I have found the resurgence of Journey’s popularity to be fascinating.
I am not a Journey-hater, in fact, I was quite the fan back in the day. Viewed through the proper contextual lens (thinking about not just the time frame of their heyday, but also within the boundaries of their contemporaries in regards to genre and musicianship), their songwriting and abilities meet or exceed anyone else from their class (Toto, Foreigner, Survivor, etc…). Even now I really only have one issue with their music, and that is that they do not know how to even accidentally include subtlety in anything they present as a whole (I say “as a whole” because the rhythm section is gloriously understated and rich with textures.)
As of late, they have made headlines from their internal lawsuit that has Steve Smith and Ross Valory pitted against Neal Schon and Jonathon Cain, while simultaneously Steve Perry has crept back into our pop-culture awareness simply by showing up. Added to the publicity juggernaut is Arnel Pineda’s hollow (yet seemingly sincere) diatribe about embracing walking away if it means Steve Perry can come back into the fold (hollow because everyone in the know is aware that Steve Perry will never set foot onstage with Neal Schon again.)
This has all gone on in the midst of massive sold-out stadium tours and very public on-again / off-again / on-again feud/friendship between Schon and Cain. This all has me completely engrossed in re-visiting their catalog and sharing my findings with a trusty numbered list. Much like my recent ranking of the best Rush songs, this is entirely based on my listening experience and is sure to be different than anyone else’s. I will share why I think what I do, and as always, I welcome your comments.
Here is the undisputed list of the top 20 Journey songs of all-time.
#20 Don’t Stop Believing
Yes, this is their “Stairway-to-Hotel-Tom Sawyer” and is the most Journey-est of all the journeys, but it is over-played, over-celebrated, over-covered, and over-karaoke’d. I included it because I kind of have to, but also because before it magically became a gargantuan hit decades after its initial release, it is one of only like twelve songs that I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it.
The song defies a traditional (or even extended) song structure. It really doesn’t have a chorus, and the title comes at the end. It is geographically incongruous with any map of Michigan I can find, and the chords were predictable even back in 1981…but it is a timeless anthem and does deserve some kind of recognition.
#19 The Party’s Over
The lone studio track on the excellent “Captured” live album. Dig this – they adopted the Scarab as their logo and had featured him/her/they from birth (Infinity), to flight (Evolution), to adventures (Departure), and to being captured, which for a live album is basically the most clever thing my 11 year old brain had ever seen. This song sounds like a throwaway that just happened to land right, and hearing Journey not be so calculated gave us some true magic…and check out the freaking drum intro; complex, inventive, and groovy AF.
#18 After All These Years
Is this really in the best 20 Journey songs? I dunno, but when I heard it with new-comer Arnel Pineda hitting all those glorious post-Perry notes (and doing it without sounding like a carbon-copy), I knew that Jonathon Cain had not lost one ounce of his songwriting protein shake.
#17 After the Fall
This isn’t even rock, it’s like barbershop with fusion. The Steve Smith groove propels and twists in ways under the vocals that played by anyone else would have been bombastic, but in a band with no subtly in their writing, Steve Smith constantly pulled the rhythm section back and created a pocket of wonder.
#16 Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever?
This song came out right about when my first girlfriend and I broke up – which was the night before I got to see Journey (the only time) in concert. This means there is a feel, an emotion; a sense memory attached to this song that is an indelible mark on my emotional intelligence. This is not the best Journey ballad. It isn’t even in the top 5 songs on this album, but there is something so goddamned magical about this chorus that even thirty-plus years after its release, I am still saddened when it ends and I truly do want it to go on forever.
Far superior to the higher-charting (yet penultimate power-ballad) “Open Arms”, this song leaves the world of great songs and transcends to being a “standard”. Songs exist because these kinds of 3-minute emotional story snapshots are captured on tape. Melody and lyrics when they work perfectly together are the highest form of art.
#14 Never Walk Away
Hearing this for the first time and I knew that the world still had Journey in it. Not my favorite band. Not the most innovative band, but somehow I think the world is brighter with their songs in it, and nothing post 1986 ever felt like we’d have another one of these kinds of songs to fall back on.
#13 Who’s Crying Now
As a song, I know there is magic here, but it does not fully do it for me. I love it as a craftsman, but it just never fully “has” me…until the guitar solo, which is one of the finest solo’s ever committed to tape. All the bending precision of David Gilmore, tone like Hendrix, edge like EVH, pentatonic mastery like King (B B and Albert), all rolled into an undeniable Neal Schon sound.
#12 When You Love A Woman
All my friends freaking hate this song; with good reason – no subtlety (except in the drumming), cliché lyrics, trite arrangement, and a Steve Perry vocal where you can hear the strain of years on (and then away from) the mic. …But here’s the deal – the song is effing beautiful. The strings that come in on the bridge take this from power ballad, to majestic, and from the soaring solo until the end of the song we have a true sonic masterpiece.
#11 Too Late
This is a song about addiction. In a field of mostly love songs, and sort-of-love songs, more love songs, and a few inspirational lyrics about liking fans (still kind of love songs), this is WAY out there for them. This is from the Evolution album, which gets largely ignored because it falls between Infinity (the first to feature Perry) and Departure (which was the first true blockbuster in terms of visibility), but for me this is the height of Perry’s voice.
He is effortless in hitting the stratosphere and sounds like he found his confidence with his place in the band, yet he’s still just kind of going for it. This album also brought in Steve Smith, who was as important to their sound and FEEL as Perry. The vocal on this, and specifically the way it wants to get ahead of the beat while Smith keeps pulling the band back is breathtaking. It feels like you are in the room while they are cutting this.
#10 Separate Ways
Don’t think about this keyboard intro. Okay, now you can sing the entire thing in your head. Has there ever been an opening synth line this iconic? Perry sings this song that was inspired by bandmates going through divorce with 100% conviction; He sings with such an urgency that you never know he doesn’t have a dog in a divorce fight.
Apparently, they wrote this specifically because they did not feel they had an upbeat, contemporary song that could properly open the shows on their Escape tour. That seems like such a weird thing now – to open on your biggest tour with a new song no one has ever heard. This move is the closest they ever got to being punk.
#9 Mother, Father
Have you seen live Journey footage from when Deen Castronova was playing drums? Spoiler alert – he sang this Escape rocker and just nailed it. No small feat – Perry in his heyday nailed this in one take on the criminally quickly recorded album (their biggest album, and one of the top selling rock albums of all time). Escape was recorded in just 3 weeks, almost entirely live in studio; I wish Tik-Tok and YouTube were a thing at Fantasy Studios in 1981.
I saw this on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and my young mind exploded. I even caught it on re-run so I could record the audio onto my cassette deck. The song is awesome as an almost prog ballad-gone-rocker, with vocals that we now take for granted. The thunderous Ainsley Dunbar build gave me goosebumps, but the real showstopper was the Neal Schon Black Les Paul that could not be turned up loud enough.
To this day, I remember exactly how it made me feel when he switched over from his acoustic and slammed those gigantic chords – an articulation of all of life being ahead of me, and all of the answers are inside those six strings. I can only re-visit that very private moment for a short time before the inevitable regret of adulthood kicks in.
#7 Send Her My Love
Not a power ballad, more of a longing and a regretful goodbye. This has some amazing guitar work shrouded in a wash of glorious reverb and delay that ping-pongs against the unusual drum track in mystifying ways. Neal Schon’s guitar cries while Perry’s vocal lays the groundwork for an incredible payoff in the chorus. This might be the lone “subtle” track in their catalog of over 150 tunes.
#6 Be Good to Yourself
As disappointed as I was that Smith and Valory were fired during the recording of this record, there was no denying my delight at hearing this song. Everything I loved about Journey without any of the over-worked arrangements that plagued their previous record. This song, like many others, features a lyric written by Cain, inspired by something Perry said. This kind of writing parallels my own creations, so I am intrigued by what goes into that.
#5 Ask the Lonely
This song was cut from Frontiers (along with “Only the Young”) in favor of two very experimental tracks (that also happen to be the two weakest tracks on the album). Frontiers could have been to Escape as Hysteria was to Pyromania, but they truly blew it.
This song is vocally deceptive. Some Perry performances you just shake your head and go “Nope. Can’t sing that.” other ones you can kind of fake, and on some of the Frontiers stuff when he went with Jonathon Cain’s vocal register, you can karaoke the hell out of them. This one sounds like the latter, but here’s an alert for you – you can’t sing this. Literally no one can.
#4 Anyway You Want It
The structure of this is far more 2021 than 1980; having a repeating I – V – vi – IV looped with the dynamic contrasts coming from the vocal phrasing, but Neal Schon just wanted to rock, so here we are. This is one of three songs that made me want to be a musician. The guitar solo was the catalyst, but eventually the drums on this, and of course the vocals, also captured my soul.
Much of Neal Schon’s playing is out of my wheel house. While I have played lead guitar in cover versions of Journey, I have never attempted this lead. I can hear where he goes, and while it is a bit fast, this is one I think I could learn…but I never want to. There is something magical about still not fully knowing what he is doing. A piece of my youth that I can voluntarily hold on to. (I will sing this any chance I get, though.)
#3 Winds of March
No idea what the hell they are singing about. Parenthood? Being in love? The changing seasons? Don’t know, don’t care. I can’t say anything about this piece of music except that when I finally got Infinity on vinyl, I literally wore this track down to nothing.
#2 Sweet and Simple
Have you even heard this? Not a single or even a deep cut for AOR radio. This is the definition of an “album cut”, but it transcends magnetic particles (or ones and zeroes) and becomes pure spiritual emotion. It is laid back and sounds like it might just be a nice Sunday afternoon drive between musical errands, but something happens along the way – it tricks you into not paying attention and then this hook of “it’s what I like to do” comes in and changes your world.
This is one of those songs where there is a singular moment that is so strong, that everyone in your inner circle has to be exposed to it. I remember when I got Signals by Rush – there was this opening drum fill on “Digital Man” that was so transportive, I just had to play it for my grandfather. He did not understand the bands I was getting into, but I knew if he heard this drum fill, in 6 seconds we’d be on the same page. I wasn’t wrong.
For anyone who didn’t “get” Steve Perry (and yes, while he is great…he is a crooner and not a belter. If you loved Bradley Delp and Lou Gramm, Steve Perry was perfection. If you were a Roger Daltry or a Bon Scott fan, this was not going to be your thing), the bridge on this song was the “first one’s free” moment. I would play at least the middle for any of my friends that would just give it a chance.
Not a huge hit by Journey standards, and objectively I know this isn’t transcendent/standards writing, but holy shit if this just doesn’t do it for me like so few songs on the planet – it does not matter my mood or physical location; if this song comes on, it has my attention and the whole of my heart for every single beat.
I hope you enjoyed my top 20 Journey songs. If you’ve made it down here, maybe you’d enjoy my top 40 Rush songs, too.