Over the course of only four '80s albums, former progressive rock band turned rock balladeers Journey churned out an impressive array of hit singles and prime album tracks. Almost all are worthy of praise, but it's also notable that a handful of these tunes have not only withstood the test of time but stand up well to focused scrutiny. The best of the best of Journey may be up for debate, but the fact that the band still matters as a key arena rock prototype has by now become a matter of certainty. Here are eight reasons why, presented in chronological order of release.
Despite the recent use of this tune in annoying TV advertising, this full-tilt rocker from 1980's Departure most definitely stands as one of Journey's finest moments as a band. After all, it serves as definitive proof that the quartet had the capacity to rock with some serious authority. I don't know why people tend to forget that Neal Schon was not only a guitar prodigy but also possesses one of the most distinctively scorching guitar styles in rock. This is one of the few Journey classics on which Steve Perry's vocals take a bit of a backseat; it's all about Schon's killer riff and his commanding solos. And what's more rock than that?
A few years back I went through a fairly prolonged "I hate Journey, they're so lame" phase, the kind that could be put to an end only through well-placed logic. I have a friend of mine to thank for that; when she offered me a viable explication of the "streetlight people" lyric from this 1981 standout, I lost a key assumed reason to criticize this rock masterpiece. A graceful combination of muscular guitars and haunting melody, this song just works down to its core, in a way as magically mysterious as the Internet or a car engine to those of us not inclined to understand the workings of such things. So just sit back and enjoy the majesty.
Again, anyone inclined to dismiss Journey as a cream puff band overly fond of ballads and sorely lacking rock and roll cred should give another listen to this underrated classic from 1981's Escape. In terms of rock guitar riffage, this tune earns major points for its explosive intro, but beyond that it showcases the general tightness of Journey's core quintet of members during the band's peak period. I mean, if even Ross Valory's bass playing shines during the irresistible chorus of this nearly perfect mainstream rock song, Journey must have pretty well known what it was doing.
This song is essential in a total-package sort of way, from the unmistakable, energizing synth opening all the way across the spectrum to its impossibly cheesy music video chock full of '80s missteps. Whatever the angle, "Separate Ways" is valuable, central '80s music listening. After all, what makes Journey's best music so constant is the consistent quality of band components, from Perry's vocal showcase to Schon's aggressive, solid guitar work to - of course - the efficient and skilled songwriting necessary to produce this song's utterly transcendent bridge and chorus. A glorious '80s moment.
Perhaps the most underappreciated vital track from Journey's peak '80s period, this tune doubles effectively as a power ballad and mid-tempo rocker. The band happened to be a master of that format during this era, but here the lines are blurred wonderfully between lighter-worthy romantic balladry and a melodic guitar-hero sing-along. Steve Augeri, Jeff Scott Soto and Arnel Pineda notwithstanding, no one ever has sounded or probably ever will sound quite like Steve Perry at his powerfully emotive best, and this distinctiveness always will be the fuel that drives Journey's greatness.
Of Journey's two blockbuster slow-dance power ballads, I've always preferred this one for its proper appropriation of Schon's nimble lead guitar work into the winning formula. That's not to say that "Open Arms" doesn't have its charms, but it's certainly one of the few occasions in which the band did not use all its positive attributes for maximum impact. "Faithfully," on the other hand, authentically tackles a subject - the impact of excessive time apart on romantic relationships - with equal amounts of universality and specificity. This soft rock classic is perhaps the epitome of Journey's wide-ranging appeal.
Despite the odd move of ditching drummer Steve Smith and bassist Valory for the 1986 album Raised on Radio, the music on the last release from Journey's most successful phase maintained the band's successful formula of guitar, keyboards, and, of course, Steve Perry. This song didn't disappoint longtime fans even if they were tired of waiting for a follow-up to 1983's Frontiers, and the reasons it struck such a chord are, again, solid song structure and familiar if not groundbreaking lyrical treatment of the inherent pitfalls of romance. It's not Perry's fault his voice soars in such an irresistible way; the boy just can't help it.
The good thing about Journey going on hiatus following the Raised on Radio tour is that the best music on that disc measured up quite favorably with the band's highest-quality earlier material. That's actually a pretty rare occurrence, when bands exit before inevitable decline sets in. This fine mid-tempo track arguably stands as one of the band's most impressive achievements of the '80s, blessed as it is with a compelling keyboard groove, some of Schon's tastiest lead guitar work of his long career, and another forehead-vein-protruding but thoroughly engrossing vocal performance from Mr. Perry.