We live in musically exciting times! Lizzo and Billie Eilish are in the process of changing the aesthetics, values, and tonality of popular music — and, in the process, they’ve introduced personable and woke ways that celebrities can deal with their mega-stardom. We’ve grown deeply invested in not only the era of music streaming, but the era of democratic music production — soundcloud rappers now achieve fame from their laptops. Is rock dead? Are mumble rap and trap legitimate musical movements? Do ya like jazz? Many questions remain unanswered.
However, in the midst of all this buzz, I find it cathartic to reflect on the progress we’ve made as a musical culture. The “pop” our parents and grandparents listened to is radically different than what we expect from our car radios (or, er, Spotify playlists). For this reason, I present here a list focusing on one of the most transformative and hectic years of music history — 1970. The world was at a crossroads of inventive beatles-esque pop, the rowdiness of hard rock, and the swagger of early R&B and soul. 50 years later, we can now make informed judgements about the dominant movements of the year and the places they led.
Without further delay, here are what I consider to be the most influential songs released in 1970.
5. Led Zeppelin — Immigrant Song
Immigrant Song is one of those rare tunes whose melodies I could recall perfectly after the first listen. And how can one give anything less than their absolute attention once the song starts? Four counts, and suddenly the band stampedes onto the scene, viciously trampling your ears with one of the most harmonically simple — and badass — riffs imaginable. Robert Plant shrieks a worldless, primordial chorus over the main riff, a dreadful sound befitting of the vikings envisioned in the song’s lyrics. And the music doesn’t overstay its welcome. Two and a half minutes of pure adrenaline — and over. No guitar or drum solo, no fluff to dilute a musical gut punch of a song.
In the decades since Immigrant Song’s release, artist after artist have covered it, from American Idol contestants to Nirvana. It’s a technical showcase for vocalists, an ear-grabbing piece for your local bar band, and a hell of an upper in your movie soundtrack. Led Zeppelin mixed concision with unyielding aggression. Music hasn’t been the same ever since.
4. Jimi Hendrix — All Along the Watchtower
Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s last studio release, is widely considered Jimi Hendrix’s opus magnum. The album captured Hendrix at the peak of his songcraft, combining visionary electric guitar with consistently intelligent songwriting.
No single song off the record better captures Hendrix’s force-of-nature, fearlessly innovative ethos than All Along the Watchtower, a complex cover of Bob Dylan that rockets the folksy, quaint original to astrophysical heights. In its four-minute run-time, the track commits to some adventurous paths — multiple guitar solos weave between verses, each among the greatest guitar moments in rock; the rhythm section crescendos and recedes cunningly, exploring all extremities of the dynamic spectrum; and the song contributed significantly to the popularity of the newly invented wah-wah pedal, a cutting edge piece of equipment for the period. Perhaps most impressively, All Along the Watchtower executes these choices seamlessly, effortlessly integrating a whole host of Hendrix innovations into his most dazzling singular piece of music. Truly the greatest guitarist that ever lived.
3. Santana — Oye Como Va
Rock changed for the better when Carlos Santana released Abraxas in 1970. The record’s far-minded fusion leans into jazz, blues, and latin music influences — all while remaining irresistible to mainstream rock audiences. Oye Como Va is one of the band’s most unabashedly latin performances, retaining many elements of Tito Puente’s original 1963 cut. The conga, cha-cha-cha rhythm, and spanish lyrics feature prominently in both versions. On full display, however, is Santana’s most notable talent — the ability to strike a perfect balance between World Music roots and a carefully calibrated dose of rock flair. David Brown’s bass, Michael Shrieve’s drums, and Gregg Rolie’s keys all play iconic parts that mark a neat middle ground between the known and the new (not to mention some melodic guitar genius from the band’s namesake himself, Carlos Santana). All the familiar rock elements are there, albeit with a tasteful twist. Upon releasing Abraxas — and especially Oye Como Va — Santana proved Mainstream Rock’s transformative potential to cross cultures and defy tradition.
2. The Beatles — Let It Be
Even with their dying breath, the undisputed masters of pop music managed to churn out one of the most beloved songs of all time. Of course, Let It Be isn’t representative of The Beatles in their heyday — the song sees no collaboration on Lennon’s part, and the production is quite different than what fans grew accustomed to during the band’s stunning creative period. But Let it Be, besides simply being a spectacular tune, embodies the tremendous musical turnover of 1970. Jimi Hendrix’s death, Janis Joplin’s death, Jim Morisson’s jailing, all coupled with the yearlong tragedy of The Beatles’ ugly, drawn-out breakup. Gone were picture-perfect pretty melodies, the naivete of the hippie era, truth-seeking psychedelia. The 70’s did away with the previous decade, instead overseeing the rise of Prog, Disco, Funk, Soul, Hard Rock, Punk, Metal — developments that were as informed by The Beatles as they were their antitheses.
But in the meantime, don’t pay the stress any mind. Just listen to George Harrison’s killer guitar solo. Let It Be.
Allman Brothers Band — Midnight Rider
The Allman Brothers popularized Southern Rock and gave it an intellectual edge, incorporating jazz sensibilities into their catchy jams. Midnight Rider is one of the shining moments of their discography.
The Jackson 5 — ABC
Almost definitely deserving of a top spot, but I’d argue that I Want You Back, released in 1969, broached the same musical territory. Sorry, boys.
The Kinks — Lola.
Wonderful lyrics from one of the greatest songwriters ever, an infectiously catchy song. The Kinks are wildly underrated.
Creedence Clearwater Revival — Have you Ever Seen the Rain?
The band’s most famous song is on their worst album. Go figure.
James Brown — Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine
James Brown is undoubtedly the founding father of funk. Need I say more?
Derek and the Dominos — Layla
Perhaps the most famous lead guitar harmony in the history of rock. This track also proved Eric Clapton’s capabilities as a songwriter.
Miles Davis — Bitches Brew
The entire Bitches Brew album is utterly indescribable. An avant-garde take on jazz that has influenced the likes Herbie Hancock (who plays on this track) as well as Radiohead.
The Velvet Underground — Sweet Jane
Yes, I know, the critics’ darlings are here. But seriously, go listen to the Velvet Underground.
1. Black Sabbath — Paranoid
What’s wrong, didn’t expect this to be number one?
The title track of Black Sabbath’s second album might strike you as a somewhat average song by today’s standards. Three power chords chugging devilishly on the downbeat, occasional riffing in a pentatonic key, guitar and bass distortion pushed to the max — typical fare for metal and hard rock. Yet the commonality of these tropes cloaks a revolutionary truth: these very same rock stereotypes were largely started by Black Sabbath. This song, in particular, is the most major single step in popularizing the doom-and-gloom aesthetic we accept as normal in modern society. Listen to Black Sabbath’s heaviest contemporaries — Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, etc. All of them rock undeniably hard. But compare their songs to Paranoid, and you’ll understand that Black Sabbath stands in a class all its own. Some of the most important musical movements of the following decades owe an enormous debt to early Sabbath — punk, metal, hair rock, grunge. The butterfly effect then carries the impact further to alternative rock, garage rock, post-punk, even hip-hop. I would be lying if I claimed that these genres wouldn’t exist without Paranoid. But they surely wouldn’t be the same.