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

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.

Share This

Connect With Us
This Week's Magazine