Warner Bros. Records

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


A Number of Names, “Sharevari”

A lot of songs from the post-disco/pre-techno era manage the feat of sounding both ahead of their time and, now, quaintly dated. The spare, deep “Sharevari,” one of the earliest proto-techno dance tunes, continues to sound like both Hill Valley in 2015 and downright Flinstonian. (Released in 1981, it’s technically stuck in a boogie time warp all its own: too late for disco, too early for electro, and besting both.) It’s really all about that bassline, so massive it scarcely leaves any room for a tight little high hat and a few “Moscow Discow”-like interjections. Deep, primordial, basic to a fault, but it fills a room like a brontosaurus pulling a b-boy windmill. Henderson


Run-D.M.C., “Walk This Way”

The single that first made rap music “safe” for white America, Run-D.M.C.’s collaboration with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on a cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” marks the point at which the two most dominant forces in American music definitively changed their respective courses in ways that are still shaping trends decades later. After “Walk This Way” conquered both radio and MTV, never again would hip-hop be considered some sort of fringe movement or novelty, and its pervasive influence on all aspects of pop culture would push MOR rock—as embodied by acts like Aerosmith—ever closer to irrelevance. Keefe


The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”

Nearly 20 years before it was used as a marketing anthem for Microsoft, “Start Me Up” was an unceremoniously scrapped B-side from Black and Blue, destined for a dusty studio heap until it was rescued for 1981’s Tattoo You. It would have been an ironically lame fate for what’s become one of the Rolling Stones’ most iconic and recognizable tunes, a bluesy, hard-edged throwdown that supplied the perfect credo for, in 1982, the 20th anniversary of the so-called greatest rock n’ roll band in the world. The track proved to be prescient, its red-meat guitar riff doubling down nicely on Mick Jagger’s promise to “never stop” Cataldo


Kraftwerk, “Computer Love”

For a group that immersed themselves in technology, computers, and all things electronic, “Computer Love” displays a tender, human side to Kraftwerk. So tender and human, in fact, that Coldplay’s Chris Martin wrote to the German electronica pioneers requesting to sample the song’s gorgeous minimalist melody for his 2005 smash “Talk” This single is also one of Kraftwerk’s most weighty prophecies, telling of our disquieting attachment to computer monitors, TV screens, or whatever device our urban society uses to get their technology fix. It’s unnerving to think that Kraftwerk warned us against our march toward this soulless existence as far back as 1981, but there’s never been a more apt time for a generation neck-deep in “data dates” to heed this message. Jones


Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, “Looking for the Perfect Beat”

“Planet Rock” was the cornerstone for a new rhythmic electro nation and still lands atop most lists of proto-techno and early hip-hop, but it’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat” that feels more like the uncut manifesto. It’s definitely the more focused and preoccupied: “I must get mine/I’m out to get it” Afrika Bambaataa’s mission isn’t to land a #1 or fill floors. The quest to craft the perfect beat spans the epochs of “universal people” and the “Mighty Zulu Nation” If the song’s rhythms are notably less off the cuff and inventively playful than those crashing throughout “Planet Rock,” well, no one ever accused zealots of lacking concentration. Henderson


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