These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
20: Herbie Hancock – Rockit (1983)
Often dancing on the precipice of jazz and pop dating at least back to his time in Miles Davis’ band, Herbie Hancock ventured into fusion and funk in the ‘70s, with more peaks than valleys. By the ‘80s his versatility remained intact even if albums such as Lite Me Up! (1982) stretched his credibility to uncomfortable lengths. He made a quick retreat to more traditional jazz with former Miles-mate Ron Carter before taking up with Bill Laswell, guardian of the avant-‘80s and a man seemingly game for anything.
The result, Future Shock, incorporated elements of funk, soul and, of course, hip-hop, and its centerpiece was the futuristic-sounding single “Rockit.” The legendary jazz pianist brought the art of rocking the turntable into the mainstream, arguing that the drum machine could be of all things, as Rush promised in “Spirit of Radio,” openhearted. It predicted the resurgence of the instrumental radio hit with Jan Hammer taking flight with the Miami Vice theme and Harold Faltemeyer’s “Axel F” becoming the song to learn on your brand new Casio. (Really, it’s hard not to wince at the similarities between the latter and “Rockit.”)
Admirable stabs at what Hancock had created, there was something cold and stuffy about them. “Rockit,” on the other hand, seamlessly blended the style and culture of the streets with that of the established world. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that would flourish by the end of the decade and become one of the dominant forms of musical expression by century’s end.
It wasn’t Hancock’s last great moment, but it was his greatest commercial success. Not everybody knew his name or the title of the song, but everybody knew the rhythms, the melody and the feeling that “Rockit” could launch us all into some brave, bright new future. – Jedd Beaudoin
19: Pixies — Debaser (1989)
Doolittle was a hyped-up, stream-of-unconsciousness rant that just happened to be catchy. It can’t be overstated just how much of a pop album it was beneath all the bug-eyed madness. Nowhere was that clearer than on album opener “Debaser.”
It wasn’t even released as a single until 1997, but its sound is that of a decade going out like a lion. The weird stuff rushes to the forefront with exuberance, Black Francis (who wrote it) screaming and yowling about an unlikely subject for a pop song: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1922 avant-garde film “Un Chien Andalou,” in which you see what looks like a woman’s eye getting sliced open.
Even in a career filled with the unhinged, you can nearly hear the spit foaming at Francis’ mouth. Joey Santiago’s guitar cuts and dices all over the mix, one moment throwing down a choppy line, the next carrying the melody over Francis’ moaning. His closing solo is particularly fiery, the guitar squealing like a pig. For the connoisseur of more nuanced strangeness, David Lovering’s drums establish a shuddering foundation, erupting with fills in the most unlikely places, always seeming seconds away from falling apart completely as he flips between steady, in-the-pocket rocking and free anarchy.
Yet it’s all so damn catchy, every element contributing to this shimmering, silvery nugget of pop bliss that’s over in less than three minutes. Much of this comes thanks to Kim Deal, who delivered the bass riff that convinced a generation of punks that the six-string was overrated. With Deal creating a semblance of sanity, it’s easy to hear the birth of a million alternative rock bands. The sweet and sour approach of Nirvana, the early Brit-pop experiments of Radiohead and the power-pop sugar shot of Weezer all have the DNA of “Debaser.” The rest of Doolittle may have been weirder, more emotional and certainly more coherent, but it was never this perfect. – Nathan Stevens