The music of the 1980s remains as enduring as ever, beloved by those who lived through the decade and also by younger fans who tend to look back at the period’s garish excesses with some degree of bemusement. The dawn of MTV helped usher in an exciting era for music defined by flashy videos, outlandish fashion, massive hair, and scores of great singles that cover a vast range of stylistic territory. The sheer number of amazing songs released during the decade made compiling the 50 Greatest Pop Singles a daunting task. Setting specific parameters became a necessity to render the list manageable. All of the songs chosen appeared in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart sometime during the 1980s, and only one song per artist is included. Artistic and cultural significance were both considered. Winnowing the initial list from several hundred candidates involved cuts that were necessarily ruthless and in some cases heartbreaking, but the end result is 50 songs that define a generation.
50. “Love Shack” – The B-52’s (1989)
The B-52s’ “Love Shack” was the party anthem for the fall of ’89, and it’s lost none of its manic charm. A high-energy stomper with audacious vocals by Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider, “Love Shack” is a zany thrill ride. It soared to #3 for two weeks at the end of November, the first time the veteran band’s quirky dance-rock had ever infiltrated the mainstream. It helped power their Cosmic Thing album to sales of over four million copies, by far their biggest success. “Love Shack” is loaded with great one-liners, especially Wilson’s show-stopping “Tin roof! Rusted.” It’s witty, nostalgic and whimsical. It helps that the band, featuring a guest spot by the Uptown Horns, is smokin’ hot, providing a wickedly tight musical backdrop for the vocalists’ outrageous antics. The dynamic energy stirred up in that funky little shack gave rise to two follow-up hits: “Roam” and "The Deadbeat Club.” Chances are, even 26 years later, if you’re at a house party you can still expect to hear “Love Shack” at some point during the evening, and in all likelihood it will inspire an impromptu drunken singalong punctuated by bouts of giddiness.
49. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – Crowded House (1986)
The breakthrough single from the Australian trio’s self-titled debut, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a lush guitar ballad that rose to #2 on the Hot 100. The main hook, “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over,” is the unforgettable anchor that everything else swirls around. The song has an air of dreamy melancholy as Neil Finn contemplates the myriad obstacles to life and love, each with the potential to derail our happiness, the we all confront in different ways. Finn is resolute throughout, repeating “we know they won’t win” at the end of each chorus and, during the finale, ad libbing “don’t let them win” with an increasing sense of determination. His vocal performance is earnest and rich with feeling. The doleful organ, played by producer Mitchell Froom, gives the song an early ‘70s retro feel, especially during the solo that whirs blissfully during the protracted ending. Crowded House’s next single, the acoustic-rocker “Something So Strong,” would be their final Top 40 appearance in America. They continue to release excellent albums, the most recent being 2010’s Intriguer, but “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is that once-in-a-lifetime classic for which they’ll always be remembered.
48. “Africa” – Toto (1982)
Toto IV, released in April 1982, is the band’s commercial pinnacle. The rock ballad “Rosanna” spent five weeks at #2 during the summer, and then the epic third single, “Africa,” became Toto’s only #1 when it punched through for a week in February 1983. The loping rhythm upon which the track is built is actually a short piece snipped from a free-form jam by the late drummer Jeff Porcaro and percussionist Lenny Castro and then looped throughout the song. Stately synthesizers form the bulk of the instrumentation, with a skittery counter-melody evocative of marimba. Co-writer David Paich sings the verses in his smooth baritone, while Bobby Kimball handles the soaring high notes in the chorus. Lyrically the song blurs lines about love and self-discovery with imagery inspired by a documentary Paich had seen about Africa. With lofty vocal harmonies and a lush musical arrangement that captures an air of mystery, “Africa” remains one of the decade’s most revered singles. By the way, two notes: no, Mt. Kilimanjaro doesn’t really rise like Olympus above the Serengeti (the massive volcano is not visible from the Serengeti, which is several hundred miles away), and despite the popular meme that depicts Dorothy’s little dog Toto thinking “I miss the rains down in Africa,” the line in the song is actually “I bless the rains down in Africa.” Knowledge is power.
47. “Cars” – Gary Numan (1980)
Even though “Cars” was a 1979 release in the U.K., it peaked on the U.S. singles chart at #9 for three weeks in June 1980. It was the lead single from Numan’s third album The Pleasure Principle, one of the most influential releases of the new wave era. Although it has become a familiar song over the years, “Cars” was radically unusual for a Top 40 hit at the time. With dark waves of synths fizzing with electricity and Numan’s oddly robotic vocals creating an unsettling mood, “Cars” isn’t a typical pop song. There is no chorus, the main melodic hook instead being played on shimmering analogue synthesizers. Unlike many synth-pop songs of the ‘80s, “Cars” doesn’t sound thin and tinny. The use of real rather than electronic drums and bass guitar give it a rock and roll kick. Crank it up on a great sound system and be prepared to be blown away. Despite a long string of innovative hits in the U.K., Numan is considered a “one-hit-wonder” in the U.S. since “Cars” is his only Top 40 appearance. He’s remained a prolific recording artist over the years, with his most recent album, Splinter, released in 2013. Numan recently announced plans to play The Pleasure Principle in its entirety, along with two other classic albums, at a series of shows in Los Angeles this fall.
46. “All Night Long (All Night)” – Lionel Richie (1983)
The lead single from Lionel Richie’s Grammy-winning second solo album Can’t Slow Down, “All Night Long (All Night)” quickly shot to the top of the pop chart where it spent four weeks in November and December 1983. A soulful party song with a Caribbean flair, “All Night Long” was the first of an incredible five Top 10 hits from Can’t Slow Down, including the #1 ballad “Hello.” To give “All Night Long” an international feel, Richie affects a slight faux-Jamaican accent, and also includes a segment of nonsensical lyrics he invented to sound vaguely African (“Tom bo li de say de moi ya, Yeah jambo jumbo, Way to parti’ we goin’, Oh jambali, Tom bo li de say de moi ya, Yeah jumbo jumbo!”) The song begins with a slow, sultry groove before picking up during the chorus and then erupting with steel drums, marimba, a jubilant horn section and the sounds of celebration. Richie performed “All Night Long” at the closing ceremony for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, cementing its legacy. It’s the only one of Richie’s five #1 singles that is upbeat -- the rest are ballads (“Endless Love,” “Truly,” “Hello,” and “Say You, Say Me.”)
45. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – Yes (1983)
After forming in London in the late ‘60s, Yes released a string of magnificent progressive-rock epics in the ’70s, peaking with dual classicsFragile and Close to the Edge. By the early ‘80s, the band’s ever-evolving lineup shifted in a far more mainstream direction thanks to the influence of songwriter/guitarist Trevor Rabin. Their 1983 album 90125 became the band’s commercial apex, lifted by the smash “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” An electric rocker with a strong melody, a simple but memorable bassline, massive guitar riffs and unexpected bursts of electronic effects, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” spent two weeks at #1 in January 1984. It’s potent, tightly wound and surprisingly focused given the song’s complicated genesis involving multiple writers, musicians and producers. It was the band’s final appearance in the Top 10.Yes soon returned to their progressive roots, and have released a long string of albums that have appealed mostly to their die-hard fan-base, never again approaching the success of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Founding member and bassist Chris Squire, the only member to appear on every Yes album, recently died at age 67 from leukemia.
44. “Eternal Flame” – The Bangles (1988)
Co-written by vocalist Susanna Hoffs with ace songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (who also penned Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”), the exquisite ballad “Eternal Flame” was the second hit from The Bangles’ 1988 album Everything. It became their second chart-topper, following the 1985 novelty single “Walk Like an Egyptian.” “Eternal Flame” is built around a graceful music-box motif on keyboard and percussion, with a subtle bassline and swirls of delicate strings gliding above. The piano is played by the great John Philip Shenale, a Canadian writer and musician who has appeared on dozens of hits. Hoffs’ lead vocals and the harmonies by Vicki Peterson, Michael Steele and Debbi Peterson are gorgeous, especially during the dramatic climax. “Eternal Flame” spent one week at the top in April 1989 before being knocked aside by Roxette’s “The Look.” The Bangles only scored one more Top 40 hit (Everything’s third single, “Be With You,” reached #30) before disbanding, but they eventually reformed in the late ‘90s. They are currently on tour, with “Eternal Flame” playing an integral role in their show, usually as the grand finale.
43. “Let the Music Play” – Shannon (1983)
Released in September 1983, Washington, D.C. native Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” jolted to #1 on the dance chart and #8 on the pop chart. As the first “freestyle” dance song to make a mainstream impact, “Let the Music Play” is widely regarded as a groundbreaking single. Although disco had long since been declared dead, dance music was poised to make a major comeback on Top 40 radio, and Shannon provided the spark. Shannon’s vocal is cool and sexy, and the groove is scorching hot. The main “Let the music play, he won’t get away…” hook during the chorus is sung by session musician and vocalist Jimi Tunnell. With its sinuous melody and insistent rhythm, “Let the Music Play” is still more than capable of filling up a dance floor. It’s influence is felt decades later in songs like Rihanna’s 2007 smash “Don’t Stop the Music,” which features a similar lyrical concept (and which, in a fair turnabout, Shannon has performed live in recent years). Shannon’s success on the pop chart was short-lived -- follow-up “Give Me Tonight” stalled at #46 -- but she had multiple club hits, and “Let The Music Play” remains one of the most influential dance singles of the era.
42. “Tainted Love” – Soft Cell (1981)
“Tainted Love” started life as an obscure b-side recorded in 1964 by California soul singer Gloria Jones. She re-recorded it with a disco vibe in 1976, but again it failed to make an impact. Five years later, British synth-pop duo Soft Cell excavated the song and revamped it into a new wave classic. They slowed it down, stripped it down, and infused it with an aura of seedy decadence. Marc Almond absolutely nails the vocal, and musically the track is an insidious earworm, with a clever arrangement of dusky synths and fabulous electric whip cracks. Like the rest of their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, “Tainted Love” sounds like it should be pumping out into the streets of a squalid red-light district. The single was released in July 1981 in the U.K. where it became a #1 smash. In the U.S. it had a long, slow climb up the charts, taking an astonishing 19 weeks to reach the Top 40. It ultimately peaked at #8 in July 1982, holding a spot in the Hot 100 for a record-breaking 43 weeks overall. “Tainted Love” was the only American hit for Soft Cell, although they had several in the U.K. The song is now an obligatory part of any ‘80s night, a brisk sing-along punctuated by those inevitable hand-claps.
41. “Sexual Healing” – Marvin Gaye (1982)
By the early ‘80s, Marvin Gaye had been struggling personally and professionally for years, and his drug use was debilitating. His last major hit had been the 1977 chart-topper “Got to Give it Up (Part 1),” and his last two albums tanked. Signed to new label CBS after two decades with Motown, 1982’s Midnight Love was a fresh start for Gaye. It was a perfect balance of polished and modern R&B with Gaye’s classic vibe. The lead single was “Sexual Healing,” a slick reggae-tinged soul ballad with a stunning gospel-flavored vocal. It’s every bit as good as Gaye’s sensual ‘70s classics “I Want You” and “Let’s Get it On.” After years in the wilderness, Gaye suddenly had a major hit on his hands. “Sexual Healing” was an instant R&B chart-topper, and it crossed over to reach #3 on the pop chart. Midnight Love became the most successful album of Marvin Gaye’s storied career, selling nearly 4 million copies. But any hopes of a long-term rebirth of Gaye’s life and career were quickly dashed. Barely over a year after “Sexual Healing” was riding high on the pop chart, Gaye’s father shot the musical legend to death during an argument at their home.
40. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” – Elton John (1983)
Elton John’s 1983 album Too Low For Zero is easily his best work of the ‘80s. It marked a comeback for the star, as his prior few albums were received tepidly by critics and fans alike. Lead single “I’m Still Standing” became a major hit and established Elton John on MTV, introducing the ‘70s icon to a massive new audience. The soulful piano-ballad “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues,” featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, became the album’s biggest hit when it reached #4 in early 1984. Elton’s vocal is rich and passionate, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics (dedicated to his wife in the album’s liner notes) capture just the right amount of pathos in the torment of being separated from a loved one. Although Elton John notched several more hits in the ‘80s with “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” “Nikita,” and “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” his output during the decade, as he struggled with drug addiction, was decidedly spotty. It wasn’t until 1989’s stunning ballad “Sacrifice” that he was able to match the timeless beauty of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues.”
39. “Fast Car” - Tracy Chapman (1988)
“Fast Car,” a heartrending tale of a woman desperate to escape the gripping cycle of poverty, was released 27 years ago but is more relevant than ever. There is tremulous hope in Chapman’s voice as she sings, “I know things will get better... you’ll find work, and I’ll get promoted. We’ll move out of the shelter, buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs.” Of course the listener knows it’s just a fond daydream, and by the end of the song years have gone by and she’s still struggling. It’s a difficult message -- that despite hard work and sacrifice, sometimes it’s just not enough. “Fast Car” personalizes the working poor who are so often caricatured by those who don’t understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Chapman’s gritty realism is set to a glowing folk-rock background, with a hypnotic repetitive melody on acoustic guitar during the verses. For the chorus, Chapman breaks away from her sadly stoic recitation and allows herself an outpouring of passion over heavy drums and thick strands of guitar. Despite its serious subject matter and being far from a typical pop song, “Fast Car” was powerful enough to land at #6 on the Hot 100. That could happen in the ‘80s. Today? Never.
38. “Burning Down the House” - Talking Heads (1983)
Talking Heads is one of the greatest bands to come out of the New York City post-punk scene of the late ‘70s. They brewed a wildly innovative mix of new wave, pop, rock, funk and international influences. David Byrne is one of rock’s most charismatic front-men -- quirky, unpredictable, and freakishly talented. Talking Heads generally didn’t reside within the lines of commercial Top 40 pop, but a few of their songs managed to connect with larger audiences. “Once in a Lifetime” is a new wave classic, “Wild Wild Life” was a substantial hit, and “Burning Down the House,” the first single from their fifth album Speaking in Tongues, reached #9 in 1983. “Burning Down the House” is a jittery jumble of eclectic rhythms and surreal electronic effects over which Byrne neurotically shouts his vaguely sinister non-sequitur lyrics. The end result is strangely hypnotic art-rock. “Burning Down the House” is about a feeling -- like a sonic painting, it doesn’t tell a story but creates a vibe of slightly manic unease. Like all Talking Heads’ music, the sound quality is amazing. Listen to it on headphones, turn it up and let your mind travel where no other band can take you.
37. “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley (1984)
The lead single from Don Henley’s second post-Eagles album, 1984’s Building the Perfect Beast, “The Boys of Summer” seethes with bittersweet regret and determination. It’s a brilliant studio creation, weaving evocative imagery of fading youth and lost love over a dreamlike soundscape with multiple guitar and percussion parts, and layers of keyboard. Henley’s lyrics are razor-sharp, and his vocals are genuinely emotional. Leading with a snarl of guitar, he delivers one of the decade’s most famous lines: “Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back.” Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers wrote the strikingly cinematic music. The moody black and white video, directed by French photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, won the 1985 MTV award for Video of the Year and helped expose Henley to an entirely new generation of music fans. “The Boys of Summer” eventually reached #5 in early 1985, and it boosted a follow-up single, “All She Wants To Do is Dance,” which also made the Top 10.
36. “Alone” – Heart (1987)
The second song on this list written by prolific hitmakers Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (see #44), “Alone” was the first single from Heart’s 1987 triple-platinum Bad Animals. Bolstered by a dynamic sense of drama and Ann Wilson’s stunning vocal delivery, “Alone” quickly became Heart’s second and final #1 single (following “These Dreams” from early 1986). It’s the ultimate rock and roll power ballad with crashing drums, searing guitar and a deft string arrangement weaving over the glimmering electric piano. Ron Nevinson, a veteran engineer and producer who’s worked with a long list of top artists like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne, gets the most out of the song. What really makes it, though, is one of the signature vocal performances of the decade by the incomparable Ann Wilson. She nails it… microphone, drop. “Alone” remains a cornerstone of Heart’s enduring legacy, which includes their recent well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
35. “One Thing Leads to Another” – The Fixx (1983)
The British five-piece The Fixx, led by lyricist Cy Curnin on vocals and Jamie West-Oram on guitar, launched their career with the Rupert Hine-produced Shuttered Room in 1982, generating buzz with singles like Stand or Fall and Red Skies. Hine returned for their triumphant second release, 1983’s Reach the Beach, one of the most important rock albums of the early ‘80s. The moody “Saved by Zero” was a moderate hit as the lead single, but it was the follow-up “One Thing Leads to Another” that scaled to #4, stunning for a song that’s so edgy, tight and frazzled. Its insistent rhythm and jagged guitar, punctuated by Curnin’s staccato bursts of vocal and manic swirls of keyboard by Rupert Greenall, make for a feverishly tense three minutes. It’s one of many such pieces of brilliance by a band that doesn’t receive nearly the recognition they deserve. Since their lone Top 10 appearance, The Fixx has released a string of excellent albums -- especially 1984’s Phantoms -- and they continuing touring and recording as strong as ever.
34. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – Whitney Houston (1987)
The lead single from her second album Whitney, Houston’s exuberant dance-pop confection “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was her fourth straight #1 single in a remarkable streak that would eventually stretch to seven. The song was penned by the married songwriting team George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who’d also written Houston’s earlier chart-topper “How Will I Know?” (They had a smash of their own with 1988’s “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” recorded under the name Boy Meets Girl.) Produced by Narada Michael Walden, one of the top hit-makers of the ‘80s, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was the perfect vehicle for Whitney to launch her all-important second album. Houston’s vocals are strong and confident, and the song is upbeat, fun, and a natural on the dance floor. There is a carefree joy to the recording that captures a period in Houston’s career in which the possibilities seemed endless. Hearing it now, one can’t help but fondly remember Houston’s better days. She was arguably the greatest pop vocalist of our generation.
33. “Hungry Like the Wolf” – Duran Duran (1982)
Rio is the album that generally comes to mind when one thinks of Duran Duran. The fusion of glamour, sex, new wave-influenced rock and big melodies was a perfect storm that elevated Duran Duran to superstardom. Lead single “Hungry Like the Wolf” became a powerhouse on radio and MTV. The video, directed by Russell Mulcahy and featuring Simon LeBon wading through a jungle in Sri Lanka, adds the perfect exotic touch. Opening with a mischievous female giggle, “Hungry Like the Wolf” is built on electric guitar lines that mirror Simon LeBon’s brazenly sexual vocal delivery, feathered by a jittery keyboard riff, and anchored by a steady rhythm section. The song fades out to the sound of a woman’s faint moans of passion. “Hungry Like the Wolf” reached number #3 in the U.S. and jump-started a sensational run that’s produced thirteen Top 20 hits. Duran Duran remains active today, with a new album produced with Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers coming this year, and a new single “Pressure Off” just released.
32. “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” – Simple Minds (1985)
“Hey hey hey hey!” British rockers Simple Minds landed a string of moderate hits in the U.K. in the early ‘80s, but they were unable to crack the U.S. market until they were nabbed to record the theme song to John Hughes’ classic coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club. Written by producer Keith Forsey and guitarist Steve Schiff, the lush rocker “(Don’t You) Forget About Me,” notable for a chugging guitar riff and bright swells of keyboard, was a sonic departure for the band, who typically recorded edgier material. Jim Kerr’s crooning vocal nails the romantic vibe of the song, and it echoes with the poignancy, hope and possibility that are the themes of The Breakfast Club. It quickly soared up the pop chart, reaching #1 in May 1985. After the single’s massive success, the band would revisit its style on their subsequent album Once Upon a Time on hits like “Alive and Kicking” and “Sanctify Yourself.” Simple Minds recently gave a terrific performance of “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” on the Billboard Music Awards to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and the soundtrack classic has lost none of its charm.
31. “99 Luftballons” – Nena (1983)
German band Nena, led by vocalist Gabriele Kerner, scored a surprise smash in 1983 with their anti-war epic “99 Luftballons.” It soared to #2 in America and topped the charts around the globe. Nena recorded an inferior English-language version for the U.S. market, but fans preferred the original German recording. A parable about World War III caused by a bunch of balloons flying over the Berlin wall, “99 Luftballons” is a reflection of the perilous times of the early ‘80s, and the overriding fear that anything might set off nuclear Armageddon. Many songs of that era touch on the subject, but few with the grace and poignancy of “99 Luftballons.” A hard-charging new wave rocker with an endearing vocal by Kerner, the song is notable for its motoric guitars and a breakdown with progressively escalating lines of synthesizer over a simple beat. “99 Luftballons” was Nena’s sole Hot 100 appearance, and is one of only a handful of foreign-language songs to become major hits in the U.S.
30. “One More Try” - George Michael (1987)
George Michael’s Faith was one of the biggest albums of the ‘80s, selling 25 million copies worldwide and yielding a remarkable six Top 40 hits, including 4 chart-toppers: “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “Monkey” and the powerhouse ballad “One More Try.” Faith shows, for the first time, Michael’s impressive musical dexterity. There are upbeat pop anthems and love songs, but “One More Try” is the heart of the record. Michael’s vocal delivery is about as good as you’re going to hear in the Top 40. The stripped-down gospel-flavored music, just a slowly swinging beat, bass and a mournful organ, is soulful backdrop for Michael’s emotional performance. The distance between the catchy but emotionally shallow “Careless Whisper” to the yearning confessional “One More Try” is vast, and showcases Michael’s rapidly maturing gifts as a songwriter. It’s unusual for a song approaching 6-minutes to get enough airplay to reach #1, but “One More Try” was just too good to be denied.
29. “Drive” – The Cars (1984)
The Cars’ smash fifth release, Heartbeat City, was one of the biggest albums of 1984. It spawned several major hits, including “You Might Think,” “Hello Again” and “Magic.” It was the third single, though, that became the biggest hit of The Cars’ career: the poignant ballad “Drive.” Bassist Benjamin Orr had previously been featured on the occasional lead vocal (including “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go”), but “Drive” is undoubtedly his turn in the spotlight. Orr’s nuanced but emotionally charged vocal performance, sung over majestic waves of synthesizers, is note-perfect for the haunted vibe of the song. “Drive” has an almost dreamlike quality, with beautifully subtle and richly layered backing vocals. Helped in part by a dramatic video co-starring Ric Ocasek’s future wife, Paulina Porizkova, “Drive” rose all the way to #3 in the U.S. and was Benjamin Orr’s career pinnacle. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2000 at the young age of 53. As for The Cars, after “Drive” they only had one Top 10 hit left in ‘em: “Tonight She Comes” reached #7 in 1985.
28. “West End Girls” – Pet Shop Boys (1986)
“West End Girls” was the first taste of chart success for the British duo of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, one of the most prolific and influential pop groups of the last three decades. With Tennant’s witty and incisive lyrics and Lowe’s electronic wizardry, Pet Shop Boys have racked up dozens of hits worldwide. From their 1986 album Please, “West End Girls,” inspired by New York City’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, features Tennant dourly reciting the enigmatic lyrics during the verses and then singing the choruses over atmospheric synthesizers and a jabbing bassline. Producer Stephen Hague helps create an ominous urban vibe, with the tension slowly escalating as the song progresses. “West End Girls” was a global smash, spending a week at the top of the Hot 100 in May 1986, and it remains the Pet Shop Boys’ signature song. As a testament to its enduring relevance, the duo performed “West End Girls” during the Opening Ceremonies at the 2012 Olympics in London, an honor that would have been difficult to envision when the quirky little synth-pop nugget first emerged on MTV nearly three decades ago.
27. “Lovesong” – The Cure (1989)
Opening with a bright slash of guitar, The Cure’s “Lovesong” is built on Boris Williams’ insistent beat, Simon Gallup’s wildly florid bassline and Roger O’Donnell’s forlorn keyboard, over which two distinct countermelodies (one on keyboard, one on guitar) duel for supremacy between the verses. It’s like interlocking pieces of a musical jigsaw puzzle. Robert Smith delivers the devotional lyrics (dedicated to his wife) with naked sincerity. “Lovesong” was released as the second single from The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece Disintegration, an
d became by far their biggest crossover pop hit in the U.S. It climbed all the way to #2, unable to dislodge Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” from its 4-week reign at the top, but still remarkable for a band that had until that point received almost no airplay on mainstream radio in America. Since they veered away from the angry and despondent gloom of albums like Faith and Pornography to a catchier sound with their 1982 synth-pop single “Let’s Go To Bed,” The Cure have walked a line between ebullient pop and sullen melodramatic rock. “Lovesong” falls somewhere in between. It’s rhythmically upbeat and catchy, and the lyrics are romantic, but somehow the whole thing still feels funereal.
26. “Call Me” – Blondie (1980)
Co-written and produced by the legendary Giorgio Moroder, “Call Me” is the biggest hit of Blondie’s career, spending a whopping six weeks at #1 during early 1980. Written and recorded for the film American Gigolo, “Call Me” eschews the band’s typical edgy post-punk vibe and reinvents them as a high-powered disco-rock combo. This combination had already been explored on their 1979 album Parallel Lines and its chart-topping single “Heart of Glass.” Debbie Harry is sexy cool over the motoric rhythm, churning guitars and flashy synths. “Call Me” amped up Blondie’s visibility and success, and thanks in part to its momentum, their next album Autoamerican yielded two #1 singles: “Rapture” and “The Tide is High,” a cover of an old reggae tune. Moroder, who just released a new studio album for the first time in three decades, has cited his experience working with Blondie on “Call Me” as one of the reasons he generally doesn’t like producing bands -– he says they argue too much.
25. “(Just Like) Starting Over” – John Lennon (1980)
After the birth of Sean Lennon in 1975, John Lennon and Yoko Ono descended into a life of calm domesticity. It wasn’t long until rock’s siren song could no longer be ignored, and in November 1980 Lennon released a joint album with his wife called Double Fantasy. First single “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a beautiful expression of love with an old-school ‘60s-rock vibe, spent five weeks at #1 -- Lennon’s biggest ever chart hit as a solo artist. Listening to it now is bittersweet, as just weeks after the release of Double Fantasy John Lennon was murdered as he walked next to his wife on a New York City sidewalk. It was an indescribable loss for the world. Lennon sung “The dream is over” years ago on the song “God” in reference to The Beatles, but now it really was over forever. To the very last, John Lennon never abandoned the idealism of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine.” If it had to end, “(Just Like) Starting Over” was the perfect song with which to say goodbye -- frozen forever in a moment of promise.
24. “Upside Down” - Diana Ross (1980)
Written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, the supremely catchy “Upside Down” was the lead single from the biggest album of Diana Ross’ solo career, diana. A funky dance-floor staple, “Upside Down” was Ross’ first #1 since 1976’s “Love Hangover,” logging four weeks at the top. She completed the trifecta by also hitting #1 on the R&B and dance charts. “Upside Down” was instrumental in proving that Ross was still a commercially viable artist, which helped her negotiate a lucrative new record deal after leaving Motown. The song also connected her with a new generation of fans. “Upside Down” is deceptively simple, with lyrics that display a willingness to disregard her man’s rampant infidelities with apparently no consequences. diana yielded another big hit with “I’m Coming Out,” which became a prominent gay anthem. The album reached #2, her highest ever, and it sold millions of copies worldwide. Ross’ hot streak continued the following year, as her stunning duet with Lionel Richie, “Endless Love,” camped out at the top spot for an amazing 9 weeks.
23. “Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey (1981)
Is there a more famous piano introduction in rock history? And then Steve Perry, his voice slick and dexterous, begins the tale of a small town girl, a city boy and of “shadows searching in the night.” “Don’t Stop Believin’” is relatable and inspirational, and has all the ingredients for a massively popular rock anthem, including blazing guitar by Neal Schon. It’s the prototype for arena rock with big choruses that get fans singing and waving their arms in the air. Taken as a single from their 1981 album Escape, “Don’t Stop Believin’” hit #9, but that doesn’t tell the story. Its popularity has only exploded over the years, and in fact it currently remains one of the top 20 downloaded digital songs of all time, competing with the likes of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is about the struggle for people to connect, but also the spark of hope, the possibility that there could be something better -- that there is always something for which to live. It’s a perfect working class anthem, a karaoke favorite that’s endured an incalculable number of drunken but good-natured renderings. There’s a reason for all this -- listening to and singing along with “Don’t Stop Believin’” just makes ya feel good. Of course, it was famously used to stunning effect during the brilliant final scene of HBO’s signature series The Sopranos. “Oh, the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on…”
22. “Need You Tonight” – INXS (1987)
Australian rockers INXS had steadily built a solid fanbase in America with hits like “The One Thing,” “Original Sin,” and the Top 10 “What You Need,” but it was their 1987 album Kick and its lead single “Need You Tonight” that made them stars. A tight and sparse slice of funk-pop with a wicked guitar riff, “Need You Tonight” rose quickly to #1. Michael Hutchence oozes sexiness with his ultra-cool vocal performance, slyly delivering lines like “your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know” in a whispery voice. The song’s striking video received strong support on MTV, which was a big factor in the single’s success. Following “Need You Tonight,” Kick launched three more Top 10 singles: “Devil Inside,” “New Sensation” and the swooning ballad “Never Tear Us Apart.” The album was INXS’s career pinnacle, as each subsequent release sold fewer copies, and Michael Hutchence died tragically in 1997. For a brief period in 1987 and 1988 INXS was one of most popular bands in the world, and “Need You Tonight” is the song that elevated them to the top.
21. “Jump” – Van Halen (1984)
Longtime fans drawn to the raw hard rock of Van Halen’s first five albums may have been shocked and dismayed upon first hearing the shimmering waves of synthesizers on “Jump,” the lead single to the band’s 1984 album, but audiences around the world loved it. The combination of dynamic synths, a rock-solid rhythm section, David Lee Roth’s knockout vocal performance (the best of his career), and a blistering guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen made for an instant classic. “Jump” may have those dreaded synths, but it still has a hard edge and an aggressive attitude. The sound quality is fantastic -- it leaps out of the speakers with galvanic force. “Jump” raced to #1 where it spent five weeks in February and March 1984, becoming by far the band’s biggest hit. Subsequent singles like “Panama,” “I’ll Wait” and “Hot for Teacher” also did well, and 1984 sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. It also marked the end of an era. Charismatic frontman David Lee Roth left, and was replaced by the gravelly-voiced screamer Sammy Hagar. They recorded several strong albums, but “Jump” was lightning in a bottle. Van Halen would never again achieve this level of success.
20. “Karma Chameleon” – Culture Club (1983)
“Karma Chameleon” was Culture Club’s only #1 hit in America, spending three weeks at the top in February 1984. The second single from their Colour By Numbers album, “Karma Chameleon” cemented Culture Club’s unique status in pop culture history. It’s deftly produced by Steve Levine featuring effortless interplay between the buoyant vocals, harmonica, and guitar. Boy George’s soulful, velvety voice bounces right along with the music, seamlessly merging with the kaleidoscope of sounds around him. “Karma Chameleon” is like a fairytale, with a hero and villain, and heartbreak a constant risk because of man’s inconstant nature. But there is also an overriding sense of joie de vivre, a refusal to be defeated by a lover’s foibles. Featuring a colorful video with elaborate costumes set on an 1800’s riverboat, the infectious sing-along was lovingly embraced by MTV. Colour By Numbers is Culture Club’s most successful album -- it spent six weeks at #2 trying in vain to dethrone Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
19. “Don’t You Want Me” – The Human League (1981)
Released in November 1981 as the fourth single from The Human League’s new wave essential Dare, “Don’t You Want Me” spent three weeks at #1 in July 1982. Vocalist Phil Oakey was reportedly unhappy with the commercial sheen of the song and resisted putting it on the album. Despite his ambivalence, “Don’t You Want Me” became the band’s big breakthrough in America, and the first of two #1 hits (“Human” reached the top in 1986). “Don’t You Want Me” is one of the first big mainstream synth-pop hits, helping to usher in an era in which synthesizers played an increasingly important role in popular music. The famous vocal duet, a back and forth between Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley, is a conversational he said/she said that gives both sides of a disintegrated relationship in which Oakey comes off sounding needy and insecure and Sulley as cooly opportunistic. Built on razor-sharp synthesizer lines and an electrifying rhythm part generated on a Linn LM-1 drum machine (which Prince would later make part of his signature sound), “Don’t You Want Me” is a sonic powerhouse. If you’re at an ‘80s night at any club or bar and “Don’t You Want Me” isn’t part of the menu, then it’s a rare occasion indeed.
18. “Dancing in the Dark” – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
“Pop” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Bruce Springsteen, although he has written some great pop tunes: “Because the Night,” “Hungry Heart,” “Glory Days,” “Pink Cadillac,” and “Tunnel of Love” come to mind immediately. “Dancing in the Dark,” the lead single from Born in the U.S.A., is by far his finest pure pop song. It’s also the biggest single of Springsteen’s career, peaking at #2 where it was unable to overthrow Prince’s purple reign. With a ferocious beat and muscular riffs of keyboard, “Dancing in the Dark” is raucous, ballsy and near-bursting with sexual energy. Springsteen’s one of the best lyricists in rock, and that includes when he turns his attention to trying to light a hot spark in a relationship that has gone a little damp. When The Boss says “I’m dying for some action” and “this gun’s for hire,” ya tend to pay attention. Perhaps it sounds slightly out of place with his scruffier, working-class brand of rock, but Springsteen’s version of a pop song is a pure thrill ride. As “Dancing in the Dark” fades to black on a jubilant Clarence Clemons sax solo, the first impulse may be to hit “repeat.”
17. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” – Tina Turner (1984)
Tina Turner’s unlikely comeback took fire when her cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” became a surprise hit in 1983, reaching #26. With her live shows getting rave reviews and industry buzz building quickly, Turner worked with multiple collaborators to assemble thePrivate Dancer album. Considering the haste in which it was created, Private Dancer is a tour de force of pop, rock and R&B. The lead single was “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” a slightly reggae-tinged mid-tempo gem written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle. The song had been offered to multiple artists previously with no takers, and Turner was initially unenthusiastic about recording it. But record it she did, and her sultry performance turned the song into a smash. It completed her triumphant return by spending 3 weeks at #1 in September 1984, and earning three Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. All this for a song that in the hands of another artist likely would have been forgotten as soon as it was consigned to tape.
16. “Flashdance… What a Feeling” – Irene Cara (1983)
15. “Time After Time” – Cyndi Lauper (1983)
Cyndi Lauper hit big in 1983 with her debut album She’s So Unusual, led by the quirky party anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Lauper rode that song to #2, and it remains an ‘80s essential. The true magic is in the follow-up, the bittersweet ballad “Time After Time.” Lauper’s vocal is thick with regret, vulnerability and longing. Rob Hyman of The Hooters, who co-wrote the song with Lauper, adds a powerful harmony during the chorus. Lauper sings over a bed of swaying keyboards, softly jangling guitar and a melodious bass during the chorus. Rick Chertoff produced the song with a deft touch, allowing its emotional fragility to shine. With “Time After Time,” Lauper was able to show her serious side, which would become more prevalent as her career progressed. Thanks in part to a poignant video, “Time After Time” hit #1 in America, becoming the first of her two chart-toppers (another ballad, “True Colors,” reached the top in 1986). More hits followed, like “She Bop,” “Money Changes Everything,” and “All Through the Night,” and Lauper, on the strength of her big voice and quirky style, became one of the most iconic pop singers of the ‘80s.
14. “Miss You Much” – Janet Jackson (1989)
Following up Control was no doubt a daunting endeavor, but Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were nothing if not ambitious. They ended up besting it by a mile with a hard-edged collection of pop, dance and R&B that not only grooves but has a positive message.Rhythm Nation 1814 was preceded in late August 1989 by first single “Miss You Much,” a sizzling dance/pop anthem written and produced by Jam and Lewis. It shot straight to #1 for four weeks. The exciting, heavily choreographed video directed by Dominic Sena earned the song massive MTV exposure. “Miss You Much” is formed around a heavy backbeat thickened by a funky bass-line, with swirls and bursts of keyboard underlying Jackson’s heavily layered vocals. The manic vocal arrangement during the chorus is particularly genius. Like onControl, Jackson sounds playful, self-assured and upbeat. Rhythm Nation 1814 became the first album in U.S. history to yield seven Top 5 singles, with “Escapade,” “Black Cat,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” all following “Miss You Much” to #1.
13. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel (1986)
Peter Gabriel is one of the most uncompromising artists in rock history. He’s a songwriter, musician and producer of the highest caliber. The greatest work of his career is his 1986 album So, a soaring masterpiece loaded with genius songs like “Don’t Give Up” (with Kate Bush), “In Your Eyes,” “Mercy Street” and the Top 10 hit “Big Time.” “Sledgehammer,” the album’s first single, is a groovin’ ‘60s soul revival featuring a sizzling brass arrangement by the Memphis Horns, Tony Levin’s supremely funky bass, drumwork by the great Manu Katché, and Gabriel’s sly recitation of every sexual metaphor in the book. Produced by Daniel Lanois, one of the best in the industry, “Sledgehammer” builds to a thrilling climax with increasingly frantic instrumentation and an electrifying gospel-tinged vocal arrangement. Along with its award-winning video directed by Stephen R. Johnson, visually and musically “Sledgehammer” is a feast for the senses. Peter Gabriel has never really been about commercial success on the pop chart, but he had a lucky strike with “Sledgehammer,” which reached #1 for one week in July 1986.
12. “Take on Me” – a-ha (1985)
The lead single from the Norwegian trio’s debut album Hunting High and Low, “Take on Me” is about as essential as it gets for ‘80s pop. Featuring a dazzling keyboard riff and Morten Harket’s soaring vocal acrobatics, “Take on Me” hit #1 in October 1985. A groundbreaking video directed by Steve Barron featured a technique called rotoscoping that merged live action shots and pencil-sketch animation. It was a massive hit on MTV and won six video music awards. The legacy of the song is enormous, and it remains popular today at ‘80s nights where large crowds gamely try and match Harket’s high note, usually with scant success. A-ha managed to hit the U.S. Top 40 with the follow-up single, “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” but that was the last of their chart success Stateside. Around the rest of the world it’s a different story, and a-ha has scored numerous hits over three decades. They broke up in 2010, but recently announced they are reuniting for a new album, Cast in Steel, and a tour.
11. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler (1983)
After hearing Jim Steinman’s work on Meat Loaf’s classic Bat Out of Hell, Welsh vocalist Bonnie Tyler approached him to collaborate on what became her 1983 album Faster Than the Speed of Night. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was originally conceived by Steinman for a musical about vampires. He re-worked and produced the song for Tyler, bringing in a set of ace musicians: Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg from the E Street Band on piano and drums, Rick Derringer on guitar and Larry Fast on synthesizers. Rory Dodd, a frequent Steinman collaborator, sings the “turn around, bright eyes” vocal parts. A romantic and wrenchingly dramatic rock ballad with a darkly fantastical music video, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” spent four weeks at #1 in October 1983. As usual with Jim Steinman’s work, the vocal and musical arrangements are ornate, but Bonnie Tyler’s ferocious vocal power is such that she’s not overwhelmed by the mania surrounding her. She turns in a devastating performance. Is it over-the-top? Of course it is. Steinman revels in his outlandishness. It’s what allows him go farther than anybody else dares, and what makes his music so unique and appealing. He’s the king of guilty pleasures.
10. “With or Without You” – U2 (1987)
By 1987, U2 was poised for a major leap forward to international stardom, and The Joshua Tree provided the necessary boost. Hailed by critics and beloved by fans, The Joshua Tree spent nine weeks at #1 from late April 1987 to late June. It sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Its success was sparked by the smoldering lead single, “With or Without You,” an exercise in slowly escalating tension and cathartic release. Opening with a few bars of quiet drumbeat and sparkling keyboard, Adam Clayton’s rumbling bass soon joins along with an eerie sustained guitar line. Bono’s tightly controlled vocals enter, somber and tense, and then amp up slightly for the second verse. The roiling tension continues to mount, especially when The Edge’s blazing bursts of guitar unfold at 1:51. Second by second the power builds, Bono’s voice rising with the tide of the music. The pressure finally boils over at 3:03 with Bono erupting into throat-shredding “Whoa-oh-oh-oh’s” and the band unleashing full-throttle. But the release doesn’t last long, and the song fades back into a ghostly instrumental fade-out, with chiming guitar echoing through to the end. “With or Without You” is a breathtaking piece of songcraft that doesn’t follow the conventional norms of what a pop song should be. It was a daring choice for first single, and the risk paid off.
9. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears (1985)
The first U.S. hit for British duo Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” spent two weeks at #1 in June 1985. A gleaming pop shuffle with a superb vocal by bassist Curt Smith, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was the final song recorded for the duo’s second album Songs from the Big Chair. It’s rather simple structurally, highlighted by a stately, undulating melody, a steady bass and a repetitive two-chord keyboard line. The song captures the unease over the high stakes game of power which gripped the world at the time (and still does). The echoey production by Chris Hughes suits Smith’s smooth tenor and the glimmering synthesizers that make up the song’s foundation. The brief but edgy bridge and the jagged guitar solo add a sense of urgency as the song approaches its final run to the end. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” exudes a sense of unease and cynicism, and yet it remains a beautiful recording. Tears for Fears followed with another #1 single, “Shout,” and Songs from the Big Chair album has rightly endured as one of the greatest albums of the ‘80s.
8. “Back on the Chain Gang” – The Pretenders (1982)
The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” was recorded during the most tumultuous period in the band’s history. In June 1982, they fired original bassist Pete Farndon over his rampant drug use. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose. Chrissie Hynde wrote the beautifully elegiac “Back on the Chain Gang” as a tribute to Honeyman-Scott. It was recorded in July 1982, barely a month after his death. With only Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers remaining in the band, they drafted Big Country bassist Tony Butler and Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner for the recording. With its jangly guitar and Hynde’s devastating vocal, “Back on the Chain Gang” is wistful and heartbreaking. During the bridge, the song’s mood shifts from sadly nostalgic to piercing as Hynde sings “The powers that be, that force us to live like we do, bring me to my knees, when I see what they’ve done to you.” “Back on the Chain Gang” was released as a stand-alone single in October 1982 (and later included on their 1984 album Learning to Crawl), and spent three weeks at #5 in the spring of ‘83, the biggest single of The Pretenders’ Hall of Fame career. Pete Farndon eventually also succumbed to his battle with drug addiction, dying two weeks after “Back on the Chain Gang” peaked on the pop chart. From that point forward, Hynde dedicated the song to both fallen bandmates. Steeped in sorrow, “Back on the Chain Gang” remains The Pretenders’ greatest achievement.
7. “Let’s Dance” – David Bowie (1983)
David Bowie has made frequent sudden left-turns throughout his legendary career. He followed his brilliantly deranged carnival ride Scary Monsters (1980) with Let’s Dance, a polished set of funk, pop and rock produced by Nile Rodgers. The title song and first single became Bowie’s first #1 in the U.S. since his 1975 smash “Fame.” “Let’s Dance” is a tightly wound ball of tension disguised as a funky pop song. It’s permeated by a strong sense of impending doom... “For fear that grace should fall; for fear tonight is all.” “Let’s Dance” is about love and annihilation, the instinct to embrace passion when all else is gone. It’s another example of a song written and recorded in the shadows of the Cold War menace, with the prevailing attitude that “tonight i’m gonna party like it’s 1999,” with 1999 possibly showing up any day. “Let’s Dance” begins with an ascending vocal run, a sardonic echo of “Twist and Shout,” that powers up to the repeated shouted mantra of “Let’s Dance,” bracketing Bowie’s soaring, barely restrained lead vocal. “Let’s Dance” has a slick electronic beat, woozy horns and a torrid solo by a young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughn. It works just as a great pop song, but it’s more than that. Scratch just under the surface, and the desperation and unease come bubbling through in waves. The good news is that the song still sounds amazing, and 32 years later 1999 has been held in abeyance, for now.
6. “Bette Davis Eyes” – Kim Carnes (1981)
Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who co-wrote “Bette Davis Eyes” with Donna Weiss, first released the song in 1974. It went nowhere at the time, but fortunately for everyone it found its way to the attention of Kim Carnes. Recorded for her sixth album Mistaken Identity, “Bette Davis Eyes” is a sexy new wave rocker that oozes innuendo and attitude. It’s a brilliant lyrical concept -- every listener familiar with Bette Davis understands exactly the piercing gaze to which DeShannon refers. Kim Carnes absolutely nails the vocal. Her nuance and phrasing are perfect at every turn. From a growl to a conspiratorial half-whisper, Carnes knows how to wring every last bit of drama and meaning from the fervid lyrics. Listen to the attitude she injects in lines likes, “She’ll expose you, when she snows you, off your feet with the crumbs she throws you. She’s ferocious, and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush.” The arrangement is simple and stark, allowing Carnes’ raspy vocal to shine: a heavy back-beat and bass, a simple rhythm guitar part, quavering lines of synthesizer, and bits of electronic percussion mimicking handclaps, sometimes echoed by the guitar. “Bette Davis Eyes” was the biggest hit of 1981, spending an incredible nine weeks at #1 and winning both Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Although she had a handful of other hits, “Bette Davis Eyes” will always be the song for which Kim Carnes is most remembered, and rightfully so. It’s a cornerstone of classic ‘80s pop.
5. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” – Eurythmics (1983)
The title-track to Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (are made of this) album was released in May 1983, eventually spending a week at #1 in September. The striking image of Annie Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top is one of the visuals that defines the early MTV era. The song itself is a simple but profound statement about the human condition: “Everybody’s looking for something.” The search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral “this” of which sweet dreams are made. Lennox has often referred to the song as a mantra, and indeed that is an apt description. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo section at the 1:31 point are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to the drum machine part that her partner Dave Stewart had been programming), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. It’s a combination of two separately recorded parts, each panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a unique and richly resonant effect. They smartly resist the urge to clutter the track, and as a result the vocal melody and the synthesizer riff on which the song is built stand out starkly. Lennox’s vocal performance is extraordinary. It’s taut and restrained during the initial verse, and brimming with passion as the main mantra repeats towards the end, gaining intensity with each pass. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” still sounds incredible -- those massive waves of synths boom out of the speakers as inexorably as the tide.
4. “Every Breath You Take” – The Police (1983)
The lead single from The Police’s fifth and final album, Synchronicity, “Every Breath You Take” is easily the biggest hit of the trio’s Hall of Fame career. Often misconstrued as a love song, “Every Breath You Take” is actually an exploration of malevolent obsession. Despite its shadowy nature, “Every Breath You Take” spent seven weeks at #1 during the summer of ’83. It was the year’s biggest-selling single, and notched two Grammy awards including Song of the Year. A powerful black and white video directed by Godley & Creme helped to cement the song’s popularity. “Every Breath You Take” has an ominous musical vibe, with darkly rumbling bass and a repetitive guitar riff that finally ignites during the manic bridge. A fascinating instrumental passage beginning at the 1:43 point follows, in which the main guitar motif is joined by a single unchanging piano note that pings 30 times on the beat almost like an echoey metronome. It’s one of numerous subtle effects that add dimension and atmosphere to the song. The success of “Every Breath You Take” helped Synchronicity sell over 8 million copies in the U.S. alone, and spurred several additional hits: “King of Pain,” “Synchronicity II” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Two years later, mindful of the menacing nature of “Every Breath You Take,” Sting wrote a riposte that became his first solo single: “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.”
3. “Like a Prayer” - Madonna (1989)
“Like a Prayer” begins with shards of distorted guitar and the sound of a door slamming, followed by Madonna’s solemn opening lines delivered over a haunting background of organ and choral vocals. Then at the 0:37 point the drums and bass kick in, and “Like a Prayer” becomes an electric hymn with the verses sung over the same quiet combination as the opening, and the choruses full throttle over a pop/funk backdrop. The emotional apex is the breathtaking segment from 2:55 through 3:38, with Madonna, returning to the melodic hook of the introduction, singing “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my my name...” with feverish intensity over musical accompaniment that has suddenly turned edgy and dark, with snarls of electric guitar, frantic electronic bass, and the gospel chorus swelling and swirling around her. The tension releases for a segment of high-powered vamping by the Andraé Crouch choir, and then she dives right back into the exhilarating darkness at 4:13. Madonna and co-producer Patrick Leonard are genius in their use of shifting dynamics, the contrasting of light and darkness, and the building and release of tension to create a dramatic sense of spiritual crisis. A controversial video directed by Mary Lambert, laden with provocative religious imagery (including Madonna singing before three burning crosses), helped propel the single’s success. Madonna isn’t the first to explore the constant inherent tension between religion and sex, thrilling ecstasy and abject shame, but few have done it better. “Like a Prayer” rocked the pop world like a celestial missile, soaring quickly to the top of the pop chart where it remained for three weeks. It’s a turning point in her career -- from the moment “Like a Prayer” debuted, anybody claiming that Madonna is all style and no substance either isn’t listening, or doesn’t care.
2. “When Doves Cry” – Prince (1984)
Prince’s scorchingly bitter masterpiece “When Doves Cry” was a late entry to his film Purple Rain. It was the last song recorded for the project, and despite the presence of his band The Revolution in the steamy video, it is a wholly solo recording. As the lead single to Purple Rain, “When Doves Cry” rocketed straight to #1 where it spent five weeks during the summer of ‘84, becoming the biggest hit of Prince’s legendary career. It opens with a wicked snarl of guitar, and then the Linn drum machine kicks in. There is no bass guitar in the song, and from the 0:36 point to 1:07 -- when a slithery keyboard riff appears -- there are no instruments at all apart from the drum machine. Prince’s taut, tightly layered vocals bring the song to a slow boil of desperation and anguish. The near-breaking point is the dramatic passage between 2:50 and 3:35, with Prince’s vocal finally breaking free from its restraints as another layer of moody keyboard amps the pressure. Finally emotions erupt in a fury of blazing electric guitar and brain-searing screams. Prince twists the atmosphere of sexual tension tighter and tighter as the song grooves towards its sonically innovative finale of slippery keyboards and shimmering vocal harmonies. “When Doves Cry” is 5:54 of gripping melodrama. It’s Prince at his finest -- a studio creation of stunning dexterity and raw emotional power.
(As we know Prince does not allow his video's to be posted on YouTube, so it's not included here. However a Google search of "Prince When Doves Cry Video" should yield results.)
(As we know Prince does not allow his video's to be posted on YouTube, so it's not included here. However a Google search of "Prince When Doves Cry Video" should yield results.)
1. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson (1982)
If one song changed an entire decade, it’s Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Prior to its release, Michael Jackson was already a star. He’d been in the limelight since childhood, scoring numerous hits with his brothers and as a solo artist. He was coming off an acclaimed album,Off the Wall, that raised his profile even higher. But the world wasn’t prepared for what Jackson delivered next. He started off harmlessly enough, releasing a cutesy ballad with Paul McCartney, “The Girl is Mine.” The duet charmed its way to #2, but as a first single it didn’t inspire the belief that the accompanying album would be anything earth-shattering. Then came “Billie Jean.” The nation was transfixed by Jackson’s video, his steps alight as he traverses a barren urban wasteland like a cosmic alien superstar, twisting and grooving to the hypnotic beat. “Billie Jean” is one of the great recordings in pop history. It’s foundation is a heavy back beat by drummer Leon Chancler and a sinuous bass-line by the late Louis Johnson, who passed away just recently. Ghostly swells of keyboard, dramatic swirls of strings, and lithe and funky guitar by David Williams create a mysterious and dangerous vibe. Soaring over it all is Michael Jackson’s one-of-a-kind vocal delivery, note perfect, innovative, and utterly revolutionary. Jackson’s phrasing makes the song. Every vocal hiccup, twirl and twinge is perfectly placed. It’s a viscerally exciting piece of music, tense and dramatic, enigmatic and otherworldly. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’ collective genius is at its peak. Credit must also be given to Bruce Swedien who did a phenomenal job mixing “Billie Jean,” seamlessly melding the different musical elements swirling around each other. Audiences watched stunned as Jackson performed “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV Special -- as he glided across the stage with his moonwalk, if DVRs had existed millions of viewers would have lurched for the rewind button simultaneously. “Billie Jean” zoomed up the charts to #1 where it spent seven long weeks. It was the propulsion that hurled Thriller into the stratosphere. Just one week after “Billie Jean” finally dropped out of the top, its follow-up, the searing rocker “Beat It,” replaced it. Michael Jackson was now a star such as the world had never seen, with popularity on par with Elvis and The Beatles. Thriller became the biggest selling album in the world. It was a sonic hurricane that flattened the music industry and changed everything in its wake. “Billie Jean” is the epic recording that lit its fuse. Who else but the King of Pop could hold the greatest pop song of the ‘80s?