1981: Feeling Like A Woman, Looking Like A Man

The peak year for post-punk, 1981 even had its own theme song of sorts in Kim Wilde’s immortal “Kids In America”. It came from the synth-end of that spectrum, along with other such newfangled artists as Depeche Mode, OMD and Soft Cell (not to mention then-veterans Kraftwerk); from the guitar-end, you had The English Beat, Pretenders, The Go-Go’s, even the good ol’ Ramones. More often than not, however, post-punk encompassed a canny blend of the two, an in-between space that collected oddballs from Romeo Void (with Deborah Iyall wailing “I might like you better if we slept together” over and over again into the void) to Adam & The Ants, whose “Prince Charming” is surely one of the oddest UK number one hits of the 80s.

On that note, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” is easily the oddest UK number two hit ever, a free-form, spoken word proto-AMSR tone poem spread out over eight minutes. As a six-year-old in Wisconsin, I didn’t hear it until I was in my twenties. My favorite song at the time was undoubtedly the famous-orchestral-flourishes-over-a-drum-machine-beat medley “Hooked On Classics”; I remember becoming ecstatic whenever it came on the radio and I fully appreciated its recent appearance in the gay sex montage in the first episode of It’s A Sin.

Most of the stuff I knew at the time came from Solid Gold and my parents’ preferred soft rock station; while I have a nagging respect for some of it, you won’t see the likes of Air Supply, Christopher Cross or even Rick Springfield here. But Kim Carnes’ husky voice (and slap-happy music video) for “Bette Davis Eyes” endures, as does Lindsey Buckingham’s “Trouble” (he had no good reason to keep such gibberish in the intro, but I’m thankful he did) and ABBA’s startling, verging-on-new-wave “The Visitors” (Who are these “Visitors”? Immigrant hordes? Alien invaders? Mere figments of the singer’s imagination?)

This is the year hip-hop begins to seep (however slowly) into pop culture. Although I didn’t include Blondie’s “Rapture” (too obvious, opting for Debbie Harry’s flimsier but kookier solo effort) or Grandmaster Flash, I did make room for the soon-to-be heavily-sampled ESG and Tom Tom Club, plus Frankie Smith’s novelty crossover and Gil Scott-Heron’s epic proto-rap Reagan takedown. Inevitably, my attention shifts over to post-disco anthems by Taana Gardner, Was (Not Was) and former disco diva herself Grace Jones—Nightclubbing, her gender-bending (and genre-bending) apotheosis has steadily grown into one of my favorite albums since first hearing it just four years ago, with slinky, sultry “Walking In The Rain” a perfect leadoff track.

My 1981 Playlist:

1984: Love Never Ends

Having recently read Michaelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down, a thorough assessment of how 1984 was an especially important year for pop music, it’s an ideal time for me to post my own list of favorites from that year (also, it happens to be the most recent year I have yet to cover on this blog.)

Given that 1984 produced Purple Rain, Born In The USA, Private Dancer, Make It Big, Let It Be (Replacements, not The Beatles, naturally), Zen Arcade and This Is Spinal Tap (which I couldn’t resist including a track from here), I don’t need to further the argument for this year being special. Even beyond LPs, 1984 was flush with classic hit singles, from Chaka Khan’s transformative Prince cover to the beginning of Madonna’s world-conquering run to era-defining anthems by Thompson Twins and General Public to, well, “Weird Al” Yankovic capturing the zeitgeist with his so-obvious-it’s-almost-brilliant Michael Jackson parody.

As with any year, the stuff that missed Billboard entirely but lingered on in the collective unconscious is just as noteworthy. Nine years old at the time, I didn’t even hear these selections from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, Bronski Beat, The Nails and Hoodoo Gurus until at least a decade later when I was a college student and the local Alternative Rock station aired their daily “Retro Flashback Lunch” hour dedicated to post-punk new wave gems.

However, it’s in the margins where ’84 truly fascinates. Billy Bragg’s electric but spare folk music sits next to Kirsty MacColl’s big pop cover of one of his songs. Rubber Rodeo reinterprets the Pretenders’ jumpy rock with a western twang. Cocteau Twins seem to beam out from their own planet with a sugary wall of sound and pleasantly indecipherable vocals. Everything But The Girl subsists on their own jazz-and-bossa-nova-suffused plane. XTC continues to make perfect pop music while defying nearly everything the rest of the world describes as such.

If I had to pick one song that obviously sums up the year, it’d be “Sexcrime (1984)” by the Eurythmics, but it’s not on Spotify so I’ll go with a sweet techno-pop movie theme (about a love triangle between a man, woman and computer!) from the lead singer of The Human League and the electronic music pioneer whom seven years before gave us Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

My 1984 playlist:

2020: Among The Stars

Not to be a downer, but what more can one say about this abomination of a year? That, like any other, there was still an abundance of good new music? Beyond selections from my top ten albums, you’ll find other tracks that did their part in keeping me as sane as they reasonably could: droll, clever wordplay from Rufus Wainwright and The Radio Dept., neo-disco from Kylie Minogue, Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Roisin Murphy etc., sharp ‘80s revivalism from Future Islands and Of Monsters and Men and comeback singles from actual ’80s acts Erasure, The Psychedelic Furs and Pet Shop Boys, the latter ever-dependable for at least one great cut per album.

However, I want to single out three transcendent singles in the order of first hearing them: U.S. Girls’ obscenely catchy and tongue-twisting “4 American Dollars” (everybody now: “I don’t believe in pennies, and nickels, and dimes, and dollars, and pesos, and pounds, and rupees, and yen, and rubles, no dinero”), Christine and the Queen’s triumphant, euphoric title track to their La Vita Nuova EP and, with help from vocalist Leon Bridges, The Avalanches’ “Interstellar Love”—still absorbing their just-released dense third album We Will Always Love You, but this highlight, wrapped around an ingenious sample of the Alan Parson Project’s “Eye In The Sky” is, if not exactly the sort of the magic this group trafficked in on Since I Left You twenty years ago, just as effective as that touchstone of 21st century pop.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 2020.

  1. Haim, “The Steps”
  2. Kylie Minogue, “Say Something”
  3. Jessie Ware, “Save A Kiss”
  4. A Girl Called Eddy, “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”
  5. Lianne La Havas, “Can’t Fight”
  6. Perfume Genius, “On The Floor”
  7. Pet Shop Boys, “Will-O-The-Wisp”
  8. Erasure, “Nerves of Steel”
  9. Real Estate feat. Sylvan Esso, “Paper Cup”
  10. Waxahatchee, “Lilacs”
  11. Laura Marling, “Held Down”
  12. Ivan & Alyosha, “Wired”
  13. Rufus Wainwright, “You Ain’t Big”
  14. Ben Watt, “Figures In The Landscape”
  15. Future Islands, “For Sure”
  16. The Radio Dept., “You Fear The Wrong Thing Baby”
  17. Katie Pruitt, “Expectations”
  18. Troye Sivan, “Easy”
  19. The Avalanches feat. Leon Bridges, “Interstellar Love”
  20. U.S. Girls, “4 American Dollars”
  21. Calexico, “Hear The Bells”
  22. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “She’s There”
  23. Fiona Apple, “Cosmonauts”
  24. Sufjan Stevens, “Video Game”
  25. Destroyer, “It Just Doesn’t Happen”
  26. Phoebe Bridgers, “Chinese Satellite”
  27. Kate NV, “Plans”
  28. Dubstar, “Hygiene Strip”
  29. Washed Out, “Too Late”
  30. Nicole Atkins, “Forever”
  31. Fleet Foxes, “Can I Believe You”
  32. Shamir, “Diet”
  33. Dua Lipa, “Hallucinate”
  34. Sylvan Esso, “Ferris Wheel”
  35. Cut Copy, “Like Breaking Glass”
  36. The Psychedelic Furs, “Wrong Train”
  37. Owen Pallett, “A Bloody Morning”
  38. Christine and The Queens feat. Caroline Polachek, “La Vita Nuova”
  39. Roisin Murphy, “Something More”
  40. Of Monsters and Men, “Visitor”

1987: The Door Is Open Wide

1987 arguably epitomizes the sleek professionalism we now tend to associate with the decade. Everything had to sound expensive and immaculate in order to be a hit, from songs that either topped the charts (“Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, “Father Figure”) or came very close to doing so (“What Have I Done To Deserve This”, “Little Lies”) to first-ever Top 40 crossovers from the likes of The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs and New Order. Even beyond that, you have The Smiths at their lushest and UK goths Sisters of Mercy getting the hell produced out of them by Jim “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Steinman.

Personally, it’s also a weird year. I was 12 and on the verge of discovering a world beyond “Weird Al” Yankovic. I remember incessant MTV airplay for one-hit wonders such as Danny Wilson and Breakfast Club (“Right On Track” is currently on regular rotation at my local supermarket and it still slaps) and occasional peek-through appearances like 10,000 Maniacs performing “Like The Weather” on SNL. And yet, I knew nothing of The Cure, R.E.M., Sinead O’Connor or Siouxsie and the Banshees just yet—still too young to stay up and watch 120 Minutes on Sunday nights, I guess.

Obviously, I came to know a majority of these songs after ’87. Oh, George Michael was everywhere at the time and I knew the U2 hits among all the Whitney, Bon Jovi and Heart coming out the radio, which might be why I prefer an album track like the lovingly wounded “Running To Stand Still” or the no-nonsense pub rock of “Mystify” to INXS’ overplayed hits of the era.  While nearly anything from Sign ‘O’ The Times would suffice below, the Sheena Easton duet is an instinctive choice (also, it doesn’t just slap, it slams.)

As for the few tracks that conceivably could’ve come from another year besides ’87, we have the ever in-his-own-time Tom Waits, retro-pastiche artists The Dukes of Stratosphear (if you don’t know them, don’t look ‘em up before listening to “Vanishing Girl”), R.E.M.’s jangle-pop classicism (was happily surprised to hear them play “Welcome To The Occupation” on their Monster tour in ’95) and The Go-Betweens, perhaps the most underrated and underheard great ‘80s band. “Bye Bye Pride” is a marvel of literary, heart-on-sleeve guitar pop splendor, with a soaring chorus and an oboe (!) solo on its outro; it should be as well-known as anything on this playlist.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1987.

  1. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
  2. R.E.M., “Welcome To The Occupation”
  3. George Michael, “Father Figure”
  4. Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning”
  5. Sinead O’Connor, “Mandinka”
  6. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”
  7. Sting, “Englishman In New York”
  8. Eurythmics, “You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart”
  9. 10,000 Maniacs, “Like The Weather”
  10. INXS, “Mystify”
  11. U2, “Running To Stand Still”
  12. Fleetwood Mac, “Little Lies”
  13. Tom Waits, “Hang On St. Christopher”
  14. The Go-Betweens, “Bye Bye Pride”
  15. Alison Moyet, “Is This Love?”
  16. New Order, “True Faith”
  17. Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
  18. John Mellencamp, “Paper In Fire”
  19. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”
  20. Prince, “U Got The Look”
  21. Wendy & Lisa, “Waterfall”
  22. The Dukes Of Stratosphear, “Vanishing Girl”
  23. Echo & The Bunnymen, “Lips Like Sugar”
  24. Swing Out Sister, “Breakout”
  25. Breakfast Club, “Right On Track”
  26. The Psychedelic Furs, “Heartbreak Beat”
  27. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “The Passenger”
  28. Danny Wilson, “Mary’s Prayer”
  29. Depeche Mode, “Never Let Me Down Again”
  30. Sisters of Mercy, “This Corrosion”
  31. The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”

1986: Come On Home

When I posted my 1985 mix, I suggested the following year was more “Peak Eighties”—think state-of-the-art, ultra-synthetic, BIG sounds that evoke bright neon colors, huge hair and millions spent. At least half the tracks below conform, often blatantly (Bananarama’s S/A/W-produced Shocking Blue cover, Siouxsie and the Banshees at last embracing the sparkly pop in their goth, Talk Talk bridging the gap between their new-pop past and near-ambient future) but occasionally accidentally as well. Given their timeless melodies, one can easily imagine what songs from The Bangles, Peter Gabriel (with crucial help from Kate Bush) and Eurythmics would’ve sounded like if recorded in another era.

Still, not everything in ’86 was synths and spandex (to quote another blog). British-inspired jangle guitar pop was at a shimmering peak, whether it was made by Americans (The Feelies, R.E.M.), Australians (The Go-Betweens, Crowded House) or actual Brits (XTC, The Smiths, The Housemartins.) In the earlier essay, I also alluded to another “underrated, pastoral, anomaly-within-the-artist’s-catalog ballad”: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Coming Up Close” not only transcends 1986, it’s the song of theirs that most closely predicts Aimee Mann’s unlikely (at the time) solo career.

As always, I love the year’s true oddities, from an ingeniously cheeky track off of They Might Be Giants’ debut album to the rise of innovative producers Jam/Lewis via Janet Jackson and The Human League to more sophisti-pop from Simply Red and The Blow Monkeys to Everything But The Girl’s brief departure into orchestrated Burt Bacharach splendor. Also, actual one hit wonders like Timbuk 3’s goofy/caustic rave-up and the immortal “I Can’t Wait” by the terribly-named Nu Shooz, which both reeks of 1986 and also could’ve come out yesterday.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1986.

  1. The Feelies, “Let’s Go”
  2. Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”
  3. They Might Be Giants, “Number Three”
  4. The B-52’s, “Ain’t It A Shame”
  5. The Go-Betweens, “Spring Rain”
  6. The Housemartins, “Think For A Minute”
  7. Erasure, “Oh L’Amour”
  8. Bananarama, “Venus”
  9. Pretenders, “Don’t Get Me Wrong”
  10. R.E.M., “Fall On Me”
  11. Billy Bragg, “Honey, I’m A Big Boy Now”
  12. The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
  13. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Cities In Dust”
  14. The Blow Monkeys, “Digging Your Scene”
  15. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
  16. The Human League, “Human”
  17. Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done For Me Lately”
  18. Husker Du, “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely”
  19. Pet Shop Boys, “Love Comes Quickly”
  20. The Smithereens, “Blood and Roses”
  21. ‘Til Tuesday, “Coming Up Close”
  22. Rubber Rodeo, “Souvenir”
  23. Love and Rockets, “All In My Mind”
  24. Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It”
  25. Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”
  26. Madonna, “Live To Tell”
  27. Everything But The Girl, “Cross My Heart”
  28. Simply Red, “Holding Back The Years”
  29. New Order, “All Day Long”
  30. The Chameleons, “Swamp Thing”
  31. Prince, “Kiss”
  32. The Bangles, “Manic Monday”
  33. Timbuk 3, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”
  34. Cameo, “Word Up”
  35. Paul Simon, “The Boy In The Bubble”
  36. XTC, “Earn Enough For Us”
  37. Eurythmics, “Thorn In My Side”
  38. Cocteau Twins, “The Thinner The Air”
  39. Hunters & Collectors, “Through Your Arms Around Me”
  40. Concrete Blonde, “True”

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”