Love is all we need — the top ten thirty years ago

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Thirty years ago, these songs ruled the land. The mid eighties produced schizophrenic top tens in which gold and offal sat beside each other. On March 22, 1986, the good got stacked on the back end.

10. Prince & the Revolution – Kiss.

Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt. Its litheness, lightness, and acidic aftertaste — I credit Mazarati’s marvelous idea to record the drums and guitar on the same track, the sound that grabbed me as a kid — remain things of wonder. Not the first or even fifth Prince single I’d play at this moment, though.

GRADE: A

9. INXS – What You Need

The Australian combo scored the first of seven top tens through 1991 with this slab of honking, thwacking state of the art dance funk, a song I prefer to “Need You Tonight” (sorry, Bonnie) and “Devil Inside”. A few years ago I realized INXS’ singles have held up better as stadium filler than U2’s. Even when shouting for attention Michael Hutchence is hip to the track’s syncopation; he knows when to treat a verse like buckshot or when to drop out. Kudos to Kirk Pengillly’s terse ascending solo before the chorus — that’s the way to play eighties sax.

GRADE: A-

8. Thompson Twins – King For a Day

This was a top ten?! Nile Rodgers produced Here’s To Future Days, but you wouldn’t know it. Marcello Carlin vouches for Into the Gap, and he might be right, but I can’t stand Tom Bailey’s voice; when the era’s American rockists decried adenoidal British pop, they had this in mind. As for “King For a Day,” it’s got a nice bridge and cute Fairlight samples. “Love is all we need,” Bailey sings, as if it’s 1967 and not peak Reagan/Thatcher, as if love was all they would need following their late decade sales trajectory.

GRADE: C+

7. Elton John – Nikita

After the hysterical “Wrap Her Up” convinced the world of his and George Michael’s heterosexuality, Elton John returned to his mid eighties hot streak whose release coincided with the first Reagan-Gorby summit. For 1986 Elton, “Nikita” is sung with conviction and restraint (even by Michael on backup), and David Paton does a shrewd run on his fretless bass. In 1986 it would get worse.

GRADE: B

6. Mr. Mister – Kyrie

I said upthread that INXS were the era’s most confident stadium rockers. Here’s MTV pap done at stadium scale, with keyboards and vocals and imbecilic religious allusions. Two #1 singles and #1 album later, Mr. Mister were a trivia question — at least Kim Carnes was a scenester.

GRADE: D

5. John Cougar Mellencamp – R.O.CK. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to Sixties Rock)

With the Beatles and Monkees recharting and Thompson Twins and The Dream Academy setting their samplers to “1968,” 1986 was the point at which the yuppie and his hard-earned nostalgia were ascendant. Grimmer than the competition, Mellencamp saluted Mitch Ryder, Young Rascals, and Jackie Wilson — tougher influences, more in line with the Blasters and X than psychedelic hocus pocus. Scarecrow proved a consistent seller, his biggest after American Fool, and while I prefer “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Rumbleseat” (both proving what he’d learned from Mitch and Bobby Fuller) “R.O.CK. in the U.S.A” benefits from ebullient background vocals and Kenny Aronoff’s unerring way with the offbeat: this is a band that has learned to play the singer’s tunes.

GRADE: B+

4. Falco – Rock Me Amadeus

Speaking of samplers…a song inspired by the music video “Rock Me Amadeus”

GRADE: B-

3. Atlantic Starr – Secret Lovers

Between Purple Rain and Control, non-ballad R&B had trouble crossing over to pop radio and sometimes not even then; even Luther Vandross and the slow motion kiss of Rene & Angela’s “Your Smile” couldn’t break the wall. All of Atlantic Starr’s crossover hits were ballads, “Secret Lovers” the most tolerable. A song with this concept shouldn’t be obvious; imagine a gay man writing something called “I’m in the Closet” with a chorus that goes, “I’m in the CLOOOOOOSSEET.’

GRADE: C

2. Starship – Sara

It makes “Secret Lovers” sound like Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara.”

GRADE: F

1. Heart – These Dreamas

The Wilson sisters’ unease with record company management of their wardrobe and songwriting is well-documented, but “These Dreams” remains an exception, thanks to excellent synthesizer work and an airy arrangement that allows Nancy a chance to sing Bernie Taupin’s motivational twaddle as if it deserved a second look. I can’t imagine Stevie Nicks, to whom the song was first offered, resisting the chance to sing it as it were “Sara” — the Starship song, that is. It’s no stretch to think of Chairlift covering it.

GRADE: B+

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