The world was absorbed in chaos in 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was plastered all over the front pages only to be brushed aside when the Challenger space shuttle exploded during lift-off. Amid this chaos drum machines seemingly slyly took over the world. The questioning of the seismic pace of progress that followed the technological catastrophes of the year had not yet had the same hesitant effect on the music industry, as raced towards every studio gimmick that it could.
The result is the 1980s reaching its glossy peak. Production was slicker than a penguin’s back and all this opulence thumbed its nose at the acoustic weeping in the corner—and this effect was everywhere! The result of such an onrush of rich colour was a year that was actually rather beige. Everyone was playing the same tricks, thus The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead stuck out like a sore cock at an orgy with its malintent to change the status quo.
In this neon glow, a few tracks flickered but failed to catch alight. Some of them were from big names who were wrongly maligned simply for fatiguing to a small extent, others were from rising stars who were yet to fully feel the right wind in their sails, and others have just inexplicably never got off the ground.
Here, we’re taking a look at all the ugly ducklings in the latest edition of ‘Unlucky For Some‘ below, and they’re all wrapped up in a playlist for your casual listening pleasure too.
The 13 most underrated songs from 1986:
13. ‘Ship of Fools’ by World Party
World Party offered the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger an outlet away from the Waterboys. Fortunately, the music was still blessed with the songsmiths ability to craft a chorus fit for a choir.
‘Ship of Fools’ has a sort of INXS attitude to it embalmed in the world music influences that Wallinger has always dipped into throughout his career, in an ever-giving celebration of the music.
12. ‘Don’t Let’s Start’ by They Might Be Giants
In 1986 there was the first glimpse of what the 1990s might sound like. Alongside the seismic emergence of The Smiths were a slew of lesser-known acts who heralded in the new age with a scruffiness that sat aside the synth-pop of the day.
‘Don’t Let’s Start’ carry’s some of the legacy of the punk along in its wake. The humour and scrappiness of punk is given a pre-Pavement-esque makeover by They Might Be Giants for a track that couldn’t care less whether you like it or not.
11. ‘Night of Light’ by The Church
You may well know the Australian band The Church from their track ‘Under the Milky Way’, which features on the eponymous ‘does it still hold up?’ movie, Donnie Darko.
Two years prior to that single, however, they released the album Heyday. This track captures all the cosmic ambience that they would harness throughout their career. Some vocalists just have a knack for making singing sound like a soulful entreaty and Steve Kilbey is certainly one of them.
10. ‘Apology Accepted’ by The Go-Betweens
There was a strange sort of musical candidness to bands like The Replacements and The Go-Betweens in this period. They took humble mellow songs, then played them with such heart-strained bravura and glue and sand vocals that they transfigured into deeply introspective bedroom music to gladly wile away to hours to in a reminiscing stupor.
The album Liberty Bell and the Black Diamond Express has fallen out of favour despite some stellar reviews at the time, one of which, by the critic Robert Christgau, read: “There are no popsters writing stronger personal love songs. I doubt there are any page poets envisioning more plangently, either.” And rightly so, Robert Foster’s lyrics are snatched right from his gut.
9. ‘Sea, Swallow Me’ by Cocteau Twins
The Cocteau Twins are an alien entity within the music world. Although their ambient sound is not unique on paper, in reality, they have always retained an otherworldliness that the growth of the genre has never impeached.
‘Sea, Swallow Me’ is a mystical piece of dalliance that seems to be seized from edges of sacrosanct. Lord knows, what is happening musically or what is being said but surely must be something beautiful. It is a song so ethereal that you could weave its sonogram onto silk.
8. ‘All For The Best’ by Miracle Legion
The uptake in R.E.M’s melodic guitar rock rebirth might have been slow within the mainstream but plenty of college bands happy to hang to their coat tails and join the synth-shunning revolution. Miracle Legion were one of those bands, and they were the best one that you’ve possibly never heard of.
They were signed in 1984 but it took them up until 1987 to finally get an album out. This earlier demo was polished for the record and it resides as their best tune. The comparison to R.E.M is an easy one to make, even the vocals share a kinship, the only difference is that if this song had belonged to them, it would certainly be far better known. The song structuring here is near-perfect.
7. ‘Wild Wild Life’ by Talking Heads
The actor Jeff Bridges described the impact of Talking Heads on the music industry back in the 1970s as being like a cold splash of water to the face. There is absolutely no doubting that they changed the course of music with their awakening of “think man’s dance music.”
By the mid-eighties, however, stories of inter-band tensions had surfaced, thusly the critics were looking to see if these blemishes bled onto the tracks and True Stories was unfairly maligned as a result. ‘Wild Wild Life’ propagates everything that was best about Talking Heads and that will forever be an absolute boon to grind.
6. ‘Superman’ by R.E.M
Chart history is always a baffling thing to study. What seems like a sure-fire hit in retrospect often resided in the doldrums and vice versa. There are a plethora of reasons why this can happen, but when it comes to something as purely joyful, melodic and memorable as ‘Superman’ it’s hard to figure.
The song reached number 17 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks, whatever that is and the album only reached 21. The cliché that springs forth from the head-scratching is that may be it was just ahead of its time.
5. ‘Happy Hour’ by The Housemartins
This ultimate singalong track might not be what you’d term underrated in the UK, but else it hasn’t garnered the love that it deserves. It’s a pop ditty that always offers up the life-giving oomph of a half-price pint of lager, as the title implies.
Between The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, Paul Heaton earmarked himself as the sort of hitmaker that Frank Sinatra would have been calling for back in the day. In short, you’d be very hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t like this song.
4. ‘Once More’ by The Wedding Present
Punk was dead in the ground by 1986, it had been and gone in a snarling maelstrom of blood, sweat and vitriol. The energy that it brought had been drowned out in a new wave of synths, fortunately, a smattering of its sharpness was still able to permeate the saturation of the mid-eighties and make its way onto tracks like ‘Once More’.
They got their start in the music industry after frontman David Gedge boarded a coach with 500 freshly cut 7” and handed them over to a distributor himself. That daring spirit rubbed off the songs. This catchy hook rattles around like a penny in the footwell of an F1 car and it offered a thrilling zest to the era.
3. ‘Johnny Johnny’ by Prefab Sprout
David Bowie was always turning his fans onto their new favourite things. In doing so he guided the path of culture in his own kaleidoscopic direction. Prefab Sprout were a huge benefactor of his illuminating benevolence.
‘Johnny Johnny’ is a track that epitomises what Prefab Sprout were capable of as a band. Frontman Paddy McAloon crafts a steady melody around poetic dirge. Lyrics had nipped out for a cigarette in ’86 but McAloon seemed to be introspectively holding its drink.
2. ‘When Company Comes’ by The Feelies
The Feelies held the fort for the humble acoustic with ‘When Company Comes’. With it, they demonstrated the affecting ambience possible through jangling nostalgia that a bit of sanguine flower-power echoing from layered six strings can create.
There is something implacable about the magic of the track. There is not much to it on a musicology level worth shouting about, but boy does its sum pack a punch that its parts can’t describe. I take my hat off to whatever hoodoo has gone into making this humble track so affecting because, in the end, it’s a thing a simple joy.
1. ‘Almost Prayed’ by The Weather Prophets
‘Almost Prayed’ is a song that clutches something rare and brilliant in music: from the very get-go, it knows exactly what it’s about. Never once does it express any desires to rise above its station or falter in its joyous intent. In doing so it triumphantly exists as a perfectly realised piece of toe-tapping perfection.
Somehow such a consummate playlist ditty only garners the band 4719 monthly plays on Spotify. That’s a crying shame, not because it’s a track that’s going to change the world or transform your life, but because it’s a balm to life that could’ve been ubiquitous in an alternate eighties and everyone would’ve been glad of it.