Warner Bros. Records

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s


The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”

Question marks still remain over what meaning exists beneath the thoughtful and poetic prose of “How Soon Is Now?” Is it indeed an earnest cry for help from one of indie’s most joylessly enigmatic frontmen, or is it a tongue-in-cheek jibe at those who are striving to fit in? And while Morrissey’s flippant lyrics may suggest the latter, Johnny Marr’s dense and endlessly layered guitar parts afford the track such gravity and such a grand scale that you might believe the former to be true. Deconstruction and deciphering aside, this is a belter, a song which sounds as perfect on a jam-packed dance floor as it does soundtracking a journey home through some dilapidated subway station. Jones


INXS, “Need You Tonight”

Though it could be said of many singles from the video-centric ’80s, it’s difficult to separate “Need You Tonight” from the stark, erotic imagery of its music video, where frontman Michael Hutchence looks like a younger Jim Morrison doing his best Prince impression. Musically, however, “Need You Tonight” remains INXS’s most blatant dabbling in new wave. The song is a slithery exercise in syncopation and dance beats that is, of course, wonderfully accented by that hum-it-in-your-sleep guitar riff. Perhaps most important of all is that the seductive nature of the looping backdrop provides the perfect fodder for Hutchence’s leather-clad come-on, forever cementing his dual status as ’80s sex symbol and rock god. Liedel


Madonna, “Live to Tell”

Madonna’s first and, arguably, most dramatic reinvention was scored by the spare and haunting ballad “Live to Tell,” which wasn’t just a daringly demure introduction to her third album, but also posed a challenge to pop-radio programmers keen on instant gratification: The song begins with almost a full minute of music before the singer starts to tell her tale, and includes abrupt key changes and a half-minute midsection in which nearly all of the music drops out. Of course, it worked like a charm, and “Live to Tell” launched a fruitful professional relationship between Madge and producer Patrick Leonard that would last for more than two decades, and set the stage for the fearlessly autobiographical material to come. The song features one of Madonna’s richest vocal performances, full of soul, yearning, and hurt, with lyrics that can surely resonate with anyone who’s ever endured a detention of silence—self-imposed or otherwise. Cinquemani


David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”

When musicians can afford the luxury of referencing their own body of work with a knowing nod and a wink, it’s a sure sign that they’ve reached iconic status. And for what could well be his magnum opus, Bowie revisits fictional astronaut Major Tom from 1969’s “Space Oddity” for a literal continuation of his tale as well as an introspective look at the singer’s own life and career amid the trappings of fame. “Ashes to Ashes” is perhaps the most melancholic number of Bowie’s 1980s output, and also one of his most sophisticated, marrying a fantastically funky bassline with eerie synths and deadpan drones. Jones


Madonna, “Into the Groove”

Leave it to Madonna to make the campy, throwaway, opening lines of a B-side into a career-defining mission statement. She’s at her most coy as she speaks, “You can dance, for inspiration,” over the first few bars of “Into the Groove,” the theme from Desperately Seeking Susan and, somewhat inexplicably, the B-side of the considerably less brilliant “Angel” But who cares that one of Billboard’s technicalities kept the song from charting on the Hot 100: Madonna’s never come up with a more apt assessment of how her music works best. Whenever she’s lost her way artistically, she’s headed back to the dance floor to get her head right. Keefe


Prince, “Little Red Corvette”

“Little Red Corvette” isn’t the first pop song to draw an explicit parallel between a woman and a car, but no one’s ever made that metaphor quite so, well, explicit as Prince does on one of his most rock-infused singles. It’s an anatomy lesson in thinly veiled code, and Prince has never backed his sex talk with such masturbatory, show-offy instrumentation as he does here. “Little Red Corvette” is all about unrivaled prowess, knowing how to make both a Telecaster and a woman scream in ecstasy just from the touch of his nimble hands. Keefe


R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

It’s hard to conceive of the fact that “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” came out nearly two years before Billy Joel’s similarly logorrheic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Maybe it’s because of the way the portents and doomsaying of R.E.M.’s song became so inextricably connected to late-’90s millennial dread, or maybe it’s the fact that Joel’s self-congratulatory boomer paean already sounds hopelessly dated, while this one remains fresh. Whatever the case, its cascading web of references begs for the kind of analysis normally saved for Bob Dylan songs, all while instilling a sense of manic glee into its gloomy proceedings. Cataldo


The Clash, “Rock the Casbah”

If punk’s most lasting accomplishment was to demolish the deadly self-seriousness of ’70s rock, a song like this one stands out as a banner for what the genre achieved, distilling current affairs, region-confused loan words, and spiky guitar into one irreverently relevant song. Swatting at oppressive forces with a vision of populist solidarity, the Clash imagines a simplified world where oppression can be defeated by some misbehaving fighter pilots grooving to in-cockpit radios, a concept that’s about as wholesome as rock narratives come. It’s a further reminder that a movement famous for swastikas and overdoses also produced its share of goofiness. Cataldo


Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

It’s baffling to think that this boisterous little pep rally for girls the world over was once written from a male point of view. Robert Christgau best understood Cyndi Lauper’s slyness, the way she “fools boys into believing she can be fooled with” It’s in her indelible desire to have fun, which will only seems frivolous to those who would deny her the things she really wants. Lauper understands the lot she’s been handed (“Oh, mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones”), and dances until the day comes that she can rise above it. That bippity boppity bopping xylophone is impossibly infectious, but don’t forget that you’re listening to the impatiently tapping fingers of a girl waiting for her day in the sun. And her conviction is such that when she says she wants to walk in it, you’re convinced that she absolutely will. Gonzalez


Queen & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”

With its scat-singing and deliberately minimal arrangement, “Under Pressure” sounds so little like signature Queen and so little like vintage Bowie, yet it’s the finest standalone single either act released during the ’80s. And it’s all thanks to a maddeningly simple but unforgettable bassline. It’s no wonder both Bowie and Queen’s bassist, John Deacon, have spent decades quibbling about who actually wrote the riff that forms the song’s hook: A decade later, a sample of that bassline even made Vanilla Ice sound far better than he ever had the right to. Keefe