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The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 10 to 2

10. “Like a Prayer,” Madonna. Songwriters: Madonna, Patrick Leonard; #1 pop/#20 R&B; 1989. Katie Atkinson of Billboard, “Religious iconography has been a key part of Madonna’s image since she wore a rosary dangling above her ‘Boy Toy’ belt buckle at the 1984 VMAs. (Or, really, since her name was first scribed on her birth certificate.) She perfectly delivers on that borderline-blasphemous blend of pop culture and her Roman Catholic upbringing on the title track of 1989’s ‘Like a Prayer,’ equating love to a transcendent religious awakening. One of the main reasons the lyrics work so well is that she could be singing about a monogamous relationship, a powerful sexual connection, a platonic loved one, or even God him (or her) self — it all comes back to love. Of course, the song’s full religious experience would be incomplete without a perfectly deployed gospel choir, humming hushed harmonies over the verses and singing full-throated sermons to drive it all home. Life might be a mystery, but the mastery of this song is irrefutable.” Rolling Stone, “Ever since her early days, Madonna has been obsessed with the taboo connection between sex and spirituality. She tapped into that idea for her greatest song, the 1989 gospel-disco smash ‘Like a Prayer.’ When Madonna testifies, ‘I’m down on my knees/I wanna take you there,’ she could be singing about praying or oral sex or – most likely – both.” Let the choir sing.

9. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” Ramones. Songwriters: Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Jean Beauvoir; Did Not Chart; 1985. Preach it, brother Joey: “If there’s one thing that makes me sick/It’s when someone tries to hide behind politics.” Rolling Stone, “On May 5th, 1985 a political firestorm erupted when President Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at a West German cemetery where 49 Nazis were buried. ‘What Reagan did was fucked up,’ said Joey Ramone. ‘Everybody told him not to go, all his people told him not to go, and he went anyway. How can you fuckin’ forgive the Holocaust?’ Joey and Dee Dee wrote the scathing ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’ about the incident, though Johnny was none too pleased with his band bashing the Republican icon.” Rock critic Bill Wyman, “As we listened to Joey’s pained, pleading voice, as we heard Johnny lob guitar bombs and as we were swept away by the Spectorian, rushing production, we marveled again at the Ramones’ capacity to surprise. And Joey finally found ferocity, howling his way through the group’s greatest song and his greatest vocal performance. The Ramones were never as dumb as they looked, but they weren’t geniuses either. But listening to Joey think his way through that particular political act in that particular song is a lesson in moral education that any of us can learn from.”

8. “Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Songwriters: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell; #15 pop; 1980. Petty, explaining the “everybody’s had to fight to be free” concept, “This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business. I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song – or maybe what led up to it.” Simon Vizock-Levinson of the New York Times, “The betrayal in Mr. Petty’s voice as he shouts the chorus is so piercing that it hardly matters whether anyone understands what, specifically, he means when he accuses his romantic partner of living ‘like a refugee.’ The intensity of feeling is the point. At this stage in his career, he sang often about feeling ill-treated, but never with quite the electric charge heard here.” Rolling Stone, “’Refugee’ was their most brass-knuckled rocker to date, a declaration that they weren’t following any New Wave or punk-rock trends, but were a new breed of rock & roll–schooled traditionalists.”

7. “Call Me,” Blondie. Songwriters: Debbie Harry, Giorgio Moroder; #1 pop; 1980. This song was the perfect marriage of Giorgio Moroder’s Eurodisco sound with the explosive energy of an American hard rock act. Debbie Harry swapped out her trademark remoteness for passion and was rewarded with a single that stayed at #1 on the pop charts for six weeks. Music journalist Caroline Sullivan, “’Call Me’ is pure, chrome-plated hedonism. It turned out to be mutually beneficial for Moroder and Blondie. It showed that Moroder, then the world’s top disco producer, could work with a rock band, while, for Blondie, it proved that the success of ‘Heart of Glass’ wasn’t a one-off. ‘Call Me’ was a global hit, and the biggest-selling single of 1980 in the US, as well as the ninth biggest single of the whole decade; an impeccably judged rock-disco hybrid, it allowed as much room for Chris Stein’s guitar as Moroder’s swirling disco production. As ever, Harry’s lyrics were both arch and funny; the line ‘Roll me in designer sheets, I’ll never get enough’ is particularly so, given that the early 80s saw the rise of everything ‘designer.’”

6. “Ace of Spades,” Motorhead. Songwriters: Eddie Clarke, Ian Kilmister, Phil Taylor; Did Not Chart; 1980. Eduard Rivadavia of Ultimate Classic Rock, “In ‘Ace of Spades,’ heavy rock has its ultimate expression of sheer decapitating efficiency. To put it another way, if Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’ remains the benchmark for heavy-metal intensity delivered in less than half an hour, then ‘Ace of Spades’ provides the individual-song equivalent. Every note and raspy croak is picture perfect, and the song’s collection of gambling metaphors is filled with wisdom usually reserved for scholarly texts and national constitutions. Not only is ‘Ace of Spades’ a necessary part of any list of the Top 10 Motorhead Songs, but also any list of metal’s all-time Top 10. Sorry, Lemmy, we mean ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.” Lemmy, in typically self-deprecating fasion, “’Ace of Spades’ is unbeatable, apparently, but I never knew it was such a good song. Writing it was just a word-exercise on gambling, all the clichés. I’m glad we got famous for that rather than for some turkey, but I sang ‘the eight of spades’ for two years and nobody noticed.” Q Magazine, “This song has an intro which wouldn’t be out of place ushering in the end of the world.”

5. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. Songwriters: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno; Did Not Chart; 1980. Music journalist Malcolm Jack, “To fully appreciate the radical and revolutionary transformation to their music making process which Talking Heads – guided by Eno – instituted with the ‘Remain in Light’ album, it’s worth referring to ‘Right Start,’ an early sketch of what would become ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ A potent but scrappy instrumental, it bares only passing resemblance to probably Talking Heads’ most iconic song. Eno and Byrne subsequently rearranged the constituent parts into glorious new shapes through a process of fading in and out contrasting but complimentary rhythmic and melodic phrases over one another in different combinations, in what was effectively a crude exercise in sampling and looping. Between Weymouth’s spacious yet forceful bassline, Eno’s gurgling synth drones and Harrison’s climactic organ flourish, all pieced together puzzle-like in unusual and disorientating rhythmic intervals, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is a thing of dizzying power, beauty and mystery. Over it all lies Byrne’s head-scratching half-spoken half-sung vocal about living in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, days going by and water flowing underground, written ad-hoc to Eno’s placeholder mumblings and inspired by the call-and-response style rantings of American radio evangelists. You can read ‘Once in a Lifetime’ as an art-pop rumination on the existential ticking time bomb of unchecked consumerism and advancing age. Or simply as a fierce groove with a clutch of nonsense lyrics dashed on the top. Either way, it sounds like nothing else in the history of pop.” Byrne, “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’ Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.”

4. “When Doves Cry,” Prince. Songwriter: Prince; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1984. Rolling Stone, “The heart of the ‘Purple Rain’ soundtrack and the biggest hit of 1984, ‘When Doves Cry’ showed how experimental pop music could get, making the most mainstream moment in America conform to the avant-garde. With no bass line and Prince wailing over guitar, synth and drum machine, ‘When Doves Cry’ sounds as cold as a tense relationship can feel. His engineer recalls that the artist, who played every instrument on the track, instantly knew the impact the single would have on music. ‘Nobody would have the balls to do this,’ the Purple One reportedly told the engineer. ‘You just wait – they’ll be freaking.’” Priya Elan of NME, “With an artist so prolific, so breathtakingly brilliant as Prince, it’s hard to pick one ‘best song.’ But ‘When Doves Cry’ is right up there. The insistent synth riff, the pure emotion that seeps from every second, and the delivery which is half bruised little boy, half lascivious little horndog, there’s so much to love.”

3. “Eight Miles High,” Hüsker Dü . Songwriters: Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, David Crosby; Did Not Chart; 1984. Nate Patrin of Stereogum, “Here’s an idea: What if the scenario played at in the lyrics of ‘Eight Miles High’ was intensely terrifying? That first scraping guitar note drawing tight like piano wire around the neck, followed by a fusillade of noise 150% as fast and infinity-times as serrated as the original, and Bob Mould howling like he’s both defiantly demanding his survival and struck with pure horror at the same time: “Nowhere is there warmth to be found/ Among those afraid of losing their ground.” If you want to hear the difference between living and standing alone put into as breath-snatching a way as possible, this 7″ A-side that Hüsker Dü released might actually be the most blistering example of what made them great circa ’84, as well as the greatest cover version out of all these. And while we’re still thinking about what we lost when Grant Hart passed, listen to the way he makes what’s an extremely demanding and proficient drumming technique sound like he’s just barely in control — it’s some real Philippe Petit highwire shit, and those blastbeats are the moments he stands on one leg, 110 stories above the ground.” Blogger Jim Connelly, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the greatest cover song ever. Better than The Clash’s ‘I Fought The Law.’ Better than The Beatles ‘Twist and Shout.’ Better than The Who’s ‘Summertime Blues.’ Better than The English Beat’s ‘Tears of A Clown.’ Better than Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower.’ There is nothing about Hüsker Dü’s ‘Eight Miles High’ that isn’t masterful. In an era where punk bands though it was funny to do ironic covers of 60s and 70s classics, Hüsker Dü took the greatest song of the 1960s, and simultaneously destroyed and rebuilt it. From the first notes of Bob Mould’s psychedelic thrash guitar utterly ripping through McGuinn’s iconic riff while Grant Hart makes not like an airplane but a rocket ship on the drums, the Hüskers totally and completely reinvent ‘Eight Miles High’ for the 1980s.”

2. “Bring the Noise,” Public Enemy. Songwriters: Carl Ridenhour, Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, James Brown, George Clinton; #56 R&B; 1988. Public Enemy brought the energy and attitude of rock ‘n’ roll to rap music with the Lewis Farrakhan praising “Bring the Noise,” a song the band would re-record with the thrash metal act Anthrax in 1991. Chuck D, “It was actually written on three different types of cadences that, I thought, all failed. And then (producer) Hank Shocklee said ‘Well, use all three of them.’ (laughs). So there’s three different rhyme styles in ‘Bring the Noise’ to handle that 109 beats per minute. And they did. The first one is ‘Bass! How low can you go? Death row.’ So it’s sort of like spaced. And the second was more like, ‘patter, patter.’ Like, ‘Never badder than badder than badder da da na na na na,’ and then the third verse was ‘Get from in front of me the crowd,’ it really takes it on with a fury of going right at it. There was two generations there in that song. Sonny Bono; Sonny and Cher, Yoko Ono, Yoko and Jon Lennon, it’s almost one of those things where it’s six degrees of separation. The song was about, well, we have a great respect for these people, and you don’t think that we do, you know? If you’re going to call our music noise, then we’re all part of the musical family… It’s all the same.” Raymond Cummings of Pitchfork, “From Flavor Flav’s hype-man taunts to Chuck D’s granite-solid sixteens to the Bomb Squad’s flurrying jazzbo squall, every aspect of ‘Noise’ still stings like a provocation, a dare, a saber rattling before it carves your speakers from the inside. Verses unspool in a flood as turbulent as the production, baiting radio DJs, critics, and audience alike with a breathlessness that suggests they’re rapping through the crowd and into hip-hop posterity. A fleet fluidity informs Chuck D’s flow here, effortless in a dizzying, dazzling way—he’s circling us like a young prize fighter, landing one swift, sure blow after another.”

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