In the larger music world, 1978 was a strong and incredibly diverse year for music. From heavy metal and punk beginning to properly gain traction in the underground and beyond, to experimental oddballs like The Residents and Sun-Ra flourishing in the even-deeper-underground, to art school heroes like Kate Bush, Devo and Kraftwerk gaining or strengthening footholds of their own, to Brian Eno literally inventing the concept of “ambient music”, there was something to fall in love with in ‘78 no matter what kind of music nerd you were. In the mainstream, however, ‘78 was more disco-centric than even the past few years had been, and though there was still some solid variety on display, this is where I think the extended golden age for chart pop started to fracture. Don’t get me wrong, this was still a good year for pop overall, and there are plenty of incredibly great songs and roundly enjoyable chart years we’ve yet to cover, but if you’ve gotten tired of me gushing over how great every year has been, rest assured that things get a bit more interesting from here on out. In the meantime, though, we’ve got 10 more groovy ‘70s classics to get through- on with the show!
#10: Heatwave- The Groove Line
In a year so dominated by disco, it’s only fitting that I kick this list off with one of the better dancefloor jams the year produced. “The Groove Line” is nothing more or less than an extremely well-written, enjoyable disco track. It doesn’t do much to put a unique spin on the genre, but don’t think that means it doesn’t tick every box in the disco handbook with style and enthusiasm. Groovy beats? Check. Crisp, finger-lickin’ funk guitar? Check. A sweet chorus that brings it all together? Check. The iconic “disco call”? Oh, you’d better believe that’s a big fat CHECK. And it still manages to bring at least a bit of distinct flavor to the table with a little ragtime tack-piano break that’s so smoothly integrated into the fresh, funky sound of the track that you might not even notice it if you’re too busy shaking your groove thing, which would of course be totally understandable. It’s not one to win over the anti-disco folks, but for anyone who knows the value of music that’s just fun as hell to get up and dance to, “The Groove Line” cuts right past the pretense and delivers exactly that.
#9: Sweet- Love is Like Oxygen
It’s a darn shame that 1978 marks the end of Sweet’s relevance in the mainstream rock world, because “Love is Like Oxygen” is, more than anything, the sound of a band finding their voice. That’s not to say it’s necessarily better than their earlier singles, or that they suddenly became a totally singular entity that didn’t sound like anything else out there. I actually think it’s a few shades shy of “Ballroom Blitz” or “Fox on the Run”, mostly thanks to a slightly janky chorus-to-verse transition, and there are still obvious strains of Queen and ELO and Bowie and Elton. But, for once, Sweet sounds like a band that doesn’t sound fully like any other band- they still wear their influences on their sleeve, but here they wear more of them, and the end result feels like much more its own “thing”. “Love is Like Oxygen” pretty much lives and dies on its excellent chorus, with some very nice vocal interplay and staccato piano giving it a strong rhythmic interest. Brian Connolly’s higher register is in peak form throughout the entire track, too, and he brings enough rock-star bravado in his performance to break past the slightly doofy lyrical conceits (I’m pretty sure breathing too much oxygen doesn’t actually get you high?). The prog-rock synth fanfares that open the track are a nice touch, and though they seem a touch mismatched, the more subdued, spacious verses provide a solid contrast with the glammier stomp of the chorus. Though what they build with this song isn’t their most impressive achievement, the foundation upon which they build it is stronger than ever, and it’s enough to make me long for an alternate timeline where the band continued to expand on that foundation for years to come.
#8: Steely Dan- Peg
To most rock historians, “Peg” is famous as one of the ur-examples of visionary auteurs tormenting their creative teams for weeks on end to make a record sound just precisely the way they envisioned it in their heads. And make no mistake, “precise” for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker meant downright surgical, leagues beyond what would be considered “precise” for nearly anyone else in the world of chart pop. Seven of the most gifted and proficient session guitarists in Los Angeles came and went before the duo found a solo that captured exactly the tone and energy they were aiming for, courtesy of Jay Graydon. So, with all that in mind, perhaps the most impressive thing about “Peg” is how light and almost tossed-off it sounds. Of course, the performances and recording are still immaculate, every piece of the composition played deftly and without fault, but the overall vibe of the song really crystallizes Steely Dan as the godfathers of the “yacht rock” subgenre: playful, easygoing, and mellow, with the jazz influences acting as an accent to add shading and depth to the piece. When the peppy saxophone comes in the track even gets downright breezy, bouncing along with seemingly not a care in the world. But of course, because it’s Steely Dan, the pristine accompaniment only serves to mask the perverse lyrics, the narrating photographer leering lecherously over pictures of his model ex-girlfriend. As with many Steely Dan songs, I think the smooth, broadly appealing sound of the track ends up detracting a bit from the biting lyrics, but the sheer musicality on display and the flair with which it’s pulled off are nonetheless enough to make “Peg” a pleasure to revisit whenever regular old four-chord pop fare just isn’t cutting it.
#7: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band- Hollywood Nights
Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” is my least favorite song of the entire 1970s, and the purest distillation of everything I dislike about rock as a genre. If it had been a big enough hit to make a billboard year-end list, it would have undoubtedly topped my worst list regardless of which year it was for. So, given my antipathy towards that song, it was both surprising and delightful to discover that nearly everything else Seger recorded with the Silver Bullet Band was miles upon miles more likeable! They largely trafficked in thoughtful, rootsy takes on pop-rock, with lyrics ruminating over reckless and carefree youths and/or bygone romance- sort of the Dr. Pepper to Bruce Springsteen’s Coca-Cola. With that comparison in mind, “Hollywood Nights” finds Seger at his Springsteen-iest, quite possibly the closest thing to a “Born to Run” he would ever record, though lyrically it takes almost the opposite angle. Where “Born to Run” is a first-person look at a young man desperate to escape his small town and find something better, “Hollywood Nights” looks in the third-person at a small-town guy lost in the sparkle and shine of the west coast, head over heels for some platinum-blonde Californian and totally out of his depth. There’s some real feeling to the lyric, especially the final verse where the protagonist inevitably ends up alone and stranded in an unfamiliar city, but at the end of the day it’s the Silver Bullet Band’s performance that does most of the legwork to make the song really stand out. Between the urgent, uptempo drumming and the glimmering organ, the song just thrums with youthful verve and restless, starry-eyed angst, and Seger himself hollers every line like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. It perfectly captures the overheated emotions of young adulthood on a sonic level, and the words have just enough of a poetic edge for it to feel totally earned. You want “reminiscing about the days of old”? Try this one on for size.
#6: Parliament- Flash Light
George Clinton loves funk, the way KISS or AC/DC loves rock ‘n’ roll. The difference, though, is that Clinton never took himself too seriously. Sure, he constructed entire elaborate sci-fi mythologies about the all-important, universe-saving power of funk, but there was always a silly, gonzo edge to the whole thing that made it clear he was totally in on the joke. That silliness also allowed Clinton and his twin bands Parliament and Funkadelic to create some of the most psychedelic jams in the history of R&B, because they understood one thing: psychedelia, more than anything, is about interesting textures. And when you learn to strip away your sense of self-importance, a lot more textures become available to you. Even on “Flash Light”, where P-Funk’s zanier tendencies are as reigned-in as they’d ever be, Clinton and his cohorts still cram the song full of so many interesting sonic doodads and whatsits that even if it didn’t rock one of the sickest grooves of the year, it would still be worth a dozen-plus listens just to appreciate how many great sounds they fit into one track. Guitar lines that crackle with funky energy, the always-welcome contributions of the virtuosic Bootsy Collins on bass, sundry synth squiggles and bloops, and a handful of cartoonish voices delivering nonsense lyrics about finding the funk and/or a beat- it’s all irrepressibly goofy and endearing, if a tad scatterbrained. If you don’t believe freeform absurdism can work flawlessly as dancefloor fodder, “Flash Light” is as likely to change your mind as anything.
#5: Earth, Wind & Fire- Serpentine Fire
All ‘n All felt like a quantum leap for Earth, Wind & Fire. They had been rising stars in the pop world since their 1975 breakthrough That’s the Way of the World, but 1978 was, I would argue, the year they finally ascended to the position of standard-bearers for pop at large and mainstream R&B specifically. While “Getaway” got more than its fair share of mileage out of energy and novelty, “Serpentine Fire” is the first EW&F single that I think fully comes together on a songwriting level. By borrowing both the irresistible rhythm of disco, the upbeat horns and punchy basslines of funk, and the more sensitive, spiritual side of earlier soul, the song becomes a synthesis of the past dozen-ish years of black pop, like a casserole made from the best, most complementary leftovers a kitchen can provide. The song is a little hard to parse lyrically- Maurice White was always more about the tune that the words- but a clear throughline of appreciation for the spiritual invigoration the narrator’s partner provides is present. Their love makes him feel good, and thus the song makes us all feel good. The lyrics have a buttery-smooth cadence throughout- I tend to get hung up on lyrics that don’t match the flow of the music and melody, and “Serpentine Fire” is a great example of getting that right. “All about the serpentine fire” especially just slots into the groove of the song so beautifully, without feeling too obvious or predictable. Overall, it’s a creative and vibrant take on a multitude of familiar sounds, presented cohesively and with style and good cheer to spare. If that isn’t the very essence of great R&B, I don’t know what is.
#4: Queen- We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions
Here we are folks, the one and only time I’ll ever cram two songs into a single best-list entry. Pinky promise. I think it’s justified, though; really, how can you have “We Will Rock You” without “We Are the Champions”? That’s a pairing as enduring and classic as burgers and fries, and for the millions who have mainly been exposed to these songs via their use at sporting events, they might as well be one and the same. Frankly, this song’s appeal is, at least to me, almost inseparably intertwined with sporting events. What better bookends to a Big Game could you possibly ask for- the pump-the-team-up chant of “We Will Rock You” to get you hyped up beforehand, and the Olympian victory lap of “We Are the Champions” to celebrate a hard-fought victory afterwards. I’m about the least sports-minded person you’ll ever meet- I’ve never played a team sport in any serious capacity, I’ve never watched ESPN of my own free will, and in general I just don’t really understand the appeal. But something about these songs makes me feel like, if only for a moment, I do understand the appeal. Say what you want about these songs being dumb or simplistic or the soundtrack to being jostled about by a thousand drunken screaming morons, but you can’t deny that at the heart of it, there’s a real conviction. This band believes with all their heart that we really will keep on fighting ‘till the end, and it ain’t worth nothing that so many (myself included) always believe right along with them.
#3: Bee Gees- Stayin’ Alive
There’s a reason “Stayin’ Alive” is still considered the Bee Gees song over 40 years after the fact. As much as it may seem a mite tasteless to give this song, written and performed by three straight white men, the title of “best disco song ever”, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single track that better encapsulates what disco as a genre was capable of. From the opening seconds, the groove here rolls over you with a point-blank unstoppable force, boiling down all the finest funk of the past decade into a strutting four-on-the-floor and a guitar line so precise and fluid it could well have been played by an actual machine. It’s also one of the least effortless dance songs I’ve ever heard. That may seem like an odd point to make, but in my eyes it’s what makes “Stayin’ Alive” what it is: tense. Every part of the song, from the way every note falls exactly where it should within the framework of the rhythm to Barry Gibb’s sharp falsetto yelps in the chorus, conveys strain and effort. While I tend to prefer my dance music light and carefree, here the constant sense of tension feels entirely welcome, because it is, in fact, the subject of the song. “Stayin’ Alive” is about getting four minutes where, for a change, you aren’t the world’s punching bag and seizing that moment. Seizing it to do what, you ask? To dance your damn ass off, or course! Indeed, the chorus asserts that in one way or another, we’re all “stayin’ alive”, and the acknowledgement that most of our lives are just a bit crappy most of the time makes it that much more satisfying to bust a move to. In a way, the tension here embodies the tension between the dancefloor and the larger world outside of it, and the Bee Gees’ greatest feat may just be managing to turn that into a striking (and more importantly, danceable) artistic statement.
#2: Electric Light Orchestra- Turn to Stone
I’ve said before that I tend to prefer Jeff Lynne’s more subdued, ballad-y material, but I’ve been listening to ELO since long before I had much of a critical ear, and I can’t pretend that songs like “Turn to Stone” aren’t what originally got me hooked on the band. Speaking as a staunch opponent of the notion that “lyrics don’t matter”, the lyrics here absolutely do not matter at all. After 10 years and countless listens, I still couldn’t begin to tell you what “Turn to Stone” is about or recite any more than a handful of the lyrics from memory. “Turn to Stone” is a fantastically great pop song crammed full of memorable melodies and pleasing, creative musicianship, and that’s all it needs to be. That little noodly synth walk-down leading into the first chorus? Seriously, I can barely comprehend what a genius move that was. It just sounds so good! And the song has like a dozen of those perfect musical moments that tickle my ear and put a spring in my step. The Queen-esque vocal breakdown, the little violin interjections in the chorus, the way the backing and lead vocals playfully bounce back and forth in the verse- all delightful. And to slightly amend my previous point, there’s also something to be said for the way the lyrics manage to consistently avoid hampering the pristine pop craftsmanship. They don’t provide much food for thought, but they also don’t leave a bad taste in the mouth or complicate matters with any head-scratching non-sequiturs that might distract you from jauntily humming along. “Turn to Stone” is proof that a well-crafted hook can be as worthwhile an artistic pursuit as anything else in music. Sure, it’s nice when a songwriter goes above and beyond, but stuff like “Turn to Stone” will, to me, always be what pop radio is meant to sound like.
#1: Kansas- Dust in the Wind
Ah, and after 9 entries of upbeat and/or energetic and/or danceable songs, we get to my very favorite single of the year: a spare, somber acoustic ballad about the inevitability of death! Hardly in keeping with the rest of the list, but I think I stand by it. Really think about the image in the title of the song: dust blowing in the wind. That mental image- desolate, uncaring, devoid of life or deeper meaning- is exactly what “Dust in the Wind” feels like to listen to. Singer Steve Walsh casts his voice out over the basic yet haunting acoustic guitar arpeggios, intoning a beautiful and deeply affecting melody that perfectly gets across the sheer despair of the lyrics. Now, I’m not sixteen anymore so I would hardly call myself a nihilist, and frankly I don’t think it’s an especially compelling or useful worldview, but what makes “Dust in the Wind” so impactful is the way it doesn’t try to oversell its nihilism. It doesn’t bang on about how empty and pointless everything is, about how nothing matters and we’ll all just die anyway. It simply and sorrowfully states what are, at the end of the day, undeniable facts: nothing lasts forever. Eventually, you and I and everyone we know and love will be gone, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. There is no real comfort in that. It’s fucking sad, really sad, and it makes you feel small and weak and insignificant in the ways more adolescent attempts at nihilism try to paper over with callous snark. It’s not especially common for songs this comprehensively draining and hopeless to become hits, so whenever one does you can bet that it’s because it’s the one song that can capture such a hollowing, soul-crushing idea well enough that we’ll never need another song about it again. I don’t really want any more music about how all of human creation is a meaningless monument to itself that the sands of time will eventually wipe from memory, that the rain and wind will eventually wither down to nothing… But I’ll be damned if I’m not glad this is the one song about that we do have.