Best Songs From 1971

The year was 1971. The U.S. lowered the voting age to 18, Apollo 14 launched the third human-crewed mission to the moon, Disney World opened in Florida, and Snoop Dog was born.

Whether 1971 was your time or way before your time, many excellent songs were released that year. Some topped the charts, and others just topped the hearts of critics and fans.

Here are some top songs from 1971.

“Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin

Song Year: 1971

There’s nothing like a ‘good love gone wrong’ song, and “Me and Bobby McGee” is one of the best of the genre. Written by Kris Kristofferson and recorded by Janis Joplin for her album Pearl, this song is full of nostalgia for a love that went off the rails.

Unfortunately, Joplin died before she could see the album’s release, and it’s #1 place on the charts.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers

Song Year: 1971

A Grammy win for Best R&B song, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” is a smooth and resonant lament for a lover who has left, but it’s also a lament for a love that you crave even though it always ends up hurting. We know we shouldn’t miss something terrible for us, but we still do it all the time.

“Life on Mars?” by David Bowie

Song Year: 1971

We could have a list of good music from 1971 without mentioning David Bowie at the top. “Life On Mars?” was released on Bowie’s Hunky Dory album.

In the video, Bowie has his gorgeous ginger mullet and matching teal jacket and eyeshadow. Bowie didn’t dare to be different. He just was different.

The song’s lyrics are much like his outfit, bright and surreal but a little nonsensical. On the surface, the song is about a girl who fights with her parents and then catches a film, and Bowie has described it as a girl and her overwhelmed disappointment with reality.

“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart

Song Year: 1971

With sunny, strumming guitars, Rod Stewart has admitted “Maggie May” is a song about his first lover. Who knows how many of the lyrics are true and how much is fiction, but this song is about a young man with a seemingly older woman lover who becomes quite possessive and keeps him from what he wants to be doing.

Stewart took the song title from “Maggie Mae,” a Liverpool folk song about a prostitute.

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John

Song Year: 1971

Appearing on the album, Madman Across the Water, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics for “Tiny Dancer” after his and Elton John’s first trip to the U.S. There has been some speculation that the song was written about his girlfriend of the time, which is something he’s denied, saying it was inspired by the women they’d see on the streets.

At its heart, this feels like a song about groupies, and it was used to that effect during an iconic scene in the 2000 movie, Almost Famous.

“It’s Too Late” by Carole King

Song Year: 1971

The album Tapestry helped to launch Carole King’s performing career and cement the singer-songwriter genre. “It’s Too Late” is a song about realizing that a relationship has fallen apart and is beyond saving. The song is sad and apologetic but firm. This relationship is over.

“I Am…I Said” by Neil Diamond

Song Year: 1971

Neil Diamond’s “I Am…I Said,” is an emotional masterpiece. This song describes an existential crisis Diamond went through at one point in his career.

It is a song about being at a crossroads. Not liking where you are but not wanting to return to where you were. Nothing’s working the way you want it to, and you don’t even know what you’re doing or who you are anymore.

“Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night

Song Year: 1971

If you want to add joy to your world, listen to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” It’s a little bit silly and a little bit sweet. More than anything else, this song is about enjoying yourself and spreading that joy to the whole world around you.

“Riders on the Storm” by The Doors

Song Year: 1971

“Riders on the Storm” ended up being the last song Jim Morrison recorded before his death. This haunting, atmospheric song is perfect for listening to during rainy days or stormy nights.

This song is typical of Jim Morrison’s lyrics and is full of poetic imagery. This song is about the beauty and chaos of life and grabbing what you can when it’s in front of you.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Song Year: 1971

Social commentary and political statements weren’t exactly the prime subjects for Motown hits, but Marvin Gaye was one of the first to change that with “What’s Going On.” The Vietnam War inspired this song about the dangers, unrest, and divisiveness of the time.

“Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver

Song Year: 1971

John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” was written in collaboration with Bill and Taffy Danoff. The funny thing is that none of the three had ever been to West Virginia by that point!

This song is about going back to the place where you were raised, that place you will always feel nostalgic for, the place that will always feel like home.

“Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner

Song Year: 1971

“Proud Mary” was written by John Fogerty and originally recorded and released with his band, Credence Clearwater Revival. Ike and Tina Turner changed the song, starting it with a spiritual feeling and turning it into a high-energy jam.

“Proud Mary” features a working woman with no shame or regrets about her actions or who she is, and she expands her horizons after she takes a ride on a riverboat.

“It Don’t Come Easy” by Ringo Starr

Song Year: 1971

Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” was written with former Beatles-mate George Harrison, and the lyrics are pretty self-explanatory. Whatever you want in life, whether stardom, peace, or love, must be worked hard for.

“Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones

Song Year: 1971

“Wild Horses,” an emotional rocker from the Rolling Stones, is a song about not wanting to give up on a falling apart relationship and still honoring that relationship, and that person, even when it has fallen apart.

The song began with Keith Richards and his inspiration from his son, Mick Jagger, but he changed most of the lyrics to reflect his crumbling relationship with Marianne Faithfull.

“If You Really Love Me” by Stevie Wonder

Song Year: 1971

Usually, men get a bad rap for avoiding commitment and feelings. Still, Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” is a song about a woman having difficulty putting her words where her heart is. Stevie Wonder wrote this single about his wife at the time.

“Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who

Song Year: 1971

While The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” hits hard with its music and its anti-establishmentarianism message, it is a song about how pointless revolution is. The song’s feelings are that after one regime falls, another takes its place, and it’s never a better situation for the citizens.  

“I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth

Song Year: 1971

Rare Earth was the first all-white pop group signed to Motown records in their effort to expand the radio play of their albums. This upbeat, optimistic song is about being happy to be alive and having a positive attitude, no matter what misfortunes befall you.

“Bang a Gong (Get It On)” by T. Rex

Song Year: 1971

This T. Rex song is their most recognizable, if not their most famous. It is about getting it on, but the lyrics use surreal and unlikely metaphors that bury the innuendo. It is a fun song, infectious, and delightful to sing along with.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen

Song Year: 1971

Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a sad and solemn story song about a love triangle. This song speaks to how complicated emotions and relationships can be. In it, a man forgives either his brother or his very good friend for sleeping with his wife because the affair healed her in a way he couldn’t.

Like Leonard Cohen’s most lyrically intricate songs, this one is chock full of images and metaphors that could be up for interpretation.

“Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight

Song Year: 1971

Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” is the song to play for someone who thinks they’re better than you. The speaker of this song is a woman with her feet on the ground and her head on her shoulders. She’s not about to fall for a man just because he has money and can dazzle her. No. She can see right through that, and she knows she deserves better.

“Theme From Shaft” by Isaac Hayes

Song Year: 1971

If you don’t know the “Theme From Shaft,” you might think a movie’s theme song would be a weird choice to end a list of good music from 1971. However, this is an iconic song of the 70s, and if you think you haven’t heard it, put it on. And even if you haven’t heard it, you’ll be dancing and strutting around in about three seconds.

Because it was written as a theme for a movie about a Harlem detective working to find a mob boss’s daughter, the lyrics reflect that, making sure you know everything you need to know about Shaft’s character, namely he’s sexy and don’t mess with him.

Top Songs From 1971, Final Thoughts

Whether you’re into rock, Motown, singer-songwriter, folk, or glam, 1971 had some of the best songs released during a year of change for the country. While you can still hear some of the top songs from 1971 during commercials or in the department and grocery store, other hit singles from this year are waiting for you to push play, sit back, and enjoy classic tunes from the iconic year.

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