In 2006, a group of buddies produced a series of short videos called “Yacht Rock.” The videos defined yacht rock as a genre of smooth music, born out of Southern California between 1976 and 1984, and featuring exceptional musicianship with roots in R&B, jazz and folk rock. Its stars: Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Toto and Steely Dan.
The last 11 years have tested the genre’s buoyancy. Since 2006, yacht rock has been co-opted by Big Radio, whose yacht playlists include flimsy AM gold like Bertie Higgins and California corporate rock like the Eagles. Luckily the originators of the term, through their podcast Beyond Yacht Rock, have helped to set the parameters of the genre.
Good yacht rock is frequently credited to many of the same names: established players like multi-instrumentalist Jay Graydon, producer David Foster, percussionist Victor Feldman, and hard-working-studio-band-turned-80s-superstars Toto. And it’s heavier on R&B and jazz than folk rock, incorporating the work of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and others.
With that, here are the 10 best yacht rock albums to start your collection - or, shall I say, to christen your vessel.
The album that shot Toto into superstardom is a perfect primer for the yacht rock sound. “Rosanna,” with drummer Jeff Porcaro’s iconic shuffle technique, makes multiple left turns, a crucial component of most yacht songs. You’ll know this album for “Rosanna” and No. 1 smash “Africa,” but the slow groove of “Waiting For Your Love” shows the band’s ability to dip into soul and R&B, a trait that helped them on cuts like “Human Nature” and “The Lady in My Life” off another yacht rock album, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Toto could also bring the heat with mid-tempo stunners like “Make Believe” and “Good For You.” A deep listen of Toto IV reveals a group of professionals rarely wasting notes.
If yacht rock is a marriage of jazz, R&B and singer-songwriter folk rock, Boz Scaggs’ breakout Silk Degrees is one of the earliest attempts at matrimony. Boz employed David Paich, David Hungate and Jeff and Joe Porcaro for the album, and their work here would set a template for the Toto sound (combine “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” and you get something near “Rosanna”). There’s a few too many strings here, Boz gets a little too lyrical (Yacht Rock isn’t necessarily a lyricist’s genre) and the bass is so up front that it can feel like disco. But if you want to know the roots of yacht rock, Silk Degrees is a good choice.
Two crucial instruments in yacht rock: the Fender Rhodes keyboard and McDonald’s husky, blue-eyed soul tenor. If That’s What it Takes, McDonald’s solo debut after leaving the Doobie Brothers, has plenty of both. “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” is essential yacht, a chill-out anthem featuring half of Toto, who also appear on the ballad “That’s Why” and slightly discofied “No Such Luck.” McDonald’s buddy Loggins co-writes “I Gotta Try,” one of many yacht anthems about fools looking to change their luck. And make no mistake: McDonald is the poster boy for fools constantly searching for small victories.
Loggins isn’t always yacht rock. Sometimes, like on High Adventure, he’s far too tender (“The More We Try”) or he’s far too heavy (“Swear Your Love”). But there’s a lot of yacht rock range on this enormously fun album, from the Latin-tinged “Heartlight” to the gritty “If It’s Not What You’re Looking For.” Then there’s Loggins’ version of “I Gotta Try” and, finally, a quintessential yacht rock hit, “Heart to Heart.” Loggins is a little lighter and slightly more soulful on his 1979 album Keep the Fire, which includes the stunning “This Is It.” He’s certainly an essential artist in the yacht canon, but always step lightly with Loggins. The guy is a chameleon.
There are countless yacht rock albums either lost in bargain bins or available only as imports, from the 1980 self-titled album by Airplay (listen to the quintessential “Nothin’ You Can Do About It”) to 1978’s Blue Virgin Isles by Swedish singer Ted Gardestad. Dane Donohue’s 1978 self-titled debut is another, featuring Graydon, Feldman, members of Toto and Los Angeles studio professionals like Larry Carlton, Jai Winding and Steve Gadd. “Can’t Be Seen” has a distinct yacht sound, as does the crisp “Woman,” which features backing vocals from J.D. Souther and Stevie Nicks. You’ll tell quickly that Donohue is a third-rate vocal talent for the genre (McDonald or, say, Al Jarreau would elevate these tracks), but the point is the smooth, polished sound. Yacht rock is a player’s genre.
Steely Dan’s importance to yacht rock can’t be overstated. They introduced the world to McDonald (“Any World [That I’m Welcome To]” off Katy Lied) and curated an inner circle of studio professionals versed in jazz, R&B and soul, who would later perfect the yacht sound. Arguably the Dan is smoothest on the 1980 smash Gaucho, but Aja finds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen comfortably hitting a middle-ground stride. You’ve probably heard much of the album already, from the slithering journey of “Deacon Blues” to the percolating “Peg,” but what’s amazing about Aja is its ability to position Steely Dan as a mainstream hit factory while remaining expansive and adventurous (the title track, “I Got the News”).
Yacht rock is popularly considered a white man’s genre, but its roots are in the R&B and jazz that manifest itself as yacht soul on outstanding albums like Austin’s Every Home Should Have One. Examples? “Do You Love Me?” sounds awfully like Loggins’ “I Gotta Try.” And one could imagine McDonald singing “The Way I Feel.” “Love Me to Death” could have been a Michael Jackson outtake, or it’s just a rewrite of “Off the Wall.” The album’s high point is the slow burn “Baby, Come to Me,” which includes James Ingram’s smooth delivery, plus Toto’s Lukather on guitar and Foster on synthesizer. Check George Benson’s Give Me the Night and the Pointer Sisters’ Special Things for more examples of yacht soul.
If there’s an album that showcases the yacht rock sound at its cleanest, Breakin’ Away may take the trophy. All of the pertinent studio personnel is on the album, from Toto to Graydon - who’s on as producer - laying down an adventurous, crisp template for Jarreau (R.I.P.) to deliver his sharp, joyous tenor, complete with plenty of scatting. “We’re In This Love Together” and the title track (with Earth, Wind & Fire horns, a Graydon specialty) are mid-tempo yacht rock beauties. Elsewhere Jarreau experiments with jazzier flavors, but the musicianship is still top-notch. Check out Jarreau’s Jarreau from 1982 as another prime yacht rock attempt; both are albums you’ll want to spin on a bright summer morning.
Before Richard Page and Steve George formed half of mid-1980s MTV stars Mr. Mister, their buttery voices were integral components of the yacht rock sound, contributing backing vocals on countless tracks. Their 1981 self-titled release (they also released a self-titled album in 1978 that’s more funkified) is pure yacht. Graydon produced half of the album, and Jeff Porcaro shows up frequently behind the kit. The flip-side of the album is more adventurous, but side A is pound-for-pound the best example of the genre you’ll find on vinyl, and one of the best finds of the sound (Pages’ previous Future Street is a little more proggy but still a treat). Seize Pages and you’ll soon find yourself on some roof deck singing along with Page and George.
Critics may scoff at Cross’ self-titled debut, a massive success that won five Grammys and scored four top-20 hits, but the album is impeccably performed and produced. Nearly everyone involved on the album is a yacht rock mainstay, from producer Michael Omartian down to the usual suspects, Graydon, Feldman and McDonald, who contributes those iconic backing vocals in “Ride Like the Wind.” “Never Be the Same” and “Say You’ll Be Mine” are both solid mid-tempo hits for the era. And then there’s “Sailing.” It’s actually a sonic outlier for the yacht rock genre, heavy on acoustic guitar and strings. But its message fits the genre (a fool searching for inner peace), and yeah, it’s still undeniably smooth.
Timothy Malcolm can be found in a variety of publications across the New York metropolitan area. His writing can also be found there. He enjoys guessing No. 1 hits of the 1980s, visiting breweries, trying any beverage once, watching baseball and hiking for long distances across the Hudson Valley and Catskills of New York.