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100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#40-31)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

34: Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen (1982)

The only US hit from these Birmingham soul men has long been considered a joke, turning up as a porno title in Clerks and often dismissed as the caterwauling of a one-hit wonder. But Kevin Rowlands didn’t refer to his band as Celtic Soul Brothers for nothing. For its debut album, Dexys was fully inspired by Northern Soul (its name taken from the dextroamphetamines popular in the scene), and its centerpiece “Geno” was an affecting tribute to R&B crooner Geno Washington. Who would think the band would score a worldwide smash by adding fiddles to that Northern Soul sound?

Yet this unlikely and definitive ‘80s earworm delivers its most potent hook on the wings of those anachronistic fiddles. “Come On Eileen” is built on a deceptively complex structure, with multiple key and tempo changes adding to an already dense arrangement that comes off like a hypertrophied skiffle band augmented with R&B horns. Yet what makes it so remarkable is how unfashionable it was, and still is. With references to ‘50s crooner Johnnie Ray and the “Too ra loo ra” a nod to Bing Crosby’s Irish lullaby from the ‘30s, Rowland seemed to be targeting not pink-haired teens but a nation of mums and grandmums. More than that, fiddles, of all things, dominated a 1982 song that lacked the one thing that nearly every other pop hit of the era milked for dear life: synths. With a fashion style that at the time was no more than a pair of overalls, Rowland and his over-the-top vocals (he was the Nicolas Cage of the New Wave) struck a surprisingly enduring chord

Unfortunately, something as ubiquitous as “Come On Eileen” can become an easy target, and although the song doesn’t have much of a legacy to speak of, it’s never really faded from the public consciousness, as much as some may protest. Though its familiarity has bred contempt, consider its unusual accomplishment: this song somehow marries Celtic folk music with R&B for a distinct sound that hit number one on charts from the US and the UK to New Zealand, South Africa and of course Ireland. Dexys would record another album, and Rowland went on to a solo career of little distinction, but with this hit alone he earned a place in pop Valhalla. – Pat Padua

33: Deee-Lite – Groove Is in the Heart (1989)

No song nailed the balance of ‘80s dance music and ‘70s aesthetic quite like Deee-Lite’s ridiculously catchy “Groove Is in the Heart.” Though technically not released until their studio album came out in 1990, the song began its life in 1989 by both live performances and radio play. While stylistically DJ Towa Tei’s techno influence gave the song a lot in common with the status quo dance music of the day, the real game-changer was the addition of an original bass line from funk legend Bootsy Collins. Add to the mix a rap by underground hip-hop legend Q-Tip, production built around Herbie Hancock’s “Bring Down the Birds” and a breakdown featuring the iconic slide whistle from Vernon Burch’s “Get Up” and you’ve got an lava-lamp swirl of funky pop music that reaches across genres and tastes and ensures a hip swing from even the most groove-challenged, curmudgeonly wallflower.

The trio also appeared in the music video dressed in vibrant psychedelic colors and styles which slammed together eras and would ensure them a place as icons DJ-ing and performing in fashion shows for years to come. Lady Miss Kier brought a combination of sass and whimsy to the table. She bounced easily through barely comprehensible verses like “Your groove, I do deeply dig/ No walls, only the bridge/ My supper dish/ My succotash wish” and “Going through to/ Horton Hears a Hoo-Hoo.” But the hook was so strong that any simplicity in the verses could easily be overlooked. As she executed the chorus “Groove Is in the Heart” with all the prowess of an accomplished soul singer doing understated runs, the song falls completely into the pocket. Q-Tip’s verse rolls over the requisite percussion breakdown at a time when he and A Tribe Called Quest had already made deep waves with their own unique sound, and he brings the musical pop party to a whole new level.

Adored and still seeing club play to this very day, “Groove Is in the Heart” occupies a spot on the charts of some of the world’s all-time best pop tracks. The band was never really able to follow it up with anything that made quite as much impact. But they really didn’t need to. – Darryl G. Wright

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