17 of the greatest yacht rock songs of all time

29 May 2018, 15:39

Yacht generic

Summer's just around the corner, and we're already planning our dream holiday.

We can picture it now: lounging on a swish boat as it bobs along the water, sipping cocktails and improving our tan. Oh, and it's the 1980s.

There's only one style of music that goes with this image: Yacht rock.

Also known as the West Coast Sound or adult-oriented rock, it's a style of soft rock from between the late 1970s and 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 an amazing genre that makes us feel like we're in an episode of Miami Vice wearing shoulder pads and massive sunglasses.

Here are the very best songs that could be placed in this genre:

1. Hall & Oates - 'I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)'

This duo knew how to make catchy hit after catchy hit. This R&B-tinged pop tune was co-written with Sara Allen (also the influence for their song 'Sara Smile'). John Oates has said that the song is actually about the music business. "That song is really about not being pushed around by big labels, managers, and agents and being told what to do, and being true to yourself creatively." 

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 lifted the bass line for 'Billie Jean'!

2. Foreigner - 'Waiting for a Girl Like You'

A bit more of a smooth sound than their bigger power ballads, this song had the misfortune of staying at number two for 10 weeks in the US charts, 9 of which was behind Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’.

Co-writer Mick Jones said of the song: “I had no idea what it meant, but it left such a deep impression on me. It ended up being a song that brought a lot of people together. I hear these days that it’s a song that a lot of people play at their weddings.”

3. Eagles - 'I Can't Tell You Why'

Many Eagles tunes could be classed as yacht rock, but we reckon their finest example comes from this track from their The Long Run album in 1979.

Don Henley described the song as "straight Al Green", and that Glenn Frey, an R&B fan, was responsible for the R&B feel of the song. Frey said to co-writer Timothy B Schmit: "You could sing like Smokey Robinson. Let’s not do a Richie Furay, Poco-sounding song. Let’s do an R&B song."

4. 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 silky smooth.

Possibly his greatest solo tune, it was used in the movie Running Scared, and its music video featured actors Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines.

5. Toto - 'Rosanna'

We almost picked 'Africa', but we reckon this tune just about pips it in the yacht rock game.

Written by David Paich, he has said that the song is based on numerous girls he had known. As a joke, the band members initially played along with the common assumption that the song was based on actress Rosanna Arquette, who was dating Toto keyboard player Steve Porcaro at the time and coincidentally had the same name.

6. The Doobie Brothers - 'What a Fool Believes'

Possibly THE ultimate yacht rock song, and it's that man Michael McDonald again.

Written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins, this was one of the few non-disco hits in America in the first eight months of 1979. The song tells the story of a man who is reunited with an old love interest and attempts to rekindle a romantic relationship with her before discovering that one never really existed. Michael Jackson once claimed he contributed at least one backing track to the original recording, but was not credited for having done so. This was later denied by the band.

7. Bobby Goldsboro - 'Summer (The First Time)'

A bit of a questionable subject matter, 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 repeating piano riff, 12-string guitar, and an orchestral string arrangement, this song just screams yacht rock and all that is great about it.

8. Boz Scaggs - 'Lowdown'

We've moved 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 would go on to form Toto along with the song's keyboardist David Paich, session bassist David Hungate, and drummer Jeff Porcaro.

9. Steely Dan - 'FM'

It's tough just choosing one Steely Dan song for this list, but we've gone for this banger.

Used as the theme tune for the 1978 movie of the same name, the song is jazz-rock track, though its lyrics took a disapproving look at the genre as a whole, which was in total contrast to the film's celebration of it. Still, sounds great guys!

10. Don Henley - 'The Boys of Summer'

Mike Campbell wrote the music to 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 passing of youth and entering middle age, and of 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.

11. Chicago - 'Hard to Say I'm Sorry'

Chicago began moving away from their horn-driven soft rock sound with their early 1980s output, including this synthesizer-filled power ballad.

The album version segued into a more traditional Chicago upbeat track titled ‘Get Away’, but most radio stations at the time opted to fade out the song before it kicked in. Three members of Toto played on the track. Those guys are yacht rock kings!

12. 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.

13. Kenny Loggins - 'Heart to Heart'

If Michael McDonald is the king of yacht rock, then Kenny Loggins is his trusted advisor 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 do not stand the test of time, yet some are able to do so.

14. Airplay - 'Nothing You Can Do About It'

You might not remember US band Airplay, but they did have their moment on the yacht.

Consisting 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 1981.

15. Michael Jackson - 'Human Nature'

A few non-rock artists almost made this list (George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' and Spandau Ballet's 'True' are almost examples, but not quite), yet a big chunk of Thriller heavily relied on the yacht rock sound.

Jackson proved just how popular the genre could get with several songs on the album, but this is the finest example. 

16. Christopher Cross - 'Sailing'

We're not putting this in here just because it's called 'Sailing', it's also one of the ultimate examples of the genre.

It reached number one in the US in 1980, and VH1 later named it the most "softsational soft rock" song of all time.

17. Steve Winwood - 'Valerie'

This song is probably as far as you can get into pop rock without totally leaving the yacht rock dock.

Legendary singer-songwriter Winwood recorded this gong about a man reminiscing about a lost love he hopes to find again someday. Eric Prydz later 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 fit the track.