100 Best Songs of the ’80s (#40-31)

These are the top 100 songs of the 1980s.

40: Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal (1987)

The King of Pop left behind more than recordings; an essential part of his legacy in in his music videos. After taking full advantage of the format for his numerous Thriller singles, Jackson had a hard act to follow – his own. Fortunately, his ideas developed into a cinematic vision of the mob-fuelled ‘30s for the full, 40-minute version of “Smooth Criminal,” originally part of the Moonwalkercompilation.

While the video for this seventh single from Bad was eventually pared down to a shorter, four-minute version, Jackson’s forward-thinking dance moves amazed a nation that was still reeling from his moonwalk a few years before. His “anti-gravity lean” provided another visual spectacle that won him a Brit Award and People’s Choice Award for best music video of the year. The spectacular, all-white suit he rocked was later featured in his very own video game, Moonwalker.

The song’s taut bassline defines the decade as much as the moonwalk. As synths crisscross a soundscape mostly played on Korg M3s and Motif XS8s. Jackson’s melody closely follows the bass before crying “Annie are you okay?/ So, Annie are you okay?/ Are you okay, Annie?” On paper, it may seem repetitive, but Jackson’s subtly evolving phrasing of this yelp is masterful, elevating it from scared curiosity to frantic worry before delivering yet another key line: “You’ve been hit by/ You’ve been shot by/ A smooth criminal.” The seemingly endless descent of the pre-chorus quicksilver is nicely tucked in, a hook buried within a hook.

It is a testament to the thrill of “Smooth Criminal” that even Alien Ant Farm’s cover of it has not dulled its razor-sharp pop genius. Jackson’s music was always forward thinking, but here he pushed himself with spectacle that expanded music and the music video into something more. – Edward Dunbar

39: N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

Outside of being an enduring anthem in the hip-hop pantheon, NWA’s second-greatest hit (behind “Fuck tha Police”) was the coming-out party for two of rap’s finest talents: Ice Cube & Dr. Dre. Oh, MC Ren makes his presence felt, sure, and Eazy-E displays the indelible charisma that would make him such an influential solo star down the line. But it’s Cube’s introductory verse with its Jack Kirby-splash-page bombast and Dre’s catastrophic production that makes the track so potent.

From its opening moments you can feel Cube punching out the speaker grill on a boom box, asserting himself as a force of nature more than as an emcee. His particular brand of vocal delivery served a dual function depending on which half of the audience was listening. To the uninitiated, his penchant for casually stringing together matter of fact threats fuelled the menacing portrait that suburban types might have of anyone from the hood. On wax, Cube is basically the white soccer mom’s bogeyman, a concentrated distillation of black rage. But before N.W.A. could make it to the ‘burbs and crossover to unsuspecting white kids, his no-frills, no-nonsense attitude made him the perfect narrator for this opening salvo of what would become the defining sound of West Coast hip-hop.

The vulgarity and the implicit potential for extreme violence was half of the aural evolution, but the rest was in Dre & DJ Yella’s cacophonous beat. Structurally, it’s not so different from the traditional set-up of a rap song, with a variety of samples that include the famous “Amen break,” but they’re layered with record scratches sharp as serrated blades and the percussive use of sound effects and loud street sounds. It doesn’t feel like a piece of music conjured in a studio. It’s like someone pointed a shotgun mic at a drive by shooting and threw drums under it. The end result is a track that’s part impactful mission statement and part transmission from the ground floor of the revolution. – Dominic Griffin

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