26: Soft Cell – Tainted Love (1981)
Of course, you might expect a song called “Tainted Love” on an album called Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. It was a cover song tailor-made for the band. What once was a muscular soul number became a campy anthem of sado-masochism, Almond’s sinister delivery gleefully communicating the coyness of a line like, “I can’t stand the way you/ TEASE!” Soft Cell took what was a guitar riff on Jones’ original and created for it a sick synthesized organ timbre that turned a mildly catchy song into a fun-house version of itself that has been an inescapable earworm for nearly four decades.
The song never got past eighth place on American pop charts, but it hit number one in the UK, Australia and South Africa, and was later covered by Marilyn Manson. But the song’s most memorable legacy may come from a fan’s homemade recording.
Superfan Chris Palestis, aka Wizz-O, sang along to the “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?” medley on a home recording that gets regular airplay on WFMU. I know this may be hard to imagine, but his delivery was even more over the top than Almond’s.
Palestis worked in a New Jersey Mall as a clerk at Sam Goody, a once ubiquitous record store chain that closed up shop in 2006. The legend goes that Palestis gave a tape of his home-made karaoke recordings to co-worker R. Stevie Moore in 1982 and died a year later of leukemia at the tragically young age of 21. This may be the most profound legacy of Soft Cell’s biggest hit: it gave the world one of the greatest songs to sing along to, a foundation that brought joy even to a cruelly abbreviated life. – Pat Padua
25: Public Enemy – Fight the Power (1989)
Spike Lee left an indelible mark on American cinema with his movie Do the Right Thing. It’s safe to say that some discovered the film through its association with what became 1989’s biggest hip hop single and one of the timeless classics of the genre. First commissioned as a theme song, Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” on the soundtrack for the film before eventually releasing a different version on their own record, Fear of a Black Planet.
Despite the film’s tense but almost whimsical tone, the song reflects what Public Enemy became famous for: an angry, righteous-yet-dignified attack on lingering racism in American culture. Where groups like N.W.A. could easily be dismissed as counter-culture, youth culture or simply trying hard to offend public sensibilities, Public Enemy were activists. Their music in general was never crass or offensive just for the sake of it, but rather spoke assertively, aggressively and honestly about the realities faced by African Americans.
The track opens with a quote from Thomas “TNT” Todd as he condemns his own people, particularly those who are “educated” and “equipped,” for walking away from the “fight.” As it climbed the charts, people of all races were getting a message they’d either never heard or overlooked. Backed by The Bomb Squad’s busy production, it features a crazy number of samples from some of the greatest in funk (James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone and Rick James just to name a few). It was as though they went through everyone they felt should be represented and fit them all in with at least a single sample each. The result comes off like a rolling train of almost industrial complexity. Chuck D, backed by his lovable sidekick Flavor Flav, blasted through with a furious style that eschewed speed or lyrical tricks for simply calling you out: “What we need is awareness/we can’t get careless/You say what is this?/My beloved let’s get down to business!/Mental self-defense is fitness!/Yo bum rush the show!/You got to go for what you know!”
Though many have tried, few hip hop groups have managed to nail the balance of serious business, activism and pop music appeal while simultaneously being undeniably funky. “Fight the Power” remains to this day a classic refrain for anyone who wants to make a stand without resorting to posturing or violent fantasy. – Darryl G. Wright