Top Soft Rock Songs of the '80s

'80s soft rock songs may not be the decade's primary calling card, as the golden age of the form undoubtedly came during the mid to late '70s, when the sensitive singer-songwriter movement and the propensity of country rock and folk rock blends combined to forge a gentle pop/rock sound quite popular among mainstream music fans. However, this trend also extended successfully into the first few years of the '80s, in a brief period just before the lighter side of rock became dominated by either a more modern, smooth adult contemporary sound or the power ballads of arena rock and hair metal. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some top songs from the softer side of '80s rock.

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Little River Band
Wikimedia Commons

To me this is an unquestionable soft rock masterpiece, fueled by a delicate piano opening that eventually melts into a forceful but never heavy guitar-based core. The mark of genuine soft rock has always been an emphasis on memorable, distinctive melodies and a fierce devotion to songcraft, and this song and its flawless execution define those characteristics. Longtime Little River Band lead vocalist Glenn Shorrock gives a dynamic, soulful performance here that spotlights the tremendously high-quality songwriting from bandmate Graham Goble. There's nothing to feel guilty about in admiring this total soft rock package, as the heartbroken lyrics are never hokey and the punchy guitars make the rock aspects of the tune overshadow any elements that are somewhat soft.

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Formerly progressive rock-leaning American band Ambrosia turned to romantic soft rock for some late-'70s and early-'80s pop hits.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You may scoff, but it's genuinely difficult to choose between Ambrosia's pair of powerhouse 1980 hits for this list, so much so that I don't think I can talk about the charms of one without discussing the other. came first, climbing to No. 3 on the pop charts on the crest of irresistible melodies and heartfelt romantic sentiments that could melt the callused heart of a felonious drifter if accompanied by the warm, soft glow of candlelight: "Make a wish, baby, and I will make it come true." Lead singer and songwriter David Pack scores in a big way as well on "You're the Only Woman," crooning out slowly building, reassuring verse lyrics that ultimately merge into an exhilaratingly convincing chorus of devotion.

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Toto's fourth album was released in 1982 but spent a great deal of the following year dominating the pop singles charts with songs like
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Timeless, stand-alone melodies with strong foundations likewise take this slow-burn favorite to another level in the soft rock universe. Every guy, even the ones who listened to the heaviest of rock as teenagers, probably harbored a few songs like this that could never be played while the car windows were down but required high volume and inspired deep emotional catharsis. This particular Toto track, which barely cracked the Top 10 in 1983, takes a risk by slowing the tempo down to a level bordering on sedation, and yet the song prevails in the end, dripping in raw heartache. Toto never had much praise to go along with its '80s success, but I gotta say Steve Lukather's tasteful electric guitar licks epitomize soft rock's full potential.

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Jackson Browne's '80s output was undeniably glossy, but this guitar-driven tune is elegant and effective.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra

Not every '80s soft rock classic comes from an artist suffering from a respect deficit, as revered country-folk rocker and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne always excelled at finding success within a number of styles. This 1983 gem takes a literary approach to pulling on the heartstrings, but it does so also with a shiny, accessible pop arrangement and a truly lovely melody. As a featured track on Browne's popular release, this song features the forceful lead guitar of Browne's usual collaborator Danny Kortchmar, which helps it nimbly straddle the blurry zone between pop and rock. One of Browne's best summative lines regarding romantic relationships ("You win, I win, we lose") leads into a Kortchmar solo that transcends.

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Eclectic singer-songwriter Steve Forbert released his debut album in 1980, and this lovely tune was one of its highlights.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Associated/Legacy

Part of my purpose in compiling this list is to try and remove the unshakable stigma that has always plagued music fans' impressions of soft rock. A good way to do that is to spotlight some of the most respected artists who have released brilliant songs within the genre, and that is certainly the case here. On the strength of a long career that has always been difficult to classify, Forbert has remained a vital member of the singer-songwriter fraternity. But this 1980 song, one of his only efforts to flirt with the Billboard pop Top 10, bears all the marks of the best soft rock in its delicate melody and tender lyrics: "Meet me in the middle of the day, let me hear you say everything's okay, bring me southern kisses from your room."

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Don Henley's solo work grew slicker as the '80s wore on, and 1984's 'Building the Perfect Beast' was a fine example.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Don Henley certainly produced soft rock and even invented it in some ways as a member of '70s stalwarts The Eagles, but he never actually perfected the form until the advent of his solo career in the early '80s. This track in fact came at the very tail end of the form's early-'80s run, but it represents the best aspects of the softer side of rock and would have done so no matter its era. Henley's smooth voice has always been a perfect match for broadly appealing melodies, but he also happens to be blessed with the ability to write them at an impressively high rate. The overarching romantic sentiment of the lyrics would turn to sticky silly putty in the hands of lesser artists, but Henley makes it all work in this exemplary pop/rock classic.

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English singer-songwriter and keyboardist Howard Jones not only created one of the greatest soft rock songs of all time but also one of the greatest emotionally wrenching pop songs of all time.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/Asylum

It's probably pushing it a bit to stretch into the late '80s to select superlative soft rock classics, but I've always felt this song is of such high quality that it deserves extra effort to sing its praises. Jones himself often gets lumped into the synth pop category, perhaps mostly on account of his new wave hairdo, but musically he's always been far more mainstream in the best possible way. Dealing with romantic disappointment, one of the staple subjects of soft rock, in a unique, even literary fashion, this 1986 Top 10 hit absolutely stands as one of the finest singles of the '80s. Its melody, presented so ably through Jones' keyboard work, scarcely has a limit in emotional intensity and combines with Jones' fine lyrics to make magic.

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'70s folk rock group America, always a mellow music favorite, found an '80s soft rock resurgence with slick 1982 single
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol

One of the most consistent and impressive soft rock artists of the '70s had its primary '80s moment in the sun with this song, a model example of the melodic pleasures and silky smooth production common to the form. However, whereas the version of America that defined the '70s specialized in a folky, earthy sort of soft rock, the '80s version as demonstrated on this track truly hit the jackpot by combining the synthesizer sounds of the new decade with electric guitar. The experiment could have been a disaster and doomed the group's comeback, but the nearly faultless Russ Ballard songwriting on display here (with the exception of the use of the word "darn" in the chorus) forces this tune to the very top of the heap of latter-day soft rock.

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Glenn Frey released his solo debut LP, 'No Fun Aloud,' in 1982.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Asylum

Even beyond this song's pitch-perfect use of one of soft rock's most ill-treated and overexposed instruments - the saxophone - it deserves ample credit for taking the concept of melodic and lovelorn pop to entirely new heights in 1982. There's something far more elegant about this tune than the similar but less moving adult contemporary that followed, and its tone simply perfects the early-'80s soft rock sound. As a writer of melodies, Frey is in top form here, but even better, his vocal performance and precise arrangement make a genuine claim of legitimacy for the often-maligned genre. A line like "When you remember those nights in his arms, you know you gotta make up your mind" has few peers in the history of rock-tinged easy listening.

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Glam rock band Roxy Music embraced a more elegant, romantic and melodic sound during the early '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin

Although the '70s heyday of Bryan Ferry's glam rock/art rock band usually generates most of the group's considerable critical acclaim, the lush, elegant pop he engineered during the latter part of the band's career remains wholly respectable and sometimes mesmerizing. We all know that categories can be unfairly limiting, but there's no reason why this tune cannot be an underrated, chart-ignored masterpiece even as it falls squarely under the soft rock umbrella. The fact of the matter is that Ferry's work here maximizes accessibility and has the ability to not offend the middle-aged but still cast an unusual, memorable spell. It's a gift that keeps on giving, a song that proves soft rock at its best truly had the capacity to be that good.