The 1970s saw an experimental phase of music, with eclectic sounds and new artists flooding the airways. It is impossible to encompass all the music of this decade into a single genre. Folk, funk, rock 'n' roll, heavy metal, country, jazz, R&B, and disco were all synonymous with the sound of music at that time.
Music from the '70s was a combination of poetic songwriting, experimental instruments, wild costumes, and thrilling stage performances. Record companies were more open to supporting up-and-coming artists rather than established bands with a proven track record. The social and political upheaval of the 1970s brought protests to many of America's streets and college campuses and is reflected in the music of the decade's early years. The technological advancements of the late '70s expanded the options in the studio, allowing musicians more creative expression.
Using historical Billboard charts and other top song and album lists from the 1970s, Stacker spotlighted 25 of the bestselling musicians of the decade. This list demonstrates the diverse sound of the 1970s with artists like the funky Al Green to slow jazz sung by the beautiful voice of Carole King and rock classics from the likes of Led Zeppelin.
Read on to learn what the bestselling artists were doing when they rode the top of the charts and what they are doing today.
The soulful voice behind hits like "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness," Al Green became one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. However, in 1979, the R&B singer fell offstage during a concert in Cincinnati, which he took as a sign from God that it was time to step away from his music career and devote himself to the church.
While Green has continued to express that devotion as a minister in Memphis, Tennessee, he returned to recording secular music in 1988.
In 1978, the Australian pop group Bee Gees occupied the #1 and #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks with the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack hits "Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive," becoming the first group since the Beatles to do so. In 2021, the sole surviving member of the group, Barry Gibb, released the solo album "Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1."
With their long hair, leather jackets, and controversial faux-Satanic lyrics, the members of Black Sabbath sent parents of the 1970s quivering in fear for the ears and minds of their children. Tony Iommi's demonic guitar riffs and frontman Ozzy Osbourne's thrilling vocals were well-received by young rock 'n' rollers, and the band achieved international success during this decade.
Prolific songwriter Bob Dylan started out in the 1960s with humble beginnings in New York City's Greenwich Village. Still, it didn't take long for him to get noticed once record companies saw past his average guitar playing and unrefined voice and started paying closer attention to his lyrics. The folk singer soared to the top of the charts in the 1970s with albums like "Blood of the Tracks" and "Desire."
Dylan has since been honored with numerous awards, including 38 Grammys and The Nobel Prize in literature—and he's still touring today.
A gifted musician, writer, and composer, Carole King started as a young songwriter in the late 1950s and wrote such hits as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "The Loco-Motion." In 1971, she released "Tapestry," which would become one of the bestselling albums of the decade and jump-start her bright career as a solo, award-winning artist.
This pop goddess' career started off as one half of the dynamic married duo Sonny & Cher, who occupied the stage and TV screens in the early '70s. Offscreen, Cher created the solo album "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" in 1971, which became a hit and signaled the beginning of a career apart from Sonny Bono.
Since going solo, Cher's fame has only grown as an artist, producer, author, actor, and television personality. It was confirmed in 2023 that Cher was at work on two new albums.
This supergroup—made up of David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young—made the bestseller list with their 1970 album "Déjà Vu," which included songs like "Helpless" and "Our House." All four members have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice. Crosby died in January 2023. The remaining members still perform and record separately.
Diana Ross left Motown Records' girl group the Supremes in 1970 when she started her much-anticipated solo career. In one of her first releases, she eases the listener into the opening chorus with her iconic honeyed voice and steadily crescendos until she knows she has everyone bobbing their head, then belts out the famous line, "Ain't no mountain high enough." The song reached #1 in the United States. Ross has continued to light up the stage in 2023 as part of her "Music Legacy Tour."
Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, this groovy rock band cut hits like "Take It Easy" and "Hotel California," which were reminiscent of the West Coast, laid-back lifestyle. The Eagles' compilation record "Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975)" remains the bestselling album in the United States at 38 million sold. In 2020, the Eagles released "Live From the Forum MMXVIII."
With 90 million records sold worldwide, this group reached fans across multiple continents with its cross-cultural sound. Earth, Wind & Fire led the funk and disco charge of the 1970s with tracks like the groovy "Boogie Wonderland," "Fantasy," and the innovative sampling of "Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)." In 2023, the group embarked on a tour with Lionel Richie.
Sir Elton John didn't let this decade go to waste and released 12 studio albums during the 1970s. The megastar led the charts then and continues today due to his talent as a singer, pianist, and composer and his incredible showmanship and relatability with his audience. This Rocket Man is ready to come back down to the ground after more than half a century of performing and is currently on his farewell tour.
The original members of Fleetwood Mac were at a recording studio in Los Angeles in 1974 when they heard and fell in love with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and promptly asked him to join the band. He agreed on the condition that his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, could join as well, and so the iconic face of Fleetwood Mac was born.
Their 1977 album, "Rumours," which featured classics including "The Chain," "Dreams," and "Go Your Own Way," sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. The band performed its last tour in 2019, but Nicks continues to tour as a solo artist.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were a staple of the early rock 'n' roll doo-wop years with famous tracks like "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." Valli's smooth voice and songs about young love captured the ears of kids and adults alike, and in 1975, the band peaked with the hit song "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." Today, the frontman continues to record, releasing his latest album, "A Touch of Jazz," in 2021.
This family group from Atlanta produced half of the Top 40 hits between 1961 and 1977. The 1973 album "Imagination" featured their biggest hit, "Midnight Train to Georgia." The group has since been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. The Pips retired in 1989, but Gladys Knight successfully continued a solo recording and performance career and is touring the U.S. through November 2023.
Led Zeppelin reinforced the sacraments of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" for the 1970s generation. Beyond the band's debaucherous offstage reputation, each member is revered for mastery of their instruments, which is why Led Zeppelin is often referred to as the greatest rock band of all time. The band released eight albums during this decade, producing classics like "Stairway to Heaven," "Kashmir," and "Black Dog." Today, only lead vocalist Robert Plant still tours.
Former Beatle Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda McCartney, formed Wings in 1971, but the first few years left much to be desired. It wasn't until 1973 that they topped the U.S. charts with their album "Band on the Run," which is considered one of McCartney's greatest albums to date. Linda died of breast cancer in 1998. Paul still performs and released his latest album, "McCartney III," in 2020.
Paul Simon decided to go his own way in 1970 after a successful run with Art Garfunkel as the duo Simon & Garfunkel. The 1970s were good to the new solo artist and his curiosity and appreciation for international sounds that influenced his career, which can be heard in songs like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with the African blues intro and Brazilian cuica drum in "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." Simon's last performance was in 2018 in his hometown of Queens, and he has no plans of ever returning to the road to tour.
Their innovative psychedelic sounds, political lyrics, and crisp guitar riffs created the bestselling album of the decade: "Dark Side of the Moon." The year 2023 marks 50 years since the album's release, and songs like "Breathe (In the Air)" and "Money" can still be heard live when the group's former bassist and lyricist Roger Waters is touring.
Roberta Flack's single "Killing Me Softly with His Song" shattered records in 1973 when it became a crossover hit as the #1 R&B and #1 pop song in the United States. The following year it won Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal by a Female at the Grammy Awards. Flack is recognized as one of the greatest women of rock 'n' roll. She now struggles with ALS and is unable to sing.
The Rolling Stones were at the center of rock 'n' roll in the '70s with numerous hit albums like "Some Girls," "Sticky Fingers," and "Black and Blue." In an interview from 1972, Mick Jagger was asked if he could see himself performing when he was 60. His reply was, "Yeah, easily." The Rolling Stones, with members pushing 80, continue to tour today and electrify audiences with the same energy as they did in the 1970s.
Sly and the Family Stone was the first racially integrated band to make it big. The group incorporated this inclusiveness into its music, with sound ranging from funk, R&B, and psychedelia, and often touched on political and social issues of the decade in its lyrics. Sly Stone, one of the members and producers of the group, announced the release of his memoir, wherein he discusses the group's fame in the 1970s and his struggles with stardom.
In 1972, the R&B and gospel group released "Be Altitude: Respect Yourself," which brought them to the bestseller list of this decade. Although they would go on to record many more successful albums, none would come close to the accolades received by "Be Altitude." Mavis Staples is the only surviving member of the group. She released her latest album, "Carry Me Home," in 2022.
This band took the money and ran in the 1970s. The rock group produced numerous platinum hits that are now staples of the decade, like "The Joker" and "Fly Like An Eagle." The band went on tour in 2023.
This music prodigy created back-to-back masterpieces in the mid-1970s. His mastery of the synthesizer brought electronic sound to the mainstream and inspired other musicians. Though he is not touring, Stevie Wonder's activism and support of numerous charities continues today.
The story of Willie Nelson can simply be told as a humble songwriter-turned-country legend. He emerged as a performer in the 1970s and recorded hits like "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)" and "Good Hearted Woman." In 1976, he collaborated with other country musicians on an album called "Wanted! The Outlaws," which went platinum. Nelson is still performing at 90—ain't it funny how time slips away?
Data reporting by Lucas Hicks. Story editing by Cynthia Rebolledo. Copy editing by Lois Hince. Photo selection by Abigail Renaud.