The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

80

Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done for Me Lately”

Nothing sends me into a trembling, corner-cowering stupor than a giggly, under-enunciated Janet Jackson jam. Something about this youngest Jackson has always felt frustratingly passive-aggressive. For better and for worse, even her most ostensibly empowered shows of self-expression suggest an act, and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is no exception. The bouncy, jazzy caged heat of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s spectacular production matches, beat for beat, the litany of gripes Miss Janet lobs at her lazy lover. I don’t believe he’s actually in the room with her as she skips sassily around the couch, but you understand that she’s building control, and that she may actually put it into practice when he comes home. Gonzalez

79

Cybotron, “Clear”

The clattering, dystonic patina of Detroit techno was an abnormal but, in retrospect, inevitable merger between two somewhat freshly debased environments. Primarily, it was one of the offshoots of what remained of the post-disco scene, but it was also a grim reflection of the waning American industrial sector. Motor City being the capitol of what would increasingly become known as the country’s Rust Belt, Detroit techno danced like it couldn’t even fathom what 1999 would look like. Juan Atkins’s trendsetting hit “Clear,” with its spry-paced but, um, clearly disquieted breakbeat, continues to eat metal even today while the rest of the world moves from unleaded toward hybridization. Henderson

78

Pixies, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”

Granted, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” may not thrash and wail with as much balls-to-the-wall fervor as the average entry in the Pixies songbook, but it stands out as one of their most fondly remembered singles for its impeccable performances and superb songcraft. The string arrangements aren’t simply tacked on for the sake of sounding flamboyant or ostentatious; rather, they provide a wonderful contrast to the distortion-heavy guitar licks and Black Francis’s incensed apocalyptic roar. The roar itself is a dizzy blitz of holes in the sky, pounds of sludge, people in the sea, Hebrew numerology, and monkeys gone to heaven, almost as if Francis needed to be at his most bizarre and madcap to offset the song’s lush violins and cellos. Jones

77

Patrice Rushen, “Forget Me Nots”

Good taste is perpetually undervalued. Keyboardist, composer, and one-woman band Patrice Rushen (who, in the late ’70s, was intoxicating enough a talent to have reportedly inspired a young Prince to write “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel for You” in hopes she would record them) has a long string of fresh, clean, indelibly perky R&B hits (“Haven’t You Heard,” “Breakout”) with just enough jazz and disco underpinnings to annoy hardline fans from both camps. The sleek, urbane “Forget Me Nots,” like a sophisticated soul sister to Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” isn’t likely to inspire many shouts of “That’s my jam!,” but everyone will surely two-clap along. Henderson

76

Public Enemy, “Bring the Noise”

Farrakhan, the Terminator X, Eric B., Anthrax, Sonny Bono, Yoko Ono. Public Enemy invite everyone to the table before launching into this blistering, polyrhythmic sermon on the marginalization of rap music, delivered by Chuck D and Flavor Flav at the speed of dark. Arguments about whether Public Enemy was both “too black” and “too strong” answer themselves when one considers that “Bring the Noise” stalled out at #56 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart, but Public Enemy weren’t in the game to make friends. “Bring the Noise” remains one of their most propulsive tracks, a cacophonous barrage delivered with the hustle and focus of a bullet train. Henderson

75

Eurythmics, “Here Comes the Rain Again”

By their third album, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart had already starting moving away from the hardline synthetic sound of their breakthrough, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). The exception, the single “Here Comes the Rain Again,” was a refinement of that synth-pop style—less bombastic, but retaining the rhythm and even a similar melody as the title track from their previous album. Lennox, whose voice is gentler and more melancholic, recounts a downward spiral into depression as the British Philharmonic emulates the sound of the falling rain that torments her. Oddly, the song is composed of two refrains, but no proper verses, and the melody ascends temporarily during the second refrain as Lennox, accompanied by girl-group backing vocals, implores her lover to talk to her. Cinquemani

74

Gary Numan, “Cars”

The snappy new-wave sound that ultimately came to define a good chunk of ’80s music can essentially trace its origins back to one song: “Cars,” the moog-drenched missive courtesy of the pioneering, nasal-voiced Gary Numan. Initially released in the U.K. in 1979, “Cars” serves as a blueprint for the following decade’s obsession with synthesized music, a versatile brand of sci-fi trope-obsessed nerd rock that was eventually perfected by Devo. Few, however, could emulate the track’s gorgeous droning, a cascading miasma of uneasy keyboards that hinted at the ultimate dangers lurking beyond Numan’s womb-like automobile. Liedel

73

The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”

The Cure had pop romanticism on lockdown in the ’80s, and heart-tugging tracks such as “Just Like Heaven” were the reason why. The song is gleaned from the same formula that produced “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Close to Me”: breezy, clean guitar-and-synth parts peppered with cymbal splashes and, of course, Robert Smith’s fluttery vocals. As with most of the coiffed Brits’ output, however, “Just Like Heaven” isn’t all joy, as the track offers a good amount of misery, regret, and unrequited desire to go along with all the bliss. Smith himself once admitted that the song was about hyperventilation, confirming that, for the Cure and their legions of teenage idolizers, love and pain are often synonymous. Liedel

72

Kate Bush, “Hounds of Love”

One gets a sense from the opening barrage of drums on the gothic “Hounds of Love” that Kate Bush has just been chased out of her comfort zone, a suspicion confirmed by the single’s frantic take on her artsy brand of pop. Here, the baroque songstress feels literally pursued by an animalistic desire, and as her trademark cooing grows distraught, she races from fraught highs to growling lows. Bush takes a knowingly coy stance on what she truly craves: Despite decrying the love that’s chasing her (“It’s coming for me through the trees”), she ultimately professes that she needs it, making the pursuit all the more exhilarating. Liedel

71

Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”

Early in the decade that found him responding to new heights of fame by growing increasingly subversive, Bruce Springsteen added shading to his persona with a stripped-down package of four-track recordings, originally intended as the framework for a new album with the E Street Band. Folkie Bruce doesn’t always come off perfectly; his lyrics are better suited to large canvases and don’t always withstand close scrutiny. But everything comes together on a chilling song like “Atlantic City,” a haunting dirge that subsists on pure, unadulterated desperation. Pinned beneath a “debt that no honest man could pay,” it’s the story of one of Springsteen’s saddest working-class analogues, a man forced to dream of a world where “everything that dies someday comes back” Cataldo

 

 

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