FEATURE: We Were All Being Watched in 1984; Nobody Was Listening in 1986: Is I986 the Worst Year in Music History?!




We Were All Being Watched in 1984; Nobody Was Listening in 1986


ALL IMAGES/PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images 

Is I986 the Worst Year in Music History?!


THERE have been a few articles flowing…


that reflect on 1986 and how, well, none of us really liked the music! Look at the so-called ‘best-of-the-year’ lists and there are few albums from the pack we hold dear. I will come to some of the gem albums from 1986 but if you asked anyone to name a year in music that was a bit quiet, most of would probably gravitate towards the 1980s! Consider all the Pop geniuses that were around in the 1980s and they were not releasing material into the world. Michael Jackson brought Bad out in 1987; Prince did release Parade in 1986 but it would be another year before we saw the mighty Sign o’ the Times. In fact, many are being a bit cruel towards 1986. Prince’s Parade is considered masterful and Madonna released True Blue (in 1986) – another album that is seen as pretty damned good! Paul Simon unleashed the incredible Graceland and we had some other great albums in the form of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Whilst there are iconic albums that helped elevate 1986; it is hard to make up a top-ten that you actually like! Think about years like 1991, 1994 and 1997; throw in 1967 and even 2001 and you are not struggling to name some phenomenal albums – it is hard narrowing it down to a definitive top-twenty each year!


Look at albums that did come out in 1986 and it makes for some tough reading! For every Lifes Rich Pageant (R.E.M.), Raising Hell (Run-D.M.C.) and Different Light (The Bangles) there was a slew of dodgy and 1980s-ruining efforts. Nobody can claim The Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work is anything to shout about; Billy Idol’s Whiplash Smile is pretty awful and the less said about Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling the Better! Sure; we had Licensed to Ill from the Beastie Boys but Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks was a bit ho-hum. Elvis Costello did please with King of America but, again, there is little to rave about. Maybe that is the standard we set in past decades: unless there are bangers galore and classic albums spewing from every artist then we deem that year a failure. Look at the past few years and are they any stronger than 1986?! Perhaps a lot of the Pop artists were resting or releasing work that the public were adapting to. That horrible feeling and view we have of the 1980s – big hair and plastic Pop – was taking more of a stand and there was an odd sense of unease and lacking purpose. The big revolutions that were to come were not even in sight; the past glories were dead or dying: 1986 marks a big of a blot in the music landscape.



This article provides some viewpoints:

Music really WAS extra-awful in 1986.  According to a new study of 17,000 songs, that year was a low point in creativity and a high point in boredom. Too many drum machines and overuse of synthesizers led to too many similar-sounding songs.

The study also shows that there were three big revolutions  in pop music over fifty years.

  1964: The rise of guitar-based rock bands by the Beatles populated by members who wrote and performed their own songs.

  1986: The era of endless drum machines leading to a world that sounded like Duran Duran.

 1991: Hip hop enters the pop charts in a big way”.

1986 was (apparently) so dog-turd-awful that, in 1987, Newsnight dedicated a show to investigating its music! I do not have a clip of the show but the fact a respected news show felt the lack of invention and fun in 1986’s music is a bit worrying. It was the year drum machines and compacted beats ruled music. Not even artists like Madonna and Prince, with iconic tracks, could save the rather boring and derivative sounds coming from the mainstream. What was it about 1986 that irked us and provided so few great hits?! The Independent explored the topic in 2015:

It was the year that Madonna begged Papa Don’t Preach and Peter Gabriel dropped his Sledgehammer. Now a scientific study of pop music’s evolution has concluded that 1986 was the most repetitive year on record.

Whilst the hits of 1986 morphed into one repetitive thud, 1991 was the most revolutionary year in popular music, as rap broadened the vocabulary of pop, researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London found.

With help from music website Last.fm and using the US Billboard Hot 100 as its source material, the scientists employed cutting edge methods including signal processing and text-mining to analyse the musical properties of songs.

Their system automatically grouped 17,000 hit songs by patterns of chord changes and tone allowing researchers to statistically identify trends with what they believe is an unprecedented degree of consistency”.



It seems some disagree 1986 was the nadir and absolute worst. Alexis Petridis, writing in 2011, argued 1976 was far worse:

If you haven't seen it, it's difficult to express how awful TOTP – and by extension – pop music seems to have been in 1976. Every week, something comes on that causes you to be gripped by the absolute certainty that an unequivocal nadir has been reached and that things can only get better: second-division glam-rockers Mud going disco in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable; Dave Lee Travis's mirthless novelty record Convoy GB. It's invariably followed by something even worse: JJ Barrie's No Charge; second-division glam rockers the Rubettes going country in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable; and, my personal favourite, Paul Nicholas's awe-inspiring Reggae Like It Used to Be.

This, just to clarify, features the bloke off Just Good Friends boldly announcing that in 1976 – the year of Lee "Scratch" Perry's Super Apethe Mighty Diamonds' Right TimeMax Romeo's War Ina Babylon and Augustus Pablo's King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown – the only reggae worth listening to is that made by Paul Nicholas. His jaunty presentation of this controversial theory, for which he wore a bowler hat, could only have been improved had he been forced to perform in front of an audience composed entirely of angry Rastafarians”.

It is easy to poke fun of the 1980s because we feel it was a time when nothing great came out. I argue some more recent years have eclipsed 1986 in terms of boredom and unspectacular albums.  It is true, though, that 1986 was synonymous with its awful drumming sounds and something rather pale. If Paul Simon’s Graceland used percussion in new ways; Madonna was putting big choruses and career-altering songs into the ether; it appears Pop artists of the day were more concerned with something machine-fed and robotic. Songs like Miami Sound Machine’s Bad Boy and Pet Shop Boys’ album, Please, were, in some ways, defining the worst of that year. Although Pet Shop Boys did provide a good debut album, the beats and sensations of West End Girls (the single was released in 1985 but inspired a movement in 1986) became a staple for other artists – all you seemed to hear was that sort of drumming sound! This article, when looking at Now That’s What I Call Music! 1986, noted there were some missteps and, even when highlight ‘good songs’, there is a definite familiarity regarding sounds:

Dire Straits ruined Brothers In Arms by including the awful Walk Of Life halfway through side one. Peter Gabriel’s most successful solo single came with Sledgehammer and an extremely potent video while Prince wrote Manic Monday for The Bangles who had a very bountiful ’86. On the other side of the scale, Eurythmics had their last brush with the top 10 – Thorn In My Side which originally was served up on Hits 5. Also featuring on the big dice sleeve were Paul Simon’s heavily-caned You Can Call Me Al and the Pretenders’ storming Don’t Get Me Wrong. The big pop album of 1986 was Invisible Touch; the title track is here and was the first of five singles released from the LP. Like Queen, Genesis also had their day out in Wembley [coming a year later in 1987].

"...The Queen Is Dead was my most played album of the year. During the first couple of weeks it was getting five spins a day. Mid-June was quite hot; the school holidays had kicked in. I’d get up before 6.00am and pick strawberries until lunchtime, come back and play The Smiths and then head off to play golf. Panic was another non-album single and reached #11. I remember the chart rundown as our ship sailed from Rosslare Harbour to Fishguard en route to Italy. That unforgettable school tour. This mini indie sequence also includes The Housemartins’ jangly cynicism of Happy Hour and Public Image Limited’s hot-wired Rise. And then it’s David Bowie’s magnificent Absolute Beginners. Director Julien Temple shot the music video which echoed the 1950s style of the movie.

Rock for the ages next with Robert Palmer’s driving Addicted To Love. After ABBA and before Ace Of Base, Europe came out of Sweden to reach #1 with The Final Countdown. Then there was the great hope Owen Paul; My Favourite Waste Of Time chugs along without breaking sweat. Cutting Crew’s slowburner (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight continue to pop up all over the place while Status Quo’s slump lasted all through the decade. Thumbs down for In The Army Now. It’s followed by Huey Lewis and The News’ monster hit Stuck On You before Mr Mister’s mournful but epic AOR of Broken Wings. This somewhat unremarkable path comes to an end with Chris De Burgh and the dreaded Lady In Red. Sing when you’re winning: it’s just like reliving American Psycho”.


The fact that article opens with the words ‘Dire Straits’ leaves me smiling – it was a rather troubling time for music. Were there some good sides to 1986, though? Tidal summed up the year in music:

But 1986 was also about new music, and a lot of it. Huge ’80s superstars like Madonna, Prince, Bon Jovi, Genesis, Queen and Janet Jackson all released essential albums this year. Hip-hop was starting to peak above the surface above underground with newcomers like Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys, while alternative college radio favorites like The Smiths and R.E.M. were just about to break big.

Often mocked for its glossy synth-laced productions, the mid 1980s was not only a rich playground for various kinds of music, it left us with some truly memorable tunes, as we showcase on this playlist.

Best-Selling Album: Whitney Houston by Whitney Houston
Longest No. 1 Single: “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne and Friends (4 weeks)
Grammy – Album of the Year: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins
Grammy – Song of the Year: “We Are The World” by USA for Africa
Groups Formed: The Afghan Whigs, Boards of Canada, Cypress Hill, Green Day, N.W.A., No Doubt, Sebadoh, The Vaselines
Groups Disbanded: Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Electric Light Orchestra, Men at Work, (Prince &) The Revolution, Weather Report, Wham!

It is clear the entire year was not an absolute bust: we had some great albums and some really fine songs. I think, aside from Paul Simon, Madonna and The Smiths; it is hard to define the year and highlight too many positives. I have tried to make a case for 1986 in a playlist below but, to be fair, there were far stronger years for music in the 1980s – 1987, in fact, was a pretty strong one! I was only two when 1986 started and I was not really aware of what was happening then. It is amazing to believe, in the space of a year, we saw such an explosion. 1987 gave us Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and U2’s The Joshua Tree; Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full! Throw in Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust and Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night; Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim and George Michael’s Faith – changes were coming in and Hip-Hop, especially, was taking more charge. Maybe we are being a bit harsh calling 1986 the worst year for music ever. We did have some classic records – from The Smiths through to Madonna – but it seems like there was this annoying habit for artists to use the same drum programmes and spew them in every track. A tinny, anodyne and fake sound was defining a lot of music at the time: artists who were creating groundbreaking albums were being buried in a sea of synthetic beats, samey tunes and the worst side of the 1980s. Music did recover pretty quickly – 1987, as I said, was a fantastic year – and 1985 was a big one (classic albums from Kate Bush, Tears for Fears and Prefab Sprout made it pop). Maybe Pop music has moved on since then but I still feel there is little personality and fascination to be found. 1987 came along and threw more colour into the palette: maybe 2019 will see other genres come to the forefront and it will be a more memorable year! Aside from all the naffness and general awfulness that defined 1986; it is clear, as the below playlist shows, that there were a few…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1986

DECENT songs out that year!