The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

160. Orange Juice – “Poor Old Soul
(1981; Postcard)

There’s a wink in Orange Juice songs that you don’t hear in a lot of their contemporaries. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing, because it’s similar to the wink you hear in Stuart Murdoch’s songs, and Franz Ferdinand are obvious Orange Juice heirs. Maybe it’s just Edwyn Collins’ affected vocal style. But take a song like “Poor Old Soul.” On the page, the lyrics sound as put-upon as anything by Gang of Four or The Cure, but when Collins sings, “You better come clean, How could anybody be so mean / You better come clean, I will not be a party to your scheme,” I don’t hear a sad, angry young man. I hear a smiling cad teasing a girl or a wingman. The band has that rarest of things in post-punk: a good sense of humor. Sometimes it comes out through the lyrics themselves, but in “Poor Old Soul,” its all about the delivery. Cheers to Domino Records for recently releasing new box set Coals to Newcastle, so many new fans can hear it. – Elizabeth Malloy

159. Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation
(1980; Boardwalk)

Even if Crass had already righteously declared that punk was dead in 1978, that didn’t stop Joan Jett from putting on a leather jacket and cranking out a snotty and infectious wall of power-chords in 1981. Sure, this single was most certainly “bubblegum rock” being promoted for cash and not revolution, but purism aside, “Bad Reputation” bangs. In Joan’s post-Runaways debut, all gives way to the impeccably distorted guitars and her raspy, scream-laden vocal performance. Distilling the punk spirit into a fun and simple creed – “I don’t give a damn about my reputation / You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation” – Joan Jett and her band openly thumbed their noses at the majors, after being rejected by a number of them, and forged their own success with the help of Boardwalk Records and their own label, Blackheart Records. They made things look a bit safe, but they also made rebellion look like a lot of fun. And really, at its core, what’s more punk than that? – Derek Emery

158. Herbie Hancock – “Rockit
(1983; Columbia)

Seriously, what justice is there that Bobby McFerrin’s milquetoast “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is a Billboard #1 and this song—this song—gets mired in jazz crossover cult-classic status? Hancock made what’s acknowledged to be that genre’s first foray into hip-hop, filled with dramatic turntable scratches and synthesized voices. It’s ubiquitous in electro circles, acknowledged as a curiosity by jazzbos and rap oldheads everywhere, and the proud owner of a pretty eerie video full of animatronic chorus lines and sitcom scenes. And maybe there’s the justice: being remembered for all the right reasons. – Adam Blyweiss

157. The Police – “Every Breath You Take
(1983; A&M)

It’s not surprising that this song has been commonly used for proms and weddings, even though just a cursory listen to the lyrics will tell you it’s about obsession, not love. While the couples who picked “Every Breath You Take” to commemorate their relationships might be embarrassed if they ever sit down and really listen to it, you can see how they made the mistake. There is something seductive and romantic about the melody, the palm muted guitars and Sting’s signature croon. If you only listened to a few key lines, there’d be no reason to think this isn’t about loving and needing somebody. A lot of pop songs are about strange things, or nothing at all. The meaning of the lyrics isn’t as an important as the sum of their parts. If the Police accidentally disbursed some romance into the world when they intended to give us the willies, it’s probably better they were misunderstood. – Elizabeth Malloy

156. The Smiths – “What Difference Does It Make?”
(1984; Rough Trade)

Someone once asked me, when I was a teenager, who my favorite guitar player was, which I readily answered: Johnny Marr. Certainly, when it comes to The Smiths, most place their attention squarely on the bitingly cynical sad sack caricature of Stephen Patrick Morrissey. But lines like “I lied and stole and why? Because you asked me to” need a sufficiently sneering and sinewy melodic companion, and that’s where Marr comes in. A not so secret weapon in the band, Johnny Marr makes “What Difference Does It Make?” the juggernaut that it is. It’s got swagger and style, not to mention being the most badass Smiths song ever written. History has pegged The Smiths as melodramatic balladeers, perhaps, but listen to this one again; it’s nothing if not rock `n’ roll. – Jeff Terich

155. Depeche Mode – “Behind the Wheel
(1987; Mute)

More than any other Depeche Mode single from the ’80s, “Behind the Wheel” sounds at home in the second decade of the 21st century. Layers of violet shadow, an atmosphere of erotic menace, and the strangely evolving conceit of the lyrics fill it with a harem of paranoias as it runs along a cold, metallic linearity that makes it lurch forward into the horizon, a night drive to nowhere, or a wired journey into the underground worlds of urban seduction and barely concealed violence. Call it a bouquet of dark delight, a film noir atmosphere set in an inscrutable, mechanical future that promises nothing yet magnetically draws you to its flame. – Tyler Parks

154. The Cure – “Fascination Street
(1989; Fiction)

I have a confession to make: I’ve never really paid much attention to the lyrics of “Fascination Street.” Sure, they’re about hookers or sin or vice, which is completely appropriate given the dark, seamy sound of the song. But Robert Smith’s lyrics are really just a supporting act to Simon Gallup’s hypnotic, heavy bassline. While the rest of the song is in constant flux, from Smith and Porl Thompson’s psychedelic guitar leads to Roger O’Donnell’s ethereal keyboards, the bassline never changes, just throbbing and pulsing through the song’s kaleidoscopic five-minute journey. It’s at once one of the sexiest and most evil sounding songs in The Cure’s oeuvre, which is certainly saying a lot. And it’s all thanks to the bassline. – Jeff Terich

153. A Certain Ratio – “Flight
(1980; Factory)

I’m convinced that if A Certain Ratio had applied themselves they’d have been the best band of the eighties. In “24 Hour Party People,” they were designated by Steve Coogan as having “all the energy of Joy Division but with better clothes.” That, as Dwight Schrute would say, is debatable. Fashion aside, I play ACR more than I play JD. “Flight,” their first Factory 12-inch, may contain all the post-punk litany — detuned bass, baritone lead vocal, excellent use of space — but it’s got all the elements of a surprise nightmare. It lives and dies in your head. Everything’s dislocated: sounds materialize from multiple angles and then fade out; the drum fills don’t stop lurking. When Martin Moscrop inexplicably hits falsetto at 3:19 it’s like a shiv to the abdomen. They may have been infamous sod-offs, but for the length of “Flight,” at least, A Certain Ratio absolutely did not fuck about. A YouTube commenter sized them up in the following way: “ACR will be funkin long after I’m dead. Give me a fork.” Okay then! – Anthony Strain

152. Split Enz – “I Got You
(1980; A&M)

Before Tim Finn’s younger brother Neil joined the band, Split Enz had the dual curse of being one of the more inaccessible art rock bands and being from New Zealand. The latter could not be helped I’m afraid, but Neil’s only partial interest in the band’s artier interests took them in a vastly different direction, starting with their biggest single “I Got You,” a sort of New Wave rendition of the early Beatles formula, with a deceptively simple guitar riff and eerie, claustrophobic vocal delivery that booms into a soaring pop melody. That the lyrics make little sense only heightens the power of the song. Split Enz had effectively arrived even if that was never really their intention. Note also that it has a quiet/loud/quiet dynamic, it’s 1980, and it’s not the Pixies. – Chris Morgan

151. Peter Gabriel – “Games Without Frontiers
(1980; Charisma)

A song about kids involved in whimsical games, or a chilling war allegory. An absurd pop single, or one of the most haunting tracks ever written. Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” is all of these things, a metaphor on armed combat wrapped in the odd goings-on of multi-ethnic children’s names, one of the rascals incidentally being Adolf (just sayin’). Inspired by a long-running European game show in which teams compete for cash and prizes by competing in bizarre contests, the song even takes its name from that show, “Jeux Sans Frontieres,” which was then turned into one of the most notoriously misheard hooks ever, sung beautifully and icily by one Kate Bush. The song’s video clip as well progresses like some kind of carnival of the absurd, which is appropriate given the unsettling nature of it all. The cold, throbbing synths, the Vietnam flashbacks, and Gabriel’s refrain, “If looks could kill they probably will” – it all amounts to a masterpiece of the disturbingly surreal. – Jeff Terich

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