When it comes to the music of the 1980s, people either love it or hate it and there really isn’t any middle ground. There’s a nostalgia to the decade, and it’s easy to see why – the optimism of the Reagan era, a certain innocence when compared to today’s hypersexualized world, and a distinct pop culture that was unlike anything else.
Much of the music of the ’80s has been overplayed to the point of cliché, either back then (paging “Thriller”) or in later years (I see you, “Don’t Stop Believing”). But some of the best songs of the era haven’t gotten the love they deserve, even though some of them were significant hits.
Here are ten songs from the ‘80s that you’ve probably forgotten about. I hope these will trigger smiles and waves of memories. I’ve even created a Spotify playlist for your enjoyment – think of it as your new ‘80s mixtape. Enjoy!
10. “Freak-A-Zoid” (Midnight Star, 1983)
The advent of synthesizers at the end of the ‘70s changed pop music in profound ways. Entire new sub-genres of music cropped up, taking advantage of new technology. There was the whole new wave movement that gave musicians a chance to experiment with music and create new soundscapes, and then there was synthesizer music meant to get your booty on the dance floor.
Kentucky’s Midnight Star fell into the latter category. Their breakthrough album, 1983’s No Parking on the Dance Floor, was chock full of jams meant to liven up any party. Songs like the title track and “Electricity” were flat-out fun, but the biggest hit off the album was “Freak-A-Zoid.”
Chock full of that prototypical ‘80s R&B synth style, double entendres, and robotic vocoder effects, “Freak-A-Zoid” is eight minutes of sheer party pleasure. Even though you can date it immediately with its of-the-moment sound, it still makes for a good time all these years later.
9. “Heartbreak Beat” (The Psychedelic Furs, 1987)
Growing up, so many of my alt-rock loving friends were into Depeche Mode, but I was more of a Psychedelic Furs fan. The band from London created some of the best modern rock of the era, and “Heartbreak Beat” was their best.
The song is an epic slice of guitars, synths, and sax, and lead singer Richard Butler growls and belts, making the most of the dynamics that the rest of the band provides. Lyrically, it’s a pretty standard song about a less-than-perfect relationship, but I think the words are just something on which to hang that melody and Butler’s unique voice.
“Heartbreak Beat” became the Psychedelic Furs’ biggest hit in the States, though that’s not really saying much since they didn’t put that many songs on the charts here. It’s a perfect mix of alternative edge and pop sensibility, and it’s worth a few listens more than 30 years later.
8. “Our House” (Madness, 1983)
Ska music started out in Jamaica in the ‘60s and ‘70s and became the forerunner to reggae. The genre enjoyed a weird, tongue-in-cheek revival in the ‘90s. But in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s, ska had a strong resurgence in Great Britain. One of the premier bands in that ‘80s UK ska scene was Madness.
As huge as they were in Britain, Madness only had a couple of hits in the United States, and “Our House” was their biggest single. A breezy, nostalgic look at growing up in working-class Britain, the song drenches its sentimental fun in horns and strings.
Most of the memories the band mentions in the song are universal enough for everyone to identify with, at least for ‘80s kids and older. A tableau of family life – dad rushing to work, mom taking care of the house, siblings playing or getting ready to go out – couched in a bouncy song gave a generation of pop music listeners a sense of domestic peace at a time when their families were likely falling apart.
“Our House” is a brilliant pop tune with a gorgeous sound and a sentimental lyric that resonated with record buyers. These days, the song still sounds as wistful and fresh as it did back then.
7. “Swingin’” (John Anderson, 1983)
One of the most unusual songs to make a splash in the ‘80s was an anthem by a nasally voiced country singer celebrating the romantic appeal of sitting on a front porch swing.
Florida native John Anderson played in rock bands until he discovered outlaw country music and changed his style. Anderson developed a distinctive voice and began to make a name for himself in the late ‘70s on the country charts.
In 1982 he co-wrote a song about a young man who falls in love with a neighbor named Charlotte Johnson. Against the backdrop of normal family life, Charlotte and the song’s protagonist swing on the front porch and become a couple.
“Swingin’” became the second single from Anderson’s Wild and Blue album, and soon after he topped the country charts, the song made its way on to pop radio, barely missing the top 40. Anderson’s distinctive twang and the cheesiness of the song made it an irresistible earworm. Though he continued to generate hits through the ’90s, Anderson didn’t make an impact beyond the country world after “Swingin’.” Perhaps his distinctive style just didn’t lend itself to crossover success.
6. “Point of No Return” (Nu Shooz, 1986)
When you think of hotbeds of soul music, chances are you don’t think of Portland, Oregon (sorry). But for a brief shining moment in the ‘80s, one of the epicenters of R&B success was the husband and wife duo of John Smith and Valerie Day, better known as Nu Shooz.
Their debut single “I Can’t Wait” made the top three of the Hot 100 and even went to number two on the R&B charts. Not bad for a white synthpop duo. But their follow up single “Point of No Return” was just as good – if not better.
All the synthesizer sounds from “I Can’t Wait” are still there, but “Point of No Return” is more poppy than funky. Day’s vocals shine throughout, and the lyrics (about a friendship that has become something more) and the melody are strong.
Sure, Nu Shooz dated themselves almost immediately with their once cutting-edge sound, but they’re still performing today. It’s just a shame they don’t have a full arsenal of big hits like this one to take on the road.
5. “Crazy” (Icehouse, 1987)
We sometimes get the mistaken impression that, just because an artist didn’t have a long run of hits in the U.S., they weren’t successful elsewhere. The Australian band Icehouse only had a pair of big hits here in the States, but they’ve had a prolonged career Down Under.
Of their two hits here, “Electric Blue” was the most successful (it garnered a lot of attention because John Oates of Hall & Oates co-wrote it with the band), peaking at number seven on the Hot 100. But the single that preceded it, “Crazy,” was a much better, more epic rock song.
The protagonist of “Crazy” thinks that the woman who loves him is insane to do so – she’s apparently rich, while he does without – but he’s happy to be with her. The song is a meaty modern rock track with an equal balance of synths and soaring guitars, and lead singer Iva Davies’ Bowie-esque vocals are as glorious as his big ‘80s hair.
“Crazy” is one of those old-fashioned love songs with a rock edge, and it’s too bad more people don’t remember it these days.
4. “Object of My Desire” (Starpoint, 1985)
It may not be true, but it seems like the ‘80s had a disproportionate share of one-hit wonders. One of those was Maryland funk group Starpoint. They placed singles on the R&B and dance charts, but their only top 40 pop hit was “Object of My Desire.”
“Object of My Desire” is a sexy and fun track that combines edgy funk and soulful pop. The band brings everything you expect from uptempo ‘80s R&B to near perfection, but the centerpiece of the song is the powerhouse vocals of the late Renee Diggs. She carries an energy throughout the song that’s hard to imagine many other singers matching.
This song should be a dancefloor classic rather than residing on a list of forgotten ‘80s hits. It’s too bad that Starpoint didn’t have a longer run of hits crossing over to the pop charts, but the bigger crime is that we don’t remember Diggs as one of the premier vocalists of the decade.
3. “Mary’s Prayer” (Danny Wilson, 1987)
Michael Jackson and U2 dominated music in 1987. But one of the most sophisticated songs of the year was a surprise hit for a Scottish band named after a Frank Sinatra film character.
Danny Wilson wasn’t a he, but a they. The band took their name from Sinatra’s movie Meet Danny Wilson (which also became their debut album title). Their first single was the lovely, thoughtful ballad “Mary’s Prayer.”
The song was a lament for lost love, rife with Christian imagery – largely Catholic in nature, but Protestants could understand it too. The song’s protagonist has watched the love of his life slip away and marry a wealthy man, and he wishes he could go back to the days when he was “Mary’s Prayer.”
The song sounds delicate and gentle without veering toward easy listening, and the lyrics are poignant and evocative. “Mary’s Prayer” barely missed the top 20 in the States, and it was Danny Wilson’s only hit here, as well as their only major UK single. Nothing else from that era sounds quite like it.
2. “Buffalo Stance” (Neneh Cherry, 1989)
Rap and hip-hop music began crossing over to the pop charts in the ‘80s. Though new wave stalwarts Blondie incorporated rap into their 1981 chart-topper “Rapture,” honest-to-goodness rap stars didn’t start to take significant chart ground until near the end of the decade.
Singer-songwriter, rapper, and model Neneh Cherry gave hip-hop one of its most interesting hits in 1989. She guested on a British single in 1986 entitled “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch,” and she turned it into a better song of her own called “Buffalo Stance.”
Cherry’s rapid-fire rapping on the verses makes quick social commentary on the dangerous lure of fashion as well as the objectification of women (by their own hands as well as those of men). Yet “Buffalo Stance” isn’t a protest song, nor does Cherry get political in any way. Instead, it’s a song about a woman who wants love in spite of the money-seeking men around her.
Here in the states, Cherry is a one-album wonder. She didn’t manage to build a sustained career here, which is too bad, because the talent that could turn out a song like “Buffalo Stance” should have been able to produce dozens of hits.
1. “Steppin’ Out” (Joe Jackson, 1982)
So many of the songs in the early ‘80s sounded alike – much like most other eras of music. But when you turned on the radio in 1982, one song sounded fresh and bright and unlike anything else. That song was Joe Jackson’s hit “Steppin’ Out.”
Jackson lived in New York City in the early part of the decade, and he found inspiration for what would become his biggest hit from the city’s vibrant nightlife. His song about a couple going out on the town contained splashes of jazz and plenty of sparkling pianos and synths. “Steppin’ Out” sounded more sophisticated than anything else in the pop world at that time (and any other era for that matter).
Buoyed by an innovative melody and unique sound, along with a Cinderella-inspired video that received heavy airplay on MTV, Joe Jackson had himself a top ten smash with “Steppin’ Out.” Sadly, we don’t hear it much these days. And that’s a shame, because “Steppin’ Out” is a song that deserves to be heard over and over again.
As Casey Kasem would say, “there you have ‘em.” What songs do you think belong on the list? Let me know in the comments below.