The second half of the 80s is mostly a downhill slide. Every year the trends get staler and the brilliant standouts grow fewer and further between— except, oddly enough, for 1987! I’d still have a hard time calling this a great year for pop music, but the ‘87 year-end chart managed, at the very least, to avoid another decrease in quality from the already-disappointing 1986 year-end, and in a head-to-head between the two I might actually have to give ’87 the edge. It seemed that more interesting new talents were starting to crop up by the end of the year, that maybe there was something out there that could conceivably replace everything wrong and corrupt in pop at the time. It was a year where the best and brightest minds in pop seemed to be getting just as sick of the 80s as I was, the practical upshot was a varied and refreshingly down-to-Earth best list that I’m itching to explore— on with the show!
#10: The Whispers- Rock Steady
Funk and soul went through a real rough patch following the burst of the disco bubble, a once-widespread scene of creative minds reduced to a mere handful of big names and another handful of stragglers who survived long enough on the genre charts to sporadically cross over. It happened in ’86 with Cameo’s iconic “Word Up!”, which was at one point on a draft of my best list, but even Larry Blackmon’s neon-red codpiece pales in comparison to the green-suited funky goodness of “Rock Steady”. The Whispers are another group of true soul survivors, first hitting a commercial stride with the disco boom and finally scoring a small pop crossover with “And the Beat Goes on” in ’79… just in time for disco demolition night to send them right back to the R&B charts for another eight years. But they never went away, and with a curious new style called new jack swing starting to get all the kids dancing, it was the perfect time for the veterans to step in and give the new generation some guidance.
“Rock Steady” is an old-school disco jam dressed as a slick new jack swing throwdown; it is fittingly named, for rock steadily is exactly what it does. It rocks steadily and relentlessly for 5 entire minutes, zeroing in on a bubbly, midtempo groove and working it every single way it can. The Whispers themselves are a joy to listen to here, giving the amazingly catchy melody the exact easy charisma it needed. It’s the kind of song that fills a dancefloor without even breaking a sweat, and all five Whispers seem to understand this on a gut level and perform it as such. The two big creative forces behind “Rock Steady”, Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, would soon make enormous piles of money taking black pop to a very different place than the one The Whispers came from, but in this early, mercurial stage of their career, they’re clearly still flexing their songwriting knowledge, hashing out their own takes on the greats of yesteryear before solidifying a sound all their own. The song’s retro leanings are really its secret weapon, allowing the more forceful new jack production style to highlight the group’s lineage through disco and all the way back to old-school Motown. New jack swing ultimately only left a pretty brief and minor impact on the charts, but songs like this make it obvious why some saw it as the shape of R&B to come at the time, and why it’s been remembered so fondly in the decades since.
#9: Peter Gabriel- Big Time
“Big Time” is, ironically, a smaller hit than “Sledgehammer”— in terms of both sales and vibes. This was by design, though; Where “Sledgehammer” marched to the top of the charts like a funk-rock battalion, this one jittered and shimmied to a respectable #8, lacking the same universal appeal by virtue of, well, having to actually be about something. Stripped to the studs, it’s some of the oldest showbiz satire in the book: a guy ditches his hometown of lameass normies to hit the big city, make money and hang out with celebrities, with a wink and a nudge about how vapid the lives of the rich and famous are. Nothing all that special on paper, but what really animates it is the grotesque surrealism of Gabriel’s narration, the subtle undertone of near-panic as everything just keeps getting bigger (this effect is enhanced greatly by yet another visually stunning music video). The song channels a lot of the anxious energy of new wave innovators like Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo, and in particular the latter’s demented enthusiasm for the status quo, but it also holds some of the seeds of the more prickly musical satire that would take hold in the 90s, especially in the way the prechoruses poke suspiciously at prosperity gospel and Christian greed. It admittedly ends on a bit of a odd note with that extended dick joke, and from certain angles it does come off a shade too cynical for my tastes (something about that slinky cadence on “so much larger than life” gives me a not-entirely-pleasant shiver down the spine), but as the 80s just kept on biggering and biggering and biggering, it was a comfort to have a song that took that bigness in a sharper, more self-aware direction.
#8: Bruce Hornsby & the Range- The Way It Is
Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s 1986 debut was co-produced by a guy named Elliot Scheiner, truly one of the great behind-the-scenes figures of 20th-century music. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had heard well over a hundred hits with his fingerprints on them before this one, and indeed, there’s something instantly familiar about the glossy, pristine sound design of the opening piano tinkles on “The Way it Is”. Piano had sounded this way for a pretty long time, but no pop singer had ever played it quite like Bruce Hornsby.
Hornsby is a master of his instrument the likes of which top 40 music rarely sees, and he flies through “The Way It Is” weightlessly, making every moment of emphasis and lingered-upon note rich with intent and import. With all this in mind, it’s no small matter how well his band keep up with him. The Range was made up of industry lifers with years of experience under their belt: Drummer John Molo had an extensive background in jazz, and mandolinist/violinist David Mansfield played with Bob Dylan as far back as 1975. They lay the groundwork for the track with the clockwork precision of a band who would hang their heads in shame if the two fell so much as a hair’s breadth behind where it ought to. But as I said, Bruce is unquestionably the star of the show. The guy gets two solos for chrissakes, and each one is a freewheeling showcase of technique and feeling, expressing all the hope and disappointment the lyrics could never hope to adequately convey.
That said, the lyrics here are politically-charged almost to the point of standoffishness, confronting economic and racial inequality and daring to ask if something couldn’t be done to make the lives of the disadvantaged a little better. From an artistic standpoint, I can’t say I’m exactly blown away— Hornsby is clearly more a pianist than a lyricist, and the core message isn’t all that mind-blowing or even particularly controversial. But from an emotional standpoint, Hornsby’s heart is just so clearly in the right place that I can’t even fault him for coming across a little inelegantly. There’s a real sense of righteous indignation to this lyric, a sense that he cares about these issues in a way that goes beyond his own sense of himself as a “good person”. Hell, he even goes so far as to suggest that the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t go far enough, a statement that even a handful of progressives at the time must have bristled at. “The Way it Is” is no one’s choice for the protest anthem of the Reagan era– too modest and subdued to soundtrack a revolt or even a riot– but it’s an awfully pretty piece and it has enough of a bite that it’s never really stopped resonating with people. Rappers love to sample it, and have done so as recently as 2020. I hope it keeps sticking around.
#7: Suzanne Vega- Luka
The 80s were a pretty horrible time for folk music. Since the disco boom of the late 70s, small-scale, acoustically-driven singin’ and songwritin’ had more or less become absent from the pop charts as keyboards took over and everyone had a real good time figuring out ways to make music both good and bad with them. However, by 1987, those same keyboards were starting to wear out their welcome, and a lot of people were ready for something that put a new spin on the polished sounds that had been dominating the mainstream for a good 8 years or so. It was a slow process figuring out a version of pop that didn’t rely completely on a Yamaha DX-7, and the accepted wisdom is that the 80s would remain 80s-y until the alt-rock revolution of the early 90s, but throughout the waning years of the 80s a few ahead-of-the-curve oddballs popped up to offer possibilities for catchy, broadly appealing music that held a distinct identity apart from the Cetera/Bon Jovi/Journey axis of meaningless synth goo, many of them folkies of some persuasion.
Not least was one Suzanne Vega, who parlayed a minor hit off the Pretty in Pink soundtrack into a fruitful and quite singular fifteen minutes of fame. “Luka”, her proper breakthrough, is notable for being sung from the perspective of a young boy in an abusive household, but its real success lies in how Vega uses her existent stylistic inclinations to give the heavy subject matter a very heartfelt and personal touch. The framing of the song as a conversation between the boy and his neighbor gives the song a day-in-the-life groundedness that the melancholic vocal delivery and gently assertive groove is perfectly suited to illustrating. When Vega starts softly crooning the “just don’t ask me” refrain, it’s immediately recognizable as a pop hook, but not the kind of sing-it-to-the-rafters pop hook Americans had grown accustomed to. It’s serious, intimate, and feels deeply respectful of the fraught territory it’s in. There’s no soapbox preaching, not even an in-text intervention on the neighbor’s part, just a brief moment of true understanding and empathy that could and has happened to anyone. In 1987, that was radical, and even 35 years later, it still seems pretty damn special.
#6: Huey Lewis & the News- Hip to Be Square
So, uhh… You like Huey Lewis & the News?
It’s unfair how large that American Psycho scene looms over “Hip to Be Square”, not just because it’s as memorable or as primed for endless memetic variation as it is, but because, for the scene’s purposes, “Hip to Be Square” is a brilliant choice of song. Huey Lewis is an ideal embodiment of how shallow and corporate and lame 80s rock was: recognizable but not quite beloved, close to a lot of iconic sounds but always a shade shy of fully embodying them. Say what you want about the guy, he made music for the Patrick Batemans of the world (by which I mean “yuppies”, and to a much lesser extent probably serial killers as well). But you know what? So did a million zillion other artists, and Huey was better at it than all of them.
“Hip to be Square” is the sound of rock realizing that “rock” as a musical idiom isn’t all that rebellious anymore, then shrugging and continuing to enjoy itself anyway. Who cares? Whoever said rock had to be anti-establishment to be any good? Maybe there’s nothing so inherently revolutionary about catchy blues songs with distorted guitar that the straight arrows and starched suits of the world can’t have their own version of it! Matter of fact, maybe rock that embraces being dorky and out of touch is, in actual fact, more genuine than rock that deludes itself into believing the umpteenth rip-off of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” will be some great strike against The Man. Three decades removed from a time when it really was hip to be square and this song could only be either smarmy sarcasm or even smarmier self-flagellation, I can only take it as a goofy, lighthearted reminder of how rock’s own philosophies can let it down, of how it can become mired in pointless arguments over fashion or style when sometimes, all it needs to shine brightly is a boppin’ little melody. Here, there, and everywhere, hip, hip, so hip to be square!
#5: The Bangles- Walk Like An Egyptian
Another nostalgic favorite courtesy of Read the Hits, “Walk Like An Egyptian” occupies an odd space in between the novelty lark and the straightforward pop pastiche, heavy on ear-catching imagery and sour, minor-key melodies straining to evoke the bustling streets of the Mediterranean. Right off the bat, it probably bears mentioning that, if you really wanted to, you could find a line or two here that wouldn’t quite fly in today’s more racially-sensitive climate— as sonically pleasing as phrases like “the foreign types with the hookah pipes” may be, they admittedly do play into preconceptions us Westerners have about the middle east, and the whole song very well could have been consumed by this kind of lightly embarrassing, tourist-y exoticization. So, why is it still best-list material? Well, from my admittedly privileged perspective, its questionably-aged references to gambling shopkeeps and crocodiles ultimately function as set dressing for a song about people-watching in a place with a lot of unique history and colorful characters— stereotypes are employed here not for their accuracy but for their efficiency, for giving you the general gist of what’s going on with a person or group in only a line or two.
The Bangles were not a group with an excess of cred: they started out as a very retro 60s-rock outfit, complete with an abiding fondness for covering other songwriters’ material. Even after they modernized their sound, almost all of their hits were still written by other people, and in a pop world that was quickly becoming driven by Gen-Xers who wanted authenticity above all, that focus on performing over songwriting kind of doomed them to the “pop” side of their “pop rock” designation. Well nuts to that, I say! Vicki Peterson, Michael Steele and Susanna Hoffs were (and are) fantastic rock performers, and “Walk Like An Egyptian” is, more than anything, a fantastic rock performance. All three vocalists do so much to give every verse and every chorus a slightly different energy, and they bend their voices in a half dozen directions to perfectly match the lyrical feel of watching people come and go in a town center. The song overall consistently introduces new musical ideas both big and small that make the surface-level sketches of urban life seem so much more substantial than they really are (can’t get enough of that weird clang-y percussion thing that pops up midway through). There’s a truly admirable level of thought and attention to detail on display from the first note to the last, and if that isn’t the difference between bad novelty and good, I don’t know what is.
#4: Crowded House- Something So Strong
Full disclosure: I am a BIG Crowded House fan. The way I see it, they’re the closest the late 80s came to producing a Beatles or an ELO, a group passionately dedicated to a very particular form of punchy, watertight pop rock songwriting that I could very happily spend the entire rest of my life listening to. Matter of fact, of the five singles their 1986 debut spawned, “Something So Strong” is actually my least favorite! Yep, “World Where You Live”, “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” and “Mean to Me” all outstrip this pretty handily in terms of sheer melodic excitement and lyrical interest, and any one of them would have been a shoo-in for the top handful of spots on this list. Don’t be put off by that whopping triple-TWKD, though: any pop songwriter would still be blessed to have a feather in their cap like “Something So Strong”. This whole song just exudes charm and fun, and the combination of warm, organic acoustic guitar and organ with the more produced (but still tight-as-hell) drumming is so appealing that it’s a wonder it took until 1986 for someone to think of it. That hint of rootsy jangle does so much to make the song sound like it’s coming from real, human people, to make “something so strong could carry us away” sound like it has tangible emotional weight. Even just ONE musical element not caked in effects and microadjusted to lifeless perfection makes all the damn difference, and a simple, happy song about the power of love is a perfect canvas to demonstrate this. It’s as straightforward an example of everything I love about this band as I could possibly offer up, but even if they have much higher highs, a standard this impeccable is something worth celebrating.
#3: U2- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
I still vividly recall the first time I heard “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”: I must have been around 10 or 11, listening to a local radio station on my dinky little Sansa mp3 player late at night, and seemingly out of nowhere, that opening guitar shimmered into my headphones and absolutely took my breath away. I was enraptured until the very last note; it still happens every time I revisit it. It’s corny to say it, but this song immediately cast a spell over me. Then again, in 1987, U2 were a pretty corny band: four bright-eyed Irish youngsters, almost as passionate about global injustice as they were about the soulful earnest rock music they made. Forget their 90s reinvention as smirking self-aware hipsters, forget all their godawful attempts to soullessly mimic the sounds they came by so honestly in the 80s. The world fell in love with U2 in the first place because every goddamn word Bono sang came straight from his naive, messaianic little heart. Sure, he was always a self-important blowhard, but back in their pre-Achtung glory days, he really, truly seemed to believe that his lyrics and his band’s music could change the world. And even if they didn’t, even if they never had a chance, that religious conviction (literally religious— he nearly quit the band early on to work in ministry) bleeds through their best songs top-to-bottom. Just hear how he sings those opening lines here: “I have climbed highest mountains / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”, crying out every word like it’s crucial the whole world hears it, like there’s a screaming void inside him and all he can do is seek out something that might fill it. I don’t know how you can hear that and not believe for a fleeting moment that great things are possible, that love can conquer all and that evil can be vanquished. This band performed with real, so-intense-it’s-cringeworthy conviction, and you can fake a lot in music but you can’t fake conviction.
#2: Whitney Houston- I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
Sometimes, in pop music, big changes come along, things that reverberate throughout the decades and change the game irrevocably. The Beatles and the British invasion shifted the way people thought about pop and the people who made it; even if you hate the music, you will never, ever escape the cultural frameworks it birthed. MTV’s debut is another big one, the first wave of punk rock is another; at the risk of overselling it, so is “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. I wholeheartedly believe this song is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is modern pop. It’s the earliest song I can picture an Ariana Grande or a Taylor Swift singing. Here, Whitney Houston does… something, something that no pop singer did before and that pop singers have not stopped doing since. It clearly seeks to refine choice elements of Houston’s already-excellent “How Will I Know”, and it’s also kind of a soft rewrite of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (in its own way, just as much a patient zero for the Main Pop Girl thing as this is). Especially in the burbling, synth-soaked production, this thing sounds like it should have been outdated by ‘92, let alone 2022.
And yet, there’s a real X-factor at play here that makes both of those perfectly sensible points of reference seem fundamentally absurd to me, makes this song stand tall where others like it have wilted over time. Partially the distinction is that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a much lonelier song than either song it’s modeled after, a dance track lyrically trapped inside its own head in a way that would quickly become standard practice for pop songwriters. Partially the distinction is that Whitney Houston’s voice is at an all-time peak of sheer power, soaring effortlessly over the mix and flipping and spinning into a dozen-odd flawless ad-libs, unencumbered by the heavy drama of the ballads she would become known for in her later years. Partially it’s a total intangible that I could never hope to properly set down in text, partially it’s just the random timing of 1987 being one of the first years that doesn’t seem “old” to me personally. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is god-given ability and hours of hard work and perfectly coinciding cultural tides and a phenomenally catchy and likable tune that still sounds great decades removed from its original release. In other words: everything chart pop should strive for.
#1: Crowded House- Don’t Dream It’s Over
There is freedom within / There is freedom without / Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There’s a battle ahead / Many battles are lost / But you’ll never see the end of the road when you’re traveling with me
I don’t like to start reviews with a straight quote of a song’s lyrics, but… god damn, just read that one more time? That’s handily one of the most poetic and evocative opening stanzas of the entire decade, flowing in such a melodic and musical way despite lacking anything resembling a traditional rhyme scheme, summoning so much emotion without resorting to ham-handed scene setting or worn-out cliche. It’s this kind of fluid, absolutely confident songwriting that Neil Finn has proven himself a true master of time and time again, and in a just world I’d have a murderer’s row of his subsequent offerings to look forward to covering. Still, even if this isn’t quite my personal favorite Crowded House song, that’s mostly because it feels like too obvious a choice— like, yeah, the sweeping anthem about the power of human connection against the ravages of time is a pretty good one! It’s got a singalong sheen that makes it easy to understand why it remained their biggest hit stateside, but past that sheen it’s just a staggeringly beautiful and thoughtfully-made piece of pop music, the same kind of lasting affirmation of hope and kindness that made “Bridge Over Troubled Water” a generational touchstone. And there’s an organ solo! A surprising number of hits this year actually featured organs, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” had one of the very best, a sparkling little moment that always somehow catches me off-guard. The music video holds the hell up, the bassline offers exactly what the song calls for… At this point, I’m just listing things I love about this song and I could honestly keep going for ages because I love everything about this song. It’s a masterpiece of pop rock, and my favorite hit song of 1987.
There will not be a new post next week!!! I have a few other projects going that are going to require a lot of attention over the next ten-ish days, and as such I won’t have time to bash out the rest of the ’87 worst list and make sure it’s up to par. Tune in for that one on August 19th!