The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation”

Janet's socio-political tour de force opens with an inventory of samples and sounds, including her own “Nasty” and part of the bassline and horn section of Sly and the Family Stone's “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” But letting you be yourself wasn't on Janet and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's agenda. The song doesn't espouse personal freedom; it calls for social justice, with lyrics that promote the virtues of “strength in numbers” and calls for a generation to “come forth with me,” or as Eric Henderson once put it, “unity through mandatory multiculturalism” Just as the costumes and sets for the accompanying music video were worryingly uniform, even oppressive, the music is militant and regimented, with beats that fire like artillery juxtaposed with the typically thin-voiced Janet's unbridled vocal performance. “Rhythm Nation” makes its statement without relying on schmaltz; it's no wonder why big brother Mike was envious of it. Cinquemani


Prince, “1999”

It's no surprise that the Purple One would envision the end of the world as one big sex party, and “1999” befittingly serves as the dance orgy's funk-pop soundtrack. Prince, however, doesn't take center stage at the ball, and his decision to split up vocal duties among members of the Revolution lends the song a deliciously campy play-acting quality reminiscent of tragic Greek choruses. As expected, the band's tack is to embrace the apocalyptic tide: “Life is just a party, and parties weren't meant to last,” they happily sing in resignation, fully doused in the waves of synths, electro-claps, and wriggling basslines. Don't you wanna go? Liedel


U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”

“Where the Streets Have No Name” represents the crest of U2's yearning-filled Joshua Tree opus, fading into the ears on the back of Edge's guitar peels and a heady sense of momentum. The track is easily one of the band's greatest moments, bursting with a pure, emotive fervor that predates all the arena-filling motifs and other rock gimmicks we've come to expect from the world's biggest rock acts. “I want to reach out and touch the flame,” Bono gushes, reminding us that, before the spectacle arrived, the angst and idealism were very, very real. Liedel


Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”

From its elastic bassline to its cornball horns, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” didn't exactly break any musical molds back in 1987, but it suggested that the overly refined Whitney Houston, Clive Davis's number one creation, was capable of two tons o' fun. Its schmaltzy sonic tinkling is spry but unsurprising for almost four minutes, until all of its synthy effervescence reveals itself as a reverie, from which Whitney awakens breathless, almost frustrated, and the song soars as a series of provocations, with the finest, if steeliest, voice of a generation no longer dreaming of the dance, but insisting on it. Gonzalez


New Order, “Ceremony”

It's a shame that “Ceremony” has forever been blighted by sects of a supposed diehard faithful who can't seem to stop bemoaning the fact Ian Curtis isn't lending his vocals to the track. It's impossible to shake off Curtis's ghost here, given that he has a writing credit and that the song sounds and feels so much like a Joy Division number. But the single manages to catch New Order close to their best and at their most somber, with each of the band's accomplished musicians complementing one another in a whirlwind of industrial psychedelia and sobering post-punk sorrow. Jones



From our partners