STYX 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection
Photo: Cover of STYX 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection

Snow Blinded: My 15 Favorite Styx Songs

Progressive rock, arena rock, romantic ballads: Styx’s catalog presents an enviable chain of success, one that still yields surprises 50 years later.

If any rock band has shadowed me throughout life, it would have to be Styx. From an early age with zero music taste to late middle age with far too much, Styx has somehow managed to ‘stix’ around. Along the way, singer Dennis DeYoung and company careened from their cover-heavy debut (Styx, 1972) to poor man’s Yes imitators (The Serpent Is Rising, 1973) to synthesizer-heavy arena rock (The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, 1977/78) to chart-topping romantic balladeers (Cornerstone with #1 smash “Babe”, 1979) and worldwide pop superstars (Paradise Theatre, 1981). They finally closed out their glory days with an ill-advised concept album and tour, spawning two massive US hits (Kilroy Was Here, 1983). All this came before 1990’s Edge of the Century LP and its unexpected #3 single, “Show Me the Way”.

With such a fascinating career path, it’s no wonder Styx still command our interest. Like other notable acts with seismic personnel changes (Rush, Genesis), replacing John Curulewski with Tommy Shaw in 1976 irrevocably altered their trajectory, arguably inventing late 1970s arena rock on the spot. Styx’s extensive catalog represents an enviable chain of success that still yields surprises even after so many years of listening.

If you’re looking for monster singles, you won’t find many here. This list is personal to the core: a deep dive into our longest-running musical love affair, merging a half-century of experience with zero regard for popular acclaim. Best of all? As of this moment, not even I know for sure which track will come out on top.

15. “Mademoiselle” (Crystal Ball – 1976)

We begin with Tommy Shaw’s initial Styx foray, yielding a minor Top 40 hit. 1976’s Crystal Ball remains one of our undying mid-1970s favorites, a record of haunting if unrequited depth. One can instantly taste Shaw’s pop-savvy impact as he and DeYoung craft a pining ode to Euro-centric sophistication that still tingles with romantic zest. “Mademoiselle” sighs and recedes like a baby’s breath, drawing the listener into a maze of nostalgic longing. A contemporary Cash Box review claimed the track “successfully borrows a strong Queen sound – the guitar and vocal harmonies sound especially familiar”. Sorry, but we call bullshit: early Styx hits like “Lady” (released mid-1973) rocked this style over a year before “Killer Queen” ever crossed the Atlantic.

14. “Lorelei” (Equinox – 1975)

Hearing “Lorelei’s” twinkling keyboard intro today, one might easily hark back to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” for inspiration, if not outright theft. Such a brazen homage hardly detracts from this sparkling minor hit, which reached #27 on the US pop chart in early 1976. Besides being one of the most beautiful names in our language, “Lorelei” (‘Murmuring Rock’ in German) builds from that mesmerizing intro into a classic early Styx rocker. Young and Curulewski layer their potent lead and rhythm guitars like a cat’s cradle, flaming out with a wraparound, cathedral-esque vocal finale. We get that no one makes music like this anymore; what we don’t understand is why nobody wants to.

13. “Best Thing” (Styx – 1972)

At their label’s suggestion (or insistence), Styx borrowed most of the material on their 1972 debut. All the sweeter that “Best Thing”, that album’s sole indigenous concoction, not only reached #82 on the US chart but remains an unmitigated pop pleasure fifty years later. Curulewski’s strummed guitar and DeYoung’s propulsive organ frame the verses, with guitarist James Young brandishing unexpectedly tender pipes on the delicate vocal bridge. Queen-like, you say? Try again – for the umpteenth time, Styx beat Queen’s debut onto the shelves by nearly a year. So if “Best Thing’s” stacked harmonies and wailing solos remind you of a certain royal British band, we suggest you build a time machine and reverse course.

12. “As Bad As This” (The Serpent Is Rising – 1973)

Regular readers know my inexplicable passion for this schlocky LP orphan. Despite band members’ defamation, The Serpent Is Rising sounds far more inspired today than the band gave itself credit for. Curulewski’s searing acoustic dirge “As Bad as This” is a sterling example, expertly channeling Stephen Stills’ suicidal “4+20” from 1970’s Deja Vu to a similar plane-crash effect. I adore “Bad’s” exuberant, counter-intuitive ‘rising sun’ bridge (around 2:00), so unlike the roof-jumping mood before and after. Typical for Serpent, the song then segues into the notorious unlisted track “Plexiglas Toilet” – a calypso Mexican poop-parody beloved by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and featured on Dr. Demento’s radio show. Eccentric? Disorienting? Sure. But this ‘anything goes, no guardrails’ mentality is precisely what early 1970s rock and roll was supposed to be all about.

11. “Queen of Spades” (Pieces of Eight – 1978)

The push-pull songwriting dynamic between DeYoung, Shaw, and James Young produced plenty of sonic tension, along with some of Styx’s most captivating tracks. Apart from hits “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man”, two straightforward Shaw compositions, 1978’s Pieces of Eight remains an overwrought, misguided mess. My sole unheralded exception is the eerie and schizophrenic “Queen of Spades”, in which Young’s caffeinated riffs and John Panozzo’s best drum performance subjugate DeYoung’s over-cultivated Broadway shtick into a roaring, bile-infused powerhouse. The coiled baseline progression spooks us to this day, bringing back more than a few old heartaches – and the long-forgotten Black Widows who spurred them.

10. “Prelude 12 / Suite Madame Blue” (Equinox – 1975)

“Suite Madame Blue’s” instrumental lead-in, “Prelude 12”, was contributed by Curulewski for his final Styx recording. It meshes quite well with the first section of DeYoung’s chiming opus. But the magic in “Suite Madame Blue” resides in its red, white, and blue “America!” finale, released just one year before the Bicentennial. DeYoung’s fluttering keyboard crescendo segues into Young’s blasting guitar and some mind-altering group harmonization. According to DeYoung on, “‘Suite Madame Blue’ is not so much a celebration of America but rather an honest assessment of everything that America stands for, both good and bad.” By meeting the country almost exactly halfway, DeYoung proves very little has changed in the 50 years since.

9. “This Old Man” (Crystal Ball – 1976)

DeYoung’s core songwriting style shifted radically at least three times throughout his Styx career. According to VH1’s “Styx: Behind the Music” episode, his later penchant for romantic ballads like Cornerstone’s “Babe” and especially “First Time” sowed plenty of friction within the group. (As a friend once observed – if you complain about the guy writing #1 ballads, you’re in the wrong band.) “This Old Man” is an excellent pre-“Come Sail Away” example of DeYoung at his mystical best, roaming dexterously from gentle medieval guitar licks to classic Styx overload and then back again. Check out the wispy ‘tick-tock’ bridge at 2:40 to hear his unique creative juices in action.

8. “A Day” (Styx II – 1973)

John Curulewski departed Styx in late 1975, succumbing to a brain aneurysm at age 37. When he left the band, he took most of Styx’s progressive-rock inclinations with him, like those found on this sprawling, eight-minute pastoral odyssey. “A Day” was Curulewski’s very first composition for Styx – a languorous summer afternoon in the woods, spiced with lilting harmonies and a jazzy organ/guitar bridge. Granted, everybody and their mother dabbled in progressive rock back then. But “A Day” maintains its bucolic mood so well, melding ELP’s “From the Beginning” plucked guitar with King Crimson-style piano noodling to bring the song home.

7. “Father O.S.A.” (Styx II – 1973)

This second Styx II entry proves absolutely nothing about the album itself. Aside from “A Day” and the surprise hit “Lady”, Styx’s second LP is woefully under-cooked and larded with disposable journeyman rock songs. But the glorious “Father O.S.A.” is a true keeper – an ambitious attempt at epic storytelling, far more enlightened and mature than one might expect from a sophomore effort. Forced pretension defined early 1970s art-rock, and true to form, a whispery keyboard interpretation of Bach’s “Little Fugue in G” introduces the song. Then “Father O.S.A.” shoots for the stars, with a soaring pipe organ, harmonized “bom-bom-boms”, and a melodramatic guitar riff well worthy of imitation. DeYoung clearly laid maximum effort into this exhilarating composition, which sounds so strikingly different from his later romanticized oeuvre.

6. “Too Much Time on My Hands” (Paradise Theatre – 1981)

Paradise Theatre (1981) didn’t rack up multiple #1 hits like contemporaries Thriller or Purple Rain. But its cultural rock impact was enormous – endless AOR airplay, three weeks at #1, and DeYoung’s “The Best of Times” headlining every junior- and senior high school prom for the Class of 1981, ours included. “Too Much Time on My Hands” has proven itself the “Sunset Boulevard” / “Tropic Thunder” of the music industry, lambasting its own rarefied milieu with dripping cynicism and the unwanted, unvarnished truth. The lyrics are a nonstop parade of incisive barstool imagery backed by DeYoung’s asylum keyboard metronome. “Too Much Time” ostensibly references an unemployed alcoholic, but Shaw’s scathing lament gains a lot more traction when viewed from the perspective of a jaded rock superstar. “I got dozens of friends and the fun never ends / That is, as long as I’m buying!” Get in line, pal.

5. “The Grove of Eglantine” (The Serpent Is Rising – 1973)

Our second offering from this bizarre, maligned little album, “The Grove of Eglantine”, is indisputably the best song on The Serpent Is Rising, perhaps even an undiscovered art-rock classic (gulp). “Eglantine” sounds proggy yet muscular, more Trilogy-era ELP than Yes, with trademark Styx harmonies and one of the spookiest bridges in early 1970s rock. (That DeYoung was singing about a woman’s nether regions never occurred to this innocent ten-year-old fan.) Dumping on Serpent has become something of a cottage industry, a lost cause among lost causes. But “Eglantine” captures something extraordinary from the vintage progressive-rock era, and we’ll carry its spurned torch all the way.

4. “Snowblind” (Paradise Theatre – 1981)

Without question, the scariest song on this list, 1981’s “Snowblind”,” broadcasts cocaine’s primal siren song from Styx’s inside angle. But this is also a fascinating, well-constructed slice of subversive pop, rising and fading from verse to verse with hypnotic complexity. Four times, Shaw yells, “Snowblind! Snowblind! Snowblind!”, segueing each chorus into a wildly different solo or progression – including the fadeout, which may be one of the most gorgeous harmonics of the decade. Hilariously, in the early 1980s, Fun Police tried to convince the world that Styx embedded backward Satanic messages in the song. Talk about missing the forest for the trees! Those Puritan ninnies never understood that the powdery truth was far more horrifying.

3. “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (The Grand Illusion – 1977)

You’re probably wondering why it took so long for The Grand Illusion to raise its pretty head. Simple: Along with Kansas’ Leftoverture, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Rush’s Moving Pictures, and Boston’s debut, Styx’s 1977 popular breakthrough was one of five ‘formative’ rock records for late 1970s adolescents, taking its rightful place near the top of this list. “Come Sail Away” was relentlessly overplayed through the years, but #29 single “Fooling Yourself” retains every ounce of its ecstatic, shimmering freshness. Brimming with keyboard flourishes and complex time signatures, Shaw supposedly wrote the song about bandmate DeYoung’s success-wary persona. We’ve seen Styx perform “Fooling Yourself” onstage twice, and it remains the most crystalline, pristine-sounding live performance this reviewer has ever heard.

2. “Crystal Ball” (Crystal Ball – 1976)

“Lady” was a huge hit, and 1975’s Equinox was a decent record. But the arena-rock Styx of worldwide acclaim sprang into being one year later with Crystal Ball, especially newcomer Shaw’s effervescent, self-aware title track. The songwriting behind “Crystal Ball” was so focused and confident that this new spotlight-grabbing version of Styx never looked back. But we can. Fifty million album sales later, this song was where it all came together. Frontier 12-string guitar and cowboy-cadence drums, a la the Moody Blues’ immortal “Nights in White Satin”, bracket a superstar-worthy chorus as cathartic as any of its era. Once this track was in the can, we picture Shaw’s bandmates bouncing off the studio walls in celebration.

1. “Man in the Wilderness” (The Grand Illusion – 1977)

It takes chutzpah to defy conventional wisdom on these lists (or so we tell ourselves), especially at the very top. Tommy Shaw supposedly wrote “Man in the Wilderness” after catching a live Kansas performance in Detroit, making the song’s provenance even more delicious to us old-school Leftoverture fanatics. Five decades removed, this roving yet watertight rock and roll pilgrimage continues to reveal new wonders. Presaging Shaw’s “Too Much Time on My Hands”, the song plays like a wracking inner journey, dragging the listener through every manner of isolation imaginable. “Wilderness” boasts an unforgettable James Young bridge solo and some of Styx’s most direct, hard-hitting lyrics: “I’m a lonely soldier off to war / Sent away to die, never quite knowing why / Sometimes, it makes no sense at all.” At the final cleansing turn, when Shaw wails, “I’m dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean,” we can’t help but believe him.