Ever since I was in my early 20s, when the technology to do so was new at the consumer level, I’ve made mix CDs and playlists of songs that have some common thread holding them together. I suppose the technology itself wasn’t exactly new, since mix tapes existed for decades before mix CDs. But my most prolific time of making mix CDs seemed to rise with the purchase of my first computer with a CD burner, in early 1999. Some of my mix CDs are songs that were all popular during a certain time period, some of them have some lyrical theme in common related to things going on in my life at the time, some of them all fit a certain mood, and for some of them, the common thread is something much more nerdy and less related to the lyrics. For this last group, I’m thinking specifically of a mix CD I made consisting only of songs in the key of E flat major. But I’m getting sidetracked.
One mix CD I made in 2006, which fits into the first of the above categories, is titled “1987 Was The Best Year For Music In My Lifetime.” This is a rather bold proclamation to be made from the title of a mix CD, but almost a decade later, I still believe this to be true. I know I have some friends who disagree with me. One of them in particular has challenged me on this point numerous times, with him arguing in favor of a different year, and I know that once I share this post on my Facebook, he’s going to read this and bring up his argument again. Hi, Dave. I never disagreed with you about the year that you say being a great year for music, but I’m going to stand by my choice of 1987.
Often, one’s choice for the best music ever is related to nostalgia for one’s past, for a simpler time full of memories. The interesting thing about my opinion on this matter is that 1987 really was not all that good of a year for me. I was 10 years old for the majority of the year, turning 11 in late summer. I finished fifth grade and started sixth. This was the year that I was pulled out of mainstream public school, away from any chance to live something resembling a normal pre-teen life, and placed in an all-day special education class for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities (I’ve explained this before). I went from being teased and bullied constantly to being ashamed of who I was and embarrassed to talk about school. Nostalgia is in play here to some extent, because even despite all that, life was simpler then, and childhood had its share of fun moments. But the lack of consistently positive memories from that time period seems to suggest that the music stands on its own. Let’s take a look at some memorable albums of the time.
- “Bad,” Michael Jackson. How does one follow “Thriller?” It’s almost a lose-lose situation. Thriller was so monumental for so many reasons that Michael Jackson was bound to face criticism no matter what came next for him. The time between Thriller and Bad was also when revelations about his plastic surgery and bizarre personal life came to light. I’ll admit that back then I wasn’t a fan. I loved Thriller, I had Thriller on vinyl (well, it belonged to my dad, I think) in elementary school, and I played it often, but by the time Bad came around, I was a little sick of Michael Jackson. The music eventually grew on me, though, and for me it has retained its timeless quality.
- “The Joshua Tree,” U2. Like “Bad,” I never owned this album until adulthood, but I knew many of the songs from MTV and radio. U2 was already a household name by 1987, and this album was the finest example of the kind of music that got them to that point. They would have one more great album a few years later (“Achtung Baby”) before getting really weird in the mid- to late 1990s, then a couple more decent albums in the early 2000s before getting really weird again.
- “Hysteria,” Def Leppard. One of the most familiar and memorable albums of the Hair Band era, with many hit singles. I remember Dad having it on tape; I don’t remember if I ever listened to it all the way through. Back then, many albums I would only listen to for the songs I knew, and I knew a lot of songs on this album, mostly from MTV.
- And an honorable mention: “Slippery When Wet,” Bon Jovi. This was actually released in August of 1986, but its song “Livin’ on a Prayer” went to #1 in early 1987 and is one of those songs that defined a generation, some would say. We listened to this album on many childhood car trips, and it was one of my brother’s favorites in particular, at least the way Mom tells the story.
A number of older artists from the 1960s and 70s released new material in 1987, often for the first time in many years. This sort of thing happens all the time, but it seemed to happen more often than usual in 1987. Aerosmith released their “Permanent Vacation” album, the beginning of their second heyday that would last through the mid-90s. The “Rumours”-era incarnation of Fleetwood Mac released one last album before parting ways. The Grateful Dead released an album of songs they had been playing live through much of the 80s but had never recorded; one of these songs, “Touch of Grey,” would become their highest-charting hit ever, over two decades after the band’s formation. George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” became the last #1 single by an ex-Beatle. And, four years after their ugly breakup, two of the four members of Pink Floyd, with a third as a studio session musician who would later make a full return to the band, reunited to record the album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” including the beautiful hit single “Learning to Fly.”
Some bands with memorable careers had their breakthroughs in 1987. A strange yet catchy band from Georgia known as R.E.M. had been around for a few years but first started to get mainstream attention with songs such as “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Guns ‘N Roses burst onto the Hair Band scene with their “Appetite for Destruction” album. Whitesnake, a household name for almost a decade in the UK, had two very successful singles in the US: “Is This Love” and “Here I Go Again”; the latter was actually a re-recording of a 1982 song of theirs that did not get much attention on this side of the Atlantic.
The year was also full of memorable songs from artists whose careers may not have been specifically associated with anything from 1987. “Just Like Heaven,” by the Cure. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston. “La Isla Bonita,” by Madonna. “Alone,” by Heart. “Need You Tonight,” by INXS. “Paper In Fire,” by John Mellencamp. “Notorious,” by Duran Duran. And 1987 was also full of a lot of memorable one- and two-hit wonders. Rick Astley. Crowded House. Cutting Crew. Icehouse. And the list goes on.
I’ll just leave you with a YouTube playlist. Join me in reliving the music of my preteens. (The first 17 songs, up to Sweet Child O’ Mine, were the original mix CD I made in 2006. I have added to it with songs that I did not have in my personal collection yet in 2006. And a few of these were actually released in 1986 but reached their highest US chart position in 1987, as I’ve said before.)