Ohh-Kay! It’s time to really start diving into the wretched dregs of one of my least-favorite eras of pop music. I’m slightly pressed for time and none too eager to set about the tast at hand, so we’re gonna try and go quick-and-dirty here— think PGTY season 1, no dilly-dallying unless there’s something interesting to talk about. Chop chop now— on with the show!
#10: Glenn Medeiros- Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You
The fluke-iest fluke hit of the year, “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” gets a bit of a boost from its plainly amateur vibe, standing apart from the decade’s very worst adult-contemporary crud thanks to the radio-contest-winner vocals of local radio contest winner Mr. Glenn Medeiros. It loses most of those points, however, for said original being easily one of the more boring and unpleasant things George Benson ever put his name on, and for producer Jay Stone’s slavish faithfulness to Michael Masser’s arrangement. It’s all just slick 80s nothing, a shitty aimless melody and a marshmallow-y instrumental void that Medeiros’s wonky teenaged singing can only lend so much personality to. As many who luck their way into fifteen minutes of pop stardom do, Medeiros ultimately found his calling away from the charts, settling into a long career in education in his home state of Hawaii after a (surprisingly quite good) second hit in 1990. All things considered, I’m happy for the guy, and I certainly wish him well. Plenty of people worked far harder on much worse material (see: next 9 entries), and the failure of his “Nothing’s Gonna Change” feels too accidental to be worth much real venom. Shame about that video, too— they couldn’t have given the poor sonofabitch anything to do besides ambling down the shore with some girl?
#9: Dan Hill- Can’t We Try (feat. Vonda Shepard)
The main thing to know about Dan Hill is that he really makes sure to enunciate each and every one of his Rs. I’m no vocal coach, so this is a little beyond my pay grade, but if the internet is to be believed, making the “R” sound forces you to close your jaw and move your tongue in such a way that there’s comparatively little room for your voice to resonate around your mouth. In short, there’s a good reason why so many pop singers drop it whenever possible! Hill does the exact opposite, taking every opportunity to lean into an ill-advised “URR” or “ARR”, sounding like he’s trying to forcibly squeeze the notes out of his throat. His first big hit, a turgid little ballad from 1977 called “Sometimes When We Touch”, served up enough weepy earnesty that this bizarre and infuriating vocal tic didn’t outright consume it; no such luck for “Can’t We Try”. Partially that’s because Vonda Shepard (of Ally McBeal fame!) is right there the whole time, singing the normal way in which balladeers are supposed to sing and providing a very stark contrast to Hill’s growly bleating. Mostly though, it’s sunk by an unfocused lyric that seems to completely change topics each verse and by (natch) the exact goddamn synth twinkle and airbrushed snare combo that every single other pop ballad had already been using for four entire years by this point. All in all, “Can’t We Try” paints Hill’s sensitive-pianist shtick in a shockingly unflattering light, an awkward voice trying to sell an emotion with no clear shape.
#8: Herb Alpert- Diamonds
1987 is about two decades too late to squeeze in a proper overview of the storied career that is Herb Alpert, but luckily he does so little on “Diamonds” that doing so would hardly be worth the trouble. No, “Diamonds” is another Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis joint, and the vocals come courtesy of two of their favorite collaborators: Lisa Keith and Janet, Miss Jackson if ya nasty, who had enlisted the duo for much of her breakout album Control in ‘86. If “Diamonds” belongs to anyone, it belongs to Janet, and if it doesn’t belong to Janet it belongs to Jam ‘n’ Lewis, but they put it together for Alpert’s album and released it on his label, so if he wanted it to be a Herb Albert song it was his word as law. Don’t ask me why he insisted, though: “Diamonds” bearing a 52-year-old man’s name on the record sleeve is deeply weird given the catty, girl-power vibe of the whole thing.
My first instinct was to call this a “Material Girl” ripoff, and I do still think the comparison holds at least a little water, especially in the blocky, cumbersome dance-pop beat. But where “Material Girl” couched its narcissistic avarice in empowering wheeler-dealer imagery, “Diamonds” feels no need for such pretense. Herb and co.’s outlook here is baldly cynical and borderline contemptuous of anyone unwilling or unable to cater to their every whim (y’know, I’m actually starting to see why the record label exec wanted his name on this). I probably don’t have to spell out that I don’t jive much with that worldview, but on paper, I’m actually still mostly on board with this. It has all the makings of a slinky, sleazy villain song; I’d have loved to see Janet play up the covetous coldness here and bare her fangs a bit. Unfortunately, the narrator here isn’t quite that self-aware, and they prove as much in one verse that spoils the whole thing: “I’m not that demanding/I have simple taste/I just want a token/That can’t go to waste”. Take that faux-humble bullshit and shove it. If you’ve already written a whole song about how you only care about diamonds, why waste time trying to make that seem reasonable? Just be evil! “Diamonds” may not be quite the shallow, consumerist fever dream it easily could have been, but if this half-hearted heel turn is any better then it’s certainly not by much.
#7: Club Nouveau- Lean on Me
After Mickey Gilley’s cover of “Stand By Me” back in 1980, I was hoping against hope that I would never again be subjected to such a profound desecration of a beloved soul classic, and for 25 seconds or so, Club Nouveau really had me thinking they might turn in a straightforward (if somewhat po-faced) rendition of Bill Withers’ iconic 1972 hit. Then that noxious go-go beat started up, and I could only whisper a horrified, bewildered “nooooooooooo” as the whole thing devolved into something like my own personal hell: one of the greatest, warmest, most emotionally rich soul songs of the 70s, ground into paste under the domineering boot of dance music.
You know that episode of Full House where Jesse and the Rippers are forced to do a shitty 80s-rap version of the Beach Boys’ “Forever”, to make the also-shitty, Lionel Richie-sounding version they do later sound better and more authentic by comparison? This sounds like the Full House 80s-rap version of “Forever”; it’s sitcom-punchline bad. So why is it only at number seven? Because, as with Mickey Gilley and “Stand By Me”, I consider a cover that totally ditches everything great about the original to be oodles more worthwhile than a cover that only manages to water those things down, and Club Nouveau goes so far past the limits of good taste here that I can’t help being a little impressed by their gumption. It’s a real swing for the fence… and a miss! Better luck next time.
#6: George Michael- I Want Your Sex
Man, I just don’t think I get George Michael. Not that he doesn’t have any songs I like; hell, his very next single after this one, “Faith”, is pretty darn solid in my eyes. But even then and on damn near every one of his other songs, both with Wham! and as a solo artist, the guy just has a quality, some kind of off-putting vibe, that renders his years upon years of stardom baffling to me. Part of it is how much of an empty vessel he was musically, flexible enough that he never really needed to develop a sound of his own to anchor his genre excursions and flights of retro fancy. Take “I Want Your Sex”, a fairly cut-and-dry aping of Prince that, in some regards, gets awfully close to capturing what the genuine article captured. In particular, Michael’s I’m-grown-and-sexy-now husk is both a fun departure from the fluorescent holler of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and a great fit for the song itself. It sounds loose and steamy and like he’s enjoying himself, and hey, what sex song worth its salt sounds otherwise?
That said, holy shit that bridge section. I get that Michael may have been hesitant to go all-in on raunch, but the rah-rah, chanting cadence of “sex is best when it’s one-on-one” shines a bright, stupid spotlight on how thin and flimsy the funky, club-ready veneer is, how edgeless and lightweight the come-ons are. If Prince were making this song, you can bet he wouldn’t be pulling embarrassing stunts like writing “EMBRACE MONOGAMY” on a woman’s bare back in a music video. Fuck’s sake dude, we get it, you aren’t a pervert. And that’s honestly the problem! What fun is sex if it must be made into something so unthreatening and frictionlessly consumed? What value is there in prodding at social boundaries if you show so little regard for what lies beyond them? Michael was a talented guy, but he never had the stones to really give the finger to the status quo. Playing it safe may be all well and good in the sheets, but on the charts the stakes just aren’t there.
#5: Tiffany- I Think We’re Alone Now
The THIRD cover song of this list (is that a new record? Someone check for me, I can’t be bothered) falls pretty squarely in between the slight improvements of “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” and the total trashfire of “Lean On Me”. While my lukewarm feelings towards Tommy James’ 1966 original WOULD mean that the changes didn’t have much of a chance to really get on my nerves, had producer George Tobin not singled out the one single interesting thing about it and completely eliminated it. The original “I Think We’re Alone Now” pulls an odd sort of reverse-Pixies move, with loud rockin’ verses evaporating into a hushed, low-key hook. It’s neat! That right there is something a million other songs hadn’t already done, and not only do the Shondells pull it off competently, they match it with a complementary lyric about teenagers trying to sneak away and bang without any adults finding out. The Tiffany version flattens it into a one-gear dance-pop glitterbomb packed full of cheesy, dated synths— it’s 1987, what did you expect? The replacement of “dynamics” with “no dynamics” a totally mystifying one, and Tiffany’s none-too-dynamic vocals only compound the issue. Like Glenn Medeiros, Tiffany Darwish had a teenagery rawness to her voice that helps in certain places (into the naiight!) and hurts in other places (most of the times she has to transition to a note lower than the one she’s currently singing, yeesh). It isn’t quite radically different enough to make anyone’s eyes bug out (although it’s funny to imagine incensed Tommy James fans in ‘87, aghast at Tiffany’s affronts to culture), it’s mostly just less interesting, and for a song that was largely coasting on one unique idea to begin with, that’s a grim place to land.
#4: Chicago- Will You Still Love Me?
Like Maroon 5 after them, Chicago had become a band in name only. Whatever the other members contributed to one album cut or the other, in the popular consciousness they were the Peter Cetera Show. Unlike Maroon 5, though, the rest of the band had enough self-respect to eventually chafe at Cetera’s dominance over their artistic direction, and when he decided to seriously pursue a solo career, he was promptly ousted, ending an 18-year tenure with the band he made famous. They were once more the leaderless band they had initially set out to be, but the damage had already been done. Wussy soft-rock treacle was now their brand, and if Cetera could no longer provide that then they’d find someone who could. Sure enough, Cetera’s frequent writing partner David Foster was still down to lend a hand, and with that, Chicago’s fate was sealed. “Will You Still Love Me?” is nothing but a Cetera ballad with the serial numbers filed off, right down to new singer/bassist Jason Scheff’s torturous, multi-tracked keen— the Shasta cola to Cetera’s Pepsi. Meet the new boss, et Cetera et cetera.
#3: Bon Jovi- Wanted Dead or Alive
Every hair metal band gets one good song. Bon Jovi made the questionable decision to spread their one good song out across a half-dozen or so different songs. Most of their hits consist of roughly 90% terrible histrionic caterwauling and spun-sugar instrumentation that melts into goo at the slightest touch of anything resembling reality, and roughly 10% a deathly catchy bit that will welcome itself into your cranium and stick there without itchin’ ya. There’s the talkbox riff in “Livin’ on a Prayer”, the solo on “You Give Love A Bad Name”, the part of “Bad Medicine” where they all go “WOAH-OH-OH”, a handful of others I can’t name off the top of my head— cram all those together and you’d have one pretty killer glam-metal anthem!
All this has little to do with “Wanted Dead or Alive”, because “Wanted Dead or Alive” does not contain any of Bon Jovi’s good song-parts. This song is Bon Jovi trying to make a finger-picky country ballad and sound like outlaws, which causes major problems on two fronts. Firstly, they’re unable to pull their favorite trick, which is having the whole band shout the chorus at you to emphasize how intense and energetic they are. They still try, of course, harmonizing all up and down creation towards the end since the song needs a big climax with onstage columns of fire, but the heart of the song is just too far from the bubblegum rock where that approach makes some degree of sense. It builds up a big head of steam before realizing there’s nothing sensible to do with it and finally, uneventfully fizzling out.
Secondly, the twangy acoustics and the comparatively roomy mix both naturally draw the ear to Jon Bon Jovi’s voice, and then to his lyrics. Have I ever mentioned that I hate, hate, HATE songs about being famous? It is the least relatable and least interesting thing in the universe to bitch and moan about how stressful and hard and unfulfilling having the whole world handed to you on a silver platter every day is, and comparing it to being a hard-living old-west gunslinger is so far beyond the pale that Jon ends up accidentally sounding less like a cowboy of any sort and more like the sheltered, clueless Northeastern douchebag he probably is in real life. On top of the navel-gazing subject matter, Jon adds insult to insult with some of the most birdbrained poetry set to a tune this decade. Calling the tour bus you ride around in a “steel horse” would have been crime enough against the English language, but “A loaded six-string on my back” easily takes the cake for the worst single line of the year— what the hell is it loaded with? Rock? Is it loaded with rock music? If the rock in Jon’s little guitar-holster is anything like “Wanted Dead or Alive”, then please, I’m begging you, don’t shoot.
#2: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam- Head to Toe
“Head to Toe” may have some more snap in its crap than “All Cried Out”, but make no mistake, it’s every bit as crap. It shares both the make-it-up-as-we-go song structure and the weak singing of its predecessor, but the format pivots from breathy polyester balladry to a pounding synth-pop headache that announces itself with an explosion of blaring DX-7 and singing that seems to be just about to lock into the right key, but only ends up actually doing so in fits and starts. A whole lot of people also claim the song displays a strong Motown influence, and no matter how many times the supposed throughlines are pointed out to me, I cannot for the life of me see much more than a speck of Motown here. For one thing, old Motown songs tended to feature actual drumming and “Head to Toe” is at least half drum machine— there are more than a few points where its echoing smack is literally the only thing going on in the song. For another, Motown made their bones with pliant grooves that could relax as easily as they could energize, and that flexibility is nowhere to be found here. The main vocal line is the only place where the comparison doesn’t strike me as patently ridiculous, and remember, Lisa Lisa is a very bad singer! That a fifth-rate impression of 60s Diana Ross was seemingly all it took for listeners to fall over themselves announcing this as some second coming of Holland-Dozier-Holland can only speak to what a strange, sad place R&B as a whole was in the late 80s.
#1: Peter Cetera & Amy Grant- The Next Time I Fall
At this point, what else could it even be?
I have exhausted every negative thing I have to say about Peter Cetera. He is the true sellout’s sellout, an unforgivably boring musician and songwriter and a singer so sonically unpleasant he should have been barred for life from even the dingiest karaoke nights. He would have topped the worst list two years in a row if whoever mastered “When The Going Gets Tough” had actually done their damn job. Y’know, I don’t want to give myself too much credit here, but as someone who creates, who spends time writing these little reviews and trying to make sure they read well and offer some kind of potentially-interesting thought, I worry a lot about self-plagiarism, using the same descriptors and sentence structures too often, falling into predictable patterns. I genuinely don’t think Peter Cetera has ever once worried about that. How could he have? Every song he’s sung since 1982 has sounded the exact goddamn same— even this, a duet with a Christian singer who of course gets rapidly swallowed up by the track’s biblical flood of syrupy synth suckage. All his music uses the same shitass keyboard tones and idiotic booming drum tones, the same basic love song vocabulary, the same gooey midrange and skullsplitting upper register, the same how on Earth can two dozen different songs written by three dozen different people sound more homogenous than any one single Beatles or Pink Floyd album AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH
I’ve had it. I’m throwing in the towel on this guy, because I truly believe he cared even less about these songs then I do. If he cared, then he would have fucking differentiated them. And “The Next Time I Fall” isn’t even the end of his reign of terror! He had big big hits through the whole rest of the decade and even beyond, and all of ‘em are locks for worst lists! All of ‘em sound exactly like shitty Peter Cetera ballads! So, in lieu of reviewing those with words, I will instead embed the infamous “pissing chimp” video that Pitchforkmedia used as their 0/10 review of Jet’s Shine On in 2006. It feels fitting, somehow. Peter Cetera sucks, and unlike him, I’m not going to repeat myself.