We can imagine it now: lounging on a boat that floats on the water, sipping cocktails and working on our tan. Oh, and it’s the 1980s.
There is only one style of music that goes with this image: yacht rock.
Also known as West Coast Sound or adult rock, it is a style of soft rock from the late 1970s to early 1980s that featured elements of smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk , rock and disco.
Although its name has been used in a negative way, to us it’s kind of amazing that makes us feel like we’re in an episode of Miami Vice wearing shoulder pads and massive sunglasses.
Player – ‘Baby come back’
Not the reggae classic of the same name, this 1977 track was Player’s biggest hit.
After Player disbanded, singer Peter Beckett joined Australia’s Little River Band, and he also wrote “Twist of Fate” for Olivia Newton-John and “After All This Time” for Kenny Rogers.
Steely Dan – ‘FM’
It’s hard to pick just one Steely Dan song for this list, but we’ve gone with this banger.
Used as the theme music for the 1978 film of the same name, the song is a jazz-rock tune, though its lyrics cast a disapproving look at the genre as a whole, a stark contrast to the film’s celebration. Still, it sounds good guys!
Bobby Goldsboro – ‘Summertime (The First Time)’
A bit of a moot point, this ballad was about a 17-year-old boy’s first sexual experience with a 31-year-old woman at the beach.
But using a repetitive piano riff, 12-string guitar, and orchestral string arrangement, this song just screams yacht rock and everything great about it.
Kenny Loggins – “Heart to Heart”
If Michael McDonald is the king of yacht rock, then Kenny Loggins is his trusted adviser and heir to the throne.
This track was co-written with Michael and also features him on backing vocals. The song is about how most relationships don’t stand the test of time, but some can.
Airplay – “There’s Nothing You Can Do About It”
You may not remember the American band Airplay, but they had their moment on the yacht.
Composed of David Foster (who also co-wrote the Kenny Loggins song above), Jay Graydon and the brilliantly named Tommy Funderburk, this tune was a cover of a Manhattan Transfer song, and was a minor hit in nineteen eighty one.
Boz Scaggs – ‘Lowdown’
We’ve stepped slightly into smooth jazz territory with this track, which is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
The song was co-written by David Paich, who will form Toto with vocals keyboardist David Paich, session bassist David Hungate and drummer Jeff Porcaro.
Steve Winwood – ‘Valerie’
This song is probably as far into pop rock as you can get without totally leaving the rock yacht dock.
Legendary singer-songwriter Winwood recorded this gong about a man remembering a lost love he hopes to find someday.
Eric Prydz then sampled it in 2004 for the house number one track “Call on Me” and presented it to Winwood, who was so impressed he re-recorded the vocals to better suit the track.
Toto – ‘Rosanna’
We almost picked ‘Africa’, but we feel that this track is just about the best in the yacht rock game.
Written by David Paich, he said the song was based on many girls he had known.
As a joke, the band members initially toyed with the common assumption that the song was based on actress Rosanna Arquette, who was dating Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro at the time and coincidentally had the same name.
Chicago – “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”
Chicago began to move away from its soft rock sound with its early 1980s output, including this powerful synthesizer-filled ballad.
The album version turned into a more traditional upbeat Chicago track titled “Get Away”, but most radio stations of the time opted to drop the song before it started. Three Toto members performed on the track. These guys are kings of yacht rock!
Michael Jackson – “Human Nature”
A few non-rock artists have come close to making it onto this list (George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ are almost but not quite examples), but a lot of Thriller strongly leaned on the sound of yacht rock.
Michael Jackson proved just how popular the genre could become with several songs on the album, but “Human Nature” is the best example.
The Doobie Brothers – “What A Fool Believes”
Maybe THE the ultimate yacht rock song on the rock end of the spectrum, and it’s that man Michael McDonald.
Written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins, it was one of the few non-disco hits in America during the first eight months of 1979.
The song tells the story of a man who reunites with an old love and attempts to rekindle a romantic relationship with her only to discover that she never really existed.
Michael Jackson once claimed that he contributed at least one backing track to the original recording, but was not credited for doing so. This was later denied by the band.
Christopher Cross – ‘Sailing’
We’re not putting this here just because it’s called “Sailing”, it’s also one of the ultimate examples of the genre.
Christopher Cross reached number one in the US in 1980, and VH1 later named it the most “softstational soft rock” song of all time.
Don Henley – ‘Summer Boys’
Mike Campbell wrote the music for this track while working on Tom Petty’s Southern Accents album, but later gave it to Eagles singer Don Henley, who wrote the lyrics.
The song is about the passage of youth and entering fifty, and a past relationship. It was covered twice in the early 2000s: as a trance track by DJ Sammy in 2002, and as a pop punk hit by The Ataris in 2003.
England Dan and John Cord Foley – “I would really like to see you tonight”
A big hit for this duo in 1976, it showcases the best sock rock/AOR/yacht rock sound the 1970s had to offer.
Dan Seals is the younger brother of Jim Seals of Seals and Crofts. Which leads to…
Seals and Crofts – ‘Summer Breeze’
Before the Isley Brothers recorded a stylish cover, “Summer Breeze” was an irresistible folk pop song by Seals & Crofts.
Although it is primarily a folk song, its summery vibes and beautiful melody make it a perfect yacht rock number.
Christopher Cross – ‘Ride Like the Wind’
If Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins are in charge of the rock yacht, then Christopher Cross must be the captain, right? Cabin boy? Something anyway.
The singer was arguably the biggest achievement of yacht rock’s relatively short era, and this one still sounds amazing.
Eagles – “I Can’t Tell You Why”
Many Eagles tracks could be categorized as yacht rock, but we feel their best example comes from this track from their The long term album in 1979.
Don Henley described the song as “straight Al Green”, and that Glenn Frey, an R&B fan, was responsible for the song’s R&B feel. Frey told co-writer Timothy B Schmit, “You could sing like Smokey Robinson. Let’s not do a Richie Furay song, Poco. Let’s do an R&B song.”
Gerry Rafferty – ‘Baker Street’
Gerry Rafferty probably didn’t realize he was crafting one of the greatest yacht rock songs of all time when he wrote this, but damn it, he did.
With the right blend of rock and pop and the use of the iconic sax solo, you can’t call this yacht rock at its best.
Michael McDonald – ‘Sweet Freedom’
If you wanted to name the king of yacht rock, you’d have to pick Michael McDonald. He could sing the phone book and it would sound like silk.
Possibly his greatest solo track, it was used in film Run in fearand its music video featured actors Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines.
Hall & Oates – ‘I Can’t Go (It’s Not Possible)’
This duo knew how to make eye-catching blow after eye-catching blow. This R&B-tinged pop track was co-written with Sara Allen (also the influence of their song “Sara Smile”).
John Oates said the song was actually about the music industry. “This song is really about not getting pushed around by big labels and managers and agents and being told what to do, and being creatively true to yourself.”
Not only was the song sampled in De La Soul’s “Say No Go” and Simply Red’s “Home”, but Michael Jackson also admitted that he did the bassline for “Billie Jean”!