The Readers’ Poll Of Polls

TwitterEvery periodical in the British music press in the 1980s asked its audience what they thought about the artists working in the industry and the records they produced. There were the occasional “best ever” surveys (best album of all time, best band of the decade), but the most common, most anticipated lists were those compiled in the annual readers’ polls. A form was printed that people completed and posted in, usually towards the end of the year, and the results would be announced a few months later. Smash Hits turned theirs into an annual televised event, ‘The Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party’, first broadcast in 1988. For the most part, the weekly (and fortnightly, in the case of Smash Hits) music press published lists of the Top 10 in each category they asked people to vote on, the typical awards contested being best single, best album, best video, etc. These Top 10 lists were often startling different: the readers’ interests (and the title’s editorial policy) was usually very evident from the acts who appeared in the year-end results for each journal. For example, take a look at the ‘best band/group’ category for 1989 and see who made the Top 10 in New Musical Express, Record Mirror and Smash Hits:

New Musical Express Record Mirror Smash Hits
1 The Stone Roses Pet Shop Boys Bros
2 Happy Mondays Erasure Pet Shop Boys
3 The Wedding Present Soul II Soul Wet Wet Wet
4 New Order De La Soul Big Fun
5 The Wonder Stuff Deacon Blue Brother Beyond
6 Pixies =6 Beautiful South Erasure
7 REM =6 Guns N’ Roses Deacon Blue
8 The Cure =8 Simple Minds Bananarama
9 Inspiral Carpets =8 Simply Red Bangles
10 James Eurythmics Simply Red

As can be seen, the worthy, achingly credible (and often pretentious) NME’s Top 10 comprised, almost exclusively, ‘indie’ acts. This was the paper that also asked its readers to name best drummer, guitarist and so on, because it was a serious read for serious music fans, who knew bands’ musicians and not just the singers. On the other extreme was Smash Hits, full of chart-friendly, camera-ready names. It’s not by chance that none of the acts on the Smash Hits list appears on the NME one, as these two titles were catering for entirely different audiences. Record Mirror bridged the gap a little. Four of its winners also appear on the Smash Hits results, and although in 1989 the poll shared no artists with the NME one, this wasn’t always the case – New Order, for example, were often common to both in other years. But there are also some unusual names on the Record Mirror list that would never turn up on either NME or Smash Hits polls, such as De La Soul – this indicative of the magazine’s specialist coverage of soul, R&B, dance and hip-hop acts.

With such widely diverging views, which was the best band of the decade then? Who was the singer most favoured by fans of 80s pop? As the three titles already mentioned covered the broadest spectrum of musical taste, If You Were There below presents below the ‘poll of polls’, having reviewed the results for each year of the 1980s1. Ten points have been given to the winning act in each title’s survey each year, going down to one point for coming tenth.2 Then all the points each act3 collected throughout the decade have been summed to provide the following Top 10s. Although this system naturally favours those who were around for the whole decade, universal popularity across all three journals is in fact more important. For example, The Jam are fourth best band overall despite splitting up in 1982, as they appeared in the Top 10 in all three readers’ polls for each of the three years they were active.

Best group Best male singer Best female singer
1 U2 Morrissey Kate Bush
2 The Smiths Prince Siouxsie Sioux
3 Duran Duran David Bowie Madonna
4 The Jam Paul Weller Annie Lennox
5 Pet Shops Boys George Michael Alison Moyet
6 New Order Bono Vox Kim Wilde
7 Wham! Simon Le Bon Toyah Willcox
8 The Police Paul Young Liz Fraser
9 The Fall =9 Gary Numan Whitney Houston
10 Culture Club =9 Elvis Costello Sade Adu

1 Record Mirror did not poll its readers in 1983.
2 From 1988, NME merged the ‘best male singer’ and ‘best female singer’ categories and replaced them with unisex ‘best solo’ artist. I have awarded 10 points to the first man on the list through to 5 for the sixth, and 10 points to the first woman through to 7 for the fourth, in both years.
3 96 different groups appeared in the year-end results across the decade for the three journals surveyed, along with 76 male and 75 female singers. (It should be noted that Boy George featured in both male and female results tables in some years.)

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