Various Artists

Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally)

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Rock criticism has two schools of thought regarding the '80s. One complains that it was all crass, commercial crap, breathing a sigh of relief that we made it through that dreck (thanks to IRS, SST, jangle pop, college rock, and hardcore punk, of course). The other celebrates the album as "cheesy" fun, full of naïve, silly singles; bad haircuts; big synthesizers. It's a school intent on reducing it all as nostalgic fodder -- and whenever '80s music is written about in this fashion, it's always given ironic adjectives, straight out of the height of valley girl speak. All this ghettoizes an era in pop music that was rich in innovation, great one-hit wonders, oddities, and inexplicable flukes that make it a wonderful cross between the first days of the British Invasion and the peak of AM pop in the early '70s. It was the last great era for pop singles -- the last time that singles really mattered, the last time that something totally unexpected could capture the minds of the public, before radio consolidation meant hits couldn't build in a region, before MTV turned to non-music programming and cut off a national outlet for new music. Like, Omigod! It's the '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally) captures that era pretty well. Even if it occasionally succumbs to treating the decade's music as if it was nothing but silly ephemera (which, granted, some of it was -- but it was catchy, well-made silly ephemera), it does do a couple of things right: Namely, it relies on new wave, yet tempers it with soul, hip-hop, hard rock, and soft rock, while realizing that the prime period of the '80s was before 1985, and that the one-hit-wonders and spirit of new wave faded away after that. This box spends about five-and-a-half of its seven discs on that era, with the remaining disc-and-a-half having about a disc's worth of 1986-era hits before quickly wrapping it up as we approach the first Bush era and the height of superstar MTV (the years when only the big guys -- whether it was Michael Jackson, Madonna, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or Steve Winwood -- ruled the prime time MTV airwaves, and the network no longer had to rely on interesting, primarily British, oddities to fill time). That's a good thing, because that was the best time for pop music in the '80s, and this captures much of the giddy feel of that time. The main problem with the box is that its sheer size gives the impression that it's more definitive than it really is. Forget the complaints that there's nothing from critical favorites and heavy-hitters like Elvis Costello, Hüsker Dü, Joy Division, R.E.M., U2, Prince, Madonna, Springsteen, etc.; the real crime is that there are numerous great, definitive one-hit wonders and fluke breakthroughs by cult favorites missing. Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You," as good as any single released in the '80s, isn't here; there's nothing from Adam & the Ants, XTC, or the Violent Femmes; "Warm Leatherette" isn't here, nor is M's "Pop Muzik," "88 Lines about 44 Women," or "I Don't Like Mondays"; there's not a single from Squeeze, Split Enz, or the Jam; no "Someday, Someway," no "Mexican Radio," no "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades"; no "I Know What Boys Like" or "I Melt With You"; Peter Wolf's "Lights Out," never present on any '80s hits collection, isn't here; "The Safety Dance" is missing; no Flock of Seagulls or Baltimora. It's hard not to miss any of the above, once you realize they're not here, especially since apart from Joey Scarbury's "Theme From 'Greatest American Hero'" and a host of novelties that it would be better off leaving behind (Bob and Doug McKenzie, Billy Crystal's "You Look Mahvelous," Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" - it's a wonder Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" isn't here), there's nothing unexpected here (other than it's amazing that Rhino has finally managed to release an '80s collection without the Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away."). Still, many great singles are here, there's diversity in the selection, and it's a fun listen, so many collectors may prefer this to Rhino's classic, new wave-centric Just Can't Get Enough series. Just don't think that it's the final word on the '80s -- there was too much great pop music for it to be contained on a mere seven discs.

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:19
2 3:41
3 3:15
4 3:30
5 3:38
6 4:14
7 3:37
8 3:55
9 3:14
10 2:43
11 3:20
12 3:47
13 3:45
14 4:32
15 4:52
16 4:32
17 3:14
18 3:48
19 3:25
20 4:03

Track Listing - Disc 4

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:47
2 3:42
3 3:49
4 3:36
5 3:23
6 3:30
7 3:53
8 3:57
9 4:12
10 3:41
11 3:55
12 3:24
13 4:08
14 3:42
15 4:08
16 3:34
17 3:36
18 4:11
19 4:21
20 3:27
blue highlight denotes track pick