70. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday in Cambodia” (1980)
Almost 40 years on, and this is still one of punk’s most menacing songs. Hardcore was just finding its footing in the ‘80s, and these guys came along and gave it a glorious edge. The Dead Kennedys were here to shock and awe from the name down, but their brutal take on political lyrics and switchblade-sharp music put them in a class of their own. “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “Police Truck” are as uncompromising now as they were in the early ‘80s, but nothing summed up what was brilliantly dark about the DKs like “Holiday in Cambodia.”
This wasn’t hippy-peace-for-all worship, it was an ominous, horrifying look at American foreign policy and complacency. East Bay Ray’s razor guitar and the iconic, growling bass line would have placed “Holiday in Cambodia” into the punk hall of fame alone, but it also showed off the DKs’ most underrated ability: storytelling. Jello Biafra tells both the story of a snotty College Republican-type who’s so far out of his depth that he might as well be in the Mariana Trench and how said jerkoff would fare in Cambodia, strung along with the promise of wealth and glory, only to have his “head skewered on a stake.”
The hideous bridge has the music building to an ear-shattering scream as Biafra mutters “Pol Pot” over and over again. He’s just saying a name, but the torrent of sound behind him evokes the horrors that the dictator inflicted on Cambodia while the world just watched. Plenty of punk was (and is) content to yell at parents, feud with fussy teachers and anyone else who could be identified as “the Man,” but the Dead Kennedys gleefully turned the mirror around, revealing it wasn’t just the system, but the people inside it that were rotten to the core. Even in 2017, that’s a brave statement. – Nathan Stevens
69: Daryl Hall and John Oates – “You Make My Dreams” (1981)
“You Make My Dreams” is one of those songs that gets better every second. The eccentric glam-rock stomp is odd enough given that Hall & Oates were spawned by the plushy Philly soul world. Hall sounds hesitant and restrained at first. The chord changes, Hall lets his voice soar to hit a gorgeous major seventh and then steps back in line. Repeat. The chord changes again—and Hall unleashes a heaven-piercing high note, as poignant as any sung since the peak of Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up,” before the chorus hits. That’s to say nothing of the bridge. This is pop magic.
Unless you’re biased against sincere love songs (as many ‘80s rock listeners who’d rather listen to the Scorpions solicit schoolgirls may be), it’s hard not to love this song. It’s sweet and heartfelt (“what a thing to say to a person,” I once heard a radio DJ say of the titular line, “You make my dreams come true”). The song is major-key and delightfully exuberant even if its militaristic beat sounds a bit strange when you first hear it. And, of course, young people may associate it with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s crush-cementing dance routine in 500 Days of Summer. “You Make My Dreams” was the perfect accompaniment—as guileless as twirling in a meadow, but also so muscular, so obviously in motion, that it seems to be doing its own dance.
Daryl Hall and John Oates (they don’t call themselves “Hall & Oates”, and yes, they’re going to be assholes about it) are rapidly enjoying a renaissance of reputation. None of their albums are cemented yet as classics, though their languid Abandoned Luncheonette gets a lot of recommendation traffic in music-nerd circles. They’re still looked back upon with a bit of a chuckle, but, like Thin Lizzy the decade before, they’re still sort of an “actually-good” band. Oates provides a built-in joke as a second banana, despite being the duo’s driving creative force, and millennials may never shake off the image of Gordon-Levitt swarmed by Hollywood bluebirds. But these are the minds behind some of the best singles of the ‘70s and ‘80s. – Daniel Bromfield