Friday, January 28, 2005


One of the things I love about the old-school Top 40 era is the whiplash-inducing variety of music radio stations were likely to play. In the early 80s, I once worked at a place where it was possible to go from Frank Sinatra to AC/DC to Kool and the Gang to Willie Nelson without breaking format rules: "New York New York," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Celebration," and "Always on My Mind" were all part of the rotation, and in different categories, so they could theoretically come up in sequence. The Billboard chart from this week in 1974 is similarly able to make you need a neck brace. To give you the full effect, we need to do the whole Top 10, and not just the customary Friday Five.

10. "Americans"/Byron MacGregor. The famous spoken-word catalog of American virtues, declaimed by the longtime Detroit radio news anchor to patriotic accompaniment. Originally written and recorded by a Canadian broadcaster, the catalog resurfaced in the wake of September 11 as if it were brand new, and probably will again the next time Americans get to feeling down on themselves.

9. "Time in a Bottle"/Jim Croce.
I am mildly surprised this song never became like "Yesterday," which is one of the most oft-covered pop songs of all time. This had the same classic feel back in the day.

8. "Let Me Be There"/Olivia Newton-John. In which Olivia, whose only previous hit had been a breathy cover of Bob Dylan's "If Not for You," began her ascent to superstardom. She would win the CMA's Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1974, to much country consternation.

7. "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"/Brownsville Station. Which would make a deeply weird segue into or out of nearly everything else in this week's Top Ten.

6. "Love's Theme"/Love Unlimited Orchestra. Dave Marsh says that MFSB's "TSOP," which would top the charts in April 1974, is what disco sounded like when it was still in the test tube, waiting to be unleashed. I think Marsh missed by three months. Orchestra leader Barry White was probably the only man on Earth who could take a group this big and make it sound both sexy and soulful.

5. "The Joker"/Steve Miller Band. A stoner classic, but a complete momentum-killer on the radio, then and now. Nevertheless, a sign that the Top 40 had come off the bottom it scraped late in 1973 and that mass taste was starting to improve.

4. "I've Got to Use My Imagination"/Gladys Knight and the Pips. Not since their early hit version of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" had Gladys and the Pips got this far down.

3. "The Way We Were"/Barbra Streisand. If it hadn't existed, we would have had to invent it--the classic movie and song about nostalgia for lost love. The 45 version that got radio play has a different vocal than the album version, which is the one you are most likely to hear now, whenever you hear it.

2. "Show and Tell"/Al Wilson. Al channels Johnny Mathis here, on yet another huge hit originally intended as a B-side. A song called "Queen of the Ghetto" was supposed to be the hit.

1. "You're Sixteen"/Ringo Starr. The Beatles broke up in 1970, but Starr's 1973 album Ringo was as close as we had come to a reunion, with John, Paul, and George all contributing, and Paul providing the mighty kazoo solo here.

Honorable mention goes "Until You Come Back to Me" by Aretha Franklin at Number 11, perhaps the most gorgeous record she ever made; "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder at Number 12, one of the most ferocious grooves ever recorded, and because this list is all about contrasts, "Are You Lonesome Tonight" by Donny Osmond at Number 16.


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