(t5!) Tracks Of The 1980s [20 to 1]

As I did for the 2000s and the 1990s, I compiled my favorite 200 songs of the 1980s. Here are the best pioneering raps, jangly guitar rocks, Afrofuturistic funks, white boy souls, grief-stricken post-punks, and karaoke-favorite power ballads of the decade.

#020: Salt-N-Pepa — Push It
1987
from Hot, Cool & Vicious

YouTube

“‘Push It’ is one of those rare songs that gets revived with such frequency that you can still come into contact with it accidentally about as often now as you could when it was first released… Listen to it with fresh ears, though, and ‘Push It’ reveals itself to be a radically out-there song–a razor blade of the ’80s electronic avant garde smuggled into the pop culture mainstream disguised as bubblegum. You’ve heard the song so many times that you probably don’t even remember that half of it is instrumental, just a beat that hovers in some indistinct space between late-’80s rap and late-’80s dance music, and that works equally well when mixed in with Miami freestyle or German industrial.”
 — Pitchfork

“to all the ladies this is the perfect song to play if ya’ll go into labor lol”
 — dj oldskool, YouTube

#019: A-Ha — Take On Me
1984
from Hunting High And Low

YouTube

“The song’s masterfully infectious synth riff, sampled back to glory by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera in 2013’s ‘Feel This Moment,’ would be enough to secure it a spot on any list of ’80s classics. But ‘Take On Me’ is also distinguished by Harket’s improbably octave-spanning vocals, whose seeming effortlessness has inspired countless screeching karaoke wipeouts.”
 — Time Out

“Makes me want to jog in a goofy fashion.”
 — MLPFiM Kohei Tanaka, YouTube

#018: Madonna — Like A Prayer
1989
from Like A Prayer

YouTube

“Written toward the end of an abusive marriage, ‘Like a Prayer’ sees Madonna assume a pose of surrender. Its gospel triumph comes only from its embrace of absolute darkness — ‘everyone must stand alone,’ she sings into the emptiness. Then she’s falling from the sky, calling to God, or really just any power that will listen. She’s singing from her own rock bottom, waiting for someone — anyone — to carry her back up to the top.”
 — Pitchfork

“I-C-O-N-I-C”
 — Nilson Ferreira, YouTube

#017: Michael Jackson — Thriller
1983
from Thriller

YouTube

“The famous and theatrical music video with its groovy zombie dancers and cinematic heft certainly overshadowed the song it was there to support, but what always comes through about this epic track is a giddy sense of fun. Oh, for the days when Jackson had and utilized a sense of humor. But the other extraordinary thing about this tune is how much it succeeds as a piece of pop culture excess (Vincent Price, anyone?) far larger than its musical qualities.”
 — Thought Co.

“Not even Halloween, I just love this song! 😋”
 — Moved to Top Hatty, YouTube

#016: Cyndi Lauper — Girls Just Want To Have Fun
1983
from She’s So Unusual

YouTube

“‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is one of those songs you’ve heard so many times that the actual music is as invisible as the color of your front door, that insouciant riff as instantly recognizable as golden arches on a highway. Blanking out its brutally insistent dazzle — which, like a 24-hour charity cheerleading marathon, does not quit — may be an act of self-preservation. But that’s the point: ‘Girls’ digs in, stubborn as glitter, Lauper’s piercing voice scoring your spine. She and her backing singers are bratty and full of want, refusing prettiness and permission. That pointillist synth that dots the mid-section might as well be a chorus of Dubble Bubble orbs popping in the faces of anyone who would deny them these simple, profound joys.”
 — Pitchfork

“I’m a bloke….I’m straight….why am I here? Meh, it’s catchy, who cares?”
 — ElAshtonio, YouTube

#015: Starship — Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now
1987
from No Protection

YouTube

“Seriously, who among us (who was ‘of age’ in the 80s) didn’t have this as ‘our song’ with our significant other? (We better not see any of you raising your hands.) After all, it’s the quintessential tale of bucking the system and going full-steam ahead with your relationship, even when the whole world is trying to get you down. If that doesn’t describe every teenage romance ever, then we’re missing something.”
 — Best Of The 80s

“Sublime and uplifting.”
 — Spirit Angelfish, YouTube

#014: Liquid Liquid — Cavern
1983
from Optimo [EP]

YouTube

“Liquid Liquid is responsible for arguably the most well-known bass line and sampling in hip hop history. Their most recognized song, “Cavern,” was used as the backing track to Grandmaster Mell Mel’s 1983 single “White Lines (Don’t Do It).”
 — Soundtrack of the ‘80s

“that bassline cups your balls ever so gently..”
 — Adam S Taylor, YouTube

Heard in
25th Hour (2002)
Chef

#013: Prince And The Revolution — When Doves Cry
1984
from Purple Rain

YouTube

“This is a strange, singular song; it’s the best marriage of pop instinct and weird, experimental energy in Prince’s discography, which is saying something given he’s had over 30 years to write a worthy successor. It contains his multitudes, every major aspect of his musical being: the shredding guitar god, the Minneapolis funk wizard, the deliberately queer provocateur, the magnetic sexual force, the vocalist poised on the verge of ecstasy. It’s a visionary act from a musical auteur — Prince wrote and recorded all of the parts himself after the rest of Purple Rain was finished — but its biggest innovation sprang from a conversation, and it’s credited to a band. Without a bassline it hangs in the air, shimmering, like an invitation to a purple palace in the sky.”
 — Pitchfork

“I just want you to know you just made a 6' 4” 245lb man cry thank you”
 — Dee Long, YouTube

#012: Queen and David Bowie — Under Pressure
1981
from Hot Space

YouTube

“If anything, ‘Under Pressure’ was something of a victory lap for a pair of ’70s glam-rock veterans coming off of successful incursions into the post-disco, new-waved landscape of ’80s pop — Bowie with Scary Monsters, Queen with The Game. But while its foundational, Vanilla Ice-spawning bassline heeds the most valuable lesson of the latter album — i.e., that John Deacon is Queen’s secret weapon — ‘Under Pressure’ feels all the more like a special, lightning-in-a-bottle moment for sounding very little like anything Bowie was producing at the time, nor like much else on Hot Space, the funk-influenced Queen album where this one-off single eventually took up residence.”
 — Pitchfork

“David Bowie + Freddie = perfection”
 — ANL092396YouTube

#011: Tom Tom Club — Genius Of Love
1981
from Tom Tom Club

YouTube

“Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were the rhythm section for the Talking Heads; as the bassist and drummer, respectively, for the most rhythmically curious punk band in the scene as well as husband and wife, they shared a lot of common interests. Chris Blackwell, the A&R for Island records who was responsible for signing Rakim and for bringing reggae into the United States with The Harder They Come, encouraged the pair to record a song based off their love of Zapp’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’. Like that song, ‘Genius of Love’ is giddy, onomatopoetic, a groove where every sound feels like the walk-on cameo from a different cartoon character.”
 — Pitchfork

“OG’s used to hit the C Walk to this joint”
 — OCM Kee, YouTube

#010: The Cure — Bizarre Love Triangle
1986
from Brotherhood

YouTube

“True enough that New Order were one of the most melancholy of the New Wave pop bands, which may be the key to their endurance — one of their most rapture-inducing songs is a paean to the pleasure of confusion and the inscrutability of happiness in the face of indecision. It’s also one of the most romantic-sounding songs ever dedicated to a sense of inertia.”
 — Pitchfork

“Last night was a surreal experience. We were driving home in the dense and thick fog while this song was playing, and the aesthetics made everything look like a dream.”
 — bobagazer, YouTube

#009: The Cure — In Between Days
1985
from The Head On The Door

YouTube

“One of the great pop songs from the 1980s, ‘In Between Days’ has the Cure concocting an irresistible combination of musical elements for an undeniably energetic single: danceability and emotion, organic and acoustic instruments with synthesized textures, ebullience, love, desperation, and regret. The beat is insistent, the bass and guitar lines slinky, the melody infectious, hummable, and a bit sad. The song is for those who like the bitter with the sweet and who are capable of dancing, feeling, thinking, and singing at the same time.”
 — AllMusic

“Happy but sad song”
 — Aegis 9929, YouTube

#008: Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick — La Di Da Di
1985
from The Show/La Di Da Di [12"]

YouTube

“The line on Slick Rick is that he’s one of hip-hop’s great storytellers, a guy who realized the narrative possibilities of the medium and constructed songs with plots where one action followed from the next. And ‘La Di Da Di’, his breakthrough song with human beatbox Doug E. Fresh, is without question a fine example of his writerly talent… With this song, he invented a kind of tuneful rapping in which a spoken phrase could become a melodic hook at any moment.”
 — Pitchfork

“Good lord, never knew so many songs used this as a sample.”
 — BaoZakeruga, YouTube

#007: Tears For Fears — Everybody Wants To Rule The World
1985
from Songs From The Big Chair

YouTube

“It was Tears for Fears Lite™, all their ennui and maddened disdain filtered through a beat you could actually dance to. And underneath the synth-pop sheen, its vague message, a snide lesson in how power-hungry society could be, reached Reagan and Thatcher-era youth fed up with political greed.”
 — Pitchfork

“Am I the only one that obsesses with how amazing the guitar sounds? ❤❤ love it!”
 — Daniel Ovares, YouTube

#006: U2 — Where The Streets Have No Name
1987
from The Joshua Tree

YouTube

“…its insistent, propulsive rhythmic drive and anthemic chorus eventually earned the song its status as part of the uppermost echelon of the band’s repertoire, and an enduring fan favorite.”
 — AllMusic

“Must be a nightmare for the Postman.”
 — Dave johnson, YouTube

#005: Prince And The Revolution — Purple Rain
1984
from Purple Rain

YouTube

“‘Purple Rain’ was released into a climate where Prince was known as an R&B artist but had ideas that expanded on the gospel roots of soul and the flamboyance of synthesizers. And so he wrote a brazen homily for the future of music, using a wistful guitar riff, floor-to-ceiling drums, dulcet swells of string and organ, and an indomitable two-word hook meant to be sung by a chorus, a room, an arena full of people. But it’s the sweltering guitar solo — so good it still moves people to tears — that brought the song into the upper echelon of stadium ballads. Purple Rain, the album and the film, were the magic results of Prince’s limitless imagination and bridged an invisible aural divide, premised on race, that, up until that point, only Michael Jackson had truly managed to transcend. And ‘Purple Rain’ the song is where it all came together in majestic fashion.
 — Pitchfork

“Purple Rain changed my life.”
 — Thomas Roth, YouTube

#004: The Smiths — There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
1986
from The Queen Is Dead

YouTube

“The Smiths mirrored our unguarded states, those dark nights spent staring at the ceiling. ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ sounds like a slogan embroidered on a pillow you’d find in some dusty bed and breakfast, but Morrissey imbued the phrase with vitality. He sings like someone holding on, even as he’s on the verge of collapse; the music is graceful yet firm, accentuated by a stirring synthetic string section. (Despite being a song where the singer moans about wanting to die in a car crash, it sounds excellent from inside a car.) There’s a moment of stunning humility in the lyrics, when the narrator imagines his death coming in a darkened underpass before ‘a strange fear’ grips him, and he realizes he wants to live. Many songs are written from a depressed point of view, but few navigate the ontological breakthrough with such subtlety.”
 — Pitchfork

“My wife and I walked down the aisle at our wedding to this song!”
 — Phil McCrackenn, YouTube

#003: Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five — The Message
1982
from The Message

YouTube

“Many of the same city streets lied undeveloped, little more than piles of rubble from dilapidated buildings and tenacious weeds snaking through the devastation, as indelicate urban planning shuttled the rich out of the city and folded the impoverished into cubbyhole apartments. Out of that wreckage, too, bloomed hip-hop. It was both an escape from the perils of an unsafe city and a method of speaking to them. The greatest early expression of hip-hop’s twin power as dance music and social commentary is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’.”
 — Pitchfork

“The tune that changed Rap from Party ‘sugar Hill’style to a form of Social Commentary and hence a serious form of music. Greatest rap tune of all time”
 — Damien Richards, YouTube

#002: New Order — Ceremony
1981
from Ceremony [7"]

YouTube

“The song plays like it’s wearing a leash, with each ‘oh I’ll break them down, no mercy shown,’ chorus disobeying the rest of the track’s peace. And there’s a tedious, muted quality that feels mechanical; no riff, drum-kick, or cold Sumner-does-Curtis utterance overpowers any other part of the song, each note occupying the same amount of silence.”
 — Pitchfork

“Thanks for your solid drum work, Steven 
Thanks for letting me hear a bass like I never did before, Hookie 
Thanks for playing the guitar like only you can, Bernard 
Thanks for everything you wrote Ian.”
 — Nick Theisen, YouTube

#001: Talking Heads — This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
1983
from Speaking In Tongues

YouTube

“‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ was an aberration for the Talking Heads. It was more of an exercise in understated musical hypnosis than polyrhythmic, Kuti-quoting funk, well-compressed instead of bursting at the seams, and (in its abashed way) it was a full-blown love song.

In the process of stripping down, Talking Heads showcased something at the root of their art: David Byrne’s inimitable gift for melody, and his unique ability to make every musical figure seem both familiar and tied directly to the lyrical thought (see ‘I feel numb…born with a weak heart/ I guess I must be having fun’). Is there a better moment of catharsis in a pop then the song’s final eureka realization, after Byrne gets whacked with the monolithic spiritual hammer and awakes from a life-encompassing daze into unexpected stability? There’s nothing to narrow his eyes at anymore: ‘Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head/ Aaoooh, aaooh, aaooh, aaoooh.’ For a band rarely given to addressing issues of the heart head-on, ‘Naive Melody’ remains an unexpected and peerless achievement.”
 — Pitchfork

“I love those warped glissando notes. That wiggly bar on the side of all keyboards instantly creates 80s music lol”
 — nyk31, YouTube