The 1980s have devolved into a stereotype of plasticity. The world was materialistic, but not as narcissistic as it would become. The music industry did reflect this materialism and plasticity, but also demonstrated an amazing abundance of diversity. Pop music in the mid-'80s was much more diverse than today's music. This diversity can be seen in this list of the top songs of the decade. These were selected on popularity, cultural impact and relevance to the times.
1. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” changed the game. The sound was revolutionary, but it also opened doors. The song received extensive MTV play when black artists were absent from the network. Without the breakthrough, rap and hip-hop may never have exploded into the mainstream. Additionally, it often tops best of polls of dance and pop tunes from both critics and fans alike. When Jackson performed “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25th anniversary concert, it was a seminal moment for a generation.
2. Every Breath You Take by The Police: “Every Breath You Take” is either the ultimate break up song or the ultimate stalker song. It’s about a controlling obsessive individual, but people heard a sweet love song. BMI listed it among the greatest songs of the 20th century. Sting’s timeless classic spent eight weeks at #1 in 1983 and has been played on the radio over 9 million times.
3. London Calling by The Clash: The Clash released London Calling in 1980. The album recounted postindustrial England complete with high unemployment, crime, racial tensions and drug addiction. The title track documents the desperation of the times, which people living through the Panic of 2008 can relate to. The song recounts the Three Mile Island meltdown ("a nuclear error"), worries about the Thames flooding London ("London is drowning and I live by the river!"), and fears over the coming ice age ("the ice age is coming"). Nowadays, the song is used in pop culture whenever someone goes to London. However, students interested in the '70s can get a feel for the period listening to this album and song.
4. Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd: Roger Waters rails against the English education system and boarding schools in "Another Brick in the Wall." The song includes a teacher berating the students, who later declare their independence with the refrain "Hey! Teachers! Leave us kids alone." The wall concept as a whole derived from Waters feeling of isolation and separation from his audience. Interestingly, the album, The Wall, resonated within the context of the Cold War. The communists built the Berlin Wall to prevent professionals from fleeing to the West. This album has a few selections that sound as though it came out of a Cold War documentary.
5. When Doves Cry by Prince: Prince scored his first #1 song with "When Doves Cry" in 1984. The song was written for the film, Purple Rain. The film's director wanted a song that caught one of the central tensions in the film. The work did not sound like anything on the radio at the time, or since for that matter. It remains completely unique and has the rare ability to capture a moment in time (the summer of 1984) and at the same time remains timeless.
6. Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen: Originally, Bruce Springsteen conceived "Born in the USA" as a slow acoustic piece opining about the lost American dream. However, the song was reincarnated for the Born in the USA album and morphed into a solid rocker. It recounts the story of a returning Vietnam vet that can't catch a break. However, the song's new structure inadvertently took the emphasis off the protagonist's struggles and instead focused on the chorus. As a result, a veteran's lament accidentally became a patriotic anthem. "Born in the USA" as an anthem fit the country's resurgent patriotic spirit that emanated down from the Reagan White House rather than the concern expressed for the lost veterans of Vietnam; the forgotten promise of America; and the failure of the '60s.
7. Like a Virgin by Madonna: This song shaped a generation. It propelled Madonna to superstardom and made her the last word on fashion and more. The song's critics complained about Madonna's hyper sexuality and argued she could not become a star without exploiting her assets. Madonna provided a template for future generations of female acts. Without "Like a Virgin", there'd be no Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus.
8. With or Without You by U2: U2 transitioned to superstardom and away from youthful angst when they released "With or Without You." They were already critical darlings after The Unforgettable Fire album, but this pushed them over the top. The Joshua Tree album as a whole dealt with U2's interpretation of America and the 1980s. "With or Without You" advances beyond their topic and became their most successful single to date at that time.
9. Beat It by Michael Jackson: Michael Jackson combined pop with hard rock when he recorded "Beat It." Eddie Van Halen provided the guitar solo and even helped arrange the song. Jackson tells people to avoid violence, drugs, conflict and to just "Beat It." At the time, America's crime rate had hit its zenith, which might have inspired Jackson to write "Beat It." The song was used in anti-drunk driving campaigns and resulted in presidential recognition.
10. Call Me by Blondie: Stevie Nicks turned down "Call Me", but Blondie did not. The song remained at #1 for six weeks and was the top track of 1980. Debbie Harry says the song was about driving, but the lyrics obviously refer to a call girl. Over 30 years later, "Call Me" has appeared on a number of lists recording the greatest songs in music history.