100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#10-1)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

2: Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (1982)

Its bassline borrowed from Hall & Oates, of all people, this is the song that solidified Michael Jackson’s ascent to superstardom. But unlike mere pop songs that earn the name “earworm” by insinuating themselves into your brain like a parasite, this is one song that resists such easy categorization. An ordinary earworm infiltrates the mind by means of its melody; “Billie Jean” is a song that’s inescapable from a narrative standpoint, one that in retrospect may have been prescient on the part of the artist who was soon to be crowned King of Pop; here he seems to predict his own descent into madness.

The song’s strength is deceptive; made up of basic R&B elements and a mid-tempo rhythm that’s not obviously danceable but that seeps into you. What this pop song has above other pop songs, even those crafted with this much care and attention to detail, is its unerring flair for drama.

Like so much of the best pop music of the ‘80s, “Billie Jean” rose to the top of the charts with the help of a music video, in this case one that, for the most part, showcased Jackson’s dancing. But starting with black-and-white footage was a nod to one of Jackson’s more unlikely predecessors: film noir. The concept of this Peter Pan act denying a fan’s paternity claim now seems laughable, but Jackson the actor delivers it with complete control of his musical and interpretive gifts. His oft-imitated “ee-ee-ee”s and canine yelps seem like the sound of the star’s own demons tormenting him. Wait for the heavy stereo separation of “do think twice!”—warnings that burst out from either side of the listener, punishing the star for, if we can suspend disbelief for a minute, daring to need human affection.

It’s an irresistible beat and a commentary on the pitfalls of his own celebrity, the triple-split screen of the video resonating for what we assume was the inevitable mental breakdown of a man-child who had never really known what it was like to live out of the spotlight. More than 30 years later, “Billie Jean” resonates more than it possibly could have at the time, and in the wake of scandals and a largely unrecognizable pop landscape, Jackson’s influence can still be heard. – Pat Padua

1: The Cure – Just Like Heaven (1987)

Just Like Heaven” is a perfect distillation of a honeymoon period’s golden glow in jangly pop majesty. It was the logical foundation from where later love-obsessed Cure songs like “Friday I’m in Love” and “Pictures of You” came, without any of those (still great) tracks matching their progenitor. Inspired by a seaside vacation with Mary Poole, Robert Smith’s future wife, the song is filled with a warm, friendly opulence; the sonic equivalent of feeding your lover strawberries by hand. Smith said the song was about “hyperventilating–kissing and fainting to the floor,” and the music matches those jittery, swooning motions. That cascading guitar riff shimmers like sunlight on waves; the bassline is just as irresistible, pulling at the ears like a current. There’s something powerfully oceanic about it all, a bit mysterious, hypnotic and utterly captivating, just the way love can feel. Basically, if you ever find someone that makes you understand the rush of “Just Like Heaven,” consider yourself very, very lucky.

Smith certainly thought of himself as lucky. The “trick” sung about in the song’s iconic opening line was apparently based on his childhood memories of learning sleight of hand (sure, Rob, we believe you). However, it is true that a near childlike giddiness fills the recording. “Just Like Heaven” revels in an unexplainable euphoria, lost in the wonder of lust, love and joy crashing into each other. Smith’s promises to “run away with you” and description of “spinning on that dizzy edge” illustrate his profoundly happy confusion. To Smith, Poole was “strange as angels,” a heavenly accident that he didn’t deserve. “Just Like Heaven” gasps in ecstasy the equivalent of “Wait, me? You’re in love with me?!”, and for that it feels purer than any other love song of its time.
“Just Like Heaven” does, of course, have some trademarked Cure mope. But it’s not the abyssal depression of “The Same Deep Water as You” or “Lullaby.” Instead, the sadness comes from the inevitability that the honeymoon eventually ends. The bridge finds Smith seeing his lover washed away into the sea. He watches helplessly as the beach turns into an apartment, love letters become bills and throwing himself into his partner devolves into perfunctory pecks on the cheek. But at least for three minutes and 30 seconds, heaven is in his arms and in our ears. – Nathan Stevens

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Joe Newman-Getzler

    This was fun. Glad that Just Like Heaven is #1. Hope you do the ’70s or the ’90s next!


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