The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

10. New Order – “Ceremony
(1981; Factory)

You could write a brick of an essay on “Ceremony,” most of it reiterating finer points already made by others. It is the most bewitching rock song ever written. (This was true way before the user name “all lined with trees” got me mad friend requests on MySpace from the kinds of girls who contributed heavily to that dimension’s downfall.) New Order didn’t know what they had after Ian Curtis. Accordingly, “Ceremony” sounds like nothing but limbo, a glassy space atwitch with anxieties, as Bernard Sumner, thrust into the foreground, sings soberly of unnerving events, of wheels turning. “Ceremony” is a benediction beyond belief, a rescue from obscurity — the race by the survivors to unscramble Curtis’ original lyrics; the overriding of the tempo from the song’s early self to its teeming, hypnotic finality; the audible pulling at identity. More than anything it’s an autopsy in the original Greek sense, “to see for oneself.” You can literally hear Joy Division turning into New Order. Sumner’s migratory, desolate guitar solo, steadying itself while the other sonics drop temporarily out, is a perfect metaphor for Sumner as sudden, ambiguous lead. That single piece of guitar is one of the most bereaved things I’ve ever heard in music. Which doesn’t explain the absolute spinal-sized thrill of it, waking every bit of yourself you ever thought was dead. – Anthony Strain

9. The Smiths – “This Charming Man
(1983; Rough Trade)

The Smiths’ catalog is riddled with peaks, from their most impressive production (“How Soon Is Now?”), to their most cynical (“The Queen Is Dead”), their most heartbreaking (“This Night Has Opened My Eyes”), their most blasphemous (“Vicar In a Tutu”) and their most Morrissey (“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”). But the essence of everything that made The Smiths so revelatory, not to mention the moment that appears to have spawned the most carbon copies, is distilled in “This Charming Man.” The song that introduced The Smiths to the world allows guitarist Johnny Marr the first greeting, plucking out a jangly and now legendary riff as accessible as it is idiosyncratic. The song also introduced the world to Morrissey’s now infamously ambiguous sexuality via a fictional tale of a gay man coming to terms with his own identity (“Will nature make a man of me yet?“, “A jumped up pantry boy/ who never knew his place/ he said, `return the ring’/ We know so much about these things“). Rooted in glam rock and punk but confronting both social and sexual politics with a unique perspective, “This Charming Man” changed indie rock forever. – Jeff Terich

8. The Cure – “Just Like Heaven
(1987; Fiction-Elektra)

There are few songs that have ever managed to so serenely withstand the weight of ubiquity as The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” The damn thing doesn’t seems to have aged a day, but explodes anew every time it shows up to the party, making everyone who isn’t in love want to be in love and everyone who is in love with someone a little more in love with him or her for the next three and a half minutes. And that is its magic, its raison d’être—to make being in love and desiring being in love physically, palpably present in the world for so long as it plays through the speakers. Everything is perfect about this song: the lyrics, the guitars, the synthesizers…and especially the way Robert Smith’s vocals come in after the long, building intro. That “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick,” is a trick of its own, a breathless, kaleidoscopic little moment where the song gets a grip on its beholders and takes them—smiling, blissful, and beguiled—wherever it so desires. – Tyler Parks

7. R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe
(1983; I.R.S.)

R.E.M. was still very much a regional band when they released Murmur, playing a curiously rural brand of indie rock that didn’t yet seem entirely compatible with their northern counterparts Hüsker Dü; and truth be told, Michael Stipe was simply too weird to work on many levels. Still, even for R.E.M.’s quiet period this is one rager of single that established their remarkable dynamic of stripped down, even aggressive folk-rock. Instead of trying to be punk, R.E.M. simply picked up what appealed to them and made it work surprisingly well alongside Peter Buck’s folk-inspired picking style. – Chris Morgan

6. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey
(1985; Blanco y Negro)

Taken from The Jesus and Mary Chain’s monumental debut record Psychocandy, “Just Like Honey” is a landmark recording in and of itself. Opening the album with the iconic, instantly familiar (and now heavily overused) drumbeat from The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” brothers Jim and William Reid set up their contribution to the birth of shoegaze with undertones of sweet, ’60s pop. The established mood is authentic and overt, but also a bit tongue-and-cheek, as JAMC ultimately drag those pop tendencies into the brutal muck of suffocating walls of guitar noise. Yet “Just Like Honey,” in contrast to much of the record, allows its purity and sweetness to more completely shine through the relatively modest amount of distortion that builds over the song’s three minute run. Jim Reid’s ethereal vocals have an intoxicatingly romantic quality to them as his words describe a less than ideal relationship that’s simply impossible for him to quit: “Walking back to you / Is the hardest thing that I can do / That I can do, for you / For you / I’ll be your plastic toy.” Harnessing an obscured sexuality, the music itself is equally consuming, with the final repeating refrain of “Just like honey” traded between Reid and back-up vocalist Karen Parker twisting effortlessly into the surging crescendo of guitars. A work at once subtle and pleasantly overwhelming, “Just Like Honey” presents both love and sound as a balance between pleasure and pain— a portrayal both honest and remarkably rewarding, respectively. – Derek Emery

5. The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now?
(1985; Rough Trade)

Over the Smiths’ brief but fruitful career, they managed to become the quintessential British indie band of the era. Given that, it’s a bit peculiar that what is arguably their finest moment doesn’t really even sound like the Smiths. Sure, Johnny Marr’s guitar work is as striking as ever and Morrissey’s wail is characteristically morose, but this isn’t the jangly guitar pop that brought them fame in their homeland. Johnny Marr had already established himself as quite the master of layering his guitars tracks, but this song was in another world entirely. During the course of the song’s six minute-plus length, he and producer John Porter weaved together an incredibly orchestrated mélange of quavering rhythm guitars, echoing leads, and backward loops, all sitting on a cyclic dance beat. Morrissey delivers one of the most resonant lyrical and vocal performances of his career, coming off typically witty and dour. The end result is stunning. The band never really pursued sonics quite like these ever again, and considering the perfection of “How Soon Is Now?”, why would they need to? – Chris Karman

4. Echo and the Bunnymen – “The Killing Moon
(1984; Sire)

It’s funny how this particular post-punk band, in possession of the dumbest name conceivable, has come out of the post-punk universe largely unscathed from self-parody, and may well have saved the genre as a whole. While Bauhaus, The Cure, Killing Joke and even The Fall have all had their lapses in taste, Echo has remained frighteningly consistent in its delivery of art-driven rock that appeals every bit as much to aesthetics as it does the baser passions. “Killing Moon,” in short, is the sexiest song centered on a cold and malevolent image. It lays out a sense of danger in such a way that most people are helpless in resisting. I imagine this song has caused more unplanned pregnancies than any other on this list, save maybe for “Ace of Spaces.” – Chris Morgan

3. Prince – “When Doves Cry
(1984; Warner Bros.)

There are a lot of ways to classify Prince’s music, but “minimalist” isn’t one of them. The album from which “When Doves Cry” comes, for instance, is the soundtrack to a fictionalized version of His Purple Badness’ own rise to fame. But his first number one single, and the most monolithic song of his dizzyingly huge discography, has become legend not because of something Prince added, but rather something he removed: the bassline. Funny thing, though, is that the song is so sprawling, so dramatic and climactic, its absence isn’t so much a hindrance as a strength. In the course of just under six minutes, Prince packs in his signature mechanical funk beats, at least two guitar solos, a steady stream of ethereal keyboards and a synth outro that seems to ascend toward outer space. Oh yeah, and a sultry, raw sexual energy that only Minneapolis’ funkiest son could create. The song is 27 years old and it still sounds like new, the kind of ambitious genre hybrid that few are bold enough to try and fewer still succeed at. It’s generally not good practice to leave a bassline out of a song meant for dancing or radio, but “When Doves Cry” is different. It’s absolutely perfect. – Jeff Terich

2. Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean
(1982; Epic)

It’s entirely possible that Michael Jackson’s Thriller could have lived and died with just one huge release to its credit. Of course we’re speaking of “The Girl is Mine,” his ultimately hokey duet with Paul McCartney. With that, we acknowledge the alternate histories that nip at the heels of second single cut “Billie Jean” and, frankly, pop music itself. What if Jackson hadn’t stumped so hard to include it on the album in the first place? There would have been no electrifying Motown 25 performance of it, no attendant debut of glove or moonwalk, no noir video to break MTV’s color barrier and revolutionize sonic storytelling. Maybe the song’s impact could have been lessened with the title suggested by Jackson’s father-figure producer Quincy Jones, the obvious and indistinct “Not My Lover.” How does the Epic record label roll then? What is their A&R strategy for a follow-up?

Maybe the thrill disappears if Jones and Jackson select any of the song’s 90 other mixes. Thankfully, though, there is one thing common to all of the mixes that defines the song and changes the world. Quietly nicked from Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” the best bassline ever makes Jackson’s celebrity-obsessed bête noire interminably funky. It didn’t begin Jackson’s reign as an ultramegasuperstar, as the “Billie Jean” lyrics come from personal experiences in The Jackson 5. Yet it elevated him to heights unimaginable, and unimaginably uncomfortable, heights not seen since—hey, look at that!—the days of Paul McCartney and his mates. A kiss of life for Jackson’s career as an honest-to-goodness adult, it was also ultimately the kiss of death for Jackson himself. – Adam Blyweiss

1. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart
(1980; Factory)

Here it is. Could there have been any other choice? I don’t think so. This is the song that launched a thousand imitators, and though many captured the sound, none quite captured the spirit. One can isolate Bernard’s guitars, Hooky’s bass or Stephen Morris’ drumming as being the key element that drives the track, but it is the combination of the yearning keyboard sequences and Ian Curtis’ plaintive, soul-searching vocals. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was somewhat the song that heralded the onset of the ’80s, and the meeting of post-punk and New Romanticism, while also sadly representing the close of the ’70s, and along with it, the passing of Curtis, himself. Reportedly about Curtis’ strained marriage, the song took on new life as a tragic anthem, the title being engraved on Curtis’ tombstone. Even without the apocrypha, the song is legendary. It is made all the more tragic as, despite having numerous great songs, it is the proof that Joy Division was merely getting better and better, releasing their best effort as their final single, though perhaps not intended as such. It would be quite a feat for a band to release a song that would define a decade at the onset of that decade, but as you can see, according to our collective opinion, that is exactly what Joy Division accomplished. – Terrance Terich

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The Smiths: The Complete Songs
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures
Hall of Fame – Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures
Kate Bush
Celebrate the Catalog: Kate Bush
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