top of page

'The New Yacht Rock'- Reviving the Soundtrack to Your Summer

By: Scott Way

Yacht rock band playing concert
Photo: Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

People never forget the song that played during their first dance, or the anthem to their high school years, or the songs that defined epic road trips with friends or family. Everyone has a soundtrack to their life. If you’re a boater, and depending on your age, you’ve probably got a playlist that’s been pretty consistent over the years, and it’s probably got some ‘yacht rock’ on it. For anyone uninitiated, yacht rock is the term for the quintessential soft rock jams that invaded every marina from ‘76-'84 (ish). Think Hawaiian shirts, white slacks, sunsets, daiquiris, and dock shoes. Think gentle rock grooves with a touch of R&B, smooth jazz, sun-soaked melodies, and lyrics overloaded with romantic escapism. The genre was all about good vibes. The term ‘yacht rock’ is actually relatively new, coined in 2005 for a YouTube web series of the same name. The show satirically portrayed the 80’s as the apex of bad style and ultra-lameness, but it spent an equal amount of time worshiping the soundtrack with genuine reverence. Boaters are comically guilty of this same worship- somewhere in the mid 80’s yacht rock became the definitive soundtrack to the boating lifestyle.

Yacht rockers include the legendary Jimmy Buffett, as well as second-level smoothies Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, and The Doobie Brothers, among others. The Godfathers of Yacht Rock, for the artist who laid the groundwork for the genre’s respectful party vibes, likely goes to the Beach Boys, who taught everyone that although Kokomo was a fictitious place off the Florida Keys it was probably an ideal location for one of Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’ restaurants. During yacht rock’s heyday, dock parties came with a Captain & Tennille guarantee from the DJ and record players spun tirelessly to Toto, Steely Dan, and Christopher Cross. While it’s impossible to capture all of yacht rock’s gentle jams and satisfy every boater’s taste, here’s a solid introduction to kickstart your summer playlist:

  1. Christopher Cross- Sailing (1979)

  2. Toto- Rosanna (1982)

  3. Kenny Loggins- This Is It (1979)

  4. Captain & Tennille- Love Will Keep Us Together (1975)

  5. Hall & Oates- I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) (1981)

  6. Doobie Brothers- What A Fool Believes (1978)

  7. Steely Dan- Hey Nineteen (1980)

  8. Robert Holmes- Escape (The Pina Colada Song) (1979)

  9. Player- Baby Come Back (1977)

  10. Pablo Cruise- Love Will Find A Way (1978)

As a loosely defined genre, yacht rock also had a fringe collection of unofficial members. The cousins to yacht rock royalty include Bob Marley (Jammin’), Billy Ocean (Caribbean Queen), and a few other artists who flirted with the yachties including The Eagles, Boz Scaggs, and Fleetwood Mac. In the end, yacht rock was undone by its insatiable appetite for the saccharine, the breaking point arguably being Peter Cetera’s 1984 melodramatic synth-schmaltz ‘The Glory of Love’ from the Karate Kid soundtrack. After that, no number of roundhouse kicks in white slacks on the aft deck could bring the coolness back. The dream was dead. And so despite its sensual rhythms and sunset smiles, yacht rock faded into obscurity while New Wave commandeered the synthesizer. That being said, if you’d like to relive the magic 'yacht rock' is a searchable term on both Pandora and Spotify, so not all hope is lost.

Which brings us to now: the glory days are gone and sit sadly on the precipice of ‘dad rock’ territory. But like the return of 80's high-waisted jeans, a slow burning revival of yacht rock style has emerged from the ashes; a millenial revitalization that blends equal parts 70’s slow groove with contemporary pop and country. Research into terms like ‘boating music’ or ‘best boating songs’ will bring up the original jams, but The New Yacht Rock movement has taken the framework and added some zest (no sign of white slacks yet, though). The most obvious, and the strangest, new trait is that country music and boating have apparently coalesced. Where once country stood firm in its crooning about beloved pickup trucks and broken hearts through a crackly FM radio on a Tennessee backroad, it now twinkles with ballads about sandy beaches and nautical adventures. In fact, you could make an argument that a good chunk of country music has traded in its pickup truck for a pontoon boat. Simply put, you can’t search ‘boating songs’ from 2010-present without seeing country music sitting at the helm. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; clearly they discovered that pickup trucks and powerboats offer comparable thrills. This new cooperative became formalized when The Zac Brown Band yanked Jimmy Buffett out of retirement for their 2010 dock party anthem ‘Knee Deep.’ It’s no big ruse either, they were looking to re-imagine Margaritaville in muddin’ country. Case in point: Buffett proclaims ‘(s)trummin’ my six string on my front porch swing’ while Brown counters with ‘is the tide gonna reach my chair.’ The cowboy boots have been traded in for sandals.

So with a new decade upon us and a catalogue of classics to draw from, the yacht rock revival has boaters poised for a new soundtrack to their dock party. Contemporary artists like Vampire Weekend, Thundercat, Foxygen, and Carly Rae Jepson (yes, of ‘Call Me Maybe’ infamy) have all infused some California calmness into their contemporary pop. Thundercat even pulled the ‘out of retirement’ trick, enticing Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald to appear on their 2017 slow jam ‘Show You The Way.’ There’s more ambient pop flair and slide guitar to the new stuff, but the heart and soul of the Reagan years is alive and well.

As the intermixing of young artists with old pioneers continues to usher in the new era, doing away with the original 'yacht rock' moniker seems necessary at this point. Today musical genres are more flexible than ever, and locking boaters into a small segment of musical preference isn’t fair (or as much fun). If you're looking at pop music from 2010-present to fill your boating playlist, you’ll find a consistent parade of songs from multiple genres carrying yacht rock’s torch of idealism. So let’s just call it ‘boat rock’ for now, until someone at Rolling Stone coins something more iconic.

Now, here’s the obvious disclaimer: suggesting music is an invitation to criticism. You cannot appease all genres, styles, and opinions. Therefore, in the name of inclusiveness, the new boat rock movement will cover as many genres as possible, consider mainstream popularity, and will give favour to tracks dubbed ‘summer songs’ by the popular press within the last 15 years (or so, let’s be flexible here. This is for fun). There are also considerations for any artist bearing yacht rock’s original influences including R&B, blues, jazz, reggae, and soft rock, and with lyrical content that promotes a good time. Here's a prototype playlist:

  1. Thundercat ft. Kenny Loggins & Michael McDonald- Show You The Way

  2. Kid Rock- All Summer Long

  3. Chris Janson- Buy Me A Boat

  4. Florida Georgia Line ft. Nelly- Cruise

  5. Zac Brown Band ft. Jimmy Buffett- Knee Deep

  6. Little Big Town- Pontoon

  7. Sugar Ray- Highest Tree (from the Little Yachty homage to yacht rock album)

  8. Zac Brown Band- Where The Boat Leaves From

  9. Bedouin Soundclash- When The Night Feels My Song

  10. Pharrell Williams- Happy

  11. Nickelback- This Afternoon

As you can clearly see, country music has discovered its fondness for docktails and sandals. Honourable mentions go to Sublime, Weezer, Bob Marley’s entire catalogue, and everything Sugar Ray has released since their 1997 hit ‘Fly’ (which should be considered boat rock’s version of Margaritaville). The list could be endless with songs pulled from pop, reggae, indie, R&B, rock, and country. But as a starting point, the above track list should generate smiles while the kids are leaping off the swim platform and the smell of BBQ is wafting across the deck.

Going forward, the question to ask when deciding whether a song should enter the new boat rock pantheon is this: if I were enjoying a sunset over the water, would this song improve my vibe? If the answer is yes, it’s boat rock. The next time you're tied up at your local marina, or you’re anchored in a quiet bay watching the sun slip beneath the waves, try using the above playlist and let the good times roll. Whether it’s from the old era or the new, the key to any great adventure is a smoooooth soundtrack.

Honourable Mentions (Yacht Rock Era)

- Christopher Cross- Sailing

- Michael McDonald- I Keep Forgetting

- Ambrosia- Biggest Part of Me

- The Alan Parsons Project- Eye In The Sky

- Kenny Loggins- Heart To Heart

- Jackson Browne- Somebody’s Baby

- Toto- Hold The Line

- Hall & Oates- Rich Girl

- Steely Dan- Reelin’ In The Years

- Billy Ocean- Caribbean Queen

- Boz Scaggs- Lido

- Fleetwood Mac- Dreams

- Eddie Money- Two Tickets To Paradise

- The Eagles- Hotel California

- Peter Cetera (Chicago)- Glory Of Love

Honourable Mentions (Boat Rock Era)

- Sublime- Santeria

- Weezer- Island In The Sun

- Black Eyed Peas- I Gotta Feeling

- Sheryl Crow- Soak Up The Sun

- Kenny Chesney- No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem

- Garth Brooks- Friends In Low Places

- Zac Brown Band- Toes

- Daft Punk ft. Pharrell- Get Lucky

- Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan- This Is How We Roll

- Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell & TI- Blurred Lines

- Bruno Mars- That’s What I Like

- The Black Keys- Gold On The Ceiling

- The Weeknd- I Feel It Coming

- Magic!- Rude

Yacht rock poster
6,307 views1 comment

1 Comment

John Briggs
John Briggs
Jul 08, 2021

This list is a failure if it doesn't include Young Gun Silver Fox.