The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


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Do you know why VH1 produced more installments of I Love the '80s than any other decade? Because there was simply more to love. Many would argue that other recent decades surpassed the '80s for diversity of musical expression, for production innovations, for ebullience and personality, for political honesty. In fact, by nearly every individual measure, the '80s probably take a backseat to some other era. So why do we still deify those 10 years? Probably because the decade's best songs offered some of pop history's finest simple pleasures, which is why you won't often find humorless rockists making arguments on its behalf like they do for the '60s, '70s, or even the '90s. Sure, there were plenty of tunes that cut deep into the blackest heart of the Reagan era, but some of the most prominent came in such a deceptively sunny disguise (the Boss's “Born in the U.S.A.,” for example) that they were mistaken to be part of the status quo. In the '80s, Public Enemy was the outlier and flourished because of it. Michael Jackson was showing signs of paranoia, but still mostly wanted to rock with you. Madonna was mostly espousing the joy of taking a “Holiday,” and even when she embraced a more militant attitude (“Express Yourself”), she was still arguing on behalf of embracing the pleasure principle. And that's the way we like it. In so many other arenas, we're still paying for the mistakes of the '80s. But when it comes to the decade's music, we feel no compelling reason to feel bad about feeling good. Eric Henderson


David Bowie, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”

For the title track and third single from what's widely considered to be David Bowie's last truly great album, the singer's delivery is closer to that of a low-budget horror movie's demented narrator than the dynamic rock showman that shot to megastardom in the '70s. Bowie spins a yarn of a young girl falling victim to her own fears and insecurities in his tried-and-tested “mockney” accent, and heightens the air of sheer menace further still with a violent percussion section and the sound of dogs barking. Robert Fripp's guitar work here is tremendous too, an exemplary exercise in frenzied crosspicking that adds urgency and suspense to Bowie's deranged psycho-thriller narrative. Huw Jones


Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

As hopeless and heartbreaking as any song that's ever topped the pop charts, Tracy Chapman's “Fast Car” couches its social commentary in deeply personal revelations and confessions. As the city lights flash by Chapman's narrator and the song's arrangement gathers momentum, there's a palpable desperation in the way she sings, “And I had the feeling I could be someone” Because in that moment, having tried and failed to escape the poverty she was born into, she's not expressing a sense of optimism that her station in life will improve, but conceding that she was foolish to have ever thought it could. Jonathan Keefe


Public Enemy, “Don't Believe the Hype”

“Don't Believe the Hype” is an invitation to question everything, up to and including Public Enemy's then-growing reputation. It's the kind of sneakily self-congratulatory gesture that plays as self-deprecation while also being a bit boastful, affirming that there is indeed some hype that needs to be ignored in order to appreciate the group's second album. Whatever the meaning, the track is indicative of the always probing, never accepting nature of the Chuck D-helmed outfit, his harshly forceful rhymes echoed by the cornucopia of grating sound effects sourced by the ever-resourceful Bomb Squad. Jesse Cataldo


The Replacements, “I Will Dare”

“I Will Dare” marks the most accessible and radio-friendly moment for a rowdy Minneapolis four piece that, with a reputation for notoriously wayward live shows and a staunch belief in the punk ethos, was to this point always a million miles away from what one would consider accessible or radio-friendly. Upon its release in 1984, Paul Westerberg spoke of how the band was tired of playing “that noisy, fake hardcore rock,” and there can be no disputing that “I Will Dare” is all the better for reigning in the anarchy and chaos that underpinned their previous work. It's about as close to pop music as the band could get, flaunting a sweet mandolin arrangement and a typically jangly guitar solo from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, and perhaps it's no coincidence that this is their best single by some stretch. Jones


Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You”

What I previously wrote about “one of the most intoxicating singles in pop history,” a state-of-the-art example of sampling craft, still sums it up. “'I Feel for You' had enough blockbuster tricks to bury any lesser talent: ultra-hip vocal cutting techniques, a blazing Stevie Wonder harmonica solo that damn near tops anything on his own records, no less than four synth-keyboard players, and a scintillating, shifting beat from Arif Mardin” For someone who allegedly disliked the memorable hip-hop riffing Grandmaster Melle Mel bookended the track with, Chaka interacted beautifully, making this one of the most compelling crossover tracks ever. Henderson


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