How do 33-year-old hits by Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, and Ringo Starr hold up today? Let's give 'em another listen

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated January 19, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Stevie Wonder: Dave Ellis/Redferns/Retna

This week in ’74: Rating the top 10 hits

Hey, Flashbackers! Nice to see so many of you out and about last week, enjoying the Flashbacky goodness. Couple of business items to start:

1. I am happy to announce that, by a stinkin’ landslide, you people have declared Simple Minds’ ”Alive and Kicking” (see last week’s No. 4) to be a better song than ”Don’t You Forget About Me,” which speaks very highly for both your personal taste and your ability to make the unexpected choices.

2. I will continue to post the FAQ every week, in hopes that more and more of you will read it and take it to heart. However, I must ask that if and when someone comes trotting by with neither the time nor the inclination to read a FAQ (or a dateline), we all try to restrain ourselves from running them up the flagpole by their underpants. Wedgies are fun, but only in real life. Remember: Just because you’re using a pseudonym doesn’t mean God can’t see you.

On to the countdown! 1974 teeters on the brink between hippie and disco, and somehow the combination of hemp and polyester is soft and supple against my musical skin. Thus, I am proud to present what may be the strongest 10 songs we’ve yet encountered here at Chart Flashback. I kept looking for someplace to drop a gratuitous C (you know, for street cred with the Pitchfork crowd), but no such luck. Enjoy…

Billboard‘s Top 10 songs for the week ending Jan. 19, 1974

10. ”Love’s Theme,” Love Unlimited Orchestra
The LOOOOOOVE Boat! Soon we’ll be making a-NOOOther run… Okay, this instrumental isn’t the Love Boat theme, but it could have been — and who better to pen the definitive theme of this emotion than Barry ”People Enjoy Having Sex To My Records” White? Wocka wocka wocka STRINGS! Wocka wocka wocka HORNS! Doobie doobie doobie dooooooooo… daa-daa daaaaaaaa daaaaaaaa… wheeeeeeeee… Yes! Play on, my brother! Who needs a cocktail? B+

P.S.: Since we were talking about great John Hughes-movie theme songs last week, here is ”Love’s Theme,” as reinterpreted by OMD. Who have, in an increasingly less thrilling turn of events, recently decided to reunite.

9. ”Let Me Be There,” Olivia Newton-John
All right. I tried and failed to make the Stevie Nicks fans happy last week; this week I take on the Olivia Newton-John squad. You may recall I had less-than-fond memories of ”Physical,” but if we get in the way-way-back machine and check out this, her first Top 10 hit, we learn some fascinating things. First: Olivia Newton-John is a Grammy Award-winning country vocalist. (Who knew?) (Wait, lemme guess: All you now-indignant people?) Second: Her voice is far more suited to this genre than to some vaguely dirty song about sex/legwarmers. Third: Man, they just don’t make country songs like this anymore. It’s a simple melody, a sweet lyric, and how much do you dig the deep male vocal singing along on the chorus? It’s like one of the Oak Ridge Boys got lost. Cool. B

8. ”Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder
All right. There are two ways one can appreciate this song. The first is to take an analytical look at the way it serves as a predecessor to the brilliant Songs in the Key of Life (”Pasttime Paradise,” ”Village Ghetto Land”) and solidifies Stevie as one of the finest socially-conscious songwriters in history. The cinematic interlude — in which a young black man comes to New York and is unjustly arrested and jailed — might be disturbing, it might be gratuitous (depending on one’s mood and what they think of skits in the middle of songs); still, one cannot deny the point it gets across, especially when Stevie returns, with his voice inflamed, to sing ”He tried to vote, but to him there’s no solution.”

The other way to listen to ”Living for the City” is like this. (Soul Patrol!) Now, you may recoil in horror, but I don’t think it’s wrong. After all, no one would hear the message if they didn’t listen to the song in the first place. (This is the ”Here comes the plane! It’s coming into the hangar!” baby-food theory of awareness-raising.) So we can enjoy the great piano hook and those awesome, synth-fueled da-da-daaaas, and bop our heads along with the groovy beat, and that doesn’t make us bad people. I mean, that’s what I did the first time I heard the song, senior year of high school, sitting in a friend’s dorm room and trying to wrap my brain around the idea that Stevie Wonder was capable of something more than schmoopy love songs. Here was exciting music, clearly from an era long past, and yet way better than most of what I was listening to at that point. It was one of those moments that I look back on and realize why I like music so much in the first place: there is always something new to discover.

So I guess the ideal way to deal with ”Living for the City” is to fuse both of these methods together: Dance to the music, but remember the story behind it. As the late, great Jermaine Stewart might have said, We don’t have to take our clothes off to have a good time, oh no. A

7. ”The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand
Did somebody say schmoopy love songs? Okay, let me just be a girl for a minute and say that I love The Way We Were and I don’t care who knows it: I love the clothes and the cars and Redford in uniform and the house on the beach and I even briefly love socialism, although I continue to understand that it is a theory whose practical application leaves much to be desired. I also love the Sex and the City episode in which Carrie and the girls sing this song at the top of their lungs in a restaurant and then Carrie runs into Big and Natasha outside the Plaza Hotel and re-enacts the last scene of the movie. (”Your girl is lovely, Hubble…”) God that was sad…. Anyway, please let this entry serve as proof to contradict anyone who thought it was just all baseball all the time over here. Thank you. Now. The song. A bit much with the strings, don’t you think? I’ll let some of it slide because this was written for a movie whose sweep is epic and therefore a harpist flailing madly in the background doesn’t seem completely unearned — but sometimes I wonder if we couldn’t have let Babs’s voice stand on its own a little more.

Or maybe I’m just being bratty to keep myself from crying. A-

6. ”Time in a Bottle,” Jim Croce
Shake off those tears before listening to this one, kids, or you might puddle up right there at your desk: It’s Mr. Croce, coming at you from beyond the grave! There’s a very good chance I should recuse myself from any discussion of this song, seeing as how I haven’t been able to take it seriously since I was 15 years old and my best friend, Anna — who was a year older and therefore able to drive — had a Jim Croce Greatest Hits CD in the car, where she’d play this song over and over and over and over and over and sing along with it. It was the singing that did the song in: Anna had a lovely voice, but it was a classically trained voice, and so she’d warble along an octave too high with all this cheesy vibrato and I would roll down the window and wonder how fast the car had to be going to kill me if I jumped. (Sadly, Billy Joel’s entire catalog often fell victim to this same fate, especially ”Piano Man” and ”We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which, to be fair, didn’t have much going for it to begin with.) So I wish I could embrace Jim’s posthumous hit, with its lovely classical guitar vibe and touching, simple message… but alas, I cannot. It bugs the ever-living crap out of me. Still, in the interest of charity, I am tacking an extra full point onto the grade I actually want to give it because I understand my irritation is pretty personally specific/totally irrational. B-

5. ”You’re Sixteen,” Ringo Starr
Okay, now these videos are starting to creep me out.What is that?? Disney Channel softcore porn? If you are this invested in an animated series, people, you should not be old enough to also operate video-editing software! It’s just wrong, and it makes the Internets scarier than they already are!

What? The song? Oh. It’s a cover, and it’s perfectly entertaining, if a bit dull. (Ringo Starr = the original Brian Setzer, Genre Appropriator? Discuss!) I can’t help but think that were Paul and Linda McCartney not singing backup/playing kazoo, it would not have gone to No. 1, but I could always be underestimating the power of that ponytail. B-

4. ”I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” Gladys Knight & the Pips
No more ”poor, forgotten Gladys” this week! She is out in force! In fact, I like this song so much that I’m giving you kids two options for how you want to watch it: Original, or Extra Soul Train. Turn it up, learn it, love it: it’s the grooviest sad song of all time. Gladys is working at like Courtney Love levels of despair, yet she doesn’t make me want to do heroin — she makes me want to dance it out. And as we all know, dancing is better for you than heroin, and the Pips are way more fun than half-comatose alley junkies. That should have been their album blurb: ”Gladys Knight and the Pips: Way more fun than half-comatose alley junkies!” A-

3. ”Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” Brownsville Station
While I’m sure most of you are familiar with this version, we are in fact talking about this one right now. What’s the difference? My guess would be about 7,435 groupies, 14 drug-induced comas, and at least 3 STD’s, but what do I know? I do know that lead singer/songwriter Cub Koda has a vastly underrated rock-band-dude name (it’s no Nuno Bettencourt, but then, what is?); that without this track we might never have had a ”We’re Not Gonna Take It” or a ”Fight For Your Right To Party”; and that I like Brownsville’s straightforward blues version of this song far better than whatever Vince Neil & Co. are going on about. I think it’s the exuberant cymbal crashing here that really does it for me. Either that or now is the time to admit that I have always been absolutely terrified by Mötley Crüe. B

2. ”The Joker,” Steve Miller Band
I’m sitting over here slamming my head against the desk trying to come up with something interesting to say about this song, but there really isn’t anything. If Jon Cryer has bothered to write a movie entitled The Pompatus of Love, you know the damn thing is cashed; please also see this website for proof that there was a hell of a lot more going on with Steve Miller than just, you know, pot or whatever. So this is what’s known as ”a classic,” which, at least in this case, means ”somewhat overplayed.” Even my mother can pick this one out, and she still doesn’t know the difference between Bob Dylan and Elton John. When I worked at the Christian camp, we used to sing it on bus rides and no one even cared about the ”toker” line, because the whole thing had just sort of bled together into a pretty rainbow haze of goodtimesgreatoldies, just like that ”make sweet love to you” line in Three Dog Night’s ”Joy to the World.” (On the flip side, the ”making love to you was never second best” line in Modern English’s ”I Melt With You” inspired total adult hysteria.) I have plumbed its depths and pondered its corners and there will never be anything new for me to hear within the walls of this particular frat house, and yet — here’s the amazing part, considering how crabby I tend to be about these things (see: ”Diane, Jack and”) — I do not wish it ill. Therefore I must conclude that much like The Dude, ”The Joker” abides. B+

1. ”Show and Tell,” Al Wilson
From one song that gets played too often to one that’s not played enough. Listen to that falsetto, people! It is creamy smooth! It is magically delicious! It is guaranteed like Yoohoo! I am embarrassed to admit that I am not very familiar with Mr. Wilson’s work, but this is as good an advertisement for it as I could imagine. What was that I was saying earlier about how the best thing about music is there’s always something new to discover? Yeah. A-