The sound of the 80s is often characterised as synthetic, overproduced pop when in fact some of the world’s most pioneering producers created their greatest work in that decade, as R&B and soul flourished in perfect sync with new technology.
Synthesisers and computer programmes had become more accessible, and U.S producers such as Quincy Jones, Nile Rodgers, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis embraced the new possibilities in their creation of a sophisticated soul sound with the highest standards of composition, musicianship and production and filled dance-floors everywhere. Vitally, they retained the warmth and charm of exceptional voices and musicians playing real instruments.
We’ve picked ten tracks to really show off your speakers while you cut some rug.
Love come down – Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King (1982)
A massive star in the ‘70’s, original disco-diva Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King transitioned smoothly into the ‘80s with a number of hits including this effervescent track. The now classic sound of smooth synthesised soul mixed with old-school R&B on this track was masterminded by musician and producer, Kashif Saleem, and helped define the clean urban sound of the decade, directly influencing a young Madonna, among others, who released her debut the following year.
Funkin’ for Jamaica (NY) – Tom Browne (1980)
Written by Queens jazz trumpeter Tom Browne to celebrate his local neighbourhood, Funkin’ for Jamaica (NY) perfectly evokes hot, atmospheric New York summers. Despite numerous covers and samplings from various DJs and producers, the combination of Browne’s playing, tight production and effortlessly funky vocals from co-writer Toni Smith make it impossible to better this funk-soul classic.
Somebody Else’s Guy – Jocelyn Brown (1984)
Apparently written by Brown when she discovered both she and her sister were being two-timed, Somebody Else’s Guy was turned down by the majors as sounding ‘too old-fashioned’. Undeterred, indie label Prelude picked it up and had a massive hit with it. The unforgettable intro with Brown’s roaring alto ensured this was a huge favourite at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, and she made frequent PA’s at the legendary club.
Patrice Rushen – Forget me nots (1982)
All swirling bass and finger snaps, electric piano and hand claps, this is multi-instrumentalist Patrice Rushen’s finest hour. Taken from the excellent album, One from the heart, her sweet and breezy sound was clearly an influence on Anita Baker’s triumphant 1986 album Rapture as well as providing the backbone to Will Smith’s Men in Black’s theme tune.
Teardrops – Womack & Womack (1988)
Probably the biggest hit from their essential 1988 album Conscience, Teardrops has been covered a number of times, including versions by The Beautiful South and The XX, but none have come close to the production and musicianship of the original. That this floor-filler is effortlessly stylish and soulful isn’t surprising given the artists’ pedigree: Linda Womack was the daughter of Sam Cooke, and Cecil Womack the younger brother of Bobby.
Give me the night – George Benson (1980)
An already highly respected jazz guitarist and vocalist, who’d worked with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, Benson crossed into the pop mainstream with this Quincy Jones-produced album. Bringing together the same team he’d used on Michael Jackson’s phenomenally successful Off the Wall, Jones’ typically taut production ensured Benson’s vocals positively glide on this, the title track, and it’s impossible to listen to without moving your hips. The only album they recorded together, it’s perfect.
Solid – Ashford and Simpson (1984)
As Motown staff songwriters, Ashford & Simpson were responsible for an unfeasible amount of classic romantic tracks not least Aint’ No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need to Get By among many others. So it made perfect sense that they should use their impeccable credentials to create this stompingly glorious paean to the strengths of their partnership, both creative and romantic.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson (1982)
Where do we start? From the improbably long (29-second) instrumental introduction, unforgettable video, and Jackson’s footwork, to the extraordinary vocal hiccups and immaculate Quincy Jones production, Billie Jean transformed the chubby-cheeked Jackson 5 singer into a superstar like we’d never seen before.
Give me the reason – Luther Vandross (1986)
Exquisitely produced and performed, Vandross’ intimate, emotional tenor vocals soar on this sparkling hit. Despite the fact that hip hop and rap had started to influence the US R&B charts by the time Vandross released this, the master of traditional smooth soul clearly saw no reason to change his tune.
My old piano (original Chic mix) – Diana Ross (1981)
Taken from what was effectively her comeback album, Diana, this was co-written with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Seeking a fresher, more modern sound, Ross drafted them in having heard their work at Studio 54. Ever the diva, once finished, she had the whole album remixed and released without their knowledge. The deluxe version of Diana, released in 2004, features both mixes and is a fascinating document. This version of My old piano is an excellent example of Rodgers and Edwards’ genius for blending funk and disco into flawless pop.