As a teenager in the 1980s, I amassed a large, eclectic collection of that decade's vinyl. In going through it all, I find myself listening more often to the hits less travelled, and after some research, I discovered a surprising array of brilliant, beloved singles that failed altogether to grace Casey Kasem's countdown. So I compiled a list (in alphabetical order) of the best 80s singles that, despite their awesomeness, never made Billboard's Top 40 (and in many cases, the Hot 100)...
Anchorage (1988) - Michelle Shocked
A brittle, heartbreaking ode to friendships growing apart, this folk-pop classic (#66) written in the style of a postal letter reminds us that in the not so distant past, reconnecting with long lost friends didn't happen with a Facebook search. (no music video available)
Ashes To Ashes (1980) - David Bowie
Despite a riveting music video, and a tuneful, inventive hook, Bowie somehow missed the charts (#101) with this moody and memorable Scary Monsters jewel.
Bad Reputation (1981) - Joan Jett
In a catalog legendary for fiery badass rock hits, this two minute and 42 second fireball showcases Jett at her punk best. Missing the Hot 100 altogether, it's proof that the charts don't know anything.
Big In Japan (1984) - Alphaville
Peppered with sexually enigmatic lyrics ("I will wait for my man tonight/it's easy when you're big in Japan"), this brooding Asian-flavored lament by way of a West German discotech faded at #66 while the trio's other calling card, the sweeping electro-ballad Forever Young (New Wave's Stairway to Heaven) only hit #65 .
Bizarre Love Triangle (1986), Blue Monday (1983) or anything by New Order
Top 40 success finally arrived with True Faith (#32, 1988), but come on - I hear Bizarre Love Triangle more frequently on 21st century radio than I ever did in the 80s, and the most bizarre thing about it to me is that it only made it to #98 in its heyday.
Bringing On The Heartbreak (1982) - Def Leppard
One of the first metal videos on MTV, this dark beauty of a headbanging power ballad rocked its way to #61.
Burning Up (1983) - Madonna
"Unlike the others I'll do anything, I'm not the same, I have no shame, I'm on fire." With these lyrics Madonna laid the foundation for her career. A rock-infused dance treat (the second single from her debut album), Burning Up failed to catch radio's attention in its day, but still ranks among her most delicious.
Cities In Dust (1986) - Siouxsie & The Banshees
Was her image too goth? Was singing about the volcanic eruption that buried everyone in the lost city of Pompeii just too much for pop radio? Whatever pop radio. Siouxsie Sioux cranked out some of the coolest, smartest and catchiest singles (and videos) of the decade. I still get chills listening to her croon "my friend" after essentially declaring all is lost.
Dear God (1987) - XTC
Probably never stood a chance on U.S. Top 40, but college radio (as it was called back then) ate it up. XTC's scorching laundry list of everything wrong with the Bible (bookended with the vocals of an eight year old girl) was the crowning jewel of Skylarking -- a stunning concept album spanning the cycle from birth to death. Fans of this haunting track should check out Sarah MacLachlan's version -- one of the best covers I've ever heard.
Destination Unknown (1982) - Missing Persons
Sexy pop tarts from Madonna to Gwen Stefani to Lady Gaga owe props to Dale Bozzio, who (to my surprise) narrowly missed the Top 40 with her band's two best known hits: Destination Unknown and Words (both peaked at #42).
Everywhere I Go (1986) - The Call
With echoes of U2 and Simple Minds, California's The Call made its mark on college radio with dark, poetic radio ready anthems, yet were nowhere to be found on Top 40. More essential Call singles: I Still Believe, Let The Day Begin, I Don't Wanna, The Walls Came Down.
Fascination Street (1988) - The Cure
An hypnotic, ghoulish wall of sound by rock's great gloomsters peaked at #46 -- so why not six notches higher? In 1988, The Cure were considered hot up and comers in late-to-the-party mainstream America, which is crazy considering they already had a vast catalog including a Greatest Hits album under their belt.
French Kissin In The USA (1986) - Deborah Harry
Defining new wave sexual cool, fronting the iconic Blondie, and racking up four #1 singles from 79 - 82 so why couldn't our Debbie find U.S. Top 40 love whatsoever as a solo artist? The Top 40 should've slipped some tongue to this feather-light kitschy gem ("Paris is calling!") but it stalled at #57. Fun facts: the song was written by sit com creator Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, etc). The video was directed and shot at the L.A. home of hit songwriting legend, Allee Willis.
Give Me Tonight (1984) - Shannon
This declaration of fierceness had more attitude than its predecessor, the smash Let The Music Play, but mysteriously fizzled at #46.
Heaven Must Be There (1984) - Eurogliders
An atmospheric opening gives way like parting clouds to a building groove that plays like a lost Fleetwood Mac classic (with Christine McVie-esque Grace Knight on vocal). Its limited U.S. radio airplay (#65) denied Australia's best pop musical export of 1984 the audience it deserved, yet it's clear with one listen that heaven indeed must be there.
Here Comes Your Man (1989) - The Pixies
In a year when fellow alterna-darlings Love & Rockets and The Cure cracked the top 10, the moment seemed right for The Pixie's three minutes and twenty one seconds of pure pop perfection to rule the charts, but for whatever reasons, it was to remain "alternative."
How Soon Is Now (1984) - or anything by The Smiths for that matter
Huge in their native England, The Smiths dark, jangling melodies had no impact whatsoever on mainstream U.S. radio in the 80s. How Soon Is Now tops my list of breathtaking Smiths singles, but any in their catalog will do.
I Melt With You (1982) - Modern English
This radio mainstay (#78) may be the most famous 80s track never to hit the Top 40.
I Need A Man (1987) - Eurythmics
Roaring Stonesy rocker from Eurythmics' underappreciated Savage (#41). Its edgy video earned well-deserved MTV Video Music nominations, but radio didn't roar along, and it stalled at #46 joining the ranks of the duo's other great non Top 40 singles: Thorn In My Side (#68), You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart (#64), It's All Right Baby's Coming Back (#78), and Sexcrime (#81).
I Want Candy (1982) - Bow Wow Wow
Iconic 80s radio/MTV staple that much to my amazement only peaked at #62.
I'm In Love With The German Film Star (1981) - The Passions
A shimmering wash of layered guitars and synths opens this seductive, unsung jewel, which went to #25 in its native UK, but was M.I.A. on US radio. To quote the tune's final desperate lyric "I'm in love!"
It's Raining Men (1984) - The Weather Girls
Though it will rain eternally on dancefloors, this camp classic (first offered to Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Cher and Barbra Streisand before landing with The Weather Girls) never rose above #46 on the Hot 100. You've got to love the low budget music video complete with cardboard city and dollar store props. Fun fact: cowritten by Paul Shaffer (of The Late Show With David Letterman).
Stay tuned for Part Two of great 80s songs that never made the Top 40 (alphabetical from Jam On It to Your Love Is King)...