Whatever you thought of the fashion, the 80s fuelled some absolute bangers.
Ah, the 80s. Whether you were donning your finest spandex and getting tiddly on Cinzano or putting on the leathers and devil-fingering to Guns’n’Roses, it’ll still go down as the most diverse, eclectic and extravagant decade in recent cultural history. We had New Order and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, U2, Prince and Cyndi Lauper, Springsteen, INXS, Bananarama, Duran Duran and the list goes on. Here, however, we whittle down a decade of societal decadence and political decay into the 100 tracks that defined it. Words: Ben Hewitt, Matthew Horton, Priya Elan.
Simon was in rare form on the title track on his pivotal 86 album. Contemplating his life post- divorce from Carrie Fisher, the song meshed afro-pop with his wonderfully literate, singer/songwriter songwriting style and the results were typically unforgettable. One could only imagine who the “human trampoline” was though.
99. ‘Straight To Hell’
Always a brilliant lyric writer, Joe Strummer’s narrative thrust on ‘Straight To Hell’ was multi-dimensional. Here the punk poet tackled Vietnam, immigration and gentrification. It was a musical tour de force too, combining ska, lovers rock and more into a cyclone of musical genre splicing – another example of The Clash mixing it all up to create something brilliant and new.
98 ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’
Produced by Stock, Aitken And Waterman, ‘You Spin Me Round’ spun a new disco web around Pete Burns’ catty vocal style. It would be Dead Or Alive’s only real hit, but the influence of the disco/pop hybrid would cast a shadow over the late 80s charts in the form of S/A/W’s work with Jason/Kylie/Rick Astley etc.
97. ‘Where Is My Mind?’
Written by Frank Black after he went scuba diving, the track landed in the middle of ‘Surfer Rosa’ in all its wild, wind swept glory, anchored by Kim Deal’s ‘Ooh-Woo’’s and a simple guitar riff. Both of which allowed Frank Black to emote over the top, going batshit in the vocal department.
96. ‘Enola Gay’
Named after the American plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ‘Enola Gay’ married Andy McClusky’s brilliantly quizzical vocal and placed OMD’s unstoppable mesh of synths and programmed beats front and centre to create a pop classic. Alongside Depeche Mode, OMD helped fly the flag for forward-looking British electro pop in the 80s.
This brilliant, stately number was written by Elvis Costello as a much needed protest track against the Falklands war. Penned from the perspective of ship workers in Britain at the time of the 1982 war, it was a bold message of non-compliance. Chet Baker’s mournful trumpet solo – thought to be his last recorded performance – also added gravitas to the track.
94. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’
Written for the film Mannequin by Albert Hammond Jr’s dad (really!) after a messy break up, this was a soft rock anthem which remained atop of the UK singles charts for weeks and weeks. And until Cher came along with ‘Believe’, it made co-vocalist Grace Slick the oldest female singer to ever have a Number One hit.
93. ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’
Poised between staying or leaving both The Clash and girlfriend Ellen Foley, Mick Jones’s lyrics were appropriately propulsive. Mixing a punk sneer with rockabilly aggression, this track strutted into the mainstream, following the blast of ‘Rock The Casbah’ and managing to show what a diverse and eclectic bunch the quartet had grown into. From the squall of 1977’s ‘White Riot’ to this 1982 parting shot.
Penned by Christine McVie about new husband Eddie Quintela, it was McVie doing what she did best; a simple song about the joys of new love. Lindsey Buckingham’s typically progressive production covered the song in a glossy 80s sheen, and would lead to another massive hit for the band from their monolithic ‘Tango In The Night’ album.
91. ‘Need You Tonight’
Andrew Farris came up with this distinctive rock funk hybrid which would later be described as a cross between Prince and something created by Keith Richards. The sparsity of the music was a new direction for the band as were the bare, sexual lyrics, but it would provide them with their breakthrough track and cast singer Michael Hutchence as a heartthrob.
90. ‘Velocity Girl’
It wasn’t just a key song in the C86 tape movement, it was a key moment in Primal Scream’s career. ‘Velocity Girl’ was a great slice of vintage eighties jangle pop – a style and sound that the band would distance themselves from with ‘Screamadelica’ , but from the teen-misfit of the title to the energized bolt of the music, this was a perfect moment of 80s indie Britpop.
89. ‘French Kiss’
The Triple X-rated nature of this track should not overshadow how absolutely vital it was to the nascent commercial dance scene. It would later become a building block of the ever-influential Chicago House movement. Perhaps its key trick was the slowing down/speeding up of the track mid song. A club anthem on a par with its natural predecessor, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.
88. ‘Atlantic City’
As a storyteller, Springsteen is unsurpassed and so it was with 1982’s ‘Atlantic City’, with this particular tale pairing a musical sparseness with lyrical complexity. Filled with subtle references to the Mafia and the dangerous side of Vegas, it centered on the story of two young lovers on the run, which gave the track an added resonance.
Originally penned as an attempt to re-create the disco thrust of ‘Heart Of Glass’, with ‘Atomic’ Debbie Harry and keyboardist Jimmy Destri actually created something that was stranger still. Mixing spaghetti western guitar parts, a circular bass solo and lyrics that suggested complete nuclear annihilation, it was one of Blondie’s most experimental and jaw dropping singles.
86. ‘House Of Fun’
Originally called ‘The Chemist Façade’, Madness’ most ridiculously happy tune was actually about the horror of going to the pharmacy to buy condoms for the first time. Appropriately enough, the song was anchored by some bright ska rhythms, Suggs’ nervy vocal style and a general sense of mischievousness which pervaded everything.
A brooding soul number that quaked with emotional turmoil, Cecil and Linda Womack’s biggest song was perhaps one of the saddest duets of all time, connecting a loss of rhythm with a loss of love. It would prove a natural fit for The xx ,who memorably covered the song years later.
84. ‘Tainted Love’
A Number one in 17 countries, Marc Almond and Dave Ball stepped out the British avant-garde synthpop scene to produce something that was a pure pop statement of intent. The drama of Almond’s delivery went perfectly with the chilly brooding synth lines Ball had crafted. Their career would sidestep into darker territories subsequently, but this was their flushed, pop peak.
83. ‘Sit Down’
Written by Tim Booth during a period of feeling isolated, the anthemic qualities of the track were picked up by students everywhere, as James became part of the Madchester scene and the legend of ‘Sit Down’ grew and grew. The youthful, Smiths-ian lyrics tapped into the universal sense of questioning that everyone could relate to. It became their trademark song, and for good reason.
82. ‘She Bangs The Drums’
‘She Bangs The Drums’ saw the Roses tipping their caps to the ephemeral moments one has with a new sweetheart, with John Squire later comparing it to “staying up til dawn and watching the sun come up with someone you love.” The penetrating bass, and the ‘endless summer’ vibe of the music, expressed these emotions with perfect eloquence.
Depending on what mood Dave Lee Roth was in, the charismatic vocalist used to tell journalists that ‘Jump’ was either about a man standing on a ledge about to… or a stripper. Whatever the truth was, it gave them their first US Number One and successfully managed to reinvent Van Halen as a synth-using pop rock band who weren’t afraid of massive, massive hooks.
80. ‘Theme From S’Express’
Pivotal in its use of samples, Mark Moore borrowed from songs by the likes of Gil Scott Heron, Debbie Harry and Stacey Q for this acid house banger. Of course, like all the best songs created from samples, it stood alone as a brilliant disco-dance number.
79. ‘Time After Time’
Touching upon the breakdown of the relationship with her boyfriend/manager, ‘Time After Time’ was a change in tack for Lauper, whose musical persona had previously been unstoppably light and frothy. ‘Time After Time’ was demoed quickly in time for inclusion on her debut ‘She’s So Unusual’, and ended up being a key song for both Lauper’s career and the decade itself.
78. ‘We Care A Lot’
Faith No More’s blend of shuddering riffs and funk/pop tunefulness mixed playful absurdity with a knowing sense of drama. By the time ‘We Care A Lot’ smashed onto the radio, it ushered in a new wave of anti- poser, alternative metal that didn’t live or die on the number of virgins that had been sacrificed the evening before.
77. ‘The Magic Number’
With ‘Three Feet High And Rising’, De La Soul’s pivotal rap album, the trio ushered in the Daisy Age- a touchy-feely era which contrasted with the harder, more gansta rap elements in the scene. Here, they struck gold with this searching, rap-pop gem which sampled ‘Multiplication Rock’.
76. ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’
Originally offered to a host of artists including Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders and Billy Idol, it fell to Simple Minds to take this track and turn it into Top 40 gold on both sides of the Atlantic. As the theme song to pivotal 80s teen drama The Breakfast Club, it found its deeper meaning within the story lines of the disenfranchised youngsters in the flick.
75. ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’
Dead Kennedys’ ode to liquor-induced floppiness may be crude, lewd and gloriously dumb, but it’s not just puerile gags about brewer’s droop. Instead, it’s a celebration of debauchery, a whirlwind of sludgy guitars and tongue-in-cheek jokes about lackluster blowjobs. And, to top it all off, it ends with the sound of someone puking their guts out – always the sign of a killer party.
74. ‘Rip It Up’
Edwyn Collins and co bagged their first, and last, Top 10 hit when ‘Rip It Up’ was released as a single – and it’s easy to see why. Ditching their chugging guitar sound of yore for funkier pastures was a brave move, but the lyrics were still unmistakably Collins: a finely-observed tale of tongue-tied ineptitude and lovelorn regret that made for a perfect slice of sophisticated pop.
73. ‘Hit The North’
One of the finest examples of Mark E Smith’s musical mantra of “Repetition, repetition, repetition”, as The Fall’s curmudgeonly ringmaster incessantly shrieks the chorus over the off-kilter hook of a honking horn. For most bands, this song would be amongst the weirdest in their arsenal; it’s testament to The Fall’s bizarre brilliance that it’s one of their most straightforward.
72. ‘Rock The Casbah’
The Clash didn’t always need anger to pen a canny political song. Supposedly inspired by real-life reports of Iranians being flogged for owning forbidden CDs, Joe Strummer knocked up a farcical fantasy of pilots ignoring orders to bomb the transgressors and crank up the volume on their cockpit radios instead. If only every attempt to tackle strife in the Middle-East were as joyous as this.
71. ‘Under Pressure’
Two of rock’s biggest behemoths joined forces as Bowie and Freddie Mercury belted out a big, show-off collaborative anthem. Away from the titanic egos, though, John Deacon proffered one of pop music’s most iconic basslines (though there’s some controversy over whether he wrote it, or Bowie did). Let’s just forget that it was unforgivably plundered by Vanilla Ice at the turn of the 90s.
70. ‘Road To Nowhere’
Legend has it that Talking Heads’ main man David Byrne only added the choral intro to ‘Road To Nowhere’ because he thought the track was too simple. He’s talking gibberish, surely: the slow-burn beginning is fantastic, true, but the whole ruddy song – with its balmy organ waltz and irrepressible feel-good factor – is the sound of Talking Heads at their most wonderfully accessible.
69. ‘Master Of Puppets’
James Hetfield claimed this was about how taking shitloads of drugs makes it impossible to function as a normal human being – whodathunkit! – but it’s hard to glean such subtleties when you’re being battered with a heavy metal sledgehammer. It’s not just furious thrashing, though – the lengthy instrumental breakdown, which kicks in halfway through, is evidence of four dudes at the top of their game.
68. ‘Teen Age Riot’
One of the greatest songs from one of the greatest albums (‘Daydream Nation’) by one of alternative music’s greatest bands, ‘Teen Age Riot’ is essentially one awesome track split in two: a woozy, otherworldly intro featuring Kim Gordon’s ghostly spoken-word poetry, and then a belting, high-octane guitar riff that ushers in Thurston Moore’s yelped vocal.
Nowadays, the video looks at best naff and at worst a bit pervy, as Simon Le Bon and co hop aboard a speedboat and whip out their binoculars to ogle some bikini-clad beauties. But Arctic Monkeys didn’t namecheck ‘Rio’ in ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ for naught – they knew that, despite the horrowshow haircuts, it’s still one of the sexiest and sunniest synthpop singles of the 80s.
66. ‘With Or Without You’
Now that they’re the punchline to a million stadium-rock sized jokes, it’s easy to forget what made everyone first fall in love with U2 many moons ago – namely, big ol’ emotional rock ballads like this. Plucked from their colossal album ‘The Joshua Tree’, its combination of shimmering, sheeny production and Bono’s walloping vocals saw them rightfully claim their place in rock’s big leagues.
65. ‘White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’
As the cast of Grange Hill would prove later in the decade, it’s nigh-on impossible to sing an anti-drugs song without sounding like a bit of a berk. All the more kudos to hip-hop pioneer Melle Mel, then, who used the catchiest of R&B grooves and street-smart rhymes to make the whole Just Say No message sound a lot more exciting than it had any right to be.
64. ‘About A Girl’
Nirvana became one of the biggest bands on the planet in the 90s, but Kurt Cobain was already proving himself as a master craftsmen before that. Inspired by his ex-girlfriend, this is a ramshackle mixture of sweetness and snarkiness – for all its honeyed harmonies, there’s enough bite to Cobain’s lyrics to suggest it’s not just a simpering, doe-eyed declaration of love.
63. ‘Never Let Me Down Again’
How many bands could get away with lyrics as daft as “Promise me I’m safe as houses/ As long as I remember who’s wearing the trousers”? Yet with 1987’s ‘Music For The Masses’, Depeche Mode were in a rich vein of form, and ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ is one of their very finest: an ink-blotted masterpiece, from the gloomy synths right down to Dave Gahan’s molasses-rich vocal.
62. ‘Can’t Be Sure’
If only all debut singles were as self-assured as The Sundays’ inaugural bow. The first taster from their ‘Reading, Writing And Arithmetic’ LP is a lovely breeze of jangling indie-pop reminiscent of Johnny Marr’s work with The Smiths, but singer Harriet Wheeler’s remarkable set of pipes – with her ethereal, wistful whisper – ensured they had a sound entirely of their own.
61. ‘The Whole Of The Moon’
Supposedly written by frontman Mike Scott on the back of an envelope to show-off to his girlfriend, ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ is undoubtedly The Waterboys’ definitive track – a moon-soaked ditty that’s full of dreamy, wide-eyed wonder. A pretty nifty way of trying to impress your other half, that.
60 ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’
We could talk about Axl’s screeching vocal, of course, but there’s only one real reason why ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is beloved of so many air-guitar aficionados, and that’s Slash – both with the lurching arpeggios of his intro and the subsequent face-melting, wah-wah-wanking solo that’s amongst the best fretwork of all time.
59. ‘Run To The Hills’
A song about the colonization of Native Americans in the New World could have been as dreary and sanctimonious as fuck, but Iron Maiden spit in the face of anyone who dare call them preachy. Instead, ‘Run To The Hills’ is an adrenaline-fuelled rush of conflict, all galloping drums and hammer-blow guitars that makes the blood-thump of battle ring in your ears.
58. ‘Beat Dis’
A sampling masterpiece from Bomb The Bass, aka producer Tim Simenon, who lays down an explosive foundation of bowel-slackening beats before weaving in random snippets of sound from, amongst others, Thunderbirds and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly over the top. Knitting together so many disconnected sounds could have sounded haphazard and slapdash; instead, it’s impressively seamless and skilful.
57. ‘Pretty In Pink’
John Hughes’ classic teen flick gave ‘Pretty In Pink’ a new lease of life five years after its initial release – and also spurred the Furs into re-recording a fluffier, more radio-friendly version of the track, too – but it’s the jagged original that still sounds best, with Steve Lilywhite’s visceral production lending a dark edge to the strop-pop guitars.
56. ‘Back To Life’
A slinky, sexy R&B number that pissed a load of people off when they bought Soul II Soul’s debut LP ‘Club Classics Vol. One’ and discovered the album only had an a cappella version of the track. In fairness, it’s not hard to understand their gripe – as soulful as Caron Wheeler’s vocal was, it’s the steely, condensed-breath production of Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper that’s its real calling-card.
55. ‘Pacific State’
The genius of Graham Massey and his Manchester raveheads was to take the standard building blocks of techno and house, before twisting and molding them into something else entirely. And so it was with ‘Pacific State’, a mixture of sexy saxaphone skronking and brain-burrowing bass so relentless it could worm its way into your noggin and stay there forever more.
54. ‘Two Tribes’
‘Two Tribes’ was the follow-up to the censor-baiting ‘Relax’, but it was a monster hit in its own right – even though it didn’t induce the same foaming-mouth fury as its predecessor, it still topped the UK charts for nine weeks. Holly Johnson still wasn’t playing it safe, marrying lyrics about the Cold War to the foreboding march of a keyboard being bashed to within an inch of its life.
53 ‘Just Like Heaven’
Robert Smith aims solely at the heartstrings with a gorgeous, gilt-edged guitar line and some of his most unabashedly starry-eyed and soppy lyrics to date. The purists may grumble it lacks the blackened romanticism of The Cure at their most cutting edge, but it’s nice to hear old Bob sounding so utterly besotted – even if his paramour does, admittedly, go AWOL by the time he’s done.
52. ‘The River’
Splutters into life with the wheezing strains of a dusty harmonica before exploding into a full-blown yarn of a dwindling country economy in which times are hard and work is scarce to find. Yet there’s something about The Boss’s masculine-yet-balmy vocal that’s immensely comforting; dreams are dashed, the river runs dry, but somehow, everything is gonna be alright.
51. ‘Going Underground’
A worthy first UK Number One for Messr Weller, ‘Going Underground’ will forever be one of The Jam’s finest cuts. Propelled by war-hammer drums and the bomb-like stomp of him thwacking his guitar, it also has some of the Modfather’s finest lyrics to boot as its righteous damnation of the Government’s nukes-over-society policy cemented his place as one of the UK’s greatest social commentators.
50 ‘Pump Up The Volume’
Naturally, the song that broke sampling into the UK mainstream was a collaboration between two obscure 4AD bands and a couple of DJs. This surreal mix – Colourbox and AR Kane, Dave Dorrell and CJ Mackintosh – produced a record that was clever enough to woo the purists, pop enough to top the singles charts and cheeky enough to get torpedoed by a writ from Stock Aitken Waterman.
49. ‘You Made Me Realise’
Years ahead of the shoegazing scene that desecrated then tranquilised his style, Kevin Shields was building walls of noise that played around with the very concept of tempo and sound. Yeah, that important. ‘You Made Me Realise’ is a pop song in essence, but around the hooks and riffs it’s a feat in discombobulation that’ll leave you dizzy whether you’ve packed your earplugs or not.
48. ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’
Between the 1986 vaudeville funk of ‘Parade’ and the following year’s state of the cosmos address, Prince had ditched The Revolution – in name at least – and set about taking full credit for his new clear-eyed vision. Still groovy as a hepcat, ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ is stripped back like Sly Stone’s ‘Family Affair’; all the better to focus on a lyric that bemoans drug addiction, HIV and the damned space race.
47. ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’
Grace Jones’s fusion of funk and reggae, a perfect blend for the Island label, was smoothed considerably by rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who slipped comfortably into the musical melting pot of the new wave scene. They create the fluid slink here that allows Jones to prowl around, generally intimidating everyone with dirty car-pun come-ons. She intends to “blow your horn“. Obviously.
46. ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’
Quite a sweet chorus for a Pixies song, really, but nicely offset by some deranged Black Francis screaming about “GOD is seven!“. All that “If the devil is six…” business was supposedly a jumbled reference to Hebrew numerology, a truly apocalyptic slant to the rest of ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ which has more immediate environmental concerns. Whatever the message, it was a big chart breakthrough.
45. ‘The Boys Of Summer’
Step past Don Henley and cohorts’ opulent 80s AOR production and there’s a song with a message here. And that message is “Don’t look back/ You can never look back“. Whatever happened to the hippie dream? What’s a Deadhead sticker doing on the back of some posh Cadillac? Ex and future Eagle Henley has lost his lover and his direction, but hey – there’s still a lot of cash to be made.
44. ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’
On his second solo single after becoming an ex-Smith, Morrissey’s still happily at home with the dour, world-weary stuff but this time he’s calling for seaside Armageddon to a gorgeous, classic melody. It’s all drenched in strings, nostalgia and pathos as Moz starts filling up about greased tea and grey proms, spooning on the melodrama until we’re all remembering miserable holidays in the English rain.
43 ‘Hounds Of Love’
The title track from Kate Bush’s comeback album (after only three years away – those were the days) is a hearty rush of passion, a headlong tribute to the unfettered impulses of love, heavy on the drums and swooping on the strings. “Here I go!” she shouts, unable to control herself, and you’re whipped up with lust alongside her.
42. ‘Word Up’
Cameo had been around for donkey’s years, even occasionally sidling into the UK charts with the ultra-smooth funk of ‘She’s Strange’ and ‘Single Life’, but it took an enormous red codpiece and silly twang to make Larry Blackmon a true star. Landing somewhere between Parliament, hip-hop and spaghetti western, ‘Word Up’ is a ridiculous stew of pop madness that just worked, all the way to No.3 in the hit parade.
41. ‘Come On Eileen’
Soured by vast overexposure at weddings and school discos, Kevin Rowland’s raggle-taggle hymn to a sepia past – and unseemly plea to cop a feel – is still an extraordinary fiesta of celtic soul. It shifted a million copies here to become 1982’s biggest selling single, then dosey doed over to America the next year to repeat the feat. Imagine a world where everyone rushed out to buy a brainstorm like this.
The one that got the Mondays on Top Of The Pops is a far cry from the sequenced beats of ‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills And Bellyaches’ that established them as baggy chiefs. ‘Hallelujah’ is a mess in the fine tradition of ‘Bummed’, a dirty loping funk held together with sticking plasters and – in all probability – Shaun Ryder’s “junk”. Sorry. It’s still amazing, obviously.
39. ‘The Killing Moon’
The Bunnymen’s lasting classic has a Hollywood ending – an appearance in 2001’s Donnie Darko that introduced them to a legion of new fans. Its air of mystery slotted handily into the film, but Ian McCulloch knew he had a belter on his hands from the moment he woke up one morning with the chorus already in his head. It opened new vistas for the band, making them the stars they always knew they were.
38. ‘Walk This Way’
Hip-hop’s biggest ticket to the mainstream came when Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith broke down that wall in the ‘Walk This Way’ video, busting taboos and blurring the line between rap and rock. Who were the rock’n’roll rebels now? The ageing Toxic Twins or those chaps in the laceless Adidas? Clue: not the ones who were going to start recording power ballads with their daughters in the video.
37. ‘Back In Black’
Now that’s what we call a comeback. AC/DC’s first album after the death of original singer Bon Scott proved none of that fire had gone out, and the title track was the purest example. Over one of Angus Young’s crunchiest riffs, new screecher Brian Johnson doffs his cap to his predecessor and spits “I’m back in black!” with the gusto it deserves. The peak of AC/DC’s lithe, fat-free years.
36. ‘The One I Love’
For better or worse, ‘The One I Love’ was REM’s big push through the commercial barriers, a US top 10 hit transforming them in one fell swoop from floppy-haired college radio darlings to bald-bonced plane-trashing heroes of the glossy monthlies. There were still good records to be made but this straddles the eras, anthemic but nasty with enough of a whiff of the underground to keep the early adopters on board.
35. ‘Straight Outta Compton’
Obviously hip-hop’s evolved, got madder, got badder, got blander since 1988 – but let’s not forget NWA’s impact. Gangsta rap was still shocking, before we got all blasé about guns, hoes and all that juice, and NWA pulled no punches, with Ice Cube, Eazy-E and the rest giving it both barrels. Throw in Dre’s frightening production and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was a threat people took seriously.
34. ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’
Heavens, is that Morrissey being romantic? “To die by your side/ Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine” bears the hallmarks of classic Moz – overdoing it a bit, laying on the language – but there’s an unmistakable poignancy here. Some think it’s about him and Johnny Marr, pals forever as they fall under a 10-ton truck, but it’s probably just a fantasy unfurling around the soaring strings.
33. ‘Like A Prayer’
Though, these days, a cape trip is about the height of Madge’s tabloid-baiting power, the queen of the pop controversy used to trade in far more eyebrow-raising fare. ‘Like A Prayer’ was her prude-offending Watergate, in which she scandalised the church by cavorting with a black Jesus and doused every scene in more religious imagery than the Vatican. It didn’t harm the song’s prospects that it was a belting pop tune, a welcome return to form after the sub-par tosh of her Who’s That Girl soundtrack efforts.
32. ‘Made Of Stone’
A smash No.90 hit, ‘Made Of Stone’ nevertheless brought the Roses to wider attention, making some waves on the indie chart and encouraging the kids to check out the album that would become their all-time favourite. It’s a Byrdsian jangle with that essential Madchester swagger and bite from Ian Brown’s lyric, later better known for devolving into cries of “Amateurs!” as The Late Show‘s power blew.
Sitting pretty between ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘Blue Monday’ in New Order’s early 80s run of astonishing singles, ‘Temptation’ is about as close as they came to a pop song at that point – there was just too much groundbreaking sonic exploration to get caught up in. It strikes a note of regret, a sense this is the best it’s going to get, but – artistically at least – the truth was far from it.
30. ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’
“The song with no chorus” – that was how the Pet Shop Boys referred to this one on the quiet, but it had a bevy of other assets to offset that. Dusty Springfield for one, still able to invest a song with lovelorn ache with just one husk of her voice. Add to that synthesized horns that actually work and a melody that’s bottled melancholy, and it’s another regal single from Tennant and Lowe.
29. ‘That’s Entertainment’
The Jam were so unstoppable by early 1981 that this scraped the top 20 of the singles chart on import sales alone. Official UK releases were given to the more brassy stuff but ‘That’s Entertainment’ closer represented the soul of The Jam, or at least the soul of Paul Weller. Social comment dressed up in pastoral clothes, there’s a lot of Weller’s future here, and an awful lot about ourselves.
One of the earliest cuts from the Bjork-fronted Sugacubes – and appropriately weird and disturbing to boot. Despite the sweet ‘n’ sugary melody and big, glacial chunks of shimmering guitar, there’s a dark underbelly – the disturbing Lolita-like tale of the romantic frisson between a 5-year-old girl and her would-be suitor, who just so happens to be a 50-year-old bloke. Creepy, but bloody brilliant all the same.
27. ‘Fairytale Of New York’
Can you imagine Christmas without it? Can you imagine Christmas without Shane MacGowan slurring away, Kirsty MacColl double-tracking her own vocals and all your mates bellowing in your face that you’re an “old slut on junk“? It’s become a tin-whistling, string-soaked standard that lost out on the festive No.1 to the mighty Pet Shop Boys but comes back for another crack year after year.
26. ‘Ashes To Ashes’
In which The Dame reaffirmed his chameleonic superpowers and turned into a New Romantic just in time to make it look as if he was inventing New Romanticism (which of course he did, years earlier), even co-opting scenester Steve Strange to appear in the video. As it was, it didn’t matter that he was hitching a ride because the song was perfect – odd, self-referential and as pure pop as he’d never be again.
25. ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’
Who left the kettle on? Public Enemy’s first UK top 20 hit (they never had one of them at home) is as naggingly catchy as any hip-hop smash had to be back in 1988, a relentless squirt of whistles and looped beats absolutely peppered with quotable rhymes and Flavor Flav madness. “No you can’t have it back, silly rabbit!” Flavor tells a journalist robbed of his Dictaphone. That told ’em. Us.
24. ‘Just Like Honey’
Hard to listen to now without getting something in your eye about Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation, ‘Just Like Honey’ revealed there was more to the Reid brothers than devastating shards of noise battling against tinny drums and subterranean vocals. Jim’s vocals are still bottoming out, but some classic ‘Be My Baby’ drums and a hook as clear as a bell open a new JAMC chapter.
23. ‘The Mercy Seat’
As hip-hop and techno set the cultural pace at the close of the 80s there weren’t too many thrills going on in rock, a wasteland of post-MTV excess. Thank sweet Jesus for preacherman Nick Cave, a man with fire in his belly, poetry in his soul and righteous ire fuelling this almost unbearable last-gasp from a doomed man waiting to fry in that “mercy seat“. It builds and builds until you can take no more.
22. ‘Freak Scene’
Dressed in scratchy pre-grunge threads, ‘Freak Scene’ really lies somewhere along the wavy line between The Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ and Pavement’s ‘Summer Babe’, slack as it wants to be but still cute as hell. J Mascis goes hell for leather under waves of pure noise but this is the sweetest shot of ‘friends4ever’ mayhem, an invitation to Lou Barlow to come back before he’d even left.
21. ‘Song To The Siren’
A 4AD supergroup put together by head honcho Ivo Watts-Russell and featuring Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and Liz Fraser, This Mortal Coil took up residence in the indie charts for most of the decade with this spectral cover of Tim Buckley’s earthy ballad. It floats like a butterfly, hovers like a ghost and really narked Guthrie off because it got so much more radio play than any Cocteaus track.
20. ‘Push It’
Extraordinarily, ‘Push It’ started out as a B-side to ‘Tramp’, relegated by a grind around an Otis Redding sample. Everyone saw sense soon enough and this pumping, hollering groove topped charts all over the globe. It’s Spinderella’s record, scratching and diving between the proto-rave synths, while Salt-n-Pepa limit themselves to the occasional quickfire verse.
The song that John Peel played after announcing Ian Curtis’s death is unbearably close and brooding, but allows the occasional shaft of light. Stephen Morris’s pattering drums rouse ‘Atmosphere’ from troubled slumber, while Bernard Sumner’s glittering, chiming keyboards give it a bright beauty. It’s a shimmer that remains even as Curtis grips the microphone with increasing intensity.
18. ‘Billie Jean’
The track that sent ‘Thriller’ interstellar casts Jacko as an unlikely daddy in the dock – far-fetched, but apparently based on a real accusation from a crazed fan. Still, we all know it’s just a chance to air those patented hiccups, brutally stark beats and an immortal bassline from Louis Johnson. Quincy Jones didn’t want the song on the album, which shows what he knows. Quite a lot, but you get the idea.
17. ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’
It’s all about Richie Sambora’s talk box really, isn’t it? The guitarist rescued the tool from mid-70s Peter Frampton ignominy, to give us the “ooh-wa ooh-wah” sound that ate the world. But props, too, to Jon Bon Jovi and Desmond Child for their colossal chorus and some “gritty” blue-collar lyrics straight out of Springsteen for Dummies. Hair metal’s unimpeachable high point.
None of that quiet-loud stuff here – ‘Debaser’ is full throttle throughout, celebrating Black Francis’s new favourite thing, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s surrealist, eyeball-slicing movie Un Chien Andalou. But he didn’t like the sound of “Andalou” so switched it to “Andalusia”. The switch works, as does the mesh of guitars, ringing and scratching, manic as Francis’s delivery.
15. ‘It’s A Sin’
Only Neil Tennant could wedge his tongue so far in his cheek to set a rousing defiance of his Catholic upbringing to hi-NRG opera. ‘It’s A Sin’ is a riot of thunderclaps, chanting monks and villainous synth riffs from Chris Lowe, but that’s only half the story. Although Tennant was not openly gay at this stage, hindsight reveals what that perpetual “sin” was. You cheer him on all the more.
14. ‘This Charming Man’
Where it all got going. The Smiths’ second single succeeded where ‘Hand In Glove’ had failed, piercing the Top 30 and getting a bunch of gladioli on Top Of The Pops. It introduced us to a chap with NHS specs, a superfluous hearing aid and a way with words not heard in British pop since – ooh – Ray Davies? Alongside Moz, Johnny Marr invents the indie jangle and drops metal knives on his Telecaster.
13. ‘April Skies’
JAMC’s second album ‘Darklands’ proved they’d tidied up since the thrilling mess of ‘Psychocandy’. With Bobby Gillespie gone, they’d switched to crisp drum machine beats and ‘April Skies’ was almost conventional in structure. But look at that Jesus Christ pose on the sleeve, listen to the talk of “sacrifice” – there was more going on here, and a killer middle eight to boot.
12. ‘Fools Gold’
The signs had been there in the clattering jam that ended ‘I Am The Resurrection’, but this was still a seismic shift for the Roses. Released as a standalone single following their gargantuan 1989 debut, ‘Fool’s Gold’ saw Ian Brown serve up some mystic baloney while the rest of the band did the heavy lifting – Mani leading the tune, John Squire going all Sly and the Family Stone with his wah-wah licks, and Reni giving a ‘Funky Drummer’ masterclass that rendered all other baggy redundant.
11. ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’
This is Phil talking, and he believes what the old man said. Bizarrely, that “old man” was Lou Reed but that’s the only trace of the past on a supple and deceptively complex slice of synthpop. ‘Love Action’ boasts at least three warring synth riffs – from Ian Burden, Philip Adrian Wright and Jo Callis feeding his guitar through a Roland 700 – each of which could fuel a Top 3 hit by itself.
10. ‘Paid In Full’
Featuring a fistful of samples, this pivotal rap tune would be the foundation of a number of soul numbers including tracks from Soul II Soul and Enigma. But it was Rakim’s brilliantly humble rap that elevated this track into the realms of the truly legendary.
9. ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’
A shiny bauble of pure pop goodness from the fab four. Like the yang to ‘Blue Monday’’s ying, this track was a tripped out love song to a strange relationship. Hooky’s bass was delicate and pounding and Bernard Sumner’s vocal line was deceptively boyish.
8. ‘In Between Days’
A goth love song? What next? Robert Smith’s beautiful slice of pounding acoustic-pop was a surging, multi-tracked work of wonder that continued the band’s run of brilliant singles, following ‘The Love Cats’ and preceding ‘Close To Me’.
7. ‘Buffalo Stance’
‘Buffalo Stance’ came along at a time when dance, hip-hop and pop were creating thrilling hybrids (see also ‘Salt N Pepa’s ‘Push It’ and Tone Loc’s ‘Funky Cold Medina’). Punk survivor Cherry sounded effortlessly in control as she rapped about her crew (based on the very real Buffalo crew), making the listener feel totally part of her world. And what a chorus.
6. ‘When Doves Cry’
Released as the lead single from his seminal Purple Rain album and film, the bass-free ‘When Doves Cry’ was a thing of graceful beauty. A slice of Freudian autography, the deceptively simple music was played by the man himself. A generation uniting number that would alter Prince’s career, confirming his place as a titan of 80s pop.
5. ‘Ghost Town’
Unemployment, social unrest and racial tension powered ‘Ghost Town’, which caught the multi-cultural Specials at a politically febrile moment in time. The people of Britain were “getting angry”, and this was mirrored in the song’s haunting production and sense of dislocation. More than a pop song, this was a brilliant piece of art-as-social-comment.
4 ‘Once In A Lifetime’
Talking Heads and Brian Eno created this most postmodern of tracks. David Byrne’s genius lyric about melting away in suburbia (and the existential crisis that ensues) was one thing. But combining it with a gigantic gospel-tinged chorus the world could sing along to? That was the real master-stroke.
3. ‘How Soon Is Now’
US label boss Seymour Stein said it was “the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of the 80s,” but though ‘How Soon Is Now’ was just as expansive and epic a beast as the Led Zeppelin classic, it beat with a far darker heart. Like nothing else in the Smiths cannon, it paired Morrissey’s most painfully personal lyric (“I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does”) with Marr’s most musically inventive soundscape (he later cited obscure disco songs as influences). The result was indie gold.
2. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’
Released one month before Ian Curtis’ death, NME‘s original review called the song a “tombstone”. It eerily prefigured the future. Curtis’ lyrics read like a suicide note (“There’s a taste in my mouth as desperation takes hold,”) but there’s something weirdly uplifting about the way the song hurtles towards that final chorus.
1. ‘Blue Monday’
Though New Order’s dancefloor fillers were far removed from Joy Division’s bleak nihilism, there was a no nonsense approach to both that united Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris’ two ventures in direct and uncompromising brilliance. ‘Blue Monday’ – the best selling 12″ of all time – was New Order’s peak; a stunning explosion of drum machine beats, infectious hooks and Sumner’s deadpan vocals. Over 30 years later, it’s still unbeatable.