In honor of our 30th anniversary, we revisited thirty essential tracks from the last thirty years. From Bruce Springsteen to Hurray for the Riff Raff, some of the greatest songs by the most influential of the last three decades are represented here. Join us in taking a look back at musical history.
Videos by American Songwriter
1984: “Born In The USA” by Bruce Springsteen
Many people, including, initially, the Reagan administration, heard the booming drums, soaring synthesizer riff, and shout-along chorus and thought that “Born In The U.S.A.” was a patriotic anthem. In the verses, Springsteen laid bare the darkness at the heart of the American Dream by telling an unsparingly bleak story of a Vietnam vet’s continuing struggles years after his physical battles have ended. That the track is still a staple of fireworks displays demonstrates Bruce’s ability to deliver vital messages to the masses.
1985: “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits
At the peak of the MTV era, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler managed to both caress and bite the hand the fed him in one fell swoop. For the lyrics, Knopfler repurposed dialogue he overheard from grumpy appliance movers complaining about rock-star privilege. Getting Sting to come in and reprise his “I Want My MTV” sloganeering was a touch of subversive genius. Add in a truly indelible guitar riff and you have one of the catchiest bits of cultural commentary ever.
1986: “Graceland” by Paul Simon
For the title track to his massively successful 1986 album, Paul Simon found the pocket where the rhythmic sounds of the American South coexist with the melodic ingenuity of South African musicians. The music serves to deepen the sense of longing and wonder at the song’s core, as a forlorn narrator travels to the home of Elvis looking for answers. “Graceland” turns out to be not just a tourist attraction but also a kind of spiritual safe haven for wounded hearts.
1987: “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses
While many late 80’s hair metal bands seemed comically over-the-top, the music of Guns N’ Roses possessed a dangerous, fearsome edge. Kicked off by a shivery riff from Slash, this power bomb of a single cut right through the nonsense. Axl Rose’s banshee wails never sounded more primal as he dares the listener to “Feel my serpentine” and bellows “You’re gonna die.” As combustible as they were influential, Guns N’ Roses made their particular jungle sound both alluring and lethal all at once.
1988: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
One of the great out-of-nowhere success stories of the 80’s, Tracy Chapman came out firing with this monster single that mesmerized listeners with its bracing honesty and her immense talent. Over an unresolved acoustic guitar riff that’s like a car that won’t start, she sings to her boyfriend of a happy ending that poverty and family ties won’t allow. “Leave tonight or live and die this way” is the choice she has to make, even as she implies that there’s really no way out.
1989: “The Dance” by Garth Brooks
Written by Tony Arata and turned into a mega-smash by Garth Brooks on his first album, this song, with just two verses and refrains, holds multiple layers of meaning. On the surface, it’s both a lament for and an appreciation of a spent relationship. Yet it also sends a potent message about the value of living life to the fullest even when doing so courts heartbreak. Brooks’ delivery of the song is perfection, capturing the regret, humility, and wonder that Arata’s profound lyrics suggest.
1990: “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’ Connor
Written by Prince, this ballad for the ages was actually recorded by The Family in 1985, but it wasn’t until O’ Connor got a hold of it on her breakthrough 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got that the song’s true potential was unleashed. The Purple One’s lyrics about a person barely enduring a breakup are both idiosyncratic and heart-wrenching. O’ Connor took that raw material to another level with a performance full of naked emotion and beguiling vulnerability.
1991: “One” by U2
Like many of the songs on this list, “One” seems to come from a deeply personal place yet still resonates universally. 1991’s Achtung Baby found U2 slashing away at their earnest image, but they played it from the heart here, striking a chord somewhere between mournful and uplifting. “We’re one, but we’re not the same,” Bono strikingly sings, but in the next breath, “We get to carry each other.” With The Edge providing skyscraping guitar, “One” proves to be an anthem of movingly mixed emotions.
1992: “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
Drummer Bill Berry wrote the basic structure for this majestically melancholy track and his fellow band members pitched in to complete it. Although there’s a little of the R.E.M.’s signature inscrutability present (“When the day is night alone”), “Everybody Hurts” offers a pretty direct lyrical plea set to one of the band’s most open-hearted melodies. Michael Stipe sells it with one of his most soulful vocal performances, potent enough to convince the most despairing soul that there’s a community of fellow sufferers out there.
1993: “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana
Although Nevermind and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sold Nirvana’s pioneering sound to the masses, the band dug deeper with 1993’s In Utero. “Heart-Shaped Box” is an anti-love song of towering ferocity, as Kurt Cobain’s wails in the refrain are met with blasts of unkempt guitar. On this track, Cobain combined the eloquent nastiness of some of Bob Dylan’s harshest putdowns with the primal scream urgency of post-Beatles John Lennon. Comparisons aside though, only Cobain could pull off this paradox of aching vulnerability and searing explosiveness.