Recently there has been a lot of love going around for music from the 1980s. Interestingly many of today’s musicians look towards the ideas and inspiration of the great acts of the 80s. But there was also once a time when we rolled our eyes at the thought of anything good ever coming out of the decade of decadence. It’s a good thing our perceptions over the years have changed and many of us can now freely admit what a wonderful decade the 1980s was for music. There is a theory or thought that music from 1982 through to 1987 was in some respects groundbreaking. If I had to single out one particular year as being arguably the greatest in music history I wouldn’t hesitate to say 1984. Keep that year on your radar because it’s something I might look into at a later date. But for now and without no further ado, I present you with my list of the 10 best songs of the 1980s. As you can imagine list are subjective but I hope you find still something here we can agree upon. Enjoy!
10. ‘It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me’ (taken from Billy Joel’s album Glass Houses, 1980.)
Taken from the 1980 Glass Houses album, It’s Still Rock N Roll To Me is singer, songwriter and pianist Billy Joel’s petulant child moment, a cynical take on the music industry. It was written amongst other things as a tongue in cheek response to a number of music genres coming to the forefront during the late 1970s. There is also an argument that Joel was tired of music critics pigeonholing him as a so called adult contemporary artist and here he arguably reinvents himself in fiery fashion with his middle finger squarely in their face. In the process of rocking out he went on to cement his first number one pop hit with this song and even gives us a ‘whoop’ to close the track.
9. ‘Paper In Fire’ (taken from John Mellencamp’s album The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987.)
It’s fair to say that Paper In Fire is my favourite 80s Mellencamp song only slightly ahead of Jackie Brown. It was arguably the first song that truly introduced me to Mellencamp’s heartland rock. (I bought Mellencamp’s album The Lonesome Jubilee and anything else I could get my hands on off the strength of that one song.) It is a song that often gives me the most joy especially while driving with it blaring violin and accordion. In the scheme of things while Mellencamp was trying to figure out how to make it work in a rock & roll sense, people just went nuts over it anyway. If Melencamp wasn’t yet a superstar, he sure was after Paper In Fire topped the charts in 1987.
8. ‘Blue Monday’ (taken from New Order’s album Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983.)
Is Blue Monday the greatest synth-pop fraud of all time? Originally released in 1983, it would go onto become the bestselling 12” single of all time. It would also enjoy immense popularity in dance clubs for the rest of the decade especially in 1988 and again in 1995 with its rerelease. It’s throbbing synth bassline and Bernard Summer’s deadpan vocals have made Blue Monday into a sprawling classic. Plenty has been written about how it borrowed (stole) heavily from 70s disco and electronic music. Plenty has also been said about how Blue Monday originally began as a way for New Order to avoid playing encores live by programming a synthesiser to do all the hard work. But to New Order’s credit Blue Monday morphed into something that would in no small part change music forever, especially the 12” format.
7. ‘When Doves Cry’ (taken from Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain, 1984.)
When Doves Cry was released in 1984 as the first single from the album Purple Rain, I remember it was the biggest hit of the year. Opening with one of the most recognisable guitar intros of all is awesome enough, but what makes this song great is the infectious synth riff at the heart of this song. But no Prince song is complete without a memorable pop chorus and ‘Doves’ doesn’t disappoint allowing the listener to wail along with him.
6. ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (taken from Tears For Fears second album Songs From The Big Chair, 1985.)
Tears For Fears released three epic tracks in the mid 80s, Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Head Over Heels from their album Songs From the Big Chair. Of the three, Everybody Wants To Rule the World arguably single-handedly catapult them to fame beyond their wildest dreams. Still to this day it evokes wonderful memories of a bygone era. I don’t think I will ever tire of its timeless charm set against jangy guitars and synthesisers. The two guitar solos (the second solo is in the outro) are obvious highlight as is Curt Smith’s vocal performance. In short, for such a catchy song its message is quite serious. Smith once said: It’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.”
5. ‘Billie Jean’ (taken from Michael Jackson’s album Thriller, 1984.)
Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean helped to make Thriller the biggest-selling album of all time. (No wait, The Eagles in recent years surpassed Jackson for top spot with their 1975 Greatest Hits album. Anyway, we can argue about that stat in the comments.) It became my go-to track, except maybe for Wanna Be Starting Sometime on Thriller, because of its gritty synth bass. Interestingly, for all its fame, Billie Jean is the one track no one expected to hear on a Michael Jackson album which was inspired by a crazed fan who said that Jackson was the father to one of her twins. Importantly, for Jackson who had grown up in front of a largely American audience, Billie Jean also allowed him to finally shake off that boy-bander image. While Jackson would later morph into a weird douchebag, Billie Jean for my mind was his apogee before everyone else caught on how to create a great pop hit with an infectious beat.
4. ‘Into The Groove’ (featured on the re-issue of Madonna’s album Like A Virgin, 1984.)
This best songs list of the 1980s could have easily turned into a Madonna tribute. The Material Girl had a profound influence on 80s pop culture that to deny her a song here would have been a travesty. When looking at her discography songs like Like A Prayer, Express Yourself and Papa Don’t Preach are easily some of her most popular and influential hits. But for my mind one song stands head and shoulders above them all and that song is Into The Groove. Honesty you couldn’t escape this song even if you tried! It is infectious, lively and arguably Madonna’s greatest song. In short, it was originally released as a non-album single in 1985 and appeared in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan as the background music in the disco scene. What’s it about? Madonna once said that the inspiration for the song came her love of dance.
3. ‘In The Air Tonight’ (taken from Phil Collin’s debut solo album Face Value, 1981.)
When I think of Phil Collins In The Air Tonight the first thing that comes to mind is the song’s famous drum fill. Though I bet everyone says that about his signature 1981 song. Just imagine it has been forty years since it was released and we are still talking about it. What is it about In The Air Tonight that makes it so great? Well, one of the things that make it notable is Collins seething lyrics that reach boiling point in its climatic drum fill moment. While the song is about despair and anger, it is also about redemption and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The lyric “I can feel it coming in the air tonight” in particular comes to represent a sense of optimistism about the future. In essence while this song is Phil Collins venting about his divorce, it doesn’t stop the listener from owning some of it for themselves.
2. ‘All Fired Up’ (taken from Pat Benatar’s album Wide Awake In Dreamland, 1988.)
It’s fair to say I absolutely adore Pat Benatar and her contribution to music. The four time Grammy Award winner repeatedly produced some of the 80s most popular hits. That said, even though Benatar didn’t write All Fired Up, she certainly had a knack for choosing songs that played to her strengths. Her vocal prowess set against a thumping guitar fuelled sound is definitely on show here. Interestingly, this 80s anthem would be the singers last great hit before she faded almost completely from the charts. As only one of a handful of 80s female rockers who dismantled rock gender barriers, Pat Benatar I salute you.
1. ’Where The Streets Have No Name’ (taken from U2’s album The Joshua Tree, 1987.)
Where The Streets Have No Name was almost the song that never was. U2 Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. once said of the song that, “It took so long to get that song right, it was difficult for us to make any sense of it. It only became a truly great song through playing live.” The Edge was the inspiration behind “Streets” famous guitar hook which came to him the night before the band would resume The Joshua Tree sessions. The story goes that after he laid down the demo he was so excited that he dance around punching the air in excitement. On a personal note, this is the song that got me into U2. Lyrically it’s such a mood changer with its vague but hopeful message. But probably what excites me the most about this song is its long intro where that haunting organ wails endlessly before The Edge’s guitar riff kicks in and the song boils over with Mullen’s drums. Did I mention how cool the baseline sounds? There is probably no need, it stands out like a glorious sore thumb. It’s no mistake that “Streets” is often lauded as U2’s greatest song. It is universally loved and in my humble opinion it is also the best song of the 1980s.
Great selections Robert. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Billie Jean” are among my top 10 songs of the 80s too, and “When Doves Cry” and “Into the Groove” are close behind. I love “Where the Streets Have No Name” too, but my favorite from “Joshua Tree” – and U2 – is the haunting “With or Without You”.
That’s a cool list. I never really got into Tears for Fears but ‘Everyone Wants To Rule the World’ is a great song. I don’t even know the Benatar or Mellancamp ones.
These are awesome Robert. I love the 80’s so much so it would be impossible to pick a top 10. A couple of these might make my list.
I agree with the assertion of “Billie Jean” as being a catalyst for the success of the “Thriller” album. Jackson seemed to also have a knack for killing it on live television, and certainly through the MTV culture. Two such instances would be his live performance “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” where he introduced us to the moonwalk while performing “Billie Jean”, and the amazing theatrical video for “Thriller”. People can certainly argue about how his success seemed to change him, but I feel there is little room to argue that he was a superstar performer. Thanks for the great post.
Really interesting list, Robert. If we’re talking pop in particular, can I throw in Annie Lennox ‘Talking to an Angel’ and Sinead O’Conner’s version of ‘Nothing Compares to U’? Sorry, I know this is your list – I just can’t help getting involved 🙂
Head Over Heels is a waay better track, haha, and no way have The Eagles topped Thriller? Is that in the USA, or worldwide?
Good stuff though.
I believe The Eagles have the #1 selling album of all time in America, but Jackson’s numbers are far superior worldwide. Thanks for reading.
Aah that makes sense. Nearly bought tickets to see them a few years when visiting San Francisco, still torn between seeing who’s left and unsure if it’d be what I hoped!
Missed this the first time but this is another great list sir. Some real glorious, nostalgia influencing stuff here. I’ve been on a bit of an 80’s bent of late and there’s a huge amount of gold across a very varied decade – may end up putting together a list at some point
The 80s transports me back to being a teenager. And even though I honed my tastes in music in the 90s, there is something very nostalgic about that decade as you say. I’d love to see your list.
Good list! I definitely agree about Billie Jean and In The Air Tonight. I have always loved 80s music and some of my favourites are Guns N’ Roses – “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, Toto – “Africa” and Billy Idol – “Rebel Yell”. In my opinion, no other decade produced or will ever now produce such powerful ballads as 80s did, too: Def Leppard – “Love Bites”, Mr. Mister – “Broken Wings”, Wham! – “Careless Whisper”, Peter Gabriel – “In Your Eyes”, Lionel Richie – “Hello”, John Waite – “Missing You”, Berlin – “Take My Breath Away”, Richard Marx – “Angelia”, Foreigner – “I Want to Know What Love Is”, W.A.S.P. – “Sleeping (In the Fire)”, the list just goes on and on and on.