Yacht rock stinks but these five songs are still unbelievably good

There is a lot to hate about yacht rock. Not all of it is awful, though, as some songs of the subgenre are pretty excellent.
Atlanta Rhythm Section plays the Fox Theater
Atlanta Rhythm Section plays the Fox Theater / Tom Hill/GettyImages
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I hate yacht rock. I mean, not all of it. Some of it, a small portion to be sure, is pretty excellent. That’s kind of what this little essay is about. But I hate that yacht rock is – you know – a thing. A thing that exists in this world.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m old. I was young when what passes for yacht rock was “cutting edge.”  But that’s not it. Not entirely. First off, this music, whether good or bad, was never cutting edge. More importantly, what I really hate is the way our perception of yacht rock has changed. If it were simply a pejorative label for music that is decidedly uncool – if it was merely a way to poke some fun at your dad’s music – I would have no problem. It is old. It is dated. And a lot of it isn’t especially good.

But yacht rock has morphed. It’s actually popular now. People claim to like it – without irony, as near as I can tell. The music hasn’t changed. It was all recorded decades ago. But for some reason, our perceptions of it have shifted.

Yacht rock is awful (except for these five songs)

So what’s wrong with that? Why does it make me see red? Because it has the effect of lumping pretty much anything with the faintest trace of soft rock released in the ‘70s and early ‘80s into the same category. It’s all yacht rock.  And a lot of it is actually awful. A lot of it deserved the snickering appellation.

I like the Eagles and I love Steely Dan, but I have no problem with some of their songs being called yacht rock. That label typically only gets applied to the most inert and boring of their output. “New Kid in Town” – yacht rock. “James Dean” – not yacht rock. “Peg” – yacht. “Reeling in the Years” – not. Doobie Brothers, pre-Michael McDonald, is not yacht rock. After McDonald took over? Fine. Stick it on a boat and sail it out to sea.

See, I have no problem with properly curated yacht rock lists. But that’s not what we get now. Not when a Sirius station is devoted to all things Yacht. Not when you can find a station on IHeartRadio and playlists galore across the internet. Now that yacht rock has become a viable concern, some really good old songs have been lumped in with a lot of drivel. And that is what bothers me.

Therefore, I am fighting back the only way I know how. I am highlighting five songs that I have personally heard on a mainstream music service that purports to play yacht rock. Superficially, these songs may fit the profile, but they are light years better than most of what gets played on this station. I’m talking about Christopher Cross and America. “Baby Come Back,” and …. (cringe) “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”.

These five songs are better than that, and they should not be tainted by the label, even if it is enjoying some form of respectability at present.

“Jackie Blue” – The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1975)

OMD formed in the early ‘70s and had a decent-sized hit with the swampy southern rocker “If You Wanna Get To Heaven.” “Jackie Blue” came the following year and it was very different. For one thing, it was sung by drummer Larry Lee, whose high tenor was a far cry from OMD’s previous sound.

It also features multiple musical hooks, on both the chorus and verse, which convinced the band’s management that it was ripe for radio play. So they had Lee and Steve Cash rewrite the lyrics. Lee’s original inspiration for Jackie was a mysterious drug dealer. At the request of their producer, Jackie becomes a mysterious woman. But something in the grittiness of the initial conception lingered. It made the song both mysterious and perhaps just a tad dangerous. The haunting guitar solo reinforced the vibe.

OMD was a rock and roll band that happened to come up with a dreamy ballad that hints at regret. “Every day in your indigo eyes – I see the sun set but I don’t see it rise” is a line that could have been maudlin, but here, it plays as beautiful, eerie, and a little bit sad. You don’t get that range in a yacht rock song.