For this list, I can sidestep one strand of controversy by omitting 1979's No. 1 single "Babe" from consideration for this list. Some might applaud that move, as Dennis DeYoung's cheesy keyboard ballad has alienated as many Styx fans as it has attracted over the years. Luckily, however, the song did most of its damage in late 1979, which allows me to focus in good conscience on the remainder of Styx's three-album '80s output instead. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a number of worthy candidates to choose from for a superlative overview of Styx's latter era. Here's a chronological look at the group's '80s best.
Though Cornerstone's second single, "Why Me," comes very close to making the cut for this list and is a thoroughly solid DeYoung composition, the record's fourth single, the rocking "Borrowed Time," does even more to make a case for that songwriter as an entirely capable rock lyricist and vocalist. Sharing composing duties with Shaw on this track, DeYoung operates miles away from "Babe" territory and deserves credit for helping to craft one of this album's strongest tunes. Of course, "Suite Madame Blue" and "Lorelei" had already demonstrated this ability years before, but DeYoung is not known for rocking out during the '80s. Musically, Shaw concocts a scorcher here, full of fine riffs and solos as well as a giddy, spacey keyboard opening.
None of the five singles from Cornerstone released during early 1980 generated anywhere near the success of "Babe," as only two even made the U.S. Top 100. Nevertheless, "Lights" became a modest European hit, similar to Shaw's acoustic "Boat on the River," which peaked at No. 5 in Germany. Hit status matters less for an album/classic rock band like Styx anyway, which routinely harbors deep tracks of high quality. This tune features a complex progressive rock sound that allows for showy instrumentation, but Shaw keeps things appropriately grounded with his lead vocals and lovely melodic sensibility. Like DeYoung, Shaw has always demonstrated a keen ability to move from hard rock styles to softer, ethereal music. Here he particularly excels.
Here's one of those arena rock deep tracks listeners can easily miss out on if they're not careful. Boasting three separate songwriters able to compose independently or in collaboration, Styx was often able to benefit from having a surplus of quality songs with which to populate its records. For that reason, this layered rocker probably remains too seldom heard, especially in consideration of its use of keyboards, acoustic guitars and the band's trademark vocal harmonies. On this track perhaps more than any other on the record, the eclecticism of Styx shines on full display. This song is neither a rocker nor a power ballad, hovering somewhere in between and doing so with a light but certain touch. Cornerstone is truly an underrated album.
DeYoung displays his melodic gifts on this deserving hit from 1981's Paradise Theatre, a sweeping piano ballad so filled with hooks it's bound to catch the ear of any listener at some point of its four-minute running time. The melodies are so stirring and the arrangement so meticulous that I find myself incapable of deriding its merits as a pop song. Perhaps Shaw and Young weren't entirely happy with the sound or direction of this piece, but they must have been able to sense its vast listenability. Peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts during the early part of 1981, this ballad is strong enough musically and lyrically ("Tonight's the night we make history" is a momentous beginning on both counts) to stand up to repeated listens.
This song comes off as paranoid, jittery and even a touch creepy, and it's just the kind of oddball tune the band needed around this time. DeYoung's keyboard intro serves as a winning foundation for the track, which otherwise soars on rise-and-fall guitar flourishes, especially Shaw's nifty solo. Lyrically, Shaw pushes the envelope of arena rock subject matter, which may not be saying all that much except for the fact that his wit and inventiveness are often genuinely entertaining. For an extra treat, check out the band's vintage music video for this song, a combination of onstage and improv antics whose jokes, for the most part, work. Shaw and DeYoung also harmonize beautifully here, a reminder of the positive aspects of their partnership.
This track has DeYoung written all over it, which has its advantages and disadvantages. However, it's a spirited combination of guitar riffing, rock and roll piano and its primary architect's melodic theatricality. Only the unusual combination of Shaw, Young and DeYoung could come up with a concoction like this rollicking tune, as the desire for a heavy rock sound clashes constantly in memorable ways with DeYoung's playful lyrics and delivery. Somehow, there's even room for some furious Shaw soloing, and the mixed bag packaging works remarkably well. As a single, the tune didn't set the world on fire, but it did secure a spot in the Top 10 on Billboard's mainstream rock chart.
I haven't yet been able to say enough about the considerable merits of this sleeper album track from Paradise Theatre, which is why I choose to rave about it now, for the second time on this site. Despite its hard rock sound and ominous lyrical exploration of drug-related themes, DeYoung again had a hand in composition. Even better, the song provides the opportunity for cowriter Young to make his presence known on multiple levels, delivering an intensely creepy lead vocal in the verse and an absolutely blistering lead guitar part toward the end of the track. This song is a true band effort, as Shaw takes care of about half the lead vocals, allowing for one of the band's most multi-faceted efforts of its lengthy career.
8. "Mr. Roboto"
It's possible that 1983's android-focused concept album Kilroy Was Here deserves to place more than one song on this list, but if one has to choose one essential track, there's no doubt the iconic "Mr. Roboto" has to be the one. Aside from the rather preposterous themes pushed in DeYoung's Broadway-flavored tale of the fight to save rock and roll from censors and demagogues, this song happens to be one hell of a lot of fun. It also demonstrates an unheralded portion of DeYoung's talents: his passionate flair for epic rock vocals. "I'm not a hero, I'm not a savior. Forget what you know," DeYoung pleads. "I'm just a man whose circumstances went beyond his control." The topic may be robotic, but the song's emotions never feel that way.