The shift from bad 70s music to bad 80s music was a gradual but nonetheless palpable one. This was a decade characterized by game-changing advances in the technology used by the biggest names in the industry to create the music that populated culture at large. It saw the advent of digital drum machines, the popularization of production techniques like percussion gating, and of course the rise to dominance of the electronic keyboard. These are all tools with a profoundly rich potential for creative expression, but they also doubled as shortcuts to professional-seeming, expensive-sounding results- all the polish of a major-label release with none of the pesky refinement that took so much money and time to develop. By the end of the decade, these corner-cutting alternatives to thoughtful, deliberate creation would nearly swallow the pop world whole, but long before that they were already infecting the vestigial remains of 70s shlock. Here, in 1982, we find both the stuffy, passé adult contemporary that was on its way out, and the cheap, bloodless pop-by-numbers that was already setting itself up as the replacement. As the two clashed and intermingled in the swamp of mediocrity, these were the 10 foulest excretions, at least in my humble opinion. On with the show!
#10: Charlene- I’ve Never Been to Me
Okay, here’s an odd one: a little-remembered tune recorded in 1976 by a little-remembered easy listening singer named Charlene Duncan. Upon its release as a single, it underperformed even against fairly modest expectations, and in 1977 her label Prodigal Records decided to shelve the album she had just finished recording. Duncan was understandably quite discouraged by this, throwing in the towel on her career as a pop singer and moving to her husband’s native England to work in a candy store. That should have been the end of things, but in 1982 a Tampa DJ took a liking to “I’ve Never Been to Me” and started spinning it on WRBQ, to a surprisingly positive response from his audience. He hit up his former employer Motown, who had acquired Prodigal Records around the time the song originally flopped, saying he thought it had real potential and that they should look into reissuing it. They tracked down Duncan, got her to re-sign for the single’s reissue, and with that, “I’ve Never Been to Me” took, off, reaching the top 10 in NINE different countries and climbing all the way to number three in America. It’s a cute story, but personally I can’t help being a little irked by it, because there are hundreds of songs out there deserving of a fluke second chance and “I’ve Never Been to Me” is absolutely not one of them. Sure, there are a handful of redeeming factors, namely a serviceable message of emotional fulfillment over empty hedonism and a really satisfying rhyme of “on a yacht” with “what I’ve got” in the second chorus. But songs like this had been a dime a dozen for the entire second half of the 70s and even into the early 80s; there was really no reason this should have risen to the top in that crowded field. The spoken bridge is as painfully corny as any spoken bridge in an adult-contemporary song, and though the message is ultimately pretty agreeable I’m still leery of some of the vaguely slut-shame-y notes creeping in around the edges. Despite being framed as a conversation between two women, both of the writers of this song were men, and there are places where it shows in a pretty unflattering way (“subtle whoring”? really?). It’s at least got an interesting story behind it and the tune itself is tolerable apart from that aforementioned spoken bit, but stuff like this was one of the few 70s pop trends I had no desire whatsoever to see revived in ‘82.
#9: Dan Fogelberg- Leader of the Band
Of the three Dan Fogelberg songs to appear on billboard’s year-end hot 100 lists, “Leader of the Band” is probably the best, and certainly the one I feel the least justified in disliking. It’s a heartfelt tribute to Fogelberg’s father, who passed away less than a year after its release, and especially compared to “Same Old Lang Syne”, I can’t find it in me to take any sort of umbrage to the lyrics here. I’ve been pretty harsh on this guy as a songwriter, but I seriously hope I’m never heartless enough to begrudge a man an earnest “I love you, dad”. So yes, the message of the song is a sweet one, and pretty tastefully deployed at that. Unfortunately, all the lenience I can show to Dan Fogelberg the songwriter doesn’t do a thing for my vitriol towards Dan Fogelberg the performer, and on a purely sonic level this shit is the exact same oh-so-tender, acoustic-guitar-cradling preciousness that made “Longer” impossible to take seriously. It’s just suffocating and cutesy and it makes the lyrics feel totally insincere, even though they almost certainly aren’t! Maybe if the recording wasn’t so squeaky-clean, maybe if he didn’t sing like a goddamn cartoon fairy bard, I could find some way to connect with this thing, but no matter how much I want to I just can’t get there. It takes an awfully botched execution to make me scoff at something this pure-hearted; I feel like a real asshole here, but the song plainly and simply doesn’t work. In the nicest way possible, I’m very glad Fogelberg stopped having any real crossover success after this- he had found his audience, and he deserved to make his music for people who appreciated it as much as the rest of us deserved to not have to hear it.
#8: Air Supply- Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)
Another 80s worst list, another cruddy boring waste-of-time Air Supply song. You may be thinking this is the one that goes “here I am, the one that you love” in the chorus, but nope! That’s actually “The One That You Love” and somehow the creative maestros in Air Supply were unable to concoct a bland forgettable title for this bland forgettable song that didn’t mix itself up with an earlier bland forgettable song of theirs- except, of course, that they did, and made the truly baffling decision to put it in parentheses. Whatever. Who cares? Air Supply clearly didn’t! If they thought anything they were doing was worth even the barest critical consideration I seriously doubt they’d have rhymed “pain” with “rain”. It’s all just obvious done-to-death ballad chords and phoned-in heartbreak- if there’s anything at all genuine here, it’s completely invisible under the walking cliche that is this band.
#7: Buckner & Garcia- Pac-Man Fever
Pac-Man was a pretty huge deal in the early 80s. It was probably the first video game franchise to really capture the cultural imagination and take the country by storm; the titular protagonist or the ghosts that populated the game world were, by mid-1982, as recognizable as any flesh-and-blood celebrity. All of that amounts to exactly ZERO reasons why it should have been the basis for a novelty song. You know some other things that have gotten massively popular? The Simpsons got massively popular. Pokemon got massively popular. Fuckin’ fidget spinners got massively popular. I don’t want any of those things in my headphones! Why would I? They aren’t music, and the reasons they’re popular or interesting aren’t the surface-level reasons a novelty song is capable of addressing. Just describing a game of Pac-Man does nothing to actually convey the game’s appeal or evoke the world of the game, it’s just a cheap way to trick people into thinking your song is more relatable or invested in its subject than it really is. It’s the exact same lazy, reference-based writing that gets us garbage like Ready Player One or The Big Bang Theory, and it turns out that bullshit is exactly as irritating and brainless in the form of a pop single. The least they could have done was make the song more new wave-y and synth-based, rather than the pseudo-rockabilly crap Buckner and Garcia delivered instead.
#6: Bertie Higgins- Key Largo
If there’s any song that deserves the critical ire aimed at “Margaritaville”, it’s “Key Largo”. This thing is every bit the self-satisfied, lethargic lope through tropical excess people accuse that song of being, with Jimmy Buffet’s existential emptiness replaced by Bertie Higgins’ placid reminiscing about romantic escapades of some sort. It’s nominally a breakup song, the narrator pleading with his partner not to end things, but Higgins leans so hard into “come on babe, remember all the good times?” cajoling that the actual state of the relationship feels like a tertiary concern at best, a mere footnote compared to the rose-tinted memories of doing generic couple-y things or the promises of a getaway in Key Largo. Higgins spends the entire song with one foot stuck in the past and one foot stumbling towards the future, skirting right around the present moment, and we’re left with no sense of why things have gone wrong, why this woman is someone he particularly wants to keep around, or even what Key Largo offers that his current locale doesn’t. Seriously, a song this infatuated with balmy Floridian beaches would have benefited a lot from some kind of contrast to another place, a big city or a frozen northern town, but that would be a pretty serious break from this song’s tired, heard-it-a-million-times romantic overtures, and I assume he had already used up his entire allotment of writerly details on all those weird references to the 1948 crime drama of the same name (a song that actually took inspiration from the plot of Key Largo would have probably been a lot more interesting). Factor in Higgins’ blandly hunky vocals and the overly-smooth, glassy production, and you have a song that captures nothing of either the relationship he’s trying to save or the tropical paradise he’s convinced will save it.
#5: Sheena Easton- You Could Have Been With Me
With the 80s really kicking into gear, I feel obligated to include at least one terrible power ballad on the worst list, and newcomer Sheena Easton filled out that requirement admirably with “You Could Have Been With Me”. Much like her idol Barbra Streisand, Easton had a bad habit of over-singing and a penchant for overworked balladry. Though her voice had a fair bit more edge and personality to it than Streisand’s, “You Could Have Been With Me” fell victim to dated production that couldn’t match her melodramatic delivery. More importantly, that melodrama was in service of one of the more unfortunate lyrics of the year, a whining tantrum over some man who has the nerve to not fall head over heels for the narrator. Songwriter Lea Maalfrid neglects even a passing mention of anything that would actually make this woman a desirable partner, and then completely pivots in the second verse to just accusing the man of some vague sort of flightiness, and leaves it completely up in the air what’s actually happening, or how these two are even involved in each others’ lives. The details are so sparse that it’s difficult to pin any concrete notion or feeling down beyond a sense of aggrieved entitlement, and everything else is left as a blurry afterthought. Easton does try her darnedest, especially in the comical music video where she really divas it up for the camera, but the generic music and the unpleasant lyrics prove totally unworthy of the effort.
#4: Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder- Ebony and Ivory
“Ebony and Ivory” isn’t the worst song of the year, and it might not even be one of the ten worst, but it’s quite easily the most disappointing song of the year- hell, maybe even of the decade. A collaboration between Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder by all accounts should have been a pop song to end all pop songs, the greatest hitmaker of the 60s and the greatest hitmaker of the 70s combining their powers for a song so catchy and satisfying no human being could possibly resist it. These were two titans of pop music, and even if both were a wee bit past their prime in 1982, there was no reason to expect the results to be anything less than totally enjoyable. Sadly, “Ebony and Ivory” was a point of no return for both men, the true start of their twin backslides into sentimental blandness and eventual irrelevance. Of course, this is still Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, so even such a titanic let-down outstrips most of its soft-rock contemporaries in terms of compositional substance; McCartney brings a fairly involved chord progression to the table, in addition to a nice guitar lick, and Stevie’s vocal and keyboard contributions are welcome as ever. Even so, the song is well and truly scuppered by two things. Firstly, that hook is just appallingly bad. It seems to actually lose track of its own meter and rhyme scheme halfway through, only to hastily pick it back up at the end in a way that only comes across as clumsy and accidental. I do get what McCartney was going for, using the “key” in “keyboard” to transition to an internal rhyme (keyBOARD, oh LORD), but it just doesn’t scan and, in combination with an uncharacteristically meandering melody, creates an impression of aimlessness and confusion, as though it’s being made up on the spot. The second problem is a little deeper. I actually really like the idea of comparing people of different ethnic backgrounds to keys on a piano, corny as it may be: different but equal, all essential for creating something rich, complex, and valuable. The problem is the verses’ failure to expand on this comparison in any way, and specifically what we get instead: a load of “can’t we all just get along” platitudes that fail to tangle with prejudice at even a grade-school level of understanding. Without the soul-stirring musical muscle of a song like “America”, it just comes off as tone-deaf and even a little ignorant, boiling down a complex issue to a simplistic “we should be nice to people”, and totally wasting what could have been a poignant metaphor in the process.
#3: Ray Parker Jr.- The Other Woman
Along with labelmate Lionel Richie, the music of Ray Parker Jr., for me at least, has come to symbolize the decline of Motown throughout the 80s, their devolution from the beating heart of black pop to just another arm of an industry pumping out low-effort radio filler. Like Richie, Parker made his name in the latter half of the 70s as part of a group. Unlike Richie, his music was pretty much never any good, and had a very long way to fall from the mediocre spot he started from. Raydio was about as bog-standard as 70s R&B gets, and time has all but reduced his solo career to one-hit wonder status- “the ‘Ghostbusters’ guy”. Where Lionel Richie found his calling in mushy, dull adult-contemporary ballads, Parker’s tastes skewed a bit more more towards dumb, obvious hard rawk, and his debut single “The Other Woman” served as proof he could knuckle-drag with the best of ‘em. It’s a slimy, unlikeable ode to infidelity- Supposedly, the narrator’s caught feelings for one of his paramours, but the verses make it plain that he basically just thinks she’s a better lay than his girlfriend (or wife? Parker was unmarried when the song was released, so I’m going with girlfriend). The drooling horniness is certainly to the track’s detriment, but the real crime is how slapdash it is on a songwriting level. The main riff is just your usual piss-easy power chord up-down that comes prepackaged with every Fender Stratocaster, and while Parker’s more laid-back vocal delivery is clearly shooting for suave, it instead leaves him stranded miles away from the conniving anti-charisma he needed to sell such a douche of a character. Oh, and let’s not forget all the flubbed rhymes! We’re treated to such stunning feats of poetry as “much/tough”, “one night stand/hot romance” and, best of all, “game/clean”. Yes, you read that right, in this real hit song that real human beings paid actual legal tender for, Ray Parker Jr. rhymed the word “game” with the word “clean”. What more can I even say?
#2: Paul Davis- ‘65 Love Affair
The dawn of the 80s came at the expense of many in the music world, but perhaps none more so than cheeseballs like Paul Davis. The 70s had been quite amenable to Davis’s hairy good looks and easygoing blend of country-pop and blue-eyed soul, allowing him a steady climb to commercial prominence despite his somewhat lackluster songwriting. With the advent of new wave and synthesizer music, however, his little niche began to shrink away from pop radio, and if Davis didn’t want his record sales to shrink with it he was going to need to adapt to the times. And, er, adapt he did? “‘65 Love Affair” certainly sounds like a product of the early 80s, but to say that it’s aged badly would be putting it mildly. The production on this song is roundly abysmal: a dozen different keyboard tones all clamor for space in the same frequency range, the stiff drumming is worsened by airless reverb that gives it no room to breathe, and Davis’s voice is mutilated by one of the most ill-advised uses of slapback delay I’ve ever heard on a major-label single. Overall it’s a flat-out mess, an ugly, claustrophobic earache. If there’s any small solace here’s, the song underneath it all is hardly worth salvaging- a dippy, sub-McCartneyan trip into doo-wop nostalgi-ugh. For how enthusiastically he attempted to update his sound and keep up with new musical technology, Davis just had no idea what to actually do with any of it, and he would retire semi-permanently from recording within a year. If “‘65 Love Affair” is any indication, he made the right call. The 80s just wasn’t the place for a guy like him.
#1: Chicago- Hard to Say I’m Sorry
It’s been a while since I talked about Chicago beyond a passing barb here and there. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fan, yet by noses and hairs, year after year, they’ve consistently managed to avoid my bottom ten. They were too inoffensive, or had some aspect that I at least sort of respected, or the vocals were marginally less unlistenable than usual. But “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” marks the point where Chicago went from a bad band to one of the worst bands around, or at the very least one of the worst popular bands around. Blah, just listen to this thing. Hear that revoltingly cold, metallic production, devoid of any verve or fun? Hear the syrupy strings and guitars and trumpets piling on, building and building in volume without gaining so much as a hint of grandeur or genuine excitement? Hear that gated snare, smashing soullessly through a blanket of airbrushed nothingness? That’s the very core of all that was ever wrong and corrupt in 80s pop; at least one song on every worst list for the next decade will be some variation on the vapid, plastic, utterly disposable balladry Chicago laid the blueprint for here. Moreover, more than a few of those songs will, in fact, be by Chicago, because for how uninspired their songwriting became from here on out, for how studiously they avoided anything resembling interesting musicianship or heartfelt lyricism, their worst feature would always, always, always be the shrill, piercing squawk of frontman Peter Cetera. Cetera’s dying-porpoise wail was his band’s main achilles’ heel from the word Go, but it only reached its full, awful power with the advent of 80s overproduction. Every song they cranked out this decade gave his lead vocal a thin, oily sheen of reverb, and multi-tracked it over itself to sound like a robotic chorus of keening dolphins. His voice, in addition to its inherent grating unpleasantness, became so distressingly absent of texture or personality that it nearly verged into uncanny valley territory, much more so than the vast majority of autotuned pop singing. Nothing about “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” sounds the least bit earnest, and worse yet, it’s far too solemn to even revel in its own phoniness. It’s a three-and-a-half-minute shrug, a skin-crawling monument to crass, mercenary indifference. In other words, it’s Chicago perfecting their formula.