The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

20

Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (To Party)”

Rebelling against prudish parents for the freedom to smoke, drink, and ogle pornography is a staple of the 1980s: Films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all drew on teenagers’ urges to let loose and indulge in drunken debauchery. And with “Fight for Your Right,” there was an anthem tailor-made to roar from the boomboxes and speakers of these parties. Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA set their rowdy call to arms to an unashamedly boisterous guitar riff, and keep their tongue-twisting vernacular plain and punchy enough to broadcast their message loud and clear. Jones

19

A-ha, “Take on Me”

Accompanied by a famously groundbreaking music video, A-ha’s debut single—effectively a cover of their own song, which was a hit in the trio’s native Norway a year earlier—is a quintessential example of how the early proliferation of MTV could produce hits nearly all on its own. Video killed the radio star, indeed. But “Take on Me” transcended its visual trappings not just by embodying another ’80s trend (just as the Steve Barron-directed video mixes disparate media, the song itself combines both synthetic and acoustic instruments—a drum machine paired with live percussion, and an iconic melody composed with both analogue and digital synthesizers), but by being a damn good pop song. Cinquemani

18

Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love”

Tina’s the girl on the dance floor wiping coke from her nose. Her boyfriend, Chris, doesn’t tell her she’s got a tit exposed, laughing instead, but she doesn’t get mad because he’s got a huge cock. And that, except for the tit part, is right there in the song, an insanely ebullient fusion of dub, rock, and reggae that’s become one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop. Maybe that’s because the track is an indelible reminder of Tom Tom Club’s canny gift for transmuting exotic sounds without whitening out their essence. Or it could be the foot-stompin’ beat by the irrepressible Compass Point All Stars. Or maybe it’s just that it set the bar so high for shouting out to one’s homies, their names sung as hooks, that folks are still struggling to reach it. Gonzalez

17

Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

Protest is only productive when there’s a captive audience for the message, and “Fight the Power” proves that Public Enemy knew better than any rap artists before them how to command attention. Insult Elvis and John Wayne and a lot of white people are, at the very least, going to arch an eyebrow in your direction. But Public Enemy were never just about empty provocation, and “Fight the Power” rails against issues of unexamined privilege, as exemplified by the public perceptions of the Duke and the King, that still inform so many political disputes. Keefe

16

Madonna, “Express Yourself”

It was David Fincher’s music video for this smash from Like a Prayer that introduced us to Shep Pettibone’s remix, which, aside from the lethargic come-and-git-it cowbell that intermittently takes Madonna from the church steeple and straight onto the prairie, matches in its uptempo the soulful fervor of the singer’s call to arms. But MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, and when I’m listening to this song on my iTunes, it’s the original album version I prefer, as it evokes something altogether more subversive: Fritz Lang’s robot Maria hanging out inside a Detroit dance hall, forcing men to their knees as the big-band sound rocks the house. He has it coming in both versions, but in Stephen Bray’s original Madonna comes fearlessly out of nowhere. Gonzalez

15

Prince and the Revolution, “I Would Die 4 U”

Whether “I Would Die 4 U,” one of Purple Rain’s final singles, is one big Jesus metaphor or not seems less important than how effortlessly anthemic the song is. It’s ’80s pop pathos at its best, the urgency of its shimmying, echo-drenched beat and arching refrains matched only by Prince’s distressed eroticism. At one point, he practically screeches, “Darling, if you want me to,” in equal parts agony and orgasm, his usual foreplay cast aside in favor of something far more desperate, visceral, and genuine. Which makes “I Would Die 4 U” one of those rare moments where we can catch a glimpse of the anxious humanity beneath Prince’s sex-soaked strut. Liedel

14

Echo & the Bunnymen, “The Killing Moon”

The presentation favored by Echo & the Bunnymen is so arch and affected that it probably shouldn’t work, and definitely wouldn’t if the band didn’t take themselves so seriously. It’s this fastidiousness that produces grand tracks like “The Killing Moon,” a sinister cousin to the typical torch song, draped in spooky atmospherics, open-tuned guitar, and orchestral touches. Bound by the heady elegance of singer Ian McCulloch’s characteristic croon, the track builds to an impressive concoction of gothic style and new-romantic idealism, with the band obsessing over love while depicting it as a dismal act of surrender. Cataldo

13

Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill”

The best Kate Bush songs work off a dizzying sense of momentum, building steadily toward long, drawn-out climaxes. “Running Up That Hill” has this energy, and needs it; the opening track from Hounds of Love, it sets the tone for an album where pure pop simplicity routinely clashes with prog excess. Nearly half of the duration here is build up, a chugging ascension that feels both expectant and tentative, with a static drum machine pattern that plays off gentle synths. The chorus finally breaks in at the two-minute mark, exploding with the tenacious force of sunshine bursting through the clouds. Cataldo

12

Shannon, “Let the Music Play”

In the beginning, there was disco. And undiscriminating as disco was, she and her Italian cuginos brought hi-NRG and electro-funk together in one place: some papi chulo’s house in Harlem. And disco said, let there be freestyle. And her name was Shannon, who looked as fearlessly toward the past as she did toward the future, past even what Company B, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Steve B, Sweet Sensation, and Lisette Melendez would ever dream up. So lush in its influences, so intensely malleable in its production, this gold standard of a genre as divisive as my Aunt Mabel’s hair was circa 1985 takes you anywhere you want because it sounds as if it’s been pieced together from everything that’s ever existed. Yesterday it took me to a coffee shop in Little Havana. Tomorrow it will show me Jesus breakdancing on a cloud. Today, though, I’m chilling with Dario Argento inside a Spanish villa. Wherever, whenever, it’s magic from the start. Gonzalez

11

Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

There’s a reason Marilyn Manson and countless others have covered “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”: Its dread is timeless. There’s no substitute for the original’s pounding inevitability, however, nor for the foreboding Annie Lennox, who seems to be delivering all of her lyrical warnings with the crooked smile of a knowing villainess. Her tales of yearning and worldly ills are punctuated with perhaps one of the most famous synth lines to come out of the ’80s: a gyrating, churning snake of broken electro-brass that, with its looping melody, seems to eternally spiral toward doom. Never have sweet dreams sounded so nightmarish. Liedel

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