Essential 80’s: #25-#1

200 Essential 80’s Singles
Part 8:

“A Little Good News”
Anne Murray
Peak: #1

Murray took home CMA Single of the Year with her surprisingly topical record wishing for better, more uplifting news. It’s eerily timely listening to it today, with the opening line referring to fighting in Lebanon.

“Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”
Don Williams
Peak: #1

Williams mostly avoided spirituality on record, but had a huge smash with this plaintive prayer for a good day. Lee Ann Womack did an efficient cover on her I Hope You Dance album, but Williams’ original is still the definitive version.

“Two Story House”
George Jones & Tammy Wynette
Peak: #2

Long after their marriage dissolved, Jones and Wynette reunited in the studio for this now-classic duet about a couple who spent so much time working to reach the top, that by the time they had their big two-story house that they dreamed of, the love between them was gone.

“I’d Just Love To Lay You Down”
Conway Twitty
Peak: #1

A dirty little song about never-ending love. Twitty reassures his woman that he’ll always want to get it on with her, no matter how disheveled she looks in the morning or how old he gets. There’s a wry romanticism in his pre-Viagra era promise that “when a whole lot of Decembers are showing in your face, and your auburn hair has faded and silver takes it place, you’ll still be as lovely, and I’ll still be around, and if I can I know that I’ll still love to lay you down.”

“Eighteen Wheels & A Dozen Roses”
Kathy Mattea
Peak: #1

Mattea took home ACM & CMA Single of the Year for her classic hit about Charlie the truck driver, who is finishing his last run on the road and coming home to his wife for the last time – “after tonight, she’ll no longer be counting the days.” Their quaint retirement plans of getting back on the road in a winebago and seeing America together is just as sweet to listen to today.

Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson,
Waylon Jennings & Johnny Cash

Peak: #1

A quirky tale of reincarnation becomes a collaboration of epic proportions when four legends decide to sing it together. Even then, Cash was the legend among legends. When they performed this song live, Cash would get by far the loudest ovation when his vocals began on the final verse.

“But You Know I Love You”
Dolly Parton
Peak: #1

Alison Krauss & Union Station recorded this old Parton hit on their Live album, introducing a new generation to one of her most overlooked gems. A tender ballad about a person making their life on the road and justifying their absence to the one left at home – “you know we can’t live on dreams alone, got to pay the rent, so I must leave you all alone. But you know I feel so sad, down inside my heart, that the dollar signs should be keeping us apart, but you know that I love you, you know that I love you, oh, how I love you.” The sweet strains of Parton’s vocals add an extra ounce of heartbreak.

“The Chair”
George Strait
Peak: #1

One of the most offbeat hits in Strait’s long catalog, he begins a conversation with a woman at a club by saying she’s in his chair. After he charms her with drinks and a dance, and they start to fall in love, he ‘fesses up in the end: “I like you too, and to tell you the truth, that wasn’t my chair after all.”

“Somebody Should Leave”
Reba McEntire
Peak: #1

Harlan Howard invited Reba McEntire over to his house to pitch her material. This was long before she was a record-seller, though she’d had some sizable radio hits. He pitched, and she passed on song after song. Realizing she was looking for something special, he played his ace – “Somebody Should Leave”, a devastating song about a husband and wife who know that it’s over but aren’t sure who should be the one to go – “Somebody should leave, but which one should it be. You need the kids and they need me.” Those kids are what’s causing the difficulty – “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily, but what about those babies down the hall?”

“I’m No Stranger To The Rain”
Keith Whitley
Peak: #1

Another CMA Single of the Year winner, this one was posthumous. Released at the very end of 1988, Whitley’s confession that “I’m a friend of thunder, is it any wonder lightning strikes me?” ended up sadly prophetic. Whitley was one of the most gifted artists of any generation and a tremendous amount of potential died with him they day he drank himself into his grave. Still chilling to listen to, nearly twenty years later.

“Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’)”
Peak: #1

A working class anthem if there ever was one, Alabama give a shout-out to all the firefighters, steel mill workers, auto assembly line builders, teachers and cops who work behind the scene, keeping America running smoothly.

“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
Merle Haggard
Peak: #1

“Ain’t no woman gonna change the way I think, I think I’ll just stay here and drink.” Haggard chooses the bar and the booze over attempts at reconciliation. A drinking anthem for the ages.

“Streets of Bakersfield”
Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens
Peak: #1

Yoakam’s musical sound was strongly shaped by the influence of Buck Owens, and he brought the legend himself back to the top of the charts when they collaborated on a very old song from the Buck catalog. The quickest way to begin your education regarding the legendary Bakersfield music scene is to spin this record.

“The Boxer”
Emmylou Harris
Peak: #13

A pleasant Simon & Garfunkel folk song becomes a transcendant listening experience when Harris recasts it as a bluegrass plea. Harris finds depths of desperation in the lyrics that the original version only hinted at.

“That’s My Job”
Conway Twitty
Peak: #6

Twitty’s eulogy for his father may be the most moving song written to honor a parent since The Carter Family’s “Can The Circle Be Unbroken.” Achingly beautiful.

“Hold Me”
K.T. Oslin
Peak: #1

If a song can save a marriage, this might be the one. In alternating verses, a husband and wife confess that they both left the house this morning planning to run away, “got as far as the edge of town, turned my car around and headed back to you.” The reconciliation in the chorus soars, as they implore each other, “don’t kiss me like we’re married, kiss me like we’re lovers.” A serious, realistic and mature song that demonstrates the sacrifices needed to make a marriage succeed.

“On The Other Hand”
Randy Travis
Peak: #1

When first released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. But after a name change and a hit single called “1982”, it was re-released and Travis had his first #1 hit. Cutting through the pop-flavored treacle dominating radio at the time, a simple guitar strum and Travis’ powerful baritone debates that on one hand, he could “stay and be your loving man”, but “on the other hand, there’s a golden band to remind me of someone who wouldn’t understand.” Classic country at its finest.

Waylon Jennings
Peak: #6

Forget “God Bless The U.S.A.” This is the definitive patriotic anthem. Jennings’ love for the country radiates through his performance. A glorious celebration of what makes America great and the beauty and strength that keeps it strong through adversity.

“Love at the Five & Dime”
Kathy Mattea
Peak: 3

Mattea found her voice with her cover of this Nanci Griffith song, a gorgeous folk ballad about the love of Rita, the Woolworth counter gal, and Eddie, a steel guitar player and a darn good dancer – “they married up in Abilene, lost a child in Tennessee, but still that love survived”, even after Eddie runs off with the bass man’s wife in the second verse. At the end, they’re a loving old couple dancing to the radio, as he sings to her “dance a little closer to me tonight.”

“Seven Year Ache”
Rosanne Cash
Peak: #1

Tense, nervy and bitingly bitter, Cash’s buttery vocal makes an angry message go down smooth. Her intention was to write the first great country “street song”, and she succeeded: “There’s plenty of dives to be someone you’re not,” she sneers at her cheating lover, warning him “don’t bother calling to say you’re leaving alone, ’cause there’s a fool on every corner when you’re trying to get home.”

“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”
The Judds
Peak: #1

A defining anthem for the 80’s, a decade in which Americans romanticized about good old days which never really existed. Grandpa is asked, “did lovers really fall in love to stay? Did daddies really never go away?” A truthful answer would probably let his granddaughter down, but the beauty of this record is we never hear from grandpa at all, just a warm list of wishful thinking from the young girl asking for wisdom from the older generation.

“Always On My Mind”
Willie Nelson
Peak: #1

When Elvis Presley recorded it in the wake of his divorce, it was all regret and bombast, a belated admission of his failures as a husband. When Willie covered it in the early 80’s, it became a poignant tribute to the wife that he still loves but hasn’t always appreciated it. Nelson’s biggest hit, and a winner of the CMA Single of the Year, it’s still a powerful listen more than twenty years since being released.

“9 To 5”
Dolly Parton
Peak: #1

A #1 country and pop hit, and nominee for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, Parton wrote this to the beat of her clicking fingernails while waiting on the set of the movie of the same name. The pop flavor can make a casual listener miss the economic anger simmering under the surface – “They let you dream just to watch them shatter, you’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder” escalates to “9 to 5, they’ve got you where they want to you…it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it, and you spend your life putting money in his pocket.” Parton’s feminism and support of the working class seeps through in some of her greatest songs, and this is one of them.

“Guitars, Cadillacs”
Dwight Yoakam
Peak: #4

California country explodes all over again as Yoakam releases his progressive country debut album, which combines traditional themes and instruments with a forceful rock production. He manages to capture his entire musical philosophy – jilted lovers, loud guitars and hillbilly music – in one three-minute song, laying the groundwork for a dizzyingly brilliant musical career that has expanded on all of those themes in the twenty years since its release.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
George Jones
Peak: #1

“He said ‘I’ll love you till I die’, she told him ‘you’ll forget in time’.” And with that, the greatest country single of the 80’s, and one of the greatest of all-time, lays the groundwork for a heartbreaking twist in the chorus: “He stopped loving her today, they placed a wreath upon his door, and soon they’ll carry him away, he stopped loving her today.” Jones’ hillbilly twang plays beautifully against the wall of strings and choir of angels that sweep in mid-song. It’s an epic performance by a country music legend.


  1. Great list. I’m always amazed at how closely your lists resemble what my own would look like. I’m not sure if “Good Ole Boys Like Me” by Don Williams was released in 79 or 80. It’s probably my all-time favorite country song. The album came out in late 79 but not sure about the single. It’s nice to see Don on your list along with my two favorite singers, Patty Loveless and Keith Whitley.

  2. Not nearly enough Kenny Rogers on the entire list (not just this part). The guy had some of the most amazing records throughout the 80s. You previously said that there would be more Kenny, and there barely was. I was with this list until then.

  3. I love Kenny, but most of his great singles were in the 1970’s. I think he was on the 80’s list seven times, which is a lot. But FYI, if I ever do a 70’s list, he’ll be represented extensively, and much higher with those songs. Gosh, just look at the 70’s hits:
    – The Gambler
    – Lucille
    – Daytime Friends
    – Coward of the County
    – Every Time Two Fools Collide
    – She Believes In Me
    – You Decorated My Life
    – Sweet Music Man
    – Love Or Something Like It

    Out of curiosity, what 80’s singles of Kenny’s do you feel were missing?

  4. Here is what you had:

    #28-“Islands In The Stream”
    #104-“Through The Years”
    #118-“We’ve Got Tonight”
    #144-“Love Will Turn You Around”
    #152-“Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer”
    #161-“I Don’t Call Him Daddy”

    I am impressed with having “I Don’t Call Him Daddy” on the list. That is a lesser known Rogers single. But all of these songs are way too low on the list.

    What singles do I feel were missing?

    -“You We’re A Good Friend” (1980) [actually released as a single in 1983 after Kenny left Liberty to draw attention to Liberty’s release of “Twenty Greatest Hits.”]
    -“I Don’t Need You” (1981)
    -“Crazy” (1984)
    -“Morning Desire” (1985)
    -“Twenty Years Ago” (1986) [Not including this one I think is the biggest mistake of all. This is one of the best songs ever recorded]
    -“I Prefer The Moonlight” (1987)
    -“When You Put Your Heart In It” (1989)

    There are a few more, but I know you can’t include his whole catalog. Anyway, those are the ones I think you missed. But, you still have a really cool blog!

  5. I don’t think I’ve heard any of those songs. I’ll check them out on iTunes. I left a lot off of my 400 list too that I realized after the fact.

  6. By and large not a bad list, although I’d have the more traditional songs such as “1982” much higher and have some of the pop-schlock much lower on the list, although mostly still on it.

    The most noteworthy omission from the list is Vern Gosdin who would have at least five entries in my top 200 of the 80s including “Chiseled in Stone” , which would be my #2 (or if I’m feeling courageous, my #1), and “That Just About Does It” , “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, “Today My World Slipped Away”, “If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)” all of which would be in my top 100

  7. Another fun read. I would have to say my favorite song from this era was Rosanne Cash’s “Runaway Train” and my favorite album, Tanya Tucker’s Strong Enough to Bend. Also nice, as always, to see a lot of Reba on the list. I was thinking I might come across Lacy J. Dalton’s “Black Coffee” but I doublechecked and it was released in 1990. Thanks again!

  8. What a great list! I first got into country music in the ’80’s and looking back, it really has stood the test of time. It was SO “country” compared to today’s excuses for such. There truly was a love and deeper appreciation for country music and it’s tradition that is just not found in the “hit makers” of today. That also goes for the suits making the calls on Music Row.

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