This list of the Top 10 songs from 1976 was compiled by me, your Oldies Guide at About.com, taking into account a number of factors -- chart positions, sales figures from time of release to the present day, critical standing, and historical importance. Only 45 rpm singles that hit the pop Top 40 in 1976 are eligible; artists are only allowed one entry per year in order to give a more balanced view of the cultural landscape. (Click on "compare prices" to find the song on CD, hear a clip of the song, and buy it if you like!)
Capitol 4369 (October 5, 1976) b/w "Ship Of Fools"
recorded July 1976, Toronto, CAN
Bob Seger had been Detroit's longest-suffering journeyman for a full decade until he got older and decided to write a song about how sad it was to get older. In a paradox only the music industry could appreciate, he immediately became a huge star singing about just that -- but that was okay, too, because the change in direction gave him a foundation on which he built a storyteller's rep almost as good as Springsteen's (and arguably as good as Tom Petty's). Most radio stations committed the unforgivable sin of cutting out the hushed middle section, which gave the single most of its tragic power. Wiser heads have since prevailed.
Columbia 3-10310 (April 1976) b/w "Wonderful World Of Love"
recorded January 1976, Philadelphia, PA
One of the last great R&B heartbreakers, this crossover smash has the Barry White / Issac Hayes opening down pat: it always means bad news when the bass singer opens by declaring "This has got to be the saddest day of my life," and even worse news when the falsetto begins, "I had to meet you here today." There's no way that's gonna end well. But the real miracle of this ballad is how it wrings every bit of regret out of the singer's decision. Making you feel for the guy who's leaving his mistress to back to his wife is impressive, but doing it in an era where splitting with insincerity was the pop-radio norm... well, that's almost noble.
Epic ES 192 (August 8, 1976) b/w "Smokin'"
recorded October 1975-April 1976, Watertown, MA and Los Angeles, CA
Classic rock's latter days start here, with an MIT grad who somehow recorded a demo that was as state of the art as any major label's, maybe more so, then got it released almost as is. A lot of the trappings of this band seem goofy now, especially that guitar-as-spaceship thing, but damn if uberleader Tom Scholz doesn't weave an opening that sounds exactly like the sunny day reverie he describes -- and damn if the takeoffs of the chorus don't sound like guitar spaceships finally blasting into an endless three-minute orbit of radio.
Tamla 54274 (October 1976) b/w "You And I"
recorded 1975-1976, New York, NY and Hollywood, CA
R&B was absolutely ruled by Stevie from '76-'78, when disco stepped in to take over, and that was largely because his monster double album Songs In The Key Of Life completely blew away all competition. This, the first single, was yet another attempt by an adult pop star to make some sense out of his childhood, but the groove is so on -- no mean feat for a man who'd already dropped "You Haven't Done Nothin'" and "Superstition" -- that the track actually manages to make childhood seem new again. Stevie once again proved he had the best horn charts in the business, too.
Mercury 73786 (March 1976) b/w "Jailbreak"
recorded December 1975, London, England
Springsteen got all the press, but when he was on, Phil Lynott was rock and roll's other great storyteller, and without the Boss' pretensions too. Check out the way this tight little boogie number has of making you nostalgic for times you may or may not have had; the wistfulness of the guitar chords (yes, they can do that) adds a lot of weight to the tale of young punks drinking, fighting, and doing other, more unprintable things simply because they have the benefit of youth. The subtext being: that's all over now.
Capitol 4372 (November 1976) b/w "Lovin' Cup"
recorded December 1975, San Francisco, CA
Miller's always taken an alarmingly laid-back (some would say near-comatose) approach to his career, particularly when it comes to writing or recording. But in adding just a touch of futuristic porg-rock to his already psychedelic persona, he became the real space cowboy with this classic. "Feed the children who don't have enough to eat / Shoe the children with no shoes on their feet / House the people living in the street" might not strike you as an actual plan to fix society, but it did tap into an idea that was only just beginning to show signs of rot: not just hippie idealism but the assumption that mankind was on a general upward curve.
A&M 1693 (January 1976) b/w "The Crying Clown"
recorded August 24, 1975, Long Island Arena, Commack, NY
As a sunny optimist with pop hooks, jazz-blues guitar chops, and matinee idol good looks, Peter Frampton was made to order for the mid-Seventies, which is why his Frampton Comes Alive album hit so hard in American suburbia it practically left a mark. Complain all you like about punk being ignored stateside in favor of Hallmark cards like this -- Frampton was nothing if not sincere, and if "mellow guitar god with a talkbox" is a job description that could have only been filled in '76, so what? It still functions as an aural antidepressant today.
Columbia 3-10278 (March 1976) b/w "Somebody"
recorded October 1972, Boston, MA
Queen would later perfect it, but Steven Tyler of Aerosmith -- himself a huge fan of Beatles balladry -- invented the power ballad on this 1973 single, which didn't make a dent on American airwaves until the success of "Walk This Way" led to a re-release. Smart move. Believe it or not, you can be a teenager and relate to a line like "All these lines in my face, gettin' clearer." You just have to have an inflamed, disproportionate sense of your own importance. And rock and roll, slow or fast, usually does; thank guitarist Joe Perry, too, for knowing when to go all ornate and chamber-poppy and when to bring the rock-god hammer down.
Columbia 3-10384 (June 1976) b/w "Tattoo Vampire"
recorded January 1976, New York, NY
Lots of hay was made by cultural bluenoses in the Eighties over what a lot of frightened parents thought they were hearing buried in various metal mixes, but this song, released a decade before the PMRC, proved that they hadn't really been listening. Make all the cowbell jokes you like: this epic not only romanticized suicide in the most poetic way since Shakespeare, it cleverly airbrushed metal's excesses so deftly no one could tell where the easy listening became hard.
Elektra E 45297 (January 1976) b/w "I'm In Love With My Car"
recorded August-November 1975, London, England and Monmouth, Wales
With soft-rock and disco still in their ascendancy, it fell to classic rock, which had just learned the art of distilling its weirder impulses into hit singles, to take over the airwaves during the bicentennial year. There was no better example of this than this pop-opera from rock's most outrageous quartet of the era; at once flamboyant and metallic, intimate and arena-ready, touching and utterly ridiculous, it neatly summed up the excesses rock had indulged itself in since Sgt. Pepper. So perfectly self-contained it was, in fact, that both Queen and rock itself could only get more streamlined from there.