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Top 10 Songwriting Teams of the '80s

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When I cooked up the idea to compile this list, naturally I thought first of pop/rock music's greatest songwriting tandem, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their collaborative friction helped create legendary music, but that blueprint has not been often successfully duplicated. Here's a list of some of the finest '80s examples of unique individuals blending their talents to create something even more brilliant than individuals alone could muster.

1. Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry & Neal Schon of Journey

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia/Legacy

It's never been particularly fashionable to say this out loud among "sophisticated" company, but the fact of the matter is that these three guys practiced pure songwriting mastery together during the early- and mid-'80s flurry of arena rock. We all know how important Perry was to the reshuffled sound of Journey the former progressive rock band, but I'm not sure there's ever been enough acknowledgment of the compositional contributions of Cain. Perry's vocals and Schon's singular guitar solos dominated the group's sound on songs like "Don't Stop Believin'" and "I'll Be Alright Without You," but Cain's keyboards and pen had much to do with the success of "Separate Ways" and "Open Arms," to name just a few.

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2. Johnny Marr & Morrissey of the Smiths

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.

Nowhere, perhaps, have contrast and conflict been more vital to musical endeavors than the unlikely partnership of the flamboyant Morrissey and the maniacally precise Marr. Someone should put together video and audio clips of the arguments that must have ensued between these two during recording sessions and on stage; it would have to be gripping stuff. Fractious though it may have been, the collaboration helped produce some of the most enduring music of the '80s in classic records like the Smiths' self-titled 1984 debut and 1986's The Queen Is Dead. This kind of conflict is certainly why so many bands break up due to "artistic differences," but it's also why much rock music is unforgettable.

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3. Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

Of course, creative friction also often has as much to do with band longevity as fragility, because fruitful partnerships tend to bring members back together at least somewhere down the line. That happened recently with this pairing, which returned in 2007 for a Squeeze reunion that is probably more about art than commerce. After all, this U.K. group never became the next Beatles commercially even if the literate lyrics of Difford and the sophisticated, ambitious music of Tilbrook always deserved far more attention than they received. Songs like "Up the Junction," "Black Coffee in Bed," and "Another Nail in My Heart" are far from mere confections, as the pleasures they provide are both considerable and pure.

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4. Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA Records

I've certainly realized this list is terribly thin on female artists, but I don't include this duo just to meet some quota. The tremendous pop sensibility of the Eurythmics helped them rise completely above most of the other synth pop and new wave outfits of the early to mid-'80s. Huge hits like "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and "Would I Lie to You?" may not have ever been on my personal short list of '80s favorites, but that doesn't mean I haven't always understood just how vital the duo was to maintaining a high level of quality in pop music at the time. Lennox's powerful visibility as a frontwoman meshed perfectly with the background writing and production aspirations of Stewart.

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5. Amy Ray & Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic
Here's another classic Lennon-McCartney pairing, a partnership that reached greater heights than its members could have ever attained individually. The reason for this is the sparkling contrast between Saliers' sweet, rather quiet melodies and delivery and the rough-edged, more rock and roll-infused approach favored by Ray. Aside from the one-of-a-kind, stunning harmonies that defined the Indigo Girls sound, the movement back and forth from thoughtful, metaphysical musings to primal, direct examinations of pain and passion made for an invigorating, always surprising listening experience. Of course, I shouldn't use the past tense, as the Indigo Girls are still going strong more than 20 years after their spirited beginning.
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6. Jim Cuddy & Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo

Album Cover Image Courtesy of BlueRodeo.com

Though not strictly a band of the '80s, this long-running Canadian roots rock group released two worthy albums during the decade that helped set the stage for the alternative country and roots music explosion of the '90s. Standout songs from this period like "Rose-Coloured Glasses" and "House of Dreams" immediately announced the two distinctive songwriting personalities of Cuddy and Keelor, with the former tending toward catchy melodies and romantic ballads and the latter exhibiting more of an experimental, jam band approach. In true Lennon-McCartney fashion, the pair almost always shares songwriting credits, melding distinct styles to forge impressive results.

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7. Sam Llanas & Kurt Neumann of the BoDeans

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/London-Sire
Another singular roots rock outfit that emerged during the late '80s, this Milwaukee-area group took the shared songwriting aesthetic even further, putting an absolutely essential emphasis on harmonized vocals as well as compositional collaboration. The band's debut, 1986's critically acclaimed Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, clearly established the band's retro sound and the unique give and take of its two leaders. Like Blue Rodeo and other bands employing consistent songwriting collaboration, whoever sang lead typically did the lion's share of the writing on each particular track. Still, the combination of Neumann's melodic, clear voice with Llanas' raspy, retro aesthetic was what made the BoDeans special.
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8. Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

Even though this particular collaboration did not take place within the structure of a band, its firm and reliable nature had a lot to do with Bryan Adams' roaring '80s success. Some songwriters like to fly solo as they compose, while others benefit strongly from a partner who provides balance and a sounding board. Ever since he emerged as an aspiring songwriter during the late '70s, Adams chose the path of collaboration, and it certainly was a successful union. Though always lacking in critical praise, classic tracks like "Somebody" and "Run to You" maximized the potential for accessibility in mainstream rock music, creating major pop chart success as well as some of the decade's most tuneful offerings.

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9. Ian Astbury & Billy Duffy of the Cult

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Beggars Banquet

This was an old-fashioned lead singer/guitarist combination in the tradition of AC/DC's Bon Scott-Angus Young team of the '70s. That is to say, these two helped provide the foundation for a band that worked to protect the continuing integrity of blistering rock and roll. I still think of "Love Removal Machine" as one of '80s rock's finest moments, and clearly the main reason for its profound impact is the savvy combination of Astbury's signature howl and Duffy's crunchy, powerful and somewhat dangerous guitar squall. While Astbury took every opportunity to engage in Jim Morrison-type showmanship as a frontman, Duffy's straight-ahead, workmanlike approach always served as an effective foil to help maximize the band's appeal.

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10. David Baerwald & David Ricketts of David & David

Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

Despite this duo's production of only one album, 1986's powerful and searing Boomtown, I still think its work stands as a template of sorts for skillful songwriting collaboration. While Baerwald was the duo's most visible member (and is the only one of this pair to stay in music full-time after the partnership ended), Ricketts' multi-instrumental explorations helped forge the album's rich musical textures. As I've probably said before, the record's first three tracks ("Welcome to the Boomtown," "Swallowed by the Cracks," and "Ain't So Easy") may just be as good as any three consecutive tracks on any album of the rock era. Just listen to them in succession before you call me crazy.

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