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Silver Linings Playlist: Lionel Richie

Silver Linings #5

Hello, and welcome back to Silver Linings where I find the positives in maligned pop culture.

Success can be very fickle for musical acts, and it can also make absolutely no sense.  How can any musician be both successful and despised at the same time?  It seems very hypocritical to me, but that's the reality for plenty of people. So I decided to take a look at some of the artists that fit that description, and, when I thought about who fit it the most, one name came to mind immediately: Lionel Richie.

Lionel Richie first gained attention as a member of the R&B group The Commodores in the 70s. The group had several funky hits early in the decade like "Brick House" but got bigger as Richie started writing slower ballads like "Three Times a Lady". By the start of the 80s, Richie was becoming an in-demand song writer for people like Kenny Rogers. A duet with Diana Ross launched his solo career where he dominated the whole decade.

However, by the 90s and early 2000s, Lionel Richie became largely the butt of jokes among music nerds, and I don't really know why.  Maybe it was because only his drippiest, sappiest songs like "Hello" were still getting on the radio. Maybe he was facing backlash over collaborating with Michael Jackson to write "We Are the World", the worst charity single of all time.  Maybe younger people just wanted to laugh at his Jheri curl. To this day, I am largely indifferent towards the guy; I have no axe to grind either way.  However, I refuse to believe that anyone could become one of the most successful acts of the 80s and not have at least a few songs worthwhile.  So, I pored through his discography, and I found seven tracks that I can't deny are pretty damn good.

All Night Long (All Night)

Most people associate Richie with sappy ballads, but I actually found a large number of island songs as well, the kind of tracks meant for chilling out on the beach. "All Night Long" fits that description and still holds up impressively. Even though the African chanting bridge is pure gibberish (he apparently didn't have time to find a Swahili expert), the funky rhythm and joyous tone just work extremely well even now.  Not enough songs have big horn sections and xylophones anymore.

Endless Love (w/ Shania Twain)

"Endless Love" was the song that launched Richie's solo career when he teamed up with Diana Ross. That song will always hold a place in pop history, and it will always be the perfect song for Happy Gilmore to use when slowly ice skating with Julie Bowen. However, I prefer the version he did with Shania Twain much more. The country twang, island feel, and faster pace may remove the epic feel of the original version, but they also give this version more charm. Also, Lionel and Shania have more chemistry and a better blend than existed with Diana.


The transition between the funky stuff The Commodores did in the early 70s and the light stuff they did in the late 70s wasn't as dramatic a change as it was for the band Chicago (don't worry; I'll get to them). "Easy" was the middle ground between the two styles, and it's definitely a best of both worlds scenario. The instrumentation is loose and funky (I love the spacey guitar solo), and Richie's singing isn't overwrought like it would be on his drippiest stuff. You know a song is great when it was actually covered by Faith No More of all bands!  (That's true; check it out!)

I Call It Love

Despite becoming a joke by the 2000s, Lionel Richie never went away nor did he go the way of Sting and just remake his old hits for the rest of his career. "I Call It Love" came out in 2006 and feels like a natural evolution of his island sound. It shows that love songs don't have to be plodding or drippy to be heartfelt. Really, the only real problem is Nicole Richie's presence in the video; it just didn't seem to fit. Otherwise, this is a great track for kicking back on the shore.

Running With the Night

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City had one of the greatest soundtracks in video game history, and "Running With the Night" was one of my favorite songs featured. Contrary to popular opinion, Lionel Richie didn't completely give up the funk in the 80s, and this track proved it. This is the kind of song made for going clubbing, a rock/funk fusion that just pulses with energy.  Just hearing this song makes me want to load up Vice City again.

To Love a Woman (w/ Enrique Iglesias)

Considering the island sound of his best songs, it seemed only natural for Richie to cut into the Latin genre. His collaboration with Enrique Iglesias "To Love a Woman" brought out the best of both performers. Enrique's often overwrought singing was reined in, making it sound more sincere, and Richie kicked the tempo up several notches to his benefit. It's a shame Richie didn't do more with the Latin genre; it worked quite well this time.

Say You, Say Me

Of course, one of Richie's ballads had to get on here, and "Say You, Say Me" was the only choice as far as I was concerned. Like the best soft rock songs, it starts with a couple of simple piano chords and gradually builds on top of itself with synths, drums, and even a rock bridge. The tune progresses like a story, building up, climaxing, and cooling down. Maybe if the rest of his softer songs worked this well, Lionel Richie wouldn't be treated like a punchline now.

After going through his output, I'm still very indifferent about Lionel Richie overall. His stuff never repulsed me, but it didn't hit me in the gut, either. However, these songs now have spots on my personal playlist, and they show that he deserves more respect than he gets.  There was definitely much more to the guy than a stalker song and Jheri curl.

Are there any other tracks that I'm missing or any other artists that should be featured on the Silver Linings PlaylistLet me know!

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