Love the 80s, but feel embarrassed by your addiction to oldies stations? Not to worry. The kids of today share your tastes, and they’ve made plenty of music to match. Give your well-worn copy of Now 5 a rest and check this lot out. Few are out-and-out 80s pastiches, but they all (to my mind) have something of the mood or style of pop’s greatest decade about them.
- To be read in conjunction with Top 20 real 80s tracks.
The Horrors ‘Still Life’
Even at the time, the po-facedly epic ‘big music’ of U2, Simple Minds and Big Country was hopelessly naff. I guess what goes around comes around – or something. Horrors make it work by keeping things towards the Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes end of the spectrum and adding some My Bloody Valentine backwards guitar.
Holy Ghost! ‘Do It Again’
A perfect blend of the twitchy paranoia of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ and the grinding urban funk of ‘Let’s Go All The Way’ – plus, bizarrely, a sample-as-synth riff in the style of ‘Just Buggin’. If Holy Ghost! can add chorus-writing to their formidable production skills, their next album should be a corker.
Mirrors ‘Into the Heart’
An utterly aseptic, glittering cathedral of synthpop in the fine tradition of OMD. Ironically named vocalist James New ad-libbed the oddly moving lyric in the studio; his delivery has some of the desperate melancholy of The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie. It will be interesting to see how ‘that difficult second album’ sounds now that synthperv Ally Young has left the band.
Bon Iver ‘Beth/Rest’
Justin Vernon channels Bruce Hornsby for the closer to his self-titled second album. And if Hornsby is getting re-evaluated, there is surely no corner of the 80s that is off limits. Jive Bunny next?
Washed Out ‘Amor Fati’
The kids call it ‘chillwave’, but don’t let that put you off – it basically sounds like a mellow Flock of Seagulls B-side from 1983. Another term for this genre is ‘hypnagogic pop’ – that is, pop made by those who absorbed 80s MTV osmotically through the bedroom wall, in their sleep, aged nine months. Apposite and plausible.
Flight of the Conchords ‘Fashion is Danger’
Like all the Conchords’ parodies, this is clearly done with love. Draws on all the best elements of Visage, Human League and the immortal, zeitgeist-nailing L’Oreal Studio Lines advert (see both below for comparison). You can almost believe it’s real until Jemaine says ‘jazzercise’.
Yelle ‘Que Veux-Tu’ (Eumig & Chinon Poppy Remix)
Never was a remix so aptly named. This is so bright-white it borders on the fascistic. Also, French lyrics are pretty 80s (‘Games without Frontiers’, ‘Fade to Grey’ etc).
Groove Armada ‘History’
The Armada are very obviously channelling Bronski here, replicating not just the sound but also the dark, moody vibe. Will Young is a revelation, playing the ‘SA gay vocalist’ role originated by Jimmy Somerville to perfection.
Beach House ‘New Year’
To my ears, Beach House’s music falls somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Galaxie 500: indie pop to float away to. The whole album (Bloom) is similar and well worth checking out.
Tesla Boy ‘Spirit of the Night’
Retro synth pop is a tricky business, requiring the artist to tread a fine line between homage and camp. Tesla Boy gleefully tramples all over it, gloriously unworried about creating cheesy second-rate pop that might have reached No 35 in 1984. You can feel love for the 80s in every beat.
Light Asylum ‘A Certain Person’
As soon as this kicks off – with a phasing synth riff, that 1986 ‘dup-dup’ noise and a horse neighing – you know you’re in for something special. The rest of the track doesn’t disappoint, as vocalist Shannon Funchess declaims the lyric in the manner of an even grumpier Skin or Joan Armatrading. I can’t beat the Guardian’s description: ‘grave, dark, solemn, magniloquent’.
Gotye ‘Eyes Wide Open’
‘But you didn’t have to CUUUT me off…’ That soaraway Stinglike vocal on ‘Somebody that I used to know’ made it clear that we were in the presence of a master of the 80s. This track features the same ‘serious’ pop-rock singing over bustling ‘Big Love’/’Cloudbusting’ drums and a dramatic Ultravoxesque bassline. Like Beck and Mark Ronson, Gotye can master other people’s voices for fun, but may struggle to find his own.
Jupiter ‘Mama Used To Say’
In my book, there’s just one golden rule with cover versions: improve it. If your cover makes me want to bail out halfway through and listen to the original, you’ve failed.
Jupiter don’t make things easy for themselves by choosing to rework Junior’s dancefloor smash. But their update compares well, with its perfect contrast of distanced, unemotional vocals and insanely tight cybronic funk, made even more brainmeltingly intense by split seconds of dead digital silence in the chorus.
The Shoes ‘Time To Dance’
A headlong, hurtling headrush of pure energy that has something in common with Pigbag, The Specials or JoBoxers – albeit done with an unmistakeably Gallic archness. Easily the best track for running I’ve ever heard.
Robert Smith ‘Small Hours’
Yes, you read that right – Robert Smith of the Cure covering John Martyn’s majestic ambi-pop opus (on this tribute album). He updates it brilliantly – and, by ‘update’, I mean ‘make it sound like it came out in 1983’. The result has some of the icy grandeur of early New Order – and, by implication, early Cure.
Blu Mar Ten ‘Drive’
Love The Cars’ songcraft, but don’t need the overcooked production or famine connotations? Then this beautifully crafted cover is for you. A self-effacing female vocal floats through a soundscape of pattering toms and swirling synths, with nary a mental image of Bob Geldof cursing angrily in sight.
Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx ‘Nightcall’
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is pretty 80s. But it’s cool and selective about it, never resorting to straight quotation or crass pastiche. The same is true of the film’s soundtrack, which perfectly evokes the cold, reflective mood of synthpop without pasting on the bassline from ‘Fade to Grey’. The most thoughtful retro recyclers turn temporal distance into aesthetic achievement.
Twin Shadow ‘Forget’
The whole of Twin Shadow’s debut is worth a listen – if nothing else, for its remarkable assortment of basslines. He saves the best for last with this melancholy track, which sounds a bit like Bowie riffing on Godley & Creme’s ‘Cry’.
Yuksek ‘The Edge’
A pleasingly lo-fi piano intro gives way to a remorseless electro beat, rather like a perkier Gary Numan, topped off with Yuksek’s charmingly French-accented vocals. Having dealt its cards, the track breaks down to a one-note coda that just doesn’t ever need to end (but does).
Keep Shelly In Athens ‘Running Out Of You’
More hypnagogic pop in the style of Washed Out (q.v.), but this track has more surprises in store. It starts off a bit like ‘Drowning In Berlin’ – ludicrously slow and portentous, with a Theremin thrown in for good measure. Then, three minutes in, a Van Halen synth riff and someone shouting ‘break it down!’ herald an abrupt left turn, and it ends up sounding like This Mortal Coil covering the soundtrack of Scarface.