As a consummate pop star of the '80s, Lionel Richie famously stacked up 13 consecutive Top 10 hits, a remarkable feat indeed. However, his propensity for pop singles inevitably meant that the three albums he released contained little else in terms of commercial or critical appeal, assuming, of course, that all of the hits were actually good. And that's a hefty assumption. That's why I've chosen to select just over half of Richie's signature tunes for my best-of list. Here's a chronological look at a few of this smooth singer's best, the ones you might not have to be ashamed of enjoying.
2. "You Are"
Although Richie eliminated almost all soul and R&B aspects of his sound (what few there ever were) after he left the Commodores and embarked on his successful solo career, he manages to find a nifty groove on this song nevertheless. As usual, the singer amps things up perhaps a bit too far for the chorus, but in the verses and bridge of this smash follow-up single to his first outright solo No. 1 hit, "Truly," Richie has probably never been more subtle and emotionally commanding. It's one of many sumptuous and delicate performances on Richie's self-titled 1982 debut album, and I've always liked it, dammit. Are you satisfied that you forced me to say it out loud?
3. "My Love"I must confess that nearly every time I hear this one on the radio or even on my iPod, I listen intently all the way through and feel significantly better than I did just before. Still, despite Richie's reputation as a commercial schmaltz artist, there's really not even all that much shame in such an admission, and that's purely attributed to the power of Richie's melodic gifts. Unabashedly big, rich hooks generally overcome the middle-of-the-road (MOR) nature of Richie's style as a solo artist, mostly because this artist had a knack for taking all the darkness out of romance. A love ballad has rarely been this effervescent and sunny before or since, and yet somehow it never devolves into a cheesefest. Vintage Richie.
While Richie the balladeer was never at his best on up-tempo numbers, this one is most definitely the lesser of evils and far less embarrassing than the artist's other two major pop hits of this ilk, "All Night Long" and, especially, "Dancing on the Ceiling." Luckily, on this tolerable selection from the singer's sophomore album release, 1983's Can't Slow Down, Richie refrains from attempting either a forced Latin/Caribbean vibe as he does on "All Night Long" or engage in abject lyrical silliness involving ceilings. Instead, he delivers a solid, if somewhat vanilla, mainstream pop/rock tune that, for better or worse, I'll always remember from my pre-teen Top 40 listening period.
Richie reveals a certain amount of eclecticism with this song (even if it's difficult to imagine he's earned anything near roots rock credibility here), and though it's not his only flirtation with country music, it is his best. The tune's success also stems from its almost clinical laid-back approach to the love ballad. Once again, Richie walks a dangerously thin line by downplaying passion's tempest in favor of a lived-in, tamed version of love. But somehow he invests the song with sufficient feeling anyway and handles his most important task effectively, to make his performance convincing. That's an impressive achievement, considering the crass attempt at crossover appeal otherwise on display here.
Back when his show still contained the phrase "late night" in its title, David Letterman employed this tune to great effect for a comedy bit. In a general sense, Richie's music has always teetered right on the edge of unintentional comedy, but his melodic gifts cannot be stopped; they can't even be contained. As always, it's best not to puzzle too much over the meaning of the lyrics or search for interesting layers. Even so, this latter-day Richie hit from the '80s captured something substantial about the decade. This hooky anthem made an appearance in the 1985 film White Nights and also prolonged its No. 1 hit status as a track on Richie's 1986 album Dancing on the Ceiling.
So I'll cut through the suspense right now and confess that I'm leaving "Hello" off this list, for the sake of my sanity if not for any remaining shreds of dignity. In the resulting void I submit this lesser-known but still somehow compelling ballad that perfectly captures Richie's extreme romanticism, which borders on pathological here. Nonetheless, his composer's gift for melody shines through as usual and results in a slow-dance special that epitomizes "easy listening." As Richie's final Top 10 pop hit of the decade as well as his entire career, it's a fitting if subtle swan song, a crystallization of the singer's soft vocals and smooth, edgelessly pleasing arrangements.