Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1971
If you ranked every year in rock & roll’s history for the sheer volume of incredible music produced, there’s a good chance 1971 would be at the top of that list. During this mixtape project, I’m assembling my 26 favorite songs from every year—in this case, a near impossible task. I cringe when I look at the incredible songs left on the cutting room floor. But I also made sure I didn’t include songs because I felt I had too. These songs are a true representation of the music I love, not the music you love. So many of these songs have become classic rock standards and it’s the song’s fault in every case—the artists involved simply created too great of a song to be ignored. Try to remember that prior to 1971 none of these songs existed. Now we’re reveling in the fact that they do exist. It may have been a shitty year for just about everything else, but in music, it was heaven (but not "Stairway to Heaven" which didn’t make the cut). Reminders: One song maximum per artist rule applies and songs are in descending order of preference for dramatic purposes.
26 "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" / The Dramatics
25 "All for the Love of a Woman" / William Bell
Spend some time spinning R&B records with me (you won’t be disappointed) and it won’t be long before I submit that William Bell is the most underappreciated soul singer of the 60s and early 70s. “All for the Love of a Woman” is one of his hottest soul sides and it’s certainly one of his most muscular. Bell tells us what a man will do for love throughout the song—kill for it, steal for it, cry for it, lie for it, and they’ll even do a dirty rotten deal for it—but it seems clear that the thrill of the chase could be clouding judgment here. Is love what men really want in the end? History tells us otherwise. Men like to conquer things and don’t often care who, or what, they leave in their wake during the pursuit. Thankfully, not many women consider first-degree murder an appealing romantic overture.
Speaking of romantic overtures, praise be the Dramatics, who show us how it’s done with their Motown via Stax paean to real love, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.” The song dismisses players who cheat at the game of love by professing to be the genuine article. (“Some people are made of plastic / Some people are made of wood / Some people have hearts of stone / Some people are up to no good”). William “Wee Gee” Howard brings this convincing plea on bended knee, “Baby, I’m for real! / I’m as real as real can get!” It’s a spectacular vocal, moving the Temptations sound down to Memphis for an application of some true Southern grit. But one nagging thought remains. If a guy says he’s for real, is it more, or less likely that he actually is for real? Isn’t claiming you’re for real exactly what a scam artist would say? After all, didn’t William Bell just tell us a few moments ago that men will lie for love? No wonder love is so complicated.
24 "River" / Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchells’ Blue doesn’t sound like any other record before or since its 1971 release. Picking a song to represent the album is like picking your favorite cube from a Picasso. It’s best to experience a work of art in its entirety. I went with “River” in the end because it’s the record’s most versatile song. It’s at the top of the list in many categories: breakup songs, songs about depression, songs about escape, beautifully written songs, and even “Christmas” songs, to just scratch the surface.
How can such a relatively simple song do all that? Let’s dissect it.
Clearly, the breakup is the song’s most overt theme. We all know a breakup can wreak havoc on every aspect of your life without regard for place or time (holidays included). It makes you want to just be alone and wallow in your sadness.
But in this song, Joni sings about how hard her man tried to help her (a number of famous musicians rumored to be the subject). She also speaks of how hard she is to handle, how selfish, how sad. This indicates that awareness of her depression came before the breakup, not as a result of it. She has caused her own loneliness, poetically manifested as a long skate down a frozen river, but she knows her problems are first in her head and extend downward to her heart.
The song also works as an all-purpose escape song for those moments where we want to be anywhere but here (here being wherever you’re at at the moment). And is there a better way to do that than a liberating skate down a frozen river in the middle of nowhere?
Which brings us to the song’s beauty. The melody, the singing, the imagery—it’s all there. Christmastime, pine trees lining a river, perhaps snaking through mountains, and a solitary young lady skating fast, free, and alone through the curves and swerves of a frozen river. Now there’s a painting I’d want to have over my fireplace. The song takes me there in my mind.
Which brings us to the most interesting use for Joni’s song—as a Christmas song (it’s been included on many Christmas compilations despite not really being a Christmas song at all). Yes, the song takes place in December and makes a reference to folks putting up decorations, but it’s far from the typical feel-good Christmas carols you’ll find playing in bustling department stores. But then suddenly, it all makes sense; Christmas isn’t a happy time for many people. With non-stop images of families gathering, good will toward men, Christmas parties, and songs of joy, an alternative Christmas is needed (no, not Festivus) for those who find Christmas to be the most melancholy time of the year. No wonder the album is called Blue.
23 "Locomotive Breath" / Jethro Tull
I’m not going to dwell on it, but how is Jethro Tull not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Inexplicable! In 1971, the Tull brought us their masterpiece, Aqualung, from which came their steampunk masterpiece “Locomotive Breath.” (Locomotive breath being a known side effect of aqualung syndrome along with dry mouth and night sweats). While we’ve been flooded with enough train songs to back up Grand Central Station for months, how many locomotive songs can you name?* Some might lump them into the same category, but I beg to differ. Trains in general are often romanticized as symbols of freedom, vehicles for separation, means for reunion, and signs of prosperity (Atlas Shrugged alone included all of those metaphors and more). They carry lovers, soldiers, lunatics, lost souls, the eternally damned, and the U.S. Mail alike. But they’d all get nowhere without a locomotive to facilitate the process—no locomotive, no fucking train, people! Jethro Tull’s chugging, belching, menacing “Locomotive Breath” changes all that. It evokes imagery from the industrial age—a trail of thick, black smoke (aka breath) tracing its progress as it violently cuts a path through the countryside, smashing through anything in its path like Snowpiercer! We had to make up Superman to find something stronger than a fucking locomotive! The locomotive is one badass motherfucker, and contrary to popular opinion, that image is not tempered one bit by the presence of a flute solo mid-song.
*The following artists have a song named “Locomotive”: Guns N’ Roses’, Rancid, Miranda Lambert, Motörhead, Thelonious Monk, and few other lesser known artists, but you get the picture. I didn’t allow “Loco-Motion” into the discussion because it’s technically has no relation to a locomotive, rather the ability to physical move from one place to another.
22 "Hocus Pocus" / Focus
If ever there was an instrumental made for a killer mixtape it’s “Hocus Pocus” by Dutch prog rock band Focus. The original madcap version featured here was first released in 1971, but it was only after a highly-edited version (reduced from 6:43 to 3:19) dominated radio in 1973 that the song became a Top 10 hit in the US. I’m pleased the song finally got the attention it deserves, but one listen to the vastly superior long version is all you’ll need to curse the day radio edits became a necessity.
Here’s what you get with the full-length version:
1. Four times the yodeling: One of the greatest, and most unexpected, parts of the song is tragically limited to only one mountaintop yodel solo in the radio edit. That’s simply not enough.
2. Four times more operatic falsetto: What makes this song a mixtape delight is that you not only get your yodel on, but you also get to break your most ridiculous falsetto out of its mothballs.
3. So many drum fills and solos your steering wheel could need replacing by the end.
4. A flute solo that would make Ian Anderson proud.
5. Approximately 15 seconds of demented psychobabble cut from the 1973 single.
6. No reduction in accordion and whistling solos.
7. And, perhaps most importantly, you get more than double the Jan Akkerman guitar solos, the best of which are left off the truncated radio version. At its core, this is a guitar song. You can add all the yodels and whistles and flutes you want, but without Akkerman, the song has no focus and certainly no hocus pocus. And that’s no Oarfolkjokeopus.
21 "The Wind" / Cat Stevens
"The Wind" blows for under two-minutes on side one of Cat Stevens’ hit 1971 album, Teaser and the Firecat,* and serves as an introduction of sorts to the a more spiritual phase of Cat’s career (we didn’t know how far he would end up taking that spirituality, however). It tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the artist in but a few choice words. Its simplicity is its greatest beauty, and has been adopted by many, including myself, as a quiet mantra of sorts, one yearning for inner peace, craving spiritual guidance, emotional healing,or some other shit like that.
*One of several horrific album titles from Stevens’ early 70s discography that included Catch Bull at Four, Tea for the Tillerman, Mona Bone Jakon, and Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Drugs, the usual explanation for such things, wasn’t in play for Stevens in his career, so it was done with a clear head and sound mind, believe it or not. On a flipside note, Teaser and the Firecat contained three hits—"Moonshadow," "Morning Has Broken," and "Peace Train"—all from side two of the LP, an occurrence that has to be rare, but I’m unwilling to research.
20 "So Far Away" / Carole King
She did the smash. She did the monster smash. In 1971, 99% of operational turntables spent a good portion of their year spinning Tapestry, Carole King’s multi-platinum album released in March. To this day, it ranks as one of the most omnipresent components of any self-respecting record collection. If you don’t have it, don’t panic. Just follow these simple instructions:
1. Hang your head in shame for 24 hours (we’ve got to humiliate you first—it’s part of the process).
2. Then, order the record from Amazon (preferably on vinyl). It will arrive in a plain brown package, so only a clairvoyant UPS man will ever know it contains an album you should’ve bought decades ago.
3. As an option, but only for the bold, go to a record store and buy a copy. Simply provide the clerk, as casually as possible, a plausible disclaimer like “My last copy finally wore out!” or, “My three-year-old son used my last one as a Frisbee.” Any plausible excuse acceptable.
4. Slip acquired record into your “collection” unceremoniously.
5. From this point on, you may join the ranks of the condescending elite and act like you’ve had the record forever. Feel free to express disgust with anyone anytime you note its absence from their collection.
Tapestry is an “OB” album—Original Blockbuster—loaded with great songs to choose from, so there’s really no going wrong in making a choice as your favorite. If you’re like me, you tend to gravitate to the song that does the most yearning—in this case, "So Far Away," the universal placeholder for long-distance melancholy for almost 50 years running. If you’re in the mood for some mind-blowing romance, "I Feel the Earth Move" will rock your world. If heartbreak, mismatched socks, and a gallon of ice cream are on your menu, "It’s Too Late" will commiserate with you like a sympathetic friend. If you need a shoulder to cry on, "You’ve Got a Friend" is waiting to console you. If you’re more in the mood to mow down a congregation of churchgoers with a shotgun—"Smackwater Jack" has you covered, too. This record, quite simply, does it all.
19 "Hard Times" / Baby Huey
“Hard Times” is a cult classic in soul music circles. Baby Huey was a huge man (350-400 lbs), nicknamed after the giant duckling featured in Paramount cartoon shorts in the 50s (see photo), and
was, predictably, baby-faced. Featuring one of the greatest backing band names ever, the Babysitters, James Ramey was a frontman who packed a thundering gut-punch of a voice. "Hard Times," written by fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield, is the most powerful moment from his short career (he died of a heart attack related to a nasty drug habit in 1970, and his one and only record was released posthumously). It’s a classic period piece that would’ve fit on any number of Superfly-esque soundtracks in the 70s. The song has been sampled many times since and remains a strangely affecting, largely unknown, artifact from the glory days of gritty soul. The Roots with John Legend on vocals covered the song to great effect on their 2010 album Wake Up!, but seek out the 1971 original and let the hard times roll.
18 "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" / T. Rex
Originally titled “Get It On,” but altered to avoid confusion with another song with the same title, which to me seems like divine intervention and begs the question: What song wouldn’t sound cooler with “Bang a Gong” as part of its title anyway? A few examples:
“(Bang a Gong) Let’s Get it On”
“London Calling (Bang a Gong)”
“Your Song (Bang a Gong)”
“My Generation (Bang a Gong)”
“The Sound of Silence (Bang a Gong)”
“Anarchy in the UK (Bang a Gong)”
“(Bangin’ a Gong On) The Dock of the Bay”
“You Shook Me All Night Long (Bang a Gong)”
It’s foolproof. Thankfully, the original gong song was this sexy, grooving, glam-rock masterpiece. The gong, much maligned in rock and roll over the years as a sign of unnecessary bombast or spectacle, gets its redemption here. Bang a gong (put it on).
17 "Imagine" / John Lennon
I went to a Lutheran high school that featured, prior to the day’s general announcements, a devotion designed to get our day off on a spiritual note. Most of us used the time to tune out for five minutes or doodle band names on a spiral notebook (full disclosure: that was me). Most of the teachers who hosted the devotion read a short spiel from a generic book filled with “inspirational” vignettes (Footprints in the Sand, to our disgust, was used multiple times every year), but some wrote their own or used the time for a short sermon on a topic of their choosing. One day, one of our religion teachers took it upon himself to pronounce select lyrics from John Lennon’s “Imagine” as blasphemous—an example of the decline of western civilization and of music in particular. It caused a shit storm. The teacher was mocked by the masses, taken to task by other teachers, and lost any credibility he had among the students. Ironically, his liturgy highlighted the exact opposite of what he intended. If anything, the song made people think—atheists, agnostics, and the devout, in equal measure. It also made people realize pop music could be used as a vehicle for high-minded ideas and as the basis for philosophical debate. Could a song really do that? “Imagine” helped me see the truth firsthand.
16 "What’s Going On" / Marvin Gaye
If you want to know how much creative capital Marvin Gaye earned in the 60s, all you need to do is spend some time with What’s Going On, his breakthrough record from 1971. It’s notable mostly for being far outside of Berry Gordy’s strict business model. In the 1960s, Motown was meticulously calibrated to be a hit machine and it was so well-oiled, it generated an average of eight Top 10 singles per annum over a ten-year period. And Marvin Gaye was the smooth cat responsible for an impressive percentage of the proceeds (15%+). What’s Going On was the result of Marvin demanding some latitude to record an album with complete creative control (reminiscent of what Isaac Hayes did at Stax in 1969 when he released his masterpiece Hot Buttered Soul). The result was an album now revered as one of the greatest ever made. The title track’s familiar opening is so immediately identifiable, it simultaneously recalls a moment in time and seems timeless—as applicable now as it ever was then, unfortunately. Which is as impressive as it is heartbreaking.
15 "Theme From Shaft" / Isaac Hayes
I’ve always found it interesting that despite this song’s flattering portrayal of John Shaft as a bad ass, sex machine, intriguingly complicated danger junkie, the singer actually seems more of a bad ass, more of a sex machine, and more of a complicated, ballsy man than the fictional character himself—and the script writers got to make up anything they wanted! In the early 70s, Isaac Hayes was the original Most Interesting Man in the World—complete with a vest made of gold chains, a teal, fur-lined Cadillac El Dorado with 24K gold plating (with built-in refrigerator and TV), and probably the best bald head of all time (for proof see cover of Hot Buttered Soul). Fuck, he released an album called Black Moses and nobody (except Hayes himself initially) checked in with claims of blasphemy. Most just nodded and said “That’s about right.”
14 "Melting Pot" / Booker T & the MGs
It’s a tragedy that Melting Pot was the final record from the original lineup of Booker T & the MGs. Stax was having all kinds of troubles at the time to the extent that their house band was growing disillusioned with the label’s direction. Booker T split for New York and Steve Cropper fled to L.A. Somehow the two still got together one last time with Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. for a final record. And it’s the greatest, most ambitious MGs record of them all. Although it’s hard to fathom that the heart of Stax, the greatest soul label in history, was now beating elsewhere, the record is proof that 926 E. McLemore Avenue in Memphis wasn’t the only place where magic happened for Stax. Melting Pot is an amazing record front to back, and its title track, at eight glorious minutes, is easily one of their greatest recorded achievements, highlighting everything that made the band’s sound so distinguishable. Not worried about cutting singles anymore or contributing to songs for a stable of new Stax talent, they stretched their legs and let the tape roll late and long this time, eschewing the usual short format of their past work ("Green Onions" would’ve gone on for an hour if I had any say in it). Here, we get a master class from Al Jackson, Jr. on drums, a thrilling performance worth the price of admission alone. Steve Cropper adds his legendary minimalist guitar jabs, but he’s been given more space to work with this time. Duck Dunn’s bass playing is just sick. And band namesake Booker T’s Hammond B3 is, as always, heaven on earth (few things on this planet sound better to my ears). But sadly, this was it—a heartbreaking end. Al Jackson, Jr. would be murdered four years later, so a full reunion was out of the question from that point on. Like Led Zeppelin losing John Bonham, the band could never be the same without him. At least they went out on a masterpiece, a record that never gets the credit it deserves.
13 "Respect Yourself" / The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers always voiced a desire for societal change in their music, whether it was channeled through their early gospel records or their more sociological and political sides from their second incarnation in secular music. While Marvin Gaye was asking “What’s going on?” the Staple Singers started preaching “How can we fix it?” And the answers weren’t always what their congregation expected, or wanted, to hear—they got some hard truths, albeit served on a deliciously funky platter. “You’ve Got to Earn It,” “We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Together,” “Got to Be Some Changes Made,” “Tend to Your Own Business,” and their signature classic “Respect Yourself” all professed sentiments that personal dignity must come before anything else. And people bought it by the truckload.
12 "Family Affair" / Sly & the Family Stone
“It’s a family affair.” How many times have we heard some PR representative invoke this plea, in some form or another, on behalf of a public figure in crisis in recent years? I say, why bother crafting new language for such moments? Just bring in the funkiest public relations firm ever assembled, Sly and the Family Stone, and drop the needle on this track.
11 "Can You Get To That" / Funkadelic
In my opinion, side one of Maggot Brain is the greatest album side Funkadelic ever recorded. It’s anchored by the ten-minute title track, featuring a mind-blowing Eddie Hazel guitar solo that continues to astound nearly fifty years later. It is, without a doubt, the most jaw-dropping song released by Funkadelic in 1971. It’s also ten minutes long and one of those tracks that doesn’t work as well out of context—once you’re on the mothership, it’s best not to de-ship prior to landing. So, instead, we move to one of Funkadelic’s greatest single-length grooves—a song so cool it was sampled by Sleigh Bells on their debut hit, “Rill Rill,” from 2010's Treats, and was also covered to great effect by none other than Mavis Staples on her 2013 record One True Vine. The groove infectious, the bass backing vocals priceless, and the message still resonates today, “When you base your love on credit/And your loving days are done/Checks you signed with love and kisses/Later come back signed ‘Insufficient Funds’.” I know you can get to that.
10 "Tired of Being Alone" / Al Green
Even atheists have to admit that if any viable argument could be made for the existence of an omnipotent being, Al Green could very well be exhibit A. Possessing a voice seemingly channeled from a higher power, blessed with a soul that radiates joy from every pore, and driven by a heart open to the world, Al Green is, as one of his album titles suggests, LOVE. When we listen to his secular work, the presence of his God is rarely far off from the core of his music. With a few select edits—replacing a “girl” here with a “Lord” there, slightly revising a stanza, or changing a pronoun—almost any of his songs can be transformed from radio hit into gospel hymn. “Tired of Being Alone” works as a heart-felt plea for the return of his girl and, with a few tweaks, could be transformed into a story of a man trying to get right with God. As to its original intent, only Al Green and perhaps one other, know for sure.
9 "Groove Me" / King Floyd
There have been countless B-sides that have turned out to be hits in rock and roll history, but there are few more inexplicable choices than New Orleans native King Floyd’s pelvis thrusting “Groove Me” playing second fiddle to A-side “What Our Love Needs,” a generic, rhyming-dictionary, paint-by-numbers love ballad of little consequence whatsoever. Compare for yourself—you will be dumbfounded. King Floyd may have been a one-hit wonder, but his one hit is among the most wondrous of all-time.
8 "Tupelo Honey" / Van Morrison
“Tupelo Honey” is one of the great American love songs, which is ironic, considering that it was written by a notoriously temperamental Irish crab-ass. For me, this song has always been about feeling and mood more than lyrics. Actually, if you read the lyrics out of context, you could dismiss some of them as a little medieval compared to current societal trends. “Men with insight/Men in granite/ Knights in armor/Intent on chivalry” is a bit Renaissance Fair for my taste. It’s also the only great song I know of that drops the words “smack dab” into its lyrics (“You can take all the tea in China…Drop it smack dab into the deep blue sea”).* All is forgiven in the end, because Van is a soul artist at his core and soul is all about feel and passion. And why would you want to quibble with lyrics when someone is trying their best to express their love for another person with such convincing passion and heart.
7 "Maggie May" / Rod Stewart
When is the last time you heard a hit song with a short instrumental etude attached before the actual song starts? There’s no time in our ADD culture for such detritus anymore, but back in 1971, "Maggie May" was ushered in by a beautiful little guitar intro that more often than not gets skipped when played by radio stations.* Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, one of the era’s undisputed front-to-back masterpieces, features an attention to detail that often goes overlooked and unappreciated. But it’s the little things like that intro that make the record great. Maggie May is a wistful, tawdry-but-true story about Rod’s May-December tryst with an older woman way back in 1961. That tryst may have “lasted about 28 seconds,” to quote Rod, but it’s the lay that lasted a lifetime for the rest of us. Interestingly, Maggie May was slated as the B-side to “Reason to Believe,” so, despite its classic status now, others didn’t view it as such then. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could hear Maggie May and relegate it to flipside filler, but sometimes it’s hard to see such things in the moment. Oh, and the signature mandolin solo at the end of the song? It was done by a session bloke named Ray Jackson who made fifteen English pounds for his contribution, got no album credit, and now runs an art gallery and paints old buses for a living.
*Similar to the acoustic intro to “American Woman” by the Guess Who, that also gets routinely skipped when played on the radio, despite it being one of the coolest parts of the song.
6 "Sway" / The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers finds the Stones right in the thick of a five-year period where the title World’s Greatest Rock & Roll band was being earned on a day-to-day basis. They were on one of the greatest creative streaks in rock history, their live shows literally brought out the dangerous side of rock and roll (for better or substantially worse), and their decadent lifestyles miraculously kept up the pace at dizzying speeds. It’s no surprise that Sticky Fingers is considered one of the ultimate sex, drugs, and rock & roll albums. “Sway” is a song of reckoning. It had to happen, or maybe it needed to happed. Featuring one of the great opening lines, “Did you ever wake up to find/A day that broke up your mind/Destroyed your notion of circular time/It’s just that demon life has got you in its sway.” If you ever fantasized about what it’s like to be living in a crossfire hurricane, “Sway” gets us pretty close to the answer. But would I still do it? Damn right I would.
5 "Sam Stone" / John Prine
“Sam Stone” is most famous for its chorus, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose” and that’s rightly so—it’s a soul crushing line as provocative as it is devastating. It demonstrates John Prine’s songwriting genius in a nutshell. But what comes next? The next two lines are often overlooked. “Little pitchers have big ears/Don’t stop to count the years.” My guess is that these lines are a direct response to the preceding lines. I’m reading it to imply that Sam Stone’s habit, one he tries to hide from his kids, is actually well known in the household. The old phrase “little pitchers have big ears” means despite being presumed too small and immature to understand, children hear and see things we don’t realize that are potentially damaging and certainly life changing. “Don’t stop to count the years” seems to be telling us that Jesus’s life was cut tragically short (whether truth or fiction) and the life of a junkie is equally short in many cases so counting years is meaningless. The final line is equally heartbreaking, “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.” I’ve never read an official interpretation, but I assume it’s an analogy for Sam Stone’s damaged mind. Life is supposed to be sweet, but his time in Vietnam has permanently re-wired his mind to the point the only way to dull the pain is to self medicate. As we find out, it’s a recipe for disaster. So how great is this song? We’re at the end of this essay and we’ve only discussed five lines of its chorus.*
*Perhaps the most difficult task on this whole list was picking “Sam Stone” over so many Prine classics from his debut album. It was a multi-song tie for first, but I had to choose one.
4 "Ain't No Sunshine" / Bill Withers
I’m willing to bet very few of you will disagree with me that “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a classic love song. The question is “How did he do it?” Bill Withers wrote the greatest song ever about lost love in just 163 words, 50 of which are the repeated words “I know” (113 remain) and 36 of which are the title phrase “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” So, with the remaining 77 words he gives us the rest of the story. To give you and idea of the economy of his writing, I’ve already written 101 words at this point and I’m not close to being done! In truth, the 50 “I know” words were all improvised, placeholders for words to be added later, so he didn’t even “write” them in the traditional sense. But, when the song was demoed, the part was kept as is—with the understanding that when you’re in mourning, sometimes there are no perfect words to express your grief. The repeated words only reinforce the feeling of despondency. The genius of the song is how quickly the listener is brought into his world. There’s no setup, no backstory, no relationship details. It’s a hard cut right to the saddest part of a movie and you’re right there listening with a sympathetic ear. We don’t actually know if he deserves his fate (perhaps he cheated on her or did something else to force her hand), but I’m thinking most give him the benefit of the doubt because they’ve been in, or witnessed, his situation before and know exactly how he feels. Just thinking of this song makes me close my eyes for a few moments.
3 "Tiny Dancer" / Elton John
I’ve always adored Tiny Dancer, but I’d be lying if I told you my affection for the song was as deep before it was used to brilliant effect in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous. The scene features fictional band Stillwater and their entourage traveling to
their next gig on a beat-up old tour bus after a period of tense infighting. Seemingly at an impasse, Tiny Dancer begins to play. Elton John’s indelible melody immediately seems the perfect tonic for the troops. Bernie Taupin’s poetic lyrics, known by all, offer an opportunity for everyone to connect with each other indirectly. They can all sing along separately, but together, without formally having to mend fences. Then the realization comes that it was music that divided them, and it is music that may be the only thing that can bring them back together. It’s so poignant; it’ll make any music lover warm all over. It’s one of the most magical musical moments in film history. Every time Tiny Dancer comes on the radio, I relive the moment.
2 "When the Levee Breaks" / Led Zeppelin
Like an angry giant thundering down your street, a swimming pool filled to the brim with boiling mercury, an army tank plowing through enemy lines, or, uh, a levee breaking, "When the Levee Breaks" is a heavy, potentially destructive, mutant blues capable of collapsing chest cavities, rattling bones, and dislodging fillings. It defines everything Led Zep was all about: the thunder of Bonham, the earthquake of Jones, the wail of Plant, the domination of Page.
1 "Won’t Get Fooled Again" / The Who
In 1970, this song doesn’t exist. In 1971, it does. There are some songs that are so epic* that we almost forget they had to be written in the first place, so entrenched are they in the rock and roll lexicon. It’s much easier to understand the creation stories of most Top 40 hits—a few minutes of easily digestible music mostly about love to which we can all easily relate. Then there are monster songs like Won’t Get Fooled Again—high in concept, dramatic in execution, mindboggling in structure—that make everything else look like child’s play. There are very few of these songs that exist that will blow your mind each and every time you hear them. Think of the Great Wall of China. You could visit 100 times and still be awed by it in some way. You can approach Won’t Get Fooled Again from any angle, and it’s a masterpiece from every one. (I always thought it was a missed opportunity to call this album Who Won't instead of Who's Next, especially considering its centerpiece song.)
*"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin (also from 1971); "Jungleland" by Bruce Springsteen, "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc.
See you next year, but which year is anyone's guess.