The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

170. Loose Joints – “Is It All Over My Face?
(1980; West End)

Arthur Russell was prolific in a variety of guises, collaborative and otherwise. As Loose Joints he only released three tracks, the most influential of which, “Is It All Over My Face?” itself found several permutations. The best-known version includes a wiped female vocal that mixing legend Larry Levan restored to make the track clubbier; this would be leaned on heavily by the beginning sounds of house. Modifications aside, “Is It All Over My Face” swings with the best of original disco, linking wild bass with a circular organ sound that somehow always reminds me of The Doors, of all things. What’s best about the track is its ambulatory structure; it’s almost a soliloquy and serves as a proper introduction to Russell’s playful side. – Anthony Strain

169. Madonna – “Like a Prayer
(1989; Sire)

Madonna’s body of work can be more or less divided into two halves: Before and after “Like a Prayer.” Building up to this song, Madonna had released a lot of mildly controversial, but mostly very mainstream Top 40 pop, and some of it is quite enjoyable. Buoyed by a gospel choir and a Latin beat, “Like a Prayer” is the kind of song that should have sounded dated a week after its release, but somehow still holds up 22 years later. Then came the video for the song, into which Madge threw every hot button issue she could think of — burning crosses, attempted rape, sacred statues coming to life for the purpose of interracial romance – in a clear attempt to generate controversy. Of course the ploy worked, and Madonna’s career has largely been one publicity stunt after another since. Madonna was always about more than music, but “Like a Prayer” was the last time the music really felt like an integral part of her world domination scheme. It’s funny how something once so inflammatory can now feel like a relic from a simpler, more innocent time. – Elizabeth Malloy

168. Yazoo – “Situation
(1982; Sire)

You can have better fun with the Heidi Montag sample of this if you imagine Alison Moyet’s laughter as being at her expense. That recorded laugh is almost as iconic as Vince Clarke’s synth line, essentially his prank call to Depeche Mode; the former is roughly as prominent in Francois K’s dub version of “Situation” as the latter. Think of it as the last laugh in reverse. In any case “Situation” makes significant linkage between the earliest glimpses of house and the last days of disco; in all its iterations over the years it’s remained a spinning heart of gold with a killer hook. Heidi, you were nowhere in that sentence. – Anthony Strain

167. LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio
(1985; Def Jam)

By today’s standards, LL Cool J’s debut album Radio sounds skeletal, minimalist, boasting 11 songs of little more than beats, scratching and a young James Todd Smith’s rhymes. And yet, that’s all it really needs. To wit: first track “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” sets an extremely spare stage upon which J drops his existential mantra. “My radio, believe me, I like it loud,” he proclaims, serving as a meta-example for the listener to turn his bass-blasting jam up till the knob breaks off. And in all of its five and a half minutes, LL Cool J never strays from his soliloquy on ghettoblaster dependency. Simple, but effective, and an affliction with which many of us sympathize 25 years later. At only 17 years old, LL Cool J created both party jam and mission statement, the likes of which left a mammoth-sized impact on hip-hop. Rick Rubin (whose credit reads “reduced by Rick Rubin”) was smart to leave well enough alone. – Jeff Terich

166. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton
(1988; Ruthless)

After obsessively poring over the genre for the past decade or longer, it’s always hard for me to believe there was once a time when I didn’t like hip-hop. I was trapped in the closed-minded punk rock purism that dominated the musical tastes of most of my friends and precluded listening to much of anything that wasn’t centered on loud, distorted guitars. But the first time I heard N.W.A. in high school, I was convinced they sounded more punk than perhaps anything I’d ever heard before. “Straight Outta Compton,” the lead single from their seminal record of the same name, broke down any and all self-imposed barriers in my mind in one dramatic crash. This song is completely ruthless. As soon as the beat drops, Ice Cube opens his absurdly hard verse with some of the most widely known lines in hip-hop history: “Straight outta Compton, crazy muthafucka named Ice Cube / From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes / When I’m called off, I’ve got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off.” He couldn’t have set the tone of their “world’s most dangerous group” gangster fantasies and devastatingly violent vision of inner-city Los Angeles in the late 1980s more perfectly. In fact, his is so well done, it almost—almost— overshadows the overachieving verses from MC Ren and Eazy-E that follow. And for all the lyrical brutality, the song would not have the same intensity if not for the dramatic and ahead-of-its-time production from Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, the final piece that solidified N.W.A.’s place in my personal musical education and near the top of the hierarchy of influential hip-hop, period. – Derek Emery

165. The Who – “Eminence Front
(1982; Warner Bros.)

This is the way The Who ended—not with a bang, but with a 1982 whimper entitled It’s Hard, which could very well have described maintaining their hard-rock momentum after 27 years. (And that’s before all of the reunions!) This Pete Townshend song, a pulsing electro-funk groove, not only stands in stark contrast to the flat artistry of the rest of the album but actually holds up with other keyboard-driven Who hits like “Who Are You.” So is it that good, or is It’s Hard just that bad? Let’s say both. – Adam Blyweiss

164. The Silencers – “Painted Moon
(1987; RCA)

Chances are, you probably haven’t heard the Silencers’ “Painted Moon,” much less the album from whence it came, A Letter from St. Paul. Even the movie in which the song features was not particularly popular, that being the Jon Cryer vehicle, Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home. So, it doesn’t surprise me that “Painted Moon” is one of my favorite songs in history. It’s not about trying to like things on the fringe. In fact, I fell in love with the song and the album upon my first listen. For those of you who haven’t read my review of the album, I spent years looking for a replacement copy of the original cassette I bought in 1987. I eventually found one, and it was honestly one of the most satisfying days of my life. I only found out recently it was written in response to the Falklands War, but it hasn’t at all changed my opinion of the song, one way or the other. – Terrance Terich

163. The La’s – “There She Goes
(1988; Go! Discs)

If there is an example of one song making a band a legend, it is “There She Goes” by the La’s. Written by Lee Mavers, an eventual recluse, the song captured a ’60s sensibility and harmony that hadn’t been heard in England, or America for that matter, for years. Perhaps only rivaled by the Lightning Seeds, the type of music by the La’s would only gain mass acceptance years later at the height of Britpop. Of course, that is when movies such as the classic So, I Married an Axe Murderer took advantage of the perfectly written song and repopularized it. Call it jangle pop, or honestly whatever else you may want to call it, but “There She Goes” is pure confection. It’s sweet, but deceptive. At first seemingly about the love for a girl, further inspection leads one to believe it’s actually about drugs. While maybe not a big surprise, it at least works effectively in its deception, a sunny song about a not so sunny subject. – Terrance Terich

162. 39 Clocks – “Psycho Beat
(1981; No Fun)

Of the songs I voted for in the Treble survey, “Psycho Beat” is the only one I’d never heard until it came up during the staff’s vetting process. To resort to tropes, it sounds like an amalgam of the Velvet Underground, acid and necrophilia. I got this from the De Stijl Records website: “Known for pranksterism and the destruction of the clubs in which they would perform, friction in every form would continually follow the band.” 39 Clocks were German and expressed a lot of Situationist thought, but they were ostensibly most moved by American punk and art music; that “Psycho Beat” was recorded at a studio called No-Wave is probably the most vital piece of information about the band. The song itself is a sinister, buzzy piece of paranoid minimalism that so far hasn’t soundtracked any tough kids shambling through a dark alley, or the gleam of a knife as it’s pulled. This is a shame that needs to be corrected. – Anthony Strain

161. Go-Go’s – “We Got the Beat
(1980; Stiff)

Following the 1982 release of The Go-Go’s debut album Beauty and the Beat, the Los Angeles-based pop quintet made history as the first band to crack the Billboard Top Ten with a lineup of all female members that also wrote their own songs and played their own instruments (as opposed to vocal groups like The Supremes). A song about good times and better parties, “We Got The Beat” was the second single to be released from the record, and had been introduced to listeners on the group’s first seven-inch in 1980. With its infectious drumbeat, sing-along choruses, and lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle’s girlish chirps, the song brought an accessible style of punk-influenced new wave rock (lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle had even been an early member of The Germs) to the airwaves, where it has remained ever since. – Jamie Ludwig

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