Warner Bros. Records

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


U2, “With or Without You”

“With or Without You” is a deceptively simple song, but its structure is atypical and its lyrics ambiguous. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton’s rhythm section builds quietly from the outset, providing a bed for the Edge’s baying, e-bow-style guitar notes and Bono’s plaintive ruminations on the tug of war between love and work. It’s not until close to two minutes into the song, which rivals “One” as U2’s best ballad, that Bono unleashes his signature falsetto croon and the Edge’s guitar likewise erupts into the skyward electric licks we’ve long grown accustomed to from Ireland’s most famous export. Cinquemani


Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”

There are points in “Burning Down the House” where David Byrne sounds positively nonsensical, like a snakehandler speaking in tongues. But such is the Talking Heads’ hallmark: a combination of supreme musicianship and controlled chaos. “Burning Down the House” is, perhaps, the quintessential Talking Heads track, brandishing all the quirks the band would come to be characterized by in the decades that have followed: animated percussion, fidgeting synths, and a host of trickling, percolating accompaniments acting in harmony with Byrne’s twitchy voice. “My house is out of the ordinary,” he assures us amid all the surrealist imagery, and considering how beautifully bizarre “Burning Down the House” plays, it’s hard not to believe him. Liedel


R.E.M., “The One I Love”

So Michael Stipe finally starts to enunciate, and it somehow manages to make R.E.M.’s singles even less well understood. After mumbling his way through “Radio Free Europe” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” Stipe sneers, “A simple prop to occupy my time/This one goes out to the one I love,” and suddenly Casey Kasem starts playing “The One I Love” as a long-distance dedication. As one of the band’s first major crossover hits, “The One I Love” put R.E.M. on the path to global superstardom, even if a sizable chunk of their audience had no idea why or how. Keefe


Michael Jackson, “ Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”

Have you ever seen a crowded room jump to their feet in the space of 0.6 seconds? Watch what happens when those three synthetic rimshots kick off “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” Though in a ’90s interview Michael Jackson himself wrote off the song as being less successful than what he originally envisioned, he’d find few fans willing to agree with his reservations. The track is a six-minute monster of stripped-down pop perfection. Just as almost every recipe in baking starts out with the same essentials, you could derive the ingredients that go into every pop hit by picking apart this track’s tapestry of hooks. Henderson


Bananarama, “Cruel Summer”

That plucky, sweet kalimba melody dances around one of pop music’s most oppressive and menacing basslines ever, instantly setting the steamy, discontented scene in Bananarama’s classic summer anti-anthem. What’s a girl to do with classes out, friends all away with their families on July retreats, and all the time in the world to contemplate the boy who just dumped her? Get one with the city’s steam heat, obviously. And likely find a whole lot of trouble. Both merciless and sympathetic, much like John Hughes reimagining Do the Right Thing’s hottest day of the year, “Cruel Summer” is heavy pop fluff served with steely conviction. Escapism never took so wrong a turn. Henderson


Salt-N-Pepa, “Push It”

Even as an awkward pre-teen, I knew exactly what Salt-N-Pepa was getting at with “Push It,” but lest there’s any lingering doubt, the song’s raunchy beat and readymade club melody hammer home their ultimate goal: getting into listeners’ pants. As the carefree, playful cousin to “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “Push It” finds the Queens trio reveling in the dance-as-sex metaphors, from the pelvis-thrusting syncopation of its opening to its MCs’ libido-drenched directive to “pump hard” The sweaty romp ultimately earned the group their first Grammy nomination—not bad for a song initially regulated to B-side status. Liedel


Grace Jones, “Slave to the Rhythm”

By 1985, anyone with any cultural sentience at all knew that 1979 didn’t really signal the end of disco, but instead only served as a catalyst for splintering it down into its vital ingredients, which in turn nourished any number of satellite dance music genres. Grace Jones’s masterpiece took stock of this neo-Underground Railroad and repositioned the form’s indefatigable resilience as a form of deeper cultural resistance; the rhythm that drives her and all who listen to her is the same rhythm that accompanied the building of the pyramids and the attempted destruction of racial identities. The simultaneously fierce and regal “Slave to the Rhythm” is maybe Jones’s boldest act of reclamation. Henderson


Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”

A majority of the hits off of Cyndi Lauper’s debut, She’s So Unusual, were cover songs, and all of them improved on the originals, including this poppy redo of Jules Shear’s Dylan-esque “All Through the Night” Lauper and producer Rick Chertoff transformed the song from a bouncy, folk-rock ditty into a resplendent pop ballad notable for the hypnotic sequencer melody that opens the track as well as Lauper’s transposition of the original harmonic melody into the main hook. Lauper gives the song a newfound poignancy, but her version also makes a humble nod to Shear’s quirky original with an eccentric synth solo. Cinquemani


R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe”

“Radio Free Europe” can be a frustrating single. Every note that Michael Stipe hits here is wonderful, of course, but his plaintive everyman croon encourages listeners to sing along without knowing what the hell it is they’re singing along to. By Stipe’s own admission, the lyrics to Murmur’s lead single consist of “complete babbling” And if that’s indeed the case, you’d be strapped to find a more utterly brilliant exercise in tuneful babbling. Moreover, with Peter Buck’s jangly guitar and Mike Mills’s nimble basslines, “Radio Free Europe” is one of R.E.M.’s foremost toe-tappers, a truly timeless song that sounds as fresh now as it did when the band made their breakthrough some 30 years ago. Jones


Indeep, “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”

Not everyone gets head in the club. Not everyone gets dumped in a club. In other words, hyperbole aside, most of us neither have our lives saved or in need of saving by just the right 12 inches. But the rest of us appreciate the kindness of the DJ all the same. That’s why Indeep’s brilliant boogie track is maybe the most name-checked song ever among disco and post-disco aficionados, the crowd who will forever frame their musical tastes around mixmaster tastemakers like Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Tom Moulton, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, and the rest. When that phone rings, everyone on the floor answers. Henderson