This is one of our favorite topics of discussion at NPR Music: What was the worst and best decade for pop music? We'll post a survey later asking you what you think, but I say the worst is the '80s.
For me, the production and instrumentation in the '80s ruined popular music. I'm referring specifically to Top 40 songs you could hear on the radio. It was so over-the-top. The production was gaudy, with hard-edged synths and electric drums overpowering the melodies. Part of the problem was that these were fairly new instruments, and we hadn't learned how to finesse them yet.
My dislike of '80s pop music has earned me a reputation among friends as a cranky killjoy who just doesn't get it. But, as with all cranky killjoys, the truth is that I secretly loved a number of songs from back then, but never would have admitted as much.
Here are the Top 10 '80s pop songs I secretly loved. When they came on the car radio, I'd roll up the windows so no one would hear and then crank the volume.
In no particular order:
1. "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears, from the 1985 album Songs from the Big Chair
I remember getting into an argument in my high-school cafeteria with someone who asserted that Tears for Fears was one of the greatest bands ever, but there's some great tension in this song. It builds with a sweeping synth solo at about the 1:30 mark, and peaks with what I thought was a pretty awesome phase-shifting drum fill at 2:45.
2. "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy from the band's self-titled 1985 debut
I never knew what this song was about, but it always got me a little misty-eyed. It really takes me back hearing it now.
3. "Too Much Time on My Hands" by Styx from the 1981 album Paradise Theater
I played keyboards in a cover band in high school, and this was one of my favorite songs to do. One year, we performed for the high-school Christmas dance. At one point, while jamming that opening synth line, I looked out into the audience and saw someone breakdancing. I really thought we'd made it.
4. "Close (to the Edit)" by The Art of Noise, from the 1984 album Who's Afraid of The Art of Noise?
This is a brilliant video. But it was the bluesy bass line and quirky industrial samples used for beats that made me fall in love. I searched around to see where the little girl in the video is now, but didn't find anything.
5. "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield, from his 1981 album Working Class Dog
This is probably my most embarrassing confession, but this does have a really catchy guitar line and melody. I fell in love with it again after it appeared in the film Boogie Nights.
6. "Major Tom (Coming Home)" by Peter Schilling, from his 1983 album Error in the System
I believe that this was conceived as some sort of a sequel to David Bowie's "Major Tom." It's got an incredibly cheesy synth line driving it. But there was something addictive about the melody, and the chorus — kicked off with the 4-3-2-1 countdown — was a favorite sing-along of mine.
7. "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby, from the 1982 album The Golden Age of Wireless
This may be my favorite pop song from the '80s. It's funny, catchy, funky, strange. Thomas Dolby never had another hit like it — though he continues to make records — but he did go on to develop software used to encode and play Internet audio. He also came up with a company that makes synthesizers for cell phones and software to manage ringtones. A real scientist!
8. "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by The Eurythmics from the 1983 album of the same name
Another great bass line. And I love Annie Lennox's voice. The song and video both have a fantastic darkness to them that I never would have guessed was a theme I'd love. But now, looking back and looking over the kind of music I like today, I can see the connections.
9. "99 Luftballoons" by Nena, released in 1983
I had to play a version of this song in high-school pep band, which you'd think would have ruined it for me. But for some reason, it could always make me drive my car faster.
10. "Holding Back the Years" by Simply Red from the 1985 album Picture Book
This is basically smooth jazz, so I should have hated it, but I didn't. I still love it today. Mick Hucknall had (probably still has) a beautiful voice, and there was a nice wistfulness to the song I really connected with.
What are yours?