The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1986

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the center couldn’t hold on the cranked-to-eleven energy of the mid-80s pop scene. The Reagan era was one characterized by excess, and excess is, by its very nature, unsustainable. There were definitely hints of it throughout ‘85 and even a few in ‘84, but ‘86 is where the wheels really started to come off the bus. The new wave invasion was starting to well and truly burn out, and glam metal had been all but consumed by ludicrous self-parody, leaving rock overall stagnating badly. Motown and the rest of R&B were floundering even as Michael Jackson’s career ballooned. Country was practically dead in the water, the outlaw glory days long gone and Garth Brooks’ commercial revitalization of the genre still years off. Hip Hop? Forget about it- The Beastie Boys wouldn’t fully break the genre into the mainstream until ‘87, and even then it would be awfully thin on the ground for the rest of the decade. Still, though innovators like Metallica and the Cure remained on the fringes of the music world while mediocre fluff like Scritti Politti sold through the roof, there were nonetheless just enough successes to make for a fairly impressive (and surprisingly diverse!) best list. From long-running artists working their tails off to keep things fresh to one-hit weirdos swinging unlikely triumphs, we’ve got a full course of pop gold as the 80s turn sour around us- On with the show!

#10: Baltimora- Tarzan Boy

Rule of thumb, I don’t really use these lists to write about things I enjoy on a purely ironic level… but the line between ironic and genuine enjoyment can be a blurry one. “Tarzan Boy”, the sole hit of Italian synth-pop project Baltimora, is, shall we say, an easy song to laugh at. If you can’t get enough ludicrously corny 80s pop, this should have no problem replacing whatever your current favorite specimen of the genre is. The production’s a little chintzy, the vocals go all the way over-the-top, and the music video really just speaks for itself (did you think a song called “Tarzan Boy” from 1986 wouldn’t involve the singer donning a leopard-print toga?). And yet, the songwriting and vocal performance here are just solid enough that “Tarzan Boy” manages to hold up as more than just a fluke novelty hit. I think the key to its success might be that it gives almost-equal time to the verses and bridges as it does to the repetitious hook (a wordless ululation that vaguely evokes the classic “Tarzan yell”). The practical upshot of that is that the most earwormy and overbearing part of the song doesn’t have to support the full weight of the thing, and it feels more like a particularly striking piece of an otherwise-ordinary pop song rather than a gimmick that takes the place of enjoyable songwriting. It’s no masterpiece, and it’s very much a product of its time, but “Tarzan Boy” has the bones to back up the cheese, and as that became something fewer and fewer songs could boast, I couldn’t help appreciating it all the more— no joke.

#9: Run-DMC- Walk this Way [feat. Aerosmith]

Okay, so imagine you’re a successful young rap group in the mid-80s. You’ve managed to build a pretty sizable following, making inroads through the dance and R&B charts, and you’re in an ideal place to finally cross over to the top 40. The only snag is that rap is still really new as a genre of commercially-available music, so much so that there isn’t really any kind of pre-established formula for mainstream success. What to do, what to do… Well, it turns out a sample you’ve been freestyling over at live shows is actually from a successful single by a cock-rock outfit called Aerosmith, where the lead singer does a kind of rap-adjacent speak-singing thing on the verses. And hey, it hasn’t been too long since these guys were a going concern in the pop world— why not put a slight hip-hop spin on the instrumental, change a few lines, and presto! You’ve got something that can sneak onto white-people radio with its Joe Perry riffs and its catchy sung hook, while still delivering actual, identifiable rapping on the verses. When producer Rick Rubin initially floated the idea, both Run and DMC were resistant to this (in keeping with rap’s general distaste for covers), but somewhere along the line someone realized they had a hit on their hands, and the rest is history.

It’s really incredible how little this basic structure has changed in the ensuing 35 years of rap music; whether or not importing hooks from other genres benefitted hip-hop overall, it rapidly became one of the genre’s favorite pastimes, and “Walk this Way” is a great example of why. Cross-genre hybrids often convey a sort of innate universality, a sense of shared experiences that transcend musical taste. For example, being dumb and horny! Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” is a tremendously stupid song about doing ridiculous things to get laid, and the smartest thing Run-DMC do here is leave that aspect fully intact and unchanged. One of rock and rap’s biggest (and most fraught) commonalities is their fondness for living well and loving often, and the chunky groove and boisterous vocal performances here manage to express that fondness in a way that somehow feels more observational than boorish, a cheeky look at everyday sexual misadventures. While hardly enlightened, it’s refreshingly simple and silly, never too proud to laugh at itself. Especially for a rap-rock song, the whole thing just has an oddly wholesome energy about it, highlighted by the video where the two groups butt heads before setting aside their differences and rocking a show together. It’s a real high-tides-raise-all-ships moment, giving Run-DMC (and rap writ large) their first real taste of crossover success while also reviving Aerosmith’s flagging career for an ensuing decade-plus of (mostly bad) hits. Slightly-dated production notwithstanding, “Walk This Way” remains one of rap’s first true pop classics, and a shrewd charting of trends both past and present.

#8: Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark- If You Leave

Mark it two years in a row that a song soundtracking the finale of a John Hughes flick makes the best list, and the second time said song has come courtesy of a respected, long-running UK new wave act. I don’t want to bury the lede too much, though; while “Don’t You” and “If You Leave” are two songs of a kind in many ways, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were certainly not Simple Minds. The duo came up in the UK post-punk scene of the early 80s, and though they did take some influence from contemporaries like Joy Division, they always considered themselves to be makers of electronic music first and foremost, and regularly cited Kraftwerk as their greatest inspiration. By ’86, most of their mad-science synth wizardry and avant-garde improvisations had been smoothed out into a broadly appealing synth-pop sound, but that pedigree does show through on “If You Leave”, particularly in how deliberately the timbres are arranged and layered. OMD lavish the keening faux-strings accenting the hook here with enough shimmery texture that they totally steal the show in spite of how unassumingly they’re mixed, and the whole thing really buffs out the production style of the day to an impressive degree. Also, credit to Andy McCluskey: the guy was manifestly not a pop star, but he really manages to put a little heartthrob smolder in his voice here, with a hushed intensity that stands uniquely apart from rock frontmen of a similar mold (Gore, Smith, Sumner et al). As the average synth-pop song grew increasingly one-note and airless, “If You Leave”‘s subtle, breathable take on the genre was a welcome change of pace, and a timely reminder of how versatile this music can be at its best.

#7: Whitney Houston- How Will I Know

When it comes to Whitney Houston, I tend to prefer her uptempo stuff to her ballads. I’ve got nothing against the latter, mind, given that her atom bomb of a voice could generally carry even sub-par material, but it was Houston’s early work in dance-pop that always shined brightest for me personally as a showcase of her talents— the harder grooves gave her a defined structure to wind her chops around, the lack of musical dead space countered her natural impulse to lean on protracted, showy runs, and the result was some of the most airtight, well-performed pop of the decade. Of the two big, lasting hits from this era of Whitney, I definitely have less to say about “How Will I Know”, but that doesn’t make it any less a thrilling fusion of technique and God-given talent. Songs like this are why I spend so much time harping on pop singers when they aren’t up to snuff; this is what they’re competing against. The old rockist line accusing pop stars of not writing any of their own songs has (deservedly) fallen out of fashion in recent years, but there’s a kernel of truth there: when all you do is sing, you had better goddamn SING, and Whitney Houston hits every mark she’s given here so impeccably and so winsomely that it’s easy to wish she had sung every pop song this year.

#6: Madonna- Papa Don’t Preach

Madonna made her talent and ambition very clear from the get-go, but far as I’m concerned, 1986 was the first year she really knocked it out of the park for me personally. For one, ‘86 brought the first of many overhauls in Ms. Ciccone’s wardrobe and personal style, and I’d be lying if I said say that her sensible, butch-y getups in this song’s video are not very much, er… to my tastes. Normally I’d never even consider mentioning as much, but so much of Madonna’s innovation in the world of pop was in how fully she embraced public consumption of her personae; she wants and loves to be sexy for the masses, and of the myriad ways she’s attempted to do so, the “Papa Don’t Preach” video is my personal favorite. Okay? Okay.

Alluring blonde pixie cuts aside, “Papa Don’t Preach” is still a song at the end of the day, and it’s a damn fine one at that! It reads on paper as a very typically “Madonna” premise, a bubbly little earworm taking on one of the most pressing and contentious issues in American society, both then and now. That’s right, this song finds Madonna diving headfirst into DADDY ISSUES. It’s also, somewhat more incidentally, about an unplanned pregnancy and the pressure the narrator faces to make the right decisions for herself and her unborn child; squint and tilt your head and you can almost construe it as a pro-life anthem. Thankfully, my read on the song couldn’t be further from that. By framing the lyrics as a confession to the narrator’s father, the song strips away all the potential political baggage for a moment of real emotion and real communication. The narrator recalls how her father shaped her moral character, recounts disagreements they’ve had in recent years, and ultimately pleads for empathy and guidance through a situation she simply cannot handle by herself. She speaks not as the face of any movement, but as one young woman who needs a shoulder to cry on and help from someone with her best interests at heart— help that, she makes perfectly clear, does not involve any attempts to change her mind. Like “Material Girl”, “Papa Don’t Preach” has a lot on its mind, and goes to some ideologically impure places to work through it all. Unlike that song, this one actually has a decent groove to it, and Madonna has something relevant and pointed to say: Women carrying unplanned pregnancies are vulnerable people who ought to be treated with care and compassion. And they can make their own goddamn decisions about their bodies.

#5: Genesis- Invisible Touch

Boy, it must really blow to be a band’s replacement lead singer. Sammy Hagar, Michale Graves, Blaze Bayley, and the dozens more too shameful to recall— all subjected to years of harsh scrutiny by fans skeptical that their work is worthy of standing alongside that of their iconic predecessors. It doesn’t help when, as in Phil Collins’ case, you’ve been the mastermind behind a fairly drastic and divisive change in style for your band, not to mention a widely-derided solo career signposted by cloying ballads about your divorce. Going into 1986, there was an acute sense that the tides of public opinion were starting to turn against Phil’s little winning streak, and if he wanted to maintain any kind of mainstream success, he needed to shake things up.

Invisible Touch represents the pinnacle of Genesis’ “pop” era, toughening up their sound a bit while consolidating Collins’ songwriting into its most impactful and focused form. Though plenty of fans still grumbled over the lack of prog bonafides on display (and compared them to their former frontman who was simultaneously storming the charts with a much better album, yes we’ll get to it), Genesis beat the odds one last time to pull off a wildly successful and generally well-remembered set of pop-rock bops, exemplified best by the title track, their first and only number-one hit.

The most impressive trick “Invisible Touch” pulls is making Phil Collins’ pop stardom sound like a foregone conclusion. On so many of Collins’ other hits, I hear traces of glib, self-aware distance that only seem to make his shortcomings all the starker. But on “Invisible Touch”, the man briefly becomes a true-blue rockstar, leaning into every lyric and key change with gusto, having fun without losing his head. Like a lot of prog musicians, he didn’t have an excess of natural vocal charisma, but he did know how to sing with feeling, and here especially he shows a unique willingness to really push his voice as far as it’ll go, lending much-needed intensity to what is, in all honesty, a very prefab sort of pop tune.

Speaking of which, this is ultimately not entirely a Phil Collins song, and Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks do contribute a lot to “Invisible Touch”‘s success in their own right. Both the former’s propulsive guitar riff and the latter’s exuberantly busy keyboards give the song substance that allows it to hold up to repeat listens once the drum machines wear thin and the “IN-VIZ-EE-BALL, TOUCH, YEAH” hook loses its initial novelty. More than anything, “Invisible Touch” proved that Genesis under Collins were still some of the finest technical minds in rock; their mainstream ambitions could be as fruitful as any concept album.

#4: Mr. Mister- Kyrie

“Kyrie” has nowhere near the dismal reputation that “We Built This City” suffers from, but it does hit at a similar guilty-pleasure nerve in my brain. That’s not to say I have to put in quite as much legwork to root out the gold here; “Kyrie” is an astonishingly well-constructed song. The way it builds and build all the way up to the first chorus, the music competently conveying an idea as simple as “rising stakes”? That right there is the kind of smart, satisfying idea I’m starting to really miss on the charts, the sturdy bones of a song that give it the ability to hold up for decades after the fact. In many ways, it’s a song defined by small touches, like the way guitarist Steve Farris allows Steve George’s keyboard to drive the song, tactically inserting his crunching power chords throughout the chorus to maximize its rhythmic intensity. Despite this, the broad strokes of the song take root in a very uncomplicated sort of positivity and feel-goodery. It adopts a demeanor so cartoonishly bright-eyed and hopeful that I get the sense I maybe ought to scoff at it as, y’know, a Thoughtful Serious Music Critic, but the whole thing is presented with so much energy and so much sincerity that it slips right past my snob defenses. A good melody forgives a lot, and “Kyrie”‘s is one of the best of the whole decade, with the heart-swelling resonance to earn every lyrical allusion to Christian liturgy— hell, an outright gospel cover of this wouldn’t be too hard to imagine. Here, Mr. Mister show what “soft rock” could have been in the 80s, using the genre’s bombastic energy and rhythms for a squeaky-clean, optimistic ode to good luck.

#3: Simple Minds- Alive and Kicking

I get why “Don’t You” has become the Simple Minds song, but from the moment I first heard it, I’ve preferred “Alive and Kicking”. The lead single from Once Upon A Time doubled as the band’s victory lap after their worldwide breakthrough, heralding their new record’s lavish Jimmy Iovine production job and vocal contributions from Robin Clark of Chic. The whole song boasts a sonic palette that only extravagant amounts of 1986 dollars could buy; it sounds like a great rock band finally living out every dream they’ve ever had, a hunch that can only crystallize when looking at the triumphant lyrics. Jim Kerr and co. careen from hook to hook here in an awestruck daze, while Iovine retrofits the heartland bombast of Tom Petty for a big, resonant sound that earned the band more than a few comparisons to U2 (who were themselves on the cusp of stardom in ‘86). Pit the two bands against each other and U2’s winning out on sheer charisma, but these guys could still undeniably hold their own, with a sharp ear for melodic detail and a musical busyness that gave them a unique edge. In ‘86, synth pop was objectively overexposed, and as disheartening as it was to see so many acts trapped in the vortex, unable to conceive of any fresh spins on by-now established formulas, it was a true pleasure the find the likes of Simple Minds rising to the occasion and finding ways to broaden what the genre was capable of.

#2: Peter Gabriel- Sledgehammer

Peter Gabriel paid his damn dues. By the time “Sledgehammer” was dominating MTV and radio, Gabriel had been a working musician for almost two entire decades full of innovation and acclaim. His work with Genesis defined the first wave of prog and his early solo albums were lauded as fearlessly pushing rock music into more creative and cerebral territory; now all he needed was a genuine mainstream breakthrough. 1986’s So pivoted Gabriel to pop so successfully and so seamlessly that you could argue every left-of-the-dial musician to attempt such a feat since has merely been retracing his footsteps, trying to unlock its precarious balance of experimentation and mass appeal. So’s crown jewel, “Sledgehammer”, embodies that balance, simultaneously an exercise in punchy, maximalist production and offbeat, minimalist composition. It’s surprisingly easy to miss how few instruments actually show up here, since each one gets so much room to breathe that the track has the texture of something much more busy and full of different things. The snare drum here, whew BOY— in a decade crammed full of awful snares trying and failing to crank up the energy of a song, the snare here is an outright revelation, a powerful, resounding CRACK that retains an iron grip on the listener’s attention until the very last note (helped, of course, by the single most in-the-pocket groove of the year). Each and every element here impresses similarly, a series of impossibly loud and bright sounds that never once become overwhelming because of how intelligently and carefully they cede ground back and forth.

It’s also another great “song about nothing”, nominally about sex but much more tangibly about being a sledgehammer and doing sledgehammer things. The eye-candy music video only underlines this, the flashes of innuendo neatly assimilating into its smorgasbord of colors and kinetic energy. The Quay Brothers and the fine folks at Aardman Animations netted one of the most richly-deserved sweeps of all time at the ‘87 VMAs for their work on the “Sledgehammer” clip, a piece of filmmaking so entertaining and impressive that Gabriel himself allegedly implored MTV to stop playing it so much. In ‘86, the dream of MTV as a bastion of weird, forward-thinking audiovisual expression was dead and buried, but for 5 glorious minutes, “Sledgehammer” resurrects it, once more a place where an artsy goof like Peter Gabriel can captivate every bit as much as Madonna.

#1: The Dream Academy- Life in a Northern Town

I’ve listened to a lot of songs for this project to this point- over 5,000. “Life in a Northern Town” is the only one thus far to bring me to tears.

It came out of nowhere. I had heard this song before, albeit a different iteration of it- Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood covered it back in 2014, and I had listened to and enjoyed that version while exploring FoW’s back catalogue a while ago, so I thought I knew, more or less, what I was in for. Then that final chorus hit, with Nick Laird-Clowes softly singing “Make it easy on yourself/Society’s so, so hard to desert” and before I even knew what had happened I was a sobbing, blubbering wreck. Perhaps it was the months of self-isolation and telecommuting due to COVID-19: I was, at the time, deserting society, and the simple acknowledgement that what I was doing is really, genuinely difficult, and that I shouldn’t beat myself up for feeling worn down and anxious about it, was a comfort I didn’t even know I needed until I got it. Perhaps it dredged up memories of moving 100 miles north from Salt Lake City to Logan, Utah a few years back and often feeling like an alien, away and separate from everything I’d ever known in my own “northern town”. Hell, maybe it was just that soaring, aching melody. I don’t know.

I do know that “Life in a Northern Town” is very specifically not about me, but about English folk luminary Nick Drake, who died unexpectedly of a prescription antidepressant overdose a decade prior to this song’s release. Still, I found upon further relistens that reading the song as an elegy for Drake still reliably put a lump in my throat; it feels like an attempt to process Drake as both a brilliant, influential artist and a complicated, deeply unhappy human being. Look: this song is gorgeous, the pristine acoustic picking and Laird-Clowes’ tender vocals gaining a sweeping grandeur off the touches of orchestral strings and clarinet, and of course those thunderous floor tom hits ushering in a chorus that can only be properly described as sky-scraping. But by juxtaposing that sonic majesty with small-scale, everyday moments in the life of a terminal recluse, the whole thing turns utterly heart-wrenching in the most beautiful way, regardless of whether it’s projected onto a tragically deceased artist or the listener themself. All told, it’s a cinematic stunner that grounds itself in real, human sadness but refuses to wallow in misery. “Life in a Northern Town” is without question my favorite hit song of 1986, and quite possibly the single best hit song of the entire decade.

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