By Hannah Wisterman
This may be the mere misinformed supposition of a college student, but I’m willing to hedge a couple bucks on the idea that “Africa” by Toto might be one of the most emotionally rousing and jammable tracks on Earth. That opening synth line? Bobby Kimball’s clear, pleading voice? The woodwind solo? Incomparable. Since turning into something of a meme, “Africa” has become so ubiquitous that it’s spawned countless covers, Vines, and a Twitter bot that tweets its lyrics every few hours. One might think, given this success, that it’s the top track of the 80s.
One would be wrong. The 80s as a decade (and the few cushion years before and after it) were so rich with hard-hitting bops that we can claim no definitive winner. Of course “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is a heavyweight in the field. So are “99 Luftballoons” and “Rock Me Amadeus.” However, good reader, you could find any of these on a “Best of the 80s” Spotify mix, and that’s not what we’re here for. Oh, no. I now present to you my hand-picked, deeper-dive, hidden gems of the 80s.
Soft Cell, “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go (12” Version)”
Let’s ease in with what I would call a B-side of an already popular track. “Tainted Love” is one of those dark and intensely catchy songs to which you might catch yourself dramatically tossing your hair around. In contrast, “Where Did Our Love Go” is relatively soft and coy—it inspires more pouting and shimmying than headbanging. This is in part because the actual tone of the song is softer, and in part because the melody is less driving, more simplistic. Both have a metronomic, almost alarm-like synth line running throughout them, which provides a neat little tether to bring them together in this awesome blended mix. There’s a drum break after “Tainted Love,” a few literal bells and whistles, and then the moody, sinister tone gives way to something cheerier and poppy. It’s such a perfect pairing of songs that really makes you appreciate the artistry of those pioneering days of song mixing.
Depeche Mode, “Behind the Wheel”
Right off the bat, let’s make it clear that I’m not here to analyze this song’s extremely loaded lyrics. What I am going to do is celebrate how hypnotic and focused the song is. It’s easy to get impatient with 80s songs because the synth lines tend towards overt simplicity, but Depeche Mode is one of those bands that can get away with it. The even smack of percussion and the tightly-wound riff of the guitar offset each other just enough to give the song some momentum, and the odd clap or “zooming” sound effect sure help captivate listener interest. Make no mistake, Dave Gahan’s vocals (which don’t even come in for a minute and a half) are also a big factor in how enchanting the song is. Gahan has a knack for singing low without going too masculine, and flirty without going cheap. The combination of the driving instrumentation and that kind of voice makes for a one-of-a-kind track, perfect for late night driving.
I’ve been a Eurythmics fan practically since infancy. Between that and the fact that they’re plain and simple an 80s staple, they had to take a place on this list. How better to do that than with a David Bowie-inspired number? Eurythmics are best known for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, which I mentioned earlier, but I refuse to let public appreciation for Annie Lennox’s voice stop there. The woman has a truly incredible range, and there’s a smoky rasp in her tone that’s a little like being wrapped in a blanket. “Fame” is Lennox’s version of a playground; following her lilts and pitch changes is a total rollercoaster. On top of that, Lennox and bandmate David Stewart used the track as a lesson in what they do best: mashing together disparate layers into a dizzying, danceable few minutes that can transform any banal moment.
Tears for Fears, “The Way You Are”
Eventually in your exploration of 80s music, you will come across Tears for Fears. “Mad World?” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World?” “Shout?” Hello? Kind of impossible not to tip a hat to them. “The Way You Are” hits this list because it’s a prime example of what I think makes Tears for Fears a standout band: the vocal teamwork between Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. If the band relied on just one of their voices, in my honest opinion, they may have slipped to the wayside, but both of them together are unstoppable. Orzabal and Smith’s voice are impressively similar; it’s almost like listening to twins. It’s a listener’s delight to be bounced between the two voices. The ear can’t settle on one or the other, and that, for me, is the band’s winning quality. Beyond that, the melody of “The Way You Are” is springy, charming, and, given the sadness hidden in the lyrics, surprisingly subversive (a Tears for Fears signature). It’s a song that you might catch yourself putting on loop and listening to for hours just because it works so well.
Synthwave and vaporwave and a whole number of -wave genres, largely inspired by the ‘80s, are on the up-and-up in the music scene. It’s important to know the vibe of music that inspired them. Beyond that, if you’re going to have an 80s themed house party, you might as well put on some of the interesting stuff. The musicians of the past are just like the musicians of today: they have hidden treasures that express their talent and brilliance almost better than their hit singles do. Use this guide to find your favorites and explore deeper. If “Africa” is as far as you’re willing to go, that’s fine, but remember: the synth hits just as hard in places you might never have looked, were it not for this article.
Further listening: ABBA, “On and On and On,” Eurythmics, “Who’s That Girl?”, Siouxsie and the Banshees, “This Wheel’s On Fire”
Featured image by Hannah Wisterman.