1985 was the turning point: both the moment the sounds of the 80s gained too much traction to be sensibly moderated, and the moment I, in my journey through the hits of the decade, realized I might be in for a bit of a rough ride over the next 5-odd years. The best stuff was as good as ever, but the worst stuff just kept getting harder and harder to countenance. Starting in ‘85 you can hear the ballads start to get drippier, the dance-pop get starchier and blander, and what little rock and metal remained on the charts get shallower. Watch in real time as I start repeating to myself mentally that soon it’ll be the 90s, just 5 more year-ends and it’ll be the 90s, you can do it just 5 more years… On with the show!
#10: Phil Collins- One More Night
I like Phil Collins. Actually, scratch that: I want to like Phil Collins. He seems like a nice enough fellow, he’s pretty damn talented, and it’s not hard to see that he tried to take his music in more interesting directions than many of the balladeers he shared the airwaves with. Emphasis on “tried” there; for how often his material gestures in the direction of something more toothsome, the majority of his hits are as mushy and middling as they come, and “One More Night” falls quite comfortably into that majority. Phil’s big problem is that he’s a drummer at heart, great at finding little pockets in a song where not much is going on and adding a little something that’ll keep your ears perked up until the next big chorus or solo or whatever. As an arranger, the guy’s an unlikely savant, in the same way that Michael Bay has a genuine claim to auteurship despite his firmly lowbrow tastes. As a songwriter, though, Collins sticks shyly to the basics: love songs, breakup songs, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, one-five-six-four. Pretty unstimulating stuff all around, and the fussed-over production and fleeting moments of vocal improv really only amount to a whole lot of turd-polishing. And make no mistake, “One More Night” is a very polished turd: Collins sings it ably, the mix sounds full and robust, and each backing vocal and bit of sax noodling lands where it ought to. Strip it all away, though, and you’re left with a paste-bland melody, a sad-breakup-by-numbers lyric, and a nagging sense that ol’ Phil ought to be doing this kind of sharp, professional work on a song that actually deserves it.
#9: Animotion- Obsession
Animotion is the kind of 80s synthpop act that ought to be preserved in amber as evidence of what radio this decade actually sounded like. Forget your Duran Durans and Eurythmics— THIS was the sound of the mid-80s, in all its overbearing muchness. “Obsession”, their biggest hit, fails to impress much on any level but primarily falls victim to a weak, aimless composition. It offers up all manner of potential hooks, from slamming synth lines to slap bass to guitar fills, but none of it hits with any actual impact because Animotion presents and discards them with such minimal investment. This song’s ideas can only truly frustrate because they’re never shown any hospitality and never expanded upon, coming and going as though they’re not completely sure they were actually invited. Even the chorus ends up hamstrung, refusing to shift to any gear other than the predictable, unexciting putter that the verses thoroughly establish. What we end up with manages to slide nearly instantly into the background despite every constituent part being specifically designed to grab your attention. It’s the playlist filler of the pre-playlist era, riding on a safe, trendy vibe and praying that no one will pay enough attention to realize it isn’t actually The Human League.
#8: Madonna- Material Girl
Madonna, for good and for ill, has always been out to make a statement. Throughout her illustrious and diverse discography, even at her most unfocused and self-involved, Madonna goes above and beyond to make her music mean something, to use her songs as mirrors to the world around her. It would be pretty easy to just label “Material Girl” as a totally vapid, uncritical celebration of materialism, but like I said, Madonna makes statements, and it’s hard to escape the sense that it does go a bit deeper than that (especially considering that Marilyn Monriffic music video, where the “material girl” is explicitly a character who doesn’t necessarily reflect Madonna’s actual opinions). Far as I can tell, “Material Girl” doesn’t just argue that materialism is good, it argues that, for Madonna, materialism is (or at least can be) liberating. It’s not just empty hedonism, but a conduit for social and personal empowerment. That’s a very different message, and a much more seductive one for a lot of people, especially women. See, the 80s wasn’t just a decade of hyper-materialism, it was also a decade where gender parity in many industries either stagnated or fell— just one aspect of a widespread systemic backlash to the womens’ rights movements of the 60s and 70s.
Taking all of this into account, Madonna was, in an odd way, speaking directly to her current moment here, in saying that wealth isn’t just desirable for its own sake, but because it gives you power, gives you agency in scenarios where you might otherwise be treated as an object. It’s liberal feminism in a nutshell, a direct spiritual ancestor to any unironic uses of the word “girlboss”. Yes, there’s an impulse here I very much sympathize with, but I reject Madonna’s conclusions wholesale. I don’t see the rabid pursuit of money as having any capacity to meaningfully equalize people or uplift social minorities, and I think the implication that it does is naïve at best and actively malicious at worst. It probably doesn’t help that the groove here always sounds more brittle and robotic than I remember it being, and the main melody is basic to the point of farce, a brute-force hook that gets stuck in your head purely via its nursery-rhyme simplicity. On balance, I don’t dislike Madonna. I haven’t counted to be sure, but I suspect she’ll be appearing on at least as many best lists as worst lists over the next two decades. But “Material Girl” is an early example of the ways her considerable talents for pop-commentary can go awry, wrangling with some ubiquitous issues and coming out the other side without much of value.
#7: Bryan Adams- Heaven
Bryan Adams is, by every indication, a pretty boring guy. Much like fellow 80s hit-machine Huey Lewis, he likes the aesthetic of rock music, but has little use for its ethos or its excess. Also like Lewis, he’s not a particularly artful lyricist, his melodies are pretty straightforward, and his appeal largely centers on his ability to polish and streamline genre tropes. Unlike Lewis, Adams’ music is almost uniformly grim and joyless, mostly thanks to his loathsomely self-serious rasp of a singing voice. His rockers recite 70s stadium cliches competently enough that the eyeroll-worthy vocal performances can be forgiven, but his ballads bring everything that makes him so unappealing as a performer right to the forefront. For a prime example, look no further than “Heaven”- YET ANOTHER romantic love song unable to muster even the tiniest iota of aesthetic enthusiasm for said romance. Adams groans and sulks through the track’s interminable four-minute runtime, alternating between petulant disinterest and tortured aggravation, and as a result the lyrics sound far less like an impassioned plea to win back an ex-lover and far more like childish whining. If a ballad’s gonna be a POWER ballad, it’s pretty damning when the singer seems exhausted and annoyed by the prospect of actually using that power. The music backing him up is none too impressive either, a drab slog of thunderous drums and goopy guitar and keyboard that stubbornly refutes anything resembling a genuine climax. Far from sonically capturing a love that makes you feel like you’re in heaven, “Heaven” ends up much closer to purgatory: a dull, vacant trudge up a mountain with no summit.
#6: Sheena Easton- Sugar Walls
It’s common knowledge that sex was one of Prince’s main preoccupations as an artist. Arguably his most significant contribution to the music world was his insistence (and proof) that pop could be sexed-up to high heaven and still have the power and broad appeal to fill stadiums and airwaves alike. Pop singers have been making love for as long as pop singers have existed, but Prince was the first pop singer who fucked, and made sure you knew about it. So what happens when Prince, at the height of his powers, agrees to a one-off collab with a b-list Scottish belter mostly known for ballads and a couple cute, chipper synth-pop numbers? You get “Sugar Walls”, the most controversial (and possibly worst) track of Sheena Easton’s career. Aside from Easton herself, the music on offer here generally comes across like a cheap imitation of the Minneapolis sound: the keyboard tones are too angular and abrasive, and the percussion has a few too many extraneous bits ‘n’ bobs to effectively set up the funk rhythm it’s trying to highlight. The guitar additions sound pretty damn great, but even those come off as oddly tacked-on and incongruous. As a whole it’s a very messy, chaotic arrangement, and fails to cohere the way I want a dance-pop track to. As for the vocals and lyrics, well… I’ll never accuse Easton of not putting in the effort. Especially considering how far out of her normal wheelhouse this is, she makes an honest attempt to add a little seductive smolder to her normally-pristine tenor. There are places where she succeeds (in a better song, her little spoken ad-lib of “take advantage, it’s alright” would be a subtle stroke of brilliance), but for the most part, her efforts are in vain. After all, she’s singing a Prince song, with lyrics so baffling and surreal that it probably would have taken the Purple One himself to make them palatable. As a euphemism, the phrase “Sugar Walls” is so vomitous that it almost single-handedly ruins the song, perversely direct while somehow also being far too cutesy and coy. It’s one of the most nausea-inducing ways to possibly describe a vagina, and other choice lines like “blood rushes to your private spots” don’t fare much better. Forget being pornographic, or even just lascivious: this is the unsexiest sex song of the year, breaking new ground in making gettin’ it on sound more unappetizing than ever before.
#5: Murray Head- One Night in Bangkok
“One Night in Bangkok” boldly asks a question of me that no other pop song this decade has: Can my generally positive feelings for ABBA overcome my distaste for showtunes? The answer, as you might have guessed, is a resounding “no”. The lead single from Chess, the brainchild of musical theater legend Tim Rice and ABBA veterans Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, misses most of what made the latter duo’s work compelling and ends up a thoroughly awkward worst-of-all-worlds. For one, Murray Head is no Agnetha Fältskog. He’s actually the song’s biggest problem by far: after a promising opening fanfare that puts the London Symphony Orchestra to great use, the song absolutely screeches to a halt as Head begins-you guessed it!- rapping. I can only assume Rice’s sterling reputation in the theater world is the main thing protecting “One Night in Bangkok” from being lumped in with the mid-late 80s wave of hokey white pop-rap; looking at it as a hip hop song, it’s Vanilla Ice levels of embarrassing. However, it’s probably more appropriate to look at it as a new wave song, due to the omnipresence of synths and the thumping dance beat that dominates the mix. While it certainly fares better in this arena, and Anders Glenmark gives it his all on the chorus, Head’s verses are so ill-equipped to properly build into that chorus that the nice-sounding instrumentation and solid backing vocals do little to remedy the way that the song itself doesn’t hang together. As with much of Tim Rice’s work, I can appreciate his skill with words and his ability to craft a sound rhyme, but on a gut level, “One Night in Bangkok” lacks the pop appeal to hook me in as a music lover, while sacrificing any real implications of the broader, richer narrative it exists within in pursuit of that pop appeal.
#4: David Lee Roth- California Girls
“California Girls” is not really a Beach Boys song I would call a personal favorite. I like it fine enough, but the lyricism always struck me as just a few shades too pervy, and the melodies never feel quite as substantive as something like, say, “Wouldn’t it be Nice”. Still, I can’t deny the song does have a lot going for it: the phenomenal production really fleshes out the music where the main melody falls short, and Mike Love’s vocals have a boyish innocence to them that helps downplay the lyrical unsavoriness. These two things are essentially the pillars that keep the song afloat, so naturally any pop rendition of the song from the mid-80s would be starting off with a disadvantage. Sure enough, the production here does the material no favors whatsoever. The drums are too loud, the guitars are gravely lacking in texture, and the little carnival organ situated between the two has a thoroughly unappealing, greasy shimmer to it. All in all, it’s fairly textbook 80s overproduction: too polished, too artificial-seeming, too stiff.
Regarding the man at the center of it all, I doubt anyone would disagree that David Lee Roth is a very different sort of singer than Mike Love. To be frank, much of what he did in Van Halen holds little magic for me personally, but the appeal is still obvious: Roth was a larger-than-life party boy eager to indulge in any and all of his appetites. He was charismatic and sleazy and he damn sure knew it. Roth tries valiantly here to lean into the leering horniness at the core of this song, but the fact is that it just wasn’t written with that sort of wink to the camera in mind; it’s not a song built to acknowledge its own vices. Roth is good at reveling in debauchery, but “California Girls” only works if ogling chicks in swimsuits is nothing but silly teenage fun. Roth wisely doesn’t try to replicate that innocence here (I suspect the song would be far worse if he did), but his bombastic delivery, the little growl he throws in on “French bikini”, totally shatters the illusion the song is trying to build. David Lee Roth was the next evolution of rock stardom, a consummately modern entertainer, and “California Girls” sees him dragged backwards into an era he seemingly couldn’t make heads or tails of.
#3: New Edition- Cool it Now
The big problem with “Cool It Now” (or, I suppose, New Edition’s eponymous 1984 breakthrough overall) is almost too obvious to bear mentioning: lead singer Ralph Tresvant, 16 at time of recording, sounds like a goddamn child. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, though; New Edition modeled themselves directly after the Jackson 5, and I think we can all agree that childish voices on pop records don’t get much better than “ABC”. Tresvant has two main issues: for one, he doesn’t just sing like a kid, he emotes like a kid too. Emoting and singing are two related but very different things, and the former is a much trickier skill to develop quickly, especially at a young age. This is the difference between a generational talent like Michael Jackson and a snot-nosed beauty pageant whelp like Donnie Osmond. Getting a high schooler to hit all the notes while singing “life brings a change” takes work but not much luck; getting him to sound like he’s truly felt life’s changes and grappled with their meaning on a deep level just isn’t gonna happen unless you have a prodigy on your hands. This is only highlighted by Tresvant’s bandmates, who if you didn’t know were Bobby Brown and all three future members of Bell Biv DeVoe. Put another way, the lead singer here is the ONLY member of the band who wouldn’t go on to enjoy multiple hits and enduring popularity outside of New Edition, and while he isn’t strictly untalented, he’s still clearly outclassed by his compatriots. When Biv and DeVoe step in for a succinct rap verse, their tangible comfort in the recording booth is a total breath of fresh air, even if their delivery isn’t yet polished enough to really impress. But that rap verse brings us to the other problem with Tresvant’s vocals. New Edition may have wanted to be the Jackson 5, but in the mid-80s, R&B was in a very different place from the Jacksons’ late-60s heyday. Rap and new jack swing were starting to gain mainstream notice, Prince was one of the defining figures of the era, and the genre overall was just a lot less innocent than it was 20 years prior. I certainly don’t love the sound of Tresvant’s singing, but he was never going to reach his full potential at such a young age with the kind of hard-edged groove on offer here, and a cursory listen to some of their (much better) later singles proves to me that he mostly just hasn’t fully grown into his voice yet. Somewhere in between “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and “Purple Rain”, R&B became a genre for adults (albeit mostly younger adults), and fresh-faced kiddies like the ones in New Edition were rendered fish out of water in the worst way.
#2: USA for Africa- We Are the World
Celebrities are like… allowed to do philanthropy, right? The inverse feels too cynical to be pragmatic; surely the world can’t be made a worse place by the most wealthy and famous members of our society taking a moment out of their day to whip up some public interest in a good cause. USA for Africa raised tens of millions of dollars for a fund that did actually provide humanitarian aid to many people who were, all told, not exactly making do without it. All the sneering I can muster at the pompous attitudes on display here doesn’t change the fact that, in terms of actual, tangible impact, “We Are The World” has done more to aid humankind than most of my best list combined. As a charity drive, this song cannot be rightly called anything but a success. As a song, though? As art? Fuck this shit. Fuck. This. Shit. Take your horrible trudging melody and your soppy saccharine arrangement and your dozens of voices that don’t fit together in the slightest and cram it all where the sun don’t shine. Purely on an aesthetic level, it just sounds like a bunch of rich assholes patting themselves on the back for putting in one afternoon of work for a charity single— and that’s leaving aside the lyrics, which certainly do very little to quell that feeling. It’s an exercise in gladhanding so pompous and smarmy that even the decades of mockery and parodies feel like a light sentence. Almost as importantly, though, it’s a Very Special Episode so crammed with cameos that there’s no room for anything else, an uber-crossover seemingly determined to cast a wide enough net for every last performer’s strengths to be decontextualized, muddied, and wasted. It’s a dark, dark day when even seasoned pros like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles can’t manage to coax a single tangible emotion from a song, but such is the awful power of “We Are The World”.
#1: Chicago- You’re the Inspiration
Really, what else could it have been?
On some level, you’ve gotta hand it to Peter Cetera. No other hitmaker of the entire 20th century had such a preternatural gift for taking the raw building blocks of music— chords, instruments, lyrics— and transmogrifying them into puffs of faintly plastic-smelling air. “You’re the Inspiration” sort of defies description in this way: the sheer act of articulating the song on a moment-to-moment basis gives the misleading impression that things actually happen over the course of the three minutes and fifty seconds it occupies. This song does include things, of course, things that include prechoruses and even a key change, but the vacuum of Chicago’s 80s sound sucks any sense of “happening” right out of the room; it may as well be a single smoothed-over chord ringing out while Cetera screams insipid platitudes at you. I really… really cannot overstate how much I fucking hate the sound of Peter Cetera’s voice, and with each successive single he somehow finds a way to pick open a fresh layer of audio torment. “You’re the Inspiration” commits one of the gravest sins a pop song can commit: mashing every boring, basic-bitch top 40 trend into a featureless, meaningless slurry. And don’t even get me STARTED on the nerve of these starched-white yuppie hacks to open the music video with shaky-cam footage of scruffy young punks in leather and denim, as though their pathetic excuse for a ballad has anything at all to do with the raw, bleeding urgency that made punk matter. And that’s the crux of the issue, really: “You’re the Inspiration” does. Not. Matter. It is music to dance with your second wife of three at the wedding to. It is a glass of room-temperature dust. It is the worst hit song of 1985.