1985 was most definitely a transitional year in pop music, a period that straddled the latter zone of new wave and synth pop and the early rumblings of hair metal. But in its own way, it often reflected neither of these styles, occupying its own special space during the decade. There was room for straight-ahead rock here but also unabashed dance music and post-new wave keyboard pop. In essence, perhaps 1985 was the most organic and welcoming year of the decade in terms of musical variety. However described, here's a list - in no particular order - of some of 1985's best and most memorable pop songs.
-Credit: Steve Peake
1. Tears for Fears - "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"
In 1985 this song was everywhere and everything to music fans. It sports a highly accessible pop/dance beat, immediate and forceful melodies, and some power guitars at just the right moments. All of those elements add up to one of the strongest singles of the '80s, a tune that spotlights the soaring vocals of Roland Orzabal as well as some intriguing lyrical social commentary. As inspiring as the music may be, the words are downcast, maybe even dystopic, as the idea of "holding hands while the walls come tumblin' down" sounds a bit more like Nero than Martin Luther King. Tears for Fears propagated thinking man's rock at a time when such music rarely captured the spotlight. This track is the epitome of that description even as it delights.
2. Dire Straits - "Money for Nothing"
Though known most perhaps for its memorable animated music video, this familiar Dire Straits tune offers several elements that were a relative scarcity during much of the '80s: attitude, humor and self-deprecation. And combined with Mark Knopfler's already well-established guitar heroics (his guitar riff in this song remains one of rock's most unforgettable) and a once-in-a-lifetime melodic hook in the bridge ("We've got to install microwave ovens…, custom kitchen deliveries"), the song's positive attributes accumulate to form a searing, singular '80s moment. At the time, I remember thinking I'd heard this track too many times to ever miss it, but its sound structure and unique perspective hold up tremendously well all these years later.
3. Mr. Mister - "Broken Wings"
The spiritual, nearly religious blue-eyed soul of this song, another No. 1 hit that ruled the airwaves in 1985, blended post-new wave musicianship with solid songwriting to become an indelible track of the decade. The band that produced the hit drew plenty of scorn for its slick, deliberately polished approach, but as veterans of the L.A. session musician scene the group's members probably simply drew from broad stylistic influences as a matter of course. This may have led to what some perceived as watered-down, blustery ear candy, but the melodies continue to soar… as if on wholly functional wings. Richard Page is a fine singer, and the performance here can scarcely be denied as one of the decade's most impassioned.
4. Animotion - "Obsession"
One-hit wonder or not, this synth pop/dance hybrid earned its place in the '80s pantheon through its brash, sultry and over-the-top composition even more than its gaudy presentation. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that underachieving glam rock legend Michael Des Barres co-wrote the tune a few years earlier, pouring in a singular brand and level of flamboyance that stood out like nothing else could. As for the song itself, group leaders Bill Wadhams and Astrid Plane lend an effectively campy chemistry to the proceedings, but there has never been any doubt that the keyboard riff is the central treat of this particular 80's dance floor confection.
5. 'Til Tuesday - "Voices Carry"
Nowadays, Aimee Mann stands among the finest and most challenging singer-songwriters of her generation, displaying a prolific output that almost always generates much critical acclaim. Back in the '80s as the sometimes rat-tailed leader of new wave outfit 'Til Tuesday, she likewise presided over a series of strong if overlooked pop/rock releases. However, on one occasion the band broke through to the big time, issuing this nearly flawless pop single that reached No. 8 in 1985. Combining dreamy keyboards with a uniquely feminist theme of romantic independence, Mann & Co. became the stuff of '80s legend.
6. Corey Hart - "Never Surrender"
Though most people remember this Canadian singer-songwriter for wearing ultraviolet-protective eye-wear at inappropriate times of the day (that is, after dusk), his highest-charting and probably his finest single was this rousing No. 3 hit. And the thing about Hart that few probably realized at the time is that he was a genuine artist in charge of his own material. There weren't any professional songwriting teams involved here, just a straightforward mainstream rocker with a hefty sensitive side. If you ever need fist-pumping arena rock-styled inspiration for a workday, just crank this one up and ignore your shortcomings for a moment.
7. a-Ha - "Take on Me"
When the topic of this song (or the Norwegian band that recorded it) comes up, most music fans tend to remember the track's groundbreaking animated music video most strongly. Or maybe they make fun of the falsetto lead vocals that threaten to break glass items in kitchen cabinets halfway across town. But in reality, the most notable aspect of this No. 1 hit is not even its unforgettable keyboard opening and repeated riff theme but its overall quality from start to finish. American listeners probably never figured out exactly what these particular Scandinavians were singing about, but most of us knew transcendent pop when we heard it. And that, in many ways, has always been enough.
8. Phil Collins & Philip Bailey - "Easy Lover"
Whoever thought of throwing one of soul and funk's finest falsetto singers together with the very Caucasian Phil Collins must have received a glut of raised eyebrows and sideways glances upon his or her introduction of the idea. But somehow the odd pairing works wonders on this spirited mid-tempo rocker that the two artists also co-wrote together. No one's ever accused Collins of not being a fine singer, but Bailey's presence helps reduce the passion deficit that plagues some of Collins' milquetoast solo performances like "Sussudio."Muscular guitar also helps make the most of each singer's stylistic strengths. Melodically rich and filled with energy and fun, this is one of Collins' finest all-time moments.
9. ABC - "Be Near Me"
It took a reader's earnest, almost desperate struggle to identify the performer of this tune for me to realize how stately and delicately brilliant it is as a pop song. This British band's mixture of debonair synth pop with an underlying Motown obsession most definitely lent a unique element to '80s music. Ultimately, the song itself becomes a bit overly repetitive, but the firm grasp of melody displayed at its core helps make up for such indulgences. Only certain British bands could get away with this kind of cloying, excessive and tacky elegance, and ABC was certainly one of them.
10. Survivor - "High on You"
Smack dab in the middle of Reagan's rising War on Drugs, leave it to an earnest, power ballad-primed pop/rock band like Survivor to undermine that campaign through an unintentionally satirical use of romantic metaphor. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this. Probably what we have here is just one of mainstream rock's most straightforward bands having a little fun. In a typically overwrought manner the band shared with competitors like Journey and Foreigner, Survivor makes an accurate if forced comparison between the ravages of drug addiction and the steely grip of infatuation. Or something.