Finally, eight years in, it feels like we’re really, truly in the thick of the seventies, and this year’s worst list plays out like a greatest hits compilation of all the most unpleasant musical impulses the decade produced. From songs drowning in seas of goopy strings to empty-headed dancefloor filler to even emptier-headed rock, everything I don’t like about 70s pop is present and accounted for in one form or another here. Luckily, there wasn’t much I found to be truly pernicious or stomach-churning, but to make up for it there was a whole lot of totally bland, uninteresting slop to wade through- If anyone wants to hear the difference between “most bad” and “least good”, many of the following ten songs are prime examples of the latter. On with the show!
#10: Kenny Nolan- Love’s Grown Deep
I’ll say this much for Barry Manilow: for better and for worse, people remember him. Even if you don’t like the guy, it’s hard to argue he made for a good avatar of a very particular sort of pop music, and even if I still don’t care for a lot of his songs, hearing the dozen or so Manilow-wannabes that emerged in his wake did wonders to soften me on the man’s body of work. Case in point: Kenny Nolan, a comparative blip on the adult-contemporary radar who in 1977 managed to ride the cheesy “I Like Dreamin’” to a very successful year overall. Nolan has actually appeared on a best list of mine before, albeit not as a performer: he co-wrote Frankie Valli’s “My Eye Adored You”, which remains one of my favorite pop songs of the decade. There are glimpses of the classy, timeless balladry he brought to that song on “Love’s Grown Deep”, in particular a rather nice vocal arrangement in the back half, but ultimately it fails to overcome the sappy shmaltz endemic to its genre, no thanks to a noticeably weak melody that tends to slide right off the brain. By being a more straightforward love song, it loses the shades of melancholy that gave “My Eyes Adored You” so much depth, and Nolan’s voice just doesn’t have the power to propel the song out of the pillowy void it starts off in. The man clearly wasn’t untalented, but a song this soft and vanilla needs real starpower to get it off the ground, and a c-list crooner like Nolan just didn’t have that starpower.
#9: Steve Miller Band- Jet Airliner
I may have worked myself into a lather a month or so ago ranting and raving about how awful I think “The Joker” is, but apart from that song, my opinion of the Steve Miller Band is that they’re just a not-especially-good, but ultimately inoffensive pop rock band. Like most other bands of their stripe, they’ve got their songs I actually somewhat enjoy (“Take the Money and Run” and even their shameful synth-rock sellout “Abracadabra” are both fun enough), and they’ve got their songs that I find boring, tedious, and totally uninspired, like “Jet Airliner”. “Jet Airliner” is a classic case of a song being less than the sum of its parts. The Eagles-y lead lines have some zip and energy to them, the verses and chorus go up and down in all the places they ought to, the production is quite solid for a song of this subgenre- most of the pieces are where they should be. And yet, the song lacks any kind of animating force behind it all, a central emotion or idea that makes it feel like more than just a collection of guitar parts, drum hits and words. I get the sense that Miller was never aiming much higher than playing in a successful bar band, because on all of his songs, even the ones I like, he just doesn’t seem to have much to say about his inner life or the world around him. He is, in a word, unambitious. And that isn’t necessarily bad, but it means that whenever a song doesn’t quite come together, if Miller hasn’t stumbled across a musical idea strong enough to compensate for his overall lack of artistic vision, we get a song like this- full of competent musicianship and competent songcraft, but ultimately hollow at the core.
#8: Shaun Cassidy- Da Doo Ron Ron
Much like his older half-brother David, Shaun Cassidy was, at heart, an old-school rock-n-roll fanboy. He liked Elvis and Chuck Berry and the pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, and much of his self-titled debut album consisted of pastiches of that sort of light, pre-British Invasion rock sound. Unfortunately, said pastiches were, to put it mildly, quite poor. “Da Doo Ron Ron”, a cover of a Phil Spector girl group tune from 1963, winds up feeling much more akin to Pat Boone than any of the more respectable artists Cassidy was likely inspired by, or even the straight pop of the original. I’m far colder on Spector’s songwriting than a lot of pop fans, and I can’t say the lyrics or melody do much here to win me over (nonsense choruses are really hit-or-miss and this one feels decidedly “miss”), but even taking that into account, Cassidy’s rendition still falls comparatively short. The flat production doesn’t help it one bit, but the main culprit is Cassidy himself, who sings with a weak, breathy tenor that makes it all too obvious his singing career was owed largely to his being born into entertainment industry connections. The fact that he pivoted entirely to stage and screen acting after he aged out of the teen-idol market tells me that singing was not really something he particularly enjoyed or had much natural inclination to do. As with many young actors who attempt a career in music, Cassidy comes off like his only real goal is padding out his resume, and unfortunately, padding is about all “Da Doo Ron Ron” is good for.
#7: James Taylor- Handy Man
Here we have our second two-time worst list entrant with “Handy Man”, which first appeared all the way back on the 1960 worst list when co-writer Jimmy Jones’ version hit #2 on the pop charts. My biggest issue with that version was Jones’ rather grating falsetto, so a version that swapped that out for James Taylor’s pleasant-if-unspectacular croon should have had no trouble escaping my ire. Unfortunately, Taylor was, around this time, in the thick of arguably the worst period of his entire career- the “badly covering 60s soul tunes” period. He had already gotten a hit out of a painfully mediocre rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet it Is” in 1975, and given that the song he’s butchering this time around is one I hold far less affection for, the returns have diminished accordingly. Most of all I just can’t stand how drippy and joyless Taylor’s performance is here. I’m no fan of the Jimmy Jones original, but at least it had some pep in its step! Taylor’s slowed-down folk ballad cover can only highlight all the worst things about the song itself: the leering, uncomfortable lyricism and the insincere, opportunistic mushiness. Not only does the song still sound like a skeevy guy trying to woo the most emotionally-compromised girl at the bar, here it doesn’t even sound like he’s having any fun doing it.
#6: Bee Gees- Love So Right
I’ve always held Barry Gibb up as one of the prime examples of falsetto vocals done right, so it was pretty damned jarring for me to listen through some of the Bee Gees’ lesser-known material and realize that, when he wasn’t on a track that put his voice in the proper context, Gibb’s singing was absolutely horrendous. Contrast this song with “You Should Be Dancing”, their smash single from 1976. Gibb’s voice acted almost as a crisp funk guitar or a keening synth that made perfect sense over the tight, energetic disco groove. But put him on a slow-burnin’ ballad like “Love So Right”? It casts the shrill, reedy yelp at the center of the song in the worst possible light. It doesn’t help that the song itself isn’t anything too special: the narrator catches feelings over a one-night-stand and mopes over it. Nothing egregious, sure, but there’s not much that really reels me in, no moments of striking poetry to give it appeal beyond the music. This band has its fair share of highlights, but “Love So Right” amounts to little more than a mediocre snooze featuring a singer that just isn’t the right guy for the job.
#5: Barbra Streisand- Evergreen
What do I mean when I say a song has a “good melody” or a “bad melody”? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, and one without a single, simple answer. At the end of the day, sometimes the way some songs go up and down just doesn’t release dopamine in my brain the same way it does when other songs go up and down. But there are qualities I’ve noticed, common traits amongst songs that I dislike on a melodic level. One of the biggest ones is aimlessness. Some songs, despite having what could be described on paper as a coherent structure and a distinct verse-chorus progression, just have a melody that feels like it’s always wandering around and never doing anything purposeful.
Which brings us to “Evergreen”, also known as the “Love Theme” from the version of A Star is Born that stars Barbra Streisand and outlaw country legend Kris Kristofferson. This song doesn’t do much that tickles me instrumentally (it fittingly sounds like a film score set to lyrics), and I’ve made clear in the past that I don’t care for Streisand’s singing voice, but the key to its failure for me really does come down to the melody. I just sat down and intently listened to it not 5 minutes ago, and already I can’t recall a single melodic phrase it contained! Every cadence and lift just felt arbitrary. It never built to a big climax, and if it repeated itself at any point it did so in a way that didn’t reinforce any kind of motif or musical idea. I just imagine Streisand and co-writer Paul Williams writing this song and saying to each other something like “I’unno, just go up a minor third here here and here, that’s the sort of thing a melody might do in a song like this, right?” “Yeah, and I’ll do a little vocal run here, to show that I am, in fact, a professional singer. What notes will I be hitting? Eh, it doesn’t matter!” I have to admit, the fictional Barbra Streisand who I just made up has a good point. This song really, really just does not matter.
#4: The Sylvers- High School Dance
If you’ll recall last week’s list, this was not the only song from this year about being a teenager at a dance, and it’s pretty hard to not see “High School Dance” as the lesser of the two in pretty much every possible regard. Where “Dancing Queen” was earnest and emotional, this song is facile and inert, taking the same core concept and presenting it in the shallowest and least compelling way possible, which is especially unfortunate when you consider that about half the band were actual teenagers when they recorded this. It’s admittedly quite energetic, which I normally prize when it comes to dance and disco music, but it feels like a really forced, rah-rah-school-spirit sort of energy, something I’ve had an instinctual aversion to for about as long as I can remember. “Dancing Queen” sounds like what you might feel deep down in your soul as a teenager at a school dance, but “High School Dance” sounds like what the PTA would use to accompany announcements over the school intercom about the upcoming spring formal. Another big difference: the chorus is not about a “you”, but about a “we”- in other words, it’s not about the listener’s personal experience, but about establishing an in-group of which the listener is a part. I dunno, I’m probably overthinking it at the end of the day, but in a sense this song represents everything I didn’t like about being a high schooler- a ever-present pressure to conform, a subtle but pervasive clique mentality always hidden behind a veneer of cheery superficiality. Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll stay home.
#3: Shaun Cassidy- That’s Rock & Roll
“That’s Rock & Roll” suffers from a lot of the same problems as its sibling single from earlier on this list, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, but cranked up to the nth degree. The tempo is a little quicker, and the song overall a bit more energetic, but that only really serves to highlight how ill-equipped Cassidy and his producers were for the task at hand. Cassidy’s voice feels even more flimsy and ineffectual, and the slick production stands out even more than it did on the more pop-derived “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Interestingly, in the clips I’ve seen of Cassidy performing this song live, he sings in a noticeably lower register that feels a lot closer to the Elvis-lite sound he’s shooting for here, and I can only assume that for one reason or another he consciously tried to sing in a higher pitch than he was comfortable with on the recording. Maybe it was to give his voice a more youthful sound so the teens he was being sold to would be more receptive? Regardless, though that live version does sound a lot better, it doesn’t fix the problems with the song itself- namely, the “wow, guys, isn’t rock music great?” lyrics. I’ve complained before about songs whose only goal is the glorification of their parent genre, and that really is this song in a nutshell. The little tidbits that aren’t in that vein redeem it a bit (I like the assertion that “it doesn’t matter who or what you are”), but ultimately this is little more than a sub-par performance of a sub-par song- sub-par squared, if you will.
#2: Joe Tex- Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)
It’s… I mean, come on, it’s right there in the title, isn’t it? 12 years after breaking into the mainstream with the regressive “Hold What You’ve Got”, Joe Tex made his return to the top 40 with “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More”. Though he’s thankfully no longer scolding people for not being good enough partners to keep their spouses faithful (which, seriously, ew), the pointlessly cruel and fatphobic lyrics on display here are arguably much, much worse. I don’t really have any interest in litigating when specifically it is or isn’t acceptable to mock a person’s weight or physical appearance here, this just feels like mean-spirited punching down to me on a gut level. The whole song comes across like a totally fabricated story, made up just so that Tex could sing about how he doesn’t like fat women. It’s all the more a shame, then, that the song itself is a pretty nice R&B-influenced disco tune with a notably good bassline, and Tex himself puts a lot more gusto into the vocals than I remember hearing on his earlier stuff. It’s not irredeemable on a musical level, but there are far too many disco tracks from this era that I can enjoy guilt-free for me to have any reservations about discarding this one solely for the foul lyrics.
#1: Captain & Tennille- Muskrat Love
This may come as a surprise, but I actually have a lot less fun writing these worst lists than I do writing the best lists. I know really tearing into crappy art is supposed to be a critic’s bread and butter, but in general I much prefer being positive and complimentary with my writing. I like examining songs I think are great and figuring out what makes them tick, and I honestly think there’s no better feeling in the world than feeling like I’ve successfully communicated what it is that makes a song special to me. And what equivalent do I get on the worst lists? I have to write about fucking “Muskrat Love”, an absolutely valueless, vapid piece of mostly-forgotten pop detritus. Y’know, I really was too hard on those old early-60s novelty tunes- most of those had the gumption to really, genuinely suck. This is a love song about muskrats! Those ratty beaver things that are mostly known for smelling like wet skunk! That’s a stupid enough concept to deserve execution with enough energy and verve to at least be obnoxious, not this flaccid soft-rock lullaby with barely a pulse to its name. Of course, I can’t fault Captain and Tennille entirely for this, because yet again the duo went to the top 10 with a cover, and the fact that they aren’t desecrating something actually worthwhile this time proves here to be a small comfort, indeed. I have no idea why an act as soullessly mercenary as the Captain and Tennille decided to cover something this bizarre, and even less of an idea why so many people actually bought it given how utterly bereft of anything even resembling a musical idea it is. Apart from the Captain’s irritating little imitations of muskrat chittering with his keyboard (a pretty damn meager takeaway, if you ask me), this song has nothing to offer. Zip, zilch, nada. There are worse songs I’ve covered for this project, but none I would argue you need to hear less.