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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“Smoke From a Distant Fire” – Sanford-Townsend Band (1977)

Johnny Townsend and Ed Sanford had one hit, and they got it by dressing up their blue-eyed soul with a brassy, jazzy arrangement that allowed Townsend’s voice to complement rather than carry the bulk of the song. “Smoke From a Distant Fire” begins with a sprightly guitar and wailing sax before introducing its main musical hook. Then, about thirty seconds in, Townsend begins an assured vocal.

In some songs, overlaying keyboards, guitars, and horns can become a distraction. Here it works perfectly. Townsend’s vocals become a counterpoint to all those instruments that fill the track with constant groove. It’s jam-packed soul that strikes the perfect balance, right through to the outro which pairs the lead vocal against echoing backing voices and ending with Townsend’s big finish.

Sanford-Townsend never got there again. The rest of their material abandoned the big production. They always had some creative keyboards and Townsend's pleasant voice, but that’s about all they ever were – pleasant. A lot of the rest of their music could be accurately called yacht rock. But their one hit was a hit for a reason. It had energy and life, almost as if it were being fueled by the smoke of a distant fire.

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“Lovely Day” – Bill Withers (1977)

“Lovely Day” opens with a funky little bass line before Bill Withers begins his effortless vocal. This is an enormously happy song, and in another voice, it might not have worked as well. As evidence, I submit Diana Ross’s 2006 cover. Ross is not aided by a rather bizarre techno arrangement, but she is no slouch when it comes to selling a song, and her version doesn’t really work. That soulful, bluesy quality in Withers' voice provides marvelous dissonance with the utterly bright lyrics.

The song is famous for the note Withers holds at the end. Throughout the song, he was routinely holding the word “day” for about ten seconds while his backup singers repeated it beneath him. At the beginning of the outro, he decides that’s not quite big enough and essentially holds the same note through two chorus cycles, twice as long as he had been doing, for a rather astonishing 18 seconds. And he does it so gracefully. His voice barely even quivers at the end as he fades down in the final second.

Now look, I’ll admit that “Lovely Day” is the kind of song you might want to play when out on the water with the sun in the sky. I’ll further admit that Bill Withers served in the Navy for almost a decade before achieving success as a singer/songwriter. So maybe he would even accompany you on your little boat ride. But Bill Withers is not yacht rock. Never was. Isn’t now.

So, pull on your True Classic tee, twist open a Coors Light, and tune into some yacht rock if you must. Complain about how they don’t make real music like that anymore. Hell, pop an ED pill if it helps. But don’t let me catch you calling a good song from the late ‘70s yacht rock just because some programming bot decided it had all the proper earmarks. Listen to the songs. Then you’ll know.

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