Certain things in the '80s world just don't belong together. Marriage and Madonna. Public restrooms and George Michael. And as of this week, the music from my beloved decade and Barry Manilow. Mr. I Write the Songs has probably doubled his fortune with his recent albums featuring the hits of the '50s, '60s and '70s. But his attempt to capture the '80s is a culture clash, a Rocky vs. Ivan Drago kind of thing. On The Greatest Songs of the Eighties, Manilow smartly avoids the electronica, rap and punk of the decade and wraps his voice around only those songs he can adapt to his sound.
Country crooning: Manilow starts the album with a safe choice, the Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton hit Islands in the Stream. But it's the voice of partner Reba McEntire listeners will adore here. When the song swells toward the end, we're tortured with a Stars on 45 clap-a-long that not even Reba and Barry can drown out.
Beware of ballads: Of course, Manilow feels more at home with the syrupy slow songs of the decade. Tackling Journey's Open Arms and Wham's Careless Whisper might seem perilous given the vocal power of Journey's Steve Perry and Wham's George Michael. Yet Manilow delivers confident, solid performances.
The cheesed-out, Vegas-style orchestration that seems inoffensive in those tunes haunts him in I Just Called to Say I Loved You, a Stevie Wonder tune that should have remained firmly stuck in 1984.
Ready to be Mani-rolled? Thanks to the undefinable appeal of British popster Rick Astley and the Internet phenomenon of "Rick-rolling," his signature hit Never Gonna Give You Up could contend for most overplayed song of the decade. Manilow embraces the schmaltz, giving all his fans a reason to be planting links to Barry's version of the song on YouTube.
The "Odds'' are against him: Come on, Barry! Tackling songs made famous by Phil Collins (Against All Odds) and Christopher Cross (Arthur's Theme) is a daunting task, and your voice can't quite stretch to their plaintive heights these days. At least fans can understand the lyrics when you sing them.
Have I Told You Lately, the 1989 Van Morrison song (a top five hit when covered by Rod Stewart in '93), fares much better here. Longtime collaborator and co-producer Clive Davis, who picked many of the songs for this disc, found a winner here, with Manilow sticking to the song's unrushed and serene pace.
The stripped-down orchestration also works well for Right Here Waiting, a Richard Marx tune that seems almost forgotten these days despite reaching No. 1 back in 1989.
Start saying "I'm sorry": No sane musician should try to conquer the sound and style of Peter Cetera and Chicago. And adding backup singers to Hard to Say I'm Sorry muddies the arrangement, making it sound like Manilow is changing the words (if we ever knew what Peter was singing in the first place).
Bringing up the rear: Beware of final songs on CDs these days, which can feel like the hiding place for artistic sins. Manilow ends with Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and (I've Had) The Time of My Life, performed by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes for 1987's Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Manilow lacks the energy to lift either to match the rest of the album. And that's a shame, as most of The Greatest Songs of the Eighties could win him new fans.
Steve Spears hosts the Stuck in the '80s blog and podcast for tampabay.com. Read it at blogs.tampabay.com/80s and e-mail him at [email protected]