For better or worse, disco took popular music by storm in the early to late ‘70s and its influence on today’s dance club denizens is still profound. That’s all well and good if you’re the type that enjoys taking to the dance floor and boogieing into the wee hours. Disco balls, white suits, flared trousers and platform shoes aside, some of that music still matters. In fact, much of it still lingers on the airwaves as well as in the mindset of those who view it through the tinted haze of nostalgia.
Of course, there are those who wish the Bee Gees never donned their satin suits or took Saturday Night Fever to a fevered pitch. Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl spoke for disgruntled rockers everywhere when, on July 12, 1979, he burned a crate of disco records at Chicago’s Comiskey Park midway through a double header between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Park officials predicted 25,000 people would show up for the so-called “Disco Demolition” but nearly double that number actually attended. Such was the level of abject animosity at the time.
Fortunately, that insurgent attitude hasn’t diminished the lingering power of certain songs and the albums on which they first appeared. More than a few disco tunes have become an indelible part of the typical oldies playlist. With apologies to Mr. Dahl, here are 10 disco albums that have not only stood the test of time, but that possess enough innovation and invention to win over those that initially found disco so dreadful.
One of the first mainstream albums to wholly encapsulate the essence of disco through both dynamic diversity and superior songwriting, this soundtrack is still considered a musical milestone, as important to the ‘70s as Sgt. Pepper was to the ‘60s. While some lamented the Bee Gee’s change of direction, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the material, specifically the title track, the sublime “How Deep Is Your Love” and the two versions of “More Than a Woman.” Add to that The Trammps’ raging “Disco Inferno,” the assertive strains of Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” and assorted tracks by KC & The Sunshine Band and Kool and the Gang, and you have an album that succinctly sums up the best disco that was ever devised.
Here was an album that not only ushered in an entirely new era of dance designs, but also sparked the career of one of the most successful pop bands of all time. Architects of the so-called Miami Sound, KC and company won their first fans in the U.K. before returning home to conquer the American airwaves, garnering a Grammy for this, their debut album, in the process. The songs were simple and straight-forward, and the guilty pleasures were just as plentiful — tracks like “That’s the Way I Like It,” and “Get Down Tonight” being among the signature songs. Uh huh, uh huh…
Ashford & Simpson didn’t start their career as performers, but the songs they penned proved ideal fodder for some of the biggest stars of the era. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” are but a few of those classic compositions. So So Satisfied helped kick-start the duo’s string of hits of their own doing, and while several songs may have been of the sappy variety, their energy and enthusiasm made such offerings as “Tried, Tested and Found True,” “So So Satisfied” and “Over and Over” ideal contenders when it came to disco’s more infectious inclinations.
The ultimate master of the smooth croon, Barry White warbled his way into the hearts of those who saw disco as more than a mere manipulation, devoid of heart and soul. White made it another rite of romance that could lead to the bedroom and beyond. “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” had the gregarious groove, while songs such as “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything” and “Love Serenade” captured the idea of turning a disco beat into an emotional undercurrent.
A former gospel singer, Candi Staton had carved her niche well before disco’s arrival. Her early-‘70s cover renditions of “Stand By Your Man” and “In the Ghetto” demonstrated she had the chops to compete with any of the great soul singers of that era. However, Young Hearts Run Free marked a milestone in her career, not only because it spawned one of the best and most successful disco crossover tunes of the time via its title track, but it also showed that a soulful voice was as every bit as important as persuasive beat.
Although Gaynor’s most successful song came three years later in the form of “I Will Survive,” this was the album that immediately ingratiated her to disco devotees. Side A boasted three songs—”Honey Bee”, “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”—that flowed together as a single track with no break. It’s a 19-minute dance marathon that spared dance club deejays from having to invent their own segue ways. The three songs were later separated and released individually as singles, and each became a hit on its own. The set itself became one of the first major-selling dance albums and launched “Never Can Say Goodbye” to become the first song to scale Billboard dance chart.
Giorgio Moroder was not only a producer of exceptional skill, but an also artist who knew how to tap into the pulse of dance aficionados. A technical wizard, not unlike Phil Spector or George Martin in his ability to spin ambiance from arrangements, he created an alliance with Donna Summer that was so ideal, it made the two of them legitimate disco royalty. True to his intents, the landmark From Here To Eternity was an ambitious undertaking, a conceptual effort that paved the way for electronica by employing synthesizers and special effects as tools of the trade. It was eerie but irresistible all at the same time, a sound that immersed the listener in its shifting textures while still keeping him or her clinging to the beat. “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” is but one example of Moroder’s mesh of otherworldly sounds and straightforward sentiment.
While disco-haters begrudged the disco-baiters as quick buck operators devoid of deeper talent, Chic proved that getting into a groove didn’t have to come at the expense of innovative musicianship. Indeed, the members of Chic—guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson—were master musicians who were also widely respected in rock circles, having gone on to play with David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Power Station and Duran Duran. Never mind their somewhat superfluous hit “Le Freak”; C’est Chic found them tapping their ample instrumental prowess. They then created a panoramic sound that took the best elements of disco and expanded its terrain with strings, horns and a plethora of backing vocals, including contributions from future superstar Luther Vandross. Songs such as “I Want Your Love” and “Savoir Faire” emerged as the best of the bunch, putting bodies on the dance floor and Rogers and company on a stairway to stardom.
No list of disco divas would be complete without a mention of the late great Donna Summer. Blessed with glorious pipes and undeniable charisma, Summer was indeed an artist for all seasons. Her extended exercise in erotic innovation, “I Feel Love” summed up the sexier aspects of disco’s inherent lure, but later hits “McArthur Park” and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears” guaranteed star stature. A concept album in theory, Bad Girls boasted a sensual array of songs and sentiments, not least of which was its lead-off track “Hot Stuff,” a song that even the most ardent rockers could cozy up to. Indeed, Bad Girls is a brilliant endeavor that stands the test of time
The album that made Michael Jackson a singular star was also his most spirited and celebratory, an example of youthful innocence and unfiltered ambition that was later be dulled by tittering from the tabloids. Thanks in part to his musical mentor Quincy Jones, Jackson turned in a set of songs that would forever keep company with his best—“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “She’s Out of My Life” and “Rock With You,” chief among them. Jackson had yet to be consumed with aura and image; instead he sticks to the basics, enticing his audiences with effortless enticement and good-natured appeal. This is the Jackson that many of us would like to remember, way before he became “Wacko Jacko” and slid into scandal. Don’t stop indeed.