These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
14. The Smiths – How Soon Is Now? (1985)
“How Soon is Now?” may well be the song least indicative of the Smiths’ sound, yet it remains their most well-known contribution to popular culture. Much of this has to do with the relative simplicity of Morrissey’s lyrics and slight presence on the track. Though his inimitable crooning underscores the song’s rather basic structural formula, it is Johnny Marr’s revolutionary guitar sound that is really the main attraction. Where on other, arguably better Smiths track Morrissey and Marr worked in tandem to create a complex series of chords and literary allusions, “How Soon is Now?” relies on simple, repeated verse/chorus set of lyrics and then, as the guitar shifts from its droning F#, a bridge section during which Morrissey provides some of his most Morrissey-esque couplets: “There’s a club if you’d like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you,” following it up with the bleak reality of the situation, “So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry/And you want to die.”
Short, simple and uncharacteristically directly to the point, Morrissey’s lyrics here run very much second to Marr’s heavily effects-laden, reverberating and tremolo-heavy guitar. With its propulsive reverberations throughout the whole of the track, keening slide guitar and percussive harmonics punctuating each verse/chorus, “How Soon in Now?” offers a masterclass in studio trickery to create a sound that has become virtually impossible to replicate. So much so that the band rarely performed the song live due to the difficulty in recreating not only the iconic guitar sounds, but also simply keeping the track together as it relies on a steady, unwavering rhythmic propulsion that is at once indicative of the club scene to which the lyrics allude and the creeping uncertainty and dread inherent in the son and heir “Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.”
Despite its enduring popularity, “How Soon is Now?” was originally little more than a B-side to 1984 single “William, It was Really Nothing.” After finding favor on the Hatful of Hollow compilation, it was then reissued as a standalone single in both its complete and truncated versions, as well as added to 1985’s Meat is Murder. Regardless of its format, “How Soon is Now?” is a powerful, iconic studio performance highly representative of the decade in which it was recorded. Sounding very much of a piece within this type of broader cultural context, it sticks out like a sore thumb within the overall Smiths catalog. – John Paul
13. Prince – “Purple Rain” (1984)
At his creative peak, the purple one was so in touch with his muse that one of his greatest songs, and one of the greatest of the decade, emerged out of the cocoon almost fully formed. The debut performance of “Purple Rain” was recorded live–and with a little editing, that’s what you hear it on the album.
Purple Rain was the debut of Prince’s band The Revolution. For a guy who spent most of his early albums performing every instrument himself, he adjusted to band-leading fairly easily. You can hear that on the mobile recording that captured a 1983 benefit at the Minneapolis club First Avenue, which played a major role in the movie Purple Rain. Three songs from the album came from this concert, which was also the debut of Revolution guitarist Wendy Malvoin.
The song begins with Malvoin’s sensitive rhythm guitar and unfolds with a restrained and building drama that came as a breather at the end of an album that ranged from the frenetic “Let’s Go Crazy” to the experimental “When Doves Cry.” A showcase for Prince the guitar god as well, his closing solo was built from a simple but potent figure, a gentle cleansing at the end of an autobiographical catharsis. Lasting almost nine minutes, “Purple Rain” was a superstar telling you that even when he doesn’t pull out all the stops on the guitar and rhythmic pyrotechnics, he can still blow your mind.
During his life, Prince made a point of staying away from streaming services, which left fans desperate to hear his music after he died forced to actually pay for it. Thanks, Prince! “Purple Rain” only made it to number two on the US charts in 1984, but in 2016 it topped the digital Billboard charts. Prince’s legacy is in a black rock that has never replicated his success, but his influence is incalculable, reaching as far as Niger, where the 2015 film Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai traces a similar story of a thwarted musician. The title, loosely translated, is Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in it. – Pat Padua