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Everybody Dance Now: 18 Songs That Might Make You Reconsider Disco

A couple of summers ago, when electroclash started pushing garage off the cool meter, there was something vaguely familiar about the whole scenario. And then it hit me: 1979. Punk versus disco. An epic if indecisive battle. Disco came out the clear winner, at least in economic terms, producing dozens of disposable gold albums and getting its own TV shows (though also enduring the legendary Chicago "Disco Demolition" rally in 1979). Meanwhile, punk walked away with all the credibility, gaining sway over disaffected hipsters and college radio DJs.

The whole matter seemed settled until recently, when, over a six-month period, three extremely cred-heavy indie-rock guys spontaneously played the disco card in interviews. First, John Petkovic of Cobra Verde let it drop that he was doing a version of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" on his upcoming covers album. Then Tim Rutilli of Califone admitted that a love of disco partly inspired his amazing "Two Sisters Drunk on Each Other". And finally, Joshua McKay of Macha fessed up that Forget Tomorrow borrowed its synthetic beat not just from New Order but from disco, too. A Mojo feature on Nile Rodgers sealed the deal. Disco was no longer just for girls with Farrah Fawcett hair and blue eye-shadow.

Actually, the best kind of disco has always borrowed the most populist elements of soul and funk and rock -- and slicked them over, maybe, but never enough to obscure their essential power. Need convincing? Check out these 18 tracks of disco excellence. But remember, even I have standards. I still hate the Bee Gees no matter how many of them die, and it's still embarrassing to listen to rock guys (Jagger, Rod Stewart, Ray Davies, Bowie) try to do the disco thing. So don't be writing me to find out why there's no "Stayin' Alive" or "Emotional Rescue" or that stupid "Whoops, upside the head" song. Some disco will always suck.

O'Jays' "Love Train"
For a time, disco acted as a giant ATM for great soul groups temporarily down on their luck. Here's one of the earliest examples, from the smooth and suave Philly soul pioneers who made "Backstabbers" sound like a good thing. Get on the love train...or the money train, whatever. It's still a great song.

Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting"
Remember the Kung Fu TV show? Remember how the school dance lights would come up after "Color My World" and all the cool jocks would unvelcro from their skanky cheerleader girlfriends and start kicking each other in the head to this totally stupid song? No? Well, it was kind of fun, in its way. Sorry you missed it.

Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing"
You'd never know it from this hot-charting single, but the rest of this UK band's work was politically charged and socially conscious, sort of a danceable version of Marvin Gaye. So, what do we remember? The sexy falsetto, throbbing reggae bass line and "I believe in miracles / Where you from? / You sexy thing." I feel so shallow.

K.C. & the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight"
Baby, babe, let's get together... This prototypical mindless -- but butt-shaking -- disco hit narrowly beat out KC hits like "That's the Way (Uh-Uh, Uh-Uh) I Like It" and "Shake Your Booty" to make this list. Check out the deadpan and hilarious cover by Stereo Total on their great self-titled album.

Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony's "The Hustle"
You knew we had to put one of those dance-specific songs on this list...and I never liked that "Do the Bump" thing very much. Here reknown soul producer Van McCoy (Shirelles, Gladys Knight, the Drifts) built a slick and glossy wall of sound with strings, piano and that dance staple, the piccolo. It sold a million copies. Your mom probably has one somewhere. So go ahead, get out your swishy polyester shirt and platform shoes and make an ass of yourself. Do the hustle -- it's not nearly as stupid as the macarena.

Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster"
I remember when my brother brought Honey home from the store, its naked, "Sweet Sticky Thing" model cover causing a good deal of sniffing and hurt proprietries at home. Good thing mom never listened to the thing, 'cos "Love Rollercoaster" was about as hard-assed sexy as any tune from the 1970s.

Candi Staton's "Young Hearts Run Free"
Not as good as her recently rediscovered Muscle Shoals sessions (rereleased this year by Astralwerks), this 1976 disco classic nevertheless showcases one of the best-ever female soul voices. Staton worked with some of the leading Motown session musicians for this track, laying down all of its tracks in a single day. Like Al Green, whom she covered, Ms. Staton found Jesus later in her career, and has won several Grammies for her gospel recordings.

Rose Royce's "Car Wash"
This track from the Richard Pryor movie soundtrack pretty much defines the use of handclaps with its weirdly compelling, syncopated opening. Warm as soul and rhythmic as dance, it was composed by Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who wrote "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and co-wrote Edwin Starr's "War".

The Spinners' "Rubberband Man"
Another great Philly soul group takes a chance on disco in this infectiously danceable track. Phillip Wynne has one of the best falsettos in the business, and the bass line is -- just as you'd expect -- unstoppably rubbery. From 1976's Happiness Is Being With the Spinners.

The Trammps' "Disco Inferno"
"Burn, baby, burn / Disco inferno" -- it's probably one of the most hedonistic choruses ever, and the only reason to buy the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. You can make fun of it, sure, but can you sit still when it's playing?

Wild Cherry's "Play that Funky Music"
Another highly objectionable album cover -- all wet lips and red-ripe cherry -- enclosing the single massive hit from another white boy funk band from Ohio. This song has been on my mind ever since I finished Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, and if you want to know everything there is to know about funk, disco and punk and growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, you should read it, too.

Cerrone's "Supernature"
With its pulsing synths, drum machines and swelling soul-girl choruses, this track puts you right inside the velvet rope at Studio 54. Sure it's plastic ... that's the point, isn't it?

Donna Summer's "Love to Love You, Baby"
Predating that When Harry Met Sally scene by several years, the first lady of disco belts out what many people consider the, er, climax of her career. Ahhhhhhhh.

The Commodores' "Brick House"
Jesus, what happened to Lionel Richie? He and his Commodores made this irresistable funk-dance song in 1977, then went into terminal quiet storm mode for the remainder of the decade. Still, you can't top that chorus with its "She's a" and the sly and strutting bass line underneath it.

Chic's "Le Freak"
"Ahhh.....freak out" was the call to action at every dance party of the late 1970s. This is maybe the best disco song ever -- surprisingly complex, insanely catchy and completely mindless all at the same time. Genius exists in every time and style, and the team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had it in this one.

Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"
Jackson's mammoth solo debut Off the Wall came right at the tail end of disco, reviving the formula with fast and furious boogie hooks and Jackson's inimitable dancing style.

Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie"
The horns literally erupt out of the seams of this monster funk-dance classic, and you can't hear it without thinking hands-up, head-back, dance-floor release. It might not be disco in its purest sense, but it'll get you moving.

Earth Wind & Fire's "Shining Star"
EWF was, naturally, way more than a disco band, pulling rock, funk, jazz and psyche together in one of the seventies' smoothest, most assured mixes. Still, there's something inherently disco about that endless "Shining star for you to see / Shining star for you and me" chorus that makes you want to shove your aviator glasses back on your forehead, polish off that mood ring and put your moonwalk to work.

-- Jennifer Kelly

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