Decades
A quarterly report that looks back
on music and film from 10, 20, 30 years ago

Top 25 Songs of 1987

on August 23, 2017, 12:00pm

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

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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

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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

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

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

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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

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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

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

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

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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

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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

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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)”

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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