- Mushroom/Arista; 1988
- The Church
"Under the Milky Way"
The Church had already had a taste of the major-label system when they signed to Arista in the late '80s, but it wasn't until they recorded their 1988 album Starfish in Los Angeles that they fully witnessed the excesses of the music industry. Those sessions paired them, uncomfortably, with veteran producers Waddy Watchel and Greg Ladanyi, old-guard industry hands who spent their career recording with acts like Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, and Keith Richards, and who weren't shy about tapping Arista's generous expense account. "We all had to have our special cars and apartments," guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper marveled 20 years later. "It got so out of control with the egos and the drugs and too much money."
Starfish became the band's best-selling album, but the group has long maintained they could have recorded a better one for a fraction of the price. That might be true. Starfish was the Church’s most straightforward record of the era, and mostly it lets the songs speak for themselves. There is one moment, however, where its invisible production budget reveals itself, and it's the finest of the band's career. Midway through "Under the Milky Way", a slow-burning bit of psychedelia built, like most of the band’s best tracks, around the melancholic wonder in singer Steve Kilbey's voice, the song gives way to an insurgent guitar solo synthesized to sound like bagpipes. It barrels through the song, usurping and uplifting it, then driving it to a redemptive close. Even after hundreds of spins, it still sounds surprising every time. Moments this powerful and unexpected don’t come along often. If it took a small fortune to make this one just right, so be it. —Evan Rytlewski
- Techniques; 1982
- Sister Nancy
"Bam Bam" is one of those songs you know without knowing, a piece of cultural confetti that has fluttered in the margins of pop culture for 30 years. According to the always-fascinating Whosampled.com, it has been sampled 63 times, mostly in hip-hop, as early as 1982 and as recently as 2014, in Major Lazer’s "Sound Bang". It was in the 1998 movie Belly and 2014’s The Interview and a Reebok commercial where the former Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr disrobes to her sneakers. Originally written as a riff on a 1966 Toots and the Maytals hit, the song has a simple, almost subliminal quality, like something schoolgirls might chant while jumping rope. Like a lot of early dancehall, it parallels early rap—listen to it alongside Roxanne Shante’s "Roxanne’s Revenge", for example, another song by a young woman who sounds both brashly confident and naïve. —Mike Powell
See also: Eek-A-Mouse: "Wa Do Dem" / Michigan & Smiley: "Diseases"
- Slash; 1983
- Violent Femmes
"Blister in the Sun"
Has anything so ugly ever been this catchy? Piggybacking on one of the more unforgettable riffs in rock history, the equally memorable chorus of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" throws Gordon Gano’s un-redemptive sneer into whining, yelping overdrive. The single is the crowning moment on a self-titled debut album full of snotty gutter punk that gained a slow but steady following until it achieved platinum status nearly a decade after being released. That extended climax might seem antithetical to the commonly understood meaning of "Blister", which is often interpreted as an ode to masturbation, or premature ejaculation. But really, the song’s enigmatic lyrics remain more of an impressionistic dada explosion than anything that can be diagrammed and explicated. (Gano himself has said there’s nothing much there to actually make sense of.)
Perfectly adolescent in its mix of cockiness, horniness, desperate insecurity, and dark-edged humor, "Blister in the Sun" is also a testament to the fact that two of the three Femmes were barely out of high school when they were lauded by the New York press as the next big thing. But there’s a sophistication lurking beneath the yowling. Brian Ritchie was a preternaturally talented bass player and Vincent DeLorenzo a technically accomplished (and amiably wild) drummer. Both the music they contribute here and the edgy vibe of Gano's singing remind us of the band’s influences: groups like the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, and Television. The Violent Femmes ended up forming an unlikely bridge between those seminal bands and latter day pop punks like Green Day. And "Blister in the Sun" remains what the Times critic Robert Palmer proclaimed the album back in 1982: fresh, riveting and genuinely original. —Jonah Bromwich
See also: The Dead Milkmen: "Punk Rock Girl" / Violent Femmes: "Add It Up"
- Warner Bros.; 1983
- Chaka Khan / Rufus
If you were going just off the lyric sheet, "Ain’t Nobody" might seem like something straight out of the '50s teenybopper-romantic songbook—stars are flown through, hearts are filled by a kiss, surrender is sweet. On record, the song tells a completely different story. Chaka doesn’t sound happy about the fact that there’s only one person in the world who can make her happy—in fact she sounds distraught over it. Behind her, Rufus has ditched the thick organic funk that they made their name on and gone all-in on the first wave of digital synthesis, and her vocals soar over an icy, thin, and rigidly clean electronic arrangement that only adds to the feeling of alienation. Mobs of post-disco soul acts would follow Rufus down the digital synth-funk path, and since R&B’s recently become the go-to genre for artists tinkering with pop’s sonic DNA, and tinny digital synths have floated back into fashion, there’s a whole new wave of musicians doing the same thing. The song’s greatest accomplishment isn’t the instrumentation, though—it’s the way the whole thing somehow manages to transmute wrung-out romantic desperation into pure ecstasy. —Miles Raymer
See also: Rene and Angela: "I'll Be Good" / SOS Band: "Take Your Time (Do It Right)"
- Tabu; 1985
- Cherrelle / Alexander O'Neal
Everyone else had youthful sexuality covered, but with the form of the duet, mid-'80s R&B claimed as its very own the realm of adult romance. There was Dennis Edwards & Siedah Garret’s slinky and eerie "Don’t Look Any Further" in 1984; René & Angela’s seductively strutting "I’ll Be Good" a year later; and, perhaps best of all, "Saturday Love", 1985’s classiest single by some measure.
"Saturday Love" is precisely the sum of its very expensive parts: Cherrelle’s breathy drama, darting in and out of her own backing vocals in a manner oddly reminiscent of early Kate Bush; Alexander, the towering loverman unafraid to get gentle; perhaps most of all, producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis at the very top of their game during an early-career pinnacle. Their work on Janet Jackson’s Control the following year overshadows practically everything else from the era for its audacity, but "Saturday Love" sumptuously drapes itself across the other end of the spectrum, refitting the synthetic sentimentality of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" (the snares sounding like they’ve ricocheted off every building in Minneapolis) for a more genteel boudoir. The groove dispenses with dynamism and melodrama in favor of an endless push’n’pull falter-funk that evokes the easy repetition of familiar and practiced lovemaking.
The arrangement happily occupies a flushed-but-becalmed locked groove, while Cherrelle and Alexander seem determined not to repeat themselves. Their vocals resemble a parade of inspired vamps and back-and-forth exchanges that would be ridiculous if they weren’t executed so perfectly (Alexander in particular bellowing his longing like it’s the last time he’ll ever be allowed back in the studio). Released today, it would launch a thousand Internet memes. Or, no: released today, the song’s svelte maturity wouldn’t get within a thousand miles of meme culture, let alone the charts. One day hopefully we’ll grow up enough to know better. —Tim Finney
See also: Alexander O'Neal: "What's Missing" / Sherrick: "Just Call (Call Collect Mix")
- Island; 1981
- Grace Jones
"Pull Up to the Bumper"
By the '80s, Grace Jones was already undergoing a chameleonic artistic evolution. She’d moved from Paris back to New York and shifted her sound from disco to reggae-influenced rock and pop, contorting each genre into new, unexpected shapes that all had one pressing, common through-line: they demanded that you move to them. Although 1980's Warm Leatherette was met with lukewarm reviews, when Nightclubbing came a year later her foothold as an international icon was firmly established, with the album’s most controversial single, the seductive, dubby "Pull Up to the Bumper", doubling as its best. Born out of a Warm Leatherette session in the Bahamas with reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the song evokes an erotic fixation for cars that edges on J.G. Ballard levels of obsession: there’s greasing, spraying, lubricating, long limousines, and, of course, that nominal bumper. Some radio stations refused to play the song because of its sexual undertones, but Jones, in perfectly Jonesian fashion, didn’t seem to care. She was already a lightning rod for attention at this point, and was often criticized for her gender-binary-ignoring appearance—"The future is no sex," she's said. Radio aside, "Bumper" turned out to be undeniable, infiltrating dance clubs upon a 1985 re-release and becoming a touchstone for post-disco and later innuendo-laden singles from Lady Gaga, Basement Jaxx, Rihanna and more. —Eric Torres
See also: Grace Jones: "Warm Leatherette" / Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat"
- Warner Bros./WEA; 1980
"The Glow of Love"
While it wasn't his first appearance on wax—Gregg Diamond's "Hot Butterfly" predates "The Glow of Love" by two years—Luther Vandross' vocal performance on "The Glow of Love" was the first to harness the singer's larger-than-life wellspring of emotion. Whatever Change were, on "The Glow of Love", they were Luther Vandross' supporting band first and foremost. The album from which this record is culled is full of powerful records; "Angel in My Pocket" was a favorite of Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, "A Lover's Holiday" is a disco classic, and "The End" was a proto-Italo record. But "Searching" and the title track nearly overshadow them, if only because Vandross had just begun to spread his wings: this was a star, and soon the world would know his name.
"Glow of Love", co-written by Mauro Malavasi, Wayne Garfield, and the group's bassist Davide Romani, has a name appropriate for a record that radiates warmth, its soft-focus synthesizers serving as a musical halo for Vandross' rise-and-fall vocals, which alight upon notes with a precise delicacy one moment before fluttering into a powerful vibrato the next. Disco had turned to a democratic dancefloor in an era of rock star excess and ego. But as the '80s turned over, Change's debut album, still rooted in disco, pointed in new directions: towards electronics, towards Italo-disco, and towards the introduction of a true star, one whose incomparable voice would loom over 1980s R&B, and return the genre to the singers who would dominate the decade. —David Drake
- Island; 1987
"With or Without You"
By 1987, Bono was already known as an ecstatic live performer unafraid of the grand gesture; during U2's Live Aid set two years earlier, he famously ran across the massive Wembley Arena stage before venturing toward the crowd in order to slow dance with a fan. The moment occurred as the quartet played "Bad", a song that helped bring dewy atmosphere and slow-rolling builds into the realm of arena rock. "With or Without You", the first single off of The Joshua Tree, distills the quiet power of "Bad" while flipping its gravitational force—instead of shamelessly reaching out for attention, Bono stands in one place in the song's video, as if his feet are crazy glued to the floor. He wants everyone to come to him.
That's exactly what happened: "With or Without You" was U2's first #1 single in America. Compared with flashy (and oh-so-'80s) contemporary #1s like Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died in Your Arms", the song is a hymn-like oddity, patient and haunted and ambiguous. As Edge's infinite guitar rings out, Bono laments the hardships that come with a bond that's supposed to last forever. The married singer is torn between the roaming life of a musician and the stable comforts of home. As with most great U2 songs, there are no fixed answers here, only big questions writ large. So as the "With or Without You" video nears its end, Bono grabs the neck of the guitar that he's been holding close for the last four minutes and starts spinning around like a top—he's moving, but he's still in the same spot. —Ryan Dombal
See also: U2: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" / U2: "Where the Streets Have No Name"
- Warner Bros.; 1982
- Fleetwood Mac
The lore of the excess Fleetwood Mac indulged in at their height of their fame is the stuff of rock legend, a yardstick by which the hedonism of all other bands is measured (save for the Eagles). Amid the unstoppable worldwide post-Rumours ascent of the band, Stevie Nicks penned "Gypsy", a pean to before. Back when she was living in a tiny apartment in the Bay Area, waitressing to support herself and then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham, back when her best friend and voice coach Robin Snyder was alive. Likely written for the sessions for Nicks’ solo debut Bella Donna, the song eventually surfaced on the band’s 1982 album Mirage, and was characteristic of the more synthetic and slick Mac sound of the '80s. The video for "Gypsy" was, at the time, the most expensive music video ever made, and the first "world premiere" on MTV. While stadium bands lamenting the humble simplicity of their basement days is a codified part of rock'n'roll, what is really happening here is that Stevie Nicks is singing about her own life and herself in relationship to another woman, about female friendship. Women recording and performing personal songs that they wrote and sang was a relatively new phenomena in rock'n'roll; a hit song authored by a woman about her own creative life and the primacy of another woman in it—the regard of the "my" and "she" in "Gypsy"—was almost unheard of—and what makes the song a landmark. —Jessica Hopper
See also: Stevie Nicks: "Gypsy" (Demo) / Stevie Nicks: "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (ft. Tom Petty)
- Elektra; 1981
- Bill Withers / Grover Washington, Jr.
"Just the Two of Us"
In the early '70s, Bill Withers came out of the gate with three smash hits in a 16-month span: "Ain’t No Sunshine", "Use Me", and "Lean on Me". After the hot start, he quickly plateaued, remaining a mainstay on the R&B charts and urban radio but struggling to recapture his early success. He was finally able to strike gold again in 1981, accompanied by soul-jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., on the smooth jazz ballad "Just the Two of Us". A Grammy winner for Best R&B Song, the track finds Withers at his most inviting, welcoming in both lyric and tone. The saxophone has always been the sultriest of woodwind instruments but, when paired with Withers’ hearty timbre, it turns majestic, soaring through the lower octaves and building castles in the sky. —Sheldon Pearce
- Polydor/Chrysalis/Salsoul; 1980
Debbie Harry's greatest strength as a singer is her uncanny ability to sound aloof and emotional at the same time and, on "Call Me", she sounds as tough as anybody in a state of detached cool could be. Give a little of that credit to producer Giorgio Moroder, who put together a synth-washed hard rock robo-stomp that incinerated AOR pretenders on contact. Give a little more credit to that knuckle-slinging Chris Stein riff, which actually notches an unlikely Who Wore It Better victory against Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave" and unspools into an octane-burner of a solo near the end of the eight-minute full-length version.
But it's Harry's song to steal, and her leads possess the confident skill of someone who knows she's got full mastery of her voice but still wants to push it a little further. So we get a 70-story wirewalker floatiness in the verses, a seductively jet-set multilingual bridge, and a come-on that snaps into a collar-grabbing demand in the chorus. The single hit a deserved #1 in 1980 and has long outshone the American Gigolo that spawned it, but go for the extended album version, in which Harry promises a head rush of a decade that the pop world would have to go into overdrive to fulfill: "Take me out and show me off and put me on the scene/ Dress me in the fashions of the nineteen-eigh-eighties." —Nate Patrin
See also: Bagarre: "Lemonsweet" / Romeo Void: "Never Say Never"
- La Cile/Label Maison; 1981
- Fela Kuti
"Coffin for Head of State"
When the military stormed Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s compound and threw his mother out a second story window, he protested by breaking through government gates to deliver a mock coffin to General Obasanjo’s residence. And then he wrote a 23-minute song about it. Released in 1981, "Coffin for Head of State" is one of several tracks Fela recorded in response to that 1977 attack on his Kalakuta compound. By then, Obasanjo had had enough of the outspoken, pot-smoking political dissident, and he was sick of the medium the man had invented to carry the message: Afrobeat. A thousand soldiers were sent in, burning down Kalakuta, beating and violating anyone they could; Kuti’s mother ultimately died from the injuries sustained from her fall.
Nothing was the same after that, and listening to Fela’s post-Kalakuta music, it shows. On "Coffin for Head of State", the themes are as socially and politically charged as ever. Kuti criticizes officials who use Christianity and Islam as crutches for doing "bad bad bad things." He hints at a burgeoning obsession with his own brand of Pan-African spirituality (which focused on unity but was also pretty essentialist and misogynist). The satirical humor that often characterized his earlier work grew increasingly bitter and direct. By the time "Coffin" came out, the original Afrika 70 that included Tony Allen was no longer, and the soon-to-be Egypt 80 couldn't be the same. They did see international success, but like the marijuana cloud that cloaked the Chief Priest wherever he went, a thin veil of grief would settle over much of his Afrobeat into the next two decades. —Minna Zhou
- RCA; 1982
- Evelyn "Champagne" King
"Love Come Down"
In the 1980s, with the advent of electronics and the shifting texture of popular music, certain producers—from Quincy Jones to Nile Rodgers, Jam & Lewis to Stock Aitken Waterman—became synonymous with certain sonic signatures. Despite his huge influence, one of the most undersung in this category was Kashif Saleem. A solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter who'd begun his career at age 15 playing keyboards for disco group B.T. Express, Kashif joined the Mighty M production trio alongside Paul Laurence and Morrie Brown in the early 1980s; with Mighty M and solo, he was in large part responsible for shaping the sound of '80s R&B—and by extension, much of popular music—in disco's wake. And Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Love Come Down" was an early peak, epitomizing this game-changing sound in a completely singular way.
Evelyn "Champagne" King's career had been in decline when she began recording with Mighty M; "Shame", her 1978 debut single, was a disco smash she'd been unable to match since. "I'm in Love", her first single with the production unit, made both her comeback and their careers. But its follow-up, 1982's "Love Come Down", was a more radical step forward. Mighty M claimed several inspirations for this new sound; Morrie Brown told Nelson George in Billboard that they'd listen to West Coast producers like Quincy Jones and Leon Sylvers—particularly Sylvers' work on the Whispers' "And the Beat Goes On"—and try to match it. Kashif—who'd experimented with synthesizers since the late 1970s—found inspiration in jazz and R&B songwriting at a time when disco was at its peak. In particular, the spacious production of Weather Report's Heavy Weather album, and the advice of Miles Davis: "Sometimes it's just as important where the notes aren't as where they are." With its distinctive Moog bass and a production style that centered the performer, Kashif's sound marked a move away from disco's four-on-the-floor momentum, towards a bouncier sound where every element had its own discrete, foregrounded space. At its center, King's clear voice rings with celebratory confidence; around it, every instrument seems designed to maximize the emotional punch, that feeling of unambiguous love. —David Drake
- Techniques; 1985
- Tenor Saw
"Ring the Alarm"
"Ring the alarm/ Another sound is dying," runs the refrain of Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm"—a taunt, meant to trumpet the superiority of Sugar Minott's Youthman Promotion soundsystem. ("Four big sound in-a one big lawn/ The don sound a-play the other three keep calm.") "Ring the Alarm"—sampled or quoted over the years in songs by Naughty By Nature, Fat Joe, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Mos Def, Big Audio Dynamite, and even Fugazi—is the story of a sound that just wouldn't quit.
The story goes all the way back to 1973 and the "Stalag 17" riddim, produced by Winston Riley and featuring organist Ansell Collins and his band. The Riddim Database cites its use in 280 songs (other sources say more than 400), including General Echo's Jamaican #1 hit "Arleen" (1979) and Sister Nancy's deliriously dubbed out "Bam Bam" (1982). But Tenor Saw's version, released as dancehall was turning digital, coaxed new urgency out of "Stalag"'s rolling bassline, woozy organ, and glancing guitar and horn accents. His voice sounds far older, or at least wiser, than 19; it's hard to believe that he had debuted just the year before, on a devotional song called "Roll Call". He brings his church upbringing to the sweetness of his vibrato, but at moments, like when he imitates the ringing of a bell, there's an edge to his voice that must have tied his competitors' stomachs in knots. —Philip Sherburne
See also: Nitty Gritty: "Hog in a Minty" / Tenor Saw: "Golden Hen"
- Elektra; 1988
- Tracy Chapman
Working class narratives might not chart anymore, but escapism has long been universal. Tracy Chapman’s breakout single—the one she is remembered for most, to this day, along with 1997’s "Give Me One Reason"—was a multi-character study about keeping sane, keeping safe and keeping a dream alive amidst long odds. The politics and plaintive gait of "Fast Car" echoes the simple, guitar-led soul of Bill Withers, who holds his working class roots close, even today. Chapman grew up in recession-era Cleveland but the determinism of a refrain like, "I had a feeling that I belonged, I had a feeling that I could be someone," made it an anthem for all: kids stuck in bum towns and broken homes, single moms, desk drones, and dreamers. (Maybe even a few Reaganites?) Its release toward the end of the decade, as the artifice of new wave and glam rock were being phased out and hip-hop was making itself known, makes "Fast Car" one of the musical catalysts for the resurgence of liberalism and counterculture in the radical '90s. —Anupa Mistry
See also: Suzanne Vega: "Luka" / Tracy Chapman: "Talkin' Bout a Revolution"
- Epic; 1981
- Luther Vandross
"Never Too Much"
As any true karaoke specialist knows, "Never Too Much" is one of the world's worst karaoke records. Its melody—repetitive, predictable, over alternating, familiar block chords—lacks any kind of built-in tension. One can't merely hit the marks and pull off a convincing performance. Even though it's an uptempo pop record—perhaps the most accessible of Vandross' long and varied career—it's also a classicist's R&B cut, the magic tied directly to its performer's preternaturally fluid vocal control. This is why "Never Too Much" is also proof of Luther Vandross' tremendous, singular talent. Every drop of its ebullient emotion, those feelings deep enough to swim in, are contained within his incomparable voice. He embodies every second of each line, gives each turn of phrase, each syllable, a subtle, glancing grace. This delicate style lays confidently but gently upon this much less subtle musical backdrop, as if the suggestion of anything so selfish as carnality might disturb the sincerity of his devotion. "Never Too Much" is not the apex of Vandross as a singer even on his own debut; "A House Is Not A Home" more fully illustrates the depth and power of his vulnerable generosity. Yet within the broad strokes of its funk groove, which hand-holds listeners into a feeling of giddy celebration, Vandross' own voice limns his ecstasy in the aching sadness of its absence—the recognition that love is a surrender of control. —David Drake
See also: George Duke: "Reach Out" / Tatsuro Yamashita: "Love Talkin'"
- Def Jam; 1986
"Angel of Death"
Slayer, looped in with Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica as part of the "big four" of thrash, took early inspiration from both British heavy metal and punk—throughout their career they’ve covered Minor Threat, the Exploited, GBH, and T.S.O.L, among others. In the spirit of their heroes, their third album, 1986’s Reign in Blood, came off like a blunt kick to the head. It was the first metal release for Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam imprint, and Rubin recorded and produced it, stripping the Southern California quartet’s sound to its barest essentials, echoing the hardcore they’d grown up with, then speeding it up and making it more evil. Further rejecting concessions, they opened Reign in Blood with their most controversial track, the buzzing, pounding "Angel of Death".
Written by their late guitarist Jeff Hanneman, "Angel of Death" tells the story of the sadistic Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele, and the physical and psychological human experiments the "infamous butcher" performed during World War II—gassing, surgery without anesthesia, burning flesh, creating "mutants," burying people alive. The extreme subject material enunciated in a crystalline snarl by Tom Araya ("Auschwitz, the meaning of pain/ The way that I want you to die/ Slow death, immense decay/ Showers that cleanse you of your life”) delayed Reign in Blood’s release when Def Jam’s distributor Columbia Records balked at the lyrics and the album’s "Satanic" artwork and it’s still shocking almost 30 years later. —Brandon Stosuy
See also: Slayer: "South of Heaven" / Slayer: "Raining Blood" / Napalm Death: "You Suffer"
- Creation; 1988
- My Bloody Valentine
"You Made Me Realise"
On record, it lasts only 30 seconds or so. Live, it can stretch up to 20-plus minutes. My Bloody Valentine's album-length shoegaze masterwork is 1991's Loveless, but the title track from 1988's You Made Me Realise is the Kevin Shield-led Irish band's most emblematic song. And the most potent part of that song is the so-called "holocaust section," which melded the Beatles' psychedelic experiments to Sonic Youth's noise-rock pummel, in the process reaching an early pinnacle for a while new and singular style.
When "You Made Me Realise" arrived, MBV had gone through a couple of vocalists and sonic approaches without quite rising above their contemporaries. As their first record with Shields and fellow guitarist Bilinda Butcher splitting vocals, and first for the financially generous Creation Records, "You Made Me Realise" established the group as one to watch, presaging the meticulously explosive studio confections that have followed in the years since. MBV weren't the only band in the mid-to-late '80s combining the percussive/discordant with the sweet/tuneful, of course, but their ambitious admixture was particularly captivating. And all the more so as a joyfully extensive, consciousness-affecting concert closer. Shields and Butcher don't quite make clear here what they've realized—though interpersonally fraught lyrics about death and suicide sure give a hint—but the song itself is the epiphany. —Marc Hogan
See also: Cocteau Twins: "Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops" / The Jesus and Mary Chain: "You Trip Me Up"
- Mercury; 1985
- Tears for Fears
"Everybody Wants to Rule the World"
With their debut record The Hurting, Tears for Fears rivaled Morrissey as the poster children for '80s, British, sad-sack pop—the record was a wailing and gloomy new wave exploration into bloodshed, childhood suffering, and mental breakdowns. And while the band’s second album, Songs from the Big Chair, wasn’t too far a leap in terms of tone (the title was inspired by the psychological melodrama Sybil), musically it was a refined deep dive into a pure-pop sound that would make them famous.
While The Hurting was a chart-topper in the UK, Songs from the Big Chair broke Tears for Fears in the U.S., and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" led the way, hitting #1. Although just as bleak in its sentiment, the track is a far cry from the Songs from the Big Chair’s thomping and aggressive "Shout". It was Tears for Fears Lite™, all their ennui and maddened disdain filtered through a beat you could actually dance to. And underneath the synth-pop sheen, its vague message, a snide lesson in how power-hungry society could be, reached Reagan and Thatcher-era youth fed up with political greed.
Today, the track has found a new audience with another pop star turning her nose up on selfish desire for wealth and power, in Lorde’s smoldering, dark cover for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. But what makes the original "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" so enduring is its glossy packaging, how it swerves past "Mad World" gloom and goes for something that sounds like Roland Orzabal is smiling in surrender. —Hazel Cills
See also: Culture Club: "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" / The Style Council: "Long Hot Summer"
- Motown; 1980
- Diana Ross
Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic produced Diana Ross’ 1980 album Diana, but, before its release, the record was remixed without their permission: Ross' voice was moved to the forefront, the bass was reduced, the songs made flatter. Listening to the original Chic mixes of the album can feel like breathing oxygen into compressed airspace; like an unlatched accordion, the original mix unfolds to take up more space. Of course, either version is masterful: a concept record about falling for someone whose love isn't entirely reciprocated, of surrendering control. On "Upside Down", her words ring with the confidence of someone who's chosen acceptance: "Respectfully, I say to thee, I'm aware that you're cheating," she sings, as if afraid of upsetting the balance. It's a song about that sensation of "falling"—a term far too shortsighted to encapsulate the upside-down, inside-out, round-and-round motion of a crush. So just as Edwards and Rodgers’ songwriting suggests a box tumbling down stairs, Ross stands tall inside, enjoying the ride and fearing the landing. —David Drake