Underrated Styx: The Most Overlooked Song From Each Album
Few bands in rock history have such a carefully written and precisely arranged catalog of songs as Styx.
The Chicago-based group blends rock, pop and prog elements into a seamless whole that maintains a remarkably high standard across the majority of its albums, despite wandering around stylistically in a manner that few of its commercial peers can match. That fact makes it remarkably difficult to choose the most underrated song on each of Styx’ studio albums – because there are quite a few undiscovered gems on almost every album they’ve recorded.
Styx began their recording career as an Americanized pop-rock response to British progressive rock, but most of their biggest hits were an amalgam of straight-ahead rock and vocal-oriented pop elements. That approach yielded a run of classic hits that includes “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Babe,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Mr. Roboto” and more, but some of the best tracks on each Styx album are mostly unknown to casual listeners.
Below, we uncover a musical feast that touches on classical music, hard rock, blues, ballads and just about everything in between. Styx have something for everyone, especially if you dig deeper into their catalog.
“What Has Come Between Us”
From: Styx (1972)
Styx’ self-titled debut album presents far too few flashes of the band’s actual abilities, both as musicians and especially as songwriters. Styx singer and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung and lead guitarist and singer James “JY” Young collaborated on “Best Thing,” which Wooden Nickel Records – a small RCA subsidiary – released as the group’s first-ever single, which reached No. 82 on Billboard’s Hot 100. They also participated in the album’s opening suite, “Movement for the Common Man,” but the balance of the rest of the tracks on Styx come from outside writers and don’t represent the band’s collective talents very well. Credited to songwriter Mark Gaddis, “What Has Come Between Us” is the only song on the album that points to the band's stylistic future, balancing DeYoung’s inimitable singing style against the powerful electric guitars, classically inspired keyboard solos and blaring vocal triads that would become the group’s signature sound.
From: Styx II (1973)
Styx sound like an entirely different band on their sophomore effort, for which they wrote their own songs. DeYoung and guitarist and singer John Curulewski wrote all the songs, and Styx II would eventually go on to score the group its first hit with the prototypical power ballad “Lady.” And while that song for all practical purposes invents the band’s sound on the spot with its balance of classical elements, distorted guitars and stacked vocals, another DeYoung composition titled “Father OSA” is the real hidden gem of the album. Preceded by a pipe organ arrangement of a Bach fugue that DeYoung recorded at the Cathedral of St. James in Chicago, “Father OSA” was inspired by an alcoholic priest the band members knew. The song’s grand arrangement balances electric guitar power chords, pipe organ fills and solos and choir-like harmonies, topped off by twin harmony lead guitars in a way that borrows from Styx’ prog-rock roots but forces them to serve the structure of an actual song. Though DeYoung is still singing with the trace of a faux British accent here, he is also beginning to emerge as one of the most distinctive American rock vocalists of the era.
From: The Serpent Is Rising (1973)
Styx essentially turned right around and squandered any ground they had gained from Styx II with the late-1973 release of The Serpent Is Rising. An early attempt at a quasi-conceptual album, the album is all over the map from a musical perspective, offering a bizarre mix of straight hard rock, early metal, acoustic blues, novelty songs and spoken word, all of it presented in the worst audio quality of any Styx album. The highlight of the album is a fun piece of straight-ahead guitar-driven boogie titled “22 Years,” which Curulewski wrote as an ode to having found the woman he would go on to marry. DeYoung and Young trade lead vocals and harmonize on the song, which also featured trade-off guitar solo between Curulewski and Young. “22 Years” was one of the few songs from Styx’s years with Wooden Nickel that would stay in the set list after the band transitioned to A&M and brought in Tommy Shaw to replace Curulewski.
From: Man of Miracles (1974)
Man of Miracles offers a turn in a better musical direction, though it’s still nowhere near as focused as the best of Styx’s work. There are several standout tracks, including a pair that finds Young flirting with Southern rock, but the brightest spot of the album is DeYoung’s “Evil Eyes,” a dark, dramatic fusion of exceptionally skillful classical piano, heavy rock guitar chords and a masterfully melodic bass line from Chuck Panozzo. DeYoung is learning to fully exploit his vibrato here, as well as his unusual ability to hold long, sustained notes with a pure, full tone. He delivers one of the better pure vocal performances from the early Styx catalog on this gem.
“Born for Adventure”
From: Equinox (1975)
The jump from Man of Miracles to Equinox may be one of the biggest quantum leaps forward in rock music history. Leaving Wooden Nickel and signing with A&M after “Lady” finally gave them a national break, Styx came out swinging on a masterpiece of an album that finally brought together all of the best elements of their songwriting, signature vocals and instrumentation in one place, with significantly better sound quality than any previous release. “Light Up,” “Lorelei” and especially “Suite Madame Blue” are the most familiar songs from the album, but almost any other track could qualify as an underrated classic. The best of these is “Born for Adventure,” which would mark the last time DeYoung, Young and Curulewski would collaborate as songwriters. DeYoung comes out from behind the keyboards for a turn as a rock frontman for this swashbuckling tale of “women, whiskey and sin,” highlighted by jaw-dropping harmonized guitar solos. The song became a highlight of Styx’s live shows, in which DeYoung engaged in an onstage swordfight.
From: Crystal Ball (1976)
Crystal Ball represents an enormous career shift for Styx. Curulewski quit the band after Equinox, and they hired Alabama native Tommy Shaw to take his place. Shaw made an extensive contribution to his first Styx album as a singer, guitarist and songwriter, including the album’s title song and several collaborations with DeYoung. But his collaboration with Young on ”Shooz” marks the most underrated song on Crystal Ball, featuring a focus solely on the bluesy, straight-ahead rock guitar-driven side of the band. Shaw delivers a blistering lead vocal, while he and Young trade solos on the track’s midsection, marking the only song during the formative era of Styx that allowed Shaw the chance to show off his exceptional slide-guitar capabilities.
From: The Grand Illusion (1977)
The Grand Illusion marked Styx’s transition from opening act to headliners and from aspiring stars to superstars. The album rocketed the band to widespread fame, scoring hits with DeYoung’s epic “Come Sail Away” and Shaw’s progressive opus “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” while Young’s “Miss America” and DeYoung’s title song have also earned longstanding airplay over the years. The Grand Illusion is an album that can stand track-for-track alongside any album from any classic-rock band of the era, but the true lost classic is DeYoung’s “Castle Walls.” Centered on sinister-sounding synth and bass lines and one of DeYoung’s most haunting vocal performances, the epic track is a showcase for everything that’s special about Styx, from their blaring vocal triads to a jaw-dropping instrumental interlude in the middle of the song that gives way to a blazing guitar solo by Young. Shaw’s jazzy clean guitar runs are the icing on the cake.
“Queen of Spades”
From: Pieces of Eight (1978)
In many ways, Pieces of Eight is somewhat of a musical companion piece to The Grand Illusion, continuing much in the same vein. Shaw scored both of the hits from the album with “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade,” while DeYoung and Young’s collaboration on “Queen of Spades” is the hidden gem on the LP. The track is a guitar tour de force for Young, who begins it with a twangy, clean guitar figure that gives way to a brutal electric rock riff. Young shows off his flamboyant lead-guitar chops on a fleet-fingered solo mid-song and ends the track with an unaccompanied piece featuring flashy open-string runs. It would be a live favorite for decades. DeYoung’s vocal runs the gamut from melodic to maniacal on a song that’s meant to be a cautionary tale about gambling, topped with a psychotic laugh and the admonition, “You lose!”
“Love in the Midnight”
From: Cornerstone (1979)
Cornerstone will forever be a source of debate between both the members of Styx and factions in their fan base. The album is a dramatic step away from the rocked-up quasi prog-rock they had been doing and into a more pop-rock, song-based style. That resulted in the group’s sole No. 1 hit, “Babe,” but there were also growing divisions in the band that briefly resulted in DeYoung getting fired before ultimately returning. The album is less cohesive and features less in the way of true collaboration, but there are still a number of bright spots. The most underrated song from Cornerstone also happens to be the one that most resembles their previous output: Shaw’s album-closing “Love in the Midnight.” Premised around an acoustic 12-string verse and massive slabs of electric power chords in the chorus, the song also features a sinister atonal chant section that gives way to a mind-bending instrumental break. Shaw delivers an affecting vocal in a confessional song about sexual compulsion and searing regret.
From: Paradise Theatre (1981)
Paradise Theatre marks a return to form for Styx - a much more cohesive, group-driven effort than Cornerstone. The new material finds the band returning to a harder rock sound while seamlessly incorporating elements of pop, balladry, new wave, metal and more in a timely sociopolitical narrative that takes on America in steep decline. DeYoung and Shaw scored a pair of pop hits with “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands,” respectively, but Paradise Theatre is yet another Styx album on which almost every other track is a lost classic. The best of these is “Half-Penny, Two-Penny,” a dark, cynical take on a society in free fall, corrupted by the pursuit of money and power to such a degree that its initial intent has been almost entirely lost. Young gives a sneering vocal performance over a progressive hard-rock track, while Shaw delivers the killing blow with a wah-wah guitar solo that represents one of the high-water marks of his career.
“Just Get Through This Night”
From: Kilroy Was Here (1983)
Few albums of the rock era have been as critically maligned as Kilroy Was Here. Either a visionary, ahead-of-its-time pop-rock masterpiece or a musical and conceptual train wreck that destroyed one of the last great bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, depending on whom you believe, the album represents a dramatic shift in direction for Styx, diving headfirst into the more synth-driven pop-rock of the early ‘80s. DeYoung scored a pair of hits in “Mr. Roboto” and “Don’t Let It End,” and while Shaw and Young would both later decry the album, both of them made standout contributions. The best of those is Shaw’s “Just Get Through This Night,” a magnum pop opus that served as an over-the-top showcase for every facet of Shaw’s talents. He is the sole writer on the song, and he also contributed an experimental passage recorded with a three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument called a shamisen to the intro and an equally experimental guitar solo to the song’s midsection. Shaw tops off the track by delivering what may well be the best vocal performance of his recorded career.
“All in a Day’s Work”
From: Edge of the Century (1990)
After a long break, Styx returned changed with Edge of the Century, a glossy pop-rock album that’s very much a product of its era. Shaw did not participate in the reunion album, replaced by New Jersey-based singer-songwriter Glen Burtnik, who contributed greatly to the project. Burtnik wrote and sang the lead single, “Love Is the Ritual,” as well as the title song; he also cowrote one of the album’s hits, the adult contemporary ballad “Love at First Sight.” While Edge of the Century is memorable primarily for the hit ballad “Show Me the Way,” it’s a collaboration between Burtnik and Dennis DeYoung that delivers the standout track. “All in a Day’s Work” draws on both men’s shared interest in the Beatles. Burtnik contributes a progression that plays on his interest in unusual chord spellings, while he and DeYoung harmonize closely, a la Lennon and McCartney. The song became a highlight of Styx’s live shows, allowing DeYoung to break out his accordion for some adept fills and solos. That’s also DeYoung whistling the main solo in the break.
From: Brave New World (1999)
Shaw returned to Styx for their next studio album, Brave New World, but the project turned out not to be the magical reunion fans had hoped for. John Panozzo died in 1996, and Chicago-born Todd Sucherman came in to replace him. Chuck Panozzo was dealing with health issues of his own, and Glen Burtnik played uncredited bass parts on some of the tracks. Brave New World is overly long and consists of disjointed tracks that DeYoung worked on by himself, while Shaw and Young worked on theirs separately in a different studio in an entirely different city. Still, there are some genuinely solid moments amid the clutter, including a track by DeYoung that stands up to the very best of anything he’s recorded. “Goodbye Roseland” is an emotional, piano-driven ballad that’s a rumination on the passage of time and the loss of innocence, using the Roseland area of Chicago where he grew up as a metaphor for everything that life slowly takes away. The closing track of Brave New World, the song stands as a haunting elegy to the end of an era in Styx: DeYoung would be fired from the group after the album, and the masterful track marks his final contribution to the band.
“These Are the Times”
From: Cyclorama (2003)
Cyclorama marked the beginning of a new lineup of Styx. With DeYoung gone, the band brought in Canadian singer and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who already had several years of touring with Styx under his belt by the time they headed back into the studio. Glen Burtnik returned to Styx for Cyclorama, this time playing bass, and while both he and Gowan turned in some strong tracks, the most underrated song on Cyclorama came mostly from Young, who cowrote one of the strongest songs in his repertoire in “These Are the Times,” a piece that’s credited to the group collectively. Originally begun as a song about an intervention for John Panozzo, the song evolved after the death of Young’s own brother, and it’s an unusually sensitive, introspective piece from the hard-rocking guitarist - a rumination on life, death and the ones in your life that you can truly count on. Musically, the song marks a return to the progressive rock Styx had explored during their ‘70s heyday, with a 12-string acoustic intro, as well as a dramatic musical and vocal chorale interlude mid-song.
From: The Mission (2017)
The Mission once again brought change to Styx. Shaw worked primarily with an outside writer, Will Evankovich, on many of the tracks, and Chuck Panozzo plays bass on just one song, while former Babys member Ricky Phillips serves as the group’s full-time bassist. The album is a conceptual sci-fi work lyrically centered on an exploratory mission to Mars in the year 2033; the music is a full-on return to the progressive rock Styx had mined so successfully in the ‘70s. The most underrated track is “Red Storm,” which Shaw and Evankovich cowrote. The track weaves in and out of an atmospheric acoustic guitar riff and a harder rock motif, and it features several instrumental high points, as well as Pink Floyd-like sound effects and a guitar solo that’s reminiscent of Queen. Gowan tops it off by offering up an expert synthesizer solo.