The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

150. The Cure – “Lullaby
(1989; Fiction)

If memory serves, one of the best compliments I ever heard about a musician explained why Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was such a fantastic drummer: he only hit his drums as often as he needed. Remember how the band’s greatest songs had powerful but deceptively spare percussion parts? That quality applies to all parts of this track from The Cure’s Disintegration album. Robert Smith’s rhymes about a creepy cannibal are ghostly and ethereal—frankly, the song’s almost an instrumental. The minor-key plucked guitar and cooing keyboards are also loose, distant, and dangerous like spiderweb strands. “Lullaby” is wholly eerie and menacing in its spaciousness, and a secret highlight of the Cure catalog. – Adam Blyweiss

149. Liquid Liquid – “Optimo
(1983; 99)

Even though certain indiscriminate lunks hear “Cavern,” say, and mention Primus, Liquid Liquid are one of those elusive DIY bands that make the whole post-disco downtown scene so fascinating three decades later. They just did a beatless mix for FACT magazine that did more shellacking than it had any right to. Credit their expansive gift for melody and more cowbell, both of which drive “Optimo” to the high registers of eighties funk. Salvatore Principato throws his voice like a villain in a Shadow radioplay, opening giant lanes of space for that groove to loiter down. Just no bass-as-rock-instrument polemics, please. – Anthony Strain

148. Psychedelic Furs – “Pretty In Pink
(1981; CBS)

Pretty in Pink is probably best known to most as the song that launched a John Hughes screenplay of the same name. There’s an assumption that there’s a link between the content of the movie and the song, but that’s not the case — all they share is a title. Whether you look at the original version on Talk Talk Talk with the guitar crunch intact or the declawed version on the movie soundtrack, “Pretty in Pink” is a fine example of upbeat music and not-so-happy subject matter. Here’s Caroline, a girl with plenty of lovers but no one that loves her back, summed up in the line “The one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name.” Jon Cryer doesn’t dance through a record store in her life, Andrew McCarthy isn’t some attainable dreamboat. It’s just guys using a lonely girl because she’s willing to be used. Somehow this is still a pretty song, and just the music itself is enough to pick you up. Maybe it’s a case of the Furs, like Caroline, laughing at the rain. Unlike her lovers, though, the Furs are there laughing with her. – Hubert Vigilla

147. The Beat – “Save It for Later
(1982; Go-Feet)

The last single the Beat (or English Beat here in the states) released before calling it quits (the first time), “Save It For Later” closed the ska band’s brief but inspired career by incorporating hardly a trace of the reggae elements that characterized their work, but rather a bright and infectious hook of guitar jangle. In retrospect, the song is much closer to later Britpop acts like Blur or Supergrass than their two-tone contemporaries, particularly given its gorgeously understated strings. Perhaps it’s fitting that the band took a bow by dropping a single rife with fellatio-referencing double entendres (“just hold my hand while I come… to a decision on it“), but after releasing a single this perfect, there’s nowhere left to go but down (that’s what she said?). – Jeff Terich

146. Mekons – “Hard to be Human Again
(1985; Sin)

I don’t think anyone would argue that being human doesn’t come with its set of challenges. For the Mekons, those challenges range from being punched and beaten to “searching for existence in red, red wine.” It’s exactly the kind of reality you would expect this ramshackle, yet exceptionally talented band would be living in. Although perpetually down and out, the Mekons were one of the first bands—if not the first band—to mix country, dub, Irish folk and punk. The genre mingling on “Hard to be Human Again” is so casual, it could easily be overlooked, but the song’s power still wouldn’t be diminished. “Hard to be Human Again” is a barn-burning anthem for the defeated. – Chris Karman

145. The Fixx – “One Thing Leads To Another
(1983; MCA)

What does it say when you start out “big in Europe,” and then break so big in America that Europe won’t have you back? Ask Cy Curnin and The Fixx, whose second album Reach the Beach helped them reach across an ocean and find latter-day New Wave success. A snappy ode to honesty—”do what you say, say what you mean“—it put a spit-shine on Depeche Mode’s squishy keyboards and jagged chords from the likes of Gang of Four and Pere Ubu. – Adam Blyweiss

144. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “From Her to Eternity
(1984; Mute)

The title track on the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album is a masterpiece of isolation, mania and obsession. It’s one of the best things Nick Cave has ever done, and it starts with something innocent enough: an interest in a neighbor who lives upstairs. But there’s something sinister about all this. The little chops of drum and bass may seem at first like footsteps through the ceiling, but they soon sound more like a kitchen knife that’s getting too close to the fingertips. Those industrial scuffs from Blixa Bargeld’s guitar, those little stabs of piano, and Cave’s growl mark the moments when the blade bites the flesh. Yet the knife keeps chopping regardless. The narrator in the song eventually intellectualizes his insanity like the finest madmen do: “This desire to possess her is a wound / And it’s nagging at me like a shrew / But, I know that to possess her is therefore not to desire her / Then that little girl would just have to go.” In the final seconds, there’s a thump, like something heavy just fell to the floor and isn’t going to get up. I’m afraid to learn what happened upstairs. – Hubert Vigilla

143. Hüsker Dü – “Pink Turns to Blue
(1984; SST)

“Pink Turns to Blue” is the perfect encapsulation of what made Hüsker Dü stand out from their peers. One of first bands to truly mix hardcore’s serrated riffs with pop song smarts, Hüsker Dü essentially provided a blueprint for pop-punk’s evolution. “Pink Turns to Blue” is an elegiac portrayal of the loss of one’s girlfriend after she succumbs to a drug addiction. The sound of the recording may be a little thin, but everything else about it— right down to its melancholic tone— is practically a perfect prediction of the approach that would be adopted by many early’ 90s alternative bands. – Chris Karman

142. Nine Inch Nails – “Terrible Lie
(1989; TVT)

One could argue that Trent Reznor’s early efforts were more or less aping Ministry, and this is true but only to a certain extent. Nine Inch Nails would have been nothing without the earlier efforts of Al Jourgensen, et. al., but what people sometimes overlook is that Nine Inch Nails not only embraced dance and electro-pop more openly, but played it far better. Despite its simplistic lyrical themes, “Terrible Lie” gave electro-pop far greater substance and emotional breadth than it had ever really deserved. Reznor’s love for pop hooks and need for catharsis, though ripe for easy parody among cynics (and rightly so in some cases), made the alternative boom all the more plausible as time would reveal. – Chris Morgan

141. They Might Be Giants – “Ana Ng
(1988; Bar/None)

It opens with a gunshot, which punctures a desktop globe, and the “exit wound in a foreign nation” marks the spot where the possibly fictional woman for whom this song was written lies. And much like that opening gunshot, They Might Be Giants, open the song with an atypically aggressive guitar strum that quickly piles on layers to become not just one of their hardest rocking compositions, but oddly one of their prettiest. In comes a zither, and then John Linnell’s accordion, backing an odd, seemingly disconnected sequence of obscure references to the DuPont Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, and “80 dolls singing small girl after all.” And in a move only the clever, bookish Johns could pull off, the bridge comprises a short anecdote about, wait for it, a bridge. Meta. – Jeff Terich

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