Throwback songs, evoking a certain musical style or era, have been a hallmark of pop music for as long as there’s been pop music to throw back to. It’s a very specific art form: It must be a great song as well as a nostalgia trip for those who remember, and a vicarious saunter through a previous decade for those who don’t. Songs ranging from Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over” (both nods to early ’70s R&B) to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” (early aughts pop-punk) are all stellar examples of the art.
The throwback album — which must consist entirely of songs deliberately written and performed to evoke a certain style or era, not just covers album or the soundtrack to a film parody like the 1984 heavy metal spoof “This Is Spinal Tap” or Chris Rock’s silver-screen debut, the 1993 hip-hop satire “CB4” — is a monumentally more difficult thing to pull off, and much more rare.
Silk Sonic’s “An Evening With Silk Sonic” is an absolutely stellar throwback album that shows how deeply the group’s leaders, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, love and respect the R&B of the early-to-mid 1970s, even though that music is ten years older than both of them. That album has been feted in our pages and they’ve got two Grammy nominations this weekend, so in that spirit, we’ve rounded up six more throwback classics — and are leading with the one most likely to succeed with Silk Sonic aficionados…
Raphael Saadiq “The Way I See It”
Released: 2008; sounds like: 1966
In his low-key way, Saadiq has been one of the most successful R&B songwriter-producers of the past 20 years, from Tony Toni Tone! and his solo material to hits with artists from D’Angelo to Mary J. Blige to Solange. Yet this 2008 album is a loving homage to the classic Motown era, with his songwriting ability on full display (he even recruited Jay-Z for a remix of one its songs), and Saadiq is styled to look exactly like a member of the Temptations on the cover.
Dukes of Stratosphear (a.k.a. XTC) “Chips From the Chocolate Fireball”
Released: 1985-87; sounds like: 1967 (and how)
Caught at a career crossroads, British post-punk act XTC somehow convinced their label to finance a six-song EP where they pretended to be an overlooked psychedelic-era act called Dukes of Stratosphear. The end result was such a lovingly and meticulously accurate evocation of the Summer of Love that many people thought the fake group was real — and the album ironically sold so much better than XTC’s two most recent albums that their label financed another, not quite as good, Dukes album (the two releases, “25 O’Clock” and “Psonic Psunspot,” were later combined into a single album with the equally genius title, “Chips From the Chocolate Fireball”).
Hot Country Knights “The K Is Silent”
Released: 2020; sounds like: 1990s
Country superstar Dierks Bentley’s pseudonymous side project has him and his touring band casting themselves as a Spinal Tap-style group that got stuck in the mullet-happy Nashville of the ’90s and never left. Originally formed so that Bentley and company could open for themselves with an all-covers set, Hot Country Knights put the wigs on and got the pens out for a 2020 album of satirically period-appropriate originals like the power ballad “You Make It Hard” and “Moose Knuckle Shuffle,” an ode to line dancers wearing their Wranglers too tight. — Chris “Sir Horseshoe” Willman
Billy Joel “An Innocent Man”
Released: 1983; sounds like: late 1950s/ early 1960s
The patron saint of Long Island famously wrote the songs for this album after his (first) divorce, saying the process of dating reminded him of being a teenager and inspired him to write songs inspired by that era — i.e. the 1950s. The rest is history — and “Uptown Girl” (a starry-eyed ode to his next wife, model Christie Brinkley) and “The Longest Time” were not only two of his biggest hits, they’re vividly inspired homages to the vocal groups he grew up on, who are specifically namechecked in the tracklist.
Utopia “Deface the Music”
Released: 1980; sounds like: 1965-67
Todd Rundgren loves tackling big concepts, and for some characteristically obscure reason, he was inspired to lead his band Utopia into a note-perfect imitation of the Beatles circa 1965: harmonies, harmonicas, peppy tempos, 12-string electric guitars and songs with titles like “I Just Want to Touch You” and “Where Does the World Go to Hide” (with an occasional lurch into ‘66 and even ’67 later in the album) — and it crams 13 songs into 32 hilarious, knowing-wink-filled minutes.
Neil Young & the Shocking Pinks “Everybody’s Rockin’”
Released 1983; sounds like: 1958
Another legendary contrarian got into a battle of wills with David Geffen, who’d signed him expecting normal Neil Young albums. After delivering “Trans,” an odd, all-synthesizer album, Geffen told Young he wanted something more rock and roll, and, well, he got it: a collection of originals and covers that sounded 25 years old (although oddly, it coincided with the popularity of ‘50s rock-retro act the Stray Cats). Geffen grew so enraged that he sued Young — and lost.