The Top 200 Songs of the ’80s

Treble loves the '80s

120. The Fall – “The Classical
(1982; Kamera)

The Fall, when you really think about it, is the British Devo. Both bands had high-art ambitions and eccentric modes of realizing and both bands had a disdain for mainstream culture. However, where Devo concealed it over a veil of pop hooks, irony and slogan-like, metaphor-based lyrics, The Fall cut the shit and did the best they could to present to listeners what a wasteland civilization really was. Various rock bands have made grand efforts to remake “1984” in sonic form with appalling, even offensive results, The Fall simply outdid them by writing a sequel to “Brave New World” in which the good times are in steep decline and the hedonism continues out of habit but in a brutal, demonic form. “The Classical,” in essence, is the world anthem for the new anarchy and its recurring state of panic, desperation and freedom. – Chris Morgan

119. Devo – “Girl U Want
(1980; Warner Bros.)

On first listen, Devo’s “Girl U Want” seems like your standard I-really-have-a-thing-for-her song, albeit one that sounds like a jagged, geometric “My Sharona.” But there’s something going on lyrically worth looking at. Your mouth waters over this girl, but she comes from some abstract place: “She sings from somewhere you can’t see / She sits in the top of the greenest tree / She sends out an aroma of undefined love / It drips on down in a mist from above“. There’s this split between the girl who’s there and the idea of the girl who’s there. One’s the actual girl (just the girl), the other’s the idealization of that girl (the girl you want). The narrator of the song wants the idea of the girl more than the actual girl, but you can never have the idea. As someone who’s done this before, “Girl U Want” hits close to home. It’s no surprise that the chorus makes the difference clear: “She’s just the girl, she’s just the girl / The girl you want.” It’s fitting that the song ends abruptly with “Just the girl,” because she’s who you should really want. –Hubert Vigilla

118. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “The Mercy Seat
(1988; Mute)

I wonder if Nick Cave ever had trouble trying to transition from weird angry non-goth goth frontman to the evil version of Leonard Cohen? In any case, it’s more than evident now that he succeeded, and that he not only mastered but improved the death ballad. Though his style is distinctive to say the least, embodying the narrative and characters in a given song is part of his style and he can sink into it more convincingly than most other storyteller songwriters, and without making it a monologue set to music—even though he does actually talk in parts of the song. – Chris Morgan

117. Bauhaus – “Dark Entries
(1980; 4AD)

In many ways, Bauhaus’ second single, “Dark Entries,” is quite similar to the epic creature that preceded it, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Both songs feature an eerie, descending hook, as well as a lengthy series of stream-of-consciousness lyrics from Peter Murphy, whose own defiance of age makes one wonder whether or not the man was born in Transylvania. But where “Bela” is a spacious, nine-minute dirge, “Dark Entries” is a hectic, three-minute punk song. Daniel Ash’s guitar slashes like a meat cleaver, and screeches like its victim during the brief interludes between verses, while Murphy goes unhinged, howling lines like “Don’t go waving your pretentious love!” with menace rather than misery. The band certainly seemed comfortable behind their eyeliner and hairspray, but with “Dark Entries,” they showed that even a theatrical group of glamorous Goths could still wreck shit. – Jeff Terich

116. The Jam – “A Town Called Malice
(1982; Polydor)

I came late to The Jam (started listening to them in college), and this is the song that won me over. It’s lost none of its potency more that 10 years after my first encounter with it. There’s even an added weight to “A Town Called Malice” these days given the recession. There’s that catchy Motown bassline that sounds straight out of “I’m Ready for Love” (the second time I can think of that The Jam nodded to Martha and the Vandellas, the first being their cover of “Heat Wave“). There’s that organ boiling that warm sound through the song. There’s the too-cool snapping; the hand clapping; the crisp, sharp strums from Paul Weller’s guitar. Against that bright backdrop is a tableau of a depressed town crumbling; it’s a place full of abandoned swings, ghosts of industry, an empty milk bottles held to the breasts of desperate mothers. And yet, there’s something great about this kind of woe. Here’s a blast of a song that sprang up from the hardships of Thatcher’s England. Even a wasteland can’t stop the growth of beautiful things. – Hubert Vigilla

115. Michael Jackson – “P.Y.T.
(1983; Epic)

In the Thriller diaspora–millennia units moved, influences made and reborn, grooves worn fingernail-ragged and revived — two songs tend to get overlooked. One is “Hot Street,” a piece of mean, bullet-fast funk that was excised from the tracklist, and the other is “P.Y.T.,” which peaked at No. 10. By Thriller standards that barely rates. Acolytes routinely cite it way down on any MJ list, but “P.Y.T.” is probably the sweetest song on Thriller in both melody and attitude. Deceptively, it swings back toward the proper disco of Off The Wall; as with everything from that album it’s hard to decide if you’d rather groove to it or lounge to it. Vocally Jackson sounds so at ease with himself on “P.Y.T.”; in terms of pure chronology it’s one of the last times that would be fully true. – Anthony Strain

114. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday In Cambodia
(1980; I.R.S.)

“Holiday in Cambodia,” the second single released by San Francisco punks Dead Kennedys, was an assault on privileged white American. The song targeted everyone from authoritarian cops to liberals that claimed to feel solidarity with America’s underclasses, minorities, and victims of foreign conflict from the comfort of their ivory towers (or more likely, high-rise apartments and condos). Vocalist/frontman Jello Biafra then contrasts these images with depictions of life under the Khmer Rouge, the militaristic regime that controlled Cambodia in the late-1970s and under the leadership of Pol Pot led a genocide that killed over 20 percent of the country’s population. The dismal nature of the lyrics become even more powerful when placed against a backdrop of upbeats tempos, surf rock-inspired guitar lines, and satirically happy-sounding sing-along choruses (ex. “It’s a holiday in Cambodia / Where you’ll kiss ass or crack“). While “Holiday in Cambodia” may come across a little self-righteous by today’s (even more) jaded standards, the song remains a punk classic, and an illustration of powerful political rock. – Jamie Ludwig

113. Dinosaur L – “Go Bang #5
(1982; Sleeping Bag)

What’s most fascinating about Arthur Russell’s mark on dance and club culture is that he was never a disco literalist. Yet his most cryptic recordings always burned well in the bright lights thanks to a soulful sensibility that never wavered, and beautiful touches from gifted collaborators who knew how to give the people what they wanted. As a result the tracks found multiple identities that mirrored the protean complexities of that incomparable 76-83 scene. “Go Bang” in all its ascendingly funky iterations filters brazen camaraderie through Russell’s twisted, euphoric vision; the proclamation “I want to see all my friends at once” and that exquisite ellipsis between “see” and “all” are moments in dance music that have been rarely equaled. Strange and addictive, the song defined a genre while not really belonging to one. This was progress. – Anthony Strain

112. Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause
(1987; Def Jam)

Outside of perhaps N.W.A., there wasn’t a force in hip-hop in the 1980s as unstoppable and uncompromising as Public Enemy. Preaching militant black power politics and deconstructing American racial hierarchies with biting intelligence over some of the most ferocious production you’ve ever heard, their music was raw and relentless. “Rebel Without a Pause,” the first single from their landmark record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, opens with relative calm as a sample taken from the documentary Wattstax proclaims, “Brothers and sisters…. brothers and sisters… I don’t know what this world is coming to.” And then the beat opens up. Looping a three-second sample of screeching trumpet from The J.B.s’ “The Grunt,” producers The Bomb Squad thrust the listener into an abrasive, nearly-maddening soundscape that amplifies the feeling of alarm and urgency in Chuck D’s flow to a level that surely made most of white suburbia very uncomfortable. “Yes — the rhythm, the rebel / Without a pause, I’m lowering my level / The hard rhymer, where you never been I’m in / You want stylin’, you know it’s time again” sets the tone with considerable force as Chuck postures as an MC and takes shots at those who need to either join up with P.E. or get the fuck out the way. A “Rebel Without a Pause,” indeed—the cause is clear and Public Enemy assures you the fight will never be over until the goal is reached without compromise. – Derek Emery

111. The Minutemen – “This Ain’t No Picnic
(1984; SST)

Due to its minor airplay on MTV, “This Ain’t No Picnic” was likely the first thing many had ever heard from the Minutemen and I doubt anyone walked away from the experience unchanged. Lyrically, it’s a straightforward, all-too-relatable rant against the typical soul-sucking 9 to 5. Musically it’s a behemoth; D. Boon drops Gang of Four-esque shards on his guitar, Mike Watt pounds away on his bass with typically expert precision and George Hurley’s drums strike like hammers. The Minutemen’s classic opus Double Nickels on the Dime was all over the map, toying with seemingly disparate styles and ideas like it was a game. “This Ain’t No Picnic” is characteristically distinctive and it’s something we can all shout along to. – Chris Karman

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