Ranking eighties Hall & Oates

I’ll get to Daryl Hall and John Oates’ seventies catalog some day: too inconsistent and desperate to absorb in one sitting…

1. H20 (1982)

Despite his enthusiasm and considerable finesse, Daryl Hall is not a convincing soul man. Insistent without the charm, he’s an A student who wants the class to read his history essay. And he’s a truly confused songwriter. Where, say, Bryan Ferry went so far into narcissism that he emerged reborn as the Love God he always aspired to be, Hall just sounds like a creep. “One on One” is H&O’s best smoochfest, but Hall erodes his outreach by insisting he wants to sex her up. But saxophonist Charlie DeChant, bassist T-Bone Wolk, and drummer Mickey Curry — is up to every trick. The sudden tempo changes and sonic crunches in “Family Man,” the synth pads over which Hall yells paranoid cry after paranoid cry at an unfaithful woman — they adduce a sociopathic mind. Elsewhere, H20 finds H&O at their peak, their best eighties album despite nothings like “The Art of Heartache” and “At Tension.” The guitar-pop throwaways at the end of the record (“Delayed Reaction,” “Guessing Games”) wouldn’t be out of place on a Marshall Crenshaw album. “Maneater” definitively proves that any song which appropriates the bassline to The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a guaranteed classic. John Oates comes up with the album’s best hook, impressing the Italian girls in the song of the same name with his knowledge of vino rosso.

2. Private Eyes (1981)

Having found their, er, voices, H&O set about creating three-minute pop songs with a touch of soul and more than a little possession obsession: romantics they were not, which is why I understand why and how they repulsed a few critics. Form redeemed content. The hand claps and multi-tracked vocal of “Private Eyes” helps you forget that Daryl Hall is an uncommonly jittery frontman. The three or four overlapping synth lines (played by Hall, an underrated keyboardist) on “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are worthy of Dare-era Human League. Although “Did It In A Minute” wouldn’t be out of place as the theme song to an early ’80s sitcom, “Head Above Water” and “Looking for a Good Sign” are too frantic to have fit in anywhere. The sleeper is “Your Imagination,” whose woozy organ hook and sneering John Oates harmonies deserved Basement Jaxx sampling.

3. Voices – 1980

It kicks off with “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” the last John Oates composition released as the first single, and no wonder: it crawled, like every post-“Rich Girl” single, to a top thirty peak. No reflection on its quality though. As the first example of their debt to New Wave, G.E. Smith’s twelve-string guides the duo through the kind of sustained sneer mastered by Elvis Costello. “Big Kids” is even better: Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” told straight, without the parable nonsense. The only peak-era album whose album tracks outdo the singles — this is the one with “Kiss On My List” and “You Make My Dreams” — Voices showed H&O at their magpie best. Avoid the Righteous Bros cover and the self-production is the trick: the songs vibrated instead of sounding as if smothered by pillows. I’m surprised Spoon hasn’t tried the doo-woop meets Joe Jackson wonder “Gotta Lotta Nerve (Perfect Perfect).” Guess they’re waiting for fun to flop with it first.

4. Big Bam Boom (1984)

Title and cover art say it all. H&O hired Arthur Baker to remix several cuts to give their most “eighties” album an electronic rhythmic foundation (opener “Dance On Your Knees” is a ringer for New Order’s “Confusion”). An album of songs remixed as if they were twelve-inches, Big Bam Boom anticipates Pet Shop Boys’ Introspective. The big hits were “Out of Touch” (also their worst video, in a career full of appalling ones) and “Method of Modern Love,” whose title gives away the game: Daryl, who can’t resist lecturing his conquests, explains How It’s Supposed To Work even as his falsetto distracts us from the fact that his hand is unbuttoning your shirt. There’s not much else here except for the unexpected tact of the ballad “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” and John Oates’ ominous “Cold Dark & Yesterday”. H&O’s crack touring band, responsible for the crisp arrangements on the preceding three albums, has a noticeably diminished profile; these tracks are mixing board creations. Baker’s echo-heavy, Synclavier-happy production has the effect of accentuating Hall’s increasing smugness (she’s an “All American Girl” because she wants it all — and guess what “all” rhymes with?). Get the early 2000s CD release, however, and the album transforms: revelatory extended remixes of the singles plus the full seven-minute version of “Dance On Your Knees” prove how conversant H&O were about technology. Big Bam Boom would prove a most effective sendoff; Hall would go on to a big-haired solo career (peaking with the swirling David Stewart-produced hit “Dreamtime,” a better “Don’t Come Around Here No More” than Tom Petty’s), while Oates went on to race cars, co-write Icehouse’s 1988 Top 10 “Electric Blue,” and become an undeserved laughing stock.

5. ooh yeah! (1988)

As Thomas Inskeep reminds me, listeners disappointed with H&O’s last imperial phase album thirty years ago, 1988 offered “Monkey,” many singles from INXS’ Kick, Public Enemy, Guns ‘N Roses, and lots of New Jack Swing — who on earth needed a fainthearted Scritti Politti album from H&O, especially after Scritti Politti released their own fainthearted record earlier that year and watched it flop? Look at those song titles. Only “Everything Your Heart Desires,” no doubt greased by Clive Davis’ dough, took.

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