Thomas Dolby will someday – I hope – be remembered as one of the 20th and 21st century pioneers of music and technology (his excellent memoir dives into his experiences at the intersection of these worlds in great detail). He is already recognized as one of the progenitors of steam punk but I think his ability to construct unique atmospheric pop with synthesized sound helped move electronic music into the mainstream.
He’s remembered largely for his semi-novelty hit “She Blinded Me With Science,” though I suspect anyone who watched MTV in the early 80’s remembers a few of his other songs, too. Dolby released a number of excellent albums and demonstrated an ear for a great melody, an ability to compose consistently clever lyrics and has demonstrated that creative restlessness in regards to composition that distinguishes artists from the rest of us. I’ve been a dedicated fan for years. If you have only been exposed to his hit, I encourage you to check out some of his other songs (especially as we hit the top 10-15).
Let’s start with a bonus track:
Bonus Track: Waiting for a Girl Like You by Foreigner
From the 1981 album 4 by Foreigner, Second Single
That first synthesizer line you hear? The distinctive one that sets this song apart from other Foreigner tunes? Thomas Dolby. Dolby was an in-demand session musician and sideman in the 80’s. In addition to his keyboard work for Foreigner, he contributed synthesizer to The Thompson Twins’ “In The Name of Love,” played keyboard on Def Leppard’s Pyromania (using the name Booker T. Boffin), and was Bowie’s bandleader for his Live Aid performance. The money Dolby made from “Waiting for A Girl Like You” financed his first solo album. I can barely stand to listen to the song, but if it led to everything else Dolby did, I’m glad it exists. That’s a weird feeling, being grateful for a Foreigner song.
And now the list!
26. Howard the Duck by Dolby’s Cube featuring Cherry Bomb
From the Soundtrack to the 1986 film Howard the Duck, First Single
This is not just the lowest ranked song from Thomas Dolby’s catalog, it is arguably the worst song I’ve included on any of my lists. Its hard to blame Dolby since everything about Howard the Duck was awful. Readers, I saw it on opening night. I was excited to see it. I loved the sardonic comic book and watched the movie in increasing horror as I realized they’d stripped away everything that made the comic worthwhile. Similarly, this theme song from the film strips away everything that makes Dolby interesting. This song could literally have been recorded by any mid-80’s pop-roc band (Starship comes to mind). That, I’m sure, was the intent. When you set out to make a cookie cutter movie to cynically appeal to the movie buying public and need a cookie cutter song to match, you have to strip out everything that might be the slightest bit controversial, challenging or even interesting. Actress Lea Thompson provides the vocals for the song. George Clinton (a frequent Dolby collaborator – when they worked together they called themselves Dolby’s Cube) co-wrote the song. Cherry Bomb, as near as I can tell, is a band that only existed for the sake of the movie. Everyone comes out of this looking a little a little bad.
25. Get Out of My Mix by Dolby’s Cube
1985 Stand-Alone Single
Were it not for “Howard the Duck,” this would be an easy pick for the bottom of the list. Remixes became a big thing in the 80’s and its no surprise that Dolby – who, after all, is an inspired tinkerer – decided to try his hand at remixing. “Get Out Of My Mix” takes several of Dolby’s songs – notably “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and “She Blinded Me With Science” – and combines them into a dance track. I normally don’t include remixes in my rankings because of personal prejudice (and because they are often done with minimal input from the original artist) but this one was released under the Dolby’s Cube name so I consider it canon. Its not that its bad, per se, its just that I’d rather just listen to the original songs. This track feels like a big tease.
1981 Stand-Alone Single
Dolby’s first solo release was a double A-side single of “Urges” and “Leipzig” (coming soon). “Urges” is fine for a first single. It sounds like Dolby took a little touch of contemporary Devo and maybe a little pinch of Bowie and created a song about how dancing and romance can make you feel more human. Or half-human. Dolby’s early songs often had an edge of menace to them and that’s certainly present in the piano on this track. This song is ok but it pales in comparison to his later work.
23. May the Cube Be With You by Dolby’s Cube
1985 Stand-Alone Single
Dolby’s Cube was Dolby, George Clinton and occasionally Lene Lovich (Dolby wrote and played on her song “New Toy”. Lovich doesn’t appear on any of the songs on my list by Dolby’s Cube and, honestly, I’ve never heard a track by them featuring her. Indeed, I’ve only heard “Howard the Duck,” “Get Out of My Mix” and “May The Cube Be With You.” I recall in 1985, there was a bit of press about the formation of this odd super group and then, well, nothing other than this single. Indeed, I didn’t hear this single until I picked up the cassette of Dolby’s 1988 Aliens Ate My Buick album (purchased in France while visiting my friend Holly). The track blends Clinton’s funk with a set of lyrics that seem to be deliberately quirky rather than honestly quirky, if that makes any sense. Not an unpleasant listen by any means – it just feels like this song was forced into existence almost against its own will.
22. Hot Sauce
From 1988’s Aliens At My Buick, Second Single
OK, well, in the video, Dolby appears to kind of dress up like he’s Mexican. The 80’s. Jeez.
I thought this song was a cover, but poking around it seems like its an original George Clinton composition for Thomas Dolby. All right then. Dolby and his band (The Lost Toy People) really commit to Clinton-style funk here. It was odd listening to ur-nerd Thomas Dolby singing about a woman’s hot sauce in 1988 and it hasn’t necessarily gotten less weird to hear it in 2017. I think Dolby might recognize this since he sort of breaks character after announcing “I had to call a smog alert.” Aliens Ate My Buick has a number of great songs that were not singles (“Pulp Fiction” and “The Keys to Her Ferrari” are both terrific).
From 2011’s A Map Of The Floating City, First Single
Dolby’s 2011 A Map Of The Floating City was released simultaneously with a social networking game of the same name. I managed to miss that completely. I also managed to miss the (non-single) video releases like “The Toadlickers” (go watch that). “Oceanea” is a haunting, keyboard driven song featuring vocals by both Dolby and by Eddi Reader. Starting with this song, I’m a pretty big fan of everything else on this list.
Coming Soon: Waves, Wind and Spice.