The 50 Best Songs of 1987
by Philip Sherburne | February 27, 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.
The year 1987 occupies a special place in my heart. That's the year I turned 16, and the year I fell head-over-heels in love with punk rock. Literally, in fact: It's also the year I broke my collarbone stage-diving at a G.B.H. show (in my defense, opening act The Accüsed, whose splattercore platter More Fun Than an Open Casket Funeral was currently in heavy rotation on my Walkman, had joined the band onstage for a rousing encore of "Louie Louie") and then got grounded for lying about it to my parents. (I told them that I'd gotten hit by a stray combat boot when someone else leaped into the crowd; I had to recant my story when they contacted a lawyer about suing the club.)
Yes, somehow, music kept getting me in trouble in 1987, though I'd guess hormones had just as much to do with it. That's also the year I got suspended from school after a cop found beer under the passenger seat of my car; it wasn't even mine (I swear!), and I wouldn't have gotten busted if we hadn't been slam-dancing in the high school parking lot to the Repo Man soundtrack, which was blaring out of the open windows of my Corolla. When I finally got un-grounded again, that was the year my buddies and I drove around downtown Portland shouting along to Anthrax's "I'm the Man" and barking out the lyrics to Metallica's $5.98 E.P., their searing cover of The Misfits' "Last Caress/Green Hell" in particular. And when my mom and I had smoothed over our more glaring mutual grievances, that's the year we visited colleges in Southern California, Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses playing on a constant loop in the cassette deck of our rental car as we crisscrossed Los Angeles.
It was a transitional year for me, in other words, a year on the cusp of the cusp of adulthood. A year before, I had been listening to Top 40 radio and rocking a Simple Minds T-shirt from their Once Upon a Time tour; now I was stocking up on Sonic Youth and Nomeansno shirts while skulking around The Ooze, a terrifyingly cool record store that specialized in industrial music, though I was too intimidated to actually buy anything. Most weekends I would head downtown to 2nd Avenue Records and blow what little cash I had on records and tapes. Soundgarden's first EP was out that year; platters from local heroes Poison Idea could still be found in bountiful supply. ("Pay No More than 25 Dollars," read a sarcastic note on their Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes EP, which probably cost no more than $8. Oh, the irony: These days an original pressing might run you well over $100.) It wasn't all about punk, though: The open-minded clerks at 2nd Avenue also turned me on to Boogie Down Productions' brittle, brutal Criminal Minded, which felt way more punk rock than the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party." (That one reminded me too much of the jocks in my school, a malevolent force to be avoided at all costs, especially if you were a paisley-wearing, quasi-Goth freak like me.)
As indulgent as it may seem to reminisce over my own musical history this way, I bring it all up only because, looking back, 1987 was also a transitional year for popular music.
In many ways, 1987 looks like a static year. Pop, certainly, was running on fumes. Many of the big No. 1 hits that year – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes' Dirty Dancing theme "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," Heart's "Alone," Cutting Crew's soft-edged "(I Just) Died in Your Arms" -- broke little new ground, instead taking tried-and-true MOR tropes into ever more middling terrain. Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were just two of the singers who ran with Madonna's now-familiar brand of dance pop, and even Madonna herself spun her wheels with "Open Your Heart" and "Who's That Girl."
Hair metal continued to be inescapable, and while Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses both gave us enduring, era-defining anthems with "Livin' on a Prayer" and ["Welcome to the Jungle,"](tra.1916251:PLAY much of the rest – [Whitesnake]'s "Here I Go Again," Mötley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls" was just going through the motions as the boys tossed their locks.
Alternative music, too, seemed stuck in a holding pattern, even as R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" rocketed them from the college stations to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, and bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü settled cozily into their major-label contracts. Punk's provocations had long since become mannerism, and post-punk's experimental fusions of noise and funk had given way to less ambitious hybrids; New Wave former weirdos like Depeche Mode and The Cure turned down the path toward superstardom.
The first great waves of American hardcore had subsided. Black Flag and Dead Kennedys were both finished; Minutemen's D. Boon was dead. Sonic Youth managed the last great, provocative record of their early years, Sister. Throughout the underground, the edge seemed to have worn down. In fact, we were on the verge of a monumental surge in alt rock culture, although we didn't necessarily know it at the time; Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction were laying the groundwork for the Lollapalooza Nation, and in Seattle, Green River's Dry as a Bone and Soundgarden's Screaming Life EP set grunge's slow-burning fuse.
But, far outside pop's spotlight, two game-changing movements were on the horizon. Hip-hop became a force to be reckoned with as never before, with debut albums or EPs from Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A. and Eric B. and Rakim pushing rap music into popular consciousness for the first time; LL Cool J made history with "I Need Love," the first rap ballad. At the same time, dance music at long last came out of the shadows of the post-disco years, thanks to Latin freestyle, industrial music, and house and techno. Several of Chicago house's biggest classics were released that year, including Frankie Knuckles' "Baby Wants to Ride" and "Your Love," and Joe Smooth's "Promise Land." Overseas, M/A/R/R/S were readying British ravers for the acid-house explosion. (In fact, 1987 is the year that Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway visited Ibiza and discovered house music; they returned to London rolling on ecstasy and import wax, and by the following year, rave culture had transformed British youth culture.)
Speaking of "rolling," another fun fact: While the Internet as we know it was still several years away, 1987 also happened to give birth to one of online culture's most enduring memes to date. If that clue didn't give it away, you'll have to listen to all 50 songs on our playlist to figure out what it is.