Despite only two Top 40 hits in the US, they’ve reached the Top 40 an astounding 20 times in the UK, and in 1986, Level 42 played to a packed house at London’s Wembley Arena six nights in a row.
While the lineup of the band has shifted since they got started in the early ‘80s, there have been two constants: Mark King and Mike Lindup. King’s steady baritone is instantly recognizable, but he’s maybe more well known for his thumb slap bass playing. More than his vocals, it’s this low end that’s the foundation of all Level 42 songs, and King is widely recognized as one of the top bassists in music. To watch him play is to be mesmerized: he wears it high near his neck, with his taped thumb furiously going at the strings, and the fact that he can do that while singing is simply incredible.
Lindup, on the other hand, provides the smooth soul falsetto of the songs’ backup vocals and choruses, and while he does sing lead vocals on a few of the slower tracks, he’s mostly behind an elaborate keyboard setup, playing both chords and riffs. This combination, plus the addition of skilled guitarists and drummers through the years, has led to one of the most appealing collection of albums and singles from the late 20th Century. It’s a bold statement, yes, but listen to their body of work. If you disagree, you’re probably not listening closely enough.
Named for the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” from Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Level 42 released their first single in 1981. Since then, with the exception of a break in the late 1990s, they’ve been continually creating jazz and funk influenced pop songs that shine and have released 12 studio albums in all. Choosing a top 10 from the band leaves out more great material than it includes, so if you’re new to Level 42, consider this your starting point. Here are the top ten Level 42 songs.
Top 10 Level 42 Songs
# 10 – The Sun Goes Down
Starting out or Top 10 Level 42 Songs List is one that just grabs you from the beginning, with bouncing chords, a heavy kick drum, gentle guitar notes, and a front and center bass line that sounds like it was cribbed from a Miles Davis outtake during his fusion jazz period or a bit like Sting’s late 80s sound.
Lindup and King split lead vocals on “The Sun Goes Down,” and although it sounds very much like a product of its time — the radio-friendly synth-heavy pop of 1983 — it’s easy to see why it reached Number 10 in the UK. It’s catchy enough to draw in casual fans, varied enough to interest more sophisticated listeners, and so easy to dance to that you really don’t have to think too hard about the talent behind the expert instrumentation.
# 9 – Heaven in My Hands
Few songs in the history of pop music pull you in as quickly as 1988’s “Heaven in My Hands.” You probably couldn’t write a more perfect formula for instant likability. The synths start off like the brash overture to an enormous symphony of truth, the drums come on in the front of the mix, King yells, “Hey yeah” a few times, and we’re off on a four minute journey to the center of happiness.
Behind the ear candy veil, however, is a network of complicated keyboard work, perfectly layered vocals, and drums that are practically all fills. It’s just fun and uplifting, a song to cheer you on bad days and serve as your glory soundtrack on great days. What’s more, it holds up: despite its age of nearly 30 years, this one sounds as fresh as ever.
# 8 – Silence
The band seems to favor Lindup’s vocals on their slower tracks, and it’s a great fit. While King’s vocals often feel too heavy for graver tempos, Lindup’s is right in the pocket. This is the case with Silence, an unreleased track from their masterful 1988 effort Staring at the Sun. It’s a lament for the single people, the “many people who suffer in silence because they’re afraid love will never come their way.”
It sounds cheesy, and it is, but you’d be hard pressed to find a song about longing for love that isn’t cheesy, from the 1980s or really ever. Plus, if you listen closely, you’ll realize that “Silence” is more musically intricate than most love songs; there’s electronic percussion on top of the drum kit, there’s lots of keyboard noodling way back in the mix for texture, and King’s bass comes up front in all the right places.
# 7 – Micro-Kid
On paper, it looks like a silly tune about being technologically proficient, but off the page, it shines. “Micro-Kid” may be one of the King’s most impressive bass performances: it drives and slaps very up front in the mix, making this 1983 track a clinic in how to do a rhythm section. The rest of the band doesn’t slack, though, especially Lindup, who hits the falsetto notes on the chorus and has his hands on several different synthesizers to create a variety of organ, brass, and woodwind sounds. The result is four minutes that just sounds like a high point of the ‘80s, from the computer-influenced lyrics to the melody behind it.
# 6 – Hot Water
The “parents don’t understand” theme is an evergreen one in rock and pop music, and 1984’s “Hot Water” is Level 42’s take on it. The subject alone is enough to garner an audience, but like most Level 42 songs, the drums, keyboards, and bass are what drives the groove, with guitars, horns, and timbales add some great punctuation. In fact, take away the vocals, and “Hot Water” holds up exceptionally well as an instrumental track. Still, it reached Number 18 on the UK charts because the sum is greater than the parts: it’s a pro-teenager anthem, and to borrow a phrase, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
# 5 – Two Solitudes
This track is another fan favorite that was never released as a single, another slow track that features Lindup on lead vocals, and one of many great songs off the band’s 1987 album Running in the Family. It’s an earworm, for sure, and you can hear the honest longing in Lindup’s voice (again, he’s really good at that) as he sings about there being “no common ground when trust breaks down.” Is it sappy? Of course. But it’s also meaningful if it hits you at the right time, and it sticks with you long after you’re back on your feet.
# 4 – Tracie
Staring at the Sun had its share of perfectly packaged pop Level 42 songs, and “Tracie” is one of its most appealing. The lyrics are King’s fond look back at a young love, and it’s all very relatable and set to a stellar hook. Unlike a lot of other Level 42 songs, this one is largely driven by the late Alan Murphy’s guitar work. Sure, King’s bass and Lindup’s keyboards are essential to the song, and the layers of vocals create wonderful texture, but really, it’s the opening guitar riff that lays down the direction for the next three-ish minutes.
# 3 – Children Say
There are lots of songs written about the innocent wisdom of children, but few are as tightly composed and musically varied as “Children Say.” The verses are low key, sung by King in a melody that’s mildly catch, but then Lindup comes in with a brilliant falsetto chorus, and the song really comes alive. It’s definitely one that gets better the longer you listen, and it’s not one that you get tired of quickly. Instrumentally, the bass is loud and pulsing, the keyboards have a vaguely video game-ish quality to them (this is a 1987 tune, remember), and the uptempo beat is danceable if you want it to be.
# 2 – Running in the Family
Nearly every track on Running in the Family is a classic; this top ten list could easily be a paean to the band’s 1987 effort. The song was one of their highest charting singles in the UK (it reached Number 6), and it’s a fantastic meditation on (as the title suggests) the “bizarre” nature of similarities among immediate relatives — how “we only see so far and we all have our daddy’s eyes.” Like most Level 42 tracks, King takes lead, Lindup takes falsetto on the chorus, and the bass and synthesizers are the real standouts.
What makes “Running in the Family” different, though, is how well crafted it is, how well it all flows together, and how badly you want to hear it again as soon as its three and a half minutes are up.
# 1 – Something About You
When a song like 1985’s “Something About You” becomes so popular and is such a prime specimen of a particular time and style, it can be hard to look at it objectively. It comes on the radio during the retro lunch hour, or it pops up on an ‘80s-themed Sirius channel or a new wave Spotify list, or it’s on the CD that your old admirer made for you, back when making CDs was a thing, and you just hear it. However, if you listen closely to “Something About You,” you realize one thing: it’s brilliant.
The lyrics are mostly appreciative of a significant other while recognizing that imperfections show themselves (“Is it so wrong to be human after all?”), and they’re presented in the usual Level 42 format: King on lead vocals, Lindup hitting the falsetto on the chorus and in the background. There’s the usual synth and bass groove, though this time there’s an electric guitar solo, and the drums are straight ahead 4/4 rock. It fits with the band’s formula for success, but perhaps more than any other Level 42 song, the parts all come together perfectly, sounding at once like a product of the high ‘80s and thoroughly timeless.
Next time “Something About You” pops up on your headphones, stop what you’re doing and listen. We think you’ll agree that it’s Level 42’s best effort and it stands as our No.1 choice on the Top 10 Level 42 Songs List.