These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
18: A-ha – Take on Me (1984)
The very definition of the one-hit wonder, this Norwegian group’s claim to fame was a synthpop single that the mainstream was slow to warm to, percolating for almost a year before it climbed to the top of the US and UK charts. As frequently happened with many songs on this list, its eventual success may well be attributed to a music video.
Few remember that there were two videos made for “Take on Me.” The first featured a different recording and simply depicted the band performing against a blue background. The second, directed by Steve Bannon (who also directed the video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) is the one you know.
It’s one of the defining cultural memories of the ‘80s: a girl reading a comic book in a diner is drawn into its adventure with the comic book’s hero–lead singer Morten Harket, flipping between pencil-drawn animation and live action. The rotoscoping technique used for the animation goes all the way back to 1915, which makes the video one of the last bastions of an analog world that would soon be overcome by computer graphics. The concept had little to do with the song, but even if you didn‘t like the music, it was an unforgettable and innovative video, and it went on to sin six different awards and guaranteed enough radio play that the single’s strong melody and dance-floor friendly synths finally struck a chord that has never diminished. At a time when bands such as Tears for Fears, Bronski Beat and Depeche Mode dominated the genre, ‘Take on Me” fit right into while aiming for a wider audience, becoming one of the biggest and most memorable hits from the era.
A-ha has continued to record on and off for 30 years, but while it would again reach number one in its homeland, the band was never able to repeat the international success of “Take on Me.” Still, it leaves behind what is arguably the quintessential ‘80s synth-pop song. – Darryl G. Wright
17: Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight (1981)
This singer-songwriter who started out as a drummer (naysayers, ponder this: he’s on Another Green World) has a deep catalog of pop earworms, but none stick out in the collective consciousness as vividly as the one with the dopest drum fill in music history. The slick, instantly recognizable breakdown that forms the emotional climax of “In the Air Tonight” is itself an astonishing achievement. It’s easy to lose a half hour of your life playing it on a loop, this hypnotic bit of catharsis that feels like a sudden head butt at the end of a long, tense tête-à-tête with an estranged acquaintance. But like most great gags, it’s nothing special without the set-up.
The haunting narrative Collins weaves, the one that implies he watched a man let someone drown, is so evocative it led to decades of exponentially detailed urban legends surrounding its inception. Eerily aided by a minimalist backing track with an imperceptible sense of dread, the slow burn feels real and tangible, with a palpable drama that feels raw and textured. Collins’ insistence that he improvised the lyrics only makes more sense when you realize he basically freestyled an Edgar Allan Poe short story as directed by Michael Mann to cope with his divorce.
With its echoed vocals and all that reverb, it’s positively cinematic, even besides its cameo in Risky Business. If Collins was exorcising some rage demons, it’s telling that they expelled their way from his soul with such precision. The song’s pacing, with the sizzling build-up to that truly iconic drum fill, is arguably the most sharply constructed track in Collins’ entire career. No other song so cooly distills the nail-biting suspense of a crime thriller into a catchy rock song. Maybe that’s why it’s found its way into so many films and been sampled for so many hip-hop songs. Regardless, just try playing it through to its conclusion without emphatically forgetting for a few seconds that you’re a terrible air drummer. — Dominic Griffin