Kenny Rogers' 15 Best Songs Ranked

Too pop? Too schmaltzy? Whatever. He left behind a lush legacy.

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Kenny Rogers onstage in 2007 (Photo: Flickr)

In life, Kenny Rogers never really got the respect he deserved. Sure he cranked out a steady succession of country and pop hits, especially between 1977 and 1987, but he often was dismissed by country purists as being too pop and by the pop establishment (which, during Rogers’ late-’70s and early ’80s peak, was basically disco diehards and new-wavers) as being too schmaltzy and middle of the road.

At times, Rogers, who died on March 20 at age 81, could be both, but he left behind a formidable discography anyway. In fact, it’s so sturdy, that his four signature songs — “Coward of the County,” “The Gambler,” “Lady,” and “Islands in the Stream” — aren’t even his best hits, at least not to this lifelong fan.

He wasn’t the greatest singer and from a technical standpoint, he certainly never was a match for his country contemporaries like Ronnie Milsap and Don Williams. Vocal pyrotechnics never made their way onto a Kenny Rogers album. Still, he was instantly identifiable in a genre filled with interchangeable second-tier acts.

His slightly raspy voice had a warm, lived-in tone that made his songs go down easy, like comfort food fresh out of the oven. Few singers who have depended mostly on outside songwriters have displayed such a knack for choosing material more perfectly suited to their vocal abilities. Hopefully, in death, Rogers finally will get the props he deserved all along.

Now that the world has slowed down, it’s the perfect time to dive into his massive oeuvre. This list, his 15 best songs in ascending order of greatness, is a good place to start.

15. What About Me? (1984)

A rematch with Kim Carnes (with James Ingram making it a threesome), three years after they went top five (see number 11), this covers similar emotional ground as “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” his slightly lesser 1987 duet with Ronnie Milsap that was written by Carnes as duet with Barbra Streisand for the latter’s 1984 album Emotion.

14. “You and I” (1983)

From Eyes That See in the Dark, his 1983 Barry Gibb-produced creative zenith, it’s essentially Rogers fronting a post-disco Bee Gees, which is exponentially better than that description sounds.

13. “I Prefer the Moonlight” (1987)

His final foray into country’s top two solo, this beautifully capped a decade of commercial and creative supremacy.

12. “You Decorated My Life” (1979)

Along with his previous end-of-the-decade single “She Believes in Me,” this set the blueprint for Rogers’ country-pop power ballad sound that would later lead to “Lady,” his biggest solo hit. Unlike its emotionally overblown chart predecessor, it’s gorgeous in its gentle understatement.

11. “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” (1980)

This was the song that really put the great Kim Carnes on the map, exactly one year before “Bette Davis Eyes.”

10. “Morning Desire” (1985)

With this single (written by Dave Loggins, inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and featuring Stanley Jordan on lead guitar), Rogers hit a sensual peak in a discography that’s regarded more for unabashed romanticism than blush-worthy sex appeal.

9. “This Woman” (1984)

The second single from Eyes That See In the Dark is preferable to “Islands in the Stream,” mostly because it wasn’t playing everywhere circa 1983–1984.

8. “All I Ever Need Is You” (1979)

This 1979 country number one was the crowning achievement of Rogers’ Dottie West years and a vast improvement over Sonny and Cher’s 1971 top 10 pop version.

7. “Buried Treasure” (1984)

A straight-country standout from Eyes That See in the Dark, the B-side to the “This Woman” single features Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band acting as the Pips to Rogers’ Gladys Knight.

6. “I Don’t Need You” (1981)

This Lionel Richie production was a far more potent collaboration than their previous smash “Lady,” mostly because composer Rick Christian’s lyrics sidestepped Richie’s broad, syrupy genericism in favor of an almost-subversive, existential romantic declaration.

5. “Love Will Turn You Around” (1982)

It’s pretty much the 1982 film Six Pack’s only reason for existing.

4. “Share Your Love with Me” (1981)

This is where Rogers tackles an old Aretha Franklin hit and doesn’t make you yearn for her Grammy-winning version. That’s like making it to the moon.

3. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” (1968)

Unlike Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s 1969 cover of Mel Tillis’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” the group’s psychedelic-rock hit had absolutely nothing in common with the music that would make Rogers a solo superstar the following decade.

2. “Love Or Something Like It” (1978)

A calypso-tinged story song, its merger of country and world music sounded deliciously offbeat at the time and kind of timeless today.

1. “Lucille” (1977)

The song that launched Rogers’ solo-superstar ascent raised the bar for crossover country during the next half-decade.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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