Rooted deeply in Southern rock and a hard-driving '70s rock sound, .38 Special actually did not become a distinct entity with its own sound until the band developed a smooth, tuneful hybrid of hard rock and melodic, guitar-oriented pop in the early '80s. Although purists may protest, this period and its hits represent the pinnacle of this fine band's career. What's more, the band's finest tunes don't sacrifice a bit of muscular, inventive guitar work in order to attain commercial pop appeal. Here's a chronological look at the most compelling .38 Special tracks, released during the decade's first half.
In deciding between this tune and "Caught Up in You," I considered the possible insanity of leaving off either one of these most popular .38 Special tunes from this best-of list. But it's actually their overplayed status coupled with their somewhat generic sound that forced my hand. Ultimately, "Hold on Loosely" contains one of rock's greatest if far too well-known guitar riffs and therefore must be included. As for "Caught Up in You," it's certainly a pleasant listen but suffers, I think, from too great a resemblance to any number of mainstream rock songs about romantic devotion. Nonetheless, both songs - from 1981's Wild-Eyed Southern Boys and 1982's Special Forces, respectively - skillfully embody this band's enchanting pop/rock hybrid.
This track is perfect adolescent rock, and that's not meant as an insult. In usual .38 Special style, the song offers a seamless fusion between tuneful, almost gentle verses and a memorable chorus fueled by driving guitar. To add to these solid ingredients, we also get Don Barnes' poised and convincing vocals as well as a forceful guitar attack that typically would be far more at home in '70s hard rock than '80s radio-ready melodic rock. Still, it's this blend of almost mellow Southern rock grooves with arena rock guitar and a clever melodic sense that makes .38 Special so unique. Thirty years later, the band's dual-guitar riffing still packs an endlessly pleasant punch, and the sense of stinging heartache still rings quite true.
.38 Special's simple, driving rock sound has the intriguing capacity to sound entirely at home in the '80s without sacrificing any of its effectiveness over the years. That quality stems directly from a solid songwriting sense and a savvy yet never cynical understanding of what appeals to both pop and rock listeners. This is rollicking, good-time driving music that also thoughtfully tackles romantic struggles in a personal way that is ultimately far more profound than most pop music that purports to be about love. Few bands have used the talent from their individual components as skillfully as .38 Special does here. Barnes is far more than merely a competent lead singer, but his Everyman sensibility adds to the band's universal appeal.
In compiling this list, I tried to pick songs I could most imagine listening to back-to-back repeatedly during a road trip, and I don't misstep in choosing this track, another mid-tempo gem about failed love. As usual, it demonstrates that .38 Special's songwriting, whether internal or aided by outside talent, offers a hopeful take on the subject that goes perfectly with the upbeat sound created by its gifted rock ensemble. It's hard to speak of .38 Special without focusing on the importance of the guitar riff, and this - another standout tune from 1984's Tour de Force - does not disappoint on that front either. Eminently hummable guitar rock just doesn't get much better than this.
Speaking of riffs, this tune offers another simple but memorable one, but Barnes' singing during the transcendent bridge may be one of .38 Special's finest moments. The band may not have initially aspired to be a highly accessible mainstream rock band and may wish on some level that transition had never happened, especially in light of those Southern rock roots. Nonetheless, I'm grateful for the winning formula displayed on this track and most of the band's other hits, and it's a sound that may fit a pattern but never sounds formulaic in the negative sense. The band's 1986 release, Strength in Numbers, was the classic lineup's swan song, and it's fitting that two truly sublime efforts, including this one, help to gracefully close the door.
Definitely my personal favorite .38 Special tune (though that's pretty damn hard to say, looking at this list), this song contains the most concentrated form of all the things that made the band great. The guitar work, as usual, is alternately delicate and forceful, always deeply aware of melody in a way that few other hard-rocking bands have ever dreamed of. This twin-guitar attack courtesy of Barnes and Jeff Carlisi is simply one of the best in rock, full of ingenuity and technically sound. Combined with the clear-voiced power of frequent lead vocalist Barnes (who is one of rock's most criminally underrated singers), the sound is unmistakable and pleasing. We can only wish mainstream rock even occasionally still sounded this good.