10. The Pointer Sisters – Neutron Dance
Sometimes “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” is all you really need to say about a song. It’s certainly relevant for a song like this that you can hardly help but get up and dance to. Between Richard Perry’s mix of space age synths and thundering drums and the Sisters’ soulful, gospel-inflected vocals, Neutron Dance more than fits the bill. Allee Willis originally had the song in mind for Streets of Fire, saying, “we were told that there was a scene on a bus that was leaving town after there had been this nuclear holocaust, and that a ’50s doo-wop black group was going to be at the back of the bus that the lead couple was escaping on …” Even though it ended up in a completely different context for Beverly Hills Cop, that backstory fits it almost perfectly. The Pointers sing about finding escape from a world with “all the common people breathing filthy air” where “it’s hard to say/Just how some things never change/And it’s hard to find/Any strength to draw the line.” It’s more than easy to believe a song like this could give them that strength.
9. The Time – Jungle Love
Another one for the simple pleasures, even if this time (or Time) they’re so simple they might threaten to cross over into “guilty pleasure” territory. The Time, with frontman Morris Day, performed the song in Prince’s Purple Rain, and there’s rumors the Artist Formerly Known as Rogers Nelson may have performed the Time’s entire album except for Day’s vocals and Jesse Johnson’s guitar. True or not, “Jungle Love” shares Prince’s extensive skills in grooveology, from Johnson giving “one of them sexy solos” to the thundering “oh-ee-oh-ee-oh” chorus, to some very Princesque sexual explicitness. We can get into the uncomfortable ramifications of a title like “Jungle Love” at a later date, but in at least one way, it fits: the thundering drums could have come straight from the heart of the Amazon or Congo. And its undiluted power goes right into the ancestral memory – a primal beat from the forest primeval.
8. Foreigner – I Want to Know What Love Is
Emotional earnestness is the both the strongest and weakest point of the chart: do it right and you’ve got naked emotion that cuts right to the soul, do it wrong, and you got some campy, sappy mess that makes grown men cry “turn it off!” George Burns summed it up best: “All you need to make it in this business is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” In so many of these songs, that naked earnestness is offensive rather than moving because the overacting seems to be just that: acting, rather than genuine feeling. So, does this mean the emotions here are real? Well, if not, Foreigner knew how to fake it. Lou Gramm certainly could belt it out – if he wasn’t singing from the depths of his soul, he was certainly singing from the depths of his lungs. His moan at the end of the first verse, aided by the humming of the swelling synthesizer, certainly speaks to deep emotion. And his evolution from despair to yearning to joy is powerful. That alone does some work elevating “I Want to Know What Love Is” from silly love song to existential plea, but the real heavy lifting comes from the New Jersey Mass Choir. Their chorus isn’t just genre appropriation – it turns “I Want to Know What Love Is” from a rock song into a genuine gospel shouter. It’s almost enough to make you believe frontman Mick Jones’ description of the process: “I don’t know where it came from. I consider it a gift that was sent through me. I think there was something bigger than me behind it. I’d say it was probably written entirely by a higher force.” (Yeah, if I was ranking these songs by the gap between actual quality and pretensions of greatness, this would be a whole heck of a lot lower.) Combine that vocal bombast with the subtlety of the Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey, and you’ve got a classic.
7. Prince – Raspberry Beret
Any serious rock artiste needs their own Sgt. Pepper to challenge their listeners and their abilities and explore the sounds of psychedelia, and Prince cut his in ‘85 with Around the World in a Day, right down to the crowded cover. While not as ambitious as some of the album’s other tracks (not to mention his towering previous album, Purple Rain), “Raspberry Beret” still fits into that mold, combining the orchestral psychedelia of its near-namesake “Strawberry Fields Forever” with the time-capsule storytelling of the Kinks’ Village Green. Less acid flashback, more mellow high, with its lilting violins and Prince’s even smoother voice – except for when he punctuates the climax (both figurative and literal – this is Prince after all) with his trademark squeals.
6. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
1985, even more than most years, was dominated by pure, pre-packaged pop. It needed a little of the grit of folk and the raw rage of punk rock to shake things up a bit. Well, the Boss was more than happy to oblige. It hits you right out the gate with a relentless drumbeat from Max Weinberg that sounds more than a little like what the lyrics’ “dog that’s been beat too much” must have felt. Other singers on the charts could holler their lungs out trying (and often failing) to convey emotion. Here’s the real thing – no one’s gonna run their throats this ragged for something they don’t believe in. It’s one of the most memorably bleak pictures of America the music world has to offer, of a man born into poverty and forced to choose between jail and the army. He suffers and bleeds in “a foreign land,” nominally for a country that only puts him through more suffering when he returns, unemployable and caught between “the shadow of the penitentiary” and “the oil fires of the refinery.” It was a hard look at the country’s dark side during the Reagan era of mindless patriotism – but of course it ended up as an anthem of that very thing, because heaven forbid anyone listen past the title.
5. Tears for Fears – Head Over Heels/Shout/Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Electronic music was everywhere in 1985 – you may have noticed at least a little of it on every song covered so far. Unfortunately, most artists didn’t know how to take advantage of the medium’s endless possibilities, instead using it for instantly dated zaps and thuds, or as a why to make popular music even more mechanized and sterile. There were some musicians. Mostly outside the mainstream who knew how to use those keys and knobs to their fullest to create otherworldly soundscapes that weren’t possible with conventional instruments, and Tears for Fears were certainly among them. Where most pop artists used electronica for mindlessly happy dance beats, Tears for Fears recognized that their cold inhuman sound and subterranean reverb could be either frightening, as in the doomy “Shout,” or deeply sad, as in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or the yearning “Head Over Heels.” You’ll find sounds on these songs that just don’t seem to exist anywhere else, like the jangly dance-break bridge of “Shout. Even the much-maligned drum machine goes to excellent use here – you get the feeling they used one on “Shout” because a human player would have bashed right through the drum to get those notes. They didn’t stop at the instrumentals either, electronically distorting their own voices to make it sound like they were delivering messages from another dimension. Not that they needed the help: Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s swooping falsettos on “Head Over Heels” are angelic and enormously powerful.
4. Tina Turner – Private Dancer/Better Be Good to Me
Next to the wild and wooly hippie decades that preceded them, the eighties were about as commercialized as a musical mall. You wouldn’t think the charts would have room for a down and dirty blues shouter who like Tina Turner, let alone one within spitting distance of fifty. In order to succeed in the Wall Street years, you’d think she’d have to crank out some mindless good-time music, or some sappy ballads with all the real pain stripped out and a whole lot of post-production massaging on her hard-living voice. Instead, she put out too dark and deeply personal stories, making sure every year of her life came through on the airwaves. Mark Knopfler originally wrote “Private Dancer” for Dire Straits, but felt uncomfortable inhabiting this woman’s voice. It was the right decision, because nobody else could embody this world-weary character as well as Tina does here. “Better Be Good to Me” is an even better fit, the story of a woman who’s been hurt too many times that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful in a younger woman’s mouth, let alone one without the public struggle against abuse that defined her career almost as much as her music. The deep, throaty “prisoner of your love” she uses to open the song couldn’t come from someone who hasn’t lived it. The production doesn’t soft-pedal Turner’s rawness either. Dire Straits provides a moody, minimalist backing track for “Private Dancer” (well, minimalist for 1985 anyway) with a single, thrumming bass track occasionally embellished with saxophone, guitar, or honky tonk piano. “Better Be Good” is more complex, with those synthesizers putting in another appearance, but still foregrounds the handmade sounds of shredding guitars and ringing bells. At one point the backing track drops out completely, leaving us with just the power of Turner’s voice, her chorus, and the rapping of a lone bell. (Maybe this was the work of Christopher Walken’s cowbell-loving producer on SNL?)
- The Commodores – Nightshift
“Nightshift” might not be a timeless classic that’s seen steady radio play across the decades like some of the other songs on this list. But it hits an old softie like me right where it hurts, and that’s what counts. The subject material is certainly heavy enough – it’s a tribute to soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson who had died the year before, Jackie onstage and Marvin at the hands of his own father. Those deaths can feel personal even to people like me who were born long after they died and the Commodores know how to bring those feelings out to the fullest. When they quote “What’s Going On,” the spare bassline explodes with drums and guitars. When they talk about the promise of heaven, the gospel choir takes quite literally to church. The reverb enhances the vocals in more ways then covering their flaws, making Jackie and Marvin’s names echo with the posthumous power they deserve, and making the line“Say you will sing your songs/Forevermore” resound across the barrier between life and death.
2. A-ha – Take On Me
A-ha found an even more efficient route past the listeners’ defenses and into their emotional core. It should be ridiculous, and I’d imagine at least a few people here would think it is, but that’s what makes it work – like all great pop singers, a-ha’s Morten Harket couldn’t care less what you think of him. His vocals here are operatic in scope if not in skill, building from a deep, seductive thrum (‘take on me…”) to a soaring, piercing high note (“in a/daaayyyyyyyyy!”). He wasn’t a native English speaker, but that doesn’t matter – the lyrics are more decorative than anything. They give shape to those feats of vocal excellence, and that’s all they need to do. There’s that hook of course, a simple melody you could bang out on a toy piano but that refuse to leave your mind. And of course, there’s that video. So many music videos in these early days of MTV were shot on soft-focus video cheapies or hilariously overwrought love stories (and usually both) – I had to leave them off a couple of these entries because they were so distractingly terrible they made me wonder if I could still put the songs they were made for on this list. But director Steve Barron must have seen more potential in the medium than the rest of the world did, created something that can easily stand with the canon of great short films. The video somehow manages to make a flirtation between two nameless, voiceless characters into a love story for the ages. That minimalism applies to the gorgeous pencil animation as well, leaving a few scribbles that the eye can turn into full panoramas, the better to contrast with the almost photo-real rendering of the characters’ faces. The narrator might have been gone in a day, but the song has endured.
1. Bruce Springsteen – I’m On Fire
The Boss could do operatic when he wanted to, but he recorded the best song on the charts by providing a subtler, softer kind of melancholy. The keyboard riffs that could sound so harsh and overpowering on lesser songs come through here almost like a whisper. At first, the lyrics are pretty standard unrequited love stuff (“Tell me, little girl, is he good to you/Does he do for you the things that I can’t do?/I can take you higher.”), but the vocals take it, well, higher than that, into deep, existential longing. The next verse makes it clear that there’s more going on here, grounded in the same pain and despair as “Born in the USA.” “Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby/Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley/Through the middle of my soul.” He says that the woman he’s singing too can “cool my desire,” but he sounds the depths of something without any cure that simple. And then he dives right in with that beautiful, terrible wail, full of anguish and longing and hope and despair and whatever other emotion you see fit to find there. Haunting is the best word to describe it, so it’s only fitting that as he keeps howling, his voice fades into the distance, like a ghost.