Top Kenny Rogers Solo Songs of the '80s

While it's true that country-pop singer Kenny Rogers will always be best-known and probably most critically lauded for '70s hits and story songs like "Lucille," "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County," he also released a number of unforgettable crossover tunes throughout an active career that spanned the '80s. Eventually, Rogers' status as a marquee pop music artist faded, but the velvety-voiced bearded wonder nevertheless left a huge mark on the '80s music landscape. Here's a chronological look at Rogers' finest songs from his second decade as a major solo artist.

Aside from the fact that this song served as the soundtrack for one of my first crushes - on a second-grade teacher whose last name (we'll call her Mrs. F) I still remember quite well - it also happens to remain a quite sparkling love ballad three decades later. Rogers has always known how to pick 'em, and this track benefits from a shimmering, orchestrated arrangement and soaring melody that play to his strengths as a first-rate vocalist. It often seems that softly tinkling piano and slow-building strings were invented for Rogers' silky voice.

1980 was a huge year for both Rogers and former Commodore Lionel Richie, bolstered primarily by this massive crossover hit, written by the latter and sung with understated passion by the former. It's a close to perfect pop song that deftly combines the R&B influences of Richie with the country music pedigree of Rogers. It also holds up as well as it does because the production and performance are remarkably simple yet undeniably powerful. Rogers' gravelly but utterly vulnerable vocal style works wonders here, presenting the song's confessional devotion with scarcely a touch of sappy insincerity. A considerable achievement indeed.

For this more heavily country-accented title track from his 1982 LP, Rogers returns to his roots a bit, maximizing a very pleasant acoustic guitar riff as a solid anchor for one of his most beloved hits. The song also served as the musical centerpiece for Rogers' one and only cinematic vehicle, Six Pack, a tale of a racecar driver and a group of ragtag kids he befriends. While the tune came up short of becoming a Top 10 pop hit, it topped the country and adult contemporary charts. Even better, it also holds the distinction of being one of Rogers' only major hits to which he contributed as a songwriter. A feel-good classic that maximizes the artist's wide mainstream appeal.
Throughout his hugely successful career, Rogers has always displayed a keen ability to identify top songwriters and interpret their genuinely high-quality compositions. This 1983 track from that year's LP depends heavily on piano and strings once again, but it's also characterized by a highly melodic and underrated chorus. Co-written by members of future '90s country supergroup Blackhawk (Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins), the song proves the depth of Rogers' staying power. Not a huge pop or country hit, the track plays to Rogers' most pervasive strengths at this point - his ballad-heavy adult contemporary appeal.

Many fans are at least marginally aware that one of Rogers' most enduring multi-chart No. 1 North American hits, "Islands in the Stream" (a famous duet with female country music legend Dolly Parton) sprang from the songwriting genius of the Bee Gees. Perhaps fewer realize that Rogers' entire multi-platinum LP from 1983 () was composed and produced by that group's namesake, Barry Gibb. One of that album's lesser-known tunes, "This Woman" benefits highly from the Gibbs' mastery of melody and nevertheless became a deserving adult contemporary hit in early 1984. There's not much country going on here, but Rogers' vocals shine as usual.

The name-dropping continues with Rogers' next massive hit, which started to move the singer strongly back into the country fold just in time for the moment when his crossover appeal began to decline. Co-written with eventual late-'80s pop/rock sensation Richard Marx, this late 1984 tune deservingly became a top country hit despite its keyboard reliance. Rogers' vocal precision and control had not lessened at this point even if his visibility and clout as a crossover artist had lost some steam. Once again, solid songwriting serves as the key reason for Rogers' success.
Rogers continued to register hits on the country charts through the second half of the '80s, and even if his output could be fairly characterized as a bit weaker than that of his peak years, songs like this 1987 gem proved he could still conjure the old magic from time to time. This bittersweet, nostalgic take on the aging process and the significance of perspective actually has something to say, which allows it to stand up well next to much of the contemporary country of the period. Rather than relying on cheap tear-jerking gimmicks, for example, this track earns its emotional gravity. And Rogers sounds better - and more convincingly grizzled - than ever.