There were so many great disco songs back in the day that by picking only 12, I have to leave out gems like “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” Shake Your Groove Thing,” “Take Me Home,” “I Need A Man” and the ABBA oeuvre. But who cares? Let’s dance! After reading the list, of course. Here are my 12 faves:
“TURN THE BEAT AROUND,” Vicki Sue Robinson (1976)
Harlem-born stage actress Robinson came out with this vivid, bracing song full of percolating rhythm, and it was a smash, easily providing one of the most thrillingly danceable moments of the disco era. Robinson acted as a sort of one-woman orchestra as she navigated through the rat tat tat of the drums and beyond. Gloria Estefan covered the song in 1994, and it became a hit all over again.
“LOVE HANGOVER,” Diana Ross (1976)
Diana wasn’t thrilled about joining the disco bandwagon, so they reportedly put a strobe light in the studio to make her feel it more. As she melted from the slow part to the jazzy part, Diana got into it, ad libbing, playing around and even laughing at one point. The double-trouble result, which goes from orgiastic to feisty, is a sexy classic.
(Special mention also to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” a wondrous mid-tempo disco song. Runners-up: “I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down,” “The Boss”)
“FOUR SEASONS OF LOVE,” Donna Summer (1976)
I’m cheating here because this is actually a concept album, not a song, but it can easily be played as one long, throbbing track, and in fact, it should be, since it’ll give the DJ a nice, long bathroom break. Telling the story of a love situation as reflected by the quirky quartet of seasons, it spans “Spring Affair,” “Summer Fever,” “Autumn Changes” and “Winter Melody” with shimmery melodies, beautiful production, and Summer’s top notch vocals. What a year.
“MACARTHUR PARK,” Donna Summer (1978)
Jimmy Webb’s song about a cake being left out in the rain was loopy when it first surfaced as a 1968 Richard Harris hit, done in the semi-musical equivalent of dramatic oratory style. Well, Donna slapped a frisky dance beat to it and the lyrical weirdnesses went by easier, as you thumped-thumped to the song’s varying textures of loving, regret and soaring. A truly weird, wonderful novelty item.
Runners-up: “Heaven Knows,” “On The Radio,” “Dim All The Lights,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” etc.
“I WILL SURVIVE,” Gloria Gaynor (1978)
One of the standout hits of the disco era had Gaynor musically squawking about rising to power after being badly treated in a relationship. Everyone loved acting this one out as they danced to it, feeling so empowered by the Who-the-hell-needs-you? theme. It was so much more than a disco song; it was a three-act vengeance opera.
“DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY,” Thelma Houston (1977)
This was basically the flip side of “I Will Survive.” Rather than triumphing, Houston is frantically begging her man not to walk out the door and leave her in shambles. But it was equally dramatic, with fiery Houston vocals that keep evolving, though Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring Teddy Pendergrass, also did a really great version of the song a couple of years earlier.
Runner-up: “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps
“MACHO MAN,” Village People (1978)
Even better than “YMCA,” is this wink-wink ode to the glories of machismo which starts with inspired silliness (“Body … such a thrill, my body”) and keeps mounting (“Jogging in the morning, Go man, go/Works out in the health spa, muscles glow”) and builds to the nutty singalong part. Thank you, People.
Runner-up: “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls
“SHAME,” Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978)
In one of those great show-biz stories, King was supposedly discovered when she was working as an office cleaner and was overheard singing in the bathroom. I’m glad she took her skills to the dance floor because “Shame” was an energy-packed classic which helped proved that disco didn’t have to be happy-smiley feelgood stuff for dummies. No one went to the bathroom when this song was on.
“STAYIN’ ALIVE,” Bee Gees (1977)
The Bee Gees’ pulsing score to “Saturday Night Fever” is one of the best, and most popular, of all time. “Stayin’ Alive” is a strutting piece of big-city genius, though it’s one of many fab tracks on the soundtrack which sent home the sense of empowerment by disco. And the Gibb brothers’ chirpy vocals really resonated and sang out here.
“GOOD TIMES,” Chic (1979)
The state of the art-dance group, headed by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, used depression-era lyrical motifs to ring in this bittersweet song about happy days allegedly being here again. It’s just so sophisticated and catchy, filled with syncopated rhythms and tight female vocals, that it swirls you along into sheer disco bliss.
Runner up: “Le Freak”
“WE ARE FAMILY,” Sister Sledge (1979)
A bunch of siblings singing about love and loyalty as produced by the Chic guys. This was irresistible dance pop, and Kathy Sledge turned in top drawer vocals as she ushered us on this fabulous family journey.
“SUPERNATURE,” Cerrone (1977)
I wanted to include something really deep-down disco, and this was it, the title track off the third album by the French musician/producer Marc Cerrone. It’s pounding and a bit eerie and swirling, and it totally hypnotizes. It reeks of 1970s check-your-mind-at-the-door uniqueness and dance hall escapism.
Runner-up: “Fly, Robin Fly” by Silver Convention
You can also listen to Michael Musto’s danceable darlings via this Spotify playlist, too:
Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.