100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#40-31)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

38: Sonic Youth – Teen Age Riot (1988)

Funny that Sonic Youth’s most rebellious song was among its most sugary. For all its guitar squall and disregard for song structure, “Teen Age Riot” turned out to be a pop-hit laser-fried by duelling guitars and disco drum beats. It even has a verse-chorus-verse structure.

Kim Gordon sloganeering and quoting Iggy Pop over silvery guitars is a perfect way to start any indie anthem, but it’s only a launching pad for a rocket ship guitar riff. You can’t exactly hum it like “Smoke on the Water,” but it’s just as catchy, burrowing deep into the subconscious from the first play. Guitar wizards Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore tuned their six-strings differently to give it that off-kilter sound. But the kinetic energy propelling this like a bullet train is Steve Shelley’s thumping beat. There’s a lovely thwak to the snare in the verse, but Shelly’s work in the chorus is even better. Frenetic but in control, 16th notes cascade down and combine with the onslaught of guitars.

“Teen Age Riot” reveals the band’s unheralded ability to fuse rhythm and melody. Those silvery strikes on the hi-hat have a melodic texture and the Ranaldo/Moore guitar attack eggs on the drums to go ever faster on the chorus. Even better is the bridge, with Gordon’s bass merrily bouncing under the chaos. Ranaldo and Moore seem within seconds of smashing their guitars as Shelley fully lets loose, unleashing cacophonous fills. Even Moore’s famously deadpan delivery gets sunny with these antics. “They’re back on the riot trail!” he sings, with a goofy grin on his face. There’s a mad joy to every note of a song that came from Moore’s vision of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis becoming President of the United States. With an image that wonderfully silly and a song of such radiating glee, maybe the revolution will be televised after all. – Nathan Stevens

37: David Bowie – “Modern Love” (1983)

The first track off Bowie’s ‘80s commercial high-point release Let’s Dance found the former Aladdin Sane in full-on New Wave soul pop territory. Released as the album’s third single behind the title track and “China Girl,” “Modern Love” reached No. 2 in the UK, while stalled out at No. 14 in the States. Nevertheless, it became a concert favorite and encore staple during Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour, when Bowie cemented his ‘80s pop star legacy, performing 96 shows in 15 countries between May and December of 1983.

It’s little surprise then that the song’s video, rather than relying on the usual art and artifice of Bowie’s previous forays into the medium, instead features Bowie and band in full concert mode. Yet even this isn’t nearly as straightforward as it would seem at first read. With the elaborate stage design – something Bowie regularly had a hand in going back to his Ziggy Stardust days and, most memorably, Diamond Dogs, the bleached-blonde, gold-lame suited performer is every bit the ‘80s pop star Let’s Dance made him out to be. With a large band including horns and backing vocalists augmenting his usual bass/drums/guitar line-up, it’s a true aural and visual spectacle.

With Chic’s Nile Rodgers aiding Bowie in production duties, “Modern Love” relies on an up-tempo soul groove and massive hooks in the multi-harmony lines and driving backbeat to propel it forward. It’s at once forward and backward looking, aping an early-‘60s R&B/soul vibe with traces from his Thin White Duke period and self-described “plastic soul.” This juxtaposition of eras helps free the song from any fixed point in time. Were it not for the noticeably ‘80s production touches, it could’ve just as easily been a forgotten Motown or Atlantic soul side recorded pre-British Invasion. It’s just this type of stylistic cut-and-paste aesthetic that had long served Bowie well, perhaps no more so than with this insistent earworm. — John Paul

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