1986- I was finishing middle school and starting high school. New Wave was completely dead and pop music mostly sucked- with a few notable exceptions. I was primarily listening to Heavy Metal, branching out into Classic Rock bit by bit, starting out by embracing the Beatles, The Who, The Stones. ’86 was a huge year for Metal. It was the first year it really began to dominate the rock landscape with huge hit albums like Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet”, Poison’s “Look What the Cat Dragged In”, Europe’s “The Final Countdown” & Cinderella’s “Night Songs”. In other words- it’s when Metal became hair metal. Those bands were not my bag (save Cinderella for a short time), but luckily for me ’86 was also an enormous year for Thrash metal. The holy trinity was released in ’88- Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” and Megadeth’s “Peace Sells But Who’s Buying”. The battle lines were drawn- though I liked pop metal groups like Def Leppard & Ratt and later loved Guns N’ Roses, I was much more inclined to dig the heavier and more real stuff than the image conscious hair bands. Outside of Metal there were some very interesting happenings in rap, as well as techno, underground rock, world music and alternative country, much of which I wouldn’t discover until I was older. The 14 year old boy is usually not the most open-minded of listeners and I was no exception, though I was fortunate enough to grow up in an area with a fantastic Classic Rock station (105.9 WCXR), which put today’s shrunken playlists to shame. Closed-minded or not, it was tough to hear my main metal music on the radio and I was therefore exposed to a massive amount of great rock music from the 60’s and 70’s that was too great for me to deny.
Before 1986 rap music was largely confined to urban areas- mainly New York City, but also Boston, Philadelphia & D.C. among others. Though there were several hit songs on the R&B charts that trickled into the suburbs prior to 1986, like “Rapper’s Delight” or Nucleus’s “Jam On It”, it wasn’t until 1986 that the doorway to the burbs really flew open and rap music would never be the same for it. The reason behind the explosion is namely two albums- Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” and The Beastie Boys “License To Ill”. Though “Raising Hell” was DMC’s 3rd album and they had already had several videos air on MTV, their amount of exposure & airplay went into the stratosphere after “Hell”, which had the groundbreaking “Walk This Way” video with Aerosmith (even if it’s far from a great Run-DMC track) along with “It’s Tricky” which actually featured Penn & Teller. They were the first rap group to go platinum and are still known as the first real rap ambassadors to the rest of the world. Their Def Jam label mates, the Beastie Boys, were three white Jewish kids from the New York City area, and became even bigger than Run-DMC. “License To Ill” was played incessantly, by every kid I went to school with, and was the first exposure to rap many of those kids had. Many thought of the Beasties as a novelty act that would be a passing fad but with subsequent releases it became clear that the Boys had tons of talent and interesting ideas to burn. Most of the other great rap in 1986 stayed underground, but a few of the releases are deemed very important in rap’s development. The first Eric B & Rakim single “Eric B Is President/My Melody”, the first Kool G Rap & DJ Polo single “It’s a Demo” & the first Ultramagnetic MC’s single “Ego Trippin’” all came out in 1986. Philly native Schooly-D, often referred to as the first gangsta-rapper, released his two most well known singles “Gucci Time” and “PSK-What Does It Mean?”. Bronx rapper Kool Moe Dee released his first single as a solo artist “Go See the Doctor”, which got much airplay in our baseball team’s locker room at the time.
Techno music, which started in Detroit, was still a fledgling genre, but a few huge early techno classics were released in 1986 like Farley “Jackmaster” Funk’s “Love Can’t Turn Around”, Skipworth & Turner’s “Can’t Give Her Up”, Mr. Fingers “Can You Feel It” and Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body”. Techno was not even used as a term until 1988, so the above tracks were caught in that period after disco and electro and before the Rave explosion of the late 80’s/early 90’s, but they were all crucial to dance music’s development. Though New Wave music was by and large off the pop charts by ’86, creating a gaping hole in quality pop music in my opinion, synth-pop, an offshoot of New Wave, was still going fairly strong. The great New Order released their “Brotherhood” album containing one of their biggest hits yet “Bizarre Love Triangle”. The overtly gay Pet Shop Boys released their brilliant first set of singles, which includes “Suburbia” and “West End Girls”, still likely their most well known song. Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration” was their most well put together album yet and continued to increase their profile. OMD had the biggest hit of their career with “If You Leave”. The Eurythmics continued to have hits with “When Tomorrow Comes” and “Missionary Man”. Duran Duran released their first album as a trio, “Notorious”, which was not a monster hit, but did contain the very good title song and the stellar single “Skin Trade”. Talk Talk, a former 2nd teir New Wave band released their first masterpiece “The Colour Of Spring”. The band is still largely unknown to most people. After the track “It’s My Life” (later covered by No Doubt) in 1984 they never again went near the pop charts, as the majority of their songs eclipsed 6 minutes in length.
1986 was not a good year for blockbuster albums. After huge successes in the earlier 80’s like “Thriller”, “Purple Rain”, “Sports”, “Like a Virgin” and “Born In the USA” things started to die down a bit. Madonna did release her very successful third album “True Blue”, which contained many hit singles, but her career was already well established by ’86. Prince’s “Parade” album was solid but certainly a lesser album sandwiched between “Purple Rain” and 1987’s “Sign O the Times”- though it does contain the immaculate “Kiss” single. I can think of three notable exceptions. Michael Jackson’s sister Janet released her album “Control”, not her debut, but her first artistic triumph and a launching pad to stardom. It was a breath of fresh air in a very bad year for R&B (outside of the rap world and maybe Cameo’s “Word Up”). The other two exceptions were by elder statesmen Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. Gabriel’s “So” is still the standout album and biggest seller of his solo career and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” nearly singlehandedly sparked the western world’s interest in ‘World’ (read: African) music. “Graceland” is one of the best albums of Simon’s amazing career as well and continues to get better every time I play it.
Outside of the synth-pop realm, there was also plenty of great underground rock being made. England gave us The Smiths “Queen Is Dead”, the highlight of their whole career and one of the best albums of the decade. XTC’s “Skylarking” is likely their best as well. Elvis Costello gave us two albums. “Blood & Chocolate” was his return to form with longtime band the Attractions & “King of America”, where he assembled a band of legendary American musicians to play and record with. Australia’s still unheralded Go-Betweens released “The Liberty Belle & the Diamond Express”, my favorite of their albums. Check out the near perfect song “Spring Rain”, which will hopefully cause you to dabble further in their catalog. New England band Throwing Muses, fronted by step sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly released their self-titled debut, which wouldn’t make much of a dent outside of college radio, but would prove very influential to likeminded female centric, artsy rock bands with a feminist bent. Athens, Georgia band R.E.M. would continue to raise their profile with the heavier “Life’s Rich Pageant”, which would be their last album without an actual top 40 hit on it. Other great albums to come out in ’86 were Love & Rockets “Express” and The Smithereens “Especially for You”, which would burn up college radio but go largely unknown outside of it.
Some important, heavier records were release outside of the Trash Metal realm in ’86 as well. Sonic Youth’s “EVOL” really put the group on the map outside of the experimental New York City noise scene and contained their best song to date- “Expressway to Yr. Skull” (AKA Madonna, Sean & Me). Chicago Industrial sounding noise band Big Black released their “Atomizer” album. Washington D.C.’s Bad Brains released their third album, the much loved “I Against I”. Minneapolis’s Husker Du released “Candy Apple Grey”, which continued to make them one of the biggest names in the punk underground.
Lastly there were some interesting things going on in Country music in 1986. The Nashville scene had become fairly stale, which helped bring about the Neo-Traditionalist approach to the music- taking things back to their origins and roots and eschewing the gloss and overproduction of so much modern country at the time. Dwight Yoakam’s debut “Guitars, Cadillacs” epitomized the approach and to a lesser extent the hugely successful Randy Travis also too a page from the approach. Country rebel Steve Earle released his debut “Guitar Town” which would quickly become one of the early touchstones for the alt-country movement, which combined underground rock music with outré country. Though not country some other groups who successfully dabbled in roots music were Australian band The Triffids & Crowded House as well as Wisconsinites the BoDeans.
1986 is not close to one of my favorite years but it was an important one. Many underground bands set the table at college radio but the alternative rock explosion of the early 90’s, and any year containing albums as diverse and excellent as “Master of Puppets”, “So”, “Queen Is Dead”, “Control”, “License to Ill” and “Graceland” can’t be too bad. My mantra since starting this project is that every music year is a great music year- it’s just that some years are greater than others. 1986 proves both rules.
*Album not available via iTunes
Buy In a Doghouse Amazon *Full “Throwing Muses album is on this compilation
THE BEASTIE BOYS- LICENSE TO ILL
DWIGHT YOAKAM- GUITARS, CADILLACS…
BAD BRAINS- I AGAINST I
Buy I Against I Amazon
THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO (BONUS COMPILATION)