100. “Go Home” – Stevie Wonder: Starting off this next Hot 100 overview, we’ve reached yet another end of yet another era. After an impressive run year after year, this remains to date the final top ten entry from the legendary Stevie Wonder. Listening to all of Stevie Wonder’s pop hits has been one hell of a journey, and this isn’t a bad one to leave off with. This one for sure feels weirdly synthetic for a Wonder song, with most of the instruments being purely synth-based, but the performer himself brings a sufficient amount of soul and energy to the track to make it totally palatable. It’s a fun sing-a-long type of track, no more no less.
99. “I’ll Be Over You” – Toto: Shortly after the chart success of Toto IV in 1983, lead vocalist Bobby Kimball was fired from Toto. This marked a shaky couple of years for the band – that is, until guitarist Steve Lukather offered to lend his lead vocals for a few tracks, leading to the beautiful “I’ll Be Over You”. While this could be written off as a standard sort of cheesy power ballad, the secret is in the instrumental dynamics – from the twinkly keyboards, to the soft, delicate drums, to the subtle bass that permeates throughout, to the explosion of electric guitar at the song’s climax. And I shouldn’t also forget that Michael McDonald also offers background vocals to this track, which is always amazing. Sure, this is a bit corny, but as far as mid-80s power ballads are concerned, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
98. “A Different Corner” – George Michael: As innocuous as this song may seem, it’s actually a pretty huge milestone: it was the first single completely credited toward a single person to make the Hot 100 top ten. And boy what a song it is. After writing and producing for Wham!, George Michael opted for trying out some of his own solo work. The simple, lush, lovely instruments fit his voice to a tee, and his anguished, love-stricken vocals are absolutely to die for. There is so much lovely poetry, not just in the lyrics but in the track’s sonic qualities as well. My favorite aspects of the record include the delicate sporadic acoustic guitars, the keyboard washes throughout, and, of course, Michael’s beautiful vocal delivery. It’s unusual that such a track would chart so high in the first place, but it certainly deserves to be remembered for its timeless beauty.
97. “Love Will Conquer All” – Lionel Richie: Oh nice, another Lionel Richie ballad. To be fair, this one has a little more bite than most of his output at the time. The bass and drum groove goes down pretty smoothly, even though I’m not fully convinced that Richie is having much of a good time here. It’s a good thing that Marva King brings some adorable backing vocals into the mix to breathe some life into the mix, but even his final declaration of, “Give love a chance” sounds drab and half-assed. It’s clear that he has definitely done worse, but this has to be among some of his least impressionable stuff. Just skip it.
96. “King For a Day” – Thompson Twins: Much like “Lay Your Hands on me – which I covered in my overview of 1985’s top songs – the US and UK releases of this song differ slightly, with the US version emphasizing electric guitars and the UK counterpart being heavy on the synths. The US version is the one that charted the better of the two, so I will cover that one here. The guitar riff is a rather catchy one, and the song as a whole rides on a successfully anthemic rhythm and spritely horns. But then again… it feels like there’s something missing. The chorus makes some pretty big claims – “If I was king for just one day… I would give it all away to be with you” – and the chants of, “Love is all we need” in the bridge emphasize this even more. Still, the overall lackluster delivery from the band weakens the bite. We even get the poor falsetto from “Hold Me Now” back here again, though much less prominent. It’s not bad (certainly better than “Hold Me Now”), but Thompson Twins continues to fail to really wow me.
95. “Tender Love” – Force MDs: Here’s a mild spoiler for the rest of the list: 1986 was the year that producer team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis broke into the spotlight. While much more renown for their work with, uh… someone else… they also worked with many prominent R&B and pop artists especially through the 80s and 90s. Not to throw another spoiler into the mix, but let’s just say that R&B vocal group Force MDs weren’t among the most famous of the bunch. Still, for a brief, shining moment, they made a minor wave with “Tender Love”. What seems like a simple crooner is elevated by Jam & Lewis’s production, which brilliantly strips things down and keeps it so simple. Besides the group’s vocals, all we have is a few lone piano chords and some soft, subtle backing sparkles – that’s it. While Force MDs perform this song quite competently, overall the lyrics leave very little to the imagination and results in a pretty sun-par ballad as a whole. Still, the minimalist nature of it is certainly admirable, even if it runs the risk of running out of steam rather quickly.
94. “Dreamtime” – Daryl Hall: As I mentioned in the previous year’s overview, I suspected that the end of the dynamic duo Hall & Oates would soon come. And here we have it – the very first solo offering from one of the two, and boy is it a significant change from what we’re used to. This one is pretty bombastic – the guitars and drums are huge, the backup vocalists are layered as heck, and the whole mix is backed by an energetic violin. At random bits there’s some random phasing done to the track – oh yeah, and there’s a false ending at the outro as well. Honestly, this is just a huge mess. It would be an interesting mess if the song were catchy or ear-grabbing in the least… but it isn’t. It just flows through one ear and out the other with no reaction, besides utter confusion. It sounds like it could have recorded by just about anyone, which is pitiful coming from one of the most illustrious pop duos of the past decade. Shame.
93. “Object of My Desire” – Starpoint: And now for another inclusion in the freestyle genre, after I mentioned it briefly at points in my overview of 1984. As is immediately obvious, synthesizers are front and center here, building off a few basic bass and treble riffs with the addition of a drum machine backing it all. I grew up with a lot of this music – thanks to my parents – and this song especially is incredibly familiar to me. Nonetheless, once I take off my nostalgia goggles, I can see this song for what it truly is: a pop song with a stiff melody, limp lyrics, and a beat mostly intended for dancing to. It’s clear that the female vocalist here has some real talent, but the material she’s emitting just isn’t up to par. Still, there’s enough cool stuff going on with its production that I must give it at least a little bit of credit for. It’s fun!
92. “Spies Like Us” – Paul McCartney: Last time we saw Paul McCartney, he was cavorting with Michael Jackson; this time, he’s crafted a stomping rock song for the soundtrack of a comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. Speaking of acts who are at the end of their rope… Seriously though, this is pretty bad and not just by McCartney standards. The lyrics are a whole bunch of nonsense, the chords and melody are generic and drab, and the stomp-along rhythm feigns catchiness when it really is just annoying. The only good part of this whole mess is the outro, where Linda McCartney chants the title to a double-time beat. But by that point, it’s far too late. This would be the final McCartney tune to make its way to the top ten – and what a note to leave off on!
91. “Your Wildest Dreams” – The Moody Blues: Were the introductory synthesizer bits intended to sound eerily like gameplay from Galaga? Just me? Okay. Well, this song is quite a welcome surprise, considering that it’s the first time the Moody Blues had achieved a top ten single since 1972’s “Nights in White Satin”. It’s certainly a much more different sound than I had been accustomed from the band – for one thing, there’s no flute! And much more electronic backup. I don’t know if this was ever seen as a sellout move from the band’s diehard fans in a similar backlash as Styx or Genesis fans. But in any case, this song is perfectly pleasant. I am such a sucker for these nostalgia ballads, and this song in particular sounds like a pumped-up version of Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69. I dig the atmospheric intro and I love the wordless vocalizations of the outro even more. Everything else in between just warms my heart. I’m glad these guys were able to make it big once again!
90. “Sweet Love” – Anita Baker: And now, folks, here we are – the sexiest song in existence. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole… but could you blame me? That lush, textured introduction is so caressingly blissful, it’s hard to believe that it comes from mostly electronic instruments. This continues throughout the verses, up until those wonderful piano chords accompanying that iconic chorus. Moreover, this production fits Anita Baker’s voice like a glove – she ranges from husky to melodic to intense, matching whatever energies are required at whatever particular moment. It’s just the perfect melding of 80s R&B and fusion jazz to create a different kind of composition, one that seems timeless and even otherworldly at points. Once again, I’m probably making this one out to be more than it actually is – but I can’t help how good it feels to push play on this one. It’s pure classy, dynamic, urban soul.
89. “Walk This Way” – Run-D.M.C. ft. Aerosmith: Oh, will you look at that – I previously covered Aerosmith’s original “Walk This Way” back when I wrote about the top 100 songs of 1977… which is now exactly two years old, as of my typing this sentence. Boy, I’m sure moving pretty slow on this challenge… But anyway, there’s no denying that this song was a huge deal in its day. While early pioneers of hip hop had always played around with different genres of music in their beat-making, it had always been seen as a completely separate, basically opposite entity from rock music, and mostly inaccessible to the general public. Yet when up-and-coming rappers Run-D.M.C. teamed up with aging rockers Aerosmith to rerecord the latter’s top ten hit, gold was struck. The song broke into the mainstream and became the first hip hop track to make the Billboard top five. Hooray for that! At the surface, this song was the perfect choice for D.M.C. to cover – Steven Tyler never sung its lyrics as much as spoke them rhythmically, and that guitar lick was practically begging to be looped. Of course, there are the issues with the lyrics that still remain and the decision to have Tyler screech the title is a poor substitution for the cool vocal effects of the original. Still, the rap group’s dynamic personality (and especially Jam Master Jay’s mixing) help make this song their own, and nothing was ever the same again.
88. “Take Me Home” – Phil Collins: With some exception, I have found that so many of Phil Collins’s singles are best enjoyed when little to no attention is paid to the lyrics. I mean, the guy achieved a number-one single from a made-up word, for crying out loud! Anyway, the best part about this song is the production anyway – those tinselly synths and the drum machines go together like cake and ice cream. Collins also puts on a pretty decent performance, and this may actually be one of the most heartfelt melodies I’ve heard from him in quite some time. Nonetheless, what really bogs this song down is how long it is – after about halfway through, it kind of just folds upon itself and continues to do so for the rest of the track. It’s fine for the atmospherics, but definitely has me reaching for the skip button after some time.
87. “Nikita” – Elton John: One of these days, I should go back and compile all of these 80s Cold War-themed tunes into one playlist… I would definitely include “Nikita” in the mix. It is especially unique for being a tragic love story between two people on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. John isn’t fully up to his usual par here, but I am especially fond of the way he sings, “Oh, Nikita, you will never know anything about my home”. And of course, Nikita is a masculine name in Russia, which makes this situation all the more intriguing (especially since John would come out as gay only two years later). Although this backing instrumental is covered in a thick layer of 80s cheese, I still find it quite beautiful. Overall, it’s not quite at the level of John’s best work, but I’d much sooner place this on level with his good songs before I’d even consider disliking it.
86. “Election Day” – Arcadia: Uhh… so, this is basically Duran Duran, right? I mean, it’s got all the same members and the same New Romantic style of the group – hell, this single and its subsequent album is even produced by the same guy who produced Seven and the Ragged Tiger!! Anyway, this mostly just sounds like a Duran Duran single that was never drilled into my brain as a kid. The tempo feels strangely sluggish, but there are some nice instrumental bits that make up for this (namely the sax solo). The best thing about this song, though: that Grace Jones interlude. Man, I really wish she was on more of this song – and also that this song succeeded in actually breaking her into the mainstream. God knows she deserves it. Anyway, this song is just fine.
85. “Baby Love” – Regina: It practically goes without saying that this is an obvious attempt to leech off of Madonna’s fame by concocting a dance-pop tune and placing it in the hands of a similarly-sounding female vocalist. It isn’t hard to see how this has been forgotten through the years – Regina never did anything else after this that made a splash, while Madonna continued to reinvent her style and churn out hit after hit. In its own regard, it’s a pretty mess. Regina sounds smooth and confident and the electronic production is surprisingly sleek and enjoyable… even though that occasional baby laughter sample is just jarring. The sax solo more than makes up for it, though. Another perfectly passable bit of 80s pop!
84. “Throwing It All Away” – Genesis: And now for some more Phil Collins… and a couple other guys! Don’t get me wrong, though – the other guys make a hell of a difference. Unlike “Take Me Home”, which felt too cheap and tinny to make too much of an impression, this song has a more textured, lovely sound to it, which heightens the emotional appeal of its lyrics. And boy what a punch in the gut this song is. Lines like, “We cannot live together; we cannot live apart” explain, in such simple words, the universal pain of a relationship’s end. Even more so, the way that Collins belts out, “Throwing it all away” in the chorus absolutely breaks my heart. This era of Genesis is pretty hit-or-miss for me, but as with “That’s All”, I think this one is more on the ‘hit’ side of things.
83. “A Love Bizarre” – Sheila E.: As if you weren’t already convinced that Prince consistently struck gold throughout the 80s – here’s another awesome hit he wrote and produced with Sheila E.! While much of it can be seen as a companion to “The Glamorous Life” (“We all want the stuff that’s found in our wildest dreams”), this one isn’t quite so compositionally complex. It rides off a simple melody lines that repeats itself ad nauseum amidst hip, funky production. As such, it’s really difficult for me to decide if this song has enough good qualities to stand toe-to-toe with Sheila E.’s previous hit. Highlights of this mix, though, include the sexy sax and awesome bass licks – much like “Glamorous”, the extended album cut is worth listening to more than the chopped-up single version. In any case, this is some good, classy fun from the master of funk himself!
82. “Love Touch” – Rod Stewart: Egads… I know that Rod Stewart hasn’t exactly been at the top of my radar lately, but this is just ridiculous. While the lyrics to this one don’t exactly reach the level of creepiness accomplished by “Tonight’s the Night” (really, how could anything?), the phrase, “I wanna give you my love touch” has… not aged well. This is just another one of those love songs about couples that do not belong together, placed atop this fake tropical beat that is just an embarrassing. Stewart, meanwhile, sounds the worst he’s sounded since probably “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”. Avoid!!
81. “Tonight She Comes” – The Cars: I had this song in my music library growing up, but for some reason it was always skipped over by me. Sure, there’s that very Cars sound to it that I always enjoy, with the rhythmic guitars, synth inflections, and Ric Ocasek’s weird voice. But then again, it all sounded very limp in comparison to their better songs, with a melody that never truly sticks. And then I realized what album it came from and it all made sense – it’s the one new song from their Greatest Hits compilation. It definitely has the sense that it was crafted together for marketing purposes, simply to hit all the buttons and capture the feel of a Cars songs, regardless of quality. It just never quite manages to take off through its runtime, and that’s a damn shame. Guess I’ll just keep on skipping this one.
80. “Sleeping Bag” – ZZ Top: Uh… this is just “Legs” again? No seriously – reading what I wrote about “Legs” in my 1984 post, it basically sounds like I’m talking about this song. Sure, it’s a different melody and everything, but the emphasis on synths and drum machines – with some guitars – is all basically untouched here. The difference is the lyrics here are far less interesting – and even kind of perplexing. Not even in a fun way; just in a way that demands a simple shrug of the shoulders with no need for further investigation. Vocalist Billy Gibbons also sounds all the less enthused as well. This is just a big, overblown nothing of a song.
79. “Bad Boy” – Miami Sound Machine: Well, that beginning instrumental sure is smooth and catchy… but then Gloria Estefan starts singing, “Boys will be boys; bad boy, bad boy” in such an unnerving, tuneless way it almost takes me out of the song completely. But then the main synth riff pops in and the song begins to truly find its footing. Ultimately, I think this song is more enjoyable than it is annoying, even if the annoying parts are enough to nearly flip the song off completely (“Ring, ring, ring, ring-a-ring-ring”). But hey, now I finally know where the chorus from Mase’s “Feel So Good” comes from! From what I remember about Miami Sound Machine, this sounds a lot more flat and sterile than their most popular hits, so I’ll just chalk this one up as a misstep. Let’s hope I’m right…
78. “Life in a Northern Town” – Dream Academy: Oh, gosh… so this is the song. In the previous year’s post, I mentioned that the chorus of Howard Jones’s “Things Can Only Get Better” made me finally realize the name of the song that has been swimming around in my head but could never place. And luck has stroke twice for me, as the chorus for “Life in a Northern Town” has me re-experiencing this exact phenomenon. Much like “Things”, the wordlessness of its chorus (“Heya, ma ma ma…”) made this incredibly difficult for me to simply google, so this pretty cool. Though I have to emphasize that this is where the comparisons end – this song is, quite truthfully, unlike anything else making serious radio traction in this day. Most stunning is its lush wall-of-sound production, replete with magnificent strings, ethereal brass and wind instruments, and a booming drum during its beautiful chorus. Lyrically, this was written as an elegy of sorts for Nick Drake, which I think is quite beautiful. I especially love the brief part at the start of the third verse where the multi-tracked vocals are intertwined (“The evening had turned to rain…”). Overall, it’s a goddamn miracle that this charted in the first place, even more so that it made the top ten. It’s such a majestic piece of sonic art and I’m glad that tons of people were able to appreciate it as such.
77. “Rumors” – Timex Social Club: And now back to the silly pop stuff. I can’t quite place why I’ve always enjoyed this one, but it probably all comes back to its beat. It’s pretty standard R&B stuff, but the punchiness of it almost sounds like a predecessor to New Jack swing; thus, it’s fun as hell to dance to. Just don’t think too much about the lyrics – I’m not kidding when I called it silly! To sum it up, rumors suck. The vocalist in the first verse sets up this thesis, while the second verse gives some examples. I don’t know if this is the first time a top ten single has mentioned the word ‘gay’ (as in homosexual), but it would be quite interesting if that were the case! The third verse, though, just gets ridiculous, wherein he declares, “I’ll think I’ll write my congressman and tell him to pass a bill / For the next time they catch somebody startin’ rumors, shoot to kill”. Priorities, man! Anyway, this is a fun, ultimately harmless song, up in the realm of Ready For the World’s “Hey Sheila” undeniable catchy trashiness.
76. “True Blue” – Madonna: True Blue is the first truly great album Madonna released and the one that woke people up to the fact that she’s capable of so more than her typical dance-pop fluff. The title song and lead single brought something a tad more soulful and looser than what we’d seen from her thus far. As it stands, it’s also one of the strongest melodies she has ever put out – and this is someone whose discography up until this point includes “Like a Virgin” and “Into the Groove”! Additionally, I also love the buzzy synth production and Madonna herself just sounds so sweet and confident. It’s clear at this point that there’s more to meet the eye with this pop starlet – all we have to do now is wait.
75. “Sweet Freedom” – Michael McDonald: And once again, the sweet, dulcet tones of Michael McDonald… and, uh, a hell of a lot of drum machine. This would be his final top ten hit on the Hot 100, and it’s really not hard to see how this would be the case. His performance is solid as ever, but it honestly doesn’t feel like he’s having a whole lot of fun. Moreover, the instrumental sound far too over-produced to be any good – in every sense, this is a huge step away from “I Keep Forgettin'”, and not in a good way. This isn’t a bad song by any means and McDonald tries his damnedest to keep it from sinking into total oblivion… but there are much better ones to check out before this one.
74. “All I Need is a Miracle” – Mike + the Mechanics: Mike + the Mechanics are one of those bands that I always see pop up from time to time in 80s throwback articles, but I somehow never really got around to checking out their work. I’m not even sure if “All I Need is a Miracle” is an ideal place to start, but considering its their first top five hit I guess I could do worse. The intro to this song sounds oddly tuneless, but after a few bars it finds its footing in a truly lovely main piano line. The smooth, passionate synth backing is probably the single strongest element of this song, and it’s clear to see the influence of guitarist Mike Rutherford (also of Genesis). Nonetheless, these lyrics leave a little more to be desired – “I didn’t care if you hung around me; I didn’t care if you went away / And I know you were never right; I’ll admit I was never wrong”. Blah blah blah. Moreover, the main chorus melody is relatively limp – but once again, the strong instrumentation almost makes up for it all. Overall, it is a pretty enjoyable, optimistic track and generally very harmless. While not amazing, it certainly has piqued my interest in this very 80s-sounding group!
73. “Tarzan Boy” – Baltimora: Guilty pleasure, ahoy! Actually, nothing at all to feel guilty about this one. First of all, it’s very clear that English is not this guy’s first language, but that somehow makes it all the more charming. I just love the way he sings, “like Tarzan boy!”. The europop production is the right kinds of bubbly and cheesy, with Rodgers-esque guitar licks combining with synthetic bleep-bloops and the occasional silly jungle sound effect. And yes, this is another one of those songs with a wordless chorus that serves little purpose other than to fill up space with a catchy little hook. I can see this song getting a lot of haters, but I just can’t relate. Every time that “Whoa-oh, oh oh-oh, oh-oh, ohhh oh…” chorus pops in, I just get picked right up from whatever slump I may be experiencing at the moment. It’s unbearably corny, sure, but I would take it no other way.
72. “Small Town” – John Cougar Mellencamp: To this date, I’m still waiting to find the one John Mellencamp song that would truly wow me, or at least help me finally realize what the whole fuss is about. Musically, this has got to be amongst his strongest singles – it really captures that 80s Americana sound really well, in attempts that I would dare say even rival Springsteen’s work. Lyrically, though… yikes. The repetition of “small town” at the end of every line gets old really, really fast. I like how the chorus expands on the song’s theme a bit more (“I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me”), but ultimately this doesn’t accomplish anything that hasn’t already been covered again and again in Mellencamp’s other tunes. Then again, I am one of those folks who got out of my small town into a big city and I would gladly stay in cities for the rest of my life… so I’m probably just not the audience for this. Oh well.
71. “Typical Male” – Tina Turner: From an initial glance at this song’s title, I assumed it would be a kiss-off anthem of sorts – “typical male” doing his loved one wrong, that sort of thing. It turns out that it’s actually more of a catchy seduction tune than anything else. The production is smooth and glossy, yet understated to its advantage; moreover, Tina Turner gives off a good performance, as always. As for the song, though… meh. I can’t find much to dig my claws into – I guess I like the cool clanging effect that pops in between lines in the verses. But otherwise, this is just a pretty sub-par R&B tune that doesn’t leave very much of an impression. Let’s move on…
70. “Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)” – Mike + the Mechanics: So this actually was the breakthrough single from Mike + the Mechanics – and now I’m wishing that this was my introduction to the band instead of the aforementioned “Miracle”! From the slow, brooding intro, the synthesizers on this track give an impeccably glossy atmosphere that permeates through the entirety of the record. On top of this, there is a pretty brilliant guitar solo after the second chorus that just sounds so moody and beautifully 80s. Lyrically… yeah, this is another Cold War-themed tune. These lines are brimming with an explicit sense of anxiety (“Don’t believe the church and state and everything they tell you”), which is all the more heightened by the spookiness of the production. And once the backup vocals kick in… well, that’s just something that needs to be heard to be believed. I would state that this was the most unique-sounding track on this entire list if we hadn’t already covered “Life in a Northern Town”, but it sure is up there. This rules!
69. “Why Can’t This Be Love” – Van Halen: Despite having achieved a number-one hit in 1984 with “Jump”, Van Halen never were the type of band to have a very successful crossover into the pop charts. This changed when the band replaced their longtime lead vocalist David Lee Roth with newcomer Sammy Hagar. I’m not the biggest fan of Van Halen as a whole – but I’ve got to give it up for the Hagar era for at least annoying me far less often than Roth’s contributions. I actually dig the guitar sound of this particular single, especially that main riff, and Hagar has enough energy to keep up with the general vibe of the tune. The lyrics, of course, are lacking, with the line, “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time” being especially egregious. But overall, it’s okay. Van Halen have never been about creating anything beyond the sleazy sing-a-long rock anthem, and at least this one has a little more meat on its bones to work with than usual. (Their follow-up single, “Dreams”, is for the record probably my favorite Van Halen song ever – I recommend that one!)
68. “Word Up!” – Cameo: “Word Up!” was the first major hit single from Cameo, but the band had already been making music for several years at this point. Personally, I’m a pretty big fan of their fifth album from 1980 Cameosis, which displays a perfect blending of 70s funk silliness and classy 80s R&B stylings. But as I said, “Word Up!” was the song that most associate them with – and it’s pretty fun! Vocalist Larry Blackmon has a pretty infectious twang to his voice that gives the song some added funky edge, especially suitable for the speak-sing nature of the melody line. In general, though, I think the backing instrumental is a tad too bland, especially in comparison to the cool, silly foreground. The band were definitely taking cues from Prince at this point, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a fun, energetic club jam in its own right. I would gladly give this a spin any night of the week! (Their follow-up single “Candy” is almost completely the opposite – the vocals are lacking, but the R&B production is absolutely to die for. Check that one out too!)
67. “Who’s Johnny” – El Debarge: First and foremost, I’d just like to introduce the album sleeve for this single, which I just find hilarious for some reason. Anyway, this is El Debarge’s only major pop hit apart from the rest of his tunes with Debarge. It’s got a tad bit of the Latin flair that encompassed his hits with the family group, such as a punchy rhythm and subtle horns. In general, I think it’s pretty adorable, even if the cuteness of the beat and melody (especially the “Who is Johnny?” hook) don’t exactly match the tone of the lyrics. It was written for the Short Circuit soundtrack and definitely feels like a soundtrack cut but somehow, I don’t mind this as much as many of the others. Something about its polished positivity is kind of infectious – manufactured, sure, but still charming. I doubt I’ll remember this one much once I get through the rest of the list, but I don’t even mind that it was a top three hit and I’d gladly let it play whenever it pops up!
66. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” – John Cougar Mellencamp: On Mellencamp’s album Scarecrow, this song is officially subtitled as “A Salute to 60’s Rock”. Immediately I thought, “Oh, you too?”. Seriously, I thought the obsession with the 1960s would be fully done by now, especially since there are numerous threads of trends that have flourished by now and would come to define the decade as a whole. But nope, Mellencamp is here to once again pay homage to this blissful decade long past. Honestly, this attempt probably feels more genuine than most – the sound is certainly captured, especially in the breezy chorus that seems to capture a much more simpler time. This actually feels more like a song that Mellancamp wrote and performed with his friends, not something that would be released as a marketable single. I guess the genuine love for the 60s encompassed in these lyrics and sonic qualities resonated with enough people to send it all the way to number-two! Truthfully, I’m not complaining – this is the most fun I’ve had with a Mellencamp single thus far, and even if it is highly derivative, I’d be damned if this isn’t his strongest single overall (at least so far). R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.!
65. “Living in America” – James Brown: For James Brown, after this point the rest of the 80s – and the rest of his life, really – would be marred by media coverage of his drug abuse, domestic disputes, and scandal after scandal. But for a brief time in the 80s (coinciding with the aforementioned 60s appraisal), he was experiencing a bit of a comeback period. This song in particular was huge for its usage in Rocky IV as a sort of theme song for Apollo Creed. Nothing he released in this period ever really captured the unique energy he emitted in his heyday, but boy did this single try. Dan Hartman’s production is replete with pounding drums, punchy horns, vibrant backup singers, and one hell of a saxophone solo. Those seemed to have been big in ’85 and ’86! Yet, I can’t help but feel that this song never really quite gets it all the way. Brown’s performance is tolerable, but it’s pretty passé at this point, especially considering what he was previously capable of. Also, this tends to fall in line with the America worship songs on this era I just can’t stand. In any case, I guess there are worse final top ten hits to go off on.
64. “Perfect Way” – Scritti Politti: Uh… what is this? It’s so strange being so familiar with so many of these songs, and then stumbling upon a tune that was undoubtedly popular yet also inexplicably erased from history. Honestly, this just sounds really crazy to me. These lyrics are filled with words not too often found in pop music, and placed together they don’t make a lick of sense. It’s almost as if this vocalist was making up the words at the drop of a hat, with lines like,“You gotta conscience compassion; you got a way with the word” and, “You want to message a confession; you want to martyr me, too”. Just… huh? In any case, none of this matters anyway, because the backing synth instrumental is cranked up so highly the vocals are completely drowned out. It doesn’t matter if there is some deep meaning hidden in there – the fact is, it’s so well hidden, it’s practically disappeared. Yeah, this is weird, I’m sorry. Maybe I just need to listen to more Scritti Politti, but this just isn’t doing it for me.
63. “I’m Your Man” – Wham!: Wham! had a very successful but shockingly brief run – this song would be their final single to break into the top five before George Michael would take his solo career in a decidedly more ‘adult’ direction. And already signs of this were beginning to show – instead of the vague, universal themes of love and heartbreak in their previous hits, this song took on sex (“When I’m turned on, if you want me, I’m your man”). Taking cues from “Freedom” – which already took a bunch of cues from 60s-era Motown – this song is about as fresh and fun on the exterior that one would expect from a Wham! tune. When straying further than that, though, this is probably my least favorite from the group thus far. It relies too much on mindless repetition for my liking and although Michael always puts on a hell of a performance, here it sounds like he’s phoning it in more than usual. I’ll be fine just pressing skip on this one… unfortunately.
62. “Your Love” – The Outfield: So… this song is complicated for me. For one thing, I can’t deny its fun. I’ve obnoxiously belted this song at many a karaoke night, and it’s probably form-fitted for this exact scenario. The guitar-and-drums set up is perfectly polished, the lead vocalist is charismatic enough to keep this groove going, and the melody as a whole feels goddamn timeless. But… well, let’s just say I’m having flashbacks to “Sister Christian”. If you pay too much attention to these lyrics, you realize it’s really just about a sleazy married guy who wants to sleep with a close friends (presumedly) while his wife is away. The opening lines are fun to sing, but the line, “You know I like my girls a little bit older” feels especially ‘pickup artist’-esque. The later line, “You know I’d do anything for you” could also be read as creepily manipulative, especially in the dating climate nowadays. But I can’t help it – the chorus is so short and simple, and drawing out that, “Toniiiight” just… feels good. I think what really ties it up for me is the outro after the final chorus, when the backup band solemnly sings, “Lose your love…” amongst a flurry of sweet guitars and the leader’s continued yelping. This is what dumb, fun 80s AOR is all about, warts and all.
61. “All Cried Out” – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam: Yikes. Once again, I’m conflicted – but for different reasons. So, my mom came of age in the 80s and the freestyle scene was (and continues to be) her shit. Thanks to her, I learned about so many freestyle artists and songs, and the genre of music as a whole tends to contain a bunch of Latinx representation. For that, I’m really thankful. I have no idea if she reads my site, but in case she does… sorry, Mom. I know you raised me from a young age to love and respect the dynamic force of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and I’m sure I’ll find something from them to review more positively at a future time. As for this, though… no. This ballad is drab, dull, boring, and a bunch of other adjectives that basically amount to the negative. I’m not at all convinced that Lisa Lisa and her backup guy are feeling an ounce of heartache they are singing about; more that they’re just singing words from a page – and badly, at that. The production is also generic and… ugh. I hate this. Sorry mom!!!
60. “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” – Jermaine Stewart: Jermaine Stewart is a goddamn saint for releasing this single. In an age where the AIDS crisis was running rampant among gay men (especially gay Black men) and the US government had only barely acknowledged the disease a year prior (and doing practically nothing else about it), Stewart took it upon himself to make a bold statement. While celebrating sexual modesty may seem antiquated and even shameful nowadays, this was a pretty important power move in order to represent a community largely exterminated by an awful ailment. I especially love how celebrator this sounds despite it all – “We could dance and party all night / And drink some cherry wine, uh-huh”. It’s a song about staying alive despite it all, even if at face value it doesn’t really amount to much more than a typical 80s party jam. This would be Stewart’s only major hit on the pop charts – sadly, he himself would die from AIDS-related health complications in 1997. What a hell of a legacy to leave behind.
59. “Take Me Home Tonight” – Eddie Money: And now, back to the bone-headed AOR. Eddie Money, as I mentioned before, isn’t a favorite of mine, but to be fair this is probably one of his better songs. The gloomy synths mesh surprisingly well with his sunny electric guitar, and the transition from the first verse to chorus is pretty satisfying. And that chorus isn’t all that bad either – “Take me home to-night!” is so much fun to sing in a crowded karaoke bar, for sure. But it’s hard to deny its clumsiness, especially in its middling lyrical content (“Anticipation’s running through me / Let’s find the key and turn this engine on”). And I’m all for bringing back Ronnie Spector to sing her classic chorus from “Be My Baby” – but what are the ends? Each time she comes up, I feel like I’m taken completely out of the mood the song has so elaborately set up. If anything, it makes me want to turn off the song and give a listen to the Ronettes! Anyway, by Eddie Money standards, this is just fine.
58. “Nasty” – Janet Jackson: Every year in the 80s seems to have at least one new act I’m itching to talk about. 1984 had Madonna, 1985 had Wham!… and this year is the year of Janet Jackson. Seriously, if you haven’t given a listen to Jackson’s breakthrough album Control, go do that right away. “Nasty” is definitely one of the highlights of the album, with a large part of its awesomeness coming from legendary production from production duo – wait for it – Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis! Told ya we’d be returning to them later. Anyway, these synth riffs are just so groovy, especially when paired with those punchy drums and cool, urban rhythm. This is yet another predecessor to the New Jack swing movement, highlighting its importance even more. But I think what makes this track truly shiny is Jackson’s presence. She definitely makes herself with her fierce personality and aggressive edge, with no intention of letting any man cut her down with their unconsciously sexist intentions. This song is just empowering and fun in all the right levels – how could anyone hate this??
57. “Talk to Me” – Stevie Nicks: I just can’t seem to come across another Stevie Nicks single that I enjoy on the same level as “Edge of Seventeen”. I guess that’s tough to come by, given how timeless that song is, but I would think that an alumni of the school of Fleetwood Mac would continue to have a fruitful career. Unfortunately, this one leaves the littlest impression of them all, so far. Nicks’s voice never fails to make my heart swell, and this one is no exception… but still, there’s nothing much else here. The production is nice and glossy and even the lyrics are pretty nice (“Though we lay face to face and cheek to cheek / Our voices stray from the common ground where they could meet / The walls run high, to veil a swelling tear”). But still… I just wish there was more here to work with. Better luck next time, lady.
56. “What You Need” – INXS: INXS certainly had better singles than “What You Need” (we’ll get to talking about those soon enough), but “What You Need” isn’t bad of a kickoff at all! The guitars are amped up wonderfully, the saxophone does its trick and does it well, and Michael Hutchence plays off the rockstar swagger with so much confidence and charisma, it’s hard not to follow the wave. Sure, the lyrics basically amount to a whole lotta nothing (“Ain’t no sense in all your crying; pick it up and throw it into shape”), but like I said – they’re heading for bigger, better things soon enough. Even though this does little more but accomplish what’s needed to fill up adequate radio time, it’s a pretty fun, groovy three-and-a-half minutes nonetheless!
55. “The Sweetest Taboo” – Sade: Nothing like a little Sade to come back into the charts to mix things up a bit. While this song isn’t quite as legendary as “Smooth Operator”, it’s still got the poppy jazz touches and smooth, sleek rhythm that makes all of their songs so damn sexy. I especially love the emphasis on full, lush keys and bass guitar, veering away from the sax-induced route that so many bands seem to be undertaking these days. Sade Adu, once again, delivers mightily with her voice as smooth as silk. Unlike “Smooth Operator”, I can stand for this record to be a tad shorter, but that doesn’t mean that the instrumentation here is any less compelling. If anything, this would be the one track I would love to watch a love performance of, if only to experience the array of improvisation I’m sure would occur during the final outro. Nothing else of note to really mention here – this is just awesome!
54. “Invisible Touch” – Genesis: And now for the first number-one single of the list – woohoo! Additionally, this is also Genesis’s first and only number-one hit, thanks in part to the star power of Phil Collins. I’ll cover this in more depth in my project to write about every number-one single. But essentially, highlights include the interesting synth production and Collins performance… although this whole song might be a bit more autopilot than I would prefer. Even the key change near the end feels tacked on. It’s definitely a by-the-numbers radio tune but, I dunno – it’s okay.
53. “If You Leave” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: I’ve always head-paired this song with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, which makes sense considering that both were used to sign off separate John Hughes films. Anyway, while the latter is definitely the superior song in my eyes, this one is not without its strengths. The synths in this song are just beautiful, especially with the glittering notes that chime in during the second half of each verse. The melodic electro-violins that pop in during the chorus are also awesome, and I love the wordless vocalizations of the outro. And since its 1986, there for sure must be a sax solo (if only a brief one). The lyrics tend to chase its own tail, but they’re pretty endearing nonetheless. Although I’ve always preferred OMD at the dawn of their career (“Electricity” rules!), I’ll always hold a soft spot in my heart for this glamorous little tune.
52. “Crush on You” – The Jets: The first time I heard this song was as a cover from Aaron Carter (sorry about my age!). Nowadays, I see this original recording as a sweet little slice of bubblegum pop by way of 1980s drum machine production. I’m mostly a fan of freestyle music, mainly cause I grew up with it, and this definitely falls in that league. Nonetheless, it feels a bit too tame to feel like true freestyle – if that makes sense. Yes, the Jets are a family band from Minneapolis so while they might have lifted some inspiration from Prince, they could never be even slightly as provocative and sensual. Yet this edge is something that I feel is a prerequisite to the urban flair and culture of freestyle music as a whole. I don’t know – as more examples from the genre pop up in this project, I’ll make myself more clear. But for now, while I don’t hate this song by any means, it just feels way too safe and fluffy for me to give it much attention. Moving on.
51. “Two of Hearts” – Stacey Q: Oh, Hi-NRG – the mildly brainless melding of disco and freestyle. This song is sweet and catchy and everything, but there’s something about it that is just ever-so-slightly off-putting for me. Listen to the very first few seconds of the song – consisting of a flat, repetitive electronic drum beat followed by, “I-I-I-I-I need, I need you” – and you can immediately see why. This is a highly manufactured pop tune, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the robotic quality of this particular tune keeps me from wasting my energy by dancing to it. The chorus is just so cold and lifeless to me (“Two of hearts – two hearts that beat as one”), although this is saved by the lovely melody that pops in during the second verse bridge (“I got this feeling that you’re going to stay”). I guess I can chalk my distance to this track up to never having lived in the 80s – I’m sure this was perfectly charming in its day! And hey, it’s pretty charming now. I’m sure if I had a few drinks in me, I’d crank this one all the way up to eleven.
50. “Amanda” – Boston: And another number-one single – both so far have been by rock bands! And like Genesis, this was also Boston’s only chart-topper. Coincidences, ahoy! Anyway, the 80s seemed to have been the decade of the song title consisting only of a woman’s name (I’ve counted eleven so far!). This must have surely been Boston’s key to the top of the pop charts, considering they’ve been generating hits now for about a decade. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve also taken the ever-popular rock ballad approach this time around. Once again, I’ll go more into this number-one single at a later date – but essentially, I find this to be just the right amounts of cheese and genuine passion. And this is despite that “eyes/realize” rhyme scheme…
49. “Walk of Life” – Dire Straits: So now that we’ve finally cracked into the top half of this list, we’re sure to run across the true hits – the ones that have stood the test of time and can still be heard on oldies stations to this day. Dire Straits has had a pretty strange track record for me thus far – “Money For Nothing” is enough for me to turn my nose at these folks forever. Yet, I’m forced to continue marching on with this challenge, so here I am. The best part of “Walk of Life” is easily that iconic synth riff which, once it picks up, is slightly reminiscent of the Tex-Mex dance songs my grandpa would play for me as a kid. So in that sense, it’s got this concrete sense of nostalgia attached to it I can’t let go of. As for the rest of the song… eh. It’s catchy, but in a way that feels like it was manufactured to be so – as if Mark Knopfler and folks are holding a gun to your head demanding you to tap along. It feels mildly Springsteen-esque, but without half of the talent or any of the genuine Heartland warmth. I dunno – I don’t hate this one, but it feels like little more than end credits music to me.
48. “Manic Monday” – The Bangles: Somehow, I always forget that this was actually The Bangles’ first major breakthrough hit, not “Walk Like an Egyptian”. I also occasionally forget that was yet another pop song penned by Prince, as it contains none of the funk elements I would associate with his compositions – then again, I think only he could write a line like, “I was kissin’ Valentino by a crystal-blue Italian stream”. Anyway, I think this song is just fine, with the blissful pianos and angelic background harmonizing being far-and-away its strongest elements. The rhythm is a bit clunky, as is the rhyme scheme in the chorus, but the group performs it more than competently and make for a nice slice of radio-friendly pop-rock.
47. “Words Get in the Way” – Miami Sound Machine: And this is also not what I would expect from Miami Sound Machine! I suspect that this means that we’ll encounter their stronger, more uptempo stuff later. Anyway, Gloria Estefan’s singing here is certainly superior to that in “Bad Boy” – I think she does a pretty good job, in fact. Instrumentally, it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill kind of slow jam/ballad, but somehow the stiff keyboards come off slightly warmer than expected here. It does sort of get a bit clunky at the end; despite it being just long enough, I don’t feel quite satisfied with its abrupt ending. In any case, while I don’t think I would willingly give this a listen, it’s fine!
46. “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” – Robert Palmer: For the record, I much prefer the original of this track by Cherrelle than Robert Palmer’s cover. For one thing, the former version greatly benefits from production by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who also wrote the song). Sure, Palmer’s version has the sleek, polished production from the legendary Bernard Edwards, but it’s missing a whole lot of the raw club-funk that made the original really pop. But let’s stop comparing and contrasting, and instead talk about the version that hit number-two on the Hot 100. Instrumentally, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, from that bass lick, to the bombastic synths, to the Niles Rodgers-esque guitar backing. As for Palmer himself… I’ve certainly heard better performances from him. I can’t say I really dig his low baritone flexing quite so much. Then again, he does sound a lot more comfortable than in, say, “Bad Case of Loving You”, so that’s a plus. Anyway, this groove and melody to this tune is wonderful and Palmer really fits into this cover version like a hand in a glove. I like it!
45. “Let’s Go All the Way” – Sly Fox: Uh… somehow, I was expecting this song to be so much sexier than it turned out being. I haven’t come across a song title this misleading since Bread’s “Make It With You”. Seriously, though, I’m really not sure what to think of this one. Those synthesizers are loud, clumsy, and oh so garish, and the melody is practically non-existent, with the duo tunelessly emitted each line in the verse with the exact rhythm as the “sitting on a cornflake” line in “I Am the Walrus”. It’s clear that they are trying to build off of the trend of “socially/politically conscious pop music with R&B influence” springing up in this era, but the problem is none of these lines everr really go far enough. “Working in a factory eight days a week” is a nice setup, but this potential is quickly squandered by other meaningless lines like, “Cartoon capers happen in reality; rich man, poor man living in a fantasy”. I don’t know – there just isn’t too much here to return to, and I can’t imagine anyone returning to this for any real substantial fix.
44. “No One Is to Blame” – Howard Jones: Alright, so I guess Howard Jones is the guy who’s made all those pop songs I’ve always heard but never known the name of. As when I finally discovered the name of “Things Can Only Get Better” when I covered it the previous year, I can now finally connect that piano line in the chorus to this song. Basically, though, this song is beautiful. Its lyrics are interesting in that they are composed of a variety of metaphors I can only describe as the sad counterpart to Smokey Robinson’s in “The Way You Do the Things You Do”. While the latter song sings, “You’ve got a smile so bright, you know you could’ve been a candle”, Howard Jones laments, “You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat / You can feel the cushion, but you can’t have a seat”. The feeling of unrequited love is painful and depressing, and I think Jones zeroes in on these emotions so accurately and with an impressive amount of dignity. Backed by little more than a piano and muted drums, he croons along to the beat of a million broken hearts, all perfectly encapsulated in that beautiful choral piano line. Not to mention that “no one is to blame” is the most perfect way to sum up these feelings – even if it may not make the hurt go away entirely, at least it is mitigated if only temporarily.
43. “What Have You Done For Me Lately” – Janet Jackson: And now for the polar opposite of that previous song, at least in attitude. While Jam & Lewis’s production on “Nasty” only slightly overshadows this one, it’s hard to deny that groove. The drums are pleasantly punchy and the synthesizers are on equal footing in terms of energy and vitality. And here, Jackson’s feisty personality is exerted even further, as she applies the titular question to inquire whether her her current bit of arm candy is worth her time. Honestly, everything I’ve stated about “Nasty” could almost completely apply here (and most of Control in general). I would argue that the melody line here isn’t nearly as strong, although that “Oooh-ooh-ooh-yeah” in the chorus more than makes up for it. Seriously, Janet was an absolute queen from the get-go; given that this was the lead single from Control, I could only imagine how many minds were blown upon its release.
42. “Danger Zone” – Kenny Loggins: By 1986, Kenny Loggins had pretty much cemented himself as the soundtrack guy, having completed successful theme songs for Caddyshack, Footloose, and now Top Gun. To this day, “Danger Zone” is remembered as one of Loggins’s signature songs, and I doubt that he can get through a concert these days without ripping that one out. It’s too bad, though, since it’s been clear that Loggins has an impressive vocal range and the limited qualities of these songs means that he’s never quite able to really belt one out. You get a bit of it in the bridge (“get it up as high as you can go…!”) and in the outro, but not much else. It’s just a shame, that’s all. Still, this song has a nice groove to it, some rip-roaring guitars, and features a simple, dumb chorus that is, nonetheless, undeniably sticky. It’s overproduced as hell, but that’s what makes it so fun, I think. I’ll take it!
41. “True Colors” – Cyndi Lauper: Usually with these lists, it usually starts around #40 where all the huge hits and classics start to creep up. From the looks of these past few songs, though, it looks like this year might be a bit more loaded than most! Anyway, this is the first non-rock band number-one single to pop up on this list thus far. I’ll write more on this at a later date, but basically this is a change in tone from what we’ve heard from Lauper thus far. While similar to “Time After Time” in the sense of it being an inspirational ballad, this is the most R&B that we’ve heard from her thus far. It’s sweet, tender, and among her best performances – and that’s saying something!
40. “Conga” – Miami Sound Machine: Now this is what I’m talking about! The Latin flavor, the uptempo rhythm, those delectable horns – these are the elements that I’ve always associated with Miami Sound Machine up until starting this list. “Conga” is definitely their signature tune and it’s hard not to see why. The spitfire hook challenges casual listeners to sing along, much like Estefan herself challenges partiers to a dance-off. The combination of conga drums, piano, and electronic influences makes for a truly unique, absolutely infectious little tune. To be fair, I don’t think I could stomach more than two or three listens of this tune in a twenty-four hour period (the line between catchy and obnoxious is very thin here), but it sure is fun to sing along to in the meantime!
39. “Dancing on the Ceiling” – Lionel Richie: Since it is the mid-80s, basically anything Lionel Richie touches at this point will attain profit. Interestingly enough, though, I sense that 1986 is the year where the thin veneer of coolness that Richie had been barely hanging onto truly begins to scrape away. The huge, cinematic synthesizers at the start of “Dancing on the Ceiling” should be an indicator – they’re just so overblown and out of place, almost as if they’re trying to prove something. The guitars later on further prove this. Richie himself isn’t bad here, but once again, he’s so far out of his element. These lyrics are absolutely inane (“The only thing we want to do tonight / Is go ’round and ’round, and turn upside down / Come on! Let’s get down!”) and Richie is very obviously singing each one as a mere cash grab move and nothing more. Plus it goes on forever. This isn’t quite as bad of a party song as “All Night Long” and I can actually see myself enjoying this one given the mood. But it’ll never be more than ankle-deep amusement, nonetheless.
38. “Venus” – Bananarama: Oh man. So, I should remind y’all here that I do quite enjoy Bananarama’s 1983 hit “Cruel Summer”. It’s just the right amounts of cool, moody, and sugar-infused pop goodness to hit all the right buttons for me. But now here comes the studio team of Stock-Aitken-Waterman – most widely known for their Hi-NRG productions – and the proposition for the group to cover Dutch band Shocking Blue’s sole US chart-topper. And, oh boy I hate it. Where “Cruel Summer” was warm and inviting, “Venus” is cold and over-calculated. I’ll write more about it some other time, but just expect this to occupy a spot on my playlist for Worst of ’86.
37. “Something About You” – Level 42: Remember how I mentioned that Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” reminded me of Muzak and grocery stores? Well, I get that same impression from this song, especially with the synths and wordless vocalizations that introduce the song. It can’t be a coincidence, though, that both of these songs remain among my favorite tunes of the 80s. Don’t get me wrong – this is cheesy as hell, in melody and in lyrics, and pretty much define everything flat and synthetic about pop music from the decade. Nonetheless, when that falsetto bridge kicks in (“Drawn into the stream of undefined illusion / Those diamond dreams, they can’t disguise the truth”), my heart just swells. Whatever the word is for that undefinable sense of nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced… that’s the feeling I get when I listen to this song. And of course, those cool-ass synths and bass don’t hurt either.
36. “Mad About You” – Belinda Carlisle: “Mad About You” is Belinda Carlisle’s first solo single upon leaving the Go-Go’s and… well, I like it. It’s a blissful little love song with tight verses, strong production (replete with good ol’ guitars and drums), and a wonderful performance from Carlisle herself. Her voice has always been one of my favorite aspects of the Go-Go’s and hearing her sing alongside completely different backing really highlights how important her contribution was to the band. She does a great job here – but still, there still remains the nagging feeling that there is something missing here. It feels very much like a debut solo single, in the sense that there is plenty of wiggle room for growth here. Nonetheless, it’s a solid step forward and I’m excited to see what else she has to offer!
35. “Live to Tell” – Madonna: Another number-one single! This one being Madonna’s third, which is quite a milestone. I pretty much agree with the consensus that this is among Madonna’s strongest singles of her entire career. Not only is the backing instrumental lush and lovely, but Madonna puts on one hell of a performance and her lyricism here is among her most layered and introspective we’ve heard thus far. It really is one hell of a track, and I can’t wait ’til I get to write more about it in depth.
34. “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” – Glass Tiger: This… doesn’t seem right. This sounds like typical AOR in the instruments and vocals… yet the rhythm is just a little too bouncy, the melody a little too poppish. This comes off as a weird hybrid of stadium rock and shallow pop sentimentality. But that’s not where the problems end. The lyrics here are beyond lazy, with “oh, oh, oh”s added in like placeholders that never got replaced. The chorus sounds like it was spliced in from a completely different song (I think it’s even in a different key…?). The backup horns are more annoying than that in a Chicago track. Oh yeah, and Bryan Adams is also here for the ride. Just skip this empty piece of garbage!
33. “These Dreams” – Heart: Another number-one single – and Heart’s very first! “These Dreams” was written by the collaborative team of Martin Page and Bernie Taupin, so the cheesy sentimentality is certainly amped up on this one. Nonetheless, both ladies of Heart bring some levity to these lyrics and Nancy Wilson performs wonderfully for her first single on lead vocals. The instrumentation is lovely, with subtle tropical tinges in the mix, and even though this is a little too mild and mellow for my liking, it’s a relatively nice power ballad nevertheless.
32. “When I Think of You” – Janet Jackson: And now for Janet Jackson’s first chart-topper! For me personally, this is one of the highlights of Control. Jam & Lewis’s production is still sharp and radical as ever, but Jackson brings some vulnerability and good ol’ fashioned romance to the table. The melody is sweet and airy, yet one is still convinced that this is the same woman who put out “What Have You Done For Me Lately”. This is the perfect track for those who found Jackson’s “tough” image a bit too intimidating for their liking – or, y’know, anyone who just enjoys a nice R&B love ditty.
31. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Goin” – Billy Ocean: I don’t know about Billy Ocean, man. I don’t want to be mean, but there’s got to be a reason why his songs don’t get very much play on the 80s throwback stations. To me, this just comes off as a less interesting version of “Caribbean Queen” or even “Loverboy”. It’s got a nice groove and it’s about as fun and breezy as one would expect from a Billy Ocean track. But after some time, these singles just tend to go through one ear and out the other. It’s clear that Ocean is talented – he’s just a little too consistently bland is all. It’s probably just me, though.
30. “You Give Love a Bad Name” – Bon Jovi: Up next, the first number-one hit from Bon Jovi! Now, I recently reviewed one of Bon Jovi’s newer albums (uh, it was bad), and now I’m tempted to go back into their discography to see if their classic songs hold up at all. Compared to everything else on this list, this song is overblown as all hell – the yell-along chorus is just ridiculous, as are lines like, “Your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye”. Nonetheless, there’s something just so admirable about how stupidly fun it all is. I briefly rediscovered this quality of glam metal when I re-listened to Poison for another review, and now I’m all the more excited for the genre boom these next couple of years.
29. “Papa Don’t Preach” – Madonna: And another number-one single for Madonna, this one being her fourth! That’s so cool! This one also got quite a lot of buzz in its day for the (assumed) themes of teenage pregnancy and abortion in its lyrics. I figure that the 80s granted a greater sensitivity for these kinds of themes in the media, but as for now, I never quite saw it as much of a big deal as everyone else did. It’s a fine song, just nothing more than that. True Blue is an album full of phenomenal tracks and is among Madonna’s very best in her career – nonetheless, this is one of the weak ones from that record. I’ll talk more about it later, though.
28. “Rock Me Amadeus” – Falco: I guess this is where all the number-one singles of the year are jammed – there are thirty of them, by the way. This has got to be the weirdest of all of them, given that it is a German synthpop number about Mozart. And yeah, it’s completely in German, which meant that in order for it to have achieved the top spot, the vast majority of American listeners had to have no idea what the lyrics entailed! Its golden ticket has to have been that it is catchy as all hell – it did top the charts for three weeks, after all, which is the most of any song we’ve seen so far this year. I understand some German, so this will be a lot of fun to write about in depth on a later date.
27. “Take My Breath Away” – Berlin: Oh hey, I already wrote about this one! Just click on the song title right there to read my full thoughts on this wonderful song. But basically, this single is completely made by Giorgio Morodor’s wonderfully layered production and Terri Nunn’s amazing vocal delivery. This has got to be one of the best love songs of the whole decade – I know I love it quite a bit.
26. “I Can’t Wait” – Nu Shooz: And here’s another song whose success could mostly be correlated to how damn catchy it is. Those signature barking synths are the part that everyone remembers, but I personally love the more shimmering tones surrounding the verses, as well as that warm, thumping bass. This song isn’t anything to really be amazed by, especially in terms of lyrics (“Happiness is so hard to find / Hey baby, tell me what is on your mind”), but I can’t say I’ve ever been annoyed by it, nor tempted to switch it off whenever it begun. It has the kind of sterile, manufactured kind of feel to it I’ve noticed in songs like “Funkytown” or “Two of Hearts”, but the backing instrumental and pure catchiness of the whole thing keeps it from being annoying at all. Once again, nothing amazing, but it’s so bright and cuddly I can’t help but be absolutely charmed by it!
25. “Human” – The Human League: Where a change of producer transformed kitschy synth-pop band Berlin into a something moodier and more aesthetically pleasing, similar liberties were taken to give the Human League a more mature sound. Indeed, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis bare their claws once again with this song, a melancholic, introspective glance at infidelity set atop crashing waves of sparkling synths and crashing drums. And with the talk-bridge by vocalist Joanne Catherall (“I forgive you, now I ask the same of you / While we were apart, I was human too”), I’m fully convinced that this is a kind of grown-up version of “Don’t You Want Me” – which is just so, so awesome. I’m glad this went to number-one!
24. “Sara” – Starship: With “Sara”, Starship are two-for-two with both their debut singles hitting the top spot (I know that “debut” is questionable; please don’t explain it to me). And after “Amanda”, this is also the second of two number-one singles named after women – three if you count “Venus”. Anyway, I gotta say that this song is a whole lot less interesting than “We Built This City”. There was a whole lot of interesting aspects of their debut single, while this just kinda chugs along as a pretty basic power ballad. The title is repeated far too many times to become anything substantial and even the verses are pretty weak (“Danger, in the game when the stakes are high / Branded, my heart was branded while my senses stood by”). Yeah, not impressed.
23. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel: Obviously this song is practically inseparable from its elaborate music video – I’m tempted to say that the video alone might be how it picked up enough traction to top the pop charts. However, the song alone is pretty impressive alone, if solely on a technical level. Gabriel brings along a slew of R&B and jazz influences to this otherwise pretty standard pop track, and the melding of it all makes for a pretty satisfying listening experience. Nonetheless, a lot of these sexual metaphors in the verses often come off as very cringe-worthy or just plain dumb (“fruit cage”? Really??). For the most part, though, I don’t mind these setbacks too much – it’s a good one!
22. “Holding Back the Years” – Simply Red: “Holding Back the Years” went to number-one this year, so it looks like I’ll be writing more about it later! Basically, the soft rock groove is pretty pleasant and although the frontman’s voice is a little too nasally for my liking, he puts on a pretty good performance regardless. Nonetheless, it takes a whole lot of waiting before this track does anything interesting and even its more notable aspects (the melodies, the sweet sax) are a bit of a disappointment. Oh well – it ain’t bad.
21. “Stuck With You” – Huey Lewis and the News: This song went to number-one for three whopping weeks and thus remains the biggest hit of Huey Lewis and the News’ whole career. Sadly, it seems like for the most part the group has gotten less and less interesting as time goes on. The sunshiny mood here is perfectly fine and even the vocal harmonies have some nice moments – but gosh is this song so empty. That chorus is especially inane: “Yes, it’s true, I’m so happy to be stuck with you / ‘Cause I can see that you’re happy to be stuck with me”. Snore! Let’s move on.
20. “Higher Love” – Steve Winwood: So we’ve now cracked into the top twenty of the year, and guess what? This song also made it to the top spot! L0oks like that’s pretty much all we’re gonna deal with from this point on. So there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in this track in the background – synths, drum machines, congas, Chaka Khan backing vocals, and Nile Rodgers backing guitar, to name a few. As a whole, though, it’s just a pretty competently made little bit of blue-eyed soul. I would expect this to be among the least interesting of Hall & Oates’s catalog… but it’s an enjoyable listen nevertheless.
19. “Kiss” – Prince and the Revolution: Okay, now we’re talking! So this hit the number-one spot for two weeks, and although I want to gush about this song from dusk ’til dawn, I’ll save my energy for the full-length review at a later date. But basically, the funk groove here is absolutely perfect and the song altogether is a full-blooded, hip-shaking good time. Prince absolutely oozes pure, unbridled sexuality from the very first seconds to the final chaotic falsetto bit at the end there. I mean, dear lord. There really was no one else like him in the world.
18. “Never” – Heart: Guess I spoke too soon – peculiarly, this song was ranked on this list above Heart’s subsequent chart-topper “These Dreams”, even though “Never” only peaked at number-four. I’m certainly not complaining in either case. Although Heart’s 80s comeback has gotten mixed reception as of late, I’ve always been a fan. There’s so little female-fronted AOR and certainly even less that had gotten sufficient radio and TV play. Heart were certainly pioneers in their own right for their particular brand of hard rock in the 70s, but the ability for them to reinvent their sound so successfully is just admirable. Anyway, this song is admittedly pretty cheesy, especially in its lyrics (“Stand up and turn around / Never let them shoot us down / Never!“). Still, that vocal melody stands its ground very well, certainly helped by the vocal prowess of Ann and Nancy Wilson. Also peculiar: the “whoah-oh” in the chorus is virtually identical to the chorus of the Emotions’ “Best of My Love”, which always throws me off. Maybe intentional? Who knows – it’s only a minor gripe anyway.
17. “Alive and Kicking” – Simple Minds: Following their chart-topper “Don’t You (Forget About Me”, Simple Minds tried their hand at a follow-up to pretty sufficient success! Compared to their chart-topper from the previous year, “Alive and Kicking” takes on a bit of a looser, less solemn tone with more room for experimentation. For the most part, the song ebbs and flows along pretty fine, with keyboard washes and classic guitar-and-drums moving things along. The lyrics aren’t anything to write home about (“What you gonna do when the love burns down? / What you gonna do when the flames go up?”), but it’s generally pretty fine. I do think that their decision for a gospel choir is a tad ridiculous and ill-fitting for the tone they’re trying to set up; the outro in particular seems too disjunctive to ignore. But besides this… it’s fine!
16. “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” – Billy Ocean: Leave it to Billy Ocean to top the charts with two separate songs eight words long each (it won’t be his last time, by the way). Anyway, there’s just not too much to think about with this one. It’s just another bland love ballad with brooding piano and a sentimental melody line. I know I should get used to Ocean’s blandness at this point, but this one is even worse in the fact that it doesn’t even rely on his fun, breezy mood he does so well. I am slightly fond of the “ooh ooh”s before the final chorus – but that’s just not gonna save this one.
15. “West End Girls” – Pet Shop Boys: Awesome! Yet another number-one single I’ve already written in depth about. At this rate, by the nineties I’ll have even more of these shiny links floating around in these Billboard overviews. Anyway, this is a very fitting homage to the dog-eat-dog nature of the deep, dark city – but with an added bit of smooth 80s flair. I’ve listened to quite a few Pet Shop Boys tracks through the years, yet I always find my way back to this one. They’ve rarely made anything quite as eerie, layered, and oh so compelling.
14. “Glory of Love” – Peter Cetera: Oh dear. Peter Cetera, as you may know, is longtime leader of formerly cool band Chicago. While I’ve always been relatively lukewarm on Chicago, one thing is certain: Cetera’s whiny, mousy voice was always a major thorn. This being his first solo single, he made the natural progression to adult contemporary and – yay, it’s awful! It’s not all awful – there are some interesting things going on in the instrumentation, specifically the guitars and keyboards. But once he goes on about being a “knight in shining armor”, my interest fades just as quickly as it came. I’ll further talk about this one later, though – it did reach number-one for two weeks, after all.
13. “Friends and Lovers” – Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson: And it only gets worse. This is yet another synth-laden soft pop duet on the charts, but holds the distinction of fame solely brought on by its connection to Days of Our Lives. And it sure as hell sounds like the typical stereotype of soap opera music – sterile, kitschy, disingenuously sentimental, and just poorly sung. Okay, Carl Anderson’s parts are about as decent as they come, but Gloria Loring unfortunately just can’t keep up. But that’s not even the worst part – that comes with the synthesizers on this track. Often the synths get so garish and obnoxious, it’s tough not to laugh at the second-hand embarrassment going on. At least this distraction is almost enough to draw our attention away from the utter dullness of the lyrics. Anyway, this is basically as bad as they come; it may be enough to quell the mild curiosity toward shitty 80s ballads, but otherwise it’s not worth anyone’s time.
12. “Secret Lovers” – Atlantic Starr: Because this seems to be the portion of the list infatuated with atypical romantic relationships, here’s yet another one! Except unlike the friends-with-benefits theme of “Friends and Lovers”, “Secrets Lovers” goes right for the throat with a bright, sunny ballad about straight-up infidelity. Okay, this one has some more bite going for it, namely with its keyboard groove interplaying with fun percussion and a smooth R&B vocal melody. The vocalists of Atlantic Starr actually have some interesting qualities about them – okay, they’re not great, but for a casual pop song you could do so much worse. The lyrics are pretty standard for a song of this nature, but I do find the verse about realizing what time it was in the middle of making love to be mildly hilarious. Anyway, the song is not that interesting at face value and there isn’t too much digging to do to make it any more intriguing – but I can’t hate it too much.
11. “The Greatest Love of All” – Whitney Houston: Before the behemoth that was “I Will Always Love You”, this song was Houston’s most successful hit, having topped the charts for three weeks this year. And that’s not to say this song isn’t a behemoth in its own right, although the grandiose quality practically comes entirely from Houston herself. Sure the twinkly keyboards are a pleasant touch to the record, but once she belts out, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow”, the world seems to stop. And that’s not even mentioning the dynamic mid-chorus key change. I don’t fault anyone for thinking this song is treacly kitsch (it is), but I’ve always loved it.
10. “Addicted to Love” – Robert Palmer: Breaking into the top ten now, and hey look – it’s the fifth song in a row with “love” in its title! This song is fresh as hell, with that repeated keyboard line sounding like a pop-infused version of the “Glory Days” riff. Robert Palmer is usually a bit of a nonpresence for me, but his performance here is pretty strong, feisty, and (dare I say) funky. It’s probably thanks to the music video that this song was able to make such a dent in popular culture, but I’ve never been a huge fan of it… Anyway, more on this song later. But I wouldn’t sneer at its addition to any 80s throwback list.
9. “Kyrie” – Mr. Mister: The most visible artist in the top ten of this year is pop rockers Mr. Mister, a fact that I never would have been able to guess in a million years. Anyway, both of their big singles went to number-one this year, although this is far-and-away the least interesting of the two. There’s a relatively decent synth line backing it all, but considering that the main hook of the lyrics “kyrie eleison” translates roughly to, “lord, have mercy”, the song as a whole is a bunch of nonsense. The melody line is bland and no one here really sounds like they’re trying very hard. I’d rather just move on.
8. “Burning Heart” – Survivor: And now for the second song from the Rocky IV soundtrack to make a splash this year, this one coming from former Rocky soundtrack alumnus! Seriously, I’m forever baffled by the fact that Survivor were never actually the one-hit wonders I’ve always taken them for. So far, though, “Eye of the Tiger” seems to be their only big single worth giving a damn about. Okay, maybe I’m being a little rough – this one is actually not too bad AOR, with a triumphant chorus that fits the atmosphere of a sports film soundtrack to a tee. The guitars chug along nicely and the track as a whole goes down pretty smoothly. Still, if you hadn’t told me this was Survivor, I wouldn’t have ever guessed. It sounds like every other run-of-the-mill area rock song, with generic lyrics and vocal delivery of such to boot. I guess I’d much rather give this a listen over “I Can’t Hold Back” or “The Search is Over”… but still, meh.
7. “Party All the Time” – Eddie Murphy: Throughout the 80s, Eddie Murphy was on top of the world and by 1986 we are all convinced that he could do no wrong. But then “Party All the Time” happened. Okay, okay, I shouldn’t get off on the wrong foot here. Truth be told, I could never understand the hate for this one – I mean, the retrospective hate. Since this shot all the way up to number-two, I could only assume that everyone and their grandparents loved this one in its day. The elephant in the room is that Eddie Murphy can’t sing, but for the most part this song doesn’t ask much from him on that front – although it is pretty painful to listen to him strain for the high notes (and especially that elongated note at the end of the second chorus – geezus). Still, Rick James’s production is smooth, funky, and very party-friendly. And I can’t deny the power of that hook either, which tends to get this song stuck in my head for hours. Overall, this song is probably the closest to a guilty pleasure to which I’m willing to assign that term.
6. “How Will I Know” – Whitney Houston: Strangely enough, this song is the direct follow-up to last year’s “Saving All My Love For You”, which must have been baffling to listeners considering how much different this sounds from that one. Still, like its predecessor, this one also topped the charts. The hook to this one is cheerful and bouncy, which is always a plus, but it’s also embarrassingly clear that Houston is squandering her talents on something pretty ankle-deep in sound and sentiment. It’s not the worst thing ever; just pretty disappointing compared to what I know she is capable of.
5. “Broken Wings” – Mr. Mister: Okay, just because I said that this song was the more interesting of Mr. Mister’s chart-toppers doesn’t mean it’s good! I’ve always hated this song and for reasons that I can’t quite pinpoint right this moment. Maybe it’s the dark, brooding, yet ultimately clunky synth production? Maybe it’s the forced, pushy vocal delivery by the lead singer? Maybe it’s the line, “You’re half of the flesh and blood makes me whole”? I’m opting for all of the above. But I’ll get more time to ponder this one with the full-length review. Just know that it makes my skin crawl.
4. “On My Own” – Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald: Whenever I read this title, I always secretly hope it will be a LaBelle-Mcdonald duet of the Les Misarables number – but I understand that’s all just wishful thinking. With as interesting as both vocalists have always been – and continue to be, even on this track! – this particular record just does nothing for me. The chorus line of, “On my own…” just kind of sits there with enormous room for growth but little attempt to move beyond those three simple notes. There are a few cool moments with their performances, but they aren’t nearly enough to save the song. This just disappoints me.
3. “I Miss You” – Klymaxx: Let’s detour a bit with some statistics on female representation in this year’s list, shall we? So, this year fares about as well as last year: thirty-six of these tracks are credited to women performers to some degree, with sixteen of these from singles by solo women artists. Overall, it’s only slightly more than a third of the list, but it’s a bit of a step forward nonetheless! Three of these tracks were credited to groups comprised entirely of women: “”Manic Monday”, “Venus”, and this track, “I Miss You” by all-female R&B group Klymaxx. Even more notable is that this song was also written and produced entirely by women – you almost never see that! As for the song itself… okay, it’s maudlin, dramatic, yet still a pretty basic heartbreak ballad at the core of it. At the same time, though, there’s no denying the loveliness in the background instrumental – particularly the keyboards, percussion, and acoustic guitar strumming subtly in the background of the action. While it’s hard to see myself revisiting this song once I finish this list… I’d like to have this one for myself, just one time.
2. “Say You, Say Me” – Lionel Richie: Another year, another Lionel Richie smash chart-topper. It’s gotten to the point where discovering the next Richie hit single only further adds to the developing mush of substanceless sound ever-growing in my brain. At the very least, though, the instrumentation is more interesting than most, with an out-of-nowhere rock breakdown that occurs right at the final third – only to just as quickly go back to the smooth R&B tempo of the rest of the song. It’s a weird one, though not a very interesting kind of weird. Not to mention that the lyrics just suck… but more on that bit at another time.
1. “That’s What Friends Are For” – Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder: Schmaltzy, yes – and yet. Dionne Warwick’s voice has always been a very pleasant, welcoming presence on the pop charts, and I’m so happy to see her make a return here. While she far-and-away steals the show here, the three other legends on this track hold their fair share of weight as well. This is basically the epitome of 80s smooth R&B ballads (and charity singles), this one covering broader ground of friendship, playing the role of this decade’s “I’ll Be There”. The clashing sentimentality of songwriters Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager somehow make a whole lot of sense here – overall, I just love how positive and cheery this is. Yet another guilty pleasure of sorts. The spoken parts near the end are a little bit much – but is there really anything more mid-80s than that??