January 2011


R.E.M. – “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)” – (1987)

Congrats, R.E.M., on the longest-title award. Does anyone not love this song? It’s immense fun. And that’s about all it is – Michael Stipe just naming seemingly random things. According to him, he had a dream where he was at a party and everyone there had the initials “L.B.” – which is where Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs comes from. This is a difficult song to sing along to, due to the rapid-fire delivery of the lyrics. Its references to the apocalypse gave it new legs in 1999, with Y2K and the end of the world being upon us and whatnot. No Doubt performed it on MTV at midnight that night and nailed it. This is one reason it didn’t make the countdown (the fact that “Stand” is great is the other”) – although I know damned well it’s from the 80s, I can’t help but associate it almost entirely with the 90s.

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The Police – “Every Breath You Take” – (1983)

This is the Police’s signature song – and Sting’s. Gotta love the upright bass he plays in the video. So why was “Synchronicity II” on the countdown and not this? Valid question. It probably should have been, is my answer. But it wasn’t – so here it is.

Don Henley – “The End of the Innocence” – (1989)

Not sure about that weird comb-over thing Don’s got going on on the album cover there. I almost didn’t pick this Henley song because it’s a little sappy (this whole album was) and a little Mike + the Mechanics (who I don’t consider sappy). Then again, the song was co-written by Bruce Hornsby, who is also a little Mike + the Mechanics-y. Whatever it is, it doesn’t really sound a whole lot like the Eagles. Of all the Eagles members who had solo careers (I count three, unless I’m missing someone. Did Timothy B. Schmit have a solo career?), Don Henley had the most successful, and it was his ability to keep changing with the times (as well as his excellent voice) that allowed this to be. And he did change with the times: take a look at his five big 80s singles, from “Dirty Laundry” to this one and you can definitely see a sort of arc.

Pink Floyd – “Learning to Fly” – (1987)

This song was originally on the countdown somewhere in the 30s until I realized that my absolute love for this song was cloudy my judgment of its worthiness as an 80s staple. Released so far past Pink Floyd’s glory days, most people don’t give it a second thought but it has a similar sound to the great hits from The Wall. There really isn’t anything about this song that gives it away as being from the 80s as opposed to the 70s – and that’s why it didn’t make the countdown. It might be among my very favorite Pink Floyd tracks, but it’s not 80s enough – to its credit.

#1 – Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean” – (1982)

Well here it is. “Billie Jean” was revolutionary in every way and stands as one of the best, most important songs in history. The bass line is one-of-a-kind and instantly recognizable. Michael Jackson was at his very best with this track and it’s a big part of the reason why Thriller is the number one selling album of all time. The song hit #1 in the U.S. & UK and several other countries and went on to win multiple Grammys. The music video almost single-handedly threw MTV into the spotlight and made the channel a success. The video is iconic – with the light-up sidewalk and the amazing dance moves that Jackson would later go on to showcase on the TV special Motown 25. During his performance he debuted a new thing called the “moonwalk” while wearing a black sequin jacket and a lone white glove – forever his signature move and look. To think that producer Quincy Jones didn’t originally want this song on the album is kinda scary. Would Michael Jackson be The King of Pop without this single? Maybe, but the title wouldn’t be anywhere near as convincing. This song (and its performer) are legendary. Both had such a large effect on the recording industry that it borders on immeasurable and I think it’s the perfect song to end our countdown on.

#2 – Wham! featuring George Michael – “Careless Whisper” – (1984)

But George Michael was already on this list. Well, in the U.S., this song was credited to Wham! featuring George Michael, plus it was released on a Wham! studio album. But it doesn’t matter – listen to that sax. This song screams “80s” louder than just about any song I can think of. George Michael’s vocals are amazing. This song was a #1 in ten countries. It’s a tremendous break-up song and I don’t know what else to say about it other than how good it is, so I’ll just give you the lyrics of the chorus: “I’m never gonna dance again / guilty feet have got no rhythm / though it’s easy to pretend / I know you’re not a fool. / I should’ve know better than to cheat a friend / and waste this chance that I’ve been given. / So I’m never gonna dance again / the way I danced with you.”

#3 – Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight” – (1981)

I’m pretty sure this stands as the most famous and well known Phil Collins song. Musically, it’s pretty dark. There’s this kind of smoky atmosphere created by these long buzzing chords over that steady drum beat. Right before the final chorus, the drums explode with the very famous and much loved “doo-dom doo-dom doo-dom.” Everybody loves that part. Everybody waits for it. Then everybody starts banging on whatever is around them – steering wheel, desk top, etc. Lyrically it’s mostly uninteresting – just the same thing repeated over and over. There’s that myth that this song is about a drowning that Phil Collins witnessed. But even Phil doesn’t really know what this song’s about. He discovered a cool effect while messing around with some drums in a recording studio and wrote a song around it. This song was used in the first episode of Miami Vice – which cements its status as an 80s legend. Lately, it’s been popping up everywhere – which has to have something to do with its everlasting popularity. It was semi-annoyingly used in the movie The Hangover, where it was introduced to an entire new generation of fans more or less as a joke. But my favorite recent usage has to be in the Cadbury gorilla commercial. That commercial helped propel the song back onto the UK music charts – reaching #14 (and #1 in New Zealand). When you say “80s music,” this is generally the first song that comes to mind.

#4 – Paul Simon – “You Can Call Me Al” – (1986)

This stands as one of – if not the – catchiest song I have ever heard. Name another song with such a prominent trumpet and pennywhistle. Yeah, didn’t think so. Somehow, Paul Simon had bigger solo hits than this as “You Can Call Me Al” only went to #23. The entire Graceland album is brilliant, incorporating sounds of South Africa (and you can hear a little of it on this track). The hook is impossible to get out of your head once it’s there, and for some reason, I don’t mind it one bit. The video is hard to turn off, with Chevy Chase lip-synching and him and Paul Simon playing instruments and dancing. Trivia: the title of Collective Soul’s 1993 album Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid is taken from this song. You have no idea how proud I was of myself the day I figured that out my own. The lyrics can be interpreted as a man having a mid-life crisis, and because I love it, here they are, in their entirety:

 

A man walks down the street

He says why am I soft in the middle now

Why am I soft in the middle

The rest of my life is so hard

I need a photo opportunity

I want a shot at redemption

Don’t want to end up a cartoon

In a cartoon graveyard

Bonedigger bonedigger

Dogs in the moonlight

Far away my well-lit door

Mr. Beerbelly Beerbelly

Get these mutts away from me

You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

I can be your long lost pal

I can call you Betty

And Betty when you call me

You can call me Al

 

A man walks down the street

He says why am I short of attention

Got a short little span of attention

And wo my nights are so long

Where’s my wife and family

What if I die here

Who’ll be my role model

Now that my role model is

Gone gone

He ducked back down the alley

With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl

All along along

There were incidents and accidents

There were hints and allegations

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

I can be your long lost pal

I can call you Betty

And Betty when you call me

You can call me Al

Call me Al

 

A man walks down the street

It’s a street in a strange world

Maybe it’s the Third World

Maybe it’s his first time around

Doesn’t speak the language

He holds no currency

He is a foreign man

He is surrounded by the sound

The sound

Cattle in the marketplace

Scatterlings and orphanages

He looks around, around

He sees angels in the architecture

Spinning in infinity

He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

 

If you’ll be my bodyguard

I can be your long lost pal

I can call you Betty

And Betty when you call me

You can call me Al

Call me Al

#5 – Billy Ocean – “Caribbean Queen” – (1984)

This song makes me so very happy whenever I hear it. The 80s had a lot of tropical-ish music hit the charts and I honestly can’t tell if this song has that feeling or not – I think it’s mostly the title, which sounds kind of pathetic, but I love it – leave me alone. So yeah, it’s more of an upbeat post-disco R&B track. I love the way Billy sings the word “Caribbean.” It sounds more like “Carrie-Byoon.” Sometimes this song is subtitled “No More Love on the Run.” Interestingly, there were different versions of this song recorded for different markets. “European Queen” and “African Queen.” I like Caribbean better, probably because it’s the one I know. This was a #1 hit. From Scrubs: “Ah Billy! After the Arctic and the Pacific, you’re my favorite Ocean.”