28: Wham! -Careless Whisper (1984)
Ah, the sax line that launched a thousand romances. After a mind-boggling amount of parodies (thanks Seether and Deadpool) it’s occasionally easy to forget just how good “Careless Whisper” is without all the pop-culture ephemera attached. For Wham!, this certainly was a step into maturity after “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” catapulted them into stardom. What had once been some dorky British lads topping the charts was now a suave, sexy outfit making some of the best pop nuggets of their era. Most of that comes from the sterling performance of George Michael. It’s hard to understate just how much of a one-hit wonder Wham! could have been without Michael fully embracing his melodrama and charisma. The choruses are wonderful mixes of full voiced mourning and Michael’s delightful falsetto fluttering in. And then of course is the bridge, where Michael nearly breaks into screaming, a knife going directly through his heart as he sings.
Michael, apparently had little love for the song. “It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly—and not a particularly good lyric—and it can mean so much to so many people. That’s disillusioning for a writer,” he said in his autobiography Bare. It seems to be a ridiculous statement. Even excluding the song’s absurd popularity (selling over six million copies), Michael’s “flippantly” written lyrics cut deep. There are few more damning statements in pop as “guilty feet have got no rhythm.”
The background magic is just as good as Michael’s cries. Yes, it’s been parodied to death, but that’s a sign of respect more than anything else. It’s hard to think of anything that brings to mind a debaucherous ‘80s dancefloor quite like the slinky instrumental on “Careless Whisper.” The saxophone is, of course, the main focus and is what makes the track instantly recognizable. But that’s not to downplay the brilliantly smooth rhythm. The guitar takes a backseat, releasing short, stabbing licks over drifting congas and burbling bass. The subtle moves are even better, with light synths fading in and out of view and ghostly vocals haunting Michael in the verses. The next few generations of music nerds will probably discover “Careless Whisper” through some pastiche or joke at the expense of the opulent nature of ‘80s pop, but make no mistake, that gateway into “Careless Whisper” is well worth it. – Nathan Stevens
27: Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime (1980)
At its heart, “Once in a Lifetime” is one big, celestial groove. Tina Weymouth, bassist and Talking Head’s secret weapon, supplies a heavy drop before the song goes straight into business: that heavy, strutting beat courtesy of Chris Frantz, twinkling synths that sparkle and gleam at all the right moments, and, of course, David Byrne’s manic vocals swimming between speakers – yelps freaking out about nothing and everything all at once.
Burgeoned by Brian Eno’s unorthodox production techniques, Talking Heads concocted one of the most enthralling and innovative pieces of music at the dawn of the then-young ‘80s. Eno’s influence would be key: his oblique strategies provided many of the song’s unexpected and surprising musical touches while his near fanboy appreciation of Fela Kuti helped influence the steady, yet constantly moving groove. When Eno first met the group he played them Fela as a means of sharing his major influences.
Byrne’s lyrics reflect his apprehension of then modern society. Inspired by recordings he did of radio preachers from across middle America, Byrne’s delivery is commanding and authoritative while still retaining the slippery vocals he’s known for. Byrne yelps, “And you may tell yourself/ This is not my beautiful house!/ And you may tell yourself/ This is not my beautiful wife!” as he takes to task the fundamental building blocks of the stereotypically normal lifestyle. Frantically, Byrne questions: “And you may ask yourself/ Am I right? Am I wrong?/ And you may say yourself, ‘My God! What have I done?’” The song’s dazed lyrics are juxtaposed against a buoyant and overwhelming chorus.
Said chorus, and its water-centric theme, manifests itself in the song’s music video. Byrne is alone, cast against a green screen portraying a distorted mess of sea foam green and blue, huffing and puffing as he flops around. The quirky music video would be a vital component to the song’s lasting legacy as its heavy rotation on MTV opened the band up to an entirely new audience.
The song’s clever production and arrangement is all overcome by its massive beat. The notion that the mundanity of life can be washed away by the sheer willpower of dance has never been delivery in such an ingenious fashion – after all, despite his worried delivery, Byrne never stops boogieing. – Edward Dunbar