Originally posted autumn 2007.
And we’re back.
You know the drill, or you can pick it up as you go along. Counting down one hundred great pop songs released between 1980-1989 inclusive. My definition of pop is broader than most, but people who hate pop music (whatever they think it is) still won’t like this list. Actually, probably no one but me will be very keen on all of it.
I’ve done the 1970s and the 1950s. (I kind of did the 1960s, too, but it’s a special case and I’ll probably have to revisit that list at some point in order to make it congruous with these others.) But don’t get your hopes up, people who were born in the last 70 years: next on the schedule is the 1920s. (Actually, next on the schedule is something else entirely, but that’d be telling.)
So. Let’s get to it.
100. AC/DC “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Brian Johnson/Angus Young/Malcolm Young)
Back In Black, 1980
AC/DC’s greatest album, which kicked off the 80s with a hard rock hallelujah, is more like a great EP; four killer songs surrounded by a bunch of unfunny filler. But when they were good, they were great. It could’ve been a toss-up between this song, “Hell’s Bells,” and “Back In Black,” except for two things: the ringing, Byrdsian chord that starts the song, and the line “knocking me out with those American thighs.” I’m not sure what particularly American characteristics thighs can have (maybe R. Crumb has some idea), but a great turn of phrase is a great turn of phrase.
99. The The “Uncertain Smile”
Matt Johnson’s quietly brilliant project The The might be the least-known work of indisputable genius of the past thirty years. A studio wunderkind by age twenty, by this time he’d moved past his early Residents/Throbbing Gristle fascination to densely textured sonic sculptures drawing from global musics — much like what David Byrne and Brian Eno were up to at the same time, but with a lusher sense of romantic cool inspired by the New Romantics who were swarming over British and American airwaves by the hundreds. The soprano sax and jazzy piano (courtesty of Squeeze ivory-tickler Jools Holland) might recall solo Sting records, but Johnson always played it closer to the vest than anyone who calls himself Sting ever could.
98. Dramarama “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”
Cinéma Verité, 1985
Ahhhhh, Amerindie. Spiky, thrashing guitars stripped of all blues reference, untrained voices straining (or mumbling) through primitive melodies that still seem to be too much for the singers, rhythm sections that do their job and stay out of the way. And lyrics that are snotty, or paranoid, or political, or romantic, or cryptic, or unintelligible. This is one of the crown jewels of Amerindie, a staple of alternative radio in L.A. that has seeped into wider cultural consciousness over the past ten years not only because it’s a great pop song, but because it anticipated the heart-on-sleeve sincerity of modern emo-inflected pop-punk. As usual, though, the first was the best, and even if they were only a one-song band, that song’s an immortal.
97. Neneh Cherry “Buffalo Stance”
(Neneh Cherry/Beth McVey/Jamie J. Morgan/Phillip Ramacon)
Raw Like Sushi, 1989
Daughter of free-jazz mainstay Don (Ornette Coleman always played best with him), and sister of 90s one-hit-wonder Eagle Eye (remember “Save Tonight”?), Neneh was the first woman to have a major pop hit with a hip-hop song (sorry, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, etc). Not that this is a pure hip-hop song; the chorus and pre-chorus are sung, there’s even a spoken-word bridge (yes,
96. Black Flag “Rise Above”
I’m not particularly a fan of hardcore punk (I lose interest once it drifts back across the Atlantic and localizes in Southern California and Washington DC), but sometimes a song grabs you by your shirt front and shakes you until you can’t help but love it. The pretty dumb self-esteem boosting of the lyrics are made up for by being chanted like political sloganeering at some particularly scary rally (think Nazi Youth or the KKK) — not to mention the buzzsaw attack of the music. In a world where punk has long since mainstreamed to the point that “Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac” has lost its irony, it can be easy to forget that rising above the bullshit still remains necessary.
95. LL Cool J “I Need Love”
(Robert Ervin/Steve Ettinger/David Pierce/Dwayne “Muffla” Simon/James Todd Smith)
Bigger And Deffer, 1987
One of the constant themes of these lists has been a rejection of the false notion of authenticity in music. Whenever anyone tries to make a dogma about pop, I’ll almost always be rooting for the other team. So it is here: the hardcore rap crowd bitched and moaned that this song was selling out to the pop market — it doesn’t even use samples, just a drum machine and cheesy Michael Bolton keyboards. But today, when even the most thugged-out gangsta has to include a slow jam or say goodbye to radio play, it just sounds ahead of its time. The good-looking LL Cool J was never going to be convincing as a gangsta anyway (though check his recent appearance on 30 Rock as a parody of Suge Knight), and he even managed to talk dirty without having to be bleeped. This was rap that even parents could love.
94. The Mekons “Oblivion”
The Edge Of The World, 1986
The Mekons, of course, were one of the great English punk bands, one of the class of ’78 that included the Fall, Joy Division, and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Starting in 1984, they suddenly became a country band; or rather a country-inflected punk band, the originators of alt-country (sorry, Wilco) with ghostly violins and Appalachian melodies overlaid on faux-sloppy rhythm sections and slashing guitars. And then, in 1986, they added Sally Timms as a vocalist, making explicit the connections between British folk and their post-industrial country music. This is her first song with the band, a sad-eyed waltz remarkably chipper in its circular effect.
93. Wham! “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”
Make It Big, 1984
Still the only George Michael song I’ve ever been able to enjoy unironically, it owes more to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles than to the faceless disco that characterized his solo hits. Obeying Berry Gordy’s dictum that the song has to grab the listener in the first two seconds, there are two beats and then a baritone “Jitterbug,” a day-glo cartoon soundtrack without care or responsibility. The vast variety of twentieth-century popular dance is referenced (the jitterbug, go-go, and 80s clubbing are very different), and then, in the song’s most magical moment, he soars into a gorgeous falsetto: “I wanna hit that hiiiiiiigh….” Congratulations, George. You just did.
92. The Fall “Totally Wired”
(Mark Riley/Craig Scanlon/Mark E. Smith)
Grotesque (After The Gramme), 1980
Few punk songs not featuring Mike Watt are as bass-driven as this one; that charging, relentless bass reinforces the overcaffeinated chorus, in which Mark E. Smith shows off his amazing facility with breaking his voice like a thirteen-year-old boy. The song is also a repository for some of his best phrase-making: “You don’t have to be strange to be strange,” “My heart and I agree” (the only sung phrase in the song), “And I’m always worried.” The emphasis on rhythm and repetition which has marked the Fall’s music for thirty years now is played on standard punk instruments here; later, when Smith adopted synthesizers and drum machines, he would still never sound more insanely mechanized than he does here.
91. Billy Idol “Eyes Without A Face”
(Billy Idol/Steve Stevens)
Rebel Yell, 1983
Yes, Billy Idol’s a prat, a faux-punk whose instincts are all commercial. He’s also a great pop artist. And his pop genius is at its best here, a Bowie-esque tribute to a 1960 French art-horror movie. (Le Yeux san Visage, a.k.a. what Perri Lister is singing during the chorus.) It’s a gloomy synth-pop masterpiece almost — almost — ruined by the hard-rock riffing after the second chorus. But that’s redeemed by Billy Idol rapping stream-of-consciousness style about God knows what. (I haven’t seen it, but I’m pretty sure that nobody in the movie moved to
Here it is: the moment when techno stopped being a Detroit/Chicago phenomenon and started being specifically British. For the next decade, the scepter’d isle would dominate electronic music until
89. Dire Straits “Skateaway”
Making Movies, 1980
The most backward-looking, dad-rock British outfit born in 1978, Dire Straits was never very hip except to people who didn’t know what was hip. That doesn’t mean they weren’t good; it just means that they were good in an outdated, unassuming way. (Until they started assuming; then they sucked.) Mark Knopfler’s unflappable rootsy romanticism and his sparkling Claptonesque Stratocaster set the agenda; here he mythologizes nightclubbing without a single current dance signifier in his polished, echoey pub rock. But hey — Douglas Adams was a fan. How bad could they possibly be?
88. The Primitives “Crash”
(P. J. Court/Steve Dullaghan/Tracy Tracy)
Splitting the difference between the two major British indie sounds of the late 80s (shoegazing and C-86), the Primitives were one of the standard-bearers of melodic guitar-pop during the single period in the past fifty years when melodic guitar-pop was at its lowest ebb. As influenced by the hooky, sugar-pop rush of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks as by the winsome jangle of the Smiths and latter-day Cure, this song did surprisingly well; surprising in that I’d never heard it, even though it apparently went to #3 on the American charts. But it never gets dusted off for a revival. The stories we tell about our past are as important as what actually happened.
87. X “Make The Music Go Bang”
(Exene Cervenka/John Doe)
More Fun In The New World, 1983
Brilliant, shining, and nasty, X was perhaps the ultimate underground 80s band, managing to unite both hardcore punks and roots revivalists in their serrated, rockabilly-inflected attack. John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s full-throttle harmonies gave an otherworldly beauty to lyrics full of paranoia, longing, regret, tension, and the icurable high mythologizing that rock & roll is heir to. And Billy Zoom was the greatest rockabilly guitar player not actually in a rockabilly band (rest easy there, Dave Alvin). Any number of songs could have been chosen to represent them, but I picked this one because it was my favorite cut from the first record I ever heard by them, and because really, isn’t making the music go bang what pop is all about?
86. The Plimsouls “A Million Miles Away”
(Joey Alkes/Peter Case/Chris Fradkin)
There’s nothing particular to say about the Plimsouls. They were just one of a thousand bands crisscrossing the
85. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force “Planet Rock”
(Arthur Baker/Afrika Bambaataa/John Robie)
With this single song, hip-hop suddenly floated out of the
84. Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark “Enola Gay”
Both blessed and cursed by one of the more memorable names in pop music, Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark were just calling themselves OMD by the time their lush electro-pop was being used on the soundtracks of John Hughes films about precocious American teenagers. But back at the beginning of the decade the’d been one of the many bands who took the lessons that Bryan Ferry and David Bowie at their most decadently romantic had been teaching throughout the 70s and applying them to the dancefloor melodrama of Italian disco and electronic pop. The New Romantics, they got called, and while the name’s a fair cop, it doesn’t hint at the post-punk intelligence or the omnivorous literacy of so many of these bands. There was really only a three-year period where a band could get away with singing a love song to the plane that carried the atomic bomb to
83. Felt “Penelope Tree”
Probably most famous now as Stuart “Belle And Sebastian” Murdoch’s favorite band, Felt was one of the most quietly original bands to come out of the early-80s postpunk explosion. The missing link between Television and the Smiths, they — or more precisely, Lawrence Hayward — applied carefully-underproduced guitar dynamics to reserved pop songs that could never rule the airwaves but could easily worm their way into a lonely, bedridden teenager’s heart. Their first single to sound like themselves, “Penelope Tree” is like a glimpse into a harder, grayer, and more satisfactory world. (If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you just don’t get it.)
82. Modern English “I Melt With You”
(Richard Brown/Mick Conroy/Robbie Grey/Gary McDowell/Stephen Walker)
After The Snow, 1982
The curious fact about this song, eternally present in every 80s montage ever, is that it didn’t actually chart all that high at the time, and even today it’s not all that present in the popular consciousness except as “oh, yeah, I love this song.” When I first heard it on the radio in the mid-90s, the DJ said it was by the Cure. Which, yeah, I guess I can hear that, except that the singer doesn’t sound like he’s about to start crying. But those cymbal splashes, the piano breaks, the airy lightness of the whole thing, does sound like Robert Smith at his least miserable. Which is again curious: Modern English was the quintessential 4AD band, even more miserabilist and arty than the Cure at their most miserabilist and arty. Except for this song. Which doesn’t need any defense. Which is why I didn’t attempt one.
81. Nena “99 Red Balloons”
(Joem Fahrenkrog-Peterson/Carlos Karges)
99 Luftballons, 1984
Now this song, on the other hand . . . . I don’t really remember the Cold War. The first political memory I have is the fall of the Berlin Wall, and maybe
Remember when I said that “A Million Miles Away” was the best new-wave power-pop single that never got the traction it deserved? The distinction was crucial: this one got the traction it deserved. Combining the furious melodicism of the early British Invasion beat groups at their most Howlin’ Wolf-wannabe with the thrashing attack of late-70s power-pop (the Knack were a crucial forebear), the Romantics made a glorious rock & roll noise. It wasn’t going to change the world, but it wasn’t meant to. If you can’t dance to guitar pop, what’s the point?
79. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Deanna”
Tender Prey, 1988
First coming to the attention of novelty-hungry music journalists as the central figure in noise-rock pioneers the Birthday Party, Nick Cave spent the majority of the eighties exploring the more unhinged end of the goth spectrum, marrying his apocalyptically bleak Australian-outback worldview to an increasing sense of musical history and the dank currents of Southern Gothic. Here, the Bad Seeds make an unholy clatter in the service of a mutant rockabilly stomp, the unsightly progeny of Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” with all the demons of a post-industrial hell, escaped and ready for a night on the town. Even if it’s a love song, it sounds like a murder song.
78. Grace Jones “Warm Leatherette”
Warm Leatherette, 1980
Gay disco had no shortage of icons as the seventies bled into the eighties: between Sylvester, Amanda Lear, and Larry Levan, there was more than enough mythology to give the AIDS epidemic the quality of high tragedy. But Grace Jones was something different: a statesque black Jamaican woman whose clothing and hairstyles were aggressively masculine, who sung-spoke her way through covers of Iggy Pop and Roxy Music. Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, the Jamaican drum & bass legends, first teamed up with her for this Nicoesque slab of icy funk, splitting the difference between new wave, disco, and dub reggae, and codifying one of the most effective icons of 80s fashion in the process.
77. U2 “Where The Streets Have No Name”
(Bono/Adam Clayton/The Edge/Larry Mullen, Jr.)
The Joshua Tree, 1987
Oh, shut up. You can call U2 corporate dinosaurs all you want, but the fact is that just because they spoke in clichés doesn’t mean they didn’t speak the truth. Hell yes, I want to run, hide, tear down the walls that hold me inside, reach out, touch the flame, feel sunlight on my face, take shelter from the poison rain, and all the rest of it. Doesn’t everyone? Music is myth, and nobody was better at mythologizing spiritual longing than U2, especially on the first three tracks of The Joshua Tree. Yes, their sense of soaring dynamics and widescreen emoting is the source of all the terrible, terrible mainstream rock that stuffs the airwaves today, but so what? Should Mel Tormé have to apologize for Jamie Cullum?
76. Dwight Yoakam “Long White Cadillac”
Just Lookin’ For A Hit, 1989
Haters to the left. The usual rockist refrain is that country music has sucked since the 70s; as usual, they only prove that they haven’t been listening. Dwight Yoakam, along with George Strait, Randy Travis and the Mavericks, led a back-to-basics movement in the late 80s that saw honky-tonk, bluegrass, and even rock & roll return to the Nash Vegas-dominated country airwaves. This song, a Blasters cover, even tipped its cowboy hat to the underground-rockabilly scene — and rocks even harder than the Blasters ever did. His high lonesome honky-tonk voice is one of the great treasures of country music over the past twenty years; of course, even he’s been too old to show up on country radio lately.
75. The Violent Femmes “Gone Daddy Gone”
(Willie Dixon/Gordon Gano)
Violent Femmes, 1983
Yes, the Gnarls Barkley cover/reappropriation is partially why it’s here. Pop currency is as much about latter-day recognition as at-the-time acclaim. But mainly, it’s here because I fucking hate their primary hit from the same album, “Blister in the Sun.” (The local alternative station was still playing it like it was new in 1998.) This xylophone-driven chugger gives a much better idea of the Femmes’ brilliant folk-punk aesthetic, and its hipster cool is more relevant today than the snotty whine of “Blister in the Sun” ever was. And it borrows a verse from a Howlin’ Wolf song. Can you get much hipper than that?
74. Aztec Camera “Oblivious”
High Land, Hard Rain, 1983
I’ve seen Frame’s guitar solo on this song described as satirical, and I’ve never been sure what that’s supposed to mean. The British indie scene he came from was supposed to have a problem with acoustic guitars? With stylish flamboyance? With flamenco? Sure, synth-pop was all the rage in 1983 (the year of Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Naked Eyes, the Thompson Twins, the Fixx, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood), but beauty is beauty, and his delicious Segovia-like runs up the neck of his guitar are as honest and sincere as pure pop can be. (Which isn’t very.)
73. Rosie Flores “Blue Side Of Town”
(Hank DeVito/Paul Kennerly)
Rosie Flores, 1987
Rosie Flores is one of the least-deservedly unkown musicians in the world. Pretty much the only female country singer to play rockabilly convincingly since the heyday of Wanda Jackson, she released her debut album in 1987 to overwhelming indifference, and never made much more impression on
72. Iron Maiden “Run To The Hills”
The Number Of The Beast, 1982
I can’t remember where it was that I read that Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills” was one of the great pop singles of the 1980s. (An interview with Patton Oswalt?) But I was intrigued; and you know what? Whoever it was is right. The tempo shift from the first verse (the Indians) to the second (the settlers) is one of the classic moment in British heavy metal. No, it won’t convince anyone who hates metal that it’s a worthwhile genre, but for anyone who, like me, grew up terrified of Iron Maiden t-shirts and posters, it’s much easier to appreciate as high-camp pop than as deadly serious RAWK.
71. Crowded House “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
Crowded House, 1986
The crowning jewel in sophisti-pop’s crown — yes, even better than Prefab Sprout or the Go-Betweens — is this sparkling, smooth gem of a song. Neil Finn’s yearning vocals, the aching melody, and the plastic, hesitant guitar chords have long since seeped into mass consciousness; every time there’s a sensitive, longing song played over a bittersweet montage on television or in the movies — every time, no matter what the song is — it’s because they couldn’t get the rights to this one. The Finn brothers had brought sensitivity and melodicism to new wave in Split Enz, but here Neil outdid even himself.
In a lot of ways I think of this as the 80s’ synth-pop song par excellence, a sort of baseline of melodic, thematic, and technological comptence that if you can’t appreciate means that on some fundamental level you just don’t get 80s pop. Teri Nunn’s voice is the only element in the song produced by recording actual vibration of sound waves; everything else is synthesized and programmed, and its romantic American evocation of an existentialist Cold-War Europe is literally the sound of Kraftwerk and
69. The Clash “Somebody Got Murdered”
(Topper Headon/Mick Jones/Paul Simonon/Joe Strummer)
It’s easy to convince myself that the Clash are still the only band that ever mattered. And not just because I agree with their revolutionary politics and their inclusive embrace of global pop forms — until Cut The Crap, they were the most honest band in existence. Honesty takes different forms depending on context, of course; and they were never more sincere than when they were mythologizing for all they were worth. It’s like cutting off my thumb and calling it Jonathan Bogart to limit even Sandinista! to this one song; but its galloping splendor and Mick Jones’ earnest vocal, with layer upon layer of shimmering electronic and acoustic textures both romanticizing urban crime and passionately protesting it, remains my favorite moment of their post-London Calling discography.
68. Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill”
Hounds Of Love, 1985
One of the few art-rock artists to successfully incorporate electronic pop into her heady intellectual brew — she was way better than, say, Peter Gabriel ever was at it — Kate Bush conceived this song as a dialogue between the genders. Which sounds like a terrible concept for a pop song, but by going about it with all the earnestness she’s capable of (which is a whole lot), she managed to pull it out of the Cultural Studies sinkhole and hit the charts for the first time since her debut. Even backing vocals and drum patterns derived from classical Japanese forms and a video full of classical dance and symbolism couldn’t keep massive hooks from fluttering out of this song at all angles and swallowing the listener bodily.
67. Altered Images “Don’t Talk To Me About Love”
(Altered Images/Johnny McElhone)
Indie disco is quite the growth genre in these unembarrassable times, but even back when disco was demonized as the destroyer of all the true, the good, and the beautiful in rock music, indie musicians could never resist tackling it. Blondie’s, the Clash’s, and Ian Dury’s dabblings are most famous, of course, but this, from
66. Mission Of Burma “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”
Signals, Calls And Marches, 1981
Revolution was on the mind of every serious artist in the early 80s. The contrast between the fiery idealism of the underground and the preening consumerism of the mainstream culture was too great not to be ignored, and it’s no accident that the Reagan years saw the mobilization of a genuinely alternative culture that the
65. Living Colour “Cult Of Personality”
(Will Calhoun/Corey Glover/Vernon Reid/Muzz Skillings)
1) Rage Against The Machine pretty much based their entire discography on the opening riff to this song. 2) The lyrics and the sampling perceptively compare Kennedy to Mussolini, Ghandi to Stalin, and Malcolm X to FDR. 3) Vernon Reid’s discordant, free-jazz solo is a monster: one of the few times that hard-rock shredding has been put to a noble purpose, instead of merely being a symbol for masturbation. Or not so much a symbol. 4) They’re black guys playing hard rock. The world feels right in ways it hasn’t since Hendrix died.
64. The Beat “Save It For Later”
(Roger Charlery/Andy Cox/Everett Morton/Dave Steele/Dave Wakeling)
Special Beat Service, 1982
Everyone always includes “Mirror In The Bathroom.” I’m much more interested in what the second-wave ska bands did after ska stopped being the primary force in their pop. And with a romantic string quartet backing them up, the Beat (I refuse to call them the English Beat just because that’s what’s printed on the spine of the CDs at my local store; the American Beat never did anything this good) sound like just a great pop band; even a great Britpop band. A smart saxophone solo rocking steady, a gorgeous vocal from Dave Wakeling, and shimmering guitar-pop to fill in the blanks: 1994 couldn’t have done any better.
63. The Stone Roses “I Wanna Be Adored”
(Ian Brown/John Squire)
The Stone Roses, 1989
It takes forever for this song to get going. It’s worth the wait. The Stone Roses were really the first example of the by now familiar phenomenon of the British music press anointing a new band as the saviors of rock, hyping them to such a ludicrous degree that anything they do is bound to be a disappointment, and then reveling in their subsequent fall. But for the space of the first album, it’s possible almost to believe the hype. The basic sonic idea — Byrdsy jangles over a dance-influenced rhythm, while a druggy vocalist floats psychedelically over it all — sounds like a recipe for disaster on paper, but it’s amazingly addictive in the ears. It almost makes the word Madchester fit for human consumption.
62. The Psychedelic Furs “Pretty In Pink”
(John Ashton/Richard Butler/Tim Butler/Vince Ely/Duncan Kilburn/Roger Morris)
Talk Talk Talk, 1981
Famously the inspiration for one of the worst movies ever to inspire a cult of nostalgia, this song is better by factors of thousands than everything John Hughes ever committed to film. For one thing, it’s one of the few times that the Furs lived up to their name: the psychedelia is slightly gloomy and San Franciscan, but it’s real: the spoken-word bridge remains a complete mystery to me after having listened closely over a thousand times. And the surreal fragments of a storyline suggested in the lyrics you can understand is a movie I actually want to see, as opposed to a bunch of rich white kids whining because emotions aren’t tidy. Forget Molly Ringwald; I want to meet the girl Richard Butler’s singing about.
61. Wire “Kidney Bingos”
(Bruce Gilbert/Robert Gotobed/Graham Lewis/Colin Newman)
A Bell Is A Cup … Until It Is Struck, 1988
Here’s the chorus: “Money spines paper lung kidney bingos organ fun.” Goo-goo gajoob. Wire’s most famous for their fragmented post-punk in the 70s, but their increasingly surreal studio pop as the 80s advanced is just as rewarding, and this is their finest pop moment, with a rubbery bassline and watery guitars whose melodies just won’t quit. Sure, the words are even more cut ’n’ paste than Michael Stipe at his most obtuse — or perhaps it’s meant as a subtle inventory of God knows what — but you don’t mind, because it all sounds more gorgeous than dreams themselves.
The thing I love about Def Leppard is precisely how overproduced they were at their peak. If this is hypocrisy, so be it. But the glossy sheen that Mutt Lange (the mastermind who later sent Shania Twain to the top of the charts) applied to their music fits in perfectly with the 80s’ unblinking aesthetic of artificiality; the guitar sound is so slick as to be almost opaque, a blinding white without any of the darker, sharper tones you can hear in more critic-friendly music. (Let’s hear it for the synaesthesia.) Add in the gorgeous harmonies on the chorus, and you have a hard-rock song that functions as a dance-pop song. Brilliant.
59. The Bangles “Hazy Shade Of Winter”
Less Than Zero, 1987
This is gonna have to stand in for the entirety of the Paisley Underground, a fact that would probably enrage hardcore Paisley Underground fans, who considered the Bangles as having long since sold out when this Simon & Garfunkel cover (which unapologetically kicked Paul and Art’s wussy, aging asses) hit the top of the charts. But the circular guitar parts, as well as the studio-psychedelia-for-the-MTV-age intro, recall the second coming of Flower Power that bands like the Three O’Clock, Green On Red, the Beat Happening, and the Bangles kicked off for a glorious couple of years in the L.A. scene. (Pay close attention, by the way: another song on this list also had its debut on the Less Than Zero soundtrack.)
58. A Flock Of Seagulls “I Ran (So Far Away)”
(Frank Maudsley/Paul Reynolds/Ali Score/Mike Score)
A Flock Of Seagulls, 1982
For twenty years, their name has been used as a punchline: Oh, those crazy eighties! What were we thinking . . . with the hair . . . and the clothes . . . and the synthesizers! Thank God people are listening to real music now! But set aside the cultural afflatus: in an alphabetical playlist, nothing distinguishes this song as being significantly worse than representatives by ABBA, Alice Cooper, Al Green, or the Association. In fact, the chiming, restless guitars even put the lie to the lazy synth-pop categorization. So they used to be a bunch of hairstylists. They still made a great pop song. Suck it, talking heads on VH1.
57. Jane’s Addiction “Jane Says”
(Eric Avery/Perry Farrell/Dave Navarro/Stephen Perkins)
Nothing’s Shocking, 1988
(See #75.) The local “alternative” radio station was still playing this like it was new in 1998, too, but at least Perry Farrell’s snotty whine is in the service of a sympathetic humanist portrait (not unlike the best of the contemporary Seattle comics scene; Peter Bagge particularly comes to mind), and not, uh, masturbation. The steel drums, the acoustic guitars, the odd gamelan-inspired tunings: you couldn’t really get more alternative in 1988. The fact that it even entered mainstream conciousness at all is a tribute to the open-mindedness that used to characterize a certain segment of the population. An open-mindedness which a decade of shitty Lollapalooza festivals and increasingly moronic Farrell and Navarro projects have done a lot to destroy . . . but still.
56. Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
(Chris Lowe/Neil Tennant/Allee Willis)
When I first heard the Pet Shop Boys in the mid-90s, I categorized them as “alternative techno.” (Alternative meant intelligence, techno meant synthesizers. I wasn’t exactly filled with clues back then.) But Tennant and Lowe’s sarcastic, literate electronic disco — which was also unapologetically gay, and which made being gay seem really, like, cool — was always more humanist than techno, and less full of itself than anything that actually called itself alternative. Like that other great gay pop star, Morrissey, they were keen to acknowledge the great female pop singers of the 60s, and this, their duet with Dusty Springfield (at her best since 1971), is probably that micro-movement’s finest moment.
55. Anthony Adverse “Imperial Violets”
The amazing variety of micro-scenes in British indie as the 80s progressed has, I would submit, never be matched in pop history until the present decade. Mike Alway’s sophisticated twee-pop él label, whose all-purpose composer, arranger, and producer Louis Philippe (Auclair) was the only act to survive the label (four years, no hits), may be the premier inspiration behind such sophisticated, visually splendid indie-pop acts as Belle & Sebastian, the Divine Comedy, and the Tindersticks. Anthony Adverse, in keeping with the label’s playful spirit of recalling faceless 60s pop, was essentially Julia Gilbert singing whatever Alway and Philippe told her to; and this single was her — and the label’s — creamy, delicious peak.
54. Metallica “Fade To Black”
(Cliff Burton/Kirk Hammett/James Hetfield/Lars Ulrich)
Ride The Lightning, 1984
The deadly, mopey earnestness of all mainstream rock music since, oh, 1993 or so is too often attributed to grunge. But well before Layne Staley and Eddie Vedder were giving narcissistic voice to a generation, that same crowd of self-pitying white suburban loners were listening to thrash metal, and knew Metallica’s original suicidal ballad backwards and forwards. But if it were just the origins of Staind and Nickelback, “Fade To Black” wouldn’t merit a grownup’s time of day: it’s also, in its glossy splendour, a great pop song, the soaring dynamics of Hetfield’s guitar far more joyous and liberating than his poor-me vocals would suggest. A “Don’t Fear The Reaper” for the Reagan generation.
53. XTC “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her”
The Big Express, 1984
So, seriously, did the Walt Disney Corporation get the idea for the “Kiss The Girl” number in The Little Mermaid from XTC? Yeah, the crab leads the orchestra, but it’s Buddy Hackett’s seagull who steals the show. Never mind; like the Beatles (and very few other bands), XTC were so rich in invention that they could well afford to lend. And this was maybe the most Beatlesesque record of XTC’s career (not counting the Dukes of Stratosphear), the moment when they decided to throw open the studio to whatever orchestral or production resources they wanted. Few pop songs in the 80s had a great trombone solo; that this one does is the least of its charms.
52. Siouxsie & The Banshees “Slowdive”
(Siouxise & The Banshees)
A Kiss In The Dreamhouse, 1982
Opening like a chase scene in a slasher flick, this is where the premier goth-pop band of all time embraced not just the thrash of post-punk or the campy gloom of goth rock, but the deeply unnerving sexuality that had always been throbbing just under the surface of Siouxsie’s voice. (Seriously; I used to skip over this song, freaked out by its suggestive possibilities.) Siouxise’s own taut, propulsive arrangement of the string trio and Budgie’s stabs of harmonica suggest the Marquis de Sade on the dancefloor, and manage to up the ante on both production gloss and sinister, smiling deviance.
51. The Durutti Column “The Missing Boy”
The post-punk Factory label is best known for unleashing Joy Division on the world, but they had several other stars, none of which was less star-like — or less post-punk — than Vini Reilly. His complex, echorrific guitar sound (which would be borrowed by The Edge for U2’s signature sound) and gauzy instrumentals, only a step removed from new age, were apparently entirely unlike the abrasive, confrontational sound of post-punk; except of course that he was deeply immersed in that scene. This song, a lament for the death of Ian Curtis, was one of his rare vocal turns during his early career, and even approached pop in its recurrent guitar and piano motifs, drifting hazily like gunsmoke over a wasted battlefield.
“Worlds best song ever recorded” notes the dude who uploaded the first video that a Youtube search for “joy division love will tear us apart” brings up. I’m not sure I’d go that far — more to the point, I’m not sure that phrase has any discoverable meaning — but it’s pretty damn close. If music, as I’ve mentioned, is myth, then surely the tale of Joy Division is one of the great pop myths of the century; half of what gives “Love Will Tear Us Apart” its power is the knowledge that Ian Curtis was found hanging in his apartment a month after it was released. It’s the phrase on his tombstone; and its meaningless specificity perfectly captures the gorgeous despair of adolescence. But the fact that its final notes recall the opening to the
49. Laurie Anderson “O Superman (For Massenet)”
Big Science, 1982
I’m pretty sure I hated, or at the very least was completely befuddled by, this song the first time I heard it. (At the time, my only reference point for advanced music was, I think, the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” And my reference point for performance art was Mad TV-level parodies of it.) Now, having spent several years with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and sample-based compositional music, I can hear its true pop nature. “Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Made in America/Smoking or non-smoking” is still a chilling phrase; in fact, all of Big Science sounds like it was made immediately following the events of 9/11. Of course, if it had been, it would be outrageous, overly didactic, and manipulative. But nineteen years early? That’s just spooky.
48. Michael Jackson “Beat It”
Eddie Van Halen playing on a disco-funk tune? Cute little Michael Jackson appropriating tough inner-city attitudes? (With about as much bearing on real-life gangs as West Side Story, naturally. Michael couldn’t pass for a Crip, but a Jet? No problem.) Small wonder it seemed like he could do no wrong, if such disparate, bad-idea elements managed to coalesce into such amazing, flawless pop. The mistake, of course, was assuming that the force of
47. Bauhaus “She’s In Parties”
(Daniel Ash/David J. Haskins/Kevin Haskins/Peter Murphy)
Burning From The Inside, 1983
I’ll never understand why so many people seem to want to limit Bauhaus to the ten-minute snoozefest “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” — or, worse, as a sort of prequel to the sissy-rock Love And Rockets. Their entire discography, from the early, splintered-tar singles to the doomy, swirly psychedelia they achieve here, is worth listening to with all your heart and soul. I mean, assuming you like that kind of thing. And really, even if you don’t: generally speaking, I could give a shit about goth music or culture, but Bauhaus, along with other early standard-bearers like Siouxise, Robert Smith, and the Division themselves, are immortal.
46. The B-52’s “Love Shack”
(Kate Pierson/Fred Schneider/Keith Strickland/Cindy Wilson)
Cosmic Thing, 1989
Look, I don’t want to hear about how their early work is so much better, and that this is some kind of crass commercial sell-out. Yes, “Rock Lobster” kicks ass. So does this. The plain fact is, there is no greater party tune ever made than “Love Shack.” In fact, I defy you to name a partier tune. The B-52’s’s (that’s the possessive, as far as I can tell) signature postwar-kitsch aesthetic is placed in the service of the Almighty Groove here, and the beach-blanket-bingo crowd sounds and surf-funk guitar only add to the excitement. The stars, of course, are the strident harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, the explosively white Fred Schneider — and then the transcendent moment that every great pop song needs: “Your tin roof — rusted!” Ridiculousness has its anthems too.
45. Pixies “Wave Of Mutilation”
The Pixies are another band that could have had any one of a dozen songs represent them here; “Wave Of Mutilation” just happened to the one foremost in my heart when I made the list. And its surging melodicism — leaving alone the infamous soft/loud dynamics — makes up for its brief length. I was trying to think of who Black Francis reminded me of during the “could find my way to Mariana” line, and then it hit me: Weezer’s entire career is encapsulated within the two minutes five seconds of this song. Which isn’t necessarily a recommendation; but then again, Weezer was pretty freaking melodic.
44. George Jones “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
(Bobby Braddock/Curly Putman)
I Am What I Am, 1980
In a lot of ways it feels like an accident of history that this song came out in 1980; it’s so much of a piece with Jones’ 70s work that it feels instantly dated. Of course, all country felt instantly dated back in 1980 if you were keeping up with the hipper genres, but almost no country listeners were; and I’m not gonna say that’s a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for tradition and meticulous craftsmanship, and Billy Sherrill’s dramatic production gives the greatest countrypolitan song the perfect setting for the grandest drama that the greatest voice in country music can muster. Not that it’s Citizen Kane and Rosebud, but I’m not even going to spoil the two-minutes-in twist: hear it yourself, and see what the country audience that was following the George Jones/Tammy Wynette saga found so riveting.
43. Los Lobos “Will The Wolf Survive?”
(David Hidalgo/Louie Pérez)
How Will The Wolf Survive?, 1984
But country music is just part of the borderless mélange that makes up Los Lobos’ music. Even calling it roots rock is doing it a disservice; yeah, it’s based on traditional forms, but even here the curious sonics and impressionistic, unapologetically Latino-oriented lyrics of the Mitchell Froom years are making their presence felt. Not that a single song could possibly sum up their greatness (they may well be the 80s’ single greatest band, the musical version of what Los Bros Hernandez were to comics), but “Will The Wolf Survive?” remains their first great song, the “Human Diastrophism” of Los Angeles rock & roll.
42. Japan “Ghosts”
Tin Drum, 1981
I don’t know that a more avant-garde-sounding song has ever been so popular (at least in the
41. Hüsker Dü “Celebrated Summer”
New Day Rising, 1985
That fuzzed-out opening riff remains as adrenally galvanizing as ever; and
40. Eric B. & Rakim “I Ain’t No Joke”
(Eric Barrier/William Griffin)
Paid In Full, 1987
By 1987, hip-hop was big business: production levels were huge, long having left behind the sample-based party records of the late 70s for programmed beats and even studio instrumentation. Meanwhile, mic technique had barely advanced since the Sugar Hill Gang, just couplet after couplet in the same rhythm for verse after verse. This track, which opened up the landmark “Paid In Full” album, was both a throwback and a giant leap forward. There are only two samples, but they make up the entirety of the music: Eric B. mixes and scratches live in the studio with astonishing precision and dexterity, and makes one hook from the J.B.’s “Pass The Peas” into a freaking solo instrument. And Rakim plays with rhythm, meter, and rhyme like a tap dancer, leaving you off-balance and hungry to see what the next phrase will be. You can never finish a Rakim rhyme in your head before you’ve heard it. That’s why he is still the greatest MC of all time.
39. Billy Bragg “Greetings To The New Brunette”
Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, 1986
Billy Bragg’s politics are just my cup of tea: anti-globalization, localism, romanticized realism. (He’s like G. K. Chesterton and Woody Guthrie in the same person!) And then his melodic gifts: only the Smiths managed to pour out such rivers of melodicism during this decade — but Bragg was never as self-centered. Okay, so this is one of his famous apolitical songs (except insofar as everything’s political: it’s clearly a working-class perspective on love), and Kirsty MacColl, the secret weapon of 80s British pop, pops in for the final chorus, but one of the great pop myths is the way that an artist’s biggest hit is also their best representative. This is one of the reasons for that myth.
38. The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Pleased To Meet Me, 1987
I wasn’t around during the 80s. I mean, I was, but I wasn’t listening to music. (Well, Christian pop. Don’t judge me!) So I missed out on the whole alternative scene, except as history. And as history, it’s pretty lame; the high points are, of course, the actual music. So, the history: this is from the Replacements’ “sellout” record, the one where they went all studio polish with Jim Dickinson and there are horn charts and string sections and the rhythm section is tight, not sloppy, and so it’s not really a Replacements record. To people who loved the Replacements in the 80s, anyway. From a latter-day omnivore’s perspective, it’s just a great pop song. And the Replacements made a lot of other great pop songs that were a lot sloppier and rougher and more indebted to my favorite band (the Faces) — but I don’t actually like any of them as much as this one. So there.
37. Joe Jackson “Breaking Us In Two”
Night And Day, 1982
Joe Jackson’s “angry young man” persona in the late 70s had passed through several levels of melodicism, classicism, and even revivalism by this point; sure, he could still bring a smart, savage wit and his rhyme schemes were still among the most literate and intense since the heyday of Ira Gershwin, but his music had expanded out of tough London-pub rock & roll to a jazzy, New York art-pop. The two other key cuts from this album, the supper-club synth-pop “Steppin’ Out” and the raucous Latin-jazz “Another World,” are combined here into a salsa ballad with a synth solo and a Cole Porter arrangement that tips its hat (in the best kind of way) to the astonishing 1932 song that the album is named after.
36. Squeeze “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)”
(Chris Difford/Glenn Tilbrook)
Squeeze too often gets lost in the shuffle. Part of that is by design: they were an unpretentious, hard-working band that weren’t exactly innovative in their witty new-wave pub-rock. And they can easily be written off as a one-hit wonder (“Tempted,” with Paul Carrack on vocals) in the US media, which has taken wholesale dismissal of 80s British acts as “one-hit wonders” to a whole new level — but if you actually sit and listen — man, nobody was writing better, or more human, songs than Difford and Tillbrook. And nobody was playing better electric-piano solos than Jools Holland. It’s tempting to say (see what I did there?) that “Pulling Mussels” is only the tip of the iceberg, but it is their best song. But no really, guys. Check them out.
35. Run-D.M.C. “It’s Tricky”
(Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels/Joe “Run” Simmons/Larry Smith)
Raising Hell, 1986
Okay, quick, name another popular 80s songs that uses not only the same rhythm in the chorus, but even the same rhyme! (Give up? Toni Basil’s “Mickey.” No, listen again.) Run-D.M.C. is, of course, famous for being the first hip-hop act to “break through” to mainstream signifiers like MTV and the cover of Rolling Stone. Actually listen to their music, though, and you see how blindly rockist that really was: they were the hard-rock rap group. Duetting with Aerosmith wasn’t any kind of change of pace for these guys; hell, this song even makes a “My Sharona” sample sound tough and badass. Today, of course, it’s easy to see how odd-man-out Run-D.M.C. were; we all know what happened to rock-rap (shudder). But don’t blame these guys for
34. Echo & The Bunnymen “Bring On The Dancing Horses”
(Pete DeFreitas/Ian McCulloch/Les Pattinson/Will Sergeant)
Songs To Learn And Sing, 1985
Known to millions of lonely American teenagers because it scored a spot on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, this song is kind of unrepresentative of Echo & The Bunnymen. The dark, epic Doors influence of their early records is played down for gauzy, metaphysical-sounding washes and a lyric that probably meant something actual to whoever wrote it, but in reality just uses religious imagery to mean whatever lonely American teenagers wanted it to mean. But hey, that’s better than dark, epic Doors influences, right? (Okay, I’m kidding. There’s just not a whole lot to say. Listen to it, and see.)
33. Orange Juice “Felicity”
That’s right, 1982. It sounds like shambolic, tweestatic late-80s indie, but I can’t help that; that’s the date on the tin. Its jangly guitars, piano stabs and underdeveloped vocals are all pleasantly low-fi, but the sugar rush of the melody, and the great pop moments like the whistle after the first chorus, and the shout “take me to the bridge now” are pure spun-candy brilliance. And like every great pop song that uses a girl’s name, it makes me wish I knew a girl with that name so I could make her a mixtape with this track either in the leadoff or closing spot, depending on what I wanted her to feel about me. (Hey, I’ll out-twee anyone in this building. I ain’t afraid.)
32. Steve Earle “Copperhead Road”
Copperhead Road, 1988
I can’t help it. It may be the song Steve Earle’s best known for — his one-hit wonder — but I never heard it until I went looking for it, and it’s fucking great. Earle’s political, Springsteeny take on country music (which really just ends up sounding like Woody Guthrie with better production values) may have kept him outside of the Nashville mainstream and his dedication to folk and country forms and instrumentation may have kept him out of the pantheon roots-rock heroes (well, anyway, for those who think that Mellencamp is one) — but this song’s surging combination of Celtic (via Appalachian) folk tradition and widescreen hard rock is not only impossible to deny, it’s almost too big to see past.
31. Ultravox “Vienna”
(Warren Cann/Chris Cross/Billy Currie/Midge Ure)
There are two Ultravoxes (well, it’s the same band, but two periods). One, with John Foxx, was punk and post-punk, and then pretty much invented New Romanticism with the stripped-down Roxy Music of “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” The other, with Midge Ure, not only expanded on that New Romanticist template, but upped the ante hardcore: this is the Beethoven’s Eroica of New Romantic synth-pop. And not only because the Eroica was written in Vienna; the song’s combination of synth patterns and programming with live instrumentation — the violins, the piano, Ure’s soaring vocals — comes to a majestic, Old Romantic climax with those huge crashing drum sounds and that final, pop-operatic “O Viennaaaaaa.” Woah. Chills. Anyone else? Anyone?
With a glorious Funkadelic hook, alternative rap announced its arrival. The same year, incidentally, that gangsta rap (N.W.A., Ice-T) exploded, consternating suburban parents across the country and dragging commercial rap through a decade of exploitative stupidity that differed from previous explotative, stupid crazes only in degree, not in kind. But about De La Soul. Their day-glo, positive hip-hop was one of the first radical shifts in the genre’s formula, and their incorporation of all kinds of pop, not just the traditional funk, soul and dance, was one of the first formulations of the backpacker aesthetic. No, they weren’t actually hippies, but they incorporated hippie sloganeering and imagery into their funny, personal rap, and brought hip-hop out of the ghetto into the unlimited playspaces of imagination.
29. Cabaret Voltaire “Sensoria”
(Richard H. Kirk/Stephen Mallinder)
The sampling aesthetic didn’t just belong to hip-hop, of course. The incorporation of found sounds (or even pirated sounds) into avant-garde music had been around since the 1950s at least, and found pop expression in the industrial music of the late 70s produced by acts like Throbbing Gristle, NON, and . . . Cabaret Voltaire. CV’s most dancefloor-friendly cut, “Sensoria,” still appropriates and recontextualizes sloganeering like “do right,” “respect those in authority,” and “go to church,” but its jackhammer beats and drifting guitar collages belong to post-punk dance. And then a Zulu chant breaks into the mix. I chose all of these songs without reference to their videos, but this one was one of the classics of 80s avant-garde cinema.
28. Madness “Our House”
(Chris Foreman/Carl Smyth)
Madness is much more than this song, of course, one of the all-time great Britpop bands that stands on a level with the Kinks, the Jam, Blur, and the Streets as a pop act invested in the quotidian and humor of specifically British culture. (And before that, they were a pretty great ska band.) At the same time, this is Madness’ greatest song, a fact which lies beyond its “VH1’s Greatest Hits Of The 80s” status and goes back to the origin of all great pop: the kickoff. That left-handed piano line, that bass burble, and then a breezy horn hook. Strings soar and stab behind Suggs’ straight-faced delivery of damn-near-universal childhood memories, and the chorus is a massed chant, as much working-class solidarity as group nostalgia. Few British songs were ever this funky; few funk songs were ever this British.
27. The Pretenders “Back On The Chain Gang”
Learning To Crawl, 1984
The multiplicity of meanings that pop music can contain is perfectly illustrated by this, Chrissie Hynde’s most vulnerable performance and the most gorgeously pop song the Pretenders ever recorded. It’s mostly seen as a lament for the death of the band’s original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, whose style had been among the most influential of the new wave era. But Hynde originally wrote it for Ray Davies, and you can hear the airy lightness of the Kinks’ classic period, Hynde’s solo recalling the Davies brothers at their most wry. And then it incorporates the “hmm-hah” grunts from Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang” (“that’s the sound of the men working on the—”), both literalizing the lyrics and providing a secondary (tertiary?) hook. The song joins a timeless pop tradition, and stands for a specific moment in the Pretenders’ group history.
26. Dexys Midnight Runners “Geno”
(Audrey Robinson Archer/Kevin Rowland)
Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, 1980
One of the classic statements of purpose of Northern Soul, “Geno” is a tribute to barely-known soul singer Geno Washington, who moved to the
25. Van Halen “Jump”
(Michael Anthony/David Lee Roth/Eddie Van Halen/Alex Van Halen)
It’s not exactly the hard rock that made Van Halen legends or Van Hagar chart heroes, but it’s the ultimate expression of the pop supermania of the Diamond Dave years. The massive synth hooks retain their vitality to such a degree that when my home team’s leading personality (this year, anyway), Eric Byrnes, takes the plate at Chase Field, the strains of “Jump” fill the air and the crowd goes wild. (Go D-Backs!) Yes, the lyric is insensitively encouraging some dude to commit suicide, but that’s not what the music is saying; it joins the Chariots Of Fire theme and “Eye Of The Tiger” as one of the supreme expressions of getting pumped that’s ever been committed to record.
24. The Beastie Boys “Brass Monkey”
(Mike Diamond/Adam Horovitz/Rick Rubin/Adam Yauch)
Licensed To Ill, 1986
It’s been years since the Beastie Boys were considered controversial — their latest album is an instrumental one — but in 1986 they were a sign of the end times for both black and white listeners. Never mind that the history of skinny Jewish guys appropriating an urban black musical form and making it both sillier and more palatable to the greater pop audience has a long and noble history (Irving Berlin comes to mind); never mind even that hip-hop has not proven to be the End of Decent Music (unless you’re, you know, an idiot). Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock proved with this song that they weren’t just a novelty act propped up by rock producer Rick Rubin; they turned a song about drinking with Run-D.M.C. into a gamelan-funk ode to teenage slackerdom. If there ever comes a time when the Beastie Boys aren’t a thirteen-year-old boy’s favorite band, civilization as we know it will have ended.
23. The Cocteau Twins “Lorelei”
(Elizabeth Fraser/Robin Guthrie/Simon Raymonde)
I’ve mentioned the 4AD label a couple times in this list; the Cocteau Twins were their signature band. Robin Guthrie’s multitracked, atmospheric, and processed-from-here-to-eternity guitars and complex drum-machine patterns, Elizabeth Fraser’s gorgeously ethereal vocals, ranging from a waifish sporano to an icy alto, and whatever the bassist happened to be doing invented a whole new category of music: dream-pop. The lyrics can barely be made out and don’t matter anyway; it’s all about the sonics, and the swirling shifts of melody in this song, from the drifting gauze of the “verses” to the stirring march of the “chorus,” are as gorgeously eloquent as pop ever gets.
22. Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
(Steven Adler/Duff McKagan/Axl Rose/Slash/Izzy Stradlin)
Appetite For Destruction, 1987
“There’s your ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ which is probably the most beautiful heavy metal ballad ever writ (once you ignore weird lyrics like ‘her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide’…..exactly where WAS this boy hiding, for chrissake????)” — Mark Prindle. But all kidding aside, yes, this is one of the great pop moments of the 80s, driven by Slash’s unforgettable opening guitar figure (which he mocked as a “circus” melody), Axl’s signature yowling, and the moody, funky “where do we go now” breakdown that comes in where the usual metal ballad would have faded out. Its impact has been diminished by its near-omnipresence over the past twenty years, but that’s pop too: when something turns out to be successful, it’s beaten into the ground.
21. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll”
(Jake Hooker/Alan Merrill)
I Love Rock ’N’ Roll, 1981
Melding the iconic 1950s images of James Dean and jukeboxes with 70s glitter stomp, punk feminism, and stadium rock, Joan Jett produced the greatest rock & roll anthem of all time. With snarling motorcycle-gang guitars, a basic, dumbass lyric, and a melody even more basic than that, it takes the stripped-down bravado of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to a whole new level of dumb, tough glory. (The fact that Joan Jett is way more badass than Freddie Mercury doesn’t hurt.) Some critics have seen this as the origins of riot grrrl punk, but Jett wasn’t ideological; she just loved rock & roll. And was very, very, very good at it.
What makes this song more important or interesting or representative than any other Pogues song? I dunno; it’s just the first song I heard of theirs, and the first song of theirs I fell in love with, back in the days when it was impossible to find a Pogues record for less than $20 in the
19. Spandau Ballet “True”
The apex of New Romantic soul, sharply tailored and divinely produced. With echoey Serge Gainsbourg guitar flecks, pillowy keyboards, and the signature that every great pop song needs, the breathy “haa-haa-haa-haaa-haa” hook, it’s a post-Roxy Music tribute to Philly soul, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green. Of course it’s hopelessly white, but they manage to make a virtue of their pallor, Tony Hadley channelling Mel Tormé rather than Donny Hathaway, and sounding both of the moment and eternal. It teeters precariously close to cheese at times (sax solo? big surprise), but the perfectly-timed key changes after each chorus elevate it out of mere stylish white soul into great song, period.
18. The Blasters “Dark Night”
Hard Times, 1985
Introduced to a pop culture-scavenging generation via Robert Rodriguez’s stylish Western vampire thriller From Dusk To Dawn, this is maybe the Blasters’ least typical song, more desert noir than the hardcore rockabilly that made their name. But that taut, seductive riff just begs to float hauntingly over the “stranger comes to town” scene in every great noir, and Phil Alvin’s hillbilly whine takes on menacing shades as images of violence, secrecy, and paranoia drive through the tough, reserved backbeat that plays its cards close to the vest. Even the cowbell sounds less like a party-down signifier and more like a cheap replacement for the knell of doom.
17. Talking Heads “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”
(David Byrne/Brian Eno/Chris Frantz/Jerry Harrison/Tina Weymouth)
Remain In Light, 1980
The most forward-looking American band of the 70s opened the 80s with this, the first track on their landmark Remain In Light. Treated percussion for two beats, then pow! their inventive blend of African polyrhythms and robotic Eno-funk sets up a chilly, paranoid groove. Byrne sing-speaks the verses in wiry, crazed-prophet mode, and then moans refrains with Brian Eno while Tina Weymouth pops and locks her bass like Larry Graham — or even Les Claypool. Guest Adrian Belew’s treated synth-guitar solo does an excellent impression of a telephone keypad . . . and then the “heat goes on” chant takes up, smirking at Sonny Bono while remaining faithful to the Heads’ vision of political delusion and urgent funk. It’s not their most pop song of the decade — or even of the album — but given all the description above, it remains amazingly pop.
16. Chris Isaak “Wicked Game”
Heart Shaped World, 1989
For years, I misjudged Chris Isaak. I thought — based solely on the fact that this song was frequently paired with some piece of drivel like “Right Here Waiting” when I was first getting into pop music — that he was a one-note adult contemporary hack like Richard Marx or Bryan Adams, an idea which the flagrantly sensual video did nothing to disabuse me of. (Like I was paying attention to the music at thirteen.) After a more thorough education in pop history, though, he stands out as the heir to Roy Orbison’s aching warble, a rockabilly romantic who managed to tuck ghostly steel guitars into a pop smash, then echoed them with his own falsetto croon.
15. The Cure “Lovecats”
Japanese Whispers, 1984
Possibly the most unexpected move for the Cure to make in 1984, after three solid records of drifting, echo-chambered, alienated depression, was to record this jaunty, funhouse-mirror love song in swing time, complete with upright bass, tack piano, and horn punctuation. It’s still pretty kinky — Robert Smith wouldn’t play things completely straight for another three years, when “Just Like Heaven” exploded into pop heaven — but the wordless “ba-da-bap-ba” refrains and the silly feedback-as-feline-yowls conceit bring a whimsical sense of humor to Smith’s previously monochromatic, melodramatic, and self-consciously artsy universe. Even the video recalls stop-motion animation and Pee-Wee Herman’s queasy shtick, and features Robert Smith smiling. Maniacally, yes, but still.
14. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)”
(Melvin Glover/Sylvia Robinson)
Having introduced socially-conscious rap with “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and his crew upped the ante with this anti-cocaine anthem that still reverberates in hip-hop culture (where dealing is glorified, but actually using gets you ostracized). The inventive melodicism of the song is still pretty staggering in hip-hop terms, from its gnarled bassline to the “Twist And Shout” harmony-building and the horn charts that introduce section after section: it’s packed full of hooks to an almost wasteful degree — even managing to turn sniffs into rhythm. And then there’s Melle Mel’s rapping, sly and forceful by turns, even bringing back the sarcastic laugh he perfected on “The Message.” Electro — the early-80s combination of disco, hip-hop, and electronic music — was more or less defined by this song, and while hip-hop purists may decry it as miscegenated form, those of us who just want great pop can hear more clearly.
13. New Order “Temptation”
(Bernard Albrecht/Gillian Gilbert/Peter Hook/Stephen Morris)
This would be, for my money, the song where New Order fully left behind the shackles of Joy Division and embraced not only the dance-rock that would become their stock-in-trade for the next two decades, but the personal romaticism of British indie, the uniquely British response to the postindustrialist society that is neither nostalgic nor hedonistic, but tries for personal connection even in the facelessness of the dancefloor. Which pretty much means it’s not exactly New Order’s most representative song — but the watery guitars and (for once) not-oblique lyrics add a humanism to the martial beats and pulsing sequencers that would, increasingly, define electronic music for the rest of the century.
12. Sonic Youth “Teen Age Riot”
(Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo/Steve Shelley)
Daydream Nation, 1988
Although it doesn’t really kick in as a song for quite a while, that first minute-twenty-two is possibly my favorite part of the song, ambling sleepily through a gentle pattern (reminiscent of the Damned’s “Smash It Up, Part I”) while Kim Gordon mumbles “spirit desire . . . we will fall” like a drugged priestess. Of course, once the riffs hit and the riot starts for real, it’s one of the finest five minutes of Amerindie, cycling through the same overcharged guitar patterns (those choppy riffs at the end of every line: glorious) as Thurston slacker-sings the real anthem of the grunge generation (Kurt who?). This isn’t Sonic Youth at their most artistically challenging — no sheets of feedback, for one thing — but this is them at their pop pinnacle.
11. Kirsty MacColl “A New England”
Another Billy Bragg/Kirsty MacColl joint, and her biggest hit in her native
In many ways, the Smiths are the definitive band of the 1980s, at least for those who prefer the British version of the 80s over the American version (and who wouldn’t take
9. Bow Wow Wow “Do You Wanna Hold Me?”
(Matthew Ashman/Dave Barbarossa/Leigh Gorman/Annabella Lwin)
When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, 1983
There are two images of Bow Wow Wow current in the popular imagination: one is of the one-hit wonder (in
8. Public Enemy “Bring The Noise”
(Chuck D/Eric “Vietnam” Sadler/Hank Shocklee)
Less Than Zero, 1987
“Bass! How low can you go?” The greatest hip-hop act of all time (sure, that title’s up for debate; but I’m a white dude from a rock background, sorry) explodes on their signature song, politically confrontational and unapologetic in ways that rap never had been before and rarely would be again. But it remains pop, refusing to devolve into mere agitprop and polemics; not only because of Flavor Flav’s hyper, wack interjections and carnival goofery, but because the Bomb Squad’s dense collage of samples is meshed to form a stone groove, one that not even Anthrax could obliterate. And Chuck D, spitting lyrics like a hellfire preacher, heightens the standard for literacy and depth in rap without compromising the essential message: bring the noise, turn it up, because if the right to party is the only right we got left, then we will party for our right to fight.
7. The Jam “Beat Surrender”
Seven years ago, when I was educating myself in pop music history, I bought a copy of the Jam’s Greatest Hits. The evolution they showed, from first single “In The City” to last single “Beat Surrender,” was unlike any other I had ever seen, and is still remarkable: from toothless Who-wannabe punks to British observationalists in the vein of the Kinks to a tight pop-soul band turning out farewell singles on a level with the cream of Motown and Stax is extraordinary no matter how you cut it. Still fierce and engaged on the eve of descending into the sophisti-pop doldrums of the Style Council, Paul Weller throws off lyrics like “bullshit is bullshit, it just goes by different names” as though he would never become the ultimate symbol of dad-rock during the Britpop 90s. And the horn charts, piano rolls, and backup singers don’t tame their mod fury; they just launch it into the stratosphere.
6. Tom Waits “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six”
As far as I’m concerned, Tom Waits’ career doesn’t really start until this moment. Sure, he’d knocked around (and been recording) for a decade as a barroom balladeer, fusing Beat poetry and nightclub jazz into a surprisingly durable underground-pop persona. But when he married Kathleen Brennan, everything changed. He got the confidence to do what he wanted to do: explore weird sonics and rhythms, develop a theatrical voice that borrowed as much from
5. Prince “Little Red Corvette”
The song that transformed Prince from a Rick Jamesy bedroom funkster into a rock & roll icon who cut across race lines to transform 80s pop with a soul-rock combination of a kind that hadn’t been heard since the glory days of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. With a shiny psychedelic-electronic production (by Prince) and a power-ballad guitar part (by Dez Dickerson), the song comes off as both brand-new (for 1983) and part of the glorious tradition of rock & roll songs celebrating Cadillacs, 409s, Deuce Coupes, and Rocket 88s. (Apparently the song came to him in a dream, although his ex Vanity claims that she was driving a red Corvette at the time.) Prince’s trademark ability to make a song with a relatively slow tempo urgent and exciting began here, and wouldn’t fail him for nearly a decade, when he started calling himself, uh, that thing.
4. Elvis Costello & The Attractions “Almost Blue”
Imperial Bedroom, 1982
Nobody has experimented with so many wildly different musical styles as Elvis Costello; and nobody has done them so well, either. From the snarling pub-rock of his first record to glossy pop, Motown soul, Nashville country, art-rock, and even (these days) classical, jazz, and hard rock, he zeroes in on the specifics of a genre, then reconfigures them to fit his own sardonic, romantic, and guilty persona. Written for Chet Baker (and, eventually, played by Chet Baker), “Almost Blue” takes the title of his country record but takes the form of a pre-rock ballad, something that Harold Arlen or Frank Loesser might have done on a good day, and then played by one of Verve or Blue Note’s stable of sensitive jazz-based interpreters. Yeah, that’s Costello’s voice, unmistakably; but for almost the first time in his balladic career, it’s not a limitation. The blues shade his anguished tones as much as they did Billie Holiday’s. And an apparently dead form lives again.
3. The Jesus & Mary Chain “Just Like Honey”
(Jim Reid/William Reid)
One of the foundational texts in noise-pop. A somber “Be My Baby” drumbeat; an overcharged, splintering, fuzzing guitar; an enigmatic lyric, delivered in a spectral tone just above a whisper. And a melody that is to die for. While the guitars bleed and throw off ear-shattering sparks of feedback and noise, the underlying chords swim underneath like Brian Wilson, and finally come to the surface, after an apocalyptic noise solo, in the perfectly pop way: through a female voice. None of the Chain’s subsequent output would be quite so gorgeously sweet, but that’s their problem; when Scarlett Johanssen joined them earlier this year at Coachella to sing the female part, their greatest song found voice again.
2. Katrina & The Waves “Walking On Sunshine”
Katrina & The Waves, 1985
The key moment in High Fidelity is not when John Cusack’s character has any big revelation, or whatever Nick Hornby’s mopy relationship story is supposed to be about. The reason the movie has been embraced by music geeks is the moment when Jack Black puts this song on the record store’s PA system and dances. Cusack and the guy who looks like Moby are wrong and Jack Black is right: there is no better feel-good song. Forget the Beatles, the Supremes, ABBA, the Jackson Five, and Sly & The Family Stone: the song that truly expresses joy most thoroughly and completely is from a one-hit wonder whose only other claim to respect is including an ex-member of the Soft Boys (Robyn Hitchcock’s foundational indie band). With a power-pop production that could have been recorded at any time between 1967 and 1985, it hits the mark so fully that I’m frankly surprised I even have to say this.
1. R.E.M. “Radio Free Europe”
(Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe)
Eh. Nothing else seemed like it really wanted to be in this spot.
Okay, I’m kidding. But, really, what’s left to say? The most important American indie band of the 80s, their introductory song, the font and origin of the college radio format that formed the taste of a generation of music nerds, a muffled, schizophrenic Byrds for the dislocated, paranoid Reagan era. Rock & roll mutates, and lives on. Excelsior.