Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, and Ice-T livened up a numb 1986

Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, and Ice-T livened up a numb 1986

Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The year: 1986

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1986

1. Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder, “That’s What Friends Are For”
2. Lionel Richie, “Say You, Say Me”
3. Klymaxx, “I Miss You”
4. Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, “On My Own”
5. Mr. Mister, “Broken Wings”
6. Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know”
7. Eddie Murphy, “Party All The Time”
8. Survivor, “Burning Heart”
9. Mr. Mister, “Kyrie”
10. Robert Palmer, “Addicted To Love”
11. Whitney Houston, “Greatest Love Of All”
12. Atlantic Starr, “Secret Lovers”
13. Gloria Loring And Carl Anderson, “Friends And Lovers”
14. Peter Cetera, “Glory Of Love”
15. Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls”
16. Billy Ocean, “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)“
17. Simple Minds, “Alive And Kicking”
18. Heart, “Never”
19. Prince And The Revolution, “Kiss”
20. Steve Winwood, “Higher Love”

What the hell was wrong with everyone in 1986? What, was it the Challenger explosion? The Chernobyl disaster? And that weird thing in Cameroon where a lake suddenly emitted a large, suffocating cloud of carbon dioxide and killed thousands of people and animals all at once? And all the car bombs and plane bombs and plane hijackings, and that post office shooter in Oklahoma, and the Lebanon hostage crisis, and the failed deescalation talks between Reagan and Gorbachev and—all right. So maybe it makes sense that America was mostly just looking for a soft groove to which it could hold its knees and rock in front of very slowly. “That’s What Friends Are For” urging you to keep smiling and/or shining your way right into the similar greeting card platitudes of “I Miss You” and the gentle babble of “Say You Say Me”? It’s aural Xanax. We get it. Although, it still doesn’t explain Prince’s “Kiss” landing a good 12 slots behind Eddie Murphy and Rick James’ coke bender. No world is that messed up.

In 1986’s defense, beyond that whole living-in-a-perpetual-state-of-fear-and-trauma thing, there were some less benumbing things happening the lower down the charts you went—and not just the fact that apparently Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name,” OMD’s “If You Leave,” Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” and Run DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” among other vaunted ’80s classics, were all deemed pretty great that year, but not, y’know, “Party All The Time” great. Indeed, many of them even ranked well below El Debarge’s romantic ode to robot-fucking. But we digress.

Beyond that, even, there were actually some mildly revolutionary incursions being made onto the Billboard 200 from the less commercial worlds of thrash metal, punk, and what was only then starting to be called “alternative rock” (something that spurred Billboard to adopt its first Alternative Songs chart two years later). Albums by acts who were as opposite-of-Mr. Mister as Siouxsie And The Banshees, Public Image Ltd., Ministry, New Order, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and Hüsker Dü also made their way into Billboard’s lower echelons that year. And thanks to MTV and the just-launched Spin Magazine, the country’s rapidly spreading patches of cool kids were getting turned on to The Queen Is Dead and Life’s Rich Pageant, or Master Of Puppets and Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? out in suburbia, where they could sneer at all the sheep blaring the Top Gun soundtrack.

In fact, you have to dig relatively deep to find great tracks that Billboard’s charts didn’t record this year: to the fringes of noise rock and dream pop; down to Senegal and Melbourne; over to the U.K.’s taste-making label 4AD; out to the progenitors of gangsta rap in Crenshaw and the Bronx, and of house music in Chicago. All of the songs below also wanted to party in 1986—if not all the time, then, at least, at the same time.

The Triffids, “Wide Open Road” (March 1986)

Post-punk band The Triffids are rock royalty in their Australian homeland, but even amid a mid-’80s craze for all things Aussie that made stars of Crocodile Dundee, INXS, and, uh, Yahoo Serious, the band never really broke in America. Perhaps that’s because songs like “Wide Open Road” are so inextricably tied to their homeland, conjuring the sprawling Australian countryside via those big, reverberating guitar notes and the drums’ martial, slowly rolling sweep. Songwriter David McComb uses that open expanse where “the sky was big and empty” to evoke the growing distance between two ex-lovers, now cut loose to explore the terrible freedom where “Now you can go any place / That you want to go.” Like the rest of 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional, it’s a majestically realized evocation of mood and place—one that’s become something of a pop standard Down Under. But even here, far away from the flatlands, “Wide Open Road” should resonate with anyone who’s ever felt the loneliness of space. [Sean O’Neal]

Butthole Surfers, “American Woman” (April 1986)

Texas psycho-rockers Butthole Surfers finished Rembrandt Pussyhorse in 1984, but its label at the time, Alternative Tentacles, refused to release it. (It eventually surfaced on Touch And Go two years later.) One listen and you can see why the label blanched: Even for a band as out-there as Butthole Surfers, its second album is an unhinged, freewheeling freakout, full of jangling acid-scorched hillbilly stomps and tape-edited psychedelia. They pilfer freely (and caustically) throughout the record, taking a Kinks riff for the opening track and the Perry Mason theme for another, but it’s their cover of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” that feels like the band’s truest assault on rock orthodoxy. The summer-of-’69 hit becomes an industrial wasteland in the Butthole Surfers’ hands, with layered drum-machine rhythms, eerie sound manipulation, and great fried-brain squalls of guitar, sounding out like screams in an abandoned factory. A vocal interlude suggests some sort of hostage situation, casting just the faintest hint of homicidal malevolence over the whole affair. A decade later, Lenny Kravitz would reclaim “American Woman” from the depths of hell—but to be honest, it sounded better down here. [Clayton Purdom]

Sonic Youth, “Expressway To Yr Skull” (May 1986)

The vinyl version of Sonic Youth’s third album, EVOL, lists the runtime for “Expressway To Yr Skull” as an infinity symbol, denoting that the closing song ends with a locked groove, its gentle hums and rumbling guitar-neck knocks theoretically reverberating forever. Similarly, both “Expressway” and EVOL lay out a formula that the no-wave deconstructionists would follow—if not forever, sadly, then at least for the next 25 years. The aptly named album marked an evolutionary leap for the New York band, which began to hone its Glenn Branca-schooled sheets of noise into a more melodic form of experimental pop, grounded by newly recruited drummer Steve Shelley. “Expressway” embodies that balance in its dreamy discordance, seesawing between the lazy-day balladry of its verses and some truly volcanic explosions of guitar. Meanwhile, its lyrical threats to “kill the California girls” and the song’s alternate titles—“Madonna, Sean, And Me” and “The Crucifixion Of Sean Penn”—hint at the sardonic take on celebrity that would become a running Sonic Youth theme (as well as the Madonna obsession that would yield the tongue-in-cheek side project, Ciccone Youth, that same year). No less an esteemed authority on lovely dissonance than Neil Young has deemed “Expressway” a classic. It’s hard to disagree. [Sean O’Neal]

Dag Nasty, “Circles” (June 1986)

By 1986, several bands in the fabled D.C. hardcore scene had moved into more melodic territory, and Dag Nasty’s debut, Can I Say, offered a new template. Although it is, at times, as blisteringly fast and raging as traditional hardcore, Can I Say’s best moments are its most songful—like “Circles.” Brian Baker’s guitar goes from the palm-muted power chords of his old band, Minor Threat, to chiming single notes reminiscent of R.E.M. The vocals from Dave Smalley, best described as “melodic shouting,” escalate the intensity, though his highly personal lyrics tended to look inward rather than outward. That introspection, married with Can I Say’s sound, would cohere into the nascent “emocore” movement, a label bands would spend the next 30 years disavowing. But “Circles” (and Can I Say in general) pointed a way forward for punks looking for something more personal and less dogmatic. [Kyle Ryan]

Titãs, “Policia” (June 1986)

Titãs’ third album, Cabeça Dinossauro, is a landmark of Brazilian rock, a career-defining turn toward a heavier, outspoken eclecticism and the group’s first-ever effort to go gold. A host of outside influences can be heard in the album’s new direction: the band’s frustration with Warner’s mishandling of previous release Televisao; the recent arrest of singer Arnaldo Antunes and guitarist Tony Bellotto for drug possession; and the national political turmoil playing out as a 20-year military dictatorship came to an end. The album’s raw passion and disillusionment is summed up in the blistering, barely two-minute “Poliçia,” in which singer Sérgio Britto spits a particularly nasty venom at the institution that tried to make criminals of his bandmates. [Kelsey J. Waite]

The Chameleons, “Soul In Isolation” (September 1986)

This should have been the year The Chameleons cemented their place among Manchester’s alt-rock royalty. It’s when the band released Strange Times, its third album and major-label debut for Geffen Records, on which it fortunately didn’t lose any of the melancholy or complexity of its otherworldly post-punk. Instead, producer David M. Allen (fresh off The Cure’s breakthrough, The Head On The Door) helped frontman Mark Burgess and The Chameleons take their craft to new heights on tracks like “Soul In Isolation,” a stirring, seven-and-a-half-minute meditation on solitude. It earns every second of that intimidating length, with a dramatic Burgess vocal performance, meaty drums delivered by the late John Lever, and a massive, spangling chorus that deserved to be filling out arenas. Despite this artistic leap, the band unfortunately didn’t break out of its cult status and called it quits in 1987 following the death of its manager. [Matt Gerardi]

Les Rita Mitsouko, “C’est Comme Ca” (September 1986)

It’s criminal that French new-wave icons Les Rita Mitsouko never made a Stateside mark beyond the minor dance hit “Andy” and the Sparks duet “Singing In The Shower.” Fred Chichin and Catherine Ringer wrote some of the catchiest, most wonderfully strange songs of the ’80s, and Ringer’s wide-ranging voice rivaled anything the charts had to offer. The Tony Visconti- produced “C’est Comme Ça” is not the duo’s most famous song (that’d be “Marcia Baila”), but it is a magnificent display of its zany allure: Over a driving rock rhythm, Chichin pushes his guitar to its noisiest edge, while Ringer sounds almost Siouxsie-esque as she gives a lover the runaround, singing, “Ah, faut que j’moove” (“I must move”). It’s an exuberant, erotic anthem of restlessness, one that requires no translation. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Love And Rockets, “It Could Be Sunshine” (September 1986)

Like the comic it nicked its name from, Love And Rockets always seemed more comfortable in the underground, squared inside the “alternative rock” niche it helped to codify in the 1980s—which made its 1989 smash hit “So Alive” such a surprise. That song’s slinky simplicity is something of an anomaly in the catalog of the band formed by the Peter Murphy-spurned members of goth icons Bauhaus. More typical of its blackened-paisley sound is “It Could Be Sunshine,” from 1986 sophomore album Express, where the group first fully realized its slightly sinister spin on neo-psychedelia. Opening with some vaguely Middle Eastern saxophone, the song undulates and swirls over its bad-acid-trip lyrics before breaking into an uptempo stomp, Daniel Ash unleashing a thick, corroded squall of fuzzed-out guitar that’s sliced by spiraling streaks of synth noise. It’s an arresting beginning to one of the most unclassifiable rock albums of its era, and all the argument needed to show why “one-hit wonder” tags are usually bullshit. [Sean O’Neal]

This Mortal Coil, “Tarantula” (September 1986)

4AD label head Ivo Watts-Russell formed This Mortal Coil in 1983 to allow the label’s artists to play outside their established realms, bringing together members of seminal groups like Cocteau Twins, Pixies, and Dead Can Dance for three albums that both defined and pushed the boundaries of the influential “4AD sound.” The collective’s second LP, 1986’s sprawling Filigree & Shadow, nearly doubled the runtime of its debut while still following its formula of obscure covers interspersed with short, dreamy instrumental sketches. There are arguably more adventurous covers here than “Tarantula,” songs that perhaps better highlight This Mortal Coil’s broad range, but this take on a Colourbox B-side stands as a flawless example of the group’s interpretive genius. Plus, it’s one of Filigree’s too-few unions of vocalists Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski with Breathless’ Dominic Appleton. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Throwing Muses, “Call Me” (September 1986)

Throwing Muses, formed by stepsisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, became the first American band to join the U.K. label 4AD, a signing that—followed by it snapping up the group’s opening act, the Pixies, the very next year—marked 4AD officially turning its attention toward American indie groups. It’s easy to see what caught label ears in Throwing Muses’ self-titled, musically divergent debut, an inventive work that abruptly changes styles and themes, often within the same song. “Call Me” starts with Hersh delivering a vitriolic punk rant about some guy who walked out on her, before the pace slows, the song’s demeanor shifting from rage to longing, but never slackening in intensity. As with a lot of Throwing Muses songs, it kind of makes sense, but not quite: As drummer David Narcizo told The Paris Review in 2013, “Kristin puts a lot of pictures in front of you, and you draw your own conclusions about how they all fit together.” [Gwen Ihnat]

Harold Budd, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, Simon Raymonde, “She Will Destroy You” (November 1986)

Originally proposed for a TV documentary that was scrapped after funding fell through, a summit between ambient composer Harold Budd and the core Cocteau Twins’ trio of Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde proved too rich to just walk away from, so the group got to work on the one-off album The Moon And The Melodies. Theirs was a slightly one-sided collaboration: While Budd’s misty, underwater style of piano playing forms the through-line, it’s the Cocteaus’ melting-wall-of-sound dream pop that dominates—most obviously on the handful of tracks featuring Fraser’s heavenly, free-floating vocals. Although it was released during an incredibly rich period of creativity for the band’s members (a year that also yielded Victorialand, the Love’s Easy Tears EP, and the second This Mortal Coil album), The Moon And The Melodies is often overlooked—perhaps due to the fact that the words “Cocteau Twins” don’t appear anywhere on it. Still, arguably even more than Victorialand, it conjures that unmistakable, otherworldly Cocteau magic on songs like the standout “She Will Destroy You,” with Fraser’s voice singing with restrained strength—and typical inscrutability—over a bed of Budd’s cavernous keyboard tones and Guthrie’s cascading guitar, all before a smoky sax (played by Dif Juz’s Richard Thomas) arrives to sweep everything away. [Sean O’Neal]

Youssou N’Dour, “N’Dobine” (November 1986)

Youssou N’Dour is a towering figure in music: one of the world’s most famous singers of all time, and a pioneer of Senegal’s eclectic mbalax style. In 1986, he could be heard on mega-hit albums like Peter Gabriel’s So and Paul Simon’s Graceland, but N’Dour’s solo release that year, Nelson Mandela, offers a more direct route to the innovations coming out of Africa at the time. Album opener “Ndobine,” which became a staple of N’Dour’s catalog, calls upon the tradition of griot praise singing, showcasing the singer’s multi-octave vocal range as he honors his ancestors. Recorded with Le Super Etoile De Dakar, “Ndobine” embodies mbalax’s rhythmic mélange: percussive jazz keyboards, traditional Wolof drumming, and Latin and Caribbean rhythms and horns, all blending together in an incredibly moving, revolutionary sound. [Kelsey J. Waite]

They Might Be Giants, “Don’t Let’s Start” (November 1986)

They Might Be Giants’ lengthy career began, funny enough, with “Don’t Let’s Start,” a college radio and MTV hit that helped the band stand out from the increasingly crowded alterna-pack thanks to its tremendous amounts of quirk. All of the elements that TMBG fans revere were already in place on its first single for Bar/None: John Linnell’s nasally vocals, John Flansburgh’s feisty guitar, odd time signatures, and even odder lyrics: Here, they urge, “Wake up and smell the cat food in your bank account,” among other surreal things. It’s weird yet also weirdly relatable, with unexpected moments of profundity like “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (though the two Johns would later admit to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that they didn’t really mean anything by it). And its cult success kicked off a prolific, 30-plus-year run where “Don’t Let’s Start” remains a cornerstone of They Might Be Giants’ live sets and sensibility. [Gwen Ihnat]

Big Black, “Kerosene” (1986)

Big Black had released a trio of EPs prior to 1986’s Atomizer, so the Chicago trio was hitting its stride by the time of its debut full-length. No song embodies that better than the sneakily catchy “Kerosene,” a six-minute window into all the dark places to which a bored mind can travel. Dave Riley’s guttural, distorted bass has never sounded more ominous, especially when locked in with “Roland” (the name given to Big Black’s drum machine). The knotty, bleak verses give way to a catchy chorus that’s downright anthemic: Guitars and bass converge around two chords as frontman Steve Albini howls, “Set me on fire / Kerosene.” Albini went on to make the abrasiveness he pioneered in Big Black his calling card, but “Kerosene” shows that indie music’s foremost curmudgeon also knows his way around a hook. There’s a reason it remains the Big Black song, three decades later. [Kyle Ryan]

Boogie Down Productions, “South Bronx” (1986)

Like any great diss track, the more you know about BDP’s “South Bronx,” the better. The instigating action came when MC Shan released a track called “The Bridge,” in which it is heavily suggested that hip-hop was invented in Queensbridge—a claim not taken lightly by a young KRS-One or his Bronx-based crew, Boogie Down Productions. Over a terse drum machine and James Brown sample, KRS acts as historian of record, running through detailed anecdotes and shouting out specific people and places, and nearly shouting, “As odd as it looks, as wild as it seems / I didn’t hear a peep from a place called Queens.” It was a blistering enough attack to launch a war between the two boroughs, one that’d be remembered fondly as beefs grew more tangible (and violent) throughout the ’90s. While history has recorded KRS-One as the winner, don’t sleep on Shan’s own contributions; they’ve held up just as well. [Clayton Purdom]

Ice-T, “6 In The Mornin’” (1986)

Ice-T’s “6 In The Mornin’” opens with the rapper awakening to the cops at his door, coolly taking his pistols and booking it out the bathroom window to go on a lam that eventually takes him all the way to New York, his years-long crime spree broken up by intermittent shootouts, graphic sex scenes, and stints in the pen. It all sounds fairly basic now—as elemental as the Roland TR-808 the struggling emcee first used to write it—but when “6 In The Mornin” quietly landed on the B-side of “Dog’n The Wax (Ya Don’t Quit-Part II),” there weren’t many hip-hop songs around like it. Or at least, none with the kind of hostile swagger and nihilistic abandon Ice-T sums up with the line “Life has no meaning / And money is king.” In fact, there was really only one precedent: Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” from the year prior, which Ice-T had heard and lovingly transposed to his own L.A. gangland. The club success of “6 In The Mornin’” turned Ice-T away from body-rockin’ electro songs toward exploring even grittier themes, thus laying the foundation—along with Boogie Down Productions’ equally criminally minded tracks from that year—for gangsta rap as a genre. It also gave Ice-T the kind of career that, eventually, allowed him to play one of those cops at the door. [Sean O’Neal]

Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It” (1986)

By 1985, a new post-disco style of DJ-driven dance music had emerged in Chicago, a genre that would come to be known as house. Not long after figures like Frankie Knuckles introduced the basics, other pioneers started tweaking the execution and the gear used to concoct these thudding tunes, creating an immediate splintering of house into a litany of subgenres. “Can You Feel It” is often cited as the beginning of deep house, one of the most timeless of those stylistic branches. The legendary Larry Heard—working under one of his many pseudonyms, Mr. Fingers—built its immortal groove from little more than a few drum machine loops, the round bouncy bass of the Roland Juno-60, and a rock-solid three-chord foundation. It brought a more spacious soundscape and softer set of synths to the house formula, marking a shift away from the robotic, electro-inspired songs of the genre’s beginnings toward the more natural, soulful sound of its early-disco inspirations. [Matt Gerardi]

Arthur Russell, “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” (1986)

As prolific as he was, Arthur Russell rarely actually finished anything: At the time of his death in 1992 from AIDS-related illnesses, he left behind some 1,000 recordings to be sifted through (including 40 remixes of the same song), and in his too-short lifetime, he only completed one solo album, 1986’s World Of Echo. While Russell’s endless reworking of his own compositions makes it difficult to call anything he produced “definitive,” World Of Echo is nevertheless a perfect representation of the unusual artistic space Russell occupied, an entrancing, reverberating vacuum floating somewhere inside the blurry overlap of avant-garde pop, neo-classical, new wave, and underground disco. The nine-plus-minute centerpiece “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” unfurls over the heavily reverbed pulse of Russell’s cello scrapes and bounces across the low static hum of amplifiers, his Kermit-with-a-cold voice drifting gently in and out of its ever-phasing dynamic shifts. It’s a sound that’s both distantly alien and warmly intimate, somber yet playful, and destined to stand the test of time—even if Russell might have preferred to keep tinkering with it forever. [Sean O’Neal]

Swans, “A Hanging” (1986) 

Four years into their exploration of the outer limits of rock ’n’ roll, Swans made a small but integral change by adding singer-songwriter Jarboe to their collective as a vocalist and keyboardist. Her arrival coincided with a focusing of Swans’ sound into a sort of dark, industrial post-punk that—on Jarboe’s first recording with the band, “Time Is Money (Bastard),” at least—even verged on danceable. But her presence is more tangibly felt on the band’s twin LPs from 1986, Greed and Holy Money, where Jarboe’s opera-trained voice provides an emotive, familiar counterpoint among the shambling doom. It’s used to perfection on Holy Money’s “A Hanging,” where her soulful wails lead a groggy chorus of damned souls, lending an almost gospel-like background to Michael Gira’s disturbing, monastic proclamations. It’s a fitting introduction for Jarboe and these religious themes, the presence of which would only continue to grow as the band completed its evolution into gloomy gothic rock on 1987’s Children Of God. [Matt Gerardi]

Ultramagnetic MC’s, “Ego Trippin’” (1986)

By the time Ultramagnetic MCs got around to releasing their debut album in 1988, hip-hop’s golden age was beginning to turn up new forms, like those of the experimental Native Tongues movement or rawer, leaner gangsta rap. But just two years prior, around the release of their first single “Ego Trippin,’” New York hip-hop was still monolithic—and the Ultramagnetics sounded louder, bolder, and weirder than anything else out there. Over a clattering Melvin Bliss drum break and a nigh-psychedelic assemblage of funk howls, squiggly bass lines, horn blasts, and crowd noises, Kool Keith and Ced Gee take what we know as “old school” rapping to task. Keith is already Keith—scientific, unhinged, ruthless—and Ced Gee’s his more expressive counterpart, capering all over the beat as it stretches on for verse after verse of gauntlet-throwing wordplay. [Clayton Purdom]

Bad Brains, “I Against I
Billy Bragg, “Help Save The Youth Of America
Harold Budd, “Gypsy Violin
Ciccone Youth, “Into The Groove(y)
The Fall, “Living Too Late
Doug E. Fresh, “Nuthin
Lowlife, “Permanent Sleep
MC Shan, “The Bridge
Spacemen 3, “Rollercoaster
Stetsasonic, “Go Stetsa 1