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Top 25 Songs of 1987

A playlist brought you by a King of Pop, a Jersey girl, and some lads from Dublin

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    Decades is a recurring feature that turns back the clock to critical anniversaries of albums, songs, and films. This month, we dial it back to the top 25 songs of 1987.

    Fine Brothers Entertainment, better known as YouTube channel FBE, has been making reaction videos for more than a decade now. One of their most popular segments features people of different ages trying to identify and make sense of pop-culture or technology from before their time – or aimed at a different demographic. For instance, they might ask grandparents to listen and respond to a new Beyoncé single, or young children raised on Blu-Rays might be tasked with guessing the function of an old VCR. The results are usually a comical mix of kids (or whomever) say the darndest things and a reminder that time marches on with or without us.

    In several episodes, I’ve seen kids or teens (those born this millennium) challenged to listen to songs and name the artist – several of whom appear on this list. Given the generation gap and that failed attempt to ID a VCR, I gave the young people little hope. And, for the most part, I was proven decidedly wrong. If kids couldn’t name the artists, they had at least heard the songs before and knew some lyrics. And certain artists, like Michael Jackson, they all knew. When we speak of timelessness, it’s one thing to be remembered. It’s quite another thing to continually be discovered again and again.

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    Looking at this list, many of these artists – as well as their albums and songs – likely will be both remembered and discovered long after we become eligible to take part in the FBE grandparent reaction videos. Some of these songs sound “so ‘80s,” but they defined the ‘80s. They couldn’t have been produced at any other time, and yet in any other time, including now, they still make us smile, dance, and bang our heads. It’s why timelessness and music matter. Because music brings us, among so many other things, joy, hope, solace, solidarity, inspiration, and wisdom. Should succor come all the way from the ‘80s or a song that tops the charts later this year, I’ll gladly welcome it. We need all the help we can get.

    So, here are 25 songs that have managed to survive 30 years to meet us in the present. They come from kings of pop, lads from Dublin, and Jersey girls. Packed and preserved carefully so that we can remember or discover them as they were and as they are. So, click ahead and make sure you know as many of these songs as possible. After all, you don’t want to be outsmarted by some sweet, little brat on YouTube, do you?

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director


    mi0002230402 Top 25 Songs of 198725. Starship – “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”

    No Protection

    At 46, Grace Slick became the oldest woman to have a No. 1 single with Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. (A feat that would later be broken by a 52-year-old Cher and her single “Believe”.) You wouldn’t know it, though, as the former Jefferson Airplane crooner is so ensconced in ’80s production that it sounds like it’s coming from Sheena Easton. That shiny nugget of trivia is kind of crucial, though, and almost serves as a meta parallel to the song’s overarching themes of unthinkable triumphs. The song already cuddles the heart like a warm Teddy Ruxpin, but knowing it came from a singer who’s pushing 50 and arguably floating around in the latter half of her career is unquestionably awesome. In hindsight, it makes this single feel less like a rote nostalgic soundtrack hit for an Andrew McCarthy movie and more like an anthem for any woman struggling to survive an ageist and sexist industry. On the other hand, it’s also just a blast to sing along to on those not-so-sunny days. –Michael Roffman


    darklands Top 25 Songs of 198724. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “April Skies”

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    Darklands

    After blowing minds with their seminal 1985 debut, Psychocandy, which took sweet pop melodies and strangled them with barbed wire before drowning them in abandoned swimming pools of feedback, The Jesus and Mary Chain returned two years later with Darklands, a collection of gloomy, glowing pop unrolling across an infinite expanse. And, as we know, that somehow worked, too. Lead single “April Skies” shrugs along moodily atop drum machine beats – drummer Bobby Gillespie having left to front Primal Scream – as William Reid’s working-class chug and Jim Reid’s aloof, boy-girl melodrama (“making love on the edge of a knife”) politely mingle. But then that darkening sky finally cracks, and the listener feels as if they’ve crawled out of an underground cave and into the open and can see a million miles in every direction. It’s a liberating, transcendent song that never raises its pulse and lends an emotional dignity to the troubles of the adolescent heart. –Matt Melis


    sonic youth sister frontal Top 25 Songs of 198723. Sonic Youth – “Schizophrenia”

    Sister

    Rolling and echoing, the lyrics to Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” become your reality, even if just for a few minutes. Thurston Moore’s calm and confident delivery prods you to remember and feel the faint prick of nostalgia over a calm and steady rhythm section, making his memories seem almost matter of fact — as if they’re your own. But these seemingly humble beginnings give way to the track’s true peak — essentially, the song’s turning point — when Kim Gordon lightly sings, “My future is static/ It’s already had it.” The music grows frenzied, mirroring its namesake, epitomizing Sonic Youth’s more mainstream approach to the avant-garde — complex and vast without being unlistenable. Though not radio-ready or powerfully anthemic, per se, the track’s power is in its control. In only four minutes and 38 seconds, “Schizophrenia” contains a lifetime. –Carly Snider


    aerosmith   permanent vacation Top 25 Songs of 198722. Aerosmith – “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”

    Permanent Vacation

    The fairytale had come to an end by the late ‘70s for Boston bad boys Aerosmith. With a string of five platinum albums and an arsenal of singles that are still played on classic rock stations today in their back pockets, the band found themselves strung out and falling apart – guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford each exiting for a time. Little could they have known that sobriety, a hip-hop duo, and a titular dude in drag would be the fairy godmothers who would grant them a second life. After finding the limelight again with a hit remake of their own “Walk This Way” alongside Run-D.M.C., a sober Aerosmith hired producer Bruce Fairbairn, scored some songwriting help, and recorded Permanent Vacation, their true comeback album. And it was second single “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” – the band’s funkiest and funniest song in years – that transformed Aerosmith back into stars overnight. Either inspired by a night out with Vince Neil or by the appearance of the Mötley Crüe frontman himself, this song about getting a little more than you bargained for in a pretty face featured a rejuvenated Perry and Steven Tyler, devil horns, and one of the catchiest finish-this-line choruses in rock history. At a time when alt-rock and grunge were beginning to mobolize, Aerosmith proved there was still room for a blues rock band to dominate the world. Thirty years later, we’re still not worthy! –Matt Melis


    george michael faith Top 25 Songs of 198721. George Michael – “Faith”

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    Faith

    It’s hard to separate “Faith” from its music video (the close-up on his wiggling butt was pre-GIF, but considering the number of times I’ve seen those few seconds loop in the 30 years since would seem to suggest otherwise). There’s so much leather and hairspray and swagger, but yet also so much genuine passion; stepping out from Wham!, George Michael needed to show some edge while upholding the stellar grasp on pop music and hearts that got him where he was to begin with. Michael’s first few singles pushed boundaries, “Faith” did so while also delivering an all-time classic hook. The iconic tambourine keeps things moving (the layered, shuffling percussion is a symposium in simplicity), but it’s Michael’s wide-ranging vocal sensuality that is the effortless star of the show and the reason it remains a karaoke mainstay. –Lior Phillips


    inxs kick 2 Top 25 Songs of 198720. INXS – “New Sensation”

    Kick

    Some might argue that great pop music is built in the studio; INXS doesn’t exactly refute that argument. “New Sensation” is a prime example of a studio job done right. Produced by the inimitable Chris Thomas, the three-and-half-minute slice of ’80s pop rock heaven is overwhelming, to say the very least. At the time, the scorching hit sounded like the aural equivalent to a brand-new Ferrari Testarossa, and you know what, it probably came walloping out of most of them driving around America at the time. As such, it’s super, super slick, but that’s the point: By then, INXS had become an event, capturing the era’s collective spirit that yearned for excess, excess, excess. Songs like “New Sensation”, in a sense, brought agency to the idea that gluttony was king, that for a few minutes you could also feel on top of the world. That’s not exactly a great lesson in morality, but like a little cocaine every now and then, it feels so, so good. –Michael Roffman


    grateful dead   in the dark Top 25 Songs of 198719. Grateful Dead – “Touch of Grey”

    In the Dark

    For nearly six minutes, “Touch of Grey” pounds you with positivity. The repeated choruses of “I will get by” are not wayward hopes or mere wishful thinking; they are the truth. Even those unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead are pulled in by the track’s unwavering assuredness. From the opening notes, “Touch of Grey” allows for only that — just a touch of darkness. The combination of cowbell, steady guitar, and ringing high notes almost mask the discouraging images of the verses. Plowing along, the music carries you until you make it to the chorus. There, things simplify. It’s almost as though the musical sky opens up and all you can see is the bright “I will get by.” These lyrics are uncomplicated enough to apply to a myriad of people, tastes, and times. And the most powerful moment of “Touch of Grey” — its quiet shift from “I will get by” to “We will get by” — is also its most simple. –Carly Snider


    9329 the lion and the cobra Top 25 Songs of 198718. Sinéad O’Connor – “Troy”

    The Lion and the Cobra

    Some performances shine so bright and possess such a powerful gravitational pull that an artist might see the rest of his or her work unfairly overlooked. Sinéad O’Connor’s 1990 Prince cover, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, fits that bill. So career-defining was that recording that few, other than die-hard fans, likely realize that O’Connor remained a platinum-selling artist throughout the ‘90s, despite never reaching that same mainstream popularity again. Still others likely see that song and its album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, as the defacto start of O’Connor’s career rather than ’87’s The Lion and the Cobra, one of the more inventive debuts of the last 30 years. If fans of that song would only venture back to her debut, they’d find “Troy” and know O’Connor had always been capable of nailing an epic performance. Like W.B. Yeats before her, O’Connor talks about a highly destructive person in her life (likely a lover) through the story of Troy. As the intensity of the tale and sparse arrangements escalate, O’Connor flexes her distinctive pipes and points a finger in ways that few other singers can. In other words, few things compare 2 this song. –Matt Melis


    paidinfull Top 25 Songs of 198717. Eric B. & Rakim – “I Know You Got Soul”

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    Paid in Full

    As timely as they come, the debut album from Eric B. & Rakim was unleashed to widespread critical acclaim 30 years ago this July. Recorded in Marley Marl’s home studio and NYC’s Power Play Studios across ’86-87, it became an instant classic, propelling the heady evolution of early hip-hop to a new echelon of sophistication and straight-up skill. Raising the bar in terms of both sample-heavy production and lyricism (Rakim’s free-rhythm style skilfully sidestepped bar lines and was likened to legendary pianist Thelonious Monk), classic cuts like “I Know You Got Soul” proved slick and perfectly righteous exhibitions in wordplay, scratching, and first-rate bombastic musicality. –Brian Coney


    joshua tree Top 25 Songs of 198716. U2 – “With or Without You”

    The Joshua Tree

    Anyone even a little familiar with the way in which U2 work wouldn’t be surprised by the idea that any song underwent dozens of changes and revisions, but it’s still hard to believe that’s the case for a song as sublimely sweet as “With or Without You”. The track was reportedly nearly abandoned at multiple points by the band, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois, only to be repeatedly salvaged at the last second by a new arrangement, a new prototype guitar effect, and the like. The song was apparently even debated down to release as a single, which is perhaps the most perplexing part; once it was perfected, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying no to the soaring, captivating maturity. Bono’s arching, cracking vocals epitomize the growth of the band since their early, punkier days, pushing sincerity and grandeur to unseen heights. –Lior Phillips


    michael jackson bad Top 25 Songs of 198715. Michael Jackson – “Bad”

    Bad

    You can already hear the bass line. Even four decades after its release, “Bad” is still one of those songs that makes you feel like you’re in a music video (even if you’re actually on a crowded public bus). From the opening flare of the horns to the synth-drenched back beat, “Bad” is a bop. The verses and pre-chorus alone are enough to make even the most hardened of hearts tap a toe — no one can resist MJ’s smooth vocals and breathy “ah”s. And then there’s the chorus. Oh, the chorus. Jackson doesn’t need some swaggering anecdote to back up why he’s bad; he just is. As his vocals soar, Jackson is backed with an airy chorus of “Bad/ Bad/ Really, really bad,” just in case you couldn’t already feel his emboldening power. To this day, “Bad” is a track whose chorus prompts strained vocal chords and an inflated confidence. Listen with caution. –Carly Snider


    tunneloflove1987 Top 25 Songs of 198714. Bruce Springsteen – “Brilliant Disguise”

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    Tunnel of Love

    How well do you know the person you love? How much do they care? How long can that slow, painful dance last? This is what concerns Bruce Springsteen on his Tunnel of Love hit, fueled by the self-doubt and confusion he felt during his crumbling marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. (The two would divorce a year later in 1988.) When Springsteen pines, “Now look at me baby/ Struggling to do everything right/ And then it all falls apart/ When out go the lights,” it’s as if he totally forgot he’s in song. Juxtaposed against Weinberg’s poppy beats and Roy Bittan’s “Rock Organ” keyboard patch, “Brilliant Disguise” remains a humble yet epic ode to those nagging feelings that everyone encounters at some point in their relationship. It was also used to great effect in 2015 mini-series Show Me a Hero, not that you needed that slice of trivia or anything. –Michael Roffman


    smiths   strangeways here we come Top 25 Songs of 198713. The Smiths – “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

    Strangeways, Here We Come

    It takes quite a special song to merit a cover from slowcore heroes Low and admiration from Andre 3000. “I personally wish I would have written that Smiths song,” the Outkast rapper told MTV. Morrissey, Johnny Marr, and company were always able to reach into the deepest wells of emotion, even with the simplest of lines. The long intro pairs a tearful keyboard line with samples of a miners’ strike, an event full of complex emotions, politics, and conflicted feelings — always good topics for Moz. “Last night I felt real arms around me/ No hope, no harm/ Just another false alarm,” he sings; whether dreaming or just daydreaming, we’ve all experienced that brief flash of happiness that fades away once reality sets back in. –Lior Phillips


    0000280376 Top 25 Songs of 198712. Gloria Estefan – “Can’t Stay Away from You”

    Let It Loose

    Growing up in South Florida, particularly during the ’80s, you couldn’t escape Gloria Estefan. Why would you want to? Alongside the Miami Sound Machine, the Cuban-American singer was producing some of the most signature pop music of the era. Let It Loose, the first album credited to her as a solo artist, was an essential statement in Estefan’s career and included some of her biggest hits, namely “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”, “1-2-3”, and “Anything for You”. But really, it’s “Can’t Stay Away from You” that finds Estefan at her most sensual. The meditative ballad has the singer wrestling with a relationship that only she believes in, and the production would have you believe she’s coming to these conclusions from a sun-kissed pool in Miami. It’s staggering in all its beauty, highlighting an aspect of her oeuvre that is so intrinsically tied to South Florida that this writer can’t even find the right words to describe why that is. As her album suggests, just let it loose … and escape. –Michael Roffman


    remdocument 260x260 Top 25 Songs of 198711. R.E.M. – “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

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    Document

    Catalyzed by a commanding drum roll, the rapid pace of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” serves up a welcome sampling of sonic mayhem. The lyric-heavy track has been lauded for its stream-of-consciousness style, which bounces from name-dropping Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs to references of birthday parties and cheesecake. Moreover, the song was ironically released as a single just one month after Black Monday — the day of the 1987 stock market crash. Recently, however, the song made headlines during the last election cycle when R.E.M. delightfully, epically, and gloriously slammed Donald Trump for his unauthorized use of it on the campaign trail (longtime lead vocalist Michael Stipe issued a statement that included the line “go fuck yourselves” in response). Though “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” came to be 30 years ago, its title now strikes a harrowing relevance to the present — but hopefully not the future. –Lindsay Teske


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