December 2010

#6 – Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin’” – (1981)

This song was a top ten hit upon its initial release (#9). It’s been a mainstream radio staple for 30 years and its popularity in the past 10 years is equal, if not greater than, when it was first released. This song is in the top 25 most downloaded (iTunes) songs of all time. This song has been in too many movies and TV shows to list, although I will say that it was famously in the final scene of The Sopranos. The opening keyboard gives this song away immediately, and when Steve Perry’s blasting vocals build to that final crescendo, you really feel it. People, and I’ve noticed this a lot among younger and younger generations, love this song. Rightfully so.

#7 – Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” – (1986)

This is the best synthpop song ever. Period. It was a #1 single – rightfully so. Brilliant opening lyrics: “Sometimes you’re better off dead / there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head / you think you’re mad / too unstable / kicking in chairs and knocking down tables / in a restaurant / in a West End town / call the police / there’s a madman around / running down / underground / to a dive bar / in a West End town.” Then the chorus starts about the “East End boys and West End girls.” The opening lyrics are delivered very straightforwardly – mostly spoken. This song has the unique ability to draw you into it without you noticing. It almost puts you in a trance. It’s dark, urban, and terrifying. “Here today / built to last / in every city and every nation / from Lake Geneva to the Finland station.” Then there’s those haunting backing vocals. And I have to mention it – probably the best spoof of any song I’ve ever heard is a takeoff of this by Flight of the Conchords called “Inner City Pressure.” For what it is, it is brilliant.

#8 – Harold Faltermeyer – “Axel F.” – (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop is absolutely one of the best movies of the 80s. I honestly do not see you anyone could argue otherwise. This was the theme from that movie and it too is amazing (the title comes from the movie’s main character Axel Foley). It’s instrumental synthpop but it is so recognizable. It’s popped up all over the place since and has to be the most instantly recognizable songs from the 80s. Harold Faltermeyer is a German film composer who did this and the theme from Top Gun. But as far as mainstream success goes, this was it.

#9 – UB40 – “Red Red Wine” – (1983)

Here’s another tropical 80s hit. “Red Red Wine” was written and originally released by Neil Diamond in 1968, but it wasn’t anywhere near this much fun. This song was a #1 in the UK upon its first release in 1983. It didn’t hit #1 in the U.S. until 1988. Which is kinda weird. The last concert I was at was a UB40 concert (I know, right?) and they waited until the very end to perform this, and rightfully so, it is their signature song. But I really had to go to the bathroom and I didn’t want to miss it. So I had to stand there and dance for an hour before I finally heard it. Worth it. One thing I love is that when you listen to this song you picture a very Bob Marley-looking fellow singing it. Then you see this average looking white guy from Birmingham belting out these amazing lyrics with such perfection… it really throws you. I love it.

#10 – The Beach Boys – “Kokomo” – (1988)

“Kokomo” is interesting. By the late 80s, The Beach Boys were mostly a group for nostalgia freaks. Then 4 musical giants got together and wrote this song: John Phillips (from the Mamas & the Papas), Scott McKenzie (who had a huge single on his own), Mike Love (founding member of the Beach Boys), and Terry Melcher (who produced albums for The Byrds, and Paul Revere & the Raiders). After they wrote the song, it was used in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail – to huge success – propelling the song to #1 – the first for the Beach Boys since 1966. It put the band back in the spotlight and introduced their music to a whole new generation. The song was included on the Boys’ 1989 album Still Cruisin’ as well as the Cocktail soundtrack.

The song famously lists a bunch of tropical places and one fictional place (or a real one: Kokomo, Indiana – hardly tropical). Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahama(s), Key Largo, Montego, Martinique, Montserrat, and Port-au-Prince. Naturally, VH1 and those “people” at Blender loathed this song and mocked it whenever they could. Guilty pleasure, maybe? Could be, but I’ve loved it since I first heard it – it’s catchy as hell. Also, this song was featured on Full House when Uncle Jesse joined the Beach Boys as their drummer. Yes, John Stamos was technically in The Beach Boys – which is one of my favorite bits of trivia ever.

#11 – Billy Vera & the Beaters – “At This Moment” – (1987)

Originally recorded and released in 1981, “At This Moment” didn’t become a hit until it was featured in an episode of Family Ties in 1986. Then it went to #1 in January of 1987. The song is beautiful and has the required 1980s saxophone. It’s very bluesy/jazzy. And the power of the lyrics when accompanied by very little instrumentation is quite great. Billy Vera & the Beaters could never match this success – some songs just can’t be topped.

#12 – George Michael – “Father Figure” – (1987)

George Michael is one of my favorite artists to come out of the 80s. Hmm. Poor choice of words there. Of all his solo work, this is my favorite and I think, his best, song. It’s kind of slow, but the chorus is loud and very church-choir-ish. And unlike almost every song ever recorded, the lyrics on this track are completely discernable. I can pick up every word he says (and sing along, loudly), without having to look up lyrics. His voice is clear – and that is rare. In the music video, George is sporting “his look” – big sunglasses, leather jacket and giant cross earring. Faith was his biggest album, generating four #1 singles and a #2 single.

#13 – Mike + the Mechanics – “The Living Years” – (1988)

I caught a recent Mike + the Mechanics concert on TV on day and realized that people love and identify with this song. And rightfully so, it’s brilliant. That soft building during the first verse and the choir backing in the chorus… then bam! the band kicks it up a little bit. The lyrics are beyond me trying to describe how good they are. “Say it loud, say it clear / you can listen as well as you hear / it’s too late when we die / to admit we don’t see eye to eye.” Paul Carrack is on vocals and he nails it. This was a #1 hit when it came out and it should reside near the top of the all time list of great songs.

#14 – The Whispers – “Rock Steady” – (1987)

“And we began to rock – steady / steady rockin’ all night long.” This is my favorite R&B song from the 80s (the Commodores “Lady” being a close second). This song has the sublime 80s-ness to it that you just can’t capture anymore. Sure, the synth is heavy – but those vocals just aren’t around anymore. And everybody in the band has a giant Steve Harvey moustache in the music video – and matching green and yellow suits. Because of this song, The Whispers will always be “rockin’ to the break of dawn.”

#15 – Prince – “1999” – (1982)

If you wanna hear this on YouTube, be quick – Prince is notorious for not allowing anyone to hear and song he is even associated with unless they are throwing all kinds of money at him. Not only is this one of the best songs of the 80s, it’s one of the best songs of the 90’s as well – having re-charted and received a lot of airplay in its title year. It was this party anthem that put Prince on the map. The follow up single, “Little Red Corvette” made it into the Top 10 and after that, “1999” made it to #12. In 1999 it re-charted at #40, making it Prince’s last Top 40 hit. I think this has to be Prince’s defining song. “Purple Rain” gets a lot of attention, but that was because of the accompanying movie. If “1999” was a movie, then this would surely get more attention.

#16 – Tears for Fears – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – (1985)

The beginning of this song is great. The middle and the end are also great. But you know it from that beginning little note. The song is very up tempo but the lyrics are generally relaxed and subdued but build toward the chorus. That contradiction really gives the song some soul. Tears for Fears (Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith) wrote numerous great songs but this is the best even though “Shout” was bigger.

#17 – Hall & Oates – “You Make My Dreams” – (1980)

This is one of the all-time catchiest songs. Ever. And it only made it to #5. Hall & Oates had a few #1s in their career and when I look at most of them I think, “Why?” Why weren’t songs like this #1? It’s popped up here and there over the years. It as in The Wedding Singer and, quite popularly, (500) Days of Summer – in which, I think, may be one of the greatest dance sequences ever. But my favorite appearance of it was a spoof of it done on SNL about Barack Obama.

#18 – R.E.M. – “Stand” – (1988)

R.E.M. had a couple of great songs near the end of the 80s but I like “Stand” the best because it seems as if it were saying something great (“Think about direction/Wonder why you haven’t before”). I’m not sure that it really is, as Michael Stipe has stated that he “wrote the most inane lyrics that I could possibly write.” That’s not a ringing endorsement for greatness, but it remains a great song. It was R.E.M.’s second top 10 single in the U.S. going to number six.

#19 – Kenny Loggins – “Danger Zone” – (1986)

Top Gun had a pretty good soundtrack, and with all due respect to Berlin, this was the best song from it. I love the images that appear in my mind whenever I hear this. F-14 Tomcats launching off the end of an aircraft carrier somewhere in the south Pacific during the 1980s. Maverick and Goose high-fiving on the mutual feeling they have of the need for speed. Kenny Loggins is throwing some kick ass vocals out on this track too. It was one of his last big hits (if not the last). It sucks too because during the 80s he was almost bound to doing theme songs – ahem, Footloose. This song proved he still had it. Apparently Bryan Adams rejected doing this song because of its ridiculous patriotism. Well Bryan Adams is Canadian, so whatever, I’m glad Kenny got it.

#20 – Spandau Ballet – “True” – (1983)

I’ve never heard someone say “I” in such a dramatic, drawn-out way. It’s so peaceful sounding. This song was in Sixteen Candles, which is part of the reason it was so huge – hitting #1 in the UK and #4 in the U.S. It was their biggest hit. I’m guessing there are a lot of people who know or have heard this song (it’s been in a lot of movies and TV shows) but have no idea who sings it. Well it’s Spandau Ballet and they are still touring. Oh, and this is yet another song from the 80s with prominent saxophone.

#21 – The Police – “Synchronicity II” – (1983)

Okay, so there was a more obvious choice for The Police but I thought it was too obvious. I narrowed it down between this and “Spirits in the Material World” but I thought since Synchronicity is one of the best albums of the decade, it should be represented – with its near title track at that. There’s kind of a dark tone to this song. “Another suburban family morning… Grandmother screaming at the wall.” It is, lyrically, one of the Police’s most interesting songs. “Many miles away… something crawls to the surface… of a dark, Scottish loch.” And of course there is that wonderful Police-only blend of reggae, punk and rock. Good stuff.

#22 – Bon Jovi – “Livin’ on a Prayer” – (1986)

Slippery When Wet was Bon Jovi’s breakout album and this song was their big breakout hit (even though it was their second #1) – and remains their signature song to this day. It’s un-toppable. Doesn’t everybody know this song and its opening lines, “Tommy used to work on the docks…”? New Jersey produced a lot of working class sing-a-long songs in the 1980s. They brought us Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. The one thing I really love about this song? Richie Sambora’s talk box – it really sets it apart.

#23 – Dexy’s Midnight Runners – “Come on Eileen” – (1982)

“Come on Eileen” was rated #1 on VH1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s. They’re kind of right. A local radio station here in town named this the #1 party song of the 20th Century. I don’t know about that… This song has a very distinct feel to it – a kind of Irish folksy-ness – mostly from that fiddle and the music video. Whenever I hear this song I instantly picture sleeveless shirts and denim overalls. And for some reason, I now associate that with Ireland. This band was from Birmingham, so the whole Irish thing I get is really… well, wrong. But this song did hit #1 and rightfully so… the definitive example of 80s one-hit wonder-ness.

#24 – Robert Palmer – “Addicted to Love” – (1985)

Robert Palmer had some great non-hair influenced 80s rock songs and this is the very best of them. His voice is quite amazing as is the Elvis-ish twang in his voice when certain words are sung. There’s real lip-curling badassery behind the lyrics – it really does evoke images of Elvis – not that Robert Palmer was Elvis or had his voice, just the vocal delivery is similar in some ways. The music video was also the first to kick off the “Robert Palmer look” that I think of every time I hear his name: women with pale skin in black clothing, dark makeup and bright red lipstick. When I think of Robert Palmer that is what I think it. He used it in multiple videos and it’s kind of his look (although it wasn’t really him donning it). Robert Palmer kicked ass in the 80s and died of a heart attack at age 54 in 2003.

#25 – Matthew Wilder – “Break My Stride” – (1983)

The 1980s were a wonderful time for people who loved semi-tropical sounding pop music. The 90s had a little bit, but it mostly stemmed from songs like this. I think it’s calypso? This was a hit on multiple charts, making it to #5 on the Hot 100. There are few songs I can think of that are this upbeat and happy and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been used in more commercials or films than it has. This was Matthew Wilder’s only real hit – although he produced No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom – one of the best albums of the 1990s.

#26 – After The Fire – “Der Kommissar” – (1982)

Originally recorded by in German Falco in 1981, “Der Kommissar” was covered just a year later in English by After the Fire. Unfortunately, the ATF version didn’t catch on immediately and the band broke up before it even became a hit. But their version is far superior. “Don’t turn around uh-oh” is the fairly famous part of the song, and there is still a little German left over: “Alles klar, herr kommissar?”

#27 – John Waite – “Missing You” – (1984)

What’s with the vampire pose on the album cover? And then in the music video he looks a lot like Annie Lennox. What’s that? He’s British? Oh, that makes it okay then. “Missing You” was his biggest (and more or less only) solo hit – a #1 in 1984. While I don’t find the music to be anything too spectacular, the lyrics… “and there’s a storm that’s raging through my lonely heart tonight… I ain’t missing you at all…” are great. A great example of an 80s soft rock ballad-ish thing.

#28 – Genesis – “Invisible Touch” – (1986)

Genesis had a bunch of great songs in the 80s. I picked “Invisible Touch” to represent them on this list because it’s very upbeat and fun and it was also their biggest, most successful single. It was their first #1 hit. Interestingly, this was the first time a band hit #1 after one of its band members had done it on their own (Phil Collins had 4 #1s before this song made it to the top). Invisible Touch was also the name of the album, and it was a good one. I count four other great singles besides this one – which is a lot. Phil Collins had a huge impact on 80s music – and Genesis’ former lead singer, Peter Gabriel, bumped this song from its #1 spot with “Sledgehammer.”