College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 217 – 215

217 love

217. New Order, “Love Vigilantes”

“Love Vigilantes” was widely considered a significant departure for New Order and something of a statement of purpose, or at least against reflexive pigeonholing, when it notably led off the band’s 1985 album, Low-Life. Though there are familiar sonic signatures throughout the track, it is distinctively lean and even a touch twangy. More strikingly, the lyrics actually tell a story, which was rarely the case with the jagged merging of words and music on earlier New Order songs. According to Bernard Sumner, the song’s lineage begins with a U.K. tour undertaken with the Buzzcocks in the fall of 1979, when the members of New Order were still in Joy Division. (And take a second to imagine the glories of a Buzzcocks and Joy Division twin bill in 1979.) One member of the traveling party had a penchant for playing country music in the van. While Sumner instinctively disliked the music, quick to dismiss it with derogatory invocations of rednecks, he was intrigued by the notion that every song had a storyline, often with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Years later, Sumner decided to give that style of songwriting a shot, coming up with the tragic tale of a deeply homesick soldier (“I want to see my family/ My wife and child are waiting for me/ I’ve got to go home/ I’ve been so alone, you see”). The soldier seemingly gets his wish, and then the lyrics deliver a cruel twist straight out of a M. Night Shyamalan movie or, to use a reference that would have made more sense in the mid-nineteen eighties, a Twilight Zone episode. The close of the story is a touch cryptic, but whichever twist a listener settles on, it’s plenty bleak.

216 modern

216. David Bowie, “Modern Love”

David Bowie couldn’t have selected a better way to open his 1983 album, Let’s Dance, than the wild guitar riff producer Nile Rodgers cooked up for “Modern Love.” Rubbery, tough, tight, and a little abrasive, the piercing guitar was simultaneously an announcement that Bowie was back in full force, releasing his first new studio album in nearly three years, and restless as ever, tweaking his signature sound so that it was recognizable and yet strikingly different. Driven by a resounding beat and marked with a punchy keyboard part, Bowie said the song was inspired by the music of Little Richard. The lyrics have a fragmentary, almost stuttering stream of consciousness quality, making allusions to familiar declarations of readiness for romance found in classic songs and inverting them (“Modern love gets me to the church on time/ Church on time terrifies me”). The lyrics also break down into a real nice flowchart. The song tended to be the show closer to the Serious Moonlight tour that supported the album. It’s also had one of the more durable and adaptive afterlives of a Bowie hit (it peaked at #14 on the Billboard singles chart), including a reworked version of the track that accompanied a Pepsi commercial that found mad inventor Bowie creating Tina Turner, à la Weird Science. Of greater appeal to me, it’s central to one of my favorite movie moments of the past five years.

215 hungry

215. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like the Wolf”

By the time EMI sent Duran Duran and director Russell Mulcahy to Sri Lanka to shoot a trio of music videos, they knew striking distinctive clips were the surest entryway to worldwide chart success for the band. They’d already gotten a glimpse of the way a music video that got people talking could make an impact, thanks to Duran Duran’s controversial “Girls on Film.” The video for “Hungry Like the Wolf,” heavily indebted to the prior year’s movie hit Raiders of the Lost Ark, was the true game-changer for the group, earning them their first of many trips into the Billboard Top 40. (The other videos shot on that trip, “Save a Prayer” and “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” didn’t have similar impacts.) The first pass at the song crossed a single spring Saturday in the studios housed in the basement of their record label’s headquarters, with different band members adding layers to Nick Rhodes’s demo as the day progressed. The rerecorded version of the song served as the lead single for Rio, Duran Duran’s sophomore album, released in 1982. Le Bon claimed the lyrics were inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, though he’d later concede that the message was a little more personal, explaining, “For me, it was always the wolf inside of me, that hungry predator. Yes, it’s very sexual, that song. It’s about being on the hunt for women. Terribly politically incorrect. You couldn’t do that now.” Maybe the song couldn’t be introduced these days because of that salacious element, but its place in enduring pop culture is solid enough that Shamir recently chose to cover it, partially as a tribute to the legendary band selecting the proudly genderless artist as one of the opening acts for their tour in support of 2015’s Paper Gods.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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