Yacht Rock isn’t exactly a genre. It’s more a state of mind. It is the musical equivalent of a mid-afternoon mimosa nap in some nautical location—a cool breeze of lite-FM confection with the substance of a romance novel and the machismo of a Burt Reynolds mustache comb.
But what exactly is Yacht Rock?
Yacht Rock is ‘70s soft schlock about boats, love affairs, and one-night stands.
Typified by artists like Christopher Cross, Rupert Holmes, and Pablo Cruise, Yacht Rock is not only easy to mock, but it’s also deserving of the abuse. There’s a sensitive 70s male brand of chauvinism that permeates this material—like somehow because you could schnarf an 8-ball of cocaine and sail a boat into the sunset, your indulgences and marital infidelity were actually kind of sexy. Cheap pickup lines and beardly come-ons abound.
And yet, this stuff is irresistible on a slow summer day. It reeks of sunshine and laziness, and couldn’t we all use a little of both?
These are the 25 Best Yacht Rock Songs, in order. Zero suspense. (Sorry if that’s less fun for you).
If you would like to learn more about Yacht Rock without getting a sailing license, read on…
What are the qualifications for inclusion on our list?
So Yacht Rock refers to a type of soft rock, right? But there’s a ton of soft rock out there that doesn’t fit the bill. There’s no room on my boat for Barry Manilow. At the Copa? Sure. But not so much on my boat. So what makes a great yacht rock song exactly?
Ideally, one or more of these themes will be present:
- Finding the love of your life;
- Having a memorable one-night stand; or
- Doing something nautical.
These features pretty much capture everything that’s great about this milieu. But there’s also an important cheese factor at play here. While Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, CSN, and the Doobie Brothers all made songs that might qualify for inclusion here, the artists themselves are–let’s just say it–too good to be considered Yacht Rock.
We’ll make sure to include them in our deluxe playlist at the article’s conclusion.
But in order for a song to be considered for our list, it must be at least slightly embarrassing. Case in point, the top song on our list…
1. “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes
“The Pina Colada Song” is arguably the most perfect embodiment of yacht rock, fulfilling, as it does, all three of the qualifications cited above. Holmes sings about making love in the dunes, attempts to cheat on his wife, then ultimately, rediscovers that his “old lady” is actually the love he’s been searching for all along. That’s the holy trinity of Yacht Rock themes, all wrapped up in a breezy story of casual adultery. And at the turn of a new decade, listeners were feeling it. Released as a single in 1979, “Escape” stood at the top of the charts during the last week of the year. Falling to #2 in the new year, it returned to the top spot in the second week of 1980. This made it the first song to top the charts in two separate, consecutive decades. Fun fact: Rupert Holmes never drank a Pina Colada in his life. He just thought the lyric sounded right. Hard to argue that point.
2. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) by The Looking Glass
Formed at Rutgers University in 1969, Looking Glass topped the charts in 1972 with the tale of a lovelorn barmaid in a harbor town haunted by lonely sailors. It would be the band’s only hit. Lead singer Elliot Lurie would go on to a brief solo career before becoming head of the music department for the 20th Century Fox movie studio in the ’80s and ’90s. That means he was the musical supervisor for the soundtrack to Night at the Roxbury. Do with that information what you will. And with respect to “Brandy,” see the film Guardians of the Galaxy 2 for Kurt Russell’s surprisingly detailed treatise on its lyrical genius.
3. “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts
The title track from the soft-rock duo’s breakout 1972 record, “Summer Breeze” is an incurable earworm, a bittersweet twilight dream that captures everything that’s right about Lite FM. From an album inhabited by Wrecking Crew vets and studio aces, “Summer Breeze” curls like smoke drifting lazily through an open window.
4. “Africa” by Toto
Toto singer David Paich had never been to Africa. The melody and refrain for this #1 hit from 1982 came to him fully formed as he watched a late night documentary about the plight of those living on the African continent. The lyrics touch on missionary work and describe the landscape as inspired by images from National Geographic, according to Paich’s own recollection. Putting aside its self-aware inauthenticity, “Africa” is an infectious, 8x platinum AOR monster.
5. “Reminiscing: by Little River Band
Released in the summer of 1978 and reaching up to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Reminiscing” was guitarist Graeham Goble‘s nostalgic take on the swing band era. Not only is it the only Australian song ever to reach five million radio plays in the U.S., but rumor is that it was among the late John Lennon’s favorite songs.
6. “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray
Recorded originally by a country-swamp rocker named Jeffrey Kurtz, Dobie’s 1973 cover became his biggest hit, reaching #5 on the charts. Though not explicitly nautical, “Drift Away” captures the distinct sensation of cruising at sunset.
7. “Love Will Find a Way” by Pablo Cruise
Pablo Cruise may have the most “yachty” of all band names on our list. And “Love Will Find a Way” is sort of the musical equivalent of a ketch skipping along a glassy surface on a crisp summer dawn. Pablo Cruise was formed in San Francisco by expats from various mildly successful bands including Stoneground and It’s a Beautiful Day. And there is a certain slick professionalism to the proceedings here. Of course, Pablo Cruise was never a critic’s darling. Homer Simpson once accurately classified them as wuss rock. Still, they perfectly captured the white-folks-vacationing-in-the-Caribbean energy that was all the rage at the time. Love found a way to reach #6 on the Billboard charts, remaining in constant radio rotation during the red-hot summer of ’78.
8. “Ride Captain Ride” by Blues Image
Blues Image emerged from South Florida in the late ’60s and served as the house band for Miami’s vaunted Thee Image music venue upon its inception in 1968. This gave Blues Image the opportunity to open for ascendant headliners like Cream and the Grateful Dead. The association landed them a contract Atco Records. Their sophomore record Open yielded their one and only hit, a #4 in 1970 about a bunch of men who disappear into the mists of the San Francisco Bay in search of a hippie utopia.
9. “Eye in the Sky” by The Alan Parsons Project
This #3 hit from 1982 has nothing to do with sailing. But it’s infectiously smooth production sheen, layered synth, and dreamy vocals make it a perfect Lite FM gem–one cut from the stone that gave us yacht rock. The “Project” was actually a British duo–studio wizard Alan Parsons and singer Eric Woolfson. The title track from their sixth studio album is also their very best recording. It’s also often paired with the instrumental lead-in “Sirius,” a song famous in its own right for blaring over unnumbered sporting arena PA systems. If that tune doesn’t make you think of Michael Jordan, you probably didn’t live through the late 80s.
10. “Miracles” by Jefferson Starship
Marty Balin was a pioneer of the San Francisco scene, founding Jefferson Airplane in 1965 as the house band for his own legendary club–The Matrix. But in 1971, deeply shaken by the death of Janis Joplin, Balin quit his own band. Four years later, he was invited to rejoin his old mates on the already-launched Starship. He immediately contributed what would become the biggest hit by any Jeffersonian vessel. “Miracles” reached #3 in 1975. Gorgeous, elegant, and open, this is a complete anomaly in the Airplane-Starship catalogue. Listen closely for the NSFW lyrics that have often flown under the radar of some adorably innocent censors.
11. “Sad Eyes” by Robert John
In 1972, Robert John had a #3 hit with his cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And yet, just before recording “Sad Eyes”, the Brooklyn-born singer was employed as a construction worker in Long Branch, New Jersey. By the summer of ’79, he would have a #1 hit. In fact, the charting success of “Sad Eyes” was part of a cultural backlash against the reign of disco. A wave of pop hits swept on to the charts, including this slick soft rock throwback. With his sweet falsetto and doo wop sensibility, Robert John knocked The Knack’s “My Sharona” from its 6-week stand atop the charts.
12. “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan
Before launching headlong into his music career, Walter Egan was one of the very first students to earn a fine arts degree from Georgetown, where he studied sculpture. The subject would figure into his biggest hit, a #8 easy listening smash from 1978. Featured on his second solo record, “Magnet and Steel” enjoys the presence of some heavy friends. Lindsey Buckingham produced, played guitar and sang backup harmonies with Stevie Nicks. By most accounts, Nicks was also a primary source of inspiration for the song.
13. “Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs
Of course, not all yacht rock songs are about sailing on boats. Some are about missing boats. Boz Scaggs looks dejected on the cover of 1977’s Silk Degrees, but things turned out pretty well for him. This bouncy #11 hit is a classic rock mainstay today. The band you hear backing Boz–David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, and David Hungate–would go on to form the nucleus of Toto that very same year. Toto, as it happens, is essentially a recurring theme of the genre. Before rising to massive success in their own right, the members of Toto absolutely permeated rock radio in the 70s, laying down studio tracks with Steely Dan, Seals and Crofts, Michael McDonald, and more.
14. “What You Won’t Do for Love” by Bobby Caldwell
This smooth-as-silk tune reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its 1978 release. It also reached #6 on the Hot Selling Soul Singles Chart. This is significant only because of Caldwell’s complexion. He was a white man signed to TK Records, a label most closely associated with disco acts like KC and the Sunshine Band. Catering to a largely Black audience, the label went to minor lengths to hide their new singer’s identity–dig the silhouetted figure on the cover of his own debut. Suffice it to say, once Caldwell hit the road, audiences discovered he was white. By then, they were already hooked on this perfect groove, which you might also recognize as a sample in 2Pac’s posthumous 1998 release, “Do For Love.”
15. “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” by Michael McDonald
Technically, Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’” is an adaptation of an earlier tune by the same name. In fact, the original “I Keep Forgettin” was conceived by the legendary songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller–best known for iconic staples like “Hound Dog”, “Kansas City”, “Poison Ivy” and much much more. The original recording is by Chuck Jackson and dates to 1962. But McDonald’s 1982 take is definitive. If that wasn’t already true upon its release and #4 peak position on the charts, certainly Warren G. and Nate Dogg cemented its status when they sampled McDonald on “Regulate”. Get the whole history on that brilliant 1994 time capsule here.
Oh and by the way, this tune also features most of the guys from Toto. I know, right? These dudes were everywhere.
16. “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty
To the casual listener, Gerry Rafferty’s name may sound vaguely familiar. Indeed, you may remember hearing it uttered in passing in the film Reservoir Dogs. In a key scene, the DJ (deadpan comedian Steven Wright) mentions that Rafferty formed half the duo known as Stealers Wheel, which recorded a “Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite from April of 1974” called “Stuck in the Middle With You.” In the same scene, Mr. Blonde (portrayed with sadistic glee by Michael Madsen), slices off a policeman’s ear. At any rate, this is a totally different song, and is actually Rafferty’s biggest hit. “Baker Street” is a tune that reeks of late nights, cocaine, and regret. Peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Baker Street” soared on wings of the decade’s most memorable sax riff. Raphael Ravenscroft’s performance would, in fact, lead to a mainstream revitalization of interest in the saxophone writ large.
17. “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” by Silver
There are several interesting things about Silver that have almost nothing to do with this song. First, bass guitarist and singer Tom Leadon was both the brother of Bernie Leadon from the Eagles and a member of Tom Petty’s pre-fame band, Mudcrutch. Second, the band’s keyboardist was Brent Mydland, who would go on to become the Grateful Dead’s longest tenured piano guy. Third, Silver put out their only record in 1976, and future Saturday Night Live standout Phil Harman designed the cover art. With all of that said, Arista executives felt that their first album lacked a single so they had country songwriter Rick Giles cook up this ridiculous, gooey concoction that I kind of love. Let’s say this one falls into the “so bad it’s good” category. Anyway, the song peaked at #16 on the charts. The band broke up in ’78, leading Mydland to accept the deadliest job in rock music. He defied the odds by playing with the Grateful Dead until an accidental drug overdose claimed his life in 1990.
18. “Biggest Part of Me” by Ambrosia
I admit, I’m kind of hard-pressed to make Ambrosia interesting. In fact, they were extremely prolific, and earned high regard in early ’70s prog rock circles. And in the 1990s, lead singer David Pack would actually be the musical director for both of Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration concerts. But this Southern California combo is much better known to mainstream audiences for their top-down, hair-blowing-in-the-wind soft rock from the decade in between. Peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980, “Biggest Part of Me” is the group’s best-known tune–a seafoamy bit of blue-eyed soul served over a raw bar of smooth jazz and lite funk.
19. “Baby Come Back” by Player
Player released their self-titled debut album in 1977 and immediately shot up to #1 with “Baby Come Back.” Bandmates Peter Beckett and J.C. Crowley had both recently broken up with their girlfriends. They channeled their shared angst into this composition, a self-sorry guilty pleasure featuring former Steppenwolf member Wayne Cook on keys. Granted, Steppenwolf’s edgy disposition is nowhere to be found on this record, but it is pretty infectious in a late-summer-night, slightly-buzzed, clenched-fist sort of way. Player endured various lineup changes, but never returned to the heights of their first hit.
20. “On and On” by Stephen Bishop
Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) where there’s this dude in a turtleneck singing a super cloying folks song before John Belushi mercifully snatches away his guitar and smashes it to smithereens? That guy was Stephen Bishop, who was actually in the middle of enjoying considerable success with his 1976 debut album, Careless. “On and On” was the album’s biggest hit, a vaguely Caribbean soft-rocker that reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in ’77. The gentle electric riffs you hear there are supplied by guitarist Andrew Gold–who wrote the theme song for the Golden Girls. (I freakin’ know you’re singing it right now).
21. “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns
The classic tale of boy-meets-girls, bangs-her-in-his-van, and brags-to-his-buds, all with backing from the world famous Wrecking Crew studio team. In 1975, a lot of people super related to it. It sold over a million copies and reach #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. I can’t tell you this song is good. But I also can’t tell you I don’t like it.
22. “You Are the Woman” by Firefall
Firefall’s lead guitarist Jock Bartley perfectly captures this song’s impact, calling the band’s biggest hit “a singing version of [a] Hallmark card.” That feels right. The second single from Firefall’s 1976 self-titled debut was only a regional hit at first. But it was driven all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 on the strength of radio requests. As Bartley explained, “Every female between the ages of 18 and 24 wanted to be the woman portrayed in the song, and that caused their boyfriends and spouses to call radio stations and subsequently flood the airwaves with dedications of the song and the sentiment.”
23. “Sailing” by Christopher Cross
Arguably, “Sailing” is the single most emblematic song of the Yacht Rock genre. Its thematic relevance requires no explanation. But it’s worth noting that the song is inspired by true events. During a tough time in his youth, Cross was befriended by Al Glasscock. Serving as something of an older brother to Cross, Glasscock would take him sailing. He recalls in his biggest hit that this was a time of escape from the harsh realities of his real life. In 1979, Cross released his self-titled debut. In early 1980, “Sailing” became a #1 hit, landing Cross a hat-trick of Grammys–including recognition as best new artist. Though Cross and Glasscock would lose touch for more than 20 years, they were reunited during a 1995 episode of The Howard Stern Show. Cross subsequently mailed a copy of his platinum record to Glasscock.
24. “Steal Away” by Robbie Dupree
Apparently, this song was perceived as so blatant a ripoff of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins’ “What a Fool Believes” that legal action was actually threatened. It never formulated. Instead, Robbie Dupree landed a #6 Billboard Hot 100 hit with the lead single from his self-titled 1980 debut. Critics hated it, but it was a dominant presence in the summer of 1980. It even earned Dupree a Grammy nomination for best new artist. He ultimately lost to the man just above–Christopher Cross.
25. “This is It” by Kenny Loggins
You didn’t think we’d get through this whole list without an actual Kenny Loggins tune. This song has the perfect pedigree, teaming Loggins and Michael McDonald on a 1979 composition that became the lead single off of Kenny Loggins’ Keep the Fire. Coming on the tail end of the ’70s, “This is It” felt positively omnipresent in the ’80s. I may be biased here. I grew up in Philadelphia, where a local television show by the same name adopted “This is It” as its theme song. But then, it did also reach #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
And in that spirit…this is it, the end of our list.
But as usual, here’s a bonus playlist–an expanded voyage through the breezy, AOR waters of the mid-’70s to early ’80s.