Outside of classic karaoke numbers like “Cold As Ice”, “Jukebox Hero”, and “I Want to Know What Love Is”, young folks these days may not fully comprehend that Foreigner, at its peak, was one of the most popular bands on the planet, and, to this day, remain one of the 100 best-selling acts in all of recorded music. (The band has sold more than The Doors, but not as much as Van Halen, to put it in perspective).
Of course, being labelmates with the likes of Led Zeppelin certainly didn’t hurt matters, and Foreigner’s 1977 self-titled debut wound up moving more units than Zeppelin’s own Presence in the States. This might be a bit of a backhanded victory, but it was more than enough for Atlantic to try and build Foreigner up into something era-defining in its own right. The group’s debut single, “Feels Like the First Time”, climbed all the way to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. As time played on, Foreigner proved to be one of the most reliable singles outfits of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Nowadays, decades removed from Foreigner’s popularity, Rhino Records is releasing the group’s complete Atlantic studio albums in a nice little bundle, each disc a carry-over from a 2002 CD reissue campaign. Each album is given a small little sleeve and absolutely nothing in the way of new material; the bonus tracks on the first four LPs are carryovers from those reissues. For just a shade under $35, it is a great way to get the band’s complete discography at a bargain-basement price, but the real question is why should you bother to get that when there are numerous single-disc best-of compilations available that can achieve the same effect?
While 1982’s Records has moved seven million units all on its own, that compilation landed right after the monster-hit that was 1981’s 4 and a short while before 1984’s Agent Provocateur yielded smashes like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and 1987’s Inside Information generated a pair of Top 10 numbers all its own, most notably the soft-rock schmaltz of “I Don’t Want to Live Without You”. Thus, many others opt out for 1992’s greatest hits set The Very Best… and Beyond, which rounds up those hits and completely disregards 1991’s dealbreaker that was Unusual Heat, a bomb of a record that also signaled the departure of founding vocalist Lou Gramm.
In truth, while The Very Best… and Beyond does an excellent job of rounding up just about every major Foreigner hit you can ever need for your iTunes library, the deeper treasures of Foreigner’s not-at-all-complicated discography can be summed up in two albums, which, ironically, are its major career bookends: that self-titled debut and Unusual Heat.
Foreigner the album was a completely different beast from every disc that followed after it, because not only does this younger, long-haired incarnation of the band sound hungry to prove its worth, but principal songwriter Mick Jones was not afraid to add a bit of theatricality to his songs, “Cold As Ice” moving with a Broadway pomp that would later be replaced with equal parts testosterone and saccharine sweetness. Yet even with “Cold as Ice” and “Feels Like the First Time” defining the set, it was artier, almost folkier fare like “Starrider” and the casual creep of “The Damage is Done” that really showcased a group that was in full control of its pop music abilities. Certainly, “Woman Oh Woman” started skirting into cheesy ballad territory (that lead synth line has not aged well at all), but forgotten rockers like the fiery “I Need You” showed a band that could paint its songs in many different styles while still retaining its own sense of identity all the way through. No, Foreigner isn’t a perfect album, but all these years later, it still remains an entertaining listen, and a wonderful document of what ’70s rock looked like in a landscape that was already being shaped with album-oriented acts and AM radio stations that pushed for a much more self-serious brand of pop music.
However, with 1978’s Double Vision, the band stopped focusing on what made a good album and began working more towards focusing on what singles worked. Certainly, tracks like “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision” helped set the band apart on the radio when Van Halen was rising in popularity as well — and boy howdy, did the two bands run neck-and-neck at times in these early years. However, the gloomy “Tramontane” and the rewrite of “The Damage is Done” that was “Spellbinder” did little to expand the band’s sound so much as it was a pushing of its existing abilities into more commercial shapes. Sure, “Blue Morning, Blue Day” was a minor hit, but people kept coming back to the album for those still-buried wonders like the shimmering acoustic wonder that was “Back Where You Belong”. Even with Foreigner’s singles absolutely obliterating everything else on radio, it was satisfying to hear the group still work on some quiet pop wonders all its own, tucking them away on its discs so buyers didn’t feel like the only good numbers on there were the singles.
Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns sets in at this point, and despite the thundering strut of opener “Dirty White Boy”, most of Head Games has not held up well over time. The album truly feels like the band was beginning to lap itself artistically, adding little new to its existing formulas. Sure, “Women” had a strut that was absent from past two Foreigner discs, but “Seventeen” and the paint-by-numbers rock of “Rev on the Red Line” (which was inexplicably included on The Very Best… and Beyond) showed that Foreigner began running out of new tricks to show us. Despite 1981’s 4 being Foreigner’s all-time best-selling studio disc, “Night Life” remains a remarkably limp album opener and “Break It Up” tries so hard to recreate the ornate nature of “Cold As Ice” but ends up turning into AM meat-rock. The disc’s flipside again features more “generic Foreigner tracks”, the group having officially stopped trying to be innovators and instead settling into the role of mere craftsmen. The group proved only capable of churning out anthemic wonders like “Juke Box Hero” and the lovely bouncer that was “Urgent” while then rounding out the rest of its LPs with nothing but filler. Sure, it was high-grade filler; only a few numbers here and there could be construed as outright failures, a majority of which are housed on Agent Provocateur. A listen to most any post-’70s Foreigner album clearly indicates what was intended as a single and what was not.
While Inside Information grooved out to some new synth textures (“Face to Face”, the surprisingly underrated if irreparably dated “Heart Turns to Stone”), tracks like “Counting Every Minute” truly felt forced and rehashed, which is why, despite not featuring any notable hit singles to its name, 1991’s Lou Gramm-less Unusual Heat is truly one of the most surprising discoveries in Foreigner’s discography. Here Foreigner loosens itself up from strict writing-for-radio guidelines; for example, the opening trill of “Only Heaven Knows” actually reveals a chorus that recalls the open-air warmth of its debut. As the rest of Unusual Heat plays out, the group shows actual grit (“Lowdown and Dirty”), a reinvigorated sense of six-string fun (“Moment of Truth”), and passes at power-balladry (“Ready for the Rain”) that don’t sound as hokey as they did on Agent Provocateur. Despite the group getting dropped from Atlantic following Unusual Heat‘s dismal sales, fans that can look past the lack of Gramm have found this to be an astoundingly underrated gem in the great Foreigner story.
Ultimately, after Foreigner became enamored with its own success, it stopped trying as hard as it did on that wonderful-if-flawed debut disc, happy to top the charts with increasingly-vanilla ballads and filler-filled latter-day efforts. Unusual Heat had something to prove, just as Foreigner did, and while there are some incredible pop singles scattered in-between those discs, Foreigner’s discography doesn’t age as strongly as some would be lead to believe. Nevertheless, the crank-up-your-dial classics sometimes more than makes up for it. There are some true gems to be found scattered about on those early discs, and for those up for the challenge of finding them, The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums 1977-1991 is worth the head games it’ll play with you. For everyone else, The Very Best… and Beyond will be the disc you don’t want to live without.