Disco music started as an urban phenomenon in the middle of the decade, died off, then (thanks to the movie Saturday Night Fever suddenly exploded into an exponentially more popular suburban phenomenon. As a result, the genre has two histories -- one as a dance-club style which appealed to the fringes of society and only occasionally poked its head into the top 40, and another as a cultural movement that dominated pop radio so completely it created its own monumental backlash. This list of the biggest disco records of all time takes both audiences into account.
With a groove just complicated enough to be funky, yet simple enough for anyone to follow, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' high-energy, propulsive brand of Philly Soul -- always present in extended versions -- was a crucial building block for disco. This hard-times polemic could have only made it onto the dance floor in disco's original era, before it became weekend diversion for suburbanites and the beautiful people at Studio 54. But that's also a large source of its appeal: the post-Watergate anger it taps into perfectly dovetails into the black self-determination groove at the heart of the genre's origins. And it worked, ruling the dance charts so hard that it took Michael Jackson's Thriller to match the record of weeks at #1.
A bit more in keeping with the emerging style's themes of carefree hedonism, this extended track jettisoned most of the funk and protest from their usual groove and made with the romance: this disco giant proves its point about music being the "healing force of all the world" with a sumptuous feast of swooping strings and majestic horns that would become staples of the genre, and throws in a tasty, rockish guitar solo to boot.
Famously composed by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards after being denied entrance to Studio 54, despite being very nearly rich and famous, this song finally made the duo both. It also, not coincidentally, introduced a funkier, sleeker style of disco, built around heavier percussive effects and slicker guitar runs, that would come to define dance music in the early part of the next decade. Returning home after being snubbed, the two originally wrote a song called "f*** off!" then sanitized the f-bomb to "freak." Finally, Nile hit upon the simple idea of freaking out, and the country did just that.
It's forgotten now, but the Bee Gees had begun their march towards disco three full years before Saturday Night Fever with "Jive Talkin'" and this super hot number. In fact, the Brothers Gibb (along with producer Arif Mardin, a man who knew his groove) proved themselves quite prescient with the 2/4 punch of this smash; it helped write many of the rhythmic rules that transformed slick romantic R&B into a national phenomenon with its hot mix of Latin percussion, modern keys, and galloping horns. Travolta practiced all his SNF moves to this.
By 1979, disco had begun to weary the mainstream, who saw it as a threat to rock and roll. So disco, as American pop music always does, merely appropriated the offended audience by adding wailing guitars and a harder beat; this huge smash by disco's forever-reigning diva is a perfect example of how it worked. It also didn't hurt that Summer was very explicit (for the time) about her hormonal urges, which, while a great career move, troubled her so deeply she eventually became a born-again Christian. Or maybe it was being dubbed "The First Lady of Love."
The Ritchie Family weren't a family at all, or even a group at first, just a collection of studio musicians (and occasional singers) put together by Jacques Morali, the later brainchild behind the Village People. At this point, however, he was cannily retooling old '30s swing melodies for the dance floor, adding a trick or two shamelessly borrowed from recent proto-disco hits. Ironically, the followup "The Best Disco In Town," a straight-up unapologetic medley of disco favorites, didn't sell quite as well.
Billboard often listened entire albums on their dance charts in the early days, since the distinctions between an EP and a 12-inch single and a dance album were often blurry. This debut, for example, features just four songs in under twenty minutes, most of which have the same general beats and BPM, making it eligible for inclusion. No "YMCA" or "Macho Man" hits here -- producer Jacques Morali was, at this point, still aiming directly at his gay audience with titles that shouted out Fire Island, San Francisco, and Hollywood. It's also the group's best album, or single, or what have you, lacking the cartoonishness that would come to categorize some of their later work.
Although many regard "I Will Survive" as the ultimate disco diva move, this song actually moved more units, hopefully not because there were still more females begging for their lovers not to leave than those ready to change the locks. Originally another Gamble/Huff creation for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the era-defining bass line on this one may be the true star, even as Thelma soars gloriously over it. And despite the lyrics, she certainly sounds confident enough, which may mean that sexual liberation may be the real reason this one has even more cover versions than "Survive."
The monster disco anthem of them all, both in length (a nearly 11-minute finale on the Saturday Night Fever double album) and in presentation: Sousa himself couldn't have asked for a more majestic horn/string section than this one. Or maybe, as some versions of the mythology have it, the mixers were set incorrectly, resulting in a volume and presence that should have been rejected by the RIAA but weren't. Tasteless for referencing the 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno? Maybe. But it's hard to argue with that, or with the way these guys deftly reclaim "burn, baby, burn" from the Black Power movement, when the groove is this hot.
Classic-era disco's most popular gay artist made his biggest impression on his core audience with this song, which nevertheless failed to struggle up from the depths of the pop charts. No matter: the glitzy, glittery, synth-arpeggiated beat helped set the stage for electrofunk and the dance music to come, while Sly's unabashedly diva-esque vocal set the stage for decades of gay male disco falsettoes. And we have none other to thank for some of this than co-producer Harvey Fuqua. That's right, of the Moonglows.