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    Overtones: The Compton Sessions: How Dr. Dre Created His Comeback

    Last week, we learned that Dr. Dre's Detox, the most labored and rumor-dogged album in commercial rap history, had been given a mercy killing. “I didn’t like it,” Dre declared. “The record, it just wasn’t good.” It was a bracing death for material that had been accumulating in secret for over a decade, but Dre delivered the news calmly, while in the same breath confirming far more surprising information: He had managed to record a new album of original material, and it was called Compton. Not only was Compton not Detox, it was in many ways unlike anything Dre had released in his career: ragged at the edges, steely, and grim. 

    Talking to the inner circle of musicians who worked most closely with Dre during the heady months in which Compton was made, a common thread emerges: This is definitely not the album Dre had been promising to deliver to the industry for the last 16 years. Instead, it is the late dawning of an idea that seemed to draw direction from everything the leaked Detox tracks were not: It is not relaxed, not clean, not safe. It came together in a blur. Dre’s signature crisp funk is gone, and there is nothing on the album that aims to complement a weed high. Instead, Compton is hulking, sinewy, and defiantly odd. It’s the result of various collaborators—old and young, legendary and unknown—pitching in their talents, all guided by a singular force.

    “What Phil Jackson is to basketball, that’s what Dre is to talent and music. He made me change my perspective on what I can create.”


    —King Mez
    Photo by Courtney Jefferson

    Raleigh rapper King Mez has the most writing credits on Compton besides Dre. He also served as the reference voice for every Dre verse on the album and recorded backing vocals on every track save for one. Mez has as much to do with the industrial-grey tone of Compton anyone (at one point, our interview is interrupted when he gets an impromptu call from Dre himself). 

    To hear Mez tell it, he was brought in late last year, between the death of Detox and Dre’s decision to press on with his new project. "When I got the opportunity to write for Dre I knew it was a dream come true, but a lot of people were worried for me,” he laughs. “Like, ‘Oh man, you’re going over there to write for that album? So many people have tried and have been unsuccessful.’ But I wasn’t around for the times that he’s been uninspired or whatever—the second I met him, we had chemistry. I knew the album was gonna come out. 

    “We originally built on older music he had, stuff that sounded like an updated 2001,” Mez adds, referencing Dre’s slick 1999 opus. He’s diplomatic, but there is a distinctive lack of enthusiasm in his voice describing those early tracks, all of which quickly fell by the wayside once Dre enlisted a fresh batch of younger MCs and producers. "The people that came in really changed the sound of the album,” Mez says.

    According to the rapper, the turning point came when DJ Dahi, the Inglewood producer responsible for Drake’s “Worst Behavior” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees”, submitted the clattering beat for what would become the album’s fanfare, “Talk About It”. “That’s one of the more right now-sounding records on the album,” Mez observes. "I think it really changed Dre’s perspective. Before that, we had a different intro that was really big, and it sounded good, but we all decided it wasn’t right for the album."

    When DJ Dahi first sent over the beat that became “Talk About It”, it was without much hope: Dre’s camp had been collecting music for years, all of it eventually dying on the broken-dreams heap of Detox. “I didn’t think anything of it,” says Dahi. “He hadn’t done anything in 16 years, and a lot of people had been working with him, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t meet Dre until much later, and then I asked him what the project was, and he just said, ‘It’s not The Chronic and it’s not 2001.’”

    The final version of “Talk About It” begins with Mez bleating “I don’t give one fuck” in a strangled voice that sets the record’s hectic pace. Mez co-wrote most of Dre’s verses with the producer’s 25-year-old protégé Justus, including Dre’s own “Talk About It” salvo. “Justus was like, 'Man, we gotta come in and say something outrageous. It’s gotta be like buying the state of California or something,'” Mez remembers. “He was joking, but I was like, 'That actually should be it.’ So I went in, rapped the cadence, and we came up with the next eight to 10 bars before we presented it to Dre. It ended up being the first verse he rapped on a solo record since 2001." 

    Dahi says that watching Dre was an education in surgical adjustments. “When I think about Dre’s music, I think of these really vivid colors—his tracks always feel like a movie, you know?” he says. "I feel like so much of his music happens in mixing. It’s almost not fair. He has his own way of tweaking a beat. You give him anything, and he finds a way to make it hit differently, and you say, ‘Oh, that’s some dope shit.' It’s his ear."

    For “Talk About It”, Dahi paid close attention to those tweaks and says the changes were subtle but profound: “The kick and snare were so much further up than I would have put them; the snare and kick are the motor of hip-hop records, and Dre’s really good at finding that motor so that everything else falls into place behind it."

    “We’ve heard Dre go outside of the box before Compton, but it was usually only for a song or two. What I like about this album is that he stepped all the way outside of the box. And he stayed out."


    —Dem Jointz

    Another new recruit who became integral to the album was producer Dem Jointz; though he has worked with R&B acts like Boyz II Men and longtime Dre collaborator Marsha Ambrosius, in hip-hop, he is an unknown quantity. He ended up producing “Genocide” and “Medicine Man”, co-producing “Deep Water" and “Satisfaction”, and contributing additional background vocals to seven other tracks. 

    Jointz says Dre never offered an overarching perspective for the album. “It’s crazy how it all comes together like he’s telling a specific story, but it wasn’t like it was planned,” he says. “He didn’t get into detail as to what kind of record he was looking for.” Dem was in the studio for the bulk of the album’s creation, and he has his own impressions of the project: “We’ve heard Dre go outside of the box before Compton, but it was usually only for a song or two. What I like about this album is that he stepped all the way outside of the box. And he stayed out."

    Jointz brought the basic track for “Genocide", and Dre suggested adding a sample of the deep synth that opens the Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber on Me”—but not that song’s actual groove. The off-kilter addition galvanizes the beat, turning all of its clanking parts into one loud, fearsome roar. And then there is the song’s disorienting scat breakdown, which Jointz says was all Dre.

    "We were trying to figure out a point where ‘Genocide’ was switching off into some other shit—and this was even before Kendrick got on the album—but [Dre] wanted to go into some jazzy, a capella shit,” Jointz remembers. “He had me go in and do a little beat-box swing and then arranged all the voices and told everyone what to do. After we were finished, no one could make that shit fit with the song. But he kept at it, because he saw it. It’s the moment where that song becomes a movie.”

    “So much of Dre's music happens in mixing. He has his own way of tweaking a beat. You give him anything, and he finds a way to make it hit differently. It’s almost not fair.”


    —DJ Dahi

    It’s this approach—gather together an exploding roomful of talent, coax them into performing to your exacting standards, and then corral them into a neat frame with your name on top—that has become the working method of choice for anyone hoping to claim Dre’s spot. The rap-album-as-talent-showcase is Dre’s model, and on Compton, he demonstrates that he still has the ability to hear unheard brilliance in the work of others. 

    “What Phil Jackson is to basketball, that’s what he is to talent and music,” says Mez. “The way he utilized us, it almost felt like, ‘Oh, so this guy can do this.’ It made me change my perspective on what I can create.” Talking about recording reference tracks for Dre to rap over, Mez marvels, “He coached my voice into sounding like what he wanted his voice to sound like on every song. It was like method acting, in a way: You put yourself in the perspective of someone else for an elongated period of time. So much so that when it was time to start working on my own music again, it was weird for a little while. I had to get out of that mindset.”

    The complicated symbiotic relationship between Mez’s words and Dre’s words—and how those words sound on record—illuminates what a fascinating, non-binary dance so-called ghostwriting can be. In most accounts of Dre’s history as a rapper, he is a vehicle, willingly steered by others. But Mez says they were both driving forces pursuing some larger idea or concept. “Every time I’d record, he’d say, ‘Say it more like this,’ or ‘Say it more like that,’” he remembers. “In his mind, he’s imagining what he’s going to sound like, but he’s getting me to do it  first. I’m telling you, I did thousands of takes for that record. We went over nearly every word. The line on 'Deep Water' that goes 'These niggas won’t let up until they all wet up' is like a just-offbeat, stutter-type rap. We must have went over that 100 times at his beach house.”

    DJ Premier. Photo courtesy of Year Round Records.

    “I watched him work the boards old-school style,” says New York hip-hop vet DJ Premier, who collaborated with Dre on the pained “Animals”. “He’s got ProTools hooked up, but he’s still on the Control 24 board, turning the knobs, working each fader by hand. A lot of kids now don’t do that; everything is just a mouse and a computer screen. I’m like, ‘You still plugged into that? I haven’t used this since ‘98!’”

    Earlier this year, Premier flew out to L.A. to work with Christina Aguilera and stopped by Dre’s studio, bringing with him a sample of a record he’d found on a recent crate-digging trip to Moscow: “He heard it and was like, 'Yo, I need that.'” Premier and Dre were acquaintances, but they hadn’t spoken in over a decade and had never worked together. The track Premier brought had originally been recorded for a different project, and had his crisp, minimalist signature, which Dre began to populate with details. 

    “He added some singers in the background and brought in his man Bluetooth, who’s a piano player, bass player, singer, drummer, all kinds of shit,” says Premier. “There were certain chords I didn’t want, and Dre was cool with it if I said, ‘Hey, that’s a little too much on that part.’ He respects honesty. I like that it wasn’t overdone. He didn’t smother it.

    “Dre recently asked me about the difference between a producer and a beat maker,” Premier adds. “For me, it’s like film: You can shoot all the footage you want, but it’s all about the edit, the final outcome, when the world gets it. That’s what makes you a producer. That’s what Dre does."


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    From the Pitchfork Review: Who Got the Camera? N.W.A's Embrace of "Reality," 1988-1992

    This article originally appeared in an issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, which you can subscribe to here.


    In September 1990, N.W.A appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show” to perform the title track from their EP 100 Miles and Runnin’, closing an episode featuring actresses Annie Potts and Cree Summer. Hall granted the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Dangerous Group” a pre-performance interview, and to emphasize that this was a serious conversation and not simple promotion, Arsenio sat with them on the edge of the interview set—the “getting real” pose popularized by daytime talk-show hosts of the era like Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue.

    They had a lot to talk about. The interview was the group’s first public comment on a letter their label had received a year earlier from Milt Alerich, assistant director of the FBI office of public affairs, in response to the release of their song “Fuck tha Police”. In the letter, Alerich informed the group that “advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.” Though the letter gave a group founded upon controversy a prime opportunity to duke it out with the Feds on firm First Amendment grounds, N.W.A remained silent, only issuing a statement through their publicist that doubled as a PR blurb for their debut album: “Everything N.W.A has to say has been said on Straight Outta Compton, and there is no further comment.”

    This fact notwithstanding, Hall—who, from 1989 to 1994, did more than any other single person to publicize rap to a mainstream audience—gave N.W.A a chance to explain their side of the issue. What was “Fuck tha Police” really about? “Once in everybody’s lifetime,” MC Ren explained, “you get harassed by the police for no reason, and everybody wants to say it, but they can’t say it on the spot.” For Ren, then, “Fuck tha Police” wasn’t provocation, but proxy: a stand-in for the millions of stifled screams wrenched from over-patrolled black neighborhoods nationwide. So maybe it was advocacy, but for catharsis, not the violence that Alerich and the FBI feared.

    The “Arsenio”interview didn’t stop at lyrical exegesis. When Hall asked Dr. Dre what song they were going to perform, he replied, “We can’t do it, man.” Then, to the audience, he continued: “We was gonna perform for y’all, right? But [the police] said N.W.A were too radical, so we just get the interview.” The audience gasped. The LAPD shutting down an “Arsenio” gig was understandable on one hand, given that, after the “Fuck tha Police” letter was mailed, the FBI had worked with rap-concert venue owners and local cops to stifle N.W.A shows around the country. Still, though, to witness it happen on television was shocking. Hall took control, promising to “huddle up” and figure something out before sending the show to break.

    Upon returning from the commercial, the action picks up backstage, where it appears that the worst has happened. N.W.A are scuffling with several police officers, the action captured vérité-style by a handheld camera. Any initial shock wears off very quickly, as the group breaks free from the (actors playing) cops, ascends a flight of stairs, and emerges amidst Arsenio’s crowd as the host’s booming voice introduces the performance proper. Once “100 Miles and Runnin’” takes shape, it becomes clear that two televisual genres have been remixed to serve N.W.A’s promotional needs. A late-night talk show—the province of celebrity promotion—had temporarily mimicked “COPS”, which had debuted on Fox just a year and a half earlier.

    Light years from “Fuck tha Police”, Straight Outta Compton’s “Express Yourself” was N.W.A’s obvious shot at radio airplay. There was no cursing in the verses to censor, and the group’s typical rhythmic cacophony was replaced by a loop of the indelibly funky 1971 hit of the same name by Charles Wright and the 103rd St. Watts Band, a pinnacle of the era’s socially conscious soul music. That “Express Yourself” was flipped by a group led by Wright’s own nephew Eric—better known as Eazy-E—was one thing. More important historically was how, 17 years after the original, N.W.A turned a blissful ode to nonconformity into a statement on the existential battle between true self-expression and the specter of censorship. Using the communicative capital inherited from the fiery rhetoric of the Black Power movement, N.W.A sought to use the relative optimism of “Express Yourself” to create a hole in the firewall around mainstream media, allowing their otherwise dark vision of Compton life to seep through. “There’s a lotta brothers out there flakin’ and perpetratin’, but scared to kick reality,” Dr. Dre plainly tells Ice Cube, framing the song’s message.

    Reality. In 1988, that word was just beginning a seismic semantic split, blazing a new definitional pathway that signified not merely ontology but a new form of televisuality. A decade or so before “Survivor”and “Big Brother”, and a few years before even “The Real World”, reality congealed as a programming format to describe the proliferation of “true crime” telecasts after the runaway success of “COPS” and “America’s Most Wanted”. In their representations of American law and order, these shows sided with state authority, working closely with and for American law enforcement to create inexpensive, incredibly popular entertainment programming for the fledgling Fox network, which had launched only two years earlier. They were cheap to produce for the same reasons that audiences flocked to them: The video-vérité squad-car ride-alongs of “COPS” captured rubberneckers and voyeurs, and the stylized crime recreations and audience-participation structure of “AMW” drew in amateur sleuths and do-gooders.

    “Reality is often ironically difficult to capture because it is unstructured, unpredictable, and unscripted,” “COPS” co-creator John Langley once said about his program. In his own way, he was implying why other producers and networks were “scared to kick reality.” Clearly, Dr. Dre wasn’t specifically talking about reality television on “Express Yourself”, but he was drawing from the same semantic well as Langley and the rest of Fox’s true-crime programming gurus. From opposite ends of the American-entertainment power spectrum, both “COPS” and N.W.A were depicting a vision of law and order at the end of a decade marked by Ronald Reagan’s Draconian policies on poverty, drugs, and violent crime. To Reagan, such issues were not products of deep infrastructural problems, but social blights to eliminate, thereby improving conditions for the privileged. The metaphor was war, and it shaped television-programming decisions and rap productions alike. 

    With Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A instigated a still-active thread of controversy about the connection between rap lyrics and the lived realities of urban black citizens. Before N.W.A, threats of violence on the mic were metaphors for skills on the mic. After N.W.A, the controversies surrounding rap started falling in two camps, as rappers struggled to negotiate the pressures and expectations of a rapidly maturing form of pop music. There were concerns of origin (the authenticity debate—are they “real”?) and of the music’s perceived effects (the morality debate about rappers as terrible role models). But what if rap lyrics, musical production, and promotional imagery weren’t bifurcated along these lines? What if the gangsta rap that N.W.A pioneered wasn’t filtered through authenticity or morality, but through an entertainment format known as reality?

    In its numerous iterations over the last three decades, Chuck D’s declaration that rap is the black CNN remains powerful, inasmuch as it suggests that young black citizens might wrench control of the means of production to broadcast straight from the streets. In form, function, and content, however, gangsta rap’s aesthetic and political roots grew from different soil. While hard-rap predecessors like KRS-One, Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Schoolly D, and smutty-pimp storytellers like Dolemite are N.W.A’s aesthetic predecessors, what made the group revolutionary—and, to some, dangerous—was the manner in which they molded “reality” tropes, crafting true-crime narratives not unlike “COPS”and “America’s Most Wanted”, but from a different perspective.

    They had a lot of raw material to work with. The bounds of televisual objectivity were being stretched beyond recognition in the late 1980s—lines between public-interest reportage and simple tabloid shock were being blurred. N.W.A came up during the “Donahue”and “Geraldo” moment, which reimagined public-affairs talk-show programming as an incendiary cocktail of racial and class tensions. (On 1992’s The Predator, Ice Cube would chop up Louis Farrakhan’s notorious “Donohue” appearance into an interstitial bit of media commentary.)

    At the same time, VHS and Hi-8 Handycam camcorders proliferated like Polaroid cameras had a generation before, transforming private activities into network-television entertainment. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos” debuted in November 1989.) More importantly for black citizens’ interactions with police, camcorders promised to democratize surveillance, and could transform awareness of unseen abuses of power. Ideally, cheap video cameras might objectively prove the reality “Fuck tha Police” poetically raged against.

    Through Straight Outta Compton, gangsta rap was nurtured in a city with a notorious history of de jure segregation, patches of peaceful suburban living, and a lengthy, dismal post-industrial employment drought that, for some, made crack and crime lucrative job options. In his 1990 book City of Quartz, Mike Davis dubbed L.A. “the carcereal city,” in which surveillance of the ethnic underclasses was built into the architecture and city-planning, and patrolled by a militaristic police force seeking to maintain peace for the middle and upper-classes. Gangsta rap also came of age in the shadow of Hollywood, the world’s largest and most powerful creator of myths. 

    This combination of factors underlines the difference between N.W.A’s hard-rap predecessors and Straight Outta Compton. Reality, that emergent mixture of objective reportage and tabloid shock, perfectly complemented N.W.A.’s dark, violent impression of their part of the world—one that was ignored by the mass media, but constantly surveilled by the police. Reality, for one example, explains why “Fuck tha Police” was at once a stylized documentary of African Americans faced with racist cops—what music journalist Jon Caramanica once called “audio vérité”—and a sharp shock. How else could one shout from the midst of a war zone in 1989 without adding a bit of theater?

    No matter N.W.A’s middle-class upbringings and celebrity aspirations—only Eazy had banged to any meaningful degree, via a loose affiliation with the Kelly Park Crips—growing up amidst a war between people who looked like them and police who didn’t provided the creative fuel for their confrontational gangsta performance. As Dan Charnas recounts in his book The Big Payback, “they had all grown up around gangs and guns—in South Central, that was reality.” So when the group’s early mentor Lonzo Williams ran into Dre and Eazy buying guns at L.A.’s Carson Mall, he was shocked and asked them what was going on. Their response was plain: They were going on their first tour. “Dre, Eazy, and Cube were turning that reality into theater, and now that theater was becoming real, too,” Charnas explains.“Of course they were buying guns. Everywhere they went now, real gangsters were trying to test them.” Their manager Jerry Heller wrote the purchases off as a business expense—to the IRS, they were “stage props.” 

    For many observers, this ontological cocktail—part documentary, part Alice Cooper—made no sense. In a 1990 feature for The Source, rap journalist David Mills claimed that N.W.A’s shock tactics eradicated their claims to represent “the strength of street knowledge.” That’s true, though only if rap is viewed through the journalistic convention of objectivity. By freely mixing hard hood realities with creative, cocksure fictions traceable back to the blues, N.W.A took rap through the same reality looking-glass that “COPS” and “America’s Most Wanted”were doing for TV’s primarily white audiences seeking a fresh view of American law and order. For N.W.A and the early solo careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, reality gave them a chance to symbolically stand behind the lens of the camera and rifle scope, instead of serving as their targets.

    Dr. Dre illustration by Meaghan Garvey


    In 1983, UC Irvine PhD dropout John Langley and producing partner Malcolm Barbour teamed up to make the documentary Cocaine Blues. Focusing on Broward County, Florida sheriff Nick Navarro’s struggles with the drug trade, the film drew the attention of Geraldo Rivera, who hired the duo to produce his salacious, news-vérité series “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation”. In 1988, to capitalize on their success in the documentary realm, Langley and Barbour convinced the fledgling Fox network to pick up four episodes of “COPS”, a vérité ride along show based on “American Vice”, but paired with different departments around the country. It helped that “COPS” was incredibly cheap to produce, given that networks were scrambling for writerless program ideas due to the WGA writer’s strike of summer 1988.

    “COPS” looked a little like news—minorities and poor folks getting arrested on camera is a legacy of local broadcasts—and a lot like the documentary style called “direct cinema,” pioneered in the 1960s by filmmakers Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, the Maysles Brothers, and DA Pennebaker, while a related style called cinema vérité was taking hold in France. By taking advantage of post–World War II advances in handheld-camera and sync-sound recording, direct-cinema practitioners used new technologies to craft bold truth claims about their films. The filmmakers could assert that they were merely flies on the wall, observing intimate moments and revealing long-held secrets without interfering with the natural behaviors of their human subjects. In a way, they used cameras like scientific instruments: technologies that revealed previously unseen objective truths about social life.  

    Langley and Barbour took the direct-cinema idea to the shotgun seats of cop cars on commercial TV, and “COPS” was an immediate hit. While the duo built on a broad foundation of true-crime realism, from “Dragnet” through 1970s audience-participation shows like “Crimestoppers”, “COPS”direct-cinema aesthetic introduced an entirely new patina of unobstructed documentation. Reenactments were replaced by what Langley called “raw reality,” which encouraged a voyeuristic position to take in the action. The reality of raw reality, of course, is that “COPS” traded any pretense toward objectivity for an unprecedented level of backstage access; in the show’s world, perpetrators are anonymous while police officers are well-rounded characters who provide each episode’s narrative arc. “COPS”foremost legacy, aside from its forceful introduction of a new form of televisuality, is as a highly effective PR bullhorn for the “human” side of police-work. 

    The production innovations of “COPS” were one thing; the reception among viewers was quite another. In Mary Oliver and Blake Armstrong’s pioneering 1992 study of real-crime TV, they discovered that true-crime viewership was more often than not read as a primetime proxy war against urban minority groups. For Oliver and Armstrong, “COPS”’audience comprised “overwhelmingly white males with high levels of authoritarianism and racism, who took pleasure in the dramatic arrest footage.” More specifically, they concluded that “the packaging of these programs, with its emphasis upon the ‘real’ nature of the footage, spoke directly to an audience hungry to see the underclass taking punishment.”

    On August 1, 1988, Gloria Flowers, a resident of an apartment complex on 39th and Dalton in South Central Los Angeles, was taking a bath while her two children played in another room. Suddenly, the LAPD burst into her apartment, smashing it up as they went. Flowers ran naked from the tub to find her kids and was confronted by the officers, who forced her at gunpoint to lie on her floor. One officer threw a towel at her as she lay trembling.

    The LAPD’s raid at 39th and Dalton has long been acknowledged as a colossal failure of police-work, creating an intractable schism between black citizens and the officers sworn to protect and serve them. Following the orders of LAPD police chief Daryl Gates, 88 police officers swarmed two buildings in the South Central apartment complex they suspected was a hideout for crack dealers, while choppers hovered loudly overhead. The idea wasn’t so much a bust—the actual haul was paltry—as a publicity stunt and symbolic warning. “The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators,” noted the LA Times in a 2001 retrospective. “Some officers left their own graffiti: ‘LAPD Rules.’” A dozen residents were left homeless, tended to by the Red Cross as the unwitting collateral damage of a botched military operation.

    “Gangsta rap (or reality rap) … is a direct by-product of the crack explosion,” culture critic Nelson George once wrote. “This is not a chicken-or-the-egg riddle—first came crack rocks, then gangsta rap.” Three years before the 39th and Dalton raid, after watching an LAPD tank—called a Batterram—plow through a suspected crackhouse on the news, rapper Toddy Tee wrote and released a song of the same name, a sort of folktale about the existential fear of living in such a world:

    And the Chief of Police says he just might
    Flatten out every house he sees on sight
    Because he say the rockman is takin’ him for a fool
    And for some damn reason it just ain’t cool
    And when he drives down the street, I tell you the truth
    He gets no respect, they call his force F Troop
    He can’t stand it, he can’t take no more
    And now he’s gonna have you all fall into the floor

    “Batterram” received significant airplay on local station KDAY, paving the way for another foundational document of reality rap, Ice-T’s 1986 single “6 in the Mornin’”. Over an unrelentingly bleak drum-machine pound, in a dead-eyed, matter-of-fact cadence, T’s first-person tale starts with him fleeing a pre-dawn raid out a back window of his house and traces his activities through a day in his life. Aside from the part where his character beats up a loud-mouthed woman, the darkest point of the song comes with this nihilistic nursery rhyme: “The Batterrams rolling, rocks are the thing/ Life has no meaning, and money is king.”

    Though it was released only a couple of years later, the difference between “Fuck tha Police” and its reality-rap predecessors was dramatic. N.W.A’s capacity for multidimensional scene-setting is light years beyond the comparatively minimal production of “Batterram”, “6 in the Mornin’”, and their own first single, “Boyz-n-the-Hood”, and much closer to the Bomb Squad’s hyper-mediated sound storms. The song is framed as a trial, during which N.W.A is prosecuting a crooked cop. After rapped testimonies from Cube and Ren, the song briefly cuts to Eazy, re-enacting a home invasion:

    Cop: [knocks on door]
    Eazy: Yeah man, what you need?
    Cop: Police, open now. We have a warrant for Eazy-E’s arrest.
    Eazy: Aww shit.
    Cop: Get down and put your hands up where I can see ’em!
    Eazy: What the fuck did I do, man what did I do?
    Cop: Just shut the fuck up and get your motherfucking ass on the floor.
    Eazy: But I didn’t do shit.
    Cop: Man, just shut the fuck up!

    The evidence was overwhelming. The song ends with the police officer found guilty by Dre of being a “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker.”

    Eazy-E illustration by Meaghan Garvey


    By the late 1980s, as the rhetorical effects of the Black Power movement were waning, leaving many black Americans without a unifying political voice, pop culture took the lead. Public Enemy’s Black Nationalist rap assumed the mantle first, Chuck D’s fiery politics filtered through the model of a self-sustaining black media empire. Writer Harry Allen was P.E.’s in-house “media assassin,” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise” contained sharp critiques of false journalism, while the video for “Night of the Living Baseheads” cleverly skewered cable-news tropes. Yet their greatest threat, it was revealed, came from within: P.E. associate Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments went public, quickly draining the group’s popular influence. 

    Into P.E.’s place slid N.W.A, keeping the media metaphors—they were “street reporters,” in Dre’s description—and mixing them with dark realities of Daryl Gates’ Los Angeles. In his book 1989, Joshua Clover considers the shift from Public Enemy to N.W.A—from Black Nationalism to gangsta—as “a change within a genre so substantial, with such cultural force, that it feels … as if the earth had suddenly reversed the direction of its spin.” In place of P.E.’s progressive advocacy, Clover continues, “Gangsta offered up the figure of the violent black youth as a character to be consumed (from a safe distance); in turn, that character was increasingly required to objectify the world around him.” The connection to reality TV here is clear: In exchange for access, “COPS” evacuates law and order of the broad historical contexts that give rise to the well-edited confrontations. For N.W.A, everything around them—cops, drug dealers, women—were objectified. Their reality rebellion was equal parts pointed critique and caricature.

    All popular music is, to some degree, a creative refraction of the social realities large and small that birth it and give it shape. What set gangsta rap apart was both the detail with which the artists directly indexed their social reality and the semiotic smokescreen of mythic toughness and violence through which they filtered it. N.W.A exploited rap music’s penchant for outsize characters and strong connections to geographical origin, and mixed in the reality claims of “COPS” to play into conservative fears that they might just not be kidding.

    N.W.A didn’t invent this idea: social scientists researching gang life have long reported that actual gang members recount their real-life exploits with cinematic flair. “I spent many hours watching gang members animatedly discussing events—past events, rumored events, proposed new events—and emotionally feeding off these much as they might reenact an Arnold Swarzenegger or Clint Eastwood movie,” wrote sociologist Malcolm Klein in his 1997 study of gang life. While the 1988 film Colors showed the nation how white cops played by Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn were dealing with L.A. gang life, Traginew Park Crip MC Eiht and Rollin’ 20s Crip Snoop Doggy Dogg were rapping at gang-attended barbecues as a creative release from banging and a way to earn extra money and a different form of notoriety.

    In the reality mode of expression, the line between identity politics and social-justice concerns becomes perilously thin. It’s no accident that it took shape under Reagan’s neoliberal model of governance, in which market ideologies were applied to social organization. Its impact on the way gang members went about their lives after the riots was profound, noted rap historian Jeff Chang a decade later in a discussion of the Bloods & Crips truce album Bangin’ on Wax: “The separation into teams; the factional rivalries; the rhetorical gun-waving; the obsession with performance, both spectacular and meritocratic. Here was ‘reality rap’ as blueprint (or redprint, depending on what state you claimed) for reality TV ... the moment when neoliberalism finally began to understand the value of multiculturalism.”

    Such an ideological paradigm quickly became an effective publicity tool for what’s now called “personal branding”—once “The Real World”debuted in 1992, everyday folks started creatively marketing personality traits in exchange for a chance at 15 minutes of fame. “COPS” itself has also long played into this same ideal, by eliminating the distinction between news conventions and reality performances. “When they hear that we’re not a news camera, that we’re ‘COPS’,” Langley told the New York Times in 2009, “they generally exclaim, ‘Oh, that’s great! When will I be on?’”

    A few months after Straight Outta Compton hit store shelves, another creative, hyperreal vision of law and order used Los Angeles as a stage. In April 1989, wanting to give one last promotional push to her anti-drug “Just Say No” campaign, Nancy Reagan accompanied Daryl Gates and the LAPD to the raid of a suspected crack house at South Main and East 51st, just east of Interstate 110. What the LA Times called “one of the stranger moments in the annals of Los Angeles crime fighting” was promoted to news outlets by an LAPD spokesperson and was witnessed by Reagan and Gates, the Times wrote, “munching fruit salad in an air-conditioned motor home parked beside the alleged rock house.” More than a dozen were arrested, and about a gram of cocaine was confiscated. After the smoke cleared, Reagan took a tour of the house, reporting what she saw to the waiting television cameras. Straight Outta Compton wasn’t just adopting the postmodern conventions of modern television news. It was counterprogramming.

    “Ten years ago, we decided to use television as a nationwide crime-fighting tool, to deputize everyone in America as members of an electronic, interactive posse.” This was John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted”, marking the show’s 10th anniversary in 1998. Seventeen years earlier, when Walsh was a south Florida hotel developer, his wife left their son Adam in a Sears toy department while she shopped. The couple never saw Adam alive again, and his killer proved elusive. After becoming a public advocate for missing children, and having his own story dramatized through two NBC TV movies, Walsh was tapped by Fox to host “AMW”, which debuted in February 1988.

    Based off the success of British predecessor “Crimewatch”, and following the popularity of American program “Unsolved Mysteries”, the format of “AMW” was simple, and startlingly effective: Walsh introduces each case while a mocked-up newsroom/police department operates behind him. Then he segues into the show’s most compelling segments: the reenactments. Shot cheaply with unknown actors, these reenactments bear the dramatic visual touchstones of fiction, but are framed as actual events—like Eazy’s home-invasion vignette, flipped and re-broadcast from the perspective of power. In terms of actual crime fighting, these reenactments are completely superfluous: a symbolic, titillating, and often cheesy nod to the entertainment necessities of prime-time television.

    Like “COPS”, “AMW”was incredibly popular because it demonstrated that unrelenting social ills and evils simply arose, but could be dealt with effectively and swiftly through the power of the state. “AMW” was unlike “COPS”in two main ways, though. First, it dealt with much larger crimes—the stuff that gets people placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Second, while “COPS”urged audiences to virtually identify with the good guys over the “bad boys,” “AMW”actually deputized American television viewers to help find criminals on the lam, giving them a 1-800 number instead of a badge and gun. The show proved so successful at its stated goal that when Fox threatened to cancel the show in 1996 due to skyrocketing production costs, Nevada governor Bob Miller wrote to the network: “Strong legislation and committed law enforcement officials cannot stop crime alone. It takes programming such asAMW’ to involve the public and lead to arrests and convictions.”

    Like “COPS”, “AMW”has long been criticized for its strict focus on crime as the unpredictable behavior of irrational individuals—something that can only be fixed after it happens, never predicted or alleviated ahead of time. So if “COPS” was a voyeuristic, exploitative representation of American crime that relies on vérité tropes to engender a sense of reality, “AMW”’s citizen crowdsourcing and dramatic re-creations facilitated a mild surveillance state founded upon undue paranoia that evil lurks among us in the safest of spaces. During its run, “AMW” was responsible for more than 1,000 arrests of fugitives on the lam. Yet in more subtle but equally meaningful ways, the show suggested a reaction to crime and criminality that mirrored what in black communities was understood as “profiling.”

    In January 1990, with a South Central crew and a rhymebook filled with lyrics originally intended for N.W.A in tow, Ice Cube went to New York City. For his first solo LP, he wanted Chuck D and the Bomb Squad to reshape his image. “We knew it had to be the best of both worlds,” Chuck D recalled in a recent interview about merging P.E.’s sensibilities with Cube’s. “Cube was the chief writer in N.W.A, so he had to deliver the gangster thing … You don’t gotta become conscious overnight, but you also have to grow.”

    The resulting LP, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, was released that May and positioned Cube not only as an intelligent, political lyricist, but also as the exact sort of outlaw that John Walsh and millions of television viewers were devoted to catching. “Since he left N.W.A, Ice Cube’s been on the run, from L.A. to New York,” read a promotional poster for the new album. Listing a 1-900 number under a mugshot of Cube, the ad reconfigured “AMW”’s citizen crime-fighting technology into a promotional gimmick. Call the number, and “find out what’s going on straight from Ice Cube.”

    Amerikkka’s title track made no bones about whether or not he was flipping the Fox show’s script—among the first sounds heard are a sample of John Walsh’s voice warning listeners, “Don’t try to apprehend him.” Like he did on “Fuck tha Police”, Cube offers a proxy version of American law and order, both based in the undeniable reality of millions and slightly fictionalized for dramatic effect—”AMW”’s reality through a funhouse mirror. In the song’s third verse, Cube’s rogue character takes a trip to the suburbs: “Let ‘em see a nigga invasion/ Point blank on a caucasian.” When a snitch turns him in, he shifts to a critique of “black on black crime”—robbery is fine, in other words, as long as it stays within particular neighborhoods:

    I think back when I was robbin’ my own kind
    The police didn’t pay it no mind
    But when I start robbin the white folks
    Now I’m in the pen with the soap-on-a-rope
    I said it before and I’ll still taught it
    Every motherfucker with a color is most wanted

    In the early morning of March 3, 1991, plumbing salesman and video hobbyist George Holliday was awakened by helicopters and police sirens outside his home in Lakeview Terrace, about an hour north of Compton. He grabbed his brand new Sony Handycam, went outside, and started shooting. On that tape, he captured eight minutes of blurry footage showing several LAPD officers beating a single man after a traffic stop, the scene lit by their cruisers’ headlights. Local television station KTLA gave Holliday $500 for the crude video, which they edited down to an 81-second excerpt. Soon, the footage was appearing on local network newscasts across the country, and millions of Americans saw a form of true-crime reality more plainly shocking than they’d ever see on “COPS”and “America’s Most Wanted”.

    What America was witnessing was an act of aggression—white men exercising state power with brute force over the body of a black man—with undeniable connections to the country’s foundation of white supremacy. Director John Singleton called it “a lynching on tape.” MC Ren summarized the views of many others: “It ain’t nothing new to me. It’s just nobody never captured it on a videotape.” For months, it was assumed that the video’s visual evidence was damning, and finally, rogue LAPD cops would get their comeuppance. Yet, as media theorist John Fiske has argued, once the footage was relocated to a courtroom, the lo-res authenticity of Holliday’s video was turned hi-res by the LAPD’s legal team. By digitizing, enhancing, and freeze-framing the footage for the jury, the defense recoded the story. 

    At one point in the video, King lurches forward, his body still affected by a 50,000-volt Taser hit. By playing the footage in slow motion, claims Fiske, the defense effectively “stretched the links between action and reaction until they could be broken. Frozen at its maximum velocity, his body became an ever-present threat.” The officers were found not guilty on April 29, 1992.

    Quickly, the anger that had been simmering for years, if not decades—Gates’ L.A. was a militarized version of Bill Parker’s “thin blue line” separating black citizens from whites by force in the 1950s and 1960s—boiled over. As black citizens took to the streets that evening—spontaneously forming a militia that, for a few days, vastly outnumbered the police force—local filmmaker Matty McDaniel followed the action, his Magnavox Super-VHS and wide-angle lens capturing reactions that official sources weren’t. McDaniel’s camera heard the three-year-old “Fuck tha Police” pouring out of car windows at Florence and Normandie, the song functioning both as a protest song and a delayed “we told you so”—reality rap had completed its full circle, and was now soundtracking the sort of lived reality it had warned about on wax.

    As Los Angeles burned, Dr. Dre was in the studio recording his solo debut, The Chronic. While his Death Row compatriots Kurupt and Snoop Doggy Dogg participated in the looting, Dre began working on a song about it as it was happening. McDaniels’ interview footage from hours after the verdict, conducted outside the First AME Church in South Central, was looped into the song, titled “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”, montaged with rapped verses and recreations of news reporting. From the furious opening soundbite, Dre reframed McDaniels’ citizen journalism as high-concept reality rap, with one man’s fiery rhetoric adding a you-are-there urgency to the track.

    The Chronic, released in December 1992, became the most acclaimed album of the reality-rap moment, while also signaling through songs like “Let Me Ride” and “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” the start of what critic Jeff Chang called “the beginning of a guiltless, gentrified gangsta ... a brand-conscious ‘G’ Thang ready for easy consumption.”

    Similarly, Ice Cube’s The Predator, released a month earlier, featured the laid-back mega-hit “It Was a Good Day” but otherwise doubled down on the militaristic realism and stark social commentary of this historic moment. Predator album track “We Had to Tear this Mothafucka Up” opens by connecting the L.A. revolts to the history of the Civil Rights movement: It begins with the voice of Nashville mayor Ben West (sampled from a PBS civil rights documentary) urging “peace, quiet, and good order” in response to the city’s 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. Then, as DJ Muggs’ stand-up bass sample emerges, the vocal samples switch to a montage of news clips about the King verdict and subsequent reaction, and Cube’s verses shift the story to an imagined recounting of the revolts in which each acquitted officer meets a uniquely violent fate, while black-owned businesses are left alone in lieu of looting Foot Locker stores.

    But Cube’s most stirring and prescient commentary on this album came in the form of “Who Got the Camera?”, in which home invasion is relocated to the traffic stop, and recourse via 9mm is re-technologized as justice via Hi-8. For Cube, by late 1992, the perceived enemies of the state were those black citizens who’d taken hold of the means of representation: directors John Singleton, Matty McDaniel, and Spike Lee.

    It’s this track—from Side B of Cube’s first Billboard #1 album, released a year before “COPS” went into syndication—that brings the social-justice concerns ignored by reality-TV producers into sharp focus: “When I stepped out the car they slammed me/ Goddamn y’all who got the camera?” The truth value of images recorded onto magnetic tape via consumer-level gadgets might not have made a difference in the Simi Valley courtroom, but their possibilities were undeniable to those faced with the ever-present threat of state-sanctioned racial profiling. By this point, pointing-and-shooting with Sony instead of Smith & Wesson would have seemed equally powerful.

    In early summer 1963, the American prime-time landscape was filled with visions of law and order that looked either like the rural romanticism of “The Andy Griffith Show”or the good-vs.-evil battles on “Perry Mason”. Yet it was the 7 o’clock hour preceding primetime where the mainstream public caught its first glimpse of real American justice.

    The non-violent civil rights protestors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made their way into Birmingham, Alabama’s downtown business district on May 7th, the location strategically chosen because of the outsize, publicity-seeking nature of the city’s Klan-affiliated, segregationist police chief Bull Connor. Seizing a moment to publicize his zero-tolerance stance on integration, Connor attacked the protestors with high-pressure firehoses and vicious police dogs, in full view of news cameras. While the protests and accompanying boycotts helped desegregate Birmingham lunch counters, the footage of Connor’s violent reactions against peaceful protestors went viral, swaying the court of public opinion and providing a much-needed publicity boost for the flagging Civil Rights movement. President Kennedy delivered a
    national address on civil rights that June, the March on Washington happened in August, and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law that next January.

    In a way, the SCLC’s Birmingham infiltration was one of the 20th century’s savviest political PR moves. The protesters set a media trap for Bull Connor, daring him to inflict state-sanctioned violence on the bodies of innocent black citizens, and he fell right into it.

    The political and media landscapes of the “reality”-infused late 1980s were dramatically different, however. National politicians had long learned to wrangle the power of flickering electronic signifiers and advertising discourses to further their own power, though not in the realm of legislation as much as ideological representation. Simultaneously, and not coincidentally, the democratic ideals of public affairs television, documentary, and news were taken over by a tabloid-style shock doctrine that hollowed out the meaning of these formats while keeping the realist effect of their structures. Shows like “COPS” and “America’s Most Wanted”, along with talk shows like “Donohue”and “Geraldo”, were discursively embedded in the Reagan-era war on crime, turning the prime-time public into titillated voyeurs and willing participants of a law-and-order simulacrum designed to keep the middle-class hyper-vigilant for racialized criminality.

    Out of this scenario, Straight Outta Compton marked as radical an intervention as the Bull Connor footage did 25 years earlier—a loud, unavoidable intervention into a mainstream conversation on race and crime that strove to maintain a white, middle-class status quo by any means necessary. Though “Fuck tha Police” still serves as an anthem for real protest, N.W.A’s wars were and are mainly still waged within the realm of the entertainment world that birthed them. This by itself is no small feat: The realms of culture and representation provide the raw material for new subjectivities and ideals, the stuff that can, in subtle ways, lead to actual change.

    N.W.A and Ice Cube not only provided a proxy voice for the disenfranchised, they pioneered a new language. By embracing the profiles created for them by racist law enforcement infrastructures and creating the hyperreal “gangsta” and “nigga” archetypes as caricatures of those profiles, N.W.A tossed a discursive Molotov Cocktail into suburban living rooms nationwide, creating a fierce black counterpublic to the pervasive rhetoric and action that was afforded by Reagan’s wars on drugs and crime in black neighborhoods. 

    In the 20-plus years since the twin births of true-crime reality TV and reality-fueled rap, the two formats have mutated countless times as they’ve immersed themselves deeply into the language of mainstream pop culture—an evolution that has proven less politically combative than synergistic. Kanye West’s 2014 marriage to celebreality pioneer Kim Kardashian marked the official merger of rap with reality TV’s most popular current iteration: following the lives of the rich and famous (and creating both conditions as well).

    Among the countless examples of “rap reality” are Flavor Flav’s “Flavor of Love”, Snoop Dogg’s “Father Hood”, and Ice-T’s “Ice Loves Coco”. Then there’s Drake, who’s bragged on record about living in Calabasas, the gated L.A. suburb that doubles as the home of countless reality shows, rapping “she look like a star—but only on camera” on 2011’s Take Care. At this point, a foothold in the record business is frequently seen as an opportunity to expand a multi-platform brand, crafting and marketing an ostensible “realness” in front of the camera.

    Flavor Flav's "Flavor of Love" is one of many modern examples of "rap reality." Illustration by Meaghan Garvey.

    The stunning visual evidence of racialized police brutality can still powerfully intervene into this “reality.” On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was approached by two NYPD officers outside a beauty store in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, and local resident Ramsey Orta immediately started recording the encounter on his smartphone. Orta’s pocket-sized digital camera frames the emotional exchange as a tense performance, the vertical framing signaling 2014 vernacular video as much as George Holliday’s blurry zoom and night-vision aura historicizes his 1991 Rodney King footage. As white plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo applies a violent chokehold that would wrench Garner’s last words from his lungs—“I can’t breathe!” he repeated eleven times—Orta’s own voice is heard: “Once again, police beatin’ up on people … ” before he is visually and aurally cut off by another officer telling him to move back. It’s noteworthy, particularly to the majority of Americans who don’t see similar actions on a regular basis, that Orta wasn’t screaming these words. He doesn’t know Garner will die, and his tone reflects a mundane frustration at white police assaulting a black man. This again.

    Unlike the Rodney King tape, the Eric Garner video showed a police officer killing an unarmed black man in broad daylight. The coroner deemed it a homicide, and the clip went viral online, but even such a blatantly violent and tragic video proved unconvincing evidence to even bring Pantaleo to trial. More than two decades after Ice Cube asked “Who Got the Camera?”, the answer is “everyone, everywhere, at all times.” 

    In the immediate aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, many observers were shocked that in 2014’s media-saturated world, no one had managed to capture it on video. Yet despite the countless technological innovations to have emerged since 1991, the legal weight of such damning imagery seems to have somehow lessened. The reasons for this are numerous, arising as much from America’s foundational ideology of white supremacy over black citizens as it does Americans’ modern feeling of impotence to affect lasting change amidst a polarized political landscape and the increasing mediatization of everyday life.

    Can rap respond? At a very basic level, yes. The one factor connecting rap and police work, as true in 2015 as it was in 1988, is that they both rely on representation—of black bodies and black lives—as the source of their power. The story of reality rap from 1988 to 1992 was one in which the means of representation was overtaken by the surveilled, as Straight Outta Compton emerged from the fringes of political power and the global center of mythmaking. Yet in the years before and since, an array of far more insidious technologies and practices have created fictionalized representations to track, map, and isolate black citizens: wall-mounted cameras, on-street police “profiling,” gang-affiliation databases, as well as segregationist housing policies and the laws that support them. Most recently, police departments have started embedding cameras in cop uniforms and combing through Big Data sets of subjectively coded crime statistics, sending extra patrols to those neighborhoods where violations are predicted to happen next.

    Should rap respond? Some have, more haven’t, and most won’t. Yet silence in the face of racist surveillance tactics doesn’t represent a failure of rap any more than a camera fails for not perfectly capturing the entirety of a busy city sidewalk. Like a camera, rap is a tool of representation that can be put to many ends. Yet at the same time, what has always made rap unique from other forms of cultural expression is its bold approach toward representation, through a mixture of objective reality—street names, neighborhood affiliations, housing units, and intersections—and the fantasies and parallel lives that are back-projected onto these spaces. There is a middle ground to be found here: No, rappers shouldn’t have to feel compelled to issue creative rebuttals to state-sanctioned, technologically abetted representations of their own lives. But it’s also the case that, well before and well after N.W.A, rappers have built for themselves an artful pressure-release valve that millions like them can use when they’re finding it hard to breathe. 


    This article originally appeared in an issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, which you can subscribe to here.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Emotional Intelligence: A Guide to Melodic IDM

    This August marks the 22nd anniversary of the online rave resource Hyperreal's “Intelligent Dance Music” listserv, an early Internet mailing list that gave birth to the term, and where many of the critical parameters of the electronic subgenre were hashed out in the mid 1990s. That also makes 22 years that fans and critics have been arguing over the name's negative implications: If the stuff covered by IDM's brainy umbrella is "intelligent," does that mean that other forms of dance music are somehow boneheaded? (In fact, the first message on the IDM list posed this very question.)

    In retrospect, it's a shame that fans never came up with a better handle (the Rephlex label's proffered "braindance" never quite cut the mustard, for obvious reasons). As dumb as a lot of latter-day EDM can be, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone today who'd argue that dance music is inherently less legitimate than any other form of music. The very idea of dividing music between its "intelligent" and "unintelligent" forms seems, frankly, pretty backwards. But it becomes easier to swallow the goofy name if you consider Warp's pivotal Artificial Intelligence compilation, which the IDM list creator Brian Behlendorf cited as an inspiration for the forum. I've always liked to think of IDM along those lines—as an imaginary music of sentient machines. 

    The heady style is best known for its difficulty. Marked by tangled rhythms and twisted timbres, it grew out of the brow-furrowing, convoluted example set by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre in the early '90s. It's ironic, then, that classic IDM is often so drenched in tear-jerking melodies. But it also makes sense that such aggressive crunch and soft-focus sentimentalism would go together so well; the silvery, sparkling leads are the spoonful of sugar that helps all that broken glass go down. These are the tracks tomorrow's androids may sing to themselves as they love, hurt, and reminisce.

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    Mu-Ziq

    "Iesope"

    1993

    Listen on Apple Music

    Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas' most famous alias has encompassed everything from drill 'n' bass to acid-soaked breakcore, but this gauzy track from his 1993 debut album proves that he's not afraid to get sentimental.

    Autechre

    "Lost"

    1994

    Listen on Apple Music

    By the turn of the millennium, Autechre's experiments would lead them down a Teflon-coated rabbit hole of slippery rhythms, sometimes at the expense of emotion. But their early work is expressive enough to make up for it. Case in point: this exquisitely melancholy fusion of chirping rhythms and humanoid coos from 1994's Anti EP, a protest against the British government's Criminal Justice Bill, which banned raves and squashed civil liberties.

    The Black Dog

    "Tahr"

    1995

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    The Middle Eastern scales of "Tahr" make a good fit for the Cerberus on the cover of Spanners, the Black Dog's second album for Warp. The double-time beats suggest jungle rhythms transposed over to hand-percussion samples, but it's the contrapuntal phrases that give this track its otherworldly punch. 

    Bola

    "Forcasa 3"

    1995

    Listen on Apple Music

    The opening track on Darrell Fitton's debut EP is probably the best thing he's ever done. Much like Boards of Canada's Hi Scores EP, which would appear on Skam the following year, he balances crisp programming with artfully layered synthesizers; the song's sidewinding 6/8 time signature helps it slide even deeper under your skin.

    Boards of Canada

    "Roygbiv"

    1998

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nobody writes melodies like Boards of Canada, and on this Music Has the Right to Children standout, they braid them into a three-part counterpoint. If all public-television nature shows had music this compelling, their pledge drives would be over in a flash.

    Sun Electric

    "Stimpak"

    1996

    Listen on Apple Music

    The German duo of Max Loderbauer and Tom Thiel got their start making straight-ahead Frankfurt trance, but by the mid '90s they were masters of elastic rhythms and silvery leads. Their albums Present and Via Nostra, for R&S' Apollo sub-label, are underrated masterpieces of late-'90s electronica.

    Gescom

    "Key Nell 3"

    1996

    Listen on Apple Music

    The Autechre-related Gescom project was best known for crunchy hip-hop breaks and conceptual hijinks like their Minidisc album—an 88-track minidisc release intended to be listened to on shuffle. (Fortunately, the concept has ported over to streaming platforms just fine.) This song’s chiming synths and eerie string pads make for a spine-tingling complement to Autechre's Amber, the duo's melodic high point.

    Jega

    "Phlax"

    1996

    Listen on Apple Music

    Along with Gescom, Boards of Canada, and Bola, Manchester's Jega helped establish the Skam label's reputation for cutting-edge experimental electronic music in the mid '90s. "Phlax", from his debut EP, balances Aphex-inspired detuned leads and heavy reverb with overdriven electro snap. 

    Plaid

    "Kortisin"

    1997

    Listen on Apple Music

    Apologies to Boards of Canada, but the Black Dog spinoff Plaid might be even more skillful melodicists—or maybe it's their frequent use of plucked tones that gives that impression. In any case, this lilting, loping gem from 1997's Not for Threes shows that they know their way around a chord change (and their stepping, shuffling beats aren't too shabby either).

    Atom™

    "Miniature in F Minor"

    1997

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    Here we have jazz riffing and mosquito squeal from the Roger Tubesound Ensemble, a short-lived alias of Uwe Schmidt (better known as Atom™). This came out in 1997 on his own Rather Interesting label and was recently remastered and reissued as part of his ongoing Atom™AudioArchive project.

    Aphex Twin

    "Flim"

    1997

    Listen on Apple Music

    Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" is among the most intimidating things he's ever done. "I will eat your soul!" goes its death metal refrain. But he proved that he was really just a big ol' softy with the A2 cut, "Flim", a lighthearted romp through zero-G breakbeats and harp-like synths. For what it's worth, Skrillex has called it his favorite song of all time.

    Squarepusher

    "Beep Street"

    1997

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    Tom Jenkinson steals a page from Richard D. James' playbook on this delightful standout from 1997's Hard Normal Daddy; for all the shock-and-awe of his breakbeat pyrotechnics, you could arrange this for, like, banjo and clarinet, and listeners would know exactly what song it is.

    Mira Calix

    "Sparrow"

    2000

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    You can hear a premonition of Chantal Francesca Passamonte's work with classical ensembles in this early recording under her Mira Calix alias, as strings and woodwinds (or their electronic equivalents, anyway) bob and weave against scratchy hip-hop rhythms.

    Mrs Jynx

    "Ice Pops"

    2008

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    Planet Mu made the perfect home for Hannah Davidson's debut album as Mrs Jynx; her synthetic harps and chimes trace a flickering line all the way back to Mike Paradinas' work at its most emotive.

    Ceephax Acid Crew

    "Emotinium II"

    2010

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    Ceephax Acid Crew—aka Andy Jenkinson, Squarepusher's little brother—started recording punchy acid workouts in the late '90s, and he's put out dozens records for Rephlex, DMX Krew's Breakin' Records, and his own Waltzer label. Where most of his records are acid and electro throwbacks, this 2010 track offers heartfelt homage to early IDM at its most emotional.


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    Show No Mercy: Myrkur’s Black Metal Rebirth

    When Myrkur’s self-titled debut EP was released last year, nobody knew that classically trained Danish multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun was behind the black metal project. Part of the anonymity was due to the fact that she plays in an alt-rock band, Ex Cops, whose 2014 album Daggers was produced by Billy Corgan—and the metal community can be pretty hardcore when it comes to gatekeeping. It’s also just part of that realm: Anonymity helps maintain the atmosphere that old-school black metal needs to be successful. But, of course, it’s more difficult to stay hidden nowadays than it was during the genre’s early ‘90s formative years. Inevitably, commenters unmasked Bruun, and then—because this is how the Internet works—that “gotcha!” detective work also became part of the story.

    A year later, Bruun is out in the open, the trolls are quieter, and her debut album, M, is a triumph. It’s an immersive collection of classic-sounding black metal and Scandinavian folk that features chilly piano, melodic ghost-choir interludes, passages of frozen noise, clamoring industrial bits, a Slayer-esque anthem, and a gong. Bruun writes the music, sings in both crystal clear and gnarled vocals, and also plays the piano and guitar. She recorded the album in various spots in Oslo, co-producing the 11 songs with prolific musician and producer Krystoffer Rygg, aka Garm, the mind behind Norwegian black metal legends Ulver and one of the important shaping forces of the genre as a whole.

    Photo by Rasmus Malmstrøm


    For M, Bruun’s band also features Mayhem/Nidingr guitarist Teloch and Nidingr drummer Oyvind Myrvoll, along with guest spots from Arch Enemy guitarist Chris Amott, Havard Jorgensen (Satyricon, Ulver) as well as Norwegian composer Ole-Henrik Moe on violin, and Norwegian players Tone Reichelt and Martin Taxt on horn and tuba, respectively. It’s not the typical lineup for a black metal album by a long shot, and the results are anything but run-of-the-mill: M is a curious, satisfying blend of styles, all of them done well, and it adds up to one of the most impressive full-length metal debuts I’ve heard in quite some time.

    I spoke with Bruun and Rygg via Skype about identity, recording in a tomb, and almost drowning during a video shoot.

    Pitchfork: After keeping your identity hidden, I imagine it’s a relief to now be able to say, “This is me, I made this record.”

    Amalie Bruun: I didn’t want to lie about it or anything, but I wanted it to have a fair shot rather than have it be judged on things that have nothing to do with the music. Once people found out, it was much easier for me to express what I want to do through music because I could then truly be myself. I also realized if I don’t get involved in telling my own story, nobody else will, and it’s not going to be the way I want. So it’s nice to take over.

    Pitchfork: It’s harder to keep identities hidden nowadays.

    AB: Everybody’s a detective.

    Kristoffer Rygg: It’s the curse of social media—most mysteries are dead.

    Pitchfork: I was on your Facebook page the other day, and you get a lot of comments from ridiculous people, mostly aimed at your gender.

    AB: People will write on the videos, like, “Oh, I have all her music. I want to smell her feet.” And the next thing is like, “She should die. She’s a corporate whore and a supermodel.” It’s a mix of crazies. Then there are some metal people who think I took something from them—something that was never theirs to begin with—and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I don’t really care what a stranger with no face or name thinks of me. The people I really respect like Kris, [Mayhem guitarist] Teloch, and all the musicians that I get to work with all respect me back.

    Pitchfork: It makes sense that you two collaborated. Kris, with your own work as Ulver, there’s the classic black metal stuff as well as more experimental music, and this Myrkur album melds both of those things. 

    KR: That was part of what was intriguing. I could hear a clear echo. Amalie’s been quite outspoken about her fascination with our earlier records, which is a big compliment.

    AB: When we were sending demos back and forth, I was actually a little embarrassed to send “Onde Børn” to him because I was listening to [Ulver’s 1994 debut] Bergtatt so much that I wanted it to be longer—I wanted to almost write an extra track. I wasn’t sure how he would react, but he wrote back and was like “Yeah, this sounds like something…”

    KR: You have to know your old ‘90s metal to hear it.

    Photo by Rasmus Malmstrøm


    Pitchfork: Was it important for you to record in Oslo?

    AB: There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to do this album in Norway. I wanted what Norway has to offer, which is nature and the history of black metal, which is quite strong. It’s a community. Norway can be quite bleak, Oslo in particular. It fits the mood of the album quite well. Kris suggested recording the quiet vocals in a mausoleum [in Emanuel Vigeland's Museum] which was perfect for the sound and the feeling of death in there.

    Pitchfork: What was it like recording in the tomb?

    AB: Cold. Very cold. Dark. [laughs] And you can hear your own heartbeat because there’s 11 seconds of natural reverb in there. You can absolutely not make a sound in there—except for what you’re recording.

    Pitchfork: You’ve said that the title of the first song on the album, “Skøgen Skulle Dø”, translates to “The Whore Had to Die”. What’s your overall concept for the album?

    AB: It’s like a mixture of a murder and a suicide that’s started off by killing the whore, whoever that would be. And then I like to punish the listener by following a beautiful ethereal piece with something really evil sounding. We wanted to do a Nordic cinematic masterpiece kind of thing.

    Pitchfork: Did the cinematic sound play into the concept for the video for “Onde Børn”, where you’re running across the landscape? 

    AB: I wanted to show a rebirth and become one with nature in the video. I wanted to have a child Myrkur in it, but she’s also a voice in my head, something bigger and more abstract that leads me to this death and rebirth. I wanted to wear these pants that would drag me down because I felt like I’m in combat, in a war—they’re very heavy to run in, but they’re also necessary because otherwise I would get too hurt in this nature. Actually, I did get really hurt, I almost drowned out in the water, but I didn’t really tell anyone. The waves were out of control. It was 3 a.m. I had to go out there and it was awful, awful, awful cold, and then the waves just sucked me down, and everybody had to run in the ocean and drag me out. It wasn’t the most fun three days of my life, but I wanted you to see the suffering that I go through in the video.

    Pitchfork: What’s your live setup like?

    AB: I played my first live show at Roskilde festival in Denmark, and the lineup was me on guitar and vocals with Teloch on guitar, Oyvind on drums, and Sir, who plays bass in Nidingr, and then five girls from the Norwegian girls’ choir. It was a big setup. Right now, I’m not confirming any shows besides festivals, because I have this high ambition for sound, and I don’t wish to compromise, and the normal metal venues can’t do what I wanna do. Now that I’ve made this album that I’m so proud of, the last thing I want is go out and play in front of an audience and have it sound, like, halfway there.

    KR: It’s not the easiest music to recreate live. You need some means in place to do it properly.

    AB: When we were planning Roskilde and we got the budget, my manager was like, “You’re insane.” I just kept adding people. We were a nine-piece band, and I was flying everybody in from Oslo, everybody had a hotel. I wasn’t doing this to make any money for myself, that’s for sure.

    Pitchfork: You’ve made a lot of other kinds of music. What was behind your drive to make black metal?

    AB: It’s just something that I love so much. It feels like home to me. I never thought I was going to release it, though. That was never the plan. But I’ve always been working on shaping the sound. Of course, I don’t see it as a genre I would call “black metal.”

    KR: You have to place it in a musical demography, to play by the music-business rules, but there are more inspirations there than just black metal.

    AB: I don’t follow all those rules that are put upon black metal for some fucking reasons I don’t understand. At some point, it seemed like this is something that I really can do. I feel like I’ve invented something for myself, something that I enjoy the most out of all styles of music to play.


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    Interviews: Beyond Nostalgia: A Conversation with Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox

    Wading through swampy Atlanta traffic en route to Bradford Cox’s home, I start to think about the first time I encountered Deerhunter face-to-face. It was at a 2007 show around the release of their breakthrough album Cryptograms in which the band essentially destroyed a tiny Brooklyn venue while Cox lurched about the stage in a dress. There was a hysterical, desperate energy—something queer in the truest sense of the word—that separated Deerhunter from all of their mid-oughts peers. Their music was equal parts noise and beauty, layers of reverb and feedback wrapped around pristine pop executions. As a frontman, Cox was both volatile and unnervingly frail. Back then, it looked as if he might collapse at any minute. 

    But unlike so many of their early contemporaries, who have either petered out or suffered diminishing creative returns, Deerhunter have managed to become more alluringly strange over the last eight years. And now I’m in Atlanta to talk to Cox about the group’s forthcoming seventh album, Fading Frontier, which ditches the claustrophobia and wiggy rock posturing of their last record, Monomania, for the kind of gently kaleidoscopic and finely attenuated landscapes that made 2008’s Microcastle and 2010’s Halcyon Digest so remarkable. Featuring contributions from Stereolab’s Tim Gane and Broadcast’s James Cargill, the record is both sonically adventurous and, perhaps most strikingly, incredibly intimate.

    The cover of Deerhunter's forthcoming album, Fading Frontier


    On previous albums, Cox’s lyrics were often cleverly obtuse; evocative bits of wordplay that generally hinted at his mental and emotional states without ever giving away too much. But on Fading Frontier—a record that seems preoccupied with tuning out, pressing pause, and generally taking stock—Cox is remarkably direct. On the stately highlight “Living My Life”, a happily domesticated Cox seems to have finally reached a state of balance after spending the past decade chasing after success and constantly being asked to explain himself. “I’m off the grid, I’m out of range,” he sings. “Will you tell me when you find out how to conquer all this fear?/ Will you tell me when you find out how to recover the lost years?/ I’ve spent all of my time chasing a fading frontier/ I’m living my life.”

    In interviews, Cox can be both frighteningly forthcoming or maddeningly evasive, depending on his mood—which makes him both an amazing subject and someone prone to misinterpretation. Within the milieu of modern indie rock, a landscape still mostly populated with straight dudes concerned with appearing distantly cool, Cox has proven himself to be a lightning rod for controversy. Like so many artists, the things that make him fascinating are the same things that often get him into trouble—a combination of fearless opinionating and sometimes-shocking vulnerability, particularly in regards to his own health, sexuality, or emotional state. He may talk out of his ass sometimes or make jokes that are destined to live forever as horrible pull quotes, but he’s never boring. Cox is someone who elicits adoration and frustration, a subject as unpredictable as his own work.

    These days, the songwriter lives in a beautifully restored home near Atlanta’s Grant Park. His house is meticulously curated—each room filled with records, books, candles, and all-manner of antique ephemera collected from over a decade on the road. “Don’t be fooled,” Cox tells me at one point, “most of this stuff came from Goodwill, I just know how to arrange it.” That he has created such a beautiful refuge for himself close to his family and his bandmates—guitarist Lockett Pundt lives only a few blocks away—seems very much in keeping with the mood of Fading Frontier.

    It also speaks to his relative well-being. In late 2014, Cox was struck by a car, an accident that not only left him seriously injured, but also provided a perspective-giving jolt. He is loath to go into details about the incident, but admits that it was a definite turning point. Having spent many months recovering, these days he is happiest at home with his dog, a friendly rescue named Faulkner who co-stars in the video for Fading Frontier’s first single, "Snakeskin". At this point, Cox is enjoying the kind of life his younger self might have never imagined.

    His newfound serenity has affected how Deerhunter operates as a band, too. Perhaps dogged by the perception that he serves as the quartet’s prickly dictator, he reiterates how much Deerhunter’s evolving aesthetic has to do with the actual group. To that end, guitarist Lockett Pundt, drummer/keyboardist Moses Archuleta, and bassist Josh McKay all come over to his house to hang out, the five of us having drinks in Cox’s dining room and playing a competitive game of darts. Whatever palpable tensions used to exist within the band—which were often pretty evident in the past—seem to have mostly evaporated.

    They talk about recording Fading Frontier at a nearby Atlanta studio with Halcyon Digest producer Ben Allen as a challenging but surprisingly pleasant experience that allowed everyone room for more creative freedom. Even though Cox is quick to admit that, even now, “nothing in Deerhunter can ever just be easy,” the rest of the band appear genuinely nonplussed about the current state of affairs. “We get along better now than we ever have,” says Pundt. “We’ve all helped each other through hard times and we’ve all celebrated together. This becomes your family.” Before the band goes home, everyone does their own dishes, and Cox doles out gifts purchased during a thrifting expedition earlier in the day: a shirt “that may or may not be a women’s blouse” for McKay, and books of poetry and old biographies for Pundt and Archuleta.

    Deerhunter, clockwise from top left: Moses Archuleta, Josh McKay,
    Lockett Pundt, Bradford Cox (and his dog Faulkner)


    During my time in Atlanta, Cox is a consummate host, friendly and funny and determined that my stay be a happy one. (I spend the night in his guest room.) Asking that I not turn on my tape recorder until after the sun goes down “so I don’t have to worry about accidentally saying something horrible,” we spend the day driving around town. When Cox remembers that he needs to pick up a pile of mail, we pay a surprise visit to his 71-year-old father, James, who admits to being both deeply proud of and perhaps a little surprised by his son’s success; Fading Frontier is his favorite Deerhunter album so far. “It’s really much more musical,” says James. “Plus, I like that I can actually make out all the words.”

    Before leaving, Cox swaps out his dad’s old turntable for a new one, and the two hilariously squabble over whether James was or wasn’t an album-buying fan of the Everly Brothers. It becomes clear that Cox’s encyclopedic knowledge of early American music is something he inherited, at least in part, from his dad. The two spend the last few minutes of our visit singing a few of their favorite lines from old Tennessee Ernie Ford and George Jones songs, with the elder Cox busting out a dutiful rendition of Roger Miller’s “Little Green Apples” that‘s so sweet I nearly start crying.

    Having interviewed Cox several times over the years, I have some sense of what to expect from him. And, in some ways, the 33-year-old musician is not so different than the 25-year-old I first talked to for a magazine story back in 2008: He is still always the biggest personality in the room. But he’s also more easy going now, and much of his nervous energy has dissipated. Having largely removed himself from the politics of what we jokingly refer to as “indie rock high school” as well as all of social media—an area that he played like a symphony early in his career—Cox really does seem to have grown up. He can still be an occasional shit talker and an unwitting provocateur, but what might have once been a nagging need for attention has largely waned. If Fading Frontier is proof of anything, it’s that even the most tightly-wound personalities eventually need to mellow out and settle the fuck down.

    Pitchfork: The lyrics on Fading Frontier sound like a reflection of the more comfortable place you’re at right now, as opposed to the madness of the past. The song “Living My Life” in particular is so pointed.

    Bradford Cox: I was afraid of that.

    Pitchfork: I don't think it's a bad thing. It’s very honest.

    BC: I just don't know how I feel about it. It's kind of like taking a shower in the locker room with other guys. I mean, I don't like writing consciously, but that's a consciously written song. I was trying to say something.

    Pitchfork: The “fading frontier” mentioned in that song seems to represent this thing we all chase after that may or may not actually exist, whether it be fame or financial success or romantic love. Then, after a while, you forget what it is you are chasing or why you’re chasing it.

    BC: When I first came up with this concept of the “fading frontier,” I was looking around and thinking about technology and the Internet. Remember when we were young and there was this excitement about what was going to happen next? And now, honestly, do you really want to know what happens next? I've seen enough in my lifetime; the frontier has faded. If it gets more intense, we're just going to end up not ever leaving our houses.

    I don't want to be critical of how people live their lives, but let's just say this: The “fading frontier” idea was originally a more general thing about the music business and what I'm exposed to in that world. People have diminishing expectations now, it’s kind of sad and weird. It feels like an end of an era in this very melancholy way. It is a very “fall of the Roman Empire” kind of thing, where it feels like there's not much left to do. That's an elegiac feeling.

    Pitchfork: It’s a paradigm shift. Things change, scary shit happens, and suddenly your view of everything is different.

    BC: Like getting hit by a car.

    Pitchfork: I don’t think most people understand the seriousness of your car accident last year. How did that experience affect you?

    BC: It erased all illusions for me. When I got hit by the car, I just felt no interest in anything else. I became very depressed. As a result, I've been on antidepressants and I feel like I have no sexuality left. A lot of people complain about that side effect, but I love it. I feel outside of society. But I lost that manic urge that I used as fuel with Monomania.

    Pitchfork: Where does all of that energy refocus itself?

    BC: I just want safety. I would like to avoid physical pain and illness and mind my own business and have peace and quiet. The dog came along right around the same time and really changed how I felt about loneliness; I've never felt lonely since I've gotten a dog.

    “When I got hit by the car, I became depressed. As a result, I've been on antidepressants and I feel like I have no sexuality left. People complain about that side effect, but I love it. I feel outside of society.”

    Pitchfork: I’ve always found that the things that make you interesting—your willingness to say whatever you are feeling—are the same things that people give you grief about. You are charismatic and funny, but it’s easy for people to make you seem like an insane person.

    BC: That’s so funny, I don’t feel that way at all.

    Pitchfork: You don’t think of yourself as charismatic or funny? 

    BC: I feel like a scab. I mean, you don’t have to look at me naked in a shower. I feel like a bridge about to collapse somewhere out in the back woods, but I don’t mind that. I don’t feel insecure about that. I don’t feel insecure about anything. Well, maybe I feel a little insecure, but I’m very skeptical when people show interest in me. I assume they must have ulterior motives.

    Pitchfork: Do you feel like you’ve been misrepresented in the past?

    BC: Well, there was a certain Pitchfork article that made me so mad. I thought the writer presented me as being very superficial when I was actually going through a deep period of passionate rage. I said to myself, “This guy is a fucking asshole.” But afterwards, I realized that he just did his job. That was what I was like at that time: a mixed-up wreck. Monomania was a very hateful record, and I mistreated a lot of people around me. I was in a lot of pain and very lonely. But there was also a big sense of humor; I never lose my sense of humor. So as much as I want to pretend that that article was a bad representation and not really who I am, maybe he was right.

    Pitchfork: Monomania felt so claustrophobic and angry, and this record feels so much lighter and more humane.

    BC: This record feels to me like the first day of spring, where you go out and everybody’s happy and sitting on their stoops and walking their dogs and waving to each other. It happens once a year, after a brutal winter. It’s the day when you realize it’s not gonna be freezing forever, you’re not gonna be miserable forever. It’s a very special feeling.

    “I threaten to quit music all the time, but what the hell would I do?”

    Pitchfork: Deerhunter has radically evolved over the years—how does the dynamic of the band feel to you now?

    BC: It’s reaching a new level of stability. Lockett and Moses are my brothers. Nothing will change that. I think it’s taken for granted how much they bring to the band; people might notice that I write the majority of the songs, but there’s a lot more to it than that. My songs might start a certain way, but it’s what everyone else brings that makes them what they are.

    One of my favorite songs on the album, for example, is “Take Care”. I wrote that as a kind of classic ‘50s stroller—not unfamiliar territory for me, huh? I’ve done that quite a lot. A lot of bands wanna do something new all the time and never repeat themselves, but I’m not so interested in that. If I feel like I can do it better the second time, I’ll give it another shot. When I get it really right, I’ll leave it alone. I try to make music that doesn’t exist, but that I want to exist. I mean, the original aesthetic of a ‘50s pop ballad is an art form of its own, but I want one that’s queer.

    Anyway, I thought, “I can make a really good ‘50s melodramatic ballad this time,” and we recorded it that way. And then me and Ben Allen, the producer, were talking about the aesthetics of the director Michael Mann, and he joked to me, “I’m gonna make a Michael Mann remix of this song.” And I’m like “Ha, go for it.” So he did. It was very synthy, and he cut a lot of the guitars. At first, I said, “This is interesting, but not what I was going for.” But within 48 hours, I decided I never wanted to hear the version I wrote again. That was the song. Ben’s mix brought out a totally different side of it. And once James Cargill from Broadcast added his ethereal tapes and electronics, the song took on this totally different quality. That song can make me cry, but I can’t make myself cry alone—it’s the beauty of what Ben and James did.

    Pitchfork: Was there ever a period when you thought you wouldn’t make another Deerhunter record or that you’d stop making music?

    BC: Oh no, it’s stupid to think that way. I’ve said to myself, “I wonder if I wanna keep making music?” but it’s like the way that you might say to yourself, “I never wanna see that person again!” But nine times out of 10, you don’t mean that. You’re just temporarily exhausted. And as soon as you get away from it for a little while, you think, “I should give them a call.” It’s very natural. So I threaten to quit music all the time, but what the hell would I do? I would love to say I’d make films, but I would never subject anybody to watching a film that I’ve made just to show that I can make a movie. It’s gotta be the best story I could ever imagine, something I haven’t seen anybody else tell, and I’d like to tell it my way. That’s when I’ll make films. That’s what I’d like to do, but I’m not gonna rush into it to prove a point.

    “I feel hollowed out. That sounds so dramatic and negative, but I find it comfortable!”

    Pitchfork: When you hear old Deerhunter songs now—when you hear Cryptograms—what do you think of it?

    BC: I like the ramshackle-ness of Cryptograms, I like the fact that there was very little ambition behind it. I mean, you can’t honestly listen to that album and think, “Oh, here’s a band that was trying to break out.” I mean, half the songs are tape loops, you know? Piano strings being strummed backwards, and church bells, and vocal microsampling. I used to have this technique where I would sample little snippets of vocals, I used to call it “snatching.” I would sing “ahh... ahh.. ahh” and snatch a little bit of all of those until I had this chord that was looping. I look back on that stuff and think to myself, “Wow, man, how the hell did I ever come up with that?” I was probably listening to the Boredoms and Bjork’s Vespertine.

    Pitchfork: How do you feel about playing your older material now?

    BC: Nostalgia comes and goes, focuses its energy on different pockets. Sometimes I’m really nostalgic for Cryptograms, or Fluorescent Grey. The unloved child, believe it or not, is probably Microcastle. That’s the album I think about the least. I don’t know why. I don’t really listen to any of them. I don’t have a copy of any of the albums.

    Pitchfork: Not a single copy?

    BC: They’re all at my mom and dad’s house. I’ll go on Spotify or listen to a song on an old iPod if we’re gonna play it live, just to remember the words. But when I was young, foggy nostalgia was such a part of my shtick. That pink haze of nostalgia and boyhood. Confusion. And now I just wanna be around adults, really. I don’t know if that’s a good quote: “I just wanna be around adults.” Mostly, I just wanna be left alone. I’m not as interested in the pink fog of nostalgia now. If I ever need to remember those feelings of yearning, I could revisit those records. But I don’t ever feel that way anymore.

    Pitchfork: How do you feel?

    BC: I feel hollowed out. That sounds so dramatic and negative, but I find it comfortable!

    Pitchfork: We veer towards nostalgia to avoid the present; when the present seems to offer nothing, it feels good to fixate on the past.

    BC: Artists are very lucky. A lot of people go through their lives with those very same feelings of abstract yearning but they don’t get actually put it somewhere. I put it somewhere. I made an album out of it.

    “People say ‘I don’t want to die alone!’ But you know what, honestly? I don’t want to die with a bunch of people looking at me.”

    Pitchfork: How does your current life compare to the future you dreamed about when you were younger?

    BC: I thought that I’d be in a different place. I thought that I’d meet, quote-unquote, “someone,” and that “someone” would “appreciate and truly love me,” so to speak—everything in quotes. I thought that the secret to life was dependent on somebody else validating me. But really that’s just a transaction. It’s a populist construction.

    Pitchfork: We all fall victim to that idea that you’ll meet that one person that will fill the void. Sometimes you do, but mostly it’s a way of thinking that can keep people very unhappy.

    BC: I was sort of being sarcastic when I wrote [the 2009 Atlas Sound song] “Shelia”. I was playing a character in the song, and the lyrics say that “no one wants to die alone.” It’s just one of those things you hear people say: “I don’t want to die alone!” But you know what, honestly? I don’t want to die with a bunch of people looking at me. I don’t wanna die in public. I don’t see what’s so much better about having people around—I wanna die unconscious and I don’t really give a fuck who’s there. And I don’t give a fuck what happens to my body afterwards—burn it, carve it up for science, make a fucking blanket out of it. Make a mask out of my face to scare children, whatever.

    But yeah, that’s one thing I thought would be different. I didn’t think I’d have a house or such a relaxed lifestyle. I don’t take for granted how lucky I am. Then again, you always need to keep in mind how much ambition there was behind that luck. In my case, I was never really an ambitious person.

    Pitchfork: I’m not sure I believe that. 

    BC: You can listen to Cryptograms or Fluorescent Grey and hear that we weren’t trying to be the fucking Arcade Fire. We never had dreams of playing in arenas. My hero was [experimental electronic artist] Pauline Oliveros. And Bowie. But Bowie is an interesting case. He really got it, man. He was really able to fucking be the one Bowie. Where you can actually do whatever the fuck you want, at any given time, and it’ll be fine. That’s something to aspire to.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Harder Shade of Dark: The Sound of Bristol Post-Rock

    A group of interconnected musicians traced a filmy circle of darkness around the English city of Bristol during the late 1990s and early 2000s, forming a significant post-rock outpost. They often appeared on each other’s records, started short-lived projects together, and assembled brittle home-recording setups that provided a lo-fi flipside to the city’s trip-hop forerunners. Artists such as Dave Pearce, Matt Elliott, and Rachel Brook were at the forefront of the scene, initially putting out music on the local Planet label and coalescing around the city’s Revolver Records store. Eventually Domino became involved, releasing benchmark albums by Flying Saucer Attack, Third Eye Foundation, and Movietone.

    There’s no singular style that defines this chapter in Bristol’s music history. Flying Saucer Attack were characterized by gritty production values that could splinter off into 10-minute-plus instrumentals, song-oriented material with a debt to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and even a cover of Suede’s “The Drowners”. Meanwhile, Movietone were enamored with a form of haunted folk that bore characteristics later plundered by Broadcast and the Ghost Box label, and Elliott’s Third Eye Foundation combined piercing electronics with splinter-sharp beats. If these artists share a trait, it’s in their inward-facing demeanor. This is music to listen to while hunkered down in a corner, lost out of time somewhere.

    Bands such as Crescent, Amp, and honorable Leeds-based scene members Hood daubed further cloudy layers of open-endedness onto the picture. Most of the artists were blessed with a lack of traditional musical training, instead relying on a keen ear and a deeply flexible sense of exploration to guide them into the gloom. It makes sense that a record store was the place around which many of them gathered—much of this music is a prime example of record-collection rock, where traces of Popol Vuh, Nick Drake, the Velvet Underground, Nurse With Wound, and others were fused into an idiosyncratic whole. That specter of influence glides over the surface of this music, leading to a rare musical space humming with possibility.

    Advertisement

    Hood

    “Finger in His Ear”

    2003

    Listen on Apple Music

    Hood was spawned in Leeds, but they are often associated with the Bristol scene due to their similarity in sound and their work with Matt Elliott, who produced and played live with the band. They fluctuated wildly in style, taking in noise, indie-rock, electronic, and ambient textures, as demonstrated on Compilations 1995-2002. “Finger in His Ear” forms around a well-considered build, splintering out into echoey dub, pastoral folk, and a plague-like air that threatens to erupt at any minute.

    Flying Saucer Attack

    “Standing Stone”

    1993

    Listen on Apple Music

    “Standing Stone” is an early example of Flying Saucer Attack’s love of coating song structures in vast layers of pillowy guitar fuzz. It’s possible to hear Dave Pearce finding his voice here, but only just, as he allows the sound to all but obliterate his nascent vocal meanderings. This is a side of FSA that demonstrated Pearce’s clear love of pop—not something he returned to all that often, but always warmly welcome when he did.

    Movietone

    “Ocean Song”

    2003

    Listen on Apple Music

    Movietone’s The Sand and the Stars is a musical secret ripe for rediscovery, lying there gathering digital dust until its moment finally arrives. Formed by ex-Flying Saucer Attack member Rachel Brook (now Rachel Coe) and Crescent member Kate Wright, the band partially recorded The Sand on a beach in Cornwall, creating a beautiful mesh of nature and music, of which “Ocean Song” is a typically delicate example.

    Amp

    “Tango Non”

    1998

    Listen on Apple Music

    Essentially a solo project of the London-based Richard F. Walker, Amp was born out of a couple of prior group efforts alongside Flying Saucer Attack’s Dave Pearce. Walker subsequently criss-crossed through the Bristol scene, finding a valuable collaborator in Third Eye Foundation’s Matt Elliott. “Tango Non” is one of Amp’s most MBV-indebted works, but the album from which it’s taken, Stenorette, dips into Eno-like ambience and classical piano textures, highlighting the depth of his range.

    Third Eye Foundation

    “An Even Harder Shade of Dark”

    1998

    Listen on Apple Music

    Third Eye Foundation’s Matt Elliott has an enviable breadth of talent at his disposal, oscillating between rickety electronics and black-eyed folk songs. “An Even Harder Shade of Dark” is an echo from Elliott’s time spent impaling himself on barbed beats and groggy electronics, where the key operating principle was to disappear into a hazy, weed-fueled fog and never return.

    Clear Horizon

    “For Days”

    2003

    Listen on Apple Music

    Clear Horizon was a sign of Bristol stretching out into the wider world, with Flying Saucer Attack’s Dave Pearce hooking up with Ohio-based singer Jessica Bailiff to record an album for Kranky. It’s one of the finest embodiments of the “rural psychedelia” ethic FSA took as their starting point. Bailiff’s vocals are a gorgeous, cellophane sigh, while Pearce thumbs away at an acoustic guitar, producing a sound that’s far more clear headed than most of the work in their collective circles.

    Manyfingers

    “This Tar Won’t Hold”

    2006

    Listen on Apple Music

    Chris Cole found a suitable name in Manyfingers, which alludes to the dizzying amount of instruments the Bristolian can play. He’s crossed paths with Crescent, Movietone, and Matt Elliott in his time, but “This Tar Won’t Hold” is among the best examples of his own musical vision, which lies somewhere between Steve Reich’s minimalist vision and the neo-classical path trod by Louisville outfit Rachel’s

    Crescent

    “New Leaves”

    2003

    Listen on Apple Music

    Crescent have dipped into many styles in their 20-plus years of operation, although the final two Talk Talk albums have clearly remained a close companion of brothers Matt and Sam Jones. The 2003 album By the Roads and the Fieldssignalled a new maturity in Crescent’s work, of which “New Leaves” is emblematic. Cast somewhere between small open spaces and urban sprawl, it’s a sensual, intimate song, bearing a recording quality that makes it feel like you’re right there in the room with them.

    Matt Elliott

    “Let Us Break”

    2003

    Listen on Apple Music

    The flipside to Matt Elliott’s work as Third Eye Foundation is both stark and startling. His deeply personal reprieve from claustrophobic electronics comes in a form of death-riddled folk, beginning with his excellent The Mess We Made, from 2003. “Let Us Break” is positively church-like in its ambience, with Elliott sounding like a broken man spewing forth the worst kind of confessional, played out over blunt stabs of piano and fidgety drones.

    Foehn

    “A Wild Face Pours Words on the Last Beach”

    2000

    Listen on Apple Music

    Debbie Parsons stuck to her bedroom recording roots when devising a path for Foehn, a solo project that branched out from her work in Third Eye Foundation. Her music is all tiny crevices of electronic noise, sometimes barely making it over the one-minute mark, or, in the case of “A Wild Face”, a great province of sound over which great clouds of ambient drift roll in.

    Flying Saucer Attack

    “Popol Vuh 1”

    1993

    Listen on Apple Music

    Among the best examples of Flying Saucer Attack’s instrumental work, “Popol Vuh 1” adopts Florian Fricke’s legendary krautrock outfit for its title and slithers out into the ether. It’s both soothing and mesmerizing, with exquisitely constructed drones rising like the tide and crashing across its exterior, sometimes feeling like they’re engaged in a primitive form of communication. And even now, the Bristol sound is still alive: This fall, David Pearce will release the first Flying Saucer Attack album in 15 years, Instrumentals 2015.


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    Staff Lists: The 200 Best Songs of the 1980s

    Pitchfork's Top 200 Tracks of the 1980s

    Welcome to our list of the 200 best songs of the 1980s.

    A great deal of today's music looks to the '80s for inspiration, but there are so many different ideas of what "'80s" as a descriptor can mean. Here we return to the source material.

    As we did for the 1960s, the 1990s, and the 2000s, as well as our 2010-2014 list, we polled our staff and contributing writers for their favorite songs of the era and tabulated the results. Every time we do one of these lists we learn something about how perceptions of decades change over time, and how the musical ideas from a given era filter through to later generations. For many selections, we provide some of our favorite related tracks for further exploration. Thanks for reading and listening.

    Listen to a Playlist with our '80s selections on Apple Music

    Egyptian Lover

    “I Cry (Night After Night)”

    Egyptian Empire; 1984

    200

    Listen on Apple Music

    The original 808s and heartbreak. "I Cry (Night After Night)" might not be Egyptian Lover's most famous anthem (that would be "Egypt Egypt"), but it remains one of Greg Broussard's most influential. Absent is the Egyptian iconography that situated the Californian DJ/producer/rapper/electro pioneer's early-'80s output squarely in the realm of Afrofuturism while also giving it the faintest whiff of novelty; in its place is the musical equivalent of crying into your pillow after eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's. With "I Cry (Night After Night)", Egyptian Lover not only paved the way for the sad robot music that the likes of Kanye West and Future would go on to push farther and into weirder territory, he also helped establish a trope that rappers still employ to this day: the sad-sack confessional that humanizes their bulletproof tough-guy persona, or in Lover's case, his gift-to-womankind lothario status. True to form, he manages to retain a sliver of his egomania even in his darkest hour, claiming his "Egyptian voice will hypnotize." After three decades of being entranced by he of the magnificent bouffant, maybe it's time we concede the point. —Renato Pagnani

    Tom Zé

    “Nave Maria”

    RGE; 1984

    199

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    In the late '60s, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil invited Tom Zé to join the Tropicálistas and light a fire under Brazil’s military dictatorship. Often, the movement’s musical element wed exuberant, traditionally Brazilian sounds with a rock'n'roll pose and jarring descriptions of political violence and social unrest; Zé, a firebrand among revolutionaries, was particularly concerned with the folly of "globarbarization." When Tropicália lost the war, Zé sojourned into experimentalism, and in 1984, six years after his previous full-length, he released a revelatory electric opus called Nave Maria. It sold like cold cakes, and the 48-year-old, either too broke or heartbroken to continue, made plans to work at his brother’s gas station.

    Later that decade, David Byrne chanced upon Zé’s music and released a compilation on his Luaka Bop label. A spiky, wonderfully avant-garde highlight, Nave Maria’s title track makes literal Zé’s claim that he’s "a composer of only one piece." The components had already appeared on his 1976 album Estudando O Samba, but the recycled tune–rendered here with a serrated, quasi-metal guitar line–shows Zé’s deep yen to perfect his most madcap compositions, which other artists, were they bright enough to write them, would likely shelve in a moment of unwelcome sanity.

    Anyone nonplussed need not translate the lyrics, which are pure dada. Gleefully lampooning the state’s Catholic orthodoxy, the tortured narrator embodies a foetal Jesus and dramatizes his birth as a gory, first-person womb bust-out. From that "inverted orgasm," Christ emerges with dismay into an unjust world. Thankfully, though that horror is keenly felt in Zé’s music, he harnesses it with such a manic sense of invention it feels like its own kind of deliverance.
     —Jazz Monroe

    A Certain Ratio

    “Shack Up”

    Factory Benelux; 1980

    198

    Listen on Apple Music

    Manchester’s A Certain Ratio followed the post-punk dictum of finding common ground between contrasting styles. On "Shack Up", they landed on a magnetic three-way split between funk, old soul, and the long-raincoat gloom of their hometown labelmates Joy Division. Originally released on the Factory Benelux offshoot partly formed by Ian Curtis’s girlfriend Annik Honoré, "Shack Up" came out in the same year (1980) as Dexys Midnight Runners’ "Geno" and resembles the bloodless flip side to Kevin Rowland’s unwavering passion. ACR singer Simon Topping emotes in a gray monotone, similar to Ian Curtis, while drummer Donald Johnson, who had arrived the previous year, brings a funky danceability to the song that Factory would explore even further with the emergence of the Happy Mondays later in the decade. But what makes "Shack Up" a classic is its ultra-sparse atmosphere, making it feel like ACR were stripping something to its core principles, in the process burrowing to the very core of what makes certain styles tick. —Nick Neyland

    See also: Liquid Liquid: "Cavern

    Donald Byrd / 125th Street, N.Y.C.

    “Love Has Come Around”

    Elektra/Asylum; 1981

    197

    Listen on Apple Music

    Arriving after the disco bubble had already popped, Donald Byrd & 125th Street, N.Y.C.’s "Love Has Come Around" is as optimistic as they come. By the '80s, Byrd, an accomplished jazz/funk trumpeter who also taught at North Carolina Central University, had moved to Elektra after a long run on Blue Note and formed a new band that included students from his classes. The group’s second album, 1981’s Love Byrd, saw them teaming up with producer Isaac Hayes, who offered slick production chops as well as his quartet of backup singers, Hot Buttered Soul Unlimited. Hayes turned the band’s well-oiled grooves into one of the loveliest singles of the late-disco period, building a plush arrangement of piano, layered harmonies, moody bass, and Byrd’s own effervescent trumpet detailing. Decried at the time by jazz purists as a cheap bid for popular relevance, "Love Has Come Around" today sounds like a perfect bridge between classic soul and the last gasps of lavishly arranged dance music, soon to be eclipsed by house’s love affair with turntables and drum machines. —Abigail Garnett

    See also: David Joseph: "You Can't Hide Your Love"  / Imagination: "Music and Lights"

    Dinosaur L

    “Go Bang! #5 (Francois K Mix)”

    Sleeping Bag; 1986

    196

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    Arthur Russell saw no reason to erect a barrier between the music he performed on his cello at the Kitchen, an artsy downtown performance space, and his records that got played at discotheques like the Gallery and the Paradise Garage. He was hardly alone in wanting to eradicate the boundaries between fine art and pop art; that was a principal belief in the 1980s, particularly within New York's avant-garde milieu of musicians and video artists and graffiti writers and experimental poets. But while noise and classical minimalism were deemed acceptable bedfellows, few downtown types extended that open-mindedness to the city's discotheques, where a mostly gay crowd, many of them black and Latino, were conducting their own experiments in repetition, extreme duration, and altered states.

    It says something about the open-mindedness of those dancers that Russell got away with some truly weird shit on his "disco" records. "Go Bang! #5", recorded in June, 1979 and released in 1981 on the album 24→24 Music, under his Dinosaur L alias, is proof of just how far out he could go. Assembling a wide array of musicians from the funk, jazz, and avant-garde scenes, Russell crafted a rippling funk cut driven by liquid bass and some of the hissingest hi-hats that have ever been put to tape, stretched into four dimensions by Julius Eastman and Jimmy Ingram's dueling organ and electric piano. But it was François Kevorkian, a French immigrant and former progressive-rock DJ who learned about disco from playing live percussion alongside Walter Gibbons at the Galaxy 21 nightclub, who would deliver the coup de grace. Kevorkian's mix, released on 12-inch in 1982, used dub delay like a wedge, opening up the track's guts and letting all the pieces fall out to land where they may. The results were as radical as anything to touch vinyl that year; a technically complex amalgam of sound absolutely soaked in pleasure. —Philip Sherburne

    Jungle Brothers

    “Straight Out the Jungle”

    Warlock; 1988

    195

    Listen on Apple Music

    By the late '80s, rap was thinking big, entering a golden age that produced maximalist, sample-dense classics like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul’s Boutique, and Tougher Than Leather. Each of those records was risky and expensive, the product of artists not only with ambitious visions but also the budget to realize them. The Jungle Brothers didn’t have those kinds of resources, though, when they recorded their debut Straight Out the Jungle, released in 1988 on the no-profile independent label Warlock Records. It was the first true masterpiece of the jazz-rap movement, but compared to some of the more sophisticated albums that followed in its footsteps, it’s almost crude.

    Thankfully, music this kinetic doesn’t need polish. All the elements that would drive the Native Tongues movement were laid out on the opening title track, which stitches samples on top of samples. A stark James Brown groove gives way to jazzy horns that sound like they’ve been dubbed onto the track by a cassette deck; the bridge pastes harmonies from African funk great Manu Dibango’s "Weya" over the chorus of "The Message", the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five classic that lent the Jungle Brothers their name. Of course, the JBs’ urban jungle was even more merciless than Flash’s. "The animals, the cannibals will do you in," Mike G raps. "Cut your throat, stab you in the back/ The untamed animal just don't know how to act." The Jungle Brothers hit on the same truth that gangsta rappers on the other side of the country were discovering at the same time: Sometimes the rawer the music, the higher the stakes. —Evan Rytlewski

    See also: Jungle Brothers: "What 'U' Waitin' 4"

    Too $hort

    “Freaky Tales”

    Dangerous/Jive/RCA; 1987

    194

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    For a supposedly delicate art form, people get haiku poetry confused. It’s not all dragonflies on blades of grass: many of the earliest haikus were dick puns and otherwise crude wandering-poet bro humor. It was juvenile, maybe, but not for its own sake—it complemented the reality-grounded, borderline mundane writing style. All the power lies within the extreme, barely-editorialized brevity, capturing and presenting a real life moment with the purest, most direct translation possible. On "Freaky Tales", the centerpiece of East Bay icon Too $hort’s major label debut Born to Mack, the 22-year-old coasted through the nearly 10-minute marathon powered by the same plainspoken and often vulgar realism. He leisurely pimp-steps into the pocket of the stripped-down funk loop; it’s an exercise in minimalism, aside from the litany of 38 women Too $hort summarily bangs with varying degrees of misadventure. But these brief, unfiltered snapshots, delivered with purposeful directness, had an elegance to them, despite the twin-sister threesomes and ill-advised bus sex—entire stories condensed into two simple, vivid lines, delivered with unmistakable confidence. It wasn’t that Too $hort wasn’t capable of going deep; he knew he didn’t need to. —Meaghan Garvey

    Kano

    “I'm Ready”

    Emergency; 1980

    193

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    Not so much a band as a production outfit, the Italian trio Kano were formative to the emergence of Italo Disco, which added a mechanical pulse to dance music via the use of drum machines and synthesizers. Released in 1980, their song "I’m Ready" splices a human rhythm section and a pulsing sequenced bassline. The singers trade verses with heavily vocoded vocals, creating a sort of man vs. machine call and response. Even if you don’t recognize the song by name, you’ve probably heard it. A minor hit at the time, a sample of "I’m Ready" also forms the backbone of an even more ubiquitous tune: Tag Team’s 1993 hit, "Whoomp! (There It Is)".

    From a commercial standpoint Kano were not a smash, but the group's work has had an enduring presence in underground dance music. And as dance music has returned to the mainstream, Kano's sound has become even more present. When Daft Punk released Random Access Memories in 2013, the French duo praised the dance music of the '70s and early '80s for its use of session players, who added an un-gridded feel and tangible humanity that would later be expunged as pop music came to rely more heavily on programmed and extensive computer editing. "I’m Ready" is a perfect example of that sound—organic, yet futuristic. Music that maintains a steady trance-like pulse, but still swings. —Aaron Leitko

    See also: Casco: "Cybernetic Love" / Visage: "Fade to Grey"

    William Onyeabor

    “Good Name”

    Willfilms; 1983

    192

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    There’s a tense moment in the 2014 William Onyeabor documentary, Fantastic Man, when the Nigerian musician’s former distributor Obinna Obi reluctantly discloses "an incident that made people get scared of him." In the story, a boy visits the enigmatic superstar to chase royalties; Onyeabor responds by chasing him off his property with a pistol. When the kid returns with police they fail to find evidence, and he’s arrested for false accusation. "That image, and air of a bully, was floating in the air," says Obi.

    The dubious status of Onyeabor’s good name lends a shade of mystique to this 12”, released at the peak of his ascension from Afrobeat bandleader to pioneering, one-man funk magician. The song’s mantra–"I have a good name, I have a good name/ And no money, no money, no money, no money, no money can buy my good name"–is complicated by his backstory; Onyeabor was known for extravagant displays of wealth (notably his cutting-edge studio, pictured on the Atomic Bomb sleeve), and in his exaltation of reputability there's a note of remorse, a hint of desperation. That the music is so anthemic, propelled by a party groove that throws together P-Funk, Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa, makes the song's conflicts all the more compelling. —Jazz Monroe

    Alice Coltrane

    “Jagadishwar”

    Impulse!; 1982

    191

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    Beginning in the late '60s, Alice Coltrane released a brilliant run of spiritually rich records that blended Eastern instrumentation with experimental jazz. But by the end of the next decade, Coltrane—a harpist, pianist, composer and widow to jazz legend John Coltrane—had mostly gone quiet. Rather than performing or recording, she withdrew from the secular world, taking the name Turiyasangitananda and concentrating fully on spiritual life.

    "Jagdishwar" comes from Turiya Sings, a cassette that Coltrane released via her Ashram’s Avatar Book Institute imprint in 1982, four years after her last major label recording. The song has a very different character from her full band work on Impulse! Where that music was often dense, percussive, and alive with improvisational interplay, "Jagdishwar" is more stripped down and solemn. Coltrane’s trademark harp runs are replaced by a wall of luminous synthesizer pads and moody strings. Over top, she chants devotional verses and the shaky, naked sound of her voice pairs strangely with the song’s woozy analog gospel chords.

    Turiya Sings was not particularly well known or well distributed at the time of its release. However, in recent years the music has found another life and a larger audience through YouTube bootlegs, blogs, and file sharing services. In 1982, "Jagdishwar" might have been written off as new age glop. Heard now, it sounds weirdly in harmony with any number of contemporary artists—from R&B singers to experimental musicians. Much like Arthur Russell's World of Echo, it's music that sounds like it was beamed in from a private universe, an artifact that's from the past, but not of it. Written yesterday, but meant for our ears. —Aaron Leitko

    Gregory Isaacs

    “Night Nurse”

    African Museum/Island; 1982

    190

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    If there was an award for most creative metaphor for marijuana then Gregory Isaacs would take it for his soulful lament, "Night Nurse". It’s a rootsy interpolation of American R&B, guised as a vulnerable lover’s rock anthem ostensibly about a doting romantic partner. A closer read would suggest that "Night Nurse" alludes to the prolific Jamaican singer’s dependency to herb. "I don’t want to see no doc/ I need attendance from my nurse 'round the clock/ 'Cause there is no prescription for me." Isaacs’ relatively edgy repose stood in contrast to the peppy glam of countryman Bob Marley, garnering him the nickname the Cool Ruler. There’s a direct line between Isaacs’ addled troubadour and the Weeknd’s anesthetized analogies. Drug narratives in pop culture are often demonized for glamorizing usage, but Isaacs and his transcendent, lonely howl convey how complex, and necessary, stories of dependency and addiction can be in the right hands. —Anupa Mistry

    See also: Gregory Isaacs: "Cool Down the Pace" / John Holt: "Police in Helicopter"

    EPMD

    “You Gots to Chill”

    Priority; 1988

    189

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    EPMD weren't the first group to sample Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce", but they certainly helped usher it into the hip-hop mainstream. Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Biggie (famously on "Going Back to Cali") are among the many artist who followed Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith's lead in lifting from the 1980 funk track. The futuristic, laidback sound (Zapp's robotic vocals sound like proto-Daft Punk) lent itself well to EPMD's early, unhurried swagger rap. "You Gots to Chill" stands out for the coolness of its insistence on its own greatness. Other rappers could claim their spot as the best, but lines like, "To the average MC, I'm known as the Terminator/ Funky beat maker, new jack exterminator," delivered without heat, demonstrated the duo were more than capable—not just a couple of cocky rappers. Sermon and Smith didn't have time for any biting sucker MC's, calmly instructing them to step off: "You gots to chill." —Matthew Strauss

    Carly Simon

    “Why”

    Mirage/WEA; 1982

    188

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    In Nile Rodgers’ excellent 2011 memoir Le Freak, the Chic producer shares the golden rule that made him such a prolific songwriter: "Every song had to have Deep Hidden Meaning… We felt that audiences would be more receptive to multilevel messages, just as long as they liked the groove." The formula has legs, as the recent success of Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky", which Rodgers co-wrote with Pharrell, suggests. But in 1982, Rodgers and his partner Bernard Edwards used it to develop a post-disco pop song performed by Carly Simon, "Why". The cheery, memorable "La-di-da-di-da" on the pre-chorus stood in contrast to Simon’s sensual, melancholy thesis: "Why does your love hurt so much?" This was the two-pronged message Rodgers and Edwards delivered over delicate percussion and a sticky, guitar-led dub groove; DHM at work. "Why" did well on the charts, particularly overseas, but the song’s slinky gait meant that its legacy was secured in the club. Simon’s name is on the track but Rodgers and Edwards’ finesse has kept production nerds agog for decades: the extended mix was remastered and reissued as a 12'' in 2011. —Anupa Mistry

    See also: Chic: "Soup for One" / Nile Rodgers: "Yum-Yum" 

    Mtume

    “Juicy Fruit”

    Epic; 1983

    187

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    Long before the Notorious B.I.G. sampled "Juicy Fruit" for his debut single, it was the lead track off the New York R&B group Mtume’s 1983 third album, Juicy Fruit. It’s since been sampled by everyone from Warren G to Montell Jordan, but when it was released, "Juicy Fruit" was a hit that made its way to roller skating rinks and nightclubs courtesy of a nocturnal groove tailored for summertime cookouts. The group’s bandleader James Mtume was the son of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath and had played and toured with Miles Davis for a few years in the '70s. "I was experimenting with how to take less and make it sound more," he explained of the track. "If you listen to something like ‘Juicy Fruit’, there’s only four or five instruments played. And that was a whole new thing. Also, there was no reverb on nothing. So it sounded like you could have played it in your basement." Mtume has also said the label didn’t want to release the song because it was too slow; instead, they serviced it to nighttime radio, and it became a daytime hit. —Marcus J. Moore

    The Clash

    “Rock the Casbah”

    CBS/Epic; 1982

    186

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    The Clash had pissed off the punks by going hard rock, stymied the rockers by embracing folk and reggae tradition, alienated traditionalists by turning into dub-funk experimentalists, and then, in 1982, shocked everyone by becoming pop stars. The band’s lone stateside Top 10 single, "Rock the Casbah" is the Clash’s entire conflicted, contradictory history streamlined into three minutes and 43 seconds, retrofitting the anti-authoritarian protest of their incendiary early singles for the discotheque, sculpting the genre-blurring sprawl of Sandinista! into military trim and upgrading their tommy guns to jet-fired laserbeams.

    But on top of being their most popular song, "Rock the Casbah" is—true to its power-to-the-people message—also the Clash’s most audibly democratic. In contrast to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ traditionally stratified vocal turns, "Rock the Casbah" complements Strummer’s on-the-ground reporting with Jones’ broadcasted chorus; bassist Paul Simonon drives the song’s proto-house pulse and, even while in the throes of a heroin addiction that would soon get him ousted from the band, drummer Topper Headon supplies the song’s signature piano hook. Even if Middle Eastern geopolitics have become way too complicated over the ensuing three decades for anyone to suggest that Western rock music could topple caliphates, the unifying potential of "Rock the Casbah" remains undiminished. —Stuart Berman

    See also: The Clash: "Should I Stay or Should I Go"

    Class Action

    “Weekend”

    Sleeping Bag; 1983

    185

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    The brains behind Class Action didn’t constitute a band so much as a single idea, and "Weekend" was its perfect distillation. So perfect, in fact, that although it became its makers’ only hit together, it did so twice–once in 1978, and again five years later. Driving both conquests was Larry Levan, who'd made Phreek’s original a fixture of his disco temple Paradise Garage. By 1983, the meticulous arrangement had finally exhausted itself, so engineer Bob Blank hustled the old lineup back to the studio to record a post-disco revamp.

    The sonic overhaul was revelatory, a glimmering network of teasing bass pops, crisp programmed beats, deep-freeze synth zaps. Where the original was all groove, riding a low-key funk bounce, the revamp surges like a chemical rush. It’s a classic in the genre of dancefloor hits that venerate the pre-dancefloor anticipation, thus opening a feedback loop between the desire and its gratification. To boot, it’s a sublime document of sexual liberation. Christine Wiltshire delivers a fiery, taunting sermon on the topic of how to leave one’s man, seasoned with some deliciously cruel scene-setting: As he’s left at home with the kids, Wiltshire steps into the night for a no-strings fling in paradise. —Jazz Monroe

    See also: Thelma Houston: "You Used to Hold Me So Tight" / NYC Peech Boys: "Don't Make Me Wait"

    Wayne Smith

    “Under Me Sleng Teng”

    Jammy's/Greensleeves; 1985

    184

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    In much the same way that New Orleans R&B transmitted across the Caribbean to influence Jamaican music in the '50s and '60s, it’s fitting that "Under Me Sleng Teng", the seismic 1985 single from Wayne Smith, also had roots in old American rock’n’roll. In late 1984, Smith and a friend had gotten hold of a Casiotone MT40 keyboard and played around with the machine’s rock’n’roll preset, which sputtered out a fast and dinky version of Eddie Cochran’s 1959 rockabilly song, "Somethin’ Else". Over the delirious beat, Smith voiced his love for spliffs and his distrust of cocaine, taking lines from Barrington Levy's "Under Mi Sensi" and Yellowman's "Under Me Fat Ting".

    They took it to producer Prince Jammy, who slowed the synthesized track down to a more acceptable reggae tempo. A few days later, he deployed it at a soundclash against the Black Scorpio Soundsystem and crushed them with the track. Like an earthquake, the revolutionary "Sleng Teng" riddim changed the Jamaican music industry overnight, introducing dancehall to the world. Going forward, riddims would be rendered via keyboards and drum machines rather than session musicians and "Sleng Teng" became the most ubiquitous riddim, manifesting nearly 400 times to date. Jammy’s digital productions became ascendant on the isle, and when King Tubby was tragically murdered a few years on, Jammy was crowned King. And Smith’s track also pushed Jamaica’s sound closer to that of early hip-hop, starting a cross-fertilization that continues to this day. —Andy Beta

    Loose Joints

    “Is It All Over My Face”

    West End; 1980

    183

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    The transformation of Arthur Russell from cult favorite into widely praised figurehead is one of the great upsets of pop music history. Russell, a polyglot composer who made odd, personal music, was far likelier to end up a footnote, or sample fodder, than as the subject of documentaries and biographies, to see his archives mined for scraps of magic. But Russell's pensive solo works have always appealed to underground music fans, and a renewed interest in disco and post-disco—spearheaded by labels like DFA—has helped keep his dance productions in rotation. "Is It All Over My Face", produced with Steve D'Aquisto under his and Russell's Loose Joints alias, is the finest of those tracks, a collision of disco's pop and exploratory impulses.

    Featuring famed Philadelphia session musicians the Ingram brothers and released on disco stalwart West End Records, "Is It All Over My Face" was not a homespun lark. Still, it was not aimed at the charts, recorded with amateur vocalists exclusively under full moons. The track was meant to encompass the flowing, friendly vibes of David Mancuso's Loft parties, though it never became a mainstay there. "Is It All Over My Face" exists in two wildly different forms. Russell's own cut is jammier and features a cadre of mumbling male vocalists; it sold poorly. Paradise Garage resident Larry Levan's more celebrated version highlights Melvina Woods' warbly, off-key vocals; it was a Garage smash and did time on the Billboard dance chart.

    The track is about dancing, or guilt, or—covertly, funnily—blowjobs. Russell was a gay man attending largely gay dance parties—he served the base, so to speak. But the unusual singsong cadences in which Woods et al. enunciate the song's little koans leave room for interpretation; it's like a group of non-English speakers singing the phrases off of flash cards. Russell compulsively injected oddities like this into his disco. That he made it all work was his genius; that we're still dancing to and celebrating these songs is a triumph of strange. —Andrew Gaerig

    See also: Shirley Lites: "Heat You Up (Melt You Down)"

    Strafe

    “Set It Off”

    Jus Born; 1984

    182

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    Nominally, Chris Rock’s Top Five is about a cocktail party topic: who are your five favorite rappers? And while the soundtrack featured old school tracks from Slick Rick and LL Cool J, one pivotal scene features the boom-tick of an 808 and the shout: "Y’all want this party started, right? Y’all want this party started quickly, right?" At the time of its release in 1984, Strafe’s "Set It Off" was at the nexus of New York City’s underground street musics: hip-hop, electro, and boogie, when the borders separating each genre were permeable. The work of Steve Standard (who as legend has it, borrowed the 808 from his friend Cozmo D of Newcleus, who had recently deployed the drum machine for "Jam on It"), it came to the attention of retired disco DJ Walter Gibbons. Gibbons had remixed the likes of Gladys Knight and the Salsoul Orchestra (and would soon make iconic work with Arthur Russell) and started his own label so as to put out the song. It soon became the hottest track in New York, soundtracking moves by Paradise Garage dancers and breaking b-boys alike. That shout continues to be echoed by everyone from C+C Music Factory to 50 Cent, an old-school party-starter nearly three decades later. —Andy Beta

    Womack & Womack

    “Teardrops”

    Island; 1988

    181

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    Four years on from Wham!’s "Careless Whisper", 1988’s "Teardrops" provided not only the decade’s other, superior take on the pitfalls of infidelity, but also its best argument for pop powered by restraint rather than excess. The underlying message may be the same—guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm—but "Teardrops" swaps desperation for quiet resignation, and impassioned chest-beating for melancholy understatement and resilience; the music may no longer feel the same, but Linda Womack tries to keep dancing. "Nothing that I do or feel ever feels like I felt it with you," she announces with such understated dignity that her sadness feels more real, more intimate than almost any other vision of heartbreak in pop’s archives.

    Womack & Womack had already proved themselves expert in mining these spaces in between breakups and make-ups, intermingling love and loss so expertly and so effortlessly that the sadness becomes soothing, a crutch you can’t throw away, a lover you can’t leave no matter how badly you fight. If 1983’s Love Wars is the duo’s finest album-length expression of this mission, then "Teardrops" is the ultimate single-shot, a simmering soul number of such polite, warm accommodation that it raises the notion of "background music" to the level of art, demanding not to be turned up, but that we turn the sound of life down in order to hear it better.

    Linda takes care to fill only so much space as she needs to vocalize her bittersweet nostalgia, while the arrangement shrugs off her despond with a brisk yet comfortable groove that remembers the ease and familiarity of romance lost in the moment, taking for granted the spontaneous joy now forever denied to its singer. In wistful instrumental stretches the song slides into an extended keyboard solo of unexpected (even for Womack & Womack) minimalism and economy, a slow jazzstep in zero gravity. Its radical uneventfulness captures better than words the song’s fond evocation of love’s smallest scenes of domestic harmony: burnt toast or unmade beds or footsteps on the dancefloor. —Tim Finney

    Patrice Rushen

    “Forget Me Nots”

    Elektra; 1982

    180

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    In the crowded field that was early '80s R&B soul—with Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer, and Stephanie Mills, among others—Patrice Rushen emerged as a surprise. In the '70s, Rushen was primarily a jazz vocalist and musician who had already produced enough notable material to release a Best Of compilation. When her rhythmic, pop-leaning self-titled album arrived in 1978, Rushen quickly came under fire from the jazz community, which deemed her a sellout. Seeming to prove their point, Patrice earned Rushen her first charting single with "Hang It Up". 1979’s Pizazz was even less jazzy, and received similar criticism. After scoring three Top 5 hits on the U.S. dance charts from 1980 to 1981, she finally hit big with the funky "Forget Me Nots", a crossover smash about forlorned romance.

    A prominent sample (and an interpolation) of the song would later be repurposed for Will Smith’s even bigger hit, "Men in Black", the Grammy-winning single for the 1997 film of the same name. That shouldn’t count against it: Accompanied by a particularly elastic bassline from noted R&B bassist Freddie Washington, who worked with artists like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Elton John, and B.B. King, Patrice Rushen’s "Forget Me Nots" reeks of a longing to rekindle lost love. The memories of forgotten romance refract through the clarity and transparency of her tone. She spirals through a dizzying head rush of emotions with a composure that’s gripping. "Forget Me Nots" is imbued with something its platinum successor could never recapture: the slow-burning desire exuded by Rushen’s poised vocal performance. —Sheldon Pearce

    See also: Patrice Rushen: "Haven't You Heard" / Patrice Rushen: "Remind Me"

    The Joubert Singers

    “Stand on the Word”

    Next Plateau; 1985

    179

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    For those inclined to believe that music's power can be as uncanny as it is transcendent, here’s definitive proof. In 1982, Phyliss McKoy Joubert was minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her song "Stand on the Word", with the artist credited as the Celestial Choir, was part of a privately pressed compilation album recorded live at the church that spring. A rousing, piano-centered gospel number with a youthful lead vocal and funk underpinnings, the track caught the ear of Walter Gibbons, a disco pioneer who’d more recently become a born-again Christian—and whose studios were nearby.

    From there, "Stand on the Word" eventually spread to such NYC dance-music holy sites as the Loft and Paradise Garage. Gibbons died from AIDS-related symptoms in 1994, so he never got to hear the record’s ongoing diaspora, whether it was providing a climactic moment on Glasgow club night via Optimo’s towering 2004 mix How to Kill the DJ Part 2, inspiring Justice’s joyful "D.A.N.C.E." a few years later, or in this decade cracking the French charts via a reissued cover version. A 1985 overhaul, credited to the Joubert Singers, adds some dated-sounding production flourishes, but the original remains untouchable, as certain to lift up a crowd as many far better-known songs from the era.

    There has been someconfusion about this record’s origins—it’s often listed as a remix by the Paradise’s legendary Larry Levan—but disco scholar Tim Lawrence convincingly documentsthe proper history on his website. Anyway, that murky path from church-pew fervor to dancefloor rapture is appropriate for a tune that can have even avowed atheists belting out, "That’s how the good Lord works." As for Joubert, she has remained active as founder of the Glory Gospel Singers; a website lists plans for a "Stand on the Word" tour this year. Mysterious ways, for sure. —Marc Hogan

    Nina Simone

    “Fodder in Her Wings”

    Carrere; 1982

    178

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    Fodder on My Wings was arguably the most honest record Nina released in the period when she seemed to have all but disappeared from music. In the near-decade that she escaped the States to live abroad, the only other studio album she recorded was 1978’s Baltimore, a record she says in her autobiography was made mostly to move her career along. Fodder on My Wings by contrast was a deeply personal, sometimes even playful, compendium of her time in the mid-'70s to mid-'80s spent flitting between Barbados, Liberia, and various European cities.

    The title track explains everything: "A bird fell to earth, reincarnated from her birth/ She had fodder in her brain/ Dust inside her wings." And the dust inside Simone’s wings was thick—an accumulation of years of marital abuse, a falling out with her record label, an unfinished Civil Rights Movement and dear friends who’d died fighting; a lifetime of being misunderstood. Yet despite all of that, like dust, she'd rise.

    Nina had long called Africa her "spiritual home," and she had been wanting to get back to the Western classical music she was raised on. "Fodder in Her Wings" allowed her to make good on both. The track opens with marimba and shekere sounds, before Simone herself enters on a Baroque-sounding harpsichord and classical piano. In a few years, she would remake this song, and she would put it in an album called Nina’s Back. —Minna Zhou

    The Pretenders

    “Brass in Pocket”

    Real/Sire; 1980

    177

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    In 1973, Chrissie Hynde wanted to get the hell out of Akron, Ohio, the town where she was born and raised, so she cobbled together some money working odd jobs and set off for England. She managed to get a gig writing for NME, and eventually, she set out to put her own band together. It took a few tries, but she eventually found three guys from Hereford: bassist Pete Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, and drummer Martin Chambers. The Pretenders could do breakneck songs in uncommon time signatures (Honeyman-Scott rips on "Tattooed Love Boys"), but 1980’s "Brass in Pocket" was comparably delicate.

    It’s often thought that Hynde sings from the perspective of someone getting ready for a sexual encounter—the music video where she portrays a pining waitress certainly pushes that narrative—but it’s equally possible that it’s about performing. Regardless, Hynde is her own biggest advocate, doing everything she can to get the attention she knows she deserves. "I’m special," she sings, and her bandmates all concur.

    Hynde is special, and not just because of her iconic powerhouse alto. She’s an uncompromising and bold figure, the Midwestern badass among Brits who spoke candidly to Kurt Loder in 1980 about consent, fucking "like a man", and the realities of touring while on your period. In interviews, Hynde has distanced herself from this song, but it’s easy to hear an origin story here: an Akron girl moves to the UK, picks up some local phrases ("got bottle," "it’s so reet"), and knows that it’s time to elbow her way into the spotlight by any means necessary. —Evan Minsker

    Schoolly D

    “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”

    Schoolly D; 1985

    176

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    The Philly rapper Schoolly D’s "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" is rightfully famous for being one of the first gangsta rap records, an early break from recorded hip-hop’s more polite sing-song genesis that incorporated the crude and raunchy language of the street. In that respect it’s been highly influential, inspiring MCs to spin long and detailed and often filthy tales of sex, drugs, and violence (see Ice-T’s "6 ‘N the Mornin’", among many others). But before you take in the specifics of Schoolly D’s narrative, "P.S.K." is experienced as a sonic assault, with a booming low end and clattering snares that sound like they’re echoing around the guts of an empty oil tanker. You feel it first and parse it later. There’s no harmonic information, nothing in the way of melody, just the relentless 808 and DJ Code Money’s insectile scratching, and it’s not remotely pop, standing miles from the disco and funk grooves that inspired rappers just a few years before (and unlike Run-D.M.C., Schoolly D did not care for rock’n’roll). When someone in 1985 said that rap wasn’t music, that it was just a bunch of noise with someone yelling nonsense over the top, they were imagining something very much like this, a record that dared you to hear sound in a new way. —Mark Richardson

    See also: MC Shan & Marley Marl: "The Bridge" / Schoolly D: "Parkside 5-2"

    K-Rob / Rammellzee

    “Beat Bop”

    Tartown/Profile; 1983

    175

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    "Beat Bop"—part sound collage, part straight-up B-Boying-ready freestyle session—is most widely noted for being produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat, making it the artist’s most significant musical contribution outside of his no wave group Gray (though we shouldn’t forget his cameo in the "Rapture" video). The single was to be Basquiat’s great tribute to hip-hop culture, including all his own lyrics and was even to feature him as an additional MC. Instead, he was pushed into an ineffectual overseer position. Refusing to read the artist’s lyrics, Rammellzee—in the graffiti world, a rival of Basquiat’s, and sometimes-masked Renaissance man and mystic—and unknown 15-year-old street rapper K-Rob followed their own muse. Their labyrinthine verses are as full of contradictions and "Did that just happen?" curiosities as the erratic backing track. The more verbose Rammellzee's haunting, echoing delivery of phrases like "Just freak that, yeah baba-y" and "Rock on to the break of dawn" make him some Faustian answer to the Sugarhill Gang’s Master Gee. He plays pusherman and pimp, his voice shifting into nasal tones in abstract moments of jubilation; meanwhile, K-Rob, the golden heart, slinks through back alleys, relaying sharp images of poverty and systemic injustice.

    The record has all the disorderly, miraculous atmosphere of an art happening, the chaos resulting at least partially from the fact that this was the work of a group of strong personalities, who either didn’t know or like each other that well, crammed into a studio making a record with no guidelines. From a production perspective, it is proud too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen music: Legendary artist, hip-hop experimentalist, and future MTV icon Fab Five Freddy and Basquiat tried their hand at dialing in heavy echo and delay effects while Basquiat’s friends—free improvisers and non-musicians alike—jammed on instruments they might or might not be able to play (fiddles, chimes and beyond) and were faded into the mix at random. The result is what Ramm aptly calls a beat from the "depths of hell."

    The "Beat Bop" 12” was too small of a pressing to have a substantial influence on the hip-hop mainstream, but it became a minor downtown club hit during its moment, and later a boon for record collectors and alt-rap enthusiasts. Whatever else it is, Basquiat’s happy accident is among the best work done in the vein of "avant-rap," and one of the great cult rap records of its decade. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    See also: Newcleus: "Jam on It"

    Suicidal Tendencies

    “Institutionalized”

    Frontier; 1983

    174

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    "Institutionalized" was the first thrash video aired on MTV, putting a couple of SoCal punks in flannels and baseball caps in the same airspace as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Journey. But the clip was more about staying on message rather than to expanding the channel's range—their pervasive "I Want My MTV" campaign was an overt means of mobilizing teens to yell at their parents until the parents yelled at cable providers. And no song outlines the mechanics of 11th-grade rage more clearly than Suicidal Tendencies’ "Institutionalized": 1) identify the problem; 2) recognize the problem is not identifiable; 3) get real frustrated; 4) have frustration compounded by the misunderstanding of parents, teachers, churches, schools, etc.; 5) work up the nervous energy to circle pit for about 15 seconds until you collapse and collect yourself to do it all over again. Like most displays of teen angst, it’s a little petty, somewhat aware of its own ridiculousness, pretty funny, and above all a cry for attention—whatever teen spirit may smell like, it’ll always taste like that Pepsi you just can’t have. —Ian Cohen

    Wipers

    “Youth of America”

    Park Ave.; 1981

    173

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    It was the dawn of MTV and one of the best bands in America would abstain entirely from the music video boom. Greg Sage didn’t want mass appeal publicity for Wipers; he valued mystique. His initial plan was to release a ton of music but refuse to give interviews or share photos. He just wanted to hand over the records and let listeners react without expectation or context—he thought it would encourage thoughtful listening. It was a vision that failed to bring Wipers any commercial success, instead earning them cult hero status. Due to label pressure, Sage eased up on his self-imposed restrictions (except music videos, which he never made), but it’s easy to understand his logic.

    "Youth of America", the quintessential Wipers song, pushes the boundaries of punk, operating with a regimented krautrock-reminiscent rhythm section for over 10 sprawling, unpredictable minutes. Sage’s reputation as a studio wizard is locked with his guitar sound alone—it gradually weaves back and forth between the song’s primary riff and an ominous, psychedelic vortex. This was music unconcerned with its contemporaries—Sage has said he tried to write "in a futuristic way." The future portended in "Youth of America" was a bleak one—a quasi-apocalyptic nation of oppression via wealth disparity and middle class complacency. Ambitious and disorienting, its theme is still relevant, a hypnotic call to action and a warning that if you don’t participate, things could keep getting worse. —Evan Minsker

    The Sugarcubes

    “Birthday”

    One Little Indian; 1987

    172

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    By the time Björk Guðmundsdóttir turned 21, she had already led several musical lives: covering the Beatles and Stevie Wonder in Icelandic on a novelty record released when she was just 12 and then going on to wail in restless teenage bands like the herky-jerky Tappi Tíkarrass (translation: Cork the Bitch's Ass) and the goth-tinged post-punk group Kukl. And then, for a laugh, the singer and her subversive friends decided to start a straight-up pop band. The Sugarcubes’ debut single came out on November 21, 1986—Björk’s 21st birthday—and featured a song called "Ammæli". It sold a few hundred copies. But over the course of the next year, they re-recorded the track in English, released it in the UK, and, largely thanks to a rave review in Melody Maker, quickly became the biggest Icelandic pop band in history.

    Despite the song’s international success, though, "Birthday" was hardly anyone’s idea of a typical chart smash. "We started to play pop songs that we thought were similar to what other people were playing," keyboardist Einar Melax has said. "It was a total surprise to us that nobody else thought this was pop." Instead, it wafts like a swaying and strange post-punk exhale, an easing of muscles after so many guitar shards and stuttering beats. Björk displays the same characteristics that would keep her career going for decades: the sensuous whisper, the guttural yelp, the surreal imagery. She has said the lyrics of "Birthday" involve "a story about a love affair between a 5-year-old girl, a secret, and a man who lives next door" as well as how children process erotic feelings without knowing what they mean. It’s trying to translate the unexplainable through song and, really, what could be more pop than that? —Ryan Dombal

    King Sunny Ade and His African Beats

    “Ja Funmi”

    Mango; 1982

    171

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    When King Sunny Ade (real name Sunday Adeniyi) dropped Juju Music in 1982, leading with "Ja Funmi", he popularized jùjú music to Western audiences. Jùjú is a Nigerian popular music derived from Yoruba praise singing, and is a cousin to highlife. What King Sunny Ade did with it was help modernize it. He expanded the band section, added Hawaiian steel guitar, and incorporated influences from more contemporary styles like rock and funk. It made him a big star in Nigeria long before his first international release ever happened.

    That landmark record, Juju Music, happened when Island Records approached Sunny Ade and, in the aftermath of Bob Marley’s death, hoped to bill him as "the African Bob Marley" (even though he didn’t make reggae, and Marley had long maintained ties to the continent...). Around that same time, the term "world music" was coined as a way to group together all non-English-language music from outside the UK and U.S. These were problematic marketing moves for sure. Yet they succeeded in piquing wider public interest in Ade’s polyrhythmic, anodyne tunes. "World music" as an industry started taking off.

    It's too bad then—or maybe it was a good thing—that Island decided to drop their African Marley a few years later when it turned out he was not their African Marley in record sales. The mighty African Beats dissolved shortly thereafter, and the king of jùjú returned to work, with success, in Nigeria. He would release material internationally years later, but in the meantime, "Ja Funmi" had already made its mark. —Minna Zhou

    Cybotron

    “Clear”

    Fantasy; 1983

    170

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    There's no tiptoeing around it: "Clear" is here primarily because it makes one really fucking cool sound. The skipping, phosphorescent synth melody that defines the track is one of those moments where early techno delivered on its promise of futurism, offering up a thrill that no rock or new wave or funk band could duplicate, a thrill still potent enough for hip-hop's most adventurous producer two decades later. Producers all over the world have been trying for more than 30 years, and few have made a sound as indelible and brain-tickling as what "Clear" offers.

    "Clear" hails from that period in techno's incubation when most of the music still felt a little too indebted to Kraftwerk, but "Clear" sounds more psychedelic and unhinged than other formative Cybotron tracks ("Alleys of Your Mind", "Cosmic Cars"). The legacy of "Clear", and of Cybotron, is easy to suss out. Entire discographies, like those of Detroit legends Drexciya, were built on top of it, and the stylish electro-punk of bands like Ladytron and LCD Soundsystem owe a debt as well. —Andrew Gaerig

    See also: Model 500: "No UFOs" / Phuture: "Acid Tracks

    The Chills

    “Pink Frost”

    Flying Nun; 1988

    169

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    There is a loneliness in Chills singer Martin Phillipps’ voice that’s clearly driven by some dark places. "Pink Frost" is one of the best songs to capture his malaise, released just as Phillipps and his band were emerging as part of the thriving scene in Dunedin, New Zealand, most of which was being documented by the lauded Flying Nun label. Many members of fellow Flying Nun bands passed through the Chills’ ranks over the years, but Phillipps was always the driving force, apparently in possession of an infinite array of addictive melodies and a huge well of melancholy from which to divine inspiration.

    At first glance "Pink Frost" doesn’t bear many '80s trappings, instead sounding like something from the indie rock scene that blew up around 10 years after its release. Artists such as Pavement and Sebadoh owe a debt to its frayed-around-the-edges presentation, which still has the ability to devastate more than 30 years later. The ultra-thin guitar lines feel like ropes pulling you in with Phillipps offloading a ton of impossible sadness once you’re inside—a place his small but ardent audience have found perpetually enthralling. —Nick Neyland

    See also: Cleaners From Venus: "Only a Shadow" / Feelies: "Loveless Love

    LL Cool J

    “I Can't Live Without My Radio”

    Def Jam; 1985

    168

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    "I Can't Live Without My Radio", the opener from Queens rapper LL Cool J’s 1985 debut Radio, is theoretically a love song to ghetto blaster culture, though it ended up being a lot more than that. Rick Rubin’s minimalist production; LL’s bold, bragging lyrics with their references to b-boy style, his prowess, his neighborhood, and responsible boombox maintenance (buying batteries, "terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass")—it all helped usher in the new school of hip-hop. This intense, immediate song pulled more from rock in length and sound (Radio's "Rock the Bells" sampled AC/DC) versus the meandering disco-inspired old-school typified by something like Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper’s Delight". The track was included in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, a film that looked at the rise of new school hip-hop groups like LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., and the Fat Boys. In turn, it helped influence the "golden age" of hip-hop, embodied by the likes of Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. When it was released, though, it was just a song about a dude and the music that literally soundtracked his life. —Brandon Stosuy

    Yoko Ono

    “Walking on Thin Ice”

    Geffen; 1981

    167

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    Yoko Ono was always ahead of her time. "Walking on Thin Ice" made it official. She and John Lennon had left the song off of their 1980 album together, Double Fantasy. That album’s biggest A-sides, such as "(Just Like) Starting Over" and "Woman", successfully matched Lennon’s longstanding melodic directness with a mature perspective and contemporary production sheen. But it was a B-side, the Ono-led "Kiss Kiss Kiss", that, as Lennon told an interviewer, was "getting a lot of rock club, new wave, disco exposure." The emerging new-wave underground’s debt to Ono’s previous work was real—the B-52’s have acknowledged the influence the avant-garde artist’s shrill screams had on the iconic Athens, Ga. band’s late-'70s breakthrough "Rock Lobster"—and the six-minute "Walking on Thin Ice" would be a "special kind of disc for them."

    Everything changed when, the night after they finished mixing the record, Lennon was murdered. Everything except for the song’s ability to reach an audience now primed for Ono’s vocal eccentricities. With clangorous guitar from Lennon over a murky low-end groove, "Walking on Thin Ice" frames Ono’s ominous narrative about life’s uncertainties, punctuated with shrieks. Beyond the new-wavers of the time and the alternative-era iconoclasts who would follow, the influence of Ono—and this song in particular—resonates across the chilly, nocturnal grooves of Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better acts and the unfettered vocal styles of bands from Life Without Buildings to Ponytail and tUnE-yArDs. "Walking on Thin Ice" finally lived up Lennon’s pronouncement that it would be Ono’s first No. 1 (on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart, anyway) in 2003, with a remix-packed reissue; an expansive 2007 reworking with Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce further shows the song’s mutability. The ultimate version, though, might be the sleekly sprawling "1981 re-edit" compiled on 2000’s influential Disco (Not Disco) compilation.

    "The family who laughs together stays together," Ono writes in the liner notes for the 7” single, issued two months after her husband’s death, recounting a personal anecdote about their lives together. Despite a reputation for highbrow seriousness, perhaps one of her most foresighted ideas was one that rock’s misguided anti-Yoko axis had long since forgotten: Great art can make young people dance. As Ono intones dryly on the track, "That's a hell of a thing to do, you know." —Marc Hogan

    George Benson

    “Give Me the Night”

    Warner Bros.; 1980

    166

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    For those who first hear Quincy Jones through Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller, it’s a thrill discovering Jones' prolific output from this era outside of Michael. The tight horns, swooping strings, and instrumental precision all remain in play; only a new character takes center stage. There's Jones' own solo album The Dude, and its can't-miss Chaz Jankel cover "Ai No Corrida"; his work with Brothers Johnson, especially "Stomp"; there's Chaka Khan and Rufus' "Do You Love What You Feel". But George Benson—a jazz guitarist who had few qualms about dipping into the pop world—was the lucky recipient of one of Jones' best records with the Rod Temperton-penned "Give Me the Night". Temperton, a songwriter and member of the band Heatwave, was responsible for Michael Jackson's "Rock With You", "Off the Wall", and "Thriller", and collaborated frequently with Jones. On "Give Me the Night," the ineffable elements of a Temperton record is in place: the assured swagger that offsets its unapologetic sweetness, the sugary euphoria packaged at the song's heart. Meanwhile, the rest of the record dances around it: background vocals scatting, an especially active bassline, those mellow guitar tones with his vocals echoing behind them, strings sweeping through the background. It's an idealistic song, one that envisions every evening as ideal as in memory, a celebration of celebration. —David Drake

    See also: Brothers Johnson: "Stomp" /  Quincy Jones: "Ai No Corrida"

    Inner City

    “Good Life”

    Virgin; 1988

    165

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    Inner City was essentially an accident—a collision of Chicago and Detroit sprouted from an instrumental that techno forefather Kevin Saunderson didn't know how to finish. Vocalist Paris Grey helped Saunderson combine his club-ready sound with bona fide pop hooks, and it was an instant smash. "Good Life" was Inner City's peak and a reminder that even techno's sacredest cows—the guys who invented the genre itself—weren't averse to a bit of chart-baiting (something that today's dance music snobs could stand to remember). And chart it did: "Good Life" hit #4 on the UK pop charts at the beginning of 1989, a time when Britain couldn't get enough of American dance music. In the U.S., it reached a more modest #73, though it remains an enduring favorite in house DJ sets to this day. "Good Life" proved irresistible for heads and dilettantes alike, reinforcing a surge of interest in house music that has echoes of today's EDM explosion. And while there's a long lineage to be traced from Inner City—from classic MK dubs in the '90s to Duke Dumont's hits of the past few years—as often is the case with classic dance music, it's tough to beat the original. —Andrew Ryce

    Hüsker Dü

    “Pink Turns to Blue”

    SST; 1984

    164

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    Just as they rose to prominence in the '80s, Hüsker Dü found themselves on the precipice of a breakup due to creative conflicts between principal songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Mould was the razor-witted go-getter, and Grant was the dark hippie whose continued drug abuse threatened to rip the band apart. As unrest spread through the ranks, Hüsker Dü grew more vulnerable, casting shadows on sunny pop punk and confronting their demons directly. No song embodied the existential shroud as poignantly as Grant’s "Pink Turns to Blue", a hardcore rumination on death, transience, and uncertainty. In a subtle act of juxtaposition, the specter of death takes on dual guises: a mournful entity built from slashing guitar chords, and a poetic form conjured through soft, euphemistic language. As Grant desperately attempts to stifle his sorrow through images of fading hues and pacing angels, the churning void refuses to abate. The Zen Arcade standout reiterated Hüsker Dü’s greatest strength: capturing the feelings behind the fury without being torn asunder. —Zoe Camp

    Peter Gabriel

    “In Your Eyes”

    Geffen; 1986

    163

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    The first video for a single from Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So was a creative masterstroke, combining then-revolutionary claymation (provided by the creators of "Wallace & Gromit"), stop-motion, and pixilation technology to successfully rebrand an art-rock outsider as a cutting-edge multimedia pop artist. But the most enduring visual—and the one that made it Gabriel’s most enduring song—is just a single shot of a dude holding up a damn boombox.

    Say Anything premiered in 1989—closer to the release of Nevermind than "In Your Eyes". Still, artists exploring an '80s aesthetic in the 25 years since often let that one scene and its defining song speak for the entire decade that came before it—cosmic stardust emanating from the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, panoramic production, and the transmutation of teenage feelings into adulthood, yearning vocals that exert an unquenchable thirst to love you like no one could possibly fathom… but in a non-threatening way.

    While Gabriel may have intended Yossou N’dour’s guest appearance (singing in his native Wolof) to make a point about love breaking down barriers of language and race, the song’s history of covers has relegated it to freshman dorms: Sum-41, the dude from Staind, Jeffrey Gaines, 95% of college students who owned an acoustic guitar in the '90s, all of them doing so because they want to be Lloyd Dobler, not Peter Gabriel. The obvious rejoinder to Chuck Klosterman’s claim that, "countless women born between the years of 1965 and 1978 are in love with John Cusack" is that even more men were in love with the idea of being John Cusack. While "In Your Eyes" might be one of the most influential musical '80s archetypes, Cameron Crowe made Gabriel an accomplice in creating the most influential "'80s" personality archetype. —Ian Cohen

    Orchestra Baobab

    “Mouhamadou Bamba”

    Stern's Africa; 1984

    162

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    From the moment the opening clouds of guitar descend to the moment it ends with an odd, sudden fade, "Mouhamadou Bamba" pulses with dark energy. In 1980, Orchestra Baobab were coming off a full decade as one of Senegal’s dominant musical forces, a role they were about to lose to Youssou N’Dour and the mbalax wave, but here they were still at the peak of their power and popularity.

    This song is vocalist Thione Seck’s tribute to Amadou Bamba, a 19th-century Sufi mystic who founded the Mouride brotherhood that is today one of the most influential strains of Islamic thought in Senegal and Gambia. Seck’s lead brims with passion—his melody careens around the stable choruses of the backing singers, so syncopated that at times it seems to come in from somewhere outside the music. The other singers repeat the name of the spiritual leader and reference the city of Touba, where the Mouride order is headquartered.

    Seck’s fire is matched by the dazzling lead guitar of Barthelemy Attisso, who originally came to Dakar from his homeland of Togo as a law student and taught himself to play by listening to the radio (he returned to Togo to practice law when the band broke up in 1987). As impressive as it is, his solo isn’t flashy. Rather it seems to converse with the mystical in its own language, deepening the song’s otherworldly essence. It’s hard to make music this funky so mysterious, but Baobab managed the feat. —Joe Tangari

    See also: Youssou N'Dour & Étoile de Dakar: "Wadiour"

    U2

    “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

    Island; 1983

    161

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    Any skeptic who needs to be reminded that U2 were once a convincingly impassioned group of politically-inflamed upstarts should revisit "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Written as a public condemnation of the massacre by British soldiers of unarmed protesters in Derry, Ireland, it does what a great protest song should do, which is demand that it be played as loudly and recklessly as possible. It lurches like a train, opening the band’s third album, War, with a powerful declaration of collective drive—not just towards political justice, but towards a harshly angular, aggressive sound that could only have come from a foursome of very young musicians. It wasn’t the last time they would engage in political grandstanding, but it was the last time they sounded like they were willing to punch you in the face over it. In between the rolling snares and attack-ready guitars are seeds of the theatricality (see Bono’s howling exhortation to "wipe your tears away") that would later germinate into the palatial production and grand emotions of The Unforgettable Fire. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is a burning call to revolt with the added bite of youthful ambition, a potent message even now that its urgency has dulled. —Abigail Garnett

    Sheila E.

    “The Glamorous Life”

    Warner Bros.; 1984

    160

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    One version of history: Prince’s genius is such that it trickles down to everyone he works with, elevating the ordinary and the non-notable of the world. Actual version of history: Prince had—still has—an uncanny knack for spotting (and frequently dating, but still) talented female artists, and giving them world-class platforms. While "The Glamorous Life" is undeniably a Prince song, from the worldly would-be celebutante who’s saved from independence by "the seventh wave" of making love to the horns that nudge-nudge all the lyrics, it’s a song that went to the right person. Prince’s lyric might’ve come off mocking delivered by someone else, but with Sheila it’s just there, a vessel for her to fill with a star’s worth of potential energy—much of it via percussion solo, deployed live like a sudden tornado. It’s the rare recording that sounds star-making on its own, without the confirmation bias of history, and it’s the rare producer who knows exactly what to do with a star when he hears one. —Katherine St. Asaph

    See also: Apollonia 6: "Sex Shooter" / Vanity 6: "Nasty Girl"

    George Clinton

    “Atomic Dog”

    Capitol; 1982

    159

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    George Clinton had been partying the night he recorded "Atomic Dog"; then again, he'd been partying quite a bit in those days. George—Dr. Funkenstein, the Starchild himself, mad genius of Parliament-Funkadelic—arrived at the studio fresh from the club; Garry Shider and David Spradley, longtime P-Funk associates who laid down most of what would become "Atomic Dog", remember flanking him while he recorded his vocal so he wouldn't start listing to the side. He'd arrived with nothing prepared; it's unclear whether he'd even heard the track before. High as he was, George took one listen to that panting synth, and inspiration struck: A dog. Something about a dog.

    At the dawn of the '80s, funk got sleeker, sparser, more reliant on synths, less caught up in the cosmos. By 1982, Clinton was a man out of time: beaten at his own game by that skinny motherfucker with a high voice, rocked by a nasty freebase habit, and deeply in debt to any number of ex-bandmates. That "Atomic Dog" came together at all is a minor miracle; that it's every bit the equal of his '70s classics is something else entirely. George growls, barks, whinnies, and yawps his way through Shider and Spradley's futuristic bow-wow, offhandedly unloading one slobbery hook after another. It's a gloriously unhinged performance, silly and strange, a kind of alchemical lightning-strike. After years as a favored sample for West Coast hip-hop producers (it appears in no less than 7 Ice Cube songs), nowadays you're most likely to hear "Atomic Dog" in commercial spots for kids' movies and pet chow. Woof. —Paul Thompson

    See also: Zapp: "More Bounce to the Ounce"

    808 State

    “Pacific State”

    ZTT; 1989

    158

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    Giving the acid-drenched Madchester rave sound one of its first significant chart boosts by reaching the top 10 in the UK, Graham Massey and Martin Price’s "Pacific State" was the perfect cocktail of new age naturalism and club drugs. The sour synths and dry drum programming sounded distinctly North American, while its soothing chord progression and liberally-deployed loon calls evoked some kind of extraterrestrial paradise. One of their last tracks to feature contributions from Gerald Simpson, who would soon depart the group and release his own groundbreaking single as A Guy Called Gerald, "Pacific State" was the populist slow burner 808 State needed to cement their commercial appeal. Possibly in ironic rejection, the duo went on to release myriad versions of the track. But its hazy atmosphere, equally evocative of a warm beach with a cool breeze and a club with a packed-in crowd, proved an enduring influence on a new generation of techno producers (Aphex Twin, Autechre, Lone) and bleary-eyed ravers alike. —Abigail Garnett

    See also: Orbital: "Chime"

    Orange Juice

    “Rip It Up”

    Polydor; 1982

    157

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    Come 1982, Edwyn Collins had a strong sense of his dues. Fed up with shambling along while charlatans like Haircut 100 commercialized Orange Juice's shtick, he fired his unambitious bandmates and signed up a sharper cohort. His bold move paid off: "Rip It Up", the title track of their second album, spent seven weeks climbing the UK singles chart to peak at #8, although it betrayed the fact that Collins was probably bluffing his pop chops rather than making a safe bet at longevity.

    The conceit of "Rip It Up" has been interpreted and perpetuated as a demand for the overhaul of stagnant culture—which in essence, it was. In immediate, intimate terms, though, Collins swaggers his way through the introvert's dream of ripping off their trembling skin and "arms stuck like glue to my sides." His character emerges as confidently charismatic as the spirits that strut through the song: Chic's taut guitars, the novel Roland TB-303's playful burble, the uninhibited violence of J.G. Thirlwell on sax, a nod to Pete Shelley's iconoclasm. ("My favorite song's entitled 'Boredom'..."). Funk as liberator trouncing funk as fear. —Laura Snapes

    See also: Orange Juice: "Blue Boy" / Television Personalities: "This Angry Silence"

    Siouxsie and the Banshees

    “Cities in Dust”

    Polydor/Geffen; 1985

    156

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    Pompeii is filled with ghosts. The point in visiting is to try and understand what it must have been like the day the city was engulfed by pumice and volcanic ash. There are petrified bodies—frozen in place at the moment of their death—on display in glass cases. The scene left an impact on Siouxsie Sioux. With "Cities in Dust", she imagines the final moments of these people, picturing them running, praying, and ultimately having their lungs and nostrils choked with lava. As an artist and songwriter, Siouxsie has empathy for the marginalized and doomed. In 1981, she wrote "Arabian Knights" about women being kept as "baby machines." Here, she’s singing to those people eternally stuck in display cases—their city left in dust and their bodies unearthed centuries later. It’s a shimmering bit of black magic pop, her voice howling through the bitter truth that all their stories, triumphs, and cherished memories are long gone even though tourists still stare into the hollow sockets where there used to be eyes. Right, people don’t just call her "goth" because of her makeup and color palate. —Evan Minsker

    See also: Sinéad O'Connor: "Troy" / Siouxsie and the Banshees: "Christine"

    A Guy Called Gerald

    “Voodoo Ray”

    Rham!/Warlock; 1988

    155

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    "Acid house" is so named for the slippery, speaker-melting bass burbles produced by the Roland TB-303 synthesizer. But the name also evokes the mind-altering vibe of much of the '80s Chicago house that epitomized the style, evident in titles like Sleezy D.’s "I’ve Lost Control" and Adonis’s "No Way Back". Chicago acid house captured a specifically urban version of psychological dislocation, but UK groups like 808 State and its erstwhile member Gerald Simpson took the style and explored how it allowed you to get truly lost in the metaphysical sense, wandering free in the jungle of the mind.

    The great trick of Gerald’s "Voodoo Ray" is to marry the two strands, stumbling upon a new brand of mysticism in the process. The merger is so flawless it was unrepeatable: Nicola Collier’s wordless coos and sighs, the bass riffs suggesting the tribal percussion of an alien planet, and a 303 bassline attempting to disintegrate the beat from behind. "Voodoo voodoo voodoo voodoo ray…" intones a mysterious voice in the background, a message without meaning but heavy with portent. It suggest an ambiguous religious ceremony, and it’s not clear whether the spirit being awakened is friendly or hostile.

    "Voodoo Ray" was one of the earliest dance music tracks to raise such questions of intention and then keep them suspended; as long as the music is so intoxicating it doesn’t need to evoke clearly defined emotions of joy or dread; indeed, the co-existence of joy and dread becomes the point. After this startling debut, Gerald Simpson all but disappeared from public view, re-emerging several years later as a practitioner of the densest, most exotic-sounding jungle. The transition makes sense: having pushed house so far into the lost zone, where else could he go? —Tim Finney

    Tangerine Dream

    “Love on a Real Train”

    Virgin; 1985

    154

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    When they weren’t busy laying the groundwork for entire genres of ambient music and breaking ground with their innovative use of sequencers and digital instruments, Tangerine Dream kept up a fruitful sideline soundtracking films. They scored more than 60, covering everything from raunchy comedies to documentaries, horror films, thrillers, and science fiction. Their score for Paul Brickman’s 1983 satire of capitalism and suburban privilege, Risky Business, is comprised of tense, haunting soundscapes that are emotionally a world away from the raucous Bob Seger song that tracks the movie’s iconic solo dance scene.

    Tangerine Dream’s job in the film’s sound world is to remind us of the feeling of being a physical person moving through the life and caught up in events only marginally under your control; their soundscapes are blood rushing through veins, skin contracting in cold air, and the pounding in your head when you know you screwed up and you’re not sure you can fix it. "Love on a Real Train" scores a scene where Tom Cruise and Rebecca de Mornay do it on an empty Chicago ‘L’ Train, and the vivid physicality of the music’s burbling rhythm delivers a thrill every bit as electric as the danger of the situation. —Joe Tangari

    Joe Jackson

    “Steppin' Out”

    A&M; 1982

    153

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    From all accounts, New York City was a total shithole in 1982: broken glass everywhere, the crack and AIDS epidemics, more than 2,000 murders in that year alone. Meanwhile, the upper tax brackets were busy fomenting the spiritual rot that would inspire Wall Street, American Psycho, and Bright Lights, Big City. And yet, on this 1982 hit, Joe Jackson vows that he and his date will be fearless like children, certain that New York City solely exists to cater to their night on the town (and that all of the bad stuff is happening to somebody else). It’s the same belief in New York’s invincibility espoused by proud capitalists (Frank Sinatra, Jay Z, Taylor Swift), shrewd miserablists (Ryan Adams, Interpol), and every incoming class at NYU. Jackson is none of the above, which makes "Steppin’ Out" sound particularly of its time, snowblinded by a Me Decade tunnel vision. Its perky, Kraftwerk-ian bassline and gilded keyboards offer a wide-eyed view of the world—either the result of naivety or a hit of the purest coke. Inevitably, the song served as the most memorable and fitting inclusion in 2002’s infamously amoral video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: The perfect soundtrack for oblivious optimism in a hopelessly corrupt sewer. —Ian Cohen

    Galaxie 500

    “Tugboat”

    Aurora; 1988

    152

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    There is a low-budget video for "Tugboat" that is as purely impressionistic as a punk Rothko. Frayed at the edges like the fanzines of the era, it was shot in 1988 on a borrowed Super 8 camera, its grainy abstractions all muted sea-blues, with a vaguely apocalyptic twist at the end. If the "Tugboat" video were projected to a wall, and you stared at it alone, the tones might just make you cry. "Tugboat" became the final track on an album called Today that really was so sad.

    Galaxie 500 were not the greatest rock'n'roll band of all time, but they were surely among the most graceful. A Harvard-via-NYC dream pop trio born 10 years after punk coalesced and gone by the year it broke, they ripped rock up with wisdom and cool restraint. There could be no better band to comfort anxiety—in 1988 or 2015—than this. "Tugboat" was their debut and essence, an ode to an entire way of life that was disguised as a love song. Damon Krukowski stretched the canvas with his atmospheric drumming, a primitive painter who chose sticks not a brush; Naomi Yang’s crucial bass throbbed as naturally as a passing cloud; singer-guitarist Dean Wareham’s expressive and devastatingly simple lines belied a cerebral slackerism, as did his incantatory straight-talk. "I don’t wanna stay at your party/ I don’t wanna talk with your friends," he wearily intoned, "I don’t wanna vote for your president/ I just wanna be your tugboat captain." This sentiment, of wanting to get far away from civilization with the only person who matters, is gorgeous, ridiculous, and sublime. The symbol of the tugboat—slow, antiquated, romantic—perfectly underscored how out-of-time Galaxie 500 were, and are. If this is what Liz Phair meant when she sang, “I was pretending that I was in a Galaxie 500 video,” then the notion is utterly timeless, like the quiet exaltation and mystique of feeling just barely outside society, inhabiting a psychic world of your own creation. —Jenn Pelly

    Dead Kennedys

    “Holiday in Cambodia”

    Cherry Red/Alternative Tentacles; 1980

    151

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    The Internet did not invent entitled college students adopting social justice-related pet projects: it’s as considerable a cornerstone of higher academia as crushing debt. On their classic, caustic callout "Holiday in Cambodia", the Dead Kennedys behold this figure and deliver one of the most satisfyingly petty screeds in all of punk. Jello Biafra's gruesome, sardonic vacation pitch—"Slave for soldiers till you starve/ Then your head is skewered on a stake!"—and East Bay Ray’s cheery, ascendant riffs render the song the aural equivalent of a travel brochure from hell, as performed by a bunch of travel agents who could be considered clinically insane. The subject provides an easy, universal target: most of us have met someone who’s "been to school for a year or two and [they] know they’ve seen it all"—lending the Kennedys’ aggro punk framework a universality relatable to punks and non-punks alike. Schadenfreude never felt so satisfying. —Zoe Camp

    See also: Dead Kennedys: "California Uber Alles" 

    Beastie Boys

    “Paul Revere”

    Def Jam/Columbia; 1986

    150

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    Here is an incomplete list of people who have sampled the vwoop-vwoop, vwoop vwooop-boop from Beastie Boys’ "Paul Revere": N.W.A, Cat Power, Gang Starr, Das Racist, EPMD, Erykah Badu, E-40 (twice!), the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Public Enemy, and Rick Ross. It is clearly the most iconic vwoop-vwoop, vwoop vwooop-boop in pop history. Adam Yauch made it by running a tape backwards, and then everyone fell backward in the studio, laughing. Or so the story goes.

    Out of all the songs on Licensed to Ill, "Paul Revere" is the only one that doesn’t feel like a time capsule. Its storytelling rhymes, written with Reverend Run, and goofy Western theme introduced many rap-ignorant suburban kids to the narrative possibilities of hip-hop, but it’s that vwoop-vwoop, vwoop vwooop-boop, in all its rubbery warmth, that has reverberated the furthest. It might still be the Beasties’ most elemental contribution to rap music. —Jayson Greene

    See also: Beastie Boys: "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" / Beastie Boys: "The New Style

    Shannon

    “Let the Music Play”

    Mirage/Atco/Atlantic; 1984

    149

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    In the liner notes to Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, writer Gene Sculatti singles out two tracks as the foundations of dance-pop: "Holiday" (naturally, given the source) and "Let the Music Play". Foundational the latter certainly was; it more or less invented the Latin-derived, still-venue-packing freestyle scene, and for a while the genre was synonymous with "the Shannon sound." Producer Chris Barbosa’s working title was "Fire and Ice", which is descriptive if nothing else: gloomy synth pads, acid squiggles, percussion flickering in and out, everything setting off everything else. Any one of these could carry a song on its own, but Barbosa throws them all in; it’s a Rube Goldberg machine that dances, too.

    Much writing about freestyle makes a lot of the fact that the vocalists tended to be ordinary, often untrained women—perhaps college students, as Shannon was—and ultimately casts them as ciphers. But Shannon carries the emotional core of the record. Over a melody that winds its way down into mental anguish (much like, in a nice coincidence, Bananarama’s "Cruel Summer", which peaked around the same time), Shannon plays the everywoman caught in one of the condensed romances that play out on the dance floor, the sort someone like Katy B would inhabit today. She finds love, loses love, then pleads, with zero irony: "What does love want me to do?" And the chorus offers a summation of decades of pop and escapism: "let the music play, he won’t get away." She plays it deadly seriously; she’s not after fun but destiny. (The Madonna song "Let the Music Play" should be paired with is "Into the Groove", with its talk of revelations.) And if she weren’t an everywoman it wouldn’t work; listeners couldn’t imagine themselves in. If Barbosa captures the body, Shannon captures the heart. And neither quite gets away. —Katherine St. Asaph

    See also: Chemise: "She Can't Love You" / Nu Shooz: "I Can't Wait"

    Al B. Sure!

    “Nite and Day”

    Warner Bros.; 1988

    148

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    The term "New Jack Swing" was coined by Barry Michael Cooper in the Village Voice as an offhand joke, meant to describe Teddy Riley’s bleeding together of hip-hop and R&B. The style may have burned briefly—it peaked in late '80s and faded away into the '90s—but it was the beginning of a momentous relationship. Hip-hop, still the music of troubled Black youth, represented a risk for producers who wished to combine it with the increasingly aging R&B. The merger didn’t exactly ease tensions on all sides ("You can new jack swing on my nuts," Ice Cube rapped on 1991’s Death Certificate), but by injecting the swagger of hip-hop, new jack swing established the bridge between two styles that previously kept their distance.

    Al B. Sure!, a former high school football player, ended up with one of the finest cuts from the style with his debut single "Nite and Day". It was more R&B than his other work—Al held off rapping here—but that was the malleability of new jack swing, which didn’t have clear boundaries. The name was sparked by producers crushing genre lines, so of course "Nite and Day" could include an electric guitar solo. Into the '90s, Al B. Sure! would work with Jodeci, who led the next wave of R&B singers further into hip-hop. The lines between rap and R&B continue to blur nearly 30 years later, but "Nite and Day" showed the early possibilities one could go. —David Turner

    See also: Anita Baker: "Sweet Love" / Bernard Wright: "Who Do You Love"

    Michael McDonald

    “I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)”

    Warner Bros.; 1982

    147

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    Michael McDonald’s "I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)" is a quiet storm classic whose liquid groove has buttressed other great songs through the years (ask Warren G and Madlib), but its sneaky triumph, beneath the durability of the hook and message, is compositional. It’s a breakup song actually shaped like a breakup. Starting at denial, "I Keep Forgettin’" cycles woozily through yearning, regret, and all the other irrational emotions that bubble to the surface in the wake of a grueling split. McDonald’s numb, phantom longing is matched to music (featuring "Rosanna"-era Toto players) that comes in stormy but slowly clears up, only to drop back into the murky dark again exactly as he comes to the realization that he’s clinging to the apparition of a closeness long since departed. It’s a sad song that refuses to accept that it’s a sad one. Guiding us through it all is The Voice. People say it’s garbled, but what they’re really hearing is wounded tenderness punching through the confines of both register and diction to commute a feeling you don’t need to know the words to get caught up by. —Craig Jenkins

    See also: Steely Dan: "Hey Nineteen"

    David Bowie

    “Modern Love”

    EMI; 1983

    146

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    Fed up with what he called the "rock’n’roll circus," David Bowie seemed to abandon music altogether in the early '80s; fans accustomed to an artist who released 11 albums in 11 years didn’t hear much of anything in the three years following 1980's Scary Monsters. When he did come back, it was with a new label, a new backing band, and his most cleaned up, least self-consciously artistic persona to date. Though Let’s Dance was perceived by many to be slick, pre-packaged pop, Bowie’s nihilistic musings on "Modern Love" act as a subversive force against the track’s smiling rockabilly-meets-Motown bounce. Its feeling is captured beautifully in a cult-iconic scene from Noah Baumbach’s 2012 film Frances Ha: Even as Greta Gerwig’s title character sees her life slowly going to shit, her dash through New York to “Modern Love” is an expression of pure joy—a reminder of the musical spirit that marked Bowie’s return in 1983. —Jonah Bromwich

    Liquid Liquid

    “Optimo”

    99; 1983

    145

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    "Optimo" is a rare moment in music that remains unscuffed by time, anointed as a benchmark across multiple generations. It’s got a life of its own at this point, stretching far beyond its origins on an ultra-rare EP from New York’s 99 Records—a release that also spawned the Grandmaster Flash-sampled "Cavern". "Optimo" has found favor in hip-hop, dance, house, and indie rock because it successfully occupies space in between all those styles, gloriously vacuuming up huge portions of music history into its batucada-influenced stride.

    The first wave of rediscovery for the song came in the late 1990s, when tastemakers on both sides of the Atlantic reissued the band’s songs (on trip-hop label Mo Wax in the UK, and the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal in the U.S.). Its influence was exemplified by the formation of the influential Optimo club in Glasgow, whose grab-bag approach to DJing reflected the joyful canter through styles on "Optimo". James Murphy gave it further exposure by inviting Liquid Liquid to open the final LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden, lending the story another twist as it continues to cycle in perpetual motion. —Nick Neyland

    Big Daddy Kane

    “Ain't No Half-Steppin'”

    Cold Chillin'/Warner Bros.; 1988

    144

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    The summer of 1988 marked the roiling peak of hip-hop’s golden age. Between May and August of that year, practically every week saw the release of a future classic, albums that bridged the gap between the genre’s early days and its commercial explosion in the '90s: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, EPMD’s Strictly Business, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, BDP’s By All Means Necessary, Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. According to legendary beatmaker Marley Marl, though, there was one song that trumped the rest. "‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ was rocking that summer," he told VIBE in 2003. "After Kane came, nothing else mattered."

    Granted, Marl might be a little bit biased: He produced Big Daddy Kane’s signature track, which doubled as the centerpiece of the rapper’s debut album, Long Live the Kane. Though the smooth and relatively carefree Kane didn’t have the same gravitas as his understood rival Rakim, he ultimately may be more influential. "Ain’t No Half-Steppin’" rolls on a beat that uses its '70s soul sample to soothe rather than stun, predicting future flips by the likes of Q-Tip and Kanye West. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn rapper, who was one of Jay Z’s early mentors, is smart, lyrical, technically deft, and hilarious while stating his dominance: "I grab the mic and make MCs evaporate/ The party people say ‘Damn, that rapper's great!’" The song contains all the beatific innocence of '80s hip-hop but doesn’t sound like a relic—a summer jam of the highest order. —Ryan Dombal

    Anthony Red Rose

    “Tempo”

    Firehouse; 1985

    143

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    By 1985, the immersive dub productions that King Tubby had perfected on reggae B-sides smacked of overfamiliarity, and Jamaican sound systems pulsed with digital, a more rigid dub offshoot based on preset Casio keyboard rhythms. Legend has it that Tubby, upstaged by King Jammy’s work on digital smash "Under Me Sleng Teng", swiftly sidelined his Firehouse label, built the all-digital Waterhouse studio, and enlisted Kingston singjay Anthony Red Rose, all in a bid to outdo his protegé. (Red Rose claims, somewhat improbably, that "Tempo" actually came first.)

    The resulting track is a little unnerving, Red Rose’s conspiratorial, reverb-heavy vocal threatened by a slithering bassline that diffuses dread into the spacious production. It’s also, somehow, inescapably pop, filtering its alien sonics into something hauntingly anthemic. That factor secured "Tempo" an illustrious afterlife: After helping midwife ragga in Jamaica, it became something like a standard for UK junglists, with MCs and DJs adopting Red Rose’s vocal as a de facto motif of the genre. But Tubby’s original, all impending doom and spaced minimalism, still feels like the one. —Jazz Monroe

    Tears for Fears

    “Head Over Heels”

    Phonogram/Mercury; 1985

    142

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    Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko helped introduce a whole new generation to some of the more morose musical touchstones of the 1980s (a handful of the soundtrack’s highlights made this very list). While "The Killing Moon" or "Love Will Tear Us Apart" seem far more suitable to help encourage a young goth’s budding disaffection, it’s "Head Over Heels", the fourth single from Tears for Fears’ commercial smash of a sophomore album Songs from the Big Chair, that really defines the film. Scoring one of its most memorable sequences, the song builds and eventually tumbles into its effortless stride, gliding along with the camera through the hallways of Donnie’s high school like a slyly winsome but ultimately grim specter.

    But to hear it from from the band, that would register as an awfully strange characterization of the song. Writer and vocalist Roland Orzabal has described "Head Over Heels" as "a big love song" and "one of the most simple tracks that Tears for Fears have ever recorded." Which it of course is, an open-hearted, big-tent new romantic sing-along that's loyal to both new wave's insularity and pop radio's unapologetic earnestness. But the fact that it can be translated so differently depending on context, as either an inclusive love song or a cheekily macabre one (but a first class karaoke pick no matter what), its fluid applications speak volumes about Tears for Fears’ universal appeal. In the 30 years since the song’s release, everyone from Billy Corgan to D’Angelo have cited the band as an influence, and revisiting "Head Over Heels" in 2015, both of those reference points make total sense. Funny how time flies, indeed. —Zach Kelly

    Beat Happening

    “Indian Summer”

    K/Rough Trade; 1988

    141

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    Most of the appeal of Beat Happening lay in its unvarnished simplicity. Relative to the mid-1980s music industry—the gloss of pop, the pomp of rock, the palpable angst of punk—the Olympia, Wash., trio trafficked in DIY directness. By example, Calvin Johnson, Bret Lunsford, and Heather Lewis insisted that the actualization of self-expression needn’t be Rubik’s Cube complex: all one needed was a voice, an idea, a tape recorder, some friends, and a passion for music for its own sake. There was no need to possess Category Whitney Houston pipes or be a virtuoso shredder or have CAA representing you; you didn’t need anyone’s expressed permission. This notion never stopped reverberating outward, and went on to influence artists of varying stripes and disciplines—many of whom never even heard "Indian Summer". Revered in underground circles and covered by everyone from the Vaselines to Luna to R.E.M., "Indian Summer" both embodies this ethos and upends it. While the frisson between Johnson’s unstudied baritone and the chiming, seesaw guitar offers contrasting delights in its own right, the song’s rich lyrical potpourri—evoking autumn beauty or the fall of industry, childhood reverie or the loss of innocence, the collapse of camaraderie or harvest season—puts the lie to dismissal of this aesthetic as slight or insubstantial. "Indian Summer" fits well in any weather, and means something slightly different every time it’s heard. —Raymond Cummings

    See also: Daniel Johnston: "Chord Organ Blues"

    Bronski Beat

    “Smalltown Boy”

    London; 1984

    140

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    Bronski Beat had the option to sign to ZTT and get the full treatment—Trevor Horn production and t-shirts screaming "QUEER" and "POOF"—that would be transferred to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but they said no. Instead, their subdued debut single radically normalized the idea that a young gay man might run away from the ostracization of his hometown—"the love that you need will never be found at home"—allowing for private revelations in front of the TV as your parents read Jeffrey Archer novels on the sofa. At a time when striking miners found allies in the queer community and Britain had its first openly gay politician, the domestic transgression of "Smalltown Boy" is an enduring emblem of the times. Its rain-beaten take on disco's enlightened metropolitan whirl retains its sense of subtle subversion—that Jimmy Somerville's rapture sounds a little parochial now is testament to the tides it helped turn. —Laura Snapes

    See also: Associates: "Party Fears Two" / B-52's: "Private Idaho

    Spacemen 3

    “Walkin' With Jesus”

    Glass/Taang!; 1988

    139

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    When Spacemen 3 emerged from Rugby, England, in the early '80s, their Velvet Underground-influenced post-punk wasn’t completely unique; Jesus and Mary Chain, for one, were mining a similar territory. But few other bands were just as interested in the soar of gospel music as the drone of the Velvets, and certainly none grafted the dreamy intoxication of drugs onto the higher-ground spirituality of religion as powerfully as Spacemen 3. One of their first songs, "Walkin’ With Jesus", struck this God/dope fusion with remarkable simplicity. Over an unwavering two-chord organ swing that sounds like it was played while laying down, Jason Pierce hears Jesus promise an eternity in Hell as punishment for indulging in Heaven on Earth. It doesn’t exactly shake him from his drift; once he realizes he should probably take some action, he’s too blissed-out to do anything besides ask Jesus for an extension.

    Pierce has since insisted the song wasn’t literally about religion, and certainly "walking with Jesus" could be taken as a euphemism for shooting heroin (recall how that drug made Lou Reed "feel just like Jesus’ son.") Either way, "Walkin’ With Jesus" is a sweetly beatific way to frame an addict’s internal struggle—as a gentle conversation with a higher power—and it’s a convincing one, especially because the music harnesses the intoxication of the blues (a later version converted the organ sway into a slow, almost raunchy-sounding guitar riff). Pierce would eventually take the tune into straight-up gospel territory with his chorus-laden group Spiritualized. But the hypnotic power of Spacemen 3’s original persists, the kind of fix you could spend a lifetime hoping to capture again. —Marc Masters

    Rob Base / DJ E-Z Rock

    “It Takes Two”

    Profile; 1988

    138

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    Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s "It Takes Two" went supernova in 1988: The song broke big in dance clubs, in rock clubs. It was popular with older, gay house audiences and with mainstream pop audiences. It sold a million copies, and entered the tiny rarefied circle of songs that regularly received name-checks on big MTV countdowns of Greatest Rock Songs. Predictably, it provoked suspicious glances in the hip-hop community, which only a few years away from the twin takeovers of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. But "It Takes Two" endures where dated pop-house tracks from the era didn’t. It is rap crossover in its Platonic form —hardcore, quicksilver rhymes, up-to-the minute with the clean technicality and tricky rhythms, laid over a beat so universal that it felt like kid’s music. At the time, it felt like the last gasp of party rap, a song about nothing more than dancing, getting loose, and being fresh on the microphone as hip-hop grew increasingly militarized. Where hip-hop was being pulled into the crack wars, New Jack Swing was smooth, clean-cut, and full of smiles; it channeled an older generation Harlem, that of Frankie Crocker and WBLS. Rob Base’s brief mention of a "bulletproof vest" is his sole acknowledgement of the grim realities of the War on Drugs.

    But the song was no kind of farewell, it was a template. Years later, Harlem rapper Ma$e would skate over colorful Saturday-morning-cartoon beats programmed by Puff Daddy, packing more ear-tickling wordplay into his verses than any fat pop hit requires. These songs would grudgingly impress heads; they would make everyone’s grandmas smile; they would endure for a generation’s worth of party soundtracks. He was balancing on an axis that few people had danced on so nimbly; it is impossible that Rob Base, mugging in the video for "It Takes Two" next to Biz Markie, was not in his mind. —Jayson Greene

    See also: T La Rock: "It's Yours"

    Mission of Burma

    “That's When I Reach for My Revolver”

    Ace of Hearts; 1981

    137

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    Many of Mission of Burma’s heroic-but-pensive songs lived in the overlap between political anthem and self-reflection, and "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver" hangs on the precipice between slogan and introspection. Lines about heroes, dreams, and "the spirit fight[ing] to find its way" make it sound like a battle hymn, especially during its all-for-one-and-one-for-all chorus. But there’s also an undercurrent of bleakness running through the song, which ends with a resigned portrait of an "empty sky" whose "dead eyes...tell me we’re nothing but slaves."

    Mission of Burma’s blurred lyrical line between attack and retreat finds a perfect analog in the music, which seems to step back and regroup every time it crosses a hurdle. Clint Conley’s bass is the centerpiece—he even gets a solo in between verses—and its downbeat tone makes "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver" feel somber even as it rises. Such poignant ambivalence actually infused the story behind the song’s title: Conley found it in an essay by Henry Miller, only to discover later that it had origins in a Nazi play. But Mission of Burma never disowned the phrase—and they didn’t have to, because their music transformed it into something more ambiguous, and more powerful. —Marc Masters

    See also: Wire: "Ahead" / Mission of Burma: "Academy Fight Song"

    Motörhead

    “Ace of Spades”

    Bronze; 1980

    136

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    In the face of rock music’s gorgeous gods with their Jesus hair and bare chests, Lemmy’s greasy allure was clear. With his iconic handlebar mustache and facial warts, he was the underdog—the guy that got kicked out of Hawkwind because most of the band’s members flat-out didn’t like him. His excommunication was a blessing; he could start Motörhead in his own gnarly image. They got some traction on the charts with their 1978 cover of "Louie Louie", but "Ace of Spades" was an aesthetic-cementing moment. In 1979, Lemmy got an ace of spades tattooed on his forearm surrounded by the words "born to lose, live to win". That symbol became a mantra of sorts; Motörhead were bad luck incarnate—a trio of cackling hooligans up to no good. Lemmy insists there’s no allegory in the lyrics of "Ace of Spades", but even if it’s just a song about gambling, the emphasis is fearlessness. "You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me," he sings in a throaty gargle over his dive-bombing bassline. The song packed a punch and made a huge impression on headbangers listening across the world (notably: Metallica, Slash, Dave Grohl, Triple H). Motörhead had punk’s ferocity and speed with metal’s guitar heroics and heft. On the album cover, they dressed up as gunslingers—a gig that requires staring down the threat of obliteration. "But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t want to live forever." —Evan Minsker

    See also: Misfits: "Skulls"

    Pixies

    “Gigantic”

    4AD; 1988

    135

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    The Pixies’ debut single cemented the loud-quiet-loud template that would characterize so many of their best songs. National treasure Kim Deal has gone on record saying that the song was inspired by a 1986 film adaptation of Beth Henley’s "Crimes of the Heart", in which a married Sissy Spacek falls in love with a black teenage boy. The taboo origin story is certainly interesting—"what a big black mess, what a hunk of love"—but it’s the song’s outrageous catchiness and joie de vivre that makes it unforgettable. "Gigantic" is a perfect marriage of iconic bassline, magnificently rendered vocals (Deal’s signature coo was made for the lines, "And this I know, his teeth as white as snow, what a gas it was to see him"), and a rip-roaring chorus that sounds as appropriately enormous as the song title implies. A perfect amalgam of loud guitars and euphoric lust, "Gigantic" is everything you want it to be—a big, big love. —T. Cole Rachel

    See also: Pixies: "Vamos" / Throwing Muses: "Hate My Way"

    Queen & David Bowie

    “Under Pressure”

    EMI/Elektra; 1981

    134

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    "This is our last dance!," David Bowie declares during the chandelier-rattling climax of "Under Pressure", and the man is nothing if not a master of faking his own imminent demise. If anything, "Under Pressure" was something of a victory lap for a pair of '70s glam-rock veterans coming off of successful incursions into the post-disco, new-waved landscape of '80s pop—Bowie with Scary Monsters, Queen with The Game. But while its foundational, Vanilla Ice-spawning bassline heeds the most valuable lesson of the latter album—i.e., that John Deacon is Queen’s secret weapon—"Under Pressure" feels all the more like a special, lightning-in-a-bottle moment for sounding very little like anything Bowie was producing at the time, nor like much else on Hot Space, the funk-influenced Queen album where this one-off single eventually took up residence.

    Coming from two entities synonymous with outsized extravagance and conceptual grandeur, "Under Pressure" is surprisingly spartan. It’s an anthem designed for empty arenas, powered by handclaps and fingersnaps, a two-note piano chime and a dry, vacuum-sealed groove. Brian May assumes a respectful background presence, his glimmering guitar lines providing more candlelight than fireworks, while even Bowie and Freddie Mercury sound more humble and human than usual, descending from their godly realm to empathically address problems—domestic unrest, homelessness—that plague mere mortals. And despite the potential for two of the most flamboyant singers in rock to engage in histrionic warfare, they seem less interested in trying to overpower one another than provide mutual emotional support. Still, even with relatively modest means, Queen and Bowie erect a towering spiral staircase of a song, with each discrete melodic motif ratcheting up the song’s mounting intensity and thrusting the track to dizzying new heights. But its grand finale is ultimately a show of false optimism: as "Under Pressure" comes crashing down in its dying moments, that persistent bassline re-emerges from the rubble, underscoring the cruelly cyclical nature of anxiety and release, and hitting reset on the time-bomb that’s ticking inside us all. —Stuart Berman

    See also: Queen: "Another One Bites the Dust" / Queen: "I Want to Break Free"

    Fleetwood Mac

    “Everywhere”

    Warner Bros.; 1987

    133

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    While Stevie Nicks might be the most widely known member of Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie, to many fans, is the hero. McVie penned many of the band’s biggest hits, and 1987’s "Everywhere" stands out, not only as one of the band’s most commercial singles, but also as one of McVie’s strongest. It’s is carefully crafted, spare, and meticulously produced. McVie approaches the vocals with a light touch, and the contrast between that lightness and the songs sweeping sentiment—not only does she want to be with her lover, but she wants "to be with [them] everywhere"—is reflective of the time in which it was written. In the '80s, bigness, whether it be of sound, or wealth, or hair, was a given, and didn’t have to mean anything serious; McVie tempered this outsized lyrical message with an arrangement that was refreshingly minimal for the time. "Everywhere" wasn’t the biggest hit on Tango in the Night—"Little Lies" and "Big Love" charted higher, reaching #4 and #5 respectively—but it’s one of the quintessential songs of the '80s, and an elegant example of Fleetwood Mac’s nimbleness and adaptability. —Maud Deitch

    Fleetwood Mac: "Little Lies" / Fleetwood Mac: "Big Love"

    Godley & Creme

    “Cry”

    Polydor; 1985

    132

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    If this list was about '80s music videos, the work of Kevin Godley and Lol Crème would surely dominate—the former pair of 10cc musicians worked on innovative promos for the Police, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Herbie Hancock’s "Rockit" among others. "Cry" had a similarly impressive (for the time) visual counterpart, highlighting how important music videos were to breaking songs in this era. Indeed, Godley & Creme’s words on the art of '80s video making in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV form some of the most entertaining and outlandish anecdotes of the era.

    As such, the idea of hearing "Cry" without seeing the video is vaguely unconscionable, even though an entire generation of gamers found the song via the Grand Theft Auto IV soundtrack. Perhaps it needs a visual medium in which to flourish. It wasn’t Godley & Creme’s most outlandish idea (see the magnificently deranged 1977 triple album Consequences for that), but its vaguely operatic leanings and strange, pitch-shifted vocals make it an '80s hit like no other. Godley & Creme were masters at pushing boundaries in music and video—their clip for Duran Duran’s "Girls on Film" was banned for its adult content—and "Cry" is their best example of both those worlds dovetailing in curious harmony. —Nick Neyland

    See also: Spandau Ballet: "True" / Police: "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" / Split Enz: "I Got You"

    Yellowman

    “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt”

    Greensleeves; 1984

    131

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    The popularity of the Jamaican vocalist Yellowman helped signal the shift from roots reggae to dancehall, a shift almost as radical as the one that turned funk breaks into early rap. Roots was deep, spiritual music that compressed social ideals into grave, sometimes mystical ballads; dancehall was better known for sentiments that were "Icky All Over". Musical values were different, too: Where roots was lush and soulful, dancehall used stiff Casio presets and turned the vocalist into an MC—someone who doesn’t sing over the track so much as inhabit it with one-liners, nursery rhymes, and other bits of half-music.

    Yellowman was an albino, an orphan, a social outcast—what in patois might be called dundus, a term not just for albinos but for someone who, in the words of F.G. Cassidy and Brock Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English, "is not up to the mark of normality." In 1983 he was misdiagnosed with cancer and told he had three years to live; the following year he released "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt", a spare but celebratory piece of music about getting pulled over in his new (yellow) BMW and generally not caring. "64-46, that’s a BMW!" he crows, a reference to Toots & the Maytals’ early reggae hit "54-46 Was My Number", about a guy who actually does end up in jail. Some people use music to explore their pain. Yellowman used it to set his pain aside for a while. —Mike Powell

    Phil Collins

    “In the Air Tonight”

    Virgin/Atlantic; 1981

    130

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    Few cultural artifacts scream, "Ah yes, the 1980s," louder than Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight". It might as well be a demo of the trends that were to dominate popular music in the decade following its 1981 release, while managing to sound like no other extant piece of recorded music. People remember Collins’ breakout single for many different reasons: for the urban legend surrounding its writing (a brutal kiss-off to an ex-lover or an elegy to a dead friend?), for Collins’ washed-out face staring out from the hit video’s digital void, for its tortured, choked vocals, or for that incomparable drum fill. The ballad was also, of course, the bold announcement of Phil Collins the solo artist, who later would go on to have the most prolific run of UK Top 40 singles of any artist of that decade.

    Perhaps more than anything else, though, "In the Air Tonight"—written around four space-age synth chords and a thin drip of a drum machine loop—documents Collins’ fervent love affair with the aspirational music technology of his time. The brutish drum sound in the song’s second half was created through a jerry-rigged prototype of the technique that would later become known as gated reverb—which, prior to current imitations, served as a reliable watermark to date pop recordings made between 1982—1991. Vocoder technology was used to create shadowy underarmor for Collins’ main vocal, which in itself was processed into a jagged shadow of itself, drowned in some futuristic outgrowth of the slap-back echo which once sheathed Elvis’ croon. On top of this there are harsh, distorted digital storm clouds—from a synthesizer? guitar? some Frankensteinian combination?—that loom, presaging doom. It’s an exercise in mood like no other: The rare song whose production overshadows (or perhaps exalts) how little there is going on in the songwriting. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    See also: Peter Gabriel: "Games Without Frontiers"

    This Mortal Coil

    “Song to the Siren”

    4AD; 1983

    129

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    Tim Buckley’s "Song to the Siren" is impossible to ruin—the folk ballad’s self-evidently beautiful melody and resonant extended metaphor transcend pretty much any arrangement (even if no one has figured out what "as puzzled as the oyster" is supposed to mean). But while there are many wonderful covers out there, let’s be real: This song was created so that it could be sung by Elizabeth Fraser over Robin Guthrie’s barely-there guitar strum. No other version can touch it.

    This Mortal Coil was an unusual endeavor, a loose collective that was ultimately a vehicle for 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell to turn his favorite obscure songs from the '60s and '70s into impossibly dark goth masterpieces. "Song to the Siren" defined the project, and most of that is due to Fraser. In Cocteau Twins, she was known for singing in an indecipherable language that nonetheless communicated; here she’s given real lyrics but she knows all the feeling is in the sound. The way she stretches the phrase "waiting to hold you" to its breaking point makes the sense of longing palpable beyond words. —Mark Richardson

    R.E.M.

    “Radio Free Europe”

    Hib-Tone; 1981

    128

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    It's hard to imagine R.E.M. existing as part of the American underground, given how long they've been embedded in the cultural mainstream. Think about "Losing My Religion" making every VH1 list of the Greatest Videos ever, or "Everybody Hurts" scoring every sensitive moment spent staring out of a moving car during some sappy melodrama. They made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on their first ballot, which is as establishment as it gets.

    Before they were big, there was "Radio Free Europe". The first single off their first album, Murmur, is as sexy as the summer heat, as ominous as the kudzu creeping on the LP's cover. The music is sinewy, mysterious, entrancing; the lyrics, once deciphered, sound halfway improvised. It's a magnetic single, one that sounds like the invention of indie rock. They played "Radio Free Europe" on "Late Night With David Letterman" in 1983 and presented the whole package in one shot. Michael Stipe, chiseled face covered in flowing hair, broods over his microphone. Next to him, Peter Buck and Mike Mills are exuberantly dorky, garage rats playing at being rock stars. Afterwards, Stipe is too shy to talk to Letterman. The performance says: Come in, but don’t expect to learn much. It's enough to transport me to some imagined '80s dorm room, the TV on, wondering who these guys were. They'd become more successful, but they'd never sound as hypnotizing. —Jeremy Gordon

    See also: R.E.M.: "The One I Love" / R.E.M.: "So. Central Rain"

    Cyndi Lauper

    “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”

    Epic/CBS; 1983

    127

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    A moment's reverence, please, for the once-proven dream of unproblematic female pop solidarity. When Lauper left her Queens home at age 17, she took with her a paper bag containing a toothbrush, clean underwear, an apple, and a copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit. Thirteen years later, one of Ono's gnomic instructions might have served as the ethos behind Lauper's solo career: "A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." In 2015, Lauper's debut single feels like a fantasy: a globally famous, totally inclusive feminist anthem that preaches pleasure, recognition, and autonomy, and eschews societal expectations. Sure, it achieves that through defiantly simple lyrics that were originally written by a man—Robert Hazard demoed it, Springsteen-style, in '79—but Cyndi Lauper's neat tweaks skewed it from a song that trivialized female desire to one that runs and runs on it.

    "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is one of those songs you've heard so many times that the actual music is as invisible as the color of your front door, that insouciant riff as instantly recognizable as golden arches on a highway. Blanking out its brutally insistent dazzle—which, like a 24-hour charity cheerleading marathon, does not quit—may be an act of self-preservation. But that's the point: "Girls" digs in, stubborn as glitter, Lauper's piercing voice scoring your spine. She and her backing singers are bratty and full of want, refusing prettiness and permission. That pointillist synth that dots the mid-section might as well be a chorus of Dubble Bubble orbs popping in the faces of anyone who would deny them these simple, profound joys. —Laura Snapes

    See also: Altered Images: "Happy Birthday" / Bananarama: "Cruel Summer

    Janet Jackson

    “Control”

    A&M; 1986

    126

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    At this point, it seems as if Janet Jackson and her longtime studio accomplices Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were always the model for artist-producer synergy, twin forces forever meant to exist in tandem. Like most matters of pop, songwriting, and the industry, though, this theory appears to unravel with a bit with research. In fact, much of Janet’s breakthrough 1986 album Control was originally written for R&B singer Sharon Bryant, but she decided they were too "rambunctious." Yet Jackson, who was trying to put her bubblegum teenage years behind her, took charge of Control as no one else could. She wrote the toplines and arranged the complex vocals, which mix spoken-word, nonchalant rap-singing, and little iconic GIF-bursts of ad-libs. She helped with keyboards and synths. She reached into the Jam & Lewis machine and bent every part of it to her will, rearranging all the gears into a coat of armor. "Control" is the sound of Janet Jackson underlining her career moves, her decisions, her identity. —Katherine St. Asaph

    See also: Janet Jackson: "What Have You Done for Me Lately" / Jody Watley: "Real Love"

    The Replacements

    “Bastards of Young”

    Sire; 1985

    125

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    In his entertaining 2007 oral history of the Replacements, All Over But the Shouting, writer Jim Walsh recounts one of the band’s early gigs at the Sons of Norway building in Minneapolis. Walsh suggests that it’s a short leap from there to imagine a young Paul Westerberg transforming the name of the fraternal organization Sons of Norway into the dispossessed "We are the sons of no one" chorus on the group’s raucous anti-generational anthem, "Bastards of Young". For people listening to the Replacements’ Tim on vinyl (or cassette) in 1985, "Bastards of Young" was the opening song of side two, arguably the single strongest album side in the group’s entire discography.

    Even alongside other such signature gems as "Left of the Dial" and "Here Comes a Regular", however, "Bastards of Young" stands as perhaps the definitive Replacements track. It’s the song that best embodies the general character of Westerberg’s songwriting through its wry mixture of bemusement and exasperation. He sings as one unsure of where he’s headed, yet confident enough in his own instincts to recognize that the directions he’s been given are hopelessly flawed. In typical Westerberg fashion he’ll balance a line of casual brilliance ("The ones that love us least are the ones we’ll die to please") with another so fudged ("something something something beer tonight"?) that there’s never been total consensus about what he’s actually singing. As was often their habit at the time, the rest of Westerberg’s bandmates join him by speeding the song’s tempo slightly beyond they seem capable to sustain. The result is a song that seems destined to collapse in a heap at any moment, yet somehow manages to stagger a steady path between defiance and self-deprecation, shrugging resignation and pure raw-throated passion. —Matthew Murphy

    See also: The Replacements: "Can't Hardly Wait" / The Replacements: "Kiss Me on the Bus"

    De La Soul

    “Eye Know”

    Tommy Boy; 1989

    124

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    One of the most innovative rap albums of all time, De La Soul's debut 3 Feet High and Rising changed the way hip-hop approached sampling, but the album wouldn't have resonated so widely if it were merely a playground for producer Prince Paul. De La Soul had the songs to back up their inventive production, and none of them better captured the trio’s good-natured disposition than "Eye Know". It's a straightforward love song, with rappers Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove each attempting to woo the objects of their affection with old-fashioned chivalry. "Sex is a mere molecule in this world of love that I have for you," Trugoy promises with geeky sincerity. Though the rappers sound too much like blushing teenagers to expect a return on their overtures, the song made it clear that women were welcome in their D.A.I.S.Y. revolution—a refreshing assurance at a time when sexism was beginning to sour rap music.

    "Eye Know" also has the distinction of being the most feel-good song on what might be the most feel-good rap album of all time. Every sound seems to have been selected for maximum merriment, from the strutting guitar riff and horn licks piped in from "Peg", the one Steely Dan song you can play at a party, to the reassuring whistle from Otis Redding’s "Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay". From the start, De La Soul were fascinated by expression in its purest form, and it doesn’t get any purer than this expression of sheer happiness. —Evan Rytlewski

    Run-D.M.C.

    “It's Like That”

    Profile; 1983

    123

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    You can divide hip-hop into before and after "It’s Like That". The old school died as soon as the drum machines kicked in. By the time Run roared about "unemployment at a record high," another 30 MCs filed for food stamps.

    Larry Smith laid down the beat, an echoing ricochet of flying sparks, shrapnel, and meteor-slamming boom. Disco and electro-funk replays previously defined the genre. No more. Bambaataa and Busy Bee, Kurtis Blow and Cold Crush had ruled the "on and on to the break of dawn" era. But the new school suddenly made 24-year-old elders extinct as an Allosaurus. The newly anointed giants were a leather-clad Hollis trio managed by Russell Simmons, originally named Runde-MC.

    "It’s like that and that’s the way it is." A fatalist credo that became the "So It Goes" for the gestating hip-hop generation. Those lines stuck in Profile boss Cory Robbins’ head, immediately after Rush brought him the demo cassette. So he gave the group $2,000 to re-record it at Greene Street Studios in SoHo. It sold 250,000 copies. A slightly remixed Jason Nevins version came out in 1997. It felt timeless enough to snap the Spice Girls’ streak of consecutive number one UK Singles.

    A half-dozen archetypes sprang from the torso of "It’s Like That" and its B-side ("Sucka MCs"). It’s simultaneously a complaint lodged at chronic joblessness, a love letter to getting money, a party record telling you to stay young and play, a rebuke to foreign policy war mongering, an existential lament, a Christian affirmation, and an aesthetic attack. It’s stripped down and minimalist punk, rawness as response and weapon. There was no way to go back and an entirely new path stretched forward. —Jeff Weiss

    See also: Run-D.M.C.: "King of Rock" / Run-D.M.C.: "Peter Piper"

    Grandmaster & Melle Mel

    “White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)”

    Sugar Hill; 1984

    122

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    Hip-hop had been party music for most of its first few recorded years, but there's such a thing as too much partying, and "White Lines" is a snapshot of the moment when drug-fueled fun is just about to crash. (There was a lot of powder floating around at the time—1983 was also the year of Laid Back's "White Horse", for instance.) Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had made the first major political hip-hop single the year before with "The Message", but even by then they were already disintegrating. So "White Lines", more or less a solo record by the group's MC Melle Mel, was credited on release to "Grandmaster & Melle Mel". Flash, their original DJ, was the name everyone knew, but he was long since out of the group at that point; he first heard "White Lines" while on his way to buy coke.

    "White Lines" is a record about an intractable problem, from which Melle Mel refused even to exonerate himself ("Now I'm broke and it's no joke/ It's hard as hell to fight it DON'T BUY IT!"; see also the sly double negative in the title). It's also a problematic record itself, not least because its music is lifted wholesale from the New York art-funk band Liquid Liquid's "Cavern", released earlier in 1983. (Even Melle Mel's "something like a phenomenon" is inspired by a half-audible line from Liquid Liquid vocalist Salvatore Principato.) But the "Cavern" grooves are crisped up by the Sugar Hill Records house band (who would soon go on to become Tackhead) and a little "Twist & Shout"-style vocal figure, and hurled over the top by the horn section that storms in for the song's bridge. And the masterstroke of Melle Mel's performance is that as bitter as it is—the way he sneers the word "baby" makes icicles drop every time—it's also funny and even playful: the party, he knows, is going to keep raging until everyone drops, no matter what, so he might as well keep it hopping. —Douglas Wolk

    See also: Cash Crew: "On the Radio" / Funky 4+1: "That's the Joint"

    Slick Rick / Doug E. Fresh

    “La Di Da Di”

    Reality; 1985

    121

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    The line on Slick Rick is that he’s one of hip-hop’s great storytellers, a guy who realized the narrative possibilities of the medium and constructed songs with plots where one action followed from the next. And "La Di Da Di", his breakthrough song with human beatbox Doug E. Fresh, is without question a fine example of his writerly talent. He tells of a day in the life in which he wakes up, falls out of bed, puts his Kangol upon his head, and ultimately watches a mother beat the living crap out of her daughter because they’re both hopelessly in love with him. But while the blow-by-blow of the story and Rick’s running commentary have their charms, the real genius of "La Di Da Di" is in the delivery. With this song, he invented a kind of tuneful rapping in which a spoken phrase could become a melodic hook at any moment. The simple melodies found in "La Di Da Di" have become part of rap’s DNA, and the song has been repeatedly stripped for parts by the likes of Biggie, N.W.A, and Snoop. To listen to "La Di Da Di" now is to trace three decades of history in under five minutes, all of it leading back to Rick’s place. —Mark Richardson

    See also: Audio Two: "Top Billin'" / Doug E. Fresh: "The Show" [ft. Slick Rick]

    Rick James

    “Give It to Me Baby”

    Motown; 1981

    120

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    Rick James met Salvador Dalí once, at a dinner party in Hawaii. Dalí was supposedly so taken with Rick's appearance—he was one beautiful motherfucker back then—he insisted he draw him. We'll never see the thing; Rick pocketed Dalí's sketch, got stoned, went for a swim, and ruined it. To say the least, Rick James led a colorful life: a draft dodger, a failed pimp (too lenient, by his own admission), ex-bandmate of Neil Young and ex-lover of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Rick picked up the cup of life and proceeded to spill it all over the carpet.

    "Give It to Me Baby" is a song about Rick James' fundamental incompatibility with the non-Rick James lifestyle. James returns from a night out, half in the bag and looking to party, only to find his beloved half-asleep and fully annoyed. He just wants to love her, he pleads, but she's not having one bit of it. Undeterred, James cajoles, hectors, begs; all it seems to get him is a "say whaaaat?" Rick's persistence in the face of so much resistance verges on the predatory, but he makes enough show of being turned down, you get the sense he's poking a little fun at himself: the would-be lothario who can't seem to get the timing right. While the sweat-soaked horns and pulse-quickening bassline of "Give It to Me Baby" feel a tad out of step with the mechanized precision of most early '80s funk, Rick was never the type to change with the times. Rick was who he was, unapologetically crass, defiantly crude, and—back then, anyway—as alive as anybody ever was. —Paul Thompson

    See also: Mary Jane Girls: "All Night Long" / Eddie Murphy: "Party All the Time"

    Soul II Soul

    “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)”

    Virgin; 1989

    119

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    A remix of an a capella track at the end of Soul II Soul’s first LP Club Classics Vol. One (re-titled Keep on Movin’ in the U.S.), "Back to Life" is built around two mesmerizing vocal phrases from Caron Wheeler: "Back to life/ Back to reality" and "However do you want me/ However do you need me," which (as anyone who's been to a club or party over the last 25 years can tell you) take turns functioning as the song’s central hook. Wheeler, a veteran of London’s lover’s rock scene since the late 1970s, had more than a decade of experience projecting soul not through volume, but via shading and tone, and she doesn’t sing those hooks as much as chant them like mantras. Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper’s production work burnishes her voice with a slight digital sheen, rendering Wheeler's passion slightly paranormal.

    Wheeler’s vocal is perfect enough on its own, but B and Hooper surrounding it with elements from the past and present to predict the future turn the track into a classic. B, a veteran of London’s sound system scene who’d been dabbling in hip-hop (not nearly a household phrase in the late 1980s, especially in the UK), flipped a Larry Graham drum fill into a proto-jungle rhythm track, incorporated string stabs nodding to Chic and Gamble & Huff, and topped it off with rich piano chords and stop/start squelches owing to London’s quickly boiling-over house music craze. Oddly enough, though, what binds the song together is the amount of open space that B and Hooper leave in the track. "Back to Life" is a marvel of elegant restraint—the strings and piano buoy Wheeler above the breakbeat, a serene specter looking down from the top of the block. Five years later, Hooper would take these lessons two hours west to Bristol, where he produced Massive Attack’s sophomore album Protection.

    In what felt like an act of subcultural diplomacy, "Back to Life" soared to #1 in the UK for four weeks during the house-crazed Second Summer of Love (and in the U.S., aided by a video that cut between the group flinging their dreads around Epping Forest and a generic urban rooftop dance party, crossed-over to MTV ubiquity and a Grammy win). The mainstream got a taste of house music that was stately and groovy, not dripping with acid, and which sounded fantastic amid clubbish contemporaries like Black Box’s "Ride on Time", Technotronic’s "Pump Up the Jam", Janet Jackson’s "Miss You Much", and Lisa Stansfield’s "All Around the World". "Back to Life" was diplomatic in a more meaningful way, too. The song's ubiquity also meant B (whose parents emigrated from Antigua) and Wheeler (a second-generation Jamaican) were representing London’s substantial Caribbean-derived population from the absolute peak of the pop music world. —Eric Harvey

    See also: Oran "Juice" Jones: "The Rain" / Black Box: "Ride on Time"

    Minutemen

    “History Lesson – Part II”

    SST; 1984

    118

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    Though San Pedro punk band Minutemen were a trio, with each member contributing an essential part of their uncompromising and efficient sound, much of their energy derived from the long-term friendship between guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt. "History Lesson – Part II" is the story of that friendship. It chronicles the band’s pure love for music (and punk in particular) and their philosophy of "jamming econo"—or keeping their operation as a band, from songwriting to touring, simple and low-cost—in just over two minutes. This song, and the double album it appears on, Double Nickels on the Dime, influenced countless artists, paved the way for the '90s alternative rock countercultural shift, and helped establish punk firmly as an enduring philosophy rather than a set of aesthetic boundaries. The Boon quote that became a nearly-ubiquitous '90s sticker is, "Punk is whatever we made it to be," and there’s no other Minutemen song that so clearly exemplifies this attitude. Though Boon was tragically killed in a van accident in late 1985, his influence is just as present today as it was in '84, through his recorded work, through his bandmates’ continuation of his legacy, and through anyone who ever heard the line "Punk rock changed our lives," and felt it in their bones. —Jes Skolnik

    See also: Minutemen: "Viet Nam" / Minutemen: "This Ain't No Picnic"

    Rhythim Is Rhythim

    “Strings of Life”

    Transmat; 1987

    117

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    In 1988, if you wanted a comprehensive survey of the mutant strains of robotic funk that had risen up in the wake of disco, you couldn't have done much better than to get your hands on The History of the House Sound of Chicago, a mammoth, 15-disc compilation put out by Germany's BCM Records. The box set had it all. Discs one and two, "The Tracks That Built the House", focused on the disco and Italo sounds that Frankie Knuckles had been playing at the Power Plant and the Warehouse. Disc three focused on the D.J. International label's roster—artists like J.M. Silk and Fingers Inc.—while disc six, "Trax Classix", compiled now-classic tunes from Trax artists like Adonis and Marshall Jefferson.

    Despite the box set's title, it didn't focus exclusively on Chicago artists; Detroit's Derrick May (aka Rhythim Is Rhythim) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City) were both included, along with artists from New York, New Jersey, and the UK. That same year, you could find May and Saunderson, along with their Belleville Three colleague Juan Atkins and other Motor City producers like Blake Baxter and Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes, on another comp, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, released by a Virgin subsidiary. Over the years, techno and house have assumed a binary opposition in the popular imagination: house and techno, Chicago and Detroit, yin and yang. (Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey get left out of the origin story.) But the coexistence of those two comps offers a useful reminder of the way that, at the time, stylistic divisions were hardly so clear-cut as they seem now. The names of the subgenres were, in large part, a matter of marketing. Both styles were part of the lineage of African-American disco and European synth pop; both balanced a dreamer's brand of techno-futurism with the sweaty business of the right-here-right-now.

    A visit to Chicago, in fact, had a major impact on a young Derrick May. In Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels, he describes his first experience hearing Frankie Knuckles at the city's Power Plant nightclub. "Frankie was really a turning point in my life…. When I heard him play, and I saw the way people reacted, danced, and sang to the song—and fall in love with each other [to the music]—I knew this was something special." He continued, "This vision of making a moment this euphoric… it changed me."

    Of all the possible descriptions for "Strings of Life", "euphoric" couldn't be more apt. All of the song's elements contribute to that giddy, heart-in-mouth, eyes-wide feeling: the pistoning piano chords, played by his friend Michael James, that never resolve quite as you expect them to; the rushing TR-909 drum programming, pushed dangerously into the red; and, above all, the sandpapered string stabs, harsh and percussive, their timing dangerously uneven. Today, you'll hear people who encountered the song for the first time in a field or a hangar in the late '80s or early '90s describe the experience in rapturous terms, and the same goes for people who heard it a decade later. Surely, the song's almost elemental title hasn't hurt its renown. There are people who, pre-YouTube, knew only of the existence of the song until, one fateful night, they heard a DJ play it and thought to themselves, "So this must be 'Strings of Life'," only to discover that they were right.

    In the Chicago box set, "Strings of Life" is included on a disc subtitled "House – The Future". (This was hardly the only place you could get May's 1987 single, which was the fourth 12'' single on his Transmat label; it turns up on scads of contemporaneous compilations with names like Jack Trax and Warehouse Raves.) Twenty-seven years later, and 28 since the single itself, it still sounds like the future. Not space ships and hovercars, maybe, not the teleportation devices that May's Transmat label was named after—but utopia, rapture, deliverance. Every time it is played on a packed dance floor, all these years later, it offers a brief, transcendent glimpse of the promised land. —Philip Sherburne

    See also: Virgo: "Never Want to Lose You"

    Sade

    “Is It a Crime”

    Epic; 1985

    116

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    British jazz&B group Sade’s sophomore far-from-slump Promise catapulted them to indisputable superstardom in 1985. "Smooth Operator" had made their debut Diamond Life an international hit the previous year, but Promise was an instant #1, popular enough that, in addition to the three singles, DJs had begun to spin album tracks by '86, the first being the expansive opener "Is It a Crime". The six-and-a-half-minute, winding epic is a masterclass in dramatic dynamic shifts. The chorus strips everything away rather than building it up; it’s a near-whisper, the fallout after a wild-eyed, horn-bolstered escalation ("My love is wider than Victoria Lake/ Taller than the Empire state…"). It’s a song about self-doubt and forced emotional restraint, and musically, too, it's all seething indecision. Sade belts as intensely as she ever has, pushing past her normal sheen of breathiness.

    But the song is really a showcase for why Sade is a band, and not just the first name of its singer. Promise was recorded largely live, with Adu recording vocals with the full ensemble as a guide for rerecording and perfecting later. Somehow, in her retakes, she’s able to respond to and mirror the group's constant tectonic shifts. The band also gets an opportunity to detour off into some straight-ahead jamming: A walking bassline drops in to relieve Adu for a minute, and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman flutters in and out of comfortable tonality. Half after-hours R&B, half rapturous torch song, "Is It a Crime" sets the tone for Promise—all dark hues and obsessive sonic detail—and provides one of the best arguments in Sade’s catalog that the group should be viewed as much more than a dispensary for stock-sensual lounge grooves. In fact, they were the most nuanced pop arrangers and performers of their cultural moment. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    See also: Sade: "War of the Hearts" / Sade: "Love Is Stronger Than Pride"

    INXS

    “Never Tear Us Apart”

    Atlantic; 1988

    115

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    The fourth single from INXS' world-conquering Kick, "Never Tear Us Apart" has often shouldered the burden of tragedy; it was never intended to play at frontman Michael Hutchence’s funeral in 1997 or to lend an all-too-apt title to the band’s postmortem documentary last year. It’s hard to hear the song outside of that undesired context, but at its heart "Never Tear Us Apart" is a surprisingly straightforward declaration of love, caught somewhere between American soul and a European waltz, between Motown and Prague. It contains one of the most satisfying moments in '80s pop, a moment so curious, so inventive, so unexpected that it becomes endlessly replayable: As Hutchence concludes the second chorus, his words lingering in the cold air, an expectant drumroll gives way to—a saxophone solo. In another context, that instrument might sound lascivious, adding a sexual layer to a sensual song, but here it sounds stately, even monumental, as INXS shed the weight of the world just so it can savor this one present moment. —Stephen M. Deusner

    See also: INXS: "New Sensation" / INXS: "Need You Tonight"

    Talk Talk

    “Life's What You Make It”

    EMI/Parlophone; 1985

    114

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    "The label didn't hear a single." When that phrase is thrown at a gestating album, it usually turns out to be a thorn in the band's side—even more often when it's a demonstrably pop-friendly group with auteurist aspirations. Yet Talk Talk, who were riding off expectations set by earlier trans-Atlantic new wave-simpatico hits like "It's My Life" and "Such a Shame", found an ingenious end run around what could've been a deadening compromise. All they had to do was center their label-pleasing song around a simple, hooky sentiment—"Life's what you make it"—around which they could build interrogating phrases ("Yesterday's favorite/ Don't you hate it"; "Don't try to shade it/ Beauty is naked") that got more enigmatic the deeper you went. From there, all that was left was to set the words over a slow-motion piano-driven Lee Harris march that was closer to a gothic Sade than anything It's My Life even hinted at, lace it with a recurring guitar wail that sounded like arena rock melting from catharsis, and let Mark Hollis belt out an impassioned lead that built from crescendo to crescendo—there's your hit. "Life's What You Make It" was their last brush with mainstream success before the more ambitious, experimental records Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, albums that jettisoned Talk Talk from the ranks of arty pop and into the realm of cult genius, and this particular transition between the two phases is priceless. —Nate Patrin

    The Isley Brothers

    “Between the Sheets”

    T-Neck; 1983

    113

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    After the commercial failure of 1982's The Real Deal—an awkward attempt to update their traditional-leaning blend of R&B and funk with the synthesizer-heavy sounds of artists like Rick James and Prince—the Isley Brothers returned less than a year later with "Between the Sheets", one of their plushest tracks ever. It's 1,200-thread-count music that doesn't abandon the group's knack for marrying melody to groove. Incorporating the emerging sounds of electro-funk on the Isleys’ own terms this time, "Between the Sheets" also benefits from Ronald's unrushed, virtuosic vocals, which set a new benchmark for sensuality. "Enough of this singing; let's make love," Ronald urges as the track darkens thrillingly, pulsing with carnal tension. Rarely has wanting to get it on sounded this life-or-death urgent, or joyous. —Renato Pagnani

    See also: Earth, Wind & Fire: "Let's Groove" / The System: "You Are in My System"

    Nirvana

    “About a Girl”

    Sub Pop; 1989

    112

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    Then as now, the Nirvana of 1989 debut Bleach has much to recommend and set it apart from contemporaries like the Melvins and Mudhoney: Kurt Cobain’s wounded caterwaul, garrote-wire riffs, a heavy, dynamic melodicism, and a bleak sardonic sense that the album’s production positions front and center. But it was "About a Girl"—sharp, perceptive, well-constructed, and almost Beatles-esque—that demonstrated a potential beyond grunge’s ghetto. When Tracy Marander, Cobain’s girlfriend at the time, complained that he’d never written a song about her, this was his sweet'n'sour riposte, a winning, winsome plaint of woe from an unemployed layabout whose significant other supported him. "Girl", like so many of Nirvana’s best songs, places beautiful songwriting into mortal conflict with bitingly cynical lyricism: Love’s a mystery and romantic cohabitation is bullshit, but at least getting laid demands minimal travel and effort. —Raymond Cummings

    See also: Mudhoney: "Touch Me I'm Sick" / Nirvana: "Blew"

    The Clash

    “The Magnificent Seven” / ”The Magnificent Dance”

    CBS; 1981

    111

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    The Clash came to New York to record in early 1980, just as the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" was peaking on the charts, and they were fascinated by this new style that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Guitarist Mick Jones was especially inspired, buying into hip-hop so fully, the story goes, that his bandmates started calling him "Whack Attack"—a detail that sounds like it must have been made up, until you remember his subsequent run with Big Audio Dynamite. Never shy about exploring outside genres, the band gave this very young one a stab, too.

    Like most songs on the Clash’s triple-LP triumph Sandinsta!, "Magnificent Seven" was made quickly, with Joe Strummer improvising his verses over a militantly funky bassline from Norman Watt-Ray of the Blockheads, who’d been sitting in with the band while bassist Paul Simonon filmed a movie. Strummer’s lyrics play like a freestyled Noam Chomsky essay, detailing a day in the life of a typical, consumer-addled working stiff and growing more allegorical by the verse. Even when he’s rhyming just for the sake of it, it’s amazing how confident Strummer sounds, given how little precedent there was at the time. Blondie’s "Rapture" was still a half year away, and Grandmaster Flash wouldn’t release "The Message" for another two years. He was running with his gut.

    The song wasn’t the hit the band hoped it’d be, but it made a mark regardless after the New York R&B station WBLS began spinning Jones’ instrumental remix of the track, "The Magnificent Dance", essentially a showcase for the original’s almighty bass riff. "It was playing all over New York," Jones later recalled, "but they didn’t know at the time it was the Clash, or what the Clash was." In the scheme of things, the Clash’s contribution to rap is just a footnote, but even 35 years later, that’s still more than all but a tiny handful of rock bands can claim. —Evan Rytlewski

    See also: The Slits: "In The Beginning There Was Rhythm" / The Jam: "A Town Called Malice"

    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

    “The Mercy Seat”

    Mute; 1988

    110

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    We’re used to hearing people die in Nick Cave songs; the man can wipe out entire towns in a single stanza. But even as it graphically details an executed inmate’s final moments (melting flesh and all), "The Mercy Seat" is not a song about death—it’s a plea to our basic humanity.

    More than simply tell the story of a man being burned alive on the electric chair, "The Mercy Seat" is designed to make you feel like you’re the one being strapped in. Over the song’s calamitous extended outro, Cave sings its eight-line chorus no fewer than 14 times in succession, a process that consumes roughly two thirds of this seven-minute behemoth’s running time. But that relentless repetition is as crucial to the song as its narrative detail, with each incantation of the chorus—and the Bad Seeds’ intensifying squall—compounding the agony of an imminent but torturously slow death. Each time Cave’s narrator claims he’s "not afraid to die," it feels less like a hardened con’s final show of bravado than a psychological coping mechanism.

    Johnny Cash famously covered "The Mercy Seat" on 2000’s American III: Solitary Man, embracing it as a critique of capital punishment. And it’s an interpretation supported by the fact that Cave’s subject is not your typical wrongly accused martyr, boasting "my kill hand is called E.V.I.L." and facing judgment for crimes "of which I am nearly wholly innocent." As that harrowing climax finally simmers down in the song’s final seconds, there’s no sense of resolution: Cave’s narrator may be dead, but the Bad Seeds still tremble and screech like an unsated angry mob, reinforcing the notion that trading an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the ultimate zero-sum game. —Stuart Berman

    See also: Leonard Cohen: "First We Take Manhattan" / The Pogues: "Fairytale of New York" / Tom Waits: "Jockey Full of Bourbon"

    The Smiths

    “This Charming Man”

    Rough Trade; 1983

    109

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    "This Charming Man" is the story of the serendipitous meeting between a young man stranded by the side of the road and a dashing bon vivant in a pristine automobile who comes to his rescue. It’s a scene so quintessentially Steven Patrick Morrissey it would border on parody if it weren’t for the fact that "This Charming Man" was the second-ever single released by the Smiths. There are references to, subtly and overtly, English modernist author Henry Green’s Loving, the 1972 Laurence Oliver film Sleuth, and avant-garde filmmaker Jean Cocteau (the Moz-designed single sleeve features a still from 1950’s Orphée). The song itself was initially written out of jealousy for Rough Trade labelmates Aztec Camera by guitarist Johnny Marr, and was the band’s first bid for a "hit"—"something upbeat and in a major key," according to Marr. It was a modest success upon release in 1983, but hit number eight on the UK charts in 1992 when it was reissued, becoming the Smiths' highest chart placement ever. It features one of the most beloved guitar tones of the decade, one of Morrissey’s most honeyed and obtuse vocal takes, and one of the most memorable romantic exchanges in pop music history.

    But I’ve always wondered: On what side of the car door is Morrissey in this story? He’d no doubt tell you he’s not even in the picture, but we know that can’t be entirely true. From a narrative standpoint, he’s the boy with the flat bicycle tire, and in 1983, that made sense. Vulnerable, a little lost but not completely naive, he’s the iconic outsider that made the Smiths a beacon of light for so many lonely young people. But listening today, it’s impossible not to hear him as the driver, a smug and cocksure yet wholly irresistible old rake. "We all want to grow up and move on and appear to be different to people. And we want people to see us in a different way," he said in 1997, bearing down on his forties. "But, I don't know, I think the personality is very, very strongly cemented, and we just bear whatever shortcomings we have and learn to live with it." He, of all people, should know so much about these things. So perhaps it’s best to just call "This Charming Man" exactly what it is: A perfect song by a perfect band. —Zach Kelly

    See also: The Smiths: "Hand in Glove" / The Smiths: "Panic"

    Frankie Knuckles

    “Baby Wants to Ride”

    Trax; 1987

    108

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    The dance floor often gets called a safe space, a welcoming, un-judging womb where the unaccepted can find acceptance, or at least release. You can imagine house music filling this role in Chicago clubs like the Warehouse and The Power Plant in the early and mid-'80s. There you had DJs—primarily gay Latinos and blacks—spinning to largely Latino and black audiences from Chicago's South and West sides, and moreover spinning music produced largely by gay Latinos and blacks. If the weirdness of the music—early Trax Records alongside various and sundry local labels—contrasted a little with the party vibes, that made sense too: life was not easy for these musicians and dancers, so even their parties weren't going to always sound like other people’s parties.

    Even in this context, Frankie Knuckles "Baby Wants to Ride" is terrifying. A jaunty vamp featuring unabashed Prince fetishist Jamie Principle on vocals, the song is a psycho-sexual nightmare full of come-ons that consistently sound more threatening than sexy. The aggressive sexual politics of a gay nightclub can explain the song's content, but not Principle's deranged sneer, or the way the synth chords get all queasy as Knuckles presses them down, a little too long, every time. Who is baby? What else does baby want?

    There can be no doubt about the song's meaning, as it contains the lyric "I wanna fuck you/ All night long," but Principle also chants "Na na, na na, naa, naaa, you can't hurt me" and "Remember Ethiopia/ Feed the poor"; in the end he comes across as someone who indeed reveres the Purple One but finds him too lucid and prudish. The music—one of the least groovy classic house tracks—does not help matters, constantly egging Principle on, its tingling lead melody a wordless translation of "Na na, na na, naa, naaa."

    It's harrowing stuff, and a stark reminder of just how polite house music has become. And not just because very few modern house songs want to fuck us, but because few producers are as committed to making us feel as uneasy as Knuckles and Principle. The track stands in stark contrast to the smiling, party-rocking superstar Knuckles we said goodbye to last year; the man had many ways to upset a dance floor. —Andrew Gaerig

    See also: Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk: "Love Can't Turn Around" / Sleezy D: "I've Lost Control

    Alan Parsons Project

    “Eye in the Sky”

    Arista; 1982

    107

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    Never mind that the song's spacey instrumental intro ("Sirius") later became the badass theme music for the Chicago Bulls: "Eye in the Sky" was the moment that the Alan Parsons Project escaped from the residual bloat of the prog rock era and became a legitimate pop act. They had already hinted in this direction with tracks like "Games People Play", but even then, the music took a backseat to the conceptual trappings of their albums. But "Eye in the Sky" didn't need an entire album's worth of context to make sense—this one was all about songcraft.

    The secret ingredient to "Eye in the Sky" had been under Alan Parsons' nose the entire time: Eric Woolfson. Woolfson was Parsons' chief co-writer, but he didn't sing on an APP track until "Time" (from the LP preceding Eye in the Sky). Soft, gentle, and capable of more nuance than other vocalists imparted to buffoonish older songs like "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You", Woolfson's delivery is what sells "Eye in the Sky". It's part jealous-boyfriend schtick and part harbinger of the coming technological Big Brother dystopia (a typical Alan Parsons duality), all sung in a croon that sounds like someone breathing heavy on the back of your neck. The album's success would lead Parsons and Woolfson to greater fame and cheesier songs, and the band completely nosedived in the mid-'80s before disbanding altogether. But with "Eye in the Sky," this former progressive rock band mustered up one of the best soft rock songs ever. —Andrew Ryce

    See also: Don Henley: "Boys of Summer" / Til Tuesday: "Voices Carry

    Madonna

    “Borderline”

    Sire/Warner Bros.; 1984

    106

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    Released in 1983, "Borderline" is one of the first laid bricks in the cathedral of Madonna’s mythology, four minutes of emotional helium that became her first Top 10 hit on the heels of an iconic music video. In the clip, Madonna closes the gap between the club kid she was and the glamorous star she’d become as she plays her two beaux—a Latino tough boy and a snobby British photographer—off each other. Ironically, while lyrics refer to the gnawing desolation one might feel while navigating a relationship in which they don’t have any power, Madonna has total control in the video. She makes the tough boy miss his shot at the pool table by simply standing in the doorway; she spray paints the photographer’s car, causing him to flip out. She takes the energy from the song—a bubblegum instrumental given weight by her legible vocal performance—and uses it to dispel all the lingering demons from that bad relationship. There’s so much charisma, it’s easy to see why this was the song that catapulted her toward being the biggest pop star in the world. —Jeremy Gordon

    See also: Madonna: "Holiday" / Madonna: "Lucky Star"

    The Cure

    “Pictures of You”

    Fiction; 1989

    105

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    The liner notes of the Cure’s Disintegration made one simple demand: turn it up, loud. This request actually asked lot of the listener. Disintegration’s fourth single "Pictures of You" is overwhelming, even for a fanbase that prides itself on feeling way too much. "I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that they’re real," Robert Smith wails as guitars layer infinity pools over him for seven minutes—by the end, you might actually believe that "we kissed as the sky fell in," "[screaming] at the make believe" and "crying for the death of your heart" are real things couples go through. Tally the time Robert Smith has pined for a lost love over the past 40 years and you’ll have hours, if not entire days worth of music. But "Pictures of You" is the logical extreme of Smith’s thwarted desires—to completely submerge in the memory of someone else. —Ian Cohen

    See also: The Cure: "Fascination Street" / The Cure: "Lovesong"

    AC/DC

    “Back in Black”

    Atlantic; 1980

    104

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    Along with Kiss and Ozzy, AC/DC were scourges on the forces of respectability: a convenient villain for the church, the school, the town hall, and the PMRC. Rumors abounded about the band. The name was an acronym for Anti-Christ/Devil Child (not true). Their first singer drank himself to death (true). Their music reportedly inspired serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker (true). The band only grew more and more popular during the 1980s, even after the death of founding member Bon Scott, perhaps because they somehow became blunter, harder, simpler, and more primal—and they were already all three when they started. "Back in Black" remains monolithically perfect, a brick through a window that doesn't sound any less brutal today. New hire Brian Johnson has a formidable set of pipes and sings like he’s peeling off a layer of skin, and Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar emerges as the rudest element, selling the song’s lewdness as something glorious and unique. That staccato brump! brump-a-bump! sounds like a stifled laugh, Nelson Muntz kicking a baby down the stairs. No wonder teachers and parents were scared. —Stephen M. Deusner

    See also: Van Halen: "Panama"

    Whitney Houston

    “How Will I Know”

    Arista; 1985

    103

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    It feels like sacrilege to imagine an alternate timeline where "How Will I Know", the third single from 22-year old Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut, ended up a Janet Jackson song, as originally intended. For Jackson, control was freaky and liberating, something you wielded by choice. But for Houston, control was a lifestyle, a guiding principle—forever maintaining the perfect temporary balance between unthinkable technical precision and unchecked emotional release. Later, with Bobby Brown, it was something darker. Control, and its absence, was the core of "How Will I Know" beyond mere infatuation, and why it’s gotten so much more affecting with time: the terrifying rush of losing yourself. It was the album’s poppiest, most danceable track, but its persistent reputation as "lighthearted" never completely fit a song whose pre-chorus advocates, "Don’t trust your feelings."

    "Diva" suggests the immortal, the untouchable; in Latin and Italian, it translates to "goddess." But what made Houston such an important one, voice aside, was that she wasn’t fearless or invincible. She’d initially wanted her mother to sing back-up on "How Will I Know"; early live performances of the song came off as almost shy, not immediately at home on the stage. But the sheer elation from the act of singing was obvious: realizing her own power in real time, letting it charge her up until she was completely electrified. Everything was hard, except for the music. That part was simple.

    That question—how will I know?—re-emerges in the infamous 2002 Diane Sawyer interview. "I’m 5’7” and thin," Houston swears, responding to Sawyer’s questions about her jarring weight loss. "That’s not just thin," Sawyer persists. Houston looks her dead in the eyes: "No? What is it, Diane, tell me? Do you know?" The circumstances have changed, but the issue is the same: fear of the unmanageable void, just outside the jurisdiction of control. Later in the interview, Houston talks of losing the thrill of singing: "It’s just not fun anymore." That lost spark is unmistakable on "How Will I Know", so pure you want to preserve it forever, and you almost can. —Meaghan Garvey

    Michael Jackson

    “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”

    Epic; 1983

    102

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    When it was released as Thriller’s penultimate single in the fall of '83, "P.Y.T." seemed fated for a life in Michael Jackson’s singles graveyard. Panned by the press as "fluff," the flirty pop-funk confection came at the tail end of the Thriller era and quickly became the lowest charting of the record’s seven singles (though, this being Michael Jackson, that still involves breaking into the Billboard Top 10). It never got the high-profile video treatment Jackson had gained a reputation for, and he didn’t even perform the song live in his lifetime, putting it in league with fellow Thriller back burner "The Lady in My Life". Even with a bit of star power, courtesy of Grammy-winning singer James Ingram who co-wrote alongside Quincy Jones, "P.Y.T." just couldn’t ever find the launching pad.

    Even so, the single persisted as a fan favorite, for good reason: "P.Y.T." is one of Jackson’s most well-executed pop songs ever, from its irresistibly plush synth pads and rubbery bassline to the bridge’s famous call-and-response with a background chorus of P.Y.T.s (later revealed to be Jackson’s sisters, LaToya and Janet). It’s also the fastest song in Jackson’s catalog, perhaps providing a clue as to why he didn’t perform it, and other physically demanding songs, onstage. Yet in a 2009 interview with NPR, in which Ingram elaborated on the song’s recording sessions, he said Jackson danced furiously as he recorded, something he hadn’t seen an artist do before. "Michael came out of the studio sweating," he described. "There’s nobody that could do what he does." And he’s right: "P.Y.T." remains one of the best examples of Jackson’s irrepressible talent, capable of spinning even his filler tracks into gold. —Eric Torres

    See also: Dazz Band: "Let It Whip" / Jermaine Jackson: "Let's Get Serious"

    Eazy-E

    “Boyz-n-the-Hood”

    Ruthless; 1987

    101

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    Andre Young needed bail money. That was how it started. As the DJ for the Southern California collective World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Young was a prodigy, blowing the minds of partygoers the first time he was allowed in front of a crowd by perfectly syncing up "Planet Rock" with "Please Mr. Postman". He helped the Wreckin’ Cru ink a record deal with CBS Records, but he was also a tremendous pain in the ass: He had a problem with speeding tickets, and a related problem with showing up for court dates. Perhaps inevitably, he also had a problem with getting thrown in jail. Repeatedly. On one occasion, Lonzo Williams, his mentor and manager, was unmoved. "Sit in jail," Williams told him. So Dre picked up the phone and called a gap-toothed, squeaky-voiced drug dealer named Eric Wright, a fellow pain in the ass who had been bugging Young ceaselessly about recording together for a nonexistent venture he called Ruthless Records. These are the deeply inauspicious circumstances that yielded "Boyz-n-the-Hood", a deeply auspicious song.

    O’Shea Jackson, a poet and rap fanatic, wrote the verses for a New York duo named H.B.O., but they turned up their noses at the beat’s clattering, primitive sound. Wright was in the corner, watching—he was no one’s idea of a microphone fiend, least of all his own; he was trying to be a record mogul. But Jackson and Young called him over to the mic, and L.A. rap would explode shortly thereafter. Like a lot of pop recordings that wind up getting canonized, "Boyz-N-the-Hood" has a provisional, make-do quality, like it was several revisions into a good idea gone wrong, and you can feel that casual energy in it even now, as it provides the raw material for a blockbuster Hollywood biopic.

    Jackson, Young, Wright; Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E. The guys who would become N.W.A were kid-brother types who were borrowing the swagger and energy of big-brother figures. Cube, hungry to establish L.A. as a home for rap, modeled "Boyz-N-the-Hood" on "6 'N the Mornin" by another local rapper named Ice-T—a very real criminal who had modeled his tough-talking rhymes on the rough sounds of Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D. Eazy was not Schoolly or Ice-T; he was the runt of the litter, the pipsqueak posturing. Because of that—the occasional hiccup in his stage-fright delivery, or the way it cracked or fell out of time with the rudimentary downbeat—the song became something inclusionary, an anthem for scared kids in a scary time, a mask to wear and an evasive strategy to adopt: "Don’t quote me boy, cuz I ain’t said shit."

    A lot of classic '80s rap reaches us faintly today, from across vast stylistic, generational, and socio-economic gulfs. But "Boyz-N-the-Hood" doesn’t feel that way. Its particulars always seem to be whispering back at every turn—"front, back, side to side", "cruising down the street in my six-fo." All of those details became DNA, and the song’s nervy mix of fear and bluster became gangsta rap: I move through my unsafe world unafraid, it says, and because of that, I am invincible. —Jayson Greene

    See also: Eazy-E: "Eazy-Duz-It" / Ice-T: "6 N' The Mornin"

    The Church

    “Under the Milky Way”

    Mushroom/Arista; 1988

    100

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    The Church had already had a taste of the major-label system when they signed to Arista in the late '80s, but it wasn't until they recorded their 1988 album Starfish in Los Angeles that they fully witnessed the excesses of the music industry. Those sessions paired them, uncomfortably, with veteran producers Waddy Watchel and Greg Ladanyi, old-guard industry hands who spent their career recording with acts like Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, and Keith Richards, and who weren't shy about tapping Arista's generous expense account. "We all had to have our special cars and apartments," guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper marveled 20 years later. "It got so out of control with the egos and the drugs and too much money."

    Starfish became the band's best-selling album, but the group has long maintained they could have recorded a better one for a fraction of the price. That might be true. Starfish was the Church’s most straightforward record of the era, and mostly it lets the songs speak for themselves. There is one moment, however, where its invisible production budget reveals itself, and it's the finest of the band's career. Midway through "Under the Milky Way", a slow-burning bit of psychedelia built, like most of the band’s best tracks, around the melancholic wonder in singer Steve Kilbey's voice, the song gives way to an insurgent guitar solo synthesized to sound like bagpipes. It barrels through the song, usurping and uplifting it, then driving it to a redemptive close. Even after hundreds of spins, it still sounds surprising every time. Moments this powerful and unexpected don’t come along often. If it took a small fortune to make this one just right, so be it. —Evan Rytlewski

    See also: Modern English: "I Melt With You" / Simple Minds: "Don't You (Forget About Me)" 

    Sister Nancy

    “Bam Bam”

    Techniques; 1982

    99

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    "Bam Bam" is one of those songs you know without knowing, a piece of cultural confetti that has fluttered in the margins of pop culture for 30 years. According to the always-fascinating Whosampled.com, it has been sampled 63 times, mostly in hip-hop, as early as 1982 and as recently as 2014, in Major Lazer’s "Sound Bang". It was in the 1998 movie Belly and 2014’s The Interview and a Reebok commercial where the former Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr disrobes to her sneakers. Originally written as a riff on a 1966 Toots and the Maytals hit, the song has a simple, almost subliminal quality, like something schoolgirls might chant while jumping rope. Like a lot of early dancehall, it parallels early rap—listen to it alongside Roxanne Shante’s "Roxanne’s Revenge", for example, another song by a young woman who sounds both brashly confident and naïve. —Mike Powell

    See also: Eek-A-Mouse: "Wa Do Dem" / Michigan & Smiley: "Diseases"

    Violent Femmes

    “Blister in the Sun”

    Slash; 1983

    98

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    Has anything so ugly ever been this catchy? Piggybacking on one of the more unforgettable riffs in rock history, the equally memorable chorus of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" throws Gordon Gano’s un-redemptive sneer into whining, yelping overdrive. The single is the crowning moment on a self-titled debut album full of snotty gutter punk that gained a slow but steady following until it achieved platinum status nearly a decade after being released. That extended climax might seem antithetical to the commonly understood meaning of "Blister", which is often interpreted as an ode to masturbation, or premature ejaculation. But really, the song’s enigmatic lyrics remain more of an impressionistic dada explosion than anything that can be diagrammed and explicated. (Gano himself has said there’s nothing much there to actually make sense of.)

    Perfectly adolescent in its mix of cockiness, horniness, desperate insecurity, and dark-edged humor, "Blister in the Sun" is also a testament to the fact that two of the three Femmes were barely out of high school when they were lauded by the New York press as the next big thing. But there’s a sophistication lurking beneath the yowling. Brian Ritchie was a preternaturally talented bass player and Vincent DeLorenzo a technically accomplished (and amiably wild) drummer. Both the music they contribute here and the edgy vibe of Dano’s singing remind us of the band’s influences: groups like the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, and Television. The Violent Femmes ended up forming an unlikely bridge between those seminal bands and latter day pop punks like Green Day. And "Blister in the Sun" remains what the Times critic Robert Palmer proclaimed the album back in 1982: fresh, riveting and genuinely original. —Jonah Bromwich

    Chaka Khan / Rufus

    “Ain't Nobody”

    Warner Bros.; 1983

    97

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    If you were going just off the lyric sheet, "Ain’t Nobody" might seem like something straight out of the '50s teenybopper-romantic songbook—stars are flown through, hearts are filled by a kiss, surrender is sweet. On record, the song tells a completely different story. Chaka doesn’t sound happy about the fact that there’s only one person in the world who can make her happy—in fact she sounds distraught over it. Behind her, Rufus has ditched the thick organic funk that they made their name on and gone all-in on the first wave of digital synthesis, and her vocals soar over an icy, thin, and rigidly clean electronic arrangement that only adds to the feeling of alienation. Mobs of post-disco soul acts would follow Rufus down the digital synth-funk path, and since R&B’s recently become the go-to genre for artists tinkering with pop’s sonic DNA, and tinny digital synths have floated back into fashion, there’s a whole new wave of musicians doing the same thing. The song’s greatest accomplishment isn’t the instrumentation, though—it’s the way the whole thing somehow manages to transmute wrung-out romantic desperation into pure ecstasy. —Miles Raymer

    See also: Rene and Angela: "I'll Be Good" / SOS Band: "Take Your Time (Do It Right)"

    Cherrelle / Alexander O'Neal

    “Saturday Love”

    Tabu; 1985

    96

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    Everyone else had youthful sexuality covered, but with the form of the duet, mid-'80s R&B claimed as its very own the realm of adult romance. There was Dennis Edwards & Siedah Garret’s slinky and eerie "Don’t Look Any Further" in 1984; René & Angela’s seductively strutting "I’ll Be Good" a year later; and, perhaps best of all, "Saturday Love", 1985’s classiest single by some measure.

    "Saturday Love" is precisely the sum of its very expensive parts: Cherrelle’s breathy drama, darting in and out of her own backing vocals in a manner oddly reminiscent of early Kate Bush; Alexander, the towering loverman unafraid to get gentle; perhaps most of all, producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis at the very top of their game during an early-career pinnacle. Their work on Janet Jackson’s Control the following year overshadows practically everything else from the era for its audacity, but "Saturday Love" sumptuously drapes itself across the other end of the spectrum, refitting the synthetic sentimentality of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" (the snares sounding like they’ve ricocheted off every building in Minneapolis) for a more genteel boudoir. The groove dispenses with dynamism and melodrama in favor of an endless push’n’pull falter-funk that evokes the easy repetition of familiar and practiced lovemaking.

    The arrangement happily occupies a flushed-but-becalmed locked groove, while Cherrelle and Alexander seem determined not to repeat themselves. Their vocals resemble a parade of inspired vamps and back-and-forth exchanges that would be ridiculous if they weren’t executed so perfectly (Alexander in particular bellowing his longing like it’s the last time he’ll ever be allowed back in the studio). Released today, it would launch a thousand Internet memes. Or, no: released today, the song’s svelte maturity wouldn’t get within a thousand miles of meme culture, let alone the charts. One day hopefully we’ll grow up enough to know better. —Tim Finney

    See also: Alexander O'Neal: "What's Missing" / Sherrick: "Just Call (Call Collect Mix")

    Grace Jones

    “Pull Up to the Bumper”

    Island; 1981

    95

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    By the '80s, Grace Jones was already undergoing a chameleonic artistic evolution. She’d moved from Paris back to New York and shifted her sound from disco to reggae-influenced rock and pop, contorting each genre into new, unexpected shapes that all had one pressing, common through-line: they demanded that you move to them. Although 1980's Warm Leatherette was met with lukewarm reviews, when Nightclubbing came a year later her foothold as an international icon was firmly established, with the album’s most controversial single, the seductive, dubby "Pull Up to the Bumper", doubling as its best. Born out of a Warm Leatherette session in the Bahamas with reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the song evokes an erotic fixation for cars that edges on J.G. Ballard levels of obsession: there’s greasing, spraying, lubricating, long limousines, and, of course, that nominal bumper. Some radio stations refused to play the song because of its sexual undertones, but Jones, in perfectly Jonesian fashion, didn’t seem to care. She was already a lightning rod for attention at this point, and was often criticized for her gender-binary-ignoring appearance—"The future is no sex," she's said. Radio aside, "Bumper" turned out to be undeniable, infiltrating dance clubs upon a 1985 re-release and becoming a touchstone for post-disco and later innuendo-laden singles from Lady Gaga, Basement Jaxx, Rihanna and more. —Eric Torres

    See also: Grace Jones: "Warm Leatherette" / Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat"

    Change

    “The Glow of Love”

    Warner Bros./WEA; 1980

    94

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    While it wasn't his first appearance on wax—Gregg Diamond's "Hot Butterfly" predates "The Glow of Love" by two years—Luther Vandross' vocal performance on "The Glow of Love" was the first to harness the singer's larger-than-life wellspring of emotion. Whatever Change were, on "The Glow of Love", they were Luther Vandross' supporting band first and foremost. The album from which this record is culled is full of powerful records; "Angel in My Pocket" was a favorite of Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, "A Lover's Holiday" is a disco classic, and "The End" was a proto-Italo record. But "Searching" and the title track nearly overshadow them, if only because Vandross had just begun to spread his wings: this was a star, and soon the world would know his name.

    "Glow of Love", co-written by Mauro Malavasi, Wayne Garfield, and the group's bassist Davide Romani, has a name appropriate for a record that radiates warmth, its soft-focus synthesizers serving as a musical halo for Vandross' rise-and-fall vocals, which alight upon notes with a precise delicacy one moment before fluttering into a powerful vibrato the next. Disco had turned to a democratic dancefloor in an era of rock star excess and ego. But as the '80s turned over, Change's debut album, still rooted in disco, pointed in new directions: towards electronics, towards Italo-disco, and towards the introduction of a true star, one whose incomparable voice would loom over 1980s R&B, and return the genre to the singers who would dominate the decade. —David Drake

    See also: Change: "A Lover's Holiday" / Skipworth & Turner: "Thinking About Your Love

    U2

    “With or Without You”

    Island; 1987

    93

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    By 1987, Bono was already known as an ecstatic live performer unafraid of the grand gesture; during U2's Live Aid set two years earlier, he famously ran across the massive Wembley Arena stage before venturing toward the crowd in order to slow dance with a fan. The moment occurred as the quartet played "Bad", a song that helped bring dewy atmosphere and slow-rolling builds into the realm of arena rock. "With or Without You", the first single off of The Joshua Tree, distills the quiet power of "Bad" while flipping its gravitational force—instead of shamelessly reaching out for attention, Bono stands in one place in the song's video, as if his feet are crazy glued to the floor. He wants everyone to come to him.

    That's exactly what happened: "With or Without You" was U2's first #1 single in America. Compared with flashy (and oh-so-'80s) contemporary #1s like Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died in Your Arms", the song is a hymn-like oddity, patient and haunted and ambiguous. As Edge's infinite guitar rings out, Bono laments the hardships that come with a bond that's supposed to last forever. The married singer is torn between the roaming life of a musician and the stable comforts of home. As with most great U2 songs, there are no fixed answers here, only big questions writ large. So as the "With or Without You" video nears its end, Bono grabs the neck of the guitar that he's been holding close for the last four minutes and starts spinning around like a top—he's moving, but he's still in the same spot. —Ryan Dombal

    Fleetwood Mac

    “Gypsy”

    Warner Bros.; 1982

    92

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    The lore of the excess Fleetwood Mac indulged in at their height of their fame is the stuff of rock legend, a yardstick by which the hedonism of all other bands is measured (save for the Eagles). Amid the unstoppable worldwide post-Rumours ascent of the band, Stevie Nicks penned "Gypsy", a pean to before. Back when she was living in a tiny apartment in the Bay Area, waitressing to support herself and then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham, back when her best friend and voice coach Robin Snyder was alive. Likely written for the sessions for Nicks’ solo debut Bella Donna, the song eventually surfaced on the band’s 1982 album Mirage, and was characteristic of the more synthetic and slick Mac sound of the '80s. The video for "Gypsy" was, at the time, the most expensive music video ever made, and the first "world premiere" on MTV. While stadium bands lamenting the humble simplicity of their basement days is a codified part of rock'n'roll, what is really happening here is that Stevie Nicks is singing about her own life and herself in relationship to another woman, about female friendship. Women recording and performing personal songs that they wrote and sang was a relatively new phenomena in rock'n'roll; a hit song authored by a woman about her own creative life and the primacy of another woman in it—the regard of the "my" and "she" in "Gypsy"—was almost unheard of—and what makes the song a landmark. —Jessica Hopper

    See also: Stevie Nicks: "Gypsy" (Demo) / Stevie Nicks: "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (ft. Tom Petty) 

    Bill Withers / Grover Washington, Jr.

    “Just the Two of Us”

    Elektra; 1981

    91

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    In the early '70s, Bill Withers came out of the gate with three smash hits in a 16-month span: "Ain’t No Sunshine", "Use Me", and "Lean on Me". After the hot start, he quickly plateaued, remaining a mainstay on the R&B charts and urban radio but struggling to recapture his early success. He was finally able to strike gold again in 1981, accompanied by soul-jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., on the smooth jazz ballad "Just the Two of Us". A Grammy winner for Best R&B Song, the track finds Withers at his most inviting, welcoming in both lyric and tone. The saxophone has always been the sultriest of woodwind instruments but, when paired with Withers’ hearty timbre, it turns majestic, soaring through the lower octaves and building castles in the sky. —Sheldon Pearce

    See also: Chaka Khan: "Through the Fire" / Tina Turner: "What's Love Got To Do With It"

    Blondie

    “Call Me”

    Polydor/Chrysalis/Salsoul; 1980

    90

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    Debbie Harry's greatest strength as a singer is her uncanny ability to sound aloof and emotional at the same time and, on "Call Me", she sounds as tough as anybody in a state of detached cool could be. Give a little of that credit to producer Giorgio Moroder, who put together a synth-washed hard rock robo-stomp that incinerated AOR pretenders on contact. Give a little more credit to that knuckle-slinging Chris Stein riff, which actually notches an unlikely Who Wore It Better victory against Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave" and unspools into an octane-burner of a solo near the end of the eight-minute full-length version.

    But it's Harry's song to steal, and her leads possess the confident skill of someone who knows she's got full mastery of her voice but still wants to push it a little further. So we get a 70-story wirewalker floatiness in the verses, a seductively jet-set multilingual bridge, and a come-on that snaps into a collar-grabbing demand in the chorus. The single hit a deserved #1 in 1980 and has long outshone the American Gigolo that spawned it, but go for the extended album version, in which Harry promises a head rush of a decade that the pop world would have to go into overdrive to fulfill: "Take me out and show me off and put me on the scene/ Dress me in the fashions of the nineteen-eigh-eighties." —Nate Patrin

    See also: Bagarre: "Lemonsweet" / Romeo Void: "Never Say Never

    Fela Kuti

    “Coffin for Head of State”

    La Cile/Label Maison; 1981

    89

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    When the military stormed Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s compound and threw his mother out a second story window, he protested by breaking through government gates to deliver a mock coffin to General Obasanjo’s residence. And then he wrote a 23-minute song about it. Released in 1981, "Coffin for Head of State" is one of several tracks Fela recorded in response to that 1977 attack on his Kalakuta compound. By then, Obasanjo had had enough of the outspoken, pot-smoking political dissident, and he was sick of the medium the man had invented to carry the message: Afrobeat. A thousand soldiers were sent in, burning down Kalakuta, beating and violating anyone they could; Kuti’s mother ultimately died from the injuries sustained from her fall.

    Nothing was the same after that, and listening to Fela’s post-Kalakuta music, it shows. On "Coffin for Head of State", the themes are as socially and politically charged as ever. Kuti criticizes officials who use Christianity and Islam as crutches for doing "bad bad bad things." He hints at a burgeoning obsession with his own brand of Pan-African spirituality (which focused on unity but was also pretty essentialist and misogynist). The satirical humor that often characterized his earlier work grew increasingly bitter and direct. By the time "Coffin" came out, the original Afrika 70 that included Tony Allen was no longer, and the soon-to-be Egypt 80 couldn't be the same. They did see international success, but like the marijuana cloud that cloaked the Chief Priest wherever he went, a thin veil of grief would settle over much of his Afrobeat into the next two decades. —Minna Zhou

    See also: Fela Kuti: "Original Suffer Head" / T. P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: "Ecoute Ma Melodie"

    Evelyn "Champagne" King

    “Love Come Down”

    RCA; 1982

    88

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    In the 1980s, with the advent of electronics and the shifting texture of popular music, certain producers—from Quincy Jones to Nile Rodgers, Jam & Lewis to Stock Aitken Waterman—became synonymous with certain sonic signatures. Despite his huge influence, one of the most undersung in this category was Kashif Saleem. A solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter who'd begun his career at age 15 playing keyboards for disco group B.T. Express, Kashif joined the Mighty M production trio alongside Paul Laurence and Morrie Brown in the early 1980s; with Mighty M and solo, he was in large part responsible for shaping the sound of '80s R&B—and by extension, much of popular music—in disco's wake. And Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Love Come Down" was an early peak, epitomizing this game-changing sound in a completely singular way.

    Evelyn "Champagne" King's career had been in decline when she began recording with Mighty M; "Shame", her 1978 debut single, was a disco smash she'd been unable to match since. "I'm in Love", her first single with the production unit, made both her comeback and their careers. But its follow-up, 1982's "Love Come Down", was a more radical step forward. Mighty M claimed several inspirations for this new sound; Morrie Brown told Nelson George in Billboard that they'd listen to West Coast producers like Quincy Jones and Leon Sylvers—particularly Sylvers' work on the Whispers' "And the Beat Goes On"—and try to match it. Kashif—who'd experimented with synthesizers since the late 1970s—found inspiration in jazz and R&B songwriting at a time when disco was at its peak. In particular, the spacious production of Weather Report's Heavy Weather album, and the advice of Miles Davis: "Sometimes it's just as important where the notes aren't as where they are." With its distinctive Moog bass and a production style that centered the performer, Kashif's sound marked a move away from disco's four-on-the-floor momentum, towards a bouncier sound where every element had its own discrete, foregrounded space. At its center, King's clear voice rings with celebratory confidence; around it, every instrument seems designed to maximize the emotional punch, that feeling of unambiguous love. —David Drake

    See also: Evelyn Champagne King: "I'm in Love" / Mary Jane Girls: "In My House"

    Tenor Saw

    “Ring the Alarm”

    Techniques; 1985

    87

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    "Ring the alarm/ Another sound is dying," runs the refrain of Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm"—a taunt, meant to trumpet the superiority of Sugar Minott's Youthman Promotion soundsystem. ("Four big sound in-a one big lawn/ The don sound a-play the other three keep calm.") "Ring the Alarm"—sampled or quoted over the years in songs by Naughty By Nature, Fat Joe, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Mos Def, Big Audio Dynamite, and even Fugazi—is the story of a sound that just wouldn't quit.

    The story goes all the way back to 1973 and the "Stalag 17" riddim, produced by Winston Riley and featuring organist Ansell Collins and his band. The Riddim Database cites its use in 280 songs (other sources say more than 400), including General Echo's Jamaican #1 hit "Arleen" (1979) and Sister Nancy's deliriously dubbed out "Bam Bam" (1982). But Tenor Saw's version, released as dancehall was turning digital, coaxed new urgency out of "Stalag"'s rolling bassline, woozy organ, and glancing guitar and horn accents. His voice sounds far older, or at least wiser, than 19; it's hard to believe that he had debuted just the year before, on a devotional song called "Roll Call". He brings his church upbringing to the sweetness of his vibrato, but at moments, like when he imitates the ringing of a bell, there's an edge to his voice that must have tied his competitors' stomachs in knots. —Philip Sherburne

    Tracy Chapman

    “Fast Car”

    Elektra; 1988

    86

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    Working class narratives might not chart anymore, but escapism has long been universal. Tracy Chapman’s breakout single—the one she is remembered for most, to this day, along with 1997’s "Give Me One Reason"—was a multi-character study about keeping sane, keeping safe and keeping a dream alive amidst long odds. The politics and plaintive gait of "Fast Car" echoes the simple, guitar-led soul of Bill Withers, who holds his working class roots close, even today. Chapman grew up in recession-era Cleveland but the determinism of a refrain like, "I had a feeling that I belonged, I had a feeling that I could be someone," made it an anthem for all: kids stuck in bum towns and broken homes, single moms, desk drones, and dreamers. (Maybe even a few Reaganites?) Its release toward the end of the decade, as the artifice of new wave and glam rock were being phased out and hip-hop was making itself known, makes "Fast Car" one of the musical catalysts for the resurgence of liberalism and counterculture in the radical '90s. —Anupa Mistry

    Luther Vandross

    “Never Too Much”

    Epic; 1981

    85

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    As any true karaoke specialist knows, "Never Too Much" is one of the world's worst karaoke records. Its melody—repetitive, predictable, over alternating, familiar block chords—lacks any kind of built-in tension. One can't merely hit the marks and pull off a convincing performance. Even though it's an uptempo pop record—perhaps the most accessible of Vandross' long and varied career—it's also a classicist's R&B cut, the magic tied directly to its performer's preternaturally fluid vocal control. This is why "Never Too Much" is also proof of Luther Vandross' tremendous, singular talent. Every drop of its ebullient emotion, those feelings deep enough to swim in, are contained within his incomparable voice. He embodies every second of each line, gives each turn of phrase, each syllable, a subtle, glancing grace. This delicate style lays confidently but gently upon this much less subtle musical backdrop, as if the suggestion of anything so selfish as carnality might disturb the sincerity of his devotion. "Never Too Much" is not the apex of Vandross as a singer even on his own debut; "A House Is Not A Home" more fully illustrates the depth and power of his vulnerable generosity. Yet within the broad strokes of its funk groove, which hand-holds listeners into a feeling of giddy celebration, Vandross' own voice limns his ecstasy in the aching sadness of its absence—the recognition that love is a surrender of control. —David Drake

    See also: George Duke: "Reach Out" / Tatsuro Yamashita: "Love Talkin'"

    Slayer

    “Angel of Death”

    Def Jam; 1986

    84

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    Slayer, looped in with Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica as part of the "big four" of thrash, took early inspiration from both British heavy metal and punk—throughout their career they’ve covered Minor Threat, the Exploited, GBH, and T.S.O.L, among others. In the spirit of their heroes, their third album, 1986’s Reign in Blood, came off like a blunt kick to the head. It was the first metal release for Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam imprint, and Rubin recorded and produced it, stripping the Southern California quartet’s sound to its barest essentials, echoing the hardcore they’d grown up with, then speeding it up and making it more evil. Further rejecting concessions, they opened Reign in Blood with their most controversial track, the buzzing, pounding "Angel of Death".

    Written by their late guitarist Jeff Hanneman, "Angel of Death" tells the story of the sadistic Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele, and the physical and psychological human experiments the "infamous butcher" performed during World War II—gassing, surgery without anesthesia, burning flesh, creating "mutants," burying people alive. The extreme subject material enunciated in a crystalline snarl by Tom Araya ("Auschwitz, the meaning of pain/ The way that I want you to die/ Slow death, immense decay/ Showers that cleanse you of your life”) delayed Reign in Blood’s release when Def Jam’s distributor Columbia Records balked at the lyrics and the album’s "Satanic" artwork and it’s still shocking almost 30 years later. —Brandon Stosuy

    See also: Slayer: "South of Heaven" / Slayer: "Raining Blood" / Napalm Death: "You Suffer"

    My Bloody Valentine

    “You Made Me Realise”

    Creation; 1988

    83

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    On record, it lasts only 30 seconds or so. Live, it can stretch up to 20-plus minutes. My Bloody Valentine's album-length shoegaze masterwork is 1991's Loveless, but the title track from 1988's You Made Me Realise is the Kevin Shield-led Irish band's most emblematic song. And the most potent part of that song is the so-called "holocaust section," which melded the Beatles' psychedelic experiments to Sonic Youth's noise-rock pummel, in the process reaching an early pinnacle for a while new and singular style.

    When "You Made Me Realise" arrived, MBV had gone through a couple of vocalists and sonic approaches without quite rising above their contemporaries. As their first record with Shields and fellow guitarist Bilinda Butcher splitting vocals, and first for the financially generous Creation Records, "You Made Me Realise" established the group as one to watch, presaging the meticulously explosive studio confections that have followed in the years since. MBV weren't the only band in the mid-to-late '80s combining the percussive/discordant with the sweet/tuneful, of course, but their ambitious admixture was particularly captivating. And all the more so as a joyfully extensive, consciousness-affecting concert closer. Shields and Butcher don't quite make clear here what they've realized—though interpersonally fraught lyrics about death and suicide sure give a hint—but the song itself is the epiphany. —Marc Hogan

    See also: Cocteau Twins: "Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops" / The Jesus and Mary Chain: "You Trip Me Up"

    Tears for Fears

    “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

    Mercury; 1985

    82

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    With their debut record The Hurting, Tears for Fears rivaled Morrissey as the poster children for '80s, British, sad-sack pop—the record was a wailing and gloomy new wave exploration into bloodshed, childhood suffering, and mental breakdowns. And while the band’s second album, Songs from the Big Chair, wasn’t too far a leap in terms of tone (the title was inspired by the psychological melodrama Sybil), musically it was a refined deep dive into a pure-pop sound that would make them famous.

    While The Hurting was a chart-topper in the UK, Songs from the Big Chair broke Tears for Fears in the U.S., and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" led the way, hitting #1. Although just as bleak in its sentiment, the track is a far cry from the Songs from the Big Chair’s thomping and aggressive "Shout". It was Tears for Fears Lite™, all their ennui and maddened disdain filtered through a beat you could actually dance to. And underneath the synth-pop sheen, its vague message, a snide lesson in how power-hungry society could be, reached Reagan and Thatcher-era youth fed up with political greed.

    Today, the track has found a new audience with another pop star turning her nose up on selfish desire for wealth and power, in Lorde’s smoldering, dark cover for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. But what makes the original "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" so enduring is its glossy packaging, how it swerves past "Mad World" gloom and goes for something that sounds like Roland Orzabal is smiling in surrender. —Hazel Cills

    Diana Ross

    “Upside Down”

    Motown; 1980

    81

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    Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic produced Diana Ross’ 1980 album Diana, but, before its release, the record was remixed without their permission: Ross' voice was moved to the forefront, the bass was reduced, the songs made flatter. Listening to the original Chic mixes of the album can feel like breathing oxygen into compressed airspace; like an unlatched accordion, the original mix unfolds to take up more space. Of course, either version is masterful: a concept record about falling for someone whose love isn't entirely reciprocated, of surrendering control. On "Upside Down", her words ring with the confidence of someone who's chosen acceptance: "Respectfully, I say to thee, I'm aware that you're cheating," she sings, as if afraid of upsetting the balance. It's a song about that sensation of "falling"—a term far too shortsighted to encapsulate the upside-down, inside-out, round-and-round motion of a crush. So just as Edwards and Rodgers’ songwriting suggests a box tumbling down stairs, Ross stands tall inside, enjoying the ride and fearing the landing. —David Drake

    See also: Surface: "Falling In Love" / Chaka Khan: "I Feel 4 U

    Zapp

    “Computer Love”

    Warner Bros.; 1986

    80

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    Roger Troutman called his talk box the Ghetto Robot or the Electric Country Preacher; his longtime friend Bootsy Collins called it the Cosmic Communicator, the mythological equivalent to MJ’s sequined glove, a drug addiction: "We were able to translate this unspeakable sign language into street talk, on-the-corner croonin', babble, and liquid lovemaking... It is forbidden for you to know the secrets. It will always be a mystery." By "Computer Love", Troutman’s family band Zapp had already optimized the golden ratio of bounce to ounce and laid the blueprint for g-funk even more directly than Parliament, but spiritual advisor George Clinton had dipped and album sales were tanking. But then there was "Computer Love": that rare, logic-defying union of man and crudely-rigged machine where the latter only heightens the humanity of the former (a balance later mastered by '05 T-Pain, '08 Lil Wayne, and '12 Future Hendrix), power lines sparking in a quiet storm. Credit due to Shirley Murdock and brother Larry Troutman, both co-writers, but the android romance was all Roger—a guy who re-learned the spoken alphabet to better fuse with he and his brothers’ homemade talk boxes that regularly electrocuted him and fucked up his stomach. He was a martyr for the funk in every sense; 14 years later, Larry fired four shots into his brother and then killed himself behind their Dayton, Ohio family studio. But first, and for years thereafter, "Computer Love" wedged its way into not just West coast rap legend, but to NYC, Chicago, Baton Rouge, and presumably out into the cosmos. —Meaghan Garvey

    Boogie Down Productions

    “South Bronx”

    B-Boy; 1986

    79

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    When Queens legends Marley Marl and MC Shan, members of the famed Juice Crew, released "The Bridge" in 1985 they didn’t know they’d be starting a firestorm. The record was meant to simply big up their borough, but it was misinterpreted by KRS-One as revisionist history. It’s well-established that the Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop, but in "The Bridge", MC Shan seems to imply otherwise: “You love to hear the story again and again/ Of how it all got started way back when/ The monument is right in your face/ Sit and listen for a while to the name of the place." If Queensbridge was falsely claiming the rap birthright as its own on wax, then that would be tantamount to a formal attack on the Bronx legacy and a full-on declaration of inner city war. The Boogie Down Productions response was swift. In 1986, BDP released the thumping, Shan-slamming "South Bronx", which was equal parts dis record and hometown anthem.

    KRS-One was already an emerging star in the mid- to late-'80s, but "South Bronx" was a defining moment for his budding rap career. It helped to establish him as one of New York’s great emcees, alongside Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, and Juice Crew rappers Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. His blunt rapping and resounding voice are on full display over production from DJ Scott La Rock. "South Bronx" would set up several other more direct shots from both sides, in what would later come to be known as the Bridge Wars, an all out clash between Boogie Down Production and the Juice Crew, and its cultural impact is matched only by its signature raps. —Sheldon Pearce

    See also: Boogie Down Productions: "My Philosophy" / Boogie Down Productions: "The Bridge Is Over

    The Specials

    “Ghost Town”

    2 Tone; 1981

    78

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    On the surface, the Specials were an '80s reggae band that grew out of the racially egalitarian two-tone movement, but in essence were more like the Kinks: sharp-minded English guys who used satire to illustrate the ironies of their social world. Released during a deep recession and string of inner-city riots, "Ghost Town" was a grotesque musical-theater number that took the metaphor of its title literally, weaving spooky organs and lonesome, quasi-Arabian flutes into bleak, monochromatic dub. It became a hit, which is surprising only because it’s so unrepentantly grim—an instance where pop music didn’t just reflect the fantasies of a society, but the realities. In a little bit of contextual poetry, the band was in the process of breaking up. During sessions, members stood at the edges of the room, not speaking; at one point, one of the guitarists tried to kick a hole in the studio wall. The three biggest English music magazines at the time—Melody Maker, Sounds, and NME—called it the single of the year. —Mike Powell

    Metallica

    “Master of Puppets”

    Elektra; 1986

    77

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    Metallica had little in common with the L.A. metal scene they would eventually escape for San Francisco's burgeoning thrash scene, except for one thing: ambition. Whereas that manifested in the Sunset Strip scene in conquests, both sexual and pharmaceutical, Metallica wanted to elevate thrash metal beyond its origins as a hybrid of the new wave of British heavy metal and hardcore. They already had a stronger grip on arrangements and songwriting than virtually all of their peers when Kill 'Em All came out, but 1986’s Master of Puppets, and its title track especially, remains the hallmark of metal as a creative force to this day.

    There's no way you could say "Puppets" isn't triumphant, with its progressive structure thanks to Cliff Burton, whose presence still looms large almost 29 years after his death, and James Hetfield's snarl and unrivaled rhythm guitar. It's by far one of Metallica's most popular songs, and it still gets a rapturous response from even the harshest cynics (and Metallica's given them plenty of reasons to by cynical over the past two decades). "Puppets" flips the script on metal's lust for power by placing the listener as the oppressor and giving them a fuller picture of the wasteland they've created; a serious contrast given that it's on an album bookended by "Battery" and "Damage Inc.", two of metal's greatest odes to senseless destruction as motivation. Knowing this, you'll still chant "MASTER! MASTER!," and that's the beauty of the best protest music. It's not as outwardly sociopolitical as "Disposable Heroes" or "Fight Fire With Fire", but it still lets you know that the ills of wrath are more likely to kill you than Satan. That terror hasn't diminished since 1986. Metal has never been more healthy creatively than it is today, at least in the underground, but "Puppets" represents a rare moment where boundary-pushing and commercial success dovetailed so gloriously. Nothing like them came before, and nothing like them will come after. —Andy O'Connor

    See also: Metallica: "Creeping Death" / Metallica: "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

    Fingers Inc.

    “Can You Feel It?”

    Trax; 1986

    76

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    Electronic music's biggest point of contention from the uninitiated has always been a perceived lack of humanity in its machine-made sounds. Björk delivered a sharp response to the cynics in a 1997 documentary about the making of Homogenic: "I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has not got soul. And they blame the computers. They point at the computers like, 'There's no soul here!' You can't blame the computer. If there's no soul in the music, it's because nobody put it there."

    Larry Heard, a drummer and budding producer from Chicago, may have preempted Björk's point over a decade prior. As house, techno, electro, and acid began to transform underground club culture in the mid-'80s, Heard was discovering what he could do with these new ideas. "Mystery of Love" broke him into the fold in 1985, when the lush, slinky record caught the attention of DJs Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, and for good reason. Coming from a strictly live music background, Heard was an outsider with a fresh perspective, using his Roland TR-707, Juno-2, and Jupiter-6 for more thoughtful pursuits than, say, "Jack the Dick" and "Girls Out on the Floor". Disco had given house its love for the body, but the soft-spoken musician wanted to put some soul there.

    During his RBMA lecture, Heard shares the first record he ever bought as a child, Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime". Cueing up a selection, he foregoes the most popular song and says, "This is the B-side that I was more into." And therein might lie the key to what became the blueprint of deep house: "Can You Feel It?" is an A-side track written with the heart of a B-side. Vocalless in its original form, the 1986 single has no hook and eschews all semblance of pop structure, completely surrendering to an endless groove built on jazzy hi-hats and sumptuous chords. It moves you with seduction instead of force, but in a way that encourages heartfelt expression and joyful introspection over pure sex. And the endurance of its legacy can't be overstated; never mind deep house being Beatport's best-selling genre—that fat, gummy bassline alone has touched everyone from Disclosure to Nicki Minaj. About 30 years later, "Can You Feel It?" now sounds like a question poised to those lingering electronic naysayers. If your answer is still "No," then by all means make room for the masses who can't soak up enough of this deep, charismatic soul. —Patric Fallon

    See also: Lil Louis: "French Kiss" / Mr. Fingers: "Washing Machine"

    Black Flag

    “Rise Above”

    SST; 1981

    75

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    By the time Black Flag released its debut LP, Damaged, in 1981, the Los Angeles-based hardcore punk band was already on its fourth singer, third EP, and umpteenth U.S. tour. In many ways, the band’s sound and character had already been defined. Still, Damaged is the Black Flag album that most people turn to first. Damaged’s opening track, "Rise Above", is a suitable argument for the record’s enduring importance. It’s Black Flag at its most anthemic—a rallying cry that stands as the polar opposite to the inward-looking album-closing title track. It’s also the band’s first recording with then new singer, Henry Rollins. Whether or not you preferred Rollins among the band’s multitude of vocalists, you have to admit he was intense—a more formal front man who brought a heaviness and darkness to Black Flag.

    The band and record’s influence are incalculable, within the context of '80s hardcore and punk music as a genre, certainly, but also underground rock music in general—from DIY touring, to the independent record business, press, and even visual art. But while a lot of bands followed their lead, nobody else ever sounded like Black Flag. Listening to "Rise Above", it’s surprising how raw the recording is, but the band didn't need beefier drums or dialed-in guitars. Its attitude and presence—both easy to detect on "Rise Above"—were impossible to replicate or fake. The saying goes that all you need to start a band are three chords, but three chords aren’t going to make you into Black Flag. —Aaron Leitko

    See also: Black Flag: "My War" / Circle Jerks: "Wild In The Streets

    Dinosaur Jr.

    “Freak Scene”

    SST; 1988

    74

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    In Our Band Could Be Your Life, author Michael Azerrad memorably details an encounter between Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis and Lou Barlow, the bassist he'd booted from the band. Nevermind had just shot up the charts, establishing Nirvana as mega-stars, and Barlow was beyond bitter. "They fucking beat you to it!" he fumed. "You could have done it, you asshole, we could have fucking done it!" Only years later did Barlow realize that Dinosaur never could have matched Nirvana's commercial appeal, but it's not a stretch to imagine them coming close. Under different circumstances, any number of underground singles could have broken before "Smells Like Teen Spirit", becoming the generational anthem that announced punk’s seize of the mainstream. "Freak Scene" was perhaps the strongest candidate among them.

    Mascis showed little interest in becoming a star, but "Freak Scene" was proof that he could turn it on if he wanted to. An ode to his complete and utter inability to communicate with other people, the song shuffles from one disheveled guitar tone to the next, each somehow stickier and more impulsive than the last. The song stumbles to a stop after just a few minutes when words fail him. His final lines are clumsy but heartfelt: "Sometimes I don’t thrill you/ Sometimes I think I’ll kill you/ Just don't let me fuck up, will you?/ 'Cause when I need a friend it's still you/ What a mess." It's the most self-aware tune Mascis ever wrote, playing his hapless slacker persona for dark comedy, yet that sense of humor doesn't make it any less poignant. Few songwriters have better understood the very real frustration of struggling to find the right thing to say, and few songs have captured it better than this one. —Evan Rytlewski

    See also: Dinosaur Jr.: "Little Fury Things"

    Pixies

    “Debaser”

    Elektra; 1989

    73

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    "Debaser" opens Pixies’ second album, Doolittle, a record that sounded more polished, in a good way, than its 1988 predecessor Surfer Rosa, and somehow felt educational. On "Debaser", Frank Black referenced Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 silent surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou with a line about slicing up eyeballs, and echoed the film’s title with the repeated "un chien andalusia," a joking mix of English, Spanish, French, and invented nonsense. It was the first time many of us heard about Surrealism, and we were just as naïve and over-intellectual, proud and posing as Black seemed to be—it came to define something about consciously taking the path less traveled, one that may involve seeming degraded or debased to brighter, shinier folk. "Debaser" jams what Pixies do best into under three minutes of Black’s wildman vocals, Kim Deal’s ethereal echoes and sturdy bass, Joey Santiago’s angular, earworm guitars, Dave Lovering’s punched-up drums, all locking together seamlessly. It’s an anthem for when you’re old enough to get it, but you’re still figuring things out. —Brandon Stosuy

    See also: Pixies: "Caribou" / Pixies: "Wave of Mutilation"

    Bad Brains

    “Pay to Cum”

    Bad Brain; 1982

    72

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    Bad Brains had many contemporaries on the early '80s hardcore punk circuit, but few actual peers. "Pay to Cum" first appeared on a 7'' single in 1980, and though it was technically predated by other hardcore singles such as Black Flag’s "Nervous Breakdown", there is no question that it is one of the cornerstones upon which the entire genre was built. With their background in jazz fusion, the Brains were simply better and more versatile musicians than nearly anyone else in their field, and every element of their musical approach was always a notch or two beyond what early hardcore listeners had any right to expect. Their rhythm section was lithe and muscular, guitarist Dr. Know was one of the rare "punk" musicians to develop his own distinctive signature guitar tone, and charismatic frontman H.R. was able to slip his voice elusively between octaves and punctuate his live performances with perfectly executed backflips.

    Over the course of their career together, Bad Brains recorded several different versions of "Pay to Cum", each with a few minor variations, none of which stretch on much past the 1:30 mark. Contrast the single with the later album version or various live recordings, and one is struck by how much thought and care H.R. and company put into the blink-and-you-missed-them lyrics and smaller details (more cowbell!) of a song designed to rush by in a mind-bending locomotive blur. Listening to the subtle ways bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson bob and weave around the song’s indestructible central riff; one gets an idea of why Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch once referred to Jenifer as the musician who most influenced his own playing. That broad and lasting influence is one natural result when a band invents a genre and transcends it at the same time. —Matthew Murphy

    See also: Adolescents: "Amoeba" /  Descendants: "Hope"

    Bruce Springsteen

    “Atlantic City”

    Columbia; 1982

    71

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    Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night…

    It’s a perfect first line, so evocative and unexpected and strange that it immediately hooks you, even if you don’t know the first thing about mobster Philip Testa. Just who—or what?—is the Chicken Man, and why was he in Philly? The words draw you immediately into the world of the song even as they disorient you, and the next few lines about racket boys and gambling commissions announce a very different boardwalk from the ones that had previously made Springsteen the future of rock'n'roll. This is a world that is collapsing around its hard-luck narrator, who might be a hitman trying to go straight or possibly the guy from "Thunder Road" after a few wrong turns. And he’s got a few more wrong turns to make, starting with:

    Last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.

    Telling a story that is essentially true rather than factually accurate, "Atlantic City" emerges as the most fully formed demo on Nebraska, Springsteen’s infamously stark sixth album. He recorded these songs at his home in New Jersey, with only a guitar, a harmonica, a minimum of overdubs, and the collected works of John Steinbeck (presumably), and the songs made so much sense in their spare settings that the E Street Band never got their hands on them. "Atlantic City" is the only song, however, that doesn’t rely on folk-singer minimalism, as Springsteen strums his acoustic so emphatically that you infer the E Street Band behind him and he overdubs himself howling in the background. His voice becomes an instrument, pure sound, spectral and bodiless—as though "Atlantic City" is a ghost story rather than a crime saga. And in a way it is.

    Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact…—Stephen M. Deusner

    See also: Billy Bragg: "A New England" / Bruce Springsteen: "Brilliant Disguise"

    Pet Shop Boys

    “West End Girls”

    Bobcat; 1984

    70

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    If the '80s were a decade of decadence, then Neil Tennant sounds bored by the spectacle of it all. On the Pet Shop Boys’ first single, he comes across as an exquisitely cynical tour guide, unimpressed by the posturing of West End girls and East End boys and less than shocked by some poor soul’s descent into violence during the first verse. "There’s a gun in your hand pointed at your head." Yawn. Ennui is not a virtue, but a survival mechanism in this paranoid version of London, which somehow fueled a dance-pop smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

    As evasive as it is catchy, "West End Girls" already had an unusual life before it topped any chart. Tennant and Chris Lowe first recorded the song with prolific New York producer Bobby O, and that version percolates with a thump and shimmer not too dissimilar to so many other mid-decade club hits. In addition to emphasizing Tennant’s half-hearted rapping, this recording foregrounds the song’s political origins. Sample lyric: "Who do you think you are, Joe Stalin?"

    Fortunately for all of us, the Pet Shop Boys omitted that line when they recut the song with Stephen Hague for Please, their '85 debut on EMI Records. This is the hit version, the one you and I know best, redolent of grimy city streets instead of sweaty dance floors. It’s saturated in nighttime ambience, seedy and slightly claustrophobic, as though the West End were closing in on you. Even when Tennant sings, "Just you wait till I get you home," it doesn’t sound like a sexual come-on. He’s going to make you read Marx and watch old Cagney flicks with him. Rarely does pop make such a virtue of such ambivalence, and even more rarely does ambivalence sound so inviting. —Stephen M. Deusner

    See also: Duran Duran: "The Chauffeur" / Section 25: "Looking from a Hilltop (Restructure)"

    Prince

    “When You Were Mine”

    Warner Bros.; 1980

    69

    Before there was Sign 'o' the Times, before there was Purple Rain, there was Dirty Mind. The album that Prince started the '80s off with, essentially a collection of bedroom demos, was simultaneously his most innocuous and his most brash. It featured surprisingly graphic sounds about incest, oral sex, and other sordid subjects, with the fidelity and scope of a bedroom demo one-man-band. "When You Were Mine", which softened his trademark funk into something closer to jangle pop, was one of the most shocking turns on the whole record. What starts as a typical I-want-you-back-lament turns a corner quickly: "You let all my friends come over and meet/ And you were so strange/ You didn't have the decency to change the sheets." That'll raise an eyebrow or two. And then there's the "I never was the kind to make a fuss/ When he was there/ Sleeping in between the two of us," all presented with the same doe-eyed expression. You'd never guess what he was saying unless you listened closely.

    Surprisingly explicit, fluid with gender roles and expectations (note how the other man is sleeping in between them), and sparsely funky, "When You Were Mine" laid the blueprint for all the great Prince songs that would come throughout the '80s. You can hear the desperate confusion of "If I Was Your Girlfriend", the straightforward crudeness of "Let's Pretend We're Married", the playful brazenness of "Jack U Off"—it's all there in the chintzy keyboards and flimsy aluminum bass. Capturing Prince in raw and unfiltered mode, it was an early peek at a genius in the making, at his most naked and vulnerable. And it's that vulnerability—confusing, naive, and honest—that makes "When You Were Mine" such a memorable moment in a catalogue already overflowing with classics. —Andrew Ryce

    See also: Prince: "Dirty Mind" / Prince: "Pop Life"

    Biz Markie

    “Just a Friend”

    Cold Chillin'; 1989

    68

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    By definition, Biz Markie didn’t fit the standard of what rappers were supposed to be. In the era of Rakim, KRS-One, and Big Daddy Kane, Biz was the anti-lyricist. He was a DJ and beat boxer, so he was undoubtedly hip-hop, but his aesthetic was rooted in a comedy that connected with listeners on a raw level. Released in 1989, "Just a Friend" turned singer Freddie Scott’s "You Got What I Need" into a lovelorn anthem, the hook sung so terribly that you couldn’t help but embrace its gut-level emotion. And it had great lasting images: The beat itself had raw, hypnotic drums, and the video featured Biz in a Beethoven wig and blazer, banging out the keys. We never find out who the girl was that broke Biz’s heart. (Just call her Blah Blah Blah.) The lasting takeaway? "Don’t ever talk to a girl who says she just has a friend." Who knew Biz was so profound? —Marcus J. Moore

    See also: Digital Underground: "Humpty Dance" / Spoonie Gee Meets The Sequence: "Monster Jam"

    Guns N' Roses

    “Sweet Child o' Mine”

    Geffen; 1987

    67

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    You cannot discuss "Sweet Child o' Mine" without talking about the opening riff. It's tied to Slash's essence—to his mop, his shades, his Les Paul, his swing that's hard but not jagged, smooth but not sickeningly slick. Hating that riff is not an option. If it comes on rock radio, even if you know rock radio has contributed to the stagnation of mainstream rock, you perk up and you're not turning it off. Would-be "guitar heroes" at Guitar Center can't diminish it. Legions of no-time white-collar bros at karaoke bars who couldn't imitate Axl Rose's sway even if his tight white shorts were grafted onto their skin can't either. Not even a piss-ass performance at last year's Golden Gods could kill that riff.

    "Sweet Child" is the more tender side of GNR's embrace of classic New York sleaze, Stooges' single-minded dedicated to rock'n'roll annihilation, Led Zeppelinesque ambitions, and Thin Lizzy's sincere romanticism, all of which is what ultimately set them apart from the rest of Sunset Strip and made them one of the biggest bands on earth. Unlike bands like W.A.S.P., who found some commercial success but were too poppy for thrashers and too rough for the pop crowd, GNR hit that sweet spot. They had the hooks most of their contemporaries didn't, and while they had a look that MTV embraced—can you name a look as defined as Slash's since?—its punkiness was a shock to L.A.'s toxic neon. And that joyous riff is now imbued with a hint of sadness after their dramatic implosion—"Where do we go now?" sure came with a heartbreaking answer. —Andy O'Connor

    See also: Guns N' Roses: "Patience" / Living Colour: "Cult of Personality"

    The Replacements

    “Alex Chilton”

    Sire; 1987

    66

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    Depending on what gossip you choose to believe, the late Alex Chilton may have thought Paul Westerberg tried too hard. Imagine the unshakably insouciant Westerberg, reduced to a fanboy in front of his hero. We're never as uncool as when it comes to what we love, and the Replacements frontman loved Big Star. In 1987, Big Star were still one of those obscure bands cited by heads wise enough to have snagged #1 Record, Radio City, or 3rd before they disappeared into the ether, or some other record head's collection. The Replacements, meanwhile, had just suffered their first serious lineup change, after kicking out lead guitarist Bob Stinson for being an alcoholic. They'd begun as snotty hardcore brats, become heart-on-sleeve drunkards unafraid to sing about androgyny and unrequited love, even signed to a major label in order to get as big as their friends in R.E.M. Only they remained on the fringe of the American mainstream: After releasing two perfect records, 1984's Let It Be and 1985's Tim, to nothing but acclaim from the heads and the college kids, it seemed they might risk becoming one of those bands that almost was.

    So, they wrote an anthem about the best band that should've been. They imagined a world where children by the millions sang for Chilton—a world where bands that were everything to a few people might be everything to everyone. It was bigger than Big Star—it was the music listener's quest itself, crystallized in those two lines: "I'm in love/ What's that song?" It didn't matter that they'd lose more founding members and never make a platinum record as their peers eclipsed them in popularity. With "Alex Chilton", they'd staked themselves as a band that didn't mind fucking up now if it meant people might come around much later.

    By the time of their 2013 reunion, the crowds had come around. The Replacements have been written about in books, inspired movies, become an influence for the Hold Steady, Lorde, Titus Andronicus, Against Me!, and many more artists. In each the three shows I saw, after playing for a rapturous hour to a crowd of all stripes—the punks, and the punks-turned-parents—they'd close with "Alex Chilton". A crowd of not millions but certainly thousands, chanting along: I'm in love with that song. —Jeremy Gordon

    See also: The Replacements: "I Will Dare" / The Replacements: "Swingin Party"

    Echo & the Bunnymen

    “The Killing Moon”

    Korova; 1984

    65

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    Formed during the late '70s in Liverpool, England, Echo & the Bunnymen’s music combined '60s psychedelic rock sprawl with post-punk experimentation. Its songs were seemingly guided forward by singer Ian McCulloch’s opaque and gloomy lyrics, rather than the other way around. By 1984’s Ocean Rain, the band—led by guitarist Will Sergeant and McCulloch— cast a more focused eye to pop structure and arrangement.

    That album’s lead single and centerpiece, "The Killing Moon", is, without question, their most widely known and loved song. It's sweeping and romantic, instantly identifiable from its opening mandolin doodle to its sweeping, upward modulating chorus. For his part, McCulloch goes big—invoking fate, the stars, love, and death. It's the perfect synthesis of lysergic imagery and widescreen pop.

    During the '80s, the Bunnymen stood out among many of their new wave peers because they favored guitars rather than synthesizers. "The Killing Moon" is hardly a minimalist "band in a room"-style recording, though. It’s a sophisticated pop production that uses classic sounds (a string section) and then-new technology (studio effects) to imbue simple chords with epic scope. —Aaron Leitko

    See also: Crowded House: "Don't Dream It's Over" / Echo & the Bunnymen: "The Cutter"

    David Bowie

    “Let's Dance”

    EMI; 1983

    64

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    After tackling surreal folk, conceptual proto-punk, androgynous glam, plastic soul, and cocaine-fueled art rock, David Bowie was interested in making one thing in the early '80s: hits. Looking to pay postmodern tribute to the simple power of early rock'n'roll staples like "Twist and Shout", Bowie recruited Chic's Nile Rodgers, who was considered something of a disco casualty at the time, to help produce what would become 1983's Let's Dance. The initial sketch of the album's title track came from Bowie, though it was far from an obvious smash. "It was not a song you could dance to," Rodgers has said, describing the folky demo. So the virtuoso musician switched out Bowie's strumming chords with sharp guitar stabs and made room for a groove that could enliven both elite downtown clubs and totally lame weddings—which is precisely what it's done ever since. The song remains Bowie's biggest-ever hit. His plan worked. —Ryan Dombal

    See alsoGary Numan: "We Are Glass"

    Stevie Nicks

    “Edge of Seventeen”

    Modern; 1982

    63

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    Stevie Nicks was a sucker for theatrics, but over half a decade in Fleetwood Mac had brought her too much of the wrong kind of drama. In 1981, she was dealing with Tusk's flabby 13-month gestation, Lindsey Buckingham's God complex, and a tour of Europe in Hitler's old train, which will do wonders for your coke-induced paranoia. Recorded live in the studio in just a few days, Nicks' solo debut Bella Donna marked her spiritual realignment, casting demons and scrubs (if not drugs) out. Lead single "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" exorcised bad love; prompted by the almost simultaneous deaths of John Lennon and Nicks' uncle, "Edge of Seventeen" then looks inward to evaluate what really matters, and comes out honoring lost life through unparalleled determination.

    Nicks had been plagued with voice issues and bad reviews during the Tusk tour. On "Edge", she sings with a purposeful ugliness, yowling and gritty in contrast with soulful backing singers Sharon Celani and Lori Perry, and the iconic, flinty riff that Waddy Wachtel borrowed from the Police's "Bring on the Night". The guitar occasionally threatens to spill over into solo histrionics, but stays shuddering in its lane, a barely contained anger. Leave that to Nicks, who delivers the "whoo" of her white-winged dove like a knockout punch that gives her great pleasure to administer. Drama was back, but on her terms. —Laura Snapes

    Art of Noise

    “Moments in Love”

    ZTT; 1987

    62

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    A mutated difference-splitter between ambient and quiet storm, a track that turns euphoria and tension into facets of a mobius strip, the Dirty South precursor that lurked on the other side of its NYC-hip-hop pastiche A-side—there are a lot of dichotomies you could find in "Moments in Love", the flip of Art of Noise's debut single "Beat Box", but the one that lingers the most is its pull between minimalism and maximalism. Pure pop sentiment is reduced to a half-crawling, half-floating pulse of codeine electro and a simple phrase rendered as a wisp of smoke through 10-and-a-quarter minutes of meditative waviness. But the Fairlight orchestra stabs and the sighing, clenched-throat robot choir dig so deep that the slightest variation and deviation is nearly as bracing as a flashy solo or melismatic run. Parts fade in and out to shift emphasis from glimmering chimes to sinister bass, and the tenor of that insistent drum pattern flicks from a comforting pulse to the churn of industrial machinery; when the song takes an unexpected detour into minor-key melancholy, it's almost startling. It's as though "Moments in Love" was built for the very purpose of finding out how much you could subtract from a pop song while still being recognizably closer to pop than art—though "Moments in Love" is brilliant as both. —Nate Patrin

    See also: Art of Noise: "Beat Box (Diversion One)" / Maze: "Twilight" 

    Gang Starr

    “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration”

    Wild Pitch; 1989

    61

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    Widely considered an all-time DJ track, the strength of "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration" does not lie in its technical acrobatics. Its scratches are clean, precise, and inventive, there's no doubt about that, but few scratching showcases manage to create a living, breathing world as effortlessly as Premier does here. That world is late-'80s New York, which is ironic considering that Martin was born in Houston and raised in Texas before ending up as one-half of the most influential—and most associated with New York—duos in rap history. On top of a relaxed yet hypnotic snatch of jazzy piano chords, Premo erects a tribute to his adopted city with his turntables, weaving together samples of everything from train whistles to Billy Stewart trilling to snippets of lines from other rappers, including (of course) his partner-in-crime, Guru. But it's all in service of a very specific atmosphere: "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration" conjures the last embers of a New York block party, where the smells of the food served earlier still linger as the dancers contort themselves into human blurs at the precise moment that dusk turns into night. —Renato Pagnani

    See also: Gang Starr: "Manifest" / Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

    ESG

    “Moody”

    C.T.; 1981

    60

    The overlapping territory covered by post-punk, hip hop, and post-punk—percussive, polyrhythmic, looped, sparse—is rarely occupied by one band that touches on all three in equal measure. ESG (Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold) was formed by sisters Renee, Valerie, Deborah, and Marie Scroggins in the early '80s, and they possessed a rare ability to not only touch all of those underground scenes, but have an indelible impact on their development. "Moody", produced by Factory Records’ Martin Hannett, also responsible for Joy Division’s groundbreaking sound, was their first single. Popular on club floors at the time, "Moody” was sampled by house artists like Chicago’s Chip E. and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk; by Belgian dance-pop duo Technotronic on their crossover radio hit, "Get Up (Before the Night Is Over)"; by Tricky in the late '90s; and by indie rockers Radio 4 in the early '00s, among others. Artists from TLC to Wu-Tang have sampled other ESG songs, and Kathleen Hanna and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux cite the group among their influences. All in all, it’s a pretty incredible—and wholly earned—legacy for a family band raised on Motown and James Brown whose mother encouraged them to enter a talent show in South Bronx, where they lived and were discovered. —Jes Skolnik

    See also: ESG: "My Love For You" / ESG: "UFO"

    Depeche Mode

    “Never Let Me Down Again”

    Mute; 1987

    59

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    By their sixth album, Depeche Mode had hit upon something like a groove. The snarkily-named Music for the Masses wasn’t packed with gold singles like its follow-up, Violator, but it saw a minor hit in its slinky track one, "Never Let Me Down Again". The song inched to #22 on the UK charts in 1987, but saw greater success outside the band’s home country. "Never Let Me Down Again" reached #2 in West Germany, three years before the wall splitting Germany in two would come down.

    With its two-note lead melody and its winding harmonies, "Never Let Me Down Again" counts among Depeche Mode’s more enigmatic cuts. "Two separate people came up to me after a show one night and said, 'I really like that song.' One of them thought it was a gay anthem and other one thought it was a drug anthem," Martin Gore told Rolling Stone in 1993. The relationship outlined in the song is intimate at the very least, and it’s hard to mistake the words "flying high" in a decade where narcotics flowed freely, but "Never Let Me Down Again" at its bottom line describes power, the bliss of giving into it and the helplessness of losing yourself on its hook. Dave Gahan sings like he’s going limp in service of a higher power, following it wherever it wants to throw him. His voice splits in two and orbits itself, steady, then ascending, then on the verge of collapse. When he reaches that desperate coda—everything’s alright tonight—it’s as though he’s murmuring the maxim to himself, rocking back and forth, waiting for the world and its ugliness to fade. —Sasha Geffen

    See also: Depeche Mode: "Everything Counts" / Depeche Mode: Strange Love 

    Daryl Hall & John Oates

    “I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)”

    RCA; 1981

    58

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    "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" is a fascinating song on a number of levels: it was one of the earliest number ones to use a drum machine (the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 to be exact), Daryl Hall's bassline directly inspired the groove on "Billie Jean", or so he claims the King of Pop once admitted to him, the song topped the R&B Billboard chart back when a white act doing so was much more of a blip on the radar than it is today (read Chris Molanphy's excellent feature "I Know You Got Soul: The Trouble With Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Chart" for a deeper analysis of the history of the R&B chart), and it's beensampledbyalmosteveryone. It also happens to be one of those rare instances where an act's biggest song is also arguably their best.

    Every corner of the song contains a hook, which is remarkable when you realize just how few components with which the track is made. The less-is-more aesthetic of new wave looked great on Daryl Hall and John Oates, heightening the feeling of spontaneity that Hall's memorable off-the-cuff vamping creates as he draws a line in the sand after an unreasonable request. What exactly it is that Hall can't go for is never revealed, and "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" succeeds all the more for it, allowing listeners to fill in the blanks with whatever they want and in the process of doing so transforming the personal into the communal. —Renato Pagnani

    See also: The Police: "Every Breath You Take" / Wham!: "Everything She Wants

    Eric B. & Rakim

    “Follow the Leader”

    MCA; 1988

    57

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    First impressions rarely come as definitive as this: If Paid in Full didn't convince you of who Rakim was and why he became so revered, this is everything in his arsenal laid out over a masterpiece of synth-meets-breaks production. (Everyone else is sampling the riff from Bob James' "Nautilus"? Fine: Eric B.'ll sample the ambience.) His flow is immaculate, rattling off run-on barrages of alliteration and internal rhyme schemes ("From century to century you'll remember me/ In history, not a mystery or a memory") that are a striking Exhibit A if you want to make like Q-Tip's pops and draw a connection from rap vocals to bebop instrumentation. As claims to one's own skill go, it's impressively show-not-tell—his gift would be obvious if he spit in Esperanto—but what he tells is primo, a then-cocky, now-obvious monument to his sway over hip-hop. "I can take a phrase that's rarely heard/ Flip it – now it's a daily word" is just the start; he pulls you up into the reaches of space just to give dibs to his impact, invokes Five-Percent Nation philosophy to rewire black self-hatred out of the brain, and reduces competitors to game show contestants sweating for a piece of his prize. Then the ending slams the door on any doubts so loudly it sounds like an explosion. —Nate Patrin

    See also: Eric B & Rakim: "Microphone Fiend" / Eric B & Rakim: "I Ain't No Joke

    Bob Marley & the Wailers

    “Could You Be Loved”

    Island; 1980

    56

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    It’s a staple of tourist trap playlists the world over, known for a flickering guitar lick and an unstoppable hook, but "Could You Be Loved" isn’t just a chipper follow-up to 1977’s "One Love". From Popcaan to Vybz Kartel, today’s Jamaican musicians have maintained reggae’s directive to raise up the people, but it was Marley—by then, a true rock star—and his bandmates who helped elevate the message beyond the conservative confines of their home island and into the realm of global pop. Included on the group’s final album, Uprising, with the more overtly political "Redemption Song", "Could You Be Loved" spoke on Marley’s devotion to Rastafari and was a call-to-arms against Babylon (the system that maintains oppression and its agents) in Jamaica and abroad. "Don’t let them fool ya/ Or even try to school ya, oh no!/ We’ve got a mind of our own." Pushing back on the encroaching disorder of laissez-faire economics through his music, Marley became a target of Cold War-era suspicion and—as Marlon James alludes to in his sprawling, 2015 American Book Award-winning crime novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings—even the CIA. In the end, "Could You Be Loved" couldn’t be stopped. —Anupa Mistry

    See also: Bob Marley: "Redemption Song" / Sugar Minott: "Good Thing Going"

    New Order

    “Ceremony”

    Factory; 1981

    55

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    "Ceremony" holds a peculiar place in New Order’s oeuvre: It was their debut single, but also one of the last songs Ian Curtis wrote for Joy Division. It’s devastating even without that context. The only relic of Curtis on the track was a fuzzy live recording of a performance at Birmingham University 16 days before his death. It was so hard to decipher that Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had to rewrite some of the vague lyrics, which paint a picture of fatigue, death, and never-ending love. The song plays like it’s wearing a leash, with each "oh I’ll break them down, no mercy shown," chorus disobeying the rest of the track’s peace. And there’s a tedious, muted quality that feels mechanical; no riff, drum-kick, or cold Sumner-does-Curtis utterance overpowers any other part of the song, each note occupying the same amount of silence.

    "Ceremony" doesn’t mirror anything in the Joy Division’s unpolished, dark catalog, nor in New Order’s lighter future work. While "Ceremony" closed a door on Joy Division, it did little to open a door for New Order, and the group wouldn’t find their creative footing for a few more years. In a way, "Ceremony" is neither a New Order song nor a Joy Division song. It’s a musical snapshot of a band in a depressive, creative limbo; a group who knows that in this moment this song must be finished, but that they can’t mine their old band’s past forever. —Hazel Cills

    See also: Echo & the Bunnymen: "Lips Like Sugar" / Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: "Enola Gay"

    Roxy Music

    “More Than This”

    Polydor/Warner Bros./E.G./Atco; 1982

    54

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    Starting with its 1972 debut, Roxy Music built a bridge between prog and glam, laying the foundation for the most ostentatious British punk while signed to King Crimson’s management company, E.G. After a remarkable five-album run (the first two featuring an oft-befeathered Brian Eno), the group took a hiatus in 1976, reforming for a two-album binge with a slimmed-down lineup that concluded in 1980. Bandleader Bryan Ferry, who’d released five solo albums during Roxy’s tenure and hiatus, wasn’t quite done yet, though. Working with a concept built around King Arthur being whisked off to the enchanted mythical island of Avalon after his death, Ferry holed up for months, emerging with the band’s biggest single that bested the year’s crop of louche, MTV-aiming new wavers at their own game.

    Pop songs are very rarely as lush and unabashedly romantic as "More Than This" without tipping over into pure schmaltz (though many old-school Roxy fans who prefer "Virginia Plain" or "Love Is the Drug" starkly disagree, they’d do well to check the debut’s wistful "2 H.B." for an early hint at this direction). The product of extensive studio time conjuring synth-driven soundscapes with ex-Eno producer Rhett Davies, some session musicians, and a (brand new) Linn drum machine, "More" is as much pure feeling as song, with Ferry’s pristine falsetto gently bobbing through the verse melody, what Greil Marcus once called his "Don-Juan-in-Hell persona" giving way to a long-simmering Smokey Robinson fixation. The structure of the song, such as it is, comes from Phil Manzanera’s melancholy guitar lead, which adds strong, darkly drawn lines around Ferry, riding the currents. Ferry eventually drops out altogether, allowing Manzanera to weave in and out for the song’s last 1:45.

    "More Than This" is a high peak of the New Romantic moment of early 1980s UK pop—released the same year as Duran Duran’s Rio and ABC’s Lexicon of Love—that can also be read as an extended sigh marking the end of a spectacular 10-year run as a band. Yet though there would be nothing more than this for Roxy Music, the song’s influence over time has been vast, audible from "Careless Whisper" to Sade, Talk Talk, Tunnel of Love, and later forming a cornerstone of much of the "chillwave" trend, a blueprint for Destroyer’s Kaputt, and (particularly via the extended coda) War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream. —Eric Harvey

    See also: Grace Jones: "Love Is the Drug" / Roxy Music: "Avalon"

    Kraftwerk

    “Computer Love”

    EMI/Warner Bros.; 1981

    53

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    There is nothing else quite like "Computer Love" in the Kraftwerk discography, and the fact that it has been appropriated by everyone from Coldplay to Glass Candy should say as much. The song appeared on Computer World, which was the last time the German synthpop and electro pioneers made a resounding statement about both our present and future. Perhaps more importantly, they did so with Ralf Hütter's and Florian Schneider's warmest production and songwriting, of which "Computer Love" is the pinnacle.

    "Europe Endless" and "Franz Schubert" are both brightly upbeat, but feel like watching landscapes from miles above; "Neon Lights" is a glittering love letter to city streets at night, albeit written by the mensch-maschines Kraftwerk embodied at the time. Then there's "Computer Love"—sweet, optimistic, spellbound, and, perhaps for the only time in Kraftwerk's career, vulnerable. It's their most uniquely human song, too, pinpointing with incredible accuracy how we would come to rely on computers for some of our basic needs.

    It's hard not to wonder if the title "Computer Love" was meant as "love for computers" or "love through computers." Both ideas are now so commonplace and intertwined that they verge on indistinguishable. We pour ourselves into computers, we realize our dreams with computers, and we understand the world through computers; your computer knows more of what's in your head than any human being. But then there's this familiar scenario: It's another lonely night of staring at the TV screen, and you don't know what to do, so you pick up your pocket calculator and find yourself a rendezvous. Yes, we are living in Kraftwerk's Computer World—not just a world they predicted, but one they helped to shape. —Patric Fallon

    See also: Alexander Robotnick: "Problèmes d'Amour" / Kraftwerk: "Computer World" / Kraftwerk: "Tour De France"

    The Stone Roses

    “I Wanna Be Adored”

    Silvertone; 1989

    52

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    An early live recording of "I Wanna Be Adored", dating back to 1985, presents the Stone Roses' most famous song in a punkier, harder shell than than what they would eventually release in 1989. In that form, it's something to be snarled rather than belted out. The studio version from the same era, recorded by Martin Hannett, put all the muscle in the guitar riffs, placing the emphasis on the thrust rather than the hover. Fast forward four years later, through innumerable false starts, and the Manchester band had finally landed a proper record deal and made their debut album. It started off with the finished version of "I Wanna Be Adored", a marvellously engineered slice of psychedelic rock that would inspire some of the best and worst music of the '90s.

    Released in the midst of the UK's Second Summer of Love, "I Wanna Be Adored" embodied the futurism and rose-tinted nostalgia of the movement. The booming gated drums, Peter Hook-style basslines, and roaring guitars are products of the '80s, but the shimmering textures and Ian Brown's reedy vocals are pure Beatles, putting that band's psychedelia into a new era of decadent drug use. You can hear Oasis in its simple and self-deprecating vocal hooks ("I don't have to sell my soul/ He's already in me") and the Verve in its commanding bluster, like a storm in heaven rolling by in slow motion. All of its nostalgic power remains today—the power of two Summers of Love put together, even more evocative in retrospect. —Andrew Ryce

    Bruce Springsteen

    “I'm on Fire”

    Columbia; 1985

    51

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    Of the 12 songs on Born in the U.S.A., seven became singles, and of those seven singles, all became top-10 hits. The fourth of these singles was a slim, quiet two-and-a-half-minute-long song called "I’m on Fire".

    Springsteen has always been better known for his bombast than his restraint—for "Born in the U.S.A." and "Glory Days" and "Dancing in the Dark". "I’m on Fire" was a whisper by comparison: a dim, mysterious song that rumbles and throbs without ever coming above ground. Instead of broad character studies and social concerns, we get something internal and erotic, something subcutaneous. And where most of the videos for the album’s singles tended toward live-performance vérité (a reminder that music is made by people), the video for "Fire" was abstract and dreamy—an impression of the music instead of an illustration of how it gets made.

    In live performances from the time, Springsteen would extend the intro to the song to deliver a monologue about standing in the driveway and watching his father through a screen door, drinking alone in the kitchen with the lights out, before Bruce came in and went up to his room, leaving the two of them in the house, awake, alone, thinking. —Mike Powell

    See also: Bruce Springsteen: "The River" / Chris Isaak: "Wicked Game

    Madonna

    “Like a Prayer”

    Sire/Warner Bros.; 1989

    50

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    Madonna filed for divorce from Sean Penn two months before she released "Like a Prayer", the title track to the 1989 album that would cement her as a serious songwriter and an unstoppable cultural force as she entered her thirties. In anticipation of her fourth album, Madonna would grace the covers of Interview, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Like a Prayer was her most visible album to date, and also her darkest.

    "This is reality, and reality sucks," Madonna said in her Interview cover story. She was describing her initial vision for the "Like a Prayer" video, which was apparently even more brutal than the one that scandalized the Vatican, but the statement undercuts the whole song, too. Written toward the end of an abusive marriage, "Like a Prayer" sees Madonna assume a pose of surrender. Its gospel triumph comes only from its embrace of absolute darkness—"everyone must stand alone," she sings into the emptiness. Then she’s falling from the sky, calling to God, or really just any power that will listen. She’s singing from her own rock bottom, waiting for someone—anyone—to carry her back up to the top. —Sasha Geffen

    See also: Madonna: "Like a Virgin" / Madonna: "Love Song" [ft. Prince]

    Neneh Cherry

    “Buffalo Stance”

    Virgin; 1988

    49

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    What history gets wrong about "Buffalo Stance" is locating it as the 1980s moment for "feminist" rap, a tag Neneh Cherry sloughed off at the time. Rather, Cherry was at the vanguard of a particular zeitgeist, of young black women infusing both the club and the street into pop songs. "Buffalo Stance" peaked Stateside in April 1989. By the end of the year, there were plenty of similar successes: Technotronic’s "Pump Up the Jam" with Belgian MC Ya Kid K, Queen Latifah’s "Ladies First (ft. Monie Love)" and "Come Into My House", Soul II Soul’s hit with Caron Wheeler, "Back II Life". Cherry’s song navigated dualities that stoked curiosity about her: rapping and singing, in both an American and a London accent, lyrics that were cocky but had heart. In the video, she was feminine and tough, in her doorknockers and flight jacket, mocking some dude who thought he could play her. The street tableau Cherry narrates, of a boy with a gold tooth and Lacoste kicks putting women on the corner as a come up, was one that was much more familiar to hip-hop than it was to Top 40 (hip-hop’s presence in the mainstream was still nascent, "Yo! MTV Raps" was less than a year old), let alone in a year dominated by hits by Paula Abdul, Roxette, and Mike & the Mechanics’ "The Living Years". The song and Cherry’s image were integrated and sure: She seemed like the coolest, most confident woman in the world—cool enough to get away with instructing the DJ to "get funky!" —Jessica Hopper

    See also: Roxanne Shante: "Roxanne's Revenge" / Whodini: "Friends"

    Janet Jackson

    “When I Think of You”

    A&M; 1986

    48

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    This atypical love song is perfect for an album called Control: confident, crisp, precise. On "When I Think of You", Janet’s lover sounds like a port in a storm, a talisman she can clutch when the world around her is spinning. Brash, blocky keyboard notes jump out from the back of the arrangement like external stressors, only to be constrained by Jam and Lewis’ ultra-tight rhythms: Nothing can penetrate her cocoon of affection. But when that initial giddy rush starts to sour, the appeal of something sturdier begins to reveal itself.

    Janet hadn’t yet turned 20 when Control came out, but she had already gone through a marriage and an annulment. Taken another way, those same keyboard hits aren’t agents of chaos—they’re forces from within, the sounds of a heart trying to leap out of someone’s chest. It’s a delicate balance to strike: Janet is turning to her lover for calm, but she’s also trying to protect herself. "When I Think of You" isn’t overtly interested in sexual liberation or personal progression like the music of janet. or The Velvet Rope, but it’s a necessary precursor to those records. It’s defined by agency and predicated on action; it treats a healthy relationship as another element of self-care. That might not be a revelatory statement, but it’s another astute one from an artist who would go on to redefine the boundaries of personal satisfaction. —Jamieson Cox

    See also: Janet Jackson: "The Pleasure Principle" / Gwen Guthrie: "Ain't Nothin' Goin' on But the Rent"

    Joy Division

    “Atmosphere”

    Factory; 1980

    47

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    In 1980, Joy Division released the Factory single "Atmosphere", as if submitting a watchword for their band and countless others to follow. In some ways, the production is the song. It's loosely stretched and quietly majestic, with opulent harp-like runs. "Atmosphere" stands out in the band’s catalog for its fragile spirit—the strangulated rise of a portentous baritone, always on the verge of breaking.

    Joy Division had a capital-R Romantic morbidity (the "Atmosphere" video shows processions of burial-shrouded figures), as befits a band led by someone whose teen marriage was falling apart, and who struggled with depression and seizures. By the time "Atmosphere" was released, Ian Curtis had already committed suicide, at age 23. This, combined with the song's funeral tone and preoccupation with whether or not to walk away, makes it an obelisk for the singer.

    Curtis' lyrics are open-ended, pointed in rather than out, which accounts for their timelessness. You might need a certain strain of working-class angst to see yourself in a Sex Pistols song, but anyone who's ever felt ashamed can see themselves in "Atmosphere". Musical-historical importance aside, it lasts because it has that rarest musical power: making loneliness feel like a good, even beautiful, thing. —Brian Howe

    See also: Bauhaus: "She's in Parties" / New Order: "Procession"

    The Jesus and Mary Chain

    “Just Like Honey”

    Blanco y Negro; 1985

    46

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    Led by a couple of sneering, big-haired Scottish brothers who always seemed on the verge of punching each other’s lights out, the Jesus and Mary Chain provided a blueprint for bands fascinated with burying familiar pop tropes under so many decibels of feedback and sonic sludge. Though their debut album, Psychocandy, is notable for all its high-volume sonic bluster, the Mary Chain’s most famous single is also its softest. A paean to the mythical girl who "takes on half the world" and lives inside some kind of magisterial beehive, "Just Like Honey" is a classic bad boy love song—a reverby dose of Phil Spector grandiosity that sounds as if it might have been recorded in a smoky cave. Thirty years later, the song remains swoon-worthy in spite of itself. Hearing frontman Jim Reid go on about how "eating up the scum is the hardest thing for me to do" might not be most obvious of romantic admissions, but it’s hard to argue with a skinny guy in black leather who repeatedly promises "I’ll be your plastic toy" as if his life depended on it. And even though the track has been co-opted over the years by the likes of Sofia Coppola, Volkswagen, and Scarlett Johansson, there are still few things in the musical cosmos that sound more oddly tender than hearing the song’s titular hook over and over as guitar lines crackle and fade behind it. "Just Like Honey" certainly isn’t the Jesus and Mary Chain’s loudest moment, but it is undeniably their sweetest. —T. Cole Rachel

    See also: The Jesus and Mary Chain: "Head On" / Psychedelic Furs: "Love My Way"

    De La Soul

    “Me, Myself and I”

    Tommy Boy; 1989

    45

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    With "Me, Myself and I", De La Soul were immediately received by the press as the positive alternative to more confrontational hip-hop acts. The song's Funkadelic sample was smooth and uplifting compared to Public Enemy's more jarring sampling techniques. But the irony to "Me, Myself and I"—the ultimate song of self-acceptance—is that the group made it at their label's request and it was meant to to convey exactly what they weren't. In a track-by-track review with Rolling Stone for the album's 20th anniversary, Posdnuos explained they had to make a song for the album that "isn't so over someone's head." Trugoy the Dove elaborated, "Originally, it was us trying to make sure we're saying we're not hippies." In their effort to simplify and clarify, De La found the thesis within their music. The obscure samples, playful rhymes, and bizarre skits weren't intended for overanalysis: That's just who they were. —Matthew Strauss

    See also: De La Soul: "Potholes in My Lawn" / De La Soul: Ghetto Thang

    Laurie Anderson

    “O Superman (For Massenet)”

    Warner Bros.; 1981

    44

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    When Laurie Anderson released "O Superman" in 1981, she was better known as a performance artist than a musician: In one piece, she replaced the bow hair of a violin with audiotape and the strings with a tape head, playing the tape while standing on ice skates whose blades were frozen into a block of ice. (The piece was over when the block of ice melted.)

    "Superman" was pop, at least by comparison. Two chords, nine minutes long, held together only by a loop of Anderson’s processed voice, the song—if you want to call it that—is monastic in its simplicity, a hymn sung by a lonely angel fumbling with her new answering machine. At times it sounds like a broadcast from a distant star, at times like internal monologue—a voice too close for logic but so far away it almost doesn’t seem human.

    After 9/11, people talked about its prescience, its paranoia, the chilly sweetness in Anderson’s voice when she sings the words here come the planes. In a 2012 interview with the Walker Art Center, Anderson put the song in a more geologic context: "This is one long war," she said. "We just keep doing it." Later in 1981, she got signed to Warner Bros.; the next year, she got a Guggenheim Fellowship. —Mike Powell

    See also: Anne Clark: "Our Darkness" / Will Powers: "Adventures in Success"

    New Order

    “Bizarre Love Triangle”

    Factory; 1986

    43

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    True enough that New Order were one of the most melancholy of the New Wave pop bands, which may be the key to their endurance—one of their most rapture-inducing songs is a paean to the pleasure of confusion and the inscrutability of happiness in the face of indecision. It’s also one of the most romantic-sounding songs ever dedicated to a sense of inertia.

    Hardworking and staunchly democratic, the band had spent three albums post-Joy Division crafting music that was at once deeply emotional and resolutely ephemeral. Here that approach reached a sugary peak. In the middle of an album that was more rock-oriented than any of New Order’s previous offerings, "Bizarre Love Triangle" is a gilded jolt of irrepressible technophilia, mimicking the sudden, quickly fading bliss of spinning on the dance floor. Which all points to the undeniable fact that it’s not the chorus that really gets the blood pumping. Those feverish, jittery synthesizers swirling above Peter Hook’s percolating bass represent the groundswell of musical optimism that was late '80s synthpop, a movement that prefigured two decades of increasingly high-gloss ear candy. —Abigail Garnett

    See also: The Human League: "Don't You Want Me" / New Order: "The Perfect Kiss"

    Eurythmics

    “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

    RCA; 1983

    42

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    Somewhere along the road, "Sweet Dreams" entered a dubious canon: that of overdone covers. Basically, everyone wants to make it dark. (Blame Marilyn Manson, probably.) The concept makes sense in a blunt, obvious way; there’s enough darkness in the melody to tempt lesser artists, who could draw each note out torturously long, or lean harder into the prurient undertones of the line "some of them want to use you…"

    Of course none of this is necessary. Modern producers reimagine the '80s as Lite-Brite fireworks or haze of mood, but revisiting the actual decade one’s more apt to find tracks like this: works of ruthless efficiency, no part wasted. The instantly recognizable synth line—a byproduct of Dave Stewart playing a bassline backward—moves like a serrated knife, to which Annie Lennox’s vocal is the sharpener. Some tracks reveal nuances with every listen; "Sweet Dreams" just gets more impassive. In place of overt menace there’s a blasé stare – best showcased in the video, one long exhibit of cyberpunk deadpan. Entire genres can be reduced to attempts to sound this unflappable. Few ever do. —Katherine St. Asaph

    See also: Eurythmics: "Here Comes the Rain Again" / Yaz: "Situation

    Guns N' Roses

    “Welcome to the Jungle”

    Geffen; 1987

    41

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    Guns N' Roses' second U.S. single, "Sweet Child o' Mine", was its first to top the Billboard charts. It's great but atypical, serving as the mandatory power ballad on the hard rock band's 1987 Geffen debut, Appetite for Destruction. There's a reason that first U.S. single "Welcome to the Jungle" opens the album and, frequently, concerts. It lays out the band's essential vision of Los Angeles as a Faustian wasteland where you can have anything for a price. Since you're broke and heroin-thin, you pay with blood.

    Glam metal was a cornerstone of '80s rock radio. Much of it came from L.A. and, accordingly, it had Hollywood-sized dreams. Like their contemporaries, GNR were basically casting themselves in an epic movie. But they sharply parted with the likes of Van Halen and Poison by bringing a dystopian-thriller edge (the understandably scuttled original cover by Robert Williams drives this home) and a bluesy, punky sound to a genre that had gotten very Love Boat. As other pop-metal dudes lived out pink-champagne-bikini-yacht fantasies, GN'R unleashed their junkyard-dog nihilism on Sunset Boulevard and made everyone else look moribund. Growling like an empty stomach, "Welcome to the Jungle" thrives on deprivation, not excess. Axl Rose panther-paces L.A. as Slash's perforating, sleepless guitar tone trails him like a bad habit. Rose, an explosive performer with a goblin yowl, has fantastical vocal abilities; just try spitting one "sha" and 11 "nas" in one second without blowing blubber.

    In the video—a beneficiary of the power of late-night MTV—Rose has the classic teased hair, trashy glamor and feral beauty, but there is something conspicuously flannel about him. More than anything, he looks like a storybook princess who was raised in a meth lab. Grainy televisual imagery and fetishized mental illness predict the alternative era. And like grunge bands, GNR were more focused on the airing of grievances than lascivious partying. Not that they were sexless, by any means: When Rose gasps "Feel my serpentine," it's perfectly possible he's talking about his dancing, but unlikely.

    It wasn't all as wild as it sounds. Rose recorded his deceptively loose-limbed lines one at a time, in a thrilling facsimile of peril. "The most dangerous band in the world" turned out to be mostly dangerous to themselves, falling apart to drugs, ego conflicts and personal damage after their masterful Use Your Illusion duology. Though it took them 15 years and $13 million to finally eke out Chinese Democracy in 2008, with only Rose left from the classic lineup, they remain one of the best-selling bands ever. Here, in their rawest innocence and greatest hunger, they still sound as lacerating and unstoppable as when they first welcomed us to a darker new era of mainstream rock. —Brian Howe

    See also: Danzig: "Mother" / Ozzy Osbourne: "Crazy Train"

    The Cure

    “Close to Me”

    Fiction; 1985

    40

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    Robert Smith spent the first few years of the Cure gazing and then plunging into the abyss of existential horror, and the next few clawing his way back out of that abyss, with a grin on his face drawn on with lipstick. "Close to Me" is the peak of the latter period: a festive love song caught in the middle of a panic attack, a song about happiness and erotic bliss sung from the point of view of somebody who's still convinced that it's all about to be ripped away ("if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dre-he-heam," Smith hiccup-moans). Smith's voice is right up in your face, with the arrangement's handclaps and heavy breathing almost indistinguishable from the sound of someone leaning in to confide something in confidence. He rolls his words around his mouth, as if he's figuring out if they're delicious or disgusting or both; his lyrics incorporate some of the most freighted words from the first few Cure albums ("sick," "faith," "clean"—remember, this is a man who three years earlier had made "I will never be clean again" the hook of a song).

    The Cure made a point of adjusting their identity on a regular basis—that was the prerogative of new wave—and the big difference here from the band's earlier work is that the arrangement of "Close to Me" is straight-up pleasure music. There's no murk, no foreboding, not even guitar, just a rhythm track with a wiggle in its hips and Porl Thompson and Lol Tolhurst's keyboards cooing and plinking at each other. At least, that's all there is on the recording on The Head on the Door: the magnificent single version, released a few weeks later, ramps up the fun by means of a brass band that wanders into the mix halfway through, sounding like they're on their way back from a New Orleans funeral (including a trombone player who, hilariously, doesn't catch on that the song has ended until a moment too late). —Douglas Wolk

    See also: The Cure: "A Forest"

    Cocteau Twins

    “Lorelei”

    4AD; 1982

    39

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    "Lorelei" ordained Cocteau Twins as the patron saints of thrill-seeking introverts. Sparkly and cascading, the track was the jewel in the crown of Treasure, a phenomenally inventive and introspective album that, despite its majesty and expanse, somehow felt like the safest place in the world. For all the emotional bleakness (described as "feelings buried, persisting in anxious dreams and suppressed fear, hope and anger," in Martin Aston's 4AD tome Facing the Other Way), it’s always been, to me, something too exquisitely nostalgic to haunt. "Lorelei" is a fuzzy encounter in the record’s lucid dream, that rare experience of discovery without fear, lust minus urgency. Rather than drawing admiration, it sweeps you into its private spectacle. Listening in is a secret wonder, like spying on teen goths holding hands at Christmas.

    Aptly, although '80s Cocteau Twins favored non-album EPs over singles, "Lorelei" got its break on John Peel’s Radio 1 show, a network for private revelations. The song encapsulates 4AD’s mood and aesthetic—the integration of warmth, light, and ambiguity into austere post-punk—as well as the era, in which indie pop was erecting defenses against mainstream sexualization with displays of childhood and innocence. But rather than an indulgence of fantasy (as in the ultimate twee ideal of love without the sex), "Lorelei" felt, in its quiet way, like all the pageantry and tumult of passion, melancholy, and heartbreak at once. —Jazz Monroe

    See also: Cocteau Twins: "Carolyn's Fingers" / Cocteau Twins: "Love's Easy Tears

    Salt-n-Pepa

    “Push It”

    Next Plateau/London; 1987

    38

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    "Push It" is one of those rare songs that gets revived with such frequency that you can still come into contact with it accidentally about as often now as you could when it was first released. Over the past decade it’s been reclaimed by a staggeringly broad range of socio-musical groups that encompasses everything from electroclashers to hip-hop nostalgists, underground queer dance parties to fratty '80s retro nights. That kind of ubiquity has its downfalls, namely the kind of dull familiarity that comes with being able to hear a track any weekend for years and years at a time. Listen to it with fresh ears, though, and "Push It" reveals itself to be a radically out-there song–a razor blade of the '80s electronic avant garde smuggled into the pop culture mainstream disguised as bubblegum. You’ve heard the song so many times that you probably don’t even remember that half of it is instrumental, just a beat that hovers in some indistinct space between late-'80s rap and late-'80s dance music, and that works equally well when mixed in with Miami freestyle or German industrial. And when Salt and Pepa do take the mic their performance is more forceful than anything this side of Chuck D–clusters of clipped, half-shouted syllables that demolish the preceding century’s ideals of how female performers should conduct themselves on record with a forceful sexuality that makes Madonna (not to mention Big Daddy Kane) seem like a wallflower by comparison. Dipping casually into postmodern territory with a brilliant, gender-flipped Kinks quote; and still, nearly 30 years later, just almost unbelievably hard as fuck. —Miles Raymer

    See also: J.J. Fad: "Supersonic" / MC Lyte: "Paper Thin"

    Tom Tom Club

    “Genius of Love”

    Island/Sire/Warner Bros.; 1981

    37

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    In the early 1980s, hip-hop broke out of its South Bronx birthplace and inched its way into Downtown NYC. It was in this vibrant, confusing moment, when black rappers and white hipsters began listening to each other’s weird records, that hip-hop as an American pan-cultural force was born. It was a furtive, optimistic, uncertain time, the time of Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, graffiti artist Futura; the time of French culture scavengers like Jean Karakos, who came to New York to form Celluloid Records because of the fascinating American records reaching his stores; it was the time of Debbie Harry, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash. It was the time of cynical rip-off records like "Buffalo Gals" and lightning-flash moments like "Genius of Love".

    Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were the rhythm section for the Talking Heads; as the bassist and drummer, respectively, for the most rhythmically curious punk band in the scene as well as husband and wife, they shared a lot of common interests. Chris Blackwell, the A&R for Island records who was responsible for signing Rakim and for bringing reggae into the United States with The Harder They Come, encouraged the pair to record a song based off their love of Zapp’s "More Bounce to the Ounce". Like that song, "Genius of Love" is giddy, onomatopoetic, a groove where every sound feels like the walk-on cameo from a different cartoon character. Weymouth and Frantz’s lyrics read almost as a real-time recitation of records being handed to them by Blackwell: "Wailin' and skanking to Bob Marley". "Kurtis Blow!"

    We cherish records like "Genius of Love" because they tell the most beautiful story we know about music: that it encourages empathy, broadens experience, and leaps over societal boundaries. It’s a fantasy, of course—word to Mariah Carey—and that’s why Tom Tom Club sounds and feels so good, still. It is the champagne-bubble giddiness of a promise that we can never deliver on, that in the first flush of shock and gratification in learning about cultures that we might also become better, more joyful people. —Jayson Greene

    Michael Jackson

    “Human Nature”

    Epic; 1983

    36

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    Though "Human Nature" has aged as well as anything from Thriller, it’s weird on numerous levels, one of which is likely to serve as an answer in bar trivia: It was co-written by the dude responsible for "Africa". Its weirdness is also contextual, because from this point forward, Michael Jackson’s blockbuster ballads were pleas to save the world or the children or the whales. And "Human Nature" wasn’t about a paternity suit or choreographing a gang truce or distrust of the media or being friends with Eddie Van Halen, Paul McCartney, or Vincent Price, which is what makes it such an outlier. It’s the rare song from Michael Jackson’s imperial phase that wasn’t explicitly about the experience of being Michael Jackson.

    In fact, it’s impossible to picture Michael Jackson doing anything he sings about on "Human Nature"—being entranced by the skyline of New York City, seeing nothing but possibility in the future, having the wherewithal to make a casually cruel admittance to a one night stand while recognizing how it might serve as a greater truth about man’s biological impulses. But you get the sense that he wishes more than anything that this story could’ve been his and not that of a guy from Toto. While there’s no tawdry, tabloid subtext to "Human Nature", you can still understand why a song of such wonder and transparency feels so heartbreaking: Our everyday experiences were as alien to Michael Jackson as his were to us. —Ian Cohen

    See also: Michael Jackson: "Let's Wait Awhile" / Wham!: "Careless Whisper"

    Sade

    “The Sweetest Taboo”

    Epic/Portrait; 1985

    35

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    At this point it’s hard to imagine a world where a song as delicate as "The Sweetest Taboo" could capture the international zeitgeist, though once you peeled back the layers, Sade’s music wasn’t always as delicate as it seemed. "Quiet storm" had existed as an idea since Smokey Robinson, and there it is at the heart of the song’s chorus: "There’s a quiet storm, and it’s never felt like this before." Given that Sade’s immense popularity coincided with the time when the R&B subgenre/soft-rock analogue would crest in the public’s awareness, it’s tempting to read it and the song as somehow encapsulating what this "quiet storm," and what it could be. The paradox is right there in the title—quiet storm was not easy-listening or dentist-chair music, but a crisp, professional, smooth sound that best communicated a certain type of love song, mostly domestic and peaceful, occasionally—frequently, in the case of Sade—anguished.

    This depth and tension—the most memorable line is "sometimes I think you’re just too good for me"—no doubt led to Sade’s success, and her influence on everyone from D’Angelo and the '90s neo-soul movement to the current day’s analyzed-to-death "alt-R&B" genre. There was always so much lurking behind this music—love, sure, but also the awareness that finding a partner dovetails with anxiety and the vulnerability inherent with intimacy. —Matthew Ramirez

    See also: Sade: "Hang on to Your Love" / Sade: "Smooth Operator"

    Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force

    “Planet Rock”

    Tommy Boy/Warner Bros.; 1982

    34

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    Afrika Bambaataa was an oracle, and "Planet Rock" was a manifesto of what hip-hop was and what it could be. From its inception, it sought to bridge divides. "I really made it for the Blacks, Latinos and the punk rockers," Afrika Bambaataa told Jeff Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. "But I didn’t know the next day that everybody was all into it and dancing."

    By the time the record dropped in '82, the Bronx River native (née Kevin Donovan) had already established himself as one of the original breakbeat DJs, along with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. As the leader and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, Bam espoused "Peace, Love, Unity, and Havin' Fun." It was a philosophy that fueled the parties he DJ’d, the pre-"Rapper’s Delight" tapes that had circulated, and eventually the records he cut—including the baddest of them all, "Planet Rock".

    From the track’s opening summons (Party people!) and the lethal bass drop that followed, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force created a world whose guiding principle was simple: rock it, don’t stop it. Sampling Kraftwerk and UK rock band Babe Ruth, Bam, together with producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie, engineered a futuristic sound built from synths, drum machine, and digital delay. When Bam and crew rapped over the distinctive jing, hiss, and boom of the new Roland TR-808, they popularized it as a major tool not just for hip-hop but for other kinds of electronic and dance music as well. The record became a catalyst for early techno, Miami bass, and electro funk. Afrika Bambaataa became the Father of Electro Funk. "Planet Rock" became his satellite. And when it shot into orbit, hip-hop went global. —Minna Zhou

    See also: Kraftwerk: "Numbers" / Mantronix: "Needle to the Groove

    Prince and the Revolution

    “I Would Die 4 U”

    Warner Bros.; 1984

    33

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    Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth record and the most potent of that legendary run of Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999. It sold about 13 million copies in the U.S. alone, and right there, right after "Darling Nikki" and "When Doves Cry", is arguably the heaviest song in his catalog: "I Would Die 4 U", with its propulsive industrial heartbeat. "I Would Die 4 U" is a brooding wall of sound that rips through about three genres in under three minutes—one of the shortest, densest tracks of Prince’s career. Known for chasing his sometimes flighty inner muse, Prince envisions himself as a Christ-like figure, turning an ostensible feel-good love song into a messianic anthem, down to its repeated titular pleading, where he re-casts the song, his music, himself as other-worldly. In a long career full of dramatic reinventions, "I Would Die 4 U" stands out as the time Prince most urgently made his intentions known. —Matthew Ramirez

    See also: Prince: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" / Prince: "Little Red Corvette"

    N.W.A

    “Fuck tha Police”

    Priority/Ruthless; 1988

    32

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    From one vantage, N.W.A’s story is one of rebellion against surveillance—over-patrolled neighborhoods, racial profiling, closed-circuit cameras—in which the surveilled turn the means of representation back on the state-sanctioned powers-that-be. It was ironic, if not infuriating, then, that the opening weekend of the group’s myth-burnishing Straight Outta Compton film was itself the subject of unnecessary state-sanctioned scrutiny. "In light of everything that’s going on, we are dispatching additional officers to theaters that are showing the film," an LAPD officer told Variety. Zero acts of violence were reported among Compton audience members, but many acts of intimidation were reported about the gratuitous police attendance at many screenings.

    Rewind to 1989. The song "Fuck tha Police" earned N.W.A's label Ruthless Records an obliquely threatening letter from the FBI, which—First Amendment and all—opted to work with regional performance venues to… yes, surveil N.W.A.’s concerts. Cops showed up in force across the country to threaten the group and its fans by simply projecting armed force. When the group recited a few lines of "Fuck tha Police" onstage at a Detroit show, cops started threateningly moving toward the stage, breaking the fourth wall and causing the group to flee. Again with the surreal irony: "Fuck tha Police" itself was a performative clap back at the militarized police deputized by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates under Operation Hammer, which periodically swept through crack-devastated neighborhoods with tanks and battering rams, terrifying innocent citizens for the crime of being black in South L.A.

    If "Straight Outta Compton" was N.W.A.’s origin myth, "Express Yourself" was the media strategy, and "Gangsta Gangsta" the genre-branding, "Fuck tha Police" was all of that rolled into one package: the brick through the window, the group blasting open an eight-lane freeway for rap discourse that’s still overcrowded today. The word "fuck" in the song’s title registered like a body blow (and still does), but the song itself unfolds in a more theatrical way, "People’s Court"-as-gangsta operetta set to Dre’s take on the sample-heavy soul cacophony pioneered the previous year by the Bomb Squad on Yo! Bum Rush the Show and perfected two months before Compton and Nation of Millions. Straight Outta Compton tells the group’s legendary story in Hollywood patois, but it pales in comparison to the compelling narrative world the group crafted 27 years earlier, let alone the very real war waged by very real officers on the bodies and lives of African-Americans in 2015 on what seems like a daily basis. At one end of the spectrum, this last fact is what the LAPD officer no doubt meant with the blandly bureaucratic "everything that’s going on." At the other end, regardless of the knotty infrastructural realities it condenses, is what "fuck the police" responds to: Cops killing black Americans, and cops standing and staring at black Americans when they're seeing a movie about a group that raged against cops killing black Americans. —Eric Harvey

    See also: D.O.C.: "It's Funky Enough" / Ice-T: "Colors"

    Frankie Knuckles / Jamie Principle

    “Your Love”

    Trax; 1987

    31

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    Bronx-born Frankie Knuckles left New York City, where he’d come up DJing with Larry Levan, and moved to Chicago in the late '70s just in time to watch disco "die." He became the music director at the Warehouse, a safe space for gay men of color to hear the craziest music until noon the next day. (Today, the unassuming West Loop corner is bookended by a yoga studio and an Al’s Beef.) Knuckles’ no-rules sets there invented what we know as house, but no house records were getting pressed or distributed during the Warehouse’s existence. (He left and opened his own club, the Power Plant, around '82; the first house record, Jesse Saunders’ "On and On", hit wax in '84.) Knuckles’ passion then was less about producing records than dramatically re-contextualizing them, experimenting endlessly to construct dynamic, community-driven emotional and physical experiences.

    An '84 demo tape from a South-sider named Jamie Principle entered heavy rotation in Knuckles’ sets. That original version of "Your Love" is obviously inferior to the final version Knuckles and Principle re-released together a few years later, which is lusher, harder, more cosmic in its shimmering Italo-sampled arpeggios. Principle is the X-factor here, though it always felt like he didn’t receive proper billing on a track that was originally his. On "Baby Wants to Ride", another Knuckles collaboration released as the A-side to "Your Love"’s B-side on Trax Records, Principle is grimy and raw, an obvious student of Prince’s nastier side. But on "Your Love", he is an angel falling in real time, softening Knuckles’ rough edges, bringing the genre closer to pop without sacrificing any of the catharsis—the ultimate house crossover record.

    There’s this narrative today, mostly on the Internet and outside of Chicago, that house music in the age of EDM is in need of a task force against extinction—that these distant offshoots, like radio-friendly UK pop-house or the booming electronic festival industry, threaten to dwarf or erase house music as it was born. These well-intentioned concerns ignore the fact that house as Knuckles invented it—and Principle brought its emotional drama to new heights—is all still here. It’s not a relic or a memory, but an inextricable part of the Chicago experience over the last three-plus decades. What Knuckles started is all still happening. The Warehouse and the Power Plant might be closed, but Smart Bar, where Knuckles was a resident until he got too sick, still loses it to house every Sunday. Chosen Few, the massive annual house picnic organized by a South side DJ collective who’ve been throwing house parties since '77, is bigger than ever. Footwork, the couple-generations-removed extension of house, is more vital than ever, having gone national the same way house did in its adolescence. House in Chicago isn’t a "scene," something you could isolate and point out. It’s become part of the air, embedded in the city’s DNA. It’s just there. Knuckles once half-jokingly noted he could walk down the street unrecognized in Chicago, only mobbed by fans overseas. But when he died last year, this happened. —Meaghan Garvey

    See also: Adonis: "No Way Back" / Marshall Jefferson: "Move Your Body

    Beastie Boys

    “Shake Your Rump”

    Capitol; 1989

    30

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    The Beastie Boys were playing in a borrowed sandbox on their debut Licensed to Ill. The attitude may have been their own, but just about everything else, from the slash-and-scratch production and the hair-metal guitars to the trio’s Run-D.M.C. cadences, came on loan from Def Jam’s Rick Rubin collection. It’s no wonder they wanted to leave the label to explore less charted territory, and in the maximalist, proto-big-beat production of the Los Angeles duo the Dust Brothers, they found the original vision they were looking for. Producers were working all kinds of miracles with samples in the late '80s, but none were doing it on anywhere near this scale.

    Like many a mythologized album, Paul’s Boutique was met with some confusion upon its initial release. A quarter century later, that cold reception boggles the mind. How could anybody, in 1989 or in any other year, hear the album’s kick-off salvo "Shake Your Rump" and not be bowled over from the get go? It may be the showiest beat of the '80s, mounding heaps of disco samples from more than a dozen songs, including three alone from Rose Royce’s Car Wash soundtrack, into a high-speed, Rube Goldberg-esque pile-up of breaks, riffs, and fills.

    At the time the Dust Brothers were hardly considered visionaries. Their biggest credit had been an album with Tone Lōc, a rapper almost comically ill-suited to keep pace with the duo’s hectic funk. The Beastie Boys, of course, proved far more nimble collaborators, matching the beat makers’ lunacy with their own barrage of junk-culture references and in-jokes: Sam the butcher, Fred Flintstone, shrimp boats, onion rings, billy goats, Mango Kangols. Most of them are nonsense, but they whiz by so fast it doesn’t matter. They’re funny as hell just because the band thinks they are, and there’s a real freedom in the group’s slap-happy rhymes. The Beastie Boys were no longer just marketable white faces plastered onto a popular black sound. They were making up their own rules now. —Evan Rytlewski

    See also: Beastie Boys: "Hey Ladies"

    Diana Ross

    “I'm Coming Out”

    Motown; 1980

    29

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    "I’m Coming Out" was designed to be an anthem for Diana Ross’ personal liberation. While in the process of parting ways with Berry Gordy’s Motown after nearly two decades, she enlisted Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for help with her musical revitalization. By any standard, the initiative was a success: Diana became her most successful solo record by a country mile, and it gave her the momentum to escape the label.

    But no one hears this song and thinks about Diana Ross’ label turmoil. Her fight for creative freedom has been co-opted by millions of people around the world searching for acceptance, self-confidence, or even safety. It was a struggle relevant in 1980, a year before AIDS would begin to erase and stigmatize a generation of young men; it’s a struggle relevant in 2015, when the same-sex marriage debate has been legally resolved and transgender rights are finally receiving the attention they deserve. "I’m Coming Out" will mean something as long as there are people around the world experiencing the euphoria of self-discovery. What was once a personal mission statement is now an enduring soundtrack for radiant, radical pride—it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a piece of music. —Jamieson Cox

    See also: Inner Life: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough (The Garage Version)" / Sister Sledge: "Lost in Music [Special 1984 Nile Rodgers Remix]

    Kate Bush

    “Hounds of Love”

    EMI; 1986

    28

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    "In the trees! It's coming!" The startled voice that opens "Hounds of Love" is spoken by a dead man. It’s taken from a seance scene in the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon, in which a devilish monstrosity—part ape, part bat, all charmingly ridiculous—forces a bunch of eggheads to consider the existence of supernatural phenomena. At one point, a snooty Satanic leader ponders, "Where does imagination end and reality begin?" No wonder it’s one of celebrated fabulist Kate Bush’s favorite films.

    On the title track of her towering 1985 album, the demon in the trees takes the form of another highly elusive entity that has captured our imaginations for centuries: love. In Bush’s telling, no matter how much she tries to outrun it, love is always chasing her, beckoning her to let her guard down and get lost in someone else. Headlong drums and incessant, sawing strings press the issue as she hems and haws, spinning fables about foxes and dogs before giving into her heart with a flourish: "Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake!" she howls, finally carefree enough to commit. Bush was 27 when "Hounds of Love" was released, and the song is no teenage trifle; it knows about the pitfalls, dangers, and disappointments that come with every relationship, and it holds enough faith to move forward anyway. —Ryan Dombal

    See also: Kate Bush: "Breathing" / Kate Bush: "Suspended in Gaffa"

    Janet Jackson

    “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”

    A&M; 1989

    27

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    There isn’t a modern analog for the fearless daring of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album cycle. Dressed in stark monochrome and executing choreography that resembled hand-to-hand combat more than traditional hip-hop dance, Jackson chased her 1986 breakthrough Control with a brash political gambit. "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" seems to hang back on the seriousness of Rhythm Nation’s social consciousness in favor of a simple song of devotion—though "simple" does this towering six-minute epic very little justice. Everything in the mix hits like percussion, and Janet’s voice glides coolly over top as she celebrates her lover while sneakily letting him know she could have anyone she wants. Beyoncé stepping out in 1814 gear on a recent Halloween night confirmed what some of us suspected all along: Homegirl’s been taking notes. —Craig Jenkins

    See also: Fonda Rae: "Touch Me" / Janet Jackson: "Rhythm Nation"

    Public Enemy

    “Bring the Noise”

    Def Jam; 1987

    26

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    Emerging in fall 1987 as part of the Less Than Zero soundtrack, "Bring the Noise" would anchor It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s totemic sophomore album, the following June. And from Flavor Flav’s hype-man taunts to Chuck D’s granite-solid sixteens to the Bomb Squad’s flurrying jazzbo squall, every aspect of "Noise" still stings like a provocation, a dare, a saber rattling before it carves your speakers from the inside. Verses unspool in a flood as turbulent as the production, baiting radio DJs, critics, and audience alike with a breathlessness that suggests they’re rapping through the crowd and into hip-hop posterity. A fleet fluidity informs Chuck D’s flow here, effortless in a dizzying, dazzling way—he’s circling us like a young prize fighter, landing one swift, sure blow after another. It’s exhaustive and inexhaustible, a playful mission statement that dials back somewhat on the agenda-setting, making space for shouts to Sonny Bono, Yoko Ono, and Anthrax, who would memorably cover the song with Public Enemy a few years hence. The group was just warming, and it’s telling that 28 years on, "Noise" remains more mesmerizing than the vast majority of rap anthems that would follow it. —Raymond Cummings

    See also: Geto Boys: "Mind of a Lunatic" / Public Enemy: "Rebel Without a Pause"

    New Order

    “Temptation”

    Factory; 1982

    25

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    Specific feelings can become tied to the pop music of a specific decade: The '90s were good for angst and self-loathing; the '70s were ripe for hedonism; and the '80s were a bountiful time for yearning. Through some combination of new synthesizer sounds, new haircuts, and the new image of teen-dom as seen in the movies of John Hughes, a large handful of songs from this era articulated an almost painful desire for someone or something that was just out of reach. New Order’s "Temptation" is the greatest song about this feeling ever written.

    It’s so great, in fact, that the band couldn’t stop recording it. Along with the iconic original near-nine-minute 12” version and a five-and-a-half-minute 7” edit cut in 1982, the UK quartet completely re-recorded "Temptation" for the compilation Substance in 1987—and that version, brightened by vocals that are higher and sweetened, is arguably the best known today. (They remade the song once more in 1998, but that take is no one’s favorite.)

    Though the three versions vary considerably in terms of structure, the core elements are there throughout: Bernard Sumner's "What Goes On"-inspired chords, a pulsing synth line by Gillian Gilbert, Stephen Morris’ fluttering drums, and the uncannily emotional bass playing of Peter Hook. The song’s two-chord groove is reinforced by lyrics that seem to be about something specific but are really a collection of fragments; every line is designed to run through your head in a moment, probably when you’re walking home by yourself at night, teetering between loneliness and belonging. —Mark Richardson

    See also: The Cure: "Primary" / New Order: "Everything's Gone Green"

    Pixies

    “Where Is My Mind?”

    4AD; 1988

    24

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    Presaging the alt-rock boom that came at the beginning of the next decade, 1988's "Where Is My Mind?" is a distinctly prescient late-'80s landmark and a song that launched a thousand Nirvanas. As one of the bigger hits off of Surfer Rosa, "Where Is My Mind?" invokes powerful, visceral, and oddly wistful sentiments all at once, using the song’s eponymous chorus as both an existential plea and a zany, lethargic rallying cry. Even the song’s production is manic: stark, spiraling guitar licks cohere with fretful acoustic guitar strums and the sound of a human howling, and Frank Black’s lyrics are sung in alternatingly high and low octaves—a delivery that is jarring and unhinged, but still strangely jubilatory. There’s a warmth and wry humor to the way the band’s synthesized textures placate the song’s narrative eccentricity. "Where Is My Mind?" is a funhouse mirror of angst and liberation, but few songs in the genre come as neatly packaged as this one. —Molly Beauchemin

    See also: Pixies: "Here Comes Your Man" / Pixies: "Monkey Gone to Heaven"

    Slick Rick

    “Children's Story”

    Def Jam/Columbia; 1988

    23

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    With a voice like a deadpan British Bootsy Collins and a storytelling sense that could turn any situation into detailed vérité, Slick Rick built a reputation as an MC that thrived on the outsized. When you outline the narrative of "Children's Story", it seems pretty standard: a young man becomes a stick-up kid, attempts to rob and then runs from an undercover cop, gets into a high-speed gun battle, takes and releases a hostage, then finally surrenders once he's surrounded before being shot by the cops anyway. But few rappers before or since have shown Rick’s ability to inhabit multiple characters on this level—it's like a precursor to Kool G Rap's crime narratives filtered through an Eddie Murphy bit. All you have to do is quote certain phrases—"Me'n you, Ty, we gonna make some caaaaash" or "Daaaave, the dope fiend shooting dope" or "rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered"—to realize how deeply Rick's sing-song phrasing pulls you along, the quick-witted efficiency and smash-cut pacing turning out far more evocative than its music video ever could. —Nate Patrin

    See also: Slick Rick: "Hey Young World" / Slick Rick: "Mona Lisa"

    Talking Heads

    “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”

    Sire; 1983

    22

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    "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" was an aberration for the Talking Heads. It was more of an exercise in understated musical hypnosis than polyrhythmic, Kuti-quoting funk, well-compressed instead of bursting at the seams, and (in its abashed way) it was a full-blown love song. But it didn’t clear #50 on the Hot 100, despite the Heads’ commercial success with "Burning Down the House" a few months earlier. With "This Must Be the Place", the band simplified their sound dramatically, condensing their sonic palette to the level of small EKG blips (having switched instruments for a lark, this was nearly all they were able to reliably deliver chops-wise) and wringing out only a few chords.

    In the process of stripping down, Talking Heads showcased something at the root of their art: David Byrne’s inimitable gift for melody, and his unique ability to make every musical figure seem both familiar and tied directly to the lyrical thought (see "I feel numb...born with a weak heart/ I guess I must be having fun"). Is there a better moment of catharsis in a pop then the song's final eureka realization, after Byrne gets whacked with the monolithic spiritual hammer and awakes from a life-encompassing daze into unexpected stability? There’s nothing to narrow his eyes at anymore: "Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head/ Aaoooh, aaooh, aaooh, aaoooh." For a band rarely given to addressing issues of the heart head-on, "Naive Melody" remains an unexpected and peerless achievement. —Winston Cook-Wilson

    Prince and the Revolution

    “Kiss”

    Paisley Park; 1986

    21

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    After the commercial and artistic triumph of Purple Rain and the declaration of unpredictability that was Around the World in a Day, Prince cemented his reputation as a master innovator the moment "Kiss" pounced out of the radio in 1986. There was no other record that moved like it, and there still isn't. It's shockingly spare for a dance track: dry as ash, with all of its weightless bulk way up in the tweeter zone and no bassline at all. The song's structure and chords come off as unimaginably fresh and alien, which is pretty impressive considering that it's basically just a twelve-bar I-IV-V blues at its core. (The two covers of "Kiss" that were minor hits in the next few years—one by the Art of Noise with Tom Jones, the other by Age of Chance—made a point of how little they sounded like Prince's version, and how splendid a song it was anyway.)

    Prince's original demo for the song was a quick acoustic throwaway he gave to his then-bassist Brownmark's band Mazarati for the debut album they were recording in 1985. The version they worked up with producer David Z was more or less "Kiss" as we know it, including the guitar-as-hi-hat riff that provides its beat—as well as a bassline that probably seemed like it obviously had to be there. On hearing that recording, Prince yanked it back from them, leaving credits to David Z for the arrangement and to Mazarati for their background vocals on the version he released. Prince, though, is the one who added "Kiss"'s crowning touches, including the high-speed strum at the end of the chorus (borrowed from Jimmy Nolen's guitar part on James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag") and the nearly instrumental bridge (his seemingly ad-libbed line "little girl Wendy's parade" had been the working title of the Parade album's opening song "Christopher Tracy's Parade"). And his stratospheric, deeply sexy, intensely bizarre lead vocal—he sticks to the cloudbusting end of his falsetto for almost the entire song, diving down to baritone a couple of times just to show off a little more—might be his greatest performance. —Douglas Wolk

    See also: Prince: "If I Was Your Girlfriend" / Prince: "Raspberry Beret"

    Whitney Houston

    “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”

    Arista; 1987

    20

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    "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)", released in 1987, is one of Houston’s most recognizable hits, and one that brings the contrast between the talent and the tabloid story into sharpest relief. It’s a bright, bubbly pop song, bopping through the standard-issue subject matter that is the single girl’s longing for the lighthearted fun of romantic love. Houston’s signature shout after the unmistakable keyboard intro is pure '80s joy, reminiscent of the similarly jubilant openings of both Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and Houston’s own "How Will I Know". This comparison did not go unnoticed when the song was first released, and critics used it as a reason to pan "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" as a lazy imitation of a formula Houston and Lauper had already gotten right. But the years have been kind to "I Wanna Dance With Somebody". Houston, then on her second studio album, is youthful, light—the voice on the record is impossible to reconcile with the Houston the public came to know in the years surrounding her death.

    In the new millennium, big voices have standard issue: from Amy Winehouse, to Adele, Mariah Carey, and Kelly Clarkson, the pop standard is singers with wide ranges, ringing upper registers, and nimble runs. But Houston brought so much more than size to her performances. On "I Wanna Dance With Somebody", Houston manages to imbue an otherwise simple, frivolous pop song with a hint of sadness. —Maud Deitch

    Eric B. & Rakim

    “Paid in Full” / ”Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness Mix)”

    4th & B'way; 1987

    19

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    "Thinking of a master plan." If you know that much, you know the rest; along with "it was all a dream" or "two years ago, a friend of mine," it's in perpetual contention for rap's greatest opening line, a scheme set in motion one meticulously chosen word at a time. When Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim dropped "Paid in Full" in 1987, rap was still shaking off the last vestiges of the post-disco era: Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J may have made rap both bigger and deffer, but elsewhere, plenty of MCs were still yes-yalling in three part harmony. After years where MCs went on and on 'til the break of dawn, "Paid in Full"—succinct, introspective, painstaking—marked the cleanest break yet from the party-starting tracksuits-and-Kangol era. Rap was never the same.

    "Paid in Full" is a song about necessity: about doing what you have to do to get by, and trying to juggle day-to-day responsibilities with trying to make something for—and not just of—yourself. Rakim needs money; he and Eric B. have taken too long to get their album done (funny, since Paid in Full was recorded in a single week), and their girlfriends have started to complain. Too righteous to return to a life of crime, but with too much to say to settle on a 9-to-5, he returns to the studio and hungrily lays down "Paid in Full". From the first, Rakim was a master of the tactile detail: the lint in his pockets, the sweat in his palm, the fish on his plate. In just a few words, Rakim gives you his past, his present, and future, says peace, and fades to black.

    "Paid in Full" unfolds in monochrome; UK production duo Coldcut's kaleidoscopic "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix, on the other hand, paints the song in full-on Technicolor. Now this is a journey into sound: the original—that Soul Searchers loop, that Dennis Edwards bassline, Ra's godly verse—is expanded out, scribbled on, dotted with exclamation marks. Coldcut throw anything and everything at "Paid in Full": Humphrey Bogart, James Brown, Don Pardo, Ofra Haza. To its credit, the "Madness" remix isn't a full-on reimagining: By keeping things rooted in Ra's voice and "Ashley's Roachclip", every passing sample only seems to serve as a kind of hosannah, another celebration of the miracle the God MC has made. —Paul Thompson

    See also: Eric B & Rakim: "Eric B. Is President" / Eric B & Rakim: "I Know You Got Soul

    Marvin Gaye

    “Sexual Healing”

    Columbia; 1982

    18

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    Marvin Gaye’s self-described "seven-year shit period" started in 1975: two overlapping divorces, crushing debt, depression, addiction, paranoia. He disappeared to Maui, lived out of a van, and attempted suicide by blowing an ounce of coke in an hour. He quit Motown and moved to Belgium in '81, disillusioned and recently 40, desperate for redemption. His mind wandered to the Red Light District, Bob Marley, and Kraftwerk. He never wanted to make a Motown-sounding record again, and taught himself to play his new TR-808 and a Jupiter-8, an analog synth Roland had just introduced. He hadn’t had a hit in years; Midnight Love, his 17th and final album, was do or die.

    You can’t make something like Midnight Love on drugs alone, but I’m pretty sure you can’t get there without them, either. You don’t stumble on the feverish, all-consuming drum break of "Midnight Lady" without knowing the spastic patterns of a coke-binge heartbeat. And that’s why "Sexual Healing", Gaye’s first post-Motown single, felt even more essential—in the context of the album, but also within the turbulent mythos of America’s most important soul singer. In its mellow Afro-Caribbean funk and uncomplicated erotica, it really felt as therapeutic as its title suggested: sex as something deeper than id-driven impulse, as a final, homeopathic defense against unraveling completely. And it worked: Midnight Love became Gaye’s best-selling album, and "Sexual Healing" the biggest crossover hit of his career. —Meaghan Garvey

    See also: Leon Ware: "Rockin' You Eternally" / Sylvia Striplin: "You Can't Turn Me Away"

    Madonna

    “Into the Groove”

    Sire/Warner Bros.; 1985

    17

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    With two hit albums, Like a Virgin rising in the charts, and one wild MTV wedding cake performance behind her, Madonna’s career was in a very sweet spot in 1985. So it’s no wonder the It Girl would make moves in Hollywood, starring in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan. It’s there, in the closing credits of the movie, that a demo version of "Into the Groove" was not just heard, but also essentially released.

    "Music can be such a revelation," preaches Madonna on "Into the Groove", yet again making the dance floor a place for physical and emotional freedom. Playing shy, she bounces between earnestly begging for company and aggressively making her partner dance right to win her affection. While songs like "Borderline" and "Dress You Up" were successful dance-pop tracks, nothing Madonna had put out was as club-appropriate as "Into the Groove". Penned by Madonna and songwriter Steve Bray, "Into the Groove" was initially intended for producer Mark Kamins. But Madonna thought it would suit her new movie well, much to the chagrin of Kamins.

    The fact that Madonna would give the song such an unconventional debut shows how strong her popularity was at the time and how big of a hit the song really is. With filming finishing right before Like a Virgin was out, Desperately Seeking Susan swiftly became a Madonna vehicle before its release. Ratings were lowered specifically to accommodate the star’s teen fanbase and lead Rosanna Arquette was seen as a supporting actress in Madge’s shadow. The unpolished demo didn’t even land on the film’s soundtrack and was only available as the B-side to "Angel" in the U.S., but it’s still regarded as one of Madonna’s best dance tracks. —Hazel Cills

    See also: Madonna: "Burning Up" / Madonna: "Think of Me"

    Fugazi

    “Waiting Room”

    Dischord; 1988

    16

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    On Fugazi’s 1988 debut EP, opening salvo "Waiting Room" established the D.C. band’s growth from the hardcore punk scene its members helped to build. Though "Waiting Room" contains the same ferocity, pithiness, and efficiency you’d expect from a song written by members of Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, it’s more complicated than your average punk song was in those days. It’s no surprise that a remarkably diverse roster of artists have chosen to cover this particular anthem over the last several decades. As Fugazi themselves have become the standard-bearers of a strict DIY ethic, so a cover of "Waiting Room" immediately references those ethical roots and an idea of rock music created by and for a relatively small community of scrappy kids who are passionate, political, and thoughtful. While the band’s sound would continue to grow over the arc of its existence, "Waiting Room" is the song that first defined them, and continues to reverberate with fans new and old. —Jes Skolnik

    See also: Fugazi: "Suggestion" / Minor Threat: "Minor Threat

    Sonic Youth

    “Teen Age Riot”

    Enigma/Blast First; 1988

    15

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    However cheekily, "Teen Age Riot" attempted to capture the zeitgeist like this: "At the time, J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr represented our slacker genius," Thurston Moore once said of their guitar anti-hero—a long-haired guy who later turned down an opportunity to join Nirvana—"so in tribute we wrote a song called ‘Rock N Roll for President’ about him being president, which we eventually renamed ‘Teen Age Riot’."

    Sonic Youth recorded 1988’s Daydream Nation, their unequivocal masterpiece, that summer at a SoHo studio owned by minimalist pioneer Philip Glass; Public Enemy were there, too, working on the other board. For an album that winkingly took the form of a double LP with an embedded trilogy and fine art on the cover (that candle painting sold for over $16 million in 2011), its opening track, "Teen Age Riot", was deceptively simple. But it’s the kind of rock'n'roll song that makes you feel like you could change your entire life—your spirit, desire—if you listened, read, and watched hard enough, perceptive of Sonic Youth’s clues. It sounds like two songs—Kim Gordon’s free-associating dream logic pries it open, followed by some of the most conventionally-structured lyrics that Moore ever wrote—but inside was a sea of possibility. The song had the cool Warholian distance, the unconventional tunings, the dryly evocative turns-of-phrase that made Sonic Youth’s sound, but it had a rare looseness. You can still imagine yourself existing within this one’s world. Steve Shelley’s aerodynamic beat gave it a spacious sprawl, and those wistfully twinging chord changes at the end of each verse beckoned an affecting, reeling invitation: you’re really it.

    To be clear, no one in Sonic Youth was a teenager when "Teen Age Riot" came out; everyone was in their thirties aside from 26-year-old drummer Steve Shelley. But what Sonic Youth rendered a "teen age riot"—the susceptibility to be galvanized, the openness of spirit, a willingness to care about music that much—was and is a wake-up call you can live at any age, at any time. This is crucial to remember as the narrative around Sonic Youth mutates. It was "Teen Age Riot" that gave Sonic Youth the mass appeal to wield real influence and power in popular and unpopular culture, and whether a guitar band will ever do that again remains to be seen. Now something Gordon said of this era in Our Band Could Be Your Life feels especially pertinent: "We were influential in showing people that you can make any kind of music you want." —Jenn Pelly

    See also: Sonic Youth: "Death Valley '69" / Sonic Youth: "Schizophrenia"

    The Smiths

    “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”

    Rough Trade; 1986

    14

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    The Smiths mirrored our unguarded states, those dark nights spent staring at the ceiling. "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" sounds like a slogan embroidered on a pillow you’d find in some dusty bed and breakfast, but Morrissey imbued the phrase with vitality. He sings like someone holding on, even as he’s on the verge of collapse; the music is graceful yet firm, accentuated by a stirring synthetic string section. (Despite being a song where the singer moans about wanting to die in a car crash, it sounds excellent from inside a car.) There’s a moment of stunning humility in the lyrics, when the narrator imagines his death coming in a darkened underpass before "a strange fear" grips him, and he realizes he wants to live. Many songs are written from a depressed point of view, but few navigate the ontological breakthrough with such subtlety.

    Then there's the title, which is repeated over and over at the end, Morrissey changing inflections to reflect the myriad interpretations. There is a light that never goes out. It's a life-giving mantra, simple and optimistic—more than the Smiths were known for showing. You can see it in videos of the band performing the song, because Morrissey never sings this bit at the end. He wanders about the stage, letting the audience mouth along to themselves. The moment doesn't have to be emphasized, because it's already felt. It's why the Smiths endure, even when they’re reduced to cliche: To write a song like this, capable of supplying no shortage of people with the inspiration they need to keep going, is a genuine miracle. —Jeremy Gordon

    See also: Morrissey: "Everyday Is Like Sunday" / The Smiths: "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side"

    Michael Jackson

    “Billie Jean”

    Epic; 1983

    13

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    We all know "Billie Jean", the song: Its insatiable hook and ribald bassline and Michael Jackson’s plaintive hics launched the pop star into a stratospheric realm of celebrity, decades ahead of reality TV stars and the 24-hour news cycle. Just as, if not more, important is "Billie Jean", the video. At the same time that Jackson’s gentle grin smiled out from magazine and newspaper covers all over the world, there were still racial barriers to breach at home in America. Directed by Steve Barron (who would go on to do A-Ha’s "Take on Me"), the video was among the first by a black musician to air on MTV. It’s absurd to imagine, 30 years on, at a time when videos by black artists set trends, help keep cable music channels afloat, and are the cache driving emerging digital platforms like Tidal and Apple Music. Jackson’s music united people all over the world in an unprecedented way, but it was his image—his smooth brown skin, the glossy Jheri curl and infamous toe stand—that made "Billie Jean" so crucial to the commodification of black artists in pop music, and a progenitor of a culture that thrives on "social media moments." —Anupa Mistry

    See also: Michael Jackson: "Baby Be Mine" / Michael Jackson: "Beat It"

    The Cure

    “Just Like Heaven”

    Fiction; 1987

    12

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    Few bands have a back catalog as deep—or as truly kaleidoscopic—as the Cure. Their discography, which now stretches back nearly 40 years, is a study in extremes—from the most abjectly bleak and funereal goth dirges to the giddiest of Technicolor pop. "Just Like Heaven" is gleefully the latter, three minutes of the most immaculate musical confectionary Robert Smith ever concocted. The third single from 1987’s willfully schizophrenic Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, "Just Like Heaven" was the first Cure song to crack the U.S. top 40, immediately serving as a kind of gateway drug for a generation of "120 Minutes"-watching teen misanthropes eager to lap up the band’s black-eyelined majesty. It also cemented Smith’s genius as a songwriter, proving his uncanny dexterity for articulating not only all-consuming melancholy but pure romantic joy as well.

    The track’s signature drumrolled intro and cascading guitar line—alongside Smith’s opening plea to "Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick"—is the sound of a million hopeful mixtapes and new wave dance parties springing wistfully to life—a twisting, twirling bit of post-punk wonder that Smith himself once perfectly described as "a song about hyperventilating—kissing and fainting to the floor."

    In short, it’s just like a dream. —T. Cole Rachel

    See also: The Cure: "In Between Days"

    Prince and the Revolution

    “When Doves Cry”

    Warner Bros.; 1984

    11

    Strip away every bit of character—the inscrutable tweets, the shifting attitudes towards the Internet, the label drama, the Paisley Park vault, the Love Symbol, the godly hoop skills and the fucking pancakes—and dig until you reach the foundation: this is what you’ll find. Before the release of "When Doves Cry", Prince was an enigmatic studio rat with an ear for controversy and an unstoppable pen. It made him into an icon, a prowling, unbridled star of sound and screen whose commercial potency and creative energy were almost unrivalled.

    It’s the wellspring from which the Prince of popular imagination springs, and it’s worthy of that designation. This is a strange, singular song; it’s the best marriage of pop instinct and weird, experimental energy in Prince’s discography, which is saying something given he’s had over 30 years to write a worthy successor. It contains his multitudes, every major aspect of his musical being: the shredding guitar god, the Minneapolis funk wizard, the deliberately queer provocateur, the magnetic sexual force, the vocalist poised on the verge of ecstasy. It’s a visionary act from a musical auteur—Prince wrote and recorded all of the parts himself after the rest of Purple Rain was finished—but its biggest innovation sprang from a conversation, and it’s credited to a band. Without a bassline it hangs in the air, shimmering, like an invitation to a purple palace in the sky.

    At this point in his career, Prince sometimes seems more like an ideal or a guardian spirit than an actual musician. (I think he knows this too, continuing to release fine records and singles that can’t help but riff on past glories.) His existence lets you believe that skepticism and intolerance can be defeated through genius and sheer will—if a tiny man wearing pantyhose and singing like an angel can become the biggest rock star in the world, you can overcome whatever happens to be cramping your style one lousy morning. "When Doves Cry" is the cap on his rise and the root of his myth, and it remains economic, innovative, and exciting. This is what it sounds like when a legend is born. —Jamieson Cox

    See also: Prince: "Controversy" / The Time: "Jungle Love"

    The Smiths

    “How Soon Is Now?”

    Rough Trade/Sire; 1984

    10

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    The tremolo pulse that opens "How Soon Is Now?" is the kind of sound musicians and listeners spend a lifetime chasing after: something never heard before and never successfully replicated since. Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr admitted that he wrote the song (early working title: "Swamp") to channel what he thought Creedence Clearwater Revival sounded like, even though his own knowledge of their catalog didn't go much further than the Gun Club's cover of "Run Through the Jungle". The guitar texture, meanwhile, was inspired by Can's "I Want More", Bo Diddley's "Mona", and Hamilton Bohannon's "Disco Stomp", of all things.

    While Morrissey's lyrics for the song rank among his most achingly direct, as well as his most universal ("I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everybody else does") and his portrait of a terrible night out is funny because it's true ("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"), what makes the song such a triumph is ultimately its unique sound—not just that eerie, head-stretching tremolo, but also its shrieking guitar accents and lonesome slide guitar evocative of blues harmonica. That malleable quality, the sense of something being liberally and viciously smeared across the stereo field, would become a key antecedent for My Bloody Valentine's tremulous roar, and shoegaze in general, but at this moment the sound belonged only to them. —Philip Sherburne

    See also: The Smiths: "Bigmouth Strikes Again" / The Smiths: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"

    Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

    “The Message”

    Sugar Hill; 1982

    9

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    Amid the luxury high rises and organic eateries, it’s easy to forget that New York City in 2015 is only a generation removed from a different city entirely. Many of the same city streets lied undeveloped, little more than piles of rubble from dilapidated buildings and tenacious weeds snaking through the devastation, as indelicate urban planning shuttled the rich out of the city and folded the impoverished into cubbyhole apartments. Out of that wreckage, too, bloomed hip-hop. It was both an escape from the perils of an unsafe city and a method of speaking to them. The greatest early expression of hip-hop’s twin power as dance music and social commentary is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s "The Message". Grandmaster Melle Mel cuts to the bloody quick in his opening verse, painting a picture of inner city disenfranchisement—from neighborhoods specked with bombed out buildings and the job market keeping minorities living in them, to the live wire desire to snap under the pressure of pretending these conditions are just the way of the world. It feels like an answer to Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues", casual observation of one’s destitute surroundings as social commentary. Before it, MCs mostly toasted the party while DJs did the heavy lifting. After it, you had to say something. —Craig Jenkins

    See also: Kurtis Blow: "The Breaks" / Treacherous Three: "The New Rap Language"

    Talking Heads

    “Once in a Lifetime”

    Sire; 1981

    8

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    The narrative arc of Talking Heads’ 14-year career was David Byrne’s slow socialization process and gradual coming-to-awareness of his own soul. The story is told most succinctly in Stop Making Sense, as Byrne proceeds from a herky-jerky, Travis Bickle-style alien exploring late-'70s New York in boombox-accompanied opener "Psycho Killer" through the concert-ending revelation of "Take Me to the River", where his fledgling attempts at rhythm come full-flower into a Memphis-style baptismal rite. Track that trajectory over the band’s discography—one of the most mesmerizing runs in American pop—and Byrne’s narrative blooms into an allegory for the thinking person coming to terms with their body, with "Once in a Lifetime" as the climax. The transfixing moment when the Heads' preternatural knack for rhythmic innovation, chant-along lyrics, chin-stroking abstractions, and cultural syntheses combine into a transcendent total, "Lifetime" is also the epitome of 1980s art-pop, the song too far ahead of its time to top the charts, but which would rightfully earn its reputation once everyone else caught up.

    The inspirations for "Lifetime" show a restless, creative band reframing the transmissions from a quickly globalizing world into its own open-hearted pop-patois. As with the sessions that created Fear of Music’s lead track "I Zimbra", the band sought inspiration-through-groove, inspired by co-producer Brian Eno's fondness for the Velvet Underground's rhythm-first mantra and a group-wide fixation on West African pop like highlife and Afrobeat (a Byrne guitar line that winds its way through the chorus sounds like King Sunny Ade filtered through the Centipede sound processor). On the verses, Byrne’s Dadaist consumerism koans—inspired by American radio evangelists—are social conscience reduced to abstraction, and the Eno-penned chorus similarly emerged from the ambient auteur humming catchy vowel sounds in the studio. MTV would launch 10 months after Remain in Light’s release, and the "Lifetime" clip (featuring Byrne and no one else—democracy works in-studio, but makes bad promo) ran in high rotation for the content-desperate network. Byrne’s abstruseness translated perfectly to a music video format with no clear language, perfect for a group that had invented its own musical Esperanto. The nervy gesticulations Byrne copped from films of epileptic seizures and Japanese dancers became as much a part of "Remember the '80s?" argot as the song itself.

    The fusion of brain and body—Byrne and Eno's theorizing plus Tina Weymouth's brain-burrowing servo-motor bass riff—makes "Once in a Lifetime" the embodiment of Byrne’s decade-plus-long neurotic passion play with Talking Heads. But the sum of "Lifetime"'s idiosyncratic parts have also spent a lifetime piling up into what's now regarded as one of pop’s weirdest anthems. All of the tics, theories, grooves, and happy accidents get caught in the glow of Byrne hollering "letting the dayyyyyys gooooo byyyyyyy/ once-in-a liiiifetiiiiiiiime!!!" Like the best pop slogans, it means little to the brain but everything to the hips, lungs, and heart, a band at its peak capturing time while marveling at its expiration. —Eric Harvey

    Joy Division

    “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

    Factory; 1980

    7

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    It may be impossible to hear "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as anything other than rock’s most exquisitely crafted suicide note, recorded just two months before singer Ian Curtis hanged himself at his Macclesfield home and released one month after. However, the song’s most startling quality is not the withering fatalism of Curtis’ lyrics—which address his failing marriage to his wife, Deborah, in discomfiting detail—but the calm, almost contented clarity with which he delivers them. In light of all the torment and anguish he projected throughout Joy Division’s brief lifespan, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is the closest we ever got to hearing Ian Curtis at peace with himself.

    Even after decades of ubiquity, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" retains an uncanny allure. It stands as both Joy Division’s most musically expansive yet lyrically intimate statement, its soft-focus synth lines serving as salve for lines so emotionally devastating ("Why is the bedroom so cold/ You’ve turned away on your side"), you almost feel guilty for dancing to the song at an '80s retro night. What makes "Love Will Tear Us Apart" so eternally transfixing is not the mere fact that we know what followed—it’s that you get the overwhelming sense that Curtis knew what was coming, too. —Stuart Berman

    See also: Joy Division: "Atrocity Exhibition" / Joy Division: "Isolation"

    Kate Bush

    “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)”

    EMI; 1985

    6

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    After a half decade spent wandering the forests of art-damage, Kate Bush re-emerged (dressed as a druid, on tea-time TV) with one of the most warmhearted distillations of desire ever committed to pop. Compassion was in short supply in the Britain of 1985; meanwhile "Running Up That Hill" longs to be understood, but to better understand someone else, too, capturing the balancing act in its tussle between atavism and futurism, vulnerability and might, empathy and lust. On 1982's The Dreaming, Bush, self-producing for the first time, used her newly discovered Fairlight to generate a smorgasbord of exotic samples, indicating gazes set down the rabbit hole. Here, the synth is a divining rod, the padded footprints to Stuart Elliott's heartbeat snare, and the effect is epic without employing her regular windy signifiers of scale. Bush's regained direction is utterly piercing without sacrificing "Running"'s complex and perilous ascent: Thirty years on, the view from the top is still breathtaking every time. —Laura Snapes

    See also: Kate Bush: "Cloudbusting" / Kate Bush: "This Woman's Work"

    Public Enemy

    “Fight the Power”

    Motown; 1989

    5

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    Would Do the Right Thing have the same urgency and rising tension running through its first two acts if Spike Lee hadn't hand-picked Public Enemy to provide that core piece of the soundtrack? And would Public Enemy have risen even further from the heights of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to a permanent place in hip-hop's top tier if they hadn't amplified its tectonic impact with a song that proclaimed it was just the beginning of their revolution? It's hard to say, but it's even harder to think of a more mutually beneficial pairing that not only resulted in early breakthroughs for both parties, but a call to arms for both their fields.

    Even without its cinematic origins, "Fight the Power" is ruthlessly vivid. The Bomb Squad's expansion of their own production capabilities over the course of the previous year is borne out in just how much sleekness they've added to their high-impact method of building beats: the James Brown DNA's a fusion of "Funky Drummer" percussion and a riff from "Hot Pants Road", ramped up just enough to match their trademark solar-plexus impact with the motivation to move. (Hence the perfection of Do the Right Thing's opening credits featuring Rosie Perez alternating between dancing and throwing hands, often simultaneously.) And a precedent to the message sneaks in through that barrage, a collage-choir of voices weaving in and out choppily through the beat: a massed "I" from the Wailers' "I Shot the Sheriff", a robotic "yeaaaaah" from Bambaataa's "Planet Rock", shouts from Sly & the Family Stone and the Dramatics and Trouble Funk—like all that Black musical expression and rebellion's been leading up to this very point.

    And in Chuck D and Flavor Flav's world, it's a point of no return. The slogans you probably know already, and they're still full of contagious catharsis over the state of Black disenfranchisement in America: "Our freedom of speech is freedom or death," "Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps," "Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me…" But P.E. were always more than just sloganeers on the mic—this is also one of Chuck's best pure exhibitions of rhyming, rolling out linguistic dexterity all day every day: just listen to him take off like the Concorde at the outset of the second verse. And Flav riffs like a powerhouse: he was never just a hypeman, but here he's like the knockout blow of a fluid combination, a party-starter in isolation but a fired-up rebel when his voice burst out in tandem with Chuck's. "Fight the Power" straddled decades when it was positioned as the climactic final track of 1990's Fear of a Black Planet, but it somehow sounds even less like the '80s as time churns on—from Radio Raheem to Eric Garner, the words still demand to be heard. —Nate Patrin

    See also: Public Enemy: "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" / Public Enemy: "Don't Believe the Hype"

    New Order

    “Blue Monday”

    Factory; 1983

    4

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    So much is gloriously wrong with "Blue Monday" that it’s hard to know where to start. The song originally began as a way for New Order to avoid playing encores live—something a synthesizer could play without them being onstage. Speaking of lazy, frontman Bernard Sumner admitted to stealing the song’s keyboard pads from Kraftwerk’s "Uranium", the arrangement from Klein + MBO’s "Dirty Talk", the bassline from Sylvester’s "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", and the driving beat from Donna Summer’s "Our Love". To make matters worse, woeful business decisions surrounded the 1983 single. There was graphic designer Peter Saville’s decision to make the die-cut sleeve look like a 5 ¼” floppy disc, which ended up costing so much to manufacture that every copy of "Blue Monday" sold was a loss leader for Factory Records. Running at seven-and-a-half minutes, it was also too long for the pop charts. And since Factory was not recognized by the British Phonographic Industry, it did not qualify for a gold disc—a pity, as "Blue Monday" remains the biggest 12” single of all-time, selling over 3 million copies worldwide. Apparently, they did something right.

    "Blue Monday" found one of the most iconic bands of the early '80s moving beyond the shadow of their own tragic post-punk past and into the future. And while the song synthesized dance music of all stripes from that era—classic disco, hi-NRG, Italo, new wave—it also managed to tease out doubt from within those ecstatic sounds. —Andy Beta

    See also: New Order: "True Faith" / New Order: "Age of Consent"

    N.W.A

    “Straight Outta Compton”

    Ruthless/Priority; 1988

    3

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    If you want to understand the importance of "Straight Outta Compton", try to imagine a world without it. There’s an alternate '88 where it bombs, and Ice Cube returns to architectural drafting school in Northern Arizona. Eazy E goes back to selling crack and dodging the battering ram. Dr. Dre rides out his run with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, sells swap meet mixtapes for spare cash, and never finds the right rappers to implement his vision.

    Maybe gangsta rap never usurps L.A. electro-funk. Raiders jackets and quicksilver suits co-exist peacefully. Tipper Gore never becomes a shook one. Maybe Inglewood or Watts become alternate Meccas of West Coast rap. Compton never becomes hip-hop’s Hub City and never yields DJ Quik, MC Eiht, The Game, Kendrick Lamar, or YG. Extend this gruesome scenario further and Friday never gets made, Snoop Dogg never expands the English lexicon, and medical marijuana never gets green-lit.

    How powerful is this song? Even its parody, "Straight Outta Locash", is better than 92% of all rap records ever made. It’s both socio-political polemic and AK-47 shoved in the gullet of Ronald Reagan, Daryl Gates, the CIA, FBI, and concerned parents. Police sirens signal the chase, but Eazy, Cube, Dre, and Ren are anti-heroes too heavily armed, aggressive, and sly to get caught. They’re laughing all the way to rob the bank.

    If militarized tanks crushed the doors of Compton homes, this was the nuclear response: Led by four nihilistic villains who would smother your mother and make your sister think they loved her. In Cold Blood in Compton. If the N.W.A film exaggerates them as Marvel Comic titans, that’s just how this song made them seem. It wasn’t the first gangsta rap salvo, but it might be the one that matters most. Insurrection in its most sawed off form. —Jeff Weiss

    See also: N.W.A: "Express Yourself" / N.W.A: "Gangsta Gangsta"

    Michael Jackson

    “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'”

    Epic; 1983

    2

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    "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" supports the weight of Michael Jackson’s transition from funky boy wonder to Thriller's omnivorous pop demi-god, builds a bridge between his precocious past and troubled future. Off the Wall had sealed Jackson’s solo stardom three years earlier, but it’s music for the end of adolescence rather than the beginning of adulthood. He stumbles over words, trips over his own two feet, floats on the vestiges of disco like he’s drifting through an amusement park lazy river; "She’s Out of My Life" is heartbreak as rendered by someone who’s experiencing it for the very first time. Fast forward to 1982: "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" is paranoid, sharp, angry, and cluttered, and it’s a window into both the righteous martyrdom and broad platitudes Jackson would come to lean on as his career progressed.

    The song takes on a lot of musical heft too, mostly because it sounds like everything: lithe funk and disco like the kind Jackson made on Off the Wall, aggressive, mathy rock, African pop, experimental music. (Take a minute to listen to Jackson’s array of bizarre backing vocals and sounds—it’s more Laurie Anderson than "The Lady in My Life".) This extreme breadth is enabled by one of the greatest rhythms in pop history and one of its most agile vocalists, flitting in and around the song like a hummingbird. There’s a reason Kanye West, perhaps Jackson’s foremost contemporary disciple, chose to reference this song at the height of his foray into maximalism: Jackson had drawn up a blueprint for him almost 30 years earlier. That sheer size—that cavernous, yawning quality—is the ultimate legacy of "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’". If you’re going to become the biggest star in the world, it helps to make the biggest song. —Jamieson Cox

    See also: Michael Jackson: "Smooth Criminal" / Michael Jackson: "Thriller"

    Prince and the Revolution

    “Purple Rain”

    Warner Bros.; 1984

    1

    "Purple Rain" was released into a climate where Prince was known as an R&B artist but had ideas that expanded on the gospel roots of soul and the flamboyance of synthesizers. And so he wrote a brazen homily for the future of music, using a wistful guitar riff, floor-to-ceiling drums, dulcet swells of string and organ, and an indomitable two-word hook meant to be sung by a chorus, a room, an arena full of people. But it’s the sweltering guitar solo—so good it still moves people to tears—that brought the song into the upper echelon of stadium ballads. Purple Rain, the album and the film, were the magic results of Prince’s limitless imagination and bridged an invisible aural divide, premised on race, that, up until that point, only Michael Jackson had truly managed to transcend. And "Purple Rain" the song is where it all came together in majestic fashion.

    The funky and explicit Dirty Mind established Prince as a virtuoso, but for Purple Rain he intentionally fashioned himself as leader of a band called the Revolution (including Wendy & Lisa, who became mythic figures themselves) in order to break with expectations of black artists and find an entry point into white, rock audiences. It seems cynical, but that bifurcation remains to this day, albeit on a more subtle level. It’s what drives Kanye West to defy the limitations imposed on rappers, a narrative that is imbued in the fawning critical response to his sprawling fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Prince no longer wanted to be put into a box, and "Purple Rain", mixing the sacred and secular, is the glorious sound of escape.

    No one in modern pop music, except maybe Beyoncé, can touch Prince’s legacy as a perfectionist. The man, with his wardrobe and rude falsetto and kinetic performances, had perfected "flawless" decades before Bey made a song about it. And so it’s staggering to comprehend that the version of "Purple Rain" beloved by lovers and sensualists around the world was recorded live in the moment, on stage at a Minneapolis benefit concert in the summer of 1983. The 11-minute recording was snipped of a verse and buffed to a shine, but nonetheless, left largely intact as the still-burning finale on Purple Rain, the album and film that turned Prince into a global superstar. It’s a testament to Prince’s vision and the intense rigor it takes to orchestrate a moment, and it’s something our detail-obsessed world, despite every filter and pitch corrector at its disposal, might struggle with today. And that Prince is so prudent with his image, story, and product but capped his best-loved album with a first-take isn’t a coincidence, but an integral part of his genius. —Anupa Mistry

    See also: Prince: "Let's Go Crazy" / Prince: "The Beautiful Ones"


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    From the Pitchfork Review: As Much As I Can, As Black As I Am: The Queer History of Grace Jones

    This article originally appeared in an issue of our print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, which you can subscribe to here.


    Grace Jones is perched on a ledge above the dancefloor of New York’s 12 West, the state-of-the-art, members-only gay disco, about to take the stage for one her first performances. The year is 1977, and no one is prepared for what’s about to hit them.

    Tom Moulton, father of the dance mix and Jones’ early producer, describes the scene: “All of a sudden the spotlight hits her. She starts singing ‘I Need a Man’, and the place goes crazy. After she finishes, she goes, ‘I don't know about you, honey, but I need a fucking man!’ Talk about a room-worker. Whatever it takes. She was so determined.”

    To understand the impact of this moment, one must understand a bit of history. Just a few years earlier, it had been illegal for two men to so much as dance together in New York City. With the exception of maybe hairdressers and artists, queer people risked unemployment if they merely hinted at their orientation outside the confines of gay bars and clubs, and it was in these discos that the seeds of liberation were sown. At 12 West, gay people could grasp the power of their collectivity and understand what it meant to be free.

    That night, Grace Jones sang “I Need a Man” just like a man might—tough and lusty, she was a woman who was not just singing to them, but also for them, as them. She was as queer as a relatively straight person could get. Her image celebrated blackness and subverted gender norms; she presented something we had never seen before in pop performance—a woman who was lithe, sexy, and hyperfeminine while also exuding a ribald, butch swagger. In ’79, Ebony got her je ne sais quoi exactly right: “Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.”

    Even now, her transgressive charisma remains bold. She still feels outré.

    In 1960, a 12-year-old Beverly Grace Jones moved from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to Syracuse, New York, with her family. She didn’t have many friends; a high school report card described her as “socially sick.” Halfway through her studies at Syracuse University, she impulsively abandoned school to work on a play in Philadelphia. The Pentecostal preacher’s daughter realized there was no going home after that, and she moved to New York City in 1975 to fulfill her dream of becoming a star.

    At first, Jones modeled for the Wilhelmina Agency while doubling as a go-go dancer under the pseudonym Grace Mendoza. “Even though the agency kept me pretty busy, I auditioned for every play and film I could find,” she told The Baltimore Afro American in 1985. “But they all wanted a black American sound, and I just didn’t have it. Finally, I got tired of trotting around and took myself to Paris.”

    In France, her blackness set her apart from other models, and Jones landed covers of Stern, Pravda, and Vogue. Within a few months, she recorded a few singles; one was sent to Cy and Eileen Berlin, an enterprising husband-and-wife team who later managed Tom Cruise. Jones flew back to NYC with her roommate, actress Jessica Lange, and met with the Berlins. Impressed by her exuberance, star quality, and willingness, they signed on to manage her. “I thought of her as family,” says Eileen Berlin. “My son had gone to college, so I gave her his room.”

    At the time, Tom Moulton’s pioneering club-specific mixes were blowing up both discos and R&B radio, and the Berlins begged him to produce their new client. Moulton and Jones’ partnership began with the double-sided ’76 single, “Sorry” / “That’s the Trouble”, and their next collaboration, “I Need a Man”, quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s disco chart the following year. Hoping to capitalize on Jones’ burgeoning fame, the Berlins approached Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed her in short order. Given the combination of Blackwell’s status as an international reggae ambassador and Jones’ Jamaican roots, Cy Berlin anticipated a good fit. He didn’t know how right he would be.

    Although Moulton and Jones made three albums together in three years—’77’s Portfolio, ’78’s Fame, and ’79’s Muse—the two former-models often clashed: “I always teased her about sounding like Bela Lugosi,” recalls the disco godfather. “I stood next to her while she was singing because I got so sick of hitting the talkback button [in the control room]. The moment she'd go off, I'd stop her. I was hard on her, but no matter how much I pushed her, she would take it and push herself.”

    Portfolio’s continuous first side featured Broadway tunes set to string-intensive bluster arranged by the Salsoul Orchestra’s Vince Montana and performed by members of MFSB, a cohesive pool of studio musicians who played on nearly every Philadelphia-originated soul hit of the ’70s. But against the plush effortlessness, Jones sounded strained; the weight of Moulton’s hand was audible and uncomfortable to hear.

    However, the LP’s second side dished out a masterstroke in Jones’ take on Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, a version of which Moulton previously recorded with forgotten ’70s singer Teresa Wiater. Jones had gotten her hands on an acetate pressing of Waiter’s unreleased recording, which was wowing the 12 West crowd, and she lobbied Moulton to let her have it, baiting him that it would be a sure hit for the two: “I’m big in France.” The same rawness and struggle that worked against Jones on Portfolio’s Broadway arias conveyed the absolute heartbreak of “La Vie En Rose”.

    On Jones’ second album, Fame, Moulton bolstered the French connection: Most songs were written by Jack Robinson and Jacques Pépino (credited as James Bolden, but elsewhere known as disco singer David Christie). Once again Moulton contrasted Philly soul’s lush romanticism with Jones’ confident, almost stentorian vocals. This time around, though, that combination gelled throughout because the material was made for her. Jones dedicated the album “with love” to her then-partner, Jean-Paul Goude, a Parisian multimedia artist who collaborated with her on the creation of subsequent album jackets, photos, videos, and stage shows. (Goude is also the father of her only child and author of a book that details their relationship, Jungle Fever.)

    While the follow up, Muse, didn’t yield as many memorable songs, it did feature another nonstop A-side that moved from sin to salvation via stormy arrangements by Iceland’s Thor Baldursson, whose keyboards and charts lit up Giorgio Moroder and Boney M songs alike. It also brandished a killer floor-filler with “On Your Knees”. Laced with sadistic intent by D.C. LaRue, a cult disco act whose world-weary, gay-coded “Cathedrals” presaged Pet Shop Boys, and former Sugarloaf frontman Jerry Corbetta, the most soulful of Jones’ disco singles also pointed toward her future. The philharmonic instrumentation oozed luxury, but the swagger of the lyric and the toughness of her vocal suggested rock’n’roll dissent waiting to be unleashed.

    I grew up in Rochester, New York, 90 miles from where a teenaged Grace Jones daydreamed about her grand ambitions in Syracuse. I was a fan of a local band called New Math, whose frontman did promo for Island and passed me a copy of Fame—the first piece of my disco vinyl collection. Later that week, I watched Jones on “The Midnight Special”, where she performed “Below the Belt”. She took the stage clad in a satin boxing robe, her hands taped for a fight. Halfway through, she pulled a brawny muscleman from the crowd, pretended to knock him out, and then stood with a foot planted on his chest, all while crooning, “Gotta take my chance/ Gotta go the distance.” She then did a victory dance as fake snow fell snow in celebration of Christmas (and perhaps—this being 1979—cocaine). I was hooked.

    That jaw-dropping TV appearance prompted a discussion with my high school drama teacher. He bragged that his brother had once met Jones at a Manhattan roller rink, where, instead of offering him a business card, she gave him a plastic whip with her name emblazoned on it. I knew at that moment that I belonged in Grace Jones’ New York, that suburban life would kill me the same way it had killed my alcoholic father. A year later, I arrived. 

    Jones’ “On Your Knees” was the last single I bought before leaving Rochester and it was one of the first songs I heard on the local disco station in New York City. Subway cars plastered with graffiti bore nearly inscrutable codes I was hungry to crack, for danger preyed upon the ignorant: Each weekend brought stories of fellow students who had been mugged. I remember protesters disrupting the filming of William Friedkin’s Cruising, which retold the real-life story of a fugitive who had lured men out of gay bars to bed and then killed them. In that anything-goes, pre-AIDS era at the tail end of the ‘70s, pleasure and danger were quite literally bedfellows.

    Macho, close-cropped clones ruled the city’s mega-discos, but I hadn’t escaped my small suburb just to conform, so I sought out unconventional spaces like Hurrah’s, the Mudd Club, and Danceteria, where dub, reggae and post-punk alternated with chilly synth pop and radical funk. All those genres would mingle and mutate in Jones’ next incarnation.

    Photo courtesy of Daily Mail / Rex / Alamy

    When Muse fizzled in the clubs and on the charts, Chris Blackwell took over as Jones’ producer. “I wanted to treat her not as a model, but to involve her as a musician,” he recalls. “Tom Moulton had been recording the instrumentation and then having Grace come in later, but I wanted her to feel as though she were a member of a band, and record her the way bands used to make albums, with the singer and the players doing their thing all at once.”

    Blackwell’s approach united two things he knew well: Caribbean ease and British audacity. “I wanted a rhythmic reggae bottom, aggressive rock guitar, atmospheric keyboards in the middle, and Grace on top,” he says. To get all that, he assembled a sextet of studio ringers at his Nassau studio, Compass Point. The soon-to-be signature sound of the Compass Point All-Stars went on to animate hits by the Tom Tom Club, Robert Palmer, Joe Cocker, Gwen Guthrie, and others.

    The sessions began with an unlikely remake of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”. Jones’ version preserved the original’s deadpan vocal delivery and minimal melody but dropped the tempo to a saunter, twisted the rhythm into a sharp funk, and sashayed with offhand earnestness, as if sexual intercourse while dying from vehicular collision was just another kink worth trying. The sessions moved with disarming speed and ease: “If Grace or the group hadn’t nailed a song by the third take,” Blackwell recounts, “it was dropped and they’d move to the next number.”

    Keyboardist Wally Badarou attests to Jones’ active role in the recordings: “Grace was there even during most instrumental overdubbing sessions. She was a part of the sound and the spirit that came out almost from nowhere. We all knew we were in for something quite experimental.”

    Soon they had amassed enough material for 1980’s Warm Leatherette and the beginnings of a follow-up LP that would become 1981’s Nightclubbing. Upon its release, Leatherette failed to charm either radio audiences or most dance clubs; it was too authentically reggae for the New Wave crowd, too slow for disco. But by the following year, both New York radio and the club scene had grown eclectic. Primed by kindred punk-funk blasts like Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” as well as Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat”, a far more open-minded dance music world was ready to re-embrace Jones and her new sound.

    Nightclubbing provided Jones with newfound popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. European audiences appreciated “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)”, a vocal reimagining of Argentine tango master Ástor Piazzolla’s 1974 instrumental “Libertango”. For that track, co-writer Barry Reynolds penned lyrics about a Parisian stalker, and Badarou provided a haunting introductory riff. Jones’ lyrics were a rebuttal, en francais, penned with the help of Blackwell’s girlfriend, actor Nathalie Delon: “What are you looking for? Hoping to find love? Who do you think you are? You hate your life.”

    In America, Jones’ R&B breakthrough came via an instrumental recorded by drummer Sly Dunbar during the Warm Leatherette sessions. The track first leaked out as “Peanut Butter” on the B-side of kiddie reggae crooner Junior Tucker’s “The Kick (Rock On)”, but, eager to make it hers, Grace co-wrote new lyrics equating cars with carnality. “Pull Up to the Bumper” pushed that metaphor towards lewd entendre: “Grease it, spray it/ Let me lubricate it,” she drawled. A summertime smash, “Bumper” became one of the last thoroughly sexual jams before a new virus began to complicate that kind of fun.

    The sessions for 1982’s Living My Life marked a culmination of the synchronicity between Jones and the All-Stars. “Blackwell felt the band was so good it deserved to be doing its own material,” Badarou remembers. As a result, the album was made up entirely of originals, save for a cover of Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Apple Stretching”. Each song began with Jones’ lyrics, from which Reynolds wrote the music to fit. Recorded in the wake of her breakup with Jean-Paul Goude, the album found Jones getting deeper and more rigorously percussive: The percolating lead track, “My Jamaican Guy”, has been sampled by acts from La Roux to LL Cool J. The title track was eventually left off the album but it showcased just how personal the work was for Jones, a world away from the show tunes and entendres. “You kill me for living my life,” she sang. “As much as I can, as black as I am.”

    By 1982, AIDS and Reaganomics were striking down Jones’ core audience, and the freedoms of the previous decade shifted to contractions. MTV arrived, and the New Wave dance sounds it championed—sonic stepchildren of Jones including Eurythmics, Culture Club, and Duran Duran—launched a second English invasion on the charts. Jones’ singular appearance and meticulously crafted presentation made her a natural fit for the burgeoning music video medium, especially in its early, experimental days.

    She asserted herself as an astute visual artist with her 1982 VHS release, A One Man Show. Directed by Goude and nominated in ’84 for the first Best Long Form Music Video Grammy, it combined still photography, concert footage, and video clips to distill the pair’s simultaneously sensational and intimate collaborations into a heated, unbroken montage. Jones donned pointedly geometric designs that accentuated her angles while clad in screaming Pop-Art colors that flashed and flattered. Goude’s art direction came alive through Jones, who glared at the camera as if possessed; she was imposing, alien, almighty—it’s not surprising that she would soon be stealing scenes in films like Conan the Destroyer and A View to a Kill.

    What came after One Man and the Compass Point trilogy would have to top them, which is precisely what “Slave to the Rhythm” did. Bruce Woolley, co-writer of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, wrote the song on spec for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but helped to re-draft it for Jones. Producer Trevor Horn was brought in, and a nine-month studio odyssey ensued, allegedly costing Island $385,000—a fortune for a singer who had never scaled the U.S. pop charts. (The exorbitant single was offset by padding its accompanying album with eight different versions of the track in attempt to break even.)

    “I remember a huge amount of experimentation with early digital techniques—the Synclavier, Sony digital tape spliced with sticky tape, and the Fairlight,” Woolley recalls. “We recorded a new version every four weeks, with Horn and Blackwell in search of the perfect track.” Between her acting roles, Jones returned to the studio month after month to update her vocals on the latest arrangements. “Slave to the Rhythm” was finally released in October 1985, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that all the laborious studio work and astronomical expenditures weren’t justified: Horn’s production work was ornate and opulent, lurid and symphonic. The spell cast by a larger-than-life black woman singing both metaphorically and directly about slavery was profound; the lyrics coaxed infinite interpretations. The Face—England’s authority on all things hip—declared “Slave” the single of 1985, and Jones appeared on the magazine’s January ’86 cover painted in whiteface. From the pure gloss of its ambition to the obsessiveness of its lyric, “Slave” is the ’80s.

    Her ultimate hit in much of the world, “Slave” underscored how Jones’ incandescence and charisma made her bigger than her sales figures might indicate. MTV virtually ignored the track’s Goude-directed video; even when framed by Horn’s familiar transatlantic brilliance, Jones was, for them, still too black, too strong. Nevertheless, she got over elsewhere on the sheer magnitude of her presence. With the help of Hollywood and some crazy commercials for Citroën, Honda Scooters, and Sun Country Wine Coolers, she became more massive than ever.

    “I like conflicts,” she told Playboy in 1985. “I love competition. I like discovering things for myself. It’s a childlike characteristic, actually. But that gives you a certain amount of power, and people are intimidated by that.” 

    By the following year, with Goude and Blackwell out of the picture, Jones wanted more involvement in her debut album for EMI subsidiary Manhattan Records, 1986’s Inside Story. Taking EMI A&R head Bruce Garfield’s direction to “imagine a leaf being blown through the streets of New York, twisting and turning in the sunshine” as a starting point, Jones and Woolley wrote every song together, then joined multi-platinum Svengali Nile Rodgers in New York to transform their demos. This mutually flattering union yielded last R&B radio victory, “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)”. Indicting white-collar criminals and Hollywood liars, Inside Story revealed the singer’s observant, socially conscious side, while the jagged arrangements meshed Rodgers’ ricocheting, jazz-schooled guitar with Woolley’s smart pop. It is a singer/songwriter record you can dance to.

    She followed it with 1989’s Bulletproof Heart, which yielded one resplendent club triumph, “Love on Top of Love”, courtesy of David Cole & Robert Clivillés, a house remix/production duo who later scored with C+C Music Factory. Jones co-wrote and co-produced most of the album with her new husband, Chris Stanley, whose output fell far below her avant standards; the two soon divorced. Having tried harder, thought broader, and crossed more boundaries than most of her contemporaries, this dance-floor renegade closed out the decade boxed in and coasting.

    By the late ’80s, I had moved to San Francisco; AIDS was decimating the gay community. One night in 1993, I finally got my chance to see Jones perform at a local gay nightclub and took my friend Brian, whose partner Mark was too sick to join us. Jones’ lived up to her reputation for diva behavior and didn’t take the stage until well after midnight. At first she stuck to her hits, including that year’s house excursion “Sex Drive”. But it soon became apparent that she didn’t need the spectacular filigree of her Goude years. The special effect was her smile: It just wouldn’t stop, and soon it became contagious. She didn’t back away from the elephant in the room: She dedicated one song to artist and AIDS casualty Keith Haring, who had used her body for a canvas on the occasion of her legendary 1985 Paradise Garage performance.

    That night’s show was remarkable for the simple fact that Jones just kept on going, granting one encore request after another, waiting patiently while the sound man scoured backing tapes to find the fans’ offbeat choices. When Jones got to such minor numbers as “Crush”, it became clear that she didn’t want to leave. She was giving as much of herself as she could to the beleaguered troops, knowing full well that many wouldn’t live long enough to see her again. A few months after that show, I inherited Mark’s cherished copy of Goude and Jones’ art book Jungle Fever after he and Brian died within weeks of each other. 

    Jones’ lust for life that night represented not just resilience to repression, but also a way of fighting back that sent a message: We, who are thought less than, shall burn brighter than our oppressors. That was why she was so beloved—because she led the way, even when we couldn’t proceed. Along with the lesbians and lucky survivors who nursed our fallen, Jones had borne witness to what Reagan, Bush, and most of the country willfully ignored; she knew the toll of it all. 

    Throughout the ’90s, rumors of new albums surfaced; Blackwell recorded several sessions, so did Tricky. Even Moulton buried the hatchet for a 1997 house remake of Candi Staton’s “Victim”, but Island nixed its release on conceptual grounds: They thought Grace Jones couldn’t be a victim of anything.

    Photo courtesy of Daily Mail / Rex / Alamy 


    In 2008, Jones unexpectedly reemerged with Hurricane, her first record in 19 years. She brought back Woolley and the Compass Point All-Stars while adding contributors like Emmy-winning composers Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who worked with her for a month in their home on the the gospel-shaded canticle “Williams’ Blood”. “Prince has a presence and everybody in the room goes, ‘Whoa,’” Melvoin attests from first-hand knowledge—she and Coleman were key members of his Purple Rain–era backing band, the Revolution. “When Grace walks into the room, it’s more subtle, but it has the same effect. You just go, ‘My God, she’s taken up all of the space with that personality.’”

    Hurricane mirrored that kaleidoscope. Unlike commonplace pop and rock luminaries who took extended vacations, Jones came back more polished and unpredictable than ever. With her trenchant track “Corporate Cannibal”, she even protested capitalist dehumanization by embodying it via grinding, insidious metal. But while her image as a constantly morphing, couture-clad hellion persists, the 67-year-old iconoclast stays true to herself. After all these years and so many disciples, there’s still no one like her. 

    While gathering up my Grace Jones memories, I was reminded of what Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon once said about entertainers. This was 25 years ago, so my memory may have altered her words, but went goes something like this: We pay to bask in the confidence of our most beloved performers so that we may learn to similarly love ourselves. Grace did that for me, for her audience, for anyone who has ever been too queer, too black, too female, or too freaky for the world around them. Grace Jones is liberation.


    As a companion to Barry Walter’s Grace Jones piece, various Pitchfork contributors highlight some of the artist’s finest moments in music, film, and talk-show badassery:

    The “Russell Harty” Incident 

    In 1981, Grace Jones pummelled British talk show host Russell Harty on his own BBC show. Harty always sat among the guests on his early evening gabfest, and on this particular night he chose to focus his attention on the men to his right, leaving Jones, seated alone to his left, out of much of the conversation. The scene plays out with a frustrated Jones admonishing Harty: “If you turn your back to me one more minute.” Harty dismisses her, wagging a finger before turning away. Jones then clips him on the neck and lands one, two, three more hits in quick succession before slapping him on the head. The confused audience applauds—was this planned? Is this funny? Is it art?

    This was my introduction to Grace Jones: elegantly beating the hell out of a man who won't take her seriously, her black body and everything it knows asserting itself for the good of fed up women everywhere. —Sara Bivigou


    “Use Me”

    Grace Jones’ version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is exactly what a cover song should be: It honors the strengths of the original while restructuring it, truly taking possession of it as if it were her own work. While Withers’ original is full of human pain and love, Jones’ version–produced by Sly and Robbie for Nightclubbing–turns on one robotic heel into S&M, all sex, all strength. The distinctly American, organic funk of the original is refashioned as electro-Caribbean minimalism, letting Jones’ voice be as powerful as Withers’. When issued from Jones’ lips, “use me up” becomes a challenge: a love song for power bottoms everywhere. —Jes Sklonik


    Vamp 

    Grace Jones fascinated me at a young age (seeing her as a kid while watching Conan the Destroyer with my dad both scared and excited me), but I didn’t become obsessed with her until seeing the movie Vamp at a sleepover in 1986. In the film, Jones plays Queen Katrina, a wicked vampiress running a strip club somewhere in Kansas (naturally). She makes her first on-screen appearance nude, save for a red bob wig and full body paint, doing a seductive dance that is as bizarre as it is weirdly erotic. At the time I didn’t really know much about her music (I was 11 years old and lived on a farm) nor could I appreciate that her body paint and the chair upon which she writhes were done by Keith Haring. The film is glorious ‘80s trash of the highest order, but Jones manages to transform the whole thing into high art by virtue of simply being there and, even though she’s playing the undead, sort of just being herself—beautiful, artful, exotic, and frighteningly wild. —T. Cole Rachel


    “Breakdown”

    Everyone from Suzi Quatro to the Replacements have covered Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 slowburner “Breakdown”, but Grace Jones’ take is the version most worth discussing. Given a sauntering, reggae reconstruction, Jones’ rendering is shaded by a subtle gradation of vocal inflections that give the song a searing potency: She is sturdy and commanding one second and mournful the next, the song’s titular collapse filtered through a distinctly Jonesian lens of fortifying self-sufficiency. Even Petty recognized that quality about Jones, writing a killer kiss-off of a third verse to cap her interpretation: “It’s OK if you must go/ I’ll understand if you don’t/ You say goodbye right now/ I’ll still survive somehow/ Why should we let this drag on?” In Jones’ more-than-capable hands, a bluesy classic is transformed into a clarion call, summoning strength from the depths of its vulnerability. —Eric Torres


    “Warm Leatherette”

    Grace Jones' cover of the Normal's “Warm Leatherette” is one of her more bizarre interpretations. The original song, based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel Crash, was a cold proto-industrial track riffing on the flattening of human affect due to post-modern technology. In Jones' hands, the song becomes a sassy tribute to the pleasures of ultraviolence, queering the original text from a self-serious and mega-ironic love poem into a campy exploration of black female sexual identity. By subverting the tropes of white, male, anglo sci-fi, Jones turned the Ballardian porno-nightmare into a celebration of perversion via the intersection of technology and sexuality. —Eric Shorey


    “Pull Up to the Bumper”

    Grace Jones pioneered the way for Shamir, Stromae, and countless other dance mavericks of today—not just with her bewitching candor but through her use of androgynous innuendo. “Pull Up to the Bumper” was initially banned in the United States for suggestive lyrics—“Pull up to my bumper baby/ In your long black limousine”—that were revolutionary because they were smart, risky, and intriguingly gender inclusive, just like Jones herself. By combining Studio 54’s pulsing drums and chic new-wave licks with the kaleidoscope of Andy Warhol’s playhouse (Jones was a regular in both scenes), “Bumper” became a crucial track for American dance music while pushing boundaries of raw sexuality. —Molly Beauchemin


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    Articles: The Larry Levan Bump: How the Legendary Paradise Garage DJ Ignited Some of the ‘80s Biggest Hits

    In March 2013, followers of the Paradise Garage Bot were baffled. The Twitter account, which sends out links to singles that sainted DJ Larry Levan once spun at the hallowed New York City club, had just posted Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which hit #1 in the U.S. in March 1988—six months after the Paradise Garage closed its doors in September 1987. Was this automatic bot Rickrolling its followers all of a sudden?

    No. It was simply doing its job. Before “Never Gonna Give You Up” turned Astley into an international sensation—and way before Internet pranksters helped him rack up nearly 140 million hits on YouTube—the flame-haired Brit was just another new artist whose promo single was given to Levan in hopes that he might play it on the club’s custom-made soundsystem. And in the ‘80s, no DJ had the ability to make a singer a star quite like Larry Levan.


    Listen to an Apple Music playlist featuring songs that were first played within Larry Levan's DJ sets before becoming nationwide hits.


    The Paradise Garage opened in spring of 1977 and made its reputation with the rise of disco. But the music industry’s speculative take on the dance genre, resulting in artists like brassy early 20th century theatrical star Ethyl Merman and Cookie Monster cutting disco tracks, led to a backlash just two years later. Even after that glittery bubble burst, though, the Paradise Garage remained vital and even grew in power. While no one wanted to do disco any more, that didn’t mean bands didn’t want to get club play; at the start of the ‘80s, it seemed like every act wanted to be heard at the Garage.

    Bands that once defined ‘70s punk rock at CBGB’s began making music that would appeal to the dancefloor located but one mile west of that notoriously filthy venue. Blondie cut “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture”, while Talking Heads locked into a groove to smooth out the spastic tendencies of frontman David Byrne, and the aquatic funk of “Once in a Lifetime” became a Garage favorite. Meanwhile, Levan used to tune the room’s sound to the Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance”, and even rock royalty like the Rolling Stones and the Who vied for club play.

    It speaks to Levan’s DJ sensibilities that it didn’t matter the genre of music—punk, pop, funk, disco, R&B—as long as it moved the crowd, it worked for him. And if Levan loved something, such as Pat Benatar’s brooding metallic synth-pop power ballad “Love is a Battlefield”, he would play it multiple times in a night, until any and all resistance was overcome.

    Through most of the ‘80s, there was a conduit between Levan’s sets at the converted parking garage in Manhattan’s still-desolate TriBeCa neighborhood and the national Billboard charts. What the DJ spun on a Friday night could wind up on the radio by Monday morning, and such demand in NYC often foretold what the rest of the country would want to hear. Looking back, it grows increasingly evident just how much influence Levan exerted on popular music: Yazoo’s “Situation”, Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat”, Grace Jones’s “Pull Up to the Bumper”, Class Action’s “Weekend”, Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait”, and Imagination’s “Just an Illusion”, to name just a few, all got their start within his sets. Well before YouTube and Shazam provided metrics to forecast a song’s popularity, one only needed to peer out on the Paradise Garage’s dancefloor to see what was going to be a hit. 

    Which is exactly what legendary radio personality Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker often did. Also known as “Chief Rocker” and “Loveman”, Crocker became program director of New York City’s WBLS in the ‘70s, taking it to #1. Culture critic Nelson George credits Crocker with creating “urban contemporary” as a radio format: “The pop-jazz of Grover Washington, Miles Davis’s fusion, the expansive R&B of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes—all found a home in the WBLS format.” Meanwhile, his buttery baritone and flamboyant on-air patter—“They call me wax paper because I rap on anything”—predicted the rise of hip-hop.

    Crocker tapped into disco early on, checking out David Mancuso’s now-legendary Loft parties and even showing up at Studio 54 astride a white stallion. But it was when he went downtown to the Paradise Garage in 1977 that a crucial alliance was forged. “I probably went to the Garage the first week it opened,” Crocker told Tim Lawrence in his book Love Saves the Day. “That was the only time I stayed downstairs. After that, I was always invited into Larry’s booth.”

    Every weekend, Crocker would stop by to see what songs were working in the club. “I wasn’t in awe of Larry, I treated him like my friend,” he said. “It was an exchange. We turned each other onto records. If people danced, I’d find out what the record was, and more often than not I’d play it the next day.”

    To cite one example, the music of Arthur Russell, the polymorphic musician who worked with everyone from Talking Heads to dance music legend François K, got a huge boost from this symbiotic relationship. When Levan began to play his remix of “Is It All Over My Face”, by Russell’s disco outfit Loose Joints, Crocker immediately picked up on it, eventually turning it into a NYC hit that “he heard the kids on Avenue B singing as they left school,” according to Lawrence’s Arthur Russell biography Hold On to Your Dreams.

    It was a straight line from club to chart, as West End Records founder Mel Cheren realized: “Frankie said that BLS became number one because of the Garage.” That relationship no doubt helped West End singles like Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” and Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait” become decade-defining tracks.

    When New Order and Afrika Bambaataa producer Arthur Baker wanted to get Rocker’s Revenge’s “Walking on Sunshine” airplay, he took it to Levan. Soon enough, it was in Crocker’s rotation, ultimately topping the U.S. club charts. “I had to take it record by record,” Crocker told Lawrence, explaining how he picked which Garage tracks to push. “Larry had a club to entertain, I had a city.” At the time, a Crocker bump might help a single sell upwards of a quarter million copies in NYC alone.

    The Paradise Garage didn’t want Crocker to ever mention the club on-air, though,  despite WBLS’s popularity. “When Frankie used to say ‘At the Garage last night…’ Garage owner Michael Brody would call and say ‘Please, Frankie, stop talking about us!’” club employee David Depino told Lawrence. “Michael didn’t want any promotion. That was why there was no sign outside the club until the last year or two. People used to walk around in circles looking for it.”

    As an underground venue whose devoted patrons were predominantly comprised of ethnic and sexual minorities, it was important that the Garage remain a secret, lest its culture be overrun by outsiders. So if Crocker picked up on a song and it wound up in the mainstream, that song no longer belonged at the Paradise Garage.

    Perhaps the prime example of the Paradise Garage-WBLS symbiosis lies with a one-hit wonder from Portland, Oregon named Nu Shooz and their featherweight funk track “I Can’t Wait”. “If I had heard it at the store, I would’ve thought it was bubblegum, with that dah-dunh-dunh,” François K. once told me, mimicking the song’s signature synth line. “But Larry played it 10 times in a week, until everyone in the club was going ‘dah-dunh-dunh’—that’s how hits are made.” Though the song was originally released in 1985, it didn’t start its chart ascent until Levan started playing it in early 1986. Soon after, it reached #2 on the Hot Black Singles chart (beating out the likes of Janet Jackson and New Edition, yet not quite overtaking Prince’s “Kiss”) before climbing as high as #3 on the U.S. pop chart and remaining in the Top 40 for 15 weeks.

    Levan died in 1992, Crocker in 2000; even with the consolidation of media, the rise of superstar DJs and Internet radio, and the emerging playlist culture spurred on by streaming services, it’s unlikely that a DJ and on-air radio personality will ever hold as much sway over the music industry as these two pioneering African-Americans did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not everyone had a chance to step foot in that TriBeCa club back then, but the thrill of Levan’s favorite songs eventually echoed out to the suburbs and beyond. He wasn’t just playing for the Paradise Garage, but for the entirety of America. 


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    Photo Galleries: Afropunk Fest 2015

    This year’s Afropunk Fest returned to Brooklyn last weekend and featured performances by Grace Jones (above), Danny Brown, Kelela, Thundercat, SZA, Cakes Da Killa, Death Grips, and more—as well as the most awesomely fashionable festival crowd around. Photographers James Emmerman and Erez Avissar were there to catch all action via live shots and portraits.


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    Interviews: The Dark Knight Returns: A Conversation With the Weeknd

    All of the lights are off in the Weeknd’s apartment. It’s 49 floors up, high above the long shadows of Toronto’s financial district, and the clouds outside make everything in this sparse and tidy condo look monochrome. There is a white leather sectional stationed on a white rug so plush it would be disrespectful not to take your shoes off before walking on it. Platinum records for his 2012 mixtape collection Trilogy hang on the walls. A massive window reveals Lake Ontario, which has been a blueish boon to winter-weary city folk all summer; on this evening in late August, it’s grey, a precursor to the grim season ahead.

    Abel Tesfaye strolls into the room and sits down at a long, dark, smoked-glass dining table. He’s in house clothes: a black Miami Heat mesh short-sleeve with fitted black jersey-blend pants and white house slippers. A child of immigrants who was raised in the bustling, brown suburb of Scarborough, he wears a filigreed Ethiopian cross around his neck—it’s the kind of token that stays hidden beneath clothing, but never comes off. His hair, the subject of so much curiosity and so many memes simply because he does whatever he wants with it, is there on his head as it should be. Mugs of green tea are set down on a folded paper towel, in lieu of coasters. Tesfaye smiles easy and often and is comfortable locking eyes, except when challenged to speak at length on his music. Then, he furrows his brow and speaks in clichés; his eyes swerve to the left; he stares at the iPhone set between us that is recording his thoughts; or he picks at an invisible blemish on the crook of his left arm. Otherwise, he asks questions. He seems eager to please, if not a bit nervous. When we say goodbye, Tesfaye’s last words are: “Write good things about me!” This is not the Weeknd I expected.

    The night before at The Mod Club, a cozy, 600-ish capacity venue west of Toronto’s downtown core, Tesfaye was a young god. The show took place exactly four years, one month, and one day after he stood on that same exact stage, clutching the mic like a totem, and performed as the Weeknd for the very first time. “You can look back at the videos from that first show and see how nervous I was,” Tesfaye says. “I was shaking. I didn't move from that mic stand, I was holding onto it for dear life.”

    To commemorate the full-circle moment, he wore the same beat up camo jacket last week; on his feet, though, were brand-new black Yeezy Boost 350s. The show was in celebration of Beauty Behind the Madness, his fifth full-length project (and first as a bona fide celebrity), and over the years, Tesfaye has become adept at working the stage. So this time, the production was scaled up to match his arena status: camera rigs taping a Vevo special, a floor-to-ceiling wall of his album art, signature cocktails at the bar.

    This sort of gleaming industry machinery—along with the algorithmic pleasure of Tesfaye’s first #1 single, “Can’t Feel My Face”—has some long-time fans freaked out. Gone is the anesthetized apparition making R&B out of mixed samples and malice (although the rampant misogyny remains); in his stead is pop music’s newest conquistador, a dancing, Max Martin-buffed chameleon, shacking up with multiple lucrative fanbases (Ariana Grande, 50 Shades of Grey, Ed Sheeran). But Beauty Behind the Madness, whose personnel also includes the singer’s spiritual mentor Kanye West as well as his longtime collaborator Illangelo, is only a surprise for those who thought the Weeknd was a passing fad. R&B was never Tesfaye’s strict domain, it just took him a couple of years to convincingly transpose his spectral brand of nihilism onto a radio-ready template. Look no further than a hook from his breakthrough 2011 mixtape House of Balloons and you’ll see that he’s been about it from the start: “All that money, the money is the motive.”

    “I love villains—they’re the best characters in movies, right? The Joker is my favorite villain of all time: You don’t know his past, you just know what his plans are.”


    —Abel Tesfaye
    Photo by Lamar Taylor

    Pitchfork: When did you first start to sing?

    Able Tesfaye: I’ve been singing my whole life. I’d randomly sing in the hallways at high school, and all my friends would be like, ‘You should sing on ‘Canadian Idol’!” It definitely gassed me! So then I got a microphone and a shitty computer and started recording these corny songs with my friends, Boyz II Men covers and shit. I would listen to it and I thought I sounded OK, but I was still shy, you know? But playing arenas gave me that confidence, like, “Maybe I do have that star quality.” I still don't feel like I'm 100% there yet, but I always knew I wanted to be a star ever since I knew that I could sing. I can never be Michael Jackson or do what he did, but he is definitely a good inspiration: I want to give the kids that feeling.

    Pitchfork: What feeling is that exactly?

    AT: When Michael died, it felt like part of my family died. I want [my fans] to know that my music is for them and if, god forbid, anything happened [to me], it would be like a piece of them is gone. That's what he made me feel. That's what I want to do. I'm grabbing that side of me and putting it out to the world—and the R. Kelly side, and the Prince side. All three are my inspirations, and you hear all of that on this album.

    Pitchfork: What do you find musically interesting about Prince?

    AT: Prince was always just pushing the envelope. Michael was doing that too, but he wasn’t as experimental. Prince turned experimental music into pop music. "When Doves Cry”, the whole Purple Rain soundtrack—he was inspired by the Cocteau Twins and new wave pop and brought it into R&B when he first started, and then it became this cool, next-level, kind of hard-to-digest music. Which is what I felt House of Balloons was. Image, lyrics, content, storytelling, cohesive body of work: That's Prince to me. Michael had cohesive bodies of work, but every song was its own song, and usually I can tell a story with my albums. R. Kelly is just a child of Michael and Prince; I want to be that of my generation. I mean, I hope I can be that.

    Pitchfork: Why did you decide to chase a more straightforward sound with this album?

    AT: For a while, I didn't focus on the commercial success. I really was going at the punk aspect of everything, which worked, but I felt like it got redundant. I owe it to people—to my family, to myself—to make music that makes me feel good and also is a little easier to understand.

    Pitchfork: Does it mean anything to you to have songs on the charts?

    AT: Yeah, it does, because now I’m grabbing the ear of most of the world. I’ve had this door open for a long time and now I’m inviting people in. It’s going to be fun, and I’m going to use this opportunity to make great music because I know the whole world’s listening. It inspires me. Now that I know people are expecting and anticipating great music, I’m going to make great music. [pauses] With great power comes great responsibility. [laughs]

    Pitchfork: Did you anticipate people would say that you’ve changed?

    AT: Yeah. I put “Real Life”, “Tell Your Friends”, “Losers”, and “Often” at the beginning of the album because I’m telling a coming of age story. It’s a reminder that I’m not gone.

    Pitchfork: I’m not convinced this album is actually all that different from what you’ve always been doing; the melodies are just stickier and the songwriting is stronger now. 

    AT: It’s like science at this point. I love when [fans] sing subconsciously, where it's like, “I know that melody.” I feel like a lot of people who say I'm doing something totally different are just getting into House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, and they’re like, “Oh my god, I want more [of that style].” But back in 2012, when I was continuing to do that kind of music, people were fed up with it. They were like, “This is all he can do?” I owe it to myself to show the world how versatile I can be, because that’s not all I can do. Why can't I try something that challenges me as an artist?

    Pitchfork: Did you have to learn how to write pop songs?

    AT: No. I didn’t have to learn. It’s always been in me. I just had to be confident enough to let it out. Working with producers like Max Martin and Kanye West, I’ve learned to do certain things technically and make a song in a different way than I usually would, but it’s always been in there.

    Pitchfork: What was it like to work with Kanye on “Tell Your Friends”? The vibe reminds me of “Devil in a New Dress” from Twisted Fantasy.

    AT: He used “Devil in a New Dress” a lot as a reference for that song. Everyone’s a character on my album, and his production, voice, and input is a character, too. There’s so much detail in his sessions, and he definitely helped craft who I’ve been, subconsciously, for the past few years. To actually be with him and talk to him and work with him, it’s just like coming to life. He had to make the same decisions I did: College Dropout, Late Registration, and then the shift into Graduation, and another shift into 808s & Heartbreak, which got mixed reviews but is one of the most important bodies of work of my generation. Kanye needed to be on this album, because I feel like I’m going through what he’s been going through—reinventing himself and pushing the boundaries. And he looks at himself as pop. He says, “I’m a pop artist. You can’t put me in one category.”

    Pitchfork: What character did Lana Del Rey play on the album?

    AT: Me and Lana have been friends for a long time. I’ve inspired her, she’s inspired me. I feel like we’ve always been talking to each other through our music. She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music. It’s just this ghostly collaboration that feels the most natural on the whole album. Even the whole monologue intro on “Lonely Star” from Thursday—I just realized now that that’s Lana. That’s Lana’s voice. [laughs] I mean, it’s my voice pitched up, but it’s her, it’s who she is. She was definitely the first feature that I wanted to bring on this album.

    Pitchfork: Has anyone ever called you out about the way you talk about women in your music?

    AT: In my life? Yeah. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever pushed it to the point where they can’t understand or respect the art, because it is art. Music is like film to me. When Tarantino makes a movie he gets people shitting on him 24/7, but it’s his art, and he stands by it. And at the end of the day, my listeners love it, I love it, I hope you love it. [laughs] The music I make on this album is definitely matured. It’s a bit of a different state of mind even though it’s the same person. You grow and you grow and you don’t know what the next album is going to be about. You never know what I’m going to say.

    "Lana and I have always been talking to each other through our music. She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music."

    Pitchfork: You retweeted a recent Pitchfork piece about how your East African roots are reflected in your music, what did you think of it?

    AT: It’s the first time any writer has really dove into that part of me and my music, but it’s always been there. That’s how I was raised. My mother, my grandmother, my uncles would play Ethiopian artists like Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke all the time in the house. They would drink coffee, eat popcorn, and listen to the music. It’s such beautiful music, but I didn’t realize how beautiful it was until I left that head space. That’s why I feel like my singing is not conventional. I mean, if you look at technique, I’m not a technical singer; I know I get bashed by R&B heads 24/7. I’m not here to do Luther Vandross runs. I can’t do what Jennifer Hudson does. But the feeling in my music and in my voice is very Ethiopian and very African and much more powerful than anything, technically. There are songs like “Gone” where I don’t even know what I’m saying—I let my voice do all the talking. I’ll probably do an album like that one day where it’s not lyrics at all, just melodies and great production. Maybe the next one, I don’t know. That’s the Ethiopian side of me. I didn’t know what [the musicians] were saying when I was younger: Just because you speak it doesn’t mean you really understand what they’re saying. Ethiopian poetry is a different language. I can speak and understand [Amharic], but I can’t understand their poetry. When my mother would translate—it’s the most beautiful thing ever. I’ve never been back home to Ethiopia, but when I do go I’m going to make it very special.

    Pitchfork: There are a lot of redemptive ideas on this album, but on “Tell Your Friends” you call yourself a villain. Do you like playing the villain?

    AT: [laughs] Do I come off as a villain? Yeah, it’s cool. I mean, I love villains—they’re the best characters in movies, right?

    Pitchfork: They’re usually the most complex, anyway.

    AT: 100%. The Joker is my favorite villain of all time: You don’t know his past, you just know what his plans are. The Joker that Christopher Nolan created in The Dark Knight had the scar across his mouth, and the first time you heard his explanation for it, he makes you believe that’s how he got it. But then you get into the film, and every time he talks about his scar, it’s a totally different story. That tells you what kind of person he is; he’s not telling you who he is. It’s kind of how I am—or how I was: You know me, but you don’t know me. I give you what I want to give you. I relate to villains like that—but I’m not out to destroy the world. [laughs]


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    Interviews: Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Disclosure Break Down Every Song on Their New LP

    In a recent New York Times video feature, Justin Bieber, Diplo, and Skrillex explain the creative process behind their song “Where Are Ü Now”, revealing that Bieber was physically disconnected from the actual production of the track. Of course, in the age of the cloud, that kind of separation is increasingly convenient and popular in the music industry—but, according to the songwriting brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence of Disclosure, it’s also overtly mechanical and potentially disingenuous.

    “We will never write a song and then send it to someone and get them to sing it,” says Guy, speaking generally, at the very start of our interview. “We don’t just want to tell a singer what and who to sing about because we want them to really believe in what they’re singing.” That genuineness likely helped make their debut 2013 album Settle such a hit, reaching platinum status in their native UK and charting high around the world. They’ve since casually accrued megawatt collaborations with the likes of Miguel, the Weeknd, and Lorde for their sophomore release, Caracal.

    While Settle had its fair share of barnburners, the new record feels bigger by design. The Lawrence brothers are meticulous producers who have quickly mastered pop’s clean sound—via complex drums and highly emotional major chords—while not turning saccharine. The songs on Caracal belong in your headphones when you’re pissed, when you’re happy, when you’re feeling. There’s a transmutable quality to them. To deliver that type of impact with every song, Disclosure recruited different vocalists for each one, always writing together and from scratch. In a pop world where the work of songwriting can become digitally fractured, they have found a way to truly marry the machine. The duo tell me about how each track on Caracal came to be, laying out the album’s themes and influences in the process.

    "Nocturnal" [ft. the Weeknd]

    Pitchfork: The opening track feels like a statement in that it sounds more like big pop than house. How did you end up working with the Weeknd?

    Guy Lawrence: We’ve been fans of each other’s music for some time. We didn’t really know what he was like as a guy, but he turned out to be so safe and cool and chill—but not arrogant in any way. We wrote that song in Jungle Studios in New York, which is probably the coolest studio that we’ve ever been to. It has this panoramic view of Manhattan, so that informed the vibe.

    Pitchfork: There’s a synth part in that song that sounds like a nod to Frankie Knuckles’ house classic “Your Love”?

    GL: That’s a tribute to Frankie. We started making that beat around the time he died and wanted to put a little bit of Frankie into this album—so we thought we’d rip him off! [laughs] The “Your Love” synth has been used in many songs, but that’s basically how the verse started. We didn’t think it would turn out to be a six-minute, 45-second track. It’s the longest song we’ve ever made, but when you listen to it, it all flows. To put it first was a bit of a bold decision, but it sets the tone for the record so nicely. It’s the exact right vibe to establish what’s changed from the first album to this album: It’s more R&B, it’s slower, and it’s more about the songwriting rather than the club. 


    "Omen" [ft. Sam Smith]

    Pitchfork: You previously worked with Sam Smith on “Latch”, but what was it like working with him again after he reached a new level of fame?

    Howard Lawrence: We’re really close with Sam and we share the same managers, so it wasn’t too hard in terms of linking up the date. As a guy, he’s not changed at all—he’s the same Sam that we met four years ago. We’ve all just improved and have a lot more experience with writing with other people as well as on our own. In that sense, it was different.

    Pitchfork: What are you better at now?

    GL: Well, I saw some YouTube commenters arguing about “Omen”: One guy said it sounds bigger and better, and this other guy’s like, “Oh yeah, they sound bigger because they’ve got all these guys making their tracks and the label is pumping more money into it.” But it’s like, “No man, that’s just the result of practice and growing up a bit and learning more things.”


    "Holding On" [ft. Gregory Porter]

    Pitchfork: This song feels like a Larry Levan remix of an old gospel track.

    HL: We were talking about how the more successful old garage and house songs were generally based on samples of old soul tracks, and how all the best samples have been used multiple times, to the point where you start recognizing the same one in loads of different songs. So we thought, “Well, the one advantage that we have over a lot of other producers is that we can just write a soul song ourselves and then sample that.” So we first recorded a song around the piano that was much, much slower and was in a different key but had all the same melodies and lyrics in it. Then we took the vocal away and reworked it into a Disclosure song, where we added production and replaced the piano with a synth and changed all the chords. It was an interesting experiment and a really enjoyable way of songwriting.


    "Hourglass" [ft. Lion Babe]

    Pitchfork: Lion Babe is a group that has a lot to gain from the exposure of being on your album. Do you feel like you work as much like A&Rs as producers?

    GL: Maybe it’s not quite A&Ring, because we only work with people that we think will get big anyway—they have to be good enough to make it on their own. We’re not there to help, we’re there to be part of the journey. So just as we were fans of Lorde and the Weeknd, we were fans of Lion Babe; it doesn’t matter that they’re not as big. [Lion Babe singer Jillian Hervey] is such a pop star—we’re big fans of Erykah Badu, and her voice reminded us of Badu’s, and that track’s got that vibe as well, even though it’s probably one of the clubbier things on the album. 


    "Willing & Able" [ft. Kwabs]

    Pitchfork: Kwabs is another mostly unknown artist.

    GL: We were hunting for soulful voices for this record, and he’s got the most soulful baritone voice that we’ve heard in a while. He reminded us of Seal mainly. And that’s probably one of my favorite beats that I’ve made. For this album, I’ve been trying to make everything as swinging as I possibly can, so it almost sounds like it’s on the wrong beat. So that was a bit of a departure—it’s really, really loose, and there’s definitely a strong J Dilla influence.


    "Magnets" [ft. Lorde]

    Pitchfork: If I didn’t know that Lorde sang this song I might not have guessed it. This track feels very diva-ish. What were you going for when you got into the studio?

    HL: Well, we performed with her at the BRIT Awards and knew she was a really good singer. And she’s really nice as well, which is cool. When we had nearly finished the record, we got this call from her saying that she was in London and wanted to get in the studio, so we went in not really expecting anything. It was a quick process. That beat is more like a hip-hop beat than anything else, and we all liked it, so we just started writing—we didn’t have a board meeting at the start, like, “We’re gonna do this.” 


    "Jaded"

    Pitchfork: Howard, you sing this track. What are you jaded about?

    HL: I’m not jaded. I’m cool, I’m happy. But there are a lot of producers and people in the music industry who take credit for the work of others when it’s not actually their work. Especially big producers—they have a song that’s written by one guy with a produced mix by someone else and then it’s sung by someone else, and it’s like, “Well, what did you actually do?” I mean, that’s fine, but as a consumer, if I heard someone who said, “I’ve written this song,” and then I found out it wasn’t by them, it’s a bit disappointing. A lot of the guys that do that are really talented and they’ve made some incredible music, but they get addicted to having success and feel too much pressure, so they get other people to make sure that their next song makes money. I think that that loss of confidence in yourself to make good music is what being jaded is.

    Pitchfork: But is that not the history of pop with things like Motown and the Wall of Sound—the studio is an industry.

    HL: Oh yeah. And I think it’s fine for a singer to sing someone else’s song: Burt Bacharach wrote some of the best songs in the world, and they’re sung by other singers. But the thing I don’t like is when a singer that can write songs starts getting someone else to do it for them. I don’t think there’s any problem with working with a writer or a producer, but I just don’t think you should completely hand it over to them.

    GL: And don’t hide it. That’s the thing. Even with someone as successful as Michael Jackson, everyone knows he had help from Quincy Jones, who got the credit he deserved.


    “I don’t like when a singer that can write songs starts getting someone else to do it for them.”
    Howard Lawrence

    "Good Intentions" [ft. Miguel]

    Pitchfork: When you met Miguel were you like, “All right, we gotta bring the sexy with this dude?”

    GL: That he’s a sex symbol is probably not the most important thing about Miguel to us. It was more about the tone of his voice and his music. For sure, he’s a born pop star, like Sam [Smith]. If you saw Miguel walking down the street and he wasn’t already famous, you’d be like, “Why the hell aren’t you famous?” He was great to work, very proactive. He’s a singer, but he’s a really talented artist and songwriter as well. He was really involved, even in the recording of his vocals—he’d pan all the vocals to where he wanted them in the mix. I was like, “This guy knows what he’s doing.” 


    "Superego" [ft. Nao]

    Pitchfork: How did you find London singer Nao?

    GL: We originally heard about her because we’re big fans of Jai Paul, and his brother A.K. Paul did a track with her called “So Good” that we loved. So we hooked up a session.

    Pitchfork: It seems like that process of hearing a song you like and then reaching out to the singer is pretty typical for you guys. Can you ever just listen to something as a fan?

    GL: When we listen to music, we are fans, and we want to learn about other artists in a fan way first. It’s quite good to have those upper-echelons of fame—your super superheroes—and to really think twice about working with them. Because we’ve met Sting and Mary J. Blige and all these super big people, and then you kind of think, “Oh, you’re just a human being.” It’s good to have a god-like figure who is beyond human, like Michael Jackson or Prince, someone who may or may not work on a Disclosure tune. We’d think very carefully about working with someone like Prince because if we did, he would become another living, breathing human. Whereas in our heads now, he’s like a god-like man who flies. It can be a tough choice, but it’s good to keep your superheroes as your superheroes sometimes.


    "We’d think very carefully about working with someone like Prince because if we did, he would become another living, breathing human. Whereas in our heads now, he’s like a god-like man who flies."
    Guy Lawrence

    "Echoes"

    Pitchfork: This song seems like a callback to classic UK garage sounds of the ‘90s. How much did the garage music of London influence you when you were younger versus listening to it after its era? 

    GL: Honestly, when we were kids, it didn’t really hit us. We were really young. I was born in ‘91, Howard was born in ‘94. We heard the big hits like “Sweet Like Chocolate”—you know, the crap, really. But Artful Dodger and MJ Cole were the two artists that stuck through as credible crossover acts who made good, pop-influenced garage, and those were the ones that we remembered. My whole teen years were just hip-hop, and Howard’s were just Earth, Wind and Fire and Seal. The thing that got us into garage was dubstep. And once you’re into dubstep, you just start tracing it back. Because dubstep is obviously stemmed from grime, and grime is from garage, and garage from house. That’s the path we found.

    In college, I had loads of friends who were into grime and I went to grime and dubstep raves. After a while, DJs just started playing old house and garage records again! We were going to watch Oneman, Jackmaster, and Ben UFO, back in 2009, and those guys were dropping old-school garage records—every third song would be an absolute classic. And we had no idea what some of those songs were. That’s when we decided to buy all that stuff and learn about it. Just because we were 10 years old the first time around doesn’t mean we can’t listen to it now; even though we got to it late, we still discovered it naturally, through buying records. That’s how we fell into it, and that’s definitely where “Echoes” is influenced from, 100%.


    "Masterpiece" [ft. Jordan Rakei]

    Pitchfork: So… you end your album with a song called “Masterpiece”.

    HL: [laughs] We were like, “This is fucking hilarious. Let’s definitely do it.” It’s called “Masterpiece” because what we’re talking about is a masterpiece, not because the song or the album is a masterpiece.

    Pitchfork: What’s the story with the singer on that track, Jordan Rakei

    HL: Guy’s friend found him singing in a bar in Australia and sent us a link to his SoundCloud, and we loved the music and then went on his site and it said, “I’ve just moved to London.” We were like, “That’s convenient.” So we wrote “Masterpiece” with him and with Jimmy [Napes]

    GL: His EP was probably the coolest neo-soul/hip-hop/R&B thing that we’ve heard in a long time. For a white guy from Australia, it sounds like D’Angelo. It’s reinforcing the fact that fame really doesn’t matter, you’ve just gotta be really fucking good.


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  • 09/02/15--14:30: 5-10-15-20: Dâm-Funk
  • 5-10-15-20: Dâm-Funk

    Dâm-Funk: "Glyde 2nyte" [ft. Leon Sylvers II & IV] (via SoundCloud)

    5-10-15-20 features people talking about the music that made an impact on them throughout their lives, five years at a time. In this edition, we spoke with 44-year-old modern funk guru Dâm-Funk, whose new album, Invite the Light, features Ariel Pink, Q-Tip, and Snoop Dogg, and is out this week via Stones Throw.

    Sly and the Family Stone: “Family Affair”

    I remember staring at my parents records: the Barry White album cover with the women in his hands [I’ve Got So Much to Give], the Superfly soundtrack, Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the There’s a Riot Goin’ On flag. I was drawn to the way “Family Affair” sounded very personal but still felt comfortable, like I knew who Sly was. Now I realize it was a work of funk from a dark-but-hopeful perspective—and that’s the kind of music that I make. Some people equate funk with screaming, platform shoes, and rainbow afros, but funk to me is exactly what “Family Affair” is—a smile and a tear. 

    Rush: Moving Pictures

    I was listening to KROQ and KLOS and KENT in Los Angeles, before they got corporatized. They would play a lot of new wave, like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, and there was this show called “The Mighty Metal Shop”. I used to listen to groups like Armored Saint and Iron Maiden—I had their posters and everything. My dudes in the hood were like, “What are you doing with the Number of the Beast poster?” I was always me, I didn’t care. 

    My major influence in the early '80s was Moving Pictures by Rush, especially “Red Barchetta” and “Tom Sawyer”. When my friends came over to my house and wanted to take a snooze, I would play Rush. They weren’t into it. But I always gravitated toward all styles of music and not just what was in front of me. I was that guy trying to break dance on a cardboard box, but I still tried to get Devo glasses. I was into everything, man. 

    I never saw Rush live, but I did see Kiss and Motley Crue in 1982, before Kiss took off their makeup. Me and my dad were the only brothers at the concert. There were motorcycle gangs, all kinds of shit. It seemed like people were rooting for Motley Crue, but Kiss whooped their ass. It was pitiful. Motley Crue were just trying to do the same shit as Kiss. It taught me a lesson: You can’t underestimate the veterans.

    I fell off on Rush when [1984's] Grace Under Pressure came out. At that point, I moved on to Kraftwerk, Egyptian Lover, and Prince.

    Prince: 1999

    P-Funk was the foundation, and we all loved them, but my generation related more to Prince and his crew because they were cooler. They looked cooler. They created another world. Though, since I came up in a Blood neighborhood, so it was kind of hard to walk around in a purple trenchcoat. I did press out my hair, though, and I still do that now. Some people can’t relate to the way we do that, but it’s called being fly. [laughs]

    Back then, everybody was listening to the same music and going to the same movies, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club. You knew what to talk about. Now, everybody’s on their iPod and you don’t know what the fuck people are listening to, but that’s cool too. I love the fact that, at this point, people can listen to somebody who isn’t in the mainstream, like me.

    But then, of course, I fell off with Prince after Batman.

    Mr. Fingers: “What About This Love”

    I started getting into more house stuff and rediscovered labels like Prelude and West End. After disco records were burnt in the baseball field, club music became more soulful, so you had groups like D Train, BB&Q Band, sophisticated disco stuff. The basslines were thicker. When the house cats from the early ‘90s started playing around with that stuff in the 4/4 beat, I knew what they were doing.

    At that time, all the kids were trying to collect breakbeats because A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul sampled something. But I was already beyond that because I had worked at the first Poobah Records store in Pasadena; I skipped over that and went to Chic and Change instead of only doing the 45 funk James Brown sound.

    He didn’t blow up, but I still hold Larry Heard as one of the most incredible geniuses of American music. He was Mr. Fingers first, then he became Larry Heard, and I’m thinking about doing something like that—I might change to Damon Riddick for my next album, because nobody can pronounce my name. They always say it like “damn funk.”

    Snoop Doggy Dogg: Doggystyle

    I was getting more into my G-funk vibe, embracing everything that was going on with Death Row and Hoo Bangin’ Records. Lo and behold, I ended up getting involved with that scene and playing keyboards for Westside Connection just by knowing people. It was a fun period, plus they were keeping it funk. A lot of people didn’t realize they were funkin’ and G-funkin’ at the same time.

    The Chronic was great, but when Doggystyle came, it was like, “We grew up with this guy.” Not that we knew him personally, but we just knew. Snoop represented people that weren’t known nationwide; our style, the way we walk, the way we talk. I did a record with this dude after all that, and it’s just another testament to how people will actually gravitate towards you if you’re real. And Snoop is a real dude. He came over my house with no bodyguards, just pulled up in a Porsche like, “What’s happenin’ man, let’s get down.”

    I was having fun with G-funk, but eventually I was riding home and listening to Steve Arrington’s “Nobody Can Be You” and I thought, “I can’t just keep doing background keyboards for all these cats, I gotta stick with my funk.” Then the South was coming up in hip-hop, and people were trying to get away from the West Coast sound. But now that sound is something we’re proud of again, and that’s what people like myself are displaying in a new way. That’s why I call it “modern funk.”

    Prefab Sprout: “When Love Breaks Down” 

    Prefab Sprout made a big impact on me. I discovered their music when I was at Poobah and I really got heavily into Paddy McAloon’s lyrics and the way he was able to make you feel—when you hit a certain chord and you say a certain word at a certain time, it makes people feel a certain way. He was an abstract pop artist, but he definitely has soul. Same thing with Todd Rundgren, he’s like a blue-eyed soul type of guy. All that stuff is very influential on me. People might laugh, but, I mean—Christopher Cross was incredible when you dig into the albums. Funk is not just a style of music, it’s an attitude; funk is not a fad, it’s a way of life.

    Starshine: "All I Need Is You"

    [Stones Throw Records founder] Peanut Butter Wolf discovered me on MySpace in 2006, and by then I had already been through that phase of playing Top 40 shit with other bands, just being at clubs in the Valley and knowing how to make people move, sit down, be sad, or yell. Some of these kids now are coming straight out of their bedroom and making a hot beat, but then they wind up on stage, and it’s not quite how it was in the bedroom. I’ve demolished these motherfuckers that are hot right now on the blogs, and I just look at them like, “sorry.”

    My club night Funkmosphere began in 2006, too, and I’ve been in that mindframe since then, just discovering rare artists, cats that are teachers right now, or who work at a DMV and put out records with only 500 pressed copies. I’m a cheerleader for those artists that never got to have the interview at this table right here, that wished they could. I guarantee you there was another Prince, another James Brown, another Sly Stone, they just didn’t do it. But the people around them know.

    One guy named Michael Bailey did a 12” called “All I Need Is You” as Starshine on the Prelude label, and there are a lot of unsung cats like him that need to be acknowledged. I just know that I’m carrying on their spirit, humbly speaking, without caring about making some kind of hit single.

    A lot of people asked me about how I felt about “Uptown Funk”, but I’m not gonna diss it because whatever brings attention to funk is what I care about. If they wanna chug down beers and post videos on YouTube of kids doing the dance to it, that’s cool. I do know that a lot of the people in the mainstream study the underground and morph it into something that is more digestible for the public. That’s why people are rooting for Invite the Light—it’s not gonna be some fucking huge record, but at least I did what I really wanted to do.

    Dâm-Funk: “I Don’t Wanna Be a Star!”

    Around 2011, I was in L.A. and dealing with a media frenzy over something called the “beat scene,” which was a little over the top. There were so many other things going on, and it made it seem like the entire city was this epicenter of 808 bass and wiggly wobbly post-Dilla drum beats. I’m sorry, I wasn’t influenced by Dilla. I’m sorry.

    So that time period was about me having to stay strong and not trying to change my music to be like that. I had to go full-fledged into the funk. I was listening to Ariel Pink too, he saw I was different, and I saw he was different. We weren’t trying to fit in. We both just stayed ourselves, and that’s why we laugh when we kick it now. We’re all slightly connected, but we have different vibes, and that’s what I love about L.A.

    What really represents that period was “I Don’t Wanna Be a Star!” because I didn’t and I still don’t. I don’t want any paparazzi in my business. I just want to be able to go to Ralph’s and roll home and not be bothered. I want to be able to go to Funkmosphere, take my record bags up to the DJ booth, and still be respected enough to be left alone to be a human being.

    When Todd [Rundgren] and I were on tour together, Todd was just walking around not giving a fuck. No limousines, no Lamborghinis, none of that bullshit. He can definitely do that, but he didn’t. It’s the same thing where Bill Gates has more money than all these motherfuckers out there and you never see him riding around in some fucking Lamborghini with the suicide doors. People talk about this Illuminati shit, and sometimes I look at some of these cats out there and I’m like, “Could it be that there really is some secret organization that gets these guys to inject that mindset and influence people?” The point is: That lifestyle is just not real, man. I like to be affiliated with stuff that’s organic. That’s all.


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    Pitchfork Essentials: Back to Cali: New School West Coast Rap

    During the last few years, a number of California rappers turned into bona fide hip-hop trendsetters—something that had not really happened for well over a decade. Coming on the heels of L.A. enclave Odd Future’s breakthrough in 2010, the sudden rise of Kendrick Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment crew gave the strong impression that West Coast rap, at large, could once again make a difference on a national scale.

    But what was ironic about the idea of a new West wave, in terms of style, was that the N.E.R.D. and Eminem-worshipping Odd Future clan couldn’t care less about their state’s regional rap lineage. Instead, they served as evidence of how strong, unprecedented voices could develop in relative isolation and emerge fully formed from an Internet petri dish. Even TDE’s work, in a sense, can feel standalone: Kendrick is a post-Kanye rap star, in that his appeal and ambition is much broader than his region. Though Kendrick’s stories are set in L.A., the music itself is informed by Mobb Deep as much as Ice Cube.

    In pinpointing the ways in which the identity of West Coast rap has grown and begun to affect the global hip-hop scene in recent times, it’s necessary to acknowledge Compton producer DJ Mustard. His spare, synth-bass-and-handclaps sound started brewing on the national level with Tyga’s 2011 breakthrough “Rack City” before taking command of the hip-hop charts—and eventually the Top 40—over the last two years. (It also defined one of the half-decade’s most formidable West Coast rap LPs, YG’s My Krazy Life.) Mustard’s “ratchet” sound played a large role in California's hip-hop resurrection, stealing a bit of the spotlight from the South, whose trap and snap production had dominated the culture for most of this century.

    Mustard’s sound did not arise out of nowhere, however. In addition to being presaged by his associate Ty Dolla $ign’s production (most notably on YG’s 2009 “Toot It and Boot It”), it strongly recalled the spare rhythmic architecture that had been prevalent in San Francisco-area rap since the national breakthrough of the hyphy movement in 2006. (In fact, contemporary Bay Area artists accused Mustard of cribbing their sound—and Mustard was even slapped by Oakland pimp-rap staple Mistah F.A.B. in response to dismissive comments he made about the Bay’s legacy.)

    To be fair, Bay music is less committedly smooth than the average Mustard-produced track and it often pairs loose flows with its rigid, dance-floor-ready BPMs. This approach—evolved from the work of larger-than-life forefathers Mac Dre and E-40—pervades the music of the post-hyphy stars of the late 2000s and today, from Lil B’s old group the Pack to Kreayshawn and her White Girl Mob to resident regional superstars HBK.

    In both Northern and Southern California, modern hip-hop is by no means organized along a simple club vs. lyrical divide. Compton rapper YG’s work of the last year-and-a-half, for instance, combines modern Mustard sounds with cues from traditional Death Row G-funk and DJ Quik’s disco tendencies. Meanwhile, nu-gangsta rappers like Crenshaw traditionalist Nipsey Hussle and laconic anecdotalist Dom Kennedy focus on fairly traditional d-boy raps. The Bay has a separate gangsta-rap tradition extending from the work of Mob Figaz in the late ‘90s and ‘00s; tragically, the group’s undisputed shining star, the Jacka, was shot and killed in February. The influence of the Figaz’s unique brand of introspective, often self-effacing gangsta rap and hazy, melodic production pervades today in work of Bay rappers like Berner, J. Stalin, and even cloud-rap pioneers Main Attrakionz.

    The following playlist is meant to provide a cross-section of the dominant sounds in West Coast hip-hop of the last few years as well as highlight some interesting cross-pollinations and anomalies. For the most part, I’ve avoided huge radio hits or music that has already been covered extensively on this website. These songs are exciting because they've affected wider hip-hop culture or because they showcase an artist inhabiting their own lane with self-confidence while still taking cues from music they grew up with.

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    Iamsu!

    “211”

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    It’s almost impossible to pick one standout track from Iamsu! or any of his Heartbreak Gang affiliates. Theirs is one of the most consistent, appealing, and influential catalogs in modern Bay Area rap, and they are all still in their 20s. This 2012 track, from Iamsu!’s Kilt mixtape, not only highlights the detailed post-hyphy production style that HBK built their reputation off of, but also Iamsu!’s razor-sharp rhythmic sensibility and soothing delivery.

    Main Attrakionz

    “Liquor Runs”

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    Oakland’s Main Attrakionz are known for being cloud-rap innovators who famously concocted their spacey sounds through MySpace correspondence with the likes of Seattle producer Keyboard Kid and Lil B. They’ve aped the sounds of early Triple 6 Mafia and influenced the geographically ambiguous warbles of the A$AP Mob. But for their first official album in 2012, Bossalinis & Fooliyones, the duo tapped into a sound that bore a closer relationship to the musical tradition of their region. This uncharacteristically disciplined track was produced by RobLo, a go-to beatmaker for the Mob Figaz crew who is best known for handling all production on the Jacka’s seminal The Jack Artist album. Against this beat, the affinities between Main Attrakionz’s breathy delivery and that of MCs like the Jacka and Husalah is thrown into relief.

    Problem

    “Like Whaaat” [ft. Bad Lucc]

    2013

    Listen on Apple Music

    Problem is from the L.A. area, but his style flirts plenty with post-hyphy Bay production: He works essentially in the YG vein, but has also done a full collaborative mixtape with Iamsu! This mid-tempo track—and near-charting single—is all ratchet handclaps and “heys,” but a serpentine Dre synth takes care of the entire high-end. Problem’s primary gift is for running circles around the beat without falling out of step for a second, which is exactly what’s needed to make a record like this work.

    Dom Kennedy

    “Erica, Part 2”

    2013

    Listen on Apple Music

    There’s not a clear precedent for Dom Kennedy’s style. Yet he’s the most compelling and successful independent rapper in Los Angeles at the moment, with his three studio albums all charting on the Billboard Top 200 in the last four years. His unmistakable, conversational delivery is disarming—untechnical but endlessly inviting. Not stylistically didactic, Kennedy has collaborated with everyone from Kendrick, to Ty Dolla $ign, to stoner-rap mainstay Curren$y. This track from 2013’s Get Home Safely finds Dom rapping off a moody electric piano riff and wildly fibrillating hi-hats with his trademark combination of vague melancholy and ease.

    NHT Boyz

    “Yp 196 YangOlogy”

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    The prolific NHT Boyz emerged from the same Bay Area scene as Lil B’s the Pack, but their sound is far from simple club music. Their work thus far is stylistically diverse and undersung, having received virtually no traction outside of California. They prefer a straight-to-YouTube or Datpiff-based approach, and are happy to rhyme over almost anything that sounds good to them, whether it’s an Ice-T beat, faux-‘90s gangsta rap, or “Rack City”. This track features original production by Richmond’s YP on the Beat, and possesses an ethereal quality somewhere between reverb-drenched cloud-rap and the featherweight synths and samples of 2000s Mob Figaz.

    Ty Dolla $ign

    “Work” [ft. Casey Veggies, Twista, and Nate Poetics]

    2014

    Listen on Apple Music

    Ty Dolla $ign is not only L.A. hip-hop’s most unabashed lyrical reprobate; he is a mad scientist producer and songwriter who has at least as much to do with the success of Top 40 ratchet music as DJ Mustard. Outside of offering indelible hooks and ghostwriting, he is an absolutely expert beat architect, hyper-detailed where Mustard is no-frills. Here, at a rather tame moment, he sings like the antichrist version of Frank Ocean, with a mini-symphonic approach courtesy of his production team D.R.U.G.$.

    Vince Staples

    “Birds and Bees” [ft. Daley]

    2015

    Listen on Apple Music

    Vince Staples writes about his experiences growing up in Long Beach, but the sound of his music is not usually representative of this locale, in a traditional sense. Most of his most well-known production comes courtesy of the Chicagoan who signed him—legendary Common and Kanye impresario No I.D. But on this year’s brilliant Summertime ‘06, Staples hooks up with Inglewood mastermind DJ Dahi for a few tracks. Dahi has masterminded everything from Dom Kennedy’s breakthrough hit “My Type of Party” to Big Sean’s pimp-rap tribute “I Don’t Fuck With You” to assorted TDE tracks. The fractured, almost krauty breakbeat of “Birds and Bees” is new territory for him: Though the groove is typically spartan, it mutates idiosyncratically throughout the song, punctuating Staples’ pithy phrasing. Eerie, airy synths play in the background while Vince delivers some of the most chilling lines on the album, assuming the unrepentant (or resigned) perspective of a go-to mover and shaker on the streets.

    Roach Gigz

    “Can I Rap”

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    San Francisco’s Roach Gigz lived and breathed the music of Thizz Entertainment gurus Mac Dre and Andre Nickatina, absorbing their extroverted humor and penchant for women, weed, and molly (before he had to swear it off). His endless similes recall Dre’s silliest litanies, but they are mixed, at times, with a more technical delivery resembling Eminem, and a upped free-association quotient  suitable for a kid reared on Weezy mixtapes. This type of big-beat monster—which draws a straight line from the unmitigated energy of classic Keak da Sneak hyphy—is what he does best.

    YG

    “Meet The Flockers” [ft. Tee Cee]

    2014

    Listen on Apple Music

    Mike Free is an early DJ Mustard co-conspirator who helped write and produce hits like "Rack City”, 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different”, and “My N*gga” (he later complained about not receiving sufficient credit and compensation). This is a rare solo production he did for My Krazy Life, which ended up being one of the album’s most interesting and anomalous tracks, as YG waxes unusually narrative when describing a home invasion moment-by-moment.

    Ezale

    “I Ain’t Trippin off Nothin”

    2015

    Listen on Apple Music

    Here, Oakland cut-up Ezale exports the ease and humor of Mac Dre and a bit of the elocution of motormouth DJ Quik protégé Suga Free directly into a sinister ratchet beat, creating an instant post-hyphy masterpiece. Also recommended is his 2013 verse-less collage of throwed funk records, “5 Minutes of Funktown”, his first regional viral success.

    Boogie

    “Bitter Raps”

    2014

    Listen on Apple Music

    Smart-aleck Comptonite Boogie can be a bit precious and overly topical when he wants to be, but at its best, his music has the in-your-face delivery of a less sociopolitical Vince Staples, or a cross between Snoop and Chance the Rapper. This muted, laid-back anthem is all wispy melodic phrases and distinctive attitude.

    Lil Debbie

    “I Do My Thang”

    2014

    Listen on Apple Music

    This Oakland rapper is infamous due to her early affiliation with Kreayshawn and V-Nasty’s White Girl Mob, as well as for her subsequent collaborations with polarizing meme rappers Riff Raff and Kitty Pryde. But unlike the other members of that enclave, she has remained prolific and consistent in her output, and has gradually distanced herself from those former associates while digging deeper into the musical tradition of her hometown. In her most recent work, she's spitting rhymes with varied and studied intensity, but she still shines the most on more functional slappers like this bongo-augmented statement of defiance.

    Mozzy

    “Bladadah”

    2015

    Listen on Apple Music

    Sacramento’s Mozzy has attracted a snowballing local following on the strength of his unfettered street raps. This is game-spitting in the lineage of a controversial hometown hero: prolific motormouth and Mob Figaz mentor C-Bo. The attitude and hard-nosed trap mentality of Mozzy’s music creates resonances with Atlanta trap and Chicago drill without sounding much like either. The most distinctive thing about him is his committedly off-the-beat flow, which somehow doesn’t undercut the potency of this understated beat.

    Nef the Pharaoh

    “Big Tymin’”

    2015

    Listen on Apple Music

    Nef is signed to fellow Vallejo native E-40’s Sick Wid It Records, and as of today, he’s the Bay’s biggest, most swaggering freshman star. Just last year he was a charismatic but marginal rapper in need of the right song, but he’s since made a breakthrough with the Cash Money-quoting “Big Tymin”, which just got remixed by Ty Dolla $ign and YG. Nef also turned up on DJ Mustard’s latest mixtape and headlined the recent Thizzler Jam festival alongside HBK’s Kool John in Oakland. He’s at the top of his circuit at the moment.

    Kendrick Lamar

    “Money Trees” [feat. Jay Rock]

    2012

    Listen on Apple Music

    Is there a Kendrick track that’s more West Coast in spirit than “Money Trees”? The production is Kendrick’s one collaboration with idiomatically G-funk-informed producer DJ Dahi. It’s one of Kendrick’s most irresistible hooks, and he’s never turned in anything as silky. Forget “Compton”, “The Recipe”, or even “King Kunta”—this is, in spirit rather than just content, Kendrick at his most L.A.


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    Electric Fling: Constant Vacation: Inside Amsterdam’s Dance Scene

    A1 “The Cover-Up”

    “Dutch dance music has the worst reputation,” Jordan Czamanski, one-half of Amsterdam-based dance duo Juju & Jordash, tells me. “It births… the monsters.” He’s referring to electronic music heavies like Tiesto, Afrojack, and Armin van Buuren—all of whom were pointedly absent from this summer’s third annual Dekmantel Festival, which took place amidst Amsterdamse Bos, a man-made forest near the city's Schiphol Airport. “All the big EDM artists come from here,” acknowledges Dekmantel co-founder Thomas Martojo. “But that scene is actually not that vibrant in Amsterdam itself.”

    In the span of just a few years, Martojo and his friends Casper Tielrooij and Matthijs Theben Terville went from being bored out-of-towners from the Hague who would drive up to Amsterdam every weekend to being a vital cog in the capital’s revived electronic music scene. “It was the heyday of minimal, and we fucking hated minimal,” Martojo recalls. “But we nevertheless partied every weekend. We were very into Detroit techno, disco, and warm, soulful house. Eventually we simply started our own parties just to hear that music.”

    Amsterdam's Dekmantel Festival

    Adopting the name Dekmantel (translation: “cover-up”), their parties began as 200-person affairs, but gradually grew to 1,500-capacity venues. “We always dreamt of doing a festival where we could invite anyone we wanted,” Martojo says. Along the way, Dekmantel started a label in order to release the first LP from Juju & Jordash, and in 2013, the inaugural Dekmantel Festival took place. “The first one was 5,000 people, last year was 10,000, and this year is just a little bit bigger,” Martojo estimates. “We don’t want to overcrowd things, because I always hate those festivals where you walk from queue to queue.”

    The 2015 Dekmantel Festival sported five stages and a roster ranging from Detroit legends like Derrick May and Jeff Mills to underground Hague producers like Legowelt, I-F, and DJ Overdose, 21st century luminaries like Ricardo Villalobos, Nina Kraviz, and Madlib to up-and-comers like Call Super, Paranoid London, and Helena Hauff. Across three days and nights, it was by far the most relaxed yet bespoke outdoor festival I have ever attended, the bill often doubling as a bucket list, each stage boasting an array of Funktion-One speakers. The sound was physical yet crystalline, the green fields and tree-shaded dancefloors a delight. One day, I even decided to do a most Dutch thing, bicycling from the canals of the city out to the festival grounds, the silence of the trees giving way to a 4/4 thump. It’s the festival that might ruin other festivals for me.

    Young Marco

    A2 “Young Pretty Boy”

    Young Marco: "Psychotic Particles" (via SoundCloud)

    “You're standing at the apex of Amsterdam right there,” says babyfaced DJ Marco Sterk, aka Young Marco, gesturing to the field and forest. I ask him if the country’s EDM superstars inform what’s happening out here at the Bos. “Amsterdam’s music scene is stronger than ever now, but that whole world is not attached to it at all,” he says. “Because those guys are playing Vegas casino shows and they don't give anything back to Amsterdam culture at all.”

    Born in the north of Holland, Young Marco moved to Amsterdam at the age of 18 and started working at the shop/distributor/label Rush Hour, where he helped kick off a vital reissue series highlighting producers ranging from Anthony “Shake” Shakir to Danny Wang and his Balihu label. He says that his DJ name came from Wang’s frequent calls to the Rush Hour office, looking for “young pretty boy Marco.” 

    Young Marco: "Trippy Isolator" (via SoundCloud)

    Marco has played Dekmantel Festival every year so far and likes that they aren’t expanding too fast. “A lot of people in Amsterdam don't get ahead of themselves because they like how this thing is going right now,” he says. It’s a relaxed, humble manner of working that runs through Dekmantel as well as a stable of Dutch producers including Young Marco, Tom Trago, San Proper, Juju & Jordash, and Hunee, to name but a few.

    Not that they’re not industrious. Marco is now too busy DJing, producing, and remixing to do label work. He’s just back from a spate of shows opening up for Jamie xx on his U.S. tour and playing twice during the festival before heading off to San Sebastian and Frankfurt. Recently, he recorded an album in Bali with a gamelan orchestra. Under a canopy of trees, his Boiler Room set breezes from Harlequin Fours’ version of “Set It Off” to an obscure Caribbean boogie take on “The Sweetest Taboo” that gets the crowd roaring. His productions tread a similar ground: drum-heavy yet light on their feet, taking cues from soulful house as well as synthetic island grooves.

    During a visit to Red Light Records, situated just downstairs from Marco’s studio, I notice tons of rare reggae, Surinamese, and Cape Verdean records on the racks, suggesting that this Dutch dance music is open to many other rhythms. It makes sense that Marco’s former employer, Rush Hour, just reissued a killer Surinamese boogie record, Tryin to Survive, by a leather-vested Prince wannabe named Sumy.

    Sumy: "Tryin to Survive" (via SoundCloud)

    “It'd be kind of cheesy to say it comes from import culture—like this seafaring and tradesman thing—but that's a real factor here in Amsterdam,” Marco says. “There's a lot of guys doing very different stuff, but it's a small city, so there's no getting around being close-knit.”

    William Kouam Djoko. Photo by Sophie van der Perre.

    B1 “Man Like Me”

    William Kouam Djoko: Dekmantel Podcast Mix (via SoundCloud)

    William Kouam Djoko is easy to spot backstage in a vibrant pattern dashiki and bucket hat. “I was the only black kid in school, so that was something that's been haunting me for a pretty long time,” says Djoko, who was raised in the Netherlands by his Cameroonian father and Ukrainian mother. “But it's a profound thing you have to embrace—to be white on the inside, brown on the outside.” When he returned to Cameroon at the age of 19, he found himself an outsider in a different sense: “I thought, ‘I'm going to go home to find my roots and see my people.’ But then I got there and I was the white kid—it was just the other fucking way around.”

    Returning to Amsterdam, Djoko got into dancing and wound up with the mic in front of a band that played improvised “clicky house music” before branching out into his own productions. He’s gotten remixes from Matthew Herbert and recently released a 12" via Seth Troxler and the Martinez Brothers’ Tuskegee imprint. (He’ll head out on tour with them next month.)

    During his Dekmantel set, Djoko fidgets and makes big arm gestures, triggering drum machines and shouting out to the crowd gathered at the Melkweg, a former dairy factory turned multi-tiered nightclub. He does vocal house with a positive bent, with the extra bounce of African hand drums atop the productions. 

    “I'm very much about interacting with people, so that's the base of my show,” Djoko says with earnestness, standing within a foot of me in an open field, gazing deep into my eyes throughout our entire interview. Djoko says he found his people here in Amsterdam, comparing the scene to a friendly village: “It's a really small and warm scene here.”

    Juju & Jordash. Photo courtesy of Ouroborus Studio.

    B2 “Down to the Roach”

    Juju & Jordash: Dekmantel Podcast Mix (via SoundCloud)

    In the basement of the Volkshotel, once the headquarters for the daily newspaper De Volkskrant before its current incarnation as a hip boutique hotel, I follow Jordan Czamanski through a winding corridor that lead into a cluster of artist studios. Juju & Jordash’s studio is a windowless bunker lined with vintage gear, far nicer than any practice space I’ve ever encountered in Brooklyn. “In Amsterdam, this is considered a dump,” Czamanski grumbles as he squats over an espresso machine in one corner. He says that until yesterday, every keyboard and drum machine was just dog piled in the center of the room. Now the duo wonder if the revamped feng shui is making work on a new remix go slower than normal.

    Czamanski’s bandmate, Gal Aner, very much the silent partner in the group, sits nearby. The two Israeli jazz musicians met while playing in a trio in Haifa and were drawn together by a shared love of electronic music. They moved to Holland separately but soon began to work together, their classical training giving their music an expansive, unpredictable feel. And after a set of singles released on Reggie Dokes’ Psychostasia label and London’s Real Soon, they met up with the then-twentysomething Dutch kids behind Dekmantel.

    Juju & Jordash: Down to the Roach EP Sampler (via SoundCloud)

    “They wanted to book us for this beach party and didn't even know we lived in the Netherlands,” Czamanski says. “We invited them over to the studio to play them some of our tracks, and right then and there, Martojo and Tielrooij decided to release our first album.” Last month saw the release of a more experimental EP, Down to the Roach, which Czamanski insists is a tribute to jazz drummer Max Roach and not to Amsterdam’s most famous herbal remedy. Juju & Jordash do two improvised live sets at Dekmantel that weekend, one as a duo and one as Magic Mountain High, a trio with David Moufang (aka techno lifer Move D).

    They estimate they’ve lived in Amsterdam for over a decade at this point. “It was the opposite vibe to Tel Aviv,” Aner says. “I wanted to be more incognito here.” To which Czamanski adds: “It felt like a big load off my back, like a totally constant vacation. I'm an outsider here just like I was in Israel: I'm not great at speaking Dutch, I don't read local papers, I don't get involved in local politics. Expats tend to get stuck here for 20 years and they don't even notice because it's just so comfortable.”


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    Articles: Unearthing the Future of French Pop

    Nearly 400 years ago, the chief minister to King Louis XIII established l’Académie Française, a council whose aims were to prevent “impurity” from sullying the French language. The Académie operates to this day as a coven of cloak wearers who preside over matters of linguistic importance: A recent decision had them lowering their shields against the scourge of Anglophone terms like “email” and “chicken nuggets.”

    France’s stuffiness about its mother tongue is one of the reasons why pop music with English lyrics became standard for the country’s native bands since the dawn of the rock’n’roll era—it represented the rebellious antithesis of traditional chanson française. “For my generation of musicians, this idea emerged that it was old-fashioned to write in French and that you were aligning yourself with the pompous, middle-class 30-something crowd,” says 36-year-old Agnès Gayraud, singer of Parisian minimalist pop act La Féline. “If you sang in French, either you were simple or preachy—totally uncool, basically, nothing to do with the radical possibilities of rock that you imagined when you were a teenager.”

    But times have changed, and La Féline are now among those who are rebelling against the rebellion by spearheading the unlikely rehabilitation of French as the language of pop within France. “These days, it’s almost tacky to sing in English,” Gayraud suggests. “It means sacrificing your creative desires for the promise of an international career—which, as we know, only happens for a select few acts, and rarely the most credible ones.”

    This new generation has crystallized around a loose collective, more mood than movement, called La Souterraine. It translates literally as “the underground,” but it’s also named after a village of 5,000 people in Creuse, an underpopulated, economically isolated region in central France. Benjamin Caschera and Laurent Bajon founded La Souterraine in 2013, and although they’re keen to avoid defining the organization, it’s something akin to a non-profit record label: They release all their music—most notably a regular series of compilations—as free downloads. They have no business plan, no trademarks, no rigorous ideology; they chose the domain name souterraine.biz as an ironic nod to their lack of commercial motivation.

    Their wider motivations aren’t particularly easy to identify, at least within a country that’s never had a strong DIY or underground culture, though it’s neither punk nor protest. “They’re not openly militant, but they have a militant approach,” says Didier Varrod, director of music programming at France Inter, the country’s major public radio station. “If it had been presented as a project that defends the French language and other outsiders, people wouldn’t think about it the same way.” 

    Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, who is featured on the fourth La Souterraine compilation, offers up her interpretation of their ethos: “It’s a form of chanson française that says loud and clear: I want to live.”

    La Souterraine co-founder Benjamin Caschera. Photo by Louis Canadas.


    Just outside of Paris, a group of friends gather to bid farewell to Benjamin Caschera as he prepares to move to Toulouse. There’s a classic post-barbecue atmosphere: full bellies, relaxed mood. Toulouse is a six-hour train ride from Paris and it’s where La Souterraine artist Benjamin Glibert started the experimental pop band Aquaserge a decade ago. For Glibert, who is also the bassist for psych rockers Melody’s Echo Chamber, Caschera has been a jack-of-all-trades: publicist, best friend, publisher, manager, brother-in-arms, counsel. Julien Barbagallo, drummer in Aquaserge and Tame Impala, speaks of Caschera as a “mythological figure” and a “larger-than-life personality.” 

    “Aquaserge has been together for 10 years, and the press only just started talking about us a year ago,” says Glibert. “It’s Caschera who took us to them, he’s taught us plenty.”

    “It’s not exactly a profit-making band,” according to Caschera, who discovered Aquaserge in 2009, by way of a mutual friend. “There are five of them live, 12 in the studio, and they don’t make super sellable music—and anyway, they don’t even know how to sell themselves.”

    But that didn’t really bother Caschera, who had just quit his job as a publicist for the distributor Differ-Ant to found the label Almost Musique in late 2009. Among their eclectic and international signings were the hyper-prolific Younolovebunny, a Danish lo-fi one-man-band, traditional Bolivian singer Luzmila Carpio, and delicate folkies the Daredevil Christopher Wright, along with Aquaserge.

    In his old job, Caschera would take Differ-Ant’s acts in to appear on Laurent Bajon’s “Planet Claire” show on community radio station Aligre FM. Now a free agent, he was invited to join Bajon as co-presenter. “I could see that he had tons of ideas,” says Bajon, 38. “We became closer quite naturally because we had the same taste and came from the same kind of backgrounds—we’d both studied history.”

    By day, Bajon is a librarian at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies; he spends all of his free time scouring Bandcamp and SoundCloud. “Laurent is the finest and most furious amateur A&R in France,” says Caschera. “It’s his hobby, but he does it with enormous professionalism.” Working together at “Planet Claire”, they realized that more and more young bands were singing in French—and that they were actually good. If a band like Aquaserge could exist and never get noticed, they figured that there must be others like them in France.

    In summer 2013, they decided to group together the best of these French-language bands to create what they called an “archeology of the future,” combining the bands from Caschera’s network with inveterate digger Bajon’s discoveries. They started developing the first La Souterraine compilation which, most notably, featured the cold-wave band La Féline—who already had an audience and didn’t stand to gain much from being included.

    “I wasn’t there to try and make it, but more to show belonging and lend my support to their project,” says La Féline’s Agnès Gayraud. “Benjamin and Laurent had supported me at crucial moments. They have a vision.”

    La Souterraine like to describe themselves as a vecteur—literally a vector, but also something like a springboard. For instance, Tame Impala drummer Julien Barbagallo had been recording his own music for a while, but had no intention of making a record. But that changed after he met Caschera. “Quite quickly, he suggested that I appear on one of their compilations, bringing together the best of unknown singers,” says Barbagallo.

    Soon after, Caschera decided to put out Barbagallo’s demos in a series of limited physical releases, which he promoted on his own. “The CD quickly sold out, we wound up on the big radio stations, and some of the biggest French weeklies were talking about Julien,” says Caschera. “Recently, we even signed a co-publishing deal with Warner/Chappell.”

    Given La Souterraine’s anti-business stance, it might seem surprising to see them collaborating with a major global publishing company. “We’re not going to bring down the system tomorrow,” Caschera reasons. “The deal allows Julien to earn money, and it’s better to take the money where it is, no? We work in service of the bands, and it’s necessary to compromise and then set our conditions. In this context, the role I gave myself is to play intermediary between the underground and the sharks.”

    As a former publicist, Caschera also knows that the way to get his protégés known is to get them on the radio. Didier Varrod, who controls the music schedule at France’s third most-listened-to station, says he values the ingenuity of Caschera and Bajon as much as the artists that they bring to him. (Barbagallo notes that “Caschera is as at home in the office of a powerful programming director as in a DIY venue.”) Matthieu Conquet, the music editor at radio station France Culture, was one of the first to represent La Souterraine on the airwaves. He describes it as a project “that’s not searching for the rare pearls; their thing is more making a broad range of voices heard, from people who are totally ploughing their own furrow.”

    To wit, La Souterraine’s biggest coup thus far is the discovery of the self-sustaining la Nóvia collective, a sort of secret society that operates at the crossroads of the traditional and avant-garde. They come from the Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France that’s long been cut off from the rest of the country. La Nóvia play around with transforming the region’s ancestral music into something radical, noisy, and psychedelic.

    “They’re dusting off traditions and tearing down the old schools of thought,” says an enthusiastic Caschera. “Without La Souterraine, they would never have broken out of experimental music circles.” Just a few weeks after La Souterraine posted the la Nóvia compilation online in March, several of its members were booked for shows in Paris, and they were profiled in the daily left-wing paper Libération.

    Le Souterraine artist Maud Nadal, aka Halo Maud. Photo by Louis Canadas.


    Maud Nadal, 29, has been a musician since she was a kid, but never had the guts to put her work up for public consumption. With encouragement from Caschera, she decided to make a go of it under the name Halo Maud. Her first single, “À la Fin”, is featured on La Souterraine’s sixth compilation, which was released in March. “It’s simple: We thought her song was amazing and suggested to her that it should open the compilation,” recalls Caschera, who’s since taken Maud under his wing, offering his help with promotion: She has no interest in remaining a niche artist, and the idea of the underground doesn’t mean much to her, though she hopes that getting involved with La Souterraine means she can avoid compromises and industry games. 

    “It’s a real problem for me to release anything, so I took the opportunity,” says Nadal, an Auvergne native, like the members of la Nóvia. “One thing is certain: I wouldn’t have come out when I did without them.” In just a few months, she’s met with potential publishers and managers, and has been offered opportunities to play shows.

    La Souterraine’s balance sheet is solid—they’ve had just under 500,000 streams overall. Bajon and Caschera organize nights in Paris and Nantes, showcasing bands that have never played before, or rarely beyond their close circle, which invariably sell out to audiences of several hundred people. But the success of La Souterraine is best measured elsewhere.

    The three major labels of the French music industry have already approached Caschera and Bajon, though their advances have been ignored. “The goal is to influence the influencers, to infiltrate the system,” says Caschera. “The idea isn’t to adapt to the system. We have the capacity to be self-sufficient. It could continue like that for our entire lives. We don’t want to change.”

    Ultimately, La Souterraine isn’t there to justify its own existence; it’s there to enable Caschera and Bajon to bring the music they love to a wider platform without getting cynical or mercenary. “By eliminating the entire economic game, La Souterraine revolves around the desire to rediscover curiosity and joy,” says Agnès Gayraud. “We can regain that simple relationship to music when we have nothing to lose. We know that the industry has nothing more to offer us, so we take care of things another way.”

    Speaking on the collective’s larger significance, radio programmer Varrod says, “La Souterraine has taught us that there is brilliant creativity despite the crisis,” referring to both the recent recession and a crisis of identity among a generation that’s grown up in a country where the influence of the extreme right grows year after year, where (often racist) debates about national identity have left plenty of open wounds. “We’re seeing the emergence of a generation who reject the constraints of business and the industry because they’ve always lived through this state of crisis.”

    If there’s a common lyrical thread between these bands, it’s that a lot of them sing about running away and leaving things behind. Just look at some of the song titles that appear across La Souterraine’s compilations: Alphatra’s “La fuite” (“The Escape”), Taulard’s “Fuir” (“Running Away”), Camille Benâtre’s “Comment as-tu pu m’abandonner ainsi?” (“How Could You Abandon Me Like This?”), Silvain Vanot’s “Je suis le carnet de route” (“I Am the Roadmap”), or La Féline’s “Adieu l’enfance” (“Farewell Childhood”).

    “These are amateur musicians who aren’t doing this for fame and glory, and they’re not preachy,” suggests Caschera. He pauses and raises his eyes. “Perhaps it’s the system, the world, that doesn’t satisfy them, and that affects them deeply within themselves.”


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    The Out Door: Summer 2015 Experimental Records Roundup

    In this edition of The Out Door, we highlight some great recent experimental, avant-garde, and outsider records, focusing on veteran artists who continue to push themselves in new directions. Make sure to follow The Out Door on Twitter and Tumblr for more experimental music news and info.


    Joshua Abrams
    Magnetoception (Eremite)

    Joshua Abrams: "Translucent"

    When we profiled bassist Joshua Abrams in 2012, we noted that the songs on his first two albums could go on much longer—and Abrams agreed. For the new double LP Magnetoception, Eremite label owner Michael Ehlers prodded him to test that theory. “It was almost like a dare,” Abrams says.

    The songs Abrams makes with his group Natural Information Society are repetitive and minimal, based on cycling, hypnotic loops, so stretching them out might tempt him to artificially vary their sound. But Abrams decided that even less would be more. “I was trying to find ways to get ourselves to be patient,” he explains. “To move slowly, to take our time, and let the music be felt, more than moving soloistically.”

    Magnetoception’s length gives space for each instrument to make subtle contributions to a quietly-building mix. These include the drums of veteran jazz improviser Hamid Drake and the guitars of the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly and Tortoise’s Jeff Parker. It’s all led by Abrams’ Guimbri, a three-stringed African lute he’s used for years. “In a way, it is a simple folk instrument,” he explains. “But it’s also a very sophisticated instrument for centering the mind, for centering tension. That’s how it’s used traditionally. And even though I’m not using it traditionally, that still finds its way in.”

    Joshua Abrams

    The members of Natural Information Society craft Abrams’ songs like painters composing a landscape, or bricklayers constructing a building, with patience and devotion that values long goals over immediate gratification. Inside these calm journeys lie new sonic revelations, which might not have come in shorter durations. “I find that the most energy comes from when you make a new discovery, so I try to make environments where we can find new things,” Abrams says. “Often songwriters say it’s about creating an attitude, but I think it’s more about creating an environment.”

    There might be some politics in that as well—though Magnetoception is wordless, it holds a message about how to move through the world. “If our music’s political, it’s because it offers the possibility of slowing down,” he insists. “We live in the age of attention and availability, and I’m not saying this is Luddite protest music, but it is offering a certain level of experience, and it operates in slightly different ways.”

    In that process, Abrams makes music that falls between genres. There are hints of jazz, rock, raga, and many cultural musics, but it all feels singular. “Genre can be something that you don't fit yourself into as much as you use,” Abrams says. “What does it mean to access it? Compositionally, what does it mean to put weight in one position and a counterweight in another? It’s about putting us in a situation where we can find things.” (Read an extended version of our interview with Abrams here.)


    Natural Snow Buildings
    Terror’s Horns (BaDaBing)

    Natural Snow Building: "Sun Tower" (via SoundCloud)  

    We don't write music.” That’s what French duo Natural Snow Buildings told us when we interviewed them in 2013, and it’s a believable claim. Many of their albums feel too natural to be controlled by human hands; if anything is writing these songs, it’s the songs themselves. But that doesn’t mean there’s no structure in Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte’s music. In fact, some of their best material commits fully to the power of rhythm and melody, letting those elements expand so that they sound more like the rotation of the Earth than the work of two brains.

    In the past this effect has played out over immense durations. Natural Snow Buildings tend to make massive releases featuring super-long tracks (the peak perhaps being the six-CD set Daughter of Darkness). But on Terror’s Horns, they capture the cycles of the tides in much smaller doses; only two of the album’s eight pieces stretch much beyond four minutes. These are heavy, patient beats paired with simple, repetitive figures, all forged into trance-inducing mantras. At points their hypnotic dirges evoke the slow march of Earth circa Hex, but there’s something uniquely naturalistic about NSB’s wooly loops. It’s not that they’re making sound out in the woods as much as they’ve created their own woods out of sound.


    Little Howlin’ Wolf
    Cool Truth & The Guardian (Family Vineyard)

    Little Howlin' Wolf: "Cool Truth" (via SoundCloud)  

    Back in the mid-2000’s, when the noise scene was at an active peak, I saw Little Howlin’ Wolf perform several times; he’s not a noise artist per se, but he was re-discovered by noise-heads—particularly Twig Harper of Nautical Almanac, whose Heresee label put out a Wolf LP in 2007—and often invited to open their shows. Back then, I didn’t really get Wolf. His sets could be a fun shamble but that’s about it. Still, it wasn’t hard to see that, as a person, he was a genuine outsider.

    Now that Family Vineyard has reissued Wolf’s first two LPs—1982’s The Guardian and 1985’s Cool TruthI fully understand. These are two impressively-diverse albums full of reckless genius and mysterious truth. Wolf’s boasts in the original liner notes—that his “main instrument is all instruments” and he “plays every form”—may seem hyperbolic, but the music provides ample evidence. Sometimes he sounds like Captain Beefheart as an early 20th century bluesman; in other places he comes off like a one-man garage band creating psych rock out of blues riffs; and often he sounds like he’s making his own musical language out of all the music he’s heard.

    Wolf is a bit like Jandek with less reclusiveness and more tuned strings. But really, these vital reissues show him to be his own animal. His nickname emerged because he sounded a bit like the blues legend (an association he was proud to bear), but on Cool Truth and The Guardian, the man formerly known as James R. Pobiega is a species unto himself.


    Jeph Jerman / Tim Barnes
    Matterings (Erstwhile)

    Jeph Jerman / Tim Barnes: "In Situ" (snippet)

    When I saw Jeph Jerman and Tim Barnes perform together in a dark Baltimore record store in 2004, they played so quietly and deliberately—including stretches of pure silence—that it was less a concert than a sensory deprivation experience. My ears seemed to physically stretch to catch every infinitesimal sound. At one point I shifted slightly in my chair, and the resulting squeak made me feel like a participant in the performance.

    Over a decade later, I didn’t expect the pair’s reunion for a new album to sound exactly the same, but I’m surprised by how present and tactile Matterings is compared to the show I witnessed. Notice I didn’t say “louder”: Despite the fact that there is more sonic texture here than anticipated, there’s still an essential patience to the duo’s work, a kind of mental quietude that cuts through even the highest volumes. 

    Also surprising is how hard it is to identify the sources of the duo’s creations, even though the sounds aren’t muddled or hidden. Jerman in particular is known for using natural, found instruments—logs, sticks, rocks—but very little corresponds to something you might find out in the world. As a result, every moment is intriguing, encouraging you to inspect what the pair are up to. That’s part of the beauty of Matterings—it may not be distant or silent, but Jerman and Barnes still make music that makes me stretch my ears.


    Chinese Girls
    Pop Life & Of (Drawing Room)

    Chinese Girls: "Pop Life" (via SoundCloud)

    The music of Chinese Girls isn’t necessarily experimental. Lots of songs on this reissue,  originally released as two CD-R’s in the early 00’s, are structured and melodic; some are even straight-up rock’n’roll. What was experimental about this Arkansas duo was their try-it-all musical variety. Within each of their albums, Andrew Morgan and Sam Murphy bounce around gleefully from heavy riffs to droning synths to acoustic meditations. In this way they recall some of the best underground rock from the decade before them—bands like Unrest and Trumans Water, who were unafraid to jump from style to style, and happy for albums to sound like multi-artist compilations rather than tightly-controlled statements.

    So even if it isn’t completely unique, Chinese Girls’ brand of eclecticism is worth hearing simply for its enthusiastic energy. Nearly every song on Pop Life & Of seems to jump out of the gate and spill out of your speakers; even the few more reflective moments have a drive and urgency that’s impossible to ignore. In this way, they remind me most of another ‘90s touchstone, New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs, who managed to partake in the experimentalism that surrounded them at the time while never losing their super-charged zeal. Chinese Girls crackle like that, too, in a way that never really gets old.


    The Lloyd Pack
    A Tribute (Amish)

    The Lloyd Pack: "Itchy Gnomes" (via SoundCloud)

    The second album from the Lloyd Pack, the far-flung collective headed by Dan Melchior, is so diverse that it’s hard to believe it was based on a single concept—though it turns out that concept was pretty loose. When his bandmate Graham Lambkin suggested they do something with an African influence, Melchior recalls, “I attempted to do that—and it didn’t really work!”

    What did work is the way Melchior weaves multiple sources into songs that feel both guided and unrestricted. His stable of 12 contributors include Lambkin (formerly of the Shadow Ring), Sarah Hennies (formerly of Weird Weeds), and Melchior’s late wife, the brilliant sound artist Letha Rodman-Melchior. The results are filled with repetitive grooves that recall post-punk like the Fall or even Adam Ant (whose “Goody Two-Shoes” is reimagined in “Subtle Innuendos”). But A Tribute also has a dream-like quality borne of Melchior’s juxtaposing disparate material.

    “I particularly like working with tracks that don't relate to each other and were done ‘blind,’” explains Melchior. “It's fascinating to see how things will seem to relate to each other when combined. I think the mind and ear just makes connections no matter whether they're there in a planned sense or not.”

    Dan Melchior and Graham Lambkin of the Lloyd Pack


    These connections are particularly powerful when Melchior splices spoken words into his music. In “Tribute to Paul Hardcastle”, snippets of voices talking about the Vietnam War add an eerie subtext (Melchior’s title refers to Hardcastle’s hit “19”, which also sampled voices speaking about Vietnam). And at the end of “Itchy Gnomes”, Letha reads a letter about refurbishing a Scrabble board, capturing a funny and poignant moment that would’ve otherwise floated away.

    At every turn, these samples and other tape manipulations have a surreal quality, as if they inserted themselves into the proceedings. “When I get near to finishing something, I always get last minute ideas that I want to come across that way—products of fleeting impulses,” says Melchior. “I usually use the most direct route, like talking into a hand-held tape recorder or turning on a mic that's sitting across the room. It gives it a nice haphazard, almost accidental feel.”


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    Pitchfork Essentials: The Golden Dawn: L.A. Beat Scene Origins

    To discuss the Los Angeles beat scene is to invoke a sprawling, cross-pollinating collective of musicians that has drastically reworked the idea of what it means to make beats within (and without) the hip-hop tradition. The artists that can be found in these circles—DJing at Low End Theory nights at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, putting out tracks and albums on the Alpha Pup and Brainfeeder labels, and eventually appearing in the credits of marquee bass music and hip-hop records—have built a strong, genre- and culture-spanning connection between leftfield electronic music and underground hip-hop, subsequently attracting everyone from Thom Yorke to Kendrick Lamar. By 2013, you could even hear their music on the radio in the ersatz Los Angeles of Grand Theft Auto V.

    Much of the early groundwork for the scene was laid around 2006, when Daddy Kev established Low End Theory just as his burgeoning label Alpha Pup Records was starting to get off the ground. Low End Theory would soon provide a public laboratory for pivotal artists to cultivate followings, experiment with their styles, and connect with other musicians. By 2008, the scene had expanded to develop alongside the vision of Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder imprint quickly emerged on the heels of his breakthrough album Los Angeles and became home to one of the scene's most well-rounded rosters. With a well-known weekly live showcase and multiple labels working to get the work out into the world, it was just a matter of time until it all found a voracious audience. 

    The strange thing is, the L.A. beat scene still feels defiantly grassroots and adventurously weird, even after the amount of exposure and mainstream crossover it's received. The simplest way to consider this music is as a specifically SoCal take on IDM, using hip-hop, R&B, and jazz as a base and root influence rather than techno, acid house, or ambient; the distance closed by Internet music distribution and the deep well of influence these artists draw from puts them in a similar space as UK precursors like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher. Its methods are a little more accessible in a DIY sense, and the sense of populism in the L.A. scene—which is resoundingly multicultural like few American independent music scenes before it—keeps it grounded in an unpretentious space. The following tracks explore where the beat scene went once those first steps started turning into giant ones.

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    Flying Lotus

    "Golden Diva"

    2008

    Listen on Apple Music

    Steven Ellison had already put out a fine debut for Plug Research, 2006's 1983, and a strong refinement of that record's clanky digital abstraction with 2007's Reset EP on Warp, but Los Angeles was where he broke out as a leading light—a nexus of ambient, IDM, and free jazz where the only thing keeping it all grounded was his ear for sinuously steady hip-hop beats. His Brainfeeder label would soon wind up cultivating the careers of many more pillars of the L.A. beat scene.

    Shafiq Husayn

    "Changes" [ft. Om'Mas Keith and Thundercat]

    2009

    Listen on Apple Music

    Sa-Ra Creative Partners were a mainstay of L.A. neo-soul in the 2000s, down for expansive collaborations with artists that covered the spectrum from indie rap to avant-garde jazz, including Erykah Badu, Jurassic 5, and Gary Bartz. Singer/producer Shafiq Husayn broke out on his own with 2009's Shafiq En' A-Free-Ka, but the sun-baked "Changes" feels like both a semi-reunion and a hint of things to come: Fellow Sa-Ra member Om'Mas Keith harmonizes lushly with Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner in an early glimpse of the bassist's eventual breakout.

    Daedelus

    "Order of the Golden Dawn"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    Daedelus was already a longtime veteran of L.A.'s alt-electronic and hip-hop world by the time his EP Righteous Fists of Harmony came out on Brainfeeder. But his stylistic progression, honed from years of tinkering with leftfield interpretations of drum'n'bass and downtempo, made him an ideal elder statesman for the emergence of Los Angeles as a nexus of post-genre beatmakers. "Order of the Golden Dawn" takes just one of his dozens of modes to its bucolic peak, bossa nova guitar inflections and Laura Darlington's wistful vocals lending grace to a dense kick-clap beat.

    Nosaj Thing

    "Coat of Arms"

    2009

    Listen on Apple Music

    Before Jason Chung, aka Nosaj Thing, made the second half of "Pusha Man" one of the most wigged-out, beautifully unsettling moments on Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap, he put in work as an increasingly ambitious creator of glitched-out synth funk. His 2009 album Drift, filled with a slate of beats that sounded delicately agitated while juxtaposing crumbling noise and futurist beauty, showed signs of a fully-formed artist with a hunger for new rules to break early on. Like most of Drift, the wispy-yet-heavy bass thumper "Coat of Arms" feels a bit icy—but it's ice that's glossy enough to reflect a lot of light.

    Nocando

    "Hurry Up and Wait"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    Even at its most abstract, L.A.'s beat scene has largely been able to shake unfair "hip-hop for people uncomfortable with rap" associations. It helps that there's been a good amount of creative crossover between Project Blowed vet MCs like Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver and the beatmakers who built their chops through Low End Theory. Nocando is a major link between those worlds, a former Scribble Jam battle rap champ and Low End Theory resident whose solo album Jimmy the Lock is heavy on beat scene producers including Nosaj Thing, Free the Robots, Daedelus, Thavius Beck, and Nobody, who produced this gigantic proto-Yeezus bass bomb.

    The Gaslamp Killer

    "Anything Worse"

    2009

    Listen on Apple Music

    William Bensussen got his DJ name from his uncanny ability to alienate the Top 40-craving clubgoers of the Gaslamp District in his hometown of San Diego. He found a far more receptive audience in Los Angeles, and his psychedelic adventurousness—one memorable mix included Rusko's frantic dubstep, Black Mountain's crunchy stoner rock, and Organized Konfusion's abstract boom-bap—bleeds through into his own beats. His 2009 My Troubled Mind EP is a key document of his origins, classic breaks run through a splatter-flick filter and turned into sour soul that oozes acid through your speakers.

    Shlohmo

    "Dead Pixel"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    On his way to a stretch of attention-grabbing collaborations with Jeremih and How to Dress Well, Shlohmo built beats that felt like they would crumble if handled by anybody else. Early releases like his 2009 Shlo-Fi EP and the following year's debut full-length Shlomoshun Deluxe pulled off the tricky feat of making a big presence known by sounding delicate, heat-warped keys and wooden-machine beats ticking like clockwork reclaimed by nature. Even his more bleep-laced compositions, like this one, feel like they came out of some sort of centuries-old computer that doubled as a terrarium.

    Teebs

    "Double Fifths"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    Mtendere Mandowa, aka Teebs, shares Shlohmo's interest in tactile beat music, from the way pitch-manipulated instruments shift identities to the very nature of damaged magnetic tape's effect on sound. His 2010 debut album Ardour hinted at the essence of a studio as an organic space, the ambience of the outdoors conveyed through the ambient reverb of smeared strings and blunted drums.

    TOKiMONSTA

    "Cigarette Lust"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    A prolific remixer as well as an engaging producer in her own right, Jennifer Lee took her classically trained piano skills into the outer reaches of beatmaking while triangulating hip-hop, R&B, and glitch. Even with her debut album Midnight Menu and a handful of singles and EPs strewn across 2010, TOKiMONSTA still had gems to spare, and the stripped-down orchestral shuffle of "Cigarette Lust" marked a high point on the L.A.-centric Proximal Records comp Proximity One: Narrative of a City.

    Samiyam

    "Roller Skates"

    2009

    Listen on Apple Music

    At his best, Samiyam stitches together analog-synth patchworks that lope like G-funk with Thelonious timing. No wonder he caught on quick. Sam Baker hit the ground running by the time 2008 rolled around: His self-released Rap Beats Vol. 1 was reissued as the first entry in Brainfeeder's catalog; he scored high-profile remixes for Daedelus and Flying Lotus; and he became one of the earliest key members of the L.A. beat scene to have a release on prestigious UK imprint Hyperdub. This brief, woozily funky cut also had the honor of appearing on the label's anniversary collection, 5 Years of Hyperdub.

    Knxwledge

    "Pattern Klear"

    2010

    Listen on Apple Music

    Five years before he blew minds with Hud Dreems and gave To Pimp a Butterfly one of its prettiest beats with “Momma”, Knxwledge put out his first full-length album, Klouds. Like J Dilla and Madlib, Knxwledge has a certain fondness for taking mellow soul samples and turning them into something more chaotic and psychedelic, chopping beats and sawing off loops to the point of borderline disorientation, all in a way that's mysteriously uplifting.

    Ras G

    "Alkebulan"

    2009

    Listen on Apple Music

    Few members of the L.A. production world—or any scene—invite Sun Ra comparisons quite like Ras G, whose Afrofuturist references and Egyptological iconography would fit right in with the Arkestra. (His debut Ghetto Sci-Fi even name drops Sun Ra's own label in the last track, "El Saturn Day".) Ras G shares much more than that, though—he also has a similar sense of playful rhythmic insight, taking the fundamentals of a deep-rooted sound to uncharted space.

    Austin Peralta

    "Epilogue: Renaissance Bubbles"

    2011

    Listen on Apple Music

    A prodigy composer and performer whose brilliance as a jazz pianist was just beginning to manifest by the end of the 2000s, Austin Peralta was a strong presence in L.A. music until his tragic death at the age of 22 in 2012. The last track from his final solo album Endless Planets is a brief but euphoric minimalist collaboration with the Cinematic Orchestra that hints at just one of his many strengths.


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    Interviews: Floating Points: Braindance

    Floating Points: "Silhouettes (I, II & III)" (via SoundCloud)

    By his own estimation, 29-year-old Londoner Sam Shepherd owns around 10,000 vinyl records spanning the worlds of jazz, electronic, rock, disco, soul, and classical, to name a few. However, his vast collection is not arranged in any sort of order. “It keeps me on my toes,” he says, rationalizing the unruliness. “If I want to pull something out, I might have an idea where it is—but everything is all over the place.” This type of perplexing overabundance crosses over to the music Shepherd makes as Floating Points, which mixes all of those aforementioned genres with an expert’s confidence and an ear for the finest details. And now, after releasing about a dozen singles and EPs across the last six years, he is finally ready to present his proper debut album, Elaenia, this November.

    Surprisingly, the long player finds Shepherd largely abandoning the classy club sounds he’s become known for in the UK and beyond, a style that has impressed like-minded artists including Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Caribou’s Dan Snaith, and Jamie xx. Instead, Elaenia plays like a 43-minute meditation, a modern twist on the spiritual jazz records the producer holds so dear. Sighing Rhodes keyboards abound; most songs stretch out past the five-minute mark; and none of the album’s seven tracks flaunts a floor-filling dance beat. The stunning highlight “Silhouettes (1,11,111)” features swinging drumming from Tom Skinner, who has worked with Jonny Greenwood, as it recalls some of Radiohead’s most outré, latter-day moments as well as the work of jazz titan Herbie Hancock and post-rock originators Tortoise. It’s one of the most ambitious and rewarding songs I’ve heard in 2015—and it’s easy to believe Shepherd when he says the track took him six years to complete.

    Which isn’t to say he was tinkering on it non-stop for more than 2,000 days. The main reason it took the producer so long to finalize his first album is because he was concurrently working on a PhD in neuroscience and epigenetics at University College London. It was only after he graduated last year that he was able to muster the mental space—and free time—to finish Elaenia. He says that, during his studies, music often acted as a release from busy, frustrating days at the lab. That life dynamic also extended to his acclaimed DJ sets—even just watching him bob and jump while spinning an eclectic array of tunes from his bottomless library can be positively cathartic. He played a monthly residency at the influential club Plastic People for five years, and when the London dance destination closed its doors in January, Shepherd combined forces with Four Tet to mark the occasion with a six-hour set that included everything from UK jazz explorers Azimuth, to soul singer Brenda Jones, to Spirit of Love’s disco anthem “The Power of Your Love”. 

    Floating Points and Four Tet: Final Plastic People DJ Set (via SoundCloud)

    Even in our omnivorous era, when everybody likes everything, the breadth and uniqueness of Shepherd’s tastes is remarkable. He accredits his listening habits to a youth spent learning classical piano before diving into the jazz stacks at his local record shops in Manchester. While many of his classmates were likely listening to Oasis, a teenage Shepherd was sussing out the musical similarities between French impressionist composer Claude Debussy and jazz icon Bill Evans. “You can only imagine how dweeby we were,” he says, talking about his small high school jazzbo crew. He recalls DJing school dances where he would mix the likes of Basement Jaxx with the astral musings of Pharoah Sanders. “It was all really rubbish, because no one really liked that I was playing,” he admits, a hint of regret in his voice. “I’ve since learned that, if you want to take people with you, you can’t just go straight in and play crazy saxophone-and-drum music—you’ve got to create a bed of confidence and then start testing and poking a bit.”

    Because while Shepherd will happily talk at length about the most obscure records or the technical intricacies of dance club sound systems, he’s not interested in being an elitist nerd who uses his knowledge only to intimidate. “I like to think that I’m making music that’s inviting,” he says. Elaenia certainly isn’t built for the pop charts, but it’s soulful precision can’t help but act as a magnet for open ears. It’s about as welcoming as an uncategorizable experiment in modern sonic architecture could possibly be.

    Pitchfork: How would you describe this album to a potential listener?

    Floating Points: I have no idea what this record is. [laughs] I really don’t. We had to decide what genre to put it under on iTunes and we ultimately went with “alternative”—that’s the best genre, right? It’s rooted in improvisations, so that is definitely something that is key in the jazz world, but then there are all of these electronics as well. 

    Pitchfork: The record shows off a much different, less dance-oriented sound than the music you’ve released thus far.

    FP: I didn’t want to put out an album of dance singles. I’ve got a different kind of music to give and I like the idea of doing a long-form piece. I think of this album as one 42-minute track, and that’s how I’d like it to be received, ideally. All my favorite albums are usually very exploratory in terms of sound, like William Fischer’s Circles, which has weird rock‘n’roll, weird Buchla synths, and then a tune for a quintet of cellos and drums that is just totally mind-blowing. There are some tracks that I’m not totally into on that album, but it’s interesting to have as a piece of art—it’s a very profound thing.

    Floating Points: "Nuits Sonores" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: How does your work as a DJ inform your music?

    FP: The most fun I have in a club is re-contextualizing music that seemingly doesn’t belong in a club—like how Steve Reich can fit nicely following a Villalobos record, all while people are still dancing. When I go on stage to DJ, I’m totally confident in the music I’m playing because I’m completely in love with it. I don’t really feel like I’m DJing so much as hanging out with a bunch of people and playing loads of records that are totally fresh to me. People always say that I play old music, but it’s all music that I’ve only just discovered and that is blowing my mind. So I’m now trying to channel some of that confidence into my new live show, which has 11 people onstage, including strings, clarinet, flutes, trombone, guitar, and piano.

    Pitchfork: Elaenia is named after a type of bird, what is its significance?

    FP: Around the time I made the title track, I was reading this book about stories of the afterlife, and one was about how, in death, your anatomic makeup is broken down and absorbed into the universe and then you could be reincarnated as a SIM card in Singapore, or as a beetle in Scotland, or whatever—you continue to exist in an infinite amount of time as those atoms come together again. Two weeks later, I had a weird dream that basically described that story of atomic reincarnation: There was this migratory bird flying south and getting lost from its flock and landing in a forest. Then the forest engulfed the bird to keep it warm, to the point where it absorbed its life. I thought, “I don’t usually have such poetic dreams!” So I woke up and went to the studio and made that track as an improvisation almost immediately. All of that stuff was in my mind when I was making that tune. 

    “I’m going to be forever confused about how I spend part of my life listening to and enjoying religious or spiritual music, but I don’t believe in God.”


    —Floating Points

    Pitchfork: How are you balancing your academic career and music now that you’re done with your PhD?

    FP: Music has become my job now, and I’m taking a break from science. I still have access to the lab and I’ll go in and hang out because I’m deeply interested in it. And they call me occasionally, you know, “Where did you leave this chemical?” But now I feel like I can get really going and make loads and loads of music, and I’m really enjoying it. I’d like to be a musician and then do science for fun.

    Pitchfork: Did you consider putting all your efforts toward music before you graduated?

    FP: Definitely. There were moments where I thought I’d give up on school. More than anything, a PhD is not necessarily about making groundbreaking discoveries as much as it’s about learning the techniques in order to do that in the future. With a lot of scientists, things often don’t work. And, for years of my PhD, things weren’t working. It was a real downer, but actually, music is the one thing that kept me going. I would go home and play piano for hours, and it would give me the strength to go back and try again on an experiment that was bound to fail. The research was very high-risk/high-return, but I didn’t really get much return. Music was a way to relax. There was very little else I was doing aside from making records, listening to music, and doing a lot of science. That was my life.

    Floating Points: "Wires" (via SoundCloud)

    Pitchfork: Is there any way you could try to summarize your PhD work in layman’s terms?

    FP: Absolutely. The prime focus of my group’s lab, which is known as the Molecular Nociception Lab, was to uncover and understand the mechanisms by which we feel pain so that we could discover new targets to treat with chemicals. Our particular niche of study involved genetic mutations that occur in humans across the world, in families that don’t feel pain whatsoever as well as people that feel extreme pain. We mapped their DNA to see where the mutations are and then tried and exploit that information as a target to treat. Basically, you can understand myriad strands of neuroscience by studying pain. And my particular niche within that was looking at ways to modulate cells’ machinery in order to try to suppress pain. 

    Pitchfork: Your father is a priest, so was your embrace of science somehow a rejection of growing up in a religious family?

    FP: When I started really getting into science, religion didn’t make sense anymore. So I’m definitely not religious, though I find a lot of beauty in it; I’m going to be forever confused about how I spend part of my life listening to and enjoying religious or spiritual music, but I don’t believe in God. It’s definitely something that I’ve got to think about a lot more, like, where does my music come from? If it’s not a spiritual place, then it’s got to be based completely in reality—but, considering all the terrible things going on around the world, what a fucking twisted reality we actually live in!


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    Photo Galleries: Basilica SoundScape 2015

    Photographer Samantha Marble captures moments with Perfume Genius, Jenny Hval, Wolf Eyes, the Haxan Cloak, Viet Cong, HEALTH, Sannhet, Circuit Des Yeux, Weyes Blood, and more at last weekend's Basilica SoundScape in Hudson, New York.


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