What one single most typifies 80s popular music production style?
March 3, 2010 5:22 PM   Subscribe

What one single most typifies 80s popular music production style?

Say the Voyager record was just a single vinyl 45rpm meant to convey to intelligent alien life what American top 40 music in the Eighties sounded like.

For example: Ray Parker Jr's "Ghostbusters" gives you the synthesizers (Yamaha DX-7s, perhaps) and the (gated?) drum machines annoyingly high in the mix.
posted by Joe Beese to Media & Arts (74 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no expert on music production, but one of the songs that sounds most like my teenage years in the 80s is I Can't Wait by Nu Shooz. At the time I loved it for all of the synth sounds.
posted by sueinnyc at 5:29 PM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Do you even need to ask?
(doesn't even count as a roll, that one.)
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 5:36 PM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Don't You Want Me by Human League
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:37 PM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd make a bid for "Video Killed the Radio Star." It has the synth, lots of gimmicky vocal effects, and both a sense of humor and a weird sort of nostalgia, common in 80s pop. The lyrics themselves presage the rise of the music video, which is arguably the defining element of the changes to pop music in the 80s. Plus, as an added bonus, it was the first song played on MTV.

The one drawback is that it was first released in September 1979, so depending on how strict you want to be with the dates, it might not count. It's definitely an iconic track of the eighties, though.
posted by lore at 5:37 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Steppin Out by Joe Jackson
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:42 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: RELAX!
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:42 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I thought that SCIENCE! had pretty much declared that "Take On Me" by A-ha was the quintessential 80s single. But on further reflection, there's no saxophone.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:43 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tempted by Squeeze

I think I'll step out of this one. There's too much awesome stuff from the 80s I now want to pull off the shelf and put into this thread.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:44 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think Blazecock Pileon has it with "Don't You Want Me". My runners-up would be Chicago's "Look Away" or Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know". (Crappy songs, both, but definitely very typical...)

(here are some Top 40 charts for research purposes)
posted by equalpants at 5:51 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to put in for Forever Young by Alphaville and Don't Dream It's Over by Crowded House. The Crowded House gets a mention because the TV version of Stephen King's The Stand had the song featured prominently, and it just stuck after that.

Mind you, pretty much every other song mentioned in this thread is teh bomb, too.
posted by Pragmatica at 5:54 PM on March 3, 2010

I'm thinking Prince's I Would Die For You or The Promise by When In Rome.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:55 PM on March 3, 2010

Pretty much any of Kenny Loggins' soundtrack work, but when I closed my eyes my first answer was "Let's Hear It For The Boy" by Deniece Williams.

So I'm going with the entire Footloose soundtrack.
posted by mintcake! at 5:56 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

which is a really cheaty answer, sorry.
posted by mintcake! at 5:57 PM on March 3, 2010

I'd go with Rio by Duran Duran. To me everything in the production - the bass line, the drums that don't sound like real drums, the synth, the sax solo - it all just screams 80s.
posted by gfrobe at 5:58 PM on March 3, 2010 [10 favorites]

"Higher Love" - Steve Winwood
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:00 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well ya think that the Voyager record would want good music, and the 80's had assloads with productions running the gamut.

I offer 3, 2 of which I don't even care for.



New Order

There are hundreds of bands who could have that single.
posted by Max Power at 6:01 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to second gfrobe (in spite of the fact I've already recommended something- he just did better, is all). Not only is Rio the quintessential 80s song, but Duran Duran were the quintessential 80s band. Hell, the album even had the quintessential 80s artist on the front.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:03 PM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

I always get "Let's hear it for the boy" mixed up with Madonna's "Holiday". I therefore declare both of them generic.
posted by flabdablet at 6:04 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

David Bowie, "Let's Dance".

Why? In part, because it's not that synth-heavy, or an "80s artist": instead, it's a 70s glam rocker embracing the sound of the decade, with Nile Rodgers on one side, and Stevie Ray Vaughan on the other.
posted by holgate at 6:05 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I think of a stereotypical 80s pop song, I think of Hip to Be Square. It even has the requisite sax solo.

It's also what I think of when I think of axe-murdering.
posted by adamrice at 6:06 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Plenty of good options here, but I'll also suggest The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News. It has plenty of synth, sax, etc., and it's also attached to arguably the quintessential 80s movie.
posted by hiteleven at 6:07 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Rio, definitely. Or Union of the Snake, which also has all of the above and extra synth.
posted by Go Banana at 6:08 PM on March 3, 2010

Yeah, actually nothing says '80s like a heavily effected saxophone solo. I think gfrobe has nailed this one. Also, it is a completely incredible song and "Let's Hear It For The Boy" does sound like lots of "movie scene in which brat packers walk through mall" stuff...
posted by mintcake! at 6:08 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation
posted by netbros at 6:10 PM on March 3, 2010

Lucky Star
posted by The World Famous at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dry snare miking.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2010

Vogue by Maddona, though released at the tail end of the 80s.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:15 PM on March 3, 2010

Oh, hey--this conflicts a little with the sax solo criterion, but I think another definitive 80s element is the soaring electric guitar solo in the middle of a synth-y easy-listening song.

Examples: Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram's "Somewhere Out There"
posted by equalpants at 6:16 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the interesting aspects about the production style of '80s pop music is that a LOT of it was engineered on analog, for release on vinyl - and when it came time to move it over to CD, the quieter noise floor immediately revealed a LOT of flaws.

(Take a song like Big Country's "In a Big Country" (Steve Lillywhite, 1983): on vinyl, or on the radio, the opening drumming sounds fine; but on CD, you can hear how it's been put together out of a hundred snippets of tape. You can't hear anything else, in fact.)

But to answer your question: there are a lot of good answers already, but what came to MY mind was Scritti Politti's "Absolute". Awesome production, in a very "80s" sort of way.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:18 PM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh my gosh We Built This City. My previous suggestion of Lucky Star was pretty good, but my judgment was clouded by the fact that I actually like Lucky Star. We Built This City is the clear winner, perhaps partly because it sucks so much.
posted by The World Famous at 6:21 PM on March 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

Heart and Soul - T'pau. Synthy, electronicy, poppy, with a catchy chorus and airy pseudo-rap background vocals.
posted by amyms at 6:22 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Glenn Frey's The Heat Is On. The sax. The synth pads. The stereotypical guitar riffs and organ. Bonus points for Beverly Hills Cop tie-in and black and white video.

Robert Palmer's Simply Irresistible. Stereotypical 80s guitar riffs and solo, DX-7 synth stings, gratuitous clangy samples, bridge containing vocals over a conventional drumbeat. Bonus points for Nagel-esque model team. See also Addicted to Love.

Huey Lewis & The News Hip To Be Square. It has just about everything the above two have. In fact, I think if you play The Heat Is On at the same as Simply Irresistible, you'll actually get Hip To Be Square. Bonus points for inclusion in American Psycho.

Ultimately, it seems like the soundtrack to every cheap movie or every half-rate local bar band was trying to make something sound like these.

Runners-up: Money for Nothing, Centerfield, Footloose.
posted by eschatfische at 6:23 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Two of Hearts by Stacey Q
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:25 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Heartbeat by Don Johnson


Party All The Time by Eddie Murphy
posted by The World Famous at 6:30 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

808 State - Pacific State
posted by phrontist at 6:34 PM on March 3, 2010

Dead or Alive
posted by geekyguy at 7:02 PM on March 3, 2010

Sussudio was the first thing that came to my mind. Ugh.
posted by wwartorff at 7:03 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I Can't Go For That - Hall & Oates - 10 weeks on top of the US Billboard Hot 100, ending in January, 1982
posted by paulsc at 7:05 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Someone already noted my first pick, so I'll just say Yaz, Situation as a solid second.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:05 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Glenn Frey's The Heat Is On.

Yeah, pretty much anything off the Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack will qualify.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 7:08 PM on March 3, 2010

Owner of a lonely heart -- Yes
posted by maloon at 7:09 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or, alles klar Herr Beese?
(must...not...burn...rest...of night...in nostalgic...youtube-a-thon......ahhh!)
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:13 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You want the '80s? Ask Lionel Richie. He owns 'em.

Lionel Richie is the only artist besides Irving Berlin to have written songs to hit #1 on the US charts in eight consecutive years.

That streak began in the late 70s, but Richie's #1 hits of the 80s are:

* 1980: "Lady" (performed by Kenny Rogers)
* 1981: "Endless Love" (with Diana Ross)
* 1982: "Truly"
* 1983: "All Night Long (All Night)"
* 1984: "Hello"
* 1985: "Say You, Say Me" & "We Are The World" (written with Michael Jackson)

* Bonus: 1986: "Dancing on the Ceiling" (only hit #2, so close Lionel!)

Listen to that output and, I submit, you have the 80s.

Of his success, Richie says: "I wanted to find the simplest phrase that everybody says, no matter what language you speak. So much of my career has been about saying things the way people say them, using melodies not that I can sing but that the people can sing . . . And that's why the music has stayed around so long. "
posted by meadowlark lime at 7:13 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

No sax solo, but for all the carting around of a saxophone he did in the motion picture of the same name, Rob Lowe should've earned John Parr's 1985 St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion) at least a mention in this thread. The song was disqualified from consideration for an Oscar as "Best Original Song" because it turned out it was written before the movie, not for the movie. Party poopers...
posted by paulsc at 7:56 PM on March 3, 2010

Modern English's will always be the canonical 80s song in my mind.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:59 PM on March 3, 2010

Maneater fits all the criteria. Plus, it features T-Bone.
posted by prinado at 8:17 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rio is a great choice. However I have a personal affinity for Pop Muzik, especially since I have it on 45.

Andy Partridge called it the perfect pop song in an interview in some 80's British music mag that my Dad brought back for me .
posted by oneirodynia at 8:22 PM on March 3, 2010

Impossible question to answer! Still, I'll vote for Pat Benetar's Love Is A Battlefield. And you must do the shoulder shimmy while you sing it.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:27 PM on March 3, 2010

Here's a better link; the other one takes too long to buffer.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:29 PM on March 3, 2010

Sum up the planet Earth with one fast food restaurant maze-themed placemat. GO!

Oh, I'll try. I vote for 99 Luftballoons? Not my favorite but it's Eurotrashy, it optionally comes in English, it has weird synthesizers.
posted by codswallop at 9:02 PM on March 3, 2010

Spandau Ballet's "True" has the requisite sax, as the group actually included a saxophone player.

Trevor Horn deserves mention as the producer of many emblematic 80's music, having produced ABC's The Lexicon of Love, as well as Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And he was also a member of The Buggles and Art of Noise.
posted by needled at 9:05 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

sly fox
posted by lester at 9:21 PM on March 3, 2010

The nostalgia... it burns, mother, it BURNS!!

Anyway, Paul Young's version of Wherever I Lay My Hat is the song I use as an example whenever I'm trying to describe the worst of the '80's sound. I'm still not sure what it is- it can't just be the synths and the horrible drum machine, can it? He has a lovely voice and it's a well crafted song, but that production just murders it.
posted by biddeford at 9:49 PM on March 3, 2010

Billy Ocean - Caribbean Queen
posted by camneely at 10:00 PM on March 3, 2010

Honestly, when I think '80s production, the first song that comes to mind is Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight." Those gated drums, man, that's the '80s right there.
posted by klangklangston at 10:32 PM on March 3, 2010

She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby.
posted by conrad53 at 11:43 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Love Will Save the Day, Whitney Houston
posted by citron at 11:52 PM on March 3, 2010

One Night In Bangkok by Murray Head
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:11 AM on March 4, 2010

For me, it would be some kind of synthpop/Italodisco, like Fancy - Slice Me Nice.
posted by martinrebas at 1:38 AM on March 4, 2010

I'll take your Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and raise you the rare Harold Faltermeyer song The Discovery played when Eddie is casing the warehouse. Don't believe it was on the soundtrack.
posted by jasondigitized at 5:24 AM on March 4, 2010

You could also go on the other end of the spectrum and go hair band hard rock.

Van Halen says it all

(so does Ratt, Winger, Twisted Sister, etc)
posted by stormpooper at 6:22 AM on March 4, 2010

Karma Chameleon by Culture Club would be my vote.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:59 AM on March 4, 2010

Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band.
posted by Otis at 7:22 AM on March 4, 2010

Not a lot of love for the rock and rap of the 80's, but we want them to learn about us, not want to blast us out of space for getting Rio stuck in their heads, so I suggest Walk This Way
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:18 AM on March 4, 2010

How about the Miami Vice theme by Jan Hammer? Or pretty much anything produced by Stock, Aitken & Waterman...
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 12:00 PM on March 4, 2010

Pace Mintcake, before I even viewed the answers I thought “NuShooz and Human League.” In truth there are always multiple genres, but the ’80s was a time when what is now a marginal genre was mainstream and unavoidable. Even Van Halen fanatics could not possibly avoid hearing synthpop.

Owen Pallett would say Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark, or however they want to spell that.
posted by joeclark at 1:39 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City might have a lot of what you need.
posted by june made him a gemini at 2:37 PM on March 4, 2010

Anything that uses the Electric Mistress on all guitar parts, with the phasing/sweeping turned off, plus gated reverb on the snare for that whip-crack–from–"Sleigh Ride" sound.
posted by limeonaire at 5:24 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd have to go with several of the suggestions above, but it's not that simple. Something like "The Heat is On" is right up the alleyway I have in mind. The key here is the more generic the better. Ultimately, "We Built this City" or yes, perhaps "Rio" (but I remember "Hungry Like the Wolf" better) really falls into that sweet spot of meaninglessness. A few not mentioned: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", and "Eye of the Tiger". Maybe Hall & Oates "Maneater", or Van Halen's "Jump"?

Some of the other songs people have listed are ... actually ... still pretty good, taking into account 80s sensibilities, and are often distinctive enough that they really shouldn't count.

I was curious about the crowdsourced option, so here's the 80s tag on last.fm. Trouble is there's too much good music on there (Smiths, particularly) so this is clearly a 2000s/2010s take or filter on 80s music (why remember and replay the bad music? that's what oldies stations are for). But yes: "Take On Me", "Billie Jean", for gosh sake "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Africa" are all in the top ten.

Typifying songs that are now having a bit of a second or long-tail life is "Down Under". Of course, Rick Astley was virtually a nonentity in his time, so as cheesily appropriate as that is, it isn't actually representative.
posted by dhartung at 6:00 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

belinda carlisle MAD ABOUT YOU 1986
posted by Hammond Rye at 9:24 PM on March 4, 2010

Lou Gramm - Midnight Blue 1987
posted by Hammond Rye at 9:36 PM on March 4, 2010

I'd have to agree with Duran Duran for the win, but I'm gonna go with Planet Earth. It doesn't have the saxophone, but it has the pep and it was the New Wave. My first concert was Duran Duran in the summer of 1987 at Cal Expo in Sacramento. I'm afraid I've said too much.
posted by wherever, whatever at 4:41 AM on March 5, 2010

My top four would be:
"She Blinded Me With Science", "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", "She Drives Me Crazy", and "Hungry Like the Wolf"
posted by rmd1023 at 4:13 PM on March 5, 2010

Oh my God I'm going home tonight, pulling up Amazonmp3, and buying this entire thread.
posted by toekneebullard at 12:24 PM on June 21, 2010

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