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NPR's 50 Favorite Songs Of 1971

Marvin Gaye's hit record "What's Going On" encapsulates the political turmoil of 1971 while also inspiring hope for change.
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Marvin Gaye's hit record "What's Going On" encapsulates the political turmoil of 1971 while also inspiring hope for change.

Today, NPR celebrates the 50-year anniversary of our first on-air original show. For five decades, NPR and our member stations have shared the responsibility — and privilege — to serve the individual listener and promote their personal growth. To honor our time spent together, we turned back the clock and reflected on the impeccable sounds of our genesis year. From the timeless expression of social unrest in Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" to the transportive, community building experience of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," 1971's wide-spanning sonic achievements are featured below.

These are NPR's 50 favorite songs of 1971, as selected by our member stations.

All of our station picks are available to stream on the NPR50 Spotify and Apple Music playlists. And you can discover fantastic music programming happening across the country by clicking the links to each member station's website.

Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," written by Robbie Robertson, became a gold hit for Joan Baez. Its narrative about a poor white Southerner whose brother died in the Civil War doesn't feel so progressive from a contemporary view. Taken at face value, it seems to be hailing sympathy for the enslavers. But, sung by one of folk music's most persistent advocates for desegregation and peace, it strikes a different tone. Perhaps what has stood up over time is the lyric's challenges: to recognize humanity on both sides of any conflict and to acknowledge that oppression and war don't make anyone free. —Kim Ruel, Folk Alley

The Band (with Bob Dylan), "When I Paint My Masterpiece"

Cahoots was not one of The Band's greatest albums and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" may not be one of Bob Dylan's best songs — I'm no critic — but it hit me hard when I first heard it, and it still does. The European cabaret atmosphere of Garth Hudson's accordion, Levon Helm's genuine American roots voice and the suggestive, evocative lyrics appealed to a young man who had grown up in Texas in a family not steeped in the fine art of Western Civilization. But I had recently spent several months in Europe culminated by performing in the streets and tiny clubs of Rome and Athens. As life changing as that was, I was still glad to "get back to the land of Coca-Cola." Testimony to the song's power can be found in the spectrum of those who have covered it: The Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris, Elliot Smith, Tim O'Brien and Blake Mills. —Larry Groce, Mountain Stage

Black Sabbath, "Sweet Leaf"

"Sweet Leaf" ranks pretty high on the roster of Black Sabbath songs that make us wonder, "is this satire or just a journal entry set to lyrics?" Whatever the case, this particular chemical-dependent character piece has topped its companions as a radio favorite across generations. Between the song's delayed-cough intro, whoa-inducing lyrics and less-than-steady tempo control, "Sweet Leaf" and its sativa-scented sludge laid the seeds of the grunge and stoner metal to come two decades later. This beloved pothead anthem boasts a simple but saturated bass and guitar riff, whose heaviness negates its repetitiveness (at least the first fifty times) and whose basic power chord structure has made it a go-to for amateur rock guitarists. —Jack Anderson, KUTX

David Bowie, "Changes"

One more year and a beguiling persona shift would catapult David Bowie to global rockstar status, but 1971's Hunky Dory is where he broke new ground. "Changes," the album's lead track and unlikely first single, would become the bellwether of Bowie's enigmatic career — one where he declared his identity as a shapeshifting artist and a provocateur of pop culture. What started as "a kind of throwaway" nightclub song parody, according to Bowie, was a precocious work that merged cabaret, beat poetry, folk and mod rock in one fell swoop. It gave him the ear of all the exuberant and defiant misfits, outsiders and aliens who would join him over the following five decades. In fact, "Changes'' would be the final song Bowie ever performed live, in a 2006 duet with Alicia Keys. —Michelle Bacon, 90.9 The Bridge

David Bowie, "Life On Mars?"

If empathy for the alienated was David Bowie's great theme, "Life on Mars?" should be considered one of his greatest achievements. In it, "the girl with the mousy hair" has been stood up for a movie night. Even so, she takes her seat, unescorted, and tries to lose herself in cinema. The attempt fails, miserably. As a movie she's seen 10 times before unreels its Hollywood cliches, the girl — utterly alone yet surrounded by humans in a crowded theater — ponders a simple question: "Is there life on Mars?" The effect is devastating, made more so by Rick Wakeman's elegant piano and the swelling string arrangement crafted by Bowie's most crucial sideman, the late, great guitarist Mick Ronson. The song climaxes, and the listener is emotionally drained, yet reminded that they are most assuredly not alone. That is Bowie's great gift to you — eternal empathy in less than four minutes. —Chris Lester, 90.9 The Bridge

CAN, "Mushroom"

Recorded while living in a castle near Cologne, Germany krautrock pioneers Can spent hundreds of hours fusing together improvisations of rock and jazz to create their experimental sophomore album, Tago Mago. "Mushroom," the album's most ubiquitous track, is captivating. The rhythmic repetition from drummer Jaki Liebezeit provides enough space for the other bandmates to add layers of sound. Most seductively, Damo Suzuki's quieted vocals weave through the song as he sings from a whisper to a scream. Classically trained bassist Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt didn't let their upbringing limit the spontaneity they bring to the recording; instead, they injected the track with affection and a kind of anarchy against modern music. Originally compared to Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground, their avant-garde approach went beyond the musical barriers of their peers. Even though Can was never able to break through to the mainstream at the time, their influence on modern music persists. —Alisha Sweeney, Colorado Public Radio

Carpenters, "Superstar"

Inspired by Rita Coolidge and written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, "Superstar" — initially titled "Groupie (Superstar)" — tells the all-too-common tale of male rock stars taking advantage of impressionable young girls. The song went through several incarnations before landing on the perfect one. Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Bette Midler, and Coolidge herself all took their shots at it, but it was transformed by Richard Carpenter's arrangement. His lush instrumentation of harp, piano, oboe and French horns heightens the song's dramatic nature. Then, there's Karen Carpenter's absolutely undeniable vocal performance, which is alleged to have been done in one take. She perfectly captures the lonely and sad state of someone who has yet to fully come to terms with being forgotten by the person they thought they loved. —Ryan LaCroix, KOSU

Leonard Cohen, "Famous Blue Raincoat"

"Famous Blue Raincoat" is a story of forgiveness. The song is a letter written to an old friend who wore a blue raincoat, attempted the Scientological ritual of "going clear" and likely had an affair with Jane, Leonard Cohen's girlfriend. Though the event ripped them apart, Cohen writes to thank him for the trouble he took from her eyes — a trouble, he admits, he himself never attempted to alleviate. Expressing sad understanding occurs frequently in Cohen's songwriting; it's perhaps his greatest gift as a writer. But on first listen you don't hear the story, only Cohen's voice. Like his heart, it's heavy. Except when he sings, "Jane came by." He sings each word separately. Lifting his voice with every word. It's key to the song. Those three words are the sound of forgiveness. They are the crack that lets the light in. —Justin Barney, Radio Milwaukee

Alice Coltrane, "Journey in Satchidananda"

By 1971, The Beatles had traded in their guitars for sitars, Richard Hittleman was evangelizing yoga on television and Eastern spirituality began to permeate American pop culture beyond the New Age hippie set. At the time, Alice Coltrane was grieving the untimely death of her husband, John. In search of greater meaning, she became a disciple of Hindu religious teacher Swami Satchidananda. Her travels inward are palpable on her 1971 meditative album, Journey in Satchidananda. On the title track, a hypnotic rhythm section sways steadily as Coltrane unfurls delicate melodies on her harp. With Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, the collaboration presents jazz improvisation as divine communion. It's no surprise that it continues to resonate with spiritual seekers, 50 years later. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED

Karen Dalton, "Something On Your Mind"

In the '60s, Karen Dalton was a fixture of the Greenwich Village folk scene, but never was a commercial star. Stage fright, drug abuse and a disdain for recording allegedly hampered any chances for that. The blues singer from Oklahoma developed a cult-like following years after her death in 1993, thanks to re-releases, tributes and praise from Bob Dylan in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One: "Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed." "Something on Your Mind" showcases the powerful, raw emotion Dalton was known for projecting. Through her crackling country drawl, she confronts you with the ache in her voice and throws you into the well of her melancholy. —Ryan LaCroix, KOSU

John Denver, "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

"Take Me Home, Country Roads" was first performed on Dec. 30, 1970, at the legendary Cellar Door in Washington D.C. At the time, Andy Ridenour, Mountain Stage's co-founder and producer, was a college student, present for the extended applause that spread throughout the audience after the song's debut, performed by songwriters Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and John Denver. In 1971, John Denver recorded and released the song; soon after, the whole world was singing along. In the 50 years since its release, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" has become a universal anthem; it's a song that instantly evokes a sense of belonging and community. It has a special way of bringing people together no matter where you are in the world or whether it is performed in your native tongue. "Country Roads" transports us to a place where we all belong. —Vasilia Scouras, Mountain Stage

Lee Dorsey, "Freedom For The Stallion"

Throughout the 1960s, Allen Toussaint was a songwriting machine, producing and writing iconic music for legendary New Orleans R&B artists such as Betty Harris, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. He stayed busy throughout most of the '70s too, and in 1971, Dorsey released "Freedom for the Stallion," a Toussaint-penned and -produced anthem that was a significant departure from the funkier sounds he had been working with at the time. The song's layers kick off with a slow, marching drum beat, then add a simple piano riff, subtle horns, background vocals and Dorsey's shaky and soulful voice. Though it wasn't a major hit for Dorsey, it would go on to greater commercial success when it was covered by Hues Corporation on their 1973 debut album of the same name. Still, Dorsey's original version will always shine as the definitive showcase for Toussaint's impeccable songwriting. —Brian Burns, WUNC

Nick Drake, "Northern Sky"

When Nick Drake died in 1974 at age 26 from an antidepressant overdose, he left behind a near perfect body of work. He released three albums between 1969 and 1972, records that were unappreciated or basically ignored at the time. His second album, Bryter Layter, dropped in March 1971 with no single or publicity. The standout track, "Northern Sky," is a departure in its ornamentation courtesy of the Velvet Underground's John Cale, but at its core is a classic Drake — subtle, sublime and nuanced. In 2004, NME described "Northern Sky" as the ""greatest English love song of modern times." Drake was a master at creating an atmosphere by capturing a mood, a beautiful mystical melancholy. When "Northern Sky'' was initially released, no one noticed, but Drake's music has endured, reaching a mythical status too beautiful for the world. —Kevin Cole, KEXP

The Dramatics, "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get"

In June of 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs. Detroit writer-producer Tony Hester made his own indelible declaration — a 3-minute, 34-second recording by The Dramatics that told it like it was. From the very first moments of "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," a rumbling menacing bassline, a wall of brass and sparkling Latin percussion set a stone cold, uncompromising tenor. Warning that "some people are made of plastic", the song went on to reassure listeners that Ron Banks, William "Wee Gee" Howard and the rest were, conversely, "for real" — a point further punctuated by fuzz guitar and churning strings. A breakthrough record for all parties concerned, "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" also introduced an earthy post-Motown Detroit soul sound to the world that was not the Sound of Young America. More accurately, it was the sound of the streets. —Ayana Contreras,Vocalo

Aretha Franklin, "Rock Steady"

"Just call the song exactly what it is," Aretha Franklin sings, and the line sums up "Rock Steady" precisely. The song begins with drummer Bernard Purdie laying down some amazing licks with Donny Hathaway immediately adding a strong gospel-tinged organ to pull you right in. Once Chuck Rainey comes in on bass, you're hooked. Even though Franklin wrote the song, the collaborative energy is infectious. The Sweethearts of Soul, Aretha's background singers fill things out when they emphatically state: "What it is." Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Dr. John even makes an appearance on percussion. —Benji McPhail, The Colorado Sound

Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain"

It's ironic that Parliament-Funkadelic, a multi-headed collective devoted to expounding funk's virtues, would find its greatest musical moment in a 10-minute, instrumental rock opus that served as a showpiece for guitarist Eddie Hazel's six-stringed genius. To be sure, "Maggot Brain" has its virtues. Transcendence is the song's inspiration and it sears with emotional tumult as listeners hear an addled, psychedelic journey from rock bottom to ecstasy and back again as Hazel races across the guitar neck. His guitar shudders delicately only to rocket into piercing caterwauls. Through a squall of notes, speedy scale runs and feedback eruptions, Hazel pulls the world — love, hate, good, evil, justice, oppression — into refracted, mind-bending visions. Popular legend says mastermind and band leader George Clinton told Hazel to play like his mother had died. Driven by emotion, "Maggot Brain" transcended the era as an exemplar where an instrumentalist made his voice felt as well as heard. —David Hyland, Wisconsin Public Radio

Marvin Gaye, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"

"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is a lamentation recorded across 16 tracks. Out of all those tracks (among them percussion, celeste and saxophone), none are more captivating than those featuring Marvin Gaye. Here, he is a laid-back jazz troubadour, playing the piano and wistfully crooning that "things ain't what they used to be." Gaye describes a post-apocalyptic reality where "poison is the wind that blows," then after the first stanza, his harmonic overdubs devolve into hushed, earnest chants of "Help them, Father" and "Have mercy, Father." Dramatically, his voice vanishes like smoke midway through the song, replaced by a sax solo by Wild Bill Moore and vocals by The Andantes. In fact, Marvin's voice is almost completely absent from the latter half of the track, perhaps echoing the song's lamentation for natural wonders whose times had come to pass. —Ayana Contreas, Vocalo

Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

Given Marvin Gaye's extensive discography, it's not easy to settle on just one "signature song," yet the title track to his magnum opus What's Going On is among the contenders. Penned in the era of the Vietnam War, its powerful depiction of Black life after the Civil Rights movement remains exceedingly relevant today, making "What's Going On" and the rest of its namesake album a timeless benchmark for socially-conscious song collections. And with its hope-inspiring arrangement — which introduces a 10-note motif heard across the record — "What's Going On" marks Gaye's graduation from recording songs written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford & Simpson and others in his early career into the thoughtful auteur we've all come to love and remember. —Jack Anderson, KUT

Serge Gainsbourg, "Melody"

By 1971, Serge Gainsbourg already had a reputation as a provocateur. He was dating Jane Birkin and in 1969 they released, "Je t'aime moi non plus," a song banned across Europe for its explicit use of the female orgasm. Naturally, the ban meant everyone heard it. Swinging off that success, he released Histoire de Melody Nelson, a cinematic concept album that has since become widely regarded as his finest work. It starts with "Melody," a cool, eight-minute saunter. The key is his vocal delivery. Gainsbourg, a well-known seductor, leans in close to whisper into your ear. You can almost feel the warmth of his breath on your neck. You can smell his cigarettes. The song drips with intimacy. It's ASMR before the term was invented. Though the song is in French, there is no translation needed for Gainsbourg's language of love. —Justin Barney, Radio Milwaukee

Al Green, "Let's Stay Together"

A smooth-cantering affirmation and a vow of steadfast devotion, Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" feels now like an instant classic. But when producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. presented Green with a rough mix of the soul ballad, he treated it as an afterthought — dashing off the lyrics in under 15 minutes. He then dragged his heels recording the tune, partly because its rough-silk intimacy felt so understated and exposed for an R&B singer at the time. "I'm in here trying to blow the studio top off," Green told NPR in 2000, "and Willie kept saying, 'No, just say it.'" That naturalism in his delivery, with its implication of a heartfelt truth, is key to the song's success. Rushed to release, "Let's Stay Together" gave Al Green his only No. 1 hit and served as the title track for a Top 10 album the following year. —Nate Chinen, WBGO

Al Green, "Tired of Being Alone"

When it comes to voices who could sing the dictionary, Al Green tops the list. His songs beg to be sung along to and played loud. Green had a string of hit singles in the early '70s and "Tired of Being Alone" ended up Billboard's No. 12 most popular song of 1971. Green's voice vibrates with conviction here. When he sings "I've been thinking about you," you believe it. —Chris Wienk,WEXT Radio

Herbie Hancock & Mwandishi, "Ostinato - Suite for Angela"

Jazz was transforming from within, in ways both seductive and strange, when Herbie Hancock recorded his album Mwandishi on the cusp of 1971 (in a single session on New Year's Eve). Miles Davis' Bitches Brew had recently planted a flag for jazz-rock, and Hancock was among a wave of Milesian associates nudging the concept forward. He did so with freethinking peers like bassist Buster Williams, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester and drummer Billy Hart. On the album's 13-minute opening track — dedicated to Black Power activist Angela Davis — they coalesce over an ostinato (another word for a vamp) in funky 15/8 meter. Bennie Maupin, whose bass clarinet had been a pungent color on Bitches Brew, deftly reprises that role here. And as for Hancock, his Fender Rhodes piano swirls around in the mix as if to suggest a vivid dreamscape. —Nate Chinen, WBGO

Isaac Hayes, "Theme From Shaft"

Isaac Hayes' Shaft soundtrack elevated director Gordon Parks' blaxploitation classic and birthed a colossus of a single, "Theme from Shaft." As explored in the WFUV's Album ReCue 1971 series, Hayes re-recorded the soundtrack for Stax Records, expanding beyond the confines of movie cues. Abbreviated from the album, "Theme from Shaft" adroitly introduced Richard Roundtree's mercurial private detective in the film's opening credits, but on radio, the song metamorphosed into a funk supernova, dazzling and distinct. Propelled by Willie Hall's skittering hi-hat, guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts' wah pedal wizardry, and Hayes's gruff purr, "Theme from Shaft" was a visionary triad of wit, grooves and technical prowess. In 1972, Hayes became the first Black composer (and only the third Black artist in a major category) to win an Academy Award, making history with Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier. —Kara Manning, WFUV

Carole King, "It's Too Late"

Since February 1971, when the album was released, Carole King's Tapestry has set one of the highest creative bars in the genre of the confessional singer-songwriter. King won multiple Grammys for the album, with "It's Too Late" garnering the record of the year award. Writing about the album for NPR's Turning The Tables, Jill Sternheimer said it "stood the test of time as not only a bedrock in the singer-songwriter genre but also as the soundtrack of suburban feminism of the early 1970s." "It's Too Late" is an unapologetic, matter-of-fact breakup song about a relationship that just wasn't working out, with lyrics by King collaborator Toni Stern. "It's too late, baby, now it's too late," sings King, "though we really did try to make it." —Bruce Warren, World Cafe

Freddie King, "Going Down"

1971 was Freddie King's reinvention year. A decade prior, he had cut a half dozen R&B hits that earned him the admiration of countless burgeoning guitarists like Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Years later, those young musicians were in bands taking blues rock to commercial heights never seen before. So, when King signed with Leon Russell's Shelter Records, he leaned into a style of heavy blues and rock. His blistering take on the Don Nix-penned song "Going Down" turned the track into an all-time blues rock anthem that sounds like it was as fun to play as it is to listen to. The Texas Cannonball rips and roars through the track, with a hard-charging ferocity that's hard to duplicate. —Ryan LaCroix, KOSU

Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"

Even before attaining rock god status, Led Zeppelin always acted the part. While that ambition leaned toward the gargantuan, "When The Levee Breaks" outsizes all that came before, an awe-inspiring sendoff for hard rock's most legendary album. Before beholding a sonic titan, a careful listen reveals the Memphis Minnie tune that Jimmy Page re-conceptualized as an auditory force of nature. Robert Plant's howling harp and carnival-barker shout echo above the droning whirlwind, while John Bonham's dinosaur-sized bass drum stomp brings scale and unstoppable movement. Augmented with production trickery, here's a monstrous, symphonic colossus capable of wrecking eardrums and expectations alike. Click play and Valhalla comes alive again, still thundering from the heavens. —David Hyland, Wisconsin Public Radio

Curtis Mayfield, "Get Down"

On the opening cut from 1971's Roots, Mayfield doesn't mince words or muddle the message. The rhythmic... shall we say, howls of delight that open the tune and serve as percussive undercurrent throughout leave very little mystery as to what this one's really about. "We're all children of the world," Mayfield sings over horns arranged by Johnny Pate and Riley Hampton. "A hungry man in search of a hungry girl." Sounds like Mayfield was looking to share a big pot of fondue with a companion of similar appetites. With an iconic bass line from Joseph "Lucky" Scott and Santana-like runs on electric guitar from Craig McMullen, this is the tune you've needed to make your living room's conversation pit relevant again. —Matt Silver, WRTI

Joni Mitchell, "A Case Of You"

Modern music has its share of songs about sickly saccharine love and painful, bitter breakups, but few songwriters nail the complexities of romance and grief like Joni Mitchell. Right off the bat, Mitchell pokes holes in her lover's sappy poetics. Like anyone caught in a breakup, she pines for the hope she once had for their love. But ultimately, she crushes him again and again, with a chorus that spells out how weak he is: "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet." This is a song about a woman recognizing her worth, beyond starry-eyed infatuation. —Kim Ruel, Folk Alley

Joni Mitchell, "California"

Regarded as one of the best albums of all time (even toppingNPR's own Turning the Tables list), Joni Mitchell's Blue is a portrait of vulnerability that solidified her status as a musical icon. Taking an intimate look at Mitchell's relationships, the album is replete with longing for bygone lovers ("My Old Man"), wayward travels ("Carey") and even her daughter ("Little Green"). But it's the record's second single, "California," that encapsulates what Mitchell seeks above all else: identity inherent in the sense of belonging. Against the backdrop of an Appalachian dulcimer, Mitchell waxes poetic on returning to the sights and sounds of the Golden State and American counterculture ("I'm going to see the folks I dig"). The track's phrasing exudes exaltation, but hits its apex as Mitchell ponders how her beloved home will receive her, begging the question, "Will you take me as I am?" —Desiré Moses, WNRN

Shuggie Otis, "Strawberry Letter 23"

I know I'm supposed to be all about 1971, but I first learned of this Shuggie Otis hit the way many others did — in 1977, thanks to the Top 10 charting version by the Brothers Johnson. One of the brothers was dating Otis' cousin, and loved the song from his 1971 album, Freedom Flight. Their cover put the song on my map and I went looking for the original. Lighter on production, it's a lovely story featuring love letters written back and forth. I had always hoped for a "Strawberry Letter 24" and "25" to follow up. —Chris Wienk, WEXT Radio

Dolly Parton, "Coat of Many Colors"

"It's more than just a song. It's about a philosophy, an attitude, and a feeling." Those were Dolly Parton's words when asked to describe the indelible charm and appeal of "Coat of Many Colors." Released in the October of '71 on an album by the same name, the single shot to No. 4 on the country charts, following up her first No. 1 hit "Joshua" earlier that year. Now considered one of her signature songs, the authentic true story that inspired the lyrics are a testament to the woman who has — 50 years later — become largely regarded as a national treasure. A song about loving who you are and what you have, "Coat of Many Colors" is a lasting empowerment anthem for anyone who has been taunted for having less. Of the hundreds of songs to flow from Parton's pen, this one may well be the very best. —Eric Teel, Jefferson Public Radio

John Prine, "Hello In There"

The storytelling majesty and intimate details of the characters in John Prine's songs have been the foundation of his songwriting genius since he released his 1971 self-titled debut album. "Hello In There" was one of its many diamonds. Half of its brilliance comes from the song's contemplative, melancholy musical pacing. The other half is the story of growing old and time's passing. Prine, who was a mail carrier in Chicago before he turned to performing, said he wrote the song on his mail route. He was 22, and it's amazing how clearly he was able to empathize about growing old, being forgotten as the years progress and having so much compassion for the elderly at such a young age. —Bruce Warren,World Cafe

John Prine, "Illegal Smile"

Fifty years! It is time to open the capsule and examine just what was going on five decades ago. So many things we worried about then are no big deal now; take marijuana, for example. When John Prine released "Illegal Smile," it was a brave act because the admission was actionable. Prine's homage to our societal reefer madness is a clever anthem that united us with a twinkle of acknowledgement in our very red eyes. The song pushed the then-Chicago mailman into another realm. Come to think about it, so did the song's subject substance. My, how times have changed ... or maybe not. —Jessie Scott, WMOT Roots Radio

Bonnie Raitt, "Thank You"

Still in college in 1971, Bonnie Raitt was steeped in the blues and got noticed in the East Coast club circuit for her exemplary slide guitar playing. Only 21, Raitt signed with Warner Bros. and her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, shows off her blues chops and her slide playing on several songs. However, it's her own composition "Thank You" that hints at the broader repertoire that would follow in her later career. It's a simple, tender love song with Raitt at the piano singing in her unaffected, soulful style. I got to know Raitt from her covers of others' songs, but this is a lovely example of her own songwriting. It's a song I got reacquainted with through WFUV's Album ReCue 1971 series of significant albums from 50 years ago. —Corny O'Connell, WFUV

The Rolling Stones, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"

Keith Richards has written some of the most infectious opening guitar riffs in rock and roll's history and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" ranks near the top of the roster of Richard's contagious hooks. The song is already a raw, gritty caldron of energy long before Mick Jagger starts singing, but Jagger's lyrics give the song the right dose of drugs and sexuality. Mick Taylor, not to be outdone by Richards, shines on a long guitar solo near the song's end. The Stones rarely include jam sessions on their songs, but fate was smiling on them. As the song winds down, Taylor continues playing. The rest of the band picked up their instruments and joined in. Saxophonist Bobby Keys decided to really let loose on his solo. The Stones thought the recorders had been turned off. Lucky for us, they weren't. —Benji McPhail, The Colorado Sound

The Rolling Stones, "Wild Horses"

The origins of "Wild Horses" began in 1969 when Keith Richards had to leave his first-born son, Marlon, to resume touring, a plight known all too well by road-worn musicians with children. However, out of that sadness and frustration, a song was born when Richards penned the line "wild horses couldn't drag me away." Subsequently, it's become one of the most recognizable lines in the rock music canon. After a rewrite from Mick Jagger, "Wild Horses" adopted new life as Jagger drew inspiration from a breakup with then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. The band later recorded the song at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., on an iconic, yet incredibly simple, UA 610 tube console. That warm and slightly overdriven sound can most notably be heard through Jagger's vocals. Fast forward to its 1971 release on Sticky Fingers, and the rest is rock and roll history. —John Ingram, Mountain Stage

Gil Scott-Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

Fifty years after Brother Gil's immortal sermon, it's hard to imagine a thing that isn't televised, let alone revolt. And thank God, because those people in the streets have moved the needle. Last month, Scientific American cited a study that said "municipalities where BLM protests have been held experienced as much as a 20% decrease in killings by police, resulting in an estimated 300 fewer deaths nationwide in 2014–2019." The smartphone camera has brought to light abuses and terror long committed in the dark, and there's no denying that the movement for Black lives has brought visibility, pressure and accountability. But there are parts of revolution that aren't broadcast via camera or social media. They happen internally, privately, sometimes quietly. In the exalting of joy, the finding of community, the diagnosing and releasing of white supremacy within. It may be those revolutions that stay with us the longest. —Larry Mizell Jr., KEXP

Sly & The Family Stone, "Family Affair"

The recording process for Sly & The Family Stone's "Family Affair" was anything but a family affair. Working alone in a Bay Area studio, Stone was erratic and paranoid. Without his regular band, he re-recorded tracks and overdubbed vocals so many times that the reel-to-reel tape degraded into a murky deadness. It fits the song. A rudimentary drum machine lopes out a beat beneath Billy Preston's electric piano, and Sly's vocals pour out of the mix like hot asphalt, singing a guttural, stark portrait of the American family. In the aftermath of the 1960s, there was nothing so bleak and yet brimming with poetic truth at the top of the charts. —Gabe Meline, KQED

Rod Stewart, "Maggie May"

"Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you." The drums snap, and with that opening line, the story begins. Rod Stewart tells us the story of the first woman to seduce him. It's the age old tale of what's not quite love. "Maggie May," and the album it comes from — Stewart's third studio album, Every Picture Tells a Story — made him a superstar. This was the first big hit of the rock era to feature a mandolin, but that's only part of the hypnotic attraction of the song. As Rod's plaintive singing pulls us through the story, we feel his pain. The song inhabits our memories and stirs our emotions. —Chris Wienk,WEXT Radio

T. Rex, "Jeepster"

The foot-stomping U.K. smash "Jeepster" was the second charting hit off Electric Warrior from T. Rex. By the time of its release, the band's look and sound was instantly recognizable overseas. This 1971 single was pure unadulterated fun with its upbeat electric guitar playing and infectious lyrics. Considered glam, "Jeepster" draws heavily from the blues. Marc Bolan admitted the music was taken from "You'll Be Mine" by Howlin' Wolf and that the song's lyrics, much like the blues, contain sexual references. Using the car metaphor to salaciously speak to a lover, the song's success is a testament to the outrageous Bolan and his spirited band. Accompanied by producer Tony Visconti, who also made albums with friend and rival David Bowie, they were able to capture an exciting moment in the pantheon of glam rock. —Alisha Sweeney, Colorado Public Radio

T. Rex, "Mambo Sun"

T. Rex's album opener found them embracing a new phase. After getting their start in the underground U.K. folk scene, Marc Bolan shortened the band's name and retooled their sound, innovating a new style of music. A reaction to the zeitgeist of progressive rock and bubblegum pop, glam had attitude and Bolan was the poster child. Flashy and forthright, the energy of "Mambo Sun" is contagious with its playful melody and laid-back groove. The song is electric, yet funky which compliments Bolan's soft, confident singing. This track declares that T. Rex was no longer digging for inspiration from the past, but pushing boundaries on what was acceptable in popular music. —Alisha Sweeney, Colorado Public Radio

James Taylor, "You've Got A Friend"

If ever a song could sound like a sunrise, it's this one. Written by the incredible Carole King (who later released it in '71 on her blockbuster album Tapestry), Taylor's version became his only Billboard No. 1. The song featured Joni Mitchell (who was at the studio helping with the concurrent sessions for both Tapestry and Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon) on harmony vocals. Taylor's bassist Leland Sklar said "Hearing that song for the first time kinda took our breath away. It's one of those fabulous songs that really says it all. It brings out the best in humanity." Sklar said the light, airy sound of the recording came from setting up in the studio as a live band. "We came into the studio doing what we had been doing live. There was some leakage in the microphones that we were all totally comfortable with." —Eric Teel, Jefferson Public Radio

Ten Years After, "I'd Love to Change the World"

As NPR celebrates 50 years, so do I. I started in radio in 1971 in Pittsburgh at WDVE doing freeform rock. We played a huge span of flavors and textures in that golden age of FM. We could segue from Dave Van Ronk to Black Sabbath, from Carly Simon to Ten Years After. It was all about making the transition work between the songs. The subject matter was everything, too, and utopian dreams and political motivation were favorite topics. Up until this album came out, Ten Years After was known mostly for the smoking hot guitar of Alvin Lee. The band's sixth studio album, A Space In Time, represented a more refined sound and more maturation in lyrical content. "I'd Love To Change The World", became a standard bearer, and is as topical today as it was 50 years ago. —Jessie Scott, WMOT Roots Radio

Ike and Tina Turner Revue, "Proud Mary"

Initially penned by John Fogerty and released by his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, in 1969, "Proud Mary," struck a chord with Tina Turner as soon as she heard it on the radio. The story of a hard-worker in Memphis (near her hometown of Brownsville, Tenn.) who hops a riverboat in search of liberation resonated with Turner. Her professional, and personal, journey was muddied with hardship and abuse at the hands of her husband and musical partner, Ike Turner. Tina was adamant about lending her voice to the song, and her reclamation became the couple's breakout, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1971 and earning a Grammy for best R&B vocal group performance. Live, Tina's powerful vocals and signature dance moves transformed the song from a wandering folk-rock foray into a frenetic, soulful explosion. Her fervor left a permanent mark on popular culture, making "Proud Mary" one of the most recognizable songs of all time. —Desiré Moses, WNRN

War, "War Drums"

The first cut from side two of War's third, self-titled album, "War Drums" is an anthem wrapped in a theme song inside a mission statement. After losing lead singer Eric Burdon after the previous album, the seven remaining members doubled down on self-assuredness. As the lyrics lay out, they've got the answers you seek, but they're not going to reveal them to you. Perhaps most enthusiastic is multi-reedist Charles Miller, memorable first on saxophone, introducing the theme in unison with organist Lonnie Jordan, before soloing expansively over "Papa" Dee Allen's congas and playing us out on flute. Who knew the flute could sound so tough? —Matt Silver, WRTI

The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"

The word "epic" is overused. But what better word is there to describe The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again?" A definitive rock anthem, the song urges us to revolt against the status quo. And it demands us turn it up. Everytime. From the start, those synthesizers — among the genre's first — tell us that something magical is coming. Pete Townshend's driving guitar, with his propeller arm, dives in, followed by Keith Moon's manic but controlled drumming and John Entwistle's frenetic bass lines. Then it's Roger Daltrey's turn, his raspy voice alerting us a change had to come. When we think it's over, it's not. Then, that scream — that epic scream — announces the change we fought for didn't matter; there's a new boss, who's the same as the old boss. —Ian Stewart, VPM

Bill Withers, "Grandma's Hands"

One of the most soulful singer-songwriters came from West Virginian hills. Bill Withers was born in the rural coal town of Slab Fork and raised by his grandmother, Lula Galloway. She saw past Withers' severe stutter and brought him to church on Sunday mornings to sing along with the choir. Years later, Withers would pen a tribute to his grandma, a song about the resolve and radical joy of a woman beloved by her family and her community. While "Grandma's Hands'' is recognizable for its foot stomps, guitar strums and bluesy hums (as sampled in Blackstreet's 1996 hit "No Diggity"), perhaps the most impactful moment takes place in its final seconds: "But I don't have Grandma anymore; If I get to heaven, I'll look for Grandma's hands." Nearly a year after his passing, we can only hope Withers arrived at the pearly gates to receive a warm embrace from his loved one. —Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier

Bill Withers, "Ain't No Sunshine"

It's been covered by hundreds of artists (from the likes of Paul McCartney and Joan Osborne to Michael Jackson and Prince), but, even after 50 years, no one can compete with Bill Withers and his 1971 original "Ain't No Sunshine." What more can be said of the West Virginian factory worker-turned-songwriter who worked through asthma and a stammer to excel in singing 26 continuous repetitions of the phrase "I know?" And what more can be said of the iconic melody that hits us squarely in the gut each time Withers drawls around the bluesy refrain? Withers remains a masterclass in the art of soulful simplicity. —Joni Deutsch, WFAE's Amplifier

Link Wray, "Fire And Brimstone"

In 1971, Link Wray had mostly given up touring and was spending his days helping his brother Vernon on his farm in Accokeek, Md. When the desire and opportunity for a comeback came about, the Wray brothers set up a studio in a converted chicken shack, called it Wray's 3-Track Shack, and started working on a self-titled album for Link that was a major departure from the rockabilly and surf rock he was known for. "Fire and Brimstone" is one of the album's highlights and has gone on to become one of the defining songs of the country-funk genre. Its acoustic and slide guitars mesh together like nails on metal and Wray sounds like a backwoods preacher vying for the attention of anyone who will listen to him recall the apocalyptic dream he had last night. —Brian Burns, WUNC

Yusuf/Cat Stevens, "Peace Train"

By the time I turned 6, I was already familiar with Cat Stevens (who now goes by Yusuf after converting to Islam). Tea for the Tillerman played on repeat on our 8-track player on the way to swim practice. So when we popped in Teaser and the Firecat, "Peace Train," with its rolling guitar mimicking train tracks, immediately struck me as something I could sing along to. (Plus I liked trains and peace - peace symbols were everywhere then.) Though I didn't understand the weight of his lyrics, I did grasp that everyone should "jump on the peace train." The song — his first to hit the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. — shared the list with another peace song, John Lennon's "Imagine." —Ian Stewart, VPM

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Corrected: May 5, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Bernard Purdie and misidentified Charles "Skip" Pitts as Charles "Skip" James. It also incorrectly stated that The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. It was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.