"Serious" music fans/writers will tell you that the 1960s were better than the 1970s, and I'm not going to necessarily disagree with them. But anybody who tries to discount the 1970s as the beginning of the end of rock & roll can f*** off. There was a major critical backlash to "soft rock" that has stuck around for 40 years now, but we're finally getting a wave of younger musicians -- artists like Delta Rae and Milo Greene -- who realize that Fleetwood Mac and America were as important to the course of music history as anything the Who and Zeppelin released that decade. I'll put my money where my mouth is and say that Rumours is better than any single album Zeppelin ever released. Sorry, Zed heads.
Whether it was "yacht rock" or "prog" or "Laurel Canyon" soft rock, those artists never got the respect that their heavier peers did. Look at any list of the best albums of the 1970s, and minus Fleetwood Mac, it's heavier acts and punk acts and experimental acts. And that's great. I love Bowie's Low as much as the next guy, and London Calling is as essential an album as exists, but what about Tom Petty or Bob Seger or Steely Dan? They might not have had the essential albums that Bowie or The Clash did, but they have infinitely more memorable singles, and if you can't recognize the value of a great single, you have no business writing about or consuming music. Period.
And so I knew I had to put together a piece on the top 10 artists from the 1970s that were due for a major critical re-evaluation. So grab your acoustic guitar, hunker down by the beach, and sip on a mimosa. We're going back to the 70s.
Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show
I might be the only person on the planet under the age of 30 (besides my little sister) willing to ride for Dr. Hook, but here we are. If you know them at all, it's probably cause of Almost Famous where they sing "Cover of the Rolling Stone" but they have so many more hits than this. My dad had their greatest hits album when I was growing up (that's going to be a theme on this list), and there wasn't a skippable album on the whole record. Did you know that famous children's author Shel Silverstein wrote many of their songs? That will explain why you'll find their melodies and lyrics stuck in your head for days. If you want to woo somebody, toss on "A Little Bit More." It will help get you laid; I promise.
Three Dog Night
Here's a fun fact. Did you know that in the 1970s Three Dog Night were the highest grossing touring band of the decade? Now, nobody thinks of them at all except on the off-chance somebody starts singing "Joy to the World." But Three Dog Night were one of the last great hippie bands with an endless supply of singles: "One," "Black Or White," "Shambala." I have deep, personal memories attached to "Joy to the World." It's mine and my father's song. I can't hear it without thinking of him, but "Never Been To Spain" has been my favorite from the band since I was a teenager.
And we've arrived at "yacht rock," possibly the most vilified type of music this side of nu metal. But unlike nu metal which does deserve all of our scorn and more, I have to beg the question of what the hell is "yacht rock" in the first place? Rock with jazz influences? I get that Steely Dan was probably the favorite band of all of your least favorite yuppie friends in the 1970s but that's not a reflection on the band. Donald Fagen and crew were exceptional musicians. Listen to the guitar solo on "Reelin' in the Years." That's as good as anything Jimmy Page ever did. (I know it seems like I'm attacking Zeppelin a lot here, but I really do love them). "Dirty Work" uses liturgical organs. Bon Iver doesn't exist without that song or that band. And, I'll fight anyone who doesn't think "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" isn't one of the best songs of the 1970s.
The Doobie Brothers
Ah, the Doobies. I get the hate here. Michael McDonald's solo work is bad. "Ya-Mo Be There" might be one of the worst songs of all time, but, god d***, the Doobies make you forgive him for his elevator music period. "China Grove" has a hook that lodges itself in your brain for months. Michael McDonald's voice is easily one of the best of the 70s, and "What A Fool Believes" is one of the most gorgeous and atmospheric love songs of the decade.
I can already guess what you're thinking. "Tom Petty? Everybody loves Tom Petty!" Not really. There are wide swaths of folks that relegate Petty to "beer rock" and I know this to be true cause I used to be one of those people. And then I saw him headline at Bonnaroo in 2013, and it was a damn near religious experience. If you go to a Tom Petty concert, you're going to hear one expertly crafted rock song after another. Lyrically, Petty is the Bob Dylan of rock, and Mike Campbell is one of the most under-rated guitarists of the 70s. This man is a lot more than just "Free Fallin'."
Electric Light Orchestra
The big issue with ELO is that they've developed a reputation as a bit of a novelty band. They toyed with prog but then wrote transcendent pop songs about the sun coming out. "Mr. Blue Sky" is the best Paul McCartney song that Paul McCartney never wrote. "Don't Bring Me Down" is sexy blues/funk/rock. Jeff Lynne couldn't write a bad melody if he tried, and he has that rare gift to make every song he works on seem bigger than the Atlantic Ocean. He doesn't deal in small emotions or subtle melodies. And sometimes, a little bombast is okay.
America was doomed from the start. They wrote a song that became as iconic (and overplayed) as "Horse With No Name" that nobody remembers anything else the band ever played. "Sister Golden Hair" is a Southern California anthem. And I'll be damned if "Ventura Highway" isn't as good as anything Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young ever produced. If you want the perfect track for driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the top down, it's "Ventura Highway."
Gerry Rafferty is the whole reason this list is being written. One of our freelancers and I were having a conversation about something earlier today. Honestly, I can't even remember what sparked the conversation at this point, but it sent both of us down a rabbit hole of 1970s soft rock when she sent me Rafferty's "Right Down the Line." Odds are you know the sax solo from "Baker Street." Even if you don't know the song's name, you've heard that sax line. And "Right Down the Line" might be even better. The guitar tones on the track are deeply melancholic without being melodramatic about it. The track is catchy without sacrificing genuine emotion. If this is yacht rock, get me a membership at the yacht club tomorrow.
For what it's worth, the resuscitation of Jim Croce's legacy has already begun. Artists from Tobias Jesso Jr. to Father John Misty have started to sing his praise and for good reason. He was possibly the most criminally underloved lyricist of the 1970s. You know "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" but it's not particularly indicative of his understated touch. I was always a "Time in a Bottle" man myself. You should be too (although, "I'll Have To Say I Love You In A Song" also does the trick in a pinch).
This will probably the most controversial entry on the list. Bob Seger? The guy whose song was in all of those Ford commercials in the 90s? Yes, that Bob Seger. Pop in Seger's greatest hits album. It's ABSURD how many unimpeachable singles this man had. "Night Moves," "Turn the Page," "Hollywood Nights," "Old Time Rock & Roll," "Roll Me Away." He was an endless hit machine that got tossed into the same "beer rock" category as Tom Petty, and it's a damn shame, because there are few moments in classic rock sexier than the saxophone bits of "Turn the Page" or the way he works his voice into a religious fervor on "Hollywood Nights."