Top Bruce Hornsby and the Range Songs of the '80s

The piano-driven, somewhat mechanical-sounding '80s songs of Bruce Hornsby and the Range transcended overproduction flaws to inject honesty, authenticity and heart-on-sleeve emotional earnestness into late-'80s mainstream pop/rock. Hornsby and his brother, John, wrote highly personal story songs about the working class of mid-Atlantic America, but those same tunes retain an undeniable timelessness that helps them resonate with surprising potency three decades later. Here's a chronological look at the very best Bruce Hornsby and the Range songs from the '80s, culled from the band's two impressive hit records released during that decade.

It all started (in a global sense) for the eclectic Bruce Hornsby with this title track from the band's 1986 debut LP. A simple, straightforward song about inequalities related to race and class in America - and the reluctant but ongoing changes still surrounding them - "The Way It Is" topped the Billboard pop and adult contemporary charts in the fall of 1986. Though not technically the band's debut single, it's certainly the track that made Bruce Hornsby a worldwide household name. Ultimately, the song's unforgettable piano riff and irresistible hooks elevate it to a bona fide classic, but Hornsby's earnest lyrics drive home a universal truth many still can't seem to grasp in the 21st century.

Somehow, this fine mainstream rock track from failed to become a hit pop single, but it may well be the finest song on that critically acclaimed LP. For one thing, George Marinelli's forceful guitars come to the forefront of the arrangement to round out the instrumentation nicely. For another, Hornsby's passionate personal storytelling receives fine support from his plaintive tenor to create a breathtaking and (ironically) breath-giving listening experience. In short, this tune is the sonic equivalent of the freedom to be found in an ocean breeze or the refreshment of sea spray during a moment of contemplation. Just a lovely, surprising '80s classic.

The most rewarding thing about the finest songs from The Way It Is (which just happen to be - generally speaking - the most familiar ones) is that every time a listener seems to settle on one as the very best, just one listen to another of the hits threatens to change that impression. While I don't love the mechanical sound of the percussion on this track, the melody pierces with pure, heartbreaking melancholy that turns romantic nostalgia into a dangerous emotional weapon. In addition, Hornsby's skills as a pianist take advantage of an opportunity to stretch out even within a concise, structured pop song. Organic American heartland rock music of this type has been attempted quite often over the years, but rarely this well executed.

Though released initially as the lead-off single from The Way It Is, this elegant mid-tempo ballad didn't become a hit until a 1987 re-release. (Perhaps the same tactic should have been afforded "On the Western Skyline," but I digress.) Another Hornsby song about blue-collar romantic longing that painstakingly establishes a sense of place, this one benefits again from Marinelli's guitar touches, especially in the form of a memorable fill during the chorus. Otherwise, the arrangement suffers a bit from a sound that evokes the use of a drum machine (even if that wasn't the case) and falls prey somewhat to '80s overproduction indulgence. Nevertheless, Hornsby scores big-time with another heart-on-sleeve chronicling of the emotional lives of the unseen working-class masses.

The Way It Is was undoubtedly one of the strongest mainstream pop/rock albums of 1986 and 1987, so it should certainly not be overlooked that several of the record's deep tracks are of substantial quality. This sweeping, epic tune perhaps stands as Hornsby's best non-charting example of this kind of success on his debut album. Built on a strong melodic chorus and some muscular guitar work from Marinelli, the song again plumbs the depths of Hornsby's optimism as a lyricist - even as he presents situations rife with challenge and peril. Populist almost to a fault, Hornsby's viewpoint as a songwriter nevertheless paints some powerful portraits of everyday life and its universal interior and exterior concerns.

Overproduction almost drove me to omit this tune entirely, but underneath the rather impersonal-sounding rhythm section here, there does seem to lurk a quality song. Although this may qualify as Hornsby's weakest melodic hook and least compelling song narrative, that criticism probably still allows it to land squarely in the upper tier of roots rock-flavored pop music from 1988. As the lead-off single from , the song certainly found favor among audiences, who guided it to Top 5 showings on four different major singles charts (Billboard pop, mainstream rock and adult contemporary, as well as Canadian pop). So it's certainly true that a slightly above-average tune from a genuinely classic artist has its merits.

For some reason, this follow-up single barely cracked the Billboard Top 40 despite Top 10 showings on niche charts. That reason may actually hinge on the fact that this song became Hornsby's first genuinely political protest song. As a prescient and still-relevant observational condemnation on American society's lack of concern for the land that nourishes the heartland, this track may have put off some record buyers not interested in thinking person pop, or it may have struck some as another so-called liberal intrusion into the generally brainless entertainment industry. Whatever the reason, the song's transcendent melody is one of Hornsby's finest, and in terms of artist emphathy and compassion, this is still an artist who refuses to waver.

Though probably not quite the overall record as its predecessor, Scenes from the Southside still succeeds quite well as a document of working-class struggles and the beauty that can be found there. Hornsby certainly injects a somber tone and perspective into many of his songs from this era, but ultimately he always breaks through with at least one or two bright slivers of optimism. For this artist, perseverance and resilience are two of the most significant human qualities. In the quarter-century since his last pop success, Hornsby has definitely succeeded in applying a positively obstinate vision to his own artistic endeavors.