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In an album-oriented rock era, Journey became an outstanding singles band

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Believing that both volumes of Journey’s Greatest Hits are outstanding—possibly essential—rock ’n’ roll albums means supporting three propositions, none of which are all that easy to sell to skeptics.

Proposition one: Journey is a good band

This is where a lot of folks are going to drop out and quit reading—which is perfectly understandable. For those who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and tried to think of themselves as knowledgeable, discerning music-lovers, Journey was an enemy. After a fitful start as a prog-rock act in the early ’70s, the Bay-area band followed the lead of a lot of other moderately successful American rock combos by the end of the decade, shifting focus from adventurousness to machine-tooled, radio-friendly arena anthems and power-ballads. After 1978, when big-voiced, feather-haired lead singer Steve Perry joined Journey, the group became a dominant force in what’s sometimes derisively referred to as “corporate rock.” Journey, Styx, Foreigner, Boston, REO Speedwagon… just the names conjure up images of sunglasses-wearing, cocaine-carrying major label A&R men and shady, mob-connected independent promoters, conspiring to buy airplay.

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But just because a game is rigged doesn’t always mean that the wrong team wins. Considering what Journey was trying to do—reach the cheap seats with big, heart-on-the-sleeve songs, unashamed to be emotional and obvious—the band was remarkably accomplished. Subtlety is a virtue, but it’s not the only way to go. Strictly as a matter of taste, not everyone is going to appreciate Journey’s polished, edgeless sound, or its preference for muscle over grace. Objectively speaking, though: Perry had a strong, memorable voice; guitarist Neal Schon had impressive chops; the band collectively wrote songs with good hooks and a clean flow; and producers Roy Thomas Baker, Mike Stone, and Kevin Elson worked with the arrangements to create music that still pops, decades later.

And that last point is important. There are millions of people who’d find the question “Is Journey a good band?” incomprehensible, because some of their best memories are of belting out the coda to “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” or pumping a fist to “Be Good To Yourself,” while driving through a warm summer night with the windows down and the radio up. Journey is feel-good music: catchy, uncomplicated, and often triumphant… perfect for backyard barbecues and training montages. The band’s many, many well-known songs aren’t just part of the background of American life; they’re genuinely beloved.

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Popularity isn’t a wholly adequate measure of greatness, but persistent popularity should mean something. Journey was responsible for multiple hits a year between 1978’s Infinity (which features the grand “Wheel In The Sky” and the sweet “Lights”) and 1986’s Raised On Radio (with the pleasantly mushy “Girl Can’t Help It” and “I’ll Be Alright Without You”). Thirty years later, oldies radio stations still keep a dozen or so Journey songs in heavy rotation. In the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, critic Mark Coleman wrote, “Despite the group’s popularity and undeniable influence, the memory of Journey quickly faded.” That turned out to be wishful thinking.

Proposition two: “Best of”s can be great

This is a subject where opinions have shifted dramatically over time. In the 21st century, greatest-hits collections are about as hip as three-camera sitcoms. These compilations are meant for the incurious and unserious, who don’t respect the care that an artist puts into assembling a collection of songs into a unified statement.

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But this wasn’t always the prevailing school of thought. In the ’70s, rock critics tended to dismiss live albums as cynical cash-grabs, but they appreciated a well-chosen best-of. Some of that had to do with a general disdain for the pretension of the era’s rockers, who’d make grand album-length statements that betrayed the genre’s roots in quick-and-trashy chart hits. Major pop, rock, and R&B acts were supposed to record great singles, which couldn’t be great if they didn’t stand alone.

Even in Coleman’s otherwise dismissive Rolling Stone Album Guide entry on Journey, he writes, “Greatest Hits doesn’t exactly redeem the group’s critical status as the rock anti-Christ, but it does reclaim some pleasurable moments from radio’s middle-of-the-road twilight zone.” That’s practically a rave, compared to how critics generally treated Journey.

Still, perhaps because the band positioned itself as an album-oriented act—with record sleeves that suggested an unfolding science-fiction saga, unsupported by any of the LPs’ actual music—Journey hasn’t gotten as much credit as it’s deserved for consistently turning out chart-toppers, across multiple radio formats. The original 15-song 1988 Greatest Hits—which has sold over 15 million copies—is thoughtfully assembled, bouncing back and forth between the late ’70s and early ’80s, making a case both for Journey’s eclecticism and consistency. The songs all sound like Journey songs, but they run the gamut from soft to hard, and from soulful and poppy to earnestly thumping.

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Plus, pretty much all 15 of them would be familiar to anyone who’s listened to the radio post-1978: “Only The Young,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Wheel In The Sky,” “Faithfully,” “I’ll Be Alright Without You,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Ask The Lonely,” “Who’s Crying Now,” “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” “Lights,” “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” “Open Arms,” “Girl Can’t Help It,” “Send Her My Love,” and “Be Good To Yourself” That’s not just a list of a few big hits and a handful of near-misses. That’s a set of massively popular rock ’n’ roll songs, one after another. Not many rock acts of the era could match that run.

Proposition three: Just one Journey greatest-hits album won’t do

Journey’s first Greatest Hits album contains two songs from 1978’s Infinity, one from 1979’s Evolution, one from 1980’s Departure, three from 1981’s Escape, three from 1983’s Frontiers, three from 1986’s Raised On Radio, and two songs from movie soundtracks. (Later versions of the 1988 collection tack on “When You Love A Woman,” from the 1996 reunion album Trial By Fire.) The 17-track Greatest Hits 2, released in 2011, adds three more from Infinity, one more from Evolution, three more from Departure, three more from Escape, two more from Frontiers, one more from Raised On Radio, and a few stray tracks and live performances. The second set list isn’t as unassailable as on Greatest Hits 1, but the companion collection does feature several well-liked Journey songs: “Stone In Love,” “After The Fall,” “The Party’s Over (Hopelessly In Love),” “Still They Ride,” “Anytime,” “Just The Same Way,” and “Patiently,” most notably.

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Still, wouldn’t anyone who plans to buy both Greatest Hits do just as well to buy Escape and Frontiers, since more than half of those albums are represented on these two anthologies? Not necessarily. Journey’s naysayers aren’t entirely wrong; the band did produce a lot of schlock. Ten songs in a row from the same year—filler included—doesn’t present the group to its best advantage. (The entire second side of Frontiers is pretty weak, which is probably why none of its songs made the cut for either Greatest Hits.) It’s the variety, selection, and organization that makes the two anthologies so vital.

Greatest Hits 2 continues its predecessor’s ingenious overall design, moving forward and backward freely between eras. There’s not a huge difference between ’70s Journey and ’80s Journey, though Baker’s production of the former has the bright shine and deep punch that he also brought to Queen and The Cars; while Stone and Elson (and Perry, who helmed Raised On Radio) managed the ’80s move toward synthesizers and densely packed arrangements without burying the band’s melodies. Since volume two contains more of the prog-influenced Journey material from both decades, it gives a fuller sense of where these guys came from. Anyone who can set aside anti-Journey prejudices and enjoy Greatest Hits will want Greatest Hits 2 as a necessary supplement, for its additional context (and its seven or eight more terrific mainstream rock songs).

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For some, Journey-aversion will always be impossible to overcome. Pop culture encourages us to root for the underdog, and Perry, Schon, and their mates are hardly that. Their music is ubiquitous—annoyingly so, in the case of the sports-arena favorite/Sopranos ender “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But at the same time… How many phenomenally successful rock songs from the early ’80s are as unusually structured and as overtly theatrical as “Don’t Stop Believin’?” How many arena-rock vocalists from that era could alternate between belting and crooning as seamlessly as Perry does? (Styx’s Dennis De Young tried, but even his ballads were delivered at a shout.) And how many acts have seen their best music withstand 40 years of critical drubbing without flagging much in sales?

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Time and perspective has a way of vindicating good music. Not enough people recognized what Nick Drake or Big Star had to offer when they were actually making records, but their reputation and fanbase grew eventually, and perhaps inevitably. From 1978 onward, Journey has never lacked for fans. But the perception throughout the band’s peak was that they were making disposable records, soon to be forgotten. Yet here we are in 2016, and Journey’s two dozen or so most crowd-pleasing songs haven’t been disposed of yet.

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