1980: A Ride Through Paradise

I’ve already written about how 1980 was an exceptionally weird year for pop culture: on the basis of such stupendous offerings as The Jazz Singer (starring Neil Diamond!) and Pink Lady and Jeff, one detects a higher-than-average collective lapse in good taste. Happily, that’s not the case regarding the year’s music—I had to show restraint in limiting it to forty tracks.

While not perverse enough to include anything from The Apple or Can’t Stop The Music soundtracks, I’ve made room for two from Xanadu without apology: Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”, because I retain so many memories of hearing it in the backseat of my parents’ Mercury Monarch, and ELO’s “All Over The World”, arguably the Xanadu song most perfectly capturing the futuristic cheese it was attempting (even more than the beloved title track, I’ll argue.)

Still, I don’t think any of these annual playlists will have as many actual number one hits as this one. At its death throes, AM Top 40 radio gave us such glories as Diana Ross’ Chic-produced eleganza, Blondie’s Moroder-produced iconic New Wave sleaze, Streisand’s Gibb-produced immaculate, melodramatic soft rock, McCartney’s kooky new wave experiment (actually a hit in the US in a less interesting live recording), and, most intriguingly, Lipps Inc.’s midway-between-disco-and-synthpop one-shot whose remedial genius will likely outlive all of its chart-topping cohorts. I didn’t even have room for worthy number ones from Queen (take your pick) or Pink Floyd, instead opting for two from the UK: one of Abba’s least overplayed (and thus, freshest) standards and Bowie’s chilling-but-catchy “Space Oddity” sequel.

As Macca knew, Post-Punk/New Wave was a big thing at the time, if not always on the charts. The Brits were all over it (The English Beat, The Cure, The Soft Boys, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, XTC, etc.) as was Australia (Split Enz), Canada (Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade), and in the USA, representatives from Akron, Ohio (Devo, Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde), Athens, Georgia (The B-52’s, Pylon) and, oh, New York City (Talking Heads). Proto New Wave stalwarts Roxy Music effortlessly adjusted to the times (the scintillating “Same Old Scene”); forgoing easy categorization, Prince on his third album crafted a New Wave song because he could and naturally it was great.

The rest is a typically eclectic assortment of post-disco both mainstream (The Jacksons pushing lessons learned from Michael’s Off The Wall into euphoric overdrive) and esoteric (Cristina’s deranged Peggy Lee cover) brushing up against a bevy of smooth pop that we now call “Yacht Rock”: late Steely Dan, brief superstar Christopher Cross, Rupert Holmes’ slick and drenched-in-irony follow-up to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and George Benson, who pioneered the R&B strain of this with 1976’s Breezin’ and this year brought Quincy Jones on board for Give Me The Night, its title track his biggest and best hit.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1980.

  1. Diana Ross, “Upside Down”
  2. The English Beat, “Mirror In The Bathroom”
  3. Roxy Music, “Same Old Scene”
  4. Blondie, “Call Me”
  5. Split Enz, “I Got You”
  6. Prince, “When You Were Mine”
  7. The Cure, “A Forest”
  8. Martha and the Muffins, “Echo Beach”
  9. Steely Dan, “Babylon Sisters”
  10. Stevie Wonder, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
  11. Cristina, “Is That All There Is?”
  12. Kate Bush, “The Wedding List”
  13. Visage, “Fade To Grey”
  14. Lipps Inc., “Funkytown”
  15. The Soft Boys, “Tonight”
  16. Rough Trade, “High School Confidential”
  17. Devo, “Whip It”
  18. Paul McCartney, “Coming Up”
  19. Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”
  20. Barbra Streisand, “Woman In Love”
  21. Olivia Newton-John, “Magic”
  22. ABBA, “Super Trouper”
  23. George Benson, “Give Me The Night”
  24. Christopher Cross, “Ride Like The Wind”
  25. Rupert Holmes, “Him”
  26. Squeeze, “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)”
  27. Siouxsie and The Banshees, “Christine”
  28. Pylon, “Stop It”
  29. The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”
  30. The Jam, “Man In The Corner Shop”
  31. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
  32. Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”
  33. Pretenders, “Mystery Achievement”
  34. Donna Summer, “Cold Love”
  35. XTC, “Towers of London”
  36. Stephanie Mills, “Never Knew Love Like This Before”
  37. The Jacksons, “Can You Feel It”
  38. Electric Light Orchestra, “All Over The World”
  39. David Bowie, “Ashes To Ashes”
  40. Paul Simon, “Late In The Evening”

1985: You Will Find It

Whether 1985 qualifies as Peak ‘80s is a matter of personal taste (personally, I’d lean towards ’86 or ’87), but mid-decade is by design an ideal place to assess when we think of its music as a whole. This playlist’s run from the greatest up-tempo Madonna single of her imperial phase to Murray Head’s musical-project-written-by-Benny-and-Bjorn-from-Abba oddity (I remember it sounding like nothing else on syndicated TV series Solid Gold at the time) exhibits the lofty heights mainstream radio could then ascend to. And yes, I unironically love “The Power of Love” and still might even if it wasn’t from the best studio blockbuster movie of the era.

Sade and Prince also scored pretty neat leftfield ’85 hits too, undoubtedly scanning as Top 40 while reinterpreting the very notion of such in ways that were beyond, say, Phil Collins or Dire Straits. Not as much as Kate Bush, of course—her sole top 40 hit in the US still startles, not least because it doesn’t dilute one whit of her otherness. Although built almost entirely on era-specific synthetics, it somehow sounds as out of time now as it ever did.

Punchy singles from New Order, Big Audio Dynamite, The Cure and OMD would suggest 1985 was the year of Brit postpunk bands making big pop moves (I didn’t even include the fine but overplayed Tears For Fears), but I spot a more novel trend: a cool, crisp, slightly jazzy subgenre dubbed Sophisti-Pop: Sade, definitely, but also Prefab Sprout, Everything But The Girl, Fine Young Cannibals (to a lesser extent) and even a few old(er) souls like Bryan Ferry and Leonard Cohen (transforming his sound from monochrome folk to Casio keyboard pastels.) I’ve also slotted in some Sci-Fi Sophisti-Pop: The Rah Band’s daffy but strange and charming “Clouds Across The Moon”, a UK top ten hit I’d never heard of until two years ago.

As for the INXS album track I’ve highlighted, it doesn’t particularly sound like 1985 or anything else the band ever did; however, it does remind me of another underrated, pastoral, anomaly-within-the-artist’s-catalog ballad that will likely be the centerpiece of my eventual 1986 mix.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1985 on Spotify:

  1. Prefab Sprout, “Bonny”
  2. Sade, “The Sweetest Taboo”
  3. Kirsty MacColl, “He’s On The Beach”
  4. Suzanne Vega, “Marlene On The Wall”
  5. Wall of Voodoo, “Far Side Of Crazy”
  6. Fine Young Cannibals, “Johnny Come Home”
  7. Everything But The Girl, “When All’s Well”
  8. Tom Waits, “Clap Hands”
  9. Felt, “Primitive Painters”
  10. Madonna, “Into The Groove”
  11. Aretha Franklin, “Freeway of Love”
  12. Huey Lewis & The News, “The Power Of Love”
  13. Murray Head, “One Night In Bangkok”
  14. Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party”
  15. Camper Van Beethoven, “Take The Skinheads Bowling”
  16. Prince, “Raspberry Beret”
  17. R.E.M., “Driver 8”
  18. Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
  19. Big Audio Dynamite, “The Bottom Line”
  20. Echo & The Bunnymen, “Bring On The Dancing Horses”
  21. New Order, “Love Vigilantes”
  22. Leonard Cohen, “The Law”
  23. INXS, “Shine Like It Does”
  24. Grace Jones, “Slave To The Rhythm”
  25. Bryan Ferry, “Slave To Love”
  26. Commodores, “Nightshift”
  27. The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Just Like Honey”
  28. Talking Heads, “Road To Nowhere”
  29. The Smiths, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”
  30. The Cure, “A Night Like This”
  31. OMD, “So In Love”
  32. The Rah Band, “Clouds Across The Moon”
  33. Mekons, “Last Dance”

1970: We Had Our Own Kind of Heaven

At the dawn of a decade, no one can possibly predict where music will go over the next ten years. In that respect, 1970 was probably no different from 1990 (or even 2020.) With hindsight, looking over these selections from half a century ago, one notices how Laura Nyro’s “Blackpatch” anticipates Tapestry and Todd Rundgren, but most of them could’ve easily come out in ’69 or ’68.

A fair amount of musical icons appear on this playlist, from relatively early Bowie to prime James Brown to late Simon and Garfunkel. There’s also the best track off The Beatles’ last released album, plus choice cuts from three of the Fab Four’s post-breakup Major Solo Statements (sorry, Ringo.) Album cuts are favored over massive, overplayed hits, with a few exceptions like Sly & The Family Stone’s ridiculously-titled but undeniable number one single or The Temptations nicely acclimating themselves beyond the old Motown sound (as for the now Diana Ross-less Supremes, “Stoned Love” studiously but successfully clings to it.)

Among the weirdos and one-offs: Polish vocal quartet Novi Singers’ quirky vocalese; Linda Perhacs’ wild psychedelia, somehow both firmly of and way ahead of its time; a charming novella of a song from future adult-contemporary art-popper Al Stewart; and a deep cut from British folk singer John Martyn and his wife Beverly—one of my all-time favorite songs first heard on Saint Etienne’s curated mix The Trip in 2004. Also, don’t forget the inimitable Tom Jones, whose “Daughter of Darkness” has to be one of the most over-the-top, transcendentally demented top twenty hits ever. Coincidentally, I also first heard it in 2004 and remember thinking how difficult it must’ve been for the studio musicians to keep a straight face while playing on this gloriously (and probably unintentionally) goofy gem.

Click here to listen to my favorite songs of 1970 on Spotify.

  1. Desmond Dekker, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”
  2. David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold The World”
  3. The Free Design, “Bubbles”
  4. Sly & The Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinmee Be Mice Elf Agin)”
  5. Cat Stevens, “I Think I See The Light”
  6. Rodriguez, “Crucify Your Mind”
  7. Van Morrison, “Into The Mystic”
  8. Al Stewart, “A Small Fruit Song”
  9. Novi Singers, “Torpedo”
  10. Laura Nyro, “Blackpatch”
  11. John Martyn and Beverly Martyn, “Auntie Aviator”
  12. Joni Mitchell, “The Priest”
  13. John Lennon, “Look At Me”
  14. Dionne Warwick, “Paper Mache”
  15. Dusty Springfield, “Spooky”
  16. George Baker Selection, “Little Green Bag”
  17. The Beatles, “Two Of Us”
  18. Aretha Franklin, “Pullin’”
  19. James Brown, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”
  20. Tom Jones, “Daughter Of Darkness”
  21. Randy Newman, “Have You Seen My Baby?”
  22. Harry Nilsson, “I’ll Be Home”
  23. Paul McCartney, “Every Night”
  24. Linda Perhacs, “Parallelograms”
  25. Neil Young, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
  26. Linda Ronstadt, “Long Long Time”
  27. Nick Drake, “Northern Sky”
  28. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”
  29. Simon & Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York”
  30. The Kinks, “This Time Tomorrow”
  31. George Harrison, “What Is Life”
  32. The Velvet Underground, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”
  33. The Supremes, “Stoned Love”

2019: Could This Be A Forgery?

2019 was kind of an amazing year for singles and tracks—so much that I thought about doing another countdown in addition to my top ten albums list. However, with the end of the decade approaching, I need to save some brain cells to assess that in a few weeks, so instead, here’s the annual playlist.

The first two songs are my favorites, both by new artists and completely out of left-field. Orville Peck is a queer, fringed-mask Canadian cowboy crooner, while Kelsey Lu is a Charlotte-born, African-American freak-folk original. Peck’s vocal on “Dead of Night” blatantly recalls Roy Orbison, Morrissey and Chris Isaak but when he shifts into his higher register on the chorus, it gives me chills like nothing Roy or Chris ever did (and like the Moz hasn’t in decades.) “Poor Fake”, on the other hand, instantly achieves soulful dancefloor splendor when the beat kicks in at 0:34 and approaches Kate Bush-levels of delightful eccentricity in its subject matter (counterfeit art) and bonkers spoken-word section.

Other discoveries this year: Cate Le Bon’s pleasant/peculiar avant-pop where at times her vocal recalls no one so much as Patti Smith (!); Weyes Blood’s own brand of avant-pop, as if Aimee Mann and Brian Eno had a daughter; Steve Lacy’s Prince-meets-Daryl Hall comedown; Maggie Rogers’ compulsively singable declaration of desire; Yola’s retro-baroque-complete-with-harpsichord-soul (“Faraway Look”, an inspired choice to conclude the rebooted, fourth season of Veronica Mars.)

Albums that nearly made my top ten (Vampire Weekend, Hot Chip, The Divine Comedy) are represented by their best songs, as are spottier full-lengths that were slight let-downs (Jenny Lewis, Marina (now “and the Diamonds”-free, to her detriment), Carly Rae Jepsen, The New Pornographers.) Also, more tracks not attached to an album at all: Sufjan Stevens’ released-for-Pride-month chillout anthem, another superb Jessie Ware single (when is that fourth album coming out?), an orphaned Florence + The Machine song preferable to anything on last year’s High As Hope, and best of all, another fantastic, delirious disco epic from Roisin Murphy, who actually released two of ’em this year—the other’s called “Incapable” and would also be here if I didn’t limit this playlist to one song per artist.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2019 on Spotify:

  1. Orville Peck, “Dead Of Night”
  2. Kelsey Lu, “Poor Fake”
  3. Vampire Weekend, “This Life”
  4. Robert Forster, “No Fame”
  5. Bat For Lashes, “Kids In The Dark”
  6. Tegan and Sara, “Hold My Breath Until I Die”
  7. Jenny Lewis, “Wasted Youth”
  8. Steve Lacy “Hate CD”
  9. Deerhunter, “What Happens To People?”
  10. Marina, “Handmade Heaven”
  11. Andrew Bird, “Manifest”
  12. Belle & Sebastian, “Sister Buddha”
  13. Cate Le Bon, “Home To You”
  14. Raphael Saadiq, “This World Is Drunk”
  15. Of Monsters and Men, “Wild Roses”
  16. Calexico & Iron & Wine, “Midnight Sun”
  17. Roisin Murphy, “Narcissus”
  18. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Want You In My Room”
  19. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell”
  20. Cigarettes After Sex, “Heavenly”
  21. Chromatics, “You’re No Good”
  22. The New Pornographers, “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile”
  23. Guster, “Don’t Go”
  24. Jessie Ware, “Adore You”
  25. Holy Ghost!, “Heaven Forbid”
  26. The Divine Comedy, “Absolutely Obsolete”
  27. Weyes Blood, “Everyday”
  28. The Mountain Goats, “Younger”
  29. Hot Chip, “Spell”
  30. Yola, “Faraway Look”
  31. Alex Lahey, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”
  32. Florence + The Machine, “Moderation”
  33. The Dream Syndicate, “Bullet Holes”
  34. Maggie Rogers, “Burning”
  35. Sufjan Stevens, “Love Yourself”
  36. Michael Kiwanuka, “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)”
  37. Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen”
  38. Charly Bliss, “Chatroom”
  39. Imperial Teen, “How To Say Goodbye”
  40. The National, “Light Years”

1988: How Can Our Love Grow?

As part of my 100 Albums project, I posted annual song playlists from 1989-2018. Since the project’s timeline goes back to 1965, that leaves 24 additional years to make playlists for. Rather than posting chronologically, I plan to curate a random year at a time on a whim; let’s begin with 1988 since I had started compiling songs for it some time ago.

As always, these playlists are totally subjective and meant to collect my favorite songs of a single year rather than attempt a record of what 1988 was actually like for me or most listeners at the time. I heard a lot of Guns N’ Roses and Richard Marx on the radio in ’88, but they (mercifully) won’t appear here. Truth be told, this was the year I started to pay close attention to Top 40 radio (having received a dual cassette boombox for my 13th birthday) and MTV’s Top 20 Video Countdown, so I was newly aware of a world beyond “Weird Al” Yankovic and whatever my parents listened to in the car.

A few actual top 40 hits do make the list: Sade’s refreshing, proto-trip-hop groove, Tracy Chapman’s unlike-anything-else-at-the-time breakthrough single, Erasure’s enduring dance-balladry, sublime one-hit-wonder When In Rome and of course, Information Society, also unlike anything else on the radio in 1988–I still marvel that this Latin freestyle techno-pop with sci-fi/Star Trek accents (from Minneapolis, no less!) reached number 3 on the Hot 100 that October.

Still, other musical worlds existed beyond such mainstream confines: They Might Be Giants’ sui generis quirk-pop, Leonard Cohen’s ballsy reinvention as a sophisticated, smokey-voiced chanteur, Cowboy Junkies’ indie slowcore Velvets cover, Talk Talk’s own transformation from second-string new romantics into ambient-leaning experimenters.

There was another world just beyond my reach–British pop fascinated in the late ’80s/early ’90s, from club songs that crossed over to the top of the UK charts (Yazz) to weirdo one-shots like Fairground Attraction and The Primitives. The old guard continued to innovate (Siousxie and the Banshee’s craziest, fizziest hit), surprise (The Fall’s sardonic-yet-faithful Kinks cover) and expand its horizons (both Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys turning ever more orchestral.)

All this plus a guitar-pop triple-threat from Down Under (The Go-Betweens, Hunters & Collectors, Crowded House), early Sam Phillips, late ‘Til Tuesday and to cap it all off, an ode to love from Catherine O’Hara’s beguiling younger sister. Like any other year for pop, 1988 contained multitudes.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1988 on Spotify:

  1. Information Society, “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)”
  2. Prefab Sprout, “Cars and Girls”
  3. When In Rome, “The Promise”
  4. The Primitives, “Crash”
  5. The Church, “Under The Milky Way”
  6. Sade, “Paradise”
  7. The Go-Betweens, “Quiet Heart”
  8. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”
  9. Everything But The Girl, “These Early Days”
  10. Hunters & Collectors, “Back On The Breadline”
  11. Fairground Attraction, “Perfect”
  12. Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
  13. Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”
  14. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Peek-A-Boo”
  15. They Might Be Giants, “Ana Ng”
  16. Yazz, “The Only Way Is Up”
  17. Inner City, “Good Life”
  18. Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers”
  19. R.E.M., “You Are The Everything”
  20. Cowboy Junkies, “Sweet Jane”
  21. The Dream Syndicate, “Whatever You Please”
  22. Talk Talk, “I Believe In You”
  23. Sam Phillips, “What Do I Do”
  24. Erasure, “A Little Respect”
  25. Pet Shop Boys, “Left To My Own Devices”
  26. Was (Not Was), “Somewhere In America There’s A Street Named After My Dad”
  27. ‘Til Tuesday, “(Believed You Were) Lucky”
  28. The Darling Buds, “Let’s Go Round There”
  29. Roxette, “Dressed For Success”
  30. The Fall, “Victoria”
  31. Patti Smith, “People Have The Power”
  32. Crowded House, “Better Be Home Soon”
  33. Mary Margaret O’Hara, “You Will Be Loved Again”