April 12, 2009

10 Songs That Defined The 80s

Been watching VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders Of The 80s and found it a bit confusing. We really need to know VH1's criteria for determining a one-hit wonder because a lot of the artists listed actually charted with other singles. For instance, John Parr (#28 "St. Elmo's Fire") actually had a number one hit on the rock charts with "Naughty, Naughty". Quarterflash (#32 "Harden My Heart") also charted with "Take Me to Heart" and "Find Another Fool". And Twisted Sister (#21 "We're Not Gonna Take It") had another very famous charter with "I Wanna Rock".

Oh well, it was still a fun show and it got us thinking about 80s music and the songs that best defined the decade. So s
tep back now to the time of Pac-Man, Pee-Wee Herman and parachute pants. Of rubber bracelets, Rubik’s cube, and Reaganomics. The 80s gave us the Walkman, Dynasty and Air Jordans. (Of course we also got New Coke, Full House and those damn "Baby on Board" signs.) But what we mostly remember is the music. These songs weren’t necessarily the decade’s best, but they linger in our minds as the soundtrack from the era of legwarmers, really skinny ties, and really, really big hair.

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” – Pat Benatar – 1980

Classic 70’s-style rock was proved to be still relevant by this, Pat Benatar’s breakthrough hit. With an unmistakable crunching guitar riff (courtesy of the vastly underrated Neil Geraldo), the record’s ballsy lyrics and in your face vocals helped establish Benatar as the decade’s top female rocker over contempoaries that included Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson.

“Tainted Love” – Soft Cell – 1981

An unlikely hit built on the hypnotic fusion of synthesizer-generated pulsing beats and tinkling sound effects, along with the chorus from the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go”. The record’s international success paved the way for the slew of synth-pop artists like Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Eurythmics, and Howard Jones that would emerge later in the decade. “Tainted Love’s” electronic sound spurred the development of entirely new genres of music, including house, techno and electronica, and influenced the work of future artists like Paul Oakenfold and Moby.

“We Got the Beat” – The Go-Go’s – 1982

When you think of classic 80s groups, the Go-Go’s come immediately to mind. Still the most successful all-girl band in music history, the quintet from Los Angeles reached #2 on the charts with this, the second single from their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. The song’s new wave party vibe and bouncy arrangement retained the irreverence of a fading punk movement and at the same time, commanded you to get up and dance. The intro in particular—Gina Schock’s staccato drumming quickly joined by guitars and heavy bass—remains instantly recognizable. The fact that the song was used for the opening credits of the classic 80’s movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High has helped the song endure as one of the decade’s most memorable.

Tie - “Billie Jean”, ”Beat It” – Michael Jackson – 1983

Back in the early 80’s, before the excessive cosmetic surgeries, before the allegations of child molestation, and the babies dangled off of balconies, it was actually cool to like Michael Jackson. Though neither was the first single off the mega-album Thriller (“The Girl is Mine”, with Paul McCartney, was released in October of ‘82), “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” hit the charts within weeks of each other and kicked off the Michael Jackson phenomenon that lasted well into 1984. The records’ monumental success (a combined 10 weeks at #1) was due in part to MTV, who played the music videos almost non-stop. “Billie Jean’s” infectiously cool groove fit perfectly with Jackson’s pleading vocal, while “Beat It”, with its ferocious Eddie Van Halen guitar licks showed that the future King of Pop also had a heavy metal edge. Both songs were nominated for Record of the Year at the ‘84 Grammy Awards, but “Beat It” took the honor.

"Beat It"

"True” – Spandau Ballet – 1983

Two things made this jazzy, lounge-flavored ballad a pop hit: Tony Hadley’s rich, ultra-smooth voice and the breathy and extremely catchy “Ha-ha-ha-haaaa-ha” chorus. By embracing the music video format earlier than their American counterparts, a number of English bands gained popularity via heavy exposure on MTV. This led to a second British invasion headed by groups like Duran Duran, Human League, and Culture Club. Spandau Ballet was perhaps the most stylish and soul-influenced of these acts. “True” shunned traditional British pop in favor of a more sophisticated R&B sound. Featuring Hadley’s lush vocals set amongst mellow saxophone and piano arrangements, “True” broke Spandau Ballet big in the US and was the cool ballad that set the mood for romantic nights and last dances at high school proms. The record has since been sampled on hits by both PM Dawn (“Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”) and Nelly (“N Dey Say”).

“Every Breath You Take” – The Police – 1983

In a decade dominated by synthesizers, drum machines, and dance beats, The Police scored the song of the decade and helped established themselves as the number one rock band in the world with this haunting number about obsessive love. Unique in its simplicity, both lyrically and in its stripped down arrangement (just drums, bass, and a little guitar during the bridge) most still ignore the sinister undertones of the song’s lyrics and simply appreciate it for its understated brilliance and Sting’s mournful yet seductive croon. Played on pop, rock, adult contemporary and jazz stations alike, the record enjoyed something of a second life in the late 90’s when it was shamefully ripped off by Puff Daddy for his song “Missing You”.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper – 1984

Not even Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” captured the care-free frivolousness and optimistic spirit of the decade more exuberantly than Cyndi Lauper’s debut smash. Appearing on the pop scene from humble beginnings as the frontwoman for the New York-based rock group Blue Angel, Lauper successfully changed her image, and used this record to reinvent herself as a zany, cartoonish, solo artist with a “don’t-take-me-or-anything-else-too-seriously” attitude. Released as a single in the spring of 84, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” served as the party anthem of the summer, a call for female self-expression, and even inspired a 1985 movie of the same name.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid – 1984

USA for Africa’s charity single “We Are the World” got all the hype and awards, but the Bob Geldof-led Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” came first and had a bit more sincerity and earnestness than the American record. After watching a BBC documentary on famine in Ethiopia, Geldof organized the most popular British artists of the time (including David Bowie, Phil Collins, U2, George Michael, Culture Club, and Bananarama) into a supergroup, then cut and mixed the track in one night. The record became the best-selling single in UK history, raising millions for famine relief and inspiring Geldof to organize the Live Aid shows, the biggest rock concerts of all time. Just as important, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” instilled a sense of responsibility in musicians, celebrities and the public that survive to this day. Other charity singles and fund-raising concerts (Artists Against Apartheid’s “Sun City”, Farm Aid) soon followed, helping to give a social conscience to a decade remembered more for its selfish, indulgent attitudes.

“Walk This Way” – Run-DMC (with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith) – 1986

One of the breakthrough moments in music history in that it was the first rap record (not counting Blondie’s experiment with the genre on 1980s “Rapture”) to enjoy crossover success. Run-DMC had foreshadowed “Walk This Way’s” rock/rap fusion with their singles "Rock Box" and “King of Rock”, built around the blistering guitar work of Eddie Martinez. But the group’s cover of “Walk This Way” (which had originally charted some ten years earlier) had more mainstream appeal due to the participation of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The pairing not only helped jumpstart the careers of the fading 70’s rockers, it broadened the group’s fan base. In a larger scheme, rap, which had been an exclusively black genre to that point, suddenly found an audience with suburban white kids who quickly began discovering and supporting other rap artists. As the first successful rock/hip-hop collaboration, “Walk This Way” legitimized rap and all that it encompassed, setting the stage for likes of Public Enemy/Anthrax, Eminem/Dido, Eve/Gwen Stefani, and countless others. The success of “Walk This Way” also made Run-DMC the first rap act to get airplay on MTV, further helping to erase prejudices towards musical styles.

“Pour Some Sugar on Me” – Def Leppard – 1987

Five years had passed since Def Leppard’s 1983 hard rock classic, Pyromania, and by 1987, with an abundance of hair bands on the scene, many wondered if the group could equal their earlier success. Def Lep surprised everyone with their comeback album Hysteria, which featured a slicker, more radio-friendly sound. Though some felt the band “sold out”, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (one of six top 20 singles off Hysteria) was one of the decade’s most rousing and head-banging hits, blending traditional heavy metal elements, such as fierce guitars and bombastic drums, with a more melodic vocal delivery from lead singer Joe Elliot.

Honorable mentions:

“Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits
Biting satire on the plethora of disposable music the decade produced.

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears
Featured in seemingly every movie between ‘85 and ‘87

“Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
You know you did it at least once.

“Don’t You Forget About Me” – Simple Minds
Theme song from “The Breakfast Club” and enduring anthem of teenage angst.

"Hungry Like the Wolf" - Duran Duran

“Jump” – Van Halen
Eddie trades in his guitar for a synthesizer.

“Careless Whisper” – Wham!
We said, "Forget about George Michael, the other guy is the talented one." (We were wrong.)

“Relax” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Frankie say this was perhaps the decade’s most memorable one-hit wonder.

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