Top 20 real 80s tracks

by Tom Albrighton 27 May 2012 Music

No, it’s not about copywriting. Or marketing. It’s about 20 of my favourite songs from the 80s. Sue me!

New Order ‘True Faith’ (1987)

I must have played this 12” every single day from its release in 1987 until I left home in 1989. Everything about it was perfect, from the sumptuous bright-white pop arrangement to the visual understatement of the Peter Savile sleeve. With an extra pop-push from co-writer Stephen Hague, Bernard’s lyrics transcend his habitual borderline-random style to achieve genuinely moving expression. George Michael’s robot-carol-singer cover version was unforgivable.

Phil Collins ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)

Collins’ thin, whiny Artful Dodger voice sometimes struggled to accommodate his drippy wuv-you ballads, but found its perfect vehicle in this uniquely sinister song. The dispassionate, accusatory lyric is perfectly paced, building to that drum fill, which showcases the gated reverb sound created for Melt. Although rhythm is the driving force of a lot of pop these days, it’s rare to hear live drums as a lead instrument.

A-ha ‘Take On Me’ (1984)

Predictable, mainstream and a real reunion-party stalwart, but undeniably brilliant nonetheless. Morten Harket yelps a load of old cobblers over the irrepressibly bouncy verses, before launching into the soaraway multi-octave chorus. An astonishing, otherworldly vocal to rival Art Garfunkel’s third verse on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – in other words, pretty much as good as pop singing gets.

Talking Heads ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)

At his best, David Byrne nails the entire human condition with a third-grade vocabulary. Here he meditates on the passage of time and the consequences of choice over a supple, aquatic funk groove created with the help of Eno. The track was cruelly disregarded in its time, but maybe fans needed to age before they could appreciate it.

The Smiths ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ (1984)

All men have unaccountable tastes, and here is mine. Unloved by most fans, and indeed Morrissey himself, this was the first time I heard the Smiths, and duly rushed out to buy the single – in the ‘Morrissey’ sleeve no less, which apparently is now very collectible. In the context of 1984, Morrissey’s bracingly mordant lyric and the band’s wonderfully rough sound was like a hard slap across the face. A slap that felt good.

Dream Academy ‘Life in a Northern Town’ (1985)

Personal bias here, since both my parents are from Sowerby Bridge, which gave this song extra resonance. Also, as a lifelong Beatles fan, I was always going to have time for what’s basically a mashup of ‘Penny Lane’ (imagery, sense of place, reminiscence) and the fadeout of ‘Hello Goodbye’ (chanted chorus), particularly when it actually namechecks the Fab Four in the lyric.

View from the Hill ‘No Conversation’ (1987)

Nothing original, complex or compelling, just a beautifully crafted bubble-bath of a soul song, topped off with a Courtney Pine sax solo. Sounds called it ‘a classic fit to meet God naked’. Still sounds great to me 25 years on.

Dollar ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ (1982)

Not a challenging group by any stretch of the imagination, Dollar were really just a blank canvas on which Trevor Horn could realise his vision of perfect pop. One result was this Easter egg of a song – brittle and shiny, all sweet surface, with a total void within. Horn’s insanely overdone production surpasses itself in the coda, where the song bursts into a 3/4 kaleidoscopic cascade of Thereza Bazar vocals.

Public Enemy ‘Night of the Living Baseheads’ (1988)

PE rewrote the definition of a political group, of whatever colour. Half of the message was their sheer sonic onslaught – on this single, a furious, disorientating collage of 20 different samples expertly blended by DJ Terminator X. The other half was Chuck D’s commanding flow, excoriating the ‘black race’ (‘bass’) for dealing and using. Flavor Flav’s forthright anti-white sentiments in the breakdown add extra spice (‘selling drugs to the brother man instead of to the other man’).

Nu Shooz ‘I Can’t Wait’ (1986)

To nonbelievers, this is just another cheezy one-hit-wonder that richly deserves its obscurity. For the rest of us, it’s an endlessly fascinating enigma, like contemplating some sort of musical perpetual-motion machine. The meditative, distanced vibe and funky-yet-static groove were perfectly complemented by the slowly orbiting objects of the video (below). ‘You can listen to this record as many times as you want and still not have any strong impressions that human beings actually made it,’ wrote music critic John Leland. ‘In other words, it’s the perfect disco record.’

Frankie Goes To Hollywood ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)

In Paul Morley’s apposite slogan, ‘And suddenly there came a bang!’ ‘Relax’ was a puzzling record if you were 12, but even the most naïve listener could have no doubt as to Holly Johnson’s message here: nuclear war is a Really Bad Thing. What could have been trite is made titanic by Trevor Horn’s manically over-the-top production, complete with sirens, orchestras and Patrick Mower reciting menacingly from Protect and Survive. If you’re under 30, this may seem a curious beast: a pop record about a pressing social issue of its time that also shifted serious unit.

Paul Hardcastle ‘19’ (1985)

Another war song, and a classic instance of a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts. Hardcastle’s modest talent, his jittery electro groove and a bunch of documentary samples come together to encapsulate the jumpy paranoia of the Vietnam vet. The hook wasn’t the vocal, which was rubbish, but the endlessly retriggered ‘na-na-nineteen’ sample. Aged 14, I waited in by the radio all day for this to be played again, playing Boulder Dash on my Spectrum. These days, I’d have downloaded the MP3, skipped through it and got bored of it before lunchtime.

Joe Jackson ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)

Jackson left the sound of punk far behind, but his career exemplifies the movement’s ‘anyone can do it’ spirit, with its transition from spiky new wave through pop and on to jazz. Me and my best friend played Night and Day to death, endlessly fascinated by the inner-sleeve shot of Joe and his band surrounded by their full studio gear. This was the standout track, with its kinetic, propulsive groove and lyric of hard-won nocturnal optimism in the Big Apple. Growing up in Birmingham’s leafy suburbs, we could totally relate.

Heaven 17 ‘Temptation’ (1983)

This monstrous track derives its power from two musical contrasts. First, we’ve got the perpetually descending harmonic progression of the verse, set against the perpertually ascending chorus (‘climbing higher and higher’). Then there’s the boys’ preposterously deep, portentous vocals, offset by Carol Kenyon’s formidable soul soprano. She really deserved a ‘featuring’ credit at the very least.

Timbuk 3 ‘Easy’ (1988)

If the execrable ‘The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades’ is Risky Business, this is Paris, Texas. It’s a low-key, small-scale tale of a boxer being paid to take a fall, with an easygoing pop-country backing and a sublime chorus. You know that track you like, but can’t really say why? This is mine.

Talk Talk ‘Life’s What You Make It’ (1986)

In the same year that Falco, Europe and, er, Nick Berry all topped the charts, Talk Talk crashed the party with this majestic slab of psychedelic rock. Over a Can-style undercarriage built from a one-bar piano bassline and Lee Harris’ clattering tom-toms, Mark Hollis’ bell-like voice alternates with a soaring guitar line, creating a sound unlike anything before – or since. A high watermark of concise, innovative rock, before it surrendered the mantle of innovation to dance and lapsed into dull, derivative dadrock.

Pet Shop Boys ‘Left To My Own Devices’ (1988)

I sometimes feel that people don’t get how big a deal it was when sincere and honest gay voices emerged in the 1980s. Bands like Bronski, Soft Cell and PSB documented the ups and downs of smalltown boys in their West End bedsits, dealing with the hassle and the heartbreak without hiding it behind a protective layer of camp. Several PSB singles could have appeared here; I’ve chosen this one for its sheer eccentricity, showing the band beginning to branch out at the close of their do-no-wrong ‘Imperial’ period. Neil Tennant describes it as ‘a really up pop song about being left alone’.

Spacemen 3 ‘Hypnotized’ (1989)

Sometimes two chords, like two colours, is all you need. This didn’t leave my turntable in the summer of 1989, heralding my radical lifestyle switch from immature schoolboy to immature student. The advent of ‘indie dance’ (cough), the Baggy/Madchester scene and a golden period for indie music generally made for a sharp delineation between the 80s and the early 90s (to my mind at least).

Eurythmics ‘Savage’ (1987)

Eurythmics covered every base from dull-as-ditchwater commerciality (‘Thorn In My Side’) to the multifacted jewel that was Savage. The title track shows them at their most enigmatic – the high point of an album that Dave Stewart said saw the band ‘turn sharp left’.

Strawberry Switchblade ‘Since Yesterday’ (1984)

Two teenage girls who draw flowers on their shoes and sing about melancholy longing. What’s not to like? Well, the surprisingly industrial rhythm doesn’t no any harm, and neither do the über-sugary synths. Listening in 1984, how could I know that the lyrics encapsulated the wretched-yet-irresistible retro mindset I’d be falling into two decades later:

And as we sit here alone
Looking for a reason to go on
It’s so clear that all we have now
Are our thoughts of yesterday

And the music, of course.

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