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20 Songs That Defined the Early Seventies

The sounds that were inescapable during Nixon era, including Elton John, Marvin Gaye and more

20 Songs That Defined the Early Seventies

20 songs that were inescapable during Nixon era, including Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Carole King and more.

Michael Putland/Getty, Terry O'Niell/Getty, Jim McCrary/Getty

Pondering pop history from a generation or two away, it's easy to forget what things actually sounded like from inside the zeitgeist. As Western culture worked itself into a complicated cultural froth, the early Seventies reflected those complexities in its hit parade with music that was evocative, entertaining and, for better or worse, unavoidable. Which is to say that the tunes on this list constitute much of the DNA of anyone alive at the time. Radio still mattered more than TV, and our seemingly endless culture wars were only beginning. New constituencies were arising and pop had even started reflecting on its own history. It was the best of times, it was the – oh, you know. And so, to the best of our recollections, here's the greatest music you couldn't avoid hearing in the early Seventies.

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Todd Rundgren, “Hello It’s Me” (1972)

If only all adult contemporary music was as entertaining, and as irritating, as Todd Rundgren's first original song. "Seeing you," sings Rundgren in this more than slightly narcissistic boy-objectifies-girl breakup vignette before correcting himself: "or seeing anything as much as I do you." Written when he was still a teenaged Nazz member, "Hello It's Me" was inspired musically by a Jimmy Smith organ intro to a recording of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," with an ill-fated high-school romance supplying the one-sided phone conversation's content. Re-recorded for his ambitious solo album Something/Anything, Rundgren elevated the blandness of the breakup to high pop realism.

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Hot Butter, “Popcorn” (1972)

The world's first primarily electronic pop hit – and kernel of a future fractal universe of synthetic sonic materials – was composed by Gershon Kingsley. The German-American composer discovered the melody while noodling on a Bach improvisation and released it on 1969's Music to Moog By. "'Pop' is for pop music," Kingsley later declared, "and 'corn' is for kitsch." His percolating earworm didn't take off until Hot Butter, featuring First Moog Quartet member Stan Free, covered it in 1972. It took off in a Paris disco and went on to inspire renditions by Aphex Twin, Muse and Crazy Frog.

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Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (1973)

"What's Going On" was a stirring anthem of political consciousness, marking a new stage in Marvin Gaye's career as an R&B auteur. This sexy romp was stirring in a much different way, but it was making a statement as well: Hot sex is something "all sensitive people" need. The Seventies would be a steamy decade, after all, and no one explored the artistry of seduction with such a versatile sense of humor and hedonistic commitment as Gaye.

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The Sweet, “The Ballroom Blitz” (1973)

The Sweet's trajectory from prefab pop to punk-rock precursors peaked with glam-rock's catchiest hit. This oddly touching bit of hard-charging autobiography – with an arrangement flagrantly borrowed from Bobby Comstock's 1963 British beat-group favorite "Let’s Stomp" – chronicles an attack of bottle-tossing audience members during a January 1973 gig in Kilmarnock, Scotland. "The Ballroom Blitz" found its way to the U.S. two years later, setting the scene for the Ramones' equally catchy and militaristic 1976 debut, "Blitzkrieg Bop." 

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