Can,” was another great one.

I didn’t begin by looking for Worst lists. I just attempted to find something to equal 10/13/73. Up to that date, nearly every Top 10 had between four and seven good records. But as I kept going, I began finding Top 10s with only two or three good ones. It kept getting direr, until I began hitting bottom, or near-bottom, with alarming frequency.

By the time I’d finished the book, I’d found four separate lists–each separated by a minimum of 13 months–so staggeringly awful (with at least a dozen runners-up) that I knew I couldn’t trust myself to distinguish between them. So I set the question to a dozen or so friends and colleagues: If you have the stomach, rank these lists from worst to least worst. I tallied the responses in numerical terms, and present them to you in reverse order.

Least-worst: July 5, 1975
1. The Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together” (A&M)
2. Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony, “The Hustle” (Avco)
3. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Listen to What the Man Said” (Capitol)
4. Michael Martin Murphey, “Wildfire” (Columbia)
5. Major Harris, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” (Atlantic)
6. Pilot, “Magic” (Capitol)
7. Jessi Colter, “I’m Not Lisa” (Capitol)
8. Linda Ronstadt, “When Will I Be Loved” (Capitol)
9. Eagles, “One of These Nights” (Asylum)
10. Olivia Newton-John, “Please Mr. Please” (MCA)

Probably the most beloved item here is No. 6, but the thought of it mostly just makes me want to buy air freshener. Two of my voters, Alfred Soto and Rickey Wright, stand by the McCartney but I say screw him: just-OK Wings (and Ronstadt) turns to mulch in this company, especially with that weedy sax. Colter may have run with the Outlaws, but this song is utter sap. So is the Major Harris, one of the most desultory slow jams in R&B history. So is ON-J, even more than usual; so is everything after the utterly amazing intro of “The Hustle.” (As Peter Shapiro describes it in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, “elevator music.”) The Eagles are the Eagles. The Captain & Tennille begin a run of three appearances in the Worst nominations–more than anyone except Barbra Streisand. Shockingly, the song I was happiest to re-hear from this list is “Wildfire.” It’s sap, all right, and I’ve tried my best not to let nostalgia have its sway with me here. (If anything, I did the opposite.) But some combination of deep-seated memory and that guitar part (prettier than I remember) got to me. This list received zero votes as the worst, and frequently finished fourth in all-list rankings.

Second-Least Worst: November 18, 1978
1. Donna Summer, “Macarthur Park” (Casablanca)
2. Foreigner, “Double Vision” (Atlantic)
3. Ambrosia, “How Much I Feel” (Warner Bros.)
4. Anne Murray, “You Needed Me” (Capitol)
5. Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (Columbia)
6. Nick Gilder, “Hot Child in the City” (Chrysalis)
7. Exile, “Kiss You All Over” (Warner Bros.)
8. Gino Vannelli, “I Just Wanna Stop” (A&M)
9. Kenny Loggins & Stevie Nicks, “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend'” (Columbia)
10. The Captain & Tennille, “You Never Done It Like That” (A&M)

Of the data-mongers I tapped for this exercise, Rob Sheffield was the most thorough, breaking each list down from “great” to “worst” to “depends on my mood/memories/medication.” Only Sheffield named 11/18/78 the worst of the four: citing only one song as great (“Hot Child in the City”), none as good, and asking if “How Much I Feel” is the “worst song of the ’70s,” then answering his own question: “Probably.” Michael Daddino begs to differ, calling “How Much I Feel” “mush I can commend”: “Its deep feeling is expressed so boringly I can read depression in it, much like I can read sadness in the affectlessness of synthpop vox.”

Besides, “I Just Wanna Stop” is far more hate-worthy than Ambrosia’s hit. So are a few others; this is one sorry list. I’m saddened to see Donna Summer here, with the worst hit of her classic period. Anne Murray sounds so sincere I want to not find the song revolting, but no luck. “Kiss You All Over” is even skeezier than my memory had it; a lot less disco, too (the 4/4 kick only really shows up with any force during the chorus it takes forever to get to; the rest is soft-rock bleh). “You Never Done It Like That” captures its makers at the height of their hardcore period, which leads us to another question: Has there ever been a young, public couple you wanted to imagine having sex less than the Captain & Tennille?

Second-worst: July 30, 1977
1. Andy Gibb, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” (RSO)
2. Peter Frampton, “I’m in You” (A&M)
3. Barry Manilow, “Looks Like We Made It” (Arista)
4. Barbra Streisand, “My Heart Belongs to Me” (Columbia)
5. Shaun Cassidy, “Da Doo Ron Ron” (Curb)
6. Emotions, “Best of My Love” (Columbia)
7. Peter McCann, “Do You Wanna Make Love” (20th Century)
8. Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville” (ABC)
9. Rita Coolidge, “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” (A&M)
10. Pablo Cruise, “Whatcha Gonna Do?” (A&M)

This list is the red herring of the bunch, because it has the one obviously great record on all of them: the Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” Any list with that song has to be pretty terrible to make as many stomachs turn as this one did: 7/30/77 was several voters’ pick for Worst. Robert J. Myers, who reviews Billboard’s current Top 10 every week on his blog, The Illiterate, wrote, “The top five is one inducement to diabetic coma after another, and then to look further down and find Peter McCann and Rita Coolidge and Pablo Cruise–ugh. Thank God I’d found out about punk a couple of months before. I’m not sure I’d have survived the summer otherwise.”

“There’s only one African-American artist on that list–in fact, they’re all pretty bleached out,” Michael Daddino notes. Not to mention: “1977 has a preponderance of songs with gently prancing piano chords taking center stage, possibly the primary (and laziest) signifier of pop meaningfulness and deep feeling of the last few decades.” The most egregious offender of this latter device is probably “Margaritaville,” the tune cited by both Jess Harvell and J. Edward Keyes as the reason they chose 7/30/77. Rickey Wright, meanwhile, points out another trendlet within the Worst nominees: “I somehow knew that one of those dire 20th Century Records pop things–‘Do You Wanna Make Love,’ ‘I Like Dreamin’,’ ‘Sometimes When We Touch’–would somehow figure here.”

Finally, without further ado:

Worst Top 10 list of the 1970s: December 15, 1979:
1. Styx, “Babe” (A&M)
2. Commodores, “Still” (Motown)
3. K.C. & the Sunshine Band, “Please Don’t Go” (T.K.)
4. Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (MCA)
5. Stevie Wonder, “Send One Your Love” (Motown)
6. Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (Columbia/Casablanca)
7. J.D. Souther, “You’re Only Lonely” (Columbia)
8. The Captain & Tennille, “Do That to Me One More Time” (Casablanca)
9. Eagles, “Heartache Tonight” (Asylum)
10. Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home” (A&M)

There was really no contest here. Well, actually, there was: numerically, 12/15/79 received only two more points than 7/30/77. It didn’t matter, though: the later list, the second-to-last of the decade (there was no list for 12/29/79), evoked a passion the others lacked. “This takes it in a cakewalk,” wrote Nate Patrin. “The stuff I thought might be tolerable is execrable, which magnifies the decrepitude of the rest.” He singled out “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” as the backbreaking straw: “While it’s not #1 here, it’s still quite possibly the worst #1 ever.”

“Only the Commodores track (which isn’t all that great) keeps it from perfect garbage,” wrote Rod Smith. “Ew ew ew,” wrote Douglas Wolk. “Thank you for this brief trip into horror.” (Rob Sheffield, naming 12/15/79 his second-worst list, asked an historical query: “How is there nothing from Off the Wall in this Top 10?” Answer: “Rock With You” was No. 12 that week.)

Indeed, the voters had a point. K.C. and Stevie and Donna are three of the ’70s’ best singles artists, but their showings here are godawful. The Captain & Tennille continue their candlelit-Skinemax shenanigans; the Eagles are at their most frat-boyish. The distressed harmonica of “Take the Long Way Home” may be the sickliest instrumental tag of any of these Top 10s. When J.D. Souther makes the most respectable piece of music of the list, there’s no doubt you’ve found the winner. Or loser. Or both.

Project X takes a critical look at a different Top 10 list biweekly. Suggestions can be sent to