Friday, July 02, 2010

Fun Friday: Quintessential Songs of the 1980s

Fun Friday is back! For this installment, I decided to count down the "quintessential songs" of the 1980s. What this means is that each song on this list has "the sound" that perfectly represents that era (my favourite era of popular music). While all of the songs are definitely among my favourites, this list is not how I would necessarily rank the songs if I were to do a "Best of the 1980s songs". I decided to select songs that were a representative sample of all the great songs of that decade. This means, I only had ten slots (okay, I cheated and made it a dozen).

What do we remember about 80s music? Well, this ran the gamut of synthesizer pop, new wave, hair metal bands with chart topping ballads, one hit wonders, duets of iconic singers, remakes of popular songs from the 1960s, British bands with songs that include their name in the song, teen pop sensations, comebacks by artists who saw their heyday in the 1960s or 1970s, and movie theme songs by the king of movie theme songs! Did I leave anything out? Oh...of course. No list is complete without two artists that helped fuel the music video format and boosted the popularity among young people of a cable channel devoted to playing them.

So, put on your neon-coloured Ray-Bans; mousse or gel up your hair; wear a jean jacket, some checkered docksiders, and a single sequined, fingerless glove and enjoy!

12) "Material Girl" by Madonna. Nothing says 80s like the materialism of the Reagan / Yuppie era epitomized in this popular Madonna song and video, which borrowed visual elements from Marilyn Monroe's film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. However, as an added twist, in Madonna's music video, she acts as though a man delivering daisies that he probably picked in someone's backyard is enough to win her heart over rich guys in Ferraris giving her diamond necklaces. Yeah, right!

11) "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins. This has a slight edge over "Danger Zone" or "Playing With the Boys" from the Top Gun soundtrack. If that were not enough, Kenny Loggins also sang the theme songs to Caddyshack ("I'm Alright"), Over the Top ("Meet Me at Halfway"), and Caddyshack II ("Nobody's Fool"). He was a busy man in the 1980s and when you think about all of the movie theme songs that received radio play, its impossible not to think about Kenny Loggins.

10) "Angel" by Aerosmith. There were plenty of songs I could have included in this slot: "Living On a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, "Jump" by Van Halen, "Photograph" by Def Leppard, "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison, "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake, "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N Roses, or "The Final Countdown" by Europe. All of them represent the hair "heavy metal" bands that were big in the 1980s. Its amazing that hard rocking men had no shame in wearing spandex, hair sprayed long hair, and blasting out ballads that gave fans a chance to wave their cigarette lighters high and proud during concerts. Though I did not like heavy metal music, I considered Van Halen and Def Leppard to be the best of that category. However, out of all the songs in this category, I think Aerosmith best represents two categories: hair metal band singing a hit ballad AND a group from the 1970s that scored a major comeback in 1988. "Angel" is still their best single, I think.

9) "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" by Chicago. Music of the 1980s was also dominated by bands such as Journey; REO Speedwagon; Kool and the Gang; and Earth, Wind, and Fire, which all had many members, often replaceable and no one really standing out to ditch the group for a solo act (Steve Perry and Peter Cetera, the exceptions). Out of this category, I think Chicago racked up the best collection of songs in the 1980s, with this song as one of their finest (slightly edging out "Look Away", because it has a more quintessential 80s sound, representative of the early part of the decade).

8) "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany. Though I was a much bigger fan of Debbie Gibson and thought Tiffany coasted to popularity singing "cover versions" of songs that previously charted by the original groups, I include this song on the list because it is one of the best remakes in a decade full of remakes. Billy Idol had a remake with "Mony Mony", Bananarama scored with "Venus", Michael Bolton was "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay", Cyndi Lauper remade "All Through the Night" and "Money Changes Everything", Heart wasn't "Alone", the Power Station "Bang a Gong", Kim Carnes made "Betty Davis Eyes" her own, Phil Collins sang "You Can't Hurry Love" and "A Groovy Kind of Love", David Bowie fell in love with "China Girl", Kylie Minogue did "The Locomotion", the New Kids on the Block asked "Didn't I Blow Your Mind?" (yes, they did, actually), Cheap Trick channeled Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel", New Edition remade "Earth Angel", the Oak Ridge Boys fell in love with "Elvira", the Bangles saw a "Hazy Shade of Winter", Paul Young found success with "Every Time You Go Away", David Lee Roth found solo success singing that he's "Just a Gigolo", actors Bruce Willis sang "Respect Yourself" and "Under the Boardwalk while Michael Damian advised us to "Rock On", and Kim Wilde found one hit wonder-dom with "You Keep Me Hangin' On." These are just the better known examples of remakes released during the 80s.

7) "In a Big Country" by Big Country. This Scottish band found success as a one hit wonder with a song utilizing their band's name in the song. Other such bands include Living in a Box, Human League, and even Wang Chung, using their band names in song titles or lines in their hit songs. I remember other such bands, but can't recall them at the moment. Also in this category, I would include Dexy's Midnight Runners with their solitary hit: "Come On, Eileen" because that song has a definite 80s sound to it that fit well with "In a Big Country."

6) "Up Where We Belong" by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes fills the slot for "duets by solo artists to serve as a love theme for a movie." This duet from An Officer and a Gentleman edges out "Almost Paradise" by Mike Reno (of Loverboy) and Ann Wilson (of Heart) from Footloose, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley (of The Righteous Brothers) and Jennifer Warnes (again!) from Dirty Dancing, "The Next Time I Fall" by Peter Cetera and Amy Grant (not from a movie, though), and "After All" by Peter Cetera and Cher from Chances Are.

5) "Beat It" by Michael Jackson. Out of all of the songs by this global superstar, who is in a category all to himself, the reason why I selected this single as a "quintessential 80s song" over his other excellent hits ("Billie Jean", "Human Nature", "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Thriller", "Bad", "The Way You Make Me Feel", "Man in the Mirror", or "Smooth Criminal") is because of its incredible sound and that he had Eddie Van Halen play the guitar solo. This song and video, along with those of "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" really blasted him into the musical stratosphere in ways that no artist before or since has been able to do. This song is brilliant and you're guaranteed a trip back to wherever you were when this song debuted in 1983. Its not only "quintessentially 80s", but its also a true classic from that decade.

4) "Take On Me" by a-ha. Speaking of songs with an incredible sound, its hard to believe that this song is 25 years old this year. I was in the 8th grade when the song was released and it was one that everyone I knew loved, despite our tastes and opinions about most other songs. The music video is also among one of the best ever made (a blend of art and live action, a drawing coming to life!). a-ha, from Norway, represented the crest of "new wave" music (I'm still not sure the exact definition, but it represents bands like Devo, the Pretenders, New Order, Psychedelic Furs, Orchestral Manuevers in the Dark, Blondie, Gary Neuman, and the Talking Heads to name a few).

3) "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama. Nothing transports me back to the 80s quicker than this song, which was featured in the film The Karate Kid (the original, not this year's remake). Its a perfect reflection of pop music in 1984 and was popular during that summer before I started junior high school. Though there are many songs by this British female pop group that I love, this single is their most "quintessential 80s" song. They also fill the slot for female pop groups, edging out the Go-Gos, the Bangles, Expose, and the Pointer Sisters. They are my favourite female pop group of all time (slightly over TLC) because I have a thing for British ladies. In fact, it was the ladies of Bananarama who probably inspired me to find European women more sophisticated and sexier than American ladies. No offense...but we all have our personal tastes!

2) "Don't You Want Me?" by Human League. This single is truly one of my favourite 80s songs. It is about as perfect a single as you could create with the 80s sound of synth-pop. Nuff said!

That brings us to the MOST QUINTESSENTIAL 80s SONG EVER...

1) "Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go?" by Soft Cell. Whenever I hear this song on the radio, I pretty much have to stop whatever I'm doing and take in this song. It is still that awesome to my ears after all these years. Unfortunately, the version I have on CD is not the full version played on radio (with the "Where Did Our Love Go?" portion). I have no idea where to find that version, because it was that version that I remember really loving when I first heard it. The two songs are separate, but somehow fit together quite nicely. With such a brilliant single, its easy to understand why Soft Cell was a one hit wonder (the name didn't help much, either). How does one even top a song like this? You can't! But, I suppose having one hit single is better than having no hit singles at all. And if you're going to have only one hit single, why not have one that represents the best of the 80s sound?

One memory associated with this song was when my family went back to Lawrence, Kansas for a visit sometime in the early 80s. We lived in Lawrence from 1976 through 1979 while my dad attended the University of Kansas. I started Kindergarten and attended 1st grade at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Lawrence. When we lived there, my family was friends with another family in which the husband was a caucasian American and the wife was from Thailand. This couple had two daughters. One of them was my age and kind of bratty. Her much older sister was probably one of my earliest crushes. During our visit, her older sister (named Lani) drove her and I somewhere (in a car I used to make fun of: LeCar). "Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go?" played on the radio and Lani sang along with the song. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason why I love this song so much is because of the memory attached, where I had a crush on a teenage half Asian / half caucasian girl singing along with the radio. Then I hear this song and fall into its brilliant melody and pretty much forget about anything that I'm doing. What can I say? I really love this incredibly brilliant song!

Thanks for induldging with me on this nostalgic look at the music that helped make the 80s decade a truly great one in terms of music. For those who sneer at 80s pop, I'd say to walk into any store in the mall or some offices that play music. Why do we still hear 80s songs on the radio? I believe that the industry got the formula down by then. There's a reason why "pop music" is considered popular. The sound is basically sugar for our ears and the lyrics for the most part weren't vulgar or offensive (though some songs had provocative double meanings). 80s pop music is classic and timeless. Enjoy!