best 80s songs
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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 80 – 61

Just imagine songs this extreme making the American Top 40, let alone the Top 10… unthinkable.

65. The Stranglers – “Golden Brown” (1981)

The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” is a shadowy carousel ride with multiple swirling keyboard parts, including a gilded harpsichord, that intertwines to create a diabolical musical facade. The song’s unique time signature gives it a sense of uneven circular motion, like a top that’s about to fall over on its side at any given moment. The nightmarish musical arrangement suits the bleak subject matter, as a river of barely-restrained desperation flows cooly just inches below the erudite neoclassical surface. Vocalist Hugh Cornwell recites the effects of a heroin rush in a flat, joyless effect. He’s detached and remote, sonically replicating the floating lassitude that a user experiences.

Cornwell also provides a brief but luminous guitar solo that offers a momentary respite from the haunted kaleidoscope created by keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black. Released as a single from the Stranglers’ sixth album La Folie, “Golden Brown” became the band’s biggest ever hit in the UK, reaching #2 despite its harrowing subject matter and unnerving atmosphere. It’s a brilliantly conceived studio creation that arguably stands as The Stranglers’ single greatest musical achievement.


64. The Go-Betweens – “Cattle and Cane” (1983)

The Go-Betweens were an Australian band built around singer/guitarists Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan, who died tragically in 2006 of a heart attack at the young age of 48. “Cattle and Cane” explores the memories of McLennan’s childhood in Queensland. It has a warm and wistful vibe, like a summery dream. The main melodic hook in the vocal is echoed by a stuttering guitar pattern that repeats throughout the song, and the guitar solos are simple and stately. The unusual time signature adds to the song’s hypnotic mood. There is a quiet dignity to “Cattle and Cane”, like McLennan is divulging his most treasured memories.

Each verse captures another period of McLennan’s life, from his young boyhood to adolescence — “like everyone, just waiting for a chance” — and then his escape to “a bigger, brighter world / a world of books and silent times in thought.” Always, though, his reveries are pulled back to those childhood fields of cattle and cane. There is a gently somber nostalgia to “Cattle and Cane” that is touching. As a recording, it’s warm and resonant, uncluttered, and precise. “Cattle and Cane” is a gleaming gem, a mark left by one man upon the world so that the fields of his childhood are never forgotten.


63. Gang of Four – “I Love a Man in a Uniform” (1982)

Gang of Four are one of the preeminent post-punk bands to emerge from the UK in the late ’70s. Their lean, mean 1979 debut Entertainment! is an essential classic of its era. “I Love a Man in a Uniform”, the only single from the band’s third album, Songs of the Free, is an indolent strut with wicked attitude and nerve to spare. It contains one of the great double entendres of all time, “The girls, they love to see you shoot!”, complete with the repeated sound of gunfire in sync with the spiky funk/rock groove.

“I Love a Man in a Uniform” savagely lampoons the would-be heroes who signed up for the British Army at the time of the Falklands War, rightly assuming there would be little chance of actual combat but eager to impress the ladies and each other, to escape their dreary daily lives, to boost their confidence and hopefully latch onto career opportunities. Vocalist Jon King’s straight-faced delivery of the song’s caustic sarcasm is perfect — he captures the cocksure swagger of a man eager to become a stereotype that exists only in films or recruitment videos.

The song’s sly, mockingly strident beat and the female backing vocalists belting out “I love a man in a uniform!” complete the satire with wit and brazen audacity. Brilliantly subversive, comical but also sharply pointed, “I Love a Man in a Uniform” is one of Gang of Four’s greatest singles.


62. Liquid Liquid – “Cavern” (1983)

“No wave” pioneers Liquid Liquid, a four-piece group based in New York City, put out a handful of records in small batches at the beginning of the ’80s. None of their recordings made much of a notable impact at the time of their release, but original vinyl copies now fetch ridiculously high prices (although all of their music is now widely available on reissues and compilations). Particularly essential is their 1983 Optimo EP, originally released on the tiny independent 99 Records. Optimo includes the band’s most consequential piece, “Cavern”, a wonderfully surreal mix of funky bass, Afrobeat percussion, sharp whip cracks, bits of nonsensical vocals by Salvatore Principato, ambience, and atmosphere.

“Cavern” is more about a groove and a vibe than anything else, and that’s all it needs to be. It’s trippy headphone music of the highest order. The soul-shaking bass line was borrowed by the Sugar Hill band who used it to form the backbone of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s early hip-hop classic “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”. “Cavern” and Liquid Liquid’s music in general slowly became popular with knowledgeable DJs and musicians over the years, leading the group to reform in 2008. Perhaps their grandest moment of vindication came in 2011 when LCD Soundsystem chose Liquid Liquid to open their marathon goodbye concert at Madison Square Garden.


61. Grace Jones – “Private Life” (1980)

There is simply no denying that Grace Jones is badass in every way. Her take on “Private Life”, a song originally written by Chrissie Hynde for The Pretenders‘ 1979 self-titled debut, is a prime example of her ultra-cool. Jones has recorded many covers over the course of her career, and when she takes charge of a song and injects it with her fiery personality it no longer belongs to the original artist — it’s all Grace. She makes it seem like the song she’s covering was written specifically for her to perform.

Her version of “Private Life” has a reggae vibe with swells of keyboard, weird spikes of synthesizer, and pyretic bursts of guitar over the smooth, inexorable groove. Jones delivers the spoken-word verses in a throaty sexual cadence and then sings the chorus with soulful beauty. “Private Life” is included on her Warm Leatherette album, which was recorded in the Bahamas with famed Jamaican reggae duo Sly and Robbie on bass and drums. It was her first-ever pop hit in the UK, reaching #17, and raising her profile considerably as a musical artist demanding respect.


< GO TO 100 – 80

This article originally published on 29 September 2015.

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