The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

80. Pixies – “Monkey Gone to Heaven
(1989; 4AD)

The Pixies were every bit as calculated as Sonic Youth in honing what can more or less be called the “big weird” sound. However whereas Sonic Youth were aiming to be the spokespeople of the forgotten generation, the Pixies played as though there are no people for hundreds for miles. Hence, nearly everything they did prior to Bossanova sounded as though it were being broadcast from some Lynchian nether realm. Doolittle was simply the first indication that their world wasn’t altogether hostile. “Monkey gone to Heaven” draws listeners ever inward into this realm of bizarre logic with its contrasting hellfire guitar chugging and celestial string arrangement before being drowned altogether when the elements of the chorus fall into place a little too perfectly. – Chris Morgan

79. Tears For Fears – “Mad World
(1982; Mercury)

There are numerous reasons why Tears for Fears stood out as one of the most innovative duos of the ’80s, but to summarize in brief terms, they made torment radio friendly. Almost every song on debut album The Hurting, from the seething “Pale Shelter” to the cathartic title track, is a document of trauma or abuse, none more perfect than “Mad World.” Later linked to Donnie Darko through Gary Jules’ stripped-down cover, “Mad World” stalks like an unwanted late night visitor, its pulsing drum machine beat ticking like the stoic click of a wall clock. And its synthesizers, wobbly and woozy, ooze like ghosts seeping through creaky wood walls. And after the detached, spectral sounding Curt Smith creeps his way through the verses, Roland Orzabal delivers the chorus’ coup de grace: “I find it kind of funny/ I find it kind of sad/ that the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” Chilling. – Jeff Terich

78. The Clash – “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
(1982; CBS)

Sometimes I think this is the perfect rock and roll song. It’s so deceptively simple, it sounds like any band in any garage could have come up with it. But they couldn’t have; this song is 100 percent Clash. Mick Jones snarling his indecision over dirty, shambling guitar riffs, with the whole band eventually falling into a Little Richard-style roadhouse stomp are the kinds of things that made the Clash so influential and eternal. Were this song written in 1955 or 2010, it would still pack the same punch. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was the Clash’s only number one, and arguably the biggest “hit” of punk rock, for what that’s worth. But more than that, it’s one of those songs that occasionally pops up and gives the world a must needed jolt, a shot in the arm of basic, gritty rock and roll. It’s not really perfect, but that’s what makes it all the better. – Elizabeth Malloy

77. Prince – “Purple Rain
(1984; Warner Bros.)

I’ve written about Purple Rain quite a lot on this site and I never tire of it, just as I never tire of the album, quite possibly my favorite of all time. The title track is an epic ballad, as the official script calls it, “It’s a ballad, a poem really, a plea for understanding, love and survival. It’s a testament, a pact, if you will, between himself and others.” Prince is a notorious perfectionist, an impresario who performed every instrument, yet in the film, he generously creates the fiction that Wendy & Lisa wrote the song, performing it as his closing contest triumph. “Purple Rain” features, arguably, Prince’s most passionate vocals (“Honey, I know, I know times are changin’“) and his most charged guitar solo. In other words, “Purple Rain” is genius. – Terrance Terich

76. Stone Roses – “Fool’s Gold
(1989; Silvertone)

Of all of the early Stone Roses songs, none can be as easily identified with the Madchester scene as the baggy beats of “Fool’s Gold.” Their first album is considered the seminal Madchester record, but in reality, when it comes to that scene it is all about this song, which was tacked onto to the end of the U.S. version of the album months after its original release. Their self-titled debut proper was a masterwork showing the band as Britpop innovators; “Fool’s Gold,” on the other hand, was all about finding the perfect, hazy groove. One reason for the distinction was the way the track was cut. Whereas the album had been recorded mostly live as a band, “Fool’s Gold” was recorded piecemeal, starting with a drum loop. After the drum loop came an avalanche of ideas; two dueling bass lines, inspired guitar riffs, Ian Brown’s laidback inflections, and congas were all melded together perfectly without one note spoiling the vibe. The resulting track was the perfect mix of dance-heavy acid house rhythms and psychedelics. The album version is the definitive one; it’s nearly ten minutes long, but not a minute is wasted. – Chris Karman

75. R.E.M. – “The One I Love
(1987; I.R.S.)

Despite being on a small label — I.R.S. Records — R.E.M.’s star continued to rise above their college radio roots throughout the course of the 80’s (and the group would, of course, soon sign with Warner Bros. and go on to become one of the biggest bands in the world). Despite the odds, “The One I Love” became the band’s first top 10 single. Michael Stipe has repeatedly claimed in interviews that he never felt like “The One I Love” was the kind of song that belonged in the top 10, mainly because of its acerbic lyrical content. In fact, he has even gone so far as to say he’s been embarrassed by the song’s rather bitter take on a relationship. Stipe’s feelings about the “The One I Love” obviously didn’t stop it from connecting with a wider audience than they had seen up until that point, even if the song was widely misinterpreted to the point that it’s been played at numerous weddings. Nonetheless, its actual content is still a frighteningly accurate portrayal of a failed relationship. Oh yeah, and those guitar riffs are classic. – Chris Karman

74. Devo – “Beautiful World
(1981; Warner Bros.)

I heard this song in a commercial this one time and I couldn’t help but think that Devo wanted it that way. Not so much because of the sweet royalties they had coming as a result (though that’s a nice plus that no one would contest), but because it is, at least to me, a delightful fuck you to the ad jingle. I speak from personal experience when I say that people who work in marketing and advertising, at least the non-Don Draper types, actually believe the bullshit they’re hocking. The world rules and would rule all the more teeming with consumer products. “Beautiful World” shines with brilliant hooks and depictions of happy people leading happy lives before going on to point out the ignorance that such a lifestyle can breed and that perhaps joy and beauty for one comes at the expense of another’s. – Chris Morgan

73. Mission of Burma – “Academy Fight Song
(1980; Ace of Hearts)

Mission of Burma’s curse as the band whose songs comprised an indie rock score for a movie that would never be made has no greater representation than it does with “Academy Fight Song.” Its nervous punk riff, melodic bass, marching order drums, and cantankerous lyrics make up the sonic-cinematic bristle of “cool kid” late adolescence with all its style, pent-up aggression and melodrama. – Chris Morgan

72. David Bowie – “Let’s Dance
(1983; EMI)

Though David Bowie has always been known as a chameleon-like artist, I think there was no more drastic transformation than that between clown / alien Bowie from Scary Monsters and the New Romantic blond pompadour Bowie from Let’s Dance. The title track showed off Bowie’s new image and new sound, proving that he could pull off popular instead of just cult. Alongside “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” and “Cat People,” “Let’s Dance” provided one piece of a puzzle that would become one of Bowie’s biggest commercial successes. Above all, it was fun. The single version is a solid four minutes of disco, but it’s the album version that stretches out the magic, nearly doubling the length of the single. As I’ve always said, the more Bowie the better, and “Let’s Dance” is a celebration worth experiencing over and over again. – Terrance Terich

71. Prince – “Little Red Corvette
(1983; Warner Bros.)

When Prince is telling you that “you’ve got to slow down,” it’s probably time to chill out on the promiscuous sex. Of course, slow down once the Purple One has had his turn. At once explicit sex-jam and seasoned words of warning, “Little Red Corvette” is a masterpiece of analogy and innuendo, rich with raunchy, metaphorical puns based on modes of transport: “Now move over baby, gimme the keys / I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine.” With the slow-churning drum machine and synth build-up of the intro, the song starts as brooding reflection punctuated by an infectious and explosive chorus, gradually transforming into a seemingly endless crescendo of guitar solos, soaring keyboards, and an incredible vocal performance by Prince. Even at the risk of death – “Babe, you’ve got to slow down / `cause if you don’t, `cause if you don’t / you’re gonna run your body right into the ground” – his recommendations for responsibility come across as a little half-hearted, if only because “Little Red Corvette” itself inspires little else but the physical desires the protagonists of this jam ultimately succumb to. – Derek Emery

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