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The 1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1980s – 60 to 51

Whenever I think about you, strangers’ eyes in the crowd flash past.

60. “Tower of Song,” Leonard Cohen. Songwriter: Leonard Cohen; Did Not Chart; 1988. Ben Hewitt of The Guardian, “’Tower of Song’ is Cohen’s love-letter to his craft, where he equates chasing the gift of poetry to being trapped in a nightmarish penitentiary. This, he says, is the price he pays for creativity, and it’s a bleak old place to live; years spent stuck in a decrepit housing block, mooning around a scabby flat where he’s kept awake by noisy neighbours as the wheezy din of Hank Williams ‘coughing all night long a hundred floors above,’ rattles down through the floorboards. ‘My friends are gone and my hair is grey,’ he grumbles. ‘I ache in the places where I used to play.’ But there’s a dowdy magic, too, and the brilliance comes from just how wryly ramshackle the whole thing is: that lazy rhumba beat; those sweet-but-downbeat ‘doo-dop’ backing vocals; the way that Cohen deadpans in his grizzled, Marmite-like vocal: ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice.’ Even at the end, when he’s still undoing the gilded myth of creative inspiration, you can feel the love in his voice. ‘I’m just paying my rent every day, in the Tower of Song,’ he drawls, and the message is clear: this is hard graft, a tough gig and a never-ending lesson, and that’s why it’s such a joy.”

59. “Cleaning Windows,” Van Morrison. Songwriter: Van Morrison; Did Not Chart; 1982. Van Morrison recalls being a working man in his prime and pays tribute to blues artists Leadbelly, Blind Lemon, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Muddy Waters on “Cleaning Windows.” It’s a beautiful vision of a bohemian lifestyle where art is more important than commerce, where filling one’s soul is more important than one’s coffers. Music journalist Steve Turner, “Van sketched the details of his life during 1961 and 1962, and captured the balance between his contentment at work and his aspirations to learn more about music. It conveyed the impression that his happiness with the mundane routine of smoking Woodbine cigarettes, eating Paris buns. and drinking lemonade was made possible by the promise that at the end of the day he could enter the world of books and records.” Notable sidemen – former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and guitar ace Mark Knopfler, before he wanted money for nothing.

58. “Tainted Love,” Soft Cell. Songwriter: Ed Cobb; #8 pop; 1982. “Tainted Love” was released as a B-side in 1965 by Los Angeles singer Gloria Jones and stayed in obscurity for almost a decade. British Northern soul DJ Richard Searling popularized ths song for his club audiences in the mid-1970s, leading to the Soft Cell synth pop cover version. Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond, “(Soft Cell instrumentalist) Dave (Ball) introduced me to the record and I loved it so much and we wanted an interesting song for a encore number in our show. Dave loved Northern soul and it was a novelty to have an electronic synthesizer band doing a soul song. When we signed with our record company, they wanted to record it. They told us to put bass, guitar and drums on it as they said it was too odd. They put it out anyway and the next thing it was gathering radio play and then it was #1. I was fascinated that it was originally by Gloria Jones, the girlfriend of Marc Bolan and I’d always been a T-Rex fan.” Author Toby Cresswell, “Most synthesizer artists at the time were making clinical, clever, and sweet tunes with the new technology. Soft Cell made the synthesizer as dirty and sexual an instrument as any other. Almond brought a sleazy sexiness to the song. The listener was invited to let their imagination wander in the knowledge that everyone dreams of the forbidden.”

57. “Off the Wall,” Michael Jackson. Songwriter: Rod Temperton; #10 pop/#5 R&B; 1980. Music journalist Ryan Dumball, “(The) ‘Off the Wall’ (album) is the sound of young Michael Jackson’s liberation. Though he would become even more successful in the ’80s, ‘Off the Wall’ remains unabashedly fun to return to for its joy and lack of baggage. For 41 minutes, we can live in the eternally young Neverland Michael longed for, a universe largely without consequence or death.” Rolling Stone, “Jackson’s loose, playful side is on display during the title track, written by Temperton. ‘Off the Wall’ was an ode to ‘party people night and day.’ It invited listeners to ‘hide your inhibitions/Gotta let that fool loose deep inside your soul’ by hitting the dance clubs and ‘livin’ crazy, that’s the only way.’ But its succulent groove, swathed in Jackson’s sumptuous overdubbed harmonies, was as smoothly seductive as the vision of dance music in his head. Temperton, who arranged the rhythm and vocal tracks, re-created the dance-floor vibe of his disco band Heatwave, and the song’s growling funk synths were partly played by jazz and fusion keyboardist George Duke.” Retrospectively, the intro sounds like a precursor to the horror movie theme of “Thriller.”

56. “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” Marshall Crenshaw. Songwriters: Marshall Crenshaw, Bill Teeley; Did Not Chart; 1983. Crenshaw, “I thought ‘Whenever You’re on My Mind’ was the best thing we’d done up to that point. It was, like, ‘the bomb,’ as they say. If that had been a hit, it would have been really big for me.” Steve Peake, “There may not be a more pleasing three minutes of melodic guitar pop on the planet than this wondrous love song.” Mark Deming of the AllMusic website, “’Whenever You’re on My Mind’ is a simply beautiful little tune about that most pop of subjects, thinking about girls. It seems Crenshaw just can’t get the gal of his dreams out of his head, but while that theme is hardly new or unusual, in Crenshaw’s hands it becomes almost magical. With the verses built around a subtle ascending guitar figure and choruses that all but demand the listener sing along, Crenshaw generates an awestruck wonder at the power of love, with the world around him subtly but certainly transformed whenever his love pops into his imagination. When Crenshaw sings, ‘I leave the world behind/Whenever you’re on my mind,’ he’s able to make it sound like the best thing that happened to him all day, and it’s not hard to feel the same way about hearing this song.” Crenshaw told Bill Teeley to rewrite the lyrics of The Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You,” but Teeley did even better by changing the focus from visual to psychological contentment.

55. “Just Like Honey,” Jesus and Mary Chain. Songwriters: William Reid, Jim Reid; Did Not Chart; 1985. Rock critic Denise Sullivan, “With its ‘Be My Baby’ drum beat that sounds as if it is crying out from a torture chamber, this feedback and drone-soaked, Phil Spector wall-of-sound-gone-sour number opened the Jesus & Mary Chain’s important 1985 debut album, ‘Psychocandy.’ The early single and ‘buzz saw guitar’ number was a defining track for brothers Jim and William Reid and the noise pop genre. Its refrain is a sweet as sugar ‘just like honey’ with a high background vocal attached; the line preceding it is a bit more harsh: ‘Eating up the scum is the hardest thing for me to do.’ Sweet irony is the name of the Mary Chain’s weird game; drink it in and it goes down just fine.” Cam Lindsay of Noisey, “The music was self-produced and alien, their marriage of melody and noise was as original as pop music could get in 1985. The lyrics, on the other hand, were dripping with sexual allegories even the best erotica novelists couldn’t put to paper. The best and only real way to interpret ‘Just Like Honey’ is as a celebration of cunnilingus, as Jim sings, ‘Moving up and so alive In her honey dripping beehive…/ I’ll be your plastic toy.’ This was coming from the mouth of a shy Scottish boy newly relocated out of his familial home.” One more reason to love this song – its association with Scarlett Johansson.

54. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” Talking Heads. Songwriters: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Brian Eno; Did Not Chart; 1980. Kenneth Partridge of Billboard, “It’s vibrant and alive yet weirdly claustrophobic: a paradise for paranoids. Amid skittering beats, belching bass and guitars that caw like tropical birds and scamper like ants on discarded mangos, Byrne plays a spiritually suffocating ‘government man’ who just wants to breathe easy. Good luck with that one.” Rock critic Bill Janovitz, “’Born Under Punches’ is a thick menage of polyrhythmic percussion, staccato guitars, popping bass, and Devo-like electronic blips and bleeps, which erupt from one of guest guitarist Adrian Belew’s guitar-synth squalls. And it is all, remarkably, in time to the beat. Byrne alternately speaks and shouts his invectives and warnings through a rich reverb effect, slipping his lines in between a call-and-response backing-vocal section. The latter serves as a sort of Greek chorus that the singer reacts to (while remaining disjointed) in an internal dialogue: ‘All I want is to breathe (I’m too thin)/Won’t you breathe with me/Find a little space/So we move in between (I’m a tumbler)/And keep one step of yourself.’ The backing vocals take on a P-Funk dimension during the last lines of the song: ‘And the heat goes on/Where the hand has been.’ It is rare for a band to be so experimental and melodically catchy simultaneously.”

53. “My Pal,” God. Songwriter: Joel Silbersher; Did Not Chart; 1988. “My Pal” was, by far, my favorite new discovery while writing this list. Just like the Aussie act the Saints were ahead of the punk rock curve in 1976, these Aussie teenagers were grunge before that genre had a name. Music journalist Andrew Mueller, “No art operates a lower barrier to entry than rock’n’roll – it’s the form’s greatest strength, and greatest weakness. Where every other mode of expression insists upon years of education, rehearsal and refinement before you inflict yourself on the public, rock’n’roll will cheerfully wave through anyone who has managed to beg, borrow, steal – or even save up honestly for and buy – an electric guitar. Mostly, this lackadaisical open door policy ushers in unlistenable racket. Just occasionally, it permits a bunch of hairy teenagers from Melbourne, who can barely play a lick between them, to make one of the best singles ever made by anyone, anywhere, anytime. ‘My Pal’ was, and is, both astonishing and ridiculous. It’s an almost impudently sublime song, a frothy, poppy, punky thrash evocative of everything that was ever wonderful about the Stooges, AC/DC, Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü and early Replacements, anchored by an irresistible five-note riff that nagged and nagged even though there was no chance at all you didn’t hear it the first time. ‘My Pal’ was a grunge signpost ahead of its time, down to the Dinosaur Jr-variety feedback-laced wipeout that serves as a solo, and that Cobain-esque lyrical declaration of adolescent alienation (‘You’re my only friend/ You don’t even like me’). The song mostly as Australia’s eternal garage band classic, our ‘Louie Louie,’ or ‘Wild Thing,’ or ‘Surfin’ Bird’ – one of the things you learn to play on your first electric guitar. The resounding charm of ‘My Pal’ lies in the fact that it sounds like the same was true of the people who made it.” Half the band died of heroin overdoses when they hit their early thirties.

52. “Don’t Worry Baby,” Los Lobos. Songwriters: Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez, T-Bone Burnett; Did Not Chart; 1984. Los Lobos sound like a razor sharp, Hispanic version of ZZ Top on “Don’t Worry Baby,” the lead track of the excellent “How Will the Wolf Survive?” album. Rock critic Matthew Greenwald, “Led by a bruising rhythm and crossed with John Lee Hooker blues licks, the band kicks up an absolute storm here, actually dwarfing many of their early tracks. The lyrics are also a step up. Louie Perez’s cinematic tale of love lost is told in a frightening tone of urban terror — sort of Raymond Chandler crossed with rock & roll.” Also, put this tune and The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” back to back on your list of “Best Songs with The Same Title.”

51. “Memphis, Egypt,” The Mekons. Songwriters: Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford; Did Not Chart; 1989. “Memphis, Egypt” employs glorious waves of cacophony that both celebrates by its sound and eviscerates by its lyrics the concept of “rock ‘n’ roll.” Timothy and Elizabeth Bracy from the “Stereogum” website, “The lead track from the band’s astounding, toxic triumph ‘The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is a distillation of the rage, humor, and irony that populates so much of the group’s greatest work. Over a driving riff and unforgettable refrain, ‘Memphis, Egypt’ lays waste to rock’s mythologies while unapologetically indulging in its sensual pleasures. Here Langford brazenly and persuasively compares the birthplace of rock with the early foundations of human slavery, all with a beat you can dance to. Rock and roll might well be ‘capitalism’s most favorite boy child,’ but that doesn’t make it any less ‘the place we all want to go.’ ‘Memphis, Egypt’ does not so much bite the hand that feeds the Mekons, as tear off its head and parade it around in an unhinged orgy of bloodlust. Elvis would be proud, were he not so very dead.”

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