44: Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)
Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg wrote “Like A Virgin.” Strange to think when we consider how closely the song has become associated with both the artist who made it a hit in 1984 and its associations with femininity. The song would become central to the opening of Reservoir Dogs during which its true/untrue meaning became the center of vulgar discourse. It was a gross (in both senses of the word) mischaracterization of the song’s intent.
It’s a song about love, about rebirth and about hope. Never mind that “virgin” was a word that probably sent parents into fits of frustration as they tried to explain the most unusual word in the chorus and title. For those in the know, it wasn’t as shocking as it was true. But, more importantly, was the way those words were delivered, the insistent musical settings that made each of the tune’s radio plays seem like they’d gone by too fast.
Madonna’s synth-driven sounds and presence on MTV caused more than a few to question her longevity. Like the numerous female singers who would come after her, the former Detroit resident would be derided as she of little talent, a flash in the pan, a bubblegum sensation. What she had that some of her contemporaries and virtually all of her imitators didn’t was the ability to sell a song. Though you could call it contrived, you could also recognize that Madonna was doing what great artists of all stripes have long done. Those songs almost always started conversations even if the subject involved wondering if the singer had lost her mind. That’s something that great artists of all stripes have done all along. She made us think if we wanted to, be entertained if we wanted to, and maybe grab hold of both options if the mood struck. Yes, she had hits before this one, but “Like A Virgin” will, for many, forever be her first. – Jedd Beaudoin
43: Duran Duran – Rio (1982)
Few decades did excess like the ’80s, and Duran Duran were the poster boys for all things gaudy and opulent in pop. “Hungry Like the Wolf” had porno sound effects, and “Girls on Film” was more of a titillating music video than a song. But “Rio” was the peak of indulgence, who can forget these pretty boys faffing about on a yacht during the video? But “Rio” was also the English group’s finest moment, exactly because of that excess. It proved they were as musically talented as they were sharply dressed. John Taylor and Roger Taylor (no relation) were always the secret backbone to Duran Duran’s success, and “Rio” was all built on the smooth rhythm section. John owned both the lead melody and rushing pace with his bass, and Roger’s slippery, silvery hi-hats held everything together. All of “Rio”’s parent album was impossibly sleek, mostly thanks to producer Colin Thurston who had worked with Iggy Pop on Lust for Life and scored a co-engineering credit alongside Tony Visconti on David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Meanwhile, guitarist Andy Taylor (also no relation, somehow) and excellently named keyboardist Nick Rhodes played assist makers for Roger and John. The synths shimmer like a waterfall, and Andy’s guitar is choppy and knife-edge sharp, supplementing the frenetic and bouncy bass. Andy’s work is even better on the chorus, flying next to Simon Le Bon’s crooning through a wall of effects. Le Bon’s stories of TV stars, tropical vacations and a “cherry ice-cream smile” (?) match the indulgent nature of the project. It’s exceptionally silly, yes, but when the sax slides in for the bridge, it serves as a reminder of Duran Duran’s purpose: a vicarious view into the rock star lives of absurdly pretty people. That’s what Duran Duran’s music has done for nearly 40 years now, but they never did it as sleekly or as smartly as they did on “Rio.” – Nathan Stevens