75 Great Singles Of The 1980s

Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.

The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.

But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.

The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood, drama. Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…

75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)

74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)

73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)

72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)

71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)

70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)

Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.

69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)

68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)

Always the loudest song on any playlist.

67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)

66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)

65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)

64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)

63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)

62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)

61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)

Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.

60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)

Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.

59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)

The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…

58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)

57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)

No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).

56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)

Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.

55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)

The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.

54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)

53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)

52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)

Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.

50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)

The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.

49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)

48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)

The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.

47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)

Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.

46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)

Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.

45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)

Most original cover version of the ’80s?

44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)

Apparently about sexual abuse…

43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)

42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)

41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)

Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.

40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)

39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)

No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.

38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)

Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).

37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)

More like a dream than a pop song.

36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)

35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)

34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)

Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.

33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)

32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)

31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)

By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.

30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)

29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)

28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)

A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.

27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)

26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’

25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’

24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.

23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)

22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)

21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)

Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.

19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)

18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)

17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

A classic lyric, and musically rich too.

16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)

15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)

14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)

13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)

Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.

12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)

11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)

10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)

9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)

7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)

You may mock but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…

6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)

5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)

Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’

3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’

It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’

And the single I would save if my flat was on fire:

1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

You can listen to the whole list on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/sebage/playlist/0gsb6Zkav8rFWWAQ03HFDx

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17 thoughts on “75 Great Singles Of The 1980s

  1. Really fun to see your picks, Matt! Living here in the US, I never heard a few listed here. Rob Dean of Japan commented, “How extraordinary” when he saw you chose I Second That Emotion because many of the fans (not me!) despise it! Being the huge Dolbyphile and proud owner of a doctorate in genetics that I am, I have to add She Blinded Me With Science. And the Finns can do no wrong so I Got You by Split Enz and Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House need to be added. I’ll stop there and let someone else have a say.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Mary! ‘Second That Emotion’ is a massively nostalgic choice as it was my first taste of the band, but it still gets points for originality though can quite understand a lot of fans hating it – not to mention Sylvian/Dean etc! Good call on ‘Science’ – both that and ‘Hyperactive’ came close to making it. And I’ve never quite gone for Crowded House but agree that ‘Don’t Dream’ is a corker.

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  2. Of those mentioned I love “Boys of Summer” because of the great arrangement and atmosphere. My 80’s pick would be Cutting Crew “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” for similar reasons and because it brings me back to teenage years/emotions. Mister Mister “Broken Wings” is similar. I get the impression your picks are leaning towards early 80s. For Dire Straits I would rather choose something from “Brothers in Arms”, maybe the title track. In fact, my favorite tracks all have great guitar parts…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great list.
    Ha – you’re quite right about terrible keyboards in Bronski opening.
    Great to see Bambaataa in here.
    Hard to argue with the choice of no.1. Would love to read a case study of how this single was put together.
    I would respectfully suggest that Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’ should be in this list too…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was in a band in the mid-80s in London and we’d rehearse next door to Cutting Crew and when we heard ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’ we knew we weren’t going anywhere. We didn’t, although did play the Marquee supporting the band SO (formally The Opposition) – anyone remember them?

    Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson could have been there, judging by the criteria… not a song to turn off.

    Liked by 1 person

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