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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

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


10. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”

If one had to justify why Thriller is so often lauded for its appeal across generational and racial lines, “Beat It” would be the ideal place to start: An unrepentant marriage of funk and rock, the single bursts open with Eddie Van Halen’s screaming, elastic guitar riff. Almost immediately, listeners are seemingly destined for a violent confrontation, and like the famed dance-fight choreography in the music video, the music duels with Jackson’s vocals, stabbing back at the King of Pop’s agitation and desperation. For MJ, the emotions might be more than just showmanship: Rumors that the song was a commentary on his experience with child abuse ultimately lends “Beat It” an element of despair to go along with all the multi-genre energy. Liedel


9. New Order, “Blue Monday”

By 1983, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris were very different people (and, particularly, very different musicians) as those that emerged from the ashes of Joy Division to form New Order at the turn of the decade, and “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12” in history, is their seven-minute testament to just that. With its syncopated house drum samples, marauding basslines, and kaleidoscopic synth flourishes, the song encapsulates the quintessential ‘80s-pop sound with aplomb. Rumors propose the song was written as a happy accident while the band was testing their new Oberheim DMX, and an even queerer tale suggests the song was to be used as an encore they could simply hit play and leave the stage for. Still, even if these rumors detract from the song’s purity and mysticism, they do nothing to dilute its unquestionable impact. Jones


8. Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”

A suitcase of memories, “Time After Time” was, surprisingly, one of only two songs co-written by Cyndi Lauper on her 1983 debut, the music artfully orchestrated by producer Rick Chertoff and keyboard player Rob Hyman to reflect every pang of the fading pictures in the singer’s mind. Pitch-shifted guitars lend the song a hazy, nostalgic quality, like memories emerging and receding, while a synthesized saltshaker and syncopated drum machine subtly mimic the sound of time swiftly ticking by. What could have become hammy in the hands of a less skilled vocalist and producer, especially in the more-is-more ‘80s, is delicate yet powerful, and just the right amount of poignant. Cinquemani


7. Madonna, “Like a Prayer”

With an atypical structure in which the drums drop out completely during each verse and the chorus is all but abandoned halfway through the song in favor of ad libs, what’s now considered a perfect pop song seemed more fit for a church than Top 40 radio at the time. Though she’d evoked religion before, most notably with heaps of rosary beads dangling between her décolleté, it was, perhaps, inevitable that with a name like Madonna, the so-called Material Girl would more seriously explore the faith with which she was so strictly raised. But while there have been about as many interpretations of the song’s lyrics as there are remixes (she’s singing about God, she’s singing about giving a blowjob, she’s singing about giving God a blowjob), “Like a Prayer” begs for a more refined reading than a brainy conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy: It’s a song about love. Cinquemani


6. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, “The Message”

Hip-hop officially arrived when the Sugarhill Gang waxed lyrical on the “rhythm of the boogie” and other such nonsense in 1979, but things got unmistakably serious three years later with this austere social commentary on life in the ghetto. The beat has since become infamous, sampled and remixed to within an inch of its life for the last 30 years. The lyrics, too, have been cited and quoted countless times over, with the “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge” refrain surfacing in tracks from 2Pac, Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli, just to name a few. Make no mistake: Socially conscious hip-hop started here, an unflinching portrait of inner-city life that provided the stark contrast that party rap was crying out for. Jones


5. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

As the leadoff single from Remain in Light, “Once in a Lifetime” was listeners’ first taste of Talking Heads’ rebirth as a cohesive band, and the group’s fascination with worldbeat rhythms are nothing less than revelatory. The track bubbles with the fruits of the transformative process, a drunk and dizzy mosaic of African folk, synth-pop, and jazz-flavored improvisation led by the manic preaching of its vocalist. Indeed, it’s Byrne that lends “Once in a Lifetime” its sermonic power, barking like an enrapt clergyman to his swaying congregation. “Let the water hold me down,” he sings, fully realizing that, for both the Talking Heads and listeners, “Once in a Lifetime” is practically baptismal. Liedel


4. Prince and the Revolution, “When Doves Cry”

Prince’s songs are always caught up in the throes of eccentricity, but masterpieces like “When Doves Cry” take on a sense of warped grandiosity that approaches madness. Built around a curiously inane central image (the sound of birds weeping) with a low-key chorus and a heavy amount of repetition, the track works because Prince is so adamant in selling it. Piling on shrieks, yelps, moans, and several other forms of nonverbal cues, he guides the song through nearly six minutes of formless experimentation and garbled synth doodles, riding out on one of his signature masturbatory guitar solos. Cataldo


3. Blondie, “Call Me”

Written, recorded, and released painfully close to Ian Curtis’s suicide, it’s difficult to separate Joy Division’s magnum opus from the tragic events that surround it. The lyrics even offer a cryptic insight into Curtis’s clearly troubled mindset, with the late singer bewailing the fractures and fissures of his floundering marriage to Deborah Curtis. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is as much a suicide note and it is a tombstone, a song birthed from utter despair and a harrowing sense of disillusionment, which in turn births one of the most intense and excruciatingly emotive moments in musical history. Jones


2. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Written, recorded, and released painfully close to Ian Curtis’s suicide, it’s difficult to separate Joy Division’s magnum opus from the tragic events that surround it. The lyrics even offer a cryptic insight into Curtis’s clearly troubled mindset, with the late singer bewailing the fractures and fissures of his floundering marriage to Deborah Curtis. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is as much a suicide note and it is a tombstone, a song birthed from utter despair and a harrowing sense of disillusionment, which in turn births one of the most intense and excruciatingly emotive moments in musical history. Jones


1. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”

If, 30 years later, it seems almost quaint that producer Quincy Jones infamously balked at the idea of releasing “Billie Jean” as a single due to its subject matter, that’s because the song set the precedent for how former teen idols are allowed to turn into hot-blooded adults. The grown-up narrative rings with first-person authenticity, with Jackson drawing inspiration from the countless paternity suits leveled against him and his brothers during the heyday of the Jackson 5. And then there’s Jones, lending real credibility to Jackson’s bid to be taken at face value as an adult and whose work has, arguably, never been better. From the bassline that struts into the song’s opening few bars to the signature synth figure, “Billie Jean” is as flawlessly constructed a single as anything in pop history, its melodic and lyrical hooks stacked back-to-back-to-back. But for all of the desperation in Jackson’s he-said-she-said cautionary tale and torrid vocal turn, “Billie Jean” works because it never takes its eyes from where all its trouble started: the dance floor. Keefe

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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