36: Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls (1984)
Hindsight ruins a lot of things as we age—for example, this synth-pop chestnut from a gay community-approved band. It’s a superficially shiny and happy dance track, its electronics state-of-the art at the time and composed using a then-new synth, the E-mu Emulator. Cool, right? But this innovation is unfortunately marred by appropriation: An echoed-out soul singer is prominently featured over a bassline inspired or flat-out lifted from Grandmaster Flash and the drum line from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” As a young music fan, it may have sounded thrilling; as an adult, it smacks of copyright infringement.
As with many of its British counterparts such as the Smiths and the Cure, the hedonistic music is countered by a lyrical despair: Sometimes you’re better off dead/ There’s a gun in your hand it’s pointing at your head. Ouch. Now let’s look at the class divide. In the ‘80s, the gap between rich and poor was so vast that this isn’t the first song in our list to address it. “West End Girls” addresses how we’re all in this together, rich and poor, and it is all hopeless either way. Has that improved in 30 years?
What about sexual liberation? David Bowie and Prince (oh, piss off 2016) paved the way, right? Well, not quite. Singer Neil Tennant’s homosexuality was hidden from the public until the ‘90s, just like in George Michael’s sex-positive but straight videos. Because, you know, we had to maintain marketability amongst the ignorant, prejudiced Thatcher-loving masses.
So, don’t worry your pretty head about the decaying foundations of society: the ‘80s have given us a coping mechanism like dance—as long as you do it out of sight and pretend you’re a part of the majority, or appropriate other minorities in the process.
So, yeah, sorry to ruin your favorite pop song. At least it’s gorgeous on the surface. Go ahead and shoot up a convenience store now and read Trump’s tweets to cheer yourself up. Progress! — Cedric Justice
35: Roxy Music – More Than This (1982)
The standard pop nerd assessment of Roxy Music is that the band was directionless without Brian Eno and spent most of its time chasing trends before petering out and giving way to Bryan Ferry’s so-so solo career. Not only is this assertion lazy as all hell, it does a great disservice to Ferry as a songwriter and arranger. Granted, Ferry’s reign as the sole creative force behind Roxy Music had its ups and downs, but it also produced one of the stone-cold classics of this or any other era in “More Than This.” A more subtly unconventional song than the confrontational weirdness that defined Eno-era Roxy Music, “More Than This” is nonetheless so gorgeous and smooth that its universal appeal is difficult to deny.
The song is a synthesis of elements that shouldn’t produce seamless pop, yet somehow do. The synthesizers are sleek and elegant, yet the full tones give the song a New Age feel long before New Age had entered the cultural lexicon. Furthermore, Ferry’s voice is unlike anything heard in music before or since. A cross between a jazz crooner and an early rocker, Ferry’s voice adds another layer of gravitas to the song’s peaceful, meditative lyrics on the nature of life and existence.
“More Than This” was the closest thing Roxy Music had to a hit in the United States, coming out just as the country was discovering its fascination with British synth-pop. While teen-friendly groups like Duran Duran led that charge, Roxy Music pointed to a different future for this new, synthesizer-laden music, one that looked beyond mere entertainment value and towards something more sophisticated. In its own way, “More Than This” is just as much a part of Roxy Music’s art-rock traditions as anything Eno ever produced with the band, even if Ferry used a different musical language. – Kevin Korber