30 Years of Music: 1986

1986, already! The year of my brother’s birth. I venture outside of my usual musical territory this time around, and let us all be better for it. Behold…


Rise – Public Image Ltd.

Johnny Rotten. Bless ‘im. He’s barmier than a ball of ferrets, and that’s what makes him an interesting performer. The Sex Pistols were certainly important, but more often than not, I’d rather listen to Public Image Ltd., and I love “Rise.” The band is its own form of punk – “Anger is an energy.”

Who Wants to Live Forever – Queen

Oh yes, why don’t we include the Highlander song? Actually, I liked this song quite a bit even before seeing the movie for the first time, just a few months ago. I love the massive scope of it, with the full orchestra and the choir. Because Freddie Mercury is such an outstanding singer, I’ve always wondered why shows like American Idol would do Queen-themed weeks, yet would criticize singers who tried to sing a Whitney Houston song because it’s “too hard to do well.” Really? You’ll let some eighteen-year-old butcher one of the other greatest singers of all time, but if Randy Jackson can’t name drop him as a professional contact, it’s okay? Gross.

In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel

Well, someone would’ve asked me why I didn’t include this song if I didn’t have it on here, so go on, you Lloyd Dobbler fans, get yer swoon on. Except! Except, this song originally came out in 1986, and Say Anything arrived in 1989, so you get the original, Cusack-free video. It’s a bit strange, but then, that’s how Peter Gabriel rolls. I do like this song, but I’m not a big Say Anything fan.

There is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths

Formula for Morrissey Song Titles, Jed Bartlett Homage-Style Version: Anyone who uses two words when they could have used eight just isn’t trying hard enough. (Tell me someone else remembers the episode I’m referencing.)

I mentioned this song in Alphabet Soup: The Letter T, along with the required Noel Gallagher and Dum Dum Girls cover versions, but this and “How Soon is Now?” were the two songs that won me over. Yes, I could talk about other songs on their 1986 album, The Queen is Dead, but I love this song so much that it’s worth another mention. Get in.

Open Your Heart – Madonna

The peep show! The cone bustier! It’s a Madonna Classic, friends. The True Blue album is pretty great as whole, with “Papa Don’t Preach” and “La Isla Bonita” both being among the singles, but I like it when Madonna sings about everyday loneliness. Despite doing her usual provocateur thing in the video, “Open Your Heart” occupies a far more vulnerable place than we’re used to associating with her.

I’ll follow you around but you can’t see / too wrapped up in yourself to notice

I wonder what that kid in the video is up to now. He’s probably, what, approaching 40?

Happy Hour – The Housemartins

The future Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook, sings here, and he sort of sounds like Morrissey would if he weren’t so melodramatic. The video is one of those strange claymation efforts, so I’d rather just listen to the song. The Housemartins are another band that I stumbled across during 120 Minutes DVR-ing on VH1 Classic, and I think they were one of those bands that were mainly popular in the UK and perhaps not too many other countries.

Don’t Let’s Start – They Might Be Giants

How about another video featuring geeky guys dancing? My unfamiliarity with both The Housemartins and They Might Be Giants (beyond a handful of singles) lead me to think that They Might Be Giants might have been 1986’s North American version of a similar sound. I recognize that this is not very nuanced, and obviously They Might Be Giants had greater longevity, but when I play one right after the other, the comparison doesn’t feel so far-fetched.

It’s Tricky – Run-DMC

Lest you think I only listen to semi-depressive Englishmen, let’s get some hip-hop in here. It is a major dance party in my house when we put on Run-DMC.

But this… is a dumb video. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s silly. Penn and Teller. A makeover. Exceptionally bad ’80s hair. The song is too great for this video.

Push It – Salt-n-Pepa

Speaking of dance parties, I love Salt-n-Pepa. My fifth through seventh grade years featured lots of Salt-n-Pepa (just you wait for 1993… I think you know what song is coming). Yes, maybe our parents would not have been fans of their ten-year-olds singing, “Push it real good,” but we didn’t care. You taped those songs off the radio, the ones they wouldn’t buy you.

Nasty – Janet Jackson

Gimme a beat! Paula Abdul choreographed this video. Her dance moves and other Janet Jackson choreography were probably the biggest influence on our dance class. At a certain age, we started making up the moves to the songs we picked ourselves, and these old videos remind me of all those recitals. We didn’t attend a strict schools that required a leotard and the right pink shoes – We could just have fun with dance and the songs we loved, and because of that, I kept at it for eleven years.


All right, friends, consult Ye Olde Wikipedia, and tell me your favorites from 1986.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

19 replies on “30 Years of Music: 1986”

Excellent songs as always! And I totally remember the Jed Bartlett line, though of course now my mind is blank as to which episode it is. Damnit.

And holy crap, I’m looking at the Wikipedia page and Master of Puppets came out in ’86?!?! And “Word Up.” And Licensed to Ill!

And this must have been about when I started picking out my own cassettes, because I definitely remember having the Monkees’ greatest hits album, Dancing on the Ceiling, and Weird Al’s Polka Party.

I will always defend my belief that Freddie Mercury was the greatest rock singer of all time. I think people laugh at “Who Wants to Live Forever” because of the association with Highlander, but it’s still a really fucking good song.

And Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” was the soundtrack to many a crush in my younger days.


It’s Janet, Ms Jackson if you’re nasty!

What a great year for songs. I was taken to see Madonna on her True Blue tour, which was the first of the four times I’ve seen her perform and it was amazing. She puts on incredible shows. And the little boy in the video was one of her nephews, if I recall the story correctly. He came on tour with her too and just came out for this dance number.

I think, of the singles you listed, the one that doesn’t scream ’80’s’ to me is ‘There is a Light’. I don’t think that means its ‘better’, but that it doesn’t seem so connected to the zeitgeist of the times.

It never fails to catch me off guard, when I realize just how much younger you whippersnappers are. 1986 was also the year of my daughter’s birth. But no time for old age angst, there’s good music to talk about :-D

Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam (From the album”Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.”, which also included a bang-up cover of Ring of Fire)

It Could Be Sunshine, Kundalini Express, Yin and Yang The Flower Pot Man, An American Dream – Love and Rockets (The album is Express, and it’s one of my top ten albums of all time)

Skin Trade – Duran Duran

Will She Just Fall Down, On Sunday, David Denies, Coming Up Close – ‘Til Tuesday (from the album Welcome Home, all around awesome album, in my top 20)

Summer’s Cauldron, Grass, and That’s Really Super, Supergirl – XTC (from Skylarking, another in my top 20, possibly top 10)

And this one – turn it up. Way up.

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