Top Soft Rock Songs of the 1980s

1980s soft rock songs may not be the decade's primary calling card, as the golden age of the form undoubtedly came during the mid to late '70s, when the sensitive singer-songwriter movement and the propensity of country rock and folk rock blends combined to forge a gentle pop/rock sound quite popular among mainstream music fans. However, this trend also extended successfully into the first few years of the '80s, in a brief period just before the lighter side of rock became dominated by either a more modern, smooth adult contemporary sound or the power ballads of arena rock and hair metal. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some top songs from the softer side of '80s rock.

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Little River Band - "Take It Easy on Me"

Little River Band - "Take It Easy on Me"

Capitol Records

This is an unquestionable soft rock masterpiece, fueled by a delicate piano opening that eventually melts into a forceful but never heavy guitar-based core. The mark of genuine soft rock has always been an emphasis on memorable, distinctive melodies and a fierce devotion to songcraft, and this song and its flawless execution define those characteristics. Longtime Little River Band lead vocalist Glenn Shorrock gives a dynamic, soulful performance here that spotlights the tremendously high-quality songwriting from bandmate Graham Goble. There's nothing to feel guilty about in admiring this total soft rock package, as the heartbroken lyrics are never hokey and the punchy guitars make the rock aspects of the tune overshadow any elements that are somewhat soft.

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Ambrosia - "You're the Only Woman"

Formerly Progressive Rock-Leaning American Band Ambrosia Turned to Romantic Soft Rock for Some Late-'70s and Early-'80s Pop Hits.

Warner Bros.

You may scoff, but it's genuinely difficult to choose between Ambrosia's pair of powerhouse 1980 hits for this list. "Biggest Part of Me" came first, climbing to No. 3 on the pop charts on the crest of irresistible melodies and heartfelt romantic sentiments that could melt the calloused heart of a felonious drifter if accompanied by the warm, soft glow of candlelight: "Make a wish, baby, and I will make it come true." Lead singer and songwriter David Pack scores in a big way as well on "You're the Only Woman," crooning out slowly building, reassuring verse lyrics that ultimately merge into an exhilaratingly convincing chorus of devotion.

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Toto - "I Won't Hold You Back"

Toto IV

Columbia Records

Timeless, stand-alone melodies with strong foundations likewise take this slow-burn favorite to another level in the soft rock universe. Every guy, even the ones who listened to the heaviest of rock as teenagers, probably harbored a few songs like this that could never be played while the car windows were down but required high volume and inspired deep emotional catharsis. This particular Toto track, which barely cracked the Top 10 in 1983, takes a risk by slowing the tempo down to a level bordering on sedation, and yet the song prevails in the end, dripping in raw heartache. Toto never had much praise to go along with its '80s success, but Steve Lukather's tasteful electric guitar licks epitomize soft rock's full potential.

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Jackson Browne - "Tender Is the Night"

Lawyers In Love

Elektra Records

Not every '80s soft rock classic comes from an artist suffering from a respect deficit, as revered country-folk rocker and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne always excelled at finding success within some styles. This 1983 gem takes a literary approach to pull on the heartstrings, but it does so also with a shiny, accessible pop arrangement and a charming melody. As a featured track on Browne's popular Lawyers in Love release, this song features the forceful lead guitar of Browne's usual collaborator Danny Kortchmar, which helps it nimbly straddle the blurry zone between pop and rock. One of Browne's best summative lines regarding romantic relationships ("You win, I win, we lose") leads into a Kortchmar solo that transcends.

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Steve Forbert - "Romeo's Tune"

Steve Forbert - Jackrabbit Slim

Epic / Associated / Legacy

On the strength of a long career that has always been difficult to classify, Forbert has remained a vital member of the singer-songwriter fraternity. But this 1980 song, one of his only efforts to flirt with the Billboard pop Top 10, bears all the marks of the best soft rock in its delicate melody and tender lyrics: "Meet me in the middle of the day, let me hear you say everything's okay, bring me southern kisses from your room."

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Don Henley - "Not Enough Love in the World"

Don Henley's Building The Perfect Beats

Geffen Records

Don Henley certainly produced soft rock and even invented it in some ways as a member of '70s stalwarts The Eagles, but he never actually perfected the form until the advent of his solo career in the early '80s. This track came at the very tail end of the form's early-'80s run, but it represents the best aspects of the softer side of rock and would have done so no matter its era. Henley's smooth voice has always been a perfect match for broadly appealing melodies, but he also happens to be blessed with the ability to write them at an impressively high rate. The overarching romantic sentiment of the lyrics would turn to silly sticky putty in the hands of lesser artists, but Henley makes it all work in this exemplary pop/rock classic.

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Howard Jones - "No One Is to Blame"

Howard Jones Action Replay

Elektra / Asylum

Jones himself often gets lumped into the synth-pop category, perhaps mostly on account of his new wave hairdo, but musically he's always been far more mainstream in the best possible way. Dealing with romantic disappointment is one of the staple subjects of soft rock, in a unique, even literary fashion. This 1986 Top 10 hit stands as one of the finest singles of the '80s. Its melody, presented so ably through Jones' keyboard work, scarcely has a limit in emotional intensity and combines with Jones' excellent lyrics to make magic.

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America - "You Can Do Magic"

America View From The Ground

Capitol Records

One of the most consistent and impressive soft rock artists of the '70s had its primary '80s moment in the sun with this song, a model example of the melodic pleasures and silky smooth production common to the form. However, whereas the version of America that defined the '70s specialized in a folky, earthy sort of soft rock, the '80s version as demonstrated on this track truly hit the jackpot by combining the synthesizer sounds of the new decade with an electric guitar. The experiment could have been a disaster and doomed the group's comeback, but the nearly faultless Russ Ballard songwriting on display here (except for the use of the word "darn" in the chorus) forces this tune to the very top of the heap of latter-day soft rock.

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Glenn Frey - "The One You Love"

Glenn Frey - No Fun Aloud

Asylum Records

Even beyond this song's pitch-perfect use of one of soft rock's most ill-treated and overexposed instruments - the saxophone - it deserves ample credit for taking the concept of melodic and lovelorn pop to entirely new heights in 1982. There's something far more elegant about this tune than the similar but less moving adult contemporary that followed, and its tone perfects the early-'80s soft rock sound. As a writer of melodies, Frey is in top form here, but even better, his vocal performance and precise arrangement make a genuine claim of legitimacy for the often-maligned genre. A line like "When you remember those nights in his arms, you know you gotta make up your mind" has few peers in the history of rock-tinged easy listening.

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Roxy Music - "More Than This"

Roxy Music

Virgin Records

Although the '70s heyday of Bryan Ferry's glam rock/art rock band usually generates most of the group's considerable critical acclaim, the lush, elegant pop he engineered during the latter part of the band's career remains wholly respectable and sometimes mesmerizing. We all know that categories can be unfairly limiting, but there's no reason why this tune cannot be an underrated, chart-ignored masterpiece even as it falls squarely under the soft rock umbrella. The fact of the matter is that Ferry's work here maximizes accessibility and cannot offend the middle-aged but still cast an unusual, memorable spell. It's a gift that keeps on giving, a song that proves soft rock at its best indeed could be that good.