The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

90. This Heat – “S.P.Q.R.
(1981; Rough Trade)

To say This Heat is a bit of an enigma is a gross understatement. The band tracked most of their output in an abandoned meat locker, their political messages were often indecipherable, and their sound doesn’t really even fit loosely in any one genre. Of course, this is also a large part of the band’s allure. That said, one of the band’s finest moments, “S.P.Q.R.,” may be one of the only instances in This Heat’s existence when they actually sound like a real live rock band (at least for an entire song). There’s little in the way of tape manipulation, prog-like transitions or static noise typical of the band’s other recordings. Still, even in this instance, the band’s clatter doesn’t sound like your average post-punk band (a genre they were often lumped into). The drone-like vocals weave through a gangling, discordant guitar line and rattling symbols which clang like kitchen utensils. No one else could execute the kind of rigorous chaos This Heat excelled at. – Chris Karman

89. Cocteau Twins – “Lorelei
(1984; 4AD)

There are few songs in the world that sound less like they were made by human beings on this planet than Cocteau Twins’ “Lorelei.” Elisabeth Fraser sings not one intelligible word in a way that makes words seem like worthless garbage that we could do much better without, grasping in her strange unsyllablic murmurs, coos and yawps whatever it is that makes one continue to live emphatically, with love, grace, sunshine, stillness and dreams in a world of brute contours and arbitrary boundaries. That is, she is pure magic in this song, magic being the only thing capable of introducing a desire worth following. The stuttering drum machines and moaning, glistening fields of sound are also absolutely worthy of your unconditional adoration. – Tyler Parks

88. The Jam – “Going Underground
(1980; Polydor)

At their best, The Jam were able to put together songs that were and are remarkably lean, immediate and urgent, as if everything the least bit extraneous has been expertly removed via scalpel to leave only a pumping and pulsating core that drives itself straight into the hearts and minds of those with even the remotest sensitivity to human passion. “Going Underground” is a prime example of that and it is no surprise that it spent some time atop the charts in Britain. Paul Weller is his usual, socially attuned self here, weaving scenes of contemporary England into a strange mélange of exultation and renunciation, despair and the unwillingness to turn away from impossible tasks that abound. – Tyler Parks

87. Dexys Midnight Runners – “Come On Eileen
(1982; Mercury)

There’s a lot of ironic love out there for “Come on Eileen,” but there’s a lot to love about it without the irony. There’s something so honest about those early attempts to get into someone else’s pants. That’s the song in a nutshell. It’s that point in everyone’s life when those innocent crushes of childhood change thanks to the hormones. Those dreams of youth meld with the invincible possibilities of teenage life, neither of which have been yet dulled by adulthood and real disappointment. And then you try having the sex. Hilarity ensues. There’s something else at work in “Come on Eileen” as well. Though the two youngsters are surrounded by reminders of aging, they want to sing the songs of their youth as they grow older, like doing so will keep them young and virile. This popped-out Irish folk tune gets down to the essentials: sex and dying. Stripped to this truth, fiddling and fussing itself, the music skips around barefoot, frolicking in a summer sound that lasts less than four minutes. – Hubert Vigilla

86. Grandmaster Melle Mel – “White Lines
(1983; Sugar Hill)

Melle Mel was already familiar with mixing hip-hop and politics when he did the anti-coke “White Lines.” (As one of the Furious Five, he was responsible for many of the lyrics in “The Message.”) More than just being an anti-drug song, “White Lines” is danceable as hell. This seems to be an effective practice when it comes to socially conscious music: you make your point best when you can affect the heart, the glands, and the hips. That’s precisely what Melle Mel did. The churn and thump of that bassline, those hand drums, and that big kick drum are relentless. The groove doesn’t stop. It even gets heightened in the chorus with those horns. Maybe there’s a brief break as the backing vocals build to a crescendo and dump you back into the groove. While your hips and glands are moving, Melle Mel talks about the desperation of the cokehead and the social dimension of drugs. Had the song been too serious, the whole thing would seem so easy. But like Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” or “Freddie’s Dead,” “White Lines” is memorable because it’s simply well made rather than simple minded. – Hubert Vigilla

85. Big Country – “In a Big Country
(1983; Mercury)

There were countless one-hit wonders during the 1980s, but few of those hitmakers were as unflaggingly earnest as Scotland’s Big Country. This was the 1983 song to garner more fans than ever from the wrong side of the Atlantic, and it bucks the trend of cheesiness inherent in songs containing a performer’s name. “In a Big Country” distills both the band’s populist songwriting and their guitar mimicry of bagpipes. It’s not just a band theme song; it’s an unofficial national anthem. – Adam Blyweiss

84. Nirvana – “About a Girl
(1989; Sub Pop)

In his book “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” Michael Azerrad reveals that Kurt Cobain liked to keep a copy of ABBA: Gold in the band’s tour bus, because he loved pop music. “About a Girl” is arguably the first time evidence of this love appears up a Nirvana song. The clear guitar sound and crisp drumming stand out sharply from the rest of the sludgy Bleach, and the verse-chorus-verse-guitar solo-verse-chorus structure is unfailingly radio friendly. In a lot of ways, it foreshadows much of what would come on Nevermind. If “Smells like Teen Spirit” didn’t tear the world open a few years later, would most of us would probably never have heard this song, but that doesn’t diminish its own merits. It’s a small gem, even without everything that came after. – Elizabeth Malloy

83. R.E.M. – “Fall on Me
(1986; I.R.S.)

No offense to the great songs on any of R.E.M.’s first three albums (which I revere), but “Fall on Me” is their first real single, in every sense of the word. The counter vocals of Mike Mills stand out, showcasing the strength of the dynamic between him and Stipe. It was “Fall on Me” that introduced me to my favorite R.E.M. album, Life’s Rich Pageant, an album that is still often underrated in the catalog. Packed with politics, history, great lyrics, and indelible tunes, I challenge anyone to deny its merits. “Fall on Me” is a gem, only to be equaled later, perhaps, by “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Hurts.” – Terrance Terich

82. Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick
(1988; Sub Pop)

“Touch Me, I’m Sick” is Ground Zero for that ’90s phenomenon tagged “Grunge” (a term rumored to have been coined on the spot during an interview by Mudhoney’s own Mark Arm). Sure, members of Mudhoney got their start in the proto-Grunge outfit Green River, a band which also contained future members of Pearl Jam, but Mudhoney’s first single was arguably the genre’s first fully-formed slab of sludge. The single sparked an incredible indie buzz that paved the way for Nirvana’s eventual to signing to Geffen. Deftly melding rock’s dirtiest tendencies into their own monster, easy to recognize touch points like ’60s garage, Stooges grind and pacific punk aggression are amalgamated into the band’s tunefully primitive assault. Arm’s snarl was infused with a sense of humor nearly unparalleled among their Pacific Northwest-based brethren. Shortly thereafter, they went on to release a handful of stellar singles along with the band’s high-water mark Superfuzz Bigmuff. With “Touch Me, I’m Sick” along with those subsequent records, Mudhoney cemented their place among Grunge royalty, even if they never quite found the same commercial success as their better known peers. – Chris Karman

81. Talking Heads – “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
(1980; Sire)

Don’t you miss it, don’t you miss it, some of you people just about missed it! This boiling, bubbling, popping and snapping bit of new wave Afrobeat never came close to being the sort of hit that “Once In a Lifetime” did; in fact, it was only released as a single in Japan, curiously. But its ubiquity is irrelevant when held up against the sheer artistry of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” a song with all the paranoid eeriness of “Psycho Killer,” but with a burning intensity, and countless more layers. David Byrne chants a variety of darkly cryptic lines (“take a look at these hands, take a look at these hands!“, “I’m so thin,” “All I want is to breathe“) as the Heads hammer out the funkiest, nastiest groove of their career, a bizarre kind of art-house jam that melds Fela Kuti with Devo. It’s a hot-and-bothered exercise in fluid agitation, rising in temperature ever so gradually until Adrian Belew’s guitar-synth freakout and the haunting chants of “The heat goes on/ where the hand has been” closing out the song in a whirlwind of sweat and polyrhythmic urgency. This song may have inadvertently been many Americans’ introduction to Afrobeat, that is, if Africa were actually a continent on Mars. – Jeff Terich

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