At last, here are our final ten choices in our 50 Greatest Pop Songs of the ’80s series.
All of the songs selected appeared in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart sometime during the ’80s. Only one song per artist is included.
10. “With or Without You” – U2 (1987)
By 1987, U2 was poised for a major leap into international stardom, and The Joshua Tree provided the necessary boost. Hailed by critics and beloved by fans, the album spent nine weeks at No. 1 and sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. Its success was sparked by “With or Without You,” a daring choice for first single. The song is an exercise in smoldering, escalating tension and cathartic release. Helmed by Bono’s tightly controlled vocals and The Edge’s blazing bursts of guitar, “With or Without You” is a breathtaking piece of songcraft that doesn’t follow the conventional norms of what a pop song should be.
9. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears (1985)
The first U.S. hit for British duo Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a gleaming pop shuffle with a superb vocal by bassist Curt Smith. Although structurally simple — highlighted by a stately, undulating melody, a steady bass and a repetitive two-chord keyboard line — thematically, the song exudes unease and cynicism. It remains a beautiful recording and helped cement the album Songs from the Big Chair as one of the greatest of the decade.
8. “Back on the Chain Gang” – The Pretenders (1982)
The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” was recorded during the most tumultuous period in the band’s history. In June 1982, they fired bassist Pete Farndon over rampant drug use. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose. Chrissie Hynde wrote the beautifully elegiac “Chain Gang” as a tribute to Honeyman-Scott. Punctuated by Hynde’s devastating vocal, the wistful, heartbreaking song spent three weeks at No. 5 and was the biggest single of the band’s career.
7. “Let’s Dance” – David Bowie (1983)
David Bowie has made frequent, sudden left-turns throughout his legendary career. “Let’s Dance,” Bowie’s first No. 1 in the U.S. since his 1975 smash “Fame,” is a tightly wound ball of tension disguised as a funky pop song. With a slick electronic beat, woozy horns and a torrid solo by a young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughn, it’s about love and annihilation, the instinct to embrace passion when all else is gone. It works great as a pop song, but is much more than that, and is a fine example of a song recorded in the shadows of the Cold War menace.
6. “Bette Davis Eyes” – Kim Carnes (1981)
Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon first released the song in 1974. It went nowhere at the time, but, fortunately for everyone, found its way to Kim Carnes. Recorded for her sixth album Mistaken Identity, “Bette Davis Eyes” is a sexy, new wave rocker that oozes innuendo and attitude. Carnes nails the vocal, her nuance and phrasing perfect at every turn. From a growl to a conspiratorial half-whisper, Carnes knows how to wring every last bit of drama and meaning from the lyrics. “Bette Davis Eyes” was the biggest hit of 1981, spending an incredible nine weeks at No. 1 and winning Grammys for both Song and Record of the Year.
5. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” – Eurythmics (1983)
The striking image of Annie Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top is one of the visuals that defines the early MTV era. The song that accompanies it is a simple but profound statement about the human condition (Lennox has often referred to the song as a mantra). The main riff, improvised by Lennox while listening to the drum machine part that her partner Dave Stewart had been programming, is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Lennox’s vocal is extraordinary, taut and restrained during the initial verse, brimming with passion towards the end. It endures to this day.
4. “Every Breath You Take” – The Police (1983)
The lead single from The Police’s fifth and final album, Synchronicity, “Every Breath You Take,” an exploration of malevolent obsession, is the biggest hit of the trio’s career. A powerful black and white video directed by Godley & Creme helped cement the song’s popularity and its success helped Synchronicity sell over 8 million copies in the U.S. alone.
3. “Like a Prayer” – Madonna (1989)
“Like a Prayer” begins with shards of distorted guitar and the sound of a door slamming, followed by Madonna’s solemn opening lines delivered over a haunting background of organ and choral vocals. Then the drums and bass kick in, and “Like a Prayer” becomes an electric hymn reaching a powerful emotional apex featuring a dramatic sense of spiritual crisis. A controversial video directed by Mary Lambert, laden with provocative religious imagery, helped propel the single’s success. Madonna isn’t the first to explore the constant inherent tension between religion and sex, thrilling ecstasy and abject shame, but few have done it better.
2. “When Doves Cry” – Prince (1984)
Prince’s scorching, bitter masterpiece was a late entry to his film Purple Rain. “When Doves Cry” rocketed straight to No. 1, becoming the biggest hit of Prince’s legendary career. Prince’s taut, tightly layered vocals convey a slow boil of desperation and anguish and the artist twists the atmosphere of sexual tension as the song grooves toward a sonically innovative finale of slippery keyboards and shimmering vocal harmonies. Five minutes of gripping melodrama, “When Doves Cry” finds Prince at his best.
(Since Prince won’t allow his videos on YouTube, here is the legendary Patti Smith with her 2002 cover of the song.)
1. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson (1982)
If one song transformed an entire decade, it’s Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” One of the greatest recordings in pop history, its foundation is a heavy back beat by drummer Leon Chancler and a sinuous bass-line by the late Louis Johnson. Soaring over it all is Michael Jackson’s innovative vocal delivery. His phrasing — every vocal hiccup, twirl and twinge perfectly placed — makes the song. The nation was transfixed by Jackson’s video, his steps alight as he traverses a barren urban wasteland like a cosmic alien superstar, twisting and grooving to the hypnotic beat. Audiences watched stunned as Jackson performed “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV Special — as he glided across the stage with his moonwalk. “Billie Jean” zoomed up the charts to No. 1 where it spent seven long weeks. It was the propulsion that hurtled the album Thriller into the stratosphere. Michael Jackson was now a star such as the world had never seen, on par with Elvis and The Beatles. Thriller became the biggest selling album in the world, a sonic hurricane that flattened the music industry and changed everything in its wake. A viscerally exciting piece of music, “Billie Jean,” tense and dramatic, enigmatic and otherworldly, is the epic recording that lit its fuse. It’s Who else but the King of Pop could have produced the single greatest pop song of the ’80s?
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