The Era of the Band: Top 25 R&B & Soul Songs of the 70s & 80s (Bands Only)

It’s quarantine and what else is there to do besides reflect on the beautiful music of the past. So it’s the top 25 songs from the 70s and 80s! Bands only. Methodology? My lifetime of music experience and being an avid listener ;). These are the songs I like from the bands of the era, and ones that stood out to me musically, and as far as what they meant to the era.

This is not an exhaustive list. Many other bands of the time exist. I narrowed it to the ones that were most meaningful to me. So let’s get into my witty and musically inclined comments. Time to wax poetic!

25) Midnight Star — Midas Touch

This is just a groovy, funky song. Some great synth work going on behind an endless groove.

24) Commodores — Brick House

Not much to explain here. A song about letting it all hang out.

23) Parliament — Flash Light

A groundbreaking group in sound, groove and technology. These guys and girls used all their synthesizers to their advantage and did some crazy things with them. It’s the quintessential party music of the 80s.

22) Kool and the Gang — Get Down On It

Kool and the Gang’s songs are synonymous with culture. You hear them everywhere. Get Down On It encourages you to get off your butt and dance. It’s just the right pace for a new, novice dancer, or for the more experienced movers.

21) The OJs — I Love Music

This upbeat anthem is a song that never ends on the dance floor. It’s a reflective ode to music itself. We all know Backstabbers and Love Train (and they’ve unfortunately been socially and emotionally tied to everything from burger advertisements to movie scenes) so I decide here to turn the focus on this song instead.

20) Zapp — I Want to Be Your Man

With their revolutionary use of the vocoder, Zapp represented the new, fresh possibilities in vocal sound. Their perfect harmonies slice through the air and hit your ears with pleasure. The vocoder reminds us of the chorus of California Love, or a T-Pain’s classics, but remember Zapp did it first and did it well!

19) Toni, Tony, Tone — Whatever You Want

As far as time period, this song barely made the cut, coming out in 1989. However as far as a great track, it’s in by a long shot. This is an ode to the late 80s as we start to approach the electronics-influenced, neo soul, hip hop and r&b sounds of the 90s. Oh the songs of courtship and convincing. Let’s also thank Tony Toni Tone for giving us the song Anniversary. One of the few anniversary songs out there and a classic!

18) Maze — We Are One

A song of unity that unfolds subtly. The groove is spaced out and creates anticipation. Elongated rhodes chords over a bouncy bass. Smooth. And this isn’t even their best song (that comes later in this list).

17) The Whispers — (Olivia) Lost and Turned Out

When I would hear this song as I child I didn’t image it was about a young girl falling into a life of prostitution at the hands of a pimp. The smooth bassline and the phrase “grandma’s house” in the chorus make for a seemingly benign song. If anything it shows the depth of r&b topics that were covered during this time, and how any message could go over top of the smooth and captivating melodies and beats.

16) Emotions — Don’t Ask My Neighbor

Sweet, sensual, and assertive. This song with its shakers, thick chords and harmonies, makes for a rocking back and forth, shaking your head with a smile kind of feeling. In this song a woman looks forward to the moment that her love interest will finally tell his feelings and ask her of hers.

15) The Gap Band — Yearning for Your Love

A mysterious yet assertive track about expressions of love. And what can we say about the art of the bridge. A magical bridge that switches keys and then lands back where it started, to push toward a sweet fading end. Not even their best song (that comes later in this list).

14) The Stylistics — Betcha By Golly Wow

We know People Make the World Go Round and You Make Me Feel Brand New, so I decided to focus on Betcha By Golly, Wow. From the title you’d think this song was from an earlier era than even the 80s or 70s. Who says golly any more?! But this song certainly is not simplistic. In fact its colorful key changes are what make the song what it is. A dynamic pre chorus leads into a chorus that is more stable and familiar. “You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever. And ever will my love for you keep growing strong.” Beautiful words of love to match beautiful music.

13) Earth Wind and Fire — Can’t Hide Love

I could hardly decide between this and Fantasy, Shining Star, Love’s Holiday, Reasons, so many hits. Can’t Hide Love is particularly memorable to me. This is where EWF comes to show their musical prowess, and their enticing personal prowess as well. This song is an open show for the keyboardist who stands out in front of the music. The keyboard with its heavily panned and vibrato sound makes this song feel sexy and smooth. High falsetto vocals compliment strong mid range as the vocalists go back and forth. The song ends with a virtuosic set of key changes and long held notes. It fades as the harmonies intensify.

12) The Jackson 5 — I Want You Back

This song is in the music textbooks for its simple brilliance. The song takes us up and down the major scales and around 2, 5, 1s landing at home. It’s one of the easiest songs to understand and epitomizes soul music of the time. We gotta thank the Jacksons for being some of the greatest to ever do it!

11) Ohio Players — Heaven Must Be Like This

Upbeat funk came a dime a dozen during this period. So a nice balad done well is always a gem. The song preserves elements of groove even though it’s down tempo. Choppy piano chords complement legato strings and flutes. If you say this song is smooth or if you say it’s funky, you’re right! The song ends with a minute of dueling improv from guitar and piano as the song intensifies then fades. Heaven!

10) The Spinners — Could It Be I’m Falling in Love

For whatever reason I always hear this song slower in my head than it actually is. I think the lush harmonies and subject matter make it seem like more of a ballad. But it’s definitely danceable. This song about budding love has appropriate changes, sometimes going minor, then back to a bright happy feel and then back again. This is the nature of budding love.

9) Isley Brothers — Footsteps in the Dark

This song is quintessential Isley Brothers. A bridge which is distinct from the verse. The song has a mysteriousness that Ron Isley is known for. You couldn’t think of a better guitar line with a little twang and distortion. This song is timeless, having been sampled by Ice Cube in his Today Was A Good Day, and Thundercat in his interpolation of the drum intro of the song in his song Them Changes.

8) The Spinners — It’s A Shame

What a bassline! Love to see the sort of movement and color from a bassline. And of course it’s the 70s and 80s, so that kind of bass is necessary. In this era even songs of heartbreak felt happy and hopeful.

7) The Jackson 5 — Never Can Say Goodbye

This song has classic elements of 80s r&b, a bouncy, moving bass, classic acoustic drums, and MJ’s angelic child voice. His voice wasn’t very childish though. Such a strong and piercing voice. This song brings nostalgia with it’s minor chords, and hopeful feelings with its major chords in the chorus.

6) Isley Brothers — That Lady

Guitar. Just guitar. That’s what this song is about. What an amazing iconic solo. A wiry, electric sound. It flows well. A song to dance to and one to observe with attention in a live performance as there is so much going on musically.

5) Earth Wind and Fire — September

EWFs music is celebratory, it’s infectious, and most importantly it’s just a bit jazzier and involved than the soul music of the time, making it appealing to the music connoisseurs and musicians, and still accessible to everyone. The musicians of this group are amazing professionals. The things that are done on horns, keyboards and basses in this group are incredible and cannot be replicated. Their music has been heavily sampled by artists after them, showing their impact on the industry.

4) Isley Brothers — Between the Sheets

It’s the brothers again! This song is all about contrast. A dark, sexy verse moves into a bright familiar progression in the chorus. But both of them keep baby making as the focus. The song is the definition of timeless as it led to the unforgettable sample by Notorious BIG in his song Big Papa.

3) The Gap Band — Outstanding

What a groove. The piano invites us into the song with its bright base. What better song of adoration is there? “I feel alive! I’m satisfied!” They just don’t make songs like this anymore. You can find this one at the cookout, the anniversary, the wedding, and every other black family function. Charlie Wilson’s strong yet warm voice undulates between full voice to falsetto in a smooth and unnoticeable way. The song is so friendly that it almost sounds like it could be a gospel song as the claps continue in the background. It is certainly a religious anthem for black folks.

2) Maze — Before I Let Go

What can you say that hasn’t been said. The classic cookout song, the get up and dance the electric slide song. If this song doesn’t put some positivity in your soul I don’t know what will!

1) The Whispers — And the Beat Goes On

This might seem like an unexpected 1st place track. This in my opinion is arguably the best, or at least the most quintessential 80s soul song there is. How can you not feel like dancing with hope with the groovy beat going on and on and on. “I might as well get over the blues…there’ll always be someone new…just like my love, everlasting.” Musically, I don’t know how to put into words how essentially this song is. Tasteful, not too much, not too little. Beautifully busy bass, a guitar that’s fast and evasive yet locked into the groove. A drum kick that never ends. And synthesizers and strings that lay back and come out on special occasions. This song is about layers. One thing comes in, then the next, then the next, adding depth until finally everything is in and it’s time to dance. The song takes time to breathe, time for the musicians to solo. The song almost DJs itself as it mixes and remixes parts together while others lay out. The song is about resilient living, resilient love. The guitar and bass work together so seamlessly that they barely even play notes at the same time. On a completely different rhythm from one another, yet always in sync and complementary.

Thanks for reading. Shout out to some of the majors didn’t make the cut. Just because I chose based on songs I felt were particularly memorable. Shout out to Sly and the Family Stone, The Manhattans, Funkadelic, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Atlantic Starr.

Thanks again for reading and enjoy next time you open up Spotify, get a radio station started with one of these songs, and explore the music of this time even more!

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