There was a time — in the past now — when young people were first discovering what a synthesizer was, when dance music combined with rock, when every sound acquired a visual element, when men began wearing earrings, when the concept of indie-rock was first developed... and things were totally awesome. That time was the nineteen eighties, and these few pages are dedicated to the best 80s music.
We'll be talking about songs and bands and what made them special, what made them unique, what made their music worthy of living on for those of us who are fans of songs of that decade. We'll be adding little bits of trivia along the way, as well as links to where you can find and download this great 80s music.
Now, it's quite possible that this list is very different from anybody else's similarly titled list, namely because we are interested in what we truly feel was the best music of the decade, not necessarily the most popular. Michael Jackson's Thriller may have been the biggest selling album of the 80s (or of forever for that matter), but you won't find any of those songs on the list. Nor will you find Journey or Hall & Oates or Whitney Houston or anybody else just because they sold tons of records.
Which is not to say that all popular artists are banned from this list. The Police, for instance, sold enough records to bankroll a small country, but they were still very cool so they're here, but since their most popular song, Every Breath You Take is not remotely their best song, it is not on the list. Same for U2, as they have much better songs than their gagillion-selling With or Without You (which is not to say that it is a bad song, just that they have several others that are better).
So, here we go. Following is non-Hollywood's list of what we consider the best 80s music. Enjoy.
Don't You Want Me (1981) by The Human League - #100
It could be argued that the sound which we now associate with eighties music began in 1981 when The Human League's song Don't You Want Me became one of the first all-synth tunes to make it onto mainstream music charts. Like many of the synth pioneers, The Human League took the foundation laid by Kraftwerk and made it more, well, human. The song Don't You Want Me is a story song which tells of a movie producer who is dumped by the young movie star he felt he created, set to what, at the time, were cutting-edge synthesizer tracks. Take note of the pulsing bass part played out on sharply metallic pseudo-strings.
Los Angeles (1980) by X - #99
Yes Virginia, there was a punk scene in L.A. (it just happened a little later) and a major force was the band X, which took the whole punk format and gave it a great big twist. The unique vocal pairing and odd harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenca would be imitated by many, many bands to follow, but X was the beginning and their album Los Angeles was simply brilliant.
Tainted Love (1981) by Soft Cell - #98
This tune is certainly one of the definitive songs of the genre. Soft Cell was started by 2 art school friends who would use synthesizer and voice to create soundscapes for theatrical performances. There is a reason that the band's album was entitled Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, and that theater background definitely comes into play as this 1981 classic fits the very definition of the album's title. Marc Almond's pleading vocals atop very stark and crashing synthesizer parts (you only need to hear the 2 synth "stabs" in the chorus to identify this 80s song). Though this song ended up being the band's only real hit, it is one of the most identifiable of the era and still enjoys airplay today. And who can't help but to join in singing the "Woah oh oh oh oh"s during the chorus?
Hungry Like the Wolf (1982) by Duran Duran - #97
Duran Duran almost was not included on this list because they're so darned pop, but they've made it here because you have to admit that they were a very influential group—bands without counting (even non-pop bands) grabbed a synthesizer and looked to D2 as a model for how to craft a synth song. And then there's the area in which they were one of the most infulential bands around...in the 80s, music video changed everything and Duran Duran was one of the first to really benefit from the boost that videos came to create. In Simon LeBonn, the group had a lead singer with movie star heartthrob looks. The band was able to really take that ball and run with it by producing very slick, high production-value music videos (and they were arguably the first to put Hollywood production values to the burgeoning format of music video). Probably the best known of these music videos was forHungry Like the Wolf,which featured LeBonn either chasing or being chased by (it's not entirely clear) a scantily clad supermodel through the jungle. And let's not forget the song's break, which features a woman panting and moaning in a fashion that makes it a bit uncomfortable to listen to with your mom in the room.
Seattle (1987) by Public Image Ltd. - #96
In the 1970s John Lydon was known as Johnny Rotten and fronted punk music's first superstars, The Sex Pistols. Lydon never cared for the term "punk" and after the demise of his notorious band, Lydon formed the band Public Image Ltd. which took his aggression, political fury and sneering criticism of pretty much everything and combined it with more sophisticated musicality than you'd find in most punk bands. In the mid-80s when a new generation of musicians in the American Pacific Northwest was inspired by the punk movement and began to sow the seeds of what became the alternative explosion of the 90s, Lydon took offense. The result is both P.I.L.'s best and most popular tune, Seattle, which blatantly rails against the same young people who were looking up to him.
Only a Lad (1980)> by Oingo Boingo - #95
For many aficionados of eighties music, Oingo Boingo is the most under-rated band of the decade and should have been the band to dominate the decade. During its lifetime the band only flirted with popularity, but was a favorite of those most passionate about music. Oingo Boingo fearlessly combined synths, tribal rhythms and horn lines with the unique voice of lead singer Danny Elfman to create a sound which was uniquely their own. Only a Lad sees Boingo in a political frame of mind with a quirky twist as it tells the tale of a violent juvenile delinquent who continually escapes punishment.
Charlotte Sometimes (1981) by The Cure - #94
Though Robert Smith is said to dislike having the term "goth" applied to his band, it is no wonder that The Cure often is labeled as such. From the early 80s, when Smith, Tolhurst & Gallup first started experimenting with synthesizers, Charlotte Sometimes is about as goth as goth gets. A dark, brooding song drowning in synth strings — strings which use big, church-organ-type chords so drenched in reverb they sound as if they are being played in a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Station — which provide the perfect backdrop for Smith's tortured-soul vocals.
Pretty in Pink (1981) by The Psychedelic Furs - #93
Easily the most popular song by the Furs, Pretty in Pink had the distinction of being completely misinterpreted by film director John Hughes and used as the title to one of his hit teen movies (John Hughes: there's an eighties phenomenon as well). Originally coming out of the punk scene in England, The Psychedelic Furs looked to take the spirit of punk and combine it with musicianship. The 1981 album Talk Talk Talk realized this vision with the full-on, yet melodic guitars of John Ashton. Very soon the Psychedelic Furs would turn to experimenting with synthesizers and atmospheres, but Pretty in Pink provides a tune that just plain rocks.
Senses Working Overtime (1982) by XTC - #92
Though coming to the fore in the early 80s, XTC was a group which did not rely heavily on synthesizers. 1982's Senses Working Overtime is an excellent example of a full band in full swing. The drums on this track are fantastic and breathtaking in an age when drum machines were beginning to take over 80s music.
Back on the Chain Gang (1982) by Pretenders - #91
Chrissie Hynde was basically the only American in the early days of punk in London, where she lived the squatter's life with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Unlike a lot of those in the punk scene, however, she was a practiced musician who could actually play. Eventually hooking up with the guys who would become The Pretenders, the band wed the energy and attitude of 70s punk and added the jangle-y guitars of the 60s to create a new sound for a new decade, as evidenced in Back on the Chain Gang.
Mad World (1982) by Tears for Fears - #90
Synth pop finally got a heavy does of angst when Tears for Fears hit the scene. Whereas most bands of the era were using synthesizers to create bouncy pop tunes, Roland Orzabal used his to create soundtracks to his own internal pain. The songs in which Curt Smith took the lead vocals, such as Mad World, tended to be the most popular of the group's tunes, but even with Smith singing, Orzabal's torture came shining through.
Shock the Monkey (1982) by Peter Gabriel - #89
In the 1970s, Peter Gabriel fronted the band Genesis, which at the time was an experimental progressive rock group. Shortly after his departure from Genesis he had a minor hit with Solsbury Hill, meanwhile the band he'd left behind not only went on without him, they went from fringe act to a huge arena rock band selling tons of records around the globe. Gabriel chose his own path, crafting unique, critically acclaimed albums, though it would be years later before he would break into the big time. Shock the Monkey is a perfect example of Gabriel's artistry, mixing heavy percussion with cutting-edge synthesizer tones, while writing politically-charged lyrics about animal experiments ... a combo only someone like Peter Gabriel could pull off.
People Are People (1984) by Depeche Mode - #88
The decade saw a slew of British synth bands storming the charts, and one of the biggest was Depeche Mode. The band was one of the earliest in the genre, yet unlike the others of the day, Depeche Mode is still active and out there making records. The earliest of their songs were the bouncy synth pop largely created by Vince Clark, but when Clark left, the band was forced to find a new songwriter, which they did in their very own Martin Gore. Though Gore's style was much, much darker and more serious, the band blossomed — and a perfect example is the eighties anti-hate anthem People Are People.
How Soon Is Now? (1984) by The Smiths - #87
Though they never achieved much in the way of commercial success in the US, The Smiths definitely qualify as one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and music in general. Countless bands of the 90s and beyond counted the group as an influence. The potent combination of Morissey (whose lyrics and voice are distinct in this world) and Johnny Marr (widely considered one of the greatest guitarists ever) was short-lived but powerful. How Soon Is Now took the famous Bo Diddley beat and bent it into something unrecognizably ethereal.
West End Girls(1984) by Pet Shop Boys - #86
West End Girls was the tune that brought Pet Shop Boys into the limelight. The song, which laments the class clashes and doomed loves of East End Boys and West End Girls, is carried along by a pulsing bass line and Neil Tennant's low-key vocals, which gives the song a haunting feel that creeps into the bones and stays there. Pet Shop Boys have gone on to be the biggest-selling duo in the UK, but this 80s song was what brought their first exposure.
Bring on the Dancing Horses (1985) by Echo & the Bunnymen - #85
Though this song was originally recorded for a John Hughes film, it is usually not thought of in the realm of John Hughes film songs. The song features an interesting use of infinite delay (made famous by U2's The Edge), plus, of all things, a harp. The odd imagery of Bring on the Dancing Horses is never really explained. Echo & the Bunnymen (who were named after a drum machine, though they stopped using said drum machine very early on) were one of those groups which experienced success in many parts of the world, but were never able to make much of a dent in the US.
Blister in the Sun (1983) by Violent Femmes - #84
Discovered while busking in the parking lot of a Pretenders concert, Violent Femmes took their street-musician approach into the studio with them. The quirky Blister in the Sun features the same arrangement that the band would use on the street—an acoustic guitar, a bass, and a snare drum. The result is an infectious little tune that will have you humming along.
The One Thing (1982) by INXS - #83
There were quite a few Aussie bands coming over in the decade, and the most successful of them turned out to be INXS. There were a few songs along the way before they achieved huge international success. The One Thing is one such precursor, with Michaels Hutchence's trademark vocal style (part bluesy wail and part pretty-boy pout) laid atop crispy keys and perky guitars, the song was the perfect setup for the forthcoming album that would send this band into the big time.
Don't Let's Start (1987) by They Might Be Giants - #82
Quirkiness personified. That would be how you'd describe the sound of They Might Be Giants. For most of their history they were 2 guys, one with a guitar and one with an accordian, playing along to a drum machine. The odd stutter-step syncopation of Don't Let's Start was an unexpected hit with listeners in the eighties.
What is Love? (1983) by Howard Jones - #81
When digital synthesizers first appeared on the scene, with their ability to sequence and instantly play back a performance, it was pretty much inevitable that someone like Howard Jones would emerge. Jones was a one-man-band, playing and recording all of the parts himself, even going so far as to play live this way. Many of his early 80s live shows were just him ... and a whole bunch of electronic equipment. On What is Love Jones puts in his trademark layers of keyboards, including a beautiful and reverberating cascade of notes during the chorus.
I Will Follow (1980) by U2 - #80
One of the few 80s bands to still be both active and important for decades to come, the band members were quite young themselves with the 1980 release of the album Boy. Right from the start, U2 was known for The Edge's distinctive guitar parts and Bono's passionate-as-passionate-can-be vocals. I Will Follow is one of the band's signature tunes, pulsing with youthful power and featuring arguably one of the greatest guitar riffs ever played using only 2 strings.
Goody Two Shoes (1982) by Adam Ant - #79
Though coming directly out of the punk scene of the late 70s, Adam Ant embraced the exuberance of eighties pop with this song whose famous taunt "Don't drink. Don't smoke. What do you do?" was repeated at many a party in the early parts of the decade. The song combines bouncing horn lines and pounding tribal drums with a special Joie de Vivre that few were able to pull off as well as Adam Ant does in Goody Two Shoes.
If You Were Here (1983) by Thompson Twins - #78
Okay, so there never really were any twins in this group, and in fact, when they started out Thompson Twins had seven members (though the main driver of the band was always lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Bailey). If You Were Here features their unique mix of synthesizers over acoustic percussion, all laid on a foundation of a backward-playing drum track.
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? (1982) by Culture Club - #77
If there is one person whose image brings to mind the eighties, one person whose photo just screams "80s Music!" that one person would have to be Boy George. With his colorful and flamboyant "we won't use the word 'transvestite,' but he's definitely a guy dressed like a girl" look, he and the band Culture Club added several classics to the music of the eighties. One of their best known tunes, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? is a mellow reggae vibe doused in 80s-style production and featuring Boy George's unique vocal styling.
Beds Are Burning (1987) by Midnight Oil - #76
A bunch of politically-minded Australians with a spastic lead singer who sported a shaved head at a time when pretty much the only young people who did so were "skinheads," Midnight Oil burst onto the eighties music scene with the powerful song Beds Are Burning. This powerhouse of a tune, which features blasting horn lines and some of the hardest-hitting percussion outside of Led Zeppelin, is a political song dealing with the plight of Australia's aboriginal peoples. And it effin' rocks.
Wouldn't It Be Good (1984) by Nik Kershaw - #75
Though experiencing much more success in the UK (where he spent over a year straight on the charts) than in the US, Nick Kershaw was a master of using bright, happy keyboard sounds and matching them against less-than happy lyrics. Wouldn't It Be Good is a perfect example of this approach as Kershaw whines about how bad life is in his shoes while the synths march happily along.
I Ran (1982) by Flock of Seagulls - #74
One of the first groups of its kind to get heavy airplay on mainstream radio in the US, Flock of Seagulls hit the ground running in 1982 with their biggest hit, I Ran. This 80s band is noteworthy as a trendsetter in the then-new format of music video and probably even more famous for lead singer Mike Score's hugely sweeping hairdo. Flock of Seagulls also arguably had the greatest guitarist any synth band ever had in Paul Reynolds, and he is in fine form on this tune.
Voices Carry (1985) by Til Tuesday - #73
In the middle of the decade a band fronted by a blonde spiky-haired young woman named Aimee Mann shot up the charts with this song about a young woman rebelling against her controlling, chauvinist boyfriend. Try counting along on this song and you'll notice a rarity in pop music — the time signature changes, instead of the 4 beats which virtually every other pop song you've ever heard has, the verses of Voices Carry slip in 6 beats. Despite the fact that this 80s song was the band's one and only hit, in later years Mann became one of the most respected figures in the world of independent singer/songwriters.
Let's Dance (1983) by David Bowie - #72
In the 1970s it was pretty much unquestioned that the man at the cuttingest of the cutting edge was David Bowie. Always experimenting and always changing, Bowie somehow managed to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of being the critic's favorite and selling boatloads of records. For the 1980s, Bowie reinvented himself yet again and turned out one of the slickest (and biggest-selling) albums of the decade. Let's Dance is interesting for how well a notable mismatching worked out — on this synth dance record Bowie enlisted blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the results are unexpectedly magical.
I Want Candy (1982) by Bow Wow Wow - #71
If you're going to be a one-hit wonder, it's best for that one hit to be as big as I Want Candy. When Hollywood needs a song that makes a viewer immediately think "80s," it is usually this one, though the song itself is actually a cover originally written in the 60s and recorded by The Strangeloves. And it has been recorded several other times since, but the Bow Wow Wow version, with its combo of the Bo Diddley Beat and tribal drums, is certainly the best known.
Crazy Train (1980) by Ozzy Osbourne - #70
Known for his bombastic behavior and decades of substance abuse, Ozzy Osbourne has very loudly cranked out music of angst for a very, very long time, first as the lead singer of British heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, then as a solo artist. Crazy Train is not only his first solo release and his biggest hit, it is also a very surprising enigma. Here's a man famously known for partying to the extreme and insane behavior such as biting the head off of a dove and urinating on the Alamo, yet in Crazy Train he creates a song that is musically complex with lyrics that feature an insightful commentary on the politics of the Cold War Era. Go figure.
Tell Me When It's Over (1982) by The Dream Syndicate - #69
A leader of LA's "paisley underground" (which also saw the creation of bands such as Bangles and The Three O'Clock) The Dream Syndicate was one of those bands which influenced many, while not tasting commercial succes of its own. The pure guitar pop of Tell Me When It's Over is a great representation of the sound the band created and passed on to others
White Wedding (1982) by Billy Idol - #68
Another veteran of the London punk scene, Billy Idol fronted the band Generation X in the 1970s. Idol headed into the 80s solo and with a very clear vision of the style he was shooting for: namely to wed the genres of punk and dance music. As he snarled his way through the angry and danceable White Wedding it was obvious that he had achieved his goal.
Open Your Eyes (1985) by Lords of the New Church - #67
Lords of the New Church were trendsetters in the genre of gothic rock. The band, formed by former members of high-profile punk bands, was active through most of the decade and scored a minor hit with their rather creepy cover of Madonna's Like a Virgin. But it is this tune which, for many, is their signature work.
Fairytale of New York (1988) by The Pogues - #66
The Pogues were an Irish band, as in a very, very Irish band. Utilizing traditional Celtic instruments and arrangement and featuring a lead singer who did not in any way shape or form try to make himself sound more American, The Pogues brought raucous pub music to many new ears and inspired many of the Celtic bands out there today.
Every Word Means No (1983) by Let's Active - #65
Though not a particularly well-known song from a not particularly well-known group, this one is important because it is the work of one of the most important unsung heroes of music: Mitch Easter. The 80s saw the creation of small studios and the rise of the DIY indie music approach that so influenced the path that music took in the decades to follow and right up to the present day, and Easter was a prime reason for that. He started one of the first indie recording studios (the Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, NC) in his parents' garage. There he could get a professional sound while charging a fraction of the price of a "real" studio, and because of what he could offer, he recorded and produced most of the bands in the first wave of indie bands, including R.E.M. (it was here that the band recorded their classic Radio Free Europe). Easter's own band, Let's Active, never achieved the success of some of the bands that he produced, but certainly showcased his talent and a jangle-y guitar style that influenced many other bands.
Just Like Honey (1985) by The Jesus and Mary Chain - #64
The Jesus and Mary Chain was one of the first groups to take distorted guitars and mold them into atmospheres. If you like your music drowning in a sea of reverb, this is the song for you.
World Shut Your Mouth (1986) by Julian Cope - #63
Here Julian Cope abandons the "neo psychedelia" which had gained him so much attention in The Teardrop Explodes and turns instead to a punchy, straight-ahead rock tune.
Cities in Dust (1986) by Siouxsie & The Banshees - #62
Siouxsie & The Banshees were initially formed as a punk group by members of "The Bromley Contingent," a group of early fans of The Sex Pistols. But they quickly became more than just another Pistols knockoff, as the band experimented with different styles and atmospheres. Arguably their finest achievement was the gothic synth-textured Cities in Dust, which is certainly the perfect theme song for the post apocalypse.
Life in a Northern Town (1985) by The Dream Academy - #61
At a time when "hippie" was an unpopular word in the music industry, along comes a band with a very hippie sound (re-branded as "dream pop") which shoots up the charts with a song about Nick Drake.
Invisible Sun (1981) by The Police - #60
With Ghost in the Machine Sting first dove into the dark and somber side of his songwriting (the side which produced his biggest hit, Every Breath You Take). The bulk of this 80s album from The Police is both bleak and beautiful. The political lyrics of Invisible Sun are a lament on living through wartime. The song is unique for a few reasons, firstly it was one of the first times that the band had utilized synthesizer (a big, ominous pseudo-string sound) and secondly, Sting, known at the time for his high-pitched singing, performs this tune in a low mournful drone.
A Girl in Trouble (1984) by Romeo Void - #59
A staple in the early days of MTV, Girl in Trouble is an oddly downkey but danceable little number punctuated by an echoey saxophone part and a suitable followup to Romeo Void's previous hit Never Say Never.
Don't You Forget About Me (1985) by Simple Minds - #58
Who doesn't know this song? One of the most popular songs of the 80s, from one of the most popular movies of the 80s. Enough said. (except maybe "enjoy that fantastic drum break").
Ship of Fools (1987) by World Party - #57
The album Private Revolution was credited to World Party, but World Party was essentially Karl Wallinger (formerly of The Waterboys) creating a band sound by recording each of the parts himself. The sound is convincingly band-like and Ship of Fools rocks with an environmental message.
Oblivious (1983) by Aztec Camera - #56
A bouncy little pop tune penned and recorded by a teenager. Sounds iffy when you state it like that, but Oblivious is one fine tune. 80s music at its finest, folks.
Everywhere I Go (1986) by The Call - #55
The Call was one of those bands that seemed like it should have been much more famous that it ever was. They combined a huge amount of passion with intelligent and conscious songwriting, such as can be witnessed in the pulsating Everywhere I Go
Gigantic (1988) by Pixies - #54
Though never achieving much in the area of commercial success in the 80s, Pixies were hugely influential to what was to come in the 90s. Kurt Cobain stated repeatedly that his signature musical style, including the quiet/loud/quiet/loud of songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit, was directly influenced by the work of Black Francis and company. And the waves of influence Cobain made on the 90s was a direct result of the huge splash made in the 80s by these guys (and a girl) on songs such as Gigantic.
In a Big Country (1983) by Big Country - #53
Rock bag pipes anyone? In what certainly had to be a first, the Scottish band Big Country paid homage to their homeland with guitar parts which sounded eerily like bagpipes in a hit song. The driving catchiness of this tune makes it one of the great one-hit-wonders tunes of all time, and the fact that the band's name is in the song makes sure that you remember who performed this one hit.
Blood & Roses (1986) by The Smithereens - #52
Okay, this has got to be one of the greatest bass lines in all of rock. Can't you feel that?
Hero Takes a Fall (1984) by Bangles - #51
More than a decade before girl bands started to gain serious traction there was Bangles. This song off of their major label debut places Susanna Hoffs' girlie-girl vocals atop a driving guitar-based pop foundation, a sound which would become quite popular in later years.
Motorcrash (1988) by The Sugarcubes - #50
The Sugarcubes introduced the world to the utter strangeness that was Bjork...and we liked it.
No New Tale to Tell (1987) by Love & Rockets - #49
After the demise of the influential group Bauhaus, a couple of its members turned right around and formed Love and Rockets. No New Tale to Tell ramps up the energy on this great mixture of acoustic and electric guitars.
Prison Bound (1988) by Social Distortion - #48
Social Distortion was one of the leading lights in LA's punk scene. But like many a punk band the group had its share of chaos, eventually landing their lead singer Mike Ness in prison and extended rehabs. After cleaning up his act, Ness and company returned with an album that blended punk with Johnny Cash, resulting in a genre now referred to as cowpunk. Prison Bound is the definitive example of the genre and an excellent song to play as loud as your speakers will go.
Free World (1989) by Kirsty MacColl - #47
Kirsty MacColl was a songwriter and a featured background singer on many great song that came out of the British music scene of the 1980s, including songs by The Smiths, The Pogues and Simple Minds. On the song Free World she recruited friend Johnny Marr for this fast-tempo track (which features some of Marr's finest work ever) about economic chaos in Thatcher England and Reagan America.
What's the Matter Here? (1987) by 10,000 Maniacs - #46
With a band name that sounds more punk than folk-rock, 10,000 Maniacs had released a few critically acclaimed but smaller-selling albums before What's the Matter Here? brought them into mainstream success. The song, an odd juxtaposition of a happy, bouncy tune with lyrics about child abuse, highlights Natalie Merchant's vocal talent perfectly.
Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream) (1984) by The Icicle Works - #45
The main draw of this song is the amazing, thumping percussion. For a time in the 80s "tribal drums" were popular in the UK music scene, and many a band took this tribal influence and blended it into pop music, none better than this song which melds the tribal with rock snares for a driving beat.
A Million Things (1986) by The Lucy Show - #44
Though not a big hit by any means, A Million Things by The Lucy Show perfectly encapsulates the sound of mid-80s indie rock.
Worlds Apart (1986) by Cactus World News - #43
It's safe to say that many bands were influenced by the guitar work of U2's The Edge. On this driving song from Ireland's Cactus World News, the influence is obvious. The gigantic feedback-y guitar sends this tune to another level.
One Step Ahead (1981) by Split Enz - #42
Quick: name successful bands rom New Zealand... Split Enz went through many stages from folk to progressive and finally ending up popular with a New Wave style sound, perfectly exemplified by One Step Ahead. Fronted by brothers Tim and Neil Finn (who later went on to form Crowded House) the band produced a boatload of material before dissolving not long after international success started to seem likely.
The Ghost in You (1984) by Psychedelic Furs - #41
A beautiful song from The Furs' full-on synth period. After first experimenting with synths on the Todd-Rundgren-produced Forever Now The Psychedelic Furs followed that up withMirror Moves, whose overall feel is best exemplified by this song.
Most of the songs on Violent Femmes' self-title debut are sparse acoustic arrangements similar to what the band played on the street as buskers, but Gone Daddy Gone not only features electric guitar, but the xylophone has not been put to better use on a rock song since Under My Thumb.
Don't Dream It's Over (1986) by Crowded House - #38
After the demise of Split Enz, Neil Finn formed a new band and went to L.A. to try to get a deal. The result was Crowded House, whose single Don't Dream It's Over had a success far surpassing anything from his previous band.
The More You Live the More You Love (1984) by Flock of Seagulls - #37
Though Flock of Seagulls never managed to score another hit the size of their first 80s song, I Ran, they did continue to craft some interesting songs. The More You Live the More You Love from 1984 was noteworthy in that it was mainly a guitar song rather than the synths for which the band had become famous.
The Stand (1983) by The Alarm - #36
Welsh band The Alarm were best known for playing acoustic guitars very aggressively and building very anthemic, rocking songs upon that very unlikely foundation. In this one, they electrify and take as their subject matter the Stephen King Novel The Stand.
Anything, Anything (1985) by Dramarama - #35
A harbinger of things to come, Anything, Anything featured a very 90s style of sound—amped up, dirty rhythm guitar and shouted vocals—way back in the mid-80s. While this song found a home and heavy rotation on L.A.'s influential alternative radio station KROQ, the band never made it to the big time, not even when the 90s caught up to them.
Still in Hollywood (1987) by Concrete Blonde - #34
For those who had never been to Hollywood and still believed it to be a glamourous place, the lyrics to this song may have seemed confusing at the time of its release. Why complain about being in Hollywood? But by the late 1980s, Hollywood (as in the actual, physical area) had lost a lot of its luster. Hollywood Blvd. had become the domain of cheap tattoo parlors and hookers and the area's rundown apartments were the home of many broke musicians. In the 2000s the area went through much "revitalization," but the context of Hollywood in the 80s is important to understanding this particular tune by Concrete Blonde.
Suedehead (1988) by Morrissey - #33
The end of The Smiths caught Morrissey by surprise, but he just barreled ahead anyway. The final Smiths album Strangeways Here We Come and Morrissey's first solo album Viva Hate sound so much alike that they could almost be the same album. And although The Smiths' Johnny Marr would certainly be considered one of rock's greatest guitarists, Suedehead proved that Morrissey didn't need him in order to create a fantastic song.
Ocean Size (1988) by Jane's Addiction - #32
Seldom has a song's lyrics so perfectly fit the feel of the music. Ocean Size, indeed.
No Myth (1989) by Michael Penn - #31
Michael Penn got a pretty good start to his musical career while still an unknown via a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live... which his brother Sean happened to be hosting that week. Nepotism aside, Penn gained a ton of respect from critics for his masterful songwriting, highlighted quite effectively on No Myth.
The Back of Love (1983) by Echo and the Bunnymen - #30
Though they didn't achieve much success in the US (their song Lips Like Sugar was their only US hit, and a modest one at that) Echo and the Bunnymen were a huge force in pretty much every other part of the world in the 80s and their "neo-psychedelic" style influence a slew of young British bands.
Under Pressure (1982) by Queen & David Bowie - #29
Take two giants of a decade's music (in this case, the decade of the 70s) and bring them together in a studio in the next decade and you're unlikely to get something mediocre: either you'll get something utterly fantastic or something absolutely terrible. Luckily for us, Under Pressure is the former.
Cuts You Up (1989) by Peter Murphy - #28
Peter Murphy had previously been the lead singer of Bauhaus, which was one of those bands which, while not gaining a huge mainstream following, did influence a whole lot of musicians to come. On his solo album, Murphy combines the somber nature of his previous band with a sparklingly clean production style. The simple arrangement of Cuts You Up is notable as is the delicate and alluring beauty of the solo cello part.
A Night Like This (1985) by The Cure - #27
As has been noted elsewhere, the music of The Cure seems to bounce back and forth between happy, silly songs and gigantic, gothic and depressing songs. A Night Like This may very well be the best of the gothic and depressing. In a way it was also something a marker in that The Cure's next album featured the song Just Like Heaven which took them from 80s cult group to the top of the charts.
Burning Down the House (1983) by Talking Heads - #26
The album Speaking in Tongues and more specifically the tune Burning Down the House brought the epic quirkiness and utter originality of Talking Heads to a mainstream audience. Its success was a bit of a surprise in that the Heads were simply doing what they always did -- arty, rocking tunes -- but this one caught on.
The Promise (1985) by Arcadia - #25
A one-album side project from half the members of Duran Duran, the Arcadia album So Red the Rose featured a slight departure for those musicians, as it was basically an artier, more serious version of the pop group. It is also notable in that it utilized many, many tracks of synthesizers and guitars (listen to the album on headphones and you'll hear about a million different parts coming in and out) to create a huge sound which influenced many producers down the line. The Promise also features simply mesmerizing lead guitar work from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and backing vocals by Sting.
Here Comes the Rain Again (1983) by Eurythmics - #24
Eurythmics took a huge creative step forward with this tune. Already known as pioneers in the field of synth music, Eurythmics added another layer by working in collaboration with film composer Michael Kamen to blend synths and real strings together for one gigantic and beautiful tune, and something entirely new in the genre of synth music.
Sweet Jane (1988) by Cowboy Junkies - #23
Recorded live in an abandoned church, Cowboy Junkies' cover of Lou Reed's Sweet Jane became a huge and unexpected hit. A bit of an anomaly in that it was a quiet song being played on rock radio, you can almost feel the space in the room as this song rolls mellowly along.
Jane Says (1988) by Jane's Addiction - #22
During the mid 80s Jane's Addiction tore through LA's club scene, returning gritty, bombastic, epic rock to a scene dominated by bands whose main focus seemed to be on teasing their hair. Perry Farrell would later cement his place in music history as the founder of Lalapalooza and Dave Navarro would land on several "greatest guitarist" lists, but during the time of their album Nothing's Shocking they were taking hard rock back from the hair bands. That being said, Jane Says was that album's low-key song, with a brilliant mix of acoustic guitars, steel drums and a tale of life in the seedier parts of Hollywood.
The Boys of Summer (1984) by Don Henley - #21
Don Henley was the co-songwriter/co-lead-singer of one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, The Eagles. When the 80s came around and the Eagles were no more, Henley embarked on a solo project that sounded absolutely nothing like his former band. He crafted the sort of project which has been attempted by many, many musicians as they age (and which usually results in embarrasing failure): namely, taking his music and updating it for a younger generation. Let's face it, this is the kind of thing that has "Crash and Burn Imminent" written all over it. But amazingly, Henley made it work. The skillful synth arrangements were so right (the haunted feel of Boys of Summer is just perfect) that you would swear that they had been created by someone who had been pioneering the synth genre, not by the man who had written and recorded Desperado.
Down in It (1989) by Nine Inch Nails - #20
The release of Pretty Hate Machine in 1989 was a watershed moment in music. For the first time an angry young man had latched onto a synthesizer instead of a guitar — he then proceeded to shred the hell out of an instrument heretofore not used for shredding. Trent Reznor made electronic music rock and it was an approach that definitely hit a chord as witnessed by the countless imitators he inspired. Recorded while Reznor was a "gopher" at a recording studio in (of all places) Cleveland, Pretty Hate Machine is also important in that it was first released by an independent label (TVT, which previously had been called TeeVee Tunes and had made its money by pitching novelty records on cheesy late-night television spots), and the album became one of the first by an indie label to achieve platinum status.
Fall on Me (1986) by R.E.M. - #19
R.E.M. continued to gain more fans and sell more records with each release they had during the 80s (this was before the internet age and Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and all that). For the album Life's Rich Pageant the band teamed with bonafide hit-making producer Don Gehman. Though he didn't turn them into chart-toppers (that wouldn't come for a few more years) Gehman is credited with making Michael Stipe's previously mumbled and mixed-back vocals crisper and brought to the front of the mix; he also pressured Stipe and company to focus more on their lyrics. This is perfectly demonstrated on the environmentally themed Fall on Me, the video for which, by the way, is the first instance of the now-popular "lyric video" (it also contains a typo, but let's not hold that against them).
Shout (1985) by Tears for Fears - #18
By the mid-80s a lot of bands had added more synth to their sounds, meanwhile a pioneering synth group did just the opposite: with Songs From The Big ChairRoland Orzabal jettisoned most of the synths in favor of a full band and the fuller sound that could be created. Shout is a powerhouse of a song, whose lyrics are based around the same primal scream therapy that had inspired the band's name in the first place.
She's Got a New Spell (1988) by Billy Bragg - #17
An iconoclast with a capital "I," Billy Bragg has made his career on politically-charged, folk-inspired tunes. But the always outspoken Bragg also knows how to make a pretty cool pop song, as he does with this tune from the album Workers' Playtime.
Never Let Me Down Again (1987) by Depeche Mode - #16
Synth pioneers Depeche Mode know how to delve deeply into the dark side. On this tune Martin Gore turns his writing talent to the issue of drug abuse.
Saved by Zero (1983) by The Fixx - #15
The Fixx combined intricate synth parts with crisp, ringing guitar tones. Saved by Zero creates a somber meditative mood.
Cult of Personality (1988) by Living Colour - #14
For some reason the thought of a black group rocking hard seemed almost a foreign idea in the 80s (strange, when you consider that the first rock and roll was white guys blatantly ripping off African-American blues musicians, and considering that one of the greatest and most influential guitarists in rock was Jimi Hendrix). But rock, they did. Cult of Personality is a hard-hitting political song with the fantastic guitar work of Vernon Reid. The song is also memorable for utilizing samples of famous political speeches in a rock song.
Sweet Dreams (1983) by Eurythmics - #13
Annie Lennox with a bright red buzz cut and a video featuring Dave Stewart working on a computer in a field full of cows—that's how the world was introduced to the seminal synth song Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Eurythmics had been kicking around somewhat unsuccessfully for a few years, when according to Stewart, a synth pattern played backward caught his ear and eventually was turned into this song. Interestingly, Eurythmics was one of the first bands to utilize a home studio, as Lennox and Stewart felt that having the equipment at their disposal allowed more time for creative experimentation, many of their early tunes, such as this one, were recorded on an 8-track reel-to-reel rather than in a full-blown production studio. And no one was the wiser.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983) by U2 - #12
U2 at their political best. A young, passionate Irish band writing about the "Troubles" in their home country. Powerful stuff and a classic.
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (1984) by The Smiths - #11
Lyrically speaking, this is probably the definitive song for The Smiths. The simple acoustic guitar part is a much mellower statement than usual from Johnny Marr, but it is beautiful and works perfectly with Morrissey's tortured words on this one.
Rock the Casbah (1982) by The Clash - #10
There were many kids in the middle of America who completely missed England's 70s punk, simply because in those days their only musical source was local Top 40 radio. In the early 80s MTV changed that by giving young music lovers a glimpse of music beyond the charts and from around the world. For many in the first MTV generation, Rock the Casbah was their first exposure to punk. The Clash's hard-hitting political music is definitely in your face on this tune, whose music video featured an Arab and a Jew out on a road trip. And because of this tune, many of those young Americans retroactively sought out the genre of punk.
Troy (1987) by Sinead O'Connor - #9
The first glimpse that many of us got of the bald, petite volcano that was Sinead O'Connor was the song Troy, which on its release in 1987 was quite a unique statement. In the 1960s some groups such as The Moody Blues had experimented with using an orchestra in rock songs, but in the 80s, let's just say this was something that hadn't been done in a while. Then along comes Troy, which features O'Connor's passionate, screaming vocals atop an orchestral arrangement. Not a huge hit, but definitely a huge statement from an important new voice.
Luka (1987) by Suzanne Vega - #8
Coming out of what was left of the folk scene in New York, Suzanne Vega took her great guitar riffs, combined them with experimental-sounding electric guitars and synths, then topped it off with her unique vocal style. Her minimalistic vocal style, soft almost to the point of a whisper and confined within a narrow range, managed to somehow portray an intense amount of emotion, and perfectly fit her quirky and intelligent lyric style. Through most of her career she has lived on the outskirts of popularity, but Luka gave her a first glimpse of a wider audience.
Fragile (1987) by Sting - #7
A pure triumph from a man who has probably written more hit songs in his lifetime than pretty much anyone else, Fragile is a heartbreakingly beautiful song. For the previous few years Sting had been experimenting with tinging his rock songs with jazz, and in this one he uses a beautiful Spanish guitar lick which creeps into your bones. Atop that he has written some of his most touching lyrics: inspired by a true and tragic civilian death in the midst of war-torn country.
Forever Now (1982) by The Psychedelic Furs - #6
The Psychedelic Furs took a huge creative leap with the album Forever Now. Produced by progressive rock icon Todd Rundgren, the band dove into the world of synthesizers and intricate production techniques with which Rundgren had been experimenting. The result was a work unlike any before (or since). On previous records the Furs had taken a punk-inspired energy and added intricate layers of musicianship. With Forever Now the band looked to the new synthesizers and incororporated even more layers—layers of electronics and effects—to create something both visceral and human.
Fast Car (1988) by Tracy Chapman - #5
Downer lyrics. A simple and mostly acoustic arrangement in an era when acoustic guitars had been absent from the charts for a few decades. A female singer in the music video age who did not look like a model. With all this against her, certainly very few could have predicted the huge popularity of Tracy Chapman's first album and the smash hit Fast Car. But something about that song was so damned effective and touched a nerve in so many people that it propelled Chapman into probably the most unlikely stardom ever seen. And her success gave hope to many indie musicians who were trying to create something more than pop and provided inspiration for many of the female singer/songwriters to come along in the next generation.
King of Pain (1983) by The Police - #4
The album Synchronicity turned out to be the swan-song for The Police. Within the few years from the late 70s to the early 80s The Police revived the "power trio" concept and managed to go from small indie act to the biggest band in the world, seemingly by shear force of will. The album was a gargantuan hit, with about half of the songs released and turning into hit singles. While the biggest of those hits was the now-classic Every Breath You Take, arguably the highlight of the album is the intricate and beautiful tune King of Pain, whose solemn and painful lyrical imagery is the perfect endnote for the band's prolific career.
Bad (1984) by U2 - #6
In the band's early years, U2 employed a passion to their performances that rivaled the passion a zealot would give to a religion. Coupled with this emotion was the unique guitar style of The Edge and U2 managed to amass some of the most devoted fans on the planet. For the album The Unforgettable Firethe band wanted to take their music in a very different direction (and this was not the last time they would try that experiment) and enlisted ambient master Brian Eno to produce. The result was a masterwork that blended that passion, that guitar and a haunting atmosphere. Bad is arguably the song which best encapsulates the approach and is generally considered one of the band's best.
Radio Free Europe (1983) by R.E.M. - #2
There are those who would claim that indie-rock really started with REM. In their early days, and without much of a label, the band toured relentlessly, all of them crammed into an old van. They recorded their first single, Radio Free Europe in a small garage studio as countless bands would after them. This do-it-yourself approach inspired many bands to come, as did Peter Buck's jangle-y guitar style. In the 1980s the term "alternative" had yet to be coined, but its precursor was "college radio" and REM was among the first bands to specifically target college radio. It paid off. At the end of 1983, Rolling Stone magazine stunned the music industry by naming the independent label released Murmur as the best album of the year.
Red Rain (1986) by Peter Gabriel - #1
In the early days of the synthesizer a common criticism of the form was that synth music was "cold." That changed when Peter Gabriel started to sink his teeth into the instrument. He had formerly been the lead singer of the formerly progressive-rock band Genesis, and since striking out on his own, Gabriel had explored the world of synth music, coupling it with his unique and powerful voice. The reply to the complaint of "cold" synth music was the passion of Peter Gabriel. With the album So Gabriel not only achieved an artistic triumph, but also became the huge international star that his fans had always felt he should be. Red Rain shows both his passion and artistry at its best.