I’m an old fart now. But in 1980, I turned ten. So the years 1980-1989 where the ones where most of my musical preferences were formed. It was when I started forming opinions of my own. And as you can imagine, I had a lot of them. And I was always right. Prior to buying my first record—Pink Floyd’s The Wall—I had been listening to my parents’ rock records: The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, and a little Tom Hall.
Now, lots of folks slam the ‘80s for making sterile, redundant, meaningless pop music. But other than the 1950s, no decade was marked more clearly by a distinct pop sound—something that ran through virtually all the hits, wherever you were in the U.S. You can always pick a 1980s pop song out of a lineup. It’s the one with the lame!
So, in honor of my favorite musical decade for pop hits, I’m doing a post of my top 40 favorite #1 pop songs of the 1980s. The criteria for selection were:
1. The song had to be a number one hit on the Hot 100 for at least one week. If your favorite song only cracked the top 10, it can’t make this list. I gotta have some basis to cut stuff. Otherwise, this list would go on forever. So, I made the Sophie’s choice to ditch a bunch of great, but not popular enough, songs.
2. The song has to be an example of fabulous pop music. Van Halen’s “Jump,” for example, didn’t crack my top 40 because it’s a great rock song, but it’s not a great pop song. It’s not nearly catchy or hooky enough. Ditto Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” which is way too dark to be ‘80s pop. And ditto “Money for Nothing,” every song by U2, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Some other rock songs that actually made the list might have rated higher if this were a “Greatest Songs From the ‘80s” list. But it’s not. It’s a greatest ‘80s cheesepop list. Deal with it.
3. Some artists, like Madonna and Blondie, had many #1 tunes chart in the ‘80s. If I’d already picked a song by an artist, I was less likely to want to pick another by the same artist. So that may explain why your favorite Bon Jovi song isn’t up here. Some artists, like Prince and Michael Jackson, were great enough to warrant multiple entries on my person top 40. But most weren’t. And I arbitrarily decided to include the same artist no more than twice, to boot.
Some of the songs that didn’t make my top 40? We’ll start with those. Then we’ll do it like Kasey Kasem, and go backwards from 40.
This is a big post, that took me lots of time to work up, so I’m doing it in sections. Here’s section one:
TOP 25 #1 SONGS FROM THE 1980s!
25. Walk Like an Egyptian-The Bangles.
Egyptian is plain old bubblegum, but it rises above the pack due to Susannah Hoff’s skills. Her subsequent solo work is great, and I dare you to listen to this song and not whistle along. Still, the “cops in the donut shops” lyrics do betray a little of the alienation and cynicism that began to creep back into popular music towards the end of the decade. By the time this song charted, bridging December ’86 to January 1987, we’d seen ‘60s rebellion and idealism fade into ‘70s light rock and turn into the overproduced hits of the ‘80s. On the rock side, Sabbath went to Zeppelin and then became Poison. So Egyptian came when the charts were getting ready for Axl.
Smokestack. A musically muscular version.
Perhaps the greatest comeback in rock and roll history, the rhythm and blues singer reinvented herself as a pop star, with legs all the way up to her fanny and a kick-ass voice. The whole Private Dancer album was great—especially her cover of the classic Al Green staple, “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” One of the best LPs of 1984. It goes to show you that popular music can also have depth and power. After this, she did the Mad Max song.
Eric Hutchinson. He fucks the lyrics up a few times, but it’s cool to hear a guy singing an acoustic version of this song. It’s actually quite good, I think.
This charted in November 1981. I had to have one H&O tune on here, ‘cause they’re one of my pleasure-iest guilty pleasures. My wife can’t stand it when I listen to them. Or to Genesis. Who, surprisingly, didn’t have a single #1 on the Hot 100 chart in the 1980s.
22. Escape (The Pina Colada Song)-Rupert Holmes.
Look at that face, and the child-molester beard. Would buy that he’s the romantic dude from the song?
It’s the song that bridged 1970s AM softrock to the less risqué pop of the 1980s, reaching the #1 spot for the weeks of December 22, 1979, through January 4 of 1980. As the first #1 pop song of the ‘80s, I can’t deny it a rightful place here. Plus, I have to admit, I fucking love this song. Cheese and all.
. . . Well, neither would lots of folks. So this was the alternate cover.
Versions: Surprisingly, there are quite a few covers of this song. Gives me the opportunity to present only the good ones. Or at least the not-as-bad ones . . .
Moe. Moe do a lot of covers, and they’re usually pretty go
od. This one is a little too self-conscious–I’d have preferred that they play it straight, but I understand how hard that must be.
Brock Butler. See, this one is played straight. And it’s even got a guitar solo!
Ekoostik Hookah. I’m not sure what to make of this version. Whether to love or hate it.
Nenah Cherry. Cherry’s been in exile for almost a decade now, but she’s got amazing talent.
20. Time After Time-Cyndi Lauper.
The second Cyndi song on my list, and the fact that I didn’t pick “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” shows my personal bias towards her ballads. The amazing thing is, if you look at the tracklisting for her “She’s So Unusual” album, it’s pretty much a greatest hits record.
This song charted at #1 for just three weeks in 1985. I was pretty surprised by that, since it seemed like it was ubiquitous for that entire summer. I remember the chant we’d all sing when it came on the radio: “Shout. Shout. This song is played out.”
Disturbed did a great cover–Shout 2000–but I’m not posting RIAA-protected stuff. Nor am I suggesting you buy it. But it’s the only cover I’m aware of.
18. Bette Davis Eyes-Kim Carnes.
You got to respect the staying power of Kim’s breathy, cornball tribute to one of the breathiest, cornballiest actresses in history: It held the number one spot from May 16 through July 17, 1981.
17. (Just Like) Starting Over-John Lennon.
The first #1 song of the 1980s, if you’re the type of nerd who starts counting on year one. It stayed on top of the chart for all of January ’81, and is one of the best written songs on this list. The reason it didn’t rank higher is that it’s a bit more complex than most ‘80s pop tunes. And on a fluffy list like this, that complexity costs you points, John.
16. Footloose-Kenny Loggins.
Go ahead, complain that it’s trite. Just about every song on this list is trite. Stop being so fucking serious, John Lithgow, and dance, muthafucka, dance. It’s 1984 already!
Plus, Kevin Bacon’s knock-kneed/bowlegged dance!
There’s dozens of versions of this song. So some explanation is needed for the pick.
Trainwreck. It is kind of a barnburner. The original is too, but it’s got so much Loggins gloss, that’s it’s cool to hear a rougher one. It’s how I imagine the demo might have sounded.
He wasn’t just cute, he was cool. And this song had a two-week run in August 1981. So much better than “Bop Til You Drop.”
Plus, Ricky was soooo dreamy. Almost as good looking as Chachi.
14. Come On Eileen-Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
“Oh that dress, my thoughts, I confess, they’re dirty, come on Eileen.” The subtlest #1 song ever. I remember one record store I went to actually spelled it “cum” on Eileen.
13. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)-Eurythmics.
The song was #1 for just one week, in September 1983. The first time my dad heard The Eurythmics was on National Public Radio. They played a clip from “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”:
Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something. Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to get used by you. Some of them want to abuse you. Some of them want to be abused.
My dad turned to me in disgust, and said, “What the hell does that even mean?” And he didn’t even know that in the video there was a really big cow.
Right then, I knew music would be important to me.
12. Physical-Olivia Newton-John.
s complete cheese. But it’s such a fun song. It charted #1 for over two months, though, beginning in time for Thanksgiving, 1981, and not relinquishing the throne until January 30, 1982, when it gave way to, incidentally, another Australian band: INXS’s “Need You Tonight.” Yeah, the Australians were to the 1980s what Canadians are to the 2000s.
11. I Love Rock n’ Roll (Arrows cover)-Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
This song stayed at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for a month and a half in 1982. Tons of teenage boys soaked Kleenex imagining a mannish lesbian named Joan. Better than the Milli Vanilli hoax, if you asked me.
Smashing Pumpkins. As the closer of a medley, preceded by Heavy Metal Machine and On The Road Again.
Carbon Leaf. Another medley version, and this one also has “Another One Bites The Dust,” which topped the Hot 100 in the 1980s. I didn’t pick it as one of my top 25, though, because it was too rock, not enough pop.
Come back later for the top 10!