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.