Countdown: 1980s: Tracks: 20-01

A couple of years ago, I posted the best of the 90s, and the best of the 00s, from my point of view.

Countdown: 1980s: Tracks

100-81
80-61
60-41
40-21
20-01

Playlists

Spotify
YouTube

The final part of a run-down that has taken me two years and more to complete. So let us waste no more time, on with the top twenty.

[Note: This was written a while ago, and like the other lists, has been left as it was written originally – only the formatting has been updated and corrected where appropriate.]


/20

Mudhoney
Touch Me I’m Sick
Touch Me I’m Sick
1988

Mudhoney really never got their due in the grunge explosion. While various other bands gained massive success, they missed the boat somehow. Maybe it was because their caustic, fuzzy sound was not as radio-friendly as their peers, but their legend remains intact thanks to their earliest, trailblazing work such as this – an anthemic, sub-three minute blast that sticks two fingers up at convention and blasts out an instantly recognisable riff and searing hook – that was sent-up with amusing effect in the grunge-era film Singles by Matt Dillon and other grunge band luminaries…


/19

Echo & The Bunnymen
The Killing Moon
Ocean Rain
1984

What is weird is that much of the Bunnymen’s material I can take or leave…with the ultimate exception of this majestic song. Ian McCulloch has never been backward in proclaiming how amazing his band are, and he perhaps frequently set himself up for a fall by his comments, with the exception of this, where he could never quite be able to articulate how glorious this is. A forbidding rhythm underpins the song, with McCulloch delivering a stirring, rousing vocal performance (complete with lyrics that I’ve always wondered what the fuck he was on about) that complement the dramatic sweep of the music perfectly. Frankly, it didn’t matter what they did after this, their legacy was assured thanks to this one song.


/18

New Order
Bizarre Love Triangle
Brotherhood
1986

Probably one of the greatest singles bands of their time, this one had me thinking. But with the benefit of hindsight, it is this song that I love the most (and I have to say that I was a little surprised to find that it was a comparative chart failure when released). A cryptic, sleek electronic song with a glorious chorus, it’s brittle heart was revealed to me fully by the quite elegant a capella cover by Apoptygma Berzerk, and maybe it takes a few listens to fully appreciate, hence why it wasn’t such a success at the time.


/17

Cabaret Voltaire
Crackdown
The Crackdown
1983

While Cabaret Voltaire’s early, experimental phase is fascinating (an era that ended around 1981), the material that I find I go back to more than any other is their mid-eighties phase from 1983-85, so brilliantly chronicled on the #8385 Box last year (and yes, I own a copy that appears to have tripled in value since I bought it twelve months ago, and it was expensive enough then). This was a time where sleek funk basslines sat alongside searing synths and squelching beats, with Stephen Mallinder’s vocal often murmured in the gaps between. Crackdown, the title track from their 1983 album (it actually has three tracks I considered for here), is the greatest leap forward. It has a beat that if it was ten years later I might have expected to be backing a rapper, synths from a new wave soundtrack, perhaps, while Mallinder’s sinister vocals describe snippets of life under totalitarian regimes. And it is simply brilliant.


/16

Pop Will Eat Itself
Def Con One
This Is The Day…This Is The Hour…This is This!
1989

The point where the Poppies came of age? Up to this, broadly they had been a knockabout band with a good line in sloganeering and getting attention by causing controversy (*cough* Beaver Patrol *cough*), but with this song and much of the rest of this album, suddenly they gained skill with synths and, more crucially, samplers – and knocked their previous work out of the park with a succession of songs that are still favourites even now. Def Con One, though, with the cheeky sampling of the Twilight Zone and the iconic chorus, wins out over the geek-a-thon lyrics of Can U Dig It?


/15

Big Black
Kerosene
Atomizer
1986

Six minutes of rumbling, churning hate. Tales of sex, fire-starting, and sex and fire-starting, possibly the ultimate ode to small-town boredom isn’t actually composed of too much. A drum machine, a menacing bassline, and Steve Albini’s stark, barely-restrained vocals. Oh, and that scratchy, squalling riff that makes the track unmistakeable – and even a number of covers (notably by Pitchshifter and St. Vincent) haven’t dulled the appeal of it.


/14

Swans
A Hanging
Holy Money
1986

I could have included one of the brutal, extreme early songs – like Cop or Raping A Slave, or one of their songs from Children of God like the rampaging Beautiful Child. But perhaps the best way to cover both is to go for one of the transitional tracks like A Hanging. The extraordinary opener to Holy Money, it proceeds at a snails pace for the most part, a choir from hell providing the backing to Michael Gira’s tale of sacrifice, and as we count down to the presumed, eventual death…a monstrous, pounding drum rhythm explodes from nowhere for a few fleeting moments, before vanishing as the sacrifice is completed.


/13

Ministry
The Land of Rape and Honey
The Land of Rape and Honey
1988

Consider this – over the course of the 80s, Ministry went from a synthpop outfit to the heaviest industrial band going, in a few small steps. Ok, so the original incarnation had a few good moments (Over The Shoulder is certainly one of them), but the Ministry many of us grew up on really appeared with the grimy blast of The Land Of Rape and Honey, an attention-grabbing title and frankly an attention-grabbing album, too. This was also where the first discernable politics started to infiltrate the band’s sound (something that would take over almost entirely in later decades), with the stunning title track a thundering march to war, criticizing the whole idea of fighting for one’s country (and interestingly not-far-off contemporary to another song in this twenty) and the macho dick-waving that happened an awful lot as the Cold War finally came to an end in the late 80s.


/12

R.E.M.
Orange Crush
Green
1988

As far as I’m concerned, R.E.M.’s greatest song on their greatest album, where they continued the process of moving from being an underground college rock band to becoming the biggest band in the world. This was a slick, smart album, one in tune with the turbulent political times as the eighties came to a close, and the world began to change for ever. This song, though, took us back nearly twenty years into the Vietnam War, with Michael Stipe’s most furious vocal coupled to the musical charge that never lets up for the whole song.


/11

Madonna
Like A Prayer
Like A Prayer
1989

Love or hate Madonna – and nowadays I have little or no time for her music – back in the eighties and early nineties, Madonna was setting the pace, setting the style and laying out the template for the modern female pop star, with an ever-changing style and sound, and an astonishing confidence that saw her have a seemingly never-ending run of hits, and probably just as much controversy (the latter a sign of just how in control she was – she clearly knew *exactly* which buttons to push of the mass media to get the column inches). And this song, the title track from her monster album of 1989, pretty much was Madonna at the absolute peak of her powers, taking in soul, gospel and out-and-out pop that culminates in the greatest song she ever released – every single thing about this track is nigh-on pop perfection. Oh, and it’s brilliance was made even more obvious by the lacklustre, otherwise all-style-and-no-substance that surrounded it at the Superbowl halftime show a few years back.


/10

Einstürzende Neubauten
Feurio!
Haus der Lüge
1989

After the attempts to drill through the earth and apparently destroy music by dismantling everything that they created, it is frankly a wonder that Neubauten lasted out the eighties, but it was clear by the time of this album that things were changing. There were songs, there were rhythms created by machines and instruments that at least resembled what other bands were using. In fact, Feurio has all of these elements, and as a result ended up with this most experimental of bands becoming a fixture on industrial dancefloors (!) – with Blixa whipping up a musical storm around him apparently by the sheer power of his voice – but they never forgot the more random elements of the sound as they batter the hell out of basically anything that comes to hand in the mid-section, before the storm rises once more to the climactic, thrilling ending. Yeah, so later albums perhaps had more finesse, more style and more humour, but this track in particular is a vitally important key to understanding where they went after this.


/09

My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult
Kooler Than Jesus
Kooler Than Jesus
1989

Trashy, religion-baiting nonsense or dancefloor classic? Well, judging on the reaction the last time I dropped this in a DJ set, the latter is clearly the case. Twenty-three years old as I write, and still the bratty teenager sneering in the corner, with a racket of disco beats and a pile-up of samples behind it. Not big, not clever, but a whole load of fun. All together now: “I AM THE ELECTRIC MESSIAH. THE AC/DC GOD!”


/08

Public Enemy
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
1988

Basically the greatest hip-hop album in existence, the one that proved less isn’t always more, that politics were a worthwhile subject in the genre, but that whatever you’re writing about, in hip-hop you need a strong and powerful voice to deliver it. Well, here, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and their crew delivered on every level, left jaws on the floor in-and-out-of the hip-hop scene, and even managed to help the nascent idea of rap-metal take a further step forward in their reworking of lead single Bring The Noise (to amazing effect) with Anthrax. But the greatest track on the album is actually one of the sparsest – Chuck D’s (fictional) tale of refusing the draft and refusing to serve his country – going to prison then breaking out – and along the way instead demanding a better future that doesn’t involve fighting for a Government’s whims. Other songwriters have tried to cover similar ground (in other countries, too, the finest British equivalent is probably the majestic anti-war anthem Shipbuilding), but none ever did so with such eloquence as Chuck D did here. Chuck referred to Public Enemy in their prime as being “the Black American CNN” – with this track, he perhaps got closer to that ideal than he ever did anywhere else.


/07

Faith No More
Epic
The Real Thing
1989

This track has special resonance, even if it isn’t the best song on the album (I’d rather have included Falling To Pieces, really). As this song probably has the honour of being my initial entry into Alternative music, when I first discovered this band on MTV. Yeah, it took a while, but as a young, impressionable just-pre-teen, this track frankly blew my mind. Oh-so-slightly odd funky metal, quasi-rapping and a weird-looking band that would go on to be seriously influential in both good and bad ways, and a really quite bizarre video. Twenty-five years on, I’m still here, still into alternative music in various forms (even if my tastes have changed, developed, changed again and developed some more), and still uncovering music from way back when, never mind now, that I am discovering for the first time. The world of music for me is a world continually work exploring and re-evaluating.


/06

Belfegore
All That I Wanted
Belfegore
1984

One of the perhaps most underrated, and criminally forgotten, of the 80s goth-industrial bands, they weren’t around for long, but left at least an album worth your time – and in particular this bruising single. Underpinned by a darkwave-esque synth line, and a proto-EBM drum rhythm, it is something of a link between the goth-rock so prevalent at the time, and the industrial rock that was to follow at the end of the decade (this isn’t a million miles away from what Trent Reznor was to debut on Pretty Hate Machine). Bizarrely, by the way, they supported U2 in 1985 on the European leg of their tour that year.


/05

Depeche Mode
Never Let Me Down Again
Music For The Masses
1987

Yet another where I wasn’t short of choice, but once again it was back to picking my personal favourite. After all, looking down the singles collections, from about 1983 to 1993 there are once again no bad songs from the Essex synthpop band who explored darker territories than any of their peers and still sold millions. Basically, they were a goth band that infiltrated the mainstream in a big way – aside the Cure, how many other bands in the darker realms can sell out stadiums all over the world? – and so their songs, even with their habit and talent for appropriately stadium-sized pop hooks, always had a bleak, dark underbelly. But for me their finest moment comes in the slightly more optimistic Never Let Me Down Again, a glorious, fist-pumping anthem of hope and trust with that tinge of fear that everything isn’t going to work out as planned.


/04

a-Ha
The Sun Always Shines On TV
Hunting High and Low
1985

So Take On Me might have the more iconic (and ground-breaking) video, but this track, the follow-up single, is for me the better by a nose. The almost mournful, piano-assisted intro, before that thrilling build into the massive rhythm that kicks in, surely set from the start to fill stadiums, *that* skyscraping chorus, and then the dramatic, unexpected piano chord where the song drops dead. One of the most perfect pop-songs of its time (and also a number one in the UK, which I’d forgotten about).


/03

Skinny Puppy
deep down Trauma Hounds
Cleanse Fold and Manipulate
1987

There are an awful lot of Puppy tracks from their eighties period that I adore, but the fact that this is the track that eventually inspired my DJ moniker perhaps is the bit that swings this. That and that the fact that Skinny Puppy’s extensive use of sampling at this time even stretched to sampling episodes of Perry Mason! The song itself – like many SP songs of the age – is a chaotic, twisting morass, one where rhythms appear and fade away, sounds phase in and out, and ohGr delivers a stream-of-conciousness vocal that sounds totally and utterly deranged. They were never an easy listen, this band, in their prime, and this is absolutely not where to start if you are a beginner…


/02

Prince
When Doves Cry
Purple Rain
1984

More than any other artist in this 100, how exactly am I supposed to narrow down Prince to one great song from the eighties? More prolific by miles than his supposed peers in the eighties (Madonna and Michael Jackson, then), he released an album a year at least through the decade, and the Batman soundtrack that closed out the decade was perhaps the only one that wasn’t stuffed full of genius (and even that had its moments). As a result, his singles output alone in the eighties could fill the top ten at least, and I’m not sure any other artist has even come close to a run like that before. So I’m not going for Kiss, or Purple Rain, or 1999, or Little Red Corvette, or Controversy, or U Got The Look (see what I mean?) – I’m going for the single that broke all the rules. It shouldn’t work. It’s a bassless track, with a kick of a drum, an incessant synth loop, a wild guitar riff, and Prince’s vocals multi-tracked behind the lead vocal. It is a song full of soul, of regret, and love, one with an absolute killer of a chorus and one that somehow manages to stretch out to nearly six minutes without ever overstaying it’s welcome. In fact, it is only beaten by a whisker, as far as I’m concerned, to being the greatest song of the decade.


/01

Front 242
Headhunter v1.0
Front By Front
1988

Even at 26 years old, this track remains the EBM gold standard and probably one of the best known industrial/EBM songs of all. It isn’t hard to see why, in the end – a punishing rhythm, *that* stabbing synth line, and of course the monstrous, anthemic chorus that sounded like the future had arrived in the late 80s when I first heard it, and pretty much still sounds like the future now. Unlike the various industrial fashions that have come and gone since, this simply stays in style – and for the enormous shadow this casts over the entire genre, and many dance genres besides, it is still a dancefloor filler, and frankly is for me the greatest song of the decade. Maybe they really don’t make ’em like they used to, eh?

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