A Look Back at the 20 Best Music Memories of 1986…Part 1: R&B/Hip-Hop.

As the members of the Class of 1986 finish preparations for this year’s 30th-year reunions around the country, I thought I’d help you recall that memorable year in music!  It was the year that we watched a Jackson grow up and take Control, a Baker en-Rapture us, and disco music make its best attempt at a comeback since its “death” six years earlier.

I’ve put together a ranking of the 20 Best Music Memories of that year, based on how well the songs and artists did then, as well as how much they’ve held up since that time.  Part 1 is devoted to R&B/Hip-Hop/Dance.  Part 2 will cover pop.

In fact, both here and at the end of the article, you can access a special Class of 1986 DJRob playlist I’ve put together – just for you, the members of that esteemed class.  I’d recommend whipping it out when asking that d-jay what to play at those reunion parties you’ll no doubt be attending.

These are the songs you were listening and grooving to during that last half of your senior year (and the first half of your freshmen year if you were entering college), i.e., the music from January to December 1986.

To set the stage for this musical journey, let’s recall some of the things that were happening around the world back then.

It was the year of several historic disasters, including the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger that January, which claimed the lives of the seven astronauts aboard (those who were around then surely remember where they were as those events unfolded live on TV).

A few months later, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant explosion happened, making it the worst nuclear accident in history, as it spread contamination across a wide stretch of Eastern Europe.

The US was a major player on the world stage, including our bombing of Libya for its role in terrorist acts in Germany (a disco was bombed there).  President Ronald Reagan’s administration infamously sold weapons to Iran, another one of our enemies at the time, in what was later known as the Iran-Contra Affair.  But Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also made significant progress toward ending the longstanding Cold War (and Gorbachev would be the last leader of the Soviet Union, which ended five years later).

Back at home, First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died just this past week, continued waging her war on drugs with the popular slogan “Just Say No,” which became perhaps her biggest legacy.

Nancy Reagan in 1996 during her "Just Say No" campaign
Nancy Reagan in 1996 during her “Just Say No” campaign

And speaking of the war on drugs, America (the black community in particular) was coming to grips with crack cocaine, which on June 18 had claimed the life of one of the most promising young basketball stars to come out of college, Len Bias.  He was drafted (second overall) by the Boston Celtics only two days before his death at the age of 22.

Bias’ untimely passing, and the spread of the epidemic in general, brought widespread awareness to the issue and prompted many musicians, including Run-D.M.C., Isaac Hayes, and others to take strong stances against it.

But all the news in ’86 wasn’t so heavy.

Gas was selling for $0.89/gallon back then (and it’s been heading back in that direction recently).

IBM unveiled the PC Convertible, which was essentially the first laptop.  Also, Internet mail protocol was established, setting the stage for what we’ve called E-mail the past three decades.

In sports, the Chicago Bears won their first (and only) Super Bowl championship that January, and proudly gave us “The Super Bowl Shuffle” to go along with their title.  (Quick: name the other major sports champions of 1986.  Yeah, I know, the ’85/’86 Bears have received all that year’s sports love ever since).

On the entertainment front, The Cosby Show was still the #1 show in prime time TV (although you’ll likely never see it again in syndication), and we did not yet know of Bill’s “alleged” shenanigans with women.  (NBC’s Thursday night lineup also famously included “Cheers” and “Family Ties,” making it the most watched night of television for several years).

And films like Top Gun, Pretty in Pink, Crocodile Dundee, Ruthless People and Aliens had us filling movie theaters nationwide.

MTV (Music Television for those who’ve forgotten) was still the premier music video channel and even had multiple designations for its various programming levels (power rotation, heavy rotation, active rotation, and medium, breakout and light rotations).  Today, it’s essentially “no rotation” for music videos on the channel now simply known as MTV (can anyone tell me what the M now stands for?).

Speaking of music, hip-hop would see its first major crossover hits (Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way”) with the help of rock outfit Aerosmith, and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill album, proving that – although it had already introduced the likes of future Hall-of-Famers Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash – the genre still needed an assist from white artists before it would gain mainstream acceptance.

Regardless, Run-D.M.C. became the first rap group to gain a top-ten or platinum album on the Billboard 200 chart when their Raising Hell album did both those things that summer.

It was also the breakout year of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the former members of the band The Time-turned-record producers who helmed several of 1986’s biggest R&B and pop hits – particularly those by Janet Jackson from her breakthrough album, Control.

It was a big year for Janet to shine, because her brother Michael was between albums (Thriller and Bad).  Thus 1986 was the only year of the ’80s in which Michael didn’t have a single or album appear on any Billboard charts.  Thriller had run its course in 1985, and Bad was still a year away.

So all the spotlight was on Janet…well, almost all of it.

And it’s with that in mind that we’ll begin this countdown of 1986’s Best R&B/Hip-Hop Music Memories.

And to all you pop fans, don’t worry, I’ll have a companion pop list in a forthcoming article in the coming days.

20.  Charity and Schmaltz Continued.


Lionel Richie’s “Say You Say Me” was the first new #1 R&B single of the year, reigning for two weeks in January, and Dionne (Warwick) and Friends’ “That’s What Friends Are For” was next, giving us back-to-back schmaltz to start 1986.  To say that American artists were feeling charitable back in the mid-1980s would be an understatement (although “Say You” wasn’t technically a charity song, it certainly carried that sentiment).

With our 1985 “We Are The World” hangover barely over, 1986 was shaping up to be more of the same.  First with “Friends” and later with the Hands Across America campaign (remember?), in which 6.5-million Americans joined hands from coast to coast to address homelessness and poverty.

The accompanying single “Hands Across America” by one-time ensemble Voices That Care bombed on the charts, but “That’s What Friends Are For” and “Say You, Say Me” unsurprisingly wound up being the two biggest pop singles of the year.  Great songs, yes…but (thankfully) things got a little funkier as 1986 went on.

19.  An Unrelated Jackson Croons (and dominates).

Soul singer Freddie Jackson's second LP, 1986's "Just Like the First Time" yielded the #1 "Tasty Love."
Soul singer Freddie Jackson’s second LP yielded the #1 hit “Tasty Love.”

No Michael, no problem.  A couple of other Jacksons made big splashes in 1986:  Michael’s younger sister, whose story is coming up later on this list, and the unrelated soul crooner Freddie Jackson.  His 1985 début album had yielded two big #1 R&B hits and was still charting singles in ’86 (like “Love is Just a Touch Away”).   His success even managed to bring unfortunate and misguided comparisons to the already established and far more talented Luther Vandross).

But Jackson was already ahead of Vandross in terms of #1 R&B singles (Luther had only had one at that point and didn’t get his second until the following January: “Stop to Love” from his 1986 Give Me the Reason LP).  Jackson’s 1986 sophomore album, Just Like the First Time, would turn that #1 race into a blowout.  By the time his album’s run was finished in ’87, he had added four more #1 singles to his cache, including two in ’86:  a duet with Melba Moore (“A Little Bit More” – no pun intended) and “Tasty Love,” back-to-back #1 hits that proved the term ‘sophomore slump’ did not apply to Freddie Jackson.

18a.  Disco Redo Part 1:  Gotta Have House…Music.

These two songs are considered pioneering hits for Chicago House music
These two songs are considered pioneering hits for Chicago House music

Although many of us mainstream R&B/hip-hop and pop music fans didn’t know it at the time, there was this underground movement of post-disco music known as “house” developing in Chicago (and later spread to other major cities like New York and London).

The music grew out of disco, a genre whose death was hastened in the very city that house was born (by the famous disco sucks rally at the Chicago White Sox’ Comiskey Park in 1979).  In 1986, Trax Records – a small house music label based in the Windy City – released a song that’s been arguably house music’s anthem ever since, aptly titled: “Move Your Body” (The House Music Anthem)” by Marshall Jefferson.

Also in the year, another house classic, “Can You Feel It” by Larry Heard (“Mr. Fingers”) preached the gospel and further established Chicago as the home of house…and an underground movement that has been longer lasting, if not nearly as commercially successful as the disco music that spawned it, was well on its way to legendary status.

18b.  Disco Redo Part 2:  Unlikely Ladies Bring Freestyle Funk

Freestyle artist Connie is pictured along with label art for three 12" singles from 1986
Freestyle artist Connie is pictured along with label art for three 12″ singles from 1986

Although disco had been “dead” since 1980, three cult dance classics by three unlikely, one-named female acts Nocera (“Summertime, Summertime”), Connie (“Funky Little Beat”) and Janice (“Bye Bye”) brought some funk into 1986 and kept our butts shaking in the clubs (or the nearest college dorm party).  Nocera was a Sicilian-American latin freestyle artist.  Connie was another freestyle artist from Florida.  Janice was another one-hit wonder.  Their songs weren’t huge national hits – none of them reached the top 40, unlike the more popular dance track by similarly named one-hit-wonder Regina, whose “Baby Love” hit top-10 pop.  But the Nocera, Janice and Connie singles were infectious tunes just the same and they were slightly more radio-accessible than their house-music counterparts (mentioned in 18a above).  Besides, where else would you have heard a dance tune incorporate the Wizard of Oz’ Flying Monkeys’ chant (OOOOOeeeeeOh…OOOOOoh!) as used in Janice’s “Bye Bye”?

None of those women have been heard from since 1986 (at least not here in America), but those tunes certainly made a case for disco’s resurgence, even if we were calling it something else by then.

18c.  Disco Redo Part 3:  These Nu Shooz Fit Very Well, Thank U

Nu Shooz was married couple Valerie Day and John Smith
Nu Shooz was married couple Valerie Day and John Smith

Are you ’86ers sensing a dance theme here?  You could make a case for 1986 being the year that disco really was making a comeback, with the aforementioned songs, plus bigger hits by acts like the Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama, and the husband-and-wife team, Nu Shooz, topping national charts.  Nu Shooz’ very funky twin singles, “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return,” had us boogieing hard from their hometown of Portland, Oregon all the way to Portland, Maine.  In fact, “I Can’t Wait” was a bigger hit on the national R&B chart (#2 peak) than the pop chart (#3), proving that this blue-eyed-soul, freestyle dance act could funk it up with the best of them.  (Incidentally, the Pet Shop Boys’ first American hit, “West End Girls” not only topped the pop chart in ’86, but it also reached the Top 40 on the R&B chart.)

17.  Timex Social Club Spreads “Rumors”

Single cover art for Timex Social Club's #1 R&B hit, "Rumors."
Single cover art for Timex Social Club’s #1 R&B hit, “Rumors.”

“Did you hear that one about Michael?”  Yeah, they went there in 1986.  I could never tell the difference between Timex Social Club and Club Nouveau (apparently the latter was an offshoot of the former), but it was TSC that was credited with this commentary about the pain that rumors cause, set to a basic, but funky beat.  It went to #1 on the American R&B charts and enjoyed success abroad as well.  In their Club Nouveau incarnation, the band went on to score more hits in ’86 with “Jealousy” and “Situation #9.” (Quick: who knew what situations #1 through 8 were?)  (Btw, “Lean On Me” was a #1 pop hit for Club Nouveau in ’87.)

16.  René & Angela Delivered the Hits, then Split.

Rene Moore and Angela Winbush on the #1 single from March 1986, “Your Smile”

The duet of Rene & Angela was about as convincing a ‘couple’ as any other male/female duet in the early ’80s, and their growing success culminated in 1986 when two of their last singles together reached the top two positions on Billboard’s R&B chart: “Your Smile” (#1) and “You Don’t Have To Cry” (#2).  Those two smashes hailed from the 1985 album Street Called Desire, which became the group’s only platinum release and seemingly signaled even more success to come.  They even penned another #1 single that year for Stephanie Mills, who took their “I Have Learned To Respect The Power of Love” to the top that May, giving Mills her first #1 hit (of five total) and solidifying René Moore and Angela Winbush as a credible songwriting duo.

But their success as a team ended there.  The duo broke up later in 1986, never releasing a followup to Street Called Desire.  Angela went on to forge a successful solo career, beginning with 1987’s “Angel” – another #1 single.

15.  Cameo Crosses That Pop Line …Finally.


The R&B/funk group Cameo, featuring flamboyant lead singer Larry Blackmon, had achieved many hits on the Billboard R&B singles and albums charts before 1986, but it wasn’t until Blackmon famously donned a bright red codpiece over his crotch in the video for “Word Up” that the group crossed over to mainstream audiences.  In my opinion, the Word Up album wasn’t their best (that would be its predecessor, 1985’s Single Life), but it would be their biggest.  It also yielded the singles “Candy” (released at the end of 1986 and topping the R&B chart in early 1987) and “Back and Forth” (a #3 hit).   The Word Up album ultimately went platinum and reached the top ten on the Billboard 200, something no other Cameo album had done before or since.

14.  LeVert Debuts.

During happier times, LeVert’s Marc Gordon, Sean Levert and Gerald Levert

O’Jays member Eddie Levert had two talented singing sons, Gerald and Sean, who joined friend Marc Gordon to form the trio LeVert.  Their 1986 Atlantic Records release “(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind” struck a nerve with R&B audiences and topped the chart in September for one week.  It was the first of five #1 singles for the trio.  Sadly, the two Levert brothers have since passed, ironically leaving Gordon as the only surviving founder of the group not bearing his name.

13.  Grace Was Still A Slave (…to the Rhythm).


The versatile Grace Jones was easily one of the most striking artists of the 1980s.  She was angular, androgynous and she defied musical boundaries.  Never was this more true than on the late-1985 release, “Slave to the Rhythm,” a song whose popularity spilled over to 1986 and later became her signature tune.  The song fused go-go, disco and funk, all with an avant-garde edge that made it all the more infectious.  “Pull Up To The Bumper” from 1981 may have been bigger, but “Slave” was truly better.

12.  Full Force Gets Busy One Time.


Full Force were a bunch of husky body builders who doubled as R&B singers…and they were (apparently) talented at both.  They were “in the place to be” in 1986, and they were helping others get there as well, including the upstart group Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, and rappers UTFO.

Most notably, for Lisa Lisa, they created the late 1985/early 1986 dance classic, “Can You Feel The Beat,” then followed that with the smash ballad, “All Cried Out,” which reached the top ten on both the pop and R&B charts.  (Note: “I Wonder If I Take You Home” was a hit in 1985).

Full Force’s own hits, including “Unselfish Lover,” “Temporary Love Thing” and “Unfaithful” shared chart space with the Lisa Lisa singles, and gave them a musical following in their own right.

11.  Rap’s Non-Mainstream Success… “Make Em Clap To This”

Eric B. & Rakim’s first LP contained the 1986 classic, “Eric B. is President.”

Even though rap was just beginning to break through racial barriers (see later separate entries for LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C.), there were still a number of rappers whose commercial success was essentially driven by its core young black audience.

For example, rap trio Whodini’s 1986 release, Back in Black, generated the memorable tracks  “One Love,” “Funky Beat” and “I’m a Ho,” and ultimately became their second consecutive platinum album (after 1984’s Escape).  Most of that success was based on their black following as none of their 1986 songs charted pop.

Then there’s Doug E. Fresh, who’d already had success with “The Show” the year before.  He was back with his 1986 entry “All The Way To Heaven,” which became a Top-20 R&B chart single.

And two newcomers to the rap game released their first records in ’86, and their careers couldn’t have been more divergent afterwards.

Eric B. & Rakim gave us the classic “Eric B. Is President” single before putting out their first full-length album the following year.   They would go on to receive critical acclaim by fans and trade publications alike – even gaining a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nod in 2011 (but not being selected for induction).  Rakim is still considered one of the best MCs to ever put it down on wax.

On the other hand, fellow new act, Whistle, which gave us the ubiquitously fun song “(Nothing Serious) Just Buggin'” would barely be heard from again.  (Admittedly, as a guilty pleasure, I did crank that one up loud as I was researching the songs for the Class of ’86’s playlist.)

10.  After Prince’s Parade – the Revolution Ended.

The cover of Prince & the Revolution’s Parade – Under the Cherry Moon

It’s safe to say that Minneapolis superstar Prince was on a roll in 1986.  He’d just had two consecutive #1 albums the previous two years, one of which was the #1 soundtrack album of the 1980s at that point, Purple Rain.  He’d also written two very successful 1986 charting hits by Sheila E. (“A Love Bizarre”) and the Bangles (“Manic Monday”) the latter written under the pseudonym Christopher).

So when it came time for his own ’86 entry, Prince and his band, The Revolution, went back to the movies – this one titled Under the Cherry Moon.  The soundtrack, which Prince titled Parade – Under the Cherry Moon, did well enough, generating the #1 pop and R&B hit “Kiss.”  

But other – in my opinion – more superior songs on the album, including “Anotherloverholeinyohead” and “Mountains,” were highly underrated tunes that didn’t fare nearly as well as “Kiss.”

Still, despite the band’s success that year, it was the last hurrah for the Revolution, as Prince fired members Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Bobby Z. and Brown Mark as soon as the Parade tour ended that year.  I thought it was too bad, as I always contended that those band members at least added a nice visual and musical element to his videos and stage shows.  I guess Prince knew best, because he’s been releasing albums almost every year since, while the others have practically dropped off the face of the earth.

9.  Ladies Not Named Houston, Jackson, Baker or LaBelle Still Ruled.

Clockwise from top left: Gwen Guthrie, Jean Carne, Meli'sa Morgan and Shirley Jones
Clockwise from top left: Gwen Guthrie, Jean Carne, Meli’sa Morgan and Shirley Jones

The year 1986 was a big one for black women achieving pop crossover success.  The above-named artists (in the header) each had top ten pop albums, with those by Houston, Jackson and LaBelle going all the way to #1 in the span of three months.  But there were several other ladies who collectively were having as much success on the R&B side as their crossover counterparts were.

Chief among them were singers like Meli’sa Morgan, who hit with three stellar singles, “Do Me Baby,” a #1 remake of the old Prince tune and the title track of Morgan’s album, “Fool’s Paradise” and “Do You Still Love Me?” – remember that great ballad?

Jean Carne (“Closer than Close”) and the aforementioned Stephanie Mills also had #1 hits.  There was also Shirley Jones (not to be confused with the Shirley Jones of Partridge Family fame), of the sister act The Jones Girls, who broke away from her siblings and topped the R&B chart for two weeks with “Do You Get Enough Love?.”  And no one should forget Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent,” which also topped the chart.  That sassy disco tune (yes, disco), extolled the values of financial responsibility and accountability in men, traits that Guthrie demanded of the song’s target.

In all, eleven different women (Warwick, Morgan, Houston, Winbush, Jackson, Mills, LaBelle, Carne, Jones, Guthrie and Moore) topped the R&B chart during 1986 – more than any other year before.

8.  Our Old Friend, Phyllis Hyman.

Phyllis Hyman's 1986 album, Living All Alone
Phyllis Hyman’s 1986 album, Living All Alone

It rings sad to this day that Phyllis Hyman’s tragic story came to an end nine years after she lamented on wax about Living All Alone.  That album, released in 1986, and its title track, are even more chilling now given her circumstances.  The first single released from it, the melancholy “Old Friend,” was a top-15 R&B single that fall, but it should have charted higher.  Both that song and its plaintive follow-up, “Living All Alone,” (which was released at the tail-end of the year and peaked in ’87) seemingly captured Hyman at her most vulnerable, both lyrically and vocally.  As the title track ends, we hear her ad-lib “can’t stand to be alone,” a refrain eerily recaptured in the last album she completed before her death nine years later.  That album, I Refuse To Be Lonely, was posthumously released just months after her suicide in 1995.

7.  Caught Up In Her Rapture.

Anita Baker's 1986 album, Rapture.
Anita Baker’s 1986 album, Rapture.

Anita Baker was one of several artists who defied the odds and broke through radio’s color barriers in 1986.  But what made her mainstream success even more refreshing was the fact that she did it without having to deliver dance-oriented and pop-sounding tracks that black folks often had to just to crossover.

On her breakthrough album, Rapture, Baker delivered soul-stirring, jazz-infuenced, contralto vocals to go along with impeccably produced melodies that didn’t compromise her beliefs about what real music (and singing) was.  With lead-off singles like “Sweet Love” and “Caught Up In The Rapture” (and a bevy of others as the album continued to sell into 1987), she had us all caught up in it.  The album ultimately won her the first of her eight Grammy awards and sold over five million copies in the U.S. alone.

6.  LL Cool J’s Radio.

LL Cool J and his trademark Kangol hat in 1986

When Def Jam Records released James Todd Smith’s Radio album at the tail end of 1985, the execs at the label couldn’t have guessed that they’d be introducing the world to someone who would become one of the first rap superstars and, even more impressively,  a face and name that is as recognizable thirty years later as it was then, heck even more so.  Hey, we’re talking about the man who has hosted the last five Grammy Awards ceremonies and has starred in several TV shows that don’t have him typecast in roles that rappers are normally asked to play.

Let’s put this in perspective, if you had told me at the beginning of 1986 when “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock The Bells” were blaring out of our boomboxes, that the Kangol-wearing LL Cool J would be hosting his fifth-straight Grammy Awards ceremony 30 years later, I would have accused you of watching too many episodes of the Psychic Friends Network (which really didn’t start until five years later – but hey, it’s all about clairvoyance, right?).

5.  Sade Makes Us a Promise.


Sophomore jinx be damned.  At the end of 1985, when British singer Helen Folasade Adu returned with her namesake band, Sade, and their sophomore album Promise, her newly acquired fans were very pleased.  The album included “Never As Good As The First Time,” a song whose title certainly didn’t apply to Sade.  The stuff on their second album, including that song, was just as good as the band’s first album, Diamond Life…maybe even better.  With classic singles like “The Sweetest Taboo” and “Is It A Crime” to join “Never As Good…”, and album tracks like “Jezebel,” Sade let the world know that the band and its lead singer were here to stay.  (Btw, if you’ve never seen them live, you need to treat yourself before Sade hangs it up.)

4. Rap’s Caucasian Persuasion.

Run-D.M.C. were Darryl McDaniel and Joe Simmons (along with Jam Master Jay, not pictured on this album cover for Raising Hell.
Run-D.M.C. were Darryl McDaniel and Joe Simmons (along with Jam Master Jay, not pictured) on this album cover for Raising Hell.

Run-D.M.C. commissioned the veteran rock group (and now ageless wonders of the world) Aerosmith to collaborate on their “Walk This Way” off the Raising Hell album.  The result was rap’s first top-10 pop single.  A few months later, the white rap/rock hybrid act known as the Beastie Boys hit the scene with their Licensed To Ill album, and turned the rap world upside down.  Their party anthems were not much unlike the many similarly themed hip-hop records that had been released to that point.  But the obvious difference, their skin tone, made them far more accessible to white audiences and Licensed became a multi-million-selling #1 album.

It was dubious in that it took white artists to bring the rap art form to a whole new (mainstream) audience in ’86, but I believe it was the pivotal point in rap’s history that has allowed artists (black and white) today and for the past 30 years to enjoy the mega careers they have been.

3.  Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Take ‘Flyte’

Bottom: James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, III and Terry Lewis, with record covers for Human League, Cherrelle, Janet Jackson, SOS Band and Force MDs shown above

Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ year started innocently enough with two strong January releases: “Saturday Love” by Cherrelle featuring Alexander O’Neal, and “What Have You Done For Me Lately” by the youngest Jackson sibling, Janet.  The two songs débuted on the Billboard R&B chart dated January 18 and climbed the charts nearly in tandem, ultimately creating a lock on the top two positions the last two weeks of March.

At parties, the two monster singles would often be played in succession – with clever mixes of the more sophisticated “Saturday” juxtaposed against the sassier, funk-driven “What/Lately.”  The collective result was one of the funkiest one-two punches to come along in a while, with party people being amped every time they heard it!

Chartwise, “Saturday Love” peaked at #2 (R&B) behind “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” meaning that a Jam & Lewis product had prevented another one from reaching #1.  Cherrelle was on the losing end of that bit of R&B chart trivia. Nonetheless, “Saturday Love” stands today as one of the great classics from 1986.

But that was just the beginning for Jam & Lewis.  At various times during the year, they had as many as seven singles charting simultaneously, including big R&B hits like SOS Band’s “The Finest,” Force MD’s “Tender Love,” Alexander O’Neal’s “What’s Missing” and Patti Austin’s “The Heat of Heat.”

And in the fall, they scored their first two #1 pop hits: Janet’s third control single, “When I Think Of You” and Human League’s semi-self-titled “Human,” a song that stands as one of my favorites of all time.  Needless to say, Jam & Lewis’ Flyte Tyme Productions was a major force to be reckoned with in 1986 and in the years that followed.

2.  Janet Takes Control.


Ms. Jackson, who was still 19 when the Control album was released, was due for larger success after her first two albums sold moderately in 1982 and ’84.  But when she teamed up with Jam & Lewis for the 1986 album, there were no guarantees that it would be the album that finally took her over the top.

Wait, what am I saying, it was Jam & Lewis (!), of course there were guarantees!  Never had Janet been treated to such a tight package of tracks as she had with Control.  The first three singles from it, “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty” and “When I Think Of You”  – all had that trademark Minneapolis funk put on ’em and they hit #1 on either the R&B or pop charts.  The fourth, fifth and sixth singles, “Control,” “Let’s Wait Awhile” and “Pleasure Principle” all hit #1 R&B in ’87 (but I was jammin’ ’em in ’86 before their official single releases, as I’m sure many of you were).  All of this was setting the stage for bigger and better things to come for this multi-talented Jackson who wanted to be the one in control…and she was.

It also established one of the longest lasting musical marriages in R&B history.  I don’t know of another producer/artist teaming that has endured with #1 albums that span 29 years (from Control to last year’s Unbreakable).

Janet’s success also contributed to a bit of black history being made in 1986.  For the week ending June 14, three of the top five albums in America were by black women – a first at that time.  They were Whitney Houston’s début album, Janet’s Control, and Patti LaBelle’s Winner In You albums.  LaBelle and Jackson incidentally that week had the #1 pop (“On My Own”) and R&B (“Nasty”) singles, respectively.  All three albums would ultimately reach #1 as well.

And Whitney’s album – the biggest-seller of 1986 – continued to break all kinds of chart records, including being the first album by a black woman to be named the #1 album of the year in Billboard, which leads us to the #1 R&B memory of 1986…

1.  Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston's first album debuted in 1985 and reached #1 over a year later in March 1986.
Whitney Houston’s first album debuted in 1985 and reached #1 over a year later in March 1986.

The album that bore her name and introduced her to millions across the globe is an American treasure, just as the artist was.  Released in 1985, Whitney Houston became the longest charting album by a female solo singer to reach #1, doing so in its 55th week on the chart.  By that time (in March 1986), she had achieved three top five pop singles and was on her way to the fourth, “Greatest Love of All.”  In all, she collected three #1 singles (“Saving All My Love For You” from 1985, and “How Will I Know” and “Greatest” – both in 1986) and a near-miss (“You Give Good Love” – a #3 pop hit in ’85).

The legendary singer was denied a chance to compete for Best New Artist Grammy of the previous year because of eligibility rules (she’d released “Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass in 1984), but she proved that she was indeed the best artist of 1985 and ’86.

To heck with just 1986, Whitney was truly one of the greatest singers of all time, and her breakout story ranks as the Best Musical Memory for 1986.

So there you are, Class of 1986.  I hope you enjoyed this look back in time to your great year of music and memories.

And don’t forget, you can access a special DJRob playlist of the best R&B/Hip-Hop jams of 1986 by clicking here.

I hope you enjoy and, as always, thank you for all the love and support of djrobblog.


Now for the Honorable Mentions.

Other great R&B musical memories of 1986 (not mentioned in the paragraphs above):

“On My Own” – Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald.  Her biggest hit, his biggest hit.  Yeah, I know there will be those who say Patti deserves her own Top-20 entry.  Yeah, I know.

“I’m Not Gonna Let (You Get The Best Of Me)” – Colonel Abrams.  Disco redo – Part 4.

“Moments in Love” – Trevor Horn, Paul Morley & the Art of Noise.  A slice of 1984 British avant-garde rock got R&B airplay in America in 1986.  A quiet-storm staple!

“Can’t Wait Another Minute” – Five Star.   Britain’s alternative to the Jets, and quite frankly, a better one.

“If Your Heart Isn’t In It” – Atlantic Starr.  A slight letdown from 1985’s “Secret Lovers” – at least in chart performance – but almost as satisfying.

“Love Zone” – Billy Ocean.  The “Caribbean Queen” singer solidified his 1980s place with a solid follow-up album that included this title track, another #1 R&B hit for the Trinidadian singer.

“Computer Love” – Zapp.  The Brothers Troutman, led by Roger, the godfather of vocoder-funk, continued their assault on auto-tunes, before it was called that.

Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam w/ Full Force’s “Can You Feel The Beat,” a sleeper dance/pop/R&B hit in 1986

By DJ Rob

9 thoughts on “Class of 1986 – These Were Your Jams!”
  1. Even though I didn’t graduate in 1986, this was one of my absolute favorite years musically. LOVED the countdown…took me all the way back to middle school lol! Fantastic article!!!

  2. Djrob words cannot express how much this article means to me. Having graduated high school in 1986 this article represents a bit of nostalgia that will forever be with me. I found myself traveling in time (in my mind) to those magical moments. The one thing music achieves that man things can not is its ability to associate itself with a unique moment in time to the listener and stamp said moment in that persons head to forever be associated with that moment, that memomy, that life event. THANK YOU for your blog and musical savvy. It means more than you’ll ever know.

    P.S. I’m posting this on my High School’s group page

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