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.
Nineteen eighty-six may be the final year in which the 1980s truly resembled the garishly loud decade for which we remember it. Bruce Springsteen released his unnecessarily bloated five-LP victory lap Live. Prince tried to direct a French art movie, and it turned out really badly. (At least we got "Kiss" out of the fiasco.) The Beastie Boys fused hard rock with rap and created the soundtrack for generations of frat boys. Speed metal from the likes of Metallica and Megadeth ripped through arenas and mosh pits. Peter Gabriel, the British prog rock humanist best known for liberal protest and imaginative introspection, turned the volume up to 11 with "Sledgehammer." Madonna tried to get political with "Papa Don't Preach," but its earnest story of a teenage pregnancy seemed mild in comparison to earlier (and future) provocations.
It was possible to ignore mainstream rock's addiction to gigantism. Washington, D.C., was in the throes of its "Revolutionary Summer," where a wave of bands burnt out on hardcore punk gathered the seeds of what would later be called emo. In Chicago, house music gathered steam, as evinced by Marshall Jefferson's seminal "Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem)." Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett developed variations on the New Country model, resulting in a blueprint of what became known as alt country. College radio stations -- a kind of alternative mainstream that wasn't quite underground -- bloomed with smart, cheerily earnest bands like Camper van Beethoven and R.E.M., laying the groundwork for what would later be known as alternative rock.
The increasing importance of the latter was heralded by the arrival of MTV's influential 120 Minutes. Some may have sneered at MTV's mix of former indie bands-turned-major label prospects like Husker Du, critic-approved international imports like Australia's Crowded House, and U.K. indie rock heroes like The Smiths and The Housemartins. But for a nation of suburban youth sick of hearing Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts," it was a much-needed tonic.
So, 1986 was a great year for music, right? Well, not quite. Many of the artists we associate with the late 1980s were mostly dormant (like The Cure, U2, INXS, Def Leppard, LL Cool J, Whitney Houston and Dinosaur Jr.), hadn't hit their stride yet (such as Sonic Youth, Napalm Death, The Flaming Lips, Ministry and Swans) or were on the verge of releasing debuts (see Public Enemy, Guns N' Roses, Sinead O'Connor, Randy Travis, Pixies and George Michael). Depeche Mode released one of their best albums, Black Celebration, but it wasn't until the following year's Music for the Masses and "Behind the Wheel" that they became pop stars in America. Eric B. and Rakim dropped their debut single, "Eric B. Is President," but their classic debut, Paid in Full, was a year away. XTC dazzled critics with Skylarking, but it didn't include their controversial 1987 single "Dear God" (which was subsequently added to Skylarking pressings).
As a result, this list contains more coulda-been contenders than usual. MC Shan is an underrated rap pioneer whose choppy, lung-punching cadences inspired everyone from Rakim to 50 Cent, but he never surpassed his epochal hit, "The Bridge." Force MDs should have been as large as Boyz II Men, but the doo-wop-influenced R&B of "Tender Love" was too far ahead of its time. The Cover Girls were poised to become The Supremes of Nuyorican freestyle, but despite a big pop hit in "Show Me" they didn't transcend the rest of the scene. And there's no explanation required for one-hit wonders like Nu Shooz, Timex Social Club (later known as Club Nouveau), Oran "Juice" Jones and Falco.
There's still much to enjoy here. With Rapture, Anita Baker released the biggest album of the quiet storm era. New Order issued their timeless single "Bizarre Love Triangle," and Robert Cray scored a rare blues top 10 hit, "Smoking Gun." With Slayer's thrash masterwork Reign in Blood, producer Rick Rubin added to his legend as one of the great studio innovators. Other classic 1986 albums include Bad Brains' I Against I, Arthur Russell's World of Echo, Run-DMC's Raising Hell, Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and Janet Jackson's Control. And the Grammy-certified Album of the Year inspired a heated argument that lingers to this day: Did Paul Simon's Graceland give a deserved spotlight to South African highlife pioneers Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or did it simply exploit them for world-music novelty?
With multiplatinum sellers, controversies and cutting-edge trends galore, music fans certainly didn't take 1986 off, especially since there were premonitions of better things to come.