25 Greatest Songs That Are Turning 50 Years Old This Year
Jim Croce at an Ireland concert, 1973 - Dexmusic / Youtube
The 1970s was a period marked by considerable turbulence, spanning the conclusion of the Vietnam War to the emergence of personal computers. It’s not surprising that the music of this era reflected a similarly dynamic and chaotic atmosphere.
During the early ’70s, the music scene served as a melting pot where diverse genres such as rock, reggae, funk, and pop could coexist. This era demanded innovation, prompting artists to break away from conventional norms and explore more daring and unconventional avenues.
Genres like punk and funk gained prominence, filling the void left by the decline of psychedelic music that had characterized the late ’60s and establishing themselves as the quintessential sound of the early ’70s.
These songs, each turning 50 years old in 2023, represent a diverse spectrum of emotions and musical styles.
From Stevie Wonder’s joyful celebration of love in “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to the high-energy rock anthem “We’re an American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad and the carefree dancing of “Dancing in the Moonlight” King Harvest, these tracks remind us of the depth and enduring appeal of music from the early ’70s. They continue to resonate with listeners, offering a timeless connection to a bygone era.
25. “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston (March 1973)
In March of 1973, the music world was graced with the infectious grooves of “Will It Go Round in Circles” by the talented Billy Preston. This song was an instant sensation, thanks to its irresistible and funky rhythm that had audiences tapping their feet and swaying to the beat.
Billy Preston’s spirited performance breathed life into the track, which was from his album Music Is My Life, infusing it with an energetic charisma that was hard to resist.
The song’s essence is one of pure joy and exuberance, and its memorable melody invites listeners to join in on the dance floor. “Will It Go Round in Circles” epitomizes the musical spirit of the early ’70s, a time when artists were pushing boundaries and experimenting with innovative sounds.
24. “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John (November 1972)
Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”, which adorned the airwaves in November 1972 from his album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, is an irresistibly catchy and timeless rock ‘n’ roll anthem.
This iconic track encapsulates the spirit of carefree joy and exuberance that defined the early ’70s. With its lively tempo, infectious melody, and whimsical lyrics, it became an instant favorite, capturing the hearts of listeners young and old.
The song’s upbeat and energetic rhythm beckons people to the dance floor, while Elton John’s vibrant performance infuses it with a vivacious charm that is hard to resist. “Crocodile Rock” has proven to be one of those rare songs that effortlessly bridges generational gaps; its enduring popularity is a testament to the universal appeal of Elton John’s music.
23. “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross (May 1973)
“Touch Me in the Morning” is a well-crafted ballad that Diana Ross recorded under the Motown label and released in 1973 from her album of the same name. During the course of that year, it achieved the remarkable feat of becoming Diana Ross’s second solo chart-topper on the Billboard Hot 100, securing the No. 1 spot.
Ross’s vocal prowess shines brightly in this track, her voice a vessel that carries the profound emotions embedded within the song’s lyrics. The singer has always pushed herself too hard to achieve the soulful delivery of the song and has even been known to get emotional when she wasn’t up to her abilities.
This Diana Ross classic, which speaks to the universal experiences of affection, separation, and the yearning for reconnection, remains an enduring masterpiece that holds the power to stir deep emotions and forge a connection with listeners who appreciate the depth and sincerity of Ross’s artistry.
22. “Shambala” by Three Dog Night (May 1973)
“Shambala” is a song written by Daniel Moore and gained widespread recognition through two covers that were almost simultaneously released in 1973. The more famous of the two was performed by Three Dog Night and climbed to the No. 3 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The other rendition was delivered by B. W. Stevenson and released a week before Three Dog Night’s version.
This spirited and uplifting track, which draws inspiration from a mythical place referred to as Shambala, alternatively spelled as Shamballa or Shambhala, carries a message of peace and enlightenment.
The song’s catchy melody and harmonious vocals invite listeners to join in, creating a sense of unity and positivity. With its infectious optimism, “Shambala” remains a feel-good anthem that brings a smile to the faces of those who hear it.
21. “Loves Me Like a Rock” by Paul Simon (July 1973)
“Loves Me Like a Rock” is a 1973 hit by renowned singer-songwriter Paul Simon off his third studio album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, which saw its release under Columbia Records. A distinctive feature of the song is the captivating background vocals contributed by the Dixie Hummingbirds, a gospel group hailing from the American South.
Although the lyrical content doesn’t typically align with the conventions of gospel music, the Dixie Hummingbirds were enthusiastic about collaborating with Simon, prompting them to record their interpretation of the song shortly thereafter. Their rendition found a place on their own 1973 album titled We Love You Like a Rock/Every Day and Every Hour.
The song, a soulful and uplifting song that captures the essence of familial love, soared to great heights, achieving the remarkable feat of reaching the number two position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Additionally, it garnered substantial acclaim in Canada, securing a spot in the top five.
20. “Brother Louie” by Stories (August 1973)
This soulful composition was first brought to life by the British band Hot Chocolate in 1973, a masterpiece by Errol Brown and Tony Wilson, produced by Mickie Most. Its narrative delves into the complexities of an interracial love affair, centering on a white man and a black woman who face rejection from their respective parents due to their relationship.
“Brother Louie” found its place at No. 7 on the UK Singles Chart, but it was the American cover by the Ian Lloyd-fronted Stories that achieved even greater acclaim, soaring to the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States. Its immense popularity translated into over one million copies sold, earning the coveted gold certification as recognition of its remarkable sales achievement.
This catchy anthem, with its upbeat rhythm and sing-along chorus, easily became a fan-favorite for both fans of the bands, showcasing the popularity of the era’s pop-rock sound.
19. “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul (September 1972)
“Me and Mrs. Jones” is a soulful masterpiece of a ballad from 1972, co-authored by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert, and originally brought to life by the talented Billy Paul.
The song, propelled by the velvety vocals of Paul, found its place as a chart-topping sensation, achieving his only No. 1 single on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, maintaining its dominance for an impressive three weeks in December 1972.
This classic, which narrates the tale of an illicit love affair between a man and his paramour, the titular Mrs. Jones, contributed to Billy Paul’s accolades, as he clinched the Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male at the 15th Grammy Awards.
18. “Danny’s Song” by Anne Murray (December 1972)
“Danny’s Song” is a heartfelt love song by Anne Murray, released in December 1972, off her album of the same name. Interestingly, it was a cover of an equally famous song released the previous year by Loggins and Messina.
Singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins wrote the song as a gift for his brother Danny for the birth of his son, Colin. Murray was a fan of the version, but it took on a deeper significance after the birth of her first child a few years later.
Her interpretation of the song featured slight alterations, omitting two verses from the lyrics and adopting a different key compared to the Loggins & Messina original. This version quickly gained popularity, making its mark on multiple Billboard music charts in early 1973.
17. “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson (April 1973)
“Why Me” is an American country and gospel ballad that found its origins in the creative mind and heartfelt vocals of the distinguished American country music singer and songwriter, Kris Kristofferson. It was the biggest hit of his career.
Released in 1973 through the album Jesus Was a Capricorn, this classic embodies the raw emotion and storytelling prowess of country music, and it features the harmonious backing vocals of his soon-to-be spouse, Rita Coolidge, and the then-emerging singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin.
The song was written by Kristofferson during a challenging phase in his life, during which he attended a religious gathering presided over by the Rev. Jimmie Rogers Snow. Kristofferson grapples with his inner demons, not of drug-induced euphoria but of the excesses and hedonism characteristic of the 1960s using his gravelly vocal style.
16. “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder (October 1972)
This timeless Stevie Wonder composition made its debut on October 24, 1972, taking center stage as the lead single from his fifteenth studio album, Talking Book. “Superstition” quickly soared to the top of musical charts, clinching the number-one spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, his first number-one single since “Fingertips, Pt. 2” in 1963.
“Superstition” also earned Stevie Wonder two Grammy Awards, including “Best Rhythm & Blues Song” and “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the 74th greatest song of all time in November 2004.
Wonder created this funk-infused masterpiece with the help of English guitarist Jeff Beck, who was a fan of the former’s work. Beck came up with the drum beat between album sessions, and as they continued playing, Wonder spontaneously improvised much of the song, including the memorable riff. This collaborative synergy between Beck and Wonder resulted in the creation of a rough demo for “Superstition” during the session.
15. “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” by George Harrison (May 1973)
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” is a captivating musical creation by the former Beatle George Harrison. This soulful track found its place as the opening piece on his 1973 album titled Living in the Material World.
It was also designated as the lead single from the album, with its release in May of the same year, and went on to achieve the remarkable feat of becoming Harrison’s second chart-topper in the United States, following the success of “My Sweet Lord”.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, a reflective and spiritually resonant song that conveys a desire for inner peace and harmony, is undoubtedly one of George Harrison’s most beloved compositions, both among his devoted fanbase and music critics. It is distinguished by a series of highly acclaimed slide-guitar solos, a signature of Harrison’s musical prowess.
14. “If You Want Me to Stay” by Sly and the Family Stone (June 1973)
“If You Want Me to Stay” is a chart-topping single from 1973 by Sly and the Family Stone, prominently featured on their album “Fresh”. Sly Stone took the reins during the recording, with minimal input from the other band members, something that he has been doing since the early 70s.
Reviewing the song, Record World described it as both peculiar, in line with Sly Stone’s distinctive style, and commercially appealing. “If You Want Me to Stay” sees frontman Sly Stone candidly communicating with his lover, conveying the importance of allowing him to be true to himself, as he contemplates the possibility of departing from the relationship.
Stone’s unique vocals and the band’s tight instrumentation in this groovy masterpiece create a captivating blend of funk and soul.
13. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder (March 1973)
1973 was a great year for Stevie Wonder, as he scored his third number-one hit (his second within a year after “Superstition”). This timeless love song that radiates joy and positivity is powered by infectious melody and heartfelt lyrics, and backed by the harmonious vocals of Jim Gilstra, Lani Groves, and Gloria Barley.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” has since become a significant addition to Wonder’s repertoire having accomplished several remarkable feats, including a coveted Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, in addition to nominations for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
Rolling Stone magazine bestows “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” with the honor of being ranked at number 183 on their esteemed list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
12. “We’re an American Band” by Grand Funk Railroad (July 1973)
“We’re an American Band” is a rock anthem delivered by the rock ensemble Grand Funk Railroad, and it made its debut in 1973 as part of the band’s eponymous album, which was their seventh studio release.
This iconic track, penned by Don Brewer and skillfully produced by Todd Rundgren, was released on July 2, 1973, and achieved the remarkable distinction of becoming Grand Funk’s first number-one single. It’s worth noting that drummer Brewer took on lead vocal duties for this track, a role that played a pivotal role in the band’s evolution towards producing top 40 hits.
The enduring legacy of “We’re an American Band” is evident in its inclusion as the 99th song on VH1’s esteemed list of the “100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs”.
11. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips (August 1973)
“Midnight Train to Georgia” is perhaps best known for its rendition by Gladys Knight & the Pips, marking their second release after parting ways with Motown Records and joining Buddah Records. This timeless classic, a soulful and heartfelt journey that tells the story of love and dreams, was penned by Jim Weatherly and found its place on the Pips’ 1973 album titled Imagination.
Remarkably, “Midnight Train to Georgia” notched the group’s maiden achievement of a number-one single on the prestigious Billboard Hot 100 chart. Furthermore, the song clinched the 1974 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus.
This Gladys Knight signature track is narrated from the perspective of an individual whose lover’s dreams of stardom in Hollywood have fallen short. As a result, the lover has decided to leave Los Angeles and embark on the titular “midnight train” journey back to Georgia.
10. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn (February 1973)
“Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is a cherished song performed by Tony Orlando and Dawn. This iconic tune was co-authored by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown and brought to life under the production expertise of Hank Medress and Dave Appell.
This single not only scaled the heights of the music charts in the US but also left its mark in the top-ten placements in ten countries, topping eight of them. In recognition of its enduring appeal, Billboard magazine included “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” in its list of the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Hot 100, ranking it as the 37th biggest song of all time in 2008.
The heartwarming hit continues to strike a chord with listeners with its catchy melody and touching lyrics.
9. “Wildflower” by Skylark (February 1973)
“Wildflower” is a timeless ballad written by Doug Edwards and Dave Richardson back in 1972. Originally interpreted by the Canadian band Skylark, this captivating composition has since been embraced by numerous artists and, more recently, found its way into several hip-hop tracks as a sampled treasure.
Skylark guitarist Edwards drew inspiration from a poem penned by Richardson, and the resulting masterpiece found its place on the band’s demo tape. The song’s journey to fame was a unique one. Barry De Vorzon, a well-established figure in the music industry by 1972, stumbled upon the demo tape and held a strong conviction that “Wildflower” had all the makings of a major hit.
Despite initial rejections from various studios, a pivotal moment occurred when an executive at Capitol Records recognized the song’s potential. Donny Gerrard provided the vocals for the track, which became part of Skylark’s eponymous debut album.
8. “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest (July 1972)
This 1972 hit is a hopeful song with quite a sad background. Originally written by Sherman Kelly and recorded by Kelly’s band, Boffalongo, in 1970, it found renewed fame as a hit single when performed by King Harvest in 1972.
Kelly composed this song in 1969, a time when he was recovering from a brutal assault by a gang. During his healing process, he envisioned a world where joy and celebration thrived peacefully, providing the inspiration for “Dancing in the Moonlight”.
The song’s fortunes took a turn when Kelly’s brother, Wells, introduced it to the Paris-based band King Harvest, where he served as the drummer. The band recorded and released “Dancing in the Moonlight” as a single in 1972, and the song reached number 5 on the weekly charts and secured the 71st spot on the year-end chart for 1973. It also made a notable appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching number 13 during the weeks of February 24 and March 3, 1973.
7. “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver (October 1972)
“Rocky Mountain High” is a timeless folk rock ballad co-authored by John Denver and Mike Taylor, holding the distinction of being one of Colorado’s two official state songs. John Denver’s heartfelt rendition of the song in 1972, featured on the album Rocky Mountain High, helped it climb to the ninth spot on the US Hot 100 chart in 1973.
The inspiration behind “Rocky Mountain High” was deeply rooted in Denver’s personal experience. He wrote the song three years after relocating to Aspen, Colorado, and it sublimely encapsulates the folk icon’s profound love for the state.
This John Denver classic’s seventh stanza also contains a poignant reference to the impact of commercial tourism on the natural beauty of the mountains. In the 1970s, it became a defining piece of pop culture and a cherished symbol of Colorado’s rich history.
6. “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon (November 1972)
“You’re So Vain” is a classic hit written and performed by singer-songwriter Carly Simon, hitting the airwaves in November 1972. It has since become one of Simon’s signature pieces, soaring to the coveted No. 1 spot in the charts of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand during early 1973.
The song claimed its place in history as part of many greatest lists such RIAA’s Songs of the Century and Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Additionally, the song received Grammy Award nominations in three categories at the 16th Annual Grammy Awards: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
The song itself serves as a sharp critique of a self-centered lover, with Carly Simon asserting, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The identity of the song’s subject has remained a subject of intrigue and speculation over the years. While Simon has confirmed that the song references three individuals, she has only publicly disclosed one of their names: Warren Beatty.
5. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce (March 1973)
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” is a lively narrative song composed by the folk rock artist Jim Croce. This catchy tune was introduced as part of his 1973 album titled Life and Times and went on to become a chart-topping sensation, claiming the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in July 1973.
Jim Croce’s exceptional talent earned him nominations at the 1973 Grammy Awards in two categories: Pop Male Vocalist and Record of the Year, both for his hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”. Tragically, this track became his only number-one single before his untimely passing on September 20 of the same year.
The central character of the song, Leroy Brown, is portrayed as a towering figure standing at 6’4″ hailing from the South Side of Chicago, who figures in an altercation with the husband of a woman he flirted with. The tale of a once-feared individual meeting his match in a brawl draws parallels to Croce’s earlier composition, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”.
4. “Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack (January 1973)
Did you know that this 70s classic was actually about “American Pie” singer Don McLean? “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is a composition by Charles Fox, featuring lyrics written by Norman Gimbel. The song’s creation was a collaborative effort with Lori Lieberman, who drew inspiration from a McLean performance in late 1971.
Sadly, Lieberman was denied songwriting credit by Fox and Gimbel. Undeterred, she released her own version of the song in 1972, but it failed to make an impact on the charts. Over the years, this iconic tune has been covered by numerous artists.
Roberta Flack’s 1973 rendition secured the 1974 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, while a Lauryn Hill-fronted version by Fugees claimed the 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
3. “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye (June 1973)
While it has become a TikTok and meme staple thanks to its sexy intro, “Let’s Get It On” is a true-blue Marvin Gaye soulful classic that reigned over the music scene in 1973.
This iconic track is enriched with romantic and sensual lyrics, accompanied by funky instrumentation courtesy of The Funk Brothers. Serving as the title track for Gaye’s album of the same name, the song was collaboratively penned by Marvin Gaye himself and the producer, Ed Townsend.
“Let’s Get It On”, which was actually first written by Townshend with a religious undertone, became one of Gaye’s most triumphant singles for Motown and remains one of his most renowned compositions. During its initial surge in popularity, the song’s explicit content contributed to Marvin Gaye’s emergence as a symbol of sensuality.
2. “My Love” by Paul McCartney & Wings (March 1973)
“My Love” is a heartfelt composition by Paul McCartney with his post-Beatles band Wings. Initially released as the lead single from their 1973 album Red Rose Speedway, this song served as a tender declaration of love from Paul McCartney to his wife and fellow Wings band member, Linda.
It represented a significant milestone in the band’s history as it marked the first time that McCartney’s name was prominently featured in the artist credits for a Wings record. Prior to this, their releases had been attributed solely to Wings.
Despite its undeniable commercial success, “My Love” received mixed reviews from music critics. Some found it overly sentimental and criticized its lyrical content. Nevertheless, it remains an integral part of Paul McCartney’s live performances, where he continues to honor Linda’s memory following her passing in 1998. McCartney included the song in the musical program for Linda’s memorial services in London and New York City, where it was beautifully performed by a string quartet.
1. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (May 1973)
You probably now have its famous opening riff stuck in your head.
“Smoke on the Water” is an iconic classic rock track by the English rock band Deep Purple, featured on their 1972 album, Machine Head. The song famously recounts the events of a fire that occurred at Montreux Casino in 1971.
In a 2004 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, “Smoke on the Water” secured the 434th spot on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Total Guitar magazine recognized it as the fourth-greatest guitar riff ever in their rankings of “Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever.” Additionally, in March 2005, Q magazine listed “Smoke on the Water” at number 12 on its compilation of the 100 greatest guitar tracks.
Interestingly, Ritchie Blackmore humorously mentioned that the main riff is a reinterpretation or “inversion” of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Jon Lord contributes to the guitar part by mirroring it on a Hammond C3 organ routed through a distorted Marshall amplifier, resulting in a tone that closely resembles that of the guitar.