200 Essential 80’s Singles
How conservative is this song about wanting to “bop with you baby, all night long”? It goes out of its way to make clear that no sexual metaphor is intended – “I’m not after your body, I just want you to dance with me.” Classic.
David Allan Coe
Alan Jackson lifted the storyline for his hit “Midnight In Montgomery” directly from this Coe hit, which Tim McGraw resurrected for his live video of “Real Good Man.” Jackson and McGraw are already legends, but Coe can out-Hank either one of them.
Dunn was understandably washed away by the wave of literate and talented female vocalists that hit the scene in the early 90’s, but she acquits herself nicely on this bittersweet ode for a love gone wrong. She pushes her thin voice to the limit here, with decent results.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Strait first hit the charts with this, his first single for a major label. Despite being a new artist during the Urban Cowboy crossover era, he couldn’t be bothered with a single nod to pop music. This is pure western swing honky-tonk, as he laments “that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound.” This was co-written by Dean Dillon, who would provide Strait with most of his best singles for more than a decade.
“Any Day Now”
Not that there’s anything wrong with pure pop music. Milsap made great pop records for country radio, and this is a fine example of that talent at work. It’s even written by Burt Bacharach.
“Strong Enough To Bend”
Tucker’s best records have fallen into two categories: her brassy adult work, and her early southern gothic hits. So it’s surprising and refreshing to here her on this record, surrounded by sparse, nearly bluegrass instrumentation. She shines.
“Tennessee Flat Top Box”
A big fuss was made when Rosanne admitted she didn’t know her father had written this song until after she recorded it, which quieted down when Johnny himself took out an ad in the music trade magazines saying that made him proud, since he knew his daughter recorded it on the merits, not as a half-hearted tribute to dear old dad. This is one of her biggest hits and still sounds great today.
“Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”
Nelson deftly traces a mundane list of little things going wrong to his woman leaving him first thing in the morning. There’s a chilling description of his desperation that feels very real because the song is so steeped in daily routines that are rarely sung about.
“I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again”
T. Graham Brown
Brown compares living with someone who no longer loves him to living alone after she’s left, and decides that the former was better, since there was hope for tomorrow, in spite of all the pain.
“The Closer You Get”
Alabama’s pop-flavored southern rock, complete with electric guitar licks and crackling drum beats, made them the most successful commercial country act of their time. This is one of their most finely crafted love songs.
“I Love A Rainy Night”
Hey, don’t we all? Snap those fingers, Eddie.
“I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”
It’s hard to believe, but Jennings’ take on this Rodney Crowell song is one of the tamest. Emmylou Harris and Crowell himself recorded ferocious versions in the 1970’s before Jennings turned it into a smash. Then again, Jennings lived this song; he hardly needed to do a hard sell.
McDaniel fiendishly uses the Southern Baptist technique of standing up and testifying about being saved to testify about some absolutely filthy back-seat shenanigans. He toned the message down by shooting the video in a courtroom, but those gospel backup singers reveal his true intent.
“Victim or a Fool”
Crowell’s career is littered with great songs just waiting to be rediscovered and turned into smash hits. One great line after another reveal the frustration of a man left behind. When you’re debating if you’re a victim or a fool, you’re in bad shape. Keith Urban could knock this out of the park.
“I Don’t Call Him Daddy”
It’s surprising that Rogers, an established superstar, bombed with this song, when unknown Doug Supernaw would soar to #1 seven years later with his take. Maybe it was hard for listeners to suspend their disbelief and imagine Rogers as a divorced dad not able to make ends meet; either way, Rogers revealed his great song sense, even if it didn’t hit for him.
“Just To Satisfy You”
Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson
Willie was so big in 1982 that this duet was knocked out of #1 by another Nelson single, the massive “Always On My Mind.” This doesn’t have the element of surprise of Jennings & Nelson’s first collaborations in the 70’s, but it’s a fantastic performance nonetheless.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Alcohol addiction robbed us of one of the genre’s most promising traditional vocalists when Whitley drank himself to death in 1989. Witness this perfect country weeper, where Whitley implores his lover to keep her eyes open during lovemaking so she can’t picture the man she really loves instead of the one she’s with.
“She’s Crazy For Leaving”
One of a remarkable five #1 singles from Diamonds & Dirt, Crowell weaves a hilarious tale of a leaving woman he simply can’t keep up with; after all, “you can’t stop a woman when she’s out of control.” His sassiest female character since Mary of “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
“Storms Never Last”
Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter
Perhaps the most unfairly overlooked husband-and-wife combo in country music history, they complement each other beautifully on this tender song of comfort during the hard times. There’s a quiet sincerity here that Garth & Trisha could learn from.
“I Will Always Love You”
When Dolly first hit with this song in 1974, it gave her the radio success that eluded her with her dark prostitution lament “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” five years earlier. By 1982, she was a singing whore once again, but on the big screen, playing the madam in Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. This is widely considered the inferior of the two versions of this song that Dolly took to #1, but hey, cut her some slack; you try singing a love song about Burt Reynolds convincingly.
“Sometimes You Just Can’t Win”
Despite it paying increasingly smaller artistic and commercial dividends, Ronstadt continued her album-making formula of a few country songs and rock songs thrown together well into the 1980’s. This was her last solo country hit, and it’s a great one, allowing her voice to shine through. She’d return to country with success one more time on the legendary Trio project four years later.
“I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Forget my earlier comparison to Rascal Flatts. After listening to this hit single, I’m now convinced Lonestar should be giving Restless Heart a cut of their royalties.
“Ashes By Now”
While “Victim or a Fool” waits to be rediscovered, Lee Ann Womack already grabbed this one and turned it into a hit in 2000. Crowell’s own version is more subtle than Womack’s, sticking to a basic mid-tempo arrangement that lets the lyric dominate.
“Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer”
Kenny Rogers with Kim Carnes
Give Rogers credit. He picked Carnes as a duet partner a full year before her massive breakthrough with “Bette Davis Eyes.” Her raspy vocal blends beautifully with Rogers’ own scratchy voice, and the song, which Carnes co-wrote, is worthy of both talents.
T. Graham Brown
Remarkably wordy for a country hit of any era, Brown is nearly too clever for his own good, but keeps things together with a confident vocal performance, so he’s never overwhelmed by the verbal barrage.