The Hits of 1986
Big Albums and New Country
1986 was the year that an unbelievable tragedy unfolded right before our eyes on TV - the explosion and loss of the Challenger space shuttle and everyone aboard. In addition to the human toll it took, the failure also reflected poorly on the space program as a whole, which NASA had been trying to revive in the public eye. While Windows 1.0 limped along and was the butt of many jokes when compared to Apple's Macintosh GUI, IBM released the first laptop computer, known as the PC Convertible. It did not fit in a briefcase. Worldwide and ubiquitous email was made possible by the adoption of the Internet Mail Access Protocol, another milestone in the history of information technology. The Human Genome Project began, making a better understanding of the human animal a possibility. In the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant exploded, becoming the worst nuclear disaster in history. And in England, mad cow disease appeared, scaring nearly everyone who eats meat to death, and giving rise to a resurgence in vegetarianism.
What happened in 1986's music?
It was, ironically, not a great year for rock and roll, with synth-pop, dance-pop, power ballads, and generally glitzy music ruling the charts. MTV was mostly to blame for emphasizing the visual appeal of an artist and making the music secondary, but people bought the music and danced to it all over the world, and they must be held accountable. But the irony mentioned is in the fact that this was the year that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors in Cleveland, Ohio, and became a mecca for lovers of that 20th century art form. Among the first inductees into the exclusive club were Ray Charles, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Sun Records mogul and producer Sam Phillips.
Top Hits of 1986
The top 5 songs worldwide demonstrate the state of affairs in popular music in the middle of the decade. At number one was the truly annoying Rock Me Amadeus by Falco, a one-hit wonder that would not have been a hit at all without its equally annoying video being played constantly on the TVs of the world. The number 2 position was held by Madonna with Papa Don't Preach, and she had several other songs near the top of the charts this year. Europe's The Final Countdown, an apocalyptic throwback to 70s arena rock, was third on the list. Fourth was synth-pop group Berlin's Take My Breath Away, a hit mostly due to its movie tie-in with Top Gun. And holding the number 5 slot was West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys, an agreeable confection that gave synth-rock a good name.
The New Country
Americana music had been languishing in general doldrums since back in the heyday of the late 60s and early 70s, when such artists as Gram Parsons, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn pioneered a blend of American music types. We called it country rock for a while, but in 1986 what could only be labeled as the New Country emerged with the debuts of several important musicians. Steve Earle thumbed his nose at Nashville while reinventing their music, as did Dwight Yoakum, whose musical center was not in Tennessee but in Bakersfield, California. Lyle Lovett came out of left field and showed that you could be completely unique and still be part of a tradition. And such rock folks as Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer dipped toes in the country waters too. It was the start of another major trend in music.
Despite the rarity of the spirit of rock and roll in 1986, there were a few albums released that became icons of rock, records (now that they were mostly CDs, can we still call them records?) that landed on many best album lists compiled for the century. Skylarking by XTC was and is an audiophile's and music lover's dream. Peter Gabriel's So and Paul Simon's Graceland showed the way to an amalgam of rock, dance and world music. The Bangles' A Different Light was a real rock record that showed talent and chops, and was not coincidentally the product of probably the best all-female band ever. Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys introduced us to white boy rap, and things would never be the same. And Bruce Springsteen's epic Live 1975-1985 showed us how a live rock album should be done. It was also one of the finest last gasps of the vinyl LP, with beautiful photos and sleeves part of the package, putting the CD version to shame.