- Fiction; 1985
- The Cure
"Close to Me"
Robert Smith spent the first few years of the Cure gazing and then plunging into the abyss of existential horror, and the next few clawing his way back out of that abyss, with a grin on his face drawn on with lipstick. "Close to Me" is the peak of the latter period: a festive love song caught in the middle of a panic attack, a song about happiness and erotic bliss sung from the point of view of somebody who's still convinced that it's all about to be ripped away ("if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dre-he-heam," Smith hiccup-moans). Smith's voice is right up in your face, with the arrangement's handclaps and heavy breathing almost indistinguishable from the sound of someone leaning in to confide something in confidence. He rolls his words around his mouth, as if he's figuring out if they're delicious or disgusting or both; his lyrics incorporate some of the most freighted words from the first few Cure albums ("sick," "faith," "clean"—remember, this is a man who three years earlier had made "I will never be clean again" the hook of a song).
The Cure made a point of adjusting their identity on a regular basis—that was the prerogative of new wave—and the big difference here from the band's earlier work is that the arrangement of "Close to Me" is straight-up pleasure music. There's no murk, no foreboding, not even guitar, just a rhythm track with a wiggle in its hips and Porl Thompson and Lol Tolhurst's keyboards cooing and plinking at each other. At least, that's all there is on the recording on The Head on the Door: the magnificent single version, released a few weeks later, ramps up the fun by means of a brass band that wanders into the mix halfway through, sounding like they're on their way back from a New Orleans funeral (including a trombone player who, hilariously, doesn't catch on that the song has ended until a moment too late). —Douglas Wolk
See also: The Cure: "A Forest"
- 4AD; 1982
- Cocteau Twins
"Lorelei" ordained Cocteau Twins as the patron saints of thrill-seeking introverts. Sparkly and cascading, the track was the jewel in the crown of Treasure, a phenomenally inventive and introspective album that, despite its majesty and expanse, somehow felt like the safest place in the world. For all the emotional bleakness (described as "feelings buried, persisting in anxious dreams and suppressed fear, hope and anger," in Martin Aston's 4AD tome Facing the Other Way), it’s always been, to me, something too exquisitely nostalgic to haunt. "Lorelei" is a fuzzy encounter in the record’s lucid dream, that rare experience of discovery without fear, lust minus urgency. Rather than drawing admiration, it sweeps you into its private spectacle. Listening in is a secret wonder, like spying on teen goths holding hands at Christmas.
Aptly, although '80s Cocteau Twins favored non-album EPs over singles, "Lorelei" got its break on John Peel’s Radio 1 show, a network for private revelations. The song encapsulates 4AD’s mood and aesthetic—the integration of warmth, light, and ambiguity into austere post-punk—as well as the era, in which indie pop was erecting defenses against mainstream sexualization with displays of childhood and innocence. But rather than an indulgence of fantasy (as in the ultimate twee ideal of love without the sex), "Lorelei" felt, in its quiet way, like all the pageantry and tumult of passion, melancholy, and heartbreak at once. —Jazz Monroe
- Next Plateau/London; 1987
"Push It" is one of those rare songs that gets revived with such frequency that you can still come into contact with it accidentally about as often now as you could when it was first released. Over the past decade it’s been reclaimed by a staggeringly broad range of socio-musical groups that encompasses everything from electroclashers to hip-hop nostalgists, underground queer dance parties to fratty '80s retro nights. That kind of ubiquity has its downfalls, namely the kind of dull familiarity that comes with being able to hear a track any weekend for years and years at a time. Listen to it with fresh ears, though, and "Push It" reveals itself to be a radically out-there song–a razor blade of the '80s electronic avant garde smuggled into the pop culture mainstream disguised as bubblegum. You’ve heard the song so many times that you probably don’t even remember that half of it is instrumental, just a beat that hovers in some indistinct space between late-'80s rap and late-'80s dance music, and that works equally well when mixed in with Miami freestyle or German industrial. And when Salt and Pepa do take the mic their performance is more forceful than anything this side of Chuck D–clusters of clipped, half-shouted syllables that demolish the preceding century’s ideals of how female performers should conduct themselves on record with a forceful sexuality that makes Madonna (not to mention Big Daddy Kane) seem like a wallflower by comparison. Dipping casually into postmodern territory with a brilliant, gender-flipped Kinks quote; and still, nearly 30 years later, just almost unbelievably hard as fuck. —Miles Raymer
See also: J.J. Fad: "Supersonic" / MC Lyte: "Paper Thin"
- Island/Sire/Warner Bros.; 1981
- Tom Tom Club
"Genius of Love"
In the early 1980s, hip-hop broke out of its South Bronx birthplace and inched its way into Downtown NYC. It was in this vibrant, confusing moment, when black rappers and white hipsters began listening to each other’s weird records, that hip-hop as an American pan-cultural force was born. It was a furtive, optimistic, uncertain time, the time of Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, graffiti artist Futura; the time of French culture scavengers like Jean Karakos, who came to New York to form Celluloid Records because of the fascinating American records reaching his stores; it was the time of Debbie Harry, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash. It was the time of cynical rip-off records like "Buffalo Gals" and lightning-flash moments like "Genius of Love".
Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were the rhythm section for the Talking Heads; as the bassist and drummer, respectively, for the most rhythmically curious punk band in the scene as well as husband and wife, they shared a lot of common interests. Chris Blackwell, the A&R for Island records who was responsible for signing Rakim and for bringing reggae into the United States with The Harder They Come, encouraged the pair to record a song based off their love of Zapp’s "More Bounce to the Ounce". Like that song, "Genius of Love" is giddy, onomatopoetic, a groove where every sound feels like the walk-on cameo from a different cartoon character. Weymouth and Frantz’s lyrics read almost as a real-time recitation of records being handed to them by Blackwell: "Wailin' and skanking to Bob Marley". "Kurtis Blow!"
We cherish records like "Genius of Love" because they tell the most beautiful story we know about music: that it encourages empathy, broadens experience, and leaps over societal boundaries. It’s a fantasy, of course—word to Mariah Carey—and that’s why Tom Tom Club sounds and feels so good, still. It is the champagne-bubble giddiness of a promise that we can never deliver on, that in the first flush of shock and gratification in learning about cultures that we might also become better, more joyful people. —Jayson Greene
See also: Stacy Lattisaw: "Attack of the Name Game" / Tom Tom Club: "Wordy Rappinghood" / World Famous Supreme Team: "Hey DJ"
- Epic; 1983
- Michael Jackson
Though "Human Nature" has aged as well as anything from Thriller, it’s weird on numerous levels, one of which is likely to serve as an answer in bar trivia: It was co-written by the dude responsible for "Africa". Its weirdness is also contextual, because from this point forward, Michael Jackson’s blockbuster ballads were pleas to save the world or the children or the whales. And "Human Nature" wasn’t about a paternity suit or choreographing a gang truce or distrust of the media or being friends with Eddie Van Halen, Paul McCartney, or Vincent Price, which is what makes it such an outlier. It’s the rare song from Michael Jackson’s imperial phase that wasn’t explicitly about the experience of being Michael Jackson.
In fact, it’s impossible to picture Michael Jackson doing anything he sings about on "Human Nature"—being entranced by the skyline of New York City, seeing nothing but possibility in the future, having the wherewithal to make a casually cruel admittance to a one night stand while recognizing how it might serve as a greater truth about man’s biological impulses. But you get the sense that he wishes more than anything that this story could’ve been his and not that of a guy from Toto. While there’s no tawdry, tabloid subtext to "Human Nature", you can still understand why a song of such wonder and transparency feels so heartbreaking: Our everyday experiences were as alien to Michael Jackson as his were to us. —Ian Cohen
See also: Michael Jackson: "Let's Wait Awhile" / Wham!: "Careless Whisper"
- Epic/Portrait; 1985
"The Sweetest Taboo"
At this point it’s hard to imagine a world where a song as delicate as "The Sweetest Taboo" could capture the international zeitgeist, though once you peeled back the layers, Sade’s music wasn’t always as delicate as it seemed. "Quiet storm" had existed as an idea since Smokey Robinson, and there it is at the heart of the song’s chorus: "There’s a quiet storm, and it’s never felt like this before." Given that Sade’s immense popularity coincided with the time when the R&B subgenre/soft-rock analogue would crest in the public’s awareness, it’s tempting to read it and the song as somehow encapsulating what this "quiet storm," and what it could be. The paradox is right there in the title—quiet storm was not easy-listening or dentist-chair music, but a crisp, professional, smooth sound that best communicated a certain type of love song, mostly domestic and peaceful, occasionally—frequently, in the case of Sade—anguished.
This depth and tension—the most memorable line is "sometimes I think you’re just too good for me"—no doubt led to Sade’s success, and her influence on everyone from D’Angelo and the '90s neo-soul movement to the current day’s analyzed-to-death "alt-R&B" genre. There was always so much lurking behind this music—love, sure, but also the awareness that finding a partner dovetails with anxiety and the vulnerability inherent with intimacy. —Matthew Ramirez
See also: Sade: "Hang on to Your Love" / Sade: "Smooth Operator"
- Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.; 1982
- Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force
Afrika Bambaataa was an oracle, and "Planet Rock" was a manifesto of what hip-hop was and what it could be. From its inception, it sought to bridge divides. "I really made it for the Blacks, Latinos and the punk rockers," Afrika Bambaataa told Jeff Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. "But I didn’t know the next day that everybody was all into it and dancing."
By the time the record dropped in '82, the Bronx River native (née Kevin Donovan) had already established himself as one of the original breakbeat DJs, along with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. As the leader and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, Bam espoused "Peace, Love, Unity, and Havin' Fun." It was a philosophy that fueled the parties he DJ’d, the pre-"Rapper’s Delight" tapes that had circulated, and eventually the records he cut—including the baddest of them all, "Planet Rock".
From the track’s opening summons (Party people!) and the lethal bass drop that followed, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force created a world whose guiding principle was simple: rock it, don’t stop it. Sampling Kraftwerk and UK rock band Babe Ruth, Bam, together with producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie, engineered a futuristic sound built from synths, drum machine, and digital delay. When Bam and crew rapped over the distinctive jing, hiss, and boom of the new Roland TR-808, they popularized it as a major tool not just for hip-hop but for other kinds of electronic and dance music as well. The record became a catalyst for early techno, Miami bass, and electro funk. Afrika Bambaataa became the Father of Electro Funk. "Planet Rock" became his satellite. And when it shot into orbit, hip-hop went global. —Minna Zhou
- Warner Bros.; 1984
- Prince and the Revolution
"I Would Die 4 U"
Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth record and the most potent of that legendary run of Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999. It sold about 13 million copies in the U.S. alone, and right there, right after "Darling Nikki" and "When Doves Cry", is arguably the heaviest song in his catalog: "I Would Die 4 U", with its propulsive industrial heartbeat. "I Would Die 4 U" is a brooding wall of sound that rips through about three genres in under three minutes—one of the shortest, densest tracks of Prince’s career. Known for chasing his sometimes flighty inner muse, Prince envisions himself as a Christ-like figure, turning an ostensible feel-good love song into a messianic anthem, down to its repeated titular pleading, where he re-casts the song, his music, himself as other-worldly. In a long career full of dramatic reinventions, "I Would Die 4 U" stands out as the time Prince most urgently made his intentions known. —Matthew Ramirez
See also: Prince: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" / Prince: "Little Red Corvette"
- Priority/Ruthless; 1988
"Fuck tha Police"
From one vantage, N.W.A’s story is one of rebellion against surveillance—over-patrolled neighborhoods, racial profiling, closed-circuit cameras—in which the surveilled turn the means of representation back on the state-sanctioned powers-that-be. It was ironic, if not infuriating, then, that the opening weekend of the group’s myth-burnishing Straight Outta Compton film was itself the subject of unnecessary state-sanctioned scrutiny. "In light of everything that’s going on, we are dispatching additional officers to theaters that are showing the film," an LAPD officer told Variety. Zero acts of violence were reported among Compton audience members, but many acts of intimidation were reported about the gratuitous police attendance at many screenings.
Rewind to 1989. The song "Fuck tha Police" earned N.W.A's label Ruthless Records an obliquely threatening letter from the FBI, which—First Amendment and all—opted to work with regional performance venues to… yes, surveil N.W.A.’s concerts. Cops showed up in force across the country to threaten the group and its fans by simply projecting armed force. When the group recited a few lines of "Fuck tha Police" onstage at a Detroit show, cops started threateningly moving toward the stage, breaking the fourth wall and causing the group to flee. Again with the surreal irony: "Fuck tha Police" itself was a performative clap back at the militarized police deputized by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates under Operation Hammer, which periodically swept through crack-devastated neighborhoods with tanks and battering rams, terrifying innocent citizens for the crime of being black in South L.A.
If "Straight Outta Compton" was N.W.A.’s origin myth, "Express Yourself" was the media strategy, and "Gangsta Gangsta" the genre-branding, "Fuck tha Police" was all of that rolled into one package: the brick through the window, the group blasting open an eight-lane freeway for rap discourse that’s still overcrowded today. The word "fuck" in the song’s title registered like a body blow (and still does), but the song itself unfolds in a more theatrical way, "People’s Court"-as-gangsta operetta set to Dre’s take on the sample-heavy soul cacophony pioneered the previous year by the Bomb Squad on Yo! Bum Rush the Show and perfected two months before Compton and Nation of Millions. Straight Outta Compton tells the group’s legendary story in Hollywood patois, but it pales in comparison to the compelling narrative world the group crafted 27 years earlier, let alone the very real war waged by very real officers on the bodies and lives of African-Americans in 2015 on what seems like a daily basis. At one end of the spectrum, this last fact is what the LAPD officer no doubt meant with the blandly bureaucratic "everything that’s going on." At the other end, regardless of the knotty infrastructural realities it condenses, is what "fuck the police" responds to: Cops killing black Americans, and cops standing and staring at black Americans when they're seeing a movie about a group that raged against cops killing black Americans. —Eric Harvey
See also: D.O.C.: "It's Funky Enough" / Ice-T: "Colors"
- Trax; 1987
- Frankie Knuckles / Jamie Principle
Bronx-born Frankie Knuckles left New York City, where he’d come up DJing with Larry Levan, and moved to Chicago in the late '70s just in time to watch disco "die." He became the music director at the Warehouse, a safe space for gay men of color to hear the craziest music until noon the next day. (Today, the unassuming West Loop corner is bookended by a yoga studio and an Al’s Beef.) Knuckles’ no-rules sets there invented what we know as house, but no house records were getting pressed or distributed during the Warehouse’s existence. (He left and opened his own club, the Power Plant, around '82; the first house record, Jesse Saunders’ "On and On", hit wax in '84.) Knuckles’ passion then was less about producing records than dramatically re-contextualizing them, experimenting endlessly to construct dynamic, community-driven emotional and physical experiences.
An '84 demo tape from a South-sider named Jamie Principle entered heavy rotation in Knuckles’ sets. That original version of "Your Love" is obviously inferior to the final version Knuckles and Principle re-released together a few years later, which is lusher, harder, more cosmic in its shimmering Italo-sampled arpeggios. Principle is the X-factor here, though it always felt like he didn’t receive proper billing on a track that was originally his. On "Baby Wants to Ride", another Knuckles collaboration released as the A-side to "Your Love"’s B-side on Trax Records, Principle is grimy and raw, an obvious student of Prince’s nastier side. But on "Your Love", he is an angel falling in real time, softening Knuckles’ rough edges, bringing the genre closer to pop without sacrificing any of the catharsis—the ultimate house crossover record.
There’s this narrative today, mostly on the Internet and outside of Chicago, that house music in the age of EDM is in need of a task force against extinction—that these distant offshoots, like radio-friendly UK pop-house or the booming electronic festival industry, threaten to dwarf or erase house music as it was born. These well-intentioned concerns ignore the fact that house as Knuckles invented it—and Principle brought its emotional drama to new heights—is all still here. It’s not a relic or a memory, but an inextricable part of the Chicago experience over the last three-plus decades. What Knuckles started is all still happening. The Warehouse and the Power Plant might be closed, but Smart Bar, where Knuckles was a resident until he got too sick, still loses it to house every Sunday. Chosen Few, the massive annual house picnic organized by a South side DJ collective who’ve been throwing house parties since '77, is bigger than ever. Footwork, the couple-generations-removed extension of house, is more vital than ever, having gone national the same way house did in its adolescence. House in Chicago isn’t a "scene," something you could isolate and point out. It’s become part of the air, embedded in the city’s DNA. It’s just there. Knuckles once half-jokingly noted he could walk down the street unrecognized in Chicago, only mobbed by fans overseas. But when he died last year, this happened. —Meaghan Garvey
- Capitol; 1989
- Beastie Boys
"Shake Your Rump"
The Beastie Boys were playing in a borrowed sandbox on their debut Licensed to Ill. The attitude may have been their own, but just about everything else, from the slash-and-scratch production and the hair-metal guitars to the trio’s Run-D.M.C. cadences, came on loan from Def Jam’s Rick Rubin collection. It’s no wonder they wanted to leave the label to explore less charted territory, and in the maximalist, proto-big-beat production of the Los Angeles duo the Dust Brothers, they found the original vision they were looking for. Producers were working all kinds of miracles with samples in the late '80s, but none were doing it on anywhere near this scale.
Like many a mythologized album, Paul’s Boutique was met with some confusion upon its initial release. A quarter century later, that cold reception boggles the mind. How could anybody, in 1989 or in any other year, hear the album’s kick-off salvo "Shake Your Rump" and not be bowled over from the get go? It may be the showiest beat of the '80s, mounding heaps of disco samples from more than a dozen songs, including three alone from Rose Royce’s Car Wash soundtrack, into a high-speed, Rube Goldberg-esque pile-up of breaks, riffs, and fills.
At the time the Dust Brothers were hardly considered visionaries. Their biggest credit had been an album with Tone Lōc, a rapper almost comically ill-suited to keep pace with the duo’s hectic funk. The Beastie Boys, of course, proved far more nimble collaborators, matching the beat makers’ lunacy with their own barrage of junk-culture references and in-jokes: Sam the butcher, Fred Flintstone, shrimp boats, onion rings, billy goats, Mango Kangols. Most of them are nonsense, but they whiz by so fast it doesn’t matter. They’re funny as hell just because the band thinks they are, and there’s a real freedom in the group’s slap-happy rhymes. The Beastie Boys were no longer just marketable white faces plastered onto a popular black sound. They were making up their own rules now. —Evan Rytlewski
See also: Beastie Boys: "Hey Ladies"
- Motown; 1980
- Diana Ross
"I'm Coming Out"
"I’m Coming Out" was designed to be an anthem for Diana Ross’ personal liberation. While in the process of parting ways with Berry Gordy’s Motown after nearly two decades, she enlisted Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for help with her musical revitalization. By any standard, the initiative was a success: Diana became her most successful solo record by a country mile, and it gave her the momentum to escape the label.
But no one hears this song and thinks about Diana Ross’ label turmoil. Her fight for creative freedom has been co-opted by millions of people around the world searching for acceptance, self-confidence, or even safety. It was a struggle relevant in 1980, a year before AIDS would begin to erase and stigmatize a generation of young men; it’s a struggle relevant in 2015, when the same-sex marriage debate has been legally resolved and transgender rights are finally receiving the attention they deserve. "I’m Coming Out" will mean something as long as there are people around the world experiencing the euphoria of self-discovery. What was once a personal mission statement is now an enduring soundtrack for radiant, radical pride—it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a piece of music. —Jamieson Cox
See also: Inner Life: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version)" / Sister Sledge: "Lost in Music [Special 1984 Nile Rodgers Remix]"
- EMI; 1986
- Kate Bush
"Hounds of Love"
"In the trees! It's coming!" The startled voice that opens "Hounds of Love" is spoken by a dead man. It’s taken from a seance scene in the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon, in which a devilish monstrosity—part ape, part bat, all charmingly ridiculous—forces a bunch of eggheads to consider the existence of supernatural phenomena. At one point, a snooty Satanic leader ponders, "Where does imagination end and reality begin?" No wonder it’s one of celebrated fabulist Kate Bush’s favorite films.
On the title track of her towering 1985 album, the demon in the trees takes the form of another highly elusive entity that has captured our imaginations for centuries: love. In Bush’s telling, no matter how much she tries to outrun it, love is always chasing her, beckoning her to let her guard down and get lost in someone else. Headlong drums and incessant, sawing strings press the issue as she hems and haws, spinning fables about foxes and dogs before giving into her heart with a flourish: "Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake!" she howls, finally carefree enough to commit. Bush was 27 when "Hounds of Love" was released, and the song is no teenage trifle; it knows about the pitfalls, dangers, and disappointments that come with every relationship, and it holds enough faith to move forward anyway. —Ryan Dombal
See also: Kate Bush: "Breathing" / Kate Bush: "Suspended in Gaffa"
- A&M; 1989
- Janet Jackson
"Love Will Never Do (Without You)"
There isn’t a modern analog for the fearless daring of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album cycle. Dressed in stark monochrome and executing choreography that resembled hand-to-hand combat more than traditional hip-hop dance, Jackson chased her 1986 breakthrough Control with a brash political gambit. "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" seems to hang back on the seriousness of Rhythm Nation’s social consciousness in favor of a simple song of devotion—though "simple" does this towering six-minute epic very little justice. Everything in the mix hits like percussion, and Janet’s voice glides coolly over top as she celebrates her lover while sneakily letting him know she could have anyone she wants. Beyoncé stepping out in 1814 gear on a recent Halloween night confirmed what some of us suspected all along: Homegirl’s been taking notes. —Craig Jenkins
See also: Fonda Rae: "Touch Me" / Janet Jackson: "Rhythm Nation"
- Def Jam; 1987
- Public Enemy
"Bring the Noise"
Emerging in fall 1987 as part of the Less Than Zero soundtrack, "Bring the Noise" would anchor It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s totemic sophomore album, the following June. And from Flavor Flav’s hype-man taunts to Chuck D’s granite-solid sixteens to the Bomb Squad’s flurrying jazzbo squall, every aspect of "Noise" still stings like a provocation, a dare, a saber rattling before it carves your speakers from the inside. Verses unspool in a flood as turbulent as the production, baiting radio DJs, critics, and audience alike with a breathlessness that suggests they’re rapping through the crowd and into hip-hop posterity. A fleet fluidity informs Chuck D’s flow here, effortless in a dizzying, dazzling way—he’s circling us like a young prize fighter, landing one swift, sure blow after another. It’s exhaustive and inexhaustible, a playful mission statement that dials back somewhat on the agenda-setting, making space for shouts to Sonny Bono, Yoko Ono, and Anthrax, who would memorably cover the song with Public Enemy a few years hence. The group was just warming, and it’s telling that 28 years on, "Noise" remains more mesmerizing than the vast majority of rap anthems that would follow it. —Raymond Cummings
See also: Geto Boys: "Mind of a Lunatic" / Public Enemy: "Rebel Without a Pause"
- Factory; 1982
- New Order
Specific feelings can become tied to the pop music of a specific decade: The '90s were good for angst and self-loathing; the '70s were ripe for hedonism; and the '80s were a bountiful time for yearning. Through some combination of new synthesizer sounds, new haircuts, and the new image of teen-dom as seen in the movies of John Hughes, a large handful of songs from this era articulated an almost painful desire for someone or something that was just out of reach. New Order’s "Temptation" is the greatest song about this feeling ever written.
It’s so great, in fact, that the band couldn’t stop recording it. Along with the iconic original near-nine-minute 12” version and a five-and-a-half-minute 7” edit cut in 1982, the UK quartet completely re-recorded "Temptation" for the compilation Substance in 1987—and that version, brightened by vocals that are higher and sweetened, is arguably the best known today. (They remade the song once more in 1998, but that take is no one’s favorite.)
Though the three versions vary considerably in terms of structure, the core elements are there throughout: Bernard Sumner's "What Goes On"-inspired chords, a pulsing synth line by Gillian Gilbert, Stephen Morris’ fluttering drums, and the uncannily emotional bass playing of Peter Hook. The song’s two-chord groove is reinforced by lyrics that seem to be about something specific but are really a collection of fragments; every line is designed to run through your head in a moment, probably when you’re walking home by yourself at night, teetering between loneliness and belonging. —Mark Richardson
See also: The Cure: "Primary" / New Order: "Everything's Gone Green"
- 4AD; 1988
"Where Is My Mind?"
Presaging the alt-rock boom that came at the beginning of the next decade, 1988's "Where Is My Mind?" is a distinctly prescient late-'80s landmark and a song that launched a thousand Nirvanas. As one of the bigger hits off of Surfer Rosa, "Where Is My Mind?" invokes powerful, visceral, and oddly wistful sentiments all at once, using the song’s eponymous chorus as both an existential plea and a zany, lethargic rallying cry. Even the song’s production is manic: stark, spiraling guitar licks cohere with fretful acoustic guitar strums and the sound of a human howling, and Frank Black’s lyrics are sung in alternatingly high and low octaves—a delivery that is jarring and unhinged, but still strangely jubilatory. There’s a warmth and wry humor to the way the band’s synthesized textures placate the song’s narrative eccentricity. "Where Is My Mind?" is a funhouse mirror of angst and liberation, but few songs in the genre come as neatly packaged as this one. —Molly Beauchemin
See also: Pixies: "Here Comes Your Man" / Pixies: "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
- Def Jam/Columbia; 1988
- Slick Rick
With a voice like a deadpan British Bootsy Collins and a storytelling sense that could turn any situation into detailed vérité, Slick Rick built a reputation as an MC that thrived on the outsized. When you outline the narrative of "Children's Story", it seems pretty standard: a young man becomes a stick-up kid, attempts to rob and then runs from an undercover cop, gets into a high-speed gun battle, takes and releases a hostage, then finally surrenders once he's surrounded before being shot by the cops anyway. But few rappers before or since have shown Rick’s ability to inhabit multiple characters on this level—it's like a precursor to Kool G Rap's crime narratives filtered through an Eddie Murphy bit. All you have to do is quote certain phrases—"Me'n you, Ty, we gonna make some caaaaash" or "Daaaave, the dope fiend shooting dope" or "rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered"—to realize how deeply Rick's sing-song phrasing pulls you along, the quick-witted efficiency and smash-cut pacing turning out far more evocative than its music video ever could. —Nate Patrin
See also: Slick Rick: "Hey Young World" / Slick Rick: "Mona Lisa"
- Sire; 1983
- Talking Heads
"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)"
"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" was an aberration for the Talking Heads. It was more of an exercise in understated musical hypnosis than polyrhythmic, Kuti-quoting funk, well-compressed instead of bursting at the seams, and (in its abashed way) it was a full-blown love song. But it didn’t clear #50 on the Hot 100, despite the Heads’ commercial success with "Burning Down the House" a few months earlier. With "This Must Be the Place", the band simplified their sound dramatically, condensing their sonic palette to the level of small EKG blips (having switched instruments for a lark, this was nearly all they were able to reliably deliver chops-wise) and wringing out only a few chords.
In the process of stripping down, Talking Heads showcased something at the root of their art: David Byrne’s inimitable gift for melody, and his unique ability to make every musical figure seem both familiar and tied directly to the lyrical thought (see "I feel numb...born with a weak heart/ I guess I must be having fun"). Is there a better moment of catharsis in a pop then the song's final eureka realization, after Byrne gets whacked with the monolithic spiritual hammer and awakes from a life-encompassing daze into unexpected stability? There’s nothing to narrow his eyes at anymore: "Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head/ Aaoooh, aaooh, aaooh, aaoooh." For a band rarely given to addressing issues of the heart head-on, "Naive Melody" remains an unexpected and peerless achievement. —Winston Cook-Wilson
See also: Talking Heads: "And She Was" / Talking Heads: "Road to Nowhere"
- Paisley Park; 1986
- Prince and the Revolution
After the commercial and artistic triumph of Purple Rain and the declaration of unpredictability that was Around the World in a Day, Prince cemented his reputation as a master innovator the moment "Kiss" pounced out of the radio in 1986. There was no other record that moved like it, and there still isn't. It's shockingly spare for a dance track: dry as ash, with all of its weightless bulk way up in the tweeter zone and no bassline at all. The song's structure and chords come off as unimaginably fresh and alien, which is pretty impressive considering that it's basically just a twelve-bar I-IV-V blues at its core. (The two covers of "Kiss" that were minor hits in the next few years—one by the Art of Noise with Tom Jones, the other by Age of Chance—made a point of how little they sounded like Prince's version, and how splendid a song it was anyway.)
Prince's original demo for the song was a quick acoustic throwaway he gave to his then-bassist Brownmark's band Mazarati for the debut album they were recording in 1985. The version they worked up with producer David Z was more or less "Kiss" as we know it, including the guitar-as-hi-hat riff that provides its beat—as well as a bassline that probably seemed like it obviously had to be there. On hearing that recording, Prince yanked it back from them, leaving credits to David Z for the arrangement and to Mazarati for their background vocals on the version he released. Prince, though, is the one who added "Kiss"'s crowning touches, including the high-speed strum at the end of the chorus (borrowed from Jimmy Nolen's guitar part on James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag") and the nearly instrumental bridge (his seemingly ad-libbed line "little girl Wendy's parade" had been the working title of the Parade album's opening song "Christopher Tracy's Parade"). And his stratospheric, deeply sexy, intensely bizarre lead vocal—he sticks to the cloudbusting end of his falsetto for almost the entire song, diving down to baritone a couple of times just to show off a little more—might be his greatest performance. —Douglas Wolk
See also: Prince: "If I Was Your Girlfriend" / Prince: "Raspberry Beret"