College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 16 – 14

16 birthday

16. The Sugarcubes, “Birthday”

In the destitute era before Kickstarter, bands needed to employ a little more creativity in their fundraising efforts. When Iceland’s the Sugarcubes were trying to scrape together the kronor for their debut single, they looked to the geopolitical event that fortuitously landed in their hometown. In October 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev convened in Reykjavík to discuss a potential reduction in nuclear arms, a discussion that would have been a momentous triumph for world peace if not for the former cowboy actor’s stubborn insistence on maintaining  efforts on a ludicrous, sky-perched missile defense system that, even then, every sensible person knew was scientifically unfeasible. Regardless of the thwarted outcome, the braintrust of the Sugarcubes knew a good business opportunity when it jetted into their island nation. They printed and sold thousands of postcards commemorating the meeting of world leaders, then used the earnings to record and release the single “Birthday,” on their own Bad Taste record label. When “Birthday” proved to be a local sensation, the bigger labels came calling, certain the Sugarcubes could be international stars. The band’s debut album, Life’s Too Good, was released in 1988, and a new version of “Birthday,” now with English lyrics, served as the lead single. As an introduction to the band’s songcraft, it was deeply jarring, especially for those who could find their way through the acrobatic verbal cadences of lead singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir (the gorgeously colossal last name was still part of the billing back then) to discern that the lyrics are about a five-year-old girl who’s engaged in a questionable relationship with a male neighbor who’s old enough to have a beard that needs scratching. “It was only an atmosphere I was trying to describe,” Björk told Sounds magazine at the time. “The only thing I was doing consciously, that was mixing together pure innocence and pure … well, not danger, but something, you know, evil. Evil in an unreal way.” Retrospectively, the stretching years of Björk’s bendy pop strangeness and esoteric sonics have probably trained listeners to not put too much stock in the literal troubles found in the song. Even back then, she insisted that scraping for the hidden, haunting truths in the songs she helped create was a fruitless endeavor. “The best thing about the Sugarcubes is that there is no meaning to us,” Björk told an interviewer shortly after the debut album’s release. “There is no answer, because there is no question.”


15 pride

15. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”

The first U.S. Top 40 hit for the band U2 began life as a protest song directed at Ronald Reagan and his unfortunate affection for nuclear weapons. According to lead singer Bono, crafting a whole song around the U.S. president started to make him feel uncomfortable. “I was giving Reagan too much important,” Bono explained to NME. “Then I thought, ‘Martin Luther King, there’s a man.’ We build the positive rather than fighting with the finger.” Although the song’s subject matter makes it seem as though its an opening shot to the intense fascination with the American experience that informed subsequent U2 releases The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, it was the great Civil Rights leader’s aspirational relevance the ongoing political turmoil in Ireland — the Troubles — that helped sell the other band members on Bono’s planned turn toward overtly topical subject matter, which was then a novelty for U2. “Because of the situation in our country, nonviolent struggle was such an inspiring concept,” guitarist the Edge told Q magazine a few years later. “Even so, when Bono told me he wanted to write about King, at first I said, ‘Woah, that’s not what we’re about.’ Then he came in and sang the song and it felt right, it was great. When that happens there’s no argument. It just was.” Bono also conceded that “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was one of the more overtly commercial songs he’d crafted to that point, which made it a natural choice as the lead single from The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, released in 1984.


14 forget

14. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

In a detail that often rankled them, the biggest hit of Simple Minds’ career wasn’t one of their own songs. In fact, the Scottish band wasn’t even the first choice to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes and released in 1985. Co-songwriter Keith Forsey maintained his preference was for Bryan Ferry to give his erudite spin to the track. When the former Roxy Music frontman turned the opportunity down, both Billy Idol and the Fixx were reportedly pursued, with similar results. Eventually, Forsey and his cohorts came around to Simple Minds, but they also refused, feeling they needed to stick to their own compositions. Supposedly, a screening of the movie convinced them to take a crack at it. “It’s a movie for teenagers, but it doesn’t patronize them,” lead singer Jim Kerr explained at the time of the single’s release. “It isn’t like a rock ‘n’ roll movie. We wouldn’t have done it if it was.” Although they relented, Kerr and his bandmates were also quick to distance themselves from the general sound of the track, noting it was more in line with the material they were creating a few years earlier. “We don’t want people to think this is new direction we’re going in,” Kerr insisted. “It’s nothing like the ideas we have in our heads. It was just something nice to do that, hopefully, will get us noticed in the film world.” It’s safe to say that the song did get the band noticed. In the late spring of 1985, it make it all the way to the top of the Billboard chart, knocking another soundtrack song — Madonna’s “Crazy for You” — from the perch.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.


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