Like, gag me with a spoonful of Mr. T cereal, my tubular valley Smurf! I’ve totally posted, like, 100 posts here on Psychobabble since my 1000th post when I ran down my personal favorite 100 songs of the seventies. That means it’s, like, time to do the same for my 100 faves of the eighties! It’s gonna be non-stop Leon Neon references, Pee Wee Herman quotes, and close ups of Madonna’s navel as I bag your face through a massive mass of mint tunes! Where’s the beef? Probably somewhere in my 1,100th post, Poindexter! So take a chill pill and bang your head to Psychobabble’s 100 Favorite Songs of the 1980s! Totally!
100. “Nasty” by The Damned
“Oh, you’ve got a video?” Only a total nerd would have answered this question in the negative in the eighties. There was nothing more awesome than going to the video store to rent some shitty movie from the horror section, but if you were English, that awesomeness hit a serious snag when professional prig Mary Whitehouse spearheaded the prosecution of 39 “video nasties,” including Flesh for Frankenstein, Driller Killer, and Cannibal Holocaust. As always, it was Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, and the aptly named Captain Sensible who called for a little rationality amidst the witchhunt. They did so with three minutes of high-speed punk professing their romance with video nasties. That they recorded the track specifically for one of the best episodes of “The Young Ones” makes “Nasty” all the awesomer.
99. “Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” by The Police
One of the neat surprises of Ghosts in the Machine is how proficient Sting is with a horn in his mouth. Throughout the record, he fattens out the core Police sound with overdubbed saxophone arrangements. The chart on “Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” is particularly simple, but those two note blasts say more than a million over-bloated eighties saxophone solos. The songs message—mostly delivered in French—is equally fat-free: “No matter what I do, I’m still hungry for you.” That there is real lust.
98. “Automatic” by Prince and the Revolution
“Automatic” pretends to be a message of love, but I have a feeling it has something more akin to “Hungry for You” on its dirty mind. Like that Police song, “Automatic” derives its power from a mesmerizing beat, but it also builds a tangible world: the seventh circle of sex hell. Prince’s vision is kind of disturbing because of the explicit threats (“I’m going 2 have 2 torture U now”) and the robotic quality of it all (“A-u-t-o-matic”). Sexy, disturbing, futuristic, uncompromising. Prince in a nutshell.
But love isn’t always Sting telling you how much he wants you in French or purple sex orgies. Often it doesn’t go as intended. How often? All the time, according to Gordon Gano. A come on gets awkward and he pulls a preemptive “I never wanted you anyway” as Brian Ritchie freaks out on his acoustic bass. Gives me the jitters.
96. “Suit of Lights” by Elvis Costello
Elvis has described “Suit of Lights” as “a song about work and respect” inspired by his father, a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, and it is rich with evocative, elegiac imagery. It also houses what may be Elvis’s nastiest joke (“You request some song you hate, you sentimental fool / And it’s the force of habit / If it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t than you stab it”). The weary, ornery, insistent refrain is gut wrenching and unforgettable.
95. “Jason and the Argonauts” by XTC
Prog rock and new wave collide head on and go for a cartwheel tumble on “Jason and the Argonauts”. Andy Partridge uses Greek mythology (and probably a bit of Ray Harryhausen) as a metaphor for the ills of capitalist society. The golden fleece of unquenchable materialism. The seven veils of misogyny. Hypnotic and harrowing.
94. “So Far Away” by Dire Straits
Seven years had past since square British Blues combo Dire Straits had a hit in the US. As we all know, that changed most assuredly when they dropped the ultra-slick, DDD monster Brothers in Arms in ’85. That year you couldn’t blow your nose without having “Money for Nothing” blare out of your nostrils. However, the truly great single from the band’s comeback triumph was its first. “So Far Away” barely sneaked into the top twenty, but it’s as hooky and alluring as anything Dire Straights ever did, their taut rhythm section pulsing beneath an utterly sublime guitar lick. Mark Knopfler’s six-string impersonates a Hawaiian pedal steel and fools me completely.
93. “Love at First Sight” by XTC
Colin Moulding often balanced Andy Partridge’s social criticism with unabashed romanticism. Unlike the similarly smitten but very smooth “Ten Feet Tall” on Drums & Wires, “Love at First Sight” forks over its valentine in a sweaty, quivering hand. Falling in love can be nerve wracking.
92. “Another Nail in My Heart” by Squeeze
A descending riff that makes it sound as though the stylus is trapped erupts into glorious pop. Glen Tilbrook laments in his Paul McCartney croon, but the roaming Farfisa lines make “Another Nail in My Heart” sound like The Attractions angling for a hit. How Squeeze didn’t get one in America is beyond me.
91. “Navigating Flood Regions” by Guided by Voices
Million-dollar majesty on a four-dollar production budget. Actually, compared to the four-track cassette machines Guided by Voices would use later, Steve Wilbur’s 8-track garage may as well have been Gold Star Studios. This is still clearly lo-fi recording, even as you can hear the band fighting through it to get a booming sound on “Navigating Flood Regions”. This is the kind of MGD-hoisting anthem that defines GBV.
90. “Catch” by The Cure
Guided by Voices made records that sounded like the band was drunk (they were). The Cure’s “Catch” is a record that sounds like it’s drunk— not wasted, but wonderfully buzzed, ambling down the street on a snowy night after a chance encounter with the girl of its dreams, totally smitten even though the record may never see that girl again. Plus Mellotron.
89. “Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday
Before breaking out as a major solo artist in the nineties, Aimee Mann was playing bass, singing, and songwriting in Til Tuesday. Without question, that band’s defining moment was also one of MTV’s defining moments: Mann whipping off her hat in a crowded opera house to start shouting to the extreme displeasure of her asshole boyfriend. We all remember the video, but the song is super potent even without the memorable images. Joey Pesce’s creepy synthesizers give the track its new wave edge. Mann’s impassioned improvs at the end of it will twist your heart right out of your rib cage.
88. “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam
Paul Weller unplugs his Rickenbacker but not his righteous indignation. He creates a grim portrait of life in a Council estate where one can only fantasize about taking a break from exhaust fumes, construction noise, and inane pap on the telly. Even a romantic snog must be snatched in the center of extreme squalor and depression. Weller keeps strumming out the same four chords over and over. His perfectly conceived ditty doesn’t need any more than that.
87. “You Got Lucky” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty pulls out a nasty lyric worthy of Jagger, but somehow it’s less devastating coming from a guy like him. “You Got Lucky” still has plenty of bite. Mike Campbell’s spaghetti Western riffs tangle with Benmont Tench’s synths, making this one of the most convincing arguments for the Heartbreakers’ new-wave status.
86. “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads
The eighties had barely begun when David Byrne defined the decade’s suffocating air of conservative complacency. A family man realizes how alienated he is from his beautiful wife, beautiful car, beautiful house, and beautiful money. Byrne sweats hard to express the man’s anguish and confusion. Jerry Harrison’s bubbling synth and Tina Weymouth’s rippling bass line are the waters that will keep on flowing with or without him.
85. “(My Girl) Maryanne” by The Spongetones
A refreshing blast of Mersey Beat pop by way of a quartet of North Carolinians with totally unacceptable mustaches and mullets. The Spongetones started life as a Beatles cover band, which should be no shocker after hearing this sweet and refreshing power popper about a lovably chatty lass. Between you and me, I like it better than anything on Please Please Me.
84. “How Beautiful You Are” by The Cure
The Cure whips up a tornado of dancing piano, trembling bass, and whirling synthesizer violins around Robert Smith. He’s the only guy who could begin a song called “How Beautiful You Are” with the words “You want to know why I hate you, well, I’ll try to explain.” Well, maybe Morrissey could too. I love both of them for that.
83. “Add It Up” by The Violent Femmes
What an intro! Gordon Gano’s naked voice in choirboy croon. Then he gets mad and the Femmes get violent, slamming into a punk-folk rush. The rest of the track is a tour de force of jarring dynamics, simmering down so Gano’s mouth can exercise, then exploding into suicidal psychosis when his girl decides to “add it up” instead of relieving his tension. Teenage horniness has never sounded so distressed or so real.
82. “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC
Sensory overload drives Andy Partridge to create a mysterious and lovely piece of modern folk-pop. A spacious, breathing antidote to the ills about which Partridge sings.
81. “Wolves, Lower” by R.E.M.
Peter Buck rolls his Rickenbacker all over the first cut on R.E.M.’s first E.P. Michael Stipe imparts warnings in the background. They’ve barely begun and R.E.M.’s special alchemy is already in full force
80. “It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way That You Do It” by Fun Boy Three and Bananarama
Fun Boy Three used percussion like most bands use guitars. So much of this track’s melody comes from its contagious clanging and banging. Bananarama’s cheerleading chants give its bubbliness extra lift. This should have become a playground jump rope standard.
79. “Gardening at Night (Different Vocal Mix)” by R.E.M.
R.E.M.’s Chronic Town is one of the great E.P.’s, but it also makes a great mistake. One of its best tracks contains one of Michael Stipe’s most indifferent vocals. This flaw was corrected on the 1987 compilation Eponymous, which included a version of “Gardening at Night” with a more committed Stipe vocal. It’s the definitive version of a definitive piece of early R.E.M.
78. “When Doves Cry” by Prince and the Revolution
Like the movie that featured it, “When Doves Cry” is kind of wrong. The central metaphor makes no sense. The imagery is gross (“The sweat of your body covers me”—ick). There’s no bass. Yet, it’s still a perfect record because of Prince’s alien vocal and guitar magic.
77. “Call Me” by Blondie
Speaking of making no sense, what about the opening line, “Color me your color, baby, color me your car”? What? Like “When Doves Cry”, sense matters little on a record that sounds so amazing. A seamless fusion of synthetic new wave production and pure punk attitude and drive, “Call Me” kicks like few other Blondie tracks do.
76. “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx
With a churning rhythm that grabs you by the collar and pulls you down an elevator shaft, The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” is one of the great MTV hits of the eighties—and the rare one that still sounds totally fresh today. I still get lost in its undertow the instant that lacerating guitar and mechanical beat lash out.
75. “Jools and Jim” by Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend shows he was listening to the punk movement he inspired without lapsing into lyrical or musical pastiche. The beauty of his song craft is still very evident when he takes callous journos to task for running down the recently deceased Keith Moon. Furious, delicate, and highly personal without being unapproachable, “Jools and Jim” distills everything great about Pete Townshend’s songwriting. His vocal on the bridge is the most beautiful singing of his career.
74. “1999” by Prince and the Revolution
“1999” was chopped down for radio and MTV, but on the LP named for it, it’s a restless, relentless rumination on nuclear apocalypse beginning with a demon’s creepy— and rather unconvincing— reassurance and ending with a child’s creepier query, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” And who but Prince (and Stevie Wonder) had the nerve to begin a major statement with other singers? These singers are Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman, and Jill Jones, all but Jones being members of Prince’s new group the Revolution. They all party in the face of doom, and we lowly listeners can’t help but follow them.
73. “Man Out of Time” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
The lengthy “Man Out of Time” is like an encyclopedia of Elvis Costello’s best lines: “‘Cause the high heel he used to be has been ground down”; “There’s a tuppeny hapenny millionaire looking for a fourpenny one”; “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge, he stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege”; “Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning, you drink yourself insensitive and you hate yourself in the morning”. “Man Out of Time” would rate as a classic if only for its lyrics, but the words are matched step-for-step by the sweeping, majestic melody and climactic chorus. And the primal scream fits bookending the track (actually snatched from an insane outtake of this song) are pretty wicked, too.
72. “Harborcoat” by R.E.M.
R.E.M. kick off their sophomore album with a restless, joyous swirl of guitars and overlapping vocals. “Harborcoat” proves that pop doesn’t need drum machines and synths to magnetize asses to the dance floor—even in the eighties.
71. “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie
Eleven years later, Major Tom is still floating in space, but his euphoria seems to have settled into a drugged lethargy. Is there a better metaphor for the transition from sixties idealism to eighties complacency? Bowie’s warped music captures the dispirited lyric and contemporary temper perfectly until he tries to rise out of his funky funk on the dramatic bridge (listen closely to the mocking, spoken vocal counterpoint beneath the main vocal).
70. “Hey” by The Pixies
A looping Kim Deal bassline and a Gothic horror Black Francis lyric makes for an unlikely Pixies favorite. This may be because Francis drops some of his most direct lyrics (“If you go I will surely die!”) in the middle of the weird imagery (“The whores like a choir…This is the sound that the mother makes when the baby breaks!”). “Hey” is as mysterious, gloomy, and impassioned as The Pixies got.
69. “Miss Grandenko” by The Police
Slight familiarity with his MOR solo career is enough to understand how much Sting needed Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. Their stinging work sharpened The Police and toughened Sting. Their abilities extended beyond matters of musicianship. They also wrote some of The Police’s best songs. Copeland’s “Miss Grandenko” is a highlight of the highlight-loaded Synchronicity; an elated and concise pop treat that surely would have been a hit if it had been pasted onto a single. But let’s not be too hard on Sting—his bouncy bass line is one of the best things about “Miss Grandenko”.
68. “Pink Frost” by The Chills
New Zealand’s The Chills borrow liberally from sixties psychedelia, yet this record could not have been made anytime other than the eighties. Martin Phillipps’s extra-emphasized accent and the waves of synthy guitars set “Pink Frost” aside from the music it inspired, but it remains as spine-tingling and haunting as the best of Pink Floyd or The Velvet Underground.
67. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division
There’s little joy in the Joy Division story, but their music often transcended the tragedy in the same way the blues has been helping people through rough times for a century. Dour yet danceable, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” puts me in an oddly good mood and it’s guaranteed to get every pouty mug in the room lurching on the floor every time it spins.
66. “Crazy” by R.E.M.
R.E.M. cut this cover for the b-side of “Driver 8”. Not only do I think it bests its A-side—which is a great track—but it blows away the original by fellow Athens, Georgia, combo Pylon. R.E.M. cuts the rhythm looser and Stipe fills in more vocals… though I’d hesitate to say “lyrics”
65. “Don’t Let Go the Coat” by The Who
More polished and sedate than any Who record before it, Face Dances is not among the band’s best-loved albums. However, Pete, John, and Roger deserve some credit for not pretending Keith Moon’s death hadn’t changed the band. Face Dances was a more adult-sounding Who record than any one before it, and though it is hardly consistent, it contains one of Townshend’s loveliest odes to Meher Baba: “Don’t Let Go the Coat”. It’s wonderful to hear him take the twelve-string Rickenbacker out of mothballs.
64. “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies
One of rock’s unlikeliest sing-a-longs, “Where Is My Mind?” will always stir choruses of “Whoo-ooh!” when it comes on the juke at your local hipster bar. Black Francis’s bizarre underwater imagery fits a song deeper and darker than the Yucatan Cenotes.
63. “Rev Up” by The Revillos
The synth may have ruled the decade, but old-fashioned garage rock was not dead in the 1980s. One of the most electrifying garage bands was former punk group The Rezillos. Their new-wave name change was fitting, because no one revved up like The Revillos revved up on “Rev Up”. This song makes me want to smash every light bulb in the room with my head.
62. “Academy Fight Song” by Mission to Burma
Fist-raising collegiate punk rock is in full effect on Mission of Burma’s first single. “Academy Fight Song” rails against boarding schools and makes me glad I never had to endure their piss-smelling halls.
61. “Face Dances Part Two” by Pete Townshend
This video with its weird robots was an early MTV staple, but it hasn’t endured as “Rough Boys” or “Let My Love Open the Door Have”. I think it’s Pete’s most infectious solo single, as delectable as a sack of donuts even with that herky-jerky 5/4 time signature.
60. “Wanna Hold You” by The Rolling Stones
Amidst all of the sleaze and violence of Undercover is an uplifting love song that would have sounded utterly unconvincing had it come out of Mick’s mouth. The elements of “Wanna Hold You” don’t sound as if they should add up: the pop hooks, the discofied beat, the cheery lyrics, and Keith’s sandblasted voice. But it’s a wonderful track, probably because the guy really was head-over-Cuban-heels for wife-to-be Patti Hansen. The way the multi-tracked vocals overlap on the refrain pumps bumblebees into my stomach.
59. “Come Dancing” by The Kinks
The Kinks have the extraordinary knack of making cheerful records that make me want to cry. The best example is the calypso swing “Come Dancing”. A happier sound is unimaginable, yet knowing that the song’s inspiration is the death of Ray and Dave Davies’s older sister Rene puts a lump in my throat even before the cheesy roller-rink organ kicks in. Dave’s power chords on the bridge provide a moment of real Rock & Roll release and remind us that these are the guys who made “You Really Got Me”.
58. “Los Angeles” by X
I have a bit of a grudge against L.A. It’s like an alien planet made out of plastic and it stole my best friend away and refuses to give him back to the East Coast. The main character of “Los Angeles” apparently has a lot more hostility toward the town than I do. She’s also a gun-toting, racist hick. X raise a sweat to convey her anger and confusion. It’s an ugly portrait of life in a tough town, realer than any bullshit Guns ‘n’ Rose pose.
57. “Reel Around the Fountain” by The Smiths
The Smiths’ union of troubled subject matter and beautiful music made a lot of people uncomfortable, but it’s also one of the things that make them so unique. Nevertheless, “Reel Around the Fountain” isn’t exactly the tale of child molestation many assume it is. However, it does get into that awkward transition from virginity to sexual awakening with the beauty and delicacy of a flock of butterflies.
56. “A Day without Me” by U2
An underappreciated number from U2’s first album, “A Day without Me” may be so appealing because it’s so atypical of the band. Neither a strained anthem nor a hammering screed, the track is fresh, bouncy, and sweet. Before writing this piece, I had no idea it was released as the first single from Boy. If I’d known in 1980 what I know now, I would have done my part in trying to make it the hit it should have been.
55. “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus” by Guided by Voices
I’m always shocked by the songs Guided by Voices decided to hold back. They recorded the dreamy and moving “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus” for the scrapped Learning to Hunt album, and while lesser songs like “The Qualifying Remainder” and “Slopes of Big Ugly” didn’t have to wait long for release on Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, this one had to wait eleven years. It was ultimately buried on the sprawling outtakes box Suitcase. “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus” deserves to be dug up and seated lovingly amongst GBV’s best-loved songs, and not just because it has the greatest title in the history of song titles.
54. “I Wanna Destroy You” by The Soft Boys
This is where The Byrds and Sex Pistols collide, annihilating each other and leaving a perfectly honed shiv of Soft Boys snarl rock. Songs with lines as bile spewing as “When I have destroyed you, I’ll come picking at your bones” should not be this bloody catchy.
53. “The Waiting” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
No punk fury here; just pure McGuinn-style jangling and Petty-style sincerity. “The Waiting” is a love song true enough that it doesn’t have to smooth out fairly unromantic lines like “Don’t let it kill you, baby,” but it’s the longing, anticipation, and overflowing joy that leave the most enduring mark.
52. “The Queen of Eyes” by The Soft Boys
Back to Robyn Hitchcock and the gang again, and this time they even out-jangle Petty! Pop as scrumptious and refreshing as an ice cream cone sprinkled with bits of classic Soft Boys weirdness.
51. “Strawberries Are Growing in My Garden (And It’s Wintertime)” by The Dentists
The Dentists deliver a cool wave of neo-psychedelia. If the title suggests The Beatles, the track itself is more reminiscent of moodier groups like The Left Banke and The Zombies. The lazy guitar jangle (this list is really in the jangling heart of the eighties here, folks!), the heavenly harmonies, the way the track sort of slumps from one section to the next, the cacophonous coda: magnificent.
50. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
OK, let’s set aside our Rickenbackers for a moment here (just a moment, though). It’s time to patch in the synths for a doomy rumble and Dale Bozzio’s robotic hiccupping. Warren Cuccurullo’s wiry guitar riff is awesome too.
49. “Hand in Glove” by The Smiths
It’s amusing how seriously some people take Morrissey. It’s also a little sad, since those fans are apparently missing one of the best things about his songs: they’re often really, really funny. The Smiths did not wait to reveal this side. Their very first single begins with “Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds.” That’s hilarious. Plus, the jangling is back.
48. “Gun Fury” by The Damned
The Damned, however, are a band that should be taken more seriously than they are. Yes, they have a lot of funny songs too, and their stage antics always signaled a group that didn’t take itself very seriously, but they could be insightful and complex as well. A prime example is “Gun Fury”, a righteous jab at the Police Support Unit’s abuse of power. Dave Vanian never cracks a smile through the unflinching lyric and the band never duffs the tricky 5/4 time signature. What a great band. What a great song.
47. “I’ve Been Tired” by The Pixies
Is this the worst first date ever? She talks about the horrors of poverty. He talks about his fear of losing his “penis to a whore with disease.” Cut him some slack. He’s been tired. Early Pixies at their most demented, and the peppy tune makes “I’ve Been Tired” all the scarier.
46. “Our House” by Madness
If you need a touch of comfort after that last track, well then pop over our house. We’ll make you a spot of tea. Ignore all the shouting…that’s just how our family is. “Our House” is the funniest, warmest, most honest, most hummable slice of modest British life since the heyday of Ray Davies.
45. “Clubland” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Elvis aims his poison-pen at the elitism of club-culture and the vacuous dopes who’ve come to “shoot the pony” and “do the jerk” (why do I think he isn’t referring to a couple of groovy sixties dance fads here?). He sets his nasty poetry to a snappy, slinky tango rhythm. Is this the only Rock & Roll song ever written in the tango style? Is there a single musical resource Elvis Costello has not used?
44. “Bike Ride to the Moon” by Dukes of Stratosphear
Amidst the mid-eighties fad for antiseptic production, drum machines, and synthesizers, XTC pulled a major prank on the pop world by pretending to be an unearthed sixties psychedelic band called Dukes of Stratosphear. As the Dukes they drew on influences from The Beatles to Traffic to The Beach Boys to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. That latter influence is all over their most delightfully kaleidoscopic track, “Bike Ride to the Moon”. It’s as wonderful as anything to which it pays tribute.
43. “Under the Milky Way” by The Church
The Church also made fine use of sixties influences, though they did not pretend to make records any time other than the eighties. Their moody defining song “Under the Milky Way” is one of the best records of the decade. Had it been made in the sixties, it would have been one of the best of that decade too.
42. “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears
Is this the greatest love song of the eighties? The construction is perfect: a dramatic opening, the brilliantly arranged call and response of Roland Orzabal’s throaty gale and Curt Smith’s teary falsetto, a powerful chorus, and a fantastically phased, elliptical finale. The lyric is equally brilliant. The first verse captures the thrill and ache of potential new love as well as any other before drifting into dark premonitions on the second: the singer goes from imagining himself married to the object of his obsession, to chastising her being unambitious, to imagining himself with a gun in his hand. Is it pointed at himself? At her? At a bank teller? Perhaps “Head Over Heels” belongs in the same file as “Every Breath You Take” as one of the most misunderstood love songs of the 1980s. The only difference is I still enjoy listening to “Head Over Heels”.
41. “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie
Two grand stars of the seventies unite for an ideal eighties anthem. Queen and Queen Bitch play their roles masterfully: Freddie Mercury’s edge-of-the-stage histrionics bounce off of Bowie’s cool croon magnificently. The vocalists dominate, but there are so many other great things happening in this track, such as John Deacon’s tick-tocking bassline and the shifty song structure. But it is on the bridge where Freddie wonders why we can’t give love, give love that “Under Pressure” achieves transcendence.
40. “Madonna of the Wasps” by Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians
After The Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock put together a new band, but his mastery of neo-psychedelia and bizarre lyricism was still very much intact. The borderline Gothic “Madonna of the Wasps” makes that insidiously clear and it is one of his most mature and evocative surrealist pieces.
39. “Perfect Circle” by R.E.M.
There is also a Gothic tinge to the centerpiece of R.E.M.’s first album. “Perfect Circle” sounds like it was recorded in the great room of a vast stone castle. Everything echoing and resonating. At the same time, it as intimate as the best R.E.M. ballads. Haunting stuff.
38. “Grimly Fiendish (Bad Trip Mix)” by The Damned
With their 1985 album, Phantasmagoria, The Damned fully succumbed to Dave Vanian’s fascination with the Goth movement he helped create and bad eighties production. The one track that emerges totally unscathed is both the best on the record and the best of The Damned’s psych tributes. The clear influence here is The Who circa ‘67. The monster-mash lyric, inspired by a British comic-book villain, could have been penned by John Entwistle as his follow up to “Boris the Spider”, and the olde Edwardian vibe recalls “Silas Stingy”. The “Bad lad, bad boy” chorus is lifted straight out of Townshend’s “Our Love Was”. The definitive version is the “Bad Trip Mix” from the extended 12” single, which features a fabulous Peter Lorre impression.
37. “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths
The genesis of “How Soon Is Now?” is kind of funny. It is Johnny Marr’s idea of how Creedence Clearwater Revival sounded before he’d heard much of their music. In a way, it is similar to “Born on the Bayou”, with its murky production, lethargic rhythm, and heavily tremeloed guitars. However, The Smiths achieve something darker and grander on the song Seymour Stein believed to be the eighties own “Stairway to Heaven”. Morrissey’s dourness often comes off as parody, but “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does” is such a nakedly primal plea that it’s understandable why so many people take this song dead seriously.
36. “Arabian Knights” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees fashion the mysterioso psychedelia that would become an integral component of their sound for the rest of their career. Budgie’s rolling thunder is as hooky as Siouxsie’s moans and John McGeoch’s trembling guitar, but it’s his switch to a straight drive on the final chorus that makes “Arabian Knights” such a spine-tingling tale.
35. “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police
The Police create their own brand of poppy Gothic reggae, and as is the case with the previous song, a shift to a straight 4/4 beat smacks the track awake. My favorite part of the song may be Sting’s loping bass line.
34. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” by The Smiths
Anyone who doesn’t understand how hilarious The Smiths are needs to be sat down and played “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. There isn’t a thing about this song that isn’t uproarious: Morrissey apologizing to his “sweetness” for threatening to “smash every tooth in your head” or confessing he knows how a walkman-toting Joan of Ark feels or dueting with a bigmouthed alter-ego that sounds suspiciously like a small-mouthed Smurf. Johnny Marr’s rapid acoustic strumming is utter Rock & Roll excitement.
33. “Unsatisfied” by The Replacements
The flip side of Mick Jagger’s loquacious complaint of dissatisfaction, “Unsatisfied” finds Paul Westerberg barely able to repeat more than “Look me in the eye and tell me I’m satisfied… I’m so unsatisfied”. Yet his ravaged, wrecked, raging delivery says everything Mick did. Music to claw your own eyes out to.
32. “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant
Eddie Grant chants of social unrest on Brixton’s ethnically diverse market street to a beat born for dancing. The chorus is as irresistible as Grant’s anger is unmissable through the mechanistic beat.
31. “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Never before had Siouxsie and the Banshees delivered anything as straight-up hooky, dancey, and delicious as “Cities in Dust”. The chorus is the stuff of which spontaneous dance parties are made.
30. “Transfiguration” by Screaming Trees
Although they’d become minor grunge poster boys in the nineties, Screaming Trees’ roots were in sixties garage rock and psychedelia. The greatest example of this is “Transfiguration” which sounds like it should be roaring over images of face-painted scenesters fruging madly in a Roger Corman acid movie.
29. “Stranger on the Town” by The Damned
The Damned’s Strawberries receives little love, but I don’t just think it’s their best album—I think it’s the best goddamn album of the eighties. It’s like their Goth clown concept of the perfect sixties anthology with bits of psychedelia, garage rock, baroque balladry, and protest. On the epic “Stranger on the Town”, they create a song that sounds likes it should have been on the album The Munsters recorded for Motown Records circa 1965. If that doesn’t sound good to you, I don’t think we can be friends.
28. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” by Kate Bush
“Running Up That Hill” apparently made the U.S. top-thirty in 1985, but I never heard it at that time. When I finally did a couple of decades later, I was at first struck by the dated synth sounds. By the time I heard Kate Bush’s vocal overdubs weaving around each other like enchanted strands of golden silk and coarse twine, any arrangement issues had evaporated. This is a thrilling piece of music with some of the most dramatic drumming of any track on this list.
27. “Take Me with U” by Prince and the Revolution
Honestly, any single culled from Prince and the Revolution’s masterpiece Purple Rain could justifiably sit in the upper end of this list, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Prince’s dalliances with Beatlesque pop. “Take Me With U” is not as galvanizing as “Let’s Go Crazy” or as intense as “When Doves Cry”; it’s just a magnificently executed pop single, and the way Prince’s voice mingles with Apollonia’s raises the little hairs on the back of my neck.
26. “Eyes without a Face” by Billy Idol
Billy Idol doesn’t just borrow the title of George Franju’s horror masterpiece Les Yeux sans Visage, he nicks the film’s Gothic beauty. Billy Idol being Billy Idol, he is unable to keep his silliness completely at bay (hence the mid song rap about taking a “psychedelic trip” and reading “murder books” in Las Vegas), but “Eyes Without a Face” is all the more endearing for it.
25. “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash
The song that made The Clash mainstream in the U.S. barely hints at their punk roots. “Rock the Casbah” barely hints at anything before it. Its combination of Latin jazz piano, disco bass and drums, Joe Strummer’s wrecked vocal, Mick Jones’s guitar shocks, lyrics that parody the Islamic ban on Rock music, and a Casio watch whistling “Dixie” are totally original and totally eighties.
24. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” by The Smiths
As we’ve already established, Morrissey was a master of conveying teenage lovesickness for his own smirking amusement, and the hilarity of his lyrics tended to be lost on the lovesick teens that were his primary audience. But the joke in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” really isn’t very funny. This is a crushing song about cruel rejection that morphs from swooning romanticism to absolute blackness without undergoing any major changes in arrangement. It’s Morrissey’s voice that transforms. His shift from breeziness in the song’s opening passages to the lump-throated despair of the repeated refrain “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happening in mine” is devastating.
23. “Jig of Life” by Kate Bush
The Hounds of Love makes brilliant use of eighties production techniques, which is no easy feat. However, Kate Bush drops all the synths and drum machines and icy sound effects for “Jig of Life”, an incredible example of organic music making. Bush’s mum was a traditional Irish dancer, and daughter keeps that tradition alive with sawing fiddles and River Dance stomping. Brother John delivers the Brogue-thick rap that climaxes the most muscular track on Kate Bush’s masterpiece.
22. “Harboring Exiles” by Guided by Voices
Like “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus”, “Harboring Exiles” is astounding because it was left in the vaults for so long. This fellow Self-Inflected Aerial Nostalgia outtake had to wait even longer for release, coming out in 2003 on the Hardcore UFOs box set. I will never understand why this rubbery piece of power pop perfection wasn’t released in 1989 so it could be one of that year’s biggest and best hit singles.
21. “Town Called Malice” by The Jam
The Jam go full-Motown on the song for which they are best-known in the states. Their Funk Brothers tribute captures that band’s rhythmic magnetism superbly while Weller’s portrait of lower class unrest cuts through the track’s polish. “Town Called Malice” may also make the most powerful use of straight 4/4 handclapping on record.
20. “Spellbound” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Man, John McGeoch must have had a sore wrist after recording “Spellbound”. This track contains some of the most visceral acoustic strumming this side of a Pete Townshend session. But “Spellbound” is not just the guitarist’s show. Everyone in the band is driving forward with maximum velocity: Budgie beating like the hooves of a horde of Clydesdales on the rampage, Siouxsie bellowing from the gut, Steve Severin pushing the whole thing from the bottom with intense single-mindedness. People born without necks will still figure out a way to bob their heads to “Spellbound”.
19. “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” by R.E.M.
After a snatch of pseudo-carnival organ, Peter Buck rolls out a lick that sounds like his Rickenbacker cracked its head and isn’t sure which tent to enter. Finally, it stumbles into one, and R.E.M. kick in full gale behind him. The carnival is in full swing with a relentless rhythm and some of those exhilarating Stipe/Mills overlapping vocal acrobatics on the chorus. It zooms off the fairground and up to nirvana when Bill Berry slams his kit double time just before the marvelous track fades into oblivion.
18. “Whip It” by Devo
Devo celebrate stick-to-itiveness with a dollop of S&M. Whips crack. Drums smack. Synths wallop basslines and slam sci-fi dissonance. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale trade self-help propaganda. If Seymour Stein was right and “How Soon Is Now?” is the eighties’ own “Stairway to Heaven”, then “Whip It” is its “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
17. “Lovely Money” by The Damned
In 1982, The Damned released a stand-alone single about the gross absurdity of turning the Tower of London prison into a tourist attraction. That’s hardly hit subject matter, and the single dutifully flopped, but musically, this is The Damned at their most unabashedly catchy, poppy, and scrumptious. The disco drum machine is a major eighties touch, but the Farfisa and tunefulness come straight from the best sixties summer hits. Bonzo Dog Viv Stansall plays the part of a poorly informed, racist, and rather disgruntled Tower tour guide. Righteously angry, hilarious, harmonious, perfectly conceived in every way, “Lovely Money” may be the eighties flop that most deserved to be an eighties hit.
16. “Swimming Horses” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Alluring and magical, “Swimming Horses” is as artful as pop music gets. Over a backing track that shimmers like the reflection of stars on a wading pool, Siouxsie Sioux paints surrealistic images that barely mask the song’s erotic topic. “He gives birth to swimming horses” is probably the loveliest way one can say, “He spurts sperm out of his penis.”
15. “Love for Tender” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
If there’s one thing Elvis Costello and the Attractions love, it’s ironic references to their favorite pop songs. “Love for Tender” offers two for the price of one: Bruce Thomas copped the bass line from “You Can’t Hurry Love” and Elvis swiped the title-refrain from “Love Me Tender” (not the first time he used this particular play on words, as we shall see). Still, “Love for Tender” is pure Elvis and the Attractions: fast, feisty, complex, succinct, witty, and catchy as the best of The Supremes or Presley. Bruce’s bass drives the performance, but Elvis’s avalanche of puns provides just as much fun. “Love for Tender” is an homage to Motown soul, a genre of music designed primarily for dancing, but can anyone dance fast enough to keep up with it? To do so, they’d have to gobble as many pills as the Attractions probably did before cutting this classic.
14. “William, It Was Really Nothing” by The Smiths
Swirling and dizzying and cascading like sheets of rain falling on “a humdrum town”, “William, It was Really Nothing” sums up the undying appeal of The Smiths as gorgeously as any of the other great singles by the greatest singles band of the eighties. Once again, Morrissey pisses all over his sad boy image. How can anyone mope around to lyrics like “How can you stay with a fat girl who’ll say, ‘Would you like to marry me? And if you like you can buy the ring’… I don’t dream about anyone except myself”?
13. “I Will Dare” by The Replacements
The Replacements’ punk followers must have been baffled after hearing the band’s debut single of 1984. Suddenly, Paul Westerberg and his gang of drunks had gone from shambling hardcore to romantic mandolin-driven pop. There are still remnants of the old ’Mats on the accompanying album, Let It Be (ain’t nothing romantic about the screaming slop of “Gary’s Got a Boner”), but “I Will Dare” proudly displays the incredible songwriting craft that had always been lurking beneath their gravel-vocals and gritty guitars.
12. “King of Pain” by The Police
“Every Breath You Take” may have been the single that got spun to death in 1983, but the most brilliant and unlikely track to get pulled from Synchronicity for radio play was “King of Pain”. It’s a sort of “Paint It Black” for the eighties, a Goth pop expression of lightless self-pity. Sting illustrates his lost soul with an album of surreal snap shots: a dead salmon frozen in a water fall (that’s his soul up there), a spotty sun (that’s his soul too), a skeleton choking on bread (ditto), etc. Each picture helps build the song’s atmosphere of thunderhead menace that the ridiculously catchy chorus cannot clear.
11. “Life Goes On” by The Damned
Killing Joke may have been miffed that Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” was so similar to their “Eighties”, but I wonder how Captain Sensible felt about the similarity of “Eighties” to his own “Life Goes On”? Based on his lyrics, Sensible probably just shrugged it off. Based on The Damned’s recording of his song, he had nothing to worry about, because “Life Goes On” is the best of those three excellent tracks as far as I’m concerned. How can a song be so simultaneously glum and uplifting? A perfect song for any mood. A perfect song, period.
10. “I Need That Record” by The Tweeds
“I Need That Record” by obscure eighties power-pop group Tweeds could be the theme for this list. It celebrates the joy of being a mega-music geek whose reason for existence is hunting down that totally rare, perfectly mint, colored-vinyl, out-of-print record by his or her favorite group. It’s also a brilliantly conceived three and a half minutes of exuberant power pop. This song makes me wants to pull all my albums off the shelves and give each one a big kiss.
9. “Beyond Belief” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Elvis Costello is a master of pop craftsmanship with utter respect for the verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, but he tossed that shit right out the window when he wrote “Beyond Belief”. The song unfolds gradually, crawling through a couple of taut verses, then hinting at climax with a brief sparkling interlude, before snapping shut like a bear trap for another verse that finally explodes into an exhilarating repeated refrain (and it explodes quite literally… listen for that “bomb” blast!). The genius of the nontraditional structure of “Beyond Belief” is the way it builds suspense; instead of scattering little pay-offs throughout the piece, as most writers use choruses, Elvis saves it up for the end, and it’s well worth the wait. If Alfred Hitchcock had written a pop song, it would have been “Beyond Belief”.
8. “Walking in the Dark” by Throwing Muses
An attic empty aside from a grand piano, a single naked light bulb, and a ghost wailing of death dreams. Then in comes the rhythm section, and jewels of every color drop from the ceiling. Lights whirl. Brains get buzzed from some concoction served in a round bottom beaker. Kristen Hersh recites pure poetry that evokes a faded, fantastical childhood long gone. So do her piano riffs, which recall “Linus and Lucy”. “Walking in the Dark” is a precious antique.
7. “I Got You” by Split Enz
Had The Beatles been born twenty years later than they were, they probably would have made something like “I Got You”. The track is clearly a product of the eighties, with its fairground organ, synthy textures, and verses that Neil Finn sings like an IBM motherboard. However, that glorious chorus could have been ripped right off of A Hard Day’s Night. Malcolm Green’s abuse of his crash cymbal right before the fade out reduces me to a heap of ash.
6. “The Big Sky (Special Single Mix)” by Kate Bush
More than any other song, “The Big Sky” drives home the fact that the most extraordinary instrument on Hounds of Love is its mistress’ voice. However, the finest version of this track can be found on 45 and on a CD reissue that irks some fans because it swaps out the mix originally included on the LP. In this “special single mix,” the drums hold off a bit for a spacious introduction, which heightens the drama before they start rumbling and Kate goes crazy. On the endless repeat that climaxes the track, she abandons herself completely with shrieks that easily rank alongside such scream-sterpieces as McCartney’s on “Hey Jude” and Daltrey’s on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. My spine vibrates just thinking about it!
5. “Antmusic” by Adam and the Ants
This may be the only pop song that uses tapping for its central hook. I’m surprised every other new wave band didn’t jump on the tapping bandwagon, because it’s so infectious on this track. Marco Pirroni’s glam guitar harmonies and Adam’s hiccups about an insectious new musical craze are brilliant too. That tapping is like the tapping off those millions of tiny ant feet stomping along to the catchiest hit of 1980. I used to watch hours of MTV just waiting for this video to come on. It never came on often enough for me.
4. “Debaser” by The Pixies
Kim Deal bops out an utterly simple, utterly attention-snatching bass line. Joey Santiago goes surfing. David Lovering goes dancing. Black Francis focuses his wild surrealism to compose a love letter to Un Chien Andalou. Eyeballs get sliced. Girls get groovy. Everyone grows up to be a debaser. I have never been at a party that didn’t go nuts when this came on the sound system. What “Twist and Shout” was for the sixties, “Debaser” was for the nineties. Really, it sounds nothing like the eighties product it is. It still sounds freakily futuristic today.
3. “Clean Money” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Elvis Costello has written some deathless songs during his nearly forty-year career, but what may be his most compelling one is buried on the B-side of “Clubland”. “Clean Money” is the hardest, fastest, noisiest thing Elvis and the Attractions ever recorded. So much melody, energy, compositional invention, and lyrical wit (there’s that “love for tender” metaphor in its original context!) is packed into the song’s fleeting two minutes that it should have earned Elvis the Nobel Prize for Architecture. If you’ve ever wondered how the guy who sang “Veronica” and “Allison” was once considered part of the punk movement, you need to hear this song. Just try not to explode.
2. “Painted Bird” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees flaunt their references on “Painted Bird”, a tribute to the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name and a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s terror classic about feathered fiends gone wild. Really, though, it is not its literacy or cleverness that drives me mad; it’s the way those spinning verses blows up into those chorus crowded with Siouxsie’s contrapuntal vocals, the way that John McGeoch’s ascending riff pushes up beneath them, launching those voices into the sky. This is the song I want to hear the next time a million sparrows burst out of my skull.
1. “Curtain Call” by The Damned
To every critic who dismissed The Damned as the talentless, foolish also-rans in a punk pioneer roster that includes The Clash and The Sex Pistols, I say listen to “Curtain Call” then go fuck yourself. Masterminded by Dave Vanian, “Curtain Call” is a work of true invention and enormous creativity, a monument of creepy ambiance and impeccable pop song craft. It is a harrowing mega-epic that would have gotten The Damned’s punk membership card revoked had they recorded it two years earlier. Jam-loaded with darkly atmospheric verses, deliriously catchy choruses with odd touches of Broadway, a dreamy bridge courtesy of Captain Sensible, a plethora of sound effects and synthesizer experiments, and a shuddering tape loop of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, “Curtain Call” couldn’t be more at odds with punk ethos, yet it’s a spectacular piece of music, one that Damned fans once voted their favorite in a poll on the band’s official site. “Curtain Call” is my absolute favorite way to spend 17 minutes. It’s my favorite songs of the 1980s.
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So where to next? Psychobabble’s 100 favorite songs of the fifties or Psychobabble’s 100 favorite songs of the nineties? Feel free to state your preference in the comments section below.