50 Disco Albums You Better Have…Or Else

Posted April 2, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Delusions
First Choice
(1977; Gold Mind/Salsoul)
Charted: #103 / Billboard 200

 

Philadelphia housed plenty great disco singles, but hardly dropped big disco albums due to its strong connections to soul and classic R&B. But the female group known for “Armed and Extremely Dangerous” exercised their strengths on the Norman Harris-produced Delusions album. The disc is one of the greatest handiworks crafted by the Philly sound, containing affectionate soul (“I Love You More Than Before”), big PIR-esque string/horn arrangements (“Chances Go Around”) and a mean Stevie Wonder cover of “Love Having You Around” . It also harnesses one of the most influential dance songs to ever hit a dance floor. Thanks to the foxy lyricism and big breaks of “Let No Man Put Asunder,” First Choice gained a new audience inside the legendary halls of Frankie Knuckles’s Warehouse club in Chicago and in major New York discotheques. A highly sought-out acapella version released in 1983 became many a deejay’s wet dream throughout the Eighties. And if you’re seeking for 12-inch majesty, one must track down the Tom Moulton mix of “Dr. Love.” It remains one of the most coveted records touched by the hands of the mix king.

 

Step II
Sylvester
(1978; Fantasy)
Charted: #28 / Billboard 200

 

Genderbending disco star Sylvester hit the major scene with Step II, an album that proved to be just as appealing to mainstream as it was to his devoted Castro gay audience. The disc is loaded with some of Syl’s biggest moments. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is timeless disco fun and is topped off with Patrick Cowley’s innovative hi-NRG synths. “Dance (Disco Heat)” captures the gospel soul of Two Tons ‘o Fun members Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes and perfectly proves  why they were destined to be stars on their own. “Grateful” shows off more gospel energy, while “Was It Something That I Said” exposed the jovial side of his music. When Syl slowed things down on the Bacharach/David cover of “I Took My Strength From You,” his ethereal falsetto put him in the same class of Eddie Kendricks and Aretha. From top to bottom, the album is a beautiful example of disco done right and stands out as Sylvester’s best studio disc.

 

Off the Wall
Michael Jackson
(1979; Epic)
Charted: #3 / Billboard 200

 

Thriller may have been Michael Jackson’s greatest achievement, but Off the Wall is just as stellar. It also should be noted that the Quincy Jones-produced disc, his first solo entry on Epic, is pretty much an unapologetic disco album and it’s one of the best. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is wrapped up in Earth, Wind & Fire-sounding madness. “Working Day and Night” is a Christmas gift for Soul Train dancers as it magically blends Jerry Hey’s zesty horn arrangements across a slab of Brothers Johnson funk. “Burn This Disco Out,” “Get on the Floor” and the Rod Temperton-penned title track are just as riveting for dancefloor convulsions. The album was far from being short on great tracks: “Rock With You,” “Girlfriend” and the heartfelt “She’s Out of My Life.” So what if it’s overshadowed by the greatness of its mammoth follow-up, Off the Wall – a breakthrough record for the former Jackson Five frontman – deserves to be treated with the utmost respect.

 

Philadelphia Classics
Various Artists
(1977; Philadelphia International)
Charted: — / Billboard 200

 

Disco mix king Tom Moulton was approached by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to partake in an exercise allowing him to stretch some of their vault hits into 12” workouts. The end result — Philadelphia Classics, a double LP set showcasing monster mixes of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck” and the Three Degrees’ “Dirty Ol’ Man.” Before Thelma Houston turned “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Teddy Pendergrass touched it as a member of the Blue Notes. On the third side of this collection, Moulton expands the cut into a 11-minute epiphany, decked out with more of Pendergrass’s ad-libs and incredible instrumental breaks. His assignment on MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” is clearly the album’s centerpiece, as he places highlights on Earl Young’s rhythms, newly added backing vocals from the Three Degrees and the band’s sweeping orchestrations. His arrangement of this 1973 gem became an important contribution to New York’s nightlife and became the city’s unofficial anthem for many years, thanks to a silver streak created by WBLS disc jockey Frankie Crocker.


Chic

Chic
(1977; Atlantic)
Charted: #27 / Billboard 200

 

The eight minute episode of “Dance Dance Dance (Yowasah Yowsah Yowsah)” is smart, sophisticated and super sexy. Not only does it factor in catchy jazz phrases dating back to the Roaring Twenties, it also sports some of the finest funk to hit a discotheque. The galloping bass lines of Bernard Edwards and piercing strings give it that extra oomph. It’s the first tune heard on the New York band’s debut disc, and is probably the most important example of Chic’s signature sound. You hear it that formula spring up on other album cuts like “Everybody Dance” and “You Can Get By,” which both feature the obvious background vocals of Luther Vandross. And it doesn’t matter if you’re hearing filler cuts like “Strike Up the Band” or “Est-Ce Que  C’est Chic” (the inspiration for the band’s sophomore LP title), this disc is prove that disco and funk were match made in heaven.


A Night at Studio 54

Various Artists
(1979; Casablanca)
Charted: #21 / Billboard 200

 

One of the most revered and fairly balanced disco compilations released at the time, A Night at Studio 54 – a mighty groundbreaking marketing strategy that involved television and radio advertising – literally showed off disco gold across a double-disc event. Steve Rubell’s Studio 54 earned top marquee action, but the stars inside get all the accolades. All the songs are mixed together, creating mega mixes on each side. Since the set was released through disco giant Casablanca, their artists are fully displayed. D.C LaRue’s “Hot Jungle Drums and Voodoo Rhythms” fit perfectly in the set, so does offerings from Donna Summer (“Last Dance”), Cher (“Take Me Home”), Love & Kisses (“I Found Love (Now That I Have Found You)”) and the Village People (“YMCA”). But the smart compilation producers are true to the culture of Studio 54 and place some of the venue’s storied masterpieces into the set, including Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” Voyage’s “Souvenirs,” a valuable extended version of GQ’s “Disco Nights” and Chic’s Studio 54 tribute “Le Freak.”

 

Bad Girls
Donna Summer
(1979; Casablanca)
Charted: #1 / Billboard 200

 

When it comes to disco divas, no one reached the levels of ambition or stardom like Donna Summer. But let it be engraved in stone that Bad Girls remains her glorious throne of achievement. A double-disc effort, Bad Girls pushed the envelope, even successfully planting disco in a host of markets. “Dim All the Lights,” a song Summer originally wrote for Rod Stewart, starts with a midtempo swing before jumping into a lane of fun disco. There’s guitar rock heard on the best-selling single “Hot Stuff” and more of the futuristic remnants of “I Feel Love” tucked inside “Sunset People” and “Our Love.” But the fervent disco productions of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte are clearly the dominant force on this adventurous 70-minute event: “Walk Away” is hard to walk away from; “Can’t Get to Sleep at Night” – one of the tracks that should have been released as a single – is intoxicated with mystery and sex appeal. And with attitude, “Journey to the Center of Your Heart” finds a way to shower big Stax-esque horns into a whirlwind of disco theatrics. A disco library without Bad Girls deserves to be the laughingstock of collections.

 

C’est Chic
Chic
(1978; Atlantic)
Charted: #4 / Billboard 200

 

The Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards team brings more of that funky stuff to the dance floor on their sophomore album, C’est Chic. This time, the band stuffed it with bigger hits. “Le Freak,” the biggest single in Atlantic history, is present. So is the glamorous Top Ten hit single “I Want Your Love,” which is topped with luxurious strings, dreamy lead vocals and a stunning horn section displayed on one of the instrumental breaks. The other tracks are just as rewarding to the disco movement, especially the smooth funky “Sometimes You Win,” which features a rare vocal from Edwards. And if you’re looking for a smooth slow grind, turn to the instrumental balladry of “Savoir Faire.” It’s purely therapeutic to the ear.


We Are Family

Sister Sledge
(1979; Cotillion)
Charted: #3 / Billboard 200

 

The legend goes that the Chic Organization was approached by Atlantic execs to produce one of their star acts, but Nile Rodgers decided for the lesser-known, hit-hungry female group Sister Sledge. They were in desperate need of a breakthrough, or else their contracts were going to be nulled. In comes We Are Family, a broad collection of sophisticated dream ballads and mindblowing dancefloor pop with the recognizable Chic blueprint. Every song is essential listening, but discos quickly lit up with “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” a spicy funky song that dared challenge some of the group’s core religious values. The song lives on in the sampling medium as the hook for Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.” DJs were also smitten by the powers of “Lost in Music” and the universal love tucked inside the now-iconic title track. Those that entertained the entire disc will recall the magic of “Thinking of You” (showcasing a killer guitar solo by Rodgers on the opening) and the entrancing “Easier to Love.” With hardly a dud on board, We Are Family would have been Chic’s best album had they recorded it on themselves.


Saturday Night Fever Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Various Artists
(1977; RSO)
Charted: #1 / Billboard 200

 

It sold well over 15 million copies and has been certified platinum fifteen times, becoming one of the best-selling motion picture soundtracks of all time. For some to suggest Saturday Night Fever, a double-disc odyssey into disco at its zenith, as being overrated seems a bit fair at first. It’s almost always the go-to album for novices to the disco genre. But if you ask any serious music critic, there’s literally not a single collection of music that reaches the magical wonder of transcendent disco like SNF. Sure, it works like a top-tier “greatest hits” compilation. To a certain degree, it could very well be viewed as that, but there’s so much more riding on the backs of this collection. The Bee Gees not only supply the set with a few of their previous hits (“Jive Talkin’,” “You Should Be Dancing”), but are crafty enough to drop a few incredible originals. “Stayin’ Alive” raises them to the level of being disco geniuses, while “How Deep Is You Love” proves they are still just as good on a romantic AC-centered love ballad. Their contributions on others are also prominent, particularly on the Yvonne Elliman knockout “If I Can’t Have You” and the Tavares soulful take of “More Than a Woman.” Half of the album’s content focuses on the work ethic of the Bee Gees; the other celebrates some of the other top-tier giants in the genre, and a few overlooked ones. Luckily enough everyone becomes a star just for being associated with all of this greatness. The Trammps becomes superstars for the inclusion of the ten-minute workout “Disco Inferno.” Instrumentals like Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” MFSB’s “K-Jee” and David Shire’s “Manhattan Skyline” proves to be more than just elevator music. And there’s so many shades of disco inside, killing the silly assumption that everything inside the dance craze was all the same.  One listen to the percussion soul inside Ralph MacDonald’s “Calypso Breakdown” and you can understand why this appealed to so many.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine

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