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With an '80s revival upon us, these classic songs deserve a comeback

Janet Jackson
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Janet Jackson

Updated August 7, 2023 at 2:49 PM ET

This essay originally appeared in NPR Music's weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

The last year or so has been a bonanza for the pop-music canon of the mid- to late 1980s, with enough data points to constitute a trend. Kate Bush's 1985 song "Running Up That Hill" became one of the biggest hits of 2022, thanks in part to its placement on the TV show Stranger Things. Luke Combs' cover of Tracy Chapman's 1988 hit "Fast Car" has become a left-field sensation, thanks to the original being one of the best songs ever written. Now, thanks to Barbie, Indigo Girls' 1989 classic "Closer to Fine" is having its own much-deserved moment. Even Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" is back on the charts, courtesy of Fall Out Boy, though "much-deserved" is in the eye of the beholder there. (This isn't even getting into the gargantuan cultural reverberations of a-ha's 1985 smash "Take On Me," which clearly influenced Harry Styles' "As It Was," among other recent singles. Interpolation is all the rage, for '80s songs and beyond.)

In other words, like a penny stock that's somehow hit big, my once-useless obsession with the pop music of the mid- to late 1980s has finally and suddenly catapulted me into a moment of relevance. But, because I am neither a music-industry executive nor a music supervisor — at least not yet — I'm here to dump out the contents of my brain-purse and send 10 unimpeachably brilliant ideas hurtling into the universe, where I can only hope that they'll one day find purchase.

When narrowing down the songs that qualify as ripe for rediscovery, I held to a few simple ground rules: In the spirit of "Running Up That Hill" and "Fast Car," the songs should be known (or at least known-ish) quantities, but not inescapably so. Sure, I picked a superstar or two, as well as a ubiquitous wedding staple that's ripe for a reboot. But there are also one-hit wonders who don't get as much retro airplay as they should, a country hit that ought to be a standard and at least a song or two that virtually no one under 40 will remember.

Finally, though I tried to pair up my picks with a contemporary recording star who might record a cover, "Fast Car"-style, there's no rule that says the originals couldn't resurface as hits in their own right. Or, in the spirit of "Running Up That Hill" — which spawned a successful cover by Meg Myers a few years before Kate Bush's version broke out — maybe we'll be lucky enough to get both.

Before we run down the full list, I do recommend checking out the conversation I had with the great and good All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang on this topic this past Tuesday. It's great fun — you can listen at the audio button above — but it got preempted in some markets because of some indictment or other.

Song: Terence Trent D'Arby, "If You Let Me Stay" (1987)
Original Chart Peak: No. 68 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: The Weeknd

Terence Trent D'Arby seemed like the next big thing in 1987 — specifically the next Prince, or perhaps the next Michael Jackson. D'Arby himself certainly thought so. But after a few massive singles ("Sign Your Name," "Wishing Well"), his career soon ground to a halt; he changed his name to Sananda Maitreya in 2001, and he's continued to release albums. "If You Let Me Stay" was his very first single, and it draws a straight line from vintage soul to the singer's most famous contemporaries, with a flashy vocal that made him sound like a star. Given that The Weeknd has never been shy about sounding like his influences, he'd be a perfect fit to bring D'Arby/Maitreya's music back to the mainstream.

Song: Dream Academy, "Life In A Northern Town" (1985)
Original Chart Peak: No. 7 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: boygenius

One of the most lustrous, gorgeous songs of the '80s, "Life in a Northern Town" delivers three decades' worth of nostalgia in one go: Dream Academy's words reference the world-shaking autumn of 1963, the song's inspirations include the folk singer Nick Drake and its "hey-ma-ma-ma" chorus reflects a time when African influences on pop music were transitioning from Toto's "Africa" to Paul Simon. It adds up to something timelessly dreamy, even otherworldly — perfect fodder for revisitation by the folk-pop supergroup boygenius, whose members (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) are playful enough to give it a try and serious enough to make it stunning.

Song: Janet Jackson, "Nasty" (1986)
Original Chart Peak: No. 3 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: Lizzo

No one's forgotten Janet Jackson, of course, but we're still (wildly over)due for a true Janaissance after her career was derailed by the controversy surrounding her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. Picking one Janet Jackson song to kick it off is practically impossible — there are dozens of great ones to choose from — but "Nasty" is too fun and indelible to resist here. Given that Lizzo is currently embroiled in controversy, she may at some point be looking for a song to help her start a new chapter: covering "Nasty" — and twisting the "Miss Jackson if you're nasty" line to her liking — could either allow her to soak up some fresh goodwill or perhaps lean into a heel turn. Seriously, people, we're coming up on the 20th anniversary of the wardrobe malfunction. We're gonna need to start being way nicer to Janet Jackson, way meaner to Justin Timberlake, or both.

Song: Patty Loveless, "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" (1989)
Original Chart Peak: No. 1 on
Billboard Hot Country Songs chart
Should Be Covered By: Brandi Carlile

If you weren't listening to country radio in the late '80s, you might well be oblivious to what is — just gonna come out and say it — one of the best songs of that decade, in any genre. The sheer joy and propulsion of the original arrangement, the jangly guitars, the infectious enthusiasm in Patty Loveless' vocal, a two-and-a-half-minute runtime that essentially demands repeat listens ... this is a perfect song. And you know who's probably out there somewhere, moving through the world with the pre-existing belief that "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" is a perfect song? Brandi Carlile, who's got the pipes, the killer band and the purity of heart to bring it roaring back around.

Song: Salt-N-Pepa, "Push It" (1987)
Original Chart Peak: No. 19 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)

"Push It" has never gone away — it's a staple at dance clubs, weddings and any other gathering at which joy must be conjured out of thin air — and it remains one of the greatest songs recorded in the 50-year history of hip-hop. So why is it on a list of rediscoveries? Because it is absolutely ripe for a filthy remake that would make approximately one quintillion dollars. Do the members of Salt-N-Pepa, who've performed "Push It" on a Geico commercial, hate money? How is "Push It," as performed by Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion), not currently sprawled out atop the Billboard Hot 100? Do we not deserve nice things? (We don't, but still.)

Song: Michael Penn, "No Myth" (1989)
Original Chart Peak: No. 13 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: Ed Sheeran

Michael Penn is the most infuriating kind of one-hit wonder: the kind who breaks out with one gigantic, irrepressibly fantastic hit (in Penn's case, "No Myth"), then keeps putting out phenomenal songs that simply don't find a wide audience. After composing the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson's first two films, Penn has kept busy in Hollywood; he's recorded with wife Aimee Mann, whose band 'Til Tuesday recorded several songs that belong on this list. But Penn's own five studio records have reached ever-diminishing audiences, which is — no exaggeration — an unspeakable crime against humanity. If Ed Sheeran wants to be forgiven for "Shape of You," it's his responsibility to record a hit cover of "No Myth" and bring back Michael Penn. It's long past time.

Song: The Blow Monkeys, "Digging Your Scene" (1986)
Original Chart Peak: No. 14 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: Harry Styles

In "Digging Your Scene," The Blow Monkeys took the sleek, high-cheekboned sophistication of ABC — another band whose songs are ripe for rediscovery — and used it as a backdrop for a heartfelt statement of allyship in the early days of AIDS. The swanky earworm of a chorus no doubt played a part in the track's success, as did a straight-out-of-'86 saxophone solo and a memorable video in which it never occurs to singer Dr. Robert that lip-syncing on stage usually necessitates holding the microphone fewer than three feet from your face. The whole shebang is ripe for an update — and who better to bring it around than our current king of swanky earworms and linen-clad allyship, Harry Styles? Once you put the singer and the song together, it's hard to imagine them apart.

Song: Double, "The Captain Of Her Heart" (1985)
Original Chart Peak: No. 16 on
Billboard Hot 100
Should Be Covered By: Bon Iver

"The Captain of Her Heart," the only U.S. Top 40 hit for the Swiss duo Double, has largely been memory-holed by our ungrateful nation, to the point where I used to wonder if I'd dreamt it. But that would mean I'd actually written it, and there's no way I could have concocted something so sleek and stylish — certainly not in 1985. That piano hook still burrows its way into my unsuspecting psyche 38 years later, Kurt Maloo's vocal remains a gloomy marvel and ... look, it's hard to imagine Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, avowed fan of Bruce Hornsby and Godley & Creme, not being all over this one.

Song: Tanita Tikaram, "Twist in My Sobriety" (1988)
Original Chart Peak: No. 25 on
Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart
Should Be Covered By: Taylor Swift (feat. Lana Del Rey)

Speaking of gloomy marvels, Tanita Tikaram has always had the voice of a weary old soul. She'd just turned 19 when she dropped her magnificent debut album, Ancient Heart, but you'd never know it to hear "Twist in My Sobriety," which finds her quoting Maya Angelou and carrying the weight of the world. Malcolm Messiter's oboe gives "Twist in My Sobriety" a haunting quality that's helped it age extraordinarily well, despite the fact that Tikaram never really took off in the U.S. As for an artist fit to cover the song, I was torn between two singers who do world-weariness extraordinarily well. Flipping a coin to determine whether to assign this one to Lana Del Rey (feat. Taylor Swift) or Taylor Swift (feat. Lana Del Rey), I landed on the latter.

Song: Sinéad O'Connor, "Mandinka"
Original Chart Peak: No. 17 on the UK Singles chart
Should Be Covered By: no one

At the risk of closing out on a sad note, we're still mourning the loss of Sinéad O'Connor, who died last week at 56. The only sliver of good news to emerge from this story is that there's been a fresh round of cultural conversation around O'Connor's legacy and activism, and that many of us are dusting off her catalog to realize just how much great stuff she recorded both before and after "Nothing Compares 2 U." There's no sense in nominating anyone to cover "Mandinka" — though Foo Fighters did just perform it live with Alanis Morissette on guest vocals — given that the original vocal is essentially perfect. So let's give the original track the "Running Up That Hill" revival it so richly deserves.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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