10 of the Greatest Songs from the 1970s

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye | Evening Standard/Getty Images

The 1970s was a decade that gave us truly amazing music that we still love today. That includes some of the greatest bands like Led Zeppelin and The Clash. But what about the greatest songs from that time? There are many that have stayed popular long after they were released and have been played at many weddings and even funerals. There are also some that you might have forgotten about, but that perfectly encapsulate the time. So which songs made the list? Here are the 10 greatest songs from the 1970s.

1. “Imagine,” John Lennon

The former Beatle’s most iconic song definitely had to make the list. The 1971 song is beautiful and paints a picture of a peaceful world free of many troubles. Yoko Ono’s poems in Grapefruit inspired the singer to write the lyrics. He however didn’t give her credit until later.

“Actually that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it,” the singer told BBC. “The lyric and the concept—came from Yoko. But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of [adopts a mock censuring tone] omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine that.’ … But if it had been Bowie, I would have put ‘Lennon-Bowie,’ you see.”

2. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye

The 1971 song captures one of the big social problems of its time that still hasn’t been resolved. The song is about police brutality and was inspired by an incident witnessed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson who went on to write the lyrics. The incident was in People’s Park where anti-war protesters were beaten by police, according to Christina Aguilera: A Complete Guide. Benson then asked, “What is happening here?” which led to the song’s title and meaning.

3. “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin

The song is definitely referred to as one of the best rock songs ever. It became so widely loved that it led to themed proms and weddings and, sadly, was highly requested for funerals. It’s 8 minutes long and gradually speeds up. The lyrics of the song are pretty much left up to interpretation and are probably the reason why it means so much to people. Even writer Robert Plant doesn’t have them down.

“I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time,” Plant told Q magazine. “Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about … Every other f—er is.”

4. “Changes,” David Bowie

The song really represents David Bowie since he changed a lot during his career. It’s also something we can all relate to since time does change people in general. The essential meaning of the song is one thing that will ironically never change and will forever be relevant to music listeners.

5. “Rapper’s Delight,” The Sugar Hill Gang

The 1979 song is the one that really changed the game by being the first single to feature rap. A lot of the lyrics were borrowed from Grandmaster Caz, who gets a shout out on the track. It also used the tune from “Good Times” by Chic. The hit was recorded in one take. Black radio stations played the 15-minute long version, but the crew made a 7-minute version for pop stations, according to NPR. Perhaps the mainstream rap today owes it all to this song partially because it was lighthearted and brought white listeners in.

“It wasn’t too heavy,” Wonder Mike told NPR. “It wasn’t the message that was years later. It wasn’t ‘bash the police’ — that was years after that. What I wanted to portray was three guys having fun. We were always bragging about stuff we didn’t have to impress the chicks.”

6. “September,” Earth, Wind, & Fire

The song is a staple for weddings and family reunions with good reason. The instruments are perfect, and the lyrics are simple. The opening question of “Do you remember?” allows every listener to bring up their own happy memories making it personal. But there is one lyric that is very specific that might leave fan scratching their heads. That is the specific date of September 21. So what’s so special about that?

“We went through all the dates,” songwriter Allee Willis told NPR. “‘Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth…’ and the one that just felt the best was the 21st,” Willis explained. “I constantly have people coming up to me and they get so excited to know what the significance was. And there is no significance beyond it just sang better than any of the other dates. So…sorry!”

7. “Paranoid,” Black Sabbath

Some great songs have really deep meanings and are worked on for months. But then there are some that are just happy accidents like this one. The band’s first single only took two to three days to record to fill an album, but it will go down in history as one of the greatest metal songs ever. The album was originally going to be titled War Pigs but then it was changed to Paranoid after the band made the new hit. Even the band members are surprised by the outcome.

“The whole story of how we created that song is funny,” bassist Geezer Butler said, according to Gibson. “It became the most popular song from the album, but it wasn’t something we thought much of when we wrote it. In fact, we finished the record and then the producer told us we needed one more song to finish up the album, so we just came up with ‘Paranoid’ on the spot. Tony [Iommi] just played this riff and we all went along with it. We didn’t think anything of it.”

8. “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” Roberta Flack

The haunting song is beautiful and might even break your heart, giving you the same experience as the narrator in the song. The 1973 reached No. 3 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape. The song made it back to pop culture when The Fugees did their own take on it in 1997 and won a Grammy for it.

So what exactly inspired the amazing song? According to The New York Times, singer Lori Lieberman saw Don McLean perform in a club. Afterward she wrote about the experience in her diary and said listening to his work was personal and embarrassing. She felt as though he read her letters.

9. “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand

The movie The Way We Were stars Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as two characters who fall in love, but their different views begin to tear them apart. The film’s original song of the same title won an Oscar and Grammy. Anyone who has experienced a broken heart and is looking back at their failed relationship can relate to this song.

10. “Last Dance,” Donna Summer

When you think disco, you probably think Donna Summer and this song. That’s because she was queen of the genre, and this song is one of its most popular. It was also used in the movie Thank God It’s Friday, for which it won an Oscar for original song. Although you might not hear it play as much now, it still embodies a very relatable situation: when it’s the last dance of the night, and you want to find someone to leave with.

Follow Nicole Weaver on Twitter @nikkibernice

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