Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Donna Summer Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Lady of the Night (1974, Groovy)

C –  

Technically speaking, this, not Love to Love You Baby, is Summer’s actual debut album, but it was originally issued only in the Netherlands and has still never been officially released in the United States, surprisingly enough, so this album remains little-known in most parts of the world. Summer’s creative team of songwriters/producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte – who would helm all of her albums through 1980 – is already in place here, but Summer’s yet to find her calling as a disco star, so this album little resembles anything that would follow it – it’s much more akin to the Euro-pop of Abba than the disco of Bad Girls – and it’s a rather strange listen for that reason. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible, either, and there are a few interesting cuts like “The Hostage” and the title cut. Summer enthusiasts will want this to complete their collections, but it’s a little too embryonic and too much of a curio piece – albeit a very fascinating one – to be worth recommending to more casual fans.

Love to Love You Baby (1975, Oasis)

B – 

The album that first made Summer an international star is also perhaps the least representative of her talents. The inherent problem with this disc is its biggest hit, the Serge Gainsbourg-influenced side-long title cut, which has neither much in the way of a melody nor much in the way of a lyric yet is somehow stretched out to just under seventeen minutes. Arranger Giorgio Moroder had the novel, if somewhat dubious, idea to keep the repetitive cut interesting, however, by having extended passages in which Summer would croon the title repeatedly in an increasingly sexual manner. [This wasn’t entirely a new concept, mind you: the much-shorter Major Harris hit “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” a sizable pop and R&B hit in the opening months of 1975, would raise a lot of eyebrows with the female moaning during its instrumental break.] Naturally, the song would get banned in a lot of markets, but the controversy also helped to sell the record, and the song would stop just one spot shy of topping the Hot 100. In hindsight, however, it’s easily one of Summer’s least interesting singles from a compositional standpoint, which ends up hurting this record since it ends up taking up a full half of the album. The second side isn’t nearly as disco-oriented and almost feels like another album altogether, but it’s thankfully a little more traditional and contains some decent and shorter songs in the gentle ballad “Whispering Waves” and the soulful “Pandora’s Box,” but overall, the album pales creatively next to the more melodic and inventive discs that would immediately follow it. 

A Love Trilogy (1976, Oasis)

B

Summer’s second American release isn’t anywhere nearly as famous or iconic as her first, and it didn’t yield any Top 40 hits, either. Yet this is arguably a much more appealing listen of the two records, partly because it seems more focused and partly because it doesn’t feel like nearly as much of a novelty record, either. Whereas the title cut of Love to Love You Baby was little more than an overly long dance mix of what was actually a relatively unimpressive composition and became a hit less for its musical merits than for its ground-breaking, albeit notorious, overtly sexual vocal, A Love Trilogy steers away from the shock value of its predecessor and focuses more on strong melodies and danceable grooves. Like the last disc, the first cut takes up an entire side of the record, but “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” is arguably a better – and certainly prettier – song than “Love to Love You Baby” and should’ve been a much bigger hit (it strangely got no further than #80 on the Hot 100), while the album’s second side successfully re-works Barry Manilow’s gorgeous ballad “Could It Be Magic” as a disco number and also offers up the underrated non-single “Wasted.”

Four Seasons of Love (1976, Casablanca)

B +

Her most creative and ambitious outing yet, Four Seasons consists of four full songs – each of them representing a different season of the year and sequenced to mirror the natural change of seasons, beginning with “Spring Affair” and closing with “Winter Melody” – and, fittingly, a reprise of “Spring Affair” at the end of disc. Nothing from here would reach the Top 40, but the heated disco of “Spring Affair” (which peaked at #47) remains a Summer classic that regularly pops up on her more thorough best-of packages and “Winter Melody” (which peaked at #43) is one of Summer’s prettiest ballads from her Casablanca period and one of her most criminally underrated singles. The funky “Autumn Changes” wasn’t a single but is arguably even catchier than “Spring Affair.”

I Remember Yesterday (1977, Casablanca)

B +

It’s not nearly as ambitious as Four Seasons of Love – actually, this is easily Summer’s most traditional album yet, boasting seven relatively concise songs (eight, if you count the reprise of the title cut) with nothing clocking in at over six minutes. The album is best remembered for the propulsive synths of its Top Ten hit, “I Feel Love,” a single so futuristic-sounding that it even famously blew Brian Eno’s mind, but, like “Love to Love You Baby” before it, “I Feel Love” really isn’t all that impressive from a compositional standpoint and is really more memorable for its arrangement and production than for its actual melodic content. Because of the ground-breaking nature of “I Feel Love,” the rest of the songs here tend to get quite overshadowed, but there are some good ones here, particularly the Motown-like “Back in Love Again” and the very underrated ‘60s-girl-group-like “Love’s Unkind.”

Once Upon a Time … (1977, Casablanca)

A –     

Every bit as ambitious as Four Seasons of Love, this double-disc effort is a fairy-tale-like concept album, vaguely akin to Cinderella and brilliantly sequenced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte so that the songs don’t merely form a storyline but are also musically linked to each other with few gaps to speak of except for the end of each of the first three sides. Summer almost takes on the role of an actress here and tailors her vocals quite well to the content of each track, noticeably adopting a more innocent and playful tone on cuts like the lovely “Fairy Tale High” but taking a more passionate approach to romantic pleas like “I Love You.” The material is also quite strong, and while some of these cuts admittedly make a little less sense outside of the context of the album, the title cut, the soulful “A Man Like You,” and “Faster and Faster to Nowhere,” and the vocoder-laden “Dance into My Life” are just four cuts that still hold their own when listened to in isolation, while the delightful singles “Rumor Has It” and the stunningly gorgeous “I Love You” both deserved a better chart fate, strangely peaking at #53 and #37, respectively. There may not be any particularly big hits here, but this is one of the finest and most intriguing albums of Summer’s career and should not be overlooked.

Live and More (1978, Casablanca) 

B +

Technically, three sides of this double-disc package consist of live versions of previously-released songs, but, ironically, the biggest reason this album is well-known and sold in huge numbers – the live tracks aren’t nearly as exciting to listen to as the original studio versions in all their Giorgio Moroder-produced glory, though the performances sound perfectly fine – is the studio content on this package. The entire fourth side consists of a studio-crafted medley entitled “MacArthur Park Suite” that would be chopped up to yield two massive hit singles: a chart-topping disco-styled remake of the Richard Harris Jimmy-Webb-penned late ‘60s hit “MacArthur Park” (ironically, the disco atmosphere strangely makes the song more listenable than it was in its original theatrical-pop setting) and an even superior Top Five duet with Brooklyn Dreams [an R&B vocal trio featuring Summer’s future husband, Bruce Sudano, formerly of the group Alive and Kicking (“Tighter, Tighter”)] called “Heaven Knows.”

Bad Girls (1979, Casablanca)

A +

Not simply the best Donna Summer album but possibly even the single-best studio album of the disco boom, period, Bad Girls is a stroke of genius. Like Once Upon a Time …, this is a double-disc outing in which most of the songs here segue from one into the other, but there’s no overarching concept or storyline this time, the songs are superior, and there are also a lot of interesting detours into other musical styles. The catchy title cut (one of two chart-toppers here) caters to discos while injecting a bit more pronounced of an R&B/soul flavor, while the other Number One hit, “Hot Stuff,” co-written with drummer Keith Forsey (who’d go on to produce Billy Idol and co-write Simple Minds’ “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” and Irene Cara’s “Flashdance … What a Feeling”) and Harold Faltermeyer of “Axel F” fame, cleverly brings in a heavy rock flavor to Summer’s brand of disco, even including a guitar solo from Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. But there’s still some of the synth-heavy disco of old in the sparkling shimmer of “Walk Away” and the amazing fourth-side trilogy of the “I Feel Love”-like “Our Love,” the spring-like bounce of “Lucky,” and the epic “Sunset People.” Summer takes even greater chances elsewhere, penning a few cuts entirely on her own, like the fiery “My Baby Understands,” the Number Two smash “Dim All the Lights,” which effectively changes from a slow dance tune into a pounding disco number, and the country-tinged ballad “On My Honor,” one of the most thoroughly left-field experiments Summer’s ever attempted yet a wildly successful and catchy one, the tune proving to be one of the most unforgettable melodies here. Simply, the lesser known hits here and non-singles are so good that music consumers who bypassed the LP in favor of picking up 45s of the Top Ten hits here missed out on an awful lot of great and adventurous music.

The Wanderer (1980, Geffen)

A

Perhaps Summer realized that she simply could not artistically top Bad Girls, but Summer’s first outing of the Eighties is her first studio album since I Remember Yesterday to not be a double-disc affair. (Summer wouldn’t release another double-length disc until the belated release of I’m a Rainbow in the late ‘90s.) Summer was also savvy enough to realize that disco was on its way out, leaving her former label Casablanca (which, like RSO, was too closely associated with disco to survive the death of that genre) and making a conscious effort here to shed her old sound for something more modern, while still retaining the services of Moroder and Pete Belotte to guide her into new territory. Though this album was considered a minor sales disappointment, it’s artistically nearly every bit as much of a success as Bad Girls, containing some fantastic material and some surprisingly effective left-field experiments. The album’s title cut, which made it to #3, is still dancefloor-minded but swaps out the disco stylings of old for a new-wave shuffle driven by jittery synths, while “Breakdown,” “Looking Up,” and the Top 40 hit “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” all recall the Alan Parsons Project in places. Summer even tries on a gospel ballad in “I Believe in Jesus.” But perhaps most remarkable of all is how Summer explores more rock-oriented territory on guitar-heavy cuts like “Nightlife,” the excellent and sadly-long-forgotten Top 40 hit “Cold Love,” and best of all, the astounding “Stop Me,” which sounds like a cross between the Pointer Sisters’ “Fire” and Pat Benatar’s “All Fired Up” and is arguably the catchiest non-single in the entire Donna Summer catalog, boasting a killer chorus that’s nearly better than anything Benatar herself ever wrote. Ignore the fact that the singles here are little-remembered and seldom ever heard on the radio today and check out this album, anyway, because this is easily one of Summer’s best.