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Top 7 REO Speedwagon Songs of the '80s

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REO Speedwagon's huge late 1980 release Hi Infidelity may have reached No. 1 on the album charts in 1981 and has now approached nearly 10 million units sold, but its singles far exceed its lesser-known album tracks in quality. That alone isn't unusual for pop music, but for this former hard rock and ultimately quintessential arena rock band of the '70s known for its work ethic, it was perhaps ironic that transforming into a singles band brought REO's greatest success. Here's a chronological look at 10 of the finest tracks from REO Speedwagon's most commercially relevant decade, defined by slick, accessible pop/rock.

1. "Don't Let Him Go"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Legacy

This lead-off single from Hi Infidelity quickly announced REO's flashpoint moment in time, offering up a rhythmic and melodic dynamism the band had not been able to muster during its previous decade. Perhaps inevitably, nothing would come together quite as beautifully for the band thereafter, but frontman Kevin Cronin's lively performance and focused songwriting seem to convey that he grasped his band's golden opportunity for stardom. Gary Richrath's lead guitar similarly shines, and even Neal Doughty's keyboards rise to the forefront of the arrangement, presenting a total package made up of equal parts pop, heartland rock, melodic inspiration, and a lyrical sense of fun. I'm normally not a huge Cronin fan, but his vocals delight here.

2. "In Your Letter"

Though it peaked only at No. 20 on the pop charts, this lesser-known gem outperformed "Don't Let Him Go" and set the stage for the really huge hits to follow. Again, this is playful stuff, effectively employing an almost old-fashioned call-and-response approach during the chorus that really gives the tune a blithe, favorably wispy feel. In fact, Richrath's musical take on the proverbial Dear John letter feels almost peppy in both arrangement and performance, demonstrating a versatility that the group rarely gets credit for. The disparate brilliance of Hi Fidelity's charting singles stands as an emblem of REO's prowess during this window of time, and this song also argues convincingly that the band is a strong ensemble indeed.

3. "Keep on Loving You"

As one of the most shimmering and ultimately deserving No. 1 songs of the '80s, this track perfectly combines the three strongest elements of the band's sound at this critical juncture. Supported ably by power ballad piano, convincing rock guitar and a tremendous pop sensibility, this tune stands up tremendously well 30 years after its release, no matter what style mavens and musical hipsters might say otherwise. And aside from being high-quality pop/rock of an almost archetypal nature, "Keep on Loving You" also holds a central place in the Generation X nostalgic pop culture core, as almost anyone in that age group finds this song, for better or worse, to be practically inescapable. One of the most solid power ballads ever recorded.

4. "Take It on the Run"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Legacy

Richrath scores again here as primary songwriter, penning perhaps REO's finest pure classic rock track of its career. It's interesting that the band had not previously specialized in heartbreak songs, but when the time came for such a focus, the group was exceptionally prepared to deliver. Richrath also delivers his longest guitar solo of this era, taking a few moments to demonstrate his unique style without detracting from the central pop music appeal of the composition. "Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you been messin' around" stands as one of the niftiest examples of lyrical repetition in rock and roll history, and as song introductions go, this one's done about as well as you could hope for.

5. "Keep the Fire Burnin'"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Legacy

Another classic from REO's commercial period, this mid-tempo gem stands out even more because of its inclusion on a deeply inferior record, 1982's Good Trouble. Oh, it's not a bad album, but serviceable mainstream rock is nothing if not nearly impossible to distinguish from all the other music pressed internationally, nationally and regionally. But while much of the arena rock of the early '80s sounded staid and lacked emotion, this track holds far more warmth than merely the image of its title. Meanwhile, Doughty injects an organ solo that ties everything together beautifully, and Cronin provides a bridge that contains as much permanence as standard rock music was capable of during the early '80s.

6. "I Do' Wanna Know"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Legacy
If for no other reason than to prove that REO Speedwagon was still a rock and roll band by 1984, this tune belongs on a best-of list for this perfectly competent but less often distinctive band from the American heartland. That praise is actually more faint than it should be, as this is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that does a decent job of crystallizing REO's harder-rocking '70s sound into a new era. As I said before, this is a band that didn't exactly enjoy a surplus of serious or important album cuts, but it would be inaccurate not to acknowledge that the quintet had its moments worth celebrating beyond Top 10 pop ballads. Despite a status as one of the so-called "faceless" bands of album-oriented rock, REO could display a nose for fun.

7. "Can't Fight This Feeling"

Besides, there has to be some balance on 1984's Wheels Are Turnin' release to counteract the sweetness of this heavily produced but undeniably successful power ballad for the ages. A top hit of 1985 ultimately for good reason, this track nonetheless requires rock fans to make either a notable exception or lie through their teeth that they don't enjoy it. I gave up the lying years ago when I came to terms with my non-existent coolness factor, so I don't do much anymore but sing this tune's considerable praises. I mean, come on, what a sparkling bridge: "And I'm gettin' closer than I ever thought I might..." When the guitars come in, just try to fight the irresistible feeling to sing along - at least under your breath. REO's last great song.

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