50 Disco Albums You Better Have…Or Else
Burn, baby burn: The fifty greatest albums of the classic disco era assembled into one off the wall countdown
Disco is back in style!
Who expected to hear those words uttered almost thirty-six years since the late-70’s genre — an explosive conglomerate merging the worlds of funk, R&B and pop together with — phased out from the mindset of pop culture? It would later morph into house, synthpop and plenty other of electronica like. But the word disco, at least by 1980, had become a dirty word. The Disco Sucks massacre of 1979 hosted at Comiskey Park, spurred by the fear-based propaganda coming from WLUP disc jockey Steve Dahl, led the charge for disco’s unfortunate downfall. A host of critics felt the campaign against disco was rooted in racism, homophobia and white supremacy. In 2009, disco legend Gloria Gaynor told Today.com that she thought it was more to that. “I’ve always believed it was an economic decision — an idea created by someone whose economic bottom line was being adversely affected by the popularity of disco music. So they got a mob mentality going,” she said.
But the word disco has somehow resurrected to the surface for newer, younger generations. They are easily embracing it with the same kind of appreciation as popular genres. To others who managed to survive the polyester-wearing decade, this is like a Second Coming. In the summer of 2013, Daft Punk invaded the radio with “Get Lucky,” a song sporting Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar riffs and lots of Chic-like swagger. The song dominated most radio formats, and made room for a full-length classic disco tribute on their Grammy-award winning Random Access Memories. Weeks later, Robin Thicke drops “Blurred Lines,” a song using Marvin Gaye’s disco ditty “Got to Give It Up” as its magnetic formula. The song became the summer anthem of the year, making way for more product cut in a similar manner. Two years later, that vibe continues to show up on the radar of pop’s food chain. That retro sound — usually made up of real strings, live drums and the occasional horns — showed up on a number of albums and released singles coming from artists like Chromeo, Escort, Clean Bandit, Kiesza, Calvin Harris, Mary J. Blige, Olly Murs, Charlie Wilson and many others.
Just listen to this dreamy disco jam infusing fragments of ’80’s synthpop in Passion Pit’s summer-ready jam “Pay No Mind.”
Then word drops that Giorgio Moroder — a principle figure on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, is putting out new music:
And then Nile Rodgers drops new Chic music on the world with “I’ll Be There.”
Right now, the rage is all about Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” The popular song is another draft of dance fever, although it’s not exactly cut with the four-on-the-floor method in mind. So far, it has not loosened its grip on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining at number one for the thirteen consecutive week. According to data coming from Nielsen SoundScan, it is the longest-leading single to dominate the Hot 100 in this decade. Pretty impressive for a song that could have easily slipped in between a funky, uptempo single cut from the Gap Band and Prince back in funk’s heyday.
As new generations are rushing to get their disco and funk fix, HiFi Magazine is rolling out the carpet on the most important albums from the genre that turned John Travolta into a blockbuster phenomenon, propped Studio 54 into a magical Disneyland for the Big Apple’s jet-set and gave rise to the culture of divatude. Arguably there are a number of good albums that just didn’t make the final cut — groundbreaking electronica from Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine; MFSB’s delicious instrumentals dominating Love Is the Message; the voyage into perfect new wave (and that famous disco ditty “Heart of Glass”) from punk band Blondie on Parallel Lines are just a few. There’s plenty of records that were cut from the Philadelphia International Records factory that also didn’t make the list. And the exclusion of Smooth Talk, Evelyn “Champagne” King’s groundbreaking debut album? All of those are glorious albums, but aren’t exactly a rite of passage into classic disco territory. The albums in this list of 50 Disco Albums You Better Have…Or Else are mostly indulged in that intoxicating stuff aimed at keeping crowds on the dancefloor. Mostly. The others are just must-haves for historical sake. All in all, these are important essentials to almost any decent library celebrating the life of disco music. May the countdown begin.
Charted: #109 / Billboard 200
Avant-garde fashion model and Studio 54 regular Grace Jones is showered with Philly soul disco confetti on her debut disc, Portfolio. Only difference here – mix giant Tom Moulton is in the producer’s chair. And he does a fine job manning the showcase. Moulton understand his complex artist and drops a different type of style on her exotic chops. Along with the four-on-the-floor struts from drummer Allen Schwatzberg, there are the vocal coos of the Sweethearts of Sigma inserted on much of the offerings. The popular “Send in the Clowns” is covered once more on Jones’s effort and is glossed with a smooth midtempo disco groove designed by vibist extraordinaire Vincent Montana. “I Need a Man” matches the fast hustle of extravagant Gloria Gaynor classics. “La Vie En Rose” proved to be perfect for downtime disco as its romantic bossa nova heartbeats along with Jones’s French executions and power belting turned this into one of the musical highlights of her career. In 1985, that song earned a new lease on life when re-released in the UK with her most popular hit “Pull Up to the Bumper,” soarig all the way to number 12. When recording classic disco, Jones isn’t quite refined. Her expedition into reggae and New Wave, first experienced on 1980’s Warm Leatherette, would be the perfect universe for her, nevertheless Portfolio proved to be quite enjoyable.
“Rock Your Baby” wasn’t exactly where disco got its start, but it was where the genre discovered its gusto. George McCrae’s powering falsetto reigns over this dreamy pop single as it struts across a production that felt like a Barry White-themed paradise event. Harry Wayne Casey and Rick Finch produce the entire album, exercising their inventive Miami sound muscle on strong cuts like “I Can’t Leave You Alone,” “Look at You” and the heavily hip-hop sampled “I Get Lifted.”
Bouncing off the success of Disco Garden, Shalamar – now with a confident Jody Watley out in the front and Howard Hewett replacing the ousted Gerald Brown heard on “Take That to the Bank” – jumps into their sophomore album, Big Fun, in a very big way. The album bares a Top Ten hit with “The Second Time Around.” It also houses the just-as-catchy “The Right Time for Us” and the horn fest celebration of “Girl.” Jubilant funk takes over “Right in the Socket” and “I Owe You One” while the band slows things down with the Quiet Storm gem “Let’s Find the Time for Love.” With hardly a dry cut insight, Big Fun could easily be described as the group’s best album.
Although typically ignored, live albums in disco weren’t exactly dismissed from the conversation of essential listening. Donna Summer’s Live and More was a best-seller, but it wasn’t as entertaining and contagious as Sylvester’s throwdown at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. There were surprisingly good slow jams on board (“Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves,” “You Are My Friend”), a fiery tribute to the gay-friendly Pointers (“Happiness”) and a delicious, even whimsical uptempo take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Although the flamboyant cross-dressing singer was still a relatively new artist – just breaking into mainstream with his successful Step II album, he knew how to flex his Aretha-seasoned falsetto. In this live setting, he refused to hold back and you sense that combustible power on the expanded live versions of “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” With the talented Two Tons O’ Fun and a complimentary orchestra on board, the live set is “living proof” of Syl’s on-stage genius. On the fourth side of the double-LP collection are two new cuts; the biggest being “Can’t Stop Dancing,” a song that proved to be the inspiration for L.A. gospel composer Rickey Grundy when he recorded “Call Him Up (Can’t Stop Praising)” the following year with Keith Pringle’s Pentecostal Community Choir.
Children of the World, released only months before the release of Saturday Night Fever, technically isn’t a disco album. It possesses Quiet Storm soul (“Love So Right,” “Love Me”) and more of the group’s classic singer-songwriter glamor (“The Way It Was”), but there are a few important contributions to disco on board. The opening cut “You Should Be Dancing” (also featured on the SNF soundtrack) kicks open the album with Barry Gibb’s captivating falsetto on lead vocals, furious R&B beats and edgy funk, creating the perfect brew for a disco breakout. Immediately following is “You Stepped Into My Life,” a song that earned them even more street cred with black audiences and proved more famous on Melba Moore’s perfected version two years later. “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and the groove-possessed “Boogie Child” are also worth digging. With very little filler inside, Children of the World may even be considered the group’s magnum opus.
The first half of A Love Trilogy is a seventeen-minute suite fusing three songs with the same beat into a glorious mega mix. Summer’s dreamy vocals blanket the first part as the Eurodisco style of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte dominate the rest of the course. The rest of the record is just as entrancing with her splendid cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” and a string-heavy “Wasted” prominently featured.
Linda Clifford failed to rise to the caliber of top-tier disco queens like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, but she deserved to be associated with such royalty. With If My Friends Could See Me Now, an album released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label, she made her transition from R&B songstress to disco dynamite. The title cut obviously is a trip back to the 1966 Broadway tune, which Clifford played a part in when the Great White Way show tune landed in the 1969 film adaption. Clifford’s version is spruced up with a glowing disco update flowing in excess pageantry. Jazz trumpeter and Motown session man Gil Askey provided much of the heartbeat on the project, particularly when “Runaway Love” enters the scene. The mix on the album version is edited a bit from the 12” version, but it’s still packaged with lots of gravy and potatoes. Clifford’s sass is furious and picks up on the strong-willed ad-libs (“And besides you ain’t got no money, I’m the one with the money…And take this dog with you”). The Jones Girls found themselves on the backing vocals, providing the groundwork for their entry as a signed act on Gamble & Huff’s PIR. Curtis Mayfield contributes a few productions to the affair; the most poignant being “Gypsy Lady.”
Ashford & Simpson’s string-studded disco formula, propped up by Jimmy Simpson’s mixing, worked well on a number of their big hits in the late-70’s, and proved to also work well on Motown’s superstar darling. Producing The Boss was a brief welcome home for Ashford & Simpson, since this was where they homed their skills as songwriters for the likes of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. For Ross’s first major disco record, the pair assembled the Top 20 hit title track and a trusty twin with “No One Gets the Prize.” Ross’s breathy vocals also drip on the modest R&B cut “It’s My House” and the sweet ballad “All for One.” The album proved to be the perfect setup for the breakthrough Chic-produced Diana album (1980).
In the summer of 1978, Patrick Adams fabricated another faceless studio creation with Musique and quickly designed a four-track debut album in a matter of hours at Blank Tape Studios in New York. Leading the sound were backing vocalists Jocelyn Brown, Christine Wiltshire, Angela Howell and Gina Tharps. With Adams’ feisty disco romps and stellar production packed with standout percussion, strings and horns, Musique emerged as one of Adams’ proudest moments. The risqué lyrics of “In the Bush” caused many radio outlets to abandon the addictive song entirely, but that didn’t stop discos from turning it into a solid gold disco smash. It soared to the top spot on the disco charts later that fall and even became a minor pop hit (number 58 pop). The infectious title track was later revived in the early ‘90s by house producer Todd Terry and featured the voices of Musique former singer Jocelyn Brown along with Weather Girl sensation Martha Wash.
Faceless Italo-disco unit Kano distributed some of the best experimental post-disco to the dancefloor. Led by Luciano Ninzatti, Matteo Bonsanto and Stefano Pulga, the group hit it big with the Top 30 R&B jam “I’m Ready” – a synth-heavy song decorated with vocodor action that has been notoriously sampled in the world of R&B, pop and hip-hop. That groundbreaking selection, heard on Kano’s self-titled effort, influenced a great deal of contemporary music in the Eighties, allowing more Italo-disco to dominate the dance scene. “It’s a War,” the album opener, is also done in the same fashion of “I’m Ready.” The rest of the album doesn’t top the raw prowess of “I’m Ready,” but there are other delightful tunes worthy of spinning, such as the zodiac worshipping “Super Extra Sexy Sign” and the cool funk of “Ahija.”