1982 was the first year of the full-on proper 80s, but ‘83 still represented a turning point in the decade. This year saw the final, and arguably most important, major development in the musical technology of the decade: The debut of the Yamaha DX-7 digital synthesizer. The DX-7 did for synthesizers what the Fender Stratocaster did for electric guitars, or what Pro Tools 5 did for digital audio workstations. It was the true flashpoint for the instrument as a cultural force, rendering all that came before mere prehistory. With its immensely intricate programming capabilities that almost nobody bothered with, and its diverse array of preset tones that pretty much everyone immediately glommed onto, the DX-7 would be a fixture of the charts within months of its release, and would retain an iron grip on the pop world well into the 90s. I’ve seen possibly-apocryphal claims that there were weeks in the latter half of the decade where the instrument appeared on every single song in the Billboard top 40; if that isn’t true, it certainly isn’t far from it. All this is a long-winded way of saying that, as 80s as the pop music of 1982 was, ‘83 and beyond was even 80s-ier, putting the pedal to the metal on glassy synths and cavernous reverb and shredding guitar and/or saxophone solos. While these decade-defining sonic hallmarks began to slowly ferment the less impressive music of the day into ever-more wretched permutations, they simultaneously propelled the best of the best to greater and greater heights of glorious, cheesy excess. From the start of the REAL real 80s, we’ve got 10 more classic megahits to cover- on with the show!
#10: Loverboy- Hot Girls in Love
I’ll admit, I feel a little sheepish including this song here, given some of the stuff that just missed the cut. Much as I do stand by all my list selections, I can’t help looking at “Hot Girls in Love” and thinking to myself, “really? I like this more than “Beat It”? I like this more than “Every Breath You Take” and “Hungry Like The Wolf”?” Yep. I suppose I do. The heart wants what it wants, and god dammit my heart wants “Hot Girls In Love”. I’ve liked this song ever since I was a kid and every single time I hear it, it kicks just as much ass as it did when I was nine. Seriously, this is just like the perfect 80s rock song- real, red-blooded rock and roll, with a driving tempo and a great guitar solo and an atom bomb of a chorus, plus a shiny coat of synths to keep it in step with the times. I love the moment where the opening riff locks into the main riff and just lets it groove for a few measures, where a lesser band would have called it a day and launched into the first verse. I love the cheeseball lyrics- there are too many goofy one-liners to list them all here, but “she’s on a rainbow cruise / all the way to my room” is usually the moment where the song wins me over for good. Most of all, I love Mike Reno’s vocal performance here. He’s loose and playful and gives that little bit of rocker snarl in all the right places, and (surprisingly for a band this unambitious) he nails the tightrope act of describing a woman he very much wants to have sex with with a minimum of leering or knuckle-dragging. It’s low on the list because it is still very simple-minded and direct, and there’s only so much praise I can give a band for doing this particular schtick. Even so, I’ll gladly be the one to stick up for this as a rare underappreciated gem in the 80s radio-rock canon, and a solidly constructed cut of pure, turn-yer-brain-off fun.
#9: The Clash- Rock the Casbah
The fact of the matter is, I’ve gotta put the Clash on this list. I can’t snub The Only Band That Matters in the only year they had a top-10 hit- my reputability as a critic is on the line here! Sure, I might be a lot cooler on the classic punk outfit than many are, but even outside the grading curve of radio pop there’s a helluva lot to like about ‘em, and the most impressive thing about “Rock the Casbah” is probably how much of it they managed to preserve. Refusal to compromise on their artistic vision had always been deeply important to the band, so surely fans in ‘83 knew that they wouldn’t be going full-on Billy Idol or anything, but it’s still pretty damn jarring how unfiltered and raw they came off here. Joe Strummer was, to put it mildly, an unconventional vocalist- if Bob Dylan showed that conviction could trump tunefulness, Strummer pushed that idea to its limit, an apoplectic howler who seemed constantly on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. And yet, thanks largely to diverse musicianship and a keen ear for hooks, the band managed to turn this to its advantage and even, in cases like this, wring genuine crossover appeal out of Strummer’s shrieking manifestos. “Rock the Casbah” is, on paper, not particularly pointed and even a bit farcical: an middle-eastern king tries to stop that damn rock-n-roll from corrupting the souls of his citizens, but they all just can’t stop shakin’ their booties to those wild rhythms- even the bomber pilots he sends to blow up the venue are rocking out! It’s obviously not absent of politics, inspired as it was by real-life bans on rock music in countries like Iran around this time, but it’s hardly as incendiary as stuff like “Washington Bullets” or “Career Opportunities”. Yet, through Strummer’s utterly furious vocal delivery, the song suddenly comes to righteous life. Where another band would have taken these lyrics and this jaunty saloon-piano instrumental and spun a cheeky little novelty track, The Clash play it pretty much straight, with any humor being more a sardonic edge than anything else. They clearly have a real sense of the stakes here: this is a brutal, oppressive regime, so pathologically determined to uphold a conservative religious hegemony that all its citizens will be deprived of a pleasure as simple as listening to a silly rock tune. They don’t deny the absurdity of the situation, but their sights are always set on the injustice taking place, and on the unbreakable will of the people, whose love of music compels them to disobey their rulers seemingly without a second thought. Hell, it’s almost optimistic, with how ineffectual and fruitless the king’s efforts all wind up here. I won’t pretend that opposing a middle eastern Islamic theocracy was the bravest or most revolutionary stance in the world for a group of lefty Brits in the 80s- a less charitable critic might even call it a cop-out by The Clash’s standards- and I am still fairly lukewarm on Strummer as a vocalist, for all he did bring to the table. Still, the teenage punk in me just can’t deny the thrill of seeing a pointed statement like this rubbing shoulders with Naked Eyes and Culture Club. The sharif don’t like it? Good, fuck that guy.
#8: Spandau Ballet- True
I feel like these lists have been a little biased against more low-key, mellow fare, especially since the start of the 80s. I won’t deny that, when it comes to pop, I do tend to prefer stuff that’s a little more upbeat and fun, and that goes doubly for pop from the most coked-up, energetic decade in modern musical history. Still, there are definitely slow songs from the 80s that I do love- like this, the uber-cheesy commercial peak of British synth-poppers Spandau Ballet. “True” has many of the hallmarks of 80s pop at its absolute worst: the crystal-clean guitar plucks, the pillowy reverb, the sheer uncanny smoothness of it all. Somehow, it’s a resounding success all the same. The most obvious strong point is Tony Hadley’s soaring vocals, and while it’s undeniable that he brings the band’s love for classic American crooners like Frank Sinatra to full fruition, I think the real key to its greatness is songwriter Gary Kemp’s attention to compositional detail. This was a guy who really knew how to put the sophistication in sophisti-pop, with so many little clever moments that you could easily miss if you aren’t paying close attention- the tricky bass movements underpinning the post-chorus section around 4 minutes in, the surging chord change leading into that tasty sax solo, or the naturalistic flow of the melody that provides the perfect complement to the impressionistic lyrics. Songcraft this intricate really deserves the glossy production of the 80s in a way more obvious stuff like, say, Moving Pictures’ “What About Me” simply doesn’t. There are a handful of moments where Hadley oversells it a tad (though that may just be his preening performance in the song’s music video), but all in all, “True” is a surprisingly complex tune that delivers sugary 80s shmaltz with panache to spare.
#7: Hall & Oates- Maneater
Man, I remember alluding to my liking of this song way back on the very first entry of the very first PGTY best list- how far we’ve come. “Maneater” is pretty much the quintessential ‘80s pop song- not the best, but the one that most exemplifies the sound of the decade. Those glossy DX-7 synths, those sleazy sax lines, that crisp guitar and smashing gated snare- it’s all here, just as you remember from VH1 countdowns and/or being alive during this time. It’s so damn catchy, Daryl Hall’s vocals are as on-point as ever- I’m reluctant to admit it, but it may actually be the pinnacle of that sort of perfectionistic yet everymannish vibe that Hall & Oates consistently cultivated. I’ve mentioned that the duo came off as regular old shmoes who could just as easily have wound up working in your office, yet every element of their music was obsessively fine-tuned for maximum impact. “Maneater” is kind of the purest embodiment of that- and in a time when businesslike professionalism and pop superstardom were more closely intertwined than ever, it rose to meet the moment in a way their earlier material, good as it was, never quite did. I even have to give some praise to the lyrics here! The idea of the heartless femme fatale predates this song by centuries, but there’s something to be said for the modern spin they put on the archetype here- it articulates a sort of acute social alienation that might not have made sense in decades past, a sense of cold cynicism interceding with someone’s most intimate moments. Yet, at the same time, it never slips into castigation or scorn- this woman is never really held at much fault for her uncaring behavior, as a tacit admission that she’s ultimately as much a victim of circumstance as anyone else here. Countless songs in this vein end up an unfortunate reminder of outdated gender norms, and the nimble sidestepping of any latent misogyny here is all the more impressive given how hard it still hits.
#6: Marvin Gaye- Sexual Healing
In a lot of ways, “Sexual Healing” is Marvin Gaye’s 80s update on “Let’s Get It On”, taking the same weightless sensuality and marrying it to synths and drum machines rather than sumptuous Motown pop-soul. I’ll be honest and say that, all other things being equal, I do prefer the latter, but Gaye is simply too compelling a performer to not succeed all the same, and he even manages to work many of these less-familiar 80s sounds to his advantage. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this song is that drum machine- a Roland TR-808. The fact is that, for the majority of their history, drum machines have simply not had the forcefulness or dynamism a live drummer can provide, and across many pop songs of the 80s, you can hear musicians struggling to figure out how to work around the instrument’s limitations. Here, the 808s are used impressively well- this is a song that benefits from the lighter touch they provide, as well as the crisp uniformity of the programmed beats. The undulating keyboard line and Gaye’s vocals provide enough rhythmic interest that the beat is able to act as an anchor that emphasizes the track’s grooviness, rather than a stiff backbone that detracts from it. Speaking of which, Gaye’s vocals are still nothing short of incredible, as smooth and confident as in his 70s prime and bringing the same masterful balance of warm, laid-back casualness and aching desire that made “Let’s Get it On” soar the way it did. Tragically, Gaye would never be able to fully reap the benefits of the commercial revitalization this song provided him: only a year and a half after this song’s release, he was shot dead by his own father, bringing one of the most illustrious and interesting careers in pop to a shocking and abrupt close, and leaving this his last mainstream hit. “Sexual Healing” can only stand as a final testament to Gaye’s immense talent as a performer and musician, and a bittersweet taste of just how seamlessly he was incorporating the latest in musical technology.
#5: David Bowie- Let’s Dance
Next up, we have the other commercial comeback from a titan of the late 60s and 70s: the eponymous lead single from Let’s Dance, David Bowie’s bold, hook-laden pop pivot. Though critics generally don’t tend to cite it as one of his strongest records, I’ve always had a real soft spot for Let’s Dance, and especially for all the singles it spawned. In fact, I might even have to call a mild case of TWKD here: For as great as this song is, it’s a damn shame that “Modern Love”, the fist-pumping new wave/soul fusion that followed it, only reached as high as #14 on the hot 100. Still, I get why this was the one that really caught on, bolstered as it was by the combined talents of Bowie and producer Nile Rogers, who was rapidly garnering a reputation around this time as a behind-the-boards savant. Rogers did produce the whole album, but this song (as well as its B-side, “Cat People”) is easily where he shines the brightest. If there’s one thing the guy knows inside and out, it’s how to put together a spotless dancefloor banger, and that’s exactly what he does here, using newly-omnipresent drum production techniques and a terse horn section to craft a crushingly massive groove. Bowie, for his part, takes this as an opportunity to demonstrate his perennially-underappreciated vamping skills. The man had always been a gifted songwriter and lyricist, but he also had a great-sounding voice and an effortless swagger that made him nearly as magnetic when he was just riffing on “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” and “under the moonlight, the serious moonlight”. The song’s music video was the cherry on top, adding a dimension of social awareness with its stark depictions of aboriginal Australians wandering through the outback of New South Wales. It lends the song a hint of bitterness at the ultimate hollowness of dance music in the face of large-scale injustice, yet the song itself (and Bowie’s vocal performance particularly) has the gravity and steamrollering might to withstand and even embrace that contradiction, finding an odd pathos in lines like “and if you say run / I’ll run to you”. It’s yet another example of Bowie’s unparalleled ability to collaborate and elevate, even if I can’t in good conscience place it quite on par with masterstrokes like “Heroes” or “Space Oddity”.
#4: Billy Joel- Allentown
Man, in a list including The Clash and David Bowie, who’d have thought the song to take a brutal, unflinching look at the harsh realities of capitalism would be by Billy Joel of all people? “Allentown” has not quite achieved radio immortality the way that stuff like “You May Be Right” or “Piano Man” has, and I won’t deny that Joel’s infamous gift for melody seems a tad more subdued here than it normally does- a couple listens still gets it stuck in you head pretty well, but that “we’re living here in Allentown” refrain doesn’t quite pop the same way his best hooks do. At the same time, the subject matter of this song might have been ill-served by the sort of broad pop songwriting Joel normally saw so much success with; a big crowd-pleasin’ singalong could well have come off a bit callous. “Allentown” addresses the collapse of Bethlehem Steel throughout the early 80s, casting it quite appropriately as a microcosm of America’s crumbling manufacturing industry. Even as the Reagan administration oversaw a thriving economy and booms in many industries, the backbone of the country’s middle-class lifestyle was corroding at an alarming rate- companies made handsome profits offshoring grunt work and turning everything plastic, yet the average person stood on ever-shakier economic ground. Across “Allentown” there’s a sense of bewildered hopelessness, just wondering what on Earth happened to all the fortune and happiness we were promised in school. It’s a crying shame that songs like these tend to seem so eerily prescient, yet it never ceases to amaze me how well “Allentown” speaks to our current sociopolitical moment. Hell, I can scarcely believe that lines like “So the graduations hang on the wall / But they never really helped us at all” weren’t written in the past three or four years by a band like Spanish Love Songs or IDLES. For me, and I’d imagine for a lot of people my age, this song brings about an alarming realization: things have been getting worse for a very, very long time, in ways that hardly seem to have changed over the decades. Much as we want to blame the baby boomers for the current state of the world, This song serves as a reminder that there was a time when they were right where young people are now: gasping for air in a country happy to grind them to dust in the march of progress. The video here also features a lot of pretty loaded imagery; a giant, glowing American flag descending over the ruins of Allentown towards the end is blunt almost to the point of parody. Joel dressing in shabby hobo attire and strummin’ away on an acoustic guitar also feels just a mite hokey- not nearly enough to undercut the song’s power, but maybe just enough to take the raw edge off for the MTV set. In a time where sociopolitical critique was very much not en vogue amongst the nation’s biggest hitmakers, “Allentown” was as bitter and angry as the best punk rock of the era, presented just sweetly enough to truly reach the masses.
#3: Prince- 1999
1999 did for Prince what the similarly-titled 1984 would do for Van Halen only a year later: instantly solidifying their places among the most elite megastars of the day, and fully ushering in a new, flashier era for their respective genres in the process. Prince had already been on the cutting edge of funk music for several years, but this was the moment he both asserted his dominance over the genre and set down a winning formula that broke with the traditions that had dominated the 70s and much of the early 80s. Of the two smash singles 1999 spawned, “Little Red Corvette” is definitely the more melodious and approachable, and while it’s certainly a great song in its own right, the title track and lead single is the one that most embodies the sea change Prince was placing himself at the forefront of. It shouldn’t be any surprise how much of his personality bleeds through the track despite how relatively little he does here vocally- After all, he did write and produce the song himself, as well as play every instrument- But the decision to not sing a single word until the third line of the first verse nonetheless signals a newfound confidence in his artistic voice. After all, the whole damn song just screams “Prince”- why belabor the point? And those synths? Synths had been increasingly prominent in funk since the turn of the decade, but “1999” is probably the first funk song that simply couldn’t exist without ‘em. The brash keyboard lines here are an integral part of the song, rhythmically and melodically, and every other aspect of the track is fine-tuned to accommodate those sharp-n-glassy sounds and make them seem as striking and bold as possible, from the drums to the guitars to the vocals. Finally, the track’s music video marks the proper birth of “The Purple One”, with Prince’s glittery shin-length jacket and stylish perm instantly imprinting themselves on a generation of kids. The indelible image of Prince as a confident, charismatic fashionista was just as important to “1999”’s success as any of the music was, and the single’s rollout at every turn established him as the full-package deal for an R&B superstar in the MTV era.
#2: Dexys Midnight Runners- Come On Eileen
“Come On Eileen” sure is an odd duck, ain’t it? Right smack dab in the thick of the synthesizer explosion and a very lean time for primarily-acoustic music in general, MTV was taken by storm by a gaggle of scruffy-looking englishmen hawking a bastardized version of 60s soul augmented with influences from traditional celtic folk, complete with a horn section and a couple impish fiddlers raising hell right alongside. A lot of sources seem to cite Dexys Midnight Runners as being “new wave” but uh, no they very very much are not? There’s no synth, no real post-punk influence, no jittering twitchy rhythms or guitar noodling- It’s pretty much just folk rock, plain and simple. What’s strange is that it’s a version of folk rock that never really caught on in the mainstream outside this one song. I was initially shocked to hear how influential old-school soul was on these guys, but the more I listened the more sense it made, especially the sections where it settles into a heavier swing that, far as I can tell, hardly anyone in the folk sphere had so much as glanced at to this point. That emphasis on groove, in combination with the way the horn section highlights the vocal melodies, makes it plain as day that frontman Kevin Rowland was attempting to reverse-engineer the styles of Jackie Wilson and Jimmy Radcliffe using the musical vocabulary of northern-UK folk music. And honestly, if this style had caught on, “Come On Eileen” would have been a phenomenal starting point! It nails a whole litany of tried-and-true pop tropes while showing just how effectively this singular style can augment them. Lyrically, it’s your classic run-away-with-me joint, gaining a bit of increased depth from passing allusions to the crummy state of British society in the 80s. Like “Born to Run” before it and countless pop-punk tunes after, it imbues the overheated melodrama of teen angst with mythological gravity. Musically, it pulls out all the stops: it slows down and speeds up, it trades off lead and backing vocals, there’s a damn banjo breakdown for god’s sake! And it all ties into itself so neatly that it never for a second feels like it’s coasting on novelty; that chant towards the end stirs the soul just as much after fifty listens as it does the first time. There’s an alternate universe where Dexys Midnight Runners ushered in a wave of folk/soul hybridization that changed the face of pop, but at least we can still appreciate “Come On Eileen” as one of the most wonderfully singular hits of the 80s.
#1: Golden Earring- Twilight Zone
Keeping up my little streak of outsider picks for the number-one slot, and just barely edging out “Come On Eileen”, we have one of the less ubiquitous offerings from the 80s prog diaspora. I’ve talked before about how the 70s prog scene’s shift towards tighter, catchier fare was one of the most interesting phenomena in 80s pop, and Golden Earring may just be the prime example of that, even if they never quite managed to escape the B-list in either their prog or pop eras. The Dutch rockers had been streamlining their songwriting for several albums by the time they released Cut in late 1982, but it was only with that album, and its new wave-touched lead single “Twilight Zone” that they finally found a unique sound that fully synchronized all their talents as songwriters and musicians. If Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” embodied the suave camp of James Bond, “Twilight Zone” embodies the gritty, hardboiled danger of Jason Bourne (the song was supposedly inspired by Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity novel). Anchored by Rinus Gerritsen’s sleek, menacing bass/synth work, dual frontmen Barry Hay and George Kooymans spin a deadly tangle of unanswered questions and threatening, beshadowed figures. Golden Earring were never known for being a lyrically complex band, but Kooymans really deserves credit here for how consistently he nails the exact right tone of desperate paranoia. In particular, “Soon you will come to know / when the bullet hits the bone” is a flawless finish to a chorus if ever I’ve heard one, simultaneously releasing the building tension of the preceding lines with the most visceral imagery the song has to offer, and masterfully maintaining the sense that our narrator’s life is on the line here. Hell, I’m shocked they didn’t name the song “When the Bullet Hits the Bone”, because that’s the kind of unforgettable phrase you only come up with once in a career. On top of an incredibly catchy melody, a dark and cinematic music video, and one of the decade’s more nuanced takes on groovy, minor-key synth-rock, “Twilight Zone” offers the same heady blend of sinister and satisfying that makes action-thrillers worthwhile as a genre, and for that it’s my favorite hit of 1983.