The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

30. The Cure – “A Forest
(1980; Fiction)

Written in an era when Robert Smith had yet to discover hairspray and The Cure was not yet synonymous with “goth,” “A Forest” is a post-punk masterpiece. A momentum-building centerpiece to the band’s understated 1980 album Seventeen Seconds, “A Forest” is a monumental accomplishment of mystery and intrigue, played with just four sinister chords. Nothing in “A Forest” is over the top, nor is any of it overtly confrontational. It seduces the listener rather than bludgeons, as Lol Tolhurst’s mechanical beats and Robert Smith’s hypnotic guitars stretch and climb toward an eerie, psychedelic climax. And even when some slight touches of keyboard arise during the chorus, they don’t overpower or take the lead, but rather add an odd red glow to the dense fog that permeates the song. “A Forest” offers more questions than answers, but getting lost in the ambiguity is half the fun. – Jeff Terich

29. Joy Division – “Atmosphere
(1980; Factory)

Joy Division’s slow jams were, for me, hard to really get into. Even at their most aggressive, they were still mostly impenetrable masses of bleakness. “Atmosphere” seems to be a remarkable detour from the standard formula. While still as gloomy as one would expect, Bernard Sumner’s beautiful synth line gives one the sense of ecstasy rather than tragedy. Even Curtis’ delivery of “Don’t walk away, in silence/ See the danger/ Always danger/ Endless talking/ Life rebuilding…” gives off the sense that it’s better to overcome than to be overtaken even if the odds are stacked very much in everyone’s disfavor. No wonder Anton Corbijn made the video for this song the way he did in commemoration of Curtis, it’s a song that eases grief rather than glamorizes it, it’s a greater reminder as to why we listen to and respect Joy Division beyond “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” – Chris Morgan

28. The Replacements – “Alex Chilton
(1987; Sire)

“Alex Chilton” opens with that chorus riff, and the hook remains lodged thereafter. The chorus has always stuck with me: “I’m in love/ What’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.” That’s everyone’s first encounter with great music in a dozen words. It probably sums up Paul Westerberg’s first listen to The Box Tops or Big Star. That was definitely my experience when I first heard the chorus of “The Ballad of El Goodo” rain down. The other lyric that sticks is “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” (The first nine words in my personal survival guide.) Writing about this song is pretty interesting, though not because of Alex Chilton’s death last year or the fact Chilton played guitar on another Replacements track from the same album (“Can’t Hardly Wait”). Just recently I heard Chilton’s cover album Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy for the first time, which features a rendition of Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song.” I couldn’t get the Wood version out of my head for weeks after rediscovering it, and the Chilton cover has been with me for the last few days. I’m in love with that song; I’ll always love Alex Chilton. – Hubert Vigilla

27. David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes
(1980; RCA)

Eleven years after introducing noble astronaut Major Tom to his audience, and following a few rough years with cocaine and a collapsing marriage, David Bowie assumed the role of the disgraced spaceman in what is simultaneously one of the weirdest and most accessible singles in his entire catalogue. Referencing his own substance abuse while attempting to shake the dust off of a troubled era, Bowie sings, “Ashes to ashes/ funk to funky/ we know Major Tom’s a junkie/ strung out in Heaven’s high/ hitting an all… time… low.” And oddly, in the video, he does this all while walking around in a clown suit. On a beach. Trailed by a large tractor. Self-referential and surreal, “Ashes to Ashes” is the pinnacle of sleek ’80s art-pop, all wobbly keyboards and sometimes satirical, often confusing visuals. In its coda, however, “Ashes to Ashes” doesn’t hit rock bottom, but rather ascend toward the heavens with keyboards firing like shuttle blasters. Ironically, this was damn near an all-time high. – Jeff Terich

26. Talking Heads – “Once In a Lifetime
(1980; Sire)

As far as raw material goes, there’s always the midlife crisis. But since it’s all over the place in literature and film, there needs to be something unique about a given work that separates it from being just another iteration of John Cheever. “Once in a Lifetime” pushes its presentation into its own Talking Headsy direction so it can transcend the familiarity of the material. On the production side, Brian Eno builds a jittery polyrhythm by stacking layers of repetitive instrumentation atop each other. It gives the song a spacey and cluttered feel, like all that sound is some inescapable cultural noise — QWERTY keyboards, dot matrix printers, adding machines, the commute, satellites blipping in space, the static of a dead channel. Then there’s David Byrne’s second-person narration, which is both a sermon about the sham of suburban complacency and the thoughts of a disappointed man looking at himself in the mirror. A revelatory line closes the final verse –“My god, what have I done” — which is usually, similarly, the implied last line in so many of those midlife crisis stories. – Hubert Vigilla

25. X – “Los Angeles
(1980; Slash)

I vividly remember hearing X’s “Los Angeles” on commercial radio as a teenager, completely uncensored, my mind spinning at the thought of a DJ being able to play a song with the line “she’s starting to hate every nigger and Jew” and not get fired, or at the very least, fined a hefty amount by the FCC. But to censor “Los Angeles” would be to remove its claws. It’s a song that cuts deep and doesn’t pull any punches; it’s honest. Having made their name in a scene of careening nihilists like Fear and The Germs, X were certainly intense, but still the most melodic of the Los Angeles punk scene, and furthermore, the best songwriters. Having production aid from The Doors’ Robby Krieger didn’t hurt, but with some stellar rockabilly punk riffs from Billy Zoom and two charismatic singers in John Doe and Exene Cervenka, X quickly moved to the head of the SoCal punk class. But they were still a punk band, after all, and their music reflected the seedy, grimy side of Los Angeles, much to the contrary of those other bands on the Sunset Strip. “Los Angeles,” their signature song, is a tale of an outsider’s view, and a fairly unforgiving one at that, where a sheltered and naive worldview is shattered to bits. That it’s a third person account, however, rather than an expression of personal angst spoke volumes about the band’s poetic style, which earned them comparisons to Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. This tale of fear and loathing in Los Angeles may be a little more Bret Easton Ellis, but regardless, it’s more than just a kickass song, it’s a superb piece of storytelling. – Jeff Terich

24. Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure
(1981; EMI)

I don’t feel that I owe Vanilla Ice very much, but I will give him this: He inadvertently introduced me to both Queen and David Bowie. Like most of my fellow third graders, I thought “Ice, Ice Baby” was a jam the first 50 or so times I heard it. Then it began to lose its luster, and then we learned that Vanilla had lifted the song’s signature bassline from someone else. I’d heard of Queen and David Bowie, but didn’t know much about either. After “Ice Ice Baby” came out, a lot of local radio stations started playing “Under Pressure” on regular rotation again, and the difference between the former’s hatchet job of the latter’s loose and soulful jam was evident even to a nine-year-old’s ears. Building into a friendly duel between Bowie’s simmering charm and Freddie Mercury’s epic bombast, the song is an anthem for anyone in over their head, showcasing the best of both its creators. Sometimes I wish they did more recording together, but then again, they probably knew there’d be no topping this. – Elizabeth Malloy

23. The Clash – “Rock the Casbah
(1982; CBS)

Not unlike The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” The Clash’s irresistible dance-punk opus “Rock the Casbah” is one of the great misinterpreted – or at least misappropriated – songs of the post-punk era. Apparently this jam sounds just great when being blasted in your cockpit as you shock-and-awe some local population in the middle of the desert. Yet beyond a simple examination of the lyrics or a thought to what The Clash were about, the fact that Joe Strummer reportedly “wept” at hearing that the words “Rock the Casbah” had been scrawled onto an American bomb headed to Iraq during the first Gulf War says everything about that flippant interpretation. No, this song merely supplants a typical punk rock fantasy to a Middle Eastern setting; the younger generations get rowdy to some raucous rock music, the powers that be try to use the religion and ultimately state violence to suppress the unfavorable self-expression. It seems to end badly, but the resilience of youth and music is implied not only lyrically, but also in the pure awesomeness of this tune. That piano riff, the beat, the hook, those piercing, angular guitar strikes… is it possible to not dance when you hear this song? I wouldn’t know — I’m gettin’ down a little bit as I write this sentence. – Derek Emery

22. The Church – “Under the Milky Way
(1988; Arista)

Sometimes when this place gets kind of empty…” “Under the Milky Way” was an anomaly. At the time of its release, in early 1988, the charts were dominated by pop holdovers from 1987, such as singles from George Michael, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and the soundtrack from Dirty Dancing. Then, along comes a somber acoustic-electric guitar opening, and the deep and introspective voice of Steve Kilbey. The result is not only one of the best songs of the ’80s, but one of the best songs of all time. In fact, if one song could stand as a symbol of ’80s songwriting brilliance, as an example of what was once called `alternative,’ a sign bearer that would be used in films to denote a particular time, (a la Donnie Darko), it would have to be the stark simplicity of “Under the Milky Way.” – Terrance Terich

21. The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me
(1981; Virgin)

While voting for this feature I did a lot of shunning of the kitschier megasongs, knowing they’d get picked up anyway, but wanting to stay away from “Melt With You,” “True,” “Love Is A Battlefield” and anything else someone on VH1 would call “eighties music.” Initially, “Don’t You Want Me” fell into that category. Then I watched a performance on YouTube, the band slathered in spectacular makeup and showered jubilantly at the end in silly string. At some point I fell deep into my own bottomless grin. As Rob Sheffield implied in “Talking To Girls About Duran Duran,” The Human League were the punkiest of the New Romantics if only because they were so nonchalant about not knowing how to play anything. (Except Afrika Bambaataa said at the time that he couldn’t believe the drum sounds on “Don’t You Want Me” were synthetic.) In any case they clunked their way onto the flash-drive of the ’80s with this Rashomonian boy/girl dustup and the most recognizable synth intro in history. Aeroplane dropping a dub version and putting the crowd on vocal notice was one of my favorite club moments last year. It’s “eighties music” that’s happily not stuck in an era. – Anthony Strain

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