50 Songs Turning 50 This Year
The turbulent start of a new decade helped these 1970 songs stand the test of time.
Much like today, 1970 was a scary, exciting, and uncertain time. The U.S. invaded Cambodia while the Vietnam War and its protests raged on. The Treaty on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed by 43 countries. The Apollo 13 crew had a nearly-deadly accident. It was also the year McDonald's introduced the Shamrock Shake. Naturally, the musicians of 1970 were affected and inspired by these and other events of the era. Fortunately for all of us, that means a whole lot of great songs got recorded—here are 50 songs from 1970 that are turning 50 this year.
"American Woman," The Guess Who
Though sometimes regarded as anti-American, anti-Vietnam War, or simply anti-woman, Canadian band The Guess Who credited the origins of "American Woman" to something far more straightforward: After a grueling tour through major U.S. cities (and the groupies in each), they wanted to get back to the familiar women of Canada. And for more music throwbacks, This Was Most Likely the Prom Song the Year You Graduated High School.
"Mama Told Me Not to Come," Three Dog Night
From its instantly recognizable opening riffs, "Mama Told Me Not to Come" sets and maintains a patently early-'70s mood. Most don't know that this Three Dog Night version is actually a cover—the original was performed by Eric Burdon and written by Randy Newman.
"Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell
Who can believe it's already been 50 years since Joni Mitchell's eco-warrior anthem shamed us all into taking better care of the planet, and quit it with all the paradise-paving? Thank goodness we heeded her warnings and there are no impending environmental crises on the horizon.
"Layla," Derek and the Dominos
The Eric Clapton-fronted band Derek and the Dominos clearly knew they had a hit on their hands with "Layla," which is probably why they didn't bother coming up with a more creative title for their one album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Fun fact: The song is inspired by a 7th century Arabian love story. And if you're looking for more lovey-dovey tunes, these are The 50 Most Romantic Songs Ever Written.
"Paranoid," Black Sabbath
Long before Ozzy Osbourne was chomping on bats, he was chewing up the radio waves with this single from Black Sabbath's sophomore album. Though eventually the title track of the album, "Paranoid" was first conceived as a filler song.
"Let It Be," The Beatles
The Liverpool Lads pulled out all the stops for their final album, and its title track, "Let It Be," served as a worthy commemoration of the band's relatively short but blindingly bright journey. Keen ears will notice the subtle differences between the George Martin-produced single version and the Phil Spector-produced album cut.
"Your Song," Elton John
The best part of this Elton John song isn't the poetic lyrics or ethereal composition. It's that he titled it "Your Song," and went on to explicitly give everyone listening permission to flex and claim that Elton John wrote a song about them. Kinda like when Time put a mirror on the cover and said we were all "Person of the Year."
"Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta Lynn
It's hard to make a song that's simultaneously autobiographical and quintessentially country that also touches on class struggles, but Loretta Lynn somehow pulled off this hat trick, which is why she and "Coal Miner's Daughter" are both regarded as all-time greats.
"Oye Como Va," Santana
Mambo master Tito Puente's original was already something special, but when Carlos Santana ratcheted up the energy and added some psychedelia to it for his 1970 cover of "Oye Como Va," he took full ownership of the track and helped bring Latin rock to the world.
"Band of Gold," Freda Payne
This plaintive Motown ditty meditates on timeless post-breakup themes and has now spent half a century as an anthem for those wondering how to pick up the pieces. To think, all that catharsis came from a song about honeymoon-ruining performance anxiety. And for more heart-healing tunes, stream The 100 Best Breakup Songs of All Time.
"Truckin'," Grateful Dead
True Deadheads care more about the band's live performances, but during their heyday, Jerry Garcia and company had quite a few hits reach mainstream audiences. Chief among them is this classic from American Beauty that gave the Dead and their fans the iconic line "what a long strange trip it's been."
"Cracklin' Rosie," Neil Diamond
If you haven't ever dug into the lyrics of "Cracklin' Rosie," you may still be blissfully unaware of the bleak subject matter that inspired the song. The titular Rosie is not a living woman, but rather a reference to a cheap wine enjoyed by people living in poverty.
"Sweet Jane," The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground never got much radio play while together, but history has been kind to them, and a handful of their tracks—like "Sweet Jane"—are now lauded as some of the best in rock history. That said, the song's writer and singer, Lou Reed, doesn't seem like the sort who would've cared about any of that.
"My Sweet Lord," George Harrison
When the four Beatles each went their separate ways in 1970, they also went in their own directions artistically. George Harrison's path was a foray into the world of gospel folk rock, and his first solo track, "My Sweet Lord," immediately proved that he could crank out hits without those three other guys.
"Love the One You're With," Stephen Stills
How could Stephen Stills have known, while writing this song so many decades ago, that it would be the perfect theme song for being stuck in a house with your significant other? In an era of such uncertainty, "Love the One You're With," an ode to settling, is somehow more timely than ever.
"Who'll Stop the Rain," Creedence Clearwater Revival
Vietnam War protest songs were everywhere in 1970, and it feels like Creedence Clearwater Revival produced about half of the ones that stood the test of time. This track is at least a little more fun, with its Woodstock imagery included alongside the anti-Washington sentiments.
"Ohio," Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Conversely, some protest songs go for a more visceral approach. Such was the case for "Ohio," the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young response to the Kent State massacre, where National Guard soldiers fired upon a crowd of unarmed protesters, killing four.
"In the Summertime," Mungo Jerry
Amidst all the aforementioned strife, people were still trying to stop and smell the roses. Mungo Jerry's lead singer, Ray Dorset, perfectly captured an appreciation of life's simple pleasures with this ode to carefree summer fun.
"The Letter," Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker's cover of this Box Tops song is one of the greatest rock songs that also highlights how much times have changed. While getting a letter in the mail from a romantic interest seems patently absurd today, 50 years ago it was apparently so exciting that people would be ready to jump on a plane over it.
"Lola," The Kinks
In most regards, the central story of this song, in which the naïve protagonist unwittingly hooks up with a trans woman, has certainly not aged well. But let's at least give the Kinks credit for respecting Lola's pronouns in the lyrics.
"Make It With You," Bread
Of all the euphemisms for sex to come from this era, "make it with you" is probably the most G-rated. The soft rock soft boys in Bread took the phrase to its full potential by turning it into a hit song that proved tame enough for radio censors.
"25 or 6 to 4," Chicago
There's been much speculation about the meaning behind this classic Chicago song's title, with some assuming a coded reference to drugs or celeb shoutouts. The boring truth is that composer Robert Lamm was simply trying to write a song in the middle of the night, and checked the clock to see it was 25 or 26 minutes before 4 a.m.
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," Stevie Wonder
Only Stevie Wonder could find a way to turn parcel shipment into something fun and flirty like he did with this song.
"Maybe I'm Amazed," Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney's first solo single was a love song dedicated to his wife, Linda, who helped him through the ordeal of the Beatles breaking up. And if your significant other isn't inspiring you to create art that winds up on lists like Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" then you might want to take a step back and reevaluate the relationship.
"Mississippi Queen," Mountain
Though it sounds like tribute to a New Orleans riverboat, Mountain got the title and sound for their biggest hit, "Mississippi Queen," when two of the band's members mashed up a drum part and guitar part they'd been working on independently, per the liner notes. The working title for the guitar part was "The Queen," so one can only assume the drummer got to pick "Mississippi."
"All Right Now," Free
English band Free was inspired to write "All Right Now" after a particularly bad set forced the band to come to terms with their lack of a powerful closer. As the story goes, only 10 minutes after hearing crickets at the end of that abysmal show, bassist Andy Fraser had finished writing the song in the dressing room.
"Fire and Rain," James Taylor
Decades before George R.R. Martin was writing A Song of Ice and Fire, James Taylor was writing a song called "Fire and Rain." One's a fantasy epic about dragons and deadly monarchistic brinkmanship, the other's a dedication to a deceased childhood friend. We'll leave it up to you to figure out which is which.
"Moondance," Van Morrison
The title track from Van Morrison's third album brought a bit of soft jazz back to radio airwaves with its snappy walking bass line and punchy sax. We're still not exactly sure what a "Moondance" entails, but based on the melody, it probably isn't that bad.
"Wild World," Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens, now going by Yusuf Islam, wrote this breakup song about an actress he dated for two years. Despite the song's arguably condescending and misogynistic elements, it uses Spanish chords in creative ways and sounds pretty, so it's stuck around.
"Express Yourself," Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Though it's since been appropriated by all manner of milquetoast advertisements and wedding DJs, "Express Yourself" was pretty audacious and hip when it first dropped. And you have to give Charles Wright credit for making a mainstream radio hit out of a song with scatting in it.
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," The Temptations
Something tells us that a song listing all the terrible things happening in the world wouldn't be super popular if it came out today. But 50 years ago, people didn't have social media and cable news pumping the negative information into their eyes and ears 24/7, so The Temptations were really breaking ground with this funky screed.
"O-o-h Child," Five Stairsteps
A chaser to The Temptation's doom and gloom came in the form of the Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child." The smooth soul track from these one-hit wonders offered a gentle, melodic reassurance that "this too shall pass."
"Child in Time," Deep Purple
While the Five Stairsteps soothed, Deep Purple took an altogether different approach to child comforting with their trippy, meandering prog rock hit "Child in Time." Even if a kid doesn't come out the other side of this reassured, with its 10-minute-plus runtime full of jamming and solos and shifts, they might emerge on a different plane of existence.
"Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," James Brown
Sure, the song is mostly just ad libs, a bass line, and a repetitive call and response between James Brown and his band, but it still undeniably works. This is why James Brown is the only sex machine that never went obsolete.
"(They Long to Be) Close to You," The Carpenters
Karen Carpenter may sound like she's living in a Disney movie with this song's opening question about why "birds suddenly appear every time you are near," but apparently that was considered more romantic than cheesy 50 years ago when this was the song of the summer.
"Get Ready," Rare Earth
Like many other songs on this list, "Get Ready" is a Motown hit repackaged for the counterculture era. Borrowing from The Temptations, Rare Earth pushed the label to release their cover and were vindicated once the song became a bonafide smash hit.
"Move on Up," Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield's debut album was an impressive feat in its own right, but "Move on Up" was its clear crown jewel. It wasn't until 1971, after the nine-minute album version had been pruned down into a more radio-friendly edit, that the track took off.
"War," Edwin Starr
Before publicly declaring that war is bad became fairly mainstream, it was still brave to speak out against the military industrial complex and U.S. military intervention. So, when Edwin Starr shouts in "War" that the mere "thought of war blows [his] mind," you believe him.
"Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin
We're all so lucky that Led Zeppelin's 1970 tour took them through Iceland, which inspired this "Immigrant Song." It was groundbreaking then and still gets the blood pumping today. It's not the band's fault that decades of uninspired advertising riding the coattails of true artistry make you feel like you're in a car commercial when you listen to it.
"Instant Karma!," John Lennon
John Lennon had no idea he'd created what would later become a massive and cathartic internet genre when he wrote "Instant Karma!" We're sure he'd appreciate that.
"Roadhouse Blues," The Doors
Jim Morrison and the Doors pulled out all the stops and honked all the tonks for "Roadhouse Blues." With Morrison slurring and diving into baby voice more than he does on other tracks, it's possible the song's "got myself a beer" line may have been employed quite literally and liberal throughout the recording process.
"Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)," Edison Lighthouse
One-hit wonders are still wonders, so let's give Edison Lighthouse some love for their even-for-the-time adorably quaint pop song "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)." They were never able to match the success of this hit, but it's the undisputed No. 1 song about someone named Rosemary, and nobody can ever take that from them.
"Ride Captain Ride," Blues Image
If you're wondering why 73 men "sailed up from the San Francisco Bay" in the song's opening lyrics, know that there's nothing too wild behind it. The number was chosen because that's how many keys were on the piano being used to write the song. Hopefully this information hasn't ruined "Ride Captain Ride" for anyone.
"Spill the Wine," Eric Burdon & War
Somehow, some way, Eric Burdon & War turned the real-life tragedy of the time when someone spilled wine onto an expensive mixing board into a key party fever dream of a song. If that's not musical genius, what is?
"Give Me Just a Little More Time," Chairmen of the Board
Full of soulful pleas and bombastic brass, this classic still tugs at the heartstrings. It might even tug at your landlord's heartstrings if you play it for them through the door when they come to collect that late rent check.
"Tighter, Tighter," Alive N Kickin'
Written by Tommy James and Bob King and performed by Alive N Kickin', "Tighter, Tighter" is a song about the act of hugging. Most people like hugs, so the song did pretty well, which got the band a gold record-shaped hug from the RIAA.
"Question," The Moody Blues
After a decade of peace and love seemingly causing no real change in the world, Moody Blues lead singer and songwriter Justin Hayward wrote "Question" about that consternation. If the prior entries on this list haven't already made it apparent, musicians were getting pretty existential in 1970.
"The House of the Rising Sun," Frijid Pink
Originally a folk ballad, and then famously covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and The Animals, "House of the Rising Sun" has spent more time in the public's consciousness than most songs. But if you haven't yet heard the psychedelic cover by Detroit rockers Frijid Pink, do yourself a favor and check it out. Even if you have heard it before, you're probably due for a revisit.
"ABC," The Jackson 5
It's hard to resist the upbeat funk the Jackson 5 are dishing out in "ABC." America sure couldn't resist it. The song knocked "Let It Be" off the top of the charts and sat there in the No. 1 spot for a solid month.
"Bridge Over Troubled Water," Simon & Garfunkel
This haunting, gospel-influenced song was Simon & Garfunkel's biggest hit, but was ironically not enough to overcome the troubled water of the duo's notoriously rancorous relationship. It wound up being the last song recorded for the last album Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel would release together.
Additional reporting by Ashley Moor.