1. “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s. It clocks in at 183bpm, which is just ridiculously fast. It was a surf record made by weirdos from Georgia. It tears up the dance floor, and also it mixes with “Modern Love” by David Bowie and “Tenderness” by General Public. For a new generation, however, this song may also forever be immortalized by Peter Griffin’s acoustic performance on Family Guy.
2. “People Are People” by Depeche Mode. Just one of many sad songs from a man named Gore. It was their first commercial hit in the U.S. back in the summer of ’85 when it peaked at number 13. More importantly, though, it showed America who would become the most successful band of the genre. The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order all had their moments on top, but overall Depeche Mode (which means fast fashion in French) ruled supreme. Also, while “Personal Jesus” is a better song overall but this one turned the tide for all the doubters. Alternative music was commercially viable and would get more airplay from here on out.
3. “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I almost made this number one, but I have trouble giving the title to a one-hit wonder—although it should be noted they had many ska hits in the U.K. The overalls will be etched in our brains forever. One more thing: Is it just me or does this song feel like a prequel to Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping?” From Ta Loo Ra to Danny Bo.
4. “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads. A surreal foresight into the middle age crisis by the Heads here. Their ability to stretch the boundaries of what a pop song could be is their modus operandi. Where would music be without the immortal phrase, “Same as it ever was?” Also, the hilarious arm-chopping motion by David Byrne made the video an MTV staple.
5. “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics. Rhyming the words ‘made of this’ with the word ‘disagree’ might be a bad move for 99.9% of the people out there. However, for two pop geniuses like Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, it’s all gravy. Though, it’s all about melody. The keyboard pulsing beat heats things up but the ‘keep your head up, moving on’ line is the icing on the cake.
6. “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. I loved this record as a kid and now as an adult I can see why. It’s a kids song! ‘Ssss aaaa ffff eeee tttt yyyy Safe-ty Dance and then the keyboard chimes in.’ That’s the version we all loved. The video, of a European countryside (or was it Bilbo’s hobbit hole) is quickly taken over by the cast of The Wizard of Oz. This is so new wave that you can argue its merits for number one, but let’s face it—it gets annoying fast.
7. “Cars” by Gary Numan. Some songs get popular in an instant and some, like “Cars” just linger in the underbelly of the psyche until they are repackaged into a TV commercial. Then we go “Oh, yeah. That’s a good song by that pale’faced freak who could barely sing. But yeah.” For the record, it was a top 10 hit in 1980, but only because it sounded so good blasting in a roller rink. The radio mostly ignored it.
8. “Pop Musik” by M. The song that started it all. During the summer of ’79, many people believe that this was the first new wave song ever. It wasn’t, but man it shot right to #1 was a global smash and told everyone listening what music would sound like for the next eight years. It even had some staying power, as it stayed on the Hot 100 for six months.
9. “Whip It” by Devo. I don’t think I’m at all qualified to judge a song like this. A psych professor maybe? There is so much yet, at the same time, so little going on. Thunderclaps and rockabilly via synthesizers and flower pots? It clocks in at less than 2 minutes and 15 seconds, making it one of the shortest songs of the 1980s. This video is notorious for freaking mothers out as their child watches this new thing called MTV.
10. “99 Red Balloons” by Nena. Urban legend claims that she died on tour, but Gabriele “Nena” Kerner is still alive today (and is living probably back in Berlin where the band first started). Wherever she is, she can always say that she wrote an anti-war song that was a smash hit in pretty much every country in the world. Nena and John Lennon, wow. We first heard and loved it as a German tune called “99 Luftballons”. The English version has always been considered lame, but that’s the one everyone seems to know, so . . .
11. “Take On Me” by a-ha. Another great video means another great Family Guy parody, another piece of perfect pop. This time it comes from Oslo, Norway. These guys went for the high note like nobody else. Their follow-up song was called what? Anybody remember? “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” It made it to the Top 20 on their name alone but as soon as people heard it, a-ha came crashing down and alas the sun never again shined on them, at least not in America.
12. “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles. This is also mistakenly assumed to be first new wave song ever, which is impossible considering both “Pop Muzik” by M and “My Sharona” by The Knack were both out earlier in ’79. However, the consolation prize is that it was the first video ever played on MTV. Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn. The duo both joined the group Yes in ’80 and Downes would form Asia in ’81. Horn become a prolific producer and is widely credited for the career success of soul singer Seal. Erasure also did a crazy cover a few years ago, make sure you check it out.
13. “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths. A lot of Smiths fans out there are in on the joke here. Morrissey would only be happy with the miserably unlucky number 13. “I am human and I need to be lo-uh-oved, just like anybody else does.” This is timeless club music too. In fact, you may remember that SoHo sampled it for “Hippychick.” Try mixing it with “My Doorbell” by the White Stripes.
14. “Brass In Pocket” by The Pretenders. We now bring you ironic moments in pop music: The one song Chrissie Hynde hates is the one song of hers that every woman loves. So she grits her teeth and plays it. This is also true of her ex-husband Jim Kerr. He hates the most popular song of his career too—”Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was a soundtrack song he didn’t write or want to record, but it probably extended the life of his band Simple Minds exponentially. Life is funny like that, sometimes.
15. “Situation” by Yaz. Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode in 1982 in search of more creative freedom. He would go on to make the New Wave Classic Album, “Upstairs at Eric’s.” With hits like “Don’t Go” and “Only You,” Yazoo, as they were sometimes credited as, was a huge smash. Also, “Situation” was every dance instructor and aerobics teacher’s best friend. Everyone had this record. The mannequins on the cover are classic.
16. “Blister In The Sun” by the Violent Femmes. If the name of the band didn’t clue you in, then maybe it was the line, ‘big hands I know you’re the one.’ What was great was that no matter how flaming this song was, it also had built-in credibility with everyone. A song universally respected on merit. It was difficult to mix because of the time signature so nobody bothered. Just play the whole song. It’s really short, and it has one of music’s most memorable intro/outros ever. The whispering is hilarious. I often think James’ song “Laid” was a Femmes song that they forgot to write.
17. “Rock The Casbah” by The Clash. This is a funk-hybrid mixed with New Wave as Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and the gang move even further away from their punk roots. This album, “Combat Rock” killed the band, and everybody knows it. But, damn, it was still worth doing. The sheik and the aardvark in the video were so bizarre and right. (Sigh) I miss Joe.
18. “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” by Joe Jackson. Does Joe want her or him? Who cares? The conversational style of the lyrics is so difficult to pull off without the rhymes sounding forced and corny so props, because he certainly pulls it off. A lot of people seem to think that Elvis Costello sings this song, but no.
19. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. This cover of the Gloria Jones soul classic was originally part of a 12″ medley, along with The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” However, it was never done as anything but a 45 single in the U.S. So, we all played the half the 12″ and segued out. It is so completely overplayed now that I can’t stand it, but if you’re doing an 80s set and you want a sure-fire hit with the ladies, play this.
20. “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Now this is an interesting record! When it first dropped, they were a craze. That beat was unrelenting and the lyrics were seemingly about a man trying to delay an orgasm. Chaos ensued. The perfect video with the fans just mauling the band onstage during a performance. “Frankie Say: Relax” t-shirts are still selling on eBay, no doubt. There is a also great line in the movie “The Commitments” about the band as well, but I won’t spoil it here.