The 50 Best Songs of 1980
by Philip Sherburne | November 14, 2013
Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
If, instead of picking 10 desert island discs, you could pick only one year to tide you over for a lifetime to be spent on a desolate rock, you could do worse than to pick 1980. No wonder the '80s still loom so large in the popular imagination. This wasn't exactly year zero; punk had already broken several years before, New Wave was old hat, and even hip-hop had begun making waves far from the South Bronx. Many of the artists delivering some of the freshest-sounding records that year -- The Clash, Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo -- were already on their third or fourth or fifth albums, while others (X, Mission of Burma) were essentially putting their own stamp on well-established styles. But in retrospect, 1980 looks revolutionary in so many ways, particularly in terms of the stylistic hybrids that continue to dictate the course of pop, from LCD Soundsystem to M.I.A. to Kanye.
On both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the color line, funk and reggae were driving forces in pop and rock. Stevie Wonder, PIL, The Police and The English Beat all availed themselves of Jamaican rhythms; you can trace funk's colonization of pop music across Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks," Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" and even Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." Disco was on its way out, but its pulse still rippled through the culture, be it in actual disco songs like Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown," Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and Change's "A Lover's Holiday," or in far more unexpected places, like Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2." In July 1979, as Pink Floyd were wrapping their studio sessions for The Wall, Steve Dahl summoned 50,000 or more irate rockers to a disco record-burning party at Chicago's Comiskey Park, but that didn't prevent that telltale oonce-oonce beat from driving the song to the top of the charts -- the first and only time that occurred in their career. (Irony of ironies: It even went to No. 57 on Billboard's disco chart.)
Beyond that schema, 1980 felt like a thrilling year, propelled by nervous energy: Just consider the speedy pleasures of The Vapors' "Turning Japanese," Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died." Even Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" hides a wild passion beneath its cushion of synths and reverb, as though the band knew instinctively how little time remained. In 1980, there was a palpable sense that everyone was dancing on the cusp of something new and uncertain -- well, perhaps save for Christopher Cross and his unflappable yacht rock, which (irony of ironies again!) has also turned out to be surprisingly influential, given the downy textures prevalent in recent years, everywhere from chillwave to cloud rap.
Ian Curtis wasn't the only musician who didn't live to see the rest of the decade. We close out our playlist with songs from New Orleans legend Professor Longhair, who recorded his final album in the last months of 1979, and John Lennon, who was murdered on December 8, 1980, just seven weeks after he and Yoko Ono released what would turn out to be the last single of his lifetime: "(Just Like) Starting Over."