Donna Summer remembered: 10 flawless songs that outlasted the disco era

·5 min read

It’s too easy to reduce Donna Summer to her "queen of disco" moniker.

No doubt, her glistening dance anthems defined an era, but nearly 50 years after her first hit and a decade after her death at age 63, Summer remains a pioneering icon.

She made it acceptable to sing about female desire, her orgasmic moans throughout 1975’s breakout “Love to Love You Baby” as stimulating as they were groundbreaking.

Her partnership with producers-songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte – the architects of her sound – was more than a fruitful collective: Together, they were a trifecta of musical brilliance.

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In addition to her noteworthy recording career, Donna Summer was also the subject of the 2018 Broadway show "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical."
In addition to her noteworthy recording career, Donna Summer was also the subject of the 2018 Broadway show "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical."

Summer was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 – her inclusion setting off the usual apoplectic bellowing from those who decry any artist not tethered to an electric guitar.

Her life story was deemed worthy of a 2018 Broadway show, “Summer: The Donna Summer Music,” which featured Ariana DeBose in a Tony-nominated role as the “Disco Donna” incarnation of the singing luminary.

Summer’s influence can be heard throughout generations, from Kylie Minogue to Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa, her lean melodies and vigorous vocals the blueprint for their frothy confections.

Two of her biggest hits, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” both from 1979’s “Bad Girls” album, remain ubiquitous at club nights and radio flashback specials. But Summer’s catalog is a pop feast deserving of esteem.

Here are 10 gems still worth celebrating.

'Spring Affair' (1976)

Taken from her concept album, “Four Seasons of Love,” the song uses spring – obviously – as the metaphorical companion to a budding relationship. Singing primarily in her upper range over swirling strings, Summer didn't land in the Billboard top 40 with this one, but like most of her hits from the era, she still commanded the dance charts.

'Could It Be Magic' (1976)

It was bold of Summer to unveil her version of the sweeping Barry Manilow ballad just a few months after his arrived. The intro evokes the breathy cooing already synonymous with Summer after “Love to Love You Baby” as her voice delicately dances over the disco groove. Her version inspired a Take That rendition in 1992, and earlier this year, rapper Gunna sampled the ribald elements of the song in his “P Power.”

'I Feel Love' (1977)

A companion of sorts to “Love to Love You Baby,” the spongy, futuristic sounds from the Moog synthesizer almost upstage Summer with somewhat dizzying circular note patterns. Though minimal in lyrical content, the song is rightfully noted as a pioneering entry in the electronic dance music canon.

'Heaven Knows' (1978)

Summer shares the spotlight with New York R&B-dance outfit Brooklyn Dreams, specifically singer Joe “Bean” Esposito, who echoes her vocals with his own rumbling sexiness. The brass breakdown mid-song injects more texture than usually heard in a disco bauble, while Summer’s voice, as usual, soars. (Summer married the band’s keyboardist Bruce Sudano in 1980 and remained with him until her death.)

'Last Dance' (1978)

Still the ultimate choice for any finale – wedding reception, high school reunion, radio station format change – Summer’s contribution to the “Thank God It’s Friday” soundtrack not only glides, but rollicks as she makes her plea (“Will you be my Mr. Right?”). The escalation from ballad to heart-pumper is deft, with a lone synth note the perfect segue from teasing to demanding.

'On the Radio' (1979)

An endearing piano-rooted melancholy (“I never told a soul just how I've been feeling over you”) that throws off its sadness after about a minute to get to its simple, groove-infested thesis: music is the ideal outlet when pining for a lost love.

'No More Tears (Enough is Enough)' (1979)

The heady duo of Summer and Barbra Streisand easily could have devolved into a melisma-packed migraine. But instead of competing, the pair is playfully dramatic, fooling the listener into thinking this is going to be a Broadway-esque ballad before the pulse kicks in and the diva fireworks begin. Of course, they’re singing in fed-up unison at the same target – a louse who’d better hope not to run into either of them.

'Dim All the Lights' (1979)

Streaking guitars slowly entice before the pumping heartbeat arrives to accompany the libidinous undercurrent (“Dim all the lights sweet darling, ‘cause tonight it’s all the way”). A prominent bass line and staccato keyboards steer the song midway through, and coupled with the vocal effects on Summer’s voice, coat it all with a funky sheen. It's also Summer's only hit single that she wrote on her own.

'Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)' (1982)

There’s a reason this treasure sounds like an outtake from a Michael Jackson record – it’s written by Jackson gurus Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton and produced by Jones. Spidery guitar riffs, layered background vocals and rhythmic thumping injected the song with a sound redolent of its era.

'This Time I Know It's for Real' (1989)

Her last notable chart showing is a slight stylistic departure as it features the defining sound of ace British producers Stock Aitken Waterman (who helped break Rick Astley). But the song kept Summer relevant on MTV, where she enticed a new generation six years earlier when “She Works Hard for the Money” rotated steadily among other major hitmakers such as Culture Club, Michael Jackson and Pat Benatar.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donna Summer's best songs: 10 disco classics to remember her by

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