These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
16. Guns ‘n’ Roses – Sweet Child o’ Mine (1987)
Here’s a tough-guy rock song that’s actually kind of heartwarming, in part because it could actually be about a child. It’s not – it’s about Axl Rose’s girlfriend, and yes, the use of the word “child” is creepily infantilizing in that context – but there’s a real sense of sweetness and beauty here as Rose reminisces about childhood memories and admits he’s on the verge of tears. It’s got one of the great rock riffs of all time, but it’s not the kind of plodding brontosaurus stomp that usually occupies Guitar Player retrospective lists but a light-fingered, almost Frippian noodle that fits into an unusually aching chord progression for heavy rock. You wouldn’t be faulted for imagining Terabithian landscapes instead of the sleaze of the Sunset Strip, home of hair metal.
More so than any other band from the decadent, gonorrhea-soaked cesspit of hair metal, Guns ’n’ Roses are easily seen as a sort of art project. Part of this is Rose’s auteurism and the endless labor he put into Chinese Democracy (building a chicken coop in the studio for guitarist Buckethead to play in is some Smile-level shit). Part of it is the fact that the band is capable of truly beautiful music. Not just stock power ballads: rock songs like this one that are pretty even while functioning at full overdrive, songs you can dance to with tears in your eyes. The “heartfelt” feeling of the song was inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the similarity isn’t too much of a stretch. Skynyrd liked to evoke homely nostalgia, though their references were specific to the Deep South, while Guns ’n’ Roses, here, go for something more universal, more Apollonian, less well-remembered. Knowing how balls-deep the guys in this band were in the decidedly un-homely rock-star lifestyle – and hearing this song alongside drug songs like “Mr. Brownstone” on Appetite for Destruction – makes it all the more poignant. The home Rose remembers is long gone and barely remembered, and he’s far from the scared child he was.
Certain songs cast a somber sort of pall over classic rock radio, providing moments between ZZ Top and Steve Miller songs that let us reflect on the transience of life. “Comfortably Numb” is one. “Space Oddity” is another. The same could be said for “Little Red Corvette,” and “American Pie.” And this one. – Daniel Bromfield
15. U2 – New Year’s Day (1983)
Boy may have been U2’s first album, but the lads from Dublin already had their sights firmly set on arenas and stadiums. By the time they released their third album, ‘83’s War, they knew they had the guts and talent to make it happen.
If anything, “New Year’s Day” captures U2 at their most “U2”, so to speak. Four plucky individuals battling against vague yet insurmountable odds may be their modus operandi nowadays, but around the time of War and “New Year’s Day,” the band really had their backs against the wall. The aforementioned Boy and its follow up, October, gave the band a generous amount of critical and commercial success, but nothing on the grandiose scale that they envisioned. War was really the first album to capture that ambition and “New Year’s Day”, along with its sister single “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” acted as their keys to the world.
Bono’s opening statement, a brash “YEAH”, kicks “New Year’s Day” off with a rush of communal energy and passion. While his earnestness has made him the butt of many jokes over the years, Bono embodied the full hearted spirit that many other ‘80s frontmen tried and failed to capture. His lyrics, an improvised clarion call that began as an ode to his wife and evolved into a moment of harmony and support with the Polish Solidarity movement, are delivered with just the right amounts of courage and bluster. However, as is the case for most U2 songs, the real pulsing heart of the song is The Edge’s razor-sharp riffage and Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.’s thunderous rhythm section.
War, indeed, proved to be the album U2 were always working towards. With mullet on head and white flag in hand, Bono and the gang stormed through clubs, arenas, and amphitheaters on their way to rock glory, including an iconic appearance at Colorado’s Red Rocks ampitheater. With the threat of heavy rain and thunderstorms looming, the band made a last minute decision to not cancel the show, coming out to a drenched stage with condensation wafting out of their every breath. Far too cinematic a show to be ignored, the band christened their performance with a concert film named after “New Year’s Day”’s most vivid line: “Under a blood red sky.” – Edward Dunbar