Though more active during the '70s - releasing an album per year in its formative years - Journey truly came into its own as an arena rock force and commercial threat in pop music during the '80s. The group's four releases during that decade by far became its most successful, all going many times platinum. Here's a capsule look at each record, from hits and familiar tracks to deep but worthy cuts and the filler selections to avoid.
Though only two of their five '70s releases in as many years attained platinum status, Journey was clearly on the rise to what would become even greater heights as the '80s began. This was a transitional record for the band, the last one on which founding member Gregg Rolie would appear. As the Journey sound lost much of its original progressive rock traits in favor of mainstream pop/rock elements with commercial appeal, Steve Perry had already begun taking the reins as lead vocalist anyway. The album's hard-rocking yet distinctly catchy lead-off track, "Any Way You Want It," was an instant if not overwhelming pop hit and has since taken its place as one of Journey's best-loved genuine rock songs. Fueled by a classic riff and Perry's powerful vocals, the tune starts things off on a rollicking note, although there's really only one direction to go from there. Otherwise, the album's rockers are far less convincing and engaging, although pleasant tracks like "Someday Soon," "I'm Cryin'" and "Stay Awhile" work well in foreshadowing what would become the group's bread and butter: power ballads and varying mid-tempo, guitar-oriented offerings. On Journey's subsequent releases, anything not radio-ready even when armed with muscular guitars would be considered a departure for the band, and this album is the place to hear the evidence of that transition.
Journey's addition of Jonathan Cain, fresh from a stint with the Babys, certainly boosted the band's turn toward commercial pop success, but I doubt even the band expected audiences to embrace this album in the way they did. Ultimately approaching 10 million units sold, the record represents the group's commercial and critical peak, though Journey has never held a lofty position in the latter category. But this is a remarkably nuanced and balanced arena rock album, featuring an impressive swath of template-forming power ballads ("Still They Ride" and "Open Arms"), enduring stadium-ready anthems ("Don't Stop Believin'"), full-tilt, catchy rockers ("Stone in Love") and romantic mid-tempo gems ("Who's Crying Now"). Whatever may be said about Journey's limitations, an album containing five bona fide classics of the era that still sound great today should be acknowledged as a sterling achievement, even without due consideration of its three Top 10 pop singles. Neal Schon's guitar work takes center stage for the remaining deep album tracks, as the band purposefully worked to avoid being stripped of its status as a genuine hard rock band. "Keep on Runnin'" and the title track do a pretty solid job of making this case, even if the group can't avoid serving up a small percentage of what can only be labeled filler. Journey's sometimes questionable reputation over the years too often ignores the quality and savvy of this release, and if you choose to go this route instead of or in addition to a summative compilation, this is probably the single album that most deserves a purchase.
Journey sustained its massive early-'80s momentum by releasing yet another strong album within two years, and it's easy to understand why the group played to its strengths. More keyboard-heavy than the band had yet produced, the record repeated Escape's balanced approach and again delivered solid if never earth-shattering songwriting. Boasting only four classic tracks and failing to match its predecessor in terms of sales or hit singles, however, do not justify labeling Frontiers as any kind of artistic decline. "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" nearly equals "Don't Stop Believin'" for unforgettable anthem status, especially in light of its unbelievably cheesy yet thoroughly enjoyable music video that must be seen (repeatedly) to be believed. "Send Her My Love" and "Faithfully" skillfully navigate Journey's newly perfected ballad niche, but "After the Fall" just may be one of the group's top efforts of all, demonstrating clearly an unerring pop/rock savvy. The filler is more pronounced here than on the last outing, especially in the case of forgettable tracks like "Edge of the Blade" and "Back Talk," and the track list could have used the heft of "Only the Young," which became a movie soundtrack hit for the band in 1985. Still, this album earns some nostalgia points for being the last Journey release to benefit from a unified band approach, which would falter as Perry began to pull the leadership strings more tightly.
'Raised on Radio' (1986)
An increasing time gap between studio recordings doesn't always suggest decline or dissension, but in the case of Journey just as with many other artists of the period, it probably wasn't a good sign. Fresh off the success of its last two multi-platinum releases, the group may have been significantly winded from excessive touring and exposure by 1985. Perry, having just experienced debut solo success with 1984's Street Talk, exerted a much greater influence and thereby forced a slightly mechanical feel onto the record's best tracks. "I'll Be Alright Without You" and "Girl Can't Help It" have always been among my favorite Journey tunes, but even they don't feel like organic, collaborative band efforts. The ballads "Once You Love Somebody" and "The Eyes of a Woman" are just about as generic as their titles sound, even if there's nothing truly offensive about the slick studio production that pushes Schon's forceful riffs to the side. The shortage of energy that emanates from this album as a total package renders the band's imminent hiatus unsurprising at the very least, as this is Journey's first release of the '80s that really warrants spotty single-tune downloads for all but the most devoted fans.