This is the second in a series of monthly lists of my favorite songs and albums of each decade, this time covering my favorite songs of the 1980s.
The rules I’ve set for myself: only one entry per artist per list. (Sorry, “Panama” and “Time After Time” and “Beautiful Boy” and “Rock The Casbah” and “Ashes To Ashes”) There are songs I consider the best, and there are songs I consider favorites; this list tends toward the latter. (Sorry, “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Naive Melody”)
When I first started working on this list, it ballooned to over 55 songs and into a disjointed mess. I’ve decided to trim it to just 30 of my most favorite- so a LOT of darn good songs got cut. At the bottom, I’ve included a playlist of honorable mentions and snubs. It’s a killer playlist in its own right.
Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next installment in my decade list series!
30. “Touch of Grey” – The Grateful Dead
From In The Dark (1987)
A Deadhead is just about the last thing I want to be accused of being. But holy hell, they earned the top of the chart with this one. “I’m sorry that you feel that way…”
29. “Still Lovin’ You” – Scorpions
From Love At First Sting (1984)
Boy, does it make me ache. One of the finest lost-love songs.
28. “Ghost Town” – The Specials
Non-Album Single (1981)
Intense commentary on the sad state of the UK at the time. Musically, they created a perfect atmosphere to match. Defines second-wave ska.
27. “Sweetheart Like You” – Bob Dylan
From Infidels (1981)
Spoilers: I put Bob on top of my favorite songs of the 1960s list– and two songs he wrote appeared in the top 10. So, you already knew I was a big Bob fan. It’s not just that golden age stuff, either. Bob got older, and he got mature, and he developed an interesting worldview. He makes one of his greatest efforts on 1981’s Infidels, which opens with the one-two punch of “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You,” the two of which fought for this spot on the list. “Sweetheart” wins on nostalgia, personal meaning, and honest preference. Some think this song is about Jesus; others say it’s about the Statue of Liberty, representing something Dylan increasingly found abandoned in America. For me, it’s about the girl who introduced me to it. Choice lyric: “They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings – Steal a little, and they throw you in jail – Steal a lot, and they make you king…” Doesn’t that describe our world today?
26. “Somebody Got Murdered” – The Clash
From Sandinista! (1980)
There are better Clash songs- even on Sandinista!- but this is the one that’s constantly stuck in my head. Folks must think I’m nuts when I randomly shout out, “Somebody… GOT MURDERRRRRED!” Honorable mentions abound: “Rock The Casbah,” “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” “Straight To Hell,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here),” “Lose This Skin,” and the excellent “Charlie Don’t Surf”. And you can put your money on London Calling for the 70s albums list, now.
25. “Watching The Wheels” – John Lennon
From Double Fantasy (1980)
Boy, I wish John had lived. He was getting on a great writing streak at the end there. Between this and “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the now-haunting lullaby of “Beautiful Boy,” he put some of his best songs on his last album. This one speaks to independence, and a don’t-care attitude toward criticism.
24. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
From Southern Accents (1985)
I had “The Waiting” in this spot for a minute, but decided to change to this one. It recently landed on my list of my favorite music videos, and it’s enough of a song to stand alone.
23. “Seen And Not Seen” – Talking Heads
From Remain In Light (1980)
There are other Talking Heads songs- also on my list were “Once In A Lifetime,” “Houses In Motion,” “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” and “Listening Wind”- but what makes this one stand out is the way it forced me to consciously change my perception of myself. “He wonders if he, too, might have made a similar mistake…”
22. “Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes To Hollywood
From Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984)
All hail Trevor Horn. Our lord and saviour, Trevor, was the frontman for The Buggles, briefly a member of Yes, and then became one of the most important producers alive. He is a great and noble god. Wait, just kidding- “Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?” Yeah. Anyways, the real point of the song is to end war and stuff! So try to do that!
21. “I Wanna Be Adored” – The Stone Roses
From The Stone Roses (1989)
I had five songs from this album on the nominee list, so once you’re finished with this (track one on the album), don’t stop. Let the whole thing play through, including the bonus track “Fools Gold”. Everyone puts this album on their list, and you can bet it’ll be on mine.
20. “Androgynous” – The Replacements
From Let It Be (1984)
I changed my mind about which Replacements song to put here three times, after selecting 27 songs as finalists. First, I had “Within Your Reach”. Then I switched it to “Answering Machine”. Finally, as I was typing the final list, I swapped it out for “Androgynous”. Not a typical Replacements song, “Androgynous” is mostly just Paul Westerberg and a piano. What puts it above the other 26 Replacements finalists is a story that is intensely relatable, and has actually become more timely as time has gone on.
Curious about the other 26 songs? Plus some picks from the neighboring decades? Here ya go!
19. “Synchronicity II” – The Police
From Synchronicity (1983)
The monster creeping from the depths of the lagoon is perhaps the best analogy of the decade. Does he kill her? “The pain upstairs that makes his eyeballs ache”? We’ll never know!
18. “Eminence Front” – The Who
From It’s Hard (1982)
The Who (who landed third place on my 1960s songs list) had a good long run, but they were really cooling the jets by the 80s. I’m really glad they stuck around just long enough to make this droning jam. “Come and join the party dressed to kill…” I can take or leave all of the commercials it’s appeared in. One of only a few artists to make both my 60s and 80s lists (with John Lennon and Bob Dylan), and certain to appear in the 70s, too (as are the others).
17. “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl
From If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988)
Hard to imagine any song ever dethroning this as my favorite Christmas song. And hard to imagine a better starting point for such a story as this, than the NYPD drunk tank. Brilliant Irish folk instrumental arrangements abound.
16. “In A Big Country” – Big Country
From The Crossing (1983)
My buddy Drew told me about this song at lunch one day at the factory, and my afternoon was changed forever. It’s got such a daft, ambitious energy. This climbing guitar line that punctuates the verses is freaking genius. Choice lyric: “I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert…”
15. “Not Proud Of The USA” – The Mice
From For Almost Ever (1986)
Cleveland’s very own, The Mice tear me apart with this song. “When I was a boy, I was told to believe that America was all there was…” My blood boils singing along to it. Hear them seethe! They really wanted you to know that they were fucking fed up. And so am I.
14. “Little Guitars” – Van Halen
From Diver Down (1982)
One time I called in to 98.5 WNCX for a contest Mister Classic was hosting. I won two tickets to the IX Center boat show. I don’t give a shit about boats, so I gave the tickets to my parents. While they were out, I had a lady over. When I told this story to Mister Classic, he said, “Whatever I can do to help get you laid, man!” When he asked for my request, I picked this one (which I was learning for the lady). He had it on the air in 5 minutes. Funny enough- my mother walked in to tell me to turn it down just as my story played on the radio.
13. “Voices Carry” – ‘Til Tuesday
From Voices Carry (1985)
Powerful stuff! Aimee Mann can stay! Her lush, convincing delivery of her troubled lyric is instantly memorable. “I try so hard not to get upset – Because I know all the trouble I’ll get…” The music video is iconic (and on my favorite videos list), particularly the closing scene in the theater. The Gary Numan-esque bridge is so cool. And the harmonies on the last verse are shining. “Shut up now!”
12. “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley
From Building The Perfect Beast (1984)
I’ll be honest- the chick who got me to pay attention to this song was a Deadhead, and I think about her every time I see one of those stickers. And this is one of four songs she introduced me to that made the top 30. Thanks, Courtney.
11. “Kings of the Wild Frontier” – Adam and the Ants
From Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)
So glad I impulse-bought a cassette of Antics In The Forbidden Zone all those years ago. Adam’s become something of an idol of mine. This is easily his best track. Obviously, the Burundi beat is one thing. Marco’s searing guitars are yet another. And Adam’s singing, and the tribal yips, and the lyrics, are perfect and edgy. “I feel, beneath the white, there is a redskin suffering from centuries of taming…” will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He’s trying to empathize with these people who have been kicked off of their ancestral land, but he’s forced to acknowledge that his own race and color guard him from knowing the pain they’ve known. My god, that’s heavy.
10. “Patience” – Guns N’ Roses
From G N’ R Lies (1989)
One of the songs I listened to on repeat around the time I was trying not to off myself. It worked! I fucking hate Appetite For Destruction, and I think Axl rose is an asshole, and some of their songs are misogynistic. But shoot, they nailed it here when they took themselves seriously for once. The outro verse of “I’ve been walking the streets at night…” is so moving. “You know I don’t like being stuck in a crowd”- she’s seeing other people; rough. And the success of this track arguably lead to more consideration for the soft approach to “November Rain,” and I think we’re all pretty happy with that outcome.
9. “When You Were Mine” – Cyndi Lauper
From She’s So Unusual (1983)
Cyndi’s delivery on the chorus is so emotional, so raw. Hard to pick just one from this album alone- “Time After Time” and “All Through The Night” and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” all were on my nominees list too, but this song, from the pen of Prince, is way too well-performed. It’s all about that chorus- the synths are simple and clean and effective. I have felt this song way too much.
8. “Clean, Clean” – The Buggles
From The Age of Plastic (1980)
Yeah, whatever, we all know “Video Killed The Radio Star”. Have you listened to their deep cuts? I’m picking “Clean, Clean” because of its energy and evolving composition. Half of me is torn for not picking “Elstree”. Their second album is very good, too- my favorite there is “Lenny”. The Buggles might be the most underrated band ever, on a list with The Left Banke and Dear And The Headlights.
7. “You Made Me Realise” – My Bloody Valentine
From You Made Me Realise EP (1988)
I can’t think of a song that smacked me across the face harder on first listen. I don’t even know what to call this middle section- a breakdown? A build? I dunno, but it suspends on this mindbending frequency for a looooong time, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. It seemed like it was never going to end. My jaw dropped, literally, and I started laughing, stunned. Part of a perfect EP, which fights for best ever with Jar of Flies.
6. “Hey” – Pixies
From Doolittle (1989)
“We’re chained…” I lost one of my best friends. He didn’t die- he just told me he never wanted to speak to me again. I still had his copy of Silent Shout on loan in my dorm at the time, so obviously it was sudden. I was trying everything to patch up the rough spot. So I made a CD mixtape for him. I cut out the word ‘hey’ from the cover of a box of Cinnamon Chex cereal, and made it the title track. I built the whole case out of recyclable material, so if he wanted to throw it out, he could do it. I wonder if he still has it. It’s been five years, and there still “must be a devil between us”.
5. “Don’t Let’s Start” – They Might Be Giants
From They Might Be Giants (1986)
Two of the best lines I know are smacked together here: “No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful – Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful…” The guitars are brilliant. The start-stop rhythms get my heart racing. Feel that pain when he screams “I don’t want to live in this world anymore!” A serious song, with seriously fun instrumentals. So, “Wake up and smell the cat food in your bank account.”
4. “Redemption Song” – Bob Marley & The Wailers
From Uprising (1980)
I don’t have a Bob Marley poster on my wall. I think the culture’s view of Bob is annoying. He’s seen as a stoner prodigy- and sure, he was both a stoner and a prodigy- but if that was all he was, he’d be fairly lumped with the likes of Snoop Dogg, and (ick) Wiz Khalifa. Bob’s legacy of inspiring rebellion is way more important than that, and the man wants you to forget that. So, listen good! “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” Really think about what he’s asking here. That’s what Bob actually wants you to do: sit down, light up, and think. Few better songs for thinking about than “Old Pirates”.
3. “Valerie” – Steve Winwood
From Talking Back To The Night (1982)
“So cool – She was like jazz on a summer’s day…” The chorus comes in like that moment when you realize you love somebody. It’s a sad song, if you listen to the lyrics. But not if you’re listening to the synths. “Come and see me- I’m the same boy I used to be.” And I doubt I’ll ever change, much.
2. “Ceremony” – New Order
Non-Album Single (1981)
Years ago, I began using Spotify. When they first started, they had a feature called Stars. Next to every track, you could click the star, and it would appear there forever, and the song would automatically be added to your Starred Playlist. Though this feature has sadly disappeared, I used it to create a monstrous playlist, which I continue to add to, and have given the subtitle, The Greatest Hits of Everything, Ever. To start, I wanted one killer track to set the tone for what kind of quality I wanted to capture. This was that killer track. Five years later, I stand by that judgement.
1. “Under Pressure” – Queen & David Bowie
Non-Album Single (1981)
It’s uplifting as hell. I cry when David’s “watching some good friends scream ‘LET ME OUT!'” Freddie’s high note is ridiculous. I adore the verse: “‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word – and love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night…” As a street musician, I have been closing my sets with “Heroes” for years and years. One night, soloing in the key of D, I accidentally learned how to play this song. So now I’ve been closing with a medley the last three summers. There is no song I would rather blow my vocal chords out with. And I haven’t even mentioned the bassline.
I had to cut SO MANY good songs for this list. So here’s a monstrous list of honorable mentions.