Though one of the most explosive hitmakers and memorable visual icons of '80s music, British singer-songwriter Robert Palmer never easily attracted a proper amount of respect for his eclectic skills as a vocalist. However, a close look at the artist's nearly two-decade-long career reveals that Palmer was an accomplished songwriter in many styles ranging from R&B, soul, new wave, dance pop to even hard rock. And as a singer, Palmer certainly had plenty of chops to go along with a winning sense of style. Here's a chronological look at Palmer's finest songs of the '80s.
Though it failed to make much of an impact on the pop charts in North America or even the U.K., this track revealed that Palmer always had an uncanny knack for positioning himself on the cutting edge - musically speaking. Featuring key synth pop artist Gary Numan on keyboards, this lead-off single from 1980's Clues presents mechanical rhythms but also includes the warmth of Palmer's classic low baritone vocals. Lyrically, this is a successful romantic relationship story song - composed by Palmer himself - that stands up quite well to other similar pop music narratives throughout rock history. Always a bit of a chameleon, Palmer nonetheless began the decade on a strong, timely note.
Following a stint with The Power Station, a group he formed with Andy Taylor and John Taylor of Duran Duran that produced a pair of Top 10 American pop hits, Palmer resumed his solo career with a focused vengeance. 1985's Riptide became his breakthrough LP, anchored by this worldwide Top 5 hit and its remarkably assured songwriting. Built on a powerhouse yet subdued guitar riff, this track is stunningly solid when viewed from all possible angles. Tasteful keyboard flourishes, a fine melodic turn in the bridge ("Whoa-oh-oh, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff... oh yeah!"), and another soulfully forceful, utterly rock vocal performance push this to a new level. With or without that famous music video.
In its studio version, this track sounds awfully dated, far too dependent on keyboards and slick production. However, in at least one live version, the arrangement heightens the electric guitars to an extent that the song becomes an outright hard rock romp. Powered by huge drums and some snarling, top-notch vocals from Palmer the co-composer, "Hyperactive" works tremendously well on multiple levels. Mainstream pop/rock from the middle period of the '80s sometimes gets a bad rap among music enthusiasts, but this tune makes the case for bucking that trend.
Though a product of the famous songwriting team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis rather than an original, this track would never have become what it did without Palmer's soulful, classy touch. Peaking just one notch below the top spot on Billboard's pop charts in 1986 (and therefore just falling short of matching the performance of "Addicted to Love"), this is a funky, keyboard-fueled masterpiece. Palmer's halting delivery in the verses and sultry turn in the chorus help to create a timelessly successful single for the ages.
Producing just one of the most iconic songs of any given decade qualifies as a major achievement, so Palmer's feat of introducing two such pop tunes into the culture truly deserves respect. It's unfortunate, of course, that this riff-happy dance-rock gem - along with "Addicted to Love" - became desperately overplayed on the radio and on MTV. Nevertheless, this lead-off track and single from 1988's Heavy Nova reached No. 2 on the charts and probably deserved a few weeks in the top spot for all its memorably energetic precision.
This song is a crooner special and one of Palmer's few true ballads in a versatile career. Dominated a touch too much by saxophone, it manages still to showcase the best facets of Palmer as a songwriter and singer. Melodically speaking, it's not on the level of Palmer's biggest hits, but the second tier of this artist's songwriting definitely exceeds the lesser album cuts of most general pop/rock artists of the '80s era. Along with his impressive list of tasteful, worthy covers (including 1983's "You Are in My System" and his stunning version of The Gap Band's "Early in the Morning"), Palmer's originals remain sadly underrated.