Perhaps I dare dismiss "I Love Rock N' Roll," one of the biggest No. 1 hits of the '80s, because I have to hear it at nearly every NHL hockey game I attend, but I think there's probably far more to my stance as a Joan Jett purist. Following a stint with the Runaways, Jett embarked on a successful if never fully realized solo career that helped secure her legendary status. Hers was one of those frustrating '80s solo careers that never seemed to draw proper accolades for her finest work, which is why I stroll down some seldom traveled paths to deliver for you - in chronological order - the singer's best '80s songs.
As the lead-off, title track on her solo debut LP, "Bad Reputation" could be the crowning achievement of Jett's entire solo career. It's simply a perfect distillation of her strengths as a songwriter and performer of rebellious rock and roll. Stylistically and thematically an apt sequel to "Cherry Bomb" - the explosive signature track of the all-female Runaways - this song likewise serves up a potent cocktail of glam-inspired, greasy hard rock laced skillfully with the aggression, attitude and fierce independence exemplified by punk rock. Always a specialist in rock anthems, Jett creates a memorable one here, in spite of and perhaps also as a result of her direct, concentrated approach and keen understanding of rock and roll's power.
This unsung album track from Bad Reputation rides high on its inescapable central riff, but it also benefits greatly from various nods to some of Jett's earliest influences, old-time rock & roll and girl-group pop. Her debut record is clearly the one that should have transformed Jett into a solo star, but unfortunately the public's appetite for her brash sound would not truly kick in until "I Love Rock N' Roll," another one of the singer's many early covers, shot to the top of the charts in 1982. Maybe I'm odd, but I much prefer hearing Jett's original songwriting efforts and their respectful homages to her obvious influences. This tune is a lost classic that perfectly blends the '70s era of hard rock with the new decade's sensibility.
I suppose it's probably a crime of some sort for me to omit a No. 1 pop single and iconic performance from this list, but I think "I Love Rock N' Roll" has really had enough attention over the years. I mean, it's a spirited performance of a worthy rock and roll obscurity, but I hate to rehash what everyone already knows when there exist so many Jett gems on the 1982 album of the same name that are virtually unknown. Her songwriting remains delightfully simple here, and the newly formed Blackhearts provide fitting support for a primal frontwoman of the highest order. Despite its simplicity, Jett's music communicates a rare magic fueled by confidence and assured presence. And its combination of punk, hard rock and pop still remains unmatched.
Jett's cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" also became a huge hit in 1982, but the obscurity of this lively track is probably a resulting casualty. Record company nonsense hounded Jett from the start of her solo career, and I have to wonder if something similar is responsible for the suppression of her fine songwriting on her sophomore release. And although Jett showed an affinity for recording covers in significant numbers throughout her career, I don't like the idea that her own compositions have languished in the shadows for so long. I've been known to make a few exceptions for especially impressive covers, but in general I'd rather focus on music Jett created rather than the songs she merely played.
The chart action of Jett's wonderfully titled Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth from 1984 and its 1986 follow-up, Good Music, tapered significantly from her early-'80s heyday, but she had always been an album rock specialist anyway. In fact, she never enjoyed a Top 10 pop hit with one of her original tunes until 1988's less than inspired "I Hate Myself for Loving You," which is even more of a shame when you consider the opportunity the music-buying public had to embrace her work but completely botched by only supporting her decent but unremarkable cover tunes. This is a melodic, mid-tempo number that hardly anyone heard, but its rock and roll merits far exceed anything for which Jett enjoyed major commercial success.
For her first real power ballad, Jett could have done a lot worse than this, but here, for the first time, her music sounds more like a cross between '80s Heart and "I'll Stand By You"-era Pretenders than just plain Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. As her final single to even flirt with hit status, this one's not a bad '80s swan song, but I resent that Jett's songwriting was being watered down on 1988's Up Your Alley by the likes of glossy hitmakers Desmond Child and Diane Warren. It was perhaps inevitable for Jett's music to lose much of its bite as the decade wore on, but a song as listenable as this one still makes me pine for the days when Jett had more than enough stones to blend punk, pop and AC/DC-styled hard rock any way she wanted.