Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Styx Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Cornerstone (1979, A&M)                                                                 

A –

The band makes a conscious decision to play a little more to the pop market and dial back on the loud guitars, so there is nothing as aggressive here as “Renegade.” Still, DeYoung and Shaw have always had strong pop instincts, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see them give themselves the freedom to play with those sensibilities outside of the constraints of a hard-rock concept album, and this album ends up sounding less pretentious than your typical Styx album for that reason. The album could have used some stronger closing tracks, but the album is jam-packed with strong pop hooks over its first six or seven cuts. The mandolin-and-accordion driven folk of Shaw’s “Boat on the River” became an unlikely hit in much of Europe, while the chugging acoustic rock of his “Never Say Never” is just as appealing. DeYoung’s “Why Me,” a Top 40 hit, is a fun uptempo pop song that culminates with a clever instrumental duel between guitarist James Young and sax player Steve Eisen. The Shaw/DeYoung co-write “Lights,” which hearkens back to the synths-and-acoustic-guitar-driven sound of “Fooling Yourself,” might be the catchiest song in the band’s catalog to never get released as a single, while their more rock-oriented co-write “Borrowed Time” kicks off the album’s second side on a fun, playful note. The album’s true highlight, however, is the band’s first and only Number One hit, the electric-piano-driven power ballad “Babe,” which might be the loveliest of all of DeYoung’s ballads.

Paradise Theater (1981, A&M)                                                         

A +

It’s not quite as hard-rocking as The Grand Illusion, but this concept album (employing the life of a theater from its initial opening to its eventual closing as a metaphor for changes on the national landscape) might just possibly beat out that disc for the title of the best Styx album. There are two major hits here – the paranoia of Shaw’s infectious synth-driven “Too Much Time on My Hands” and DeYoung’s stately piano ballad “The Best of Times” – but, unlike Illusion, what really holds this disc together is less the quality of the hits than the melodic strength of the regular album cuts. “Rockin’ the Paradise,” a rare co-write between all three of the band’s writers, is just plain fun, while the haunting “Snowblind” is a surprisingly catchy song about drug addiction. Shaw offers up the most underrated of all his compositions for Styx with the breezy, acoustic soft-rock of “She Cares,” which boasts one of Shaw’s most beautiful melodies and a note-perfect saxophone solo from guest musician Steve Eisen, who also adds all the right touches to the bouncy pop of DeYoung’s “Lonely People” and “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned.” The end result of all this is one of the rare instances of a Styx album where the “filler cuts” actually upstage the singles. The album is particularly cool to own on vinyl, since the album’s earliest pressings feature some of the album’s artwork directly laser-etched onto the vinyl on the album’s second side, a really lovely packaging touch.

Kilroy Was Here (1983, A&M)                                                          

A –

Sure, the literally theatrical promo tour in support of the album might have been a bad idea (although you have to admire the concept of any band going to the trouble in its stage presentation to put on an actual play for you; now THAT is truly creative!) And, yes, the storyline of this concept album is a bit ridiculous, but - let's be honest here - so is the storyline of pretty much every other concept album ever made. Now, whether it was savvy for ANY band to still be doing concept albums in 1983 is certainly a fair question, but you can always depend on a Styx concept album at least to still deliver pop hooks, and this album has got plenty. Shaw contributes two devastatingly pretty ballads in “Just Get Through This Night” and “Haven’t We Been Here Before” and a fun up-tempo cut in the wordy “Cold War.” James Young offers up the catchiest and most sophisticated pop song he’s ever written for the band in the deliciously eerie “Double Life.” DeYoung’s own fare tends to be more over-the-top and can seem a little nonsensical outside the context of the album, but the brass-laden “High Time” and the futuristic pop of “Mr. Roboto” are still fun cuts all the same, even if neither song really sounds like traditional Styx music. Whatever you might think of “Mr. Roboto,” it’s hard not to admire the lovely and sophisticated melodic structure of DeYoung’s ballad “Don’t Let It End,” a Top Ten hit that’s sadly been all but forgotten to time.

Caught in the Act / Live (1984, A&M)                                               

B +

In some ways, this live package is a little unnecessary because the arrangements of the songs played here are nearly identical to the original studio recordings, so there are not exactly any new revelations here. Still, this package has got a lot more personality than most other live discs from the ‘80s, if only because the band is rather talkative and doesn’t simply just play and run, James Young talking to the audience about the controversy surrounding “Snowblind,” DeYoung giving a touching, inspirational speech at the top of the majestic, show-closing performance of “Come Sail Away” (which the audience naturally joins in on singing), and Shaw and DeYoung both repeatedly introducing their songs by title and shouting out to the fans during breaks. Best of all, there’s one new studio cut here – the last new song this lineup of the band would record together for fifteen years, in fact – entitled “Music Time” that would become a Top 40 hit, though it’s sadly been lost to time and seldom ever pops up on either radio or greatest-hits packages. It’s easily one of the punchiest and most underrated singles the band ever made, even finding an unlikely champion in Rolling Stone, whose reviews of Styx albums were notorious for their brutality.

Edge of the Century (1990, A&M)                                                     

B +

The band finally reconvenes after a six-year hiatus. Tommy Shaw was unfortunately unable to take part due to his commitments to the supergroup Damn Yankees, but the band wisely brings in A&M solo star Glen Burtnik (later the writer of the massive Patty Smyth hit “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”) to fill the void. Shaw’s presence is missed, but Burtnik proves to be a fun addition, introducing a slight hint of funk to the band’s sound with the groove of “Love Is the Ritual” and “World Tonite” and also contributing a gorgeous acoustic ballad in the story-song “All in a Day’s Work.” DeYoung sounds like he’s having more fun here than he did on any of his solo albums during the intervening years, and his material here is wonderful, be it the power ballads “Show Me the Way” (an atypically profound and spiritual ballad from the band that went on to become a Gulf War anthem and Top Five smash) and “Carrie Ann,” the first-rate adult-contemporary-pop of “Love at First Sight,” or the bouncy, brass-heavy album closer “Back to Chicago.” The band even memorably attempts its first cover song in eighteen years with its fiery take on the Bad Examples’ “Not Dead Yet,” in which DeYoung, James Young, and the Panozzo brothers rock out harder than they have on disc since Pieces of Eight; the band clearly having a ball playing this song (especially DeYoung, who seems out to prove that he’s more of a rocker than he gets credit for), and it’s not surprising that the song became a regular encore at all their tour dates during ’91 – the song’s a show-stopper and one of the best Styx songs you’ve probably never heard.

Return to Paradise (1997, CMC)                                                        

B

Though its title and cover art initially leaves the impression that this is a sequel to Paradise Theater, this is unfortunately only a live disc, something Styx has resorted to just a little too often in recent years. It’s included in this feature for two reasons, though: there are three new good studio tracks here (“On My Way,” “Paradise,” and “Dear John,” a touching tribute to the band’s late drummer John Panozzo), and this is also unfortunately the last live disc the band would ever release with Dennis DeYoung in the lineup. The band sounds like they’re having a lot of fun playing together again after such a long break, and the performances are inspired, but Caught in the Act remains the better concert-package purchase of the two, if only because it’s the only live album to feature the band’s best and most famous lineup (DeYoung, Shaw, Young, and the two Panozzo brothers) and “Music Time” is a more quintessential Styx song than any of the three new cuts included here, fine though they are. 

Brave New World (1999, CMC)                                                                     

B –

Depressing though it is both to see Styx’s longtime and underrated drummer John Panozzo missing in action here (having passed away three years earlier) and to see Styx reduced to recording for an indie label best known as the recording home of classic-rock artists who are past their prime, it is still nice to see DeYoung, Shaw, and J.Y. all back together again. Unfortunately, the band noticeably seems lost in the studio as to what this album should sound like and keeps trying one style after another, and, while the songwriting talents of DeYoung and Shaw prevent the album from ever becoming quite as bad as most of the Wooden Nickel albums, the reunion album consequently is a bit of a mess. DeYoung is the one who skews closest to trying to recapture the feel and magic of the band’s vintage era, and he pens the album’s best song in the lovely ballad “While There’s Still Time.” Shaw and Young stray a little further away from the Styx sound of old, though, and while some of Shaw’s cuts are still catchy (especially “Everything Is Cool”), they’re mostly so un-Styx-like that you can’t help but get the feeling he’d really rather be making a solo album. There are still enough decent or catchy tunes here to make this a better purchase than any of the albums that followed it or most of the band’s pre-A&M discs, but it never gels the way it should and the album ends up being a slight disappointment. 

Cyclorama (2003, Sanctuary)                                                             

C

It’s never as bad as their self-titled debut or as unnerving as The Serpent Is Rising, but this has got to be the band’s most ill-advised studio album since their tenure with Wooden Nickel. As if the passing of John Panozzo prior to the last album wasn’t bad enough, Chuck Panozzo has been forced for health reasons to step aside (only making a fleeting cameo on this album) and, worst of all, Dennis DeYoung has been kicked out of the band, thereby making this the first Styx lineup featuring none of the original three men who started the group, so just the fact that the remaining members would even release this album under the Styx name is fairly tacky. Tommy Shaw, James Young, and Todd Sucherman return, alongside new recruit Lawrence Gowan and former Shaw replacement Glen Burtnik (who returns this time to take Chuck Panozzo’s place on bass.) The songwriting alternates from being fairly good (as on Shaw’s “Do Things My Way,” one of the few highlights here) to verging on cliché or downright parody, the album even misguidedly including guest spots from Tenacious D and Billy Bob Thornton. The album’s not entirely without its moments, but it never quite feels like a true Styx album, to the extent that even the theatrical new-wave of Kilroy Was Here is a better representation of Styx than this disc, and it’s hard not to feel like the band has lost sight of what the Styx brand is about. 

Big Bang Theory (2005, New Door)                                                              

D +  

Burtnik has left once again, being replaced by former Babys and Bad English bassist Ricky Phillips, but that’s not nearly as bad as the recording decisions the band has made in the aftermath of DeYoung’s dismissal from the band, namely releasing a comical total of seven live albums – seven! – in the following years, while the second of only two studio albums released during that time is, unbelievably, a full-blown covers album. [There is one original also included, a completely unnecessary and downright dreadful acoustic, slowed-down reworking of Shaw’s classic “Blue Collar Man.”]  Some of the covers are surprisingly decent and sound like natural fits, particularly the Shaw-sung covers of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Free’s “Wishing Well” and James Young’s take on Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath,” but others are just really cringe-inducing (Styx doing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”? Really, guys?), and you can’t help but feel like the band is just exploiting the band’s name at this point and just putting out records that would have never come out as Styx product only ten or fifteen years earlier. Say what you will about DeYoung’s more theatrical bent or his more pop-oriented style, but the man at least had enough good taste to not put out records as unnecessary and as shameless as this. The Styx brand deserves a more tasteful final studio album than this.

Compilations:
The 1995 package Greatest Hits is the best single-disc compilation available; it unfortunately includes a re-recording of “Lady” (done only because A&M didn’t own the rights to the original version), but it does contain the bulk of the band’s Top 40 hits (except for “Why Me,” “Love at First Sight,” “Mademoiselle,” and “Music Time”). [Bizarrely enough, a second volume was released in 1996 that still managed to leave out “Why Me” and “Music Time.” Go figure.]  The 2004 double-disc Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (later reissued under the title Gold) includes the original version of “Lady” (as well as several other Wooden Nickel-era songs), but for a double-disc package, it’s still fairly faulty, managing to leave out multiple Top 40 hits, including “Why Me,” “Music Time,” “Love at First Sight,” and, for some completely inexplicable reason, the Top Ten hit “Don’t Let It End.” Again, go figure. The 1977 package Best of Styx and 2005’s double-disc The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings both focus exclusively on the band’s pre-A&M material. The latter conveniently contains the entirety of the band’s first four – and very tough to find – albums, but bear in mind they’re mostly mediocre albums, so you may want to save a few dollars and stick to the former, which is a single-disc compilation that does a nice job of incorporating all the most crucial songs from that period.