Utterly Subjective List 1: 80’s Pop Songs
Lists are dumb, but they’re fun. Christ, Buzzfeed has built an entire empire out of creating completely and totally meaningless lists for a reason. Of course, part of the game is to place a firm foot down and declare this or that list as definitive and objective. FIGHT ME INTERNET. Well, I can do that. So here’s my perfect list of pop songs from the 1980’s, which I understand is all the rage nowadays. I saw that Stranger Things, I’m down with the zeitgeist. I decided to not worry about genres here, though. There’s no hair metal butt rock or ‘80s rap here, those are different lists. Oh I’ve got lists, don’t you worry. Now, time for my unconventional list that you’re going to hate. There’s 26 songs because round numbers are for dorks.
26. “The Reflex” – Duran Duran
Right away I’m starting with the unpopular opinion that Duran Duran is overrated. I don’t like their biggest hits all that much. “Rio” and “Girls on Film” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are overplayed and nowhere near as good as similar Eighties staples from Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. So, deal with that. That said “The Reflex” is a good time, and my favorite song of theirs. A refrain that’ll come up throughout this list is simple fun. It’s pop music, it should probably be a good time. Most of these songs are chemically engineered to get awkward white people on the dance floor, and this is no exception to that. Enjoy having “whyyy-ayyy-ayyyy-ayyy-ayyy” in your head all day.
25. “Freedom of Choice” – DEVO
As a whole, I probably like DEVO more than most of the artists on this list. However, most of my favorite songs of theirs were either released in the late Seventies or weren’t singles and therefore not pop. And let’s be clear, DEVO isn’t really a pop band. Their biggest hit, “Whip It,” is perilously close to a novelty song. At the time it was probably considered such because it’s just so weird. But then that’s DEVO for ya. “Freedom of Choice,” was a single, and it’s more of a standard song, and I like it a lot. As someone who used to watch people spend upwards of twenty minutes trying to pick out a kind of toothpaste, its message resonates. Also: holy shit this video wtf.
24. “Alive and Kicking” – Simple Minds
I know, it’s not the Breakfast Club song. That song is a cliché at this point, and I feel like “Alive and Kicking” is more representative of the decade and I personally enjoy hearing it more. I’m not sitting here thinking about Emilio Estevez when it comes on. Instead I’m thinking about how absurdly optimistic pop music was back then. I barely remember the Eighties, but in retrospect there were just so many songs that make you want to climb a big hill and raise your fists in the sky like “yeah, I’m still alive and kicking!” That’s definitely not a bad thing.
23. “Dance Hall Days” – Wang Chung
While it lacks the best lyric Wang Chung ever wrote, “everybody Wang Chung tonight,” this is clearly the superior song. It’s simple, mellow, and still oddly compelling. I have no idea what the hell he’s singing about, it seems weirdly violent, but I can’t be upset about it because the song is just so soothing. Now I’m listening to the words. Is she dead? Jesus. Whatever though because here comes the incomprehensible chorus: something something something dance hall days!
22. “Our Lips Are Sealed” – The Go-Go’s
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that The Go-Go’s were one of the original L.A. punk bands, from the same scene as X and The Germs. They were playing the same kind of noisy, poorly performed garage rock and then suddenly morphed into a pop powerhouse. Weird! Since I’ve learned that I’ve tried to hear that original edge and nope, just nice and smooth pop rock. Whatever, it works for them and this song is great.
21. “Call Me” – Blondie
Blondie was also punk-adjacent, although I feel like that connection is more apparent than The Go-Go’s. They also have a much larger stable of hits. Like DEVO and a few other bands on this list, their best work spans decades so I’m stuck finding the song from the ‘80s I like best. Now, I am not a Blondie superfan. I think they’re fine. I saw them this summer, and while I was actually more interested in both opening acts (John Doe and Exene from X and Garbage) they still put on a fun show. And they’re still out there with new music! I always respect that. Anyway, now that I think about it, this is probably my favorite Blondie song. I would be “Rapture” but I still can’t even deal with Debbie Harry trying to rap. It burns.
20. “And She Was” – Talking Heads
This is not their most iconic song, that’s probably “Once in a Lifetime.” I like that song a lot, it’s like the Eighties version of “A Day in the Life.” However, “And She Was” is way more upbeat, way more pop, and more fun in general. You’ll notice the overall theme here. Does the song make you feel more upbeat and happy? Then it’s doing its job. “Once in a Lifetime” is a great song, but it succeeds in making me feel introspective. “And She Was” is a just a good time. You’re right, Talking Heads guy, she was right there with it. Woo hoo indeed.
19. “Roam” – The B-52’s
Yeah that’s right. Not “Love Shack,” not “Rock Lobster.” Now, pretty much all The B-52’s do is fun, feel-good music. That’s like their whole brand. Well, that and being delightful weirdos. I appreciate the aforementioned songs, which were bigger hits and are more recognizable, but “Roam” always brings joy. I suffer from pretty much permanent wanderlust, so this one resonates with me. Plus you still got your good time hand-claps and sing-along bits and even though it doesn’t have a Chrysler that’s as big as a whale I still like it better. This video is perfect. God I love these fun loving dorks.
18. “Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince
Oh, by the way, the heavy hitters of the 1980’s aren’t going to fare as well as you might expect. This is not to say that I don’t love and respect these artists – I’m a goddamned American after all – it’s just that aside from having to sift through a million hits to pick my favorite, I’m not here to pick the most influential songs. Or the most culturally resonant songs. If I did that it would just be a bunch of Prince and M.J. and Madonna. Obviously Prince was a genius and a weirdo and once-in-a-lifetime talent. He gave us truly great songs all over the genre spectrum. This one, I think, is one of his best good-time jams. Like you hear that intro and all right, time for a five minute micro-party up in here. If Prince tells you to go crazy, you best do it. Note: Oh snap Prince is on YouTube now… hmm, not worth it.
17. “Only In My Dreams” – Debbie Gibson
No, Debbie Gibson is not better than Prince. Technically this song probably isn’t as good as the other songs on this list. Or, for that matter, as many songs that aren’t on the list. Yet here we are, me and Debbie, swaying along to the most Eighties-ass Eighties song you’ve ever heard. Like, this is a song that could only have been made in that weird, bygone era. If you’re someone with no context for life 30+ years ago, just play this song. It’s pure Eighties. It’s even got the sax solo! I don’t know, it’s hard to justify, but I listened to this so hard this summer. It evoked more nostalgia in me than pretty much any other song on this list, not because I remember the actual song, but because of what the song sounds like. Yellow sax man in an abandoned warehouse is perfect. This whole video is perfect. I love it so much.
16. “Express Yourself” – Madonna
Unlike the Debbie Gibson song above, which evoked a kind of general nostalgia, I have a more direct sense of nostalgia for this particular song. Basically, the video is directly responsible for my sexual awakening. Sorry, I know that’s gross, but you kids nowadays don’t have a good frame of reference for the sheer force of hot, sexy nature that Madonna was back in the day. I guess you could argue that she still is, but that’s nothing compared to the Madonna of the late-80’s and early 90’s. She’s just another semi-damaged celebrity now. Back then she was a true cultural icon, one that implored you to get laid. This song in particular is uplifting in the extreme. Are you feeling bad about yourself? Like you’re just not good enough or don’t deserve nice things? Fuck that. Express yourself girl, you deserve the best because you are the best. Thanks, Madonna. Note: I forgot the video was a sexy, sexy dystopian nightmare.
15. “Another Part of Me” – Michael Jackson
The King of Pop is not in my top 10 and I don’t care. Any one of his major hits could be number one, and everybody knows that. M.J. was and still is the baseline for pop music, he made the template, and even now artists are still chasing what he made. You literally can’t overstate his presence. That said, he’s so omnipresent and great as to be a little dull, so number 14 it is. And a song that’s not even on his personal top, like, 20 hits of all time. That’s how great he was. I like this one a lot, obviously, which is why I chose to highlight it here. It’s a jam, and for practically any other artist of the time this would have been a number one hit. Nah, instead it’s pretty much album filler and yet it’s still works as a single. Michael Jackson in his prime was unstoppable. If you have any doubt about that, watch the video. That kind of sheer domination will never be seen again.
14. “Hold Me Now” – Thompson Twins
I guess I don’t have a ton to say about this one? It skew a bit more mellow than some of the party-pop above, and it’s just nice. It’s a pleasant song, and whenever I hear it I feel a little less anxious, a little less cranky. I think about my lovely wife. I think about my favorite passive-aggressive line in the song: “I’ll ask for forgiveness though I don’t know just what I’m asking it for.” Ha. Maybe leave that one out if you’re trying to make up, dude. I also enjoy the falsetto backup vocals. They don’t overpower the song itself, but they’re there to remind you what decade you’re in.
13. “Drive” – The Cars
Get it, because you drive cars? Ugh, sorry. Anyway, I’m all bummed out now because my go-to Cars songs were all released in the 70’s. “Just What I Needed” and “It’s All I Can Do” are two of my favorite songs of the era, but hey turns out they miss the cut. Oh well. Instead, enjoy the one Eighties ballad on this list. I tend to enjoy more upbeat fare, as you may have noticed from the other songs on this list, but I do like a slower song if done well. This is such a song. There’s a quiet intensity to it, and the constant questioning borders on aggressive, but it’s so smooth and mellow it’s hard not to be taken away by it. It’s also a nice reminder that The Cars were early masters of arty music videos.
12. “It’s a Mistake” – Men at Work
Again I’m going with the lesser known hit because I like it better. Actually, Men at Work surprised me with their solid catalogue. It’s tempting to think of them as a one or two hit wonder, but it turns out that their two major albums are pretty good all the way through. Obviously they’re always going to be the “Land Down Under” band, but check this song out! It’s right there in The Police/XTC wheelhouse of kinda alternative pop-rock. Plus this song has the advantage of probably being about a nuclear holocaust, and it’s not the only one on this list. The Eighties had a dark undercurrent of anxiety which would appear every now and again amidst the lighter fare. This video is precious, btw. They seem fun.
11. “Automatic” – The Pointer Sisters
Now this is a jam. Also, like many songs on this list, it is immediately identified as an Eighties song, even if you’re not familiar with the song itself. The synth lines, the bouncy-ass beat, all of it. This song came back to my consciousness quite a while ago, during the first wave of 80’s nostalgia. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, specifically. That whole brilliant, insane soundtrack reminded me of how much I enjoy the pop from that period, in a way that transcends nostalgia. Yeah, this song couldn’t have come from any other time period. But if you can put this on in the car and not sing along, you just failed the Turing test, you goddamned android.
10. “Where the Streets Have No Name” – U2
Shocking confession: I don’t really like U2 all that much. Bono is a wanker and outside of The Joshua Tree I just don’t feel it that much. That said, I’m not a total philistine. I know a great song when I hear it, and that album has at least three of them, of which I feel this is the best. The intro is probably on the all-time list, just a perfect lead-in to not only the song, but the album as a whole. I’m a sucker for a slow build, and this one definitely delivers. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is just one of the sweeping, epic songs that has the ability to the lift the listener up and out of the world, and I can’t help but respect it for that. It’s also striking, watching some of these videos, just how big these bands were and being a little sad no artist is ever going to be that big again.
9. “Synchronicity II” – The Police
Sometimes I think people forget how good The Police were. Also, that they were ostensibly as much of a Seventies band as they were an Eighties band. Lucky for me, their best song was released in the proper time frame for this list, so I can use it. Yes, it’s a pop song because it has a nice hook and a good beat and I enjoy singing it. But it’s also about some real shit, you know? The Police are one of these bands that enjoyed massive pop success while still retaining integrity. Like the song above, I was re-introduced to this particular song in a strange place, which is to say the in-store radio of K-Mart. I was obsessed with it, because it would play like once a day and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of it. I finally tracked it down thanks to one of the older employees. Rarely is a pop song so evocative and atmospheric. Sting is a fashion god. That is all.
8. “Generals and Majors” – XTC
XTC are lesser known than either The Police or U2, despite being a fairly influential outfit in their own right. They skirt the line between alternative college rock and pop, although they had their share of hits. “Generals and Majors” is one of their more jaunty songs, fun to sing and whistle along with. Plus it’s about the apocalypse! Which you know, automatically makes it more fun. This probably isn’t my favorite XTC song, but it’s probably the most fun to listen to, if that makes sense. That’s kind of the watchword of this entire list: “yeah, but does listening to it make me feel good?” In this instance, despite making me think about nuclear annihilation, yes, it does! That’s an achievement in and of itself. Meanwhile, this is a very silly video.
7. “Just Can’t Get Enough” – Depeche Mode
Two things about this entry. The first is that Depeche Mode’s seminal album Violator came out in 1990 and therefore doesn’t qualify for this list. That’s why this isn’t “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy the Silence.” Also, even if that admittedly brilliant album came out in ’89 I still might have gone with this one. You’ve seen the trend of this list by now, right? 80’s pop should be a good time. Violator is not a good time. It was ushering in the Nineties, which in comparison were a bummer. “Just Can’t Get Enough” is a fun, bouncy love song and I’m rarely not in the mood to hear it, which I can’t say for most of Depeche Mode’s catalogue. I mean, there’s a reason The Cure isn’t on my list (although they almost were). Also, this video is like the band wandered around and collected the coolest motherfuckers they could find, including Rob Halford’s doppelganger. Depeche Mode were 80’s hipsters.
6. “Something About You” – Level 42
This one is a bit of an outlier. I get it. When it comes to artists there’s a lot of heavy hitters on this list, and Level 42 ain’t one of them. They were a two-hit wonder, and this was one of them. Both songs are solid, synth-flavored New Wave songs that you’d probably recognize without knowing who the artist was. All that’s fine. I don’t have a real justification. Sometimes music is like that. The reason this is so high on my list is because for some unidentifiable reason, it hit me just so. I guess it’s because, like most everything else here, I never don’t want to hear it. If it come up on shuffle, it’s not getting skipped. Sounds like reason enough for me.
5. “Stand” – R.E.M.
R.E.M. is my favorite band, full stop. “Stand” is not my favorite R.E.M. song. It’s not even my favorite song of theirs from the 80’s. I suppose the difference is that most of the songs that I love are from their early records, which were not pop albums. Now, by 1992 they’d be the biggest band in the world, but their ascension didn’t really start until Document, their 5th album. This song was maybe their third or fourth big single. It also hit 9-year-old me at just the right time. It’s a goofy, fun song. It’s light and effervescent and I don’t know what it even means. Who cares, because it’s easy to sing along to, and that’s all I cared about as a kid, you know? I have fond memories of sitting on our horrid beige-and-brown couch and playing NES while this song was on the radio. It evokes some of my fondest memories of being a kid, therefore it ranks pretty high on my list, even if when I’m making my “best American band of all time” arguments I probably leave this song out. Okay, the video remains wonderful. Cow butt for no reason. Michael Stipe with long hair. Delightful.
4. “You Make My Dreams” – Daryl Hall and John Oates
Anyone who says they don’t like Hall and Oates is a goddamned liar. If it wasn’t for the existence of Michael Jackson, they’d be the reigning champions of pop music, right straight up. In fact, I think there’s probably a pretty strong argument to made that they’re it. This song in particular is a creation of pure pop wizardry. It’s so simple! Simple and pure, it gets right to point. It’s pure, distilled Eighties pop and it’s damn near perfect. This video makes cocaine seem like a real good time. I will go to war for John Oates’ mustache.
3. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears
This is a song I doubt I need to spend much time justifying. I suspect there’s a contingent of people out there who would have this as number one without much in the way of argument. It’s a great pop song, it’s a great song, and unlike a lot of songs on this list, it’s pretty much timeless. Yeah, there’s a little 80’s synth-bounce in there, but man, it holds up. It’s a joy to listen to, now and forever. It’s also impressive that for a song that’s way, way, way overused in media, I still enjoy listening to it. Imagine still wanting to hear “Fortunate Son” or “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Bad to the Bone.” I feel like this song is right up there for easy go-to songs to make it clear such-and-such character has ambitions in whatever tepid-ass script you’re writing, and yet somehow it doesn’t hurt the song any. I also appreciate that Tears for Fears are secure enough to go find a couple of dope black dudes that are way cooler than they are for their video. Nah just kiddin’, everyone’s a goof here.
2. “Hero Takes a Fall” – The Bangles
This is not their most popular song, but it’s their best and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Goddammit, this is so good. It’s the cascading voices, the intense harmonizing, the razor-sharp hooks, Susannah Hoff’s breathy, probably-the-sexiest-I’ve-ever-heard voice, all of it. It’s a straight fucking masterpiece, I don’t have much else to say about it, other than I sometimes listen to it twice in a row because I can’t help myself. The video confirms that I’m going to go back into time and have all of Hoff’s babies.
1. “In a Big Country” – Big Country
“Shyaa!” I don’t know what they did. Somehow, these particular notes in this particular order was the combination to cold, cynical heart. I don’t have an answer for why this song always, always, creates a well of positive feelings in me. If there are big, emotional things happening in my life, this song has and will make me cry. Look, I’m not trying to come at you all tough-guy but that’s not a thing I normally do. I’m just broken that way, I guess, but under certain circumstances “In a Big Country” has that ability. I should stress that it’s always in a good way. This song is just so broad and open, so life-affirming and positive. It’s too good for this world, and it’s a tragedy that this was their only hit. Obviously they thought so highly of it they named their damn band after it. They totally knew. Anyway, the rest of their music is good, and it all kind of sounds like this, and you should listen to it. But this was rightly what they’re remembered for. What a great fucking song. Video note: “MTV needs a video, what do ya wanna do?” “I dunno, ride around on ATVs all day and then go scuba diving?” “Sounds good!”
So that’s a list! All these songs are perfect and are in the objectively correct order. Obviously. If, against all reason, you disagree, then I don’t know what to tell you. Get better at listening to music I guess… ha ha, whatever, I forgot probably six hundred songs. Oh well, fight me anyway.