By Spencer. Look, at this point in our internet-fueled lives, we all know that a top 100 list is more useful for provoking arguments than for actually ranking anything. So it’s with great hesitancy that I take the bait here, but a few weeks ago, I came across this list of the top 80s songs from NME, and I just have to protest. New Order’s “Blue Monday” at number one? A top twenty featuring The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and The Jesus And Mary Chain? I’m not debating the merit of any of these artists. But these are only the best 80s songs when viewed through the lens of the 90s. They’re listed for their influence on future artists, not for their quintessence to their own era. I lived through the 80s, and I can tell you firsthand that these are not the songs I remember when I think of those days. In focusing on artistic quality, NME fundamentally failed to grasp the essence of 80s music. That’s why I’m here to help.
You see, 80s music isn’t supposed to be good. This was an era of excess. It was an era of unapologetic fun (after the long national hangover that was the 70s). It was a time when musicians were obsessed with new instruments like the synth and old instruments like the saxophone, and you literally could not overdo those sounds. The result wasn’t exactly art, and this is why many people frown upon the 80s as a musical period. But if you believe, as I do, that one of the crucial roles of music is to capture the soul—the very feel—of a moment in time, then 80s music stands apart from every other era. Nothing else sounds like it. And any proper list of the top 80s songs has to have this realization at its core.
So don’t view this list as a statement on the “best” songs released during in the 1980s. The Cure, The Smiths, R.E.M., U2, Depeche Mode, and even Michael Jackson are all disqualified. They may have come from the 80s, but they also transcend it. And hair metal is also off the table; as important as it was to the rock sound of that decade, that’s just a whole other list. No, what I’m looking for here is a very specific kind of 80s song: the ones that drowned in snyth and fake drums, the ones that were impossibly cheesy and sentimental, the ones that painted the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie or played in the background at a video arcade. These are the songs that are so bad they’re good, the ones you’re embarrassed to admit you still love. They’re nostalgia distilled, and you love them not on their own merits, but because of their ability to recall a moment in our collective culture that can never quite be recaptured. The 80s weren’t our greatest moment, and their music and movies can be almost cringeworthy in retrospect. But if you lived through them, then every now and then, you probably ache for them. And when you stop and think about that, it’s fascinating.
Listen to S&N’s Definitive 80s, featuring my own personal choices for the fifty songs that best capture the decade, on Spotify. You can’t find a better time machine outside of a DeLorean.
12 thoughts on “The Mixologist: The Definitive 80s”
Of course you knew I would have to disagree with you here. I was in middle school in 1987 and a freshmen in 1989 and the bands you mentioned as only viewed through a 90’s lens is completely inaccurate. In Jr. High The Cure and The Smiths were my world as was Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dead Kennedys, N.W.A, Run DMC, Minor Threat the list goes on. That was the time in my life were these 80’s bands were shaping my world view. In my opinion this was my 80’s. I get where you are going with your list and it captures what your definition of 80’s music and there are some great choices on there, but it is by no means the definitive 80’s. That would be like saying Smash mouth, Chumba Wumba, Uncle Cracker and the like are definitive 90’s. I think age during the time plays a major role in what we call definitive.
But like I said, bands like The Cure and The Smiths transcended the 80s. They may have started in the 80s and even enjoyed their peak popularity in the 80s, but I don’t think of them purely as “80s artists.” Almost by definition, those acts were the underground. They are the beginnings of “alternative” — which of course was a tag designed to set certain bands off from the mainstream (i.e., what the vast majority of people were listening to).
The Cure and The Smiths (and shoegaze in general) deal in guitar sounds and instrumentations that have continued on in 90s, 00s, and aughts music. They are alive and well even now. Likewise, hip-hop may have started in the 70s and 80s, but those sounds found peak expression in the 90s and later. So I don’t think of N.W.A or Run-D.M.C. as 80s acts — they’re almost more like 90s acts that just showed up early to the party.
The music I’ve tried to focus on in this list is singularly 80s. It may not be what any one person listened to during the 80s. Despite a slight effort by some indie acts today to incorporate those sounds on a retro basis, it’s a conscious throwback to a style that has never existed independent of the decade in which it was popular. This was the music that was in movies and commercials and, when you hear it, the first thing you think is “80s.” I don’t think any of us would say that about the bands you mentioned, and they certainly never seeped into the pop culture of the time the way the particular vein of 80s music I’ve focused on did.
Always start with a compliment: I agree with you Spencer that the NME list does have some of that backwards glance (Nirvana’s “About a Girl” is barely an 80s release and they weren’t jamming to it in the 80s for sure). I also don’t want slag the music on your list, as my opinions about the worth of the 80s has been well-aired previously (there are some greats here for sure).
Now to the meat and potatoes…You’ve taken an interesting philosophical path here and protected yourself from criticism by eliminating anything that was of value, interest, or in my opinion deserving of “definitive” status. No Bruce Springsteen or U2 for example. Elvis Costello. Talking Heads. To me the 80s doesn’t make sense without that stuff, and while your list might have virtue by the rules, it misses a bit of the beating heart.
Last thing, on NME, I think also part of the divergence comes from them being a British magazine. The British/American divide on what is and has been important is always very colored by nationality. New Order was totally massive in the UK and deserving of top placement (I don’t know about #1 exactly but up there). The American audience should be confused by that…
Yeah, the Nirvana inclusion was among the weirdest things on the NME list, and definitely a telling signal that they were pursuing a different philosophy: the best songs released during the years 1980-1989, period. The challenge with decade-based lists is of course what to do with the songs at the margins. Some late 80s songs really anticipate the 90s sound more than the year in which they were actually released. And some of the most 80s-sounding songs came out in ’78 or ’79. But this is inevitable when dealing with arbitrary cutoffs.
So just to clear up any confusion, of course I think Bruce or U2 or R.E.M. or The Police or even The Cure put out songs in the 80s that were wildly better than anything on this list. I could’ve done that list, but that’s boring. It doesn’t make sense to me to bother with ranking a bunch of songs together upon the common theme that they all just so happen to come from years that start with an 8. I’m focusing on something more specific than that.
Anyone have any songs I missed?
Men without Hats – Safety Dance
Oingo Boingo – Only a Lad
Eddie Grant – Electric Avenue
Steve Miller Band- Abra Cadabra
J Giles Band – Angel is a centerfold
Devo – whip it
Adam Ant – Goody two shoes
Stray cats – stray cat strut
David Bowie – let’s dance
Frankie goes To Hollywood – Relax
men at work – down under
I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’m not remembering
the song Sturgill Simpson covered promise (I think)
“Whip It” was an inexcusable omission on my part. “Down Under” narrowly got cut at the last minute. But there’s several of these that I don’t know off the top of my head, so you’ve given me some homework (of the very best kind)!
madness – our house
I never loved that song, but there’s no doubt it qualifies. (Oh, and now it’s stuck in my head, so thank you for that!)
I’m going to leave one a day
Wall of Voodoo-Mexican Radio
That’s one I actually thought of in the early drafting and then forgot by the time I was compiling the final list! Definitely belongs though.
A terrible song but appropriate for the list I’m not sure when it came out but I remember listening to this on the beach and cracking up I might have been 5 or 6
Joe Dolce – Shaddup you face
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