Ten Great Asia Songs That Never Hit the U.S. Top 40

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That’s right. I said “Ten Great Asia Songs That Never Hit the U.S. Top 40.”

I for one am sick of the near-monolithic critical disdain for the band Asia. The latest noogie is from a post titled The 15 Most Disappointing Supergroups Of All Time in this week’s NME:

Imagine how bad a supergroup consisting of old lags from King Crimson and ELP would have been. Now add in ex-members of Yes. And all of them trying to hang on to their prog-pop stylings well into the 80s. Asia, presumably, being where they should’ve been exiled to at birth.

Critics usually go even further and slag supergroups as a whole, as if it’s pre-ordained to be a bad idea each time talented musicians who made their reputations in other bands decide to band together. But Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young weren’t exactly artistic disasters. And who are we to begrudge rock veterans doing something fun on the side, e.g. the Traveling Wilburys? (It wasn’t supposed to sound like a Dylan album. It was a lark, more like Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, only making studio LPs.) If you don’t like it, let it be. At least allow that perhaps your expectations were the problem.

I’ll add that if you have a hard-bitten anti-prog bias, you have no business writing critically about a supergroup made up of prog musicians. It would be like me panning a Riverdance show: It’s really none of my business.

And Asia wasn’t meant to be Yes II, or a re-launching of ELP or King Crimson. Those bands, love ’em or hate ’em, were the original Progfathers, the ones who birthed the genre. Apparently the guys wished to do something that relaxed the prog tendencies somewhat, something more streamlined. Perhaps they wanted a piece of the Styx-Journey-Boston audience (and some of their money). Maybe (gasp!) they even wanted to be played on the radio.

And so they created a band that made four- and five-minute rock songs with layered harmonies and strong, anthemic choruses, tastefully rendered by consummate musicians. And they were almost universally reviled by critics.

But fans don’t carry around as many issues as critics–they simply like what they like. And “Heat of the Moment” is nearly as beloved by fans of 80’s pop rock as is Toto’s “Africa”. Asia’s debut album went four times platinum in the U.S. alone, and they consistently sell out concert halls in many parts of the world to this day.

With friends like that, who needs NME?

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1. “Sole Survivor”

From their debut. This one got U.S. airplay, but never dented the pop charts. It’s very cinematic, in the same 80’s sci-fi sort of way as Mike + The Mechanics’ “Silent Running”.

2. “Wildest Dreams”

Also from their first LP. If you were a fan of muscular AOR, Asia’s first delivered the goods in spades. It wasn’t the last time Geoff Downes and John Wetton would visit an anti-war theme. Again, this song never saw the pop charts, although it was played on rock stations.

3. “Summer”

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Asia was a band of many lineup changes (the original lineup only survived two albums) and by 1994 John Payne had taken over John Wetton’s duties as lead vocalist and bass player. The Payne-era albums don’t get much respect today, to say the least. And they weren’t particularly good records. But most had at least a quality track or two, such as “Summer”, which offered a strong hook of a chorus, the kind that sticks with you like one of those Foreigner ballads the radio played incessantly.

4. “Ready to Go Home”

With the band including some material from outside writers by 2001’s Payne-era Aura album, they could do a lot worse than look to Andrew Gold and 10cc alum Graham Gouldman, who wrote this gorgeous ballad. Perhaps the overlooked gem of the band’s entire repertoire, “Ready to Go Home” speaks of the end of life in a poignant way, emotional but not maudlin. This is the kind of song most rock bands wouldn’t touch; it takes balls, frankly, to sing about the surrender of earthly cares and the forgiveness of sins within the rock arena. This is the kind of song that makes Asia’s John Payne era matter. With none of the Wetton-Downes power harmony bluster Asia is known for, “Ready to Go Home” might actually be the boldest artistic statement in their catalog.

 5. “Come Make My Day”

From the same Aura album, “Come Make My Day” is just a well-delivered welterweight rock tune with a nice chorus. If the MOR rock genre isn’t for you, neither is this song. But again, if you liked bands like Foreigner and late-period .38 Special, this is right up your alley.

6. “Never Again”

In 2008 the four original members of Asia returned with a vengeance. With John Wetton back in the fold, the trademark big harmony choruses were back, and with the return of his songwriting the aptly-titled Phoenix album was the band’s best since their debut. Simply put, if you liked Asia in 1982, you’ll like Phoenix.

7. “Alibis”

Of all the tracks on Phoenix, “Alibis” most made you want to check the date on the back of the CD, as it perfectly recaptured the “Heat of the Moment” sound. It’s like the years 1983-2007 never happened.

8. “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà”

This 8-minute epic in three parts allowed the guys to “prog out” a little. Carl Palmer and Steve Howe in particular get to show some chops here, but all in tasteful service of the song.

9. “An Extraordinary Life”

Yes, I realize four of these ten songs are from the Phoenix album, and yes, it’s that good. If the album had a potential single, this album-closer was probably it. With Wetton having come through some serious troubles with alcohol and recent major heart surgery, this song had to have real meaning for him, and it comes through in the lyric and performance: a simple statement of appreciation for life from a man who’d nearly lost his in more ways than one.

10. “Holy War”

All four original members reconvened for another strong album with 2010’s Omega, and its lead track is certainly one of the best songs the band has ever recorded. Again, it’s a sound, and theme, straight from Asia circa 1982. Their platinum-selling days are long behind them, of course. But musically at least, Asia was one band that accomplished the ultra-rare feat of a credible return to their glory years of decades earlier.

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See also:

Ten Great Hollies Songs That Never Hit the U.S. Top 40

Ten Great Irish Rovers Songs that Aren’t ‘The Unicorn’

Ten Great Proclaimers Songs that Aren’t ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’

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