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Top 10 Soft Rock/Adult Contemporary Artists of the '80s


The soft rock and adult contemporary genres had plenty of room to accommodate '80s stars, many of whom saw an opportunity to maximize commercial appeal by trying many different styles. Here's a randomly ordered look at some of the decade's artists most able to string together hits that ranged from guitar rock all the way to orchestrated ballads. Most sustained long careers that previously found success in far different genres, but they found the bridge between soft rock and adult contemporary quite comfortable.

1. Billy Joel

Billy Joel performing
Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images
He may draw various levels of disdain from a significant number of serious music fans, but there's no doubt that Joel defined the sound of soft rock and adult contemporary during both the '70s and '80s. Of course, those mainstream styles have never qualified as critical darlings, either, but that doesn't take away from Joel's chart relevance or his status as a giant of the lighter side of pop/rock. Few artists, in fact, can claim to have sustained 16 consecutive years of multi-platinum pop success, much less to have done so with the democratic blend of pop, rock and balladry Joel perfected. After all, "Sometimes a Fantasy" and "Pressure" bring the rock just as firmly as "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl" deliver throwback anti-rock.

2. Chicago

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
In its second, wildly popular phase, this originally free-form fusion band transformed into unabashed hitmakers. Along the way, the Peter Cetera-dominated lineup of the early '80s smoothly bridged the '70s soft rock era into the rising adult contemporary sound that would peak during the latter half of the '80s. Through orchestration and ballads that shamelessly pursued the maximum level of adult pop accessibility, the group endured despite severe alienation of its first wave of fans who much favored the unpredictable genius of guitarist Terry Kath over the calculated compositions and arrangements of Cetera. Ultimately, "You're the Inspiration," for all its faults, may stand as the most quintessential adult contemporary ballad of all time.

3. Phil Collins

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic
Slowly but surely, quirky drummer and pop craftsman Collins had been for years injecting former progressive rock puzzlers Genesis with the tell-tale symptoms of mainstream neutering. That's not to say that many of his popular tunes recorded with Genesis and as a burgeoning solo artist don't boast exceptional quality. On the contrary, "Misunderstanding" and "I Missed Again" hold up very well nearly 30 years later as solid pop/rock classics, but make no mistake that these tracks represent but a step in Collins' evolution into adult contemporary kingpin. "One More Night" - along with Collins' covers of "You Can't Hurry Love" and "A Groovy Kind of Love" - were in many ways as shamelessly pandering as they were popular.

4. Lionel Richie

Album Cover Image Courtesy of UTV-Motown
Music fans who had been watching the Commodores closely during the late '70s could not have been substantially surprised when the most prominent of that group's founding members fully embraced soft rock balladry as a solo artist. Still, a song with a distinctive melody and swagger like "Easy" failed to suggest that Richie would end up recording songs as blandly toothless as "Running with the Night" or "Dancing on the Ceiling." For better or worse, perhaps Richie's destiny had always lain squarely in the adult contemporary genre, as even the singer's earliest solo hits of the '80s contained only marginal amounts of rock.

5. Hall & Oates

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA/BMG Heritage
When the successful duo of Daryl Hall and John Oates traded in their '70s mix of folk and soul for unabashed pop with dance music qualities, the pair created a formula that '80s audiences could not resist. However, unlike some of the other artists on this list, Hall & Oates always maintained a pretty interesting balance between their rock impulses (the underrated "Did It in a Minute," for example, or "You Make My Dreams") and their abundant mainstream pop tendencies. Even so, tracks like "One on One" and "Out of Touch" appealed strongly to adult contemporary listeners without obscuring the duo's layers of talent in acoustic music, R&B and soul.

6. Rod Stewart

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Though always known for his chameleonic ability to throw himself fully into stylistic interpretations ranging from hard rock to folk to dance and R&B, superstar Rod Stewart particularly ran the gamut during the '80s. During the decade's first half alone, in fact, Stewart successfully tapped into disco, new wave, and formative adult contemporary pop through his mixed-quality compositions and performances. Still, for every listless number like "Passion" or "Infatuation," Stewart delivered eclectic and effective music. Consider also the massive accessibility of disparate material from "Tonight I'm Yours" to "Some Guys Have All the Luck," both of which seem reasonable alongside soulful covers such as "People Get Ready" and "Downtown Train."

7. Kenny Loggins

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia
Looking at the '80s output of Loggins, it's difficult to imagine that he started his career as one-half of the folkie duo Loggins & Messina. That's not necessarily an insult, as Loggins took advantage of the glossy nature of the era's pop music perhaps better than any of his contemporaries (save for Stewart, of course). I've always found it praiseworthy when artists' best work remains a bit underrated, as we all know that popularity alone does not function as an effective gauge for quality. Therefore, while a major hit like "Danger Zone" has always left me a bit cold, Loggins tunes that failed to make the Top 10 (the rocking "Don't Fight It," the melodically pleasing "Heart to Heart," and the emotive ballad "Forever") hold ample merit.

8. Air Supply

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Arista
It's no shocking revelation to suggest that this Australian duo probably never fulfilled the "rock" portion of soft rock - despite the lyrical insistence otherwise at one point in "Making Love Out of Nothing At All." Still, for a brief time during the first half of the '80s, no artist better exemplified the growing adult contemporary sound. At least the duo's early hits (particularly "All Out of Love" and "Lost in Love") displayed a keen sense of songwriting prowess, but as the decade wore on Air Supply succumbed to the far from uncommon temptation to substitute orchestration and schmaltz for more direct musical qualities. Nevertheless, the duo maintains rabid fans still today for some reason, so maybe I'm missing something.

9. Richard Marx

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol
Though he didn't emerge until the latter half of the '80s, after the term "soft rock" had long fallen out of favor among musical observers, solo popster Richard Marx certainly fit that profile better than he did the often guitarless adult contemporary sound. In fact, "Should've Known Better" (not to be confused with the Beatles track of the same name) and "Satisfied" come very close to qualifying as rockers, to Marx's credit. Still, "Hold on to the Nights" and "Right Here Waiting" have prom slow dance written all over them, not to mention a far greater appeal for female listeners than male ones, who tended to go to hair metal for their power ballad fix.

10. Bryan Adams

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M
Speaking of '80s solo artists capable of rocking but also quite willing to forgo that activity for commercial advantage, Bryan Adams stands as one of those singer-songwriters whose artistic decline seemed to coincide with his move toward adult contemporary fare. Once the architect of guitar-based, mainstream rock classics like "Lonely Nights," "This Time," and "Somebody" took the rather tame "Heaven" to the top of the charts, Adams thereafter relied on piano balladry to extend his successful chart career. Latter-day attempts at rock (the embarrassingly titled "The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me Is You," for instance) either fell flat for Adams musically or failed to exert the hit-making potential of the tepid, movie soundtrack ballads.
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