Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1980s



We’ve reached the halfway point for 50 Years of Great Music now as we enter the 1980s. The transition into this decade wasn’t as abrupt as the one that signaled the end of the 60s, but mid-80s trends clashed mightily with the vogue of the mid-70s. Image, of course, played a larger role than ever before, mostly because of the rise of the music video culture. In response, alternative rock was forced to be invented, beginning in college dorms and music shops and the low end of the dial if you were lucky enough to live in the right setting, and eventually finding some degree of commercial success at the decade’s end. Straight rock and roll didn’t die but it did take a hiatus; New Wave flourished for a time before being replaced by the next fad; hip hop still remains popular to this day. On a whole, popular music seemed to get shallower and the more underground stuff seemed to get louder. It was a polarizing era because of the divide (ridiculously, I actually once casually dismissed nearly everything there was to hear in a ten-year span), but there were still more than enough great songs to keep most of the population satisfied. Read on to see the best the 1980s had to offer.

While this will almost certainly go down as the least appealing ten years of the last fifty, it’s a closer race than most would believe (how much good music gets radioplay this decade?). Nonetheless, there were still plenty of songs that missed the cut that disappointed me. Among the casualties (in alphabetical order): “Adult Books,” “Bad Reputation,” Bauhaus, Birthday Party, Boogie Down Productions, “Boom Boom Mancini,” “Breaking the Law,” “The Breaks,” the Cars, the Clean, George Clinton, Cocteau Twins, the Cult, “Cult of Personality,” De La Soul, “Destination Unknown,” Dinosaur Jr., Duran Duran, “E=MC2,” Erasure, “Eternally Yours,” the Fall, “Fast Car,” the Feelies, “Fish Fry,” Galaxie 500, Gang of Four, Robyn Hitchcock, Hoodoo Gurus, the Human League, “I Against I,” “In the Air Tonight,” “In Your Eyes,” Iron Maiden, “Landslide,” Madness, the Mekons, “Mexican Radio,” My Bloody Valentine, “Panama,” the Pastels, “Penetralia,” Pink Floyd, “Planet Rock,” the Pogues, the Primitives, the Pretenders, Lou Reed, Run-DMC, Scritti Politti, “Sex Bomb,” Paul Simon, Simple Minds, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Skeptics, Social Distortion, the Soft Boys, Squeeze, “Stigmata,” the Sugarcubes, “Taste the Pain,” Tears for Fears, They Might Be Giants, “Ugly Truth,” “Woman,” XTC, Yazoo and “Young Turks.” As usual, those only represent songs and artists with no correlating selections to come, so the actual “miss” list is much bigger (and more brutal).

So what made the cut? Scroll down to find out.

100bornusa100. Born in the U.S.A.
by Bruce Springsteen
from Born in the U.S.A.
1984 / Rock

Was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. a reaction to a post-Thriller climate? Shifting from the harrowing pessimism of Nebraska to U.S.A.’s debut single “Dancing in the Dark” certainly made it seem that way. But although the album was hook-heavy, anthemic and primed for radio stations that would turn seven of the songs into Top 10 hits, many of them retained the same grief and horrific platitudes of his last few records—grim ideas can be accompanied by fiery melodies. None of them were better than the title track, depicting the tragedy of Vietnam soldiers and their experiences returning to the homefront. Reacting to the toll on millions to Reaganomics, Springsteen elevated calamity to fist-pumping arena rock and the public followed. Reagan’s staff didn’t get it when they hilariously adopted it as their campaign theme song. The lyrics would have made for some great Mondale bumper stickers (not that he had a chance either way).

99walkinwithjesus99. Walkin’ with Jesus
by Spacemen 3
from The Perfect Prescription
1987 / Alternative

A hazy, dream-like melody and tender acoustic strum masks the fundamentally disturbing heart of “Walkin’ with Jesus,” which finds an addict not caring that his sins are leading him to hell because he thinks he’ll “be in good company down there with all [his] friends.” And in an acerbic, almost satirical twist, he suddenly finds himself praying for forgiveness when he wonders if maybe heaven feels as good as Earth (i.e., a den of drug-addled bliss). Atypical for the model nervy and harsh shoegaze band, Spacemen 3’s composition is positively gentle, even wistful, in depicting a user with the sort of sardonic spiritual conflict that might offend certain circles; if the performance wasn’t so sincere, it might have come off as a joke. But instead you’re scared by such bleakness, which makes it fit in perfectly musically. Considering the name of the album it appeared on, it was already lockstep in line thematically.

98rockit98. Rockit
by Herbie Hancock
from Future Shock
1983 / Hip Hop

Instrumental hip hop has the ability to be just as compelling as any other entry in the genre, if for no other reason than its automatic avoidance of the pitfalls of sub-par rhyming and senseless MC posturing. And when it comes from an artist like Herbie Hancock (with ample assistance from producer Bill Laswell), experimenting with a relatively new style could yield exotically inspired returns: enter “Rockit.” Coming equipped with an amazing music video certainly helped its popularity, particularly since this is the kind of “crazy cool” not generally fit for mass consumption. Being a major inspiration for turntablists the world over (thanks to Grandmixer DST’s legendary performance) is enough of a reason to celebrate this song, but even if you normally turn your nose at rap music, this frantically polyrhythmic and sonically busy venture is one delightfully weird experiment.

97perfectstrangers97. Perfect Strangers
by Deep Purple
from Perfect Strangers
1984 / Rock

Ritchie Blackmore was one of the 70s guitar gods that could summon a killer riff nearly every time he really tried. One of his most appealing riffs, though, waited until the 80s to be unleashed; even more surprising, the song doesn’t contain a proper solo for the virtuoso to incinerate. Don’t fear that the band took eight years off only to return neutered, though, because when the ascending British-blues-inspired plugs and howls transition into a chugging descent, you can’t help but feel a thrill. In between, Ian Paice’s cymbal-happy drum fills intensifies the rhythm while Jon Lord’s dense organ follows (and redirects) Blackmore’s rollercoaster leads. Amidst all the pop-tastic hair metal that became the new vogue among crossover headbangers during the mid-80s, leave it to one of the dinosaur acts to step in and show them how hard rock is supposed to sound.

96magnificentseven96. The Magnificent Seven
by the Clash
from Sandinista!
1980 / Hip Hop

It might alarm you to know that the first major white artist/group to record a hip hop record were four British punks, but on Sandinista!, anything was possible. The first of the album’s thirty-six (yes, thirty-six) songs wound up being the best—peaking too early?—and not just because it was so unexpected to find the Clash flirting with the embryonic New York sound. Dealing with a rather unassuming and unexpected subject for the band (crass consumerism and celebrity adulation), it wasn’t some phony attempt to cash in on a burgeoning trend (even though Mick Jones briefly went by a new and rather laughable rap nickname: “Whack Attack”), and wasn’t even that far removed from the dub and reggae they had already incorporated into their eclectic sound. No wonder the first time out elicited an absolute winner.

95modernlove95. Modern Love
by David Bowie
from Let’s Dance
1983 / Pop

By the early 80s, David Bowie had gone from chic superstar to maverick avant artist, having perfected both sides of the pop/anti-pop bridge, and he was eager for another shot at the mainstream. Although Let's Dance was the weakest Bowie LP since Young Americans, the opening track and third single, “Modern Love,” was one of the best singles he had released in about a decade’s time. Bowie brought the “post-“ and co-producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers brought the “disco,” fusing new wave with its antagonizing antecedent, beefing up the sound, and polishing it to the point that only the cranky horns keep the rough edges. As a song of the decade, it’s very much of its time, and might have sounded ludicrous if released five years before or after (despite frequent inspirational comparisons to Little Richard), but there’s no denying that its hooks are irresistible.

94turnonthenews94. Turn on the News
by Hüsker Dü
from Zen Arcade
1984 / Alternative

The entirety of the 70-minute Zen Arcade was a free-for-all of noise and catharsis—a White Album for the hardcore crowd, if you want to be obvious about it—so “Turn on the News”’s frenetic and anthemic pulse is the perfect shower for those soiled by the preceding hour (but fourteen minutes of Pig Pen spoils the sparkle after that in the form of “Reocurring Dreams”). Yeah, "News" is heavy-handed (“I hear it every day on the radio/Somebody shoots a guy he don’t even know/Airplanes falling out of the sky/A baby is born and another one dies”), but Bob Mould’s gnarled and lo-o-oud guitar provided no room for scalpel subtlety. A nice shout-along chorus, a relatively traditional bridge guitar riff (replete with handclaps!) and the right mix of distortion and finesse results in quite the fiery little winner. Oh, did I say little? It actually sounds as big as its pop-social diatribe.

93debaser93. Debaser
by Pixies
from Doolittle
1989 / Alternative

Black Francis howling about surrealism is only fitting since his vocal performances are usually based entirely on mood, which rarely seem to fit. But this surrealism is specific, pointed at Un chien andalou, the infamous Salvador Dali/Luis Buñuel film that featured the still-shocking-eighty-years-later shot of an eyeball getting sliced open. So when he’s screaming heedlessly about, “Got me a movie/Ha ha ha ho/Slicing up eyeballs/Ha ha ha ho,” you either laugh maniacally with him or you leave the freakin’ room. He’s not insane, though, nor is he the title debaser of art and morality, but anyone who walked out could be viewed with such apathetic discourtesy. How many other bands released half as many terrific tunes in such a short span of time as the Pixies? Put your hand down, Mr. Hayward-Jones, ha ha ha ho.

92silverrocket92. Silver Rocket
by Sonic Youth
from Daydream Nation
1988 / Alternative

After years of noisy soundscapes and guitar terrorism, Sonic Youth finally felt compelled to flirt with fast garage rock overturned towards something bordering on a mainstream punk sound. They couldn’t resist a detuned midsection maelstrom where the punchy riff descends and disintegrates into feedback, but it slowly gathers its bearing and reforms stronger than ever for the homestretch. That Sonic Youth could be as catchy as this wasn’t too surprising—they’d been moving in that direction since EVOL—but that they managed to transition gracefully into this period made enemies out of no one but those who didn’t get it in the first place. I’ll take a catchy chorus any day over a soup of rankled, pitch-less chords, and they managed both exceptionally well in a reasonably tidy package. I may not know what turbo organizers or nymphoid clamors are, but these four sure do make them sound hotshit cool, don’t they? 

91livingthinline91. Living on a Thin Line
by the Kinks
from Word of Mouth
1984 / Pop

Whether you considered them relevant or not, the Kinks did release grabby tunes fifteen and twenty years into their career (“Do It Again,” “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” “Come Dancing,” etc.). The sound of “Thin Line” adapted to the trends (underpinning synths dominate the textural aspect), but just because it’s more polished doesn’t mean it’s lost the edge (or point). Coming from Dave instead of Ray means its less observant and elegant, but even tougher and more brooding; which isn’t to say they plunge into an over-broiled harangue of dead English glory—it merely inquires: what are we supposed to do? The years of consistently great LPs were well past them, but the Kinks had enough juice to toss us the occasional great single; this one wasn’t even given that exclusive treatment, but it is the last truly wonderful song in the band’s rich and storied catalog.

90reigninblood90. Raining Blood
by Slayer
from Reign in Blood
1986 / Metal

With most songs clocking in between two and three minutes (or less), the majority of Slayer’s Reign in Blood was tight, efficient and very fast, sort of like metal by way of punk (and those two camps so rarely got along until grunge). But for sheer tension and anxiety, nothing on the album topped the two bookending “epics,” including the infamous “Raining Blood,” which is technically startling, heavy as hell, and as far as loud thrash goes, pretty damn catchy, too. Which is the appeal, of course—be loud, aggressive, violent and unremitting if you like, but keep the melody intact, which Slayer does with the sort of hair-slashing authority rarely witnessed during the period outside of Metallica. A song that gave birth to an entire sub-genre of metal? Well, maybe it was the entire album, but this is the centerpiece: graphic, evil and mesmerizing.

89eminencefront89. Eminence Front
by the Who
from It’s Hard
1982 / Rock

The final Who studio album (until 2006) was typical of long-running bands’ last gasps—tepid. Overrun with synths and marginal ideas, the album was notable for only three or four choice tunes, few of which compared favorably to past Who successes. The exception is “Eminence Front,” which brings the twinkling, occasionally flabby accents of the Who Are You period, throws in a circular synthesizer riff à la “Baba O’Riley,” and tousles them over a funky backbeat (was Pete Townshend ten years too late?). The eighties hardly had time to settle its bones before a hard-rocking, hard-living band espoused on the troubles of blow—provocative prognosticators, grim-eyed realists or just plain lucky? I guess Keith Moon stuck with them a little longer than we figured.

88rotatinghead88. Rotating Head
by the Beat
from Special Beat Service
1982 / Ska

The Beat (or English Beat in the States, as if anyone could forget these guys were British) released “Rotating Head” (then called “March of the Swivelheads”) as an instrumental B-side before the album release, and showed up famously in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it’s better with the lyrics. The title object is normally tapehead-speak, but this spinner is just a man not playing with a full deck, sporting a gin-trap mind and swollen ankle, expecting “to be shot or get given the bullet.” Anyone who needs evidence that the second wave of ska in its 2 Tone form was even better than the first run can start right here (or with the Specials, or Madness, or Bad Manners, or…). The jittery beat, hectic tempo and trombone jabs give it the sort of displaced energy that most bands try and fail to reproduce—this is stuff to make you sweat.

87rockinfreeworld87. Rockin’ in the Free World
by Neil Young
from Freedom
1989 / Rock

It didn’t make much sense that Young spent the entirety of the 80s pretty much ignoring the policies of Reagan and Bush, Sr., preferring middle-road albums of waning power and interest that seemed to mirror the act of a man who’d lost a lion’s share of his passion. Not that they were bad, per se, but this is a performer who needs a fire in his gut or else he just seems tired. Like he did with his masterful “Hey Hey, My My,” Young bookended Freedom with acoustic and electric versions of the same composition, and this time he brought out a grand, rousing anthem loved (and covered) by countless witnesses. Disturbing imagery of the homeless, environmental toxins and crack addicted mothers abandoning babies to score give way to the sort of semi-ironic, fist-pumping ethos of an arena-friendly chorus. Like the Boss’ “Born in the U.S.A.,” it was also adopted as a theme song to the very machine it decried, but no matter if its audience got it or not, its insatiable inferno can’t be resisted.

86push86. Push
by the Cure
from The Head on the Door
1985 / Rock

Instead of settling on the rancorous gloom of the Cure’s early-80s aesthetic, Robert Smith probably saw an opportunity to expand his ideas onto striking new platforms. Still warbling about darkly lovely dreams, “Push” is announced by a mighty cymbal crash followed by Smith and Porl Thompson’s soaring guitar riff, and later by a sparkling piano intertwining the thrust—initial fears that the Cure had gone to the dark (light?) side vanish after the bassline emerges from the stew and the vocals come sauntering in after more than two minutes have passed, haunting in the gorgeous way that only this band could do just right: “He gets inside to stare at her/The seeping mouth/The mouth that knows/The secret you/Always you.” The baroque tale is a weary wreck, but the signature melody is one of rapturous escapism; yes, even goth kids needed an anthemic music release from time to time.

85crazytrain85. Crazy Train
by Ozzy Osbourne
from Blizzard of Ozz
1980 / Metal

Randy Rhoads is the Duane Allman of heavy metal, a jaw-dropping talent stolen away before he had a chance to peak. The riff he, Ozzy and Bob Daisley came up with for “Crazy Train” is as good as anything Black Sabbath had developed since Master of Reality (and a thousand times cooler than anything the Ozzy-less Sabbath was up to after “Heaven and Hell”). Flipping between the crunchier, Ritchie Blackmore-esque minor key thrashing part and a fast, melodic major flicker (an offshoot of Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tap), Rhoads was the star here as much as Ozzy. Nevertheless, Osbourne’s first big stab at solo stardom proved revelatory as the Prince of Darkness showed the doubters that he had the chops to make it without the rest of Sabbath. All of this, of course, overlooks the simplest of facts: this is the sort of subhuman thrill than only be described as “kick ass.”

84callme84. Call Me
by Blondie
from the American Gigolo soundtrack
1980 / Pop

Blondie’s inspiration in recording this song was so that they could work with Italo disco legend Giorgio Moroder, one of their musical heroes for the disco-punk blend that formed the template for New Wave. That inspiration remains for “Call Me,” a none-too-subtle attempt at tasteful coyness for “paid companionship,” and, of course, coming from Debroah Harry’s lips only made her more sensually appealing without losing that delectable frosty edge. The drumbeat and prancing synths are straight from the glitter ball circuit, with the appropriate Euro finish, but the gnarly guitars that gallop over them made sure even the hard-headed kids could dance frantically to it. Sped up to double speed, a radio DJ famously joked that it was a new Chipmunks single—the popularity hilariously resulted in the rush-job Chipmunk Punk; you can also have it four-and-a-half minutes longer than the single version, which is the only edition that proper Moroder fans will ever accept.

83fadetoblack83. Fade to Black
by Metallica
from Ride the Lightning
1984 / Metal

Was it too early for Metallica to flirt with a ballad? Sure, the crystalline acoustic guitar eventually gives way to segments of slowed-down thrash aggression and the second half features a stirring solo that ranks among Kirk Hammett’s best (and he’s got plenty), but this isn’t the heavy metal monolith we’ve become accustomed to. Death-obsessed and dealing with a man’s contemplation of suicide before deciding to take the plunge, its controversy was overstated, since this is a song of tremulous exploration and heartbreaking results, not encouragement. It’s also one of the band’s most overtly melodic songs; like Led Zeppelin at their finest, the softer moments are lovely and harmonic and the heavy stuff will rattle your bones. Instead of simply flattening everything with a punishing riff and growling about death, hate and fear, Metallica proved remarkable maturity on just their second album with a complex arrangement, terrifyingly haunting lyrics and one of the most effective theme-driven climaxes ever registered by a metal band.

82likeaprayer82. Like a Prayer
by Madonna
from Like a Prayer
1989 / Pop

I never much cared for most of Madonna’s records (a dozen or so good ones among dozens more reasons to switch the channel), which I acknowledge is rather ridiculous, but there you go. So I recognize the faint hint of irony then that I’d champion one of the biggest, most melodramatic and over-the-top songs in her canon. Beginning with her appealing to God (eerie echo and all), its verses try for haunted, the choruses are glam gospel and around the halfway mark, it goes into flamboyant widescreen, flares of world music and all—and I’m describing the even bigger remix version, which, yes, is even better. Hugely controversial music video or not, this orgiastic pop epic that explored faith and all the angst and confusion that entails found the Material Girl overcoming the collapse of her marriage to Sean Penn and taking a real risk at making the Big Important Statement, and the dividends that were paid out are nearly too many to count. Watch out for that Serious Artist label, though.

81happywhenitrains81. Happy When It Rains
by the Jesus and Mary Chain
from Darklands
1987 / Alternative

The Jesus and Mary Chain had already successfully paid fleeting tribute to the Ronettes on “Just Like Honey,” so basing “Happy When It Rains” on “My Girl” seemed to fit the mold. But Motown this ain’t, as JAMC went all goth romantic on the second single of Darklands but lost little of their feedback-drenched guitar squall. The reverb is more lovely than oppressive, though, and the sentiment of a man whose happy when it rains so he’s able to weather the storm (no pun intended) of a rocky relationship to keep his lover close rings true to their anguished audience. “Looking at me enjoying something that feels like, feels like pain,” sings Jim Reid over a bed of fuzzy but jangling chords. “I would shed my skin for you…I would break my back for you.” The Reid brothers aren’t exploring new emotions in pop music, but they are marrying the brunt and graphic nature of punk and goth with appealingly relaxed hooks. They never really were a band built for radio hits, but this one comes damn close.

Top 100 Songs of the 60s
Top 100 Albums of the 60s
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Top 100 Albums of the 70s




Matt Medlock


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