Gimme It, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

As a postscript to my Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s, here are my 25 favorite albums of the decade, accompanied by a gloriously deranged video for the first track from # 1.

1. Kate Bush, The Dreaming
2. XTC, Skylarking
3. The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane
4. Talking Heads, Remain In Light
5. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead
6. Everything But The Girl, Idlewild
7. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
8. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
9. XTC, English Settlement
10. Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow
11. Erasure, The Innocents
12. The Mekons, Rock N Roll
13. R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant
14. XTC, Oranges and Lemons
15. Pet Shop Boys, Introspective
16. Roxy Music, Avalon
17. Was (Not Was), What Up, Dog?
18. The Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball
19. New Order, Substance
20. Madonna, Like A Prayer
21. The Go-Betweens, Tallulah
22. R.E.M., Murmur
23. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes
24. George Michael, Faith
25. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 5-1

5. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
If asked to show a person from another era what 1980s music was like and how good it could be, I’d play them this. Unlike various songs here that I’ve described as “timeless”, this one screams 1987; even ’60s icon Springfield sounds like she’s been given a 20-year, buff-and-shine update (although her chorus here ranks with all her classic work). Fortunately, the Pets always knew how to temper sophistication with mass appeal, and Springfield benefits as much from them as they do from her.

4. The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
I could write a whole book on this song (seriously); for the sake of this blog, I’ll keep it brief. Not one wasted note exists on this fan favorite/penultimate track on The Queen is Dead, from those startling first guitar chords to Morrissey’s repeated intonation of the song’s mysterious, delectable title near the fade-out. Arguably the closest this iconoclastic band ever came to a love song, and who else would say, “To die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die” in a love song and make you believe it?

3. Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”
Since I didn’t have MTV in 1984, I don’t know if, at that time, I ever knew this was by the same weirdo who sang “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”. It always remained in the depths of my subconscious until, as an adult, having confirmed who sung it, I found it more deeply affecting with each passing year. Such a good song that everyone seems to love it (sitcom characters even do abrupt karaoke renditions of it)–I’ve never met anyone who genuinely loathes it.

2. The Go-Betweens, “Bye Bye Pride”
These Aussies always deserved so much more love than they got; arguably, only real music geeks knew their work. Collected, it plays like an alternate universe soundtrack where everything’s more literate and romantic (though not in a sentimental sense). I posted the lyrics to this, one of their most beautiful and buoyant songs when its writer/vocalist abruptly died in 2006, putting a tragic end to the group. I try to live my life in accordance with its pragmatic optimism; I also love that it fades out with an oboe solo (of all things).

1. New Order, “Temptation”
“Temptation” has to be number one. I briefly considered deliberately keeping it off the top because I’ve already blogged about how it’s my favorite song, but if I’m being honest with myself, it can’t be # 2 or 3 or 10 or whatever. I have little left to say about it except that it was awesome to finally see the band perform it live last month and that the last two minutes and thirty seconds (from “Bolts from above hit the people down below” on) are possibly my favorite 2:30 of any song.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 10-6

10. XTC, “Towers of London”
XTC might have been as big as The Police if Andy Partridge had wanted to be Sting. Of course, they were great because Partridge had no interest in being anyone but himself. Although not as well-known as “Dear God” or “Senses Working Overtime”, this single contains All Good Things About XTC: a proto-Britpop hook, a heavy (but not derivative) 1960s flavor, a heart-stopping, key-changing bridge and Partridge’s love-it-or-hate-it wail (I love it).

9. Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
Her only hit in the US–it reached # 30 and even now it’s astonishing it went that far. I don’t think I could capably describe this song to someone who hasn’t heard it, because it doesn’t sound like much else. Individual elements, such as that wonky, three-note synth riff or the understated, almost martial beat don’t seem like they’d ever go together in theory, so call Bush an alchemist and marvel that she created something this blindingly original (and so much more) before she turned 30.

8. Cristina, “Is That All There Is?”
Some days I believe this is the best cover version of all time. I mean, Peggy Lee’s original was warped to begin in, but this twisted new wave chanteuse (on the same record label as #18!) deliberately turns it into bratty high camp, rewriting the lyrics to say stuff like “he beat me black and blue AND I LOVED IT” in a voice dripping with sarcasm and spite. It’s a hoot worthy of The B-52’s if they were fronted by a punk Norma Desmond.

7. Talking Heads, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”
One day I’ll post a list of favorite album openers and this one from Remain In Light will be near the top. David Byrne’s abrupt “HAH!” kicks off nearly six minutes of a relentless groove that doesn’t build but arrives fully formed. What’s on top that groove, however, appears piece by piece (think of the band’s gradual entrance in the concert film Stop Making Sense a few years later) until you get a hypnotic, symphonic whole you wish would extend as far as a Fela Kuti number.

6. Erasure, “A Little Respect”
Speaking of great album openers… while “Chains of Love” was technically the bigger hit, this duo’s other best-known song (the first track on The Innocents) has permeated the culture more extensively (even driving the narrative of a Scrubs episode!) and why not: it transcends gimmickry, genre and era with that delicate but disarming melody and Andy Bell’s elastic, yearning, heartfelt vocal.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 15-11

15. R.E.M., “Fall On Me”
After Automatic for The People came out, over the following year I had the best time working my way through R.E.M.’s impressive back catalog. Much of it holds up very well today, especially this ecology-themed single from Life’s Rich Pageant in which all of the band’s disparate pieces fall into place, from Peter Buck’s jangle to Mike Mills’ plainspoken but effective harmonies.

14. Kirsty MacColl, “He’s On The Beach”
Another great lost single from an unjustly obscure artist: inexplicably, this failed to chart, even in her native UK (and it was a follow-up to one of her biggest hits ever there, a cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England”). Perhaps people didn’t want such a lyrically melancholy anthem (no matter how summery it sounded) in 1985, but that’s their loss and our gain.

13. Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
The Moz kicked off his solo career with a brilliant run of singles, the best of which was this drearily gorgeous lament on the most depressing day of the week next to Monday. It swoons and sways with typically obscure (or just veddy British) references (“Win yourself a cheap tray”… huh?) and a chorus as massive and majestic as anything by The Smiths.

12. Yaz, “Only You”
Alison and Vince could be as chilling and quirky as any synth-pop duo, but they knew it wouldn’t mean a thing without an apparent beating heart. On “Only You”, the first thing I notice isn’t the skeletal music or even the yearning but composed vocals–it’s the song’s indelible, poignant melody that resonates.

11. The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”
I can’t hate on “Love Shack”, but I never need to hear it again. This track, however, from the other end of the decade really shows off what these guys and gals could do in their prime–namely, come off as the best party band in the world, but also one of the most sinister. Check out the last thirty seconds, climaxing with Fred wailing “GET OUTTA THAT SPACE!” if you don’t believe me.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 20-16

20. Sam Phillips, “What Do I Do”
From her fittingly-titled first secular album The Indescribable Wow, a lush, Van Dyke Parks-arranged orchestral gem that I never tire of getting lost in, especially when the searching, questioning lyrics brush up against Phillips’ divine multilayered vocals. Although the world of Contemporary Christian music lost one of its rising stars, the rest of us gained a real, fruitful talent.

19. The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women”
A novelty song so obvious and unusual and witty and silly and charming and vulgar that at once you ponder why it didn’t cross over to top 40 radio and know very well why it remained an underground hit. This is the souped-up “RCA version” (as opposed to the deliberately amateurish original), but all you really need in both versions is that excitable, nerdy male narrator.

18. Was (Not Was), “Knocked Down, Made Small”
They eventually hit big with “Walk The Dinosaur”, but this hard-to-categorize collective of Detroit weirdos put out two crazy LPs earlier in the decade. This great lost single from 1983 shows they could combine new wave, hard rock and funk as well as Prince did at the time–possibly better, as they had gruff, powerful vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson in their court.

17. The Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed”
As perfect a pop song as #28 (though I also really like this version), The Go-Go’s updated the girl group for a more advanced and cynical age. Despite the sunny harmonies and a generally wistful air, the band’s knowing, cautionary performance lends the song a bittersweet edge. You could listen to it one hundred times before even discovering it, but it’s there.

16. ‘Til Tuesday, “Coming Up Close”
More emphatically bittersweet, Aimee Mann knows the fine line between being droll and dour; this was even apparent back in ‘Til Tuesday. Although many of their songs suffer from dated production, this lovely folk-rock number is a striking exception. The organic, pastoral setting brings out the reedy warmth in Mann’s voice and the chorus is more palatable than a fistful of period power ballads.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 25-21

25. The Mekons, “Last Dance”
You could live a whole life without ever hearing this venerable cult band, but such a life would lack something essential. I know, I can barely stand Tom Greenhalgh’s strangled croak either, but when you combine that croak with such sweetness and spirit, you wish this song was as much of a standard as the Donna Summer tune of the same name.

24. ABBA, “The Visitors”
Who are The Visitors? Immigrant hordes? Alien invaders? Mere figments of the singer’s imagination? The title track on the fantabulous foursome’s final album crackles with ambiguity; the music’s sinuous complexity proves how far they progressed from “Ring Ring” in just under ten years.

23. The Jam, “That’s Entertainment”
This crisp, cutting sketch is so proto-Smiths (predating their first single by three years), it’s no wonder that Morrissey later covered it early in his solo career. However, even Morrissey’s more lamenting, ennui-laden version can’t match the sharpness and urgency of Paul Weller’s original.

22. They Might Be Giants, “Ana Ng”
I honestly did not know what to make of this in 1988 (extreme geek-rock?); only 5 years later (when I was 18) did all of its clever and catchy compartments click. Memorable like ABBA, and quirky like Zappa (but not at all mean-spirited), John and John’s ode to a Japanese woman they never met is somehow both universal (a subject anyone can relate to) and unique (a sound that could come from no one else).

21. Prince, “Kiss”
Oh, silly Prince who does not allow his videos to stream on YouTube. Because of that, I nearly axed you off this list entirely–hey, I can think of tracks by fifty other ’80s artists, all of ’em just as good as you. Still, I can’t deny this, your startlingly stripped-down three-minute masterpiece; this existing abbreviated clip doesn’t even contain the best part (your scream-to-a-whisper near the end), but it’ll have to do.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 30-26

30. Echo & The Bunnymen, “The Killing Moon”
Another song salvaged by Donnie Darko (see #46), although I hadn’t heard this one before first seeing such inspired use of it in the film’s opening scene. This conjures up the mystique and grandeur I wish I could find but just can’t pinpoint in U2.

29. Bananarama, “Robert De Niro’s Waiting”
No wonder this follow-up single to “Cruel Summer” flopped (in the US, stalling at #95), the title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and the “talking Italian” chorus might’ve come off too Abba for 1984 America; a shame, because it really nails this girl group’s unpretentious, breezy charm (and they even get to harmonize a little!)

28. The English Beat, “Save It For Later”
Listening to this, their perfect pop moment, you get the sense this band could’ve been huge had they not split up shortly thereafter. It’s such a jubilant, carefree performance that one barely notices the sting of and despair in the lyrics.

27. Madonna, “Borderline”
You knew she was going to show up sooner or later, and it was tough call to pick this over “Like a Prayer”, “Live To Tell” and a half-dozen other worthies. Of all her personas, I still maintain the young, downtown NYC Madonna was the best Madonna, and here she projects a vulnerability that now seems forever lost.

26. Indeep, “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life”
A minimalist masterpiece: take a permutation of the groove from “Rapper’s Delight”, add some pleasantly anonymous female vocals, fashion them around a simple-but-clever lyrical conceit, and throw in a few low-rent (but subtly so) production touches (like a toilet flushing)–voila, an effervescent jam.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 35-31

35. Diana Ross, “Upside Down”
Essentially a Chic song with an extra special guest vocalist, but rarely was Ross ever this giddy, this flirtatious, this precise in her solo career–without her singular personality, the song wouldn’t have made this list.

34. The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
Of course the “wrapping” is quaint by today’s standards, but I’m impressed and delighted at how much of a holiday standard this now is–certainly heard it more often last Christmas than Xmas ’92 (or ’82, for that matter).

33. David Bowie, “Modern Love”
His last great single–easily of a piece with all of his excellent ’70s standards with absolutely nothing ’70s about it.

32. Haysi Fantayzee, “Shiny Shiny”
Unapologetically the most INSANE song on this list: the aural equivalent of snorting a cavalcade of Giant Pixy Stix while waxing lyrical about the Marquis de Sade–fortunately, it’s catchy/annoying rather than just  annoying (still ridiculous, though).

31. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
From the ridiculous to the sublime… as with # 39, I’m psyched to say this sounds nothing like 1986 and is all the better for that; they were never the most fashionable band, but you can’t deny their greatest hit, a small, soulful miracle of restraint in a sea of the era’s overproduced balladry.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 40-36

40. Culture Club, “Church of the Poison Mind”
Their singles are so woven into a fabric of overplayed ’80s playlists, it’s easy to forget how great a singles band they briefly were. “Church” may be Culture Club at their most blatantly retro, so why does it seem so refreshing today?

39. Everything But The Girl, “Cross My Heart”
EBTG’s third album was a deliberate attempt at distancing themselves from their more fashionable peers–absolutely nothing about this Bacharach-esque ballad indicates it’s from 1986, and it sounds as classic/timeless today as it did then.

38. Violent Femmes, “Blister In The Sun”
A shout-out to my hometown’s favorite sons and their signature song: weird but catchy, ramshackle but never sliding off its rails, seemingly inscrutable but obvious once you figure it out, it has no precedent in pop music (nor has anything come close to replicating it).

37. Adam Ant, “Goody Two Shoes”
Speaking of musicians who may have well come from another planet, say what you want about Mr. Ant (his greatest hits album is the most schizoid in quality I’ve ever heard), he certainly had his own vision and wasn’t half-assed about pursuing it; here he had a massive/genius chorus to boot.

36. Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”
For many, this must’ve seemed revolutionary at the time; now, it’s more a novelty defined by Jimmy Somerville’s unconventional falsetto, a song that’s musically simplistic but emotionally rich. In the right setting, it could still serve as a beacon for someone who needs it.

Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s: # 45-41

45. Rubber Rodeo, “Anywhere With You”
I first heard this fairly obscure Boston band on a period compilation. They sound like a much twangier Pretenders and it’s a shame country-fried new wave never fully took off.

44. Roxette, “Dressed For Success”
More so than “The Look”, this is the song that made me a fan of Per and Marie. Although they rocked more convincingly than fellow famed Swedes Abba, this shows they wrote hooks as mindlessly and effortlessly catchy as Benny and Bjorn could.

43. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
Oh, I wanted to go with a less iconic track like “Thorn In My Side” or even the unjustly forgotten “Sex Crime (1984)”, but I have to give their biggest hit its due. This video must’ve looked shockingly cool 30 years ago; I’ll bet it’s still somewhat influential today.

42. Lipps, Inc., “Funkytown”
Disco was supposed to have died along with the 1970s, so what was this robotic throwback doing at number one in the charts in the summer of ’80? Almost remedially dumb, but transcendentally so–the decade’s ultimate one-hit wonder?

41. Heaven 17, “Temptation”
See, disco didn’t die–it got all mixed up in techno-pop, new wave cool and Motown-esque flourishes. This song’s indelible chorus seems to build, and build, and build some more, to an extent that when it’s over, the song seems like it keeps going (as the lyrics suggest) higher and higher.