Already a step down from the neon-tinged high of 1984, 1985 was nonetheless a pretty solid year for the hot 100, with new wave and synth pop in particular still delivering plenty of quality hits. At least in hindsight, it’s clear that by the end of the year the best stuff was more the result of sheer inertia than anything else, but the last 2 years have shown that there was a not-inconsiderable amount of inertia left to expend from the height of the first MTV era. Though it’s all downhill from here, there’s still a long way left to the bottom, so let’s get what we can while the getting’s good. Here are the ten songs that kept the party going strongest in 1985— On with the show!
#10: Starship- We Built This City
I can’t think of any previous best list entrant so notoriously despised as “We Built this City”. Yes, this is famously the final, shameful nadir of the band that began life as Jefferson Airplane, thrilling audiences with the acid-rock classic Surrealistic Pillow. They spent the following 18 years proving that that album’s quality was more likely a fluke than anything else. The vast majority of Grace Slick and co’s output between ‘68 and ‘86 can charitably be described as “inessential”, an extended procession of charmless soft rock with nary a hint of psychedelic weirdness to speak of. So let’s start off by debunking the notion that this song represents some great selling-out of one of the 60s most-beloved bands. They had been “selling out” for well over a decade at this point; 1985 was the year they finally got good at it. “We Built This City” is gloriously, fatally pop-minded, all sugar rush hooks and blaring synthesizers, saturation cranked up to eleven across the board. Call it cheesy if you want; I’ll call it the funnest song ever to be co-written by Peter Wolf (and don’t forget, he also co-wrote “Freeze Frame”!). That chorus has absolutely no business claiming anything to do with “Rock and roll”, and yet Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick proudly proclaim that an entire city was built on it with a wide-eyed wonder that taps into, if not rock’s commitment to emotional honesty, than certainly the adolescent confidence that fuels it. The song’s sparkly cleanness proves to be a feature rather than a bug: as a song about the fantasy of rock music it’s nearly perfect, a Saturday morning cartoon representation of counterculture. “We Built This City”’s gee-whiz adulation of youthful rebellion and its sleek, hooks-at-any-cost songwriting do, at the end of the day, form an unsquareable circle, but as long as they’re having fun trying, I say good on ‘em.
#9: Kool and the Gang- Fresh
“Celebration” and “Get Down on It” will probably always be Kool and the Gang’s calling cards. They’re the kind of universal, anytime-anywhere jams that radio (or at least, certain kinds of radio) will never leave behind. Still, though the Gang have plenty of other quality hits to their name, none are as deserving of pop immortality as “Fresh”, the best love song the group ever made. For one, it shows the band gamely adapting to the times, beefing up their production sound and incorporating some quality synth work into their usual formula of breezy, party-ready funk. Even with these modern concessions, the song still revolves around their two biggest strengths: machine-tight guitar licks and JT Taylor’s suave-yet-affable vocal delivery. Especially given that this is a song extolling the freshness of a girl who’s caught out narrator’s eye, a frontman with some charm is of utmost importance, and Taylor does a damn near faultless job filling that role. Furthermore, the hook here is very possibly their strongest yet. When I’m sitting down for hours on end listening through these pop songs, things tend to blur together, and even a decent amount of the stuff I like tends to be cleared out of my head within 15 minutes or so. It’s a major credit to “Fresh”, then, that not only was I singing along by the second chorus on my first listen, I’ve gotten it spontaneously stuck in my head a good dozen-plus times since then without even relistening to it more than once or twice. Its simplicity belies the canny construction at play: the backing vocals falsetto out “She’s FRESH (fresh!)”, before handing it off to Taylor again for the rest of the line before the whole thing repeats a second time, with the main melody making beautiful use of negative space in the process. Not only does it sound good, it sounds… well, fresh! This song and that hook sound the way a newly-opened can of lemon-lime soda tastes: bubbly, refreshing, and light, with just a hint of energetic zing. No wonder the narrator’s so smitten. Add a gaudy, theatrical update on Cinderella for a music video, and you’ve got a tune as likable and mood-enhancing as anything this band ever put out.
#8: Bruce Springsteen- Born in the U.S.A.
Even by 80s pop hit standards, “Born in the U.S.A.” has been absolutely talked to death and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here, so I want to zero in on a very particular aspect of this song: the repetition. The verses are, shock of all shock, quite critical of the state of the nation, expressing feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and disappointment. It’s clear that Springsteen thinks that America has some pretty serious shit to sort out, that the folks in charge have left their soldiers and citizens for dead. But the way the song continually returns to that incessant refrain from which it takes its name strikes me as revealing of the song’s core thesis about America. It’s such a classically pop move that I myself had to listen to it for years to cotton to how deliberately it conveys Springsteen’s message and tone.
This is, contra to what those who take so much pleasure in um-actually-ing may have you believe, a deeply and passionately patriotic song. It’s a very specific form of patriotism, though, one that actually gives consideration for how badly broken and unjust America is. Everything here is basically terrible, but, well… I was born in the U.S.A. Regardless of how I feel, that’s still the cold, hard truth. This country is Springsteen’s home (mine too, not for nothin’). Even when it’s flawed or corrupt or just outright goddamn evil, fact of the matter is that none of us get to roll again for a different homeland; this is where we live and it’s up to us to wake up every day and try to make it somewhere we can be proud of. If Neil Diamond’s “America” is about an aspirational vision of what this country can be, “Born in the U.S.A.” is about the ugly, often fruitless struggle to actually realize that vision, and the responsibility all Americans carry to keep fighting anyway.
#7: Dire Straits- Money for Nothing
Of all the songs vaulted into immortality by MTV, “Money for Nothing” is likely the one most inextricable from the channel’s rise in popularity. It is, in every respect, a product of the music video era. For starters: the music video! Yes, the “Money for Nothing” clip lives in infamy as one of the very first prominent uses of COMPUTER ANIMATION in mass media, and you can very much tell! The polygon count here is somewhere in the dozens, but if you just keep in mind that this was over a decade before Toy Story it’s…well, maybe not good, but at least watchable. In some respects, the uncanny floatiness that permeates the animated scenes here actually enhances their effect, since one of the song’s central themes is the difficulties of adjusting to new technology. As primitive as it is, the clip still reads as alien and strange, in a way more timeless, “good-looking” computer animation rarely does.
The music video also highlights a very crucial fact about this song, which is that the narrator is not frontman Mark Knopfler. Knopfler’s reputation as a traditionalist blues-rock guy might make that a bit easy to miss when the song comes on the radio, but in the video he’s the one playing the gee-tar on the MTV, and a blocky blue-collar fellow is the one sneeringly commenting on it. Which brings us to the other reason why this song is such an integral part of the MTV mythos: the lyrics comprise a virulently bigoted, hateful tirade against every cultural change the channel was bringing about. Radio stations usually edit out the second verse, where he repeatedly uses a homophobic slur to describe an unnamed pop star, but the rest of the song isn’t much easier to digest: he drools piggishly over a woman in one video and mockingly calls a bongo player in another a “chimpanzee”. Even the chorus is tainted with this cynical resentment, scoffing at the very notion that a career in music takes actual work (if you want your “satire requires clarity of intent” moment, there ya go).
It’s a startling, ugly portrait of working-class prejudice and rage, so much so that I’m almost reluctant to admit that it also kind of slaps? And yet, slap it does: Knopfler’s iconic main guitar riff does a hell of a lot of heavy lifting here to make the song something approaching palatable, and Omar Hakim and Terry Williams contribute some excellent drumwork to round out the sound as well. There’s probably a case to be made that the rockin’ music and the uncomfortable lyrics detract from each other, and I’m not entirely convinced that they work together quite as well as they could have, but in terms of visceral impact, both stomach-turning and booty-shaking, I can’t call “Money for Nothing” anything less than a success.
#6: Simple Minds- Don’t You (Forget About Me)
I wanted to try talking about this song without any mention of That Scene (you know the one) from That Movie (you know the one), but doing my due diligence thankfully saved me from what would have been a somewhat embarrassing petard-hoisting! See, this song was actually written by two guys named Keith Forsey and John Schiff, who were scoring an upcoming John Hughes flick (you know the o-kay I think we get it), and needed a sweeping, emotional new wave anthem to bring the curtains down for the finale. To that end, they cooked up a plausible approximation of something Scottish rockers Simple Minds might release, planning to pitch them the song and get the real deal to record it. Simple Minds, however, were hardly chomping at the bit when Forsey and Schiff reached out— they didn’t like the idea of playing music written for them by other people, and saw the offer as a distraction from their ongoing effort to break into the US radio market. No time for two session guys’ impression of our sound for some rinky-dink teen drama no one will care about in 6 months, we’ve got a hit single to write!
I’m sure the irony of this stance was not lost on Jim Kerr and co. when “Don’t You” rocketed up the charts on both sides of the pond, hitting number 1 in America within a month and sticking around on the British charts for TWO ENTIRE YEARS(!). It’s tough to say for sure with decades of hindsight, but as far as I’m concerned, the fact that it was “that song from the end of BREAKFAST CLUB” gave “Don’t You” a lot more mileage than any other film might have given it. There’s a brash, almost clumsy intensity at play here that needs the framework of a heartfelt story about high-schoolers figuring themselves out to feel complete. It has that aura of disposability that so much synth-pop has, yet it simultaneously mourns that transience, reaches out desperately for something, anything visceral and unyielding. That’s what high school is, really: precious and life-changing moments slipping through your fingers like sand, and “Don’t You” manages to give both the preciousness and the slipperiness equal weight, thanks in no small part to Kerr’s lovely vocal performance. If great pop music finds profundity in shallowness, a sparkle in the lowest common denominator, then “Don’t You” can fairly be considered an apex of the form, somehow turning a sleek, glittery veneer into a big ol’ well of youthful emotion. Play those end credits, baby.
#5: Katrina and the Waves- Walking on Sunshine
When I say that new wave was swallowed whole by pop, that’s meant to be a value-neutral statement. For as much affection as I have for the oddball early years of the genre, new wave proved extremely accommodating to pop contexts, and plenty of artists managed to mine some real gold out of the combination of the two. Case in point: Katrina and the Waves, a power-pop group that had been percolating around England since the start of the decade, but only found real success once the quirks of new wave had been fully assimilated into the charts. “Walking on Sunshine”, their biggest hit, is as unashamedly edgeless as anything by Air Supply, yet that scrappy CBGB’s spirit pervades the whole song. They draw from the same uptempo energy as the pioneers of new wave, but rather than using that energy as a vehicle for social critique or avant-garde ramblings, Katrina and the Waves aim it towards a simple, cheerful ode to happiness. And damn it, it really works! If any song were to be bestowed a title as goofily happy as “Walking on Sunshine”, I can’t think of a better candidate than this. Every note puts a spring in my step and a grin on my face; if I hear it at the right moment, I might as well be walking on sunshine by the end. Though Alex Cooper’s bouncy drumming is not to be overlooked, Katrina Leskanich’s vocal performance is really the key feature here. With a less dynamic singer at the helm, the song could have been unbearably cloying, but Leskanich finds real nuance in the tune’s straight-ahead pep. The verses play sweeter and mellower, the chorus swells into a joyful abandon, and the post-chorus kicks into an even higher gear with feisty “hey!”s punctuating each line. Factor in those energetic horns as a cherry on top, and you’ve got a timeless pop delight that, for me at least, has yet to wear out its welcome. Don’t it feel good?
#4: A-ha- Take on Me
From a certain angle, “Take on Me” seems like it was destined to eclipse the artist behind it (that angle being “American”; A-Ha are far from one-hit wonders on their home continent). It’s the kind of song that a band simply does not write more than one of over the course of their career, as much a totalizing summation of A-ha’s strengths as a savvy concealment of their weaknesses. For example, did you know that all three members only speak English as a second language, and most of their songs are littered with awkward or incorrect syntax and grammatical gaffes? “Take on Me” is no exception; this is NOT one of those songs where the lyrics stand on their own as compelling poetry. Somehow, though, frontman Morten Harket never comes off like he’s tripping over his words or grasping at a phrase he can’t quite recall. Partially that’s because he is a very, very good singer, and it’s easy to get swept up in his steady, assured build towards the glass-shattering high note that caps off each chorus. But it’s also partially thanks to an almost serendipitous clarity of intent, where the lyrics are just abstracted enough to invite diverging interpretations, while retaining enough concrete meaning to actually connect.
On that tip, A-ha were, I am convinced, shameless romantics at heart. Their music is all about soul rending heartbreak, triumphant reunions, and happily ever afters, and on some of their other singles you can hear that taste for melodrama threatening to overwhelm the music itself. But “Take On Me” never for a second oversells itself, and keeps things light enough to bounce along to in your car, even throwing in some levity with a goofy little “flight of the bumblebee”-style keyboard solo on the bridge. Oh, and I GUESS there was also a music video for this and I GUESS it’s one of the most memorable and emotionally resonant uses of the medium to date, no biggie or anything.
#3: Prince and the Revolution- Raspberry Beret
Stevie Wonder was betrayed by his eagerness to please. Though a genius composer and musician, his proclivities towards broad, singalong pop ultimately undermined his very considerable talents and caused him to spend the entire 80s making pabulum like “Land of La-La”. Prince, in sharp contrast, was betrayed by his staunch refusal to please anyone other than himself.
In 1985, Prince was one of the biggest names in music, but it would quickly become apparent that he had very limited interest in making pop hits, and a wealth of resentment towards anybody who expected him to keep doing so. His commitment to artistic integrity means that many have much warmer feelings for his latter-day output than they do for post-1980 Stevie, and his, again, very considerable talents meant that he would coast through another decade full of hits before the public at large left him to his own devices. But ’85 was when it became clear as day that this guy was not the type to just churn out “When Doves Cry” sequels for the rest of his career. After completely revolutionizing the sound of R&B and making approximately a million zillion dollars with Purple Rain, Prince put out Around the World in a Day, which incorporated bits and pieces of his by-now signature sound into a slab of wonderful, wonky psych-pop. The lead single, “Raspberry Beret” is quite possibly the lightest, fluffiest offering of Prince’s imperial era, a sun-kissed romp through a nostalgic recollection of youthful romance. His usual maximum-impact melodicism has been tamed and sweetened, and his vocal performance is more limber and playful than ever before. In short, this song finds Prince letting go of the steely cool that made him an icon and fully indulging in the joys of silly, carefree pop music, without sacrificing a whit of charisma or creativity in the process. The woozy string section here in particular is a stroke of brilliance; combined with the jaunty acoustic strumming it does wonders to flesh out the mix and counterbalance the very produced, 80s-y percussion that keeps it sounding in step with the times. As the first real inkling of Prince’s wide-ranging tastes and endless appetite for reinvention, “Raspberry Beret” very nearly captures the best of all worlds— the incredible pop acumen and larger-than-life personality of the work that preceded it, and the restless creativity underpinning the less-consistent work that followed.
#2: Tears for Fears- Everybody Wants to Rule The World
How do you make a truly great song about nothing in particular? It’s a question every pop songwriter of sufficient caliber has wrangled with- how much can you get away with not specifying before you lose the ability to hit hard and stick fast? Countless songs across the Billboard year-end charts (many of which we’ll be covering in due time) spring from this line of questioning, and a fair few can trace their success back to this very song. Here, songwriters Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes don’t so much express coherent thoughts as skitter around big, stormy emotions and themes, illuminating them always in part but never in full. Intimations of the corrupting nature of power, mankind’s drive to conquer, and the beauty of personal connection all swirl and intermingle over the course of the song, but none of it is precisely what “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is about. No, it’s about that opening synth riff, that crystalline patter whisking you off into the tiny sonic universe Tears for Fears have constructed. It’s about that bridge where the crunching guitars bring a rock catharsis most new wave bands could scarcely hint at. It’s about the feelings that these sounds stir up, feelings that don’t exactly match up with any one word or concrete notion. This is the key to truly brilliant “music about nothing”: finding some little crevice in the topography of language and using a melody or a timbre to explore it, lavish it with as much attention and import as something like “love” or “sorrow”. The brilliance of this song lies in how the rise and fall of the eponymous refrain communicates so much more than just the idea that everybody wants to rule the world. In the most profound sense, this is a song that makes you feel some type of way. Tears for Fears lets you decide what precise way that is.
#1: Til Tuesday- Voices Carry
(CONTENT WARNING: The following section discusses emotionally abusive relationships.)
There are tons of songs about bad relationships. And why wouldn’t there be? Happy couples are boring, and there are a lot more directions to take “I love you” when you tack a “but…” onto the end of it. Point is, romance gone sour has long been some of the most well-trodden thematic territory in the top 40. Somewhat less common, though, are songs detailing a relationship that is outright, explicitly abusive. While I don’t think the music video for Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” is necessary to understand that the song is written from the perspective of an abuse victim, it certainly brings that subtext much closer to the surface, and it was only by watching it that this song, which I’ve known for some time, snapped into focus as something truly special. The first verse could conceivably have been part of some other, more pedestrian ‘bad romance’ song: there’s an emotional distance between the narrator and her partner, and she’s afraid of what will happen if she attempts to cross that distance. Simple enough, right? Then, the chorus brought an inkling of the darker depths at play- Why is her partner so adamant that she not speak her feelings for him out loud? What’s there to hide? Then the second verse hit, and I really listened to it for the first time, and my heart nearly stopped. This isn’t a song about love, not really. This is a song about being controlled, in ways you sometimes don’t even realize until it’s almost too late. The pivotal line in the chorus doesn’t address anyone’s feelings— it’s a command to the narrator, and the rest of the song is her struggling to come to grips with the fact that that command is not being made with her best interests at heart. Put lightly, it’s an emotionally taxing listen, not least because of how the actual composition and performances factor into things. The chugging beat and ethereal synthesizers give the song an oddly dreamlike quality, shrouding the song in a haze that mirrors the narrator’s conflicted feelings. The only thing grounding the glossy soundscape to the very heavy themes is frontwoman Aimee Mann, whose performance here is nothing short of breathtaking. When she howls “He wants me / But only part of the time” two and a half minutes into the song, I understand everything: the thrill of being desired by someone who treats affection as a reward to be earned, the misery, the euphoria, the crushingly flawed humanity of it all. Even in a relationship as ugly and toxic as this one, there are moments of transcendence and joy, and the decision to not shy away from that fact is an uncommonly honest and moving one. The highest praise I can give here is this. As I said, there are a million songs about the singer being stuck with a lousy partner who treats them like dirt. “Voices Carry” is the rare song that not only conveys just how badly that partner is hurting them, but still manages to leave you with a real understanding as to why they haven’t left yet. It is my favorite hit song of 1985.