Lost in the ’80s: The Top 15 New-Wave Songs — Ever!

lit80s

If you’ve been reading this column for the past four years or so, you may remember me calling out certain songs as one of “the top blahblah new-wave songs ever.” I’ve done it a few times, as I recall — most recently last Tuesday, in fact — and good commenter Pete stated:

“John, I’d be curious to know what your other top 5 new wave songs are …”

Well, Pete my friend, because you asked for it, here are not only my top 5, but my top 15! Who says it’s a waste of time to comment on Popdose?

First off, some ground rules:

  • While acts such as Roxy Music, Sparks and David Bowie certainly laid the groundwork, if not the entire friggin’ blueprints for what we call new wave, this list is limited to artists who came of age and were active during the classic new-wave period from 1979 through 1984, give or take as I feel like.
  • And what the heck is new wave, anyway? While we can argue it was just an umbrella term coined by Seymour Stein to cover any of his acts that weren’t overtly commercial, let’s agree for our purposes that we know it when we hear it.
  • It would be easy to rattle off ten or twenty songs that really should be on this list, like for example, New Order’s “Blue Monday.” But this is Popdose: we assume you’ve seen obvious lists like that a million times and the average Popdose reader is more knowledgeable and likes to be challenged. So, while we’re not gonna go all Pitchfork-y on you and rattle off names like Pylon or the Plastics, you may seem some less obvious choices.
  • This list will be from a very American point of view, since I sort of grew up in America and stuff. Don’t worry though – it’s probably the most Anglo-centric Americanized list you’ll ever read.
  • And last, but not least, this is my list, my opinions, my decisions. It is by no ways meant to be comprehensive, complete or the final word on anything. That’s why you’re going to leave comments after you read it, so I can either praise you for bringing up an act I forgot, or ridicule you for suggesting I left out the Bongos and how dare I.

And with that, let’s begin!

15.  M, “Pop Muzik” (1979)
So much for avoiding the obvious choices, eh? But it would be unconscionable of me to leave this off the list, the first new-wave song to hit number one in the U.S. From the ominous opening synth chords to the robotic “pop, pop, pop music” background vocals, Robin Scott’s sole charting single stood out like a sore thumb in the disco and Journey-filled radio landscape of 1979. American radio may not have wanted to play this song, but they couldn’t deny it, no matter how hard they tried.

14.  Human League, “Don’t You Want Me?” (1982)
Another obvious but essential selection. Holds the distinction of being the first number one single to feature all synthesized instrumentation, right down to Phil Oakey’s robotic vocals. Okay, so maybe Oakey and Susan Sulley’s voices were real, but everything else about it was synthetic, which was really new wave. Oakey hated the song so much after it was recorded, he insisted it be placed last on the album Dare, and he fought against its release as a single. Being dead wrong never paid off so well.

13.  Adam & the Ants, “Car Trouble” (1979)
And here’s probably the first big “What th–!” moment of the list. How can I pick a minor single off the Ants’ first album and not a true new-wave classic like “Antmusic,” “Prince Charming,” or even “Goody Two Shoes,” for Goddard’s sake? Because “Car Trouble” is notable for introducing the Ants beat to new wave, a rockabilly meets burundi beat picked up by other acts like Bow Wow Wow. Plus, it nicely bridges punk as it morphed into its more commercial and accessible cousin new wave. Totally different head – totally.

12.  Depeche Mode, “People Are People” (1985)
I’m not as big a fan as I used to be (I honestly have, like, maybe three Depeche Mode songs on my iTunes, despite owning their entire catalog, including singles), but I had to include this song, their breakthrough hit in America. It also does triple duty by representing Yaz and Erasure on the list, even though Vince Clarke was long gone by this point. It was here the group left behind a sunny boy band image and started on its path to inspiring countless trenchcoat-clad, depressed teens to start blasphemous rumors.

11.  New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” (1985)
“Blue Monday” be damned, “The Perfect Kiss” took the gloom and doom of Joy Division and put it to an undeniably new-wave dance beat. Add in some obtuse lyrics about a firearm, a night ending in death, and whacking off (“Tonight I should have stayed at home / playing with my pleasure zone”), top it off with samples of croaking frogs and you have something completely new and familiar at once. Plus, cowbell!

10. Re-Flex, “The Politics of Dancing” (1983)
What’s a new-wave list without a one-hit wonder? Well, there are a few here, but Re-flex is a special case, since they were one of the first of the British new-wave bands to cross over to mainstream US radio, alongside Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and Culture Club. Plus, it’s goddamn catchy.

9. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, “Enola Gay” (1980)
While never really crossing over to the mainstream in the States (MTV wouldn’t even touch their videos at this point),”Enola Gay” still marks the first time many of us heard OMD. Whether it was in a club or from an older friend’s record collection (hello!), it would be our first taste of the synthpop duo that no one expected to go Top Ten in the States five short years later with a song from a major motion picture.

8. Echo & the Bunnymen, “The Cutter” (1983)
Another “what the hell” moment on the countdown. Echo & the Bunnymen made the cut because they were the first new-wave act to draw inspiration from bands that new wavers despised with a passion, most notably the Doors, and still sound cool. Plus, nothing made you look more new wave than having an Echo & the Bunnymen pin on your jacket – it let everyone at school  know they could bum clove cigarettes from you between classes.

7. Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)
Obviously here because of its distinction of being the first video played on MTV, sparking off a video revolution that was central to new wave. Also here, because it, along with the aforementioned “Pop Muzik” and another song to come later on down the page, were the only new-wave songs my local Top 40 radio station in Cleveland, Ohio, had the guts to come near.

6. Blondie, “Dreaming” (1979)
They weren’t punk, even though they were spawned by CBGB. Blondie were informed by Sixties girl groups, New York City streets, and disco, fusing it into some unique, yet recognizable. Harry does her best to soar, while Clem Burke has a minor stroke on the drums. And hey, how about that 1979? Seems like a banner year for new wave.

5. Devo, “Freedom of Choice” (1980)
Devo makes the cut because, well, they’re Devo, and “Freedom of Choice” is the choice over “Whip It” because Devo showed us new wave could be more than just about the clothes and synths. It could also be political, especially in a subtle, sneaky way that a million Jackson Brownes could never match. I’m sure you correct your friends when they miss the line, “Freedom from choice is what you want,” too.

4. Kim Wilde, “Kids In America”
Ah, the song that sparked this list. New wave, while not exclusively white, was very suburban. It mostly dealt with very suburban issues (Love! Romance! Boredom!), so it of course appealed to suburban kids. So here’s a song about love, romance, and boredom in suburbia. That, and “East California” still never fails to crack me up.  And that last 30 seconds when the synths build to a climax and the guitars slice through … heaven in suburbia.

3. Gary Numan, “Cars”
New wave that even rockers could like. Gary Numan’s “Cars” sat comfortably on radio playlists right next to Queen and Boston and nobody blinked an eye. They did clap their hands at the appropriate moment, of course. Numan’s only US hit because it was both accessible and strange. New wave in a nutshell, that Gary.

2. Duran Duran, “Planet Earth”
They often spoke of how their goal was to fuse the Sex Pistols with Chic, and here’s the closest they got. New Romanticism in full effect, all frilly pirate shirts, sash belts, and gelled hair, Duran Duran were the faves of the super hip kids. That is, until they went to Sri Lanka, got their suits tailored, and sailed along the Rio Grande. But for a while, they were truly underground and new wave. Bop bop bop.

1. Missing Persons, “Words”
Why #1? Because Missing Persons, along with maybe A Flock of Seagulls, just personify new wave. The hair, the sci-fi fashion, the angular, hiccupy-ness of it all. But Missing Persons had the secret weapon, unlike the Flock, of actually being able to play, and play well. Missing Persons held their own against any live band of the moment, as the live clip below proves. Sure, Dale was annoying, but her presence is still felt in pop today (Hi, Lady Gaga! Hi, Gwen Stefani!). Not bad for a band whose debut got two stars in Rolling Stone (money quote: “And if this is the revolution, give me Pat Benatar.“)

So, there it is. I know you’re champing at the bit. So, what are you waiting for? Hit the comments and have at it!

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