- Motown; 1981
- Rick James
"Give It to Me Baby"
Rick James met Salvador Dalí once, at a dinner party in Hawaii. Dalí was supposedly so taken with Rick's appearance—he was one beautiful motherfucker back then—he insisted he draw him. We'll never see the thing; Rick pocketed Dalí's sketch, got stoned, went for a swim, and ruined it. To say the least, Rick James led a colorful life: a draft dodger, a failed pimp (too lenient, by his own admission), ex-bandmate of Neil Young and ex-lover of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Rick picked up the cup of life and proceeded to spill it all over the carpet.
"Give It to Me Baby" is a song about Rick James' fundamental incompatibility with the non-Rick James lifestyle. James returns from a night out, half in the bag and looking to party, only to find his beloved half-asleep and fully annoyed. He just wants to love her, he pleads, but she's not having one bit of it. Undeterred, James cajoles, hectors, begs; all it seems to get him is a "say whaaaat?" Rick's persistence in the face of so much resistance verges on the predatory, but he makes enough show of being turned down, you get the sense he's poking a little fun at himself: the would-be lothario who can't seem to get the timing right. While the sweat-soaked horns and pulse-quickening bassline of "Give It to Me Baby" feel a tad out of step with the mechanized precision of most early '80s funk, Rick was never the type to change with the times. Rick was who he was, unapologetically crass, defiantly crude, and—back then, anyway—as alive as anybody ever was. —Paul Thompson
See also: Mary Jane Girls: "All Night Long" / Eddie Murphy: "Party All the Time"
- Virgin; 1989
- Soul II Soul
"Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)"
A remix of an a capella track at the end of Soul II Soul’s first LP Club Classics Vol. One (re-titled Keep on Movin’ in the U.S.), "Back to Life" is built around two mesmerizing vocal phrases from Caron Wheeler: "Back to life/ Back to reality" and "However do you want me/ However do you need me," which (as anyone who's been to a club or party over the last 25 years can tell you) take turns functioning as the song’s central hook. Wheeler, a veteran of London’s lover’s rock scene since the late 1970s, had more than a decade of experience projecting soul not through volume, but via shading and tone, and she doesn’t sing those hooks as much as chant them like mantras. Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper’s production work burnishes her voice with a slight digital sheen, rendering Wheeler's passion slightly paranormal.
Wheeler’s vocal is perfect enough on its own, but B and Hooper surrounding it with elements from the past and present to predict the future turn the track into a classic. B, a veteran of London’s sound system scene who’d been dabbling in hip-hop (not nearly a household phrase in the late 1980s, especially in the UK), flipped a Larry Graham drum fill into a proto-jungle rhythm track, incorporated string stabs nodding to Chic and Gamble & Huff, and topped it off with rich piano chords and stop/start squelches owing to London’s quickly boiling-over house music craze. Oddly enough, though, what binds the song together is the amount of open space that B and Hooper leave in the track. "Back to Life" is a marvel of elegant restraint—the strings and piano buoy Wheeler above the breakbeat, a serene specter looking down from the top of the block. Five years later, Hooper would take these lessons two hours west to Bristol, where he produced Massive Attack’s sophomore album Protection.
In what felt like an act of subcultural diplomacy, "Back to Life" soared to #1 in the UK for four weeks during the house-crazed Second Summer of Love (and in the U.S., aided by a video that cut between the group flinging their dreads around Epping Forest and a generic urban rooftop dance party, crossed-over to MTV ubiquity and a Grammy win). The mainstream got a taste of house music that was stately and groovy, not dripping with acid, and which sounded fantastic amid clubbish contemporaries like Black Box’s "Ride on Time", Technotronic’s "Pump Up the Jam", Janet Jackson’s "Miss You Much", and Lisa Stansfield’s "All Around the World". "Back to Life" was diplomatic in a more meaningful way, too. The song's ubiquity also meant B (whose parents emigrated from Antigua) and Wheeler (a second-generation Jamaican) were representing London’s substantial Caribbean-derived population from the absolute peak of the pop music world. —Eric Harvey
See also: Oran "Juice" Jones: "The Rain" / Black Box: "Ride on Time"
- SST; 1984
"History Lesson – Part II"
Though San Pedro punk band Minutemen were a trio, with each member contributing an essential part of their uncompromising and efficient sound, much of their energy derived from the long-term friendship between guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt. "History Lesson – Part II" is the story of that friendship. It chronicles the band’s pure love for music (and punk in particular) and their philosophy of "jamming econo"—or keeping their operation as a band, from songwriting to touring, simple and low-cost—in just over two minutes. This song, and the double album it appears on, Double Nickels on the Dime, influenced countless artists, paved the way for the '90s alternative rock countercultural shift, and helped establish punk firmly as an enduring philosophy rather than a set of aesthetic boundaries. The Boon quote that became a nearly-ubiquitous '90s sticker is, "Punk is whatever we made it to be," and there’s no other Minutemen song that so clearly exemplifies this attitude. Though Boon was tragically killed in a van accident in late 1985, his influence is just as present today as it was in '84, through his recorded work, through his bandmates’ continuation of his legacy, and through anyone who ever heard the line "Punk rock changed our lives," and felt it in their bones. —Jes Skolnik
See also: Minutemen: "Viet Nam" / Minutemen: "This Ain't No Picnic"
- Transmat; 1987
- Rhythim Is Rhythim
"Strings of Life"
In 1988, if you wanted a comprehensive survey of the mutant strains of robotic funk that had risen up in the wake of disco, you couldn't have done much better than to get your hands on The History of the House Sound of Chicago, a mammoth, 15-disc compilation put out by Germany's BCM Records. The box set had it all. Discs one and two, "The Tracks That Built the House", focused on the disco and Italo sounds that Frankie Knuckles had been playing at the Power Plant and the Warehouse. Disc three focused on the D.J. International label's roster—artists like J.M. Silk and Fingers Inc.—while disc six, "Trax Classix", compiled now-classic tunes from Trax artists like Adonis and Marshall Jefferson.
Despite the box set's title, it didn't focus exclusively on Chicago artists; Detroit's Derrick May (aka Rhythim Is Rhythim) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City) were both included, along with artists from New York, New Jersey, and the UK. That same year, you could find May and Saunderson, along with their Belleville Three colleague Juan Atkins and other Motor City producers like Blake Baxter and Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes, on another comp, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, released by a Virgin subsidiary. Over the years, techno and house have assumed a binary opposition in the popular imagination: house and techno, Chicago and Detroit, yin and yang. (Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey get left out of the origin story.) But the coexistence of those two comps offers a useful reminder of the way that, at the time, stylistic divisions were hardly so clear-cut as they seem now. The names of the subgenres were, in large part, a matter of marketing. Both styles were part of the lineage of African-American disco and European synth pop; both balanced a dreamer's brand of techno-futurism with the sweaty business of the right-here-right-now.
A visit to Chicago, in fact, had a major impact on a young Derrick May. In Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels, he describes his first experience hearing Frankie Knuckles at the city's Power Plant nightclub. "Frankie was really a turning point in my life…. When I heard him play, and I saw the way people reacted, danced, and sang to the song—and fall in love with each other [to the music]—I knew this was something special." He continued, "This vision of making a moment this euphoric… it changed me."
Of all the possible descriptions for "Strings of Life", "euphoric" couldn't be more apt. All of the song's elements contribute to that giddy, heart-in-mouth, eyes-wide feeling: the pistoning piano chords, played by his friend Michael James, that never resolve quite as you expect them to; the rushing TR-909 drum programming, pushed dangerously into the red; and, above all, the sandpapered string stabs, harsh and percussive, their timing dangerously uneven. Today, you'll hear people who encountered the song for the first time in a field or a hangar in the late '80s or early '90s describe the experience in rapturous terms, and the same goes for people who heard it a decade later. Surely, the song's almost elemental title hasn't hurt its renown. There are people who, pre-YouTube, knew only of the existence of the song until, one fateful night, they heard a DJ play it and thought to themselves, "So this must be 'Strings of Life'," only to discover that they were right.
In the Chicago box set, "Strings of Life" is included on a disc subtitled "House – The Future". (This was hardly the only place you could get May's 1987 single, which was the fourth 12'' single on his Transmat label; it turns up on scads of contemporaneous compilations with names like Jack Trax and Warehouse Raves.) Twenty-seven years later, and 28 since the single itself, it still sounds like the future. Not space ships and hovercars, maybe, not the teleportation devices that May's Transmat label was named after—but utopia, rapture, deliverance. Every time it is played on a packed dance floor, all these years later, it offers a brief, transcendent glimpse of the promised land. —Philip Sherburne
See also: Virgo: "Never Want to Lose You"
- Epic; 1985
"Is It a Crime"
British jazz&B group Sade’s sophomore far-from-slump Promise catapulted them to indisputable superstardom in 1985. "Smooth Operator" had made their debut Diamond Life an international hit the previous year, but Promise was an instant #1, popular enough that, in addition to the three singles, DJs had begun to spin album tracks by '86, the first being the expansive opener "Is It a Crime". The six-and-a-half-minute, winding epic is a masterclass in dramatic dynamic shifts. The chorus strips everything away rather than building it up; it’s a near-whisper, the fallout after a wild-eyed, horn-bolstered escalation ("My love is wider than Victoria Lake/ Taller than the Empire state…"). It’s a song about self-doubt and forced emotional restraint, and musically, too, it's all seething indecision. Sade belts as intensely as she ever has, pushing past her normal sheen of breathiness.
But the song is really a showcase for why Sade is a band, and not just the first name of its singer. Promise was recorded largely live, with Adu recording vocals with the full ensemble as a guide for rerecording and perfecting later. Somehow, in her retakes, she’s able to respond to and mirror the group's constant tectonic shifts. The band also gets an opportunity to detour off into some straight-ahead jamming: A walking bassline drops in to relieve Adu for a minute, and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman flutters in and out of comfortable tonality. Half after-hours R&B, half rapturous torch song, "Is It a Crime" sets the tone for Promise—all dark hues and obsessive sonic detail—and provides one of the best arguments in Sade’s catalog that the group should be viewed as much more than a dispensary for stock-sensual lounge grooves. In fact, they were the most nuanced pop arrangers and performers of their cultural moment. —Winston Cook-Wilson
See also: Sade: "War of the Hearts" / Sade: "Love Is Stronger Than Pride"
- Atlantic; 1988
"Never Tear Us Apart"
The fourth single from INXS' world-conquering Kick, "Never Tear Us Apart" has often shouldered the burden of tragedy; it was never intended to play at frontman Michael Hutchence’s funeral in 1997 or to lend an all-too-apt title to the band’s postmortem documentary last year. It’s hard to hear the song outside of that undesired context, but at its heart "Never Tear Us Apart" is a surprisingly straightforward declaration of love, caught somewhere between American soul and a European waltz, between Motown and Prague. It contains one of the most satisfying moments in '80s pop, a moment so curious, so inventive, so unexpected that it becomes endlessly replayable: As Hutchence concludes the second chorus, his words lingering in the cold air, an expectant drumroll gives way to—a saxophone solo. In another context, that instrument might sound lascivious, adding a sexual layer to a sensual song, but here it sounds stately, even monumental, as INXS shed the weight of the world just so it can savor this one present moment. —Stephen M. Deusner
See also: INXS: "New Sensation" / INXS: "Need You Tonight"
- EMI/Parlophone; 1985
- Talk Talk
"Life's What You Make It"
"The label didn't hear a single." When that phrase is thrown at a gestating album, it usually turns out to be a thorn in the band's side—even more often when it's a demonstrably pop-friendly group with auteurist aspirations. Yet Talk Talk, who were riding off expectations set by earlier trans-Atlantic new wave-simpatico hits like "It's My Life" and "Such a Shame", found an ingenious end run around what could've been a deadening compromise. All they had to do was center their label-pleasing song around a simple, hooky sentiment—"Life's what you make it"—around which they could build interrogating phrases ("Yesterday's favorite/ Don't you hate it"; "Don't try to shade it/ Beauty is naked") that got more enigmatic the deeper you went. From there, all that was left was to set the words over a slow-motion piano-driven Lee Harris march that was closer to a gothic Sade than anything It's My Life even hinted at, lace it with a recurring guitar wail that sounded like arena rock melting from catharsis, and let Mark Hollis belt out an impassioned lead that built from crescendo to crescendo—there's your hit. "Life's What You Make It" was their last brush with mainstream success before the more ambitious, experimental records Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, albums that jettisoned Talk Talk from the ranks of arty pop and into the realm of cult genius, and this particular transition between the two phases is priceless. —Nate Patrin
See also: ABC: "Be Near Me" / Talk Talk: "It's My Life"
- T-Neck; 1983
- The Isley Brothers
"Between the Sheets"
After the commercial failure of 1982's The Real Deal—an awkward attempt to update their traditional-leaning blend of R&B and funk with the synthesizer-heavy sounds of artists like Rick James and Prince—the Isley Brothers returned less than a year later with "Between the Sheets", one of their plushest tracks ever. It's 1,200-thread-count music that doesn't abandon the group's knack for marrying melody to groove. Incorporating the emerging sounds of electro-funk on the Isleys’ own terms this time, "Between the Sheets" also benefits from Ronald's unrushed, virtuosic vocals, which set a new benchmark for sensuality. "Enough of this singing; let's make love," Ronald urges as the track darkens thrillingly, pulsing with carnal tension. Rarely has wanting to get it on sounded this life-or-death urgent, or joyous. —Renato Pagnani
See also: Earth, Wind & Fire: "Let's Groove" / The System: "You Are in My System"
- Sub Pop; 1989
"About a Girl"
Then as now, the Nirvana of 1989 debut Bleach has much to recommend and set it apart from contemporaries like the Melvins and Mudhoney: Kurt Cobain’s wounded caterwaul, garrote-wire riffs, a heavy, dynamic melodicism, and a bleak sardonic sense that the album’s production positions front and center. But it was "About a Girl"—sharp, perceptive, well-constructed, and almost Beatles-esque—that demonstrated a potential beyond grunge’s ghetto. When Tracy Marander, Cobain’s girlfriend at the time, complained that he’d never written a song about her, this was his sweet'n'sour riposte, a winning, winsome plaint of woe from an unemployed layabout whose significant other supported him. "Girl", like so many of Nirvana’s best songs, places beautiful songwriting into mortal conflict with bitingly cynical lyricism: Love’s a mystery and romantic cohabitation is bullshit, but at least getting laid demands minimal travel and effort. —Raymond Cummings
See also: Mudhoney: "Touch Me I'm Sick" / Nirvana: "Blew"
- CBS; 1981
- The Clash
"The Magnificent Seven" / "The Magnificent Dance"
The Clash came to New York to record in early 1980, just as the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" was peaking on the charts, and they were fascinated by this new style that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Guitarist Mick Jones was especially inspired, buying into hip-hop so fully, the story goes, that his bandmates started calling him "Whack Attack"—a detail that sounds like it must have been made up, until you remember his subsequent run with Big Audio Dynamite. Never shy about exploring outside genres, the band gave this very young one a stab, too.
Like most songs on the Clash’s triple-LP triumph Sandinsta!, "Magnificent Seven" was made quickly, with Joe Strummer improvising his verses over a militantly funky bassline from Norman Watt-Ray of the Blockheads, who’d been sitting in with the band while bassist Paul Simonon filmed a movie. Strummer’s lyrics play like a freestyled Noam Chomsky essay, detailing a day in the life of a typical, consumer-addled working stiff and growing more allegorical by the verse. Even when he’s rhyming just for the sake of it, it’s amazing how confident Strummer sounds, given how little precedent there was at the time. Blondie’s "Rapture" was still a half year away, and Grandmaster Flash wouldn’t release "The Message" for another two years. He was running with his gut.
The song wasn’t the hit the band hoped it’d be, but it made a mark regardless after the New York R&B station WBLS began spinning Jones’ instrumental remix of the track, "The Magnificent Dance", essentially a showcase for the original’s almighty bass riff. "It was playing all over New York," Jones later recalled, "but they didn’t know at the time it was the Clash, or what the Clash was." In the scheme of things, the Clash’s contribution to rap is just a footnote, but even 35 years later, that’s still more than all but a tiny handful of rock bands can claim. —Evan Rytlewski
- Mute; 1988
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"The Mercy Seat"
We’re used to hearing people die in Nick Cave songs; the man can wipe out entire towns in a single stanza. But even as it graphically details an executed inmate’s final moments (melting flesh and all), "The Mercy Seat" is not a song about death—it’s a plea to our basic humanity.
More than simply tell the story of a man being burned alive on the electric chair, "The Mercy Seat" is designed to make you feel like you’re the one being strapped in. Over the song’s calamitous extended outro, Cave sings its eight-line chorus no fewer than 14 times in succession, a process that consumes roughly two thirds of this seven-minute behemoth’s running time. But that relentless repetition is as crucial to the song as its narrative detail, with each incantation of the chorus—and the Bad Seeds’ intensifying squall—compounding the agony of an imminent but torturously slow death. Each time Cave’s narrator claims he’s "not afraid to die," it feels less like a hardened con’s final show of bravado than a psychological coping mechanism.
Johnny Cash famously covered "The Mercy Seat" on 2000’s American III: Solitary Man, embracing it as a critique of capital punishment. And it’s an interpretation supported by the fact that Cave’s subject is not your typical wrongly accused martyr, boasting "my kill hand is called E.V.I.L." and facing judgment for crimes "of which I am nearly wholly innocent." As that harrowing climax finally simmers down in the song’s final seconds, there’s no sense of resolution: Cave’s narrator may be dead, but the Bad Seeds still tremble and screech like an unsated angry mob, reinforcing the notion that trading an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the ultimate zero-sum game. —Stuart Berman
See also: Leonard Cohen: "First We Take Manhattan" / The Pogues: "Fairytale of New York" / Tom Waits: "Jockey Full of Bourbon"
- Rough Trade; 1983
- The Smiths
"This Charming Man"
"This Charming Man" is the story of the serendipitous meeting between a young man stranded by the side of the road and a dashing bon vivant in a pristine automobile who comes to his rescue. It’s a scene so quintessentially Steven Patrick Morrissey it would border on parody if it weren’t for the fact that "This Charming Man" was the second-ever single released by the Smiths. There are references to, subtly and overtly, English modernist author Henry Green’s Loving, the 1972 Laurence Oliver film Sleuth, and avant-garde filmmaker Jean Cocteau (the Moz-designed single sleeve features a still from 1950’s Orphée). The song itself was initially written out of jealousy for Rough Trade labelmates Aztec Camera by guitarist Johnny Marr, and was the band’s first bid for a "hit"—"something upbeat and in a major key," according to Marr. It was a modest success upon release in 1983, but hit number eight on the UK charts in 1992 when it was reissued, becoming the Smiths' highest chart placement ever. It features one of the most beloved guitar tones of the decade, one of Morrissey’s most honeyed and obtuse vocal takes, and one of the most memorable romantic exchanges in pop music history.
But I’ve always wondered: On what side of the car door is Morrissey in this story? He’d no doubt tell you he’s not even in the picture, but we know that can’t be entirely true. From a narrative standpoint, he’s the boy with the flat bicycle tire, and in 1983, that made sense. Vulnerable, a little lost but not completely naive, he’s the iconic outsider that made the Smiths a beacon of light for so many lonely young people. But listening today, it’s impossible not to hear him as the driver, a smug and cocksure yet wholly irresistible old rake. "We all want to grow up and move on and appear to be different to people. And we want people to see us in a different way," he said in 1997, bearing down on his forties. "But, I don't know, I think the personality is very, very strongly cemented, and we just bear whatever shortcomings we have and learn to live with it." He, of all people, should know so much about these things. So perhaps it’s best to just call "This Charming Man" exactly what it is: A perfect song by a perfect band. —Zach Kelly
See also: The Smiths: "Hand in Glove" / The Smiths: "Panic"
- Trax; 1987
- Frankie Knuckles
"Baby Wants to Ride"
The dance floor often gets called a safe space, a welcoming, un-judging womb where the unaccepted can find acceptance, or at least release. You can imagine house music filling this role in Chicago clubs like the Warehouse and The Power Plant in the early and mid-'80s. There you had DJs—primarily gay Latinos and blacks—spinning to largely Latino and black audiences from Chicago's South and West sides, and moreover spinning music produced largely by gay Latinos and blacks. If the weirdness of the music—early Trax Records alongside various and sundry local labels—contrasted a little with the party vibes, that made sense too: life was not easy for these musicians and dancers, so even their parties weren't going to always sound like other people’s parties.
Even in this context, Frankie Knuckles "Baby Wants to Ride" is terrifying. A jaunty vamp featuring unabashed Prince fetishist Jamie Principle on vocals, the song is a psycho-sexual nightmare full of come-ons that consistently sound more threatening than sexy. The aggressive sexual politics of a gay nightclub can explain the song's content, but not Principle's deranged sneer, or the way the synth chords get all queasy as Knuckles presses them down, a little too long, every time. Who is baby? What else does baby want?
There can be no doubt about the song's meaning, as it contains the lyric "I wanna fuck you/ All night long," but Principle also chants "Na na, na na, naa, naaa, you can't hurt me" and "Remember Ethiopia/ Feed the poor"; in the end he comes across as someone who indeed reveres the Purple One but finds him too lucid and prudish. The music—one of the least groovy classic house tracks—does not help matters, constantly egging Principle on, its tingling lead melody a wordless translation of "Na na, na na, naa, naaa."
It's harrowing stuff, and a stark reminder of just how polite house music has become. And not just because very few modern house songs want to fuck us, but because few producers are as committed to making us feel as uneasy as Knuckles and Principle. The track stands in stark contrast to the smiling, party-rocking superstar Knuckles we said goodbye to last year; the man had many ways to upset a dance floor. —Andrew Gaerig
- Arista; 1982
- Alan Parsons Project
"Eye in the Sky"
Never mind that the song's spacey instrumental intro ("Sirius") later became the badass theme music for the Chicago Bulls: "Eye in the Sky" was the moment that the Alan Parsons Project escaped from the residual bloat of the prog rock era and became a legitimate pop act. They had already hinted in this direction with tracks like "Games People Play", but even then, the music took a backseat to the conceptual trappings of their albums. But "Eye in the Sky" didn't need an entire album's worth of context to make sense—this one was all about songcraft.
The secret ingredient to "Eye in the Sky" had been under Alan Parsons' nose the entire time: Eric Woolfson. Woolfson was Parsons' chief co-writer, but he didn't sing on an APP track until "Time" (from the LP preceding Eye in the Sky). Soft, gentle, and capable of more nuance than other vocalists imparted to buffoonish older songs like "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You", Woolfson's delivery is what sells "Eye in the Sky". It's part jealous-boyfriend schtick and part harbinger of the coming technological Big Brother dystopia (a typical Alan Parsons duality), all sung in a croon that sounds like someone breathing heavy on the back of your neck. The album's success would lead Parsons and Woolfson to greater fame and cheesier songs, and the band completely nosedived in the mid-'80s before disbanding altogether. But with "Eye in the Sky," this former progressive rock band mustered up one of the best soft rock songs ever. —Andrew Ryce
- Sire/Warner Bros.; 1984
Released in 1983, "Borderline" is one of the first laid bricks in the cathedral of Madonna’s mythology, four minutes of emotional helium that became her first Top 10 hit on the heels of an iconic music video. In the clip, Madonna closes the gap between the club kid she was and the glamorous star she’d become as she plays her two beaux—a Latino tough boy and a snobby British photographer—off each other. Ironically, while lyrics refer to the gnawing desolation one might feel while navigating a relationship in which they don’t have any power, Madonna has total control in the video. She makes the tough boy miss his shot at the pool table by simply standing in the doorway; she spray paints the photographer’s car, causing him to flip out. She takes the energy from the song—a bubblegum instrumental given weight by her legible vocal performance—and uses it to dispel all the lingering demons from that bad relationship. There’s so much charisma, it’s easy to see why this was the song that catapulted her toward being the biggest pop star in the world. —Jeremy Gordon
See also: Madonna: "Holiday" / Madonna: "Lucky Star"
- Fiction; 1989
- The Cure
"Pictures of You"
The liner notes of the Cure’s Disintegration made one simple demand: turn it up, loud. This request actually asked lot of the listener. Disintegration’s fourth single "Pictures of You" is overwhelming, even for a fanbase that prides itself on feeling way too much. "I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that they’re real," Robert Smith wails as guitars layer infinity pools over him for seven minutes—by the end, you might actually believe that "we kissed as the sky fell in," "[screaming] at the make believe" and "crying for the death of your heart" are real things couples go through. Tally the time Robert Smith has pined for a lost love over the past 40 years and you’ll have hours, if not entire days worth of music. But "Pictures of You" is the logical extreme of Smith’s thwarted desires—to completely submerge in the memory of someone else. —Ian Cohen
- Atlantic; 1980
"Back in Black"
Along with Kiss and Ozzy, AC/DC were scourges on the forces of respectability: a convenient villain for the church, the school, the town hall, and the PMRC. Rumors abounded about the band. The name was an acronym for Anti-Christ/Devil Child (not true). Their first singer drank himself to death (true). Their music reportedly inspired serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker (true). The band only grew more and more popular during the 1980s, even after the death of founding member Bon Scott, perhaps because they somehow became blunter, harder, simpler, and more primal—and they were already all three when they started. "Back in Black" remains monolithically perfect, a brick through a window that doesn't sound any less brutal today. New hire Brian Johnson has a formidable set of pipes and sings like he’s peeling off a layer of skin, and Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar emerges as the rudest element, selling the song’s lewdness as something glorious and unique. That staccato brump! brump-a-bump! sounds like a stifled laugh, Nelson Muntz kicking a baby down the stairs. No wonder teachers and parents were scared. —Stephen M. Deusner
See also: Van Halen: "Panama"
- Arista; 1985
- Whitney Houston
"How Will I Know"
It feels like sacrilege to imagine an alternate timeline where "How Will I Know", the third single from 22-year old Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut, ended up a Janet Jackson song, as originally intended. For Jackson, control was freaky and liberating, something you wielded by choice. But for Houston, control was a lifestyle, a guiding principle—forever maintaining the perfect temporary balance between unthinkable technical precision and unchecked emotional release. Later, with Bobby Brown, it was something darker. Control, and its absence, was the core of "How Will I Know" beyond mere infatuation, and why it’s gotten so much more affecting with time: the terrifying rush of losing yourself. It was the album’s poppiest, most danceable track, but its persistent reputation as "lighthearted" never completely fit a song whose pre-chorus advocates, "Don’t trust your feelings."
"Diva" suggests the immortal, the untouchable; in Latin and Italian, it translates to "goddess." But what made Houston such an important one, voice aside, was that she wasn’t fearless or invincible. She’d initially wanted her mother to sing back-up on "How Will I Know"; early live performances of the song came off as almost shy, not immediately at home on the stage. But the sheer elation from the act of singing was obvious: realizing her own power in real time, letting it charge her up until she was completely electrified. Everything was hard, except for the music. That part was simple.
That question—how will I know?—re-emerges in the infamous 2002 Diane Sawyer interview. "I’m 5’7” and thin," Houston swears, responding to Sawyer’s questions about her jarring weight loss. "That’s not just thin," Sawyer persists. Houston looks her dead in the eyes: "No? What is it, Diane, tell me? Do you know?" The circumstances have changed, but the issue is the same: fear of the unmanageable void, just outside the jurisdiction of control. Later in the interview, Houston talks of losing the thrill of singing: "It’s just not fun anymore." That lost spark is unmistakable on "How Will I Know", so pure you want to preserve it forever, and you almost can. —Meaghan Garvey
See also: Lionel Richie: "All Night Long (All Night)" / Pointer Sisters: "Jump (For My Love)"
- Epic; 1983
- Michael Jackson
"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)"
When it was released as Thriller’s penultimate single in the fall of '83, "P.Y.T." seemed fated for a life in Michael Jackson’s singles graveyard. Panned by the press as "fluff," the flirty pop-funk confection came at the tail end of the Thriller era and quickly became the lowest charting of the record’s seven singles (though, this being Michael Jackson, that still involves breaking into the Billboard Top 10). It never got the high-profile video treatment Jackson had gained a reputation for, and he didn’t even perform the song live in his lifetime, putting it in league with fellow Thriller back burner "The Lady in My Life". Even with a bit of star power, courtesy of Grammy-winning singer James Ingram who co-wrote alongside Quincy Jones, "P.Y.T." just couldn’t ever find the launching pad.
Even so, the single persisted as a fan favorite, for good reason: "P.Y.T." is one of Jackson’s most well-executed pop songs ever, from its irresistibly plush synth pads and rubbery bassline to the bridge’s famous call-and-response with a background chorus of P.Y.T.s (later revealed to be Jackson’s sisters, LaToya and Janet). It’s also the fastest song in Jackson’s catalog, perhaps providing a clue as to why he didn’t perform it, and other physically demanding songs, onstage. Yet in a 2009 interview with NPR, in which Ingram elaborated on the song’s recording sessions, he said Jackson danced furiously as he recorded, something he hadn’t seen an artist do before. "Michael came out of the studio sweating," he described. "There’s nobody that could do what he does." And he’s right: "P.Y.T." remains one of the best examples of Jackson’s irrepressible talent, capable of spinning even his filler tracks into gold. —Eric Torres
See also: Dazz Band: "Let It Whip" / Jermaine Jackson: "Let's Get Serious"
- Ruthless; 1987
Andre Young needed bail money. That was how it started. As the DJ for the Southern California collective World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Young was a prodigy, blowing the minds of partygoers the first time he was allowed in front of a crowd by perfectly syncing up "Planet Rock" with "Please Mr. Postman". He helped the Wreckin’ Cru ink a record deal with CBS Records, but he was also a tremendous pain in the ass: He had a problem with speeding tickets, and a related problem with showing up for court dates. Perhaps inevitably, he also had a problem with getting thrown in jail. Repeatedly. On one occasion, Lonzo Williams, his mentor and manager, was unmoved. "Sit in jail," Williams told him. So Dre picked up the phone and called a gap-toothed, squeaky-voiced drug dealer named Eric Wright, a fellow pain in the ass who had been bugging Young ceaselessly about recording together for a nonexistent venture he called Ruthless Records. These are the deeply inauspicious circumstances that yielded "Boyz-n-the-Hood", a deeply auspicious song.
O’Shea Jackson, a poet and rap fanatic, wrote the verses for a New York duo named H.B.O., but they turned up their noses at the beat’s clattering, primitive sound. Wright was in the corner, watching—he was no one’s idea of a microphone fiend, least of all his own; he was trying to be a record mogul. But Jackson and Young called him over to the mic, and L.A. rap would explode shortly thereafter. Like a lot of pop recordings that wind up getting canonized, "Boyz-N-the-Hood" has a provisional, make-do quality, like it was several revisions into a good idea gone wrong, and you can feel that casual energy in it even now, as it provides the raw material for a blockbuster Hollywood biopic.
Jackson, Young, Wright; Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E. The guys who would become N.W.A were kid-brother types who were borrowing the swagger and energy of big-brother figures. Cube, hungry to establish L.A. as a home for rap, modeled "Boyz-N-the-Hood" on "6 'N the Mornin" by another local rapper named Ice-T—a very real criminal who had modeled his tough-talking rhymes on the rough sounds of Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D. Eazy was not Schoolly or Ice-T; he was the runt of the litter, the pipsqueak posturing. Because of that—the occasional hiccup in his stage-fright delivery, or the way it cracked or fell out of time with the rudimentary downbeat—the song became something inclusionary, an anthem for scared kids in a scary time, a mask to wear and an evasive strategy to adopt: "Don’t quote me boy, cuz I ain’t said shit."
A lot of classic '80s rap reaches us faintly today, from across vast stylistic, generational, and socio-economic gulfs. But "Boyz-N-the-Hood" doesn’t feel that way. Its particulars always seem to be whispering back at every turn—"front, back, side to side", "cruising down the street in my six-fo." All of those details became DNA, and the song’s nervy mix of fear and bluster became gangsta rap: I move through my unsafe world unafraid, it says, and because of that, I am invincible. —Jayson Greene
See also: Eazy-E: "Eazy-Duz-It" / Ice-T: "6 N' The Mornin"