75 Great Singles Of The 1980s

Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would surely 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 which I would save if my flat was on fire:

1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

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Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They were of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication had the critics purring since 1972. They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue. More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell (this article rounds them up nicely).

None of them really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre. However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’. Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The little-known AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.