College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 58 – 56

58 god.jpg

58. XTC, “Dear God”

Although it is one of XTC’s best known songs, “Dear God” was initially relegated to also-ran status. The story of that decision changes depending on who is telling it. Todd Rundgren, who produced the song, maintains that Andy Partridge and his bandmates chose to omit the song from the 1986 album Skylarking because they were warned the song’s dim view of religion would stir up controversy, calling the decision cowardly. While Partridge acknowledges that the label was concerned about how the song would play in the U.S. market, he says his own high standards stood as the chief motivation behind excising the song from the track list when the album proved to be a little too long. ““I didn’t want it on because I didn’t thing I’d done it well enough,” Partridge said. “I thought it had failed tremendously and I asked to have it nipped-off the album.” Ultimately, Partridge felt that the topic of religion was too complicated to squeeze into a pop song. “It is such a big subject and I’ve been wrestling with it for years, but how can you cover it in three-and-half minutes?” he said. “Dear God” was plunked onto the flip of “Grass,” the lead single from Skylarking. College radio kids knew a good chunk of tuneful blasphemous rebellion when they heard it and played the B-side with such frequency that the label scrambled their plans and quickly reissued Skylarking with “Dear God” now included, cutting “Mermaid Smiled” to make room. The track was also released as a single, becoming one of the band’s biggest hits to that point.

57 luka.jpg

57. Suzanne Vega, “Luka”

Suzanne Vega really knew a boy named Luka. “A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children,” Vega said. “I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And I guess his character is what I based the song ‘Luka’ on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child — in real life I don’t think he was. I think he was just different.” The title came first, and Vega eventually came around to the topic of child abuse for the song, in part because it was just starting to emerge as a more widely acknowledged social ill. It may have been a timely issue, but Vega found it was challenging to fit the nuances of the problem into the inherently limiting framework of a song.  That puzzle pushed Vega to get creative with her fundamental approach to the song’s storytelling. “Because I was aiming at such a complex subject, I was aiming for the simplest line to get there,” Vega explained. “Simple melodies, happy chords. I felt I had to make it accessible because it was such a dark subject. So I went all out. But I also tried to write in the language of a child. So that’s probably why it worked, because it is so accessible.” Released as the lead single to Solitude Standing, Vega’s 1987 album, the song became an unlikely hit, peaking at #3 on the Billboard chart. It even earned Vega an especially famous fan. She got a hand-written note from Prince, who called “Luka” “the most compelling piece of music I’ve heard in a long time.”

56 horses.jpg

56. Echo & the Bunnymen, “Bring on the Dancing Horses”

The path to one of the most famous songs from Echo & the Bunnymen truly began with the Stranglers single “Skin Deep.” After a bit of creative downtime, Echo & the Bunnymen were shopping around for a producer who could help them record a couple new songs, mostly to help fill out a planned singles compilation album. They liked the clean, chiming sound producer Laurie Latham brought to the Stranglers track, and they brought him aboard for sessions in Brussels. One of the songs the band toted in had the working title “Jimmy Brown.” Eventually, it evolved into “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” Rumored to be eager for a hit, Echo & the Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCulloch boasted of the song as an important evolutionary step for the band. “It’s not as raw as New Order, but it’s got that danceability to it,” he said at the time. “Smooth? I don’t think it is. I think as soon as I sing on something, it stops being smooth. But we did want to try something different and get tongues wagging.” Released as a single in 1985, the song was only a modest chart success, but it slipped into a lot of extra record collections when it was included on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink in the following year.

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.