Metro Weekly

The 50 Greatest Pop Songs of the ’80s, Nos. 40-31

It’s summer music week at Metro Weekly! And to complement our 4th Annual Summer Music Issue, we’re counting down the 50 Greatest Pop Songs of the ’80s, 10 per day, with new installments daily at noon through Friday, July 10. 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.

The top 10 will be revealed exclusively in the print edition of Metro Weekly on Thursday, July 9, and online Friday, July 10, at noon.

40. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” – Elton John (1983)

Elton John’s 1983 album Too Low For Zero is easily his best work of the ’80s and the soulful piano-ballad, “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues,” featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, became the album’s biggest hit. Elton’s vocal is rich and passionate, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics capture just the right amount of pathos in the torment of being separated from a loved one. Although John notched several more hits in the ’80s, his output, as he struggled with drug addiction, was decidedly spotty. It wasn’t until 1989’s stunning “Sacrifice” that he was able to match the timeless beauty of “Blues.”

39. “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman (1988)

A heartrending tale of a woman desperate to escape the gripping cycle of poverty, “Fast Car” personalizes the working poor who are often caricatured by those who don’t understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Chapman’s gritty realism is set to a glowing folk-rock background, with a hypnotic repetitive melody on acoustic guitar during the verses. For the chorus, Chapman allows herself an outpouring of passion over heavy drums and thick strands of guitar. Despite its serious subject matter, “Fast Car” was powerful enough to land at No. 6 on the Hot 100. That could happen in the ’80s. But today? Never.

38. “Burning Down the House” – Talking Heads (1983)

One of the greatest bands to emerge from the post-punk scene of the late ’70s, the Talking Heads brewed a wildly innovative mix of new wave, pop, rock, funk and international. Fronted by the quirky, unpredictable and freakishly talented David Byrne, the band didn’t reside within the lines of commercial Top 40 pop. Still, a few of their songs managed to connect with larger audiences. One, “Burning Down the House,” reached No. 9 in 1983. The song is a jittery jumble of eclectic rhythms and surreal electronic effects over which Byrne shouts vaguely sinister, non-sequitur lyrics. The end result is strangely hypnotic art-rock — like a sonic painting, it doesn’t tell a story but creates a vibe of manic unease. Listen to it cranked up on headphones, and let your mind travel where few other bands can take you.

37. “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley (1984)

The lead single from Don Henley’s second post-Eagles album, 1984’s Building the Perfect Beast, “The Boys of Summer” seethes with bittersweet regret and determination. It’s a brilliant studio creation, weaving evocative imagery of fading youth and lost love over a cinematic soundscape with multiple guitar and percussion parts, and layers of keyboard. Henley’s lyrics are razor-sharp, and his vocals genuinely emotional. A moody black and white video, directed by French photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, won the 1985 MTV award for Video of the Year and helped expose Henley to an entirely new generation of music fans.

36.“Alone” – Heart (1987)

Bolstered by a dynamic sense of drama, “Alone” is the ultimate rock and roll power ballad, featuring crashing drums, searing guitar and a deft string arrangement weaving over a glimmering electric piano. Ron Nevinson, a veteran engineer and producer who’s worked with a long list of top artists (Kiss, The Rolling Stones) gets the absolute most out of the song. What really nails it, though, is a signature vocal performance by the incomparable Ann Wilson. “Alone” remains a cornerstone of Heart’s enduring legacy, which includes a recent well-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

35. “One Thing Leads to Another” – The Fixx (1983)

A British five-piece led by Cy Curnin and Jamie West-Oram, The Fixx launched their career in 1982 with the Rupert Hine-produced Shuttered Room. Hine returned for their triumphant second release, 1983’s Reach the Beach, one of the most important rock albums of the early ’80s. Moody lead single “Saved by Zero” was a moderate hit, but it was this follow-up that scaled to No. 4, remarkable for a piece so edgy, tight, frazzled. Its jagged guitar, punctuated by Curnin’s staccato vocals and Rupert Greenall’s manic keyboard swirls, makes for a feverishly tense three minutes. It’s one of many such pieces of brilliance by a band that doesn’t receive nearly the recognition it deserves.

34. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – Whitney Houston (1987)

The lead single from her second album Whitney, Houston’s exuberant dance-pop confection “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was her fourth straight #1 single in a remarkable streak that would eventually stretch to seven. Houston’s vocals are strong and confident, and the song is upbeat, fun, and a natural on the dance floor. There is a carefree joy to the recording that captures a period in Houston’s career in which the possibilities seemed endless. Hearing it now, one can’t help but fondly remember her better days when she was arguably the greatest pop vocalist of our generation.

33. “Hungry Like the Wolf” – Duran Duran (1982)

Rio is the album that generally comes to mind when one thinks of Duran Duran. The fusion of glamour, sex, new wave-influenced rock and big melodies was a perfect storm that elevated the group to superstardom. Lead single “Hungry Like the Wolf” became a powerhouse on radio and MTV. Opening with a mischievous female giggle, the song is built on electric guitar lines that mirror Simon LeBon’s brazenly sexual delivery, feathered by a jittery keyboard riff, and anchored by a steady rhythm section. “Hungry Like the Wolf” reached number #3 in the U.S. and jump-started a sensational run that’s produced thirteen Top 20 hits for the band.

32. “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” – Simple Minds (1985)

British rockers Simple Minds landed a string of moderate hits in the U.K. in the early ’80s, but they were unable to crack the U.S. market until they were nabbed to record the theme song to John Hughes’ classic coming-of-age film, The Breakfast Club. The lush rocker, notable for a chugging guitar riff and bright swells of keyboard, was a departure for the band, who typically recorded edgier material. Jim Kerr’s crooning vocal echoes the poignancy, hope and possibility that comprise the themes of Breakfast Club. The song raced up the pop chart, eventually reaching No. 1. Simple Minds recently gave a terrific performance of the hit on the Billboard Music Awards to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and the soundtrack classic has lost none of its charm.

31. “99 Luftballons” – Nena (1983)

German band Nena, led by vocalist Gabriele Kerner, scored a surprise smash in 1983 with this anti-war epic. It soared to No. 2 in America and topped the charts around the globe. (Nena recorded an inferior English-language version for the U.S. market, but fans preferred the original German recording). A parable about World War III, “99 Luftballons” is a reflection of the perilous times of the early ’80s, and the overriding fear that anything might set off nuclear Armageddon. Many songs of that era touch on the subject, but few with the grace and poignancy of this hard-charging new wave rocker with an endearing vocal by Kerner.  “99 Luftballons” was Nena’s sole Hot 100 appearance, and is one of only a handful of foreign-language songs to become a major hit in the U.S.

The top 10 will be revealed exclusively in the print edition of Metro Weekly on Thursday, July 9, and online Friday, July 10, at noon.

Leave a Comment:

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!