Detroit native and retro rocker Marshall Crenshaw has remained highly underrated since he burst on the scene in 1981 with his infectious take on power pop, new wave and roots rock. Even so, the accomplished singer-songwriter's reputation has generally inspired significant wonder and reverence among music lovers in the know. Despite a string of very modest commercial showings following his acclaimed debut, Crenshaw released a total of five studio albums during the '80s, all featuring strong compositions and spirited performances. Here's a chronological look at Crenshaw's best, most lasting songs of the period.
Not many people heard it at the time, but this bouncy, primarily acoustic single was released in 1981 and helped Crenshaw secure his record deal with Warner Bros. In retrospect, it was a wonderful and telling start for this fledgling guitar pop singer-songwriter, showcasing his clean vocal style and his love for harmonies and '60s rock. However, the song would not show up on a proper Crenshaw album, which kept it charmingly but frustratingly obscure for many years. Even so, this track nicely prefigured Crenshaw's most famous song, the unforgettable "Someday, Someway," and remains a slightly naughty introduction to this artist's talents ("Now just forget about your boyfriend, and I'll forget about my girlfriend").
Deservedly one of new wave's most revered signature singles, this song begins jauntily with a jangly guitar riff for the ages, and Crenshaw manages, impressively, to surpass its charm with fantastic verse and chorus melodies. But the track's transcendent bridge ("You've taken everything from me, I've taken everything from you, I'll love you for my whole life through") manages to elevate an already stratospheric melodic intensity to a truly mandatory-smile level. Unfortunately, the single - as perfect as it is - barely cracked the Billboard Top 40, even if it did help Crenshaw's 1982 self-titled debut album to spend several months on the album charts. It should have been enough to ensure future radio airplay, but alas, this was not to be.
The lead-off track from Crenshaw's brilliant debut appropriately explores familiar romantic lament territory, and once again the artist's melodic finesse and guitar focus dominate the proceedings to fine effect. Crenshaw's lead vocals have always been both lovely and powerful, but this shimmering instrument found particular precision on what is widely seen as his finest record. That's part of why so many songs have such tremendous staying power, but Crenshaw's maturity as a songwriter came early and never wavered throughout his career. "It's a sad situation, but I know what I ought to do," Crenshaw croons. "I'm gonna find someone better. Go have fun, little girl, I can live without you." An exquisite confluence of melody and lyricism.
Crenshaw's musical tastes run to the melodic and commercially accessible, but they also display a quirky, unexpected edge that makes his work utterly unique. Perhaps it's no coincidence that on this jangly, upbeat track, Crenshaw extols the many virtues of his Cynical Girl, the one who never manages to behave in the ways attractive young women are supposed to and yet casts a spell on him he doesn't wish to escape. Thematically, it's Crenshaw at his romantic best, and musically the artist establishes wonderfully churning guitar swirls that betray the power pop sensibilities he's neither announced nor desired to shake. At its best, Crenshaw's music is hopeful and optimistic against the often darker, more melancholy impulses in his lyrics.
Crenshaw's songwriting prowess during the early '80s was prodigious, but for some reason fewer record buyers seemed to recognize this fact when the singer's sophomore album, Field Day, came out in 1983. Perhaps the 10 tracks this time around didn't sound quite as fresh as on Crenshaw's heralded debut, but the somewhat cool reception this material received commercially was nonetheless puzzling. The Crenshaw craftsmanship, after all, was nothing if not consistent, and there may not be a more pleasing three minutes of melodic guitar pop on the planet than this wondrous love song. Maybe that's why one of '80s rock's most alluring female singers, Marti Jones, felt compelled to grace us with her own cover version.
6. "Our Town"
Crenshaw famously portrayed Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba, but he has more in common with the '50s rock and roll legend than just the glasses and handsome but boyish face. If Holly had not died tragically in one of music's most infamous air disasters and had continued to develop his career through the '60s, it's easy to imagine that his work might have sounded like this rollicking, guitar-rich tune. Crenshaw's vocal style soars in an organic fashion much like Holly's "That'll Be the Day," and I'll stop before overdoing these comparisons. The truth is, Crenshaw doesn't require a boost from legends he resembles, as his signature sound occupies a space of its own, represented with poise and elegance by this great song.
Despite limited encouragement from record buyers or the mainstream rock music industry at large, Crenshaw insisted upon releasing albums packed with his typically solid guitar-centered compositions performed with aplomb, wit and passion. "Like a Vague Memory" happens to be one of the songwriter's slower numbers, which gives the artist room to spread out vocally and musically. Tinged with sad steel guitar and haunting strums of an acoustic guitar, this is Crenshaw at his most raw and emotionally exposed, and the effect is mesmerizing and always tasteful. 1985's Downtown contained several songs of high quality, but Crenshaw's '80s catalogue was so full of memorable tunes that I was forced to get economical with this choice.
Crenshaw's expressive tenor performs more wizardry on 1987's Mary Jean & 9 Others, a record with a modest title that pits this track against at least two other worthy songs that could easily deserve this superlative position. As on all five of his fine '80s releases, Crenshaw introduces keepers here, namely "Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time)" and "Somebody Crying." However, "This Is Easy" makes the cut if for no other reason than because it demonstrates the apparent effortlessness of this artist in crafting instantly memorable, emotionally affecting melodies. So much a songwriter's songwriter that he never gets enough credit simply for his singing, Crenshaw often operates at levels many '80s artists would have loved to reach just once.
By the time he released 1989's Good Evening, Crenshaw had long passed (and perhaps circumnavigated multiple times) the point of being taken for granted. It wasn't fair, certainly, but Crenshaw has never moaned about his persistent obscurity, instead opting to release album after album of original material tailor-made for the long haul. This one's particularly a heartbreaker: "Then I thought I saw you walking by into town, Into the crowd I went chasin' you down. When I grabbed your arm she spun around. A stranger glared, you should've been there." Directly and dreamily accusative in a shattering sort of way, this gem benefits, as usual, from Crenshaw's crispness in song structure and delivery. Another one that sticks with you.
Crenshaw's music has inspired good taste at least as much as it has displayed it, a statement proven well by this lesser-known track from the singer's final '80s album. A few years later, the incomparable Americana singer-songwriter Kelly Willis would record a version of this unforgettable tune, and despite having been introduced to the tune through that version, I must give credit to Crenshaw where credit is so obviously due. It's fitting that Crenshaw goes to the covers well on this record to pay tribute to another brilliant songwriter, roots rock and Americana legend John Hiatt (note the wistful "Someplace Where Love Can't Find Me"), as early on he had proven he had no trouble churning out permanent rootsy pop songs like this one.