Alright, we’re a week late but nonetheless raring to go! As per usual, there are TWO new Spotify playlists compiling the best-list and worst-list entrants. Hit those links and give ’em a follow to listen along as we journey through the greatest and least pop music of the 1980s!
Though my feelings on the decade as a whole are pretty mixed, it’s easy to understand why the pop music of the 80s holds so much sway over our cultural imagination. Emerging from the 70s in a post-disco hangover and supercharged by paradigm-shifting advances in musical technology, it was a time period that left the music world nearly unrecognizable from its earlier, pre-80s self. In retrospect at least, 1980 feels like the calm before the storm- it reminisces of the 1963 year-end list in that overall sense that something big is just around the corner, and just like 1963, that big thing ends up being both a new president in the white house and an influx of music from the UK. There’ll be a lot more to say on the former next year, and the latter the year after, but in the meantime, we’re running down the clock until the real 1980s with a solid (if comparatively unspectacular) selection of turn-of-the-decade greats- On with the show!
#10: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band- Against the Wind
Bob Seger officially got in my good graces with “Hollywood Nights”, and though “Against The Wind” finds itself just a hair shy of that song, it’s nonetheless another instantly likeable offering that proved Seger had more in him than just hard-rock beef. “Against the Wind” fits comfortably into the mold of a melancholy look at one’s younger years (a must for any singer-songwriter of sufficient age), ruminating on the passing of time and the loss of childhood innocence. Sure, it’s broad, the lyrics tend to shy away from anything truly piercing or heart-rending, and perhaps most damningly it covers thematic ground Seger had already covered with “Night Moves” four years prior, but the line between retread and refinement can be an awfully thin one and Seger manages to mostly stay on the right side of it here. The standout player here is actually keyboardist Paul Harris, whose soulful piano lines and tasteful organ accents give the song exactly the reflective, nostalgic tone it needed to succeed. Still, at the core of the song is the vocals and the lyrics, and Seger adjusts his voice to the more laid-back tune here as well as he did on “Night Moves”. More importantly, the last lines before the coda, of “I’m older now, but still running against the wind”, gives the song a tinge of bitterness that “Night Moves” lacked, a lingering sense that all the wisdom he’s gained with age still can’t free him of the basic human instinct to fight against the inevitable pull of time. Even amongst enough crowd-pleasing generalities to make the song a radio staple forever, there are still shades of depth and hints at something more complex and human. As far as macho rock balladry goes, there’s not much more I can ask for.
#9: Jermaine Jackson- Let’s Get Serious
One of the oddest things about 1980 is that it was arguably an even better year for disco than 1979 was. While the genre as a whole was undeniably still on its way out at this point, across the board plenty of artists made valiant efforts to keep the party going, not least of all Jermaine Jackson. Coming off his success with the Jackson 5 in the late 60s and early 70s, Jermaine had notched a pretty solid solo hit with “Daddy’s Home” in ‘73, but spent the rest of the decade struggling to properly follow it up. However, the dawn of the 80s seemed to mark a new beginning for the Jackson dynasty, with his brother’s Off The Wall having dominated the previous year. So, Jermaine shored up his resources, tapping Stevie Wonder and longtime Motown ringer Lee Garrett to write the lead single and title track for his new album, and the result took him right back to the top 10. There are Stevie Wonder fingerprints all over “Let’s Get Serious”, albeit in a streamlined, more dance-ready format. In particular, the cadence of the verse melody and the jazz-influenced clavinet fills make it easy to imagine a version of this song that just missed the cut for Innervisions or Fulfillingness’ First Finale, but it’s the concessions to a more mainstream sensibility that really make it stand out. The busy funk bassline and the urgent character of the chorus make “Let’s Get Serious” much more of a pure dancefloor jam than most of the material Wonder wrote for himself, and though it’s obviously not quite as toothsome as something like “Ordinary Pain”, the laser-focus on punchiness and instant gratification on display here is a pleasure nonetheless. And let’s not forget the man at the center of it all: Jermaine Jackson was raised to be a professional pop singer practically from birth, and it shows. This isn’t the most demanding song vocally, but that just makes the little ways he elevates it all the more welcome- he perfectly rides the quicker groove with a good variety of longer held notes and staccato phrasings, and he has a great sense of where it benefits the song to strain his voice a bit, and where it’s better to stick to his comfortable midrange. Overall “Let’s Get Serious” is a great showcase of just how much thought and nuance really goes into crafting a top-notch pop banger, and it may even have a solid claim as the last truly great Stevie Wonder hit.
#8: Linda Ronstadt- How Do I Make You
When I last discussed Linda Ronstadt, it was on the ‘75 best list, for her cover of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved”. That tune definitely had a bit of a rock edge to it, but it and Ronstadt’s other 70s hits established a pretty unchallenging sound with a lot of country and blues influences- easy to like, but maybe a bit harder to love. Even as the decade wore on and Ronstadt’s image became more rock-oriented, her music never strayed far from that middle-of-the-road agreeability that made her successful in the first place. In 1980, however, Ronstadt shook things up in a major way with Mad Love, her response to punk and new wave. Without the benefit of hindsight, Ronstadt was taking a real risk here. New wave had broken through a bit here and there, sure, but at this point no one knew it wasn’t just going to be a brief flash in the pan. Filling an album with Elvis Costello covers and enlisting a relatively unknown power-pop guitarist as a sideman could very well have netted Ronstadt a Trainwreckords-worthy flop. However, the stars managed to align just so, and Mad Love wound up a resounding success, bolstered by its nervy lead single, “How Do I Make You”. In contrast to the thoroughly earnest “When Will I Be Loved”, “How Do I Make You” is all gleeful, unabashed pastiche. She’s striking a pose, and that pose is Debbie Harry. The most immediate observation to be made here is that, yes, it sounds a lot like a Blondie, all angular guitar stabs and youthful romantic angst. Romantic angst was always one of Ronstadt’s strongest suits as a vocalist, though, and even if the arrangement is perhaps a bit less detailed and a bit less punchy than something like “Hanging on the Telephone”, her sharp delivery more than makes up for it. It may be stylistically self-conscious and almost ironic, aping jittery Knack-isms with a wink at the camera, but Ronstadt plays it straight enough that it never feels smarmy or insincere- it’s an homage, never a parody. It should probably go without saying that it falls a bit short of the genuine article (we’ll get to that soon enough), but “How Do I Make You” still manages to pull off one of the more successful stylistic reinventions in modern pop: a striking new outfit worn well, even if it wasn’t exactly made from scratch.
#7: Billy Joel- You May Be Right
“You May Be Right” is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect summation of Billy Joel’s turn-of-the-decade appeal. For one, he always had a way with hooks, and “You May Be Right” is outright bursting with ‘em. The chorus is catchy as hell, sure, but so is the verse, and so is that little jingling guitar riff the song rides on, and so is the sax solo. I guess it’s understandable that some find it a tad grating, but I can’t help respecting that front-to-back earworm quality- it isn’t just leaning on one memorable part, the whole damn thing is memorable! For another, Joel can be a bit of a dick. The character he plays here cops to having a few screws loose, but the more important part left unstated is that he’s careless and brusque and even a little bit mean. All of Joel’s best protagonists have no particular interest in coming off well, and though he knows they maybe kind of suck he isn’t exactly interested in giving them a proper comeuppance, either. The closest we get here is right in the chorus: this woman who’s chastising him for his recklessness, he concedes, could actually have a point. Still, he clearly thinks his bad behavior is at least somewhat charming, and across the song he makes a pretty convincing case that it actually is. Maybe he doesn’t need to change. Maybe he can’t. Does he care one way or the other? Not for now, but the implication is that he’ll have to eventually. The rock canon has given us plenty of loveable assholes, but “You May Be Right” is proof that few have managed to find as many shades of depth within the archetype as Billy Joel. Kinda wish he’d dial back a tad on that Mick Jagger-y vocal affect, though.
#6: Fleetwood Mac- Tusk
Since “Tusk” does not originate from an album called Rumours, I cannot in good conscience say that it’s the best Fleetwood Mac song. However, it may just be their oddest and most interesting song (it’s certainly their oddest and most interesting hit), and whereas the singles off Rumours have all gotten every bit of the acclaim they deserve, “Tusk” seems to me like it’s never quite gotten its due. In sharp contrast to Rumours’ tight, satisfying pop songcraft, “Tusk” seems deliberately shaggy and meandering. It’s got a pretty stellar hook and an upbeat rhythm that makes it easy to like, but the way the muted opening minute bursts into that hook and never really returns to the opening section, the way the song ramps up in intensity in lurches and heaves, contributes to an end product that feels worlds away from your typical pop single. Not only does it defy expectations, it’s seemingly structured entirely around the defiance of expectations, around building up enough of a steady pulse to zig exactly when you start to think you can guess it’s going to zag. You think this marching rhythm is just what the song is gonna be for the rest of the runtime? Surprise, jackass, here’s a virtuosic 8-second drum break! We’re giving you what may well be our drummer’s finest moment behind the kit, out of nowhere. Fleetwood Mac achieve something almost primal here, boiling down the music to its most visceral components and then building it back up anew with their own idiosyncratic, imperfect hands. It’s catchy and agreeable in the way a chart hit ought to be, but it’s also just strange. And hell, when an artist has the chops and creativity to back it up, I really, really like strangeness.
#5: Prince- I Wanna Be Your Lover
We never got another Stevie Wonder. 1980 saw the release of Hotter Than July, Wonder’s highly-anticipated follow-up to Songs in the Key of Life. The album was good- maybe even great- but it was good by normal R&B standards, not by Stevie Wonder standards. In the context of his unparalleled run throughout the 70s, it signalled stagnation at best and regression at worst, and his ever-more-infrequent subsequent albums would only confirm that his years as a trailblazing musical wunderkind were forever in the past tense. With racist record label execs and radio programmers using the disco backlash as a cover to try and stomp out R&B entirely, the world was surely never going to get another talent like Stevie… But Prince Nelson came awful close. Prince wasn’t quite the virtuosic composer Stevie was; his songwriting generally stuck much closer to the basics. However, he commanded the studio with just as much precision and flair, and his flamboyant presentation and effortlessly charismatic voice made him an ideal candidate for R&B standard-bearer in a pop scene that was about to become a whole lot more image-conscious. By that token, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” feels a bit like Prince in beta testing mode, tentatively trying out things that would soon become hallmarks of his sound to see how well he could wear them. The tightly-controlled rhythm, the disco-influenced guitar work, the gleaming synths and the unapologetically sexual lyrical content- it’s all here, perhaps not as refined as it would be only a few years later, but immediately impactful and fun nonetheless. Prince’s vocals are arguably the weakest element, which is saying something considering he handily outsings most other falsetto vocalists of the preceding 10 years. He sounds great here, but you can almost hear him deliberately avoiding his smoother natural tenor, trying to sound a bit more like a typical disco-era soul singer; that falsetto got markedly rarer as his career progressed, and though it’s nice to hear him in a less familiar vocal gear, it clearly isn’t where his comfort zone is. Nitpicks aside, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” confidently and stylishly announced the arrival of a bold new talent in R&B. Even if Prince went on to top it many times over, it remains an impressive proof-of-concept for modern soul in an era that seemed determined to leave the genre behind for good.
#4: Smokey Robinson- Cruisin’
Perhaps it undercuts my previous assertions about Prince to place not one, but TWO singles by funk/soul artists above “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, but in their own way, both feel like relics of an earlier era, last hurrahs for sounds that were waning somewhat in mainstream popularity. We’ll get to the other one shortly, but it’s hardly worth explaining how this preface applies to “Cruisin’”, right? By the end of the 70s, it seemed like Smokey Robinson’s time in the spotlight was firmly behind him, well over a decade removed from the material that made him a household name. “Cruisin’” was the 39-year-old singer’s big comeback, his return to the top 10 as a grown-ass man who made slow jams for adults in committed relationships. That’s no slight against the song, either: “Cruisin’” is a mature song, and Robinson’s stellar vocal performance gets that maturity across wonderfully. Love songs this mellow and pulled-back can be tricky to pull off, but it’s the most natural fit in the world here- an ode to intimacy with someone you’re already familiar with and totally comfortable around. Robinson is absolutely in his element, crooning breezily across the track like it’s second nature, and the music (written by Robinson’s friend and collaborator Marv Tarplin) glides along with him, carrying just the slightest playful edge to give the finished product some bite. After years of soul music getting harder and dancier and more aggressive, “Cruisin’” hearkens back to the days of laid-back gems like “It’s All Right” and “Up on the Roof” in the best possible way, a timely reminder that R&B can be just as good when it chills out and slows down. Oh, and it’s killer music for actually cruisin’, like in a car around town. Take notes, Foghat.
#3: Blondie- Call Me
Blondie may have broken through to the mainstream by infusing a sleek disco tune with punk attitude, but their second number-one, “Call Me”, totally flipped the script on that formula, using their poppier leanings as embellishments for a concentrated dose of driving rock fury. This may be one of the closest things to a genuine “metal” track we got in the top 20 for the entirety of the 1980s- that central riff is certainly more headbangable than anything Bon Jovi or Poison could touch with a 10-foot perm. The chorus is similarly explosive, supporting an earworm melody with a brilliant call-and-response between the lead and backing vocals. Of course, there’s a reason why something this raucous and adrenalized managed to top the pop charts while nothing by Judas Priest or Accept ever did. The danceable, new wave side of Blondie’s sound may have taken on a supporting role here, but it was no less crucial to “Call Me”’s success. After all, Debbie Harry co-wrote the song with disco godfather Georgio Moroder, and his influence can be heard all over the song. Those sledgehammer guitar riffs are underpinned by a thrumming, bassy synthesizer, and we even get a full-on keyboard solo that adds welcome tonal complexity to what is otherwise a fairly simple pop-rock song. I don’t have any real issue with the lyrics (I think it’s about phone sex?), nor with Clem Burke’s drumming, which is overall not quite as standout as it was on “Heart of Glass”, but they aren’t what makes “Call Me” special. I’ll reiterate that Blondie’s core appeal (to me at least) was their combination of the glossy and polished with the visceral and thrilling, their melding of the carnal pleasures of rock with sounds that placed them in an unmistakably modern context. In that regard, “Call Me” is just as much a success as “Heart of Glass”, infusing a fist-pumping radio anthem with the ethos and aesthetics of the space age.
#2: The Brothers Johnson- Stomp!
Just now, while re-listening to this song in preparation for writing about it, I had to ask myself a question: is “Stomp!” by the Brothers Johnson the single greatest party jam of all time? It’s a real possibility. I mean, by all rights those opening lines alone should have catapulted this song into instant-classic status: “Steppin’ out, the weekend’s open wide / Fill it up, let’s blast the jams and ride”. I won’t sit here and act like that’s any kind of deep philosophical insight or anything, but there is a very certain context wherein no words will speak more directly to my soul than those do. That right there is everything that rules about going out to a party with your friends: the sense of possibility, the pent-up energy you can finally release after a week of hard work, the excitement that you can finally just rock the hell out. This is what the perfect Friday night sounds like to me. Of course, being that this is one of the last great disco singles, the lyrics are mostly in service of the music here, which only cements its status as an all-out banger. Seriously, this may not be my all-time favorite discovery from this project, but it’s certainly a contender for the one I’ve come back to the most. I never get tired of that irresistible beat, those string stabs that crackle with vitality and fun, the playful synthesizer fills in the back half, and oh my god the bass. Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson absolutely lives up to his nickname on this track with a gnarly slap-bass breakdown that puts the cherry on top of an already-incredible bassline; his performance here finds the perfect balance of ferocious technicality and exacting restraint. This is a bassline to teach to any aspiring bassist, a masterclass in phrasing and how to make the most of both the instrument’s rhythmic and melodic capabilities. No, it isn’t the kind of song that will really pierce your soul or change your life or anything like that. It’s just an incredibly infectious, catchy dance tune that deserves so much more than the modest legacy it has. As disco gasped its last across the pop landscape, “Stomp!” really was a perfectly-timed reminder of everything great and timeless about the genre.
#1: Pink Floyd- Another Brick in the Wall, Part II
I could act like that this song stands alone. I could say that I enjoy it purely for the hard-grooving bassline, for the dark disco riff and one of the most astonishingly emotive guitar solos in the pop canon, right up there with George Harrison’s solo on “Something” and Prince’s solo on “Purple Rain”. I could take the anti-authoritarian sentiment of the lyrics, the questioning of the educational system as a tool of conformity, as a totally isolated statement and still emerge with a fairly sound reading with a lot of value to offer. But I think that would feel more than a little dishonest, even though I do, in fact, really like all those things about it. This song doesn’t stand alone, it wasn’t written to and it never has. At most, I could liken it to a particularly standout scene from a film, one that gets uploaded to Youtube by itself because dammit, sometimes you don’t have the time to sit down with Goodfellas for two and a half hours just to see Joe Pesci say “funny how?”. One needn’t watch all of Goodfellas to appreciate that scene’s lighting, the nuances of Pesci’s performance, the pacing, the script. It’s an excellent piece of filmmaking on its own merits. Still, the fact of the matter is that that scene doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and analyzing it like it does would feel incomplete. Likewise, neither does “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II”- you know, in case the fact that it literally has “part II” in the title didn’t make that screamingly obvious. This song is part of something much bigger than itself, one paragraph in a greater statement about what the world takes from us and why. Its ominous-yet-danceable tone is not only compelling in and of itself, but offers a stark contrast with the ghostly Part I; its hard-edged backbeat doubles as a set-up for the total collapse of Part III. Those aforementioned lyrics form only one piece of a much larger societal critique, one that is both more all-encompassing and more uncomfortably personal than this song may let on by itself. Make no mistake, for all its merits The Wall is messy and unfocused and indulgent to a fault. But “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” exemplifies the best aspects of the album: the righteous anger, the potent songcraft and, most importantly, the way individual, discrete moments can add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. It is, in every sense, just another brick in the wall.