After navigating a series of commercial peaks and valleys from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, Trinidad native Billy Ocean (born Leslie Charles) rocketed to international mega-stardom in 1984. A steady string of top-ten crossover singles such as "Suddenly," "Caribbean Queen," "There'll Be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry)" and "When the Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)" cemented his appeal as a soulful crooner just as at ease with uptempo power-pop anthems as he was with heartfelt R&B ballads.
Countless CD's chronicling various chapters of Ocean's long-running career have been issued since the late 1990s. Columbia/Legacy's new Playlist collection aims to give listeners a clear overview of "not just the hits...but the life-changing songs," according to the project's accompanying booklet. The result is a nicely rounded package that includes essential hits from his prime record-breaking period (1984-1989), as well as a couple of earlier efforts that made considerable chart strides but often get overlooked in general discussions of his catalog.
Playlist doesn't sequence Ocean's hits chronologically, which makes for an interesting showcase of the singer-songwriter's musical diversity. The first three selections are uptempo drivers—"Caribbean Queen," "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car," and "When the Going Gets Tough"—which all cracked the top-five of both the R&B and Pop charts in the U.S. As a co-writer of all of his material, Ocean displays his penchant for buoyant lyrical themes and energetic melodies alongside colorful chord progressions on these tunes. The fourth track, the symphonically tinged "There'll Be Sad Songs," contrastingly presents his ability to mellifluously wrap his voice around soul-searching phrases. The grand string arrangements and glistening keys accentuate this sincerity with equally intense emotion. No sooner has the guitar-driven "Loverboy" picked up steam before the contemplative "Suddenly"—a wedding favorite—again sets a much slower and more serious mood.
Subsequently, 1976's "Love Really Hurts Without You" gives a brief glimpse into the first chapter of Ocean's solo career. The heavily Motown-influenced dancer was the first of a string of consecutive hits for him in the U.K.; but corporate shuffling prevented most of that material from being reasonably promoted in the States. It's then interesting to listen (six cuts later) to the bustling, jazzy funk strains of 1981's "Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)," which served for many in the U.S. R&B record-buying public as their official introduction to the name "Billy Ocean"—and the rich voice accompanying it. The classic tale of letting loose from daily struggles by venturing out to Funkytown struck a major chord both on radio and in discotheques. The machine behind the release, however, was once again not fully operational, and it would be three years before Ocean found his way to Jive Records and finally established his long-deserved reputation as a consistent hit-maker.
In between "Love Really Hurts" and "Nights," Playlist further surveys the smooth and pensive shades of Ocean's '80s catalog, ranging from the heart-tugging "Love Is Forever" to the enchanting, midtempo "Mystery Lady." The title track from 1986's Love Zone LP is perfect evidence of the credibility he had with across-the-board audiences. The percolating R&B shuffle, midnight-love lyrics, and fusion-inspired keyboard stylings of producers Barry J. Eastmond and Wayne Brathwaite were far in feel from the usual suspects domineering American pop charts then. But that's just what Ocean and his collaborators accomplished, as they scored a #1 R&B, #5 adult-contemporary, and #10 pop single. At the helm of the ship, Ocean's suave, yet reassuring, vocal delivery gave the romantic jam universal appeal.
A sticker affixed to the Playlist casing reads, "The hits plus the fan favorites." This claim is not fully accurate, as there are a few of the latter missing—1977's "Red Light Spells Danger" is an unfortunate omission, and the lack of any numbers from 1982's Inner Feelings and 1993's Time to Move On is rather surprising. Still, for Gen-Y'ers who have heard reference to Ocean in songs by Outkast and Ryan Leslie, this collection provides a satisfying overview of most of the tunes that gave him his legendary status. It also demonstrates the vocal and compositional prowess that likely would have made him a consistently selling artist akin to Jeffrey Osborne and James Ingram had he not voluntarily left the industry for a decade. As he has since returned to recording (most recently with 2013's Here You Are), this Playlist release is an ideal vehicle for past fans to become reacquainted with the stylistic finesse that makes Billy Ocean a timeless talent. Recommended.
by Justin Kantor