My list of the ten worst songs of the 1980s has received thousands of visitors over the last couple of weeks. I’ve received comments accusing me of hating the 1980s, so I thought that I’d set the record straight with a list of great singles from the 1980s. Some are number one smashes, some charted lower initially but went on to become the artist’s signature song.
There was a wealth of great music in the 1980s – there’s no room on this list for hit machines like Prince, New Order, and Michael Jackson. Here are ten 1980s hits that still thrill me.
10 Best Hit Songs of the 1980s
#10 Back in Black – AC/DC
from Back in Black, 1980
When AC/DC lost frontman Bon Scott to acute alcohol poisoning in February 1980, they considered breaking up. Instead they recruited new lead vocalist Brian Johnson, and ‘Back and Black’ was a tribute to Scott. The opening riff is kinetic and propulsive, and powers the song along, perfectly complemented by Johnson’s high-pitched screaming. ‘Back in Black’ only reached #37 on the charts, but it’s become AC/DC’s signature song – when it was re-released in 2012 it topped the UK rock and metal chart.
#9 Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) – Kate Bush
from Hounds of Love, 1985
Kate Bush’s star faded a little with 1982’s excellent-but-weird The Dreaming. She stormed back into public consciousness with 1985’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, with its galloping rhythm and lyrics about swapping genders. It reached #3 on the UK charts, although Bush remains relatively obscure in the US, a creative genius not yet recognised by the rock and roll hall of fame.
#8 Don’t Dream It’s Over – Crowded House
from Crowded House, 1986
New Zealand’s Neil Finn built ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ around the percussive Maori guitar strum. Coupled with Mitchell Froom’s production and organ solo, the result is a magical 1980s song. The first single from Finn’s newly formed Crowded House, the song ascended to #2 on the US charts. Finn later suggested that the song could have reached #1 if had included “(Hey Now Hey Now)” in the title.
#7 I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) – Whitney Houston
from Whitney, 1987
Whitney Houston was a terrific singer and she’s great on this dancefloor filler. Her over-singing on slow ballads like ‘I Will Always Love You’ rubs me the wrong way, but here she effortlessly navigates a sophisticated vocal melody. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ was a smash hit – when Whitney arrived a month later, it was the first album by a female artist to debut at number one on the US chart.
#6 Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads
from Remain in Light, 1980
New York quartet Talking Heads were constantly fascinating over their first few years, evolving from nervy new wave to richly layered art-rock with funk and African influences. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is the best-known song from Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece, Remain In Light. The verses consist of David Byrne aphorisms – “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/ With a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well/ How did I get here?” Producer Brian Eno is clearly audible on backing vocals in the chorus.
#5 La Bamba – Los Lobos
from La Bamba, 1987
Los Lobos have amassed an impressive back-catalogue over a career that dates back to the 1970s, a melting pot of Mexican and United States music. But their most famous moment is their cover of Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’, for the 1987 movie of the same name. An international chart-topper, it turbo-charges a Mexican folk-song with a muscular rock ‘n’ roll arrangement.
#4 Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
from Full Moon Fever, 1989
Tom Petty reinvented himself as a folk-rocker with 1989’s Full Moon Fever. ‘Free Fallin” was written and recorded in two days, Petty working with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, and it’s simple yet effective. Petty’s verse lyrics are evocative (“she’s a good girl/crazy about horses”), and the huge, harmonised chorus is a great pay-off.
#3 How Soon Is Now? – The Smiths
from Hatful of Hollow, 1984
Johnny Marr’s guitar usually jangles; on ‘How Soon Is Now?’ it pulses with tremolo. Morrissey adds his usual crooned, love-lorn vocals, and the result is a magical 1980s indie single. It sneaked into the UK top 30, largely because it had already been released as a b-side and on Hatful of Hollow, but it’s still The Smiths‘ signature song.
#2 Like A Prayer – Madonna
from Like A Prayer, 1989
Pop chameleon Madonna was huge throughout the 1980s, with a string of hits like ‘Material Girl’, ‘Like A Virgin’, and ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. ‘Like A Prayer’ was Madonna’s seventh number one hit, and it employs the same powerful blend of sex and religion as the best work of Al Green and Prince. Prince plays the guitar introduction, while Andraé Crouch directed the gospel choir.
#1 Fight The Power – Public Enemy
from Fear of a Black Planet and Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1989
‘Fight the Power’ was commissioned by Spike Lee for his 1989 movie ‘Do The Right Thing’. As always, Chuck D. and Flavor Flav are a terrific duo, with Flav bringing levity to Chuck D.’s articulate and politically aware rap. They’re backed by multiple James Brown samples, from ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘Hot Pants’.
Did I omit your favourite 1980s hit?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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