The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

105

Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

As the leadoff single from Remain in Light, “Once in a Lifetime” was listeners' first taste of Talking Heads' rebirth as a cohesive band, and the group's fascination with worldbeat rhythms are nothing less than revelatory. The track bubbles with the fruits of the transformative process, a drunk and dizzy mosaic of African folk, synth-pop, and jazz-flavored improvisation led by the manic preaching of its vocalist. Indeed, it's Byrne that lends “Once in a Lifetime” its sermonic power, barking like an enrapt clergyman to his swaying congregation. “Let the water hold me down,” he sings, fully realizing that, for both the Talking Heads and listeners, “Once in a Lifetime” is practically baptismal. Liedel

4

Prince and the Revolution, “When Doves Cry”

Prince's songs are always caught up in the throes of eccentricity, but masterpieces like “When Doves Cry” take on a sense of warped grandiosity that approaches madness. Built around a curiously inane central image (the sound of birds weeping) with a low-key chorus and a heavy amount of repetition, the track works because Prince is so adamant in selling it. Piling on shrieks, yelps, moans, and several other forms of nonverbal cues, he guides the song through nearly six minutes of formless experimentation and garbled synth doodles, riding out on one of his signature masturbatory guitar solos. Cataldo

3

Blondie, “Call Me”

Written, recorded, and released painfully close to Ian Curtis's suicide, it's difficult to separate Joy Division's magnum opus from the tragic events that surround it. The lyrics even offer a cryptic insight into Curtis's clearly troubled mindset, with the late singer bewailing the fractures and fissures of his floundering marriage to Deborah Curtis. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is as much a suicide note and it is a tombstone, a song birthed from utter despair and a harrowing sense of disillusionment, which in turn births one of the most intense and excruciatingly emotive moments in musical history. Jones

2

Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Written, recorded, and released painfully close to Ian Curtis's suicide, it's difficult to separate Joy Division's magnum opus from the tragic events that surround it. The lyrics even offer a cryptic insight into Curtis's clearly troubled mindset, with the late singer bewailing the fractures and fissures of his floundering marriage to Deborah Curtis. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is as much a suicide note and it is a tombstone, a song birthed from utter despair and a harrowing sense of disillusionment, which in turn births one of the most intense and excruciatingly emotive moments in musical history. Jones

1

Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”

If, 30 years later, it seems almost quaint that producer Quincy Jones infamously balked at the idea of releasing “Billie Jean” as a single due to its subject matter, that's because the song set the precedent for how former teen idols are allowed to turn into hot-blooded adults. The grown-up narrative rings with first-person authenticity, with Jackson drawing inspiration from the countless paternity suits leveled against him and his brothers during the heyday of the Jackson 5. And then there's Jones, lending real credibility to Jackson's bid to be taken at face value as an adult and whose work has, arguably, never been better. From the bassline that struts into the song's opening few bars to the signature synth figure, “Billie Jean” is as flawlessly constructed a single as anything in pop history, its melodic and lyrical hooks stacked back-to-back-to-back. But for all of the desperation in Jackson's he-said-she-said cautionary tale and torrid vocal turn, “Billie Jean” works because it never takes its eyes from where all its trouble started: the dance floor. Keefe

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