Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1983
Today, we're starting a new series. One mixtape dedicated to each year of the Rock & Roll era. Each mixtape will have two sides with thirteen songs each, roughly how many songs I used to jam onto my average mixtape back in the day (literally 100s of them). I'm going to list them from 26 to 1, so the tape will also act as a countdown of my favorite songs from that particular year. The lists will be my personal favorites, impacted by my life, my experiences, and my ears. Your songs will be wildly different I'm sure. I'd love to see your list. One thing this is not is an attempt to list the greatest songs of any year, just the ones that mean the most to me for one reason or another. We're starting off with 1983, a "formative" year with an odd assortment of styles and bands. No apologies forthcoming.
Our Favorite Songs of 1983
26 “Mutiny in Heaven” / The Birthday Party
This was Nick Cave’s last salvo with the Birthday Party before moving on to his “solo” career with the Bad Seeds (we know Nick and the Seeds were a real band, so in this case I mean “top billing,” implying creative control). The song was the final track on the Mutiny EP, and the band’s black swan song is fucked up, to say the least, which is saying something when you compare it to the rest of the Nick’s early portfolio, which is not a dish of strawberries and cream. But we’re Cave fans for exactly this reason—we want it darker and he kills the flame (to quote Leonard Cohen). Nonplussed with heaven (Rats in paradise! Rats in paradise!), Nick’s plan is to bail out and disturbingly, it sounds like the escape is being recorded live as it unfolds. Yes, it’s insanity, but with Nick at the helm, I have all the confidence he’ll get us to somewhere more palatable soon enough.
25 "Tell Me What You Want" / Zebra
Here’s the perfect opportunity to explore mankind's inexplicable compulsion to sing an octave or two above their natural register—the dreaded falsetto. Very few of us can pull it off and most are well aware of their limitations. But what is a man to do when a Rush song comes on the radio? We can’t just sit there and listen! The same goes for Journey, Prince, Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson, Guns n Roses, and Eddie Kendricks to name but a few. There’s just something truly mesmerizing about a guy who sounds like a girl wailing behind a microphone. It's off-putting, it's confusing, it's unnatural, and we want to join in. One of our favorite ball-squeezing moments on record is Zebra's "Tell Me What You Want." Zebra hit it big in the early 80s with their first record, which eventually went gold and was the catalyst for their induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (perhaps the least New Orleans sounding band ever to come out of New Orleans). But “Tell Me What You Want” is an undeniable sing-along classic. The squealing chorus takes you by surprise since the rest of the song is pretty basic 80s soft metal. Oh man, but when the hook kicks in, you kick in, and it's a “sublime” moment, for you at least. Why try to explain it? Some things don't have to be figured out. Like the Zebra itself: black with white stripes or white with black stripes? There’s no need to concern yourself with having an answer to all of life’s questions. Sometimes it’s best to just roll down the windows, squeal like a pig, and make a fool of yourself.
24 “They Don't Know” / Tracey Ullman
In her prime, Tracey Ullman was among the funniest females—check that, humans—on the planet. Lesser known is her brief stint as a pop singer (it’s hard to imagine Lily Allen existing without her), specializing in 60s girl pop deeply indebted to Phil Spector. Her take on Kirsty MacColl’s innocent shoulda-been hit from 1979 turned into a surprise #2 UK hit and suddenly she was faced with a sing or laugh dilemma. Without a chance meeting with the wife of the co-owner of Stiff Records, she never would’ve had to make a choice. We all know how things went from there, but we’ll always have this perfect little pop song with which we can remember her short-lived musical career. (On a side note, I once had the pleasure of hearing songwriter MacColl sing the song in a small Chicago club in Chicago and it’s a shame her version didn’t get its just due. She’s the better singer for sure, but at least she made some dough from the royalties.)
23 "Always Something There to Remind Me" / Naked Eyes
Some hate the 80s and New Wave for its “production values”—synthesizers, drum machines, and other forms of vacuity—and this song is a prime example of what all the bitching is about. But here it is, memorialized on a year-end mixtape almost 40 years after the fact, like it had actual artistic merit. What makes this song stand the test of time and not make you want to stab your eardrums with knitting needles like so many others? I speculate the reason is twofold. One, it’s a cover of an old Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune, which means it’s a well-constructed pop song at its core no matter how much shit you coat it with later. Two, even over its blatantly artificial makeover, the vocal still rings with genuine human emotion—an endangered species back on 80s radio.
22 “Information” / Dave Edmunds
Dave Edmunds was on such a roll before 1983 he had to go and fuck it up royally by teaming up with ELO’s Jeff Lynne for the disappointing Information album. He did get a hit out of the album, but “Slippin’ Away” hasn’t held up well at all. The title track, however, buried on side two, is the real, and only, find on the record. Sure, it’s heavily multi-tracked like you’d expect from a Jeff Lynne production, but underneath lies a great pop song about the futile pursuit of happiness that’s modeled on his past winning formula. Lynne should’ve left him alone and spent his time improving ELO’s equally disappointing Secret Messages record from the same year, which also spawned only one song you’d ever want to hear again (“Rock and Roll Is King”).
21 "Death Travels West" / The Embarrassment
There isn’t much notable music from Kansas (Janelle Monae, Melissa Etheridge, Joe Walsh, and, of course, Kansas, but it thins out from there), but Wichita’s the Embarrassment was surely one of the best and easily the most underrated. With a lead singer best described in the liner notes of an Embarrassment compilation as “an all-American adolescent in a state of psycho-sexual confusion,” they specialized in agitated minimalist pop songs that, in retrospect, sound significantly ahead of their time.
20 "Run Runaway" / Slade
This is a robust pub singalong that the Dropkick Murphys would’ve given their left bagpipe to have written. Slade, sadly, have Quiet Riot, and their shockingly popular covers of the band’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” to thank for a brief surge of popularity in the US, but your best bet is to seek out the originals of both tracks and thank the lord that Quiet Riot’s supreme douchebag Kevin DuBrow never got around to poaching the absolutely fabulous “Run Runaway,” a song that should come with a free pint of Guinness and a barstool.
19 “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” / Joan Armatrading
Albeit via osmosis, my sister was responsible for turning me on to Joan Armatrading in the early 80s (the entire family shared one turntable). First came her 1981 record Walk Under Ladders—which included two gems “When I Get It Right” and “I’m Lucky”—and the rest followed. I loved her thick voice, the audio equivalent of a melted Hershey bar, and her songwriting perspective seemed very original to me. Which eventually led me to this song, which I didn’t quite “get” initially. It’s a song about two lovers who enjoy inflicting pain on each other (Joan added a lyrical disclaimer: “It’s their way of loving / Not mine”), which was pretty advanced subject for its time, decades before 50 Shades came into the fold.
18 “My Love for You” / ESG
If the minimalist Come Away with ESG was released last week, it would still be considered cutting edge. It would easily gain the band a prime slot playing the Pitchfork Music Festival and been anointed with the holy water of the hipster intelligentsia. Which makes it all the more amazing that the album was created in the South Bronx by the Scroggins sisters—Deborah, Renee, Valerie, Marie (and a friend)—all with little musical experience at the time. Their mom gave them instruments in hope it would keep them off the dangerous NY streets and it turned out to be a stroke of mothering genius. (Mom made them perform for her once a week so she could hear their progress.) Soon, they were discovered and became an influence on several genres of music from hip-hop to dance to post-punk. Is that all? “My Love for You” is one of many tracks from their debut that I’ve fallen for and every time an ESG song comes on in a mix of mine, it sounds like nothing else.
17 “Jet Fighter” / The Three O’Clock
Representing the Paisley Underground (a 60s-influenced pop/psych/garage revival of sorts) is this band, led by the man who named the short-lived California scene in the early 80s, Michael Querico. “Jet Fighter” (aka "Jetfighter") is a killer power-pop song that transcends the 1980s production that has rendered so many other songs of the era virtually unlistenable today. I may never get to mention this so I’ll do so now: Querico, with a new band named The Jupiter Affect, is also responsible for one of my all-time favorite album titles, Instructions for the Two Ways of Becoming Alice, which featured, you guessed it a new batch of snappy pop songs which proved Querico to be a master pop craftsman who had the misfortune of choosing a musical milieu slightly off the map of what was favored by the masses at the time. But don’t let this one fly off your radar—it’s a total gem. (Note: Also check out the splendid cover of this song on the recent Paisley Underground “reunion” record from 2018, titled 3X4—fantastic!)
16 “Time After Time” / Cyndi Lauper
She looked like a Mardis Gras float collided with a chicken coop and sounded like the perpetual victim of a high pollen count, but like it or not, this was what we called a breath of fresh air in 1983. Although MTV, shameless launchpad for many talentless pop stars, did send her career into the stratosphere by constantly running her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video, she seemed an authentically weird personality under her highly crafted exterior. “Time After Time” proved she had more in her arsenal than just peculiar dance moves. It’s a timeless love song that has rightfully had a longer shelf-life than any other song on She’s So Unusual.
15 “Johnny B. Goode” / Peter Tosh
There are very few songs you can’t reggaefy with a little weed and a free afternoon (I once saw Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” completely reinvented in legendary reggae club, The Wild Hare in Chicago). Peter Tosh’s great version of Chuck Berry’s classic took the title character of the iconic song from Louisiana to Jamaica so effortlessly it seemed natural, not novelty (much as Toots and the Maytals did with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”). A great deal of the credit goes to the wicked guitar work of one of the great underappreciated modern bluesmen, Donald Kinsey, leader of Gary, Indiana’s electrifying Kinsey Report (he also played with Bob Marley’s band for a stint). If you’ve seen Kinsey and his family play a gig in one of Chicago’s blues clubs, you’ll know what I mean. (Side note: The Kinsey Report’s version of “Johnny B. Goode” was a live favorite and easily the equal of Tosh’s version—if not better—but sadly never recorded that I know of.)
14 “Blue Monday” / New Order
The full-length 12” version of course. Mondays are usually long and drawn out, so a blue Monday should logically check in at seven minutes plus. The math totally adds up. This is another song that I wasn’t in love with initially (I was experimenting with a lot of new music and I didn’t understand some of it completely, likely because I wasn’t a big dance club guy back in the day). But I’ve become more and more a fan of minimalism and repetitive grooves as I age (Marie Kondo would be pleased). I can imagine my love of this song would’ve been substantially heightened with some ecstasy and the booming sound system at the Hacienda in Manchester, but what makes it even more incredible is that it can provide thrills any time it comes on—straight, sober, tripping, high, working, working out, you name it.
13 “The Lovecats” / The Cure
I wasn’t kind to some bands in my youth. The Cure is one of those bands. Good news, though. You’re not expected to know everything in your formative years or else they’d be called formed years. The Cure cranked out a ridiculous amount of delirious singles that today absolutely jump out of your speakers and “The Lovecats” has it all in its tight little sub-4:00 run time. Robert E. Smith didn’t think much of the song, calling it a “joke,” the musical equivalent of a drunk dial. It’s interesting how many hit songs get dismissed later by the artist as something they’ve never liked, thought was stupid, or didn’t want to put on the album in the first place. Why are those the songs everybody seems to love though? Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. Let the public decide.
12 “Der Kommissar” / After the Fire
Would this song tickle my fancy as much if it was called “The Commissioner” instead of its German translation “Der Kommissar”? I’m guessing no. Falco, of “Rock Me Amadeus” fame, originally cut the song entirely in German (a harsh, unforgiving language) and still managed to get a big hit out of it overseas, but this mostly English-language version of the song by British one-hit-wonders After the Fire hit #2 in the US. They wisely left the German title alone, surely realizing its novelty value. Don’t turn around, uh-oh! Man, I just get a kick out this song.
11 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” / U2
I like the concept of U2 more than the output of U2: Overly earnest Dublin rock band makes good, stays together as a group for 100 years, writes well-meaning songs, hits the big time, and even has a lead singer who's become a highly public advocate for the human condition. What’s not to like? First off, I agree with the Onion's opinion that Bono needs a cock punch. He’s overdramatic to a fault, which often undermines his message and sounds insufferable, self-aggrandizing, and pompous as a result. No wonder the public adores him! As a philanthropist, his intent is unquestioned and accomplishments laudable. That said, there are several U2 tracks that we actually love and this is one of them. Originally released on War in 1983, everyone mostly knows “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the live document Under a Blood Red Sky recorded at Red Rocks from later that year. The introduction is prime cock-punch Bono, but back then he was still fresh so it was not only tolerable, it seemed so important, like lives were on the line. I love the way the dramatic “This is not a rebel song…” disclaimer segues into a military march beat. To this day, it gives me chills up my spine.
10 “Everyday I Write the Book” / Elvis Costello
I guess I was hanging around with my sister a lot in 1983, because this is another song I heard initially via the family record player (actually a Montgomery Ward Hi-Fi). At the time, she was thankfully dating a guy with good taste in music (New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies was also heavy in rotation) and Elvis Costello soon became her main attraction (from Andy Gibb to Neil Diamond to Elvis Costello in three moves—pretty impressive!). Other Costello records have been played more since, but this was the gateway drug. Plus, I’m a sucker for a well-executed analogy.
9 “Boom Boom” / Trio
The year 1983 was a big one for German pop. First, as previously mentioned on this list, we had “Der Kommissar,” a song with a German title originally made famous by Falco (of “Rock Me Amadeus” fame), who soon went bad like a plate of sauerkraut left in the sun. Then we had “99 Luftballoons,” a #2 US hit for Nena. After that, with lesser impact from a chart perspective, came Trio’s sparsely adorned Trio and Error, a record most noted for giving us “Da Da Da” the song used in a VW ad to hilarious effect back in 1997. Trio and Error, now relatively tame by today's standards, was almost too strange for college radio when it was first released. While "Da Da Da" may have been the record's centerpiece, the songs that really hooked us were "Hearts Are Trump" and the song highlighted here, "Boom Boom." We didn’t know what to make of it. Was it a love story, a tale of seduction, a science-fiction fable? Few really knew what these crazy Krauts were trying to convey back then, but it was both weirdly alluring and undeniably ahead of its time.
8 “The New World” / X
A little punk, a little Americana, all in one thrilling package, X was a band written into my genetic code. In fact, X is one of the two sex-determining chromosomes we all possess, so it makes sense that this legendary LA roots-punk band would have both male and female vocalists and songwriters (X is a cooler band name than XY of course). “The New World,” from the band’s More Fun in the New World album, is a song so eerily appropriate in today’s partisan political landscape that it could’ve been written yesterday. The line “It was better before / Before they voted for what’s-his-name / This is supposed to be the new world” has probably been said for every election in recent history by both the red and the blue (and I love that they didn’t make it election-specific). Major theme aside, there is one tiny moment in the song that I’ve always loved, which proves that little things often mean the most. Specifically, the lyric “Do you have a quarter? / I said ‘yes,’ because I did.” Can’t argue with that!
7 "Pink Houses" / John Mellencamp
It’s hard to imagine a story similar to John Mellencamp’s happening today. Signed as a piece of cheesecake and saddled with the name Johnny Cougar way back in 1976, he released some serious dog shit over the course of his first four records—something that wouldn’t be tolerated in our modern quick-strike pop culture that requires immediate results. Only a minor glimmer of hope on his Nothin’ Matters and What if It Did record from 1980, via the single “I Need a Lover,” allowed him the opportunity to record his breakthrough album American Fool in 1982. (Truth be told, even that album was only skin deep, but it did give us mega-smashes “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good,” which was all that mattered to his label.) I’m not sure anyone expected John Cougar to suddenly turn tail, adopt his given last name, and pen a poetic yet powerful song as catchy and meaningful as “Pink Houses” one year later. John Mellencamp, emboldened by being treated as a piece of meat in his early years, took control of his own career from this point forward and became one of America’s most popular songwriters in the process. The rest is history.
6 “This Charming Man” / The Smiths
I wasn’t a huge Smiths fan back in the day. Didn’t like Morrissey either. Now, I love the Smiths and, although he’s making it difficult, I still love Morrissey. If only I could have a few bands back from that era! Obviously, I self-corrected and have become more and more a fan as the years have passed—perhaps peaking some thirty years after the fact! Miserablist tendencies mixed with sticky melodies and brilliant guitar-work make for the perfect mid-life crisis sidecar, indeed. Without a doubt, “This Charming Man” is one of their absolute best singles.
5 “Color Me Impressed” / The Replacements
If I had a Delorean that could time travel back to another decade to experience a city’s music scene, Minneapolis in the 80s wouldn’t be my number one choice (Memphis in the 50s, Memphis in the 60s, NYC in the 70s, London in the 60s, etc.), but it would be near the top of my bucket list. If only to catch some early Hüsker Dü and Replacements shows, it would be time well spent. Hootenany may not be considered among the top Mats records, but it’s certainly one of their most important. “Color Me Impressed” is the perfect Replacements anthem, embodying their attitude and bratty charm at the same time.
4 “Kiss Off” / Violent Femmes
It’s hard to imagine today, but in 1983, arguably ground zero for alternative (then “college”) rock, this Violent Femmes record was an absolute shock to the senses. I distinctly remember sitting in the basement apartment of a college friend, intrigued but perplexed by the quirky instrumentation, offbeat lyrics, and adenoidal whine of Gordon Gano. I cannot stress this enough—this music seemed imported from some bizarre, newly discovered planet! Actually, as it turned out, they were from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Are you shitting me? An hour north of my Chicago home? I knew right then and there that my music taste was about to change as quickly as Cher on a battleship. The band’s debut record compounded the adolescent frustration of a thousand college parties into its 40-minute run time, and “Kiss Off” foreshadowed the heavily medicated future state in which we now reside.
3 “Girlfriend Is Better” / Talking Heads
On a record loaded with killer singles, including the nearly impossible-to-exclude love song “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” the bluesy “Swamp,” the gospel-tinged “Slippery People,” and the literally burned-out, but still remarkable “Burning Down the House,” is the grand prize of the record “Girlfriend Is Better.” Some of the songs on Speaking in Tongues got trumped by their live counterparts on the Stop Making Sense soundtrack released a year later, but the studio version of this song is also a jittery masterpiece.
2 “Sitting Still” / R.E.M.
It’s a tribute to the melody, sound, and feel of this song that it became such a personal favorite back in 1983. How else can a song with mostly mumbled vocals resonate decades later without the benefit of a clear lyrical conceit? The first line you can completely make out is “We could gather grow a fit,” then “wasted time sitting still,” comes next. A word here and there can be discerned as you go, but good luck figuring it out even today, with the aid of a search engine and countless websites dedicated to transcribing lyrics at your disposal. Thirty years ago? Nigh impossible. You had to do it the hard way—drop the needle, write down what you heard (or thought you heard), repeat. Taken literally, it appears someone named Katie may be in the kitchen treating a festering cyst that’s not allowing her to sit still. But this song is an intentionally blurry object, set over an effortlessly familiar jangle. Just like the famous overgrown kudzu on Murmur’s iconic album cover, there’s something clearly there, but just what it really is is probably best left a mystery.
1 “Help You Ann” / The Lyres
If you love tremolo, look no further than one of the greatest garage-rock songs of all time for a vibrating motherload. Although recorded too late to be included on Nuggets—Lenny Kaye’s influential compilation of psych rock classics released in 1972—it did eventually make it onto Rhino Records’ sequel, Children of Nuggets, from 2005. And don't we want our children to do better than we did anyway? Somewhere out there, there's one proud nugget.