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Chris Rea Songs: The 30 Best Tracks For The Open Road
In Depth

Chris Rea Songs: The 30 Best Tracks For The Open Road

With smooth guitar riffs and a huskily laidback drawl, the best Chris Rea songs put him on a road to glory as a bittersweet blues-rock hero.

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With an esteemed career in rock’n’roll spanning four decades, it’s easy to forget Middlesbrough singer-songwriter Chris Rea was for a time one of the most popular British male artists of the late 80s. Having sold 30 million records worldwide to date, Rea’s flair for mellifluous soft rock and dignified AOR has slowly but surely built him a solid body of work, including dozens of chart hits and one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time. To showcase just how many memorable tunes he has up his sleeve, here are the 30 best Chris Rea songs we feel are worthy of praise.

Listen to the best of Chris Rea here, and check out our 30 best Chris Rea songs, below.

30: The Blue Café (1997)

Beleaguered with health problems for most of the mid-90s, Chris Rea’s 1998 album, The Blue Café, was a welcome return to form. The title track saw him revisit his propensity for bluesy slide guitar balladry, swaying breezily to a woozy tempo like George Harrison dabbling in bossa nova. Later asked of his love of the blues, Chris Rea explained in a 1998 interview: “It comes from being unhappy and wondering if there’s a time and place where the angst and aching feelings you get can be relieved.”

29: Tennis (1980)

With a bass-heavy intro evoking Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, Tennis kicked off Chris Rea’s third album in hauntingly ominous style. The doom-laden tones of Rea’s fretless bass-playing complement lyrics which critique the clash of televised sports with violent news coverage, building into a chaotic crescendo of noise befitting its new wave-era studio sheen. Not only did Rea play most of the instruments on the record himself (handling guitar, bass, synth, piano and keyboard duties), it also marked the first time he took on all the production work. Naturally, it wouldn’t be the last…

28: Smile (1983)

Tucked away as the B-side to Love’s Strange Ways – the fourth single to be taken from his 1983 album, Water Sign – Smile is a soothingly meditative ballad on which Chris Rea faces down the sufferings of life (“It’s not that easy for anyone”) by arguing that all we can do in the times of despair is to meet them with good cheer (“Take a look around and smile”). By penning himself a message of begrudging acceptance and stoic resolve, this song proves even Chris Rea’s B-sides had more heart than most.

27: Let It Loose (1983)

As the lead single from Water Sign, Let It Loose marked a turning point in Chris Rea’s fortunes, thanks to his soft-spoken voice and 80s synth beats. Remarkably, the singer was unaware the album would soon propel him into the same league as Steve Winwood and Dire Straits. “I was recording these demos,” Chris Rea remembers. “It had a white cover with a dodgy photo on it and it was just like a contract album, you know? And lo and behold, it got rave reviews!”

26: Cleveland Calling (1979)

In yet another barnstorming B-side, Cleveland Calling offered up a stomping mix of Springsteen-inspired Heartland rock and a close cousin to The Clash’s London Calling. By playing in the same sonic sandpit as The E Street Band, Chris Rea made no secret of his ambition to reach beyond his Middlesbrough roots and set his sights on blue-collar America. Surprisingly, despite this song being a fond homage to The Boss’ style, Rea would later grow critical of Bruce Springsteen, arguing he relied too much on image and not enough on musicianship.

25: Girl In A Sports Car (1996)

A lushly-produced orchestral pop extravaganza, Girl In A Sports Car was a rousing swell of easy listening on which Chris Rea paid tribute to such crooner giants as Andy Williams and Dean Martin. The music video tied in with Rea’s 1996 movie, La Passione, serving up a rose-tinted montage of 60s-inspired, retro-chic lifestyle fantasies that celebrated grand touring in a Ferrari. As a life-long fan of motor racing since he was a boy, it’s no surprise the car had a starring role in one of the best Chris Rea songs. “I actually used to look at an atlas and dream of Italy, and in particular of Ferrari cars,” the songwriter admitted. “That was my first love, long before music.”

24: Urban Samurai (1983)

Making use of an oriental melodic hook akin to David Bowie’s China Girl, Chris Rea’s Urban Samurai was an arcane B-side to Let It Loose which abided by its own perplexing logic. With shimmering guitar lines and gleaming synths, the song fit with Rea’s predilection for moody ruminations and chimed with the trend for early 80s art-pop. Even Rea’s vocal style pre-empted the rise of Paul Young’s blue-eyed soul – of its time, yet timeless.

23: Loving You (1981)

Developing as a songwriter by working with producer Jon Kelly, Chris Rea’s 1981 single Loving You proved to be his most successful since Fool (If You Think It’s Over) and peaked at No.65 in the UK. Frankly, it deserved to chart much higher, its wandering bass and ethereal guitar work imbuing dramatic weight and near-cinematic scope into one of Chris Rea’s great early songs. Accompanied by female backing vocalists, Rea sings plaintively of fleeing town with a waitress like he’s longing for his small-town dreams to come true.

22: I Don’t Know What It Is (But I Love It) (1984)

Comparable to the riff on The Police’s Message In A Bottle, but with a more perky Elton John-style chorus, I Don’t Know What It Is (But I Love It) was the lead single from Chris Rea’s 1984 album Wired To The Moon and charted at No.65 in the UK. With all its immediacy and radio-friendly appeal, it’s easy to see how this winning template proved encouraging enough for Rea to perfect the approach with co-producer David Richards on his next album, Shamrock Diaries.

21: Every Beat Of My Heart (1982)

A mature leap into new songwriting horizons for Chris Rea, Every Beat Of My Heart harnessed world-weariness into a heart-tugging and affecting ballad that more than earns its place among the best Chris Rea songs. Thanks to some sublime harp-playing, it proved Chris Rea was every bit as capable of competing with Mark Knopfler (see Dire Straits’ Romeo And Juliet), evoking a groundswell of emotion courtesy of Andrew Powell’s string arrangements. Though the song failed to chart, it pointed the way to the more statesmanlike offerings Rea would become famous for.

20: Working On It (1989)

Bearing in mind Chris Rea didn’t start playing guitar until the age of 21, he’d be the first to admit he spent much of his late teens working as a labourer. If the rasping rock’n’roll of his 1989 single Working On It was anything to go by, his old life of hard-earned drudgery still rankled (“Somebody above is in a desperate state/Some kind of urgency, the kind that won’t wait”). By challenging the toil many working-class lads like him experienced, he proved he understood the struggle.

19: Diamonds (1979)

For most of his early years as a songwriter, Chris Rea’s label, Magnet Records, had been hoping he would become the next Elton John or Billy Joel. True to that expectation, his 1979 single Diamonds became a hit in the US with its thumping piano and disco strings. A jewel in the crown of his Gus Dudgeon-produced second album, Deltics, this song built upon the potential we’d already seen in Fool (If You Think It’s Over), making Rea’s pathway to becoming an 80s songwriting legend all the more assured.

18: You Can Go Your Own Way (1994)

The driving, guttural blues-rock of You Can Go Your Own Way sounds as if Chris Rea were trying on a fake ZZ Top beard for size. Unsurprisingly, it fits. Chosen as the main single to promote his 1994 greatest hits compilation, The Best Of Chris Rea, it flexes all of his usual bluesy muscles and showcases his throaty, lived-in voice at its very best. Despite being released at the height of the grunge explosion, the song rose to an impressive No.28 in the UK, proving Chris Rea’s greatest songs can transcend trends and fashions.

17: Loving You Again (1987)

In a not-so-subtle demonstration of soulful brass and sentimental lyricism, the 1987 single Loving You Again was a notable highlight on Rea’s ninth studio album, Dancing With Strangers. Showing the influence of a more soul-based, Motown-inspired sound, the No.47 UK hit was anything but cynical, despite Chris Rea’s intentions. “I write songs that are supposed to be cynical and Woody Allenish. Yet they come out as ballads,” Rea once humorously complained in an interview. “Little wonder I’m misunderstood.”

16: Winter Song (1991)

Lifted from his 1991 album, Auberge, the ruggedly romantic Winter Song attempted to create yet another seasonal ballad for the ages, and ended up reaching No.27 in the UK. In true smoky-voiced form, Chris Rea sings this folk ballad with love still burning in his heart, just like the embers around his campfire (“From your autumn through winter/Darling I’ll keep you warm”). It’s a dreamy yet wistful gem of a record, thawing any cold soul with the gentle, country-tinged twanging of Rea’s slide guitar.

15: Bombollini (1984)

Proving Sting wasn’t the only one brave enough to experiment with world music, Bombollini saw Chris Rea craft a six-minute epic with jungle-sounding drums and haunting pan pipes. As the least successful of the singles released from Wired To The Moon, Bombollini failed to chart, but Chris Rea deserves a great deal of credit for choosing to flout the popular expectations of mainstream radio. By indulging his bold, ethnic-flavoured ambitions, Rea showed he wasn’t going to rely on power balladry like his peers and followed the beat of his own drum.

14: Looking For The Summer (1989)

A song about lost youth and the passing years, Looking For The Summer shows Chris Rea lyrically waxing poetic about growing old to a lilting acoustic riff (“The eyes take on a certain gaze/And leave behind the springtime days/Go looking for the summer”). The shifting sands of time are regarded as being as natural as the changing seasons, with Rea endlessly waiting for summer to come with typically melancholic restraint. Easily one of the best Chris Rea songs, the 1989 single nestled just outside the UK Top 50 and deserves far more acclaim than it gets.

13: Nothing To Fear (1992)

Aware of prejudice in the air regarding Western attitudes towards Muslims, Chris Rea scored a UK No.16 hit single with Nothing To Fear, a song rooted in compassion for our fellow man and extending a hand of friendship to Muslims. “The gist of the story is that if you show us we have nothing to fear, you know, there’s gonna be no problem,” the songwriter said. With a Moroccan feel in the use of echo on slide guitar, it remains Rea’s conciliatory plea for peace, love and understanding.

12: Ace Of Hearts (1984)

The soft-rock slow-burner Ace Of Hearts became something of a live favourite for Chris Rea. As much about a heartbroken soul longing for love as it is about a down-on-his-luck gambler waiting for a winning hand (“Only the ace of hearts can save me now”), this 1984 ballad was the last single to be released from the Wired To The Moon. Chris Rea would later re-record it for his 1988 greatest hits compilation New Light Through Old Windows.

11: It’s All Gone (1986)

With its Money For Nothing-aping intro to its Donald Fagen-esque synths, it’s quite apparent Chris Rea had upped his commercial ambitions by releasing It’s All Gone as the lead single from his 1985 album, On The Beach. Though comparisons could easily be drawn to Dire Straits, Rea has always said he’s grateful to Mark Knopfler for opening doors that otherwise might have been closed to him. “We owe Dire Straits so much,” Rea admitted in a 1988 interview. “They opened up a whole market to us.”

10: I Can Hear Your Heartbeat (1983)

The most successful single taken from Water Signs – the first album to be overseen by both Chris Rea and co-producer David Richards – the gruff ballad I Can Hear Your Heartbeat was a European disco-flavoured pop-rock gem with a catchy chorus. This danceable floor-filler went on to chart higher in Belgium and the Netherlands than it did in the UK, lighting the touch paper for the evolution in sound both producers would establish following the release of Shamrock Diaries.

9: Auberge (1991)

Never one to shy away from the road-based analogies, Auberge was Chris Rea’s wry celebration of the distinctly unromantic, down-at-heel motels you encounter on road trips through France. “For French people, an auberge is somewhere where they had to stop off because they didn’t make it home in time,” Chris Rea said, no doubt appreciating the irony, given his reputation as the patron saint of petrolheads. This sort-of sequel to The Road To Hell quickly established itself among the best Chris Rea songs, peaking at No.16 in the UK.

8: Fool (If You Think It’s Over) (1978)

Working with Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon would be a dream for any musician, but Chris Rea doesn’t have particularly fond memories of their time together. “I didn’t get on with Gus Dudgeon in the studio at all,” the songwriter recalled, bemoaning the lack of slide guitar on his breakthrough hit. “He’s that kind of perfectionist – but he didn’t really agree with my style.” Despite his reservations, Fool (If You Think It’s Over) did wonders for Rea’s career, reaching No.12 in the US and earning a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 1979.

7: Julia (1993)

Taking its name from his second daughter when she was just an infant, Julia was the singer’s bright and jaunty ode to paternal optimism (“Oh you don’t need to dream/When you know you can fly”). If the tribal drums and Robert Ahwai’s cheerful strumming weren’t happy enough, Chris Rea’s vivid slide guitar work raises spirits like a sip of Sangria in the sunshine. This single from his Espresso Logic album managed to reach No.18 in the UK and spent a grand total of five weeks on the chart.

6: Driving Home For Christmas (1986)

Quite possibly the most ubiquitous of all Chris Rea songs, festive favourite Driving Home For Christmas taps into the most relatable of holiday experiences – getting stuck in traffic jams with all the other poor schmoes. Telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he regards the song as a “car version of a carol”, it wouldn’t be the last time the singer-songwriter transformed commuter-belt woes into music, but the seasonal sentiment makes the song resonate more strongly. For this reason, it’s the closest any songwriter has come to crafting a true Christmas classic.

5: Let’s Dance (1987)

The boisterous boogie of Let’s Dance reached No.12 in the UK in 1987, thanks to its tuneful, boot-scootin’ melody and cautiously optimistic lyrics hoping for a better future (“There’s a world far away from the one we see/There’s a dream I will never let go”). Chris Rea would later re-record the song with new lyrics, performing a duet with the comedian Bob Mortimer to celebrate Middlesbrough FC reaching the FA Cup Final in 1997. Unfortunately, Rea’s hometown club would miss out on a trophy by losing to Chelsea.

4: Stainsby Girls (1985)

With tongue firmly in cheek, Chris Rea did his best Keith Richards homage on the Rolling Stones-esque UK Top 30 hit, Stainsby Girls. Aiming to describe the Marianne Faithfull or Jean Shrimpton lookalikes who dated top mods and swooned at Mick Jagger’s onstage antics, Chris Rea loved Stainsby girls so much he actually fell in love with one. Speaking about his wife, Joan, years later, Rea said: “She was a Stainsby girl. They all had long hair, a little bit scruffy… I’ve been with Joan since 1968 to this day.”

3: The Road To Hell (Part 2) (1989)

Struck by a vision of the M25 as a purgatorial highway, Chris Rea found inspiration after getting stuck in traffic on the way home to his wife. Out of gridlock and into the fast lane, The Road To Hell (Part 2) became Rea’s most successful single, full of brooding keyboards and spine-tingling slide guitar, and peaked at No.10 in the UK, forever cementing its place among the best Chris Rea songs. The irony wasn’t lost on him that a song comparing traffic jams to the perils of aspiration became his signature tune (“The valley of the rich, myself to sell”).

2: Josephine (1985)

Named after his first daughter, Chris Rea remembers Josephine being likened to a Nile Rodgers tune while getting drunk with a friend in Paris. In response, he put together a new version with a more obvious Chic-type groove, which helped the song hit the Top 10 in France. Upon hearing it, DJ Paul Oakenfold remixed Josephine, exposing it to club-goers at underground warehouse raves. “Josephine became one of the club hits of 1990,” Chris Rea recalls. “Apparently, I have to say, because I’ve never liked dancin’ and I’ve never been to an acid house thing.”

1: On The Beach (1986)

Inspired by the Balearic island of Formentera, where he married his wife, Rea’s sun-kissed riff expertly evokes the tanning-bed-laden sense of calming tranquillity on the Spanish coast (“Upon a summer wind there’s a certain melody/Takes me back to the place that I know”). Despite a 1988 reissue missing the Top 10, On The Beach itself became a club classic (just like Josephine) thanks to a thumping remix by German trance duo York, which hit No.4 in the year 2000. The majestically composed original, however, remains untouchable, and tops our list of the best Chris Rea songs.

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