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The 25 Greatest Songs of 1980

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It is 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning at the Crawford Compound. Steve is in a deep slumber, this is how he spends 98% of his time. The phone rings. Only a few Secret Service members and independent pharmaceutical agents know his number. He is understandably shaken. An angry man with a British accent begins to bark. “Crawford, you are a first rate goldbricker. When will you start earning your keep, you lousy bum?” “Um…hello…is this my mom?” “Funny. Do you know what it means to be a contributing writer to Rock NYC?” “Limited street cred with aging punk rock strippers?” “It means you actually write for us. Alyson Camus sends in more articles in a week than you do in six months.” “She has a young, fertile mind.” “Her fertile mind is none of your business.” “Is this Alyson’s mom? Look, I was busy with the book on ’70s music.” “I read it. What is the deal with all of those songs about prostitutes?” “Is this my psychiatrist?” “OK, smart guy. Do you want to go back to writing for that Hoboken junior high school rag? They probably need a list of the ten worst shoe-gazer bands from an old man’s perspective.” “No…no…no. I’ve been thinking about a piece on music during 1980.” “That’s what I like about you. You are always on the cutting edge, pal.” “It’s my job. Did you hear that the Beatles broke up?” Click.

Without further ado.

 

  1. “Hey Nineteen,” Steely Dan. As a writer, there’s nothing better than when the artist does all the heavy lifting by giving a great quote. Walter Becker, “I don’t know how many songs we’ve written about whores – it must be every other one. It’s all very deliberate. You can only say so much about love. I don’t see anything unreasonable about ‘Hey Nineteen.’ I think that song’s self-explanatory, if not strictly autobiographical. I figured a lot of people could identify with it.” An easy listening song about tequila, pot, and a hooker that went Top Ten on the pop charts.

 

  1. “Stomp!,” The Brothers Johnson. The Brothers Johnson sported afros that made them look like Chia pets who had overdosed on TruGreen fertilizer and had the interesting, hopefully musical, nicknames “Lightnin’ Licks” and “Thunder Thumbs.” They scored hits in the ‘70s with “I’ll Be Good to You,” the what-word-did-he-say “Get the Funk Out Ma Face,” and their Shuggie Otis cover “Strawberry Letter 23.” “Stomp!” was produced by Quincy Jones and co-written by Rod Temperton, two of the key players in the success of Michael Jackson’s solo career. The accompanying album, Light Up the Night, has such blatant phallic symbol cover imagery that it would probably make AC/DC red-faced. This was the duo’s last Top 40 hit. Speaking of…

 

  1. “You Shook Me All Night Long,” AC/DC. AC/DC had immediate success in their native Australia, as the younger brothers of George Young of The Easybeats (of “Friday on My Mind” fame), Malcolm and Angus were born into music biz connections. Fame was a slower build in the U.S., where their major breakthrough was 1979’s Highway to Hell album, their last record with lead singer Bon Scott whose alcoholism killed him in 1980. The drum hooked, oral gratification anthem “You Shook Me All Night Long” was the band’s first U.S. Top 40 hit. The Chicago alternative rock band Veruca Salt referenced a lyric from “You Shook Me,” titling their debut album American Thighs.

 

  1. “Private Idaho,” The B-52s. Idaho became a state in 1890 and is the nation’s top producer of not only potatoes, but also trout, Austrian winter peas, and lentils. Idaho has 3,100 miles of rivers, more than any other state. Ernest Hemingway found it the perfect destination spot to commit suicide. The B-52s gave The Gem State a perfect anti-tourism campaign ad. Portland based independent film director Gus Van Sant nicked the title for his 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, in which the “acting” of Keanu Reeves was so bad that it made the audience laugh out loud at the theater where I wasted my seven bucks.

 

  1. “Me and the Boys,” NRBQ. NRBQ formed in 1967 and were beloved by critics and ignored by the public for their quirky, jazz influenced take on rock ‘n’ roll. To add or detract from their hipness factor, the group was once managed by professional wrestler/wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano and served for a few years as the unofficial house band for the animated television series The Simpsons. “Me and the Boys” is one of NRBQ’s most accessible straight ahead rockers and has been covered by Bonnie Raitt and Dave Edmunds.

 

  1. “I’m Coming Out,” Diana Ross. Although a recognized superstar, Diana Ross wasn’t consistently hitting the top of the charts in the 1970s – her last Top Ten single of the decade was the 1976 disco number “Love Hangover.” Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic were the hired guns behind her 1980 comeback album diana, which produced the hits “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” The latter song may not have been a statement of sexual orientation, but she did later famously jiggle Lil Kim’s left boob.

 

  1. “I Stand Accused,” Elvis Costello. “Favorite” versus “best” is always an interesting concept, as in I don’t think Get Happy!! is the best Elvis Costello album, but I enjoy it the most. That is to say, perhaps I have substandard taste. In any event, “I Stand Accused” is a cover of a Tony Colton/Ray Smith composition that Costello and The Attractions performed with the type of breakneck intensity that earned the two exclamation points in the album title.

 

  1. “1959,” John Anderson. John Anderson’s first single was released in 1975, but his first country Top Ten hit was this weeper about a guy that can’t give up his old pickup truck because it’s the first place he bedded the love of his life. Of course, always skip the cost of a motel if you can and divert those funds into beer money.

 

  1. “Crazy Train,” Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy Osbourne was booted out of Black Sabbath in 1979 and quickly formed a new band anchored by former Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoades. Rhoades co-wrote all the tracks on Ozzy’s 1980 album Blizzard of Ozz and 1981’s Diary of a Madman LP, which is all the Ozzy a sane person needs. “Crazy Train” was – get this – a Cold War era, hippie brotherhood request for peace, love, and understanding. With an unforgettable guitar riff.

 

  1. “Brass in Pocket,” Pretenders. Ohio native Chrissie Hynde spent six years on the fringes of the England music scene during the 1970s before finding success fronting the Pretenders. “Brass in Pocket” was the band’s international breakthrough, going to #1 in the U.K. and Sweden, while hitting the Top Five in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Chrissie’s self-motivation pep talk and tough girl attitude gave her an aesthetic credibility that female rockers like Heart lacked, while proving to be more accessible to a mainstream audience than Patti Smith.

 

  1. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd wasn’t immune to the disco beat in 1979, using it as the basis for “Another Brick in the Wall.” Smelling a potential hit, producer Bob Ezrin used a children’s choir for the second verse (humble frontman Roger Waters also took credit for that idea) and stormed radio airwaves throughout the world with a wonderfully ironic opening line. As my waistline will attest, I am equally committed to protein and pudding.

 

  1. Turning Japanese, The Vapors. This British gnu wave act was so worried about being a one hit wonder band that they made sure that “Turning Japanese” was their second single. Unfortunately, their first single (“Prisoners”) bombed and they became what they feared. Either a ode to self satisfaction or a pained look at lost love, “Turning Japanese” is loaded with more riffs and hooks than most bands manage in an entire career. Former frontman David Fenton is now a U.K. attorney, specializing in music industry cases.

 

  1. “Talk of the Town,” The Pretenders. According to Timothy and Elizabeth Bracy of Stereogum, this is the best Pretenders song, arguing it is “an anthem of restrained yearning and interrupted love — providing a nearly Victorian anxiety to the repressed feelings of adoration that cannot be given full voice.” I’m not sure what all that means, but those guitar chords and Chrissie’s unrequited quest have been breaking my heart for 35 years.

 

  1. “(Just Like) Starting Over,” John Lennon. After five years of househusband self-imposed exile, John Lennon returned to pop music with what he described as an “Elvis/Orbison” track. Lyrically, it’s a heartfelt request to reconnect with the love of his life. I don’t spend a lot of energy on “what if” scenarios, but our world would be a much better place, in terms of music and ideas, if John Lennon were still alive.

 

  1. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” Talking Heads. “Once in a Lifetime” was the best known song from the 1980 Talking Heads album Remain in Light, but these art school nerds went all psycho groove kitchen sink for “Born Under Punches” – electronic sound effects, funk bass, and polyrhythmic percussion support Byrne’s typically paranoid, non sequitur lyrics. Unrelenting to the nth degree.

 

  1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones. Due to his struggles with the bottle, Jones wasn’t hitting the top of the country charts consistently in the late ‘70s and he absolutely hated “He Stopped Loving Her,” which he thought was too morbid to be a hit. After recording for over three decades, this #1 country hit became his signature song and ushered in a new era of commercial viability in the early ‘80s. George’s phenomenal, imbued with heartbreak voice was one of country music’s greatest gifts to the world. This was the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year for 1980 and won the same award in 1981.

 

  1. “Call Me,” Blondie. A 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.

 

  1. “Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “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.” Everybody’s had to fight to be free.

 

  1. “Off the Wall,” Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s 1979 Off the Wall was his first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones and resulted in three excellent hit singles – “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock with You,” and “Off the Wall.” It’s a better album than 1982’s Thriller, but at this point Jackson was a pop star, not a cultural phenomenon. Jackson’s goal on “Off the Wall” was to boogie away his problems on the dance floor; he had an infinite investment in escapism.

 

  1. “Right Side of My Mind,” Angry Samoans. The Angry Samoans developed a unique punk rock niche filled with puerile contemptuousness and hysterical offensiveness. Rude, crass, vulgar, snotty, filled with rage. A perfect rock ‘n’ roll band.

 

  1. “Redemption Song,” Bob Marley & The Wailers. Not a reggae tune, but a spiritual folk song with quotes from Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey. Marley passed away less than a year after this song was released, but left behind a timeless message of hope. In 2009, Jamaican poet Mutabaruka chose “Redemption Song” as the most influential recording in Jamaican music history.

 

  1. “Ace of Spades,” Motörhead. Lemmy Kilmister formed Motörhead in 1975, but the speed metal merchants struggled in their native U.K. until the Overkill and Bomber albums dented the album charts in 1979. The band released their signature punk meets metal anthem “Ace of Spades” in 1980 and it even went to #15 on the U.K. pop charts. Lemmy, “’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.”

 

  1. “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell),” Squeeze. Chris Difford on 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.” The best melody the band ever wrote and it probably would have been a monster U.K. hit if the title hadn’t been a British euphemism for having sex.

 

  1. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. David 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.” Chris Frantz, “We used to have so much fun playing this song live. It was a soaring feeling, and the audience was right there with us.” Middle class existential angst as a never ending cycle of desperation. Same as it ever was.

 

  1. “London Calling,” The Clash. “London Calling” is a harrowing look at a post-nuclear war zone, where devastation is the norm and the only short term goal is survival. Brilliant move – including the Morse code entry for “SOS” on the fadeout. Best song of the decade? It’s got my vote.

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