As one of the most recognizable if short-lived superstar acts of the early '80s, Culture Club released some remarkably consistent soul-inflected pop that has stood the test of time. Led outlandishly by the stylishly androgynous Boy George, the band released two classic albums and racked up a number of deserving hit singles worldwide. Here's a chronological look at the best tunes from that impressive list. In the case of this group, chart performance provided an accurate reflection of song quality, as the group's uneven later work lacks the spark of its best-known early tracks.
A few music fans in the U.K. in 1982 may have been aware of the Boy George phenomenon, but most folks, especially in America, squarely remember being introduced to Culture Club strictly through this great song and its flashy androgynous frontman. It happens to be one of the most memorable and permanent tunes of the early '80s, built on a lovely, haunting melody and a plaintive vocal performance from George. The group's blend of R&B and pop sounded unlike anything else the new wave era had produced thus far, and that had as much to do with the song's status as international chart-topper as any reactive pop culture fascination. For a real treat, check out the Violent Femmes' excellent cover of this tune, a truly weighty version of a classic.
For all his post-Culture Club antics over the years, Boy George immediately presented himself as a fresh and gifted songwriter and vocalist during the band's breakout years of 1982-1983. This track, another Top 10 international hit, anchored the American version of the group's smash debut, Kissing to Be Clever, and makes a more than solid case for the position that so-called disposable music of the early '80s was sometimes too easily dismissed as such. This tune functions effectively as sweeping entertainment even if its glossy orchestration occasionally feels excessive. Luckily, George and Co. keep the hooks coming in a flurry of romantic pop that was perfect for radio. Still, it couldn't have hurt that George's look commanded attention.
As the first single from Culture Club's sophomore release, Colour By Numbers, this tune performed quite well on the charts internationally, even though the massive if somewhat puzzling success of the next single, "Karma Chameleon," left it an overshadowed dark horse from the group's catalogue. Built on a bouncy Motown beat and a gifted, soulful lead vocal performance, this song follows the pattern in many ways of a namesake pop revivalist, George Michael, who was on the rise at just about the same time. Perhaps 1983 was the Year of Culture Club for a number of reasons only marginally related to music, but it's hard to deny the accessibility and songcraft displayed quite consistently to this point by Boy George and the rest of the quartet.
Only because of its frothy, ultimately forgettable chorus did I even consider briefly leaving this tune off the list, but once again I have to admit that Culture Club's prominent place on the international pop charts was largely earned. "I'm a man without conviction, I'm a man who doesn't know," sings George, riding the crest of a pure, uncanny sense of melody in the song's transcendent bridge. An image-centered act with a cross-dressing lead singer could scarcely avoid some backlash from its mainstream audience, but unfortunately one of the primary things I remember about this song is how some classmates enjoyed distorting its lyrics to besmirch George regarding his mysterious sexuality. It's not hard to say who wins on cleverness there.