The Top 10 Most Famous Disco Songs

Disco Dancers
Disco Dancers.

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Disco songs and 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.

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"Bad Luck" Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

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 was a crucial building block for disco. This hard-times polemic could have only made it onto the dance floor in disco's early days—before it became a weekend diversion for suburbanites and the beautiful people at Studio 54. However, the darker subject matter is 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. This song ruled the dance charts so hard that it took Michael Jackson's Thriller to match its record number of weeks at No. 1.

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"I Love Music," O'Jays

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 the majestic horns that would become staples of the genre. As an added bonus, it throws in a tasty, rockish guitar solo to boot.

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"Le Freak," Chic

Famously composed by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards after being denied entrance to Studio 54, in spite of being very nearly rich and famous, this song finally made the duo both. It also introduced a funkier, sleeker style of disco, built around the 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.

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"You Should Be Dancing," Bee Gees

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 group 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 dance phenomenon with its hot mix of Latin percussion, modern keys, and galloping horns. Travolta practiced all his SNF moves to this.

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"Hot Stuff," Donna Summer

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."

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"Brazil," The Ritchie Family

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.

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"Village People," (EP) Village People

Billboard often listed 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, lacking the cartoonishness that would come to characterize some of their later work.

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"Don't Leave Me This Way," Thelma Houston

Although many regard "I Will Survive" as the ultimate disco diva move, this song actually moved more units. Originally another Gamble/Huff creation for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Thelma's vocals soar gloriously, even though the era-defining bass line on this one may be the true star. 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."

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"Disco Inferno," The Trammps

The monster disco anthem to rule them all—that's true 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 when the groove is this hot.

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"You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," Sylvester

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 vocals set the stage for decades of gay male disco falsettos. We have none other to thank for some of this than co-producer Harvey Fuqua. That's right, of the Moonglows.