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by Seth Colter Walls

July 31, 2013

The 50 Best Songs of 1985

by Seth Colter Walls  |  July 31, 2013

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

Set aside Kanye West's declarations about the influence of minimalism on Yeezus for a second. When flipping back to 1985, we can hear what the pared-down aesthetic in rap really sounded like, back in the day when Rick Rubin did more than fly in for the fourth quarter of an album's production.

When LL Cool J burst on the scene with "I Can't Live Without My Radio," the stark sound — mostly percussion, except for some scratched-up guitar power chords during verse-chorus transitions — feels totally Rubin. Though LL would eventually graduate, along with the rest of pop music, to a fuller production aesthetic, the album Radio is a portrait of a young emcee who is clearly happy to exist in the early Def Jam world (see LL's boast "I'm cold getting paid cause Rick said so" for confirmation).

Coming after 1984's Purple Rain (and the peak of Prince's influence) and before the more approachable, chart-dominating force that hip-hop would assume by decade's end, radio pop looks like a free-for-all in 1985. Prince himself famously went against the grain with his obscurantist, arty follow-up, Around the World in a Day — so much so that some of his fans think his strongest performance from '85 was on the B-side "She's Always in My Hair." (And even if Prince wasn't creating another mainstream album of note, his profligate songwriting gift was still helping other artists: See Chaka Khan's take on Prince's old "I Feel For You" and the come-on track "Sugar Walls," which the Purple One gifted to Sheena Easton.)

Other players from the Dream Team crew responsible for 1984's Big Albums — Madonna, Bruce — are lingering here, with late-released singles that managed to impress during 1985. Elsewhere, filling the upper reaches of the Billboard charts was the task of artists who exist further down on the all-time star hierarchy. While we know Tears for Fears for "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and Simple Minds for the John Hughes soundtrack tent-pole song "Don't You Forget About Me," these contributions feel local to 1985. They didn't take on the world with much long-term staying power, not even A-Ha, but they'll always hold pride of place for their time.

In the U.K., The Smiths were leading the incipient movement toward what we'd now call "indie rock" with their totemic single "How Soon is Now?" As for the American underground, 1985 was a pivotal year of sorts, with many acts either coming ever closer to the idea of moving to major labels (R.E.M., Husker Du), or putting out their first big corporate efforts (The Replacements). Sonic Youth weren't close to that decision yet, but their move toward more recognizable song structures on Bad Moon Rising (most especially on "Death Valley '69") was part of that same journey, whether they knew it yet or not.

The American adult-contemporary world that existed outside good-time radio pleasure was, meantime, still steeped in basic Americana roots and blues — but that doesn't mean it was free of complexity (except for Stevie Ray Vaughan, who may have been having the breeziest fun of anyone). See the more sardonic gestures in Bruce Springsteen's 1984 anthem "Born in the USA" (still doing chart damage in 1985) as well as the subtle jabs in John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town," both of which have nevertheless been mistaken for conservative-leaning political statements. (President Reagan and/or his handlers famously misunderstood The Boss during their reelection campaign; "Small Town" was, shockingly, still being under-interpreted by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as late as 2012.) A more unmistakably snarky response to the vagaries of period economics could be found on Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," in which questions of wage disparity between rock stars and manual laborers are dispatched with one of the era's most memorable guitar riffs (plus Sting's plaintive, consumerist-minded guest vocals about wanting one's MTV).

If the liberalism of artists like Springsteen and Mellencamp seems obvious to most contemporary audiences, it's perhaps because we live in more easily sorted (and divided) political times. But 1985 was a more naïve era, a fact reflected by nothing so much as the Michael Jackson-headlined "We Are the World," which looked to address a globe full of challenges by contributing to the celebrity arms race of charity-song schmaltz. The more realist take on world affairs came via Fela Kuti's "Army Arrangement" (though as an incentive for feel-good donations, it probably left something to be desired).

Speaking of less commercial acts, the fact that the NEA had yet to be as aggressively criticized as it would be in 1987 (due to grants given to visual artists like Andres Serrano) meant it was doing its part to help along American art music in 1985. And so without much in the way of fuss, the careers of jazz and classical artists such as John Adams -- whose 40 blasts of E minor to open "Harmonielehre" was another kind of '85-era Minimalism -- and Anthony Braxton ("Composition No. 114") were ascendant. They're still around and, despite increased partisan polarization regarding its mission, so is the NEA, which gave Adams its Opera Honor in 2009 and just announced Braxton as part of its next Jazz Honor class in 2014. In these ways and others, 1985 is still with us. Experience all the year's moods and styles over in the appended playlist.

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