The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

190. The Specials – “Ghost Town
(1981; 2 Tone)

Spooky keys, somber funereal horns, creepy vocals, and a wailing chorus all make this track, really about race riots rather than anything supernatural, one of the most memorable tracks of the early ’80s. The main vocals, by Jerry Dammers, are otherworldly, like the narration for The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, or perhaps Plan 9 From Outer Space. These are highlighted by a few melodic punctuations, undercutting the spookiness, by Terry Hall. The Specials somehow penetrate my prejudice against ska, a feat I didn’t think possible. The Specials had a handful of great tracks, including “A Message to You Rudy,” “Free Nelson Mandela,” “Too Much Too Young,” and “Friday Night, Saturday Morning,” but “Ghost Town” was arguably the only one to become iconic. Back in 1981, I was obsessed with Oingo Boingo, and somehow that became a gateway to “Ghost Town,” and I’ve loved the track ever since. – Terrance Terich

189. Elvis Costello and the Attractions – “Every Day I Write the Book
(1983; F-Beat)

Slyly intersecting snotty Elvis and crooner Elvis, “Every Day I Write the Book” was a centerpiece of 1983’s Punch the Clock, resonating enough with American audiences that it earned Costello and his Attractions a Billboard Top 40 slot. The piano-based tune echoes both New Wave and Motown —- it could fit in the Squeeze catalog, and Costello himself had the temerity to diss it as “a bad Smokey Robinson song” —- as it rather smartly contrasts the structures of writing with the perils of love. – Adam Blyweiss

188. Go-Go’s – “Our Lips Are Sealed
(1981; I.R.S.)

A fine example of how one of pop music’s lamest bands made the best of it. The Go-Go’s couldn’t cut it as punks so they played arena rock for people who discovered lipstick earlier than their parents would have preferred. It helps though that they were good at using their sound to accentuate the childish hedonism of the American suburbs and make a shitload of money in the process. Their chipper hooks were the epitome of adolescent naivety whereas Belinda Carlisle’s vocals had a certain back-of-the-classroom charm in which she knew the language of teenage iniquity but was cleverly ambiguous as to whether or no she practiced it, which was about as much as Reagan’s America was willing to tolerate. – Chris Morgan

187. The B-52’s – “Private Idaho
(1980; Warner Bros.)

Before their work became Bar Mitzvah staples, the B-52’s were a gaggle of art student proto-hipsters who shared the same mini-universe with the likes of R.E.M. Since hipsters as we now know them did not exist at that time, this is not entirely a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact. “Private Idaho” serves as an anthem for an obscured period in the band’s history; a period marked less by bizarre fashion sense, horn sections and Fred Schneider and more by strong pop songcraft and the most underrated guitarist of the decade. Ricky Wilson’s driving surf rock riff practically guides the other players along, almost controlling them, while Wilson himself was taking a reinvigorating a stale rock genre and giving it creative potential. He would do the same with disco and new wave on later efforts. – Chris Morgan

186. Slayer – “Raining Blood
(1986; Def Jam)

As their 1996 punk covers album would most explicitly reveal, the foundation of Slayer’s hyper-speed thrash metal assault was in hardcore. Only a handful of the breakneck chuggers on third album and career masterpiece Reign In Blood actually surpassed the three-minute mark, and the album concludes in less than 30 merciless minutes. Yet their highest peak comes with the epic closer, “Raining Blood,” a terrifying blend of harrowing minor key riffs, double-time soloing and the chilling sound of a thunderstorm to cap the orgy of instrumental pyrotechnics. At various points within the song, Kerry King, Dave Lombardo and Jeff Hanneman barely seem to be keeping up with each other, but in the end, the anthem stands as a monolith of terror and kickass thrash metal riffs. Metallica may be the superstars of the big four, Megadeth the cult heroes and Anthrax the most likable of the bunch, but Slayer, as revealed on “Raining Blood,” is by far the most intense. – Jeff Terich

185. Sugarcubes – “Birthday
(1987; One Little Indian)

Many people’s first impression of the pixie with the powerhouse voice that belongs to Björk came from “Birthday,” the first single from the Subarcubes’ debut, Life’s Too Good. With a chorus made up purely of Björk’s sultry growls, the song drew fans from all over. I distinctly remember listening to it on 91X, the station that once played great music in the San Diego area. Other songs from the album, such as “Motorcrash,” would more heavily feature vocals by male frontman Einar, but “Birthday” was Björk’s alone, setting her up for a legendary future as a solo artist and wearer of swans. As seems to be a pattern in many of the songs on my ’80s list, and many of the songs I’m writing about, “Birthday” is one of the slower paced songs on the album, making it a standout among the more frenetic and artistic post-punk album tracks. I like to shamefully impress people with the revelation that I got to see the Sugarcubes perform with New Order and P.I.L., a fitting bill as the Sugarcubes seemed to be an amalgamation of those other two bands. – Terrance Terich

184. Duran Duran – “Planet Earth
(1981; EMI)

On the receiving end of cynical derision, teen idol adoration and many a sexual favor during their heyday, Duran Duran left few without a strong opinion one way or another. Yet behind those model good looks, eyeliner and yacht excursions existed a band with more chops than most bands to crack the top 40 since. A frequently cited mixture of equal parts Chic and Roxy Music, Duran Duran both cheekily name-checked the New Romantic movement and became its most notable name with “Planet Earth.” And though Simon LeBon is the host and mouthpiece for the band, narrating interplanetary encounters, the real star is bassist John Taylor, whose funky rhythms turned a cool song legendary. – Jeff Terich

183. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power
(1989; Motown)

One of the most powerful protest songs of all time may never have happened at all if it weren’t for film director Spike Lee, who approached New York hip hop act Public Enemy to compose a lead track for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing, a fictionalized exploration of the very real racial tensions and racially-based violence that were plaguing American cities. With a title inspired by a 1975 song of the same name by the Isley Brothers, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. penned lyrics that not only encompassed and spoke to the ideas behind the film, while raising public consciousness about issues of the day and providing an alternate perspective to common perceptions of American culture. “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” say Chuck D., just after knocking down both the King and the Duke with a swift upper cut. “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist the sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne.”

The aggressive, up-front nature of the lyrics was matched sonically by arresting beats provided by The Bomb Squad. Samples from other outspoken artists such as Bob Marley, Sly and the Family Stone, and most prominently James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” allude to a long tradition of speaking truth to power and immediately call to mind what songs like “Respect” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” had meant to the Civil Rights Movement 25 years earlier. Eventually, the song was named “One of the most controversial songs in American History,” by Ken Paulson, President of Washington D.C.-based First Amendment Center.

In the year of its release “Fight the Power,” helped to cement hip hop’s growing place in the mainstream culture in America, but its rallying cries still ring true today; “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We’ve got to fight the powers that be.” Whether you’re hearing the song for the first or 5 millionth time, a listen to “Fight the Power,” is still enough to motivate someone to spring to action, and do something positive for the world around them. – Jamie Ludwig

182. Billy Bragg – “A New England
(1983; Polydor)

Sometimes all it takes to write a great rock song is a voice and a guitar. That’s just what you get with early Billy Bragg, and it has a particular power on “A New England.” It begins with that first pair of lines: “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now, but I won’t be for long.” You get an image of a young rocker sitting on his amp playing in his apartment or to an empty pub. He’s cribbed words (Simon and Garfunkel’s “Leaves That Are Green“) and riffs (Bragg credits Thin Lizzy for the song’s chunky melody) from others. Then comes the moments that are all his own: lines like “I don’t feel bad about letting you go / I just feel sad about letting you know,” or the time he made a wish on two satellites that he mistook for shooting stars. That’s a real portrait of youth — a nod to the heroes from that period in his life, an aphorism picked up, a moment too silly and profound to be made up, the refusal to grow up even though he already has. While Bragg altered the content of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” for the 21st century (because he’s still waiting for that jump), “A New England” is like a time capsule and its contents remain perfectly preserved. – Hubert Vigilla

181. The Police – “Synchronicity II
(1983; A&M)

Sting, now a father, yoga guru, sex fiend and lute-player extraordinaire, left behind the angry young man a long time ago. But even in 1983, at the peak of The Police’s powers, a young Gordon Sumner painted the suburbs and the working stiff’s routine as sheer horror. He sneers at commuters “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes/ contestants in a suicidal race.” The breakfast table is a theater of the grotesque, and the bellow of “This is a family home now, looming in his headlights” isn’t an expression of safety or comfort, but of anger and despair. And with the flick of Andy Summer’s deft, climactic and eerie guitar cascade in the song’s final minute, you can practically see that shadow on door, on the cottage, on the shore of a dark Scottish lake… many miles away. – Jeff Terich

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