I grew up in the ‘80s and my hazy memory never fails to tell me just how awesome the songs of that era were…until I hear them again. Every so often, I’ll catch a tune on the radio or search for a remembered favourite on YouTube, and almost invariably I’m bitterly disappointed; filled with dread at how dated these songs sound.
The heavy reliance on keyboards and saxophones has a lot to do with it. Remaking a lot of these songs with newer arrangements would undoubtedly help, but there are some ‘80s songs that just sound like the product of their day, even if you did put a modern stamp on it. I can’t see Get out of my Dreams Get into my Car ever sounding good, no matter what instrumentation you used. It would still sound like ‘80s cheese.
On the other hand, there are a handful of songs that, in my opinion, sound as fresh today as the day they were released. That’s partly down to instrumentation – some of these songs rely pretty heavily on piano, and that’s a timeless instrument – but for whatever reason, they don’t fall prey to the clichés that make a song sound “’80s.” Here are a few that I still think sound current. Or at least relatively current.
Every Time I see your Picture I Cry by Luba
Luba’s masterpiece, and a fantastic piece of Canadiana, I don’t ever tire of hearing this. The instrumentation is simple, but what’s most impressive is the passion Luba brings to the vocals. Not sure why I’ve never heard a remake of this song. I thought some American-Idol wannabe might use this power-ballad on their meteoric rise to the top, but maybe it just never had any popularity in the U.S. Or maybe it’s just so good that it doesn’t need a re-make.
Against all Odds by Phil Collins
Could anything that features Phil Collins’s trademark sound possibly be a hit these days, or was he strictly a product of the ‘80s. I mean outside the adult-contemporary charts, of course. If the answer is yes, it would probably be this one – one of his best, again, probably because of the simple piano arrangement. To me, this works a lot better than In the Air Tonight, which still gets tons of radio play but features that big electronic drum sound partway through that just screams ‘80s. Against All Odds is more understated.
Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie
Queen is certainly not immune to sounding dated. I thought about hits like Radio Gaga and I Want to Break Free – and they just sound horribly tacky. If it wasn’t for the fact that nobody can match Freddie’s voice, I’d have abandoned them for cover versions long ago. Even later hits like Show Must Go On both need updates already – yup, that electronic drum sound wreaked havoc on so much of the ‘80s catalogue. It’s sad. But Under Pressure still works – and I’ve heard plenty of covers that just don’t do it justice.
No Myth by Michael Penn
Yes, this is from 1989, so it only just squeaks into the decade, but it’s still a great song. I do find it a bit dated though – but more toward the sound of the ‘90s; so a bit forward looking for its time. Because it relies more on simple (non-electronic) drums and acoustic guitar, it would require very little updating, if any.
Not saying it would be a hit today, but it wouldn’t sound terribly out of place.
Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes by Paul Simon
Most of the songs from Simon’s album Graceland still sound fresh, at least to my ears. I assume that’s in large part attributable to the album’s reliance on South African pop music. It might well sound dated to South Africans, but since that sound is already so foreign to North American audiences who rely on radio for their music, no one around here would notice. It could be released anytime. The quality of vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo makes this a particular highlight from the album, one that, unlike You can Call Me Al or title track Graceland, doesn’t have anything that sounds like it comes from another era. This could be released today and, in a world of Rihanna and LMFAO, would stand out for it’s beautiful sound and lyrics.
When we Was Fab by George Harrison
Less a product of the ‘80s and more an homage to the Beatles sound of the ‘60s – this avoids the pitfalls of its day by being retro-cool. And retro-cool to the ‘60s is going to work well for decades to come. Jesus, retro-cool to the ‘80s is already the new trend! There are countless Hip Hop artists releasing music that just sample a chorus from an old ‘80s song, slap on a few verses of rap, and call it a new song! (Speaking of which, when is someone gonna sample Eye in the Sky by Alan Parsons Project?). I’m getting off topic, but basically, with this song – just like so many of the Beatles’ songs – still sounds amazing today.
Here Comes the Rain Again by The Eurythmics
Not sure I can get away with this one. Okay okay, this does sound ‘80s – no one is going to mistake that – but I’m of the opinion that this one could almost pass as retro-‘80s. If someone replaced Annie’s awesome vocals with some rap and just held everything else as is – chorus, instrumentation – I think this would be a hit. The synthesizers are in heavy use here, no doubt, but the sound isn’t a dated as something like say, Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters, or Jump by Van Halen. So this song could work, with only some minor retooling.
Dear God by XTC
I hear nothing in this song that suggests when it was released (1986). I’m sure the lyrics would just as contentious today as they were when the song was first played, but that doesn’t change that fact that this is a simple and elegant song that wouldn’t be out of place on any folk-rock album today.
And then there’s Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant…. Okay, just kidding. Seriously though, I’d love to have found a Duran Duran song to put in here but their ‘80s hits were all very much a product of their time. That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs. I’d still love to hear a remake of Seventh Stranger. Or, maybe some of these artists could pull a Kate Bush and revisit/revise/re-record some of these songs to give them minor updates.
What about you? Any ‘80s songs you think could pass as modern music?