College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 16 – 14

16 birthday

16. The Sugarcubes, “Birthday”

In the destitute era before Kickstarter, bands needed to employ a little more creativity in their fundraising efforts. When Iceland’s the Sugarcubes were trying to scrape together the kronor for their debut single, they looked to the geopolitical event that fortuitously landed in their hometown. In October 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev convened in Reykjavík to discuss a potential reduction in nuclear arms, a discussion that would have been a momentous triumph for world peace if not for the former cowboy actor’s stubborn insistence on maintaining  efforts on a ludicrous, sky-perched missile defense system that, even then, every sensible person knew was scientifically unfeasible. Regardless of the thwarted outcome, the braintrust of the Sugarcubes knew a good business opportunity when it jetted into their island nation. They printed and sold thousands of postcards commemorating the meeting of world leaders, then used the earnings to record and release the single “Birthday,” on their own Bad Taste record label. When “Birthday” proved to be a local sensation, the bigger labels came calling, certain the Sugarcubes could be international stars. The band’s debut album, Life’s Too Good, was released in 1988, and a new version of “Birthday,” now with English lyrics, served as the lead single. As an introduction to the band’s songcraft, it was deeply jarring, especially for those who could find their way through the acrobatic verbal cadences of lead singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir (the gorgeously colossal last name was still part of the billing back then) to discern that the lyrics are about a five-year-old girl who’s engaged in a questionable relationship with a male neighbor who’s old enough to have a beard that needs scratching. “It was only an atmosphere I was trying to describe,” Björk told Sounds magazine at the time. “The only thing I was doing consciously, that was mixing together pure innocence and pure … well, not danger, but something, you know, evil. Evil in an unreal way.” Retrospectively, the stretching years of Björk’s bendy pop strangeness and esoteric sonics have probably trained listeners to not put too much stock in the literal troubles found in the song. Even back then, she insisted that scraping for the hidden, haunting truths in the songs she helped create was a fruitless endeavor. “The best thing about the Sugarcubes is that there is no meaning to us,” Björk told an interviewer shortly after the debut album’s release. “There is no answer, because there is no question.”


15 pride

15. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”

The first U.S. Top 40 hit for the band U2 began life as a protest song directed at Ronald Reagan and his unfortunate affection for nuclear weapons. According to lead singer Bono, crafting a whole song around the U.S. president started to make him feel uncomfortable. “I was giving Reagan too much important,” Bono explained to NME. “Then I thought, ‘Martin Luther King, there’s a man.’ We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger.” Although the song’s subject matter makes it seem as though its an opening shot to the intense fascination with the American experience that informed subsequent U2 releases The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, it was the great Civil Rights leader’s aspirational relevance the ongoing political turmoil in Ireland — the Troubles — that helped sell the other band members on Bono’s planned turn toward overtly topical subject matter, which was then a novelty for U2. “Because of the situation in our country, nonviolent struggle was such an inspiring concept,” guitarist the Edge told Q magazine a few years later. “Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, ‘Woah, that’s not what we’re about.’ Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there’s no argument. It just was.” Bono also conceded that “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was one of the more overtly commercial songs he’d crafted to that point, which made it a natural choice as the lead single from The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, released in 1984.


14 forget

14. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

In a detail that often rankled them, the biggest hit of Simple Minds’ career wasn’t one of their own songs. In fact, the Scottish band wasn’t even the first choice to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes and released in 1985. Co-songwriter Keith Forsey maintained his preference was for Bryan Ferry to give his erudite spin to the track. When the former Roxy Music frontman turned the opportunity down, both Billy Idol and the Fixx were reportedly pursued, with similar results. Eventually, Forsey and his cohorts came around to Simple Minds, but they also refused, feeling they needed to stick to their own compositions. Supposedly, a screening of the movie convinced them to take a crack at it. “It’s a movie for teenagers, but it doesn’t patronize them,” lead singer Jim Kerr explained at the time of the single’s release. “It isn’t like a rock ‘n’ roll movie. We wouldn’t have done it if it was.” Although they relented, Kerr and his bandmates were also quick to distance themselves from the general sound of the track, noting it was more in line with the material they were creating a few years earlier. “We don’t want people to think this is new direction we’re going in,” Kerr insisted. “It’s nothing like the ideas we have in our heads. It was just something nice to do that, hopefully, will get us noticed in the film world.” It’s safe to say that the song did get the band noticed. In the late spring of 1985, it make it all the way to the top of the Billboard chart, knocking another soundtrack song — Madonna’s “Crazy for You” — from the perch.


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.


College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 19 – 17

19 love

19. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”

One of the biggest hits of 1982 had a long, arduous journey to the top of the charts and could have easily disappeared into near-complete obscurity. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was originally written and recorded by the British rock band the Arrows, in 1975. They were responding directly to the Rolling Stones track “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like it),” which was a hit on the radio at the time. “I know they didn’t really mean it in a derogatory way,” explained Jake Hooker, the Arrows’ guitarist. “It minimized what I thought about rock ‘n’ roll. My gut reaction on first hearing it was, ‘What do you mean it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but you like it? I love rock ‘n’ roll!’ And it sort of snowballed from there.” The group thought they had a great song, but their producer, Mickie Most, disagreed. He had them record it themselves while he took a lunch break, meaning the original version was somewhat shoddy. The eventually re-recorded it for use on a weekly television show starring the band. Joan Jett caught that program while killing time in her hotel room one night when on tour with her band the Runaways. She grabbed a copy of the single and started advocating that the Runaways should cover it. The group even worked up a take on the song for their 1977 U.K. tour, but the other members of the Runaways weren’t nearly as enamored so it got dropped from the set list. Years later, when Jett was launching a solo career, the song cycled up again, in part because Hooker was urging her to take another crack at it, still convinced “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was a hit that simply hadn’t happened yet. When Hooker heard the version that Jett recorded with her backing band the Blackhearts, he was convinced the song;s destiny has arrived. “That’s exactly the way I always dreamed it would be,” he said. “The minutes I heard it, I had no doubts. I knew it was going to #1.” This time, Hooker was correct. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the major label debut single from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, did reach the pinnacle position on the Billboard chart, and it stayed there for a might seven weeks, getting knocked from the perch by arguably the least rock ‘n’ roll song to top the charts that year. Over the years, Jett has betrayed some mixed emotions about the prominent place “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has in her career — she opted against playing it as part of the short set that commemorated her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance — but she conceded to Mojo magazine that coming to terms with it was a step she had to take. “I think most people who love some kind of rock ‘n’ roll can relate to it,” said Jett. “Everyone knows a song that just makes them feel amazing and want to jump up and down. I quickly realized, ‘This song is gonna follow you, so you’re either gonna let it bother you, or you gotta make peace with it, and feel blessed that you were involved with something that touched so many people.'”


18 superman

18. R.E.M., “Superman”

Music performers typically start as music fans. And sometimes, the fan discoveries they once made can carry over to their later work. Before Peter Buck gained global renown as the lead guitarist for R.E.M., he earned his rent money as a clerk at Wuxtry Records, in Athens, Georgia. Of course, a side effect of earning dollars at a place where one is mightily enticed by the merchandise is that fair amount of every paycheck might be funneled right back into the register. Buck regularly raided the bins of vintage 45s. It was there that he found “Sugar on a Sunday,” a 1969 single by the Houston band The Clique that made it into the Billboard Top 40. More significantly, the B-side was a song called “Superman.” Years later, when R.E.M. was working on songs for their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, the idea of knocking out a cover of “Superman” came up, with all expecting it would serve as their own B-side at some point. Singer Michael Stipe was less taken with the song than his bandmates, so he ceded lead vocal duties to bassist Mike Mills. The finished version, though, provoked a widespread change of mind. Instead of filler on a future 7-inch, “Superman” was chosen to close the new R.E.M. album, the first non-original to grace one of the band’s full-length releases. It also served as the second single from the 1986 album. The song was fairly straightforward in most respects, but R.E.M. remained true to form by aided a cryptic bit to puzzle over. The tracks opens with a tumble of barely discernible Japanese. Supposedly taken from a Godzilla toy with a pull-string that triggers recorded messages, the phrases at the start roughly translate to: “This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the Self-Defense Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. Aaaaaaaaagh!”


17 there

17. R.E.M., “Can’t Get There From Here”

“There’s more of a feeling of place on this record, a sense of home and a sense that we’re not there,” Peter Buck said of Fables of the Reconstruction, the third album from R.E.M., released in 1985. That sense of displacement is arguably at its most explicit in “Can’t Get There From Here,” which was also the album’s first single. It was also notable because the band known for their yearning jangle tried out a more bold, bounding sound, complete with bleating horns. “It’s like a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Ray Charles and James Brown and all the other great Georgia music giants,” Buck said of the song. Given the abundance of influences that fed the creation of the song, it’s appropriate that Michael Stipe tried to channel a whole slew of them. “I was thinking of sounding like Mahalia Jackson,” he explained. “I tried to do as many different voices on the album as possible. On ‘Can’t Get There From Here,’ I can pick out five different voices.” One of those is the voice of Louis Armstrong, though its not found in Stipe’s singing. Instead, that was the prompt he gave to the horn players to explain the withering blast of sound he wanted at the end of the song.


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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 22 – 20

22 under

22. The Church, “Under the Milky Way”

When Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi were brought onboard to produce the Church’s fifth album, Starfish, they sought to shift the Australian band away from the soothing, swirling psychedelia that was their defining sound. So when bassist and lead singer Steve Kilbey brought in a song called “Under the Milky Way,” which he’d written with his girlfriend at the time, Karin Jansson, the producers were unimpressed. Their view was shared by almost everyone, except the people who got to decide which songs got priority treatment. “When we made the record, no one thought ‘Under the Milky Way’ was a hit,” recalled Kilbey. “The producers didn’t think it was anything special, and it wasn’t even considered a single. It was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arista Records came in, and as soon as they heard that song, they all got immediately excited and said, ‘We promise you that this will be a hit.’ I’ve never seen a record company, before or after, make their own prediction come true. Arista threw everything they had into making that song a hit.” In this instance, sheer force of corporate will succeeded. “Under the Milky way” was released as a single in 1988 and became the sole Top 40 hit for the Church, peaking at #22. As for the deeper meaning of the song, Kilbey says there are no hidden secrets there. “It’s not about anything,” Kilbey later said. “Like all my songs, it’s a portal into your own mind where I give you a guided meditation. It’s a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.”


21 seattle

21. Public Image Ltd., “Seattle”

Given the colorful, combative prominence of lead singer John Lydon, it’s easy to think of Public Image Ltd. as a band in name only, a dismissive assessment further bolstered by the undeniable fact that the former Johnny Rotten is the only mainstay across the group’s multi-decade history. In the band’s most shining moments on record, though, it was a clear and crackling collaboration. As an example, “Seattle,” the lead single from the 1987 album Happy?, was well into its creative journey before Lydon even got his hands — and yelping, yowling voice — on it. “‘Seattle’ was a strange one, because the band was up there a week before me, because I had other things to do that I fail to remember at the moment,” Lydon later told the A.V. Club. “But they’d laid down that backing track, and I got there and I was really impressed! Really, really moved. And so I found that the lyrics just flowed almost free-form out of me. I’m very, very proud of that one.” Ostensibly written about the Pacific Northwest city where it was first hatched — while the band was touring in support of their previous album — “Seattle” may have been a clear group effort, but it wasn’t merely preceding fame that made Lydon the center of Public Image Ltd. His contributions held a high value. “It was a nice bouncy groove, but it was nothing until John sang on that,” said bassist Allan Dias. “Once he added some vocals to it, I was flipped out, it just became amazing.”


20 roxanne

20. The Police, “Roxanne”

In recounting the genesis of “Roxanne,” the author of the seminal entry in the Police songbook is characteristically cerebral. “I wrote ‘Roxanne’ in Paris in 1977,” Sting wrote in his book of collected lyrics. “The band was staying at a seedy hotel near the Gare Saint-Lazare. I had a set of descending chords starting in G minor and a melancholy frame of mind. Inspired by the romance and sadness of Edmond Rostand’s great play Cyrano de Bergerac and the prostitutes on the street below my window, ‘Roxanne’ came to life.” With equally characteristic candor, Police guitarist offers an account that largely aligns factually, but is delivered with a noticeably different tone. “We were supposed to do this shitty little gig with The Damned, and we’d driven to Paris from Holland in my Citroen Dyane 6,” Summers said. “The night before, we all went our separate ways and Sting was wandering around, looking at all the hookers.” (For the record, the Damned had fled Paris without ever playing the show, leaving the Police somewhat stranded.) The band recorded the song as part of the sessions that became their 1978 debut album, Outlandos D’Amour. Since “Roxanne” was quite a bit slower than most of the band’s jittery, punk-influenced output, they didn’t expect much to come from the track until Miles Copeland — brother of the Police’s drummer, Stewart Copeland, and soon to found I.R.S. Records — gave it a listen and pronounced it, according to Summers, a knockout. Miles Copeland helped to get the Police signed to A&M Records and “Roxanne” became the band’s third official single. Although “Roxanne” went on to be arguably the best known of all Police songs, it was dud upon its original release, in no small part because BBC Radio banned it on account of its supposedly salacious subject matter. That decision angered the man who wrote the song. ““There was no talk about fucking in it, it wasn’t a smutty song in any sense of the word,” Sting said at the time. “It was a real song with a real, felt lyric, and they wouldn’t play it on the grounds that it was about a prostitute.” Now, of course, the occupation of the song’s title character barely stirs a worried thought. In addition to its venerated place on almost all backwards-looking playlists, the track has proven to be surprisingly effectively in impish acts of comedic tinkering.


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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 25 – 23

25 tainted

25. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”

According to David Ball, the synthesizer player in the duo Soft Cell, he was familiar with song “Tainted Love” from its venerated place in the Northern Soul club scene in U.K. in the nineteen-seventies. Originally recorded and released by Gloria Jones — as a B-side to the 1965 single “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home” —the track was rediscovered by club DJs, leading Jones to give “Tainted Love” a spruce-up, in 1976. That rerecording was the version Ball’s bandmate Marc Almond heard one night, spinning his head. “Marc was working in the cloakroom of a club called the Warehouse, when the DJ played ‘Tainted Love,'” Ball reported many years later. “He ran up and asked, ‘What’s this?'” This was relatively early in the musicians’ partnership, which began when Almond asked Ball to craft accompaniment music for oddball performance art pieces. (“His main piece was called ‘Mirror Fucking,'” Ball said. “He’d be naked in front of a full-length mirror, smearing himself with cat food and shagging himself. It provoked quite a reaction.”) When their work together evolved into the band Soft Cell, they needed a couple of covers to help fill out their live sets. After settling on a take on Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” as one of them, they toyed with “The Night,” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, before opting for “Tainted Love,” in part because Jones had shared the stage with T. Rex, giving her extra credibility in Almond’s eyes. Freshly signed to Phonogram Records, Soft Cell decided to record their version of “Tainted Love” as a single. Although the label was apparently already agitating for a hit — reportedly threatening that the band we be dropped if there was a lack of chart success on what would be only their second single for the company — the recording process was easy and blissful. “It was one of those dream sessions where everything worked,” said producer Mike Thorne. “Everything we reached for seemed to fit effortlessly, whether it was the surprisingly effective horn sustain in the middle or the classic ‘bink.’ Time passed very pleasantly, and very energetically.” The “bink” Thorne cites is the signature airy, chiming electronic sound that provides the distinctive rhythm line of the song. Released as a single in 1981, the track became a worldwide smash, topping the chart in the U.K. and at least four other countries, though it had to settle for barely scratching into the Top 10 in the U.S. (it peaked at #8). Clocking in at a blithe, breezy two-and-half minutes, the song was ideally structured for radio playlists, but the cool kids knew that the best version went a little longer and incorporated a second gem from the nineteen-sixties. “We recorded ‘Tainted Love’ as a long, improvised 12-inch single that at the end morphed into ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ by the Supremes,” said Almond. “It was chopped in two for the 7-inch version, a half for each side. This was the biggest mistake we ever made: having a cover version on both sides meant we didn’t get any songwriting royalties for the biggest-selling hit of 1981. That must have cost us millions of pounds.”


24 infected

24. The The, “Infected”

When it came time to work on Infected, Matt Johnson’s second album with — or, really, as — The The, the musician wasn’t lacking for ambition. He spent about two-and-a-half years collaborating with a trio of producers and dozens of musicians, including an eighteen piece orchestra. And the scope of the record’s themes was similarly expansive. “This album deals with subjects like AIDS, lust, terrorism and trust, nuclear proliferation and spiritual salvation,” Johnson told Spin at the time of the album’s release, in 1986. The title cut and second single seemed to be preoccupied with the disease that Johnson named first in his litany. Lyrics such as “Will lies become truths in this face of fading youth/ From my scrotum to your womb, your cradle to my tomb” are unmistakably shadowed by the disease that was ravaging the gay community to the callous disinterest of most major political leaders. Making the artistic statement even more forceful, Johnson lapped the MTV-driven field, crafting essentially a feature-length music video for the entire album, a process that ate up a lot of budget and sent the performer all over the world. “My songs are very cinematic, and there can be no pulling of punches when dealing with these kinds of situations,” Johnson told Billboard. “I’m not trying to be gratuitously pornographic or violent, but I had to put myself in some dangerous settings to capture the intensity of the album.” The resulting product — commonly referred to as Infected: The Movie — was tough-minded enough that it received the most restrictive rating available in the U.K. And it was filed away fairly quickly, only recently enjoying its first public screenings in thirty years.


23 between

23. The Cure, “In Between Days”

In 1985, bands often had to spend as much time explaining their music videos as the songs they promoted. This led to Robert Smith expending a lot of energy discussing socks. “It all began when I said to the video director, Tim Pope, that we’d like flashes of color going between my head when I was singing,” the Cure lead singer recounted about the music video for the single “In Between Days.” “And he said, ‘What, color like this, like my socks?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.'” Pope showed his fluorescent socks to the digital animators who worked on the video and they retained the color — which they were supposed to — and the shape — which they weren’t. “Then it was all done, and I got this anguished phone call apologizing,” Smith told Sounds magazine. “At first I hated it, then I came round to it, but now I’m fed up with it because it’s obliterated the idea of the video.” The video might have been knocked asunder, but the song did quite all right for itself anyway. Released as the first single from the Cure’s sixth album, The Head on the Door, “In Between Days” was the band’s fourth straight Top 15 hit in the U.K. and became their first to cross into the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., albeit peaking at a meager #99. Smith, who reveled in his own obliqueness, said at the time that he figured “In Between Days” was the closest the Cure would ever come to a straightforward love song. He also noted its relative simplicity in delivering a mini-manifesto on the proper ambition of pop music. “I don’t expect to be told things in songs or have something illuminated for me,” said Smith. “I just want to amused or inspired or entertained in a huge, umbrella-like sense.”

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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 28 – 26

28 country

28. Big Country, “In a Big Country”

When trying to introduce a band to an international audience, there are worse strategies that releasing an anthemic single that has the group’s name right there in the title. “In a Big Country” wasn’t the first single from the Scottish band Big Country, but it was the first to get them significant attention in the U.S. (Its predecessor, “Fields of Fire (400 Miles),” was a Top 10 hit in the U.K., a level “In a Big Country” didn’t reach.) Officially considered the third single from the band’s 1983 debut album, The Crossing, the track was inspired by the plight of the downtrodden in Big Country’s native land. “The idea for ‘In a Big Country’ came from seeing the unemployed maintain their sense of humor and pride, which is hard when you’re living on fourteen pounds a week,” lead singer Stuart Adamson told Musician. “You have to have something to believe in.” Although the band espoused a preference to steer clear of the pointedly political in their music, they did have a general goal of shifting societal outlook in a dour time. “We like to make people feel important, give them hope and optimism … even if the lyrics are not always ‘up,'” Adamson explained at the time. “You see, as far as I’m concerned, people who buy our records or come to our gigs are as much a part of the group as us. Without them, there wouldn’t be a Big Country. That’s why you’ll never find us shooting off after a show and playing the horrible pop star game. Just because I’ve been on television, it doesn’t make me a better person than the next man.”


27 balloon

27. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “Balloon Man”

Iconoclastic British troubadour Robyn Hitchcock has enough of a reputation for penning songs about items that might cross a dinner plate that a 2007 documentary about his life and work was entitled Sex, Food, Death…and Insects. In the case of the song that probably still stands as his biggest U.S. hit — although let’s go ahead and put “hit” in quotes — food was indeed the direct inspiration. “That was based on real life: eating a falafel walking up 6th Ave from 34th to 44th in a rain storm,” Hitchcock said of the song “Balloon Man.” “You can still do that legally today.” Although the track — which was released as the lead single from Globe of Frogs, Hitchcock’s 1988 album with backing band the Egyptians — is strongly associated with the man who wrote it, his initial intent was to give it away. “Well, ‘Balloon Man’ I wrote for The Bangles, if you remember them,” explained Hitchcock. “I was in touch with a couple of them, and I sent them a quarter-inch, 7.5 IPS reel. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Probably not, I guess.” With the song sitting idle, unloved by the pop goddesses who were likely busy counting their walking Egyptian money, Hitchcock took a pass at it while revving up for his major label debut. The executives at A&M Records loved the song, urging him to record a fleshed-out version for the album.


26 suzanne

26. Lou Reed, “I Love You, Suzanne”

There’s a justifiable legend around Lou Reed and his music, insisting that it’s always edgy and grim. There have been times, however, when Reed was going for something different. One of those instances came with the 1984 album New Sensations. “I wanted to have fun with it,” Reed said. “And there were certain sounds that I heard on the radio — a certain kind of bass and drum thing, for instance — that were really strong and exciting, and I really wanted hear that.” Even as Reed acknowledged the shift in his song, his prickly nature couldn’t quite allow him to say he was openly pursuing commercial success. Instead, he insisted it was close to a Velvet Underground record because he was back to playing all of the guitar parts. There was also the suggestion that he had always wanted his music to have a nice polished sound. “In the days of the Velvet Underground, recording engineers would hear what we did and leave,” he said. “They’d say, ‘I’ll come back when you’re finished,’ turn on the tape machine, and go. So I got this attitude that engineers were my enemy, and the way we recorded reflected that.” Bypassing his usual mode of making quick, dirty recordings of songs then releasing them with little studio adornment, Reed worked with producer John Jansen (who’d later preside over albums by the likes of Cinderella and Warrant) to develop tracks that wouldn’t sound wholly out of place when played in the confines of a downtown discotheque. Released as a single, lead track “I Love You, Suzanne” didn’t exactly turn Reed into a dance hall diva. About the only chart success it enjoyed — apart from college radio, of course — was in the U.K., where made some modest rumblings, becoming Reed’s first song to make any headway there in over a decade.


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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 31 – 29

31 antmusic

31. Adam and the Ants, “Antmusic”

“We name our music ‘antmusic’ to prevent classification and bracketing from other people,” Adam Ant told Tom Snyder when he appeared on Tomorrow to promote the 1980 album Kings of the Wild Frontier. “I don’t think that’s pretentious considering it’s taken four years to get the sound.” Besides the stretch of time identified by the singer, Adam and the Ants had gone through quite an ordeal on the way from their first to their second album, including the collapse of the band itself. Following a first flush of minor success — and some pigeonholing that clearly caused aggravation — with their debut album, Dirk Wears White Socks, Adam and the Ants recruited Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren to help shepherd their sophomore release to life. It didn’t exactly go well, at least from the band leader’s perspective. McLaren absconded with all of Ant’s bandmates, putting them in position behind Annabella Lwin to form Bow Wow Wow. Ant was left to rebuild his band from scratch, which did have the benefit of freeing him up to pursue a different, more brashly theatrical sound and image. “Antmusic,” released as the third single from the resulting album, Kings of the Wild Frontier, served as a calling card. It also became a major hit in the band’s U.K. homeland, peaking at #2. Although Ant never tired of claiming the British press that decried his vivid showmanship, he could also acknowledge — even while in the midst of it — that he cultivated and appreciated the cult of personality around him. “I think you have to be a bit of a narcissist to do any form of entertainment,” Ant said at the time. “It is an ego situation, and it can destroy you, like Hollywood people. With respect to kids imitating me, I’m flattered, because I’ve imitated people all my life. I bought a plastic Beatle wig when I was a tiny tot.”


30 why

30. The Cure, “Why Can’t I Be You?”

In proper gloomy goth fashion, Robert Smith was longing to be anyone other than himself. Although the lyrics of “Why Can’t I Be You?” suggest the song is loopy paean to being wildly smitten with another, the Cure’s lead singer says the inspiration came from a far more anxious situation. “I was in the middle of a tense discussion, and these people around the table were looking at me as if I was going to make some groundbreaking revelations,” explained Smith. “And I thought to myself, “Good God, why can’t I be elsewhere? Why isn’t someone else in my place?’ I would’ve traded with anyone. I would’ve preferred to be that guy leaning at the bar than myself.” Released as the first single from the Cure’s 1987 double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, “Why Can’t I Be You?” required a music video. By that time, the band had locked into a productive collaboration with director Tim Pope, who joyously upended the Cure’s reputation for shadow-strewn solemnity. The band members were adorned in goofy costumes — including, quite famously, a fluffy teddy bear outfit for Smith — and instructed to bound about the set with dance moves so awkward that they suggest a world in which choreography is an as-yet-undiscovered art. “I must admit I was quite drunk,” Smith recounted. `”When we talked about the video originally with Tim Pope, we said we wanted to do some choreographed dancing. He said we’d never be able to do it. So to disguise our ragged ability at dancing in any kind of formation, we decided to dress up. There was a good reason for it at the time, but nobody can really remember what it was.” For his part, Pope was ecstatic about the results. “The Cure dancing!” he cheered. “I can’t believe I’m seeing this. They’re finished.”


29 pink

29. The Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty in Pink”

The Psychedelic Furs song “Pretty in Pink” invariably calls to mind the image of young Molly Ringwald in a shapeless prom dress. But adhering to what Richard Butler originally had in mind when crafting the lyrics would have required the John Hughes-penned — and Howard Deutch-directed — film of the same name to wind up with a far more restrictive rating than its original PG-13. “The idea of the song was ‘Pretty In Pink’ as a metaphor for being naked,” Butler later noted. “The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she’s wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back. That was the idea of the song. And John Hughes, bless his late heart, took it completely literally and completely overrode the metaphor altogether!” It was evidently Ringwald who presented the song to Hughes in the first place, suggesting he use it as inspiration in crafting a screenplay for her. The raciness wasn’t the only element shaved off of the song when it made the journey from the the Psychedelic Furs album Talk Talk Talk, released in 1981, to the 1986 film that introduced the world to the teen love triangle suffered through by Andie Walsh, Blane McDonough, and Philip F. “Duckie” Dale. The powers that be felt the original recording was a little rough for a soundtrack that was hoped to duplicate the massive commercial success of the prior year’s collection of songs that backed up Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. “We re-recorded it for the film because they said there was some slightly out of tune guitar work on the original,” bassist Tim Butler said. “I could never figure it out, but that was the reasoning. Maybe the original sounded too ‘dense’ for a soundtrack.” While the new version didn’t enjoy the same enormous success as the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark offering on the same soundtrack, it did come within a hair of becoming the first U.S. Top 40 hit for the Psychedelic Furs. The second take on “Pretty in Pink” peaked at #41 on the Billboard chart.


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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 34 – 32

34 mandinka

34. Sinéad O’Connor, “Mandinka”

It didn’t start with a picture of the Pope on live television. Sinéad O’Connor was at war from the beginning. “I had no illusions that there were such things as record deals — I just happened to be lucky enough to get one,” O’Connor noted shortly after the release of her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. “I didn’t realize there were such bastards in this business.” Her famously shaved head — a look especially out of step with late-eighties fashion trends — was O’Connor’s rebuttal to label attempts to impose a more MTV-friendly style on her. Her dramatically coiffure choice wasn’t a foolproof defense, though. When “Mandinka” was released as the third single from The Lion and the Cobra, adjustments were made to the image that graced the sleeve. “That was the art director in the English record company who decided that a woman should have nice pink lipstick,” O’Connor told Musician. “He decided that in the original photograph the lips were too dry. He went down and asked one of the secretaries in the A&R department if she thought my lips were too dry, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, I do.'” The attempts at post-shoot makeovers didn’t matter to most listeners, who realized that O’Connor was offering something intensely special. As for the meaning behind the song “Mandinka,” O’Connor preferred playing it coy in those days. “Mandinkas are an African tribe,” she said. “They’re mentioned in a book called Roots by Alex Haley, which is what the song is about. In order to understand it, you must read the book.”


33 birth

33. The Godfathers, “Birth, School, Work, Death”

The Godfathers released their debut album in 1986, but most college radio programmers got their first exposure to the U.K. band when their sophomore release exploded with the perfect song to speak to the romanticized pessimism that is — or least was — endemic to those hovering around the age of twenty. The title of the band’s major label debut, issued in 1988, offered a savagely bleak reduction of the life experience: Birth, School, Work, Death. The album’s title cut also served as its lead single. It featured vocalist Peter Coyne snarling out the individual experiences of the title, surrounded by equally succinct and simple lyrics, such as “And I been high and I been low/ And I don’t know where to go.” It wasn’t exactly deep, but that was the point. The Godfathers were going straight for the gut. “It’s about a feeling rather than a political view,” guitarist Michael Gibson said of the song at the time. “Seeing people in the audience shouting along — they’ve all been through similar things, but to each one of them the song means something different.” Even though it provided a grim recitation of the march through human existence, the latitude within the lyrics gave the song a universality that helped it spread and endure. “‘Birth, School, Work, Death’ has been covered in about seven or eight different languages — French, Spanish, Japanese, Finnish,” Coyne reflected recently.  “All kinds of things have come up as just a result of that one number. I supposed the question in ‘Birth School Work Death’ is ‘Is that all there is to life?’ The answer to that surely is ‘No.’ And then you fill in the dots yourself.”


32 flintstone

32. The Screaming Blue Messiahs, “I Wanna Be a Flintstone”

By the time the Screaming Blue Messiahs released their third album, Bikini Red, the veneer of self-seriousness had already hardened around college rock. With the likes of Mojo Nixon and the Dead Milkmen finding spots on left of the dial playlists, there was certainly room for a little mockery, but most bands were supposed to play it straight and intense. That’s how U2 sold a kajillion records, after all. When the Bikini Red first hit, in 1987, Screaming Blue Messiahs band members felt a need to urgently justify one track in particular to the ever-judgmental U.K. music press. “It’s supposed to be funny,” lead singer Bill Carter insisted about the song “I Wanna Be a Flintstone.” There simply weren’t that many rock bands that felt they could hang onto their cool guy reputation while simultaneously delivering a raucous ode to the preeminent modern Stone Age family. “We have a lot of fun, it’s not deadly serious — I don’t think,” Carter continued. “It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s only music.” Although the song’s eventual and inevitable inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1994 live action film version of The Flintstones undoubtedly makes it the band’s most lucrative track, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris later groused that releasing the song as a single led to nothing but terrible experiences. “It was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made and we ended up doing Top of the Pops, which was fucking horrible,” they said in a joint interview.


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.