While 1987 was certainly a year that really began to usher in the era of hair metal in earnest, its best songs demonstrated a diversity that the decade has not always been credited for. Veteran artists mingled with fresh ones to offer singular takes on rock and pop styles, and although it's impossible to be absolute in a list like this, that is ultimately the fun of the process. Check out my list of top songs from 1987 and compare it with your very own selections.
As far as I'm concerned, the L.A. glam rock/hair metal outfit Poison never got any better than this tune from Look What the Cat Dragged In. In fact, the band got steadily worse when it tried to tackle serious songs and message tunes later on, but here one of the decade's premier party bands sticks to what it does best. Fueled by a simple but highly effective guitar riff, the track is fun to its core, employing an underrated, clever lyrical concept that stands up well to the passage of time. It's also one of the few tracks from this band that can fairly be labeled hard rock with anything resembling a dangerous edge.
I recently rediscovered this tune in all its joyful romantic optimism and immediately thought it would be a perfect, danceable accompaniment for a wedding of a couple that actually has a chance of making it. Winwood may be better known for other songs from other decades and even from his hit 1986 album Back in the High Life. But I think this song belongs to another dimension when it comes to pop exuberance and Winwood's precise but eclectic musical fusion. The building of the melody through the verses is capped nicely by a gentle bridge that segues wonderfully into the lively, catchy chorus.
Far from the few-hit wonders that some music fans probably think they are, this rich, textured pop/rock band from New Zealand actually released a significant amount of quality music during its late-'80s and early-'90s peak. This melodic tune climbed all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts and danced on the edge of the Top 10 in adult contemporary and mainstream rock. Such versatility in terms of popularity stemmed from the fact that Crowded House had a tendency to blend accessibility with a challenging complexity in its songs, allowing an obscure line like "try to catch the deluge in a paper cup" to work beautifully.
While the second, pop music-driven version of Fleetwood Mac was undoubtedly one of the most popular rock acts of both the '70s and '80s, more music fans than you might imagine are relatively unaware of the considerable powers of Lindsey Buckingham as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. After all, the otherworldly Stevie Nicks was probably always the most recognizable face of the band. But this song from 1987's Tango in the Night spotlights the sweeping vision of Buckingham as a writer of tortured tales, a singer of great passion and an inventive guitarist.
Through both the look and gruff pipes of frontman David Coverdale, Whitesnake tried fairly hard to emphasize its sonic kinship with hard rock legends Led Zeppelin. But at heart the band was pure melodic pop metal, and Coverdale must have salivated at the continuing rise of popularity of the power ballad during the mid-'80s. As such, the stage was set for one of rock's all-time ballads of lonesome masculinity. The song's lyrics are just the right mix of contemplative and aloof to appeal to fans of both genders, and the iconic music video employed Tawny Kitaen as hood ornament to likewise strike that balance.
I've heard this British two-hit wonder take considerable heat over the years for the band's unabashed soft rock inclinations, a sound exhibited in its full glory on this memorable No. 1 hit. But really, I don't think there's anyone who grew up in the '80s who didn't apply this tune to romantic fantasy at some point, even if against his or her better judgment. This is a carefully textured, radio-friendly track, for sure, benefiting from a savvy blend of soft synthesizers and reasonably rocking guitar leads. Ultimately, I think the song pretty much avoids sounding dated today, which really is quite a feat.
This British band underwent a shift from its previously mostly Goth rock sound to become a pleasant anomaly: one of the most unique hard rock bands of the period working within a genre increasingly subject to commodification. Built upon the foundation of a familiar-sounding but clever guitar riff, the song provides an accurate snapshot of the band's sound on the aptly named Electric. Billy Duffy's guitar work simply seems to carry not only an extra shot of volume and fury but a palpable current of heat and danger. This attribute, coupled with Ian Astbury's fantastic wails and growls, made the Cult one of a kind.
Another undeniably '80s synthesizer dance classic, this song also features a genuinely interesting melody that wraps around the widely varied lead vocals of Carol Decker. During the verse, Decker employs a semi-rap, whispered approach boosted by layers of backing vocals, but it's in the bridge and chorus where the song becomes truly memorable. Another aspect of the track that may have helped it reach No. 4 on the pop charts is its ability to appeal to rock fans almost as much as those partial to dance music. After all, Decker displays quite a rock chick vibe in the spirited chorus, with considerable guitars to match.
Although it's become a bit ripe for parody since its release due in part to a tremendously earnest message, this story song from a decade largely devoid of such singer-songwriter efforts is a solid example of the form. Taking the perspective of an abused child trying to survive by remaining invisible as much as possible, Vega places a portrait of urban domestic menace against the backdrop of an easy-going folk-rock groove. The effect would be a bit more unsettling if the tune weren't so pleasant to listen to, and that contrast may occasionally work against the message. Either way, a definite 1987 classic.
Here's another wild-card entry for you, one of 1987's finest should-have-been hits but also so much more. Although Let Me Up, I've Had Enough was arguably one of Petty's quieter moments of the decade, this haunting, passionate track really stands up well to scrutiny. It's also a wonderful example of how Petty and his expert band used all the tools available to them to record a great rock song. The production values clearly reflect an '80s mentality, evidenced by the marriage of layers of keyboards and Mike Campbell's distinctive guitar, but everything is so well-executed that the song maintains a timeless appeal.