The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 30 to 21
30. “Under the Milky Way,” The Church. Songwriters: Steve Kilbey, Karin Jansson; #24 pop; 1988. Recording the 1988 “Starfish” album wasn’t a great experience for The Church. West Coast producers Greg Ladanyi, Waddy Wachtel forced Steve Kilbey to take vocal lessons and drummer Richard Ploog was replaced by Russ Kunkel for “Under the Milky Way.” Rob Caldwell of PopMatters, “The largely acoustic ‘Milky Way’ stands out on the mostly electric ‘Starfish.’ The chord structure is questioning, dark, and mysterious – evocative of its starry night title. Lyrically, it’s somewhat disconnected and ambiguous. It’s not a straight narrative. Rather, we’re left to color in the details.” Rock critic Ned Raggett, “If the Marty Willson-Piper/Peter Koppes guitar team is less prominent throughout much of the song than the strange, haunting keyboards, it’s all made up for with the amazing mock-bagpipe solo that adds an immediate, unexpected surge to the whole song. Calling, mournful and truly artistic, it fully transforms the song into the piece of melancholic majesty it is.” Steve Kilbey in 2011, “It’s an accidental song I accidentally wrote and accidentally became a single and accidentally became a hit. It’s been a nice earner. I’ve written 2000 songs. Thank God one of them came through! The others aren’t pulling their weight. They sit and grumble about ‘Under the Milky Way’ and I say, ‘Well, boys, go out and earn the same dough as that one.’ I never see ‘Under the Milky Way’ – it’s so busy out there working.”
29. “I’m Coming Out,” Diana Ross. Songwriters: Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers; #5 pop/#6 R&B; 1980. Nile Rodgers, “Diana was an icon in the gay community. ‘What would it be like,’ I wondered, ‘if Diana celebrated her status among gay men with a song?’ Bernard (Edwards) agreed that it would be a cool idea to have Diana talk to her gay fans in slightly coded language. ‘I’m Coming Out’ was the smash result. We originally envisioned the song as the opening to Diana’s live show for the new album. The horns in the song’s intro were a soul fanfare for the pop diva.” Ross, “I like songs that are positive and say something inspirational and make a difference in people’s lives. ‘I’m Coming Out’ is still one of those messages, whether it’s for gays or whether it’s for women.”Rock critic Matthew Greenwald, “This track has all of the hallmarks of such Chic hits as ‘Good Times,’ particularly the fine horn arrangement and superb rhythm electric guitar, which holds this dancefloor anthem together. Dating much better that almost any of Diana Ross’ other efforts from the era, the song still remains a classic from the early ’80s.”
28. “Unsatisfied,” The Replacements. Songwriter: Paul Westerberg; Did Not Chart; 1984. “Look me in the eye and tell that I’m satisfied. Were you satisfied?” BAM! After decades of teen angst appearing in rock ‘n’ roll, Westerberg gets the the heart of the matter, singing about his dissatisfaction while shredding his vocal cords. Blogger Eric Melon, “The lyrics are more than a statement, it’s a taunt. Summing up the listless feeling of youth and uncertainty about the future isn’t easy to do in language that plain-spoken, but Westerberg does it. And the delivery sells it. Even with all the bright and pretty guitars, the band (Bob Stinson on guitar, his 17-year old brother Tommy on bass, Chris Mars on the drums) plays it reckless, like a punk rock tune. It’s cathartic for sure, but there’s a melodic sense that thrives and lives through the chaos.”
27. “Into the Groove,” Madonna. Songwriters: Madonna, Stephen Bray; #19 R&B; 1985. Rolling Stone, “’Into the Groove’ is the streetwise beatbox anthem Madonna kept trying to write when she was down and out in New York, the days when she squatted and ate out of garbage cans. As she explained in 1985, ‘It was the garbage can in the Music Building on Eighth Avenue, where I lived with Steve Bray, the guy I write songs with. He’s Useful Male #2 or #3, depending on which article you read’” Madonna and Bray – the ex-drummer in her punk band – knocked off ‘Into the Groove’ as an eight-track demo. (Bray later said he came up with the ‘rib cage’ and ‘skeleton’ of the music, with Madonna writing lyrics and adding her own touches – in this case, the song’s bridge.) Her movie ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ used it for the scene where Madonna hits Danceteria, but then it unexpectedly blew up on the radio. It still sounds like a low-budget demo – those breakbeats, the desperate edge in her voice when she drones, ‘Now I know you’re mine’ – but that raw power is what makes it her definitive you-can-dance track.” Peter Tabakis of Spectrum Culture, “’Into the Groove’ is the purest version of melody, melody, melody set to a metronomic pulse.”
26. “Ana Ng,” They Might Be Giants. Songwriters: John Flansburgh, John Linnell; Did Not Chart; 1988. “Ana Ng” is a song about not being able to find your soulmate, who you know exists, but lives on the opposite side of the world. From the S. Alexander Reed/Philip Sander book “Flood,” “’Ana Ng’ is They Might Be Giants most iconic love song, but it serenades a complete stranger – one whose very appeal is, in fact, her status as a stranger. Says (John) Linnell, ‘In the phone book…there were about four pages of of this name that contains no vowels, Ng. I was fascinated.’” Timothy and Elizabeth Bracy of Sterogum, “Part love song, part war story, and partly a critique of the human condition, this is TMBG at the intimidating height of their intellectual powers, cranking out what is essentially rock and roll’s own poignant take on ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ in 3:22 of astoundingly efficient storytelling.” Jean Luc-Bouchard of BuzzFeed, “The verse chords are iconic and perfectly match the halting nature of the narrative.” Rock critic Steve Huey, finding the bottom line, “The total package is a masterpiece of pop absurdism.”
25. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Jason & the Scorchers. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1984. Jason & the Scorchers did not mix rock n’ roll and country music in an academic manner. They cut loose with a wild abandon, but their blistering power scared Nashville and the hard rock crowd didn’t warm up to their unstudied twang. From the “A Biscuit in the Sun” blog, “Like most bands they do a Dylan song. However, most bands don’t grab a Dylan song by the scruff of the neck and throw it out onto the dance floor. If you aren’t familiar with this recording, you’ve lived a sad shadow of a musical life.” Guitarist Jason Hodges, “It was a weird thing when we recorded that song. I didn’t know it was a Dylan tune. I thought it was the best song that Jason (Ringenberg) had ever written. I think part of our take on the tune, the reason it came out the way it did – I don’t know about anybody else in the band, but I had never heard the original. I approached it as if it was one of our songs.” Hodges on opening for Dylan in the late 1980s, “The first couple of nights, we weren’t doing the song, because it was his song and we were opening for him. He finally came up to me and said, ‘Hey, why aren’t you doing ‘Sweet Marie’? ‘Well, sir, it’s your song.’ ‘Yeah, but your version is better than mine.’ So, we started doing the tune.”
24. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy. Songwriters: Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Boxley, Ralph Andrei Duay, Keith Boxley; #20 R&B; 1989. Music journalist Stevie Chick, “Originally recorded as the theme for Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Fight the Power’ might be Public Enemy’s greatest anthem of all. ‘I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic,’ Lee told Time magazine, explaining why he chose PE. The Bomb Squad ran a library’s worth of soul and funk – including five James Brown/JBs tracks, classics by Sly Stone and Syl Johnson, and even the Isley Brothers’ own 1975 stormer ‘Fight the Power’ – through the blender to create the track’s frenetic, frenzied, fractured funk, while for the movie version Hank Shocklee sliced up three different sax solos Branford Marsalis had recorded especially for the track (‘One funky solo, one jazz solo, and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo,’ he later told Rolling Stone) and added them to the stew. Chuck’s lyric nodded to Malcolm X and invoked Martin Luther King as he addressed the PE faithful as his ‘beloved,’ imploring them to get down to the business of revolution. ‘It was written to be an anthem,’ Chuck explained, and it was written at a particular time that needed an anthem.’” One major and one minor point regarding this song – Elvis wasn’t a racist and Bobby McFerrin did deserve a slap.
23. “Redemption Song,” Bob Marley & the Wailers. Songwriter: Bob Marley; Did Not Chart; 1980. Dan Reilly of Billboard, “Written after his cancer diagnosis, Marley reflects upon his impending death, spirituality, and slavery, borrowing the lines ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds’ from activist Marcus Garvey. With his still-powerful voice and a gently strummed acoustic guitar, Marley put his legacy as an artist and message as an activist into just 108 words, telling all the believers to learn from their pasts, know their presents, and fight for their futures.” Journalist Robert Webb, “This stark solo take, more akin to Bob Dylan’s early protest work than the hard-nosed reggae with which he had made his name, is the sound of the reggae star signing off with special poignancy.” Author Ian K. Smith, “The final line of the chorus, ‘All I ever had, redemption songs,’ reads like an epitaph for Marley’s struggle.”
22. “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell),” Squeeze. Songwriters: Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook; Did Not Chart; 1980. Chris Difford, recalling a resort vacation that inspired the lyrics, “We stayed in the caravan at a holiday camp. There was a club there where bands played and the song reflects that atmosphere of the traditional working class ‘get away from it all’ weekend. It was the first time I had really looked up into the sky to see what it was like. It was a beautiful dark sky and it felt amazing to be away from London. Lyrically, I tried to imagine how Ray Davies might wite a song about this most English type of holiday, and the words came quickly and easily.” Amy S of Classic Rock History, “’Pulling Mussels (from the Shell)’ is a killer 4/4 pop tune full of upbeat melodies, with a theme that got past all the censors, because who really uses the phrase ‘pulling mussels’ to describe having sex? Yet the song is, for all intents and purposes, a summer vacation with a, shall we say, happy outcome. You’ll want to sing along, and you can do so safely because no one will have any idea what you’re talking about.”
21. “That’s the Joint,” Funky 4 Plus 1. Songwriters: Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, Sylvia Robinson, Keith Caesar, Sharon Green, Jeffrey Myree, Rodney Stone; Did Not Chart; 1980. “That’s the Joint” pops like a novelty can of snakes and is the lost classic of rap – a better dance number than “Rapper’s Delight” and released before hip hop became a long run commentary on urban hardships. Rolling Stone, “’That’s the Joint’ captures the essence and energy of hip-hop’s party-hearty early glory days: nearly 10 minutes of exhortations and boasts, sprawling across a hopped-up disco beat. By today’s standards, the braggadocio is quaint – ‘We got rhymes on our minds, we got rockin’ in our heart’ – but the rappers can flow, and the bass breakdown, by four-string god Doug Wimbish, is as funky as anything this side of Bootsy Collins. The real star of the show, though, is the Funky 4’s ‘plus-one woman,’ Sha-Rock (a.k.a. Sharon Green), the first female MC featured on a hit rap record.” “That’s the Joint” samples A Taste of Honey’s “Rescue Me” and you’ll never find a better silk purse/sow’s ear reclamation project.