When I think of music in the 1980s, I think of an early part of the decade when all styles of music could hit the American charts: easy listening, country, pop, show tunes, instrumentals, you name it. The middle part of the decade saw less country and more hard rock and metal, and the latter part of the decade featured the beginnings of a form of teeny-bopper music that prevails today and mainstream rap.
I didn’t spend weeks combing through my music collection or YouTube to come up with this list, but I’ve been thinking about the 10 songs that defined the 80s. These aren’t definitive tracks in terms of social messaging or long-term influence, necessarily per se, but they’re definitive in some form or fashion, and I think so more than others.
Throughout the life of this blog, I’ll regularly put together lists and offer some reasoning for my choices. This Top 10, by the way, isn’t in any particular order. Feel free to disagree with me and add your comments, or hit me up on Twitter @ryanwelton.
I’ll start with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a song I chose because it introduced the world to “Thriller” in late 1982 and was a turning point for the gloved one in terms of fame. He had always been famous and talented, and I profess that “Off the Wall” was actually his best work. However, the moment Michael moonwalked to this song, he became legendary and his status rose throughout the 1980s to the point where he was referred to as the “King of Pop” by the early 1990s.
This song hit No. 1 and stayed there for seven weeks, the longest chart run Michael had at the top for his career.
My second choice for this list is Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” At some point I’ll come up with a list of his best popular work and the music you’ve never heard. This is not my favorite song, and it’s not even my favorite two or three tracks from the soundtrack to “Purple Rain.” Those would be “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U” and “The Beautiful Ones.”
However, this was Prince’s biggest chart hit, and it cemented his status as a creative great.
Next on my list is a song that actually came out in the late 1970s but breathed most of its life in the early 1980s, and many music lovers call “The Clash” the best band to have ever lived. The influence and impact of The Clash on rock-and-roll and punk music is inarguable, and “London Calling” to me exemplifies the band’s importance in the 1980s.
Before bands like Ratt and The Scorpions and Warrant and Skid Row took over the American charts, the hardest rock and roll you’d find on the radio came from Australian band, AC/DC. However, despite the fact that the album “Back in Black” has sold 50 million copies and is the second-most popular album of all time, the song “Back in Black” only peaked at No. 37 on the American charts. The impact of this song goes beyond the success of the album. If you listen to Brian Johnson’s cadence in the song’s verse, you’ll quickly understand that he’s basically rapping. I’ve called “Back in Black” a song that is as influential and important in rap as it is in rock-and-roll.
Likewise, I challenge you to listen to NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and not believe that they, too, could have done a kick-ass version of “Back in Black.” While Public Enemy was the cerebral rap group, NWA was both cerebral and filled with raw emotions. They channeled anger in a way that met the moment, and their influence today is to rap as The Clash’s is to punk. Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren never hit the American singles charts but they had and still have every bit the influence of their counterparts if not more.
Of course, the precursor to NWA and Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Run DMC and beyond was a tune from the Sugarhill Gang that really brought rap to the mainstream. The song is called “Rapper’s Delight,” and like “London Calling,” it birthed itself in the late 1970s but mustered its magic in the early 1980s.
The New Wave, second British invasion era of the early 1980s was the product of groups like Heaven’s 17, Human League, Bronski Beat, Madness, Squeeze and Culture Club. However, when Duran Duran hit the charts in 1983 with “Hungry Like The Wolf,” they became the closest thing our decade had to The Beatles. That’s why they earned the moniker, the Fab Five. In all, Duran Duran had 15 Top 40 hits in America, their biggest being “The Reflex” in 1984.
However, “Hungry Like The Wolf” set the wheels in motion.
Also during that early part of the decade came a song that makes this list primarily because of its longevity and influence in modern pop culture. Journey had much bigger hits, chart-wise, than 1981’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” but with its inclusion in hit TV shows such as “Glee,” the song has become a catch-all anthem and one of the most-successful tracks in digital history. This song might have peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts, but I highly doubt any single song made the band more money than this one.
As for these last two, I figure I’ll have some explaining to do. For those of us who grew up in the music video era, or at least the era when MTV played videos, several videos stand out. There was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” There were the creative works of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” and The Cars’ “You Might Think.” There was Peter Gabriel’s outstanding video for “Sledgehammer,” and of course the video that kicked off the MTV era, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” by The Buggles.
However, a-ha’s “Take On Me” was both endearing and hyper-cutting edge. Its style underscored music video as an art form and raised the bar for every producer in the business. The song is still beloved, and the first thing people typically talk about when they talk about a-ha is the video.
And last on this list is Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams ,” which debuted on the Top 40 in June 1987 and forever changed American pop music. Before her, there had been boy bands and girl bands and young female singers, but Gibson’s debut (and Tiffany’s) paved the way for what I call the “kiddo machine,” a music industry largely dominated, at least in pop music, by teenagers and those in the early 20s.
When you consider who might have been the prototype for a Taylor Swift, my thoughts turn to Debbie Gibson. Debbie had nine Top 40 hits on the American charts, and I wouldn’t consider any one of them to be especially memorable. Not bad, just not long-lasting. However, she established the market for the type of act that exists on charts today from Selena to Demi to Taylor. She is an influence who I don’t believe is given nearly enough credit, actually.
Think about Taylor, if you will.
She first hit the American charts when she was 16-17, too. However, Swift has had an unbelievable 35 chart hits in America. Anyway, I think this list deserves a quick hat-tip to either Debbie Gibson or Tiffany, and Gibson charted first.
What did I overlook? Comment below, or tweet at me @ryanwelton.