Following the disbanding of popular New Zealand rock band Split Enz, singer-songwriter-guitarist Neil Finn formed a new band to further explore his literate, melodic talents. Crowded House released two solid albums of college rock-influenced guitar pop during the late '80s, producing some popular American hits initially before the group settled into more of a cult pop/rock pattern of greatness. Along the way, Finn's soaring tenor combined with pinpoint songwriting to create two of the most consistently excellent albums of the '80s. Here's a chronological look at the top Crowded House songs of the group's early period.
1. "Mean to Me"
This is the appropriately spirited and tuneful lead-off track from Crowded House's self-titled 1986 debut LP as well as the band's initial single of its relatively brief but sparkling career. Kicking off brightly with Finn singing the first verse accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, the song turns into a rollicking celebration of this underrated frontman's passion as well as his incomparable vocal chops. Lyrically, this track delivers wonderfully at different times in distinct ways. One of many impressive examples: "So I talked to you for an hour in the bar of a small-town hotel/You asked me what I was thinkin', I was thinkin' of a padded cell/With a black and white TV to stop us from gettin' lonely."
Soulful singing meets unapologetically '80s instrumentation and production on this shimmering track, which showcases the band's confident harmonies as well. Pop music this good can sometimes sound effortless, as The Beatles were able to show us so many times. Still, very few artists of any era can not only accomplish this feat but do so with something truly artistic to show for their efforts. Finn, bassist Nick Seymour and drummer Paul Hester reach near perfection here, and the crazy thing is that the trio would in the future make a veritable habit of reaching such heights again and again. Starting with its next single.
Besides being the first huge worldwide pop hit for Crowded House (most notably flirting with the top spot in both the U.S. and Canada), this gentle, ethereal track has several distinct qualities going for it. Starting with one of Finn's finest haunting guitar riffs and leading into a transformative organ solo at the halfway point, this song paints a thickly evocative picture full of longing and genuine emotion. It also boasts one of rock's most original and substantively cerebral opening lines of all time: "There is freedom within, there is freedom without/Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup." An undisputed guitar pop classic.
Slightly less of a hit than its predecessor, this bouncy acoustic track is certainly no less deserving of praise. Blessed again with the deft songwriting touch of Finn and his always convincingly emotional lead vocals, the song shines through with an effortless soft rock glow that supplies a wave of broad appeal. In addition, the ever-quotable lyrics of Finn strike again several times, most notably in an absolutely transcendent bridge that attains pure brilliance: "I've been feelin' so much older/Frame me and hang me on the wall/I've seen you fall into the same trap/This thing is happenin' to us all."
Artists like Crowded House - capable of producing albums as richly rewarding and consistent as the band always has - don't come along too often, so it's absolutely essential to explore the group's album tracks as well as its more familiar singles. Here's a particularly strong one from Crowded House, a driving yet gentle rocker built on some typically fine melodies and supporting harmonies. This tune was not released as a single but easily could have done well in such a capacity with a wide array of mainstream rock listeners. On a record almost entirely lacking filler material, this one's a standout among standouts.
For whatever reason, the second album from Crowded House, 1988's Temple of Low Men, failed to make the same impact in North America as its predecessor. This in no way reflects the high level of quality of the songs on the record, and the fact that the beautiful acoustic ballad "Better Be Home Soon" failed even to break into the U.S. Top 40 is a full-fledged musical travesty. Built on a masterful chord progression and some raw emotional lyrics, this tune is probably both my personal favorite and my objective pick for the best Crowded House song of all. Evidence: "Stripping back the coats of lies and deception/Back to nothingness like a week in the desert."
Yet another acoustic marvel, this track benefits from a typical Crowded House pattern of progression. This, of course, means that the song's structure is not only sound but basically impeccable. With the melodic break that accompanies the lyric "And that is why I stumble to my knees," Finn again manages to find consistently new levels of excellence beyond an already stunning baseline. It becomes difficult to find enough superlatives to apply to Finn's songwriting, but the fact remains that this is one of the most evocatively precise composers in modern pop/rock.
There is always a celebratory element to the music of Crowded House, even when the subject matter falls on the somber side. This statement proves particularly accurate when applied to this album track, which eerily echoes the emotions that must have flooded over his surviving bandmates when Hester took his own life in 2005: "And maybe the day will come/When you'll never have to feel no pain." This is shatteringly beautiful stuff, and the combination of Finn's arpeggiated guitar and effortlessly searing vocal style makes for a truly powerful listening experience.