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Apr 15 2013
Bubbling Under: 50 '80s Songs I Still Can't Believe Didn't Hit The Top 40 On Billboard's Hot 100 Comments (24)

Alphaville-Shiraz-FumanAlphaville's Marian Gold by Shiraz Fuman

I recently ruminated about the fact that Debbie Harry has never had a Top 40 solo hit in the U.S., and had no problem at all coming up with 12 of her songs that deserved it.

ShannonNow, I've put together a list of 50 of my favorite songs of the '80s that failed to hit the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100. In some cases, these are the biggest songs of the decade, songs you simply can't believe were not bigger chart hits. In other cases, these are fantastic pop singles that simply failed to cut the mustard. And in still other cases, these are just songs that seemed squarely aimed at the Top 40 and were by acts who'd had not trouble breaking through earlier.

Enjoy, and please comment back with your own suggestions for songs I forgot...


1. Elton John & Millie Jackson

"Act of War" by Elton John & Millie Jackson (1985)

PERFORMANCE. Elton probably thought he could use his fame to educate the ignorant masses on the powerhouse that was Millie Jackson. In spite of the video playing during Live Aid and in spite of their spirited vocals, this War of the Roses set to music never took off. Great-sounding-on-paper duets between legends often fail, though...just ask Madonna & Britney, Whitney & Aretha and countless others.



"Ain't Nothin' Goin' on But the Rent" by Gwen Guthrie (1986)

MUSIC VIDEO. I had never heard the expression "fly girl" until this amazing, undeniably catchy song that should have hit #1—and did, on the R&B and dance charts. Over on the Hot 100, it stalled at #42. Maybe it was scary hearing a woman demand that her man be self-supporting, like some kind of attack on manhood. Or maybe it was too black at a time when music stores not not "R&B" sections but "Black Music" sections. It's a shame, because this song is gold. Guthrie, who sang backup on Madonna's first album, died in 1999.



"Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie (1980)

MUSIC VIDEO. Only one of Bowie's most brilliant singles and a #1 hit in the UK, it was completely ignored in America. Not even its spooky, MTV-ready music video helped. Hope you're happy, America. The also awesome "Fashion" only hit #70 as a follow-up. Bowie only had eight Top 40 hits the entire decade, in spite of landing "Let's Dance" at #1 in 1983.



"Baby Talk" by Alisha (1985)

MUSIC VIDEO. One of the most shamefully undervalued freestyle hits of the '80s, this eternally peppy number has the bassline from "Into the Groove" and Alisha's flinty-fabulous vocal going for it, plus that JAP-tastic video: The teased hair, the trashbag-chic evening wear, the unenthusiastic crowd (who's that stalker???), the blue eye shadow. I could listen to this song every day.


"Bag Lady (I Wonder)" by EBN-OZN (1983)

MUSIC VIDEO. Great performance in the video by Imogene Coca as a JFK-loving bag lady. This song by the experimental musicans behing "A, E, I, O, U, Sometimes Y" (also a great song, but not hard to believe as a non-Top 40 resident due to its offbeat tune) was a fast-paced indictment of homelessness, but one whose lyrics dance-happy yuppies could ignore thanks to the awesome sound. 



"Big in Japan" by Alphaville (1984)

PERFORMANCE. The one song on this list I can't forgive America for confining to the 60s on Billboard is this one, which I'm going to go out on a limb and say is my favorite 1980s song along with Madonna's "Into the Groove." There is something about this  relentless pop track with its on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown vocal that makes it evergreen to my ears. And a male singing about "waiting for my man tonight" (yes, yes, I've read all the excuses as to why it's not about that) didn't hoit. (P.S. American assholes didn't let Alphaville's "Forever Young" past the 60s either...twice! Tell me that song isn't infinitely more famous than the lion's share of Top 10 hits from the era.)


"Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order (1986)

MUSIC VIDEO. One of the most influential electronic singles ever, this inescapable emblem of the '80s bombed in the U.S. It didn't chart in a big way until a 1995 re-release, by which time it had been spun countless times on college radio and at every dance you ever attended.


"Black Cars" by Gino Vannelli (1985)

MUSIC VIDEO. Vannelli probably thought he had a sure-fire Top 40 hit with this rollicking pop song, but he crested just outside the the chart. He does a great Miami Vice Elvis in the video, which is peopled by young and old women—and men—in Joan Collins drag. It's like Robert Palmer but with penises.


"Burning Flame" by Vitamin Z (1985)

MUSIC VIDEO. I was obsessed with this song...and surprised more teenagers weren't. Its video was an MTV staple and the theme of the song and video (a girl throwing a guy over for his best friend/bandmate) was right up Adolescent Alley. I found it so stinging when the lead singer, Geoff Barradale, sang about the GF teasing him about his lovemaking skills. In fact, his righteous indignation really builds so effectively as the song wears on. Plus, any song that works in the word "anoint" without sounding pretentious is aces in my book.



"Carmen (Danger In Her Eyes)" by Deborah Sasson & MCL (1988)

MUSIC VIDEO. This amazing, upbeat club hit featured the opera singer Deborah Sasson interweaving elements from Carmen with an Olivia Newton-John-esque pop song. So hard to imagine a woman could sing in the two wildly different voices present on this one. Are you telling me there was room in the Top 40 for Ray Parker Jr.'s "Girls Are More Fun" and not this gem?



"Close (To the Edit)" by The Art of Noise (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. Sure, it's as avant-garde as hell, but it was on MTV more often than J.J. Jackson to this day is catchier than bird flu. The bizarro video with the little "Hey!"-yelling girl should have helped raise its profile. But alas, it was too out-there. And yet TAON did score two Top 40 hits before it was all over: that cover of Prince's "Kiss" featuring Tom Jones and the Max Headroom-fueled "Paranoimia." No, they didn't land in the Top 40 with their outstanding "Peter Gunn," not even with Duane Eddy himself along for the ride. (Close, though: #50.)



"Come Home With Me Baby" by Dead Or Alive (1989)

PERFORMANCE. Like Pet Shop Boys or New Order or Erasure, Pete Burns and Dead or Alive kept churning out variations on the same song throughout the '80s, yet each incarnation was pretty brilliant. This culminated, for me, with their best song since "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," this blunt pick-up song that I used to dance to at The Bistro and Rage in Chicago, always with the knowledge that I was too scared to be as direct as Pete. I did, in fact, go home with someone, baby, during the period in which I was obsessed with this song, and let's just say I was later the worse for wear, in both good and not so good ways.



"Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne (1980)

PERFORMANCE. Even if you're not into rock, you have heard of and probably like this staple of the format. Not only did it not hit the Top 40, it failed to scratch the Hot 100. In the ensuing 33 years, it's of course become one of the things for which Ozzy is best known, right above the bat and right behind the reality show.


"Cry Wolf" by a-ha (1986)

REMIX. People tend to think of a-ha as one-hit wonders in the U.S. forgetting they had two big hits here (the other being "The Sun Always Shines on TV"). But as cute as they were and as infectious as all of their melodies were, it's amazing they didn't have a longer trail of single successes. This song's downfall may be its repetitiveness, but Morten's falsetto comes in handy during the howl-like chorus.



"Do Ya Do Ya (Wanna Please Me)" by Samantha Fox (1986)

PERFORMANCE. Maybe following up the outrageously slutty "Touch Me (I Want Your Body" with another parenthetic pussy-pounder was a bit much for American radio, but I always thought this punchy little fuckfest was perversely feminist and, for those who didn't care, just plain fun to dance to. (P.S. Sam is lipping in the clip, but actually sings really well live. Who knew?)



"Don't Let Me Be the One" by Nu Shooz (1986)

PERFORMANCE. I could never get a handle on this married duo. Their musical output was all over the map. But while "Don't Let Me Be the One" pales in comparison to "I Can't Wait," it's appealing '80s synth-jazz.


"Don't Make a Fool of Yourself" by Stacey Q (1988)

MUSIC VIDEO. It came close to Top 40 glory, but pooped out in the 60s. Nonetheless, the Shep Pettibone-fueled "DMAFOY" is one of Stacey Q's most grown-up and satisfying singles, a great put-down song couched in her uncharacteristically velvety vocals.



"Drama!" by Erasure (1989)

MUSIC VIDEO. I was tempted to include the sublime "Oh, L'amour," but "Drama!" was much better-positioned to have been a hit in the U.S., following hot on the cha-cha heels of the successful hits "Chains of Love" and "A Little Respect." I love the appropriately dramatic vocal by Andy Bell. One of the band's most fun singles to sing along with.



"Everybody" by Madonna (1982)

PERFORMANCE. Madonna's only '80s single not to hit the Top 40, yet it's still hard to believe this one didn't break through: It's as good as "Lucky Star" and Madonna probably performed it a hundred times or more at track dates. But all the hard work did make it a dance hit, and that did lead to more singles, which led to...well, you know.


"Give Me Tonight" by Shannon (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. I don't care what anyone says—as amazing as "Let the Music Play" is, "Give Me Tonight" is even better. But whereas the former soared to #8 (besting its contemporary, Madonna's "Holiday," by eight notches), "Give Me Tonight" petered out at #46. The also sterling "Do You Wanna  Get Away" made it to #49 the following year. Those three songs were the only Shannon tracks to kiss the Hot 100.


"Goodbye to You" by Scandal feat. Patty Smyth (1982)

MUSIC VIDEO. I think this is one of the best songs of the 1980s, let alone 1982, and yet Smyth's heartfelt vocal and her band's giddy rock/pop jammin' (they look like those people hearing themselves for the first time after having cochlear implants in the video...priceless!) were only good for a Billboard stint in the 60s. It's awfully hard not to dance like Patty whenever I hear this number.


"The Hardest Part" by Blondie (1980)

MUSIC VIDEO. Sandwiched between albums with #1 hits, Eat to the Beat was a low-key entry for Blondie, a band that never met a music style it didn't like. For some reason, the hard-driving "The Hardest Part," which had the urgency of "Dreaming" (previously released) and the defiance of "Rapture"'s rap (to be released later), missed badly at radio. I love it. I love the Downtown NYC '80s video, too.



"Hold Me" by Menudo (1985)

MUSIC VIDEO. Where my Hispanic record-buying audience at??? How this song failed to go higher is a mystery, considering it had adorable Latino teenage idols-to-be romping in not very many clothes and pining over a gorgeous white girl. Even as they performed sold-out concerts, Menudo never scored a Top 40 hit in the U.S., and never rose above the mark made by this, their best stab at cross-over success.



"Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China" by Cyndi Lauper (1988)

MUSIC VIDEO. Culled from her disastrous big-screen fumble Vibes (which I've always said is a really good movie for the first half), this song is vintage Cyndi. It even has a Blue Angel rockabilly feel. Just try to overlook the kitschy Oriental trill every time she says "China." When I interviewed Cyndi 15 years or more ago, she did say, "That was a good one," comparing it favorably to "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough."



"Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun" by Julie Brown (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. This hysterical pastiche/parody of melodramatic '50s/'60s teen songs would not play today, what with guns and schools being in the news every couple of months. But at the time, it was just silly and clever, with one of the most fun videos of the entire decade. It started life as a B-side to "I Like 'em Big and Stupid," but quickly became the focal point, making it a double A-side release. The best part is how, like, totally Val the singer/narrator is, especially when she pleads of her murderous BFF, "Stop it, Debbie—you're embarrassing me!" If I ever meet her, I'll tell her (in her good ear) how fucking brilliant she is. (P.S. I hope Julie made bank when she co-wrote Disney Channel's Jonas Brothers vehicle Camp Rock!)


English Beat
"I Melt With You" by Modern English (1982)

MUSIC VIDEO. I had to chop Shana's "I Want You" from the list when I was reminded she actually hit #40 with that shoulda-been-a-classic, so why not replace her with Kenneth's suggestion? "I Melt With You" is a quintessential '80s song that never got especially close to Top 40 status in spite of its grandiose (if macabre) take on love and a video that was on MTV more often than commercials for knock-off Desperately Seeking Susan jackets. The moody video (wait, was the lead singer Detox?), with its stoic dancers, had a noir-on-a-budget look that any one of us could probably recreate from memory to this day. Re-releasing it in 1990 didn't help its chart performance; the mistakes of history were repeated. Still, I bet the songwriters have made more off of this song than the songwriters of Top 40 hits "Live is Life" by Opus or "Vienna Calling" by Falco.


"I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow (1982)

MUSIC VIDEO. I've said it about "Goodbye to You" and I'll say it here, too: This shouldn't just have been a Top 40 hit, this is one of the best songs to come out of the '80s, a cheery blend of punk and pop that was probably still too much of the former to do well on charts based on the latter. Annabella was maybe too sexually threatening for what the mainstream was after (licking that cone in the video was reminiscent of the infamous Gong Show popsicle incident), but I loved the shirtless drummer in the video...he was sex on the beach!



"Imagination" by Belouis Some (1985)

PERFORMANCE. Though "Some People" was a great track, too, I was always bewildered by the non-40 status of this impressionistic '80s art-pop semi-hit. Loved his voice. Much better than Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" from the year before, don't you think?



"It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls (1982)

PERFORMANCE. The best novelty song of all time, this one works as fun-to-dance-to disco as well, and any song with huge voices like these deserves to be ushered into the Top 40, let alone a song that everybody in the world, 30+ years later, has since heard. But this one was a wash-out on the Top 40 (#46), perhaps retaining a bit too much disco for the '80s.



"Johnny Are You Queer?" by Josie Cotton (1981/2)

UNRELEASED MUSIC VIDEO. Josie Cotton sang this camp track back when just asking the question was pro-gay, even if "queer" at the time was a slur. It's still a hilarious take on '60s girl-group songs and, for the record, Johnny...we're waiting for an answer. (Maybe this was the same Johnny who the Homecoming queen killed so many people for in Julie Brown's later song???)



"Left to My Own Devices" by Pet Shop Boys (1989)

MUSIC VIDEO. A rip-roaring tell-off of a song, this art-house throbber killed in the clubs and had a statement video, yet the Boys were already considered to be fizzling out in the U.S. (they'd just had their final Top 40 hit with "Domino Dancing"). The Warhol-does-Broadway lyrics seemingly went over the heads of U.S. radio. Hard to believe, I know.



"Love of a Lifetime" by Chaka Khan (1986)

MUSIC VIDEO. If this song sounds like "Perfect Way" by Scritti Politti, no wonder—that's who wrote it for her. It's probably her "This Time" in that it's a bubbly pop song aimed at the Top 40 from a diva previously more comfortable in other genres (R&B for Chaka, disco for Donna). It's so joyous and funky at once, I can't believe it failed at Tpo 40 radio. And don't even get me started on "Tight Fit."



"One Step Ahead" by Split Enz (1980)

MUSIC VIDEO. Yet another stand-out from the decade that didn't go Top 40...or even Hot 100! Mesmerizing to this day, this song could still be repurposed in a thriller.



"Reaction" by Rebbie Jackson (1986)

SONG. She was in the Top 25 with the weirdest good song ever, "Centipede" ("like a centipede that's hot"???), but this electrifying R&B/dance song from just a couple of years later was shrugged off by Top 40 radio. I personally always felt the chorus was as close to a female orgasm as I would ever hear, but that was before I got into straight porn.



"Real Wild Child (Wild One)" by Iggy Pop (1986)

MUSIC VIDEO. Such a great pop/rock song, clearly aimed at Middle America, where The Stooges might not've played. I know why they might not've, but why didn't this one? No idea, but what can you say about a country that's never given Debbie Harry a solo Top 40 hit?



"Rebel Yell" by Billy Idol (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. Does it get any more Billy Idol than "Rebel Yell?" Nope. And yet this song lived just outside the Top 40 for no good reason. He'd had hits with "White Wedding" and "Hot in the City" and followed "Rebel Yell" with the gigantic Top 5 smash "Eyes Without a Face," and yet this amiable rocker just didn't cut the mustard.



"Same Ole Love (365 Days a Year)" by Anita Baker (1987)

MUSIC VIDEO. This beautiful, mellow, fuzzy slipper of a song almost went Top 40 and really should have considering Baker had scored back-to-back Top 40 hits the previous year. But alas, both this and the equally awesome "No One in the World" stalled at #44.


"Sendin' All My Love" by The Jets (1988)

REMIX. Following two Top 5 smash hits by the band, "Sendin' All My Love" sure sounded like a welcome change of pace that would capitalize on the family act's name and yet appease those of us who prefer to dance quickly vs. swaying while making moony faces to imaginary boyfriends. Shockingly, this dance-floor dynamite fizzled in the 80s on the chart in the '80s. Maybe it was too cool for the band's nerdy fanboys and fangirls?


"Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)" by Eurythmics (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. Look, this song actually never had a chance, considering it was originally from a mess of a downer movie, not to mention all the brilliant music Eurythmics had done for said film was then stripped by the irate director. Oh, and then there is the little problem of expressing the them of Orwell's 1984 with the potentially offensive term "sexcrime" and singing about it. But it was such a fantastic, frozen anthem I fully believed it would hit. It did hit...#81. Which ain't bad, all things considered. Other Eurythmics songs from the '80s that were baffling bombs: "It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)," "Thorn in My Side," "I Need a Man" (seriously, people, get with the program) and "You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart."



"Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash (1982)

PERFORMANCE. Hello, it's only their most famous song. But we in the U.S. preferred the unintelligible "Rock the Casbah," if only to give us something to argue about.


"Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend)" by Mel & Kim (1987)

PERFORMANCE. A smash in the U.K. in 1986, this saucy song was a U.S. dance hit...but failed miserably at Top 40. How the??? It's still so fun to listen to, even if it's hard not to think about Mel's shocking death from cancer only a couple of years into the sisters' success.


"Slow Dancing" by Lindsay Buckingham (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. A then-current, melodic pop hit following his crazily addictive Top 40 hit "Go Insane," this song failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100. I always loved it, especially sexy Lindsay in the romantic video.


"Smalltown Boy" by Bronski Beat (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. One of my biggest chart disappointments occurred when this explicitly gay song—and explicitly good song—with an effecting video to boot barely missed the U.S. Top 40. That whole first Bronski Beat album was filled with potential hits stunted by the group being so out. I'm glad they were anyway.



"Summer of Love" by The B-52s (1986)

REMIX. After being New Wave darlings and before being frat-house kegger-enablers, the B-52s were kind of in-between, and put out Bouncing Off the Satellites, an agreeable, pop-oriented album that felt like a repositioning of them to make them more palatable to Top 40. It was unsuccessful commercially, but I really liked a lot of the songs, none more so than the cheerful "Summer of Love." Okay, maybe I liked "Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greeland" more, but no way in hell was that hitting the Top 40.


"Summertime, Summertime" by Nocera (1986)

PERFORMANCE. God, I loved her thick accent on this, as well as the cat-toying-with-mouse intro, "Tek me away...tek me away..." Just a buoyant slice of freestyle pop that would've been an excellent song of the summer.


"Tom Sawyer" by Rush (1981)

MUSIC VIDEO. This song was ubiquitous in my cousin's basement, so sue me for thinking it must've been a #1 smash. Still fondly remembered, it only hit #44...somehow. It's one of the few prog-rock songs I can listen to and enjoy, although I won't deny I'd rather listen to some freestyle bullshit B-side.



"What I Like About You" by The Romantics (1980)

MUSIC VIDEO. As with "I Want Candy," this song has become so widely heard since its release (over 30 years ago!) it's hard to believe it didn't go Top 40, though listeners liked it enough to take it to #49. The '50s throwback vibe gives it a timeless quality that doesn't immediately scream early '80s New Wave. It should have been the song that made The Romantics famous, but that song would come soon enough (the more conventional "Talking in Your Sleep"), even if their fame didn't stick.


"Why Me" by Planet P (1983)

MUSIC VIDEO. This sci fi-themed band, put together by Tony Carey, captured my imagination with the retro-kitsch video and spacey beats of "Why Me." I recall seeing it on MTV so often it's shocking it wasn't in the Top 40.


"Words" by Missing Persons (1982)

MUSIC VIDEO. Recorded in 1981 and released as a single in 1982, this New Wave popper popped up to #42, just barely missing Top 40 distinguishment. From Spring Session M, one of my fave '80s albums, the song joins more Top 40 outcasts "Destination Unknown," "Windows" and "Walking in L.A." as songs that are far superior to much of the decade's far more successful pop songs. The best squeaky voice EVER, and without Dale Bozzio, what would Lady Gaga look like?


"Your Love is King" by Sade (1984)

MUSIC VIDEO. By the time "Smooth Operator" became an international hit for Sade, I was seeing other videos by her/them on MTV and not getting that they'd been for failed previous stabs at single success. In particular, I can't believe to this day that "Your Love is King" failed to top the charts. Didn't they get that she was "dancing inside" and shouting "I'm coming?" What more did they want?