The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

70. The Cure – “In Between Days
(1985; Fiction)

“In Between Days” is the perfect Cure song as far as I’m concerned. The drums at the beginning drop you into the deliberate guitar melody. Then another quick drum roll and the song kicks forward again with a bubbling lead on an electric guitar accompanied by the flaring strums on an acoustic guitar. Then come the synthesizers, those glorious, soaring, swallow-tailed synthesizers. It’s like dropping an Alka-Seltzer and flavored syrup into a glass of sparkling water. And that’s just the first 50 seconds. As this all continues to effervesce, Robert Smith appears at his most melancholic, his opening lines about aging, dying and crying. He dares someone he loved to go away. It’s a love-gone-wrong song. But then at the halfway mark comes the second verse. With the fear of loneliness is his desire to reconnect with the old flame from the first verse. Now it’s become something like a new wave torch song. All these shifts in feeling and those uncertainties and surprises, and that joy of living that bubbles beneath every unavoidable sadness; this is your life as a three-minute pop song. – Hubert Vigilla

69. The Beat – “Mirror In the Bathroom
(1980; Go Feet)

Few acts brought ska to the forefront of music’s consciousness like The Beat. They may have had bigger hits, and they managed to spread their influence in splinter groups like Fine Young Cannibals and General Public, but the chugging guitar and punctuating brass in “Mirror in the Bathroom” were set in opposition to Dave Wakeling’s plaintive chant. Ska normally straddles a fragile nexus of punk politics, pop relationship tales, and reggae good vibes, but this song is a different beast altogether. Oddly entertaining and wholly neurotic scene setting seems derived alternately from your last drug haze and from the “Every Breath You Take” school of obsessive observation. – Adam Blyweiss

68. Pixies – “Debaser
(1989; 4AD)

“Debaser” is, roughly, how I felt on just about every last day of school during my formative years, embodied in song form. Those perfectly toned guitars shine brightly as the Pixies jump from one driving power chord burst to the next with little respite, slowing only for a lilting lead during the song’s brief refrain. Black Francis’ (aka Frank Black) maniacal caterwauling details nothing in particular, his lyrics informed by the surrealism of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Un Chien Andalou, which contains the famous scene in which a nameless woman’s eye is slit with a razorblade (“Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know“). But every element of “Debaser” – the timbre and melody of the instruments, the continuous, upbeat drum gallops, Black’s barks and yelps, Kim Deal’s breathy, ethereal back-ups — seems to be reaching toward some unforeseen high, reflecting the pure delirium of true elation and requiring that one shout “I am un CHIEN Andalusia!!” with similar gusto. – Derek Emery

67. Hall and Oates – “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
(1981; RCA)

Though several artists were subject to some unfortunate vote splitting in this poll’s voting process, Daryl Hall and John Oates seemed the least prone to consensus. “You Make My Dreams,” “Private Eyes” and “Method of Modern Love” were personal favorites for some writers, and with good reason; few pop duos in, well, any decade wrote such pristine pop jewels like this Philadelphia pair did. But there was one massive exception, of course: “I Can’t Go For That.” A song bearing an infamous bludgeon of ambiguity that Meatloaf should, frankly, have to pay royalties for, “I Can’t Go For That” manages to both make a cheesy sax solo a necessary component and turn out an undeniable hook from the phrase “no can do.” That takes a special kind of talent to pull off, and perhaps only a songwriting partnership responsible for more top 40 hits than anyone else on this list, save for the Midwest’s Big Three (Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson), had the chops to do it. But despite whatever kitsch value some might find in this tune, its combination of dreamy keyboards, popping drum machines and silky smooth funk bassline (which inspired an even more massive hit a year later) is the coolest. – Jeff Terich

66. Modern English – “I Melt With You
(1982; Sire)

No matter how many crappy food commercials it appears in, little will dull “I Melt With You.” There are the immediate lyrics about being in love and wanting it to last forever, like those fledgling bits of poetry found on the margins of your history notes. They’re quick, they’re honest, they’re confessional, and because they don’t try too hard, it just the kind of songwriting where the truth is found. But that brightness is undercut during the bridge, which is key. The guitar drops out, and something a little shadowy is introduced in the way the drums and the vocals echo off into the distance. “The future’s open wide,” which presents the possibility of failure, of waking up from that dreamy early stage of love. But it’s that uncertainty that the song orbits around. Without it, the song’s just catchy rather than a gem that endures. “I Melt With You” isn’t just about love; it’s about the fear of losing someone so perfect and the lengths you’ll go to in order to hold on. Stopping the world means never wanting to let go even though you know full well that the planet spins regardless. – Hubert Vigilla

65. Prince – “Raspberry Beret
(1985; Paisley Park)

I consider this song Prince’s ode to the workingman. Hear me out: On the surface, it’s about Prince meeting a girl wearing a raspberry colored beret, taking her to a farm on his motorcyle, and having sex with her in a barn during a rain storm. BUT, I maintain that while he is singing in first person, Prince himself is not the narrator of this song, and moreover, the girl is not real. The narrator really is just a regular five and dime clerk, and the girl is a complete figment of his imagination, cooked while trying to avoid his boss. After all, this song is about a girl who shops at second hand stores, not Apollonia, and the dream date is a drive out to the country, not meeting in a hotel lobby where your paramour is masturbating to a magazine. “Raspberry Beret” sounds like a fantasy, but not one of Prince’s. But, by writing a song about it – and one with such an incredible hook to boot – Prince is validating this common daydream, considering it just as important as his own. “This ordinary, everyday man,” Prince is saying, “is just as cool as me.” Noblesse oblige, indeed.

Or maybe Prince just wrote a hot synthesizer track and decided to pair with lyrics about hot chicks and bikes. Either way, great stuff. – Elizabeth Malloy

64. Mötörhead – “Ace of Spades
(1980; Bronze)

Few songs from the rock ‘n’ roll era provoke such immediate feelings of danger as Mötörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” After its release date in 1980, the song spent 12 weeks defiling the British music charts and quickly became a favorite among metalheads, punks, and hard rock aficionados around the world. A pulverizing blues-based rocker performed at breakneck speeds, “Ace of Spades” helped to define the then-burgeoning thrash metal sound and provided a lyrical antithesis to the greed and capitalism that would come to characterize the 1980s in many parts of the world. Its words are filled with imagery about gambling, but “Ace of Spades” isn’t an ode to city lights, high rolling and big riches; this narrator gets his rocks off simply by taking risks. “Win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me,” bassist/front man Lemmy Kilmister deadpans in his rich, road worn and whiskey-soaked voice. Cards are the vice of choice, but it’s a sure bet that if the game changed to Russian Roulette, this dude would be the first to press the barrel against his temple and pull the trigger. (“That’s the way I like it baby / I don’t want to live forever.“)

Today, “Ace of Spades” is known as Mötörhead’s signature song. It has become a staple at sports arenas, frat parties and pretty much every movie that involves car racing, but its severity has all but been lost. Thirty years after its release, the opening bars of “Ace of Spades” are still enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and it seems likely that the song will continue to have a profound effect on every future generation of hard rock bands until the genre finally fizzles and dies out. Or the Apocalypse, whichever comes first. – Jamie Ludwig

63. R.E.M. – “Driver 8
(1985; I.R.S.)

Looking back, it’s hard not to draw parallels between The Smiths and R.E.M. in the mid-`80s. Despite the fact that R.E.M. had arrived just a little bit earlier and released one more album than The Smiths by the time of the UK band’s split in 1987, both bands had oddly similar dynamics. Both band boasted a taut and dynamic rhythm section, a guitarist wielding an edgy yet shimmering jangle, and, most importantly, a sexually ambiguous frontman known for vocal affectations. Yet while The Smiths reflected the separation of class in Thatcher’s England, to a certain degree, R.E.M.’s early records contained imagery of rural America. “Driver 8” is just such a song, following the travelogue of a locomotive and Michael Stipe’s observations such as “I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of a farm/ the power lines have floaters so the airplanes don’t get snagged.” It’s a fairly simple if poetic snapshot, one that could well have been made into a fine folk tune, but R.E.M., instead, dressed it up in surf-inspired guitar riffs and jittery rhythms, making for a classic, idiosyncratic rock `n’ roll song. – Jeff Terich

62. Eric B and Rakim – “Paid In Full
(1987; 4th & Broadway)

The late ’80s and early ’90s saw the peak of my hip-hop fandom. While A Nation of Millions, Straight Outta Compton, Paul’s Boutique and Raising Hell stand out as some of my favorite hip-hop albums, it’s hard to beat “Paid in Full” as one of the best hip-hop tracks of all time. Rakim’s voice is unparalleled in its smoky and smooth flow, often looked to as one of the signature voices of the time, but his voice is merely the vehicle for his incredibly sophisticated rhymes. “Paid in Full” is one of only a handful of songs whose lyrics I can recall in their entirety. And, they may not have coined the phrase, but I’m pretty sure that “Paid in Full” marked the first time I ever heard the term `dead presidents.’ My only concern in listening to “Paid in Full” is whether I want to hear the original single version, or the Coldcut remix version, complete with Ofra Haza’s mesmerizing voice in sample. – Terrance Terich

61. Hüsker Dü – “Celebrated Summer
(1985; SST)

I have never known quite how to describe this song to myself, only that it was the most thrilling and moving of Hüsker Dü songs in the way it united their muscular barrage of noise with Bob Mould’s vague and nostalgic lyrics. There is a strange balance of power and fragility here, a sliding from one pole to the next with unique resonances at the points in between, as when Mould recedes behind the line, “I summer where I winter at and no one is allowed there.” Something opens and something closes, the flickering light of long summer evenings gets flattened up against images of childhood summer obliterated by snow, static, or the decaying of memory that leaves behind something robust and suggestive but completely gone, submerged in an insurmountable wall of feedback. – Tyler Parks

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