The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

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Treble loves the '80s

40. My Bloody Valentine – “You Made Me Realise
(1988; Creation)

Before My Bloody Valentine were confronting their listeners with how goddamn loud and cool they could be on their classic albums Isn’t Anything and Loveless, they were still pretty gnarly songwriters. This single is a fine testament to their ability to make great guitar songs that more dependent on hooks and melodies rather than distortion or volume. – Chris Morgan

tom waits Rain Dogs

39. Tom Waits – “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

(1985; Island)

In the ’70s, Tom Waits made good records, but in the ’80s, Tom Waits made great records. Shedding his barroom balladeer image for a hybrid of beat poet, post-punk cabaret singer and Cuban jazz crooner (which is aided in large part by Marc Ribot’s dark and stunning guitar work), Waits completely separated himself from the era, or any other for that matter, and entered into a world where his music has existed ever since. “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” just one of 19 amazing tracks on masterpiece Rain Dogs, is a samba from the edge of the world. Waits’ voice and Ribot’s guitar are entangled in a sinister baile in which each side takes his turn to show off. Waits’ drunken tales of love and loss have been replaced with drunken tales of shady characters and bizarre imagery, returning to a grown-up nursery rhyme chorus of “Hey, little bird, fly away home/ your house is on fire, your children are alone.” Jim Jarmusch (in)famously used the song for the gritty opening shots of New Orleans in Down by Law, a pairing of sound and imagery so perfectly seedy immortalized in just under three minutes. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Tom Waits – “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

38. Run-DMC – “It’s Tricky
(1986; Profile)

For a lot of people, Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” was part of their introduction to rap. You could do a lot worse. The lyrics are innocent by today’s standards, including a verse about turning down drugs. But the bravado is there; the song is mostly about how hard it is to get by when everyone loves you and thinks you’re a star, and it has a general edge to it that knockoffs like Will Smith could never capture. You can imagine this song blasting out of boomboxes on a graffiti-covered New York subway train just as easily as it soundtracked dances at white suburban high schools. Sampling “My Sharona” (without exactly getting full permission), the group showed a penchant for marrying typically white music with hip-hop long before their much-heralded collaboration with Aerosmith. Almost a quarter century after it’s release, it’s nearly impossible to hear “It’s Tricky” without dancing and rhyming along, and I don’t imagine that will change any time soon. – Elizabeth Malloy

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

37. Public Enemy – “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”

(1988; Def Jam)

The depiction of Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind prison bars on the cover of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back is carefully planned imagery. While “Bring the Noise” is the song that broke the hip-hop titans, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” in which Chuck D is imprisoned for refusing to be drafted into the military on principle, is the epic that anchors the album. A masterpiece of storytelling and race politics, “Black Steel” is a giant among giants, taking Chuck’s deft lyricism and the Bomb Squad’s powerhouse production to an even higher plateau. Repurposing the type of jailhouse ballad made famous by Johnny Cash for a new era and a new audience, with a much sharper political bite, Chuck D drops a six-minute indictment of the United States’ long abhorrent treatment of African Americans, the draft and the prison system. But the most hard-hitting verse is the first: “I got a letter from the government the other day/ I opened and read it/ It said they were suckers/ They wanted me for their army or whatever, picture me givin’ a damn, I said never/ Here is a land that never gave a damn/ about a brother like me and myself.” Though the prison break that Chuck, Flavor Flav and the S1Ws pull off is a feat of suspense with high entertainment value, this is beyond mere escapism. This is a wake-up call set to the hardest beats of the decade. – Jeff Terich

The Message

36. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”

(1982; Sugar Hill)

“The Message” is often cited as the first true hip-hop song. Of course it’s not actually the first rap song, but it is one of the first rap songs to stop the party and get serious. Serious about resorting to prostitution to make ends meet, thugs, pimps, pushers and money makers. By the brazen standards set by Public Enemy and N.W.A. a few years later, “The Message” can come off as quaint, lyrically speaking, but make no mistake, this was the rap track that opened the doors to the thought of tackling inner city issues. It seemed like such an unconventional move that the majority of the group didn’t even bother to appear on the song simply because they weren’t interested. Today it stands as a landmark; the song’s eerie synths have understandably popped up as samples on several notable tracks since, and the slowed down, thumping beat perfectly accentuates the song’s strung-out tone. Simply put, it’s one of rap’s greatest triumphs. – Chris Karman

35. The Replacements – “Bastards of Young
(1985; Sire)

Looking at the standards set by the record companies, general taste makers and William Bennett, the gender politics of ’80s rock can be distilled thusly: The Go-Go’s, fairly or unfairly, epitomized the girls and The Replacements, fairly or unfairly, epitomized the boys. Both bands behaved more or less the same offstage, but only one could feasibly take inspiration from it and build a career around it. The Go-Go’s were not that band obviously. Whether that’s for better or worse as far as their talents go I can’t say, but I can say that The Replacements would be shit if they decided not to sing about being losers with no prospects—aside from their ability to write top notch songs that is. “Bastards of Young” is a bizarre bit of music that uses the rock anthem form to revel in fatalism. It’s the most resilient way in which to say, “Fuck it!” and a great breath of fresh, if somewhat salty, air for those few who felt no sympathy whatsoever for Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street. – Chris Morgan

34. New Order – “Temptation
(1982; Factory)

It is not often that a song manages to be not only bouncy, euphoric and capable of causing large amounts of sweat to fall from its dancers, but also to possess a depth that creates a sort of hypnotic circularity between the images in the lyrics and the listener’s reflections on his own life. “Temptation” does this, balancing revelation and ecstatic release with lyrics that constantly seem to possess a power that extends beyond the words that make them up. It is a song that gets caught up in your hair, stuck in ears and brains, that enters your bloodstream and courses through your body. At the end of the night, you carry it home with you and find it still hanging around the next afternoon, looking after you as your hangover begins to wander off and the sun slips back behind the horizon. – Tyler Parks

33. R.E.M. – “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
(1987; I.R.S.)

Prince’s “1999” was all over the place from New Years’ Eve 1998 to New Year’s Eve 1999. I’m sort of hoping that “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” gets to be the “1999” of 2012. FINE, THEN. While it’s a list song about moments in time — both the end of the world and the information overload of the ’80s (which just gets worse every decade, UH-OH, OVERFLOW) — it’s got more going for it than “We Didn’t Start the Fire” another list song from the ’80s. Billy Joel’s enumerations seem lazy since they’re just chronological marks on a timeline. Michael Stipe, on the other hand, approaches this material non-chronologically, mixing Biblical references with popular culture — LENNY BRUCE AND LESTER BANGS — as well as dreams and buzzwords and non-sequiturs; he tongue twists these elements so they run breathlessly together save for a few phrases that stand out from the noise. And it’s so upbeat too. When the zombie apocalypse or the asteroid strike or the airborne toxic event finally happens, I hope I have this song handy, as well as rations, a flashlight, and some kind of weapon. Oh, and LEONARD BERNSTEIN! – Hubert Vigilla

32. U2 – “With Or Without You
(1987; I.R.S.)

For some reason, revisionist history has now turned The Joshua Tree into the point at which people got sick of U2, when we all know that happened at least a few albums later. Sure, Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton turned their Irish roots rock into an overblown, melodramatic musical novel, of sorts, but there’s no denying most of us loved every minute of it. “With or Without You” is a high water mark for the foursome, a showcase for Bono’s powerhouse voice and the Edge’s infinite sustained guitar notes. Bono’s earlier lyrics had always been poetic and mythical, but “With or Without You” mixes the simple with the cryptic like never before. It would only be matched later by “One,” and the two continue to battle for supremacy as U2’s signature piece. – Terrance Terich

31. The Stone Roses – “I Wanna Be Adored
(1989; Silvertone)

File this one as the third worst idea of the 20th century after appeasement and the pet rock. Clearly everyone involved with the making of The Stone Roses’ debut were way too strung out to notice that they put this song on it as the opening track. Many bands have but their best songs first of course, but few have written guitar melodies this dramatic, a rhythm arrangement so delicate and yet so hurdling, or vocals so sultry that sing the most arrogant lyrics conceived in rock history as if they were items on a shopping list. Granted there are other great songs on the album, but with “I Wanna Be Adored” there was clearly no turning back. In just under five minutes the band had ably caught up to The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen and even U2. – Chris Morgan

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