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The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s

Do you know why VH1 produced more installments of I Love the ‘80s than any other decade? Because there was simply more to love.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s
Photo: Warner Bros. Records

Do you know why VH1 produced more installments of I Love the ‘80s than any other decade? Because there was simply more to love. Many would argue that other recent decades surpassed the ‘80s for diversity of musical expression, for production innovations, for ebullience and personality, for political honesty. In fact, by nearly every individual measure, the ‘80s probably take a backseat to some other era. So why do we still deify those 10 years? Probably because the decade’s best songs offered some of pop history’s finest simple pleasures, which is why you won’t often find humorless rockists making arguments on its behalf like they do for the ‘60s, ‘70s, or even the ‘90s. Sure, there were plenty of tunes that cut deep into the blackest heart of the Reagan era, but some of the most prominent came in such a deceptively sunny disguise (the Boss’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” for example) that they were mistaken to be part of the status quo. In the ‘80s, Public Enemy was the outlier and flourished because of it. Michael Jackson was showing signs of paranoia, but still mostly wanted to rock with you. Madonna was mostly espousing the joy of taking a “Holiday,” and even when she embraced a more militant attitude (“Express Yourself”), she was still arguing on behalf of embracing the pleasure principle. And that’s the way we like it. In so many other arenas, we’re still paying for the mistakes of the ‘80s. But when it comes to the decade’s music, we feel no compelling reason to feel bad about feeling good. Eric Henderson

100. David Bowie, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”

For the title track and third single from what’s widely considered to be David Bowie’s last truly great album, the singer’s delivery is closer to that of a low-budget horror movie’s demented narrator than the dynamic rock showman that shot to megastardom in the ‘70s. Bowie spins a yarn of a young girl falling victim to her own fears and insecurities in his tried-and-tested “mockney” accent, and heightens the air of sheer menace further still with a violent percussion section and the sound of dogs barking. Robert Fripp’s guitar work here is tremendous too, an exemplary exercise in frenzied crosspicking that adds urgency and suspense to Bowie’s deranged psycho-thriller narrative. Huw Jones

99. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

As hopeless and heartbreaking as any song that’s ever topped the pop charts, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” couches its social commentary in deeply personal revelations and confessions. As the city lights flash by Chapman’s narrator and the song’s arrangement gathers momentum, there’s a palpable desperation in the way she sings, “And I had the feeling I could be someone” Because in that moment, having tried and failed to escape the poverty she was born into, she’s not expressing a sense of optimism that her station in life will improve, but conceding that she was foolish to have ever thought it could. Jonathan Keefe

98. Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype”

“Don’t Believe the Hype” is an invitation to question everything, up to and including Public Enemy’s then-growing reputation. It’s the kind of sneakily self-congratulatory gesture that plays as self-deprecation while also being a bit boastful, affirming that there is indeed some hype that needs to be ignored in order to appreciate the group’s second album. Whatever the meaning, the track is indicative of the always probing, never accepting nature of the Chuck D-helmed outfit, his harshly forceful rhymes echoed by the cornucopia of grating sound effects sourced by the ever-resourceful Bomb Squad. Jesse Cataldo

97. The Replacements, “I Will Dare”

“I Will Dare” marks the most accessible and radio-friendly moment for a rowdy Minneapolis four piece that, with a reputation for notoriously wayward live shows and a staunch belief in the punk ethos, was to this point always a million miles away from what one would consider accessible or radio-friendly. Upon its release in 1984, Paul Westerberg spoke of how the band was tired of playing “that noisy, fake hardcore rock,” and there can be no disputing that “I Will Dare” is all the better for reigning in the anarchy and chaos that underpinned their previous work. It’s about as close to pop music as the band could get, flaunting a sweet mandolin arrangement and a typically jangly guitar solo from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is their best single by some stretch. Jones

96. Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You”

What I previously wrote about “one of the most intoxicating singles in pop history,” a state-of-the-art example of sampling craft, still sums it up. “’I Feel for You’ had enough blockbuster tricks to bury any lesser talent: ultra-hip vocal cutting techniques, a blazing Stevie Wonder harmonica solo that damn near tops anything on his own records, no less than four synth-keyboard players, and a scintillating, shifting beat from Arif Mardin” For someone who allegedly disliked the memorable hip-hop riffing Grandmaster Melle Mel bookended the track with, Chaka interacted beautifully, making this one of the most compelling crossover tracks ever. Henderson

95. Extra T’s, “E.T. Boogie”

Even if he really did send a cabal of Hazmat-wearing lawyers after Extra T’s for cribbing lines from his 1982 blockbuster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, it’s easy to imagine Steven Spielberg bopping this head to the dance-funk delirium of this underground classic. Not exactly the enviro-friendly, “fax orgy”-wanting otherworldly being of Deee-Lite’s imagination, this alien hero hungers only for home. And that’s all right. Such single-mindedness, matched by the “held-together-by-paperclips 808 beats,” per our own Eric Henderson, is always rewarded. The bassline is all cherry-on-top rush, a call to arms for people who live, Busta Rhymes would say, for movin’ around. Ed Gonzalez

94. Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”

For such an apparently gentle soul, Michael Jackson repeatedly displayed his dark side with songs like “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Bad,” and “Smooth Criminal” This is, after all, the same guy who once sang about his close friendship with a telepathic rat. Accompanied by a killer synth bassline, staccato beats, and a frenzied vocal performance from Jacko himself, “Smooth Criminal” rather unambiguously tells the heartwarming story of a home invader who chases a woman named Annie underneath a table and into her bedroom, where he ostensibly bludgeons her to death, leaving “bloodstains on the carpet” Sal Cinquemani

93. Kate Bush, “The Big Sky”

Not many people could make a song about watching clouds into an epic rumination on living life to the fullest. But that conflation of silly juvenilia and introspective weight is what Kate Bush does best, and “The Big Sky” consequently grows into its own thriving world of weird skyborne shapes, full of wacky asides, cascading handclaps, odd voice inflections, and guitar solos. It testifies to the ephemeral nature of all things while also celebrating the teeming abundance of the world, a quality shared with Bush’s music, which is always spilling over with passion and ideas. Cataldo

92. Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”

It may not be Leonard Cohen’s most famous song (a fact that grows more regrettable with every ponderous, overwrought new version of “Hallelujah”), but “Everybody Knows” is the song of Cohen’s that best captures both his knack for writing a pop hook and his pitch-black sense of humor. But it’s the combination of his deep baritone voice and deadpan performance that makes “Everybody Knows” so funny and so absurd: Cohen sounds nothing if not inconvenienced as he delivers a scolding lecture with the bleak message that “everybody knows that the good guys lost” Keefe

91. Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”

It’s a testament to Gordon Gano’s affable everyman charm that the truth as to whether “Blister in the Sun” is indeed an open ode to masturbation or whether it’s a blithe summary of heroin withdrawal is as irrelevant as it is unclear. It’s a fantastic single, even though it took a spot on the Grosse Point Blank soundtrack almost 15 years later for mainstream consciousness to actually take notice of this stellar bout of unplugged folk-punk. Now, “Blister in the Sun” is instantly recognizable from its introduction alone, where balmy lo-fi acoustic guitar meets hand-me-down snare drums and a bassline that swaggers and struts rather than merely walks. Jones

90. Connie Case, “Get Down”

This unfortunately un-famous call to the dance floor, a grandiose hybrid of house and acid influences, suggests the theme to the greatest movie never made: a space-age Blaxploitation film starring Pam Grier. In it, she stray-cat struts down sidewalks to fat-as-her-ass beats that spit, dribble, and fall around her like molasses, ducking behind a car to sex up some Puerto Rican honey for a spell before resuming her mosey-on-down-the-road through sheets of rain that shatter into crystals as they hit the ground. Her name is Connie Case, and the insanely domineering bassline that soundtracks her every want is her promise: to treat you right, hold you tight, and make you get down. Gonzalez

89. The B-52’s, “Love Shack”

The retro-tinged celebration that runs throughout “Love Shack” is both a refuge and renaissance: a bright, blinking abode that served as a last party stop before the long, dark highway of ‘90s grunge, and, perhaps more importantly, the mainstream rebirth of the B-52’s, who, by 1989, had fallen into obscurity. The group is at the top of their beehive-primping game here, celebrating wonderfully oddball imagery with a bevy of clean Stratocasters, brassy horns, and Fred Schneider’s jerky-voiced interludes. True to their roles as hosts, the B-52’s remain the ecstatic drivers of this rainbow-hued vehicle; the rest of us are just along for the sparkly, neon ride. Kevin Liedel

88. N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton”

While it always had a conscience, hip-hop grew increasingly political as the end of the ‘80s drew near, its subject matter gradually expanding to cover the ills of urban existence. “Straight Outta Compton” tapped into the frustrations and anxieties of poverty-stricken L.A. neighborhoods, and remains a startlingly cutthroat look at the bleak, Darwinian realities of a gang-addled city. Apart from the coldblooded warnings of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (with references to Charles Manson, no less), the production itself—including those humming, monotonous samples and bristling beats that chop at every verse—drives home the inevitability of these youth’s callous plight. Liedel

87. Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, “It Takes Two”

It’s not that “It Takes Two” was either the single best or the single most influential of all the late-‘80s songs that cross-pollinated the history-minded elements of hip-hop’s first dynasty (that “Hoo! Yeah!” from Lyn Collins’s “Think,” the use of which quickly became a prerequisite for all hip-house jams) with the futurism and metallurgy of early techno and the juicy thwomp of house. That it qualified so damned highly on both the “best” and the “most influential” lists, though, has ensured it a permanent place in the canon. As fusty as that position makes “It Takes Two” sound to the uninitiated, most unassailable fixtures should “rock right now” this hard. Henderson

86. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”

One of those songs that’s been partially overshadowed by its inventive music video, “Sledgehammer” highlighted the possibilities of a new visual medium while also signaling the end of Peter Gabriel’s most creative period. Coming nine years after his exit from Genesis, the song sounds more mainstream than much of his earlier work, with its processed trumpet sample and trilling keyboard line, a fact that doesn’t suggest any hewing to convention as much as the modern landscape having caught up with his innovations. The video hews to the track’s theme of mutability, but by this point Gabriel’s skill for transformation was waning, a fact that makes this last shot even more compelling. Cataldo

85. Janet Jackson, “The Pleasure Principle”

The penultimate single from Janet Jackson’s Control was the lowest-charting to that point, but has enjoyed arguably the longest shelf life. And its contradictory message to be aware of how pleasure can cloud your judgment—this against some of the hardest skittering beats in her back catalogue—is still converting people today, like me. A few years back, I protested the emerging consensus that “The Pleasure Principle” should be one of the songs we included on our 100 Greatest Dance Songs list. “I won’t be happy with [‘The Pleasure Principle’] as the song sounds like someone vomiting into my mouth and telling me I’m a fun-hatah for spitting it out,” I emailed. Which only goes to show the dangers of giving into the short-term pleasure of snap judgments. Henderson

84. The Bangles, “Hazy Shade of Winter”

The Bangles didn’t just remove the indefinite article from the title of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (no surprise, since they often remove the article from their own name), but they excised a reference to drinking vodka, added a dreamy, harmony-rich intro that, in many ways, is even more S&G than the original, and transformed the rest of the track into a rollicking tribute to each band member’s chops on their respective instrument (including a brief solo vocal turn by Susanna Hoffs). Aside from those minor details, though, the Bangles’ rendition of the folk duo’s 1966 hit, produced by Rick Rubin for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, is remarkably faithful. Cinquemani

83. Pat Benatar, “Love Is a Battlefield”

Pat Benatar was pushing 30 when she recorded “Love Is a Battlefield,” a song that speaks to the pangs and virtues of youth. But she and her team of writers and producers still managed to capture the heightened melodrama that accompanies young heartache. Benatar comes roaring out of the gate, taking to the frontline of the metaphorical battlefield on behalf of an entire generation, proclaiming their unity during the spoken introduction and then employing her classically trained pipes to declare their collective strength and obstinacy. While the song might seem cheesy or dated nearly three decades later, Benatar sells it like ice on a hot day. Cinquemani

82. Devo, “Whip It”

Widely misinterpreted at the time of its release as an ode to masturbation or an anthem for BDSM, Devo’s “Whip It” isn’t about anything more subversive than the idea of bettering oneself through dedicated effort. While that sentiment may have been at odds with the trickle-down politics of the day, its fundamental optimism goes a long way toward explaining how one of the band’s founding members, Mark Mothersbaugh, has gone on to have a lucrative career in children’s entertainment: Yo! Gabba Gabba!, it turns out, is far more hospitable to a genuinely oddball POV than the pop charts are. Keefe

81. Gang of Four, “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time”

Blending lock-step militarism with unruly, seditious noise, Gang of Four creates an ordered system infected with a pronounced undercurrent of chaos. To wit, the bassline and drumbeat on “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” exist in one sphere: martial but placid, with every note in its right place. The guitar work, which is layered on top with the consistency of messily sprayed icing, is a distortion-heavy tangle of jagged transitions and meandering dead ends. The resulting dichotomy suggests the volatility of totalitarianism, evoking the larger image of a world caught between two dissimilar styles of rule. Cataldo

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