What is Soft Rock Music?

A basic guide to the music that was never supposed to be

The "Christopher Cross" album
The "Christopher Cross" album.

The music that ruled certain areas of FM in the late Seventies was known as "Soft Rock" not because it had any relation to rock and roll -- it usually didn't. But as a sort of easy listening or adult contemporary music for the first rock generation, now settled into more sedate middle-aged lifestyles, it was informed by the music inherited from the turbulent Sixties: folk, light blues and R&B, country-rock, and some jazz-tinged collegiate rock, mellowed down and made non-threatening.

Which doesn't mean it was music without merit. Indeed, large portions of it having grown directly from the earlier "singer-songwriter" movement, it often dealt with modern romantic and sexual relationships (and sometimes other adult themes) in a thoughtful and complex way rock simply couldn't. Sonically, much of the impetus for soft rock came from California, which had spawned its own lush pop in the Sixties and, following the lead of the country, gotten back to its roots; the result was a sort of laid-back Americana that began to crop up on "lite" FM stations that rejected the earlier generation's standards-based pop outright.

A typical soft rock song would combine those folk, country and blues elements in a confessional style and then smooth them over with new state-of-the-art production techniques that sounded great in mom's car and soothing in, say, a dentist's waiting room. As a result, the genre got quite a bad name among hardcore rock fans, who saw it as "wimpy," yet it thrived, incorporating ever more shrill production and vocalese as '80s technology crept in and Broadway-pop sensibilities began to prevail. Today, listeners have many choices for quiet, reflective pop. However, soft rock has once again become the province of sensitive singer-songwriters and not bands or pop stars, while those looking for musical roots turn to Americana for comfort.

Also Known As: Singer-songwriter, Lite rock

Examples of soft-rock music:

"Rhiannon," Fleetwood Mac 

Spookier and with more mythology than your typical soft-rock song, this eternal Mac hit nevertheless goes down easy thanks to the unerring ear of guitarist/producer Lindsay Buckingham.

"Peg," Steely Dan 

The jazziest and most lyrically probing of soft rockers, Steely Dan were practically prog compared to their contemporaries, but their studio gloss is unmatched anywhere else.

"Ride Like The Wind," Christopher Cross 

The final triumph of soft-rock came in 1980, when this expertly frontloaded hit machine won all the Grammys -- but Cross would soon fade out of sight for good.

"What A Fool Believes," The Doobie Brothers 

Michael McDonald's blue-eyed soul falsetto and the gentle bop of the groove led to endless, endless imitations.

"Daniel," Elton John 

Captain Fantastic was airbrushing his ballads to a faretheewell as soon as the technology was up to it, and this gentle ode to a friend, like a lot of soft rock classics, is lyrically deeper than the music suggests.

"Reminiscing," Little River Band 

With just a gentle touch of big-band swing, LRB's biggest ballad seemed tailor made for aging couples who hadn't lost their romantic spark.

"Alone Again (Naturally)," Gilbert O'Sullivan 

So depressing lyrically that it seems downright bizarre next to its bouncy McCartneyesque melody.

"Summer Breeze," Seals and Crofts 

Also jazzier than most, which may be why it's one of the most covered soft rock songs in existence. The sonic equivalent of a hammock.

"The Guitar Man," Bread

Punctuated with instantly classic, instantly dated golden wah-was and looking at a guitar god's life with what seems like a touch of envy.

"Lowdown," Boz Scaggs 

Soft-rock's hippest blue-eyed soul crooner, the smooth customer next to Steely Dan's cynical observers.