Pop Goes the Year is not about numbers. Even the rankings are pretty loose, and my private ratings of each song out of 10 exist, more than anything, to help me remember which songs I hated enough to slap on a worst list. Still, I do, in fact, rate every song that I listen to on a 1-to-10 scale, and I also average out all the ratings into a score for each year overall. My favorite year-end so far, 1973, managed a whopping 6.93 average rating, while one of my least-favorites, 1962, only scraped a meager 5.95. Most of the 80s year-ends thus far hover somewhere around 6.4; ‘85 weighed in at a respectable 6.43. ‘86’s average was 6.17, and no year has gotten higher than 6.4 since. Strictly in terms of my personal tastes, the numbers don’t lie: ‘86 was the year pop got… well, not “bad”, but maybe a bit less rose-tinted? Put it this way: in 1986, both my parents were teenagers forming their own music tastes both in and out of the pop charts. My relationship with the music of my parents’ generation onward is necessarily a different, perhaps less idealized one; the successes often don’t feel as mythic, and the failures often remind me of a world much easier to connect to the world of today. I don’t think I’m alone in finding ’86 and the several years following it to be a particularly deep slump for the charts, though: this year it just felt like everything was starting to blur together into a soupy, echoey blob. Highlights notwithstanding, the pop of the late 80s was crushingly samey, but even then some songs fell well below the quickly-lowering standard, and none fell further than these 10 songs. On with the show!
#10: Eddie Murphy- Party All The Time
Man, a song that’s this much of an oddity within the scope of its performer’s career really has no business being as ordinarily, uninterestingly bad as “Party All the Time”. Eddie Murphy, for those who somehow don’t know, is not and has never been known for his work as a singer, but for 7 or so very strange years in the late 80s and early 90s, he sure wanted to be! Supposedly this song and its parent album How Could It Be were made to win a $100,000 bet Murphy had going with Richard Pryor, but it pains me to even think how much the cost of procuring producer/songwriter Rick James’ involvement (not to mention Stevie Wonder’s on two album tracks) must have eaten into that hundred grand. That level of investment just doesn’t come from shits and giggles, y’know? Murphy’s bizarre refusal to perform the kind of music you’d expect from a world-class comedian and his subsequent years of repeatedly trying for a second hit seem to indicate that he genuinely wanted to make a go at a second career in R&B. Mr. Murphy is a man of many great talents. Singing is not one of them. He might actually be a worse singer than me, and I’m a terrible singer! Flat-out, this only sold because of Murphy’s name and James’ production, and as someone who has never been head over heels for the latter, “Party All the Time” ends up nothing but the worst possible version of a pretty damn generic 80s funk tune. I’ll take “Boogie in Your Butt” over this any day of the week; at least Murphy had the good sense to crack a smile on that one.
#9: Atlantic Starr- Secret Lovers
Atlantic Starr was a band in the traditional sense, a revolving-door R&B outfit mostly based around three brothers— Wayne, John and David Lewis. They wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, and while they were good enough at it to get signed to A&M, they weren’t quite good enough to score any major chart action. The 80s was a weird, confusing time for R&B, and the most reliable trick the genre had for crossover success across most of the decade was basically just turning into adult contemporary for five minutes. Sure enough, that’s exactly what finally got Atlantic Starr their big breakthrough: The gloopy cheating anthem “Secret Lovers” can at least boast a detectable level of quiet storm smokiness, but the core of the song ain’t nothing a Barbra Streisand or even a Phil Collins wouldn’t know how to handle. It’s competently performed (no more) and pretty sound on a technical songwriting level, but god is it ever basic. Especially lyrically— 1986 was already far too late to be straight-facedly dropping clichés like “how could something so wrong be so right”, and the chilly production contributes the distinct impression of a song that thinks it’s a lot more profound than it really is. This is a song with absolutely nothing of note to say about infidelity, laying the doomed-romance tropes on so thick that the subject matter itself barely registers. Even worthy vocal performances from David Lewis and Barbara Weathers can’t save “Secret Lovers”; it’s just too damn generic, a particularly flavorless droplet in the late-80s ocean of homogenous blah.
#8: Nu Shooz- I Can’t Wait
“I Can’t Wait” exemplifies the tacky disposability that made the music of the late 80s such fertile soil for vaporwave’s ironic-but-is-it-really obsession with music as a corporate product. The trick that made it stick was an ostentatious synth preset that sounds a bit like a choir vocalizing each note, something that probably sounded very cool and cutting-edge in ‘86 and has definitely sounded lame and dated for at least as long as I’ve been alive and likely a fair bit longer. Obvious gimmick is obvious, but it needn’t have been a dealbreaker if the rest of the song had something noteworthy to offer. Alas, the rest of “I Can’t Wait” has nothing noteworthy to offer. You get the main doot-doot-doot synth thing stuck in your head and everything else goes right in the memoryhole, like a tiny candy in a big wrapper. The verses in particular practically announce their unimportance, not even trying to hide that they’re the part you have to sit through to get to the earworm bit again. Hell, even the video adheres to this artless ethos; elaborate yet baldly lazy, full of floaty, blocky CGI geometry and windows movie maker-grade shot transitions, it’s handily the ugliest thing to grace MTV this year.
#7: Lionel Richie- Say You, Say Me
By 1986, Lionel Richie was a brand as much as a man. He had persisted long enough to become a venerated elder statesman of pop, one of only a few 70s R&Bers with a finger still on the pulse of top 40 radio. As Richie geared up for his eagerly-awaited follow-up to 1983’s ironically-titled Can’t Slow Down, he was persuaded by the creative leads of a mid-budget drama flick called White Nights to contribute a song to their soundtrack— after all, he had racked up a pretty impressive record of soundtrack hits. However, Richie had seemingly grown a bit dissatisfied in his signature pocket, or maybe he felt that his tenure as a hitmaker had been going for long enough that the fans needed something with a fresh twist. Either way, he clearly wanted to broaden his horizons a bit.
The result, “Say You, Say Me”, is a Lionel Richie ballad like every other with a completely unprompted, 30-second detour into uptempo pop rock inserted at a randomly chosen point in the song’s back half. Stereogum writer Tom Breihan calls this the best part of the song, and I see where he’s coming from. On some level, I appreciate having such concrete evidence that Richie wasn’t just taking the check here, that he had an idea and gave it the old college try. I still fucking hate it. It’s the worst part of the song and one of the most cringe-inducing things Richie has ever done on record. It does nothing whatsoever to remedy the tediousness of the rest of the track, it just makes it sound like Richie’s as bored with his sound as I am. Even on its own terms it does little to impress, leaving Richie’s golden balladic touch in the dust as it speeds forward; a whole song’s worth of it would have never in a million years been a hit. If Richie was a brand, “Say You, Say Me” was his New Coke: a sweaty, unconvincing flop that slaughters a proven formula on the alter of needless innovation. If only the American public had rejected both.
#6: The Outfield- Your Love
“Your Love” is actually the only song on this list that I had any real knowledge of before sitting down with the ‘86 year-end. My history with this song actually goes way back; it was included on a 1994 compilation called Read the Hits that I spent my elementary and middle school years absolutely wearing out, and forming some of my earliest memories of popular music in the process. Selections from Read the Hits have peppered my last six best lists, and another one or two will probably be showing up soon. Some, like “Cum on Feel the Noize”, have been favorites since I was a hyperactive first-grader, while others, like “Voices Carry”, took well over a decade to grow on me, but “Your Love” is perhaps the only song from that fateful, taste-shaping album that has only gotten worse as I’ve grown up and broadened my musical horizons. As a wee kiddie I really, really liked this song— so what happened?
Well, development of critical faculties aside, the biggest blow to this song in my eyes was realizing it was about the narrator cheating on his girlfriend. I somehow managed to miss on my first hundred-odd listens that the “Josie” referenced in the first line is not the woman that singer Tony Lewis spends the rest of the song attempting to woo, and once I realized it the whole vibe of the song started to rapidly fall apart. Lewis’s singing here is, well, quite distinctive, enough so that there’s a perennially popular meme comparing his voice to a certain cartoon character. Now, I can be a pretty hard sell when it comes to unconventional singing voices, but I actually think Lewis’s voice is a great fit… for the straightforward love song I initially thought this song was. As soon as it’s about a sleazy hookup behind a girlfriend’s back (and with someone who’s seemingly also in his social circle???), his shouty, almost hysterical tone goes from a jolt of passion in an otherwise-very-plain pop rock song to a grating yelp unable to capture the moral ambiguity of the lyrics. And like I said, the rest of the song is pretty unremarkable, generic 80s fare, so when the singing and the lyrics fail to mesh there’s nothing ear-grabbing to stop that incongruous rot from spreading to the entire rest of the song. You can certainly find worse than this, both in terms of douchey odes to infidelity and bland, overproduced guitar pop, but the disappointment of discovering how little “Your Love” holds up to my childhood nostalgia is enough to leave an awfully sour taste in my mouth.
#5: Robert Palmer- I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On
To my point in the intro about these rankings being loose: until about a day before the PGTY 1979 best list was posted, my #10 pick was actually NOT Chic’s “Le Freak”, but rather Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”; I like both songs roughly the same amount and switched to the former after a solid week of struggling to say anything interesting about the latter. Shame that’s probably the closest Palmer will come to a best list: I’ve got nothing in particular against him, but I do think there’s a good reason he never quite made it into the uppermost echelon of 80s rock stars with the likes of Van Halen and The Cars and The Police. He stood out from the crowd with his confident, husky voice, but it didn’t quite gel with either the classic soul that first sparked his passion for music or the sleek pop rock that made him a star, and his material is mostly hit-or-miss as a result. Sometimes that friction actually worked in his favor— it was certainly the main thing pumping life into the otherwise-dull “Addicted to Love”— and other times it was decisively a detriment.
“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” is not really a Robert Palmer song. It was written by James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis, and every song written by Jam & Lewis is primarily a Jam & Lewis song. Few pop songwriters this decade had a sound more distinct than theirs, and this is no exception, all bubbly synths and twinkling funk licks. Robert Palmer sounds utterly lost on it. There just isn’t enough of a rockin’ pulse here for him to get his teeth into it, and he winds up grumbling and kvetching throughout the entire track, unexcited and stiff nearly to the point of lifelessness. Not only is it the worst he ever sounded on record, his performance here actually seems to flatten the lively music, sap it of color and energy. It even mitigates the effectiveness of the crisp, funky drumming, courtesy of… wait, Tony Thompson? Of Chic? Huh, small world.
#4: Stacey Q- Two of Hearts
Disco never died, at least not completely. Even through its leanest years in the early 80s it persisted, evolving and mutating within the safety of the clubs that birthed it. It would be another 5 years or so until fond memories and semi-ironic retro fetishism revived in its original incarnation, and even then its late-70s peak would remain unmatched in terms of popular relevance, but in ‘86, pop stars were officially ready to dance again. “Two of Hearts” may sport the same plasticky, two-dimensional production and uninspired synth work as all the worst pop of the mid-80s, but it augments this with choice lifts from the worst pop of 1978— the lifeless 4/4 beats and monotonous choruses pioneered by the likes of “Get Up and Boogie”. The song suffers a lot from kicking off with its very worst idea: a primitive, atonal vocal chop that more evokes a child fiddling with settings on a keyboard than an energetic nightclub environment. Things do improve slightly from there, but only to the level of a typically annoying dance track, shallow and repetitious in all the ways that detractors will insist define the genre. Pop’s relationship with dance music would only deepen and diversify over the next two decades, leaving “Two of Hearts” an embarrassing relic of the genre’s most lost and anemic period.
#3: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam- All Cried Out
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam are like a parody of a bad 80s pop band. They got their start in the New York “latin freestyle” scene over the first half of the decade, and they made it bigger than damn near anyone else in their subgenre by ditching any trace of a unique stylistic origin to make the most gray, soullessly cosmopolitan music the charts had seen to this point. Their main inheritance from their background in urban dance music was a bad habit of treating song structure as an afterthought, and their watery ballad “All Cried Out” is a prime example. This thing is some real amateur hour shit. Lisa Lisa— ridiculous name by the way, absolutely hate it— sings quite poorly, but her shaky technical ability is exponentially exacerbated by the single worst melody line of the year, perhaps even of the decade. The only part of the entire song that sounds like it wasn’t made up on the spot is the hook, and even that could just be because it’s the only time any melodic phrase actually repeats in a meaningful way. The part where she sings “Apology not accepted, add me to the broken hearts you collected” makes for such a concentrated blast of clunky, graceless writing and performance that it genuinely almost sounds as though the band does not know what music is.
This song is also a duet— or maybe it’s a trio? Two male vocalists are credited opposite Ms. Lisa, and while they both handily outsing her they’re also generic enough to just sound like the same guy, which should give you some idea as to whether they manage to overcome the dreadfully sub-par songwriting. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s whole vibe is, shall we say, not the most authentic-seeming, but there were too many other sellouts this year selling out far less incompetently to give a botch job like this a pass.
#2: Peter Cetera- Glory of Love
“Glory of Love” is the exact kind of oversold, inert bullshit you would expect a 42 year old multimillionaire to be making in 1986, and the perfect theme song for a creatively bankrupt cash-grab like The Karate Kid Part II. A one-off 1981 album prevents this from being the true start of Peter Cetera the solo artist, but it’s undeniably where Cetera’s solo career began in earnest, and for that alone it deserves a place amongst the worst songs of the decade. There’s depressingly little to be said about “Glory of Love” that isn’t true of the half-dozen other turds Cetera squeezed onto the charts this decade, with the loss of his usual backing band rendered a non-issue by the fact that they hadn’t so much as played a note Cetera hadn’t asked them to play since the 70s. The only enjoyment to be gleaned here is the amusing fact that Cetera left Chicago to make the exact same terrible music he had already been making, while Chicago more or less kept making Peter Cetera songs without him, like a single-celled organism dividing into two duplicates of itself. Really, Johnny Lawrence said it best himself, decades after the fact in Cobra Kai: “Peter Cetera is the opposite of badass.” You’re preaching to the choir, Johnny.
#1: Billy Ocean- When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going
This is maybe going to be one of my less-justified decisions over the course of this series. See, I actually don’t dislike this song all that much as a song. It’s maybe a little bit overpowering, sure, but Billy Ocean’s still got a pretty damn strong voice, enough so to pull together that more energetic vibe he’s shooting for here, and most of the instrumentation grooves along with as much zest as could be expected from the always-overproduced 80s. No, “When the Going Gets Tough” tops the worst list for what practically amounts to a technicality: There is a horrible, horrible problem with the mastering on this track that causes an earsplitting, dog whistle-like frequency to play at seemingly random intervals throughout the entire damn thing! I’ve dug up multiple Youtube and streaming uploads of this song and listened on every pair of headphones I own to be sure it wasn’t some problem on my end— it just sounds like that! This one tiny detail renders the song practically unlistenable! As this worst list has taken shape over the past few weeks, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve questioned my own decision here, wondered if it isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Then I relisten to it for 10 seconds or so and my mind is once more made up. It is, no exaggeration or hyperbole whatsoever, torturous to sit through, and the fact that no one else seems to have noticed this or pointed it out is truly one of the most maddening things I’ve experienced over the entire course of this project thus far. Apologies to Ocean and all the musicians who did their very best to make this a fun, upbeat pop tune, but through no fault of theirs, this song is downright excruciating, and I never, ever want to experience it again.