The immensely popular '70s R&B pop artist Donna Summer enjoyed a pretty nice run in the '80s that has helped cement her as something far more than the disco diva she undoubtedly became at the peak of that genre's late-'70s prime. Serving as at least co-composer for many of her hit songs, Summer has always operated a notch or two above most female pop stars, and her status as a versatile legend within her generation of female solo artists is well-deserved. Here's a chronological look at the best songs from Summer during the '80s, many of them becoming hits nearly as big as her most beloved '70s classics.
Following her monumental hit disco LP Bad Girls, which dominated the Billboard charts in 1979, Summer decided to release a comprehensive double album compilation, On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. The title track was a new song, co-written by Summer with longtime collaborator Giorgio Moroder and originally intended for the soundtrack of 1980's teen drama Foxes, the directorial debut of Adrian Lyne starring Jodie Foster and former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie. The track became a Top 10 North American hit on numerous charts and stands up well as a quality blast from the past. Summer's vocals are spirited in delivering her wistful romantic lyrics. The chorus works as an ultimate payoff to a fine single.
Summer enjoyed four No. 1 pop hits during her breakout years of 1978 and 1979, and although her transition away from disco as the '80s began would not net her another top pop hit, the singer remained a viable chart threat throughout the new decade. This title track from Summer's 1980 debut album release for Geffen Records climbed all the way to No. 3, a chart peak Summer would reach only once more in her long career. While not entirely disco-free in style, rhythm or production, this song places much more emphasis on synthesizers and keyboards. Even more importantly, it spotlights Summer's breathy vocals and some of her best soul music singing in quite some time. Later on, rock guitars would fuel her '80s efforts, but for now synth sufficed.
3. "Cold Love"
Speaking of legitimate guitar rock, Summer slides effortlessly into that mode on this track, a modest pop hit in late 1980 that actually received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The shift in style may have shocked some longtime Summer fans, but given this artist's track record for versatility and her genuine status as a woman in rock, the result is convincing and downright enjoyable. Though Summer did not have a hand in writing this one, her selectivity as an interpreter shines through once again. The guitar riffs and blazing leads are plentiful here, but Summer's voice functions as such a powerful instrument that there's never any doubt who's calling the shots. Solid, underrated '80s rock.
Summer continues her almost effortless shift to pop/rock on this track from The Wanderer, which just scraped the Top 40 in 1981. Just like its predecessor, this tune featured the rare distinction for Summer of not charting at all on Billboard's niche R&B charts. This wasn't by accident, as neither song reflects Summer's past as a purveyor of urban-styled pop music. However, that certainly doesn't mean it's a betrayal of Summer's sound; in fact, as a single this track again confirms the artist as one of pop's purest singers. The keyboards reign yet again, but Moroder is more than gifted at engineering this kind of sound, and as a result a song that could feel ordinary coming from another artist feels timeless and classic.
For her 1982 self-titled LP, Summer hooked up with producer du jour Quincy Jones, and the result reinvigorated her changing sound. This funk-fueled track, complete with synthesized vocal breaks, saxophones and plenty of can't-miss dance pop touches, showcases Summer's vocal versatility in yet another, completely different way. Co-written by Jones and Rod Temperton, the song has Thriller-era Michael Jackson written all over it, and yet Summer manages to transcend that influence to turn out a distinctive crowd-pleaser all her own. This is all the more impressive considering that her new label Geffen had shelved her latest double-album recording I'm a Rainbow, which would not see the light of day until 1996.
Summer returns triumphantly to a sultry slow-burn style for this Quiet Storm ballad. However, because she had graduated completely from the disco sound that she so perfected during the late '70s, it works on a different, more modern-sounding level than classics like "Last Dance." As a single on the pop and R&B charts, this track didn't break into the Top 40 by much, which must have been somewhat disappointing given the Quincy Jones connection. Still, it features a powerhouse performance from Summer that deftly mixes her whispery, coaxing style with a fruitful exercise of her celebrated pipes.
Though the rollicking, somewhat pro-feminist surge of this track was perceived as a degree of comeback for Summer in 1983, the singer had really been nowhere near absent for the last few years. Nevertheless, the worldwide chart performance of this song certainly represented one of Summer's final flirtations with major mainstream chart success during her storied career. Co-written with new collaborator Michael Omartian, the tune celebrates the difficult but proud path of the modern woman, something with which Summer had certainly become familiar as a solo artist exerting varying degrees of control over the progress of her career.
Despite its incredibly dated keyboard and drum machine sound, this track proved once and for all that Summer could transcend eras and trends and come out fully intact on the other side. Taken from her first album for Warner Bros., Another Place and Time, which was produced and conceived mostly by a songwriting team, this tune nonetheless puts Summer's distinct vocals and personality on fine display. Its Top 10 showing, most prominently on Billboard's pop charts, serves as a fitting and deserving swan song for the strictly mainstream and commercial portion of her career. Still, Summer has remained an important niche dance/club artist over the last two decades, particularly demonstrated by her seven No. 1 singles on that chart since 1990.