THE TOP 500 POP SONGS OF THE 1980S
THIS WEEK’S FEATURED SONG
Africa by Toto - Song #34
Right now, this song is playing on a never-ending loop somewhere in Africa. In 2019, a sound installation powered by solar batteries was set up by Namibian artist Max Siedentopf, in an undisclosed location in the Namib Desert (the world’s oldest desert, roughly 55 to 80 million years old), to play the song for eternity. Africa is a timeless pop staple that has surged in popularity in the past few years. If this list of the TOP 500 POP SONGS OF THE 1980S measured popularity only since 2017, this song would probably be #1! Africa has become the subject of many internet memes, entire Reddit pages, and relentless millennial pop culture references. It is one of the most streamed and digitally downloaded songs of the past few years. According to Billboard magazine, “Internet culture has kind of taken it and really shot it into the stratosphere...people started bonding over their love of this song.” Many recent pop culture moments (detailed below) have spiked Africa’s popularity to an astonishing degree.
When asked why the song is experiencing such a wild resurgence, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather said, “I haven’t a f*cking clue and you can quote me on that, but it’s got a great groove. I mean it’s a happy thing. The message of the song doesn’t have anything to do with, ‘Oo baby I love you,’ so there’s no depression there. It’s not political, so there’s no depression there. It’s a fantasy song. It’s like a Disneyland song or whatever. We just went in there and had fun and made this record... People latch onto it. It’s kitschy enough and the lyrics are weird enough that people will remember it.”
Africa was recorded by American rock band Toto, and is featured on the band’s fourth studio album Toto IV. Released as the album’s third single, Africa hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard Top 40 in 1983, displacing Australian rock band Men at Work’s Down Under (song #47 on this list), another ode to a continent. Africa was a major hit in Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, South Africa, and Switzerland.
Toto formed in 1977. The band broke up in 2008, but then got back together in 2010, and disbanded again in 2019. Toto’s musical style combines elements of pop, jazz, soul, R&B, and rock. The original six members were reputable session musicians, hired for recording sessions and live performances for a variety of artists, which is how they met and decided to form their own band. Members of Toto worked with American jazz rock band Steely Dan (whose Hey Nineteen is song #298 on this list), American soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, American pop duo Sonny and Cher (Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time is song #263 on this list), and American blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs. Four of the Toto guys are featured on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, including two songs on this list: Human Nature, song #315 [see the description of that song for details] and Beat It, song #31. Toto band members also perform on English singer John Parr’s St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion), song #133; American rock band Chicago’s Hard to Say I’m Sorry / Get Away, song #241; and American blue-eyed soul musician Michael McDonald’s I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near), song #374.
The six original Toto members were David Paich (keyboards and vocals); brothers Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Steve Porcaro (keyboards and vocals); Steve Lukather (guitars and vocals); David Hungate (bass guitar); and Bobby Kimball (lead vocals). Mike Porcaro (bass guitar) joined his brothers’ band in 1982. Six additional members were added over the years, as members left and re-joined, and a few of them died. Why the band is named “Toto” depends on which members of the band you ask. In the early ‘80s, some of them said that the band was named after Toto the dog from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. But Jeff Porcaro apparently wrote the word “Toto” on the band’s first demo tapes, in order to distinguish them from other bands who worked in the same studio. And some band members say that “Toto” came from the Latin phrase in toto, which means “all-encompassing” or “in total,” with the significance being that the band members brought together many different styles of music from their extensive experience with other musicians.
Africa was written by David Paich (who performs lead vocals on the song) and Jeff Porcaro, neither of whom had ever been to Africa when they wrote the song. According to Jeff Porcaro, the song is about “a white boy...trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” David Paich said, “At the beginning of the ‘80s I watched a late-night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about if I [were] there and what I’d do.” Because he’d never been to the continent himself, he based the song’s landscape descriptions on an article in venerable American magazine National Geographic: “I was a big reader of National Geographic. I’ve just always kind of been fascinated with Africa. I just kind of romanticized this story about a social worker that was over there, that falls in love and...is having kind of a paradox, trying to tear himself away from Africa to actually have a life.” David Paich attended Catholic school as a child, where several of his teachers did missionary work in Africa. Their missionary work became the inspiration behind the famous line, “I bless the rains down in Africa.”
But some of the Toto guys were not fans of the song originally. Steve Lukather said, “I thought it was the worst song on the album. It didn’t fit, the lyrics made no sense, and I swore that if it was a hit record, I’d run naked down Hollywood Boulevard! That’s how good I am at picking singles! I mean, I love the song now but, to be honest with you, at the time I thought it was really the oddball song on the album. It almost didn’t make the record, and it was a #1 worldwide single, and still gets played everywhere today. No matter where I go in the world, people know that song. It’s bizarre!” Steve Porcaro described the song as a dumb experiment with goofy lyrics that were just temporary placeholders, particularly the line about the Serengeti: “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.” Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, located in Tanzania. The Serengeti is an ecosystem, a geographical region in Africa that spans both Tanzania and Kenya. The Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro are both located in the northern part of Tanzania, but you can’t actually see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti, which is about 200 miles (320 km) away.
Toto has released 14 studio albums, seven live albums, one soundtrack album (for the 1984 film Dune, written and directed by David Lynch), 19 compilation albums, and 65 singles. Only 10 of those singles charted on the U.S. Billboard Top 40, and all except one of those 10 are from the ‘80s. Africa is featured on Toto IV, the band’s fourth (and most commercially and critically successful) album, released in 1982. Rosanna (which is song #388 on this list), was the lead single from Toto IV, and peaked at #2 on the U.S. Billboard Top 40. The second single was Make Believe, which peaked at #30. Africa was the third single, and the final single released from Toto IV was I Won’t Hold You Back, which peaked at #10 on the U.S. Billboard Top 40. Toto’s other hit songs in the United States are 1978’s Hold the Line, 1980’s 99, 1984’s Stranger In Town, 1986’s I’ll Be Over You, 1986’s Without Your Love, and 1988’s Pamela.
Toto IV was the final album with the original Toto lineup, and it received seven Grammy nominations in 1983, winning five of them, including Album of the Year. The other nominees for Album of the Year were American rock musician John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s American Fool, which features two songs on this list: Hurts So Good at #101, and Jack and Diane at #24; American pop musician Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain; American jazz/rock musician Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly; and English pop musician Paul McCartney’s Tug of War, which features his duet with American R&B/pop musician Stevie Wonder, Ebony and Ivory, song #267 on this list. Toto also won 1983’s Record of the Year (which is awarded to the artist, producer, and others who were involved in the actual recording of the song), but not for Africa——The winner of Record of the Year was Rosanna. The other nominees were English jazz/pop musician Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out, song #455 on this list; Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory; American country singer/guitarist Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind, song #450; and Greek composer Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, song #314. Rosanna was also nominated for Song of the Year (which is awarded to the songwriters), but lost to Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind. The other nominees were Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory, American rock band Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, song #13 on this list; and Donald Fagen’s I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World), which did not make this list, but came close. Toto was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1979, but lost to American disco group A Taste of Honey.
Africa has been covered by many artists. The most well-known cover is by American alternative rock band Weezer in 2018, after a teenager’s viral Twitter campaign (@WeezerAfrica) implored the band to do the cover for nearly six months with tweets like, “It’s about time you bless the rains down in Africa,” and the hashtag #WeezerCoverAfrica. Before covering Africa, Weezer covered Toto’s Rosanna (click here) as a way of trolling fans clamoring for Africa. Ultimately, the band gave in to fans’ demand, and Weezer’s version of Africa (click here) peaked at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Weezer’s video for Africa is a mirror-image parody of their 1994 debut single Undone – The Sweater Song. The parody features American musical comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic as Weezer’s frontman Rivers Cuomo, with his band members replacing Weezer. “Weird Al” is known for his lampoons of hit songs. On January 1, 2019, Weezer performed Africa live on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (click here). In response to Weezer’s cover of Africa, Toto did a cover of Weezer’s 2001 song Hash Pipe (click here for Toto’s version).
Other artists who have covered Africa include experimental collaboration Zo! and Tigallo (featuring American rapper Phonte) in 2008 (click here); American musician Scott Bradlee’s jazz-oriented collective Postmodern Jukebox in 2011 (click here); American Christian rock band Relient K in 2011 (click here); English comedy lounge band The Lounge Kittens in 2016 (click here); American musical comedy duo Ninja Sex Party in 2017 (click here); American soul musician CeeLo Green in 2018 (click here); and jazz vocalist Robyn Adele Anderson, who did a bluegrass version in 2019 (click here).
Africa has been sampled and interpolated in many songs, including 1992’s Steady Me by German pop singer Sandra; 1999’s New World by American rapper Nas; 1999’s Tempo Critico by Italian rap group Sacre Scuole; 2002’s Heart of Man by American rapper Xzibit; 2003’s Murder Reigns by American rapper Ja Rule; 2007’s Anything by American pop singer JoJo; 2008’s Africa by Lebanese-Canadian pop singer Karl Wolf featuring Culture; 2009’s The 12 Days of Christmas by American a cappella group Straight No Chaser (which became one of the very first viral videos and made the group famous); 2010’s Huey Newton by American rapper Wiz Khalifa featuring Curren$y; 2010’s vaporwave-genre song A1 by experimental electronic musician Chuck Person, aka Oneohtrix Point Never; 2011’s Fight for You by American pop singer Jason Derulo; 2011’s How I Feel by American rapper Lil B; 2012’s Keep Ballin by American rapper Red Café; 2013’s Reloaded by American rapper Rich Homie Quan; 2016’s Africa by Swedish production duo Bacall & Malo featuring Nigerian singer Prince Osito; 2017’s Be Right Back! by American rapper Ezri; 2018’s Ocean To Ocean by American rapper Pitbull featuring Rhea; and 2019’s Selfish by Belgian DJ and record producer Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike with Kosovo-Albanian singer Era Istrefi.
Africa has been featured in quite a few television shows, including the very first episode of Stranger Things; Scrubs (click here); Family Guy (click here); Community (with American actress Betty White – click here); and South Park (in two episodes of its 20th season – click here and here). In 2013, American pop singer Justin Timberlake and American talk show host Jimmy Fallon performed it in a sketch on The Tonight Show (click here). In 2013, Africa was used by CBS during coverage of the funeral of South African president Nelson Mandela, which even the Toto guys thought was inappropriate: David Paich stated publicly that CBS should have used actual South African music instead.
Using the TABLE below, you may sort the list of THE TOP 500 POP SONGS OF THE 1980S by rank, title, artist, and year.
When sorting song titles or artists in the table, they will be alphabetized. (The four songs that begin with a parenthesis will be listed first, followed by the four songs that begin with numbers.)
Songs and artists that begin with A or The are alphabetized that way. (For example, you’ll find The Police and The Pretenders with the letter T, and A Flock Of Seagulls with the letter A.)
Solo artists are alphabetized by their first names. (For example, Bryan Adams is with the letter B, and Richard Marx is with the letter R.)
To see all of an artist’s songs ranked in order, enter the artist’s name in the search box, and then, to sort the results by rank, click on the # at the top of the first column.
THE SEARCH BOX
The SEARCH BOX is in the top right corner of the table. When you type a word or words into the SEARCH BOX, the table will collapse, revealing the search results, which you may then sort by clicking on the table headers. (NOTE: To get back to the full list of 500 songs after doing a search, you must clear the search box.)
SORTING BY YEAR
To see songs from a specific year ranked in order, enter an apostrophe and the year (for example: ‘84) in the search box, and then sort the results by rank. The year listed is the year that the song entered the United States Billboard Top 40.
DETAILS ABOUT THE SONGS & ARTISTS
For more information and interesting facts about the songs and the artists, plus other great ‘80s songs that didn’t make this TOP 500 list, and much more, please go to PAGE 2: THE MUSIC.
WHO HAS THE MOST SONGS?
Who has the most songs on the list – Madonna, Prince, George Michael, Whitney Houston, or Michael Jackson? Click HERE to find out.