Reflections on Sirius XM’s ’70s on 7' Countdown: Greatest Hits of the ‘70s

I spent a good part of the long New Year’s weekend listening to Sirius XM’s special countdown of the top 300 songs of the ’70s. What made this interesting was that this was based on listeners’ votes. It was a way to tell what kind of songs had a legacy 40–50 years later.

Sure enough, the countdown rarely matched the chart successes on Billboard decades before. In fact, there were only eight #1 songs in the top twenty of this countdown.

However, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the countdown also reflects Sirius XM’s listening and voting audience, which I suspect is mostly male, mostly white, and mostly non-urban. How can I know this?

Well, disco ruled the last three or four years of the decade, and yet only about a dozen disco hits were on the list. Most of those were relegated to the Bee Gees, who had built a reputation as a rock band before that and were helped by the massive success of the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, and a trio of songs by KC & The Sunshine Band. There were only two tracks on the list by Donna Summer (Hot Stuff, #218, and Last Dance, #199), and I wouldn’t even call Hot Stuff a disco track; it crossed over into rock territory. The biggest disco hit of the decade was ABBA’s Dancing Queen (#6), no doubt helped by the band’s renaissance in the Mamma Mia show and movies. And while we rightfully got Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (#85), where was Thelma Houston, Anita Ward, A Taste of Honey, Alicia Bridges?

Of the 300 songs, I counted only 27 by artists of color (28 if you count The Village People, which had a multi-racial makeup), with Santana the only Latino act, to my knowledge. Incredibly, there were only four acts of color in the top 100: September by Earth, Wind, & Fire (#17, and their only entry on the chart), Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine (#58), Gaynor’s I Will Survive, and Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight & The Pips (#91, their only entry).

How do you count down the hits of the ’70s with only one song by Marvin Gaye, two (!) songs by Stevie Wonder, one song from Roberta Flack, and one song (just one!) from Diana Ross. One song from the Spinners and nothing from the Stylistics? And the list featured only two songs by the Jackson Five and one by Michael Jackson. And where the hell was Aretha?

And the relative lack of ballads and female vocalists shows the male-skewing voters as well. While the Carpenters and Olivia Newton-John (even outside of her Grease hits, which surprised me) were well represented, there was not one song by Barbra Streisand on the chart — during the decade, she had four big #1 songs and others in the top ten as well. And just one song by Linda Ronstadt. And no Helen Reddy, no Anne Murray, and no female groups like the Emotions or the Pointer Sisters. And all those neglected disco queens.

If you were a band that had a long history of touring or a classic album, you did well. Virtually every single released by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles was on the chart. Styx, Foreigner, McCartney & Wings, the Rolling Stones, Journey, Bob Seger, and ELO also fared well, placing several hits on the list. Bands that did not age well were hitmakers like Tony Orlando and Dawn (although they did have two on the countdown) and the Osmonds.

Among male solo artists, as expected, Elton John cleaned up, but, surprisingly, Rod Stewart only placed one song and Neil Diamond, two. And where was Leo Sayer?

I was not surprised that some songs did not age well, including Billboard’s #1 song of the decade, Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life, which spent ten weeks atop the Billboard summit. On the listeners’ list, it was way down at #267. And I was thrilled that Paul Anka’s big comeback hit, the cringe-worthy, sexist You’re Having My Baby did not make the list. Big novelty songs of the time like Ray Stevens’ The Streak and Rick Dees’ Disco Duck were also absent. Also, there were a lot of hit instrumentals in the ’70s, but the only one remembered by listeners was Bill Conti’s Theme From Rocky (Gonna Fly Now)(#284) — helped by the classic movie itself. Teen idols like Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, and Bobby Sherman were consigned to the dustbin of history, but the Partridge Family did score with their big hit, I Think I Love You (#56).

Also, there were some genuine surprises. I couldn’t believe that Gordon Lightfoot’s epic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a #2 hit from 1976, ended up at #14 for the decade. Has the song ever been on the radio since the ‘70s? I admit I was surprised by EWF’s strong showing on September — it reached #8 on its initial chart run and was not the group’s biggest hit.

In the end, though, it’s the listeners who ultimately decide what becomes a classic. I can’t argue too much with what they chose at the top of the list, except for maybe Boston’s More Than a Feeling at #4. Great song, for sure, but with so many other worthy ones left out of the top ten, I’d have put it further down the list. Here are the listeners’ top ten:

10. Imagine — John Lennon (got to #3 in 1971)

9. Dream On — Aerosmith (6/1976)

8. Stayin’ Alive — Bee Gees (1/1978)

7. Bridge Over Troubled Water — Simon and Garfunkel (1/1970)

6. Dancing Queen — ABBA (1/1977)

5. Let it Be — Beatles (1/1970)

4. More Than a Feeling — Boston (5/1975)

3. American Pie — Don McLean (1/1972)

2. Bohemian Rhapsody — Queen (9/1976); it had another run in the early ’90s and got to #2 after being featured in the film Wayne’s World. The hit biographical movie of the same name also stamped it as a classic.

1. Hotel California — Eagles (1/1977)

What is fascinating to me is that the top three are all “story” songs, long tales that run over five minutes in length. I have no doubt that in every case, their managers did not want to release them as singles. And yet, time has shown us what listeners want most — a story, set to music.

What do you think?

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Kevin Scott Hall

Kevin Scott Hall

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.