8 essential musical acts of the '70s

Story highlights

  • The music of the 1970s veered from psychedelia to disco to punk
  • For various reasons, these artists helped define the decade
Learn more about the music of the 1970s in the season finale of "The Seventies," which airs Thursday, August 13, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.

(CNN)The 1970s had some terrible songs. We're looking at you, "Muskrat Love," "You Light Up My Life" and "Disco Duck," among other appalling tunes that somehow became hits.

But the '70s also produced some great music across a broad variety of genres, from progressive rock to disco to punk. (Yes, disco. Get over it.)
A bridge between the trippy psychedelia of the late '60s and the lean New Wave of the early '80s, the decade embraced everything from the four newly solo Beatles to Motown to the Eagles to Donna Summer to the Sex Pistols.
    The gallery above showcases 37 of the '70's best-known musical artists. This story features just eight of them, a brief sampling of bands and solo performers who helped define the decade while influencing generations of artists after them.
    They're not necessarily the best artists of that time -- art is subjective and endlessly debatable -- but all have endured four decades later. And all of them arguably made their best music in the 1970s.

    David Bowie

    From "Changes" to "Rebel Rebel" to "Fame," British singer-songwriter David Bowie produced some of the most enduring pop music of the '70s. But he was just as well-known for his androgynous, shape-shifting persona, which ranged from glam to punk and incorporated such alter egos as cult favorite Ziggy Stardust, who sported red hair and wild costumes. Bowie's songs and chameleon-like appearance have inspired everyone from U2 to the Killers to Lady Gaga.

    Fleetwood Mac

    Formed as a blues band in England in the late '60s, Fleetwood Mac didn't hit it big until the mid-1970s, when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined and they adopted a more radio-friendly sound. The five members' romantic breakups fueled the band's biggest record, 1977's "Rumours," which topped the U.S. charts for 31 weeks and produced a string of hits ("Dreams," "Don't Stop," "Go Your Own Way"). Fleetwood Mac isn't the most influential band -- yes, they're still touring -- but their soft-rock harmonies are classic '70s, and your mom probably loves them.

    The Jackson 5

    This Motown family made history by being the first recording act whose initial four singles -- "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save," "ABC" and "I'll Be There" -- all hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. Powered by the soprano of a little, prepubescent Michael Jackson, the five Jackson brothers became one of the first black acts to achieve huge success with white audiences. With their costumes, youthful looks and synchronized dance moves, the Jacksons also paved the way for such boy bands as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and the Jonas Brothers.

    Led Zeppelin

    For the first half of the 1970s, this English quartet was arguably the biggest band on Earth. Marked by the soulful wail of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's ferocious guitar, they blended hard rock, blues and psychedelia on such classics as "Whole Lotta Love," "Rock and Roll" and the epic "Stairway to Heaven." The band turned out a series of chart-topping albums, sold out stadiums around the world and became legendary for their hard-partying ways. Almost every heavy-rocking band of the last four decades, from Metallica to My Morning Jacket, owes a debt to Led Zeppelin.

    Joni Mitchell

    This Canadian singer-songwriter took elements of the '60s folk movement and gave them new life in the '70s by incorporating influences from pop and jazz. Known for her quirky voice and hyper-literate songs -- few lyricists can pack more words into a line -- Mitchell inspired countless songwriters with tunes like "Big Yellow Taxi," her environmentalist anthem that famously complains, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." You can hear her influence in everyone from Fiona Apple to Taylor Swift.

    Queen

    Known for their theatrical performances and flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury's four-octave voice, Queen skillfully blended melodic hard rock with a variety of other musical styles, from disco to rockabilly. The band pushed the limits of pop radio with songs like the operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- surely one of the oddest songs to ever become a No. 1 hit -- and the conjoined anthems "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions," which are still played at sports arenas worldwide.

    The Ramones

    Nirvana. The Strokes. Those punk-rock kids from your high school with the ripped jeans and the Chuck Taylors. They all borrowed from the Ramones, one of the most influential bands of all time. Four "brothers" (they adopted the same name but weren't related) from New York, the Ramones pioneered garage punk with two-minute rockers like "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Rockaway Beach." Although they never had much commercial success, their fast, stripped-down songs were a bracing antidote to the slick, bombastic music that ruled the pop charts for much of the decade.

    Stevie Wonder

    A Motown prodigy of the '60s, Stevie Wonder became a soul powerhouse in the '70s with his songcraft and boundless creativity. Although blind almost from birth, Wonder infused much of his music with irrepressible joy. At his creative peak he produced a string of brilliant albums culminating in 1976's "Songs in the Key of Life," an ambitious two-disc album exploring themes of young love, faith, racial harmony and social injustice. His best songs, from the swampy funk of "Superstition" to the sweet balladry of "You are the Sunshine of My Life," remain timeless, and everyone from John Legend to Kanye West has cited him as an influence.