With all the recent hoopla over “Back To The Future Day,” you know…October 21, 2015…the date to which fictional character Marty McFly transported nearly three decades ago in the second installment of that famous fictional motion picture trilogy, I thought it’d be interesting to go back to the year it all began, 1985. That’s when we were first introduced to McFly, played by actor Michael J. Fox, and that zany scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (“Doc”), played by actor Christopher Lloyd, that helped him zig-zag back and forth in time in his efforts to redefine history and the future.
It was July 1985 when the first Back To The Future installment was released, and to incredible success. The film went on to become the highest grossing motion picture released in North America that year, and it spawned a huge #1 hit for Huey Lewis & the News, “The Power of Love,” which was the group’s first #1 and served as the movie’s theme song.
But as successful as that movie and, more particularly, its theme song were, they were only the tip of the iceberg of what made 1985 arguably one of the greatest – if not THE greatest years in pop music history.
Now, if you remember 1985 well, you probably recall the year that people were buying their first (and likely only) Swatch Watches, feverishly solving the Rubik’s Cube (still), and tiredly debating whether TV’s Dallas was better than Dynasty (they both were still top-ten shows in ’85, but falling thanks to the Huxtable Family and NBC’s slate of Thursday night must-see TV sitcoms – one of which, Family Ties, also starred the young actor Fox).
You also likely remember the many other great movies that year…and their even greater music soundtracks. Films like Beverly Hills Cop (released at the tail-end of ’84, but still huge in ’85), The Breakfast Club, Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome, St. Elmo’s Fire, and even the fashion-conscious TV-cop series Miami Vice gave us chart-topping soundtracks and songs to remember…tunes that helped define 1985 and that have aged quite well over the past 30 years, thank you very much.
You’ll likely need further convincing since proclaiming any one year as the greatest musically of all time is a mighty bold assertion, especially when considering the sixty years of rock, pop and hip-hop/R&B-era music that one has to consider.
Well, what follows are THIRTEEN reasons I believe 1985 qualifies as the best year in pop music history. There are certainly more reasons than that, but this is a blog and there are unwritten rules that say I have to keep it short (as if I’ve been constrained by that rule before…in fact, I’ve taken the liberty to include some honorable mentions in a list at the bottom of the article). If you’re not singing some of these songs in your head or scrambling to hear my special 1985 Spotify playlist linked to this article by the time you’re done reading it, then it’s likely you just choose not to be enlightened by this nostalgic, DeLorean-like time travel back to the past.
So here are my 13 reasons 1985 ranks as the greatest year in pop history, in no particular order:
1. The many great motion picture soundtracks. I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating that the movies that year had it all: great stories, great actors, and even more memorable soundtracks to go with them. Take Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (from the Breakfast Club), Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” by John Parr (St. Elmo’s Fire) or Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” (Beverly Hills Cop), and you have one of the greatest movie music years of all time. There are even more movie greats mentioned in some of the other reasons below.
2. Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair album and singles. If there was ever an ’80s song that has endured the test of time, it’s 30-year-old “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” from T4F’s breakthrough album. You could even throw in the followup singles “Shout” and “Head Over Heels” for good measure, but it was the uber-melodic “Everybody” that got the train rolling for the British duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. It’s one song that people still don’t turn away from when it comes on the radio today…and believe me, there isn’t an eighties station that won’t play it. It’s just that good.
3. Sting’s emergence as a solo artist. The Police officially broke up after 1983’s Synchronicity, their biggest album. But in 1985, Sting reminded us why they were so great in the first place: him. He dabbled in jazz and soul music for his first solo release, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, and even enlisted some greats like saxophonist Branford Marsalis for its first (huge) single “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.” That song reached the top 20 on the Billboard R&B chart, top three pop, and #1 on the rock tracks list. How many other tunes from any era have those kind of crossover credentials? Oh, and the landmark video in which all the performers were filmed separately and then overlaid together for the final product? It’s a one-of-a-kind classic (and you can see it below). The next single, “Fortress Around Your Heart,” was a very respectable followup, with Sting’s heavy use of clever war metaphor in the song’s lyrics.
4. Whitney Houston debuts. Okay, technically, the late great songstress had charted a year earlier with her Teddy Pendergrass duet, “Hold Me,” a minor R&B hit in ’84. But her first full album, the self-titled Whitney Houston, made its entry in ’85 and gave us instant classics like the #1 R&B single “You Give Good Love” and her first pop #1 “Saving All My Love For You.” The album hung around long enough in ’86 to give us two more chart-toppers (“How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All”) and become – at the time – the largest selling début album by a female, offering proof that great music and even greater singers can indeed prevail. Just ask her mentor, Aretha Franklin.
5. Aretha returns. While Houston was blowing up the charts with her début album, her Arista label mate and the still uncontested Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was making somewhat of a comeback with an album produced by the same guy that helmed some of Houston’s hits, Narada Michael Walden. The Walden/Franklin collaboration “Freeway Of Love” returned the Queen to #1 R&B (her 20th and still most of anybody) and #3 pop. Its followup, and the title track of Aretha’s album, “Who’s Zooming Who,” was an even better song but stopped short at #2 R&B and #7 pop. Quite simply, those tunes (along with her Annie Lennox duet at the end of the year, “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”) reminded a whole new generation of music listeners – particularly those who came up in the video age – who Aretha Franklin was, lest anyone forgot.
6. “Take On Me” – a-ha. Okay, some songs and their music videos are so iconic that they hold a category all to themselves. This one by the Norwegian group a-ha certainly fits the bill. Great melody? Check. Ear-piercing falsetto vocals during the unforgettable chorus? Check. Landmark pencil-sketch cartoon-art video? Yep. All of these elements combined to make “Take On Me” one of the most memorable pop songs of all time and a staple of eighties music. It’s a classic case of how song and video went hand-in-hand: you can’t hear the song without thinking of the video (that is, if you’ve seen it). There likely hasn’t been a music video since with as much creativity and impact as “Take On Me” had. Check it out for yourself below.
7. The last of the great pop instrumentals. You might find it hard to believe that there actually was a time when you didn’t have to sing on a record for it to be a huge hit. Instrumental tracks used to hit the top of the charts with some regularity during the rock era (post-1955) and certainly before then when jazz and pop standards ruled the day. But pop music’s last instrumental #1 single came 30 years ago, in the form of Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme.” The theme from Beverly Hills Cop, “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer, was the year’s other big instrumental hit (peaking at #3). However, except for the emergence of saxophonist Kenny G. a couple of years later, there hasn’t been that kind of instrumental presence on the pop music scene since. (And no, I’m not counting 2012’s “Harlem Shake,” which hit #1 but really wasn’t a song, was it?).
8. The Madonna explosion. Okay, I’m gonna catch some flack for this one, because most readers probably don’t like anything that flatters ’80s pop queen Madonna. But the fact is, if 1984 was the year Ms. Ciccone broke through as a star, then 1985 was the year she became a bona fide megastar. Madonna had the first #1 song of 1985, “Like A Virgin,” which was a holdover from 1984. And the singles from that album just kept coming. There were “Material Girl,” “Angel” and “Dress You Up,” all top five singles throughout the year. Then, as if those weren’t enough, she gave us soundtrack singles like her second #1 hit, “Crazy For You,” from the movie Vision Quest (a flop), and the dance classic, “Into The Groove,” from her own movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. In fact, at one point in the year, Madonna had so many songs on the radio simultaneously, that her label didn’t want to release “Into The Groove” as a 45-rpm single to capitalize on its immense radio popularity. Instead they put it on the b-side of the 12-inch for “Angel” and, as a result, “Into The Groove” was ineligible to chart on the Hot 100. Otherwise, it surely would’ve given Madge her sixth top-five hit that year. But as it stands, “Groove” did top the dance/club play chart, something Madonna has now done more than anyone in the chart’s history.
9. Sade’s brand of smooth British R&B. The reclusive singer known as Sade Adu was actually the leader of the band bearing her first name. It was her band that charted with the 1984 album Diamond Life, which exploded in 1985 and gave us the hits, “Smooth Operator” and “Your Love Is King.” Before the year was over, Sade was in the studio again and released its follow-up album Promise, which topped Billboard’s album chart and included more hits, like “The Sweetest Taboo,” which entered the top 40 during the last week of ’85 and flourished well into ’86. Sade has influenced other singers for three decades since then and can even be credited with sparking the neo-soul movement of the 1990s/2000s. Another British soul act that debuted in 1985 and which warrants mentioning is the group Loose Ends, whose first single “Hanging On A String” reached #1 R&B and top 50 pop that summer.
10. Prince’s “Purple” hangover. When 1985 began, the #1 album in the country was still the soundtrack to Purple Rain, which completed its 24-week reign on the chart dated January 12, 1985. The songs from it that charted in the new year were “I Would Die 4 U” and “Take Me With U” (after “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and the title track hit big in ’84). But his next release made him the only artist to have two #1 albums that year, when Around The World In A Day hit number one less than five months after Purple Rain left the chart perch. Prince defied all conventional wisdom with the newer album, first by delving into psychedelic pop/funk with the album’s songs, then by not releasing any of them as singles until the album had been out a full month. The first beneficiary of the strategy was “Raspberry Beret,” a #2 pop hit that July, followed in September by the #7 hit “Pop Life.” Prince (and his group The Revolution) was on a definite roll at this point in his career, and 1985 was the second in an active streak of now 32 consecutive years in which he’s released new music…albeit to varying degrees of commercial success.
11. Other 1984 holdovers. Besides Prince’s and Madonna’s landmark 1984 albums, there were several other releases that year that we just couldn’t let go of in 1985. Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. was the main one, with four of its seven singles reaching the top ten in 1985 (“Born In The U.S.A.,” “I’m On Fire,” “Glory Days” and “I’m Going Down”). The album also wound up being ranked as the #1 album of the year in Billboard, having spent the entire year in the top ten. It is largely considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time by music critics and fans alike and it is certainly one of the most influential, having brought American heartland rock to the forefront. Other big 1984 albums that contributed to 1985’s hits: Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (the title track was a top ten single in March ’85), Bryan Adams’ Reckless (four top ten hits in ’85, including “Run To You,” “Heaven” and “Summer of ’69”), Don Henley’s Building The Perfect Beast (“The Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”), Billy Ocean’s Suddenly (“Suddenly” and “Loverboy”), and Pointer Sisters’ Breakout (“Neutron Dance”), among many others.
12. George Michael Makes It Big. The duo Wham!, which featured British singers George Michael and Andrew Ridgely, had huge success at the end of 1984 (yes another 1984 holdover) with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” That song hit #1 and hung around the charts until February 1985. But it wasn’t until Columbia Records added a “featured” credit to the next single from Wham!’s Make It Big album that the world really got to know who George Michael was. The smooth ballad “Careless Whisper” was listed as Wham! Featuring George Michael, and it took off like a rocket, soaring to #1 and selling a million copies…one of only a handful of singles to do so in 1985 (a trend that continued into the early ’90s). Wham!’s next single, “Everything She Wants,” also reached #1 and was of even better quality. Its blend of sophisticated lyrics and soaring pop vocals wrapped around a mid-tempo, retro-disco beat made George Michael a household name by early summer. All of this signaled the end of Wham! as a duo, which never really was a duo anyway (what did Ridgely ever write or sing?). A few more Wham! hits would follow, including the other 1985 singles “Freedom” (the first one) and “I’m Your Man” – both #3 pop hits. But by 1987, George Michael was (appropriately) on his own and hurdling towards superstardom.
13. “We Are The World.” What else needs to be said? Every American artist that mattered in 1984 and 1985, whose name wasn’t Madonna or Prince, appeared on this song by the collective known as U.S.A. for Africa. It was the epitome of charity music collaborations and became the biggest-selling single of the year (and many other years). I still tear up (yes, I’ll admit it) when I hear some of those vocalists who’ve since left us, like Ray Charles with that memorable ad-libbed vocal at the end, or Michael Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Lionel Richie and sang its first chorus and bridge lines. There hasn’t been anything like it since.
And now, 1985’s ten honorable mentions:
Simple Minds’ “Alive and Kicking.” This Scottish rock group’s 1985 coming out party (with Jim Kerr on vocals) continued with this charmer near the end of the year.
Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” Lead singer Aimee Mann’s performance as an emotionally battered woman during the classic music video for this top ten hit warrants consideration for some type of an award. Kudos to whoever thought of the Carnegie Hall opera scene at the video’s end. “He said, ‘shut up!'” Classic!
Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better.” It doesn’t get much better than this upbeat, uplifting pop gem from late Spring/early Summer. You can only feel good after hearing those “whoa whoa whoa’s” after each chorus and at the end. Pure keyboard-pop candy from yet another British artist with big success in ’85.
Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover.” This music legend paired with the late Luther Vandross to create one of his most successful singles of the eighties. Luther’s backing vocals, including the scat during the song’s ending fade, were subtle but crucial to this #1 pop and R&B hit’s success.
Duran Duran and their many side projects. “A View To A Kill” was the only James Bond theme to ever hit #1 (July ’85). But Duran’s members were also active with various side projects, like Power Station (“Some Like It Hot” and “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” both featuring the late Robert Palmer and the late members of Chic, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson) and Arcadia (“Election Day” featuring Grace Jones). All of those were top ten hits in ’85.
Freddie Jackson’s “Rock Me Tonight” (and “You Are My Lady”). Jackson’s début hit was a throwback soul ballad that became one of the biggest R&B chart hits of 1985, and launched Jackson’s hugely successful career. The followup, “You Are My Lady,” was no chart slouch either (and an even better song IMHO). Both were top-30 pop crossover hits.
British rock comeback: Dire Straits took a six-year hiatus from the charts between their 1979 hit, “Sultans of Swing” and the classic “Money For Nothing,” which reached #1 in September ’85. Needless to say, the relationship between this song (more specifically its video) and MTV was mutually beneficial.
British pop followup: Eurythmics had become an American pop radio staple by 1985, with their many earlier synth-driven hits like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” and “Here Comes The Rain Again.” But their 1985 entry, “Would I Lie To You” was a stripped-down, old-school funk jam, with real horns, drums, guitars and Annie Lennox’s soaring vocals to drive it all home (and into the pop top five)! “There Must Be An Angel” was a worthy follow-up and reached #22.
More British pop: ABC’s “Be Near Me” and Thompson Twins’ “Lay Your Hands On Me” are easily two of my favorite tunes of 1985, along with the Bowie/Jagger remake of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Streets.” The second British Invasion of America was alive and well in 1985.
Rock meets gospel and Foreigner prevails. After suffering the indignity of having their biggest hit (“Waiting For A Girl Like You”) stall at #2 for ten weeks in 1981/1982, this veteran rock band finally scored that elusive #1 single in 1985 with “I Want to Know Love Is.” The song included a major assist from the New Jersey Mass Choir and displaced Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” from the top.
…and then there were all of those great one hit wonders:
“One Night In Bangkok” – Murray Head
“Easy Lover” – Philip Bailey (with Phil Collins)
“Relax” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
“Cry” – Godley & Creme
“Perfect Way” – Scritti Politti
“All I Need” – Jack Wagner
“Obsession” – Animotion
“Tarzan Boy” – Baltimora
“Lover Girl” – Teena Marie (her only pop hit, although she had many top-40 R&B singles)
So, there you have it, my case for 1985 being the greatest year in pop music history. Some music historians have argued that 1984 was that year, or even 1983 with its “Thriller”-dominated charts. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that the entire early to mid ’80s era was truly a great one, especially for those of us who were around to experience it.
What do you think was the greatest year in pop music? Feel free to comment below.
And check out my special playlist of some of 1985’s greatest hits by clicking this link.
As always, thanks for all the love and support.