Warner Bros. Records

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


Connie Case, “Get Down”

This unfortunately un-famous call to the dance floor, a grandiose hybrid of house and acid influences, suggests the theme to the greatest movie never made: a space-age Blaxploitation film starring Pam Grier. In it, she stray-cat struts down sidewalks to fat-as-her-ass beats that spit, dribble, and fall around her like molasses, ducking behind a car to sex up some Puerto Rican honey for a spell before resuming her mosey-on-down-the-road through sheets of rain that shatter into crystals as they hit the ground. Her name is Connie Case, and the insanely domineering bassline that soundtracks her every want is her promise: to treat you right, hold you tight, and make you get down. Gonzalez


The B-52’s, “Love Shack”

The retro-tinged celebration that runs throughout “Love Shack” is both a refuge and renaissance: a bright, blinking abode that served as a last party stop before the long, dark highway of ’90s grunge, and, perhaps more importantly, the mainstream rebirth of the B-52’s, who, by 1989, had fallen into obscurity. The group is at the top of their beehive-primping game here, celebrating wonderfully oddball imagery with a bevy of clean Stratocasters, brassy horns, and Fred Schneider’s jerky-voiced interludes. True to their roles as hosts, the B-52’s remain the ecstatic drivers of this rainbow-hued vehicle; the rest of us are just along for the sparkly, neon ride. Kevin Liedel


N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton”

While it always had a conscience, hip-hop grew increasingly political as the end of the ’80s drew near, its subject matter gradually expanding to cover the ills of urban existence. “Straight Outta Compton” tapped into the frustrations and anxieties of poverty-stricken L.A. neighborhoods, and remains a startlingly cutthroat look at the bleak, Darwinian realities of a gang-addled city. Apart from the coldblooded warnings of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (with references to Charles Manson, no less), the production itself—including those humming, monotonous samples and bristling beats that chop at every verse—drives home the inevitability of these youth’s callous plight. Liedel


Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, “It Takes Two”

It’s not that “It Takes Two” was either the single best or the single most influential of all the late-’80s songs that cross-pollinated the history-minded elements of hip-hop’s first dynasty (that “Hoo! Yeah!” from Lyn Collins’s “Think,” the use of which quickly became a prerequisite for all hip-house jams) with the futurism and metallurgy of early techno and the juicy thwomp of house. That it qualified so damned highly on both the “best” and the “most influential” lists, though, has ensured it a permanent place in the canon. As fusty as that position makes “It Takes Two” sound to the uninitiated, most unassailable fixtures should “rock right now” this hard. Henderson


Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”

One of those songs that’s been partially overshadowed by its inventive music video, “Sledgehammer” highlighted the possibilities of a new visual medium while also signaling the end of Peter Gabriel’s most creative period. Coming nine years after his exit from Genesis, the song sounds more mainstream than much of his earlier work, with its processed trumpet sample and trilling keyboard line, a fact that doesn’t suggest any hewing to convention as much as the modern landscape having caught up with his innovations. The video hews to the track’s theme of mutability, but by this point Gabriel’s skill for transformation was waning, a fact that makes this last shot even more compelling. Cataldo


Janet Jackson, “The Pleasure Principle”

The penultimate single from Janet Jackson’s Control was the lowest-charting to that point, but has enjoyed arguably the longest shelf life. And its contradictory message to be aware of how pleasure can cloud your judgment—this against some of the hardest skittering beats in her back catalogue—is still converting people today, like me. A few years back, I protested the emerging consensus that “The Pleasure Principle” should be one of the songs we included on our 100 Greatest Dance Songs list. “I won’t be happy with [’The Pleasure Principle’] as the song sounds like someone vomiting into my mouth and telling me I’m a fun-hatah for spitting it out,” I emailed. Which only goes to show the dangers of giving into the short-term pleasure of snap judgments. Henderson


The Bangles, “Hazy Shade of Winter”

The Bangles didn’t just remove the indefinite article from the title of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (no surprise, since they often remove the article from their own name), but they excised a reference to drinking vodka, added a dreamy, harmony-rich intro that, in many ways, is even more S&G than the original, and transformed the rest of the track into a rollicking tribute to each band member’s chops on their respective instrument (including a brief solo vocal turn by Susanna Hoffs). Aside from those minor details, though, the Bangles’ rendition of the folk duo’s 1966 hit, produced by Rick Rubin for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, is remarkably faithful. Cinquemani


Pat Benatar, “Love Is a Battlefield”

Pat Benatar was pushing 30 when she recorded “Love Is a Battlefield,” a song that speaks to the pangs and virtues of youth. But she and her team of writers and producers still managed to capture the heightened melodrama that accompanies young heartache. Benatar comes roaring out of the gate, taking to the frontline of the metaphorical battlefield on behalf of an entire generation, proclaiming their unity during the spoken introduction and then employing her classically trained pipes to declare their collective strength and obstinacy. While the song might seem cheesy or dated nearly three decades later, Benatar sells it like ice on a hot day. Cinquemani


Devo, “Whip It”

Widely misinterpreted at the time of its release as an ode to masturbation or an anthem for BDSM, Devo’s “Whip It” isn’t about anything more subversive than the idea of bettering oneself through dedicated effort. While that sentiment may have been at odds with the trickle-down politics of the day, its fundamental optimism goes a long way toward explaining how one of the band’s founding members, Mark Mothersbaugh, has gone on to have a lucrative career in children’s entertainment: Yo! Gabba Gabba!, it turns out, is far more hospitable to a genuinely oddball POV than the pop charts are. Keefe


Gang of Four, “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time”

Blending lock-step militarism with unruly, seditious noise, Gang of Four creates an ordered system infected with a pronounced undercurrent of chaos. To wit, the bassline and drumbeat on “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” exist in one sphere: martial but placid, with every note in its right place. The guitar work, which is layered on top with the consistency of messily sprayed icing, is a distortion-heavy tangle of jagged transitions and meandering dead ends. The resulting dichotomy suggests the volatility of totalitarianism, evoking the larger image of a world caught between two dissimilar styles of rule. Cataldo