As the new year draws closer, we’ve decided to take a look the music that’s gotten us to where we are today. So in an effort to broaden our musical horizons and our understanding of contemporary artists, we’re counting down 2012 by counting up from 1952, taking a look at a handful of songs from a different year every day until January 1st. You can find the full list here. Today we’re heading back to 1980!
Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks”
I see “The Breaks” as a less condescending version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Both urge the listener to find solace in the poppy music and upbeat singers, but Kurtis Blow’s smash record outlines a laundry list of grievances, most real, some humorous. It has a greater acceptance of how bad life can get in an instant, yet isn’t convinced that anything should stop you from having a good time, making for a more spirited and believable tune.
Joy Division – “Isolation”
Joy Division’s second and final LP Closer has the air of an obituary, much like any creative work released soon after the artist’s death. It’s treated lighter, perhaps out of a superstitious respect for the dead, and the despair and alienation in the music is made more potent with the knowledge that they consumed the person singing of its tortures. It’s impossible to write about without the obscene phrase “from the grave” crossing one’s mind. So would we remember Closer differently if Curtis were still alive? Probably. No, definitely. Would it be any less of a masterpiece? In a fair world, no, but Curtis didn’t live and die in one of those.
Devo — “Whip It”
Taken at face value, “Whip It” could be about jerking off, or S&M, or huffing chemicals. And sure, Devo’s only smash hit had loftier political ambitions, but the general public wasn’t about to parse through the band’s wacky artifice to find it. “Whip It” became hugely controversial and successful, for the band, and come to define them for many.
Peter Gabriel – “Games Without Frontiers”
Protest pop would have a lot to fuel its outrage in the ’80s. It was the decade of Reagan and Iran, AIDS and apartheid. People were suffering, and musicians like Peter Gabriel recaptured the spirit of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests to hold their governments’ feet to the fire. “Games Without Frontiers” is more about the general absurdity of war than any specific regime, though if you listen carefully to the opening verse, plenty of names get dropped. Political songs not your thing? Here’s the rap-rock remix “X Games Without Frontiers,” and yes it’s about that. Because the original was just one Shaun White reference away from perfection.
Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime”
David Byrne is Elvis for nerds. “Once In A Lifetime” was a quiet sea change in rock music, a movement that stopped making sense even within a nonsensical art form in a nonsensical world. And that’s how something special is made.