For those who were not around in the year 1974 — or as a refresher for those who were — here are a few notable events.

In February, publishing heiress Patty Hearst was abducted by a group of radicals called the Symbionese Liberation Army, prompting one of the biggest national news stories of its era. In August, President Richard Nixon resigned and President Gerald Ford immediately assumed office, fully pardoning Nixon several months later. In October, Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight in Zaire, Africa, effectively reclaiming the world heavyweight title.

During all of this, one of the most fruitful batches of new music of the entire decade was ushered in. Landmark releases from David Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dolly Parton, the Eagles, Steely Dan and countless others arrived — songs that, five decades later, are still played on heavy rotation.

Below, we're taking a look at the Top 50 Songs of 1974 as voted by UCR staff. To begin, a handful of songs tied for the No. 50 slot...

50. Sparks, "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us"
From: Kimono My House

"My voice ain't a 'rock' voice," singer Russell Mael told The Word at one point, speaking about the falsetto he used in "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us." "It's not soulful, in the traditional rock way. It's not about 'guts.' It's untrained, unschooled, I never questioned why I was singing high. It just happened, dictated by the songs." This track was not a hit in America, but performed remarkably well in several European countries.


50. Ohio Players, "Fire"
From: Fire

The sirens at the beginning of Ohio Players' "Fire" can only mean one thing: red hot funk is on the way. The opening track to the album of the same name, "Fire" was a massive hit for the band, going to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Soul Singles chart within just a few months. It became one of their signature songs.


50. Neil Young, "Ambulance Blues"
From: On the Beach

Neil Young must have known that "Ambulance Blues," the nearly nine-minute closing track to On the Beach would not really be suitable for radio play given its length, but that was hardly the point of the song, nor the album as a whole. Here, Young yearns for the earlier days of his musical career, before extreme and disenchanting fame pounced on him — "Back in the old folky days / The air was magic when we played."


49. Chicago, "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long"
From: Chicago VII

"(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," penned by trombonist James Pankow, was the first single to be released from Chicago VII, and it certainly proved the right decision. The song went to No. 9 in the U.S. (Pankow's other sole songwriting contribution to the album was "Mongonucleosis.")


48. Raspberries, "Overnight Sensation"
From: Starting Over

Songwriters will often say that songs will unfold in the same way movies do, with a plot and a cast of characters. This is what happened with "Overnight Sensation" by Raspberries, written by lead singer Eric Carmen. "It was written very theatrically," he recalled in the liner notes to 2005's Raspberries Greatest. "The first scene was, you can picture Abbey Road Studios, this great, huge dark room with a real high camera and this one spotlight on the singer and it was like this guy singing in his living room, thinking about the music business. ... Visually, I was trying to get on a record what I was seeing in my head."


47. Patti Smith, "Piss Factory"
From: 1974 Single

Thanks to a man named Sam Wagstaff, a prominent artistic curator and benefactor, Patti Smith was able to finance the making of her very first single, the double-sided "Hey Joe" / "Piss Factory." The former is a Jimi Hendrix cover, but the latter was the young punk poet's very first original release. Like a number of her songs, it stemmed from a poem she'd been writing. "I was saying that as a young person, I still had desire — desire to do well," she later told Rolling Stone. "Perhaps some of the people in the factory lost all desire. I can understand how that can happen. ... What 'Piss Factory' is about is: someone who in the midst of the dead felt alive."


46. The Doobie Brothers, "Black Water"
From: What Once Were Vices Now Are Habits

Sometimes, a little noodling goes a long way. While the Doobie Brothers were at work on their 1973 album The Captain and Me, Patrick Simmons was just fooling around on his guitar in between takes. "All [of a] sudden I heard the talk-back go on," Simmons recalled to Guitar Player in 2016, "and [producer] Ted Templeman says: 'What is that?' I said: 'It's just a little riff that I came up with that I've been tweaking with.' He goes: 'I love that. You really should write a song using that riff.'" And he did: 1974's "Black Water."


45. Blue Swede, "Hooked on a Feeling"
From: Hooked on a Feeling

"Hooked on a Feeling" was first recorded and released by B.J. Thomas in 1968, a No. 5 hit. Six years later, the Swedish rock group Blue Swede took the song even higher to the No. 1 slot with their 1974 recording, which was modeled off a 1971 cover by Jonathan King.


44. Bad Company, "Ready for Love"
From: Bad Company

It's not really stealing if you do so from yourself. "Ready for Love," penned by Mick Ralphs, was first released by Mott the Hoople in 1972. Ralphs, who sang lead on the track, was never quite happy with his vocal performance, so when he left Mott the Hoople and formed Bad Company, the song got a second chance in 1974 with singer Paul Rodgers.


43. Nazareth, "Love Hurts"
From: Hair of the Dog

"Love Hurts" has been covered by a number of artists over the years, including the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Joan Jett, Rod Stewart and more. But the most successful version came from Nazareth, who released it as a single in 1974. It went to No. 8 in the U.S. and topped the charts in multiple other countries.


42. Kraftwerk, "Autobahn"
From: Autobahn

Kraftwerk's 20-plus minute song "Autobahn," was released with only German lyrics, but the verbal language wasn't the point. The overall feeling of being on the road was much more important. "It was an environmental composition, a sound painting," lead singer Ralf Hutter told The Guardian in 2017. "We were touring in Germany and when we played in other cities, we didn't have money to stay in hotels. So we were always driving on the autobahn, going somewhere and coming back at night all the time."


41. Cat Stevens, "Oh Very Young"
From: Buddha and the Chocolate Box

The interesting thing about Cat Stevens is that he always seemed able to impart a sense of wisdom far beyond his age. He was only 25 years old when he released "Oh Very Young," a No. 10 hit that pointed to the brevity of life itself: "You're only dancin' on this earth for a short while / And though your dreams may toss and turn you now / They will vanish away like your dads best jeans."


40. Joe Walsh, "Turn to Stone"
From: So What

"Turn to Stone," first released by Barnstorm in 1972, was written about President Nixon's administration, the Vietnam War and the protests it caused. "In those days it felt like the government's priority was not the population," Joe Walsh told Rolling Stone in 2016. "They had an agenda that was about something other than doing what was necessarily good for the country." Two years later, Walsh recorded the song again for his own solo album, So What.


39. Gordon Lightfoot, "Sundown"
From: Sundown

Gordon Lightfoot only landed one No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100: the title track to his 1974 album Sundown. "I think my girlfriend was out with her friends one night at a bar while I was at home writing songs," he told American Songwriter in 2008, recalling its writing process. "I thought, 'I wonder what she's doing with her friends at that bar!' It's that kind of a feeling. 'Where is my true love tonight? What is my true love doing?'"


38. Grand Funk Railroad, "Some Kind of Wonderful"
From: All the Girls in the World Beware!!!

If you've never heard the original version of "Some Kind of Wonderful," recorded by the R&B group Soul Brothers Six, it's highly recommended. You'll be able to tell exactly where Grand Funk Railroad was able to pull the power from for their enormously successful 1974 cover of the song.


37. Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You"
From: Jolene

Much has been written about Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," but arguably the most compelling story to have been born out of its creation is the one involving Elvis Presley. As the song climbed the country charts in 1974, Presley's manager, Colonel Parker, informed Parton that his client wanted to cover the song, but that his standard procedure included being given half the publishing rights. Torn but determined to stick to her guns, Parton declined the offer. Years later, she gave Whitney Houston permission to record the song. "When Whitney's came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland," Parton quipped to Country Music Television in 2006.


36. Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothin'"
From: Fulfillingness' First Finale

Joe Walsh wasn't the only artist taking aim at Nixon in 1974. Stevie Wonder voiced his own opinion on "You Haven't Done Nothin,'" which featured the Jackson 5 as backing vocalists. "Everybody promises you everything," Wonder said when the single was released, "but in the end, nothing comes out of it. ... I'm sick and tired of all their lies."


35. Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Call Me the Breeze"
From: Second Helping

Penned by J.J. Cale, there is arguably no more iconic version of "Call Me the Breeze" than Lynyrd Skynyrd's. "Ronnie [Van Zant] was a big fan of J.J. Cale," guitarist Rickey Medlocke told UCR in 2023. "And I'm telling you, you know, in our history, and in our past, I mean, there are several songs that you get into the show and there's several songs that you cannot forget to do. And 'Call Me the Breeze' is one of them."


34. Billy Preston, "Nothing From Nothing"
From: The Kids & Me

Billy Preston's "Nothing From Nothing" is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. The first, of course, is that it was a gigantic hit, reaching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying on the charts for four and a half months. The second is that Preston performed it when he appeared as one of the two first ever musical guests on Saturday Night Live in October 1975. (The other was Janis Ian.)


33. Labelle, "Lady Marmalade"
From: Nightbirds

Patti LaBelle did not understand the French lyrics in 1974's "Lady Marmalade" when it was first presented to her, but she didn't care. All she knew was the song would be a big one for her band. "For once I can say 'yes' and really mean 'yes' because we were on our way to New Orleans with Allen Toussaint back in the day before he passed," she said in a 2023 interview. "Once we got this 'Lady M' song I said, 'We have to record this first, 'cause it's a hit,' and it was a hit!" (It held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a whole week.)


32. Eagles, "Best of My Love"
From: On the Border

"Glenn [Frey] found the tune; the tune I think came from a Fred Neil record," J.D. Souther, co-writer of "Best of My Love" recalled to Acoustic Storm in 2009. "I don’t know who wrote the first lines; we wrote it in London." It became the Eagles' very first No. 1 hit, though certainly not the last.


31. Funkadelic, "Red Hot Mama"
From: Standing on the Verge of Getting It On

When guitarist Eddie Hazel returned to Funkadelic for the first time in three years, it was as though the pieces fell into place. You can hear the relief and cohesion of the group on a song like "Red Hot Mama," co-written by Hazel.


30. Bad Company, "Bad Company"
From: Bad Company

Self-titling an album is one thing, self-titling one of its tracks is another. But this is what Bad Company did in 1974. Why? "I think because it had never really been done, as far as I knew," Paul Rodgers told Spinner in 2010. "I thought it was interesting to come out as a brand-new band with its own theme song."


29. Elton John, "The Bitch Is Back"
From: Caribou

You really never know when a good title is going to strike you. In the case of Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back," it came from Bernie Taupin's wife, Maxine Feibelman, who coined the phrase one day when John was in a poor mood. From there the song, a No. 4 hit in the U.S., practically wrote itself.


28. Rufus and Chaka Kahn, "Tell Me Something Good"
From: Rags to Rufus

You might think that Rufus and Chaka Kahn's "Tell Me Something Good" has a sort of Stevie Wonder quality to it — and that would make sense, given he wrote the track. Pay special attention to Tony Maiden's guitar talk box part, one of the first instances of the tool being used in a hit song.


27. Rush, "Working Man"
From: Rush

Even decades after its 1974 release, Geddy Lee still cited "Working Man" as his favorite song to play live — and it's become a fan favorite, too. It's fitting then that this was the last song the band played live together at their final concert in 2015.


26. Billy Joel, "The Entertainer"
From: Streetlife Serenade

By his own admission, Billy Joel didn't have a lot to say on 1974's Streetlife Serenade — he frankly was too busy touring to come up with much material for a new album. Joel wrote about this pressure in "The Entertainer," a cynical sort of ode to the relentless grind that is being a working musician in an industry that moves at lightning speed. "I won't be here in another year," he sings at the end of the track, "if I don't stay on the charts."


25. Kiss, "Black Diamond"
From: Kiss

Paul Stanley had almost all the necessary parts for "Black Diamond," the closing track to Kiss' debut album. But it was Gene Simmons who provided the final puzzle piece: the riff. "It's all about arrangement and embellishment," Stanley told Guitar World in 1996. "That's what you're supposed to do in a band: come in and add something."


24. Electric Light Orchestra, "Can't Get It Out of My Head"
From: Eldorado

ELO first formed in 1970, but it wasn't until 1974 that they began reaching a wider audience, thanks in part to Eldorado. The band landed their very first Top 10 hit in the U.S. with "Can't Get It Out of My Head," even though it didn't chart in their native country. This was still a welcome development considering Jeff Lynne had purposefully written the track to prove a point to his father, who had told him his songs had no tune. "So I said, 'I’'ll show you a tune then,'" he recalled on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show in 2019.


23. Ringo Starr, "No No Song"
From: Goodnight Vienna

Penned by Hoyt Axton and David Jackson, "No No Song" is supposed to be a humorous take on, well, drug addiction – sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. Ringo Starr, at the time he recorded the track, was over a decade away from becoming sober himself, making his version even more tongue-in-cheek. In any case, it was a hit, reaching No. 3 in the U.S.


22. Bob Dylan, "Forever Young" (Slow Version)
From: Planet Waves

Over the course of his career, Bob Dylan has become famous for reinventing his own songs, putting new spins on them such that the result is something entirely different. Back in 1974, he did this in the studio with "Forever Young," two versions of which, one faster and one slower, were included on Planet Waves. It's the slower version, though, that strikes more of an emotional chord.


21. Big Star, "September Gurls"
From: Radio City

"I really loved the mid-'60s British pop music, all two and a half minutes or three minutes long, really appealing songs," Alex Chilton of Big Star told The Independent in 2010. "So I've always aspired to that same format, that's what I like." "September Gurls," which did not chart at the time of its release, is an excellent example of this.


20. ABBA, "Waterloo"
From: Waterloo

ABBA's "Waterloo" was specifically written with the intention of being entered into the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, the 19th running of the program. This mission was successful, but beyond that, it was a big step for ABBA — "Waterloo" made it to No. 6 in the U.S., helping bring them to a wider American audience.


19. Kiss, "Strutter"
From: Kiss

Unlike "Black Diamond" above, "Strutter" was truly a collaborative effort between Stanley and Simmons, who were credited as co-writers. Using a song Simmons had written called "Stanley the Parrot," Stanley changed the groove a bit and wrote new lyrics. "With 'Strutter,' I was trying to approximate the feel of the Stones' 'Brown Sugar,' to write a song that had swagger and attitude and a bravado to it," Stanley told Classic Rock in 2021. "Once the feel of the song changed it seemed to lend itself to a lyric which captured that swagger."


18. Harry Chapin, "Cat's in the Cradle"
From: Verities & Balderdash

It's possibly the best known song about the circle of familial life: Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle." "Frankly, this song scares me to death," Chapin once said of it, noting that he was thinking of his own relationship with his son, Josh, when writing the track.


17. Genesis, "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"
From: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Understandably, the music of Genesis is not everyone's cup of tea. But for prog rockers, it doesn't get much more seminal than The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Its title track was released as a single, and though it did not chart, it was still played often on American radio stations — a tantalizing taste of the rest of the LP.


16. John Lennon, "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night"
From: Walls and Bridges

Amazingly, 1974's "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," was the only song of John Lennon's that went to No. 1 while he was alive. "At night he loved to channel-surf, and he would pick up phrases from all the shows," Lennon's then-girlfriend May Pang said to Radio Times magazine in 2005. "One time, he was watching Reverend Ike, a famous black evangelist, who was saying, 'Let me tell you guys, it doesn't matter, it's whatever gets you through the night.' John loved it and said, 'I've got to write it down or I'll forget it.' He always kept a pad and pen by the bed. That was the beginning of 'Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.'"


15. Jackson Browne, "Late for the Sky"
From: Late for the Sky

You'd likely never guess it, but Jackson Browne was just 25 years old when he wrote the achingly tender "Late for the Sky. "I remember it very well," Browne told The Dallas Morning News in 2015. "I remember writing the lines, 'Now, for me, some words come easy, but I know that they don't mean that much, compared with the things that are said when lovers touch.' That kind of broke me down right there, and it's very emotional."


14. Eagles, "Already Gone"
From: On the Border

Back in 1968, songwriter Jack Tempchin was the manager of an unassuming club in San Diego. He and fellow songwriter Robb Strandlund would often provide the entertainment for the club themselves, but one evening they were in the back room of the venue when they found a mysterious jug of liquid, which they proceeded to drink. "So, we were drinking out of this jug and we started to feel really good, and I said, 'Let's write a country song,'" he recalled to Songfacts. (The jug contained hard cider, it turned out.) "So in about 20 minutes in the back room there, we wrote 'Already Gone.' The chorus goes woo hoo hoo because I just felt so good suddenly." Tempchin sent a tape of the song to Glenn Frey and the Eagles took it from there.


13. Bob Marley and the Wailers, "No Woman, No Cry"
From: Natty Dread

It's not exactly clear what role Bob Marley played in the writing of "No Woman, No Cry," because he gave the composer credit to a man named Vincent Ford, a friend of Marley's who ran a soup kitchen in the neighborhood Marley grew up in. Thus, the royalty payments Ford received helped keep the kitchen afloat and feeding people in need.


12. The Rolling Stones, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)"
From: It's Only Rock 'n Roll

"The idea of the song has to do with our public persona at the time," Mick Jagger would recall of "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" in the 1993 compilation Jump Back. "I was getting a bit tired of people having a go, all that, 'oh, it's not as good as their last one' business. The single sleeve had a picture of me with a pen digging into me as if it were a sword. It was a lighthearted, anti-journalistic sort of thing."


11. Joni Mitchell, "Help Me"
From: Court and Spark

Working with the jazz group Tom Scott's L.A. Express as her backing band, Joni Mitchell made the most successful single and the only Top 10 of her career in 1974: "Help Me." It's not easy to distill just how influential Mitchell's '70s work was to other musicians, but here's an example. "Help Me" was later referenced in Prince's "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker:" "'Oh, my favorite song,' she said / And it was Joni singing: 'Help me, I think I'm falling.'"


10. Al Green, "Take Me to the River"
From: Al Green Explores Your Mind

A lot of artists have recorded Al Green's "Take Me to the River:" Talking Heads, Levon Helm, Annie Lennox and Bryan Ferry among them. But the definitive version, featuring the Memphis Horns, remains Green's original 1974 cut.


9. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"
From: Not Fragile

Randy Bachman did not intend to make a huge hit single out of a crude joke song, but that's what happened with "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," which he purposefully sang with a stutter in an effort to make fun of his brother and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's manager, Gary. "He had a speech impediment," Bachman said in Fred Bronson’s 1988 book, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. "We thought, just for fun...we'd take this song and I'd stutter and we’d send it to him. He'll have the only copy in the world of this song by BTO." Obviously, things changed and the song, complete with the stuttering, was included on 1974's Not Fragile.


8. Queen, "Killer Queen"
From: Sheer Heart Attack

"It's about a high class call girl," Freddie Mercury explained of "Killer Queen" to NME in 1974. "I'm trying to say that classy people can be whores as well. That's what the song is about, though I'd prefer people to put their interpretation upon it — to read into it what they like." Not only did "Killer Queen" go to No. 2 in the U.K., it reached No. 12 in the U.S., Queen's first American hit.


7. Linda Ronstadt, "You're No Good"
From: Heart Like a Wheel

Hell really hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially when you place that woman in a recording studio. Linda Ronstadt was not the first to record "You're No Good," but her version became the definitive one. She'd already been performing the song live with her band, but her studio cut went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart.


6. Dolly Parton, "Jolene"
From: Jolene

Meanwhile in 1974, Dolly Parton was recording a song quite different from "You're No Good," one about the desperation felt when a prettier woman enters the picture. According to Parton, "Jolene" was inspired by an awfully friendly bank teller she noticed flirting with her husband when they were newlyweds. But for what it's worth, the couple has been married for close to 60 years.


5. Steely Dan, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
From: Pretzel Logic

By 1974's Pretzel Logic, it was abundantly clear that Steely Dan, the band, really referred to its core two songwriters, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. But nevertheless crucial to the recording of the song "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was drummer Jim Gordon (a decade before he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for murdering his mother) and guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who joined the Doobie Brothers not long after.


4. Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"
From: Second Helping

"Turn it up," Ronnie Van Zant confidently says at the top of "Sweet Home Alabama." One day guitarist Gary Rossington was messing around in the studio. "I had this little riff," he recalled to Garden & Gun in 2015. "It's the little picking part and I kept playing it over and over when we were waiting on everyone to arrive for rehearsal. Ronnie and I were sitting there, and he kept saying, 'play that again.'" Van Zant added lyrics and Ed King helped write the rest of the music, resulting in one of Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature songs.


3. Aerosmith, "Same Old Song and Dance"
From: Get Your Wings

There's a whole collection of artists whose sophomore album ended up a slump. Aerosmith was not one of them. They came more into their own on 1974's Get Your Wings, especially on "Same Old Song and Dance." "I told them that we should bring in some horns to bring out their rhythm and blues side," producer Jack Douglas recalled to Music Radar in 2012. "They definitely had that kind of style and sound already."


2. Elton John, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"
From: Caribou

"I like to be more interesting than a good old 'I love you, you love me, my heart will break if you leave me," Bernie Taupin told Esquire in 2012. "Throw in a curveball. 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me.' Put a dark twist on them." Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys sang backing vocals on this No. 2 hit.


1. David Bowie, "Rebel Rebel"
From: Diamond Dogs

If there is a stronger ode to gender-bending, unbridled glam rock than David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," we do not know it. With one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in music history, it isn't difficult to see why it became a crowd favorite, the kind of song that invites one to dance and throw caution to the wind. Who cares about the future when you can live in the present?

Top 50 Albums of 1974

Artists like Kiss and Judas Priest made their grand entrances into the world, while experts like David Bowie and the Rolling Stones pushed onward. 

Gallery Credit: Allison Rapp

More From Ultimate Classic Rock