A few weeks ago we embarked on a new musical journey focused on a subgenre born in the mid-70s. With a playlist of 111 songs, we gave a good account of the sounds that defined it and its evolution over 5 years. Therefore, as part of our new monograph divided into parts (haha!), it is time to talk about 80s disco music, highlighting some big names and classics. For some, however, in this decade disco would begin to lose some influence, especially against another emerging genre that, in some way, fought against it: rap. Although this would lead to another debate, as very often the samples of rap songs came from the instrumental parts of disco songs.
As we will see, some of the artists already mentioned in that list also appear in this one. For a reason, some of them were named kings or queens of disco and still are in the collective imagination. However, as we always try, there will also be room for surprises, lesser-known songs, 80s disco songs to dance to, but also to be a little sadder, and some singer involved in something a bit controversial (as Rod Stewart did in the 70s).
In any case, beyond what has been said, the main novelty of our article on the best disco music of the 80s lies in the new rhythms and sounds found. The mix of funk and R&B is still very much present, but with time and the influence of other subgenres such as electro, Italo-disco, or 80s pop (or synth-pop), there will be steps toward more than one rarity, given the general circumstances throughout the decade.
The best disco music of the 80s. Playlist and selection of 80s disco hits
To summarize and introduce our list of 80s disco music in English, the main difference from the previous decade is in the variety and the increase in the use of electronics in general. Of styles, personalities, and even origins, as Blondie hinted at in the previous entry. For us, the more, the better, that way it’s impossible for you not to like at least one song.
Diana Ross – I’m Coming Out (1980)
We start strong. After leaving The Supremes, Diana Ross’s solo career mainly stood out in disco music. In 1980, after a long career, she decided to release a album titled Diana, probably to capture more of her personality. An excellent album meant to be listened to as such. Fun that fades and reappears with each new listen.
Irene Cara – Fame (1980)
Irene Cara is another one of the great myths of 80s disco music. Singer, songwriter, and actress in American pop, disco, and dance, she is mostly known to us for singing Fame and starring in the movie of the same name (Fame in Spain). Also for having performed Flashdance… What A Feeling in 1983, but we’ll talk about this other emblematic movie later, using another well-known song for it.
Let’s Groove, by Earth, Wind & Fire (1981)
According to the opinions of experts involved in sound systems all their lives, the melody production by singer Maurice White for Let’s Groove is phenomenal. So, if you want to see what your high-fidelity equipment or sound system can do, put on the instrumental version of this song by Earth, Wind & Fire, and it will leave you astounded.
Get Down On It, by Kool & The Gang (1981)
We cannot dedicate a disco music list and not talk about one of its maximum exponents, Kool & The Gang. Although it was not as successful as Ladies Night in 1979 or Celebrate! in 1980, Something Special did attract fans in 1981. Get Down On It and Take My Heart were big hits on the charts. As always, a very solid and smooth production by Eumir Deodato. The album completed a trifecta of renewed success for the band in the early 80s.
Ai No Corrida, by Quincy Jones & Charles May (1981)
Designed mainly for dance floors, Ai No Corrida is one of the great hits by Quincy Jones, once a producer of other great hits. So much so, that all Michael Jackson fans should enjoy it too.
Give It To Me Baby, by Rick James (1981)
If in addition to dancing, we were talking about being cool, surely Rick James would take the cake with his album Street Songs and specifically with songs like Give It To Me Baby and Super Freak. And more considering that we were in 1981, in an era in which music videos were becoming a dominant force in shaping the music business and the landscape of black music was undergoing unpredictable changes. That’s when James stuck to his original blend of funk, soul, and rock (called ‘punk-funk’) and beat all the levels of the industry. Before the successes of Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Purple Rain, and Private Dancer, there was this commercial and artistic giant that was sweeping the world of music with this album.
Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy, by Kid Creole And The Coconuts (1982)
The slightly forgotten and surely underrated group known as Kid Creole And The Coconuts was one of the leading exponents of Latin disco music of the 80s. If you like 80s Latin-flavored dance music, I recommend you get not only this track but the entire album (Tropical Gangsters). It’s worth it.
Billy Jean, by Michael Jackson (1982)
To understand a bit where we are and everything that was happening in such a short time since the birth of disco music, with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album we would be talking directly about post-disco music. A kind of fusion of several sub-genres that were blowing up (disco, rhythm and blues, funk, and pop) on the shoulders of a single person and Quincy Jones.
That same year, he would also release as singles Beat It, in which he mixed pop rock and dance-rock, and Thriller, which fed on many more sounds if possible (funk, pop, synth pop, and disco).
Forget Me Nots, by Patrice Rushen (1982)
If you were unaware of the existence of Forget Me Nots, the song by Patrice Rushen, you might still know it, thanks to being sampled for Will Smith in his track Men In Black. Great classic disco track.
1999, by Prince (1982)
If in the disco music of the 70s we had the Philadelphia sound, in the 80s would come the Minneapolis sound, a funk subgenre with elements of new wave, rock, and disco that succeeded mainly at the hands of Prince. 1999 is one of its best examples.
I’m So Excited, by The Pointer Sisters (1982)
One of the things we said at the beginning about the evolution of 80s disco music is how it drew from new sounds typical of the decade. One of the songs that best demonstrates how well the mix of disco and synth-pop worked is, without a doubt, I’m So Excited, by The Pointer Sisters.
She Works Hard for the Money, by Donna Summer (1983)
Among the names to keep in mind in any self-respecting list about this subgenre, Donna Summer‘s is one of the most obligatory. Of course, besides being a great disco music success, her main milestone in Summer’s career consisted of showing how well the singer’s style matched the synth-pop so characteristic of the decade. Full of energy, sweet voices, and good arrangements.
Rockit, by Herbie Hancock (1983)
If we look at it in retrospect, in the 80s there is a problem in delimiting some subgenres or considering them as variations of others. For example, it is something that happens with electro music before adding the suffixes. It is a style that started as an early form of hip-hop, as we see in Rockit, by Herbie Hancock.
Right now, this electronic music has evolved to encompass anything that uses a classic, electronic and syncopated rhythm. However, the electro prefix also applies to industrial dance music and synth-pop with little or no connection to hip-hop, but that did incorporate patterns of rhythm, instrumentation, and overall style feel. Hence, sometimes, we include in the list songs like this one, foundational, but that also drank from disco, jazz-funk, hip-hop, and turntablism.
Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life, by Indeep (1983)
Although published in 1983 within the album Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life, the single was released and had its biggest run in 1982. Beyond that, it’s curious that this hit by Indeep has so little to highlight. And despite that, we love it. It’s very simple, but also very catchy.
Maniac, by Michael Sembello (1983)
We come to the previously mentioned Flashdance and its much-imitated aesthetic. But this time without highlighting Irene Cara’s theme, but that of Michael Sembello, initially thought to be part of the soundtrack of a movie with a much darker tone (titled Maniac), hence it was finally used for something more suitable.
Dolce Vita, by Ryan Paris (1983)
At last, we arrive at the much-desired 80s italo-disco music. However, in English, as our selection dictates. Except for the title, of course, so that its musical origin is clear at least. Dolce Vita by Ryan Paris is the quintessential italo-disco song outside Italy itself, and that’s how we almost all foreigners see it. Incredible chords and an amazing piano riff that is the backbone of the song. Probably the best of the international italo-disco vocal tracks along with USSR by Eddy Huntington.
It’s Raining Men, by The Weather Girls (1983)
As backup singers for disco queen Sylvester, the duo Izora Armstead and Martha Wash embarked on their own career under different names. However, it was after recording their biggest hit, It’s Raining Men, that both renamed themselves as The Weather Girls. They remained active until 1988, having left us this gift that has been covered several times and used in movies and TV commercials.
Holding Out For A Hero, by Bonnie Tyler (1984)
With Holding Out For A Hero, we are before another example of how disco music expanded in the ’80s. On this occasion, under the term Hi-NRG, a style of dance music that was highly popular in the decade, especially in nightclubs oriented towards the gay audience.
As we were saying, it evolved from disco, retaining the four-on-the-floor beat and emphasizing strong melodies and simple octave basslines, but also with a harder sound that perfectly suited the powerful voice of Bonnie Tyler, more akin to rock, but with pop vocals.
Regarding this musical style, besides the main rhythm, there was usually a second accompanying one, a syncopated shuffle rhythm, often made with a tambourine or similar high-pitched snare sound (or, more often, an electronic variant of the same).
Footloose, by Kenny Loggins (1984)
We continue with the variants of post-disco music in the ’80s. It’s the turn of rock dance, a fusion of post-punk and disco music. But hey, to not only talk about genres, subgenres, and styles, we can add that Footloose is a certifiable classic of the ’80s, both this song and the movie of the same name.
Regarding the movie, it’s worth noting that the producers made the brilliant move to release the soundtrack before the movie hit theaters so that the audience was already familiar with the songs. The result was an instant connection between the music and the movie, and a legendary soundtrack.
Self Control, by Laura Branigan (1984)
This song was first released in 1983 by composer and Italian singer Raf (Raffaele Riefoli), who wrote it with Giancarlo Bigazzi and Steve Piccolo. His version was a low-tempo ballad with disco-techno-pop features and was one of the first uses of synthesizers in Italy. However, listening to it today might be a bit jarring. Therefore, thanks to Laura Branigan for having the insight to make an excellent version that traveled all around the world.
When the video was released in 1984, the music industry was starting to adopt the music video as a promotional tool, and Self Control was quite innovative at the time. Also because it was the first video directed by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist.
Happy Children, by P. Lion (1984)
Having already become an international power, the italo-disco style was everywhere in the mid-80s. Another example is Happy Children by P. Lion, a top-notch old-school italo-disco classic. The charming male voices, uplifting rhythms, and hypnotic melodies make this track extremely catchy and extravagant.
Tarzan Boy, by Baltimora (1985)
It’s competitive, but we’re not lying if we say that Tarzan Boy is among the most commercial italo-disco songs ever produced. For us, it’s incompatible, on the other hand, to associate this song by Baltimora with the VHS videos recorded by our parents.
Living On My Own, by Freddie Mercury (1985)
If you’ve always liked the Synth-Pop and Club House styles, you might prefer the remix version of Living On My Own that was released in 1993, but take a look at the original anyway. Freddie Mercury’s voice at full performance, commercial production, and different options to choose from.
Cheri Cheri Lady, by Modern Talking (1985)
Some (the younger ones, though already old enough) might remember Modern Talking for a series of re-recordings that appeared on the album Back for Good in 1998, but that’s not the best-known work, where Brother Louie ’98 was undoubtedly the big hit.
As for Cheri Cheri Lady, it was number one in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 1985, as well as in Belgium, Finland, Hong Kong, Israel, Lebanon, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Turkey, among others, throughout 1986, since at that time singles did not land everywhere simultaneously.
Part-Time Lover, by Stevie Wonder (1985)
Part-Time Lover may be one of Stevie Wonder’s first forays into disco music. This single is reminiscent of some Hall and Oates songs, although with Wonder’s personal style everything changes. Cheerful and pop, perfect to introduce newcomers to this world of dance and passion.
Bizarre Love Triangle, by New Order (1986)
We are facing the clearest example of the playlist of how 80s disco music gave way to post-disco music and then to dance music. New Order completely abandoned post-punk to embrace this other style with one of their biggest classics: Bizarre Love Triangle.
Don’t Leave Me This Way, by The Communards (1986)
Another example of fantastic pop songwriting using themes that were powerful in their origin. Yes, Don’t Leave This Way is an original song by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass. The version by The Communards is more remembered today (at least in Europe). Both approaches deserve attention.
Living In A Box, by Living In A Box (1987)
Dance music, influenced by post-disco, synth-pop, new wave, and house, would be characterized in the 80s by applying stronger and faster rhythms in simple song structures with emphasis on melody. Generally produced with the intention of being danceable and suitable for modern hit radio, Living In A Box would epitomize all of the above.
What’s interesting about dance music is that it’s substantially different from eurodance music, equally strong in rhythm but with elements of techno, the aforementioned Hi-NRG, and euro-disco that has been the protagonist of our selection for quite some time.
Pump Up The Volume, by M/A/R/R/S (1987)
At the time, Colourbox and A.R. Kane, along with C. J. Mackintosh, John Fryer, and Dave Dorrell (the names behind M/A/R/R/S) must have thought that if they were only going to be known and remembered for one song, they’d better make sure it was a good one. One of the strangest and most important dance songs of the 80s, and also one of the first examples of hip-hop being sampled by dance music producers (I Know You Got Soul, by Eric B. & Rakim).
Smooth Criminal, by Michael Jackson (1987)
This is just one more example of the several that we could include from Michael Jackson. Already, the Bad album, to which Smooth Criminal belongs, is filled with successful singles and a super high production quality.
Never Gonna Give You Up, by Rick Astley (1987)
The always well-regarded and beloved on the internet Rick Astley filled millions of households with joy with one of the most successful tests of 80s Euro-disco music. Today, understood above all as a meme, Never Gonna Give You Up was the thing in 1987, catapulting to fame a man who, if we don’t count the very similar Together Forever. We must not forget, either, the man who jumps against the wall and lands on his feet. Another great one.
Boys, by Sabrina Salerno (1987)
There is only one thing that stands out more than the Italo-disco production of Boys: Sabrina’s breast in a television special produced in Spain. One of those memories that some of us have, even though we were born exactly the same year the Italian singer released this single. At that time, everyone seemed to believe it was an unexpected event, but there is evidence to the contrary, mainly in her video. And it is that, the most notable element of Boys’ success was its video, where, at a crucial point, her bikini bra falls off, revealing a breast during a dance move while she is in a pool.
However, the evidence itself seems to leave room for doubt. And it is that the protagonist of the story maintains that it was an involuntary mishap, but the editor kept it in the video and took advantage of it to show it in slow motion against Sabrina’s wishes.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me), by Whitney Houston (1987)
Even though I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) received quite a few negative reviews from music critics, who praised Houston’s vocal performance but criticized its musical arrangement comparing it to How Will I Know and Girls Just Want to Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston’s song became a worldwide hit. The reason is obvious: it’s a great tune.
The Only Way Is Up, by Yazz (1988)
With The Only Way Is Up by Yazz we return once again to sounds closer to what will triumph in the 90s. See: House, Hi NRG, and synth-pop. Beyond that, what we see with this song is, above all, how the formula for disco music was practically exhausted by 1988. Even so, we will see in the next two songs how it still had some beautiful death throes.
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), by Jimmy Somerville (1989)
The leader of bands such as Bronski Beat and The Communards, Jimmy Somerville, was back to showing his love for turning old songs into disco hits with You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). That said, in this case, Sylvester’s original was already disco, as this singer is a myth of the subgenre.
Pump Up The Jam, by Technotronic (1989)
Given the trend we are seeing, we could not end our selection with anything other than a Euro house rhythm, also taking advantage of the increasingly successful hip hop. Pump Up The Jam is an absolute classic and a model to follow for the entire dance scene of the 90s and beyond, as we will show you in our next part of this monograph that began with the 70s. Technotronic had their own style: starting with the distinctive synthesizer sounds and the elastic bass, the rhythmic section with its hi-hats and claps up to Ya Kid K’s voice. It was a very special symbiosis, which culminated in this song.
(Madrid, 1987) Novelist by vocation, SEO specialist by profession. Music lover, cinephile and reading lover, but in “amateur” mode.