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100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#100-91)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

94: Peter Gabriel – Mercy Street (1986)

Although So is best-remembered for the songs “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes,” Peter Gabriel fans also celebrate its slower, more somber cuts, ones that would surprise casual listeners who know only the musician’s singles. Standing above the rest is “Mercy Street,” a moving tribute to the poet Anne Sexton who ended her life 12 years prior to the song’s release.

Inspired by Sexton’s poem “45 Mercy Street,” Gabriel’s haunting song echoes the dark and muted emotions found within the poet’s lines. Released in a posthumous collection, the poem serves as a portal into Sexton’s troubled psyche. Battling bipolar disorder, she used poetry as a form of therapy. After numerous suicide attempts, Sexton died in 1974 after locking herself in her garage and leaving the car running.
In the song, a triangle simulates the sound of rain as Gabriel’s bank of synthesizers create a swirling, nebulous world of empty streets, broken glass and steam. It’s a landscape of horror and wonder, one where “All of the buildings/All of the cars/Were once just a dream/In somebody’s head. Gabriel double-tracks his vocals, pairing them with a darker voice that gives the song a somewhat sinister feel.

Both Gabriel’s song and Sexton’s poem allude to the subconscious. In “Mercy Street,” it’s a roiling sea where the protagonist is struggling to stay afloat. In the song’s haunting final line, “Anne with her father is out in the boat/Riding the water/Riding the waves on the sea, Gabriel is directly referencing The Awful Rowing to God, the collection of poems Sexton was revising on the day of her death. The father figure that shows up numerous times in the song, whether it be the proverbial paterfamilias at the end or in the form of a priest, alludes to the difficult relationship Sexton had with her own dad.

This isn’t to say all the emotion in “Mercy Street” comes from Sexton’s experiences. Gabriel was supposedly himself in a scary situation during a flight to Rio de Janeiro and that also inspired the song. Although he is best known for his pop hits, Gabriel is a master at emotional songwriting. In a feature on the “10 Most Depressing Songs Ever,” NME selected “Mercy Street” calling it “devastating.” It is easily one of the best songs of Gabriel’s career. – David Harris

93: Tom Tom Club – Genius of Love (1981)

While Tom Tom Club may forever be doomed to exist under Talking Heads’ shadow as a “one hit wonder side project”, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal “Genius of Love” was when it was first released. A defining moment for both bands, “Genius of Love” bridged the gaps between rock, hip-hop, and funk with a flair for the silly and fun. But what do you consider fun? Well, a kooky, Day-Glo version of a Talking Heads song is a good start, though perhaps that is a bit reductive.

Burnt out after an exhausting tour behind the release of Remain in Light, Talking Heads were due a brief hiatus. With David Byrne free to follow his always burgeoning artistic tendencies in New York, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz decamped to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, to work on simply whatever groovy thing came to mind. Built over a Frantz-programmed drum beat, “Genius of Love” is an impressive who’s-who of underrated genius: Adrien Belew, also fresh from the aforementioned Remain in Light tour, supplied the song’s signature guitar hook; while Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and Tyrone Downie from The Wailers backed the song up on percussion and keyboards, respectively.

With groove intact from the get go, Tina, backed by sisters Laura and Lani, was free to namecheck some of her favorite acts: Bootsy Collins, Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley, disco pioneer Hamilton Bohannon, and Sly and Robbie. The sheer breadth of these influences can be heard both in “Genius of Love’s” worldly approach and in the myriad songs that have either sampled or covered it directly: from Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” to Public Enemy’s “Leave This Off Your Fuckin’ Charts.”

A staple of both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” was a set list favorite until the demise of Talking Heads – including a prime spot in the concert film Stop Making Sense. Its infectious beat, witty lyrics and genre busting still sounds fresh and exciting today. – Edward Dunbar

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