Warner Bros. Records

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


Laurie Anderson, “O Superman (For Manneset)”

The ending to this particularly spooky scary story in the catalogue of one of our most remarkable multimedia performance artists once seemed unknown. Above two alternating chords, Laurie Anderson’s vocoder-ed voice delivers a weird state of the union address about, I guess, military might. It takes planes and smoke as its motifs, responsibility and inevitability as its themes, beginning almost absurdly with an embarrassing, existentially fraught message left by a mother on her child’s answering machine and finishing as a saxophone-y dirge. Before T-Mobile returned the song to the mainstream, it was 9/11 that seemed to finally make sense of it, proving what seemed like the ramblings of a borderline cat lady to be the wisdom of a prophet. Gonzalez


Blondie, “Atomic”

The first great dance-punk single, released a full two decades before dance-punk was even a trend, Blondie’s “Atomic” suggested how the band would survive the looming fallout from disco’s end of days: By shielding their dance music behind some heavy rock. Producer Mike Chapman’s brilliant arrangement suggests a spaghetti western playing out in middle of a dance floor. Lyrically, “Atomic” is just barely a song at all, but the track’s sense of urgency makes even a throwaway line like “Oh, your hair is beautiful tonight” hit with the force of a nuclear bomb. Keefe


Paula Abdul, “Straight Up”

Give me the camptastically endearing funk of “Vibeology” any day, but let’s give a hand to “Straight Up” for proving that some cheeses age better than others. Elliot Wolff’s production is a convincing imitation of the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis sound (sorry, Jody Watley), and Paula Abdul gifts it with a committed vocal turn that, by her Minnie Mouse-voiced standards, feels almost gutsy. Don’t let David Fincher’s black-and-white video fool you into thinking this is some sort of class act: The song’s karaoke-grade keyboard runs and scarcely un-horny horns sound as if they could have only been contrived by, say, Arsenio Hall and Bill Clinton, but you have to give Paula props for tirelessly matching them beat for beat with her every “oh, oh, oh” Gonzalez


Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”

They said they couldn’t, but it’s a good thing Portland freestyle group Nu Shooz did wait anyway. Their majestic mid-’80s dance smash “I Can’t Wait” spent the better part of a year languishing in obscurity before Dutch remixer Peter Slaghuis took the ditty (itself a pleasant listen, to be sure) and blew it out with the vocal-cutting, bell-chiming atmospherics we now know and love. You know I love this song, even when it doesn’t try. But that immortal introductory refrain of “ah-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ah-ahh, ah-ahh-ahh-ahh-ah-ahh” is the mark of a true classic. Henderson


The Stone Roses, “Made of Stone”

The mysterious complexities of the Stone Roses’ only great album begin with the arcane cover art, which features a Jackson Pollock-style painting, French flag colors, and three slices of lemon. They continue on songs like this one, which revels in murky lyricism and syrupy musical textures, a sound that favors mood and tone over logical progression. It’s never totally clear what frontman Ian Brown is singing about, considering the barebones collection of car-crash and post-riot city-street imagery, but the overall image is clear: a pronounced sense of loss, with the marked feeling of a big comedown. Cataldo


The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

Even simple Clash songs have ornamental touches that make them resonate, further evidence of the creativity that got the band halfway through this decade, while less sturdy groups collapsed from limited ability and lack of ideas. The core material here is astoundingly simple (a great riff, a timeless question), but it’s the little things that make the song, like Joe Strummer’s Spanish backing vocals, reputedly translated over the phone by a friend’s Ecuadorian mother. Details like this function as kitschy trinkets, reinforcing the band’s gleefully incongruous image, as painfully stylish radicals equally concerned with kitsch and revolution. Cataldo


Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole saturday to write these blurbs about the 100 best singles of the ’80s, but we think you’re crazy for making us try to distill the essence of a track like Simple Minds’ de facto theme song from John Hughes’s seminal coming-of-age dramedy The Breakfast Club into 150 words or less. You see these songs as you want to see them, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of them is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is a romantic synth-pop ballad, a dance-floor gem, and a snarky new-wave anthem all at once. It’s the stuck-up rich girl putting her diamond stud in the bad boy’s leather-clad palm. Does that answer your question? Cinquemani


Kid Creole & the Coconuts, “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy”

The evil twin of “Billie Jean” A mean cocktail of island rhythms and New York attitude. Another great proclamation from one of the under-sung lyricists of the decade. Where Michael Jackson’s hit swathes itself in righteous indignation against an accusation from an opportunistic fan, Kid Creole bends his profuse wit into a withering attack on the progeny of an old conquest, who “wanted love, but only ended up with you” He denies being the child’s father, but can’t resist toying with the kid a little, stretching the inquest out past six minutes, finally deciding that “if I was in your blood, you wouldn’t be so ugly” Cataldo


Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It?”

So begins the version of Mr. Fingers’s house classic that includes spoken lyrics, “In the beginning there was Jack, and Jack had a groove/And from this groove came the grooves of all grooves/And while one day viciously throwing down on his box/Jack boldly declared, ’Let there be house,’ and house music was born” Instructive yes, but the non-declamatory instrumental version of Chicago producer Larry Heard’s early house anthem—a hypnotic carousel of three moody synth chords that are systematically given shading from drum programming that is, by turns, muted, urgent, and jackhammering—is just as definitive even without borrowing text from the Book of Genesis. Henderson


David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”

David Bowie’s die-hard fans were quick to decry “Let’s Dance” as something far worse than heresy: a bid to get airplay on MTV. It’s true that “Let’s Dance” has only a tenuous connection to Bowie’s more progressive early work and set the precedent for his middling late-’80s run. But what the single’s naysayers overlooked was the unimpeachable craft—thanks to producer Nile Rodgers at the helm and the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar— behind such a simple, straightforward pop song. “Let’s Dance” allowed Bowie to further blur the line between pop and “real” art. Keefe