Don't You Want Me (1981) by The Human League
It could be argued that the sound which we now associate with eighties music began in 1981 when The Human League's song Don't You Want Me became one of the first all-synth tunes to make it onto mainstream music charts. Like many of the synth pioneers, The Human League took the foundation laid by Kraftwerk and made it more, well, human. The song Don't You Want Me is a story song which tells of a movie producer who is dumped by the young movie star he felt he created, set to what, at the time, were cutting-edge synthesizer tracks. Take note of the pulsing bass part played out on sharply metallic pseudo-strings. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Los Angeles (1980) by X
Yes Virginia, there was a punk scene in L.A. (it just happened a little later) and a major force was the band X, which took the whole punk format and gave it a great big twist. The unique vocal pairing and odd harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenca would be immitated by many, many bands to follow, but X was the beginning and their album Los Angeles was simply brilliant. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Tainted Love (1981) by Soft Cell
This tune is certainly one of the definitive songs of the genre. Soft Cell was started by 2 art school friends who would use synthesizer and voice to create soundscapes for theatrical performances. There is a reason that the band's album was entitled Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, and that theater background definitely comes into play as this 1981 classic fits the very definition of the album's title. Marc Almond's pleading vocals atop very stark and crashing synthesizer parts (you only need to hear the 2 synth "stabs" in the chorus to identify this song). Though this song ended up being the band's only real hit, it is one of the most identifiable of the era and still enjoys airplay today. And who can't help but to join in singing the "Woah oh oh oh oh"s during the chorus? Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Can't Get Enough Indie?
Some of us just like indie stuff. Is that so bad?
Are you an indie type? If so, non-Hollywood, the novel was written for, about, and by someone like... you!
Hungry Like the Wolf (1982) by Duran Duran
Duran Duran almost was not included on this list because they're so darned pop, but they've made it here because you have to admit that they were a very influential group--bands without counting (even non-pop bands) grabbed a synthesizer and looked to D2 as a model for how to craft a synth song. And then there's the area in which they were one of the most infulential bands around...in the 80s, the music video changed everything and Duran Duran was one of the first to really benefit from the boost that videos came to create. In Simon LeBonn, the group had a lead singer with movie star heartthrob looks. The band was able to really take that ball and run with it by producing very slick, high production-value music videos (and they were arguably the first to put Hollywood production values to the burgeoning format of music video). Probably the best known of these videos was for Hungry Like the Wolf, which featured LeBonn either chasing or being chased by (it's not entirely clear) a scantily clad supermodel through the jungle. And let's not forget the song's break, which features a woman panting and moaning in a fashion that makes it a bit uncomfortable to listen to with your mom in the room. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Seattle (1987) by Public Image Ltd.
In the 1970s John Lydon was known as Johnny Rotten and fronted punk music's first superstars, The Sex Pistols. Lydon never cared for the term "punk" and after the demise of his notorious band, Lydon formed the band Public Image Ltd. which took his aggression, political fury and sneering criticism of pretty much everything and combined it with more sophisticated musicality than you'd find in most punk bands. In the mid-80s when a new generation of musicians in the American Pacific Northwest was inspired by the punk movement and began to sow the seeds of what became the alternative explosion of the 90s, Lydon took offense. The result is both P.I.L.'s best and most popular tune, Seattle, which blatantly rails against the same young people who were looking up to him. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Only a Lad (1980)> by Oingo Boingo
For many aficionados of eighties music, Oingo Boingo is the most under-rated band of the decade and should have been the band to dominate the decade. During its lifetime the band only flirted with popularity, but was a favorite of those most passionate about music. Oingo Boingo fearlessly combined synths, tribal rhythms and horn lines with the unique voice of lead singer Danny Elfman to create a sound which was uniquely their own. Only a Lad sees Boingo in a political frame of mind with a quirky twist as it tells the tale of a violent juvenile delinquent who continually escapes punishment. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Charlotte Sometimes (1981) by The Cure
Though Robert Smith is said to dislike having the term "goth" applied to his band, it is no wonder that The Cure often is labeled as such. From the early 80s, when Smith, Tolhurst & Gallup first started experimenting with synthesizers, Charlotte Sometimes is about as goth as goth gets. A dark, brooding song drowning in synth strings -- strings which use big, church-organ-type chords so drenched in reverb they sound as if they are being played in a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Station -- which provide the perfect backdrop for Smith's tortured-soul vocals. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Pretty in Pink (1981) by The Psychedelic Furs
Easily the most popular song by the Furs, Pretty in Pink had the distinction of being completely misinterpreted by film director John Hughes and used as the title to one of his hit teen movies (John Hughes: there's an eighties phenomenon as well). Originally coming out of the punk scene in England, The Psychedelic Furs looked to take the spirit of punk and combine it with musicianship. The 1981 album Talk Talk Talk realized this vision with the full-on, yet melodic guitars of John Ashton. Very soon the Psychedelic Furs would turn to experimenting with synthesizers and atmospheres, but Pretty in Pink provides a tune that just plain rocks. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Senses Working Overtime (1982) by XTC
Though coming to the fore in the early 80s, XTC was a group which did not rely heavily on synthesizers. 1982's Senses Working Overtime is an excellent example of a full band in full swing. The drums on this track are fantastic and breathtaking in an age when drum machines were beginning to take over. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)
Back on the Chain Gang (1982) by The Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde was basically the only American in the early days of punk in London, where she lived the squatter's life with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Unlike a lot of those in the punk scene, however, she was a practiced musician who could actually play. Eventually hooking up with the guys who would become The Pretenders, the band wed the energy and attitude of 70s punk and added the jangle-y guitars of the 60s to create a new sound for a new decade, as evidenced in Back on the Chain Gang. Buy it on iTunes (or hear a longer preview)