Rockists, wallflowers and squares of all stripes: You may want to stop reading now, because the adults are talking disco.
Oft-derided now and throughout the decades, the disco sound is a melange of Latin, funk, soul and rock. Its sound was defined in New York and Philadelphia in the early '70s by predominantly black, Hispanic and queer performers, producers and DJs before mutating abroad into various European sub-genres.
Disco started in a deep recession — during Vietnam, after Stonewall, and after the '60s imploded. It took “we blew it” and flipped it into a message of liberation and expression. Disco spawned the remix and the 12-inch single, and solidified nightclubbing as a lucrative industry.
The first things most people think of when they think of disco are typically from the mainstream period, films like Saturday Night Fever (based on a wildly inaccurate piece of faux-journalism) and clubs like Studio 54 (in glaring ways, the antithesis of disco's inclusive roots). But in reality, disco was always defiant, avant-garde, deviant, and more punk than punk.
Even when disco became over-commercialized, disco demolition — an obvious product of racism and homophobia — demolished nothing. Disco breaks were the basis of hip-hop, and disco samples were the foundation of house. Disco's initial ethos has survived and permeated and perverted its way through a variety of over- and underground cultures. It influenced everything in its wake and produced an endless sea of remixes, re-edits, and interpolations over the last 40 years.
Here are some influential and quality records from disco's first decade(ish), a mix of Euro and American productions of varying shapes and sizes. We made an effort to include records on a sliding scale of recognizability, avoiding anything that might be featured on a generic wedding playlist. Some great and obvious choices were criminally and intentionally omitted. And one more caveat: If you're going to give disco or this list a fair chance, do it standing. As journalist Danny Broker wrote in NME in the '70s, “How can you critique this music sitting down?”
1. Sylvester – “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight” (1979)
The Queen of Disco lays it on strong in this slinkier, slower number. L.A. native Sylvester James Jr. was, like many in the disco scene, raised in a gospel choir-singing family. He would later move to San Francisco and collaborate with the likes of Patrick Cowley and Divine and pal around with Harvey Milk. This sleazy, smokey single is prime morning music.
2. MFSB – “Love Is the Message” (1973)
This one is duh rigueur. The quintessential “Philly Sound” — lilting strings and soulful horns — is on full display here. If there were a great, accurate scripted film about disco (there isn't), this should be its theme. This was released as a B-side to “TSOP” (the theme of Soul Train), but “Love Is the Message” still trounces them all.
3. Boney M. – “Ma Baker” (1977)
Boney M. is one of those stories that never gets old. German producer Frank Farian (white dude) made a killing off writing some great songs, while hiring black musicians to pretend to play his music. A decade later, he would go on to pop culture infamy as the brains behind Milli Vanilli. But here, with “Ma Baker,” he made probably the most prominent disco song about a notorious criminal, famed American gang matriarch Ma Barker (who was also the inspiration for Momma Fratelli in The Goonies).
4. Bumblebee Unlimited – “Lady Bug” (1978)
Patrick Adams is a legendary American producer whose Bumblebee Unlimited project was a conceptual group singing disco songs and ballads from the perspective of members of phylum Arthropoda. Pitched up vocals and a sense of humor have made this curio an underground staple to this day.
5. Harry Thumann – “Underwater” (1979)
German synth wiz Harry Thumann dips his toes into the spacier and more cosmic sides of Euro disco in this piece that almost feels like a medley. While not a huge commercial chart topper by any means, “Underwater” is a classic example of how instrumental disco can be super dramatic and cinematic without leaning on a huge vocal.
6. Candi Staton – “Looking for Love” (1980)
Candi had many floor-filling discotheque bombs. This isn't one of the obvious ones. But it's a wonderful, bittersweet, down-tempo number all the same, with a heartbreaking guitar solo.
7. Loose Joints – “Is It All Over My Face?” (1980)
Is this the most famous song about cum? Probably. Now canonized but criminally under-appreciated in his lifetime, New York composer Arthur Russell teamed up with Steve D'Aquisto to create this drag ball anthem on West End Records that will certainly outlive us all.
8. Salsoul Orchestra feat Cognac – “How High (Larry Levan Remix)” (1978)
Salsoul Orchestra was the house band of quintessential disco imprint Salsoul Records, and Larry Levan — on remix duties — is probably the most mythologized DJ ever, thanks to his residency at New York's fabled Paradise Garage.
9. Skatt Brothers – “Walk The Night” (1979)
In some respects L.A.'s answer to the Village People, the leather-clad Skatt Brothers were an all-male ensemble. This, their “cruising anthem,” came out on Casablanca Records, another indispensable disco label. The perfect late '70s album art features the whole band huddled around a pinball machine.
10. Donna Summer – “MacArthur Park”
The other Queen Diva, Donna Summer, dominated the '70s. Many of her singles — particularly “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” — could have easily been on this list. But this epic monster, with its famously inscrutable Jimmy Webb lyrics (“All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain”), showcases disco at its most offbeat and avant-garde. If you're listening to anything other than the 18-minute “suite” version, you're doing it wrong.