Top '80s Songs of The Human League

Though known primarily for two of the most lasting pop songs of the '80s in "Don't You Want Me" and "Human," Sheffield, England's The Human League exerted much more influence on the era's pop music landscape than it surely seemed at the time. Boasting two highly distinct lineups and sounds, the group put together an innovative career and a fiercely independent sound before the pressure for commercial success hurried a premature decline. Here's a look at some key '80s songs from The Human League, presented in chronological order.

Of the tracks on the band's late-1979 debut release, Reproduction, this one provides the most useful context for The Human League's origins - while also offering a recognizable glimpse into what the group would become. In its dirge-like, brooding and mechanistic way, this droning tune blazed an early trail toward the band's eventual combination of avant-garde electronic pop impulses with mainstream melodic pop. The key component that allows the music to reach beyond the rather esoteric musings of founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh turns out to be Philip Oakey, the band's leader, and primary vocalist. His austere baritone delivery here sets the stage for Joy Division, Bauhaus and Depeche Mode a few years later.

Though hardly reminiscent of the experimental, almost anti-melodic sound advanced by The Human League's original lineup, this R&B/dance-laden track from 1980's Travelogue remains a vital cog of the band's evolution toward conventional pop that would lead to its split. The velvety, occasionally spooky vocals of Oakey are the only major commonalities between this version of the group and its Oakey-led period of '80s stardom, but this tune makes a lot more sense within an '80s music context than do many of the stylized, Kraftwerk-inspired selections on the group's first two records. The presence of backup female vocalists in the song also foreshadows the changes that would steer the band's angular electronic pop into a more palatable sonic direction.

The Human League entered its era of elegance even before backup singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley made their lively, vampy impact on the group's sound. And this all stems from Oakey, who by this time had become not only an expressive, mesmerizing pop singer but also a fine songwriter and strong leader for the band. This track shines as a clean, lively pop tune that nonetheless retains the ominous appeal of The Human League's earliest efforts. As such, "Darkness" stands out as a signature album track that demonstrates the towering importance of this band to the popularity of synth-pop both in Britain and the United States. That style may not have ultimately become known for its consistency, but it did start out that way on 1981's Dare.

A long-term staple of '80s music playlists for good reason, this classic deserves its prominence, particularly in light of its lightning-in-a-bottle pop music effect earned through the combination of catchy melody and novel delivery. Sulley's lead vocal contribution provides the song with a dynamic he said-she said quality that promotes narrative drama at a rate not often found in pop music. Even better, the songwriting on display, whether or not anyone recognized it at the time, will live forever through the unforgettable synth opening as well as the seamless melodic fluidity of verse and chorus. This was a No. 1 hit before it even hit the charts, a gold standard for the ability of pop music quality to share space with commercial appeal.

The band's farthest cry yet from its automaton drone and deconstructionist beginnings, this 1982 hit single makes no effort to hide its basic peppy pop nature. And while the Motown bop of this tune may alienate The Human League's longtime fans yearning for the group's earlier sounds of sedation and eerie monotony, its accessible pop approach moves the band necessarily forward. After all, there was no chance of going back to avant-garde after the magic and success of "Don't You Want Me," especially in light of the healthy payday that song surely supplied for the band. But this tune also demonstrates an eclecticism and adventurous streak that would help the group's core trio avoid sticking too closely to a formulaic pop comfort zone.

As the other big new wave-oriented hit from Fascination!, 1983's successful EP release from The Human League, this tune continued to carve an imaginative path in the ever-spreading surge of electronic, synth-fueled pop music at the time. Aside from the still recognizably haunting tone of the group's synth work, The Human League here also reveals innovation and inspired melody, particularly in the recurrent keyboard riff '80s kids remember so well. Even better, this track continues the later lineup's focus on pure fun, featuring one of the most enjoyable interplays of shared lead vocals in all of '80s music. Oakey's how-low-can-he-go vocal displays never fail to bring pleasure, aided by the melodic shift accompanying Oakey's croon, "And so the conversation turned..."

The career of The Human League as an organic purveyor of inventive synth pop that rivaled the genre's finest '80s offerings had unfortunately come to a close by the time of Hysteria, its long-awaited 1984 full-length follow-up to Dare. So even though the smash hit "Human" brought the group a major surge of popularity for 1986's Crash, that success came at a great cost to the band's distinctive, independent approach of the recent past. Clearly, this is a top-notch pop song, but because it came from the Jam & Lewis R&B assembly line and did not reflect the quirk and personality of Oakey and his co-writers, it can't really be termed a true Human League effort without taking something away from the group's unique and earned early-'80s legacy.

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Peake, Steve. "Top '80s Songs of The Human League." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/80s-songs-of-the-human-league-10225. Peake, Steve. (2017, February 21). Top '80s Songs of The Human League. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/80s-songs-of-the-human-league-10225 Peake, Steve. "Top '80s Songs of The Human League." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/80s-songs-of-the-human-league-10225 (accessed October 21, 2017).