200 Essential 80’s Singles
“Love Me Like You Used To”
Tucker reached her commercial peak in the early nineties, but the foundation for that came with a string of highly successful radio hits in the late eighties. This tender ballad is one of the best, a quiet plea to return to “love me like you used to love me, when you used to love me.” The overproduction that would taint her later work has yet to surface, so she’s able to shine with just a great song and strong vocal performance.
“I Told You So”
The inner monologue of a man picturing what could happen if he crawled back to the lover he scorned. In the verses, he has the idealized version in his head, where he’s accepted back with open arms, but the chorus reveals his deepest fears as he pictures her saying “I told you so, but you had to go. Now I found somebody new and you will never break my heart in two again.”
Ricky Van Shelton
Randy Travis, The Judds, Reba McEntire – they were the new traditionalists. Ricky Van Shelton was something different, sounding like something straight out of the 1960’s. There’s none of the neotraditional touches in the production or his vocal. Despite the better sound quality of modern recording technology, Shelton’s first #1 hit could have been ripped straight from the AM radio dial. Today, I saw a 2 artists on 1 CD budget collection – Ricky Van Shelton was paired with Ray Price. Despite the generation between their recording careers, it made perfect sense.
The female counterpart to Travis’ “I Told You So”, Oslin’s first #1 hit was one of two songs of hers nominated for CMA Song of the Year in 1988. Her incisive songwriting and unique phrasing made her stand out among the tepid female voices of the era. Her age got most of the press, but it was her intelligence and attitude that was actually revolutionary for the time.
“Crazy Over You”
Foster & Lloyd
One of the lesser-known acts of the alternative country scene that actually flourished at country radio for a couple of years, this duo thrived in the shadow of those awards-hogging Judd women. Radney Foster went on to have solo success as an artist and a writer, but never got more radio play than he did when he was half of this duo.
“A Little Bit In Love”
It’s interesting that Patty first hit the top ten with a cover of the George Jones classic “If My Heart Had Windows”, then followed it up with a single written by the very modern Steve Earle – modern back then, at least. They haven’t found the right way to record her voice yet, so she sings in a lower register than she should, but the song is solid and catchy.
“Love Will Turn You Around”
While the pop sound he pioneered was scoring huge record sales for him and making all the wannabes followed suit, Rogers casually slipped this bright and twangy hit to radio and scored a smash. It wasn’t a change of direction – his next #1 had him singing with Sheena Easton – but it demonstrated his versatility.
“Waltz Me To Heaven”
If this seems oddly sweet and sentimental for the quintessential outlaw, check the writer’s credit. This waltz was penned by fellow Hall-of-Famer Dolly Parton.
“Give A Little Love”
The first single from their Greatest Hits collection, this record marked an important turning point for The Judds. It’s the first single that sounds like a Wynonna solo record, with mom fading into the background like a backup singer instead of a duet partner. Wynonna takes her distinctive growl out for a ride for the first time, and she starts to leave mom behind. At the end, it’s Wynonna letting loose, and the male backup singers stick around, but mom doesn’t. This earned them the fourth of their five Grammy awards.
“Stranger In My House”
“I can’t find the love in her eyes anymore.” That’s one line. The chorus: “There’s a stranger in my house, somebody here that I can’t see.” He’s blind and sings it without a trace of irony. Classic. All I need is him to duet with Terri Gibbs on “I Can See The Want To In Your Eyes” and I’m ready for heaven.
Merle Haggard & George Jones
Willie Nelson is such a brilliant writer that you can pick up an album of his that’s ten years old and find an awesome song that was ahead of its time but good for today. Haggard & Jones did just that, and rode “Yesterday’s Wine” straight to the top. Seek out the Nelson original, though; it’s superior to their duet version, and anchors a fascinating concept album.
“A Country Boy Can Survive”
Hank Williams, Jr.
An anthem for all city-hating, progress-fearing rednecks. It’s mean and angry, with cutting lyrics like “You’ll only get mugged if you go downtown.” It’s a dark vision of the future that surely resonated with truth during the early 1980’s, when big cities were still on the decline. Today, with crystal meth destroying small towns and the cities booming again, it’s a curious reli that makes you wonder why the country boy settles for “survive” instead of aiming his goals a bit higher.
“I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal
(But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)”
Not that there weren’t hillbillies in the early 80’s with higher aspirations than survival. Over a Western Swing beat, Anderson dreams of the big time – “I’m gonna be the world’s best friend. I’m gonna go around shaking everybody’s hand. I’m gonna be the cotton-pickin’ rage of the age.” This was his first great single.
Gayle dusted off this smooth Lynn Anderson hit from 1972, taking it all the way to the top of the charts, two places higher than Anderson’s original reached. She tones down the production that marred the original and trusts her vocal and the lyrics to do the heavy lifting.
“(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes”
This band scored two CMA Vocal Group of the Year wins right off the bat, thanks to their then-ballsy production and lead singer Paulette Carlson’s distinctive voice. Taking a funny spin on the “Just Say No!” campaign that was a joke by 1988, they craft a catchy love song that would still liven up radio today.
“Gonna Take A Lot Of River”
Oak Ridge Boys
When Jimmy Bowen took over production duties for the Oak Ridge Boys, he had them record their vocals separately instead of all on one track. The result was a cleaner sound that didn’t muddy up the speakers like their earlier work. Comparing this Cajun-flavored track to their 1979 destruction of “Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” shows what a difference a good producer makes.
“I Tell It Like It Used To Be”
T. Graham Brown
Brown’s breakthrough hit is all blues-hall growl and blue-eyed soul. It makes you want to punch the producer who added the horn section.
Earle spins a story about a town where “you go to school and learn to read and write, then walk up to the counter and sign away your life.” He’s the voice of every person trapped in a small town that wants to get out someday, but probably never will.
“Could I Have This Dance”
Murray sang the first verse in a lower register as a place-holder for Kenny Rogers, who they hoped would sing it on the final recording. The producers of Urban Cowboy liked it just fine without him and didn’t want her to change the vocal. True story.
“Driving My Life Away”
For a song featured in a movie starring Meat Loaf, it’s held up well over time. Proof positive that Rabbitt was the male Juice Newton.
“Only In My Mind”
Her only self-penned hit, Reba is asked by her husband, as they watch the children play in the park, if she’s ever cheated on him. She reveals yes, but only in her mind. We never get the husband’s reaction, but one has to wonder if he took the car and told the lusty bitch she could walk home.
These country boys don’t find a lot of happiness in the big city. Haggard is willing to leave his steady job and retirement plan to get away from this dirty city. Like the perennial “Take This Job and Shove It”, it’s really just a fantasy that lets off some steam – I doubt the protagonist here ever finds his way back to Montana.
“Angel of the Morning”
Newton takes a dusty AM radio hit and turns it into a pop spectacle, and both the song and her career are better for her effort.
Lacy J. Dalton
A brilliant, raspy vocalist that never quite found the breakthrough hit to carry her to the big time. Her first top ten hit was a cutting Bobby Braddock composition that redefines what hard times really are, things like “a daddy and a mother living in a mansion and hating each other.”
“Second To No One”
Rosanne Cash’s forgotten hit, left off of all five of her U.S. compilations and even the more thorough Australian anthology released by Raven Records. It’s a mystery why this fantastic cut from her also-ignored gold album Rhythm & Romance keeps getting the short shrift. Her incisive lyrics take no prisoners: “I don’t think you know how bad you treat me, but I can’t live like a whore. She thinks she’s got the key to your heart, now I’ve got to wait by the door.” Since Columbia chose to skip over Rhythm & Romance in their batch of Cash reissues last summer, you need to get the Raven two-for-one CD of Somewhere In The Stars/Rhythm & Romance for you to hear it. It’s worth the money to have this great single and even better album in any form.