For most rock musicians, any form of pop music feels like the work of the devil. Despite being called “the devil’s music” by concerned parents everywhere, rock musicians have never gotten along with the world of pop, thinking that it represents the peak of selling out and having no other ideas left. Then again, acts like David Bowie and Foo Fighters have made out pretty well by trying their hand at pop music.
Although not every one of the songs made by these artists was meant as clear pop tracks, some became classics for a separate fanbase anyway. Whether it was because of the tight melody they latched onto or some of the pop-friendly instruments left in the mix, some of the heaviest acts of their time turned into songs that wouldn’t feel out of place on the radio.
Sometimes, the success of a pop song can be both good and bad. While some of the artists might have gone back to rock and roll after hitting the big time, some of the not-so-lucky artists tried to chase their star power, only seeing the dollar signs in their future and wanting to try their hand at becoming the next Madonna instead of the next Bob Dylan.
Regardless of where they landed after their big hit, the initial pop songs they brought to the table still made for some of the greatest pop-rock crossovers of the time, giving birth to completely different genres or tapping into talents the artists might not even know they had. Pop music might be rock and roll poison, but even the craziest ideas can work if sold well enough.
10. ‘Time Stand Still’ – Rush
For most hardened Rush fans, the early 1980s were when things started to go too off the rails. As much as the iconic power trio were still making forward-thinking music, the introduction of synthesisers on albums like Signals left most fans confused or betrayed by the ambitious prog band that gave them long sweeping epics. But change is not necessarily bad, and one of Rush’s poppiest tracks of the era can still stand alongside some of their greatest compositions.
Featuring a guest vocal by Aimee Mann, ‘Time Stand Still’ is the closest Rush ever came to sounding like power-pop, with Alex Lifeson playing beautiful arpeggiated guitar figures over the chorus. Although most of the album Hold Your Fire had to do with elements of free jazz, there is no room for improvising on this tune, with every part meticulously laid out, including a bridge where the band can play around with the song’s meter a little bit.
Even with the radio-friendly melodies, the eccentricities in Neil Peart’s lyrics are still present, talking about the fleeting nature of life and how experience slowly slips away from humanity when they try to slow down time for themselves. Rush could play nice with the sounds of the time if they wanted to, but they would still drop the lyrical jewels in there.
9. ‘One More Light’ – Linkin Park
The fan reception to Linkin Park’s One More Light has been one of the strangest turnarounds in recent memory. Although rock fans hated the abrupt shift towards Top 40 pop music, the lingering tragedy of Chester Bennington’s death made people reevaluate what he was singing about beyond the music. And while the title track might have been written for someone at the band’s label who passed away, it’s hard not to listen to it through a bittersweet lens anymore.
Considering Bennington’s constant struggles with depression, having him sing a song about the value of all human life is heart-wrenching. Even though anyone could have related to having to leave someone behind at some point, Bennington’s emotional vulnerability in this song isn’t to be ignored, knowing that he can’t ignore the demons inside him forever and wanting to reach out to help those going through the same situation.
With the help of a video featuring archival footage of the band live, this track may as well have been a preemptive goodbye from Bennington, as the rest of the group are left to reminisce about all the good times they had as some of the kings of nu-metal. ‘One More Light’ doesn’t have all the elements of the classic Linkin Park sound, but this also might be the first time fans see Bennington’s raw soul underneath all the screaming.
8. ‘Better Man’ – Pearl Jam
Right after grunge blew up, Eddie Vedder made it his personal mission to reduce Pearl Jam’s star power as much as possible. In between his pursuit of Ticketmaster for their unbelievable prices, Vedder was trying to be more avant-garde in the studio, making albums like Vitalogy with little regard for whether the song had any mainstream appeal. Since the record had an ‘anything goes’ mentality, the rest of the band convinced Vedder’s perfect pop song to sneak onto the final mix.
Written back when Vedder was still in his teens, ‘Better Man’ is one of the most optimistic tales about heartache. Although a song about a woman not finding a better man should end with her leaving her dead-end relationship, the chorus doesn’t have the best ending, where she decides to settle for the bare minimum with her old flame to have some sense of normalcy when she comes home every day.
Though the lyrics might be a bit defeatist, the tune is as universal as Vedder can muster, so much so that he even tried to bury the song by giving it away to another classic rock legend like Chrissie Hynde. This stage of Pearl Jam was all about compromise, though, and having to sit through experimental tracks like ‘Pry To’ to get to one of the greatest songs of the ‘90s is more than a fair trade.
7. ‘Girlfriend’ – Paul McCartney and Wings
Calling Paul McCartney great at writing pop songs feels a bit redundant. Ever since his work with The Beatles, Macca always found a way to put the right melody into every song, knowing how to get fans singing along or tugging on their heartstrings. Although Wings were already one of the greatest modern rock acts of the ‘70s, McCartney thought it was time to move back into the pop sphere for most of London Town.
While most of this Wings album involves yacht rock pastiches, ‘Girlfriend’ is one of the sugariest songs that McCartney ever wrote, chastising a girl about running around with another man behind her boyfriends’ back. Compared to his usual chest voice, McCartney is singing incredibly high, which, when paired with the driving rhythm and guest vocals by his wife Linda, sounds like it’s meant to be performed by The Bee Gees during their disco glory days.
Although ‘Girlfriend’ got pushed to the side in favour of the song ‘With a Little Luck’, it took on a second life when Michael Jackson picked it up as the main ballad for his album Off the Wall. McCartney may have been on the right track to another pop smash…he just needed someone not named Paul McCartney to perform it.
6. ‘Big Me’ – Foo Fighters
There was no real plan for having a rock band when Dave Grohl started putting together the Foo Fighters. Fresh out of Nirvana after Kurt Cobain’s passing, Grohl started to make music for his amusement, working with friend Barrett Jones to craft the beginning of the band through a bunch of demo tapes. While some lines might jump out as distinctly Nirvana-esque, ‘Big Me’ may have taken the term ‘commercial’ too seriously.
Being an avid Beatles fan for most of his life, Grohl’s first attempt at a pop song feels like it belongs in the background of some wholesome family movie, as he strums through chords with the sweetest melody imaginable on top of everything. Then again, Grohl knew exactly what he got himself into when making the video for the tune.
Inspired by the corny Mentos commercials that were popular then, Grohl mugs for the camera throughout the video’s duration, always keeping the most chipper smile on his face as the rest of the band act as though they’re living in Candyland for 24 hours a day. ‘Big Me’ might not be the first song most people should play to potential Foo Fighters fans, but it is certainly one of the easiest songs from their catalogue to fall in love with.
5. ‘Love Bites’ – Def Leppard
When Def Leppard came off the tour for their album Pyromania, a lot was riding on their shoulders. Having notched up some of the biggest hits of their career at the time, every other label was looking forward to what their next project had to offer, never thinking they could reach the same heights as their first massive hit. Once Leppard got to work, they aimed to make the pop-metal equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with ‘Love Bites’ as one of their central ballads.
Although the title track works well as the main ballad that Leppard fans were comfortable with, this was one of the first drastic departures for the group, featuring a limited guitar presence and having the instrumental focus on massive walls of vocals and electronic pads. Originally written as a country song by producer Mutt Lange, Joe Elliott turns the song into a sad breakup lament, as the narrator doesn’t know how to control himself because of how infatuated he is with his lover.
Elliott did mention feeling a bit weird tracking the song, though, saying that he felt closer to Simon LeBon from Duran Duran when laying down the original vocal. Though most hair metal fans won’t catch a whiff of heaviness on this song, Leppard earned a whole new market of fans with the tune, as Elliott recalled the song being beloved by his grandparents, who grew up on Nat King Cole, as well as his teenage goddaughter. Leppard was never thinking in terms of ‘selling out’, though. It was about making the best song they could muster, and ‘Love Bites’ remains one of their finest.
4. ‘Invisible Touch’ – Genesis
There are two schools of thought regarding Genesis: either Phil Collins was the best thing to happen to them, or he singlehandedly ruined the band. Nevermind his skills as a progressive rock drummer, Collins taking over for Peter Gabriel was a mixed blessing for fans, with a handful of listeners hating the new direction they took in the ‘80s. Just because the band goes pop doesn’t mean that the creativity has to stop, though.
Fresh off a string of solo hits, ‘Invisible Touch’ is one of the best pop songs that Genesis would ever write, as Collins talks about being head over heels for a girl. Since the structure reads like a pop tune, that leaves most of the complexity coming from the instrumentation, including a mesmerising keyboard solo midway through the song by Tony Banks.
Seeing how well the radio-friendly stuff worked out, it’s easy to hear Collins finding his niche as a solo artist here, planting the seeds for some of the soundtrack work he would do later for movies such as Tarzan. Though ‘Sussudio’ may still elicit a handful of groans from rock purists, ‘Invisible Touch’ is the kind of clean fun that few other prog bands could have touched at the time.
3. ‘Beth’ – KISS
No one would expect a band like KISS to transition into the world of easy listening. From their look onstage to some dark subjects they sang about, the four rock and roll superheroes in makeup seemed more concerned with ruling all known planets than making something for the pop market. After the massive success of their live album, though, something began to change when Peter Criss stepped in with a new song.
After trying their hand at a massive studio production with producer Bob Ezrin, Criss brought in a tender ballad about consoling a woman who has to deal with a travelling musician husband. While starting off as a folk song, Ezrin began to toy with the tune by himself, rearranging the initial shuffle rhythm into a tender ballad with lush strings and an orchestra. The only problem: how was he going to convince the band to go for it?
Although Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons always made fun of the song, having Criss take the lead was the best option, with a Rod Stewart-esque rasp to his voice that fits perfectly with the sound of a touring musician pining for home. KISS might have lost a bit of their credibility with the hard rock fans, but it’s always nice to have a concert where the audience is made up of more than just 12-year-old boys.
2. ‘Everywhere’ – Fleetwood Mac
It could be argued that Fleetwood Mac decided to go pop the minute Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band. Across just one album, the band known for being one of England’s most adventurous blues rock outfits had suddenly transformed into a Top 40 band thanks to two Americans replacing guitarist Bob Welsh. Even if The Mac were going pop, no one needed to worry when Christine McVie was behind the mic.
As the group soldiered into the MTV era, ‘Everywhere’ was of the purest ballads that McVie would ever write, speaking about the simple pleasures of wanting to be with her lover everywhere she goes. Although some of the lush harmonies might reek of the ‘80s these days, the melody is strong enough to overpower it, especially as the ‘Wall of Sound’ production envelopes the rest of the instrumentation.
While it’s easy to see this as a Christine McVie solo track that happened to be on a Fleetwood project, the rest of the band still finds places to shine, like hearing Nicks’s backing vocals on the chorus and the organic feel of the guitar from Buckingham. For as beautiful as McVie’s ‘Songbird’ felt off of Rumours, ‘Everywhere’ feels like that same heartbroken woman finally finding happiness with a new man.
1. ‘Modern Love’ – David Bowie
There’s no such thing as a David Bowie album that goes too pop. Throughout his multiple decades of hits, the charts almost came to Bowie most of the time, as he continued to refine his musical palette on albums like Aladdin Sane and Station to Station. And as the MTV generation began, Bowie was looking to dance and enlisted the help of disco legend Nile Rodgers to do it.
Despite the classic sounds of ‘Let’s Dance’, the album opener ‘Modern Love’ is one of the most infectious songs that Bowie ever created. While some of the lyrics might critique the concept of romance, the amazing beat behind him is the distilled sound of euphoria, with Bowie singing like his heart is bound to leap out of his chest. Although Bowie may have co-written the song, he doesn’t even land the killing blow on the tune.
On the album version, the song’s finale gives way to one of the greatest saxophone breaks of the decade, letting the song leave on a high note and Bowie getting his pop career off to a smashing start. Even though some elements of the tune are more than a little bit dated these days, no timestamp can take away from a tune this good.