Jello Biafra once said that the only thing that made the ’80s tolerable was the music. Cantankerous old punk rock coot he may be, Jello speaks the truth on this point. The ’80s, politically, culturally, economically, was fraught with moments that now make us look back and cringe. The decade responsible for Reaganomics, “Full House,” David Hasselhof’s rise to stardom and any number of god-awful flicks, from “Cocktail” to “Mannequin,” may not have always been an example of great strides in human progress, but the 1980s changed the course of music for decades to come.
As the 1970s came to an end, the popularity of disco waned, though it thrived in the underground, largely in part due to visionaries like Arthur Russell. Punk rock started to infiltrate the mainstream, resulting in bands like Devo and The Clash having hits on a then-fledgling MTV. That very same channel subsequently became the venue through which Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince became the biggest superstars of the decade, while underground scenes in Manchester, England, and Minneapolis, Minn., launched entirely new, independent sounds. New genres were born, new stars were christened, and old traditions were put to bed. And some, like minimal wave or Italo-disco, are still the source of crate digger discovery to this day.
Though we previously tried to get a handle on the decade’s music with our Best Albums of the ’80s list a few years back, we’ve realized that only tells part of the story. Over time, the music of the ’80s has come to represent both a source of nostalgia and a goldmine for undiscovered innovation and lost classics. And for Treble, the ’80s is a particularly personal era for everyone involved. Most of us were born or grew up in the ’80s, and as such, its music was an important gateway. But that doesn’t apply just to the writers here; a good many of today’s more prominent artists take root and influence from the 1980s, from Arcade Fire’s U2 aspirations to The Hold Steady’s E Street loitering and M.I.A.’s neon fashion and Chuck D-lite politics. And then, of course, there’s the massive influence of Prince, without whom we wouldn’t have the pleasure of The-Dream, Janelle Monáe, Big Boi, Of Montreal… well, just about half the stuff we loved in the past few years.
Given that the ’80s have left such an indelible mark on popular music, we saw fit to give it another retrospective in the form of our favorite songs from the decade. Many are songs that have stayed with us since childhood or adolescence, while some are new favorites, excavated from mixtapes and compilations or magically appearing on YouTube. We’ve included links to videos or streams with each track, so you can listen or watch as songs are posted. We didn’t put too many limitations on the shape of the list, but a few notable songs were excluded because of being released either right at the tail end of the ’70s (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead“) or right at the beginning of the ’90s (“Here’s Where the Story Ends“), and we placed a limit of five songs per artist, as to prevent single-artist monopolization. And while this feature is up, daily reviews will be put on hold. We are still posting news, and reviews will return on Monday, Feb. 28. Thank you for reading, and we welcome you back to the new wave decade with the Best Songs of the 80s.
Update: We’ve added a Spotify playlist, so you can listen along.
200. Vaselines – “Son of a Gun”
(1987; 53rd and 3rd)
I have the early ’90s to thank for one of the best songs of the ’80s. My first exposure to The Vaselines came through Nirvana’s Incesticide, which featured covers of “Son of a Gun” and “Molly’s Lips.” Both were standouts on that album, though I still wouldn’t hear the original versions of these songs until the early 2000s. What’s striking about “Son of a Gun” is its sunny, straightforward simplicity. This is a bounding superball of happiness and fun; the joys of being with someone you care about and the sadness when that person isn’t there. The lyrics have a certain quality about them that remind me of the vocabulary in The Cat in the Hat, and the melody is the sort of thing you’d hear Miss Piggy sing to Kermit on “Muppet Babies”; the taps of a single piano key introduced in the final chorus feel like it was played by an exuberant little cartoon. Perhaps the reason I use “childlike” to describe the song is that swinging and jumping referred to in the verse. Yeah, I know it’s probably referring to a roll in the hay, but please, think of the children. – Hubert Vigilla
199. Kid Creole and the Coconuts – “Stool Pigeon”
“There’s a gentleman that’s going ’round turning the joint upside down.” I am that man! Not so much; “Stool Pigeon” is almost wholly self-referential. Kid Creole was the persona of a zoot-suited rake named August Darnell; the Coconuts were his glamour girls. Together they made polyglot party music that trotted the globe, loitering in the tropics aboard schooners, empty wine bottles rolling in the scuppers. “Stool Pigeon” is one of the great integrations of the disco era, dousing mixed-race generalizations and pan-cultural anxieties with a frisson of erotic taboo. The group itself may have been all affectation, but Kid Creole was a primo evangel for the open culture. If “Stool Pigeon” doesn’t turn your block party into a lush disco paradise, you’re in the wrong barrio. – Anthony Strain
198. Altered Images – “Happy Birthday”
There are very few songs that elicit the amount of giddiness in me than Altered Images’ “Happy Birthday.” The circus-like keyboard intro, mimicking a xylophone, immediately sets the tone as one of childlike playfulness. When Clare Grogan’s voice enters the picture, that scenario is only reinforced, and there is no point at which this chemistry does not work. Johnny McElhone’s bassline underscores the frivolity, acting as precursor to his later work in Texas. I am a huge sucker for Scottish bands and Scottish accents, and Altered Images’ new wave revamp of their forebears such as Orange Juice and Josef K was right up my alley from the first note. – Terrance Terich
197. Alexander Robotnick – “Problemes d’Amour”
(1983; Fuzz Dance)
As maverick thrift-store dance music goes this track is kind of the gestalt: psuedonymic producer, dizzy French vocals, cheap proto-house drum machine, strip-bar cred. Robotnick, née Maurizio Dami, was variously involved in dance-cabaret, soundtrack work and other multi-media projects and was one of the first to fool around with the TB-303 out of context. He made “Problèmes d’amour” looking for a fast buck and ended up with the most circular kind of hit: lots of play within certain parameters but not much of a payout. Supposedly it was big in Detroit in the early days of that sound. Nowadays binnier DJs can throw it on between, say, “Wordy Rappinghood” and Yoko Ono’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and get laughs of relief. Why are the cheesier songs always the most timeless? – Anthony Strain
196. Frankie Knuckles – “Your Love”
Turn on this record for any of your twenty-something buddies and the vast majority will probably think they’re listening to some lo-fi / chillwave cover of Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” But before that infectious centerpiece of synth arpeggios could be compromised and reengineered for one of 2009’s indie anthems, Frankie Knuckles crafted it as the hypnotic cornerstone to 1987’s “Your Love.” This monumental single of the burgeoning Chicago House scene — and one of the most influential compositions in the history of electronic music — is a slow rise into ecstasy, as each interlocking layer patiently pushes the song toward its towering conclusion. Jamie Principle’s breathy whispers and plaintive croons are given the same raw minimalist treatment, calculated measures of repetition and space emphasizing their emotional depth. “Your Love” is an unquestionable classic, too long underrated or unknown by those outside of the house music scene. – Derek Emery
195. Bad Brains – “Banned In D.C.”
I once read somewhere that when Bad Brains released the ROIR cassette they’d largely lost interest in their hardcore output, preferring their reggae material and only put the hardcore songs on the album as a concession to critics. If this is true the band had a weird way of showing it. Far from going through the motions, “Banned in DC” is simply one of the most utterly baffling songs ever put to tape. Played with the speed and intensity of lightning but with the precision and skill of any seasoned composer, it started and ended hardcore as an art form in a little over two minutes, much in the same way that Sunny Day Real Estate’s “In Circles” started and ended emo. It created the basic formula for the masses to imitate but set the standards so insanely high that only the courageous few could really transcend. – Chris Morgan
194. Black Flag – “Rise Above”
One of the decade’s scariest songs, in the eyes of parents, school officials and any other authority figure within earshot was the anti-establishment battle cry of Black Flag’s “Rise Above.” As the first track of Damaged, the first Black Flag album to feature then-20-year-old Henry Rollins on lead vocals, “Rise Above” proved to be a particularly incendiary way to launch a new era for the beloved Southern California hardcore band. From the first notes of its descending guitar intro, “Rise Above” draws the listener into the fray in a seemingly symbolic gesture of blowing up of the proverbial “fourth wall” between band and audience. The song’s aggressive call-and-response verses along with the anthemic, self-assured chant of its chorus that incite listeners to think for themselves and to stand up against a system that doesn’t work, have rendered it iconic in the scope of ’80s hardcore that even today remains a still-gripping piece of music with a timeless message. – Jamie Ludwig
193. Young Marble Giants – “N.I.T.A.”
(1980; Rough Trade)
“N.I.T.A.” is, like most of Young Marble Giants’ work, a fairly simple song, but one that quietly, slyly develops an ambiguous, alluring mood, sadness circling hope in a slowly unwinding spiral. The first verse with its direct lyrics expressing romantic loss recedes into the shadows when Alison Statton moves on to sing, “Nature intended the abstract for you and me,” a line that seems to be at the center of the song’s dreamlike charm as it blurs at its boundaries, flowing out of the simple framework that structures it and radiating and arresting with a subtle, everyday mysticism. – Tyler Parks
192. Psychic TV – “The Orchids”
Genesis P-Orridge did not make a name for himself by creating music that could easily be described as touching, but the gentle, sublime “The Orchids” certainly can be. There is something very Steve Reich about the metronomic, percussive spine of the song, the repetition around which P-Orridge’s endearingly awkward vocals swoop and dart, bouncing from channel to channel and offering a series of oddly aligning images that throw strange bands of color across the earnest, epiphanic chorus and the naïve sing-along “na na na na na nas.” But the multiplicity of images seems less like a series of things taken in over time than a delirious mass of superimpositions flashed in a single instant of intensified, concentrated life. – Tyler Parks
191. Camper Van Beethoven – “Take the Skinheads Bowling”
(1986; Rough Trade)
The minor success of “Take the Skinheads Bowling” on college radio may have had the unfortunate side-effect of casting Camper Van Beethoven as a novelty, but that doesn’t make the song any less enjoyable. With brilliantly ridiculous lines like “some people say that bowling alleys have big lanes” and “had a dream I wanted to sleep next to plastic,” honestly, what’s not to love? Not to mention how catchy it is. The band eventually grew far beyond their humble, yet satisfying beginnings, stretching out into new, largely uncharted territories. Even still, “Take the Skinheads Bowling” shows off CVB’s distinctive sense of humor in a song that’s impossible to resist. – Chris Karman