The early and mid '80s certainly generated a notable share of disposable pop/rock music, but England's Tears for Fears should never be mistaken for one of the era's culprits in this respect. In fact, the group delivered some of the most sensitive, thought-provoking material of the entire rock area. Based mostly on the inner-life-oriented songwriting of guitarist Roland Orzabal, the band occupied a unique space during the early MTV era. Here's a chronological look at the best Tears for Fears songs of this period.
Tears for Fears failed to make much of an immediate chart impact with the group's first two non-LP singles, but that's far from an indictment of both early classics. In fact, the shimmering synth pop of "Suffer the Children" set a high bar for contemplative, moody pop that was challenging to exceed. This track somehow manages to do just that, based in part on the deeply emotional songwriting of Orzabal as well as the ethereal lead vocal performance from Smith. The single (in slightly differing forms) would be released twice more, becoming a bona fide U.K. hit in 1983 as the third single from The Hurting.
2. "Mad World"
The original single release of this thoroughly haunting synth pop tune in 1982 reached American audiences in only a muted way, which might explain why some '80s music fans may have come to this track from a different direction. 2001's fantastic film puzzle Donnie Darko features a spare, slowed-down version of this song performed by Gary Jules, but the original Smith-sung version became the group's first Top 5 hit in the U.K. Emotionally conflicted subject matter was quickly becoming a Tears for Fears staple, and this song is an important stop along the way of the band's inner journey.
Tears for Fears finally began to break into the American market when this fourth and final single from 1983's The Hurting made the Hot 100 singles chart there. Another major U.K. hit, this track deftly combines swirling synth melodies and creative rhythms with a growing guitar-oriented confidence. And although Smith again serves as lead vocalist here, Orzabal clearly owned the role of creative leader for the group. His songwriting filled a vital niche for emotionally invested, singularly melodic pop/rock at a time when substance was not always highly appreciated. Tears for Fears' first truly unforgettable single.
The stunning atmospherics of this fine album track make it difficult to believe this song wasn't a hit when initially released. There's a permanence here that surpasses any selection from The Hurting, which is really saying something considering the very high quality of Tears for Fears' debut LP. As a lead vocalist, Orzabal would later become a bit too recognizable from a stylistic point of view, but in this case the emotional depth of his performance contains a mesmerizing, fluid appeal. Compelling synth layers and a staccato rhythm help complete a vivid sonic portrait of active complexity.
By embracing an increasingly commercial sound for 1984's Songs from the Big Chair, Tears for Fears inevitably incorporated some dated sonic elements to its formerly edgy new wave sound. Still, although that retracts mildly from the success of this initial single from that hit record, Orzabal's songwriting remains strong enough to counteract the excessive use of mechanical-sounding keyboards. This track became the group's first Top 40 single in the U.S., but that would turn out to pale in comparison to the widely appealing songs that would soon dominate 1985's pop music landscape.
With this anthemic tune that combines the wide appeal of arena rock with the band's established synth pop elegance, Tears for Fears quickly jumped into an elevated plane of mass success. Despite an overly repetitive chorus that could easily wear out its welcome if not surrounded by excellent melodic verses, this track holds up as a deserving Top 5 worldwide hit. As the first of two consecutive No. 1 U.S. pop hits, the song also played a major role in the group's domination of American radio during the summer of 1985.
As the fourth song on this list with lead vocals by Smith, this 1985 chart-topper became rightfully ubiquitous across a generous swath of pop/rock listeners in 1985. Like many other collaborative artists before and after, Orzabal's generosity as a songwriter through his willingness to share lead vocals with his bandmate pays major dividends. Smith's take on this classic is quintessential, and his vocal style becomes one of many components - along with Orzabal's prominent guitar and tasty establishing synth parts - that transform this track into an inarguable '80s rock classic. Even the power chords during the bridge don't seem out of place in this total package.
This melodic, guitar-infused treat would turn out to be Tears for Fears' penultimate worldwide smash hit and would not be eclipsed on the U.S. pop charts until 1989's "Sowing the Seeds of Love." Melodically speaking, it could be the most joyful anthem of the band's peak years, even if the lyrics certainly betray some melancholy perspectives. Orzabal gives perhaps his most impassioned lead vocal performance here, excelling particularly in the song's stirring bridge that ends the main portion of the track so memorably: "Funny how... time flies..." Impeccable as it is genuinely moving.