As one of Australia's most successful musical exports to the United States, the long-lasting sextet INXS also ranks as one of the most consistent pop/rock acts of the '80s. From its early rough-edged pub rock/new wave days to an evolving mid-'80s sound to full-fledged pop superstardom, electric frontman Michael Hutchence, the Farriss brothers, and Co. delivered solid songwriting and imaginative grooves to a bevy of mainstream listeners. Here's a chronological look at the group's finest '80s offerings.
Few '80s acts enjoyed moments as impressive as this one, and I still wonder if this tune represents the pinnacle of INXS' considerable accomplishments. Though many observers prefer the R&B and dance elements that crept into the band's later work (and certainly the record-buying public demonstrated that bias), for fans of guitar-based new wave it just doesn't get any better than this. Before Hutchence became sultry frontman, he proved himself to be a distinctively engaging singer capable of matching and enhancing the atmospheric synth work of Andrew Farriss. This song holds up with room to spare as one of the finest listening experiences of the early '80s. Some of us wish the group had taken its own advice and continued down this same path.
Even though I strongly feel that the increasingly electronic, mechanized sound of INXS' 1984 effort, The Swing, was the death knell for the group's formerly guitar-oriented direction, I don't think I can avoid placing at least one track from the record on this list. This is largely a matter of personal taste, but I tend to crinkle my nose at much of this album's music because the overemphasis on beats and synth work detracts from the band's intensity as an ensemble and from Hutchence's sweeping vocal capabilities. Nonetheless, I pick this tune over the album's singles that actually charted ("Original Sin" and "I Send a Message") in deference to its stylish hooks and a soaring chorus that preserves the group's link with new wave.
4. "This Time"
I know I'm blatantly bowing to my guitar bias when I say this, but I contend that this dynamic mainstream rock tune stands among the best work of INXS' career. Record buyers apparently didn't think so, stalling it as a single in 1985 at No. 81 even as the LP Listen Like Thieves climbed nearly to the Top 10 on Billboard's album charts. Maybe it rocks a little too hard for some pop fans, but I can't imagine a song with a central hook this overpowering failing to connect on a broader level with listeners. The songwriting here is top-notch, and the band's chops shine through clearly even while keeping the proceedings as accessible as possible.
Maybe I just heard "What You Need" too many damn times in 1986, but actually I just think I never found much appeal in that particular smash Top 5 single to begin with. There's no discounting that tune's popularity and the wide appeal of the entire 1985 release that featured it, but I'm probably in the minority of those of the opinion that INXS began to move in an increasingly middle-of-the-road direction just in time for its commercial peak. Or vice-versa. Anyway, I cast my vote for this elegant, mysterious title track as one of the strongest tracks on an album that turned the band into a major act in the States. It's a nicely balanced blend of pop, rock and dance beats that also showcases Hutchence's growing vocal vitality.
The title track from one of the most definitive albums of the late '80s failed to generate much attention as a single, but it makes a significant statement regarding the band's ability to arrange not only instrumentally busy compositions but also tastefully precise ones. INXS could have simply employed Pengilly on saxophone for an eclectic flavor, but the decision to go with a full horn section turns out to be a particularly wise one. This is bouncy, throwback pop/rock with a generous amount of playfulness, but the horns turn the tune into a real joyous workout a la Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk." I realize that "Need You Tonight" and "Devil Inside" were the band's biggest hits of all, but I find this deep track much more engaging than either.
A solid piano foundation grounds this tune in ways not immediately apparent, and once again strong group songwriting helps make this one of Kick's most consistently satisfying rock-infused offerings. Again, it may not have registered on the pop charts, but a fine showing on rock radio helped strike a balance increasingly difficult to achieve as the '80s wore on and music became more commodified in the MTV video age. Hutchence always communicated mystery effectively, and coupled with the atmospheric lyrical focus here, the listener is left with an intriguing emotional ride he or she is inclined to pursue repeatedly. That's the real secret of an LP with staying power - solid album tracks that go far beyond the territory trod by hit singles.