Okay. Yep. Things are officially dire in 80sland. This is the first time since the early ‘60s where I’ve had to really scrape the barrel for an even ten best list picks. Things are petering out awfully fast, and I’ll have more to say about the general trends of the year on the worst list intro. In the meantime, let’s savor the rapidly-diminishing quotient of good stuff while we can— on with the show!
#10: INXS- Need You Tonight
Was INXS… a rock band? Perhaps in another, better world, the “yes” would be unequivocal. As it stands, their late-80s commercial peak sounds unlike anything before or since. Small similarities are easy to find— in Bowie and Queen and Prince before, in Beck and Massive Attack and Walk the Moon after— But the holistic ‘thing’, another band in the INXS mold, has never shown up again and likely never will. Kick came along at the perfect time, when the 80s rock paradigm was just starting to crack up and no one knew yet what would be replacing it. In retrospect, ‘87 feels like the last time the future of rock seemed limitless, the last time rock could do anything and be anything. And anything was exactly what INXS did, and exactly what they be’d! They could go dark and dangerous, they could go funky and danceable, they weren’t afraid to experiment, they loved keyboards but only barely sounded like new wave, they had riffs, and their lead singer was a total dreamboat to boot. No wonder critics at the time hated them: what the hell do you make of a band like that in 1988? That strange, seductive alchemy is on full display on “Need You Tonight”, with “seductive” being the operative word there. Michael Hutchence sings like he’s trying to get you personally to do a striptease for him, and whew lordy, I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the heat here. Like any true casanova, Hutchence knows how to flatter his audience, and little lines that he seems to give barely a thought to seemingly unleash whole new realms of giggly excitement. I’m one of your kind, you say? You need me tonight, you say? Ohh, such a charmer!
#9: Def Leppard- Pour Some Sugar On Me
It’s often been said that hair metal made metal appealing to the masses, but just as often it worked the other way around, tarting up agreeable, hook-driven pop in denim and leather so it’d sell to heshers and headbangers. Bon Jovi’s aspirations started in the stadiums and found guitar shred from there; the likes of Poison and Warrant had their eyes on the top 40 well before their first gig at the Troubadour. Def Leppard, though, did in fact start off as a capital-M Metal band, a product of the British Steel era through-and-through, and as a function of that it took them basically the entire 80s to polish and refine their sound into the commercial silver bullet that was 1987’s Hysteria. Even on the tooth-disintegrating “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, that hard ‘n’ heavy background is still apparent: producer Mutt Lange provides the layers upon layers of sizzling guitar echo and gang vocals that make the song pop, but the band provides the sturdy, unyielding BOOM, thwack, BOOM, thwack that keeps the bombast tethered to Earth. Is it stupid? You had better believe “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is stupid— who the hell would want a song that sounds like this to be smart? Lange’s production does wonders to smooth all the sticky-sweet come-ons into innocuous 80s nonsense, but Joe Elliot’s delivery also indicates that he’s, if not in on the joke, than certainly willing to embrace the kiddish exuberance that makes the song tick.
I also want to shout out the original UK concept video for this song, which sadly never made it to air stateside. On top of being a great video on its own merits (the band performing inside a house that’s literally collapsing around them is a much more impactful image than the generic concert footage populating the official US video), director Russel Mulcahy shoots the stocky, flannel-clad women demolishing said house from the outside with a refreshingly dignified sensuality. The fact that they’re so far from your typical video models is, amazingly, never once made into a punchline, and in addition to driving home the hard rock grittiness that Def Leppard still had as their foundation, it also brought welcome variety and substance to glam metal’s too-often-hollow flirtations with androgyny and gender nonconforming presentation.
#8: Bruce Hornsby and the Range- The Valley Road
In the great pantheon of “lead singles from sophomore albums, which are very clearly aiming to recreate the breakout single from the last album”, “The Valley Road” ranks pretty high up there, both in terms of quality and in terms of how blatantly it is doing that. Same sparkling clean tones, same fleet-fingered ivory-tickling, same firm rock backbeat, same socially-aware lyricism. Did you like “The Way It Is?” Well, get ready for another one! As someone who does, in fact, like “The Way It Is” a lot, I can confirm that everything that made that song my 8th-most-favorite pop hit of 1987 has returned, in slightly greater or lesser quantities, to make “The Valley Road” my 8th-most-favorite pop hit of 1988! Don’t worry, though: the Range is a good band that only rips themselves off when it makes sense to do so, and “The Way It Is” left enough ground untrodden that the second attempt hardly feels extraneous. The lyrics shift focus from the modern welfare line to an antebellum plantation, where the farm owner’s daughter falls for a field hand before her father sends her away, to put a stop to a relationship he disapproves of for what are hopefully obvious reasons. There’s more of an emotional core here than on “Way It Is”, mostly thanks to one story taking up the whole song rather than several separate vignettes, but there’s also less of a bite, and if there’s anywhere the song falls a tad short it’s here. I almost get the sense that Hornsby and co. didn’t want to look too much like one-trick ponies, so they left all the explicit social commentary as subtext, where it doesn’t do much except suggest how much more pointed the song could have been.
Luckily, The Range’s unparalleled technical prowess is not placed under any such constraints, and they branch out a tad from their earlier singles with a choogling, Springsteen-y synth groove that gives the band’s rhythm section a chance to shine a bit more than they had previously. Obviously, Hornsby himself has hardly lost a step on his instrument of choice, and we’re again treated to a pair of virtuosic solos that impress and delight at every turn. He even shares the first solo partially with guitarist Peter Harris, who rises to the occasion admirably. I wouldn’t have minded Bruce Hornsby sticking around for a few more years after this, but his prompt departure from the world of pop after this also feels sort of inevitable. For a brief, improbable window, his staggeringly technical playing and ruminations on American race relations had genuine crossover appeal. I’m just glad that window existed at all.
#7: The Bangles- A Hazy Shade of Winter
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” receives such a rich inheritance from the 1966 Simon & Garfunkel original that it can be tempting to cast The Bangles as supporting players on their own hit. However, doing so would greatly undersell the degree to which this song benefits from a modern touch-up, and how shrewdly The Bangles provide said touch-up. The idea of the song’s stomping beat may have been Paul Simon’s, but listen to that original recording and it’s clear he saw only its function, its practicality in keeping the song moving along at a good clip. The Bangles looked at that same beat and saw dramatic potential. The first thirty seconds of their version is radically different, floating through a thick, ghostly ambience, the full band harmonizing much the same way Simon and Garfunkel did in their prime. Then Debbi Peterson unleashes that beat, and the song comes alive. Simon’s central guitar riff, transposed directly from acoustic to electric, now snarls with adrenaline; the pace is more frantic, the vocal delivery more urgent. It fucking rocks.
As mentioned, the lion’s share of “Hazy Shade”’s mileage comes from Simon’s songwriting, his note-perfect melody and his dreamlike lyricism, but those aspects shine the way they do here in large part because of what an ass-kicker the Bangles’ arrangement is. The brains are vintage 60s folk-pop, but the brawn is all psych-tinged hard rock fury, giving the loopy imagery some solid musical muscle to fall back on. It flawlessly evokes the band’s beginnings in L.A.’s “paisley underground”, and damn near forecasts the whole next decade of mainstream guitar music in the process. Plenty of artists in the coming years would take their own cracks, both successfully and unsuccessfully, at marrying slashing punk grit to retro-pop melodicism, but few would find the electric thrill that The Bangles do here.
#6: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts- I Hate Myself for Loving You
I’ve always found it odd how rarely Joan Jett and hair metal are even mentioned in the same breath. Go back to “I Love Rock & Roll”, play it alongside contemporaneous stuff like Too Fast For Love or Under the Blade, and the continuity in both sound and approach is glaringly obvious: Jett treated her early punk inspirations the same way Dee Snider treated 70s rock and metal, as flavoring for flashy, party-ready pop rock with an edge. I really do think there’s a case to be made that those early-80s singles deserve more credit for their role in shaping the next seven-odd years of hard rock (for good and for ill), but it was Jett’s last top 10 hit, “I Hate Myself For Loving You”, that most fully cashed in on both her prescience and her image.
For “I Hate Myself”, The Blackhearts whip up a slamming midtempo groove that gives Jett ample room to strut her stuff, and the gang-vocalled chorus and swaggering main riff both appropriate the energy of hair metal for a stadium anthem big enough that you don’t have to be telling off a flighty jerk to sing right along, or to be caught up in Jett’s phenomenal delivery. Joan Jett is not considered a hair metaller because she was a genuine sex symbol, and no matter how many groupies they indulged or how tightly their spandex clung to their groins, Vince Neil and Tom Kiefer and Don Dokken and their many, many pale imitators were not. Any of those goofs could have dashed off a serviceable “I Love Rock & Roll”, but none of them could have made “I Hate Myself…” make sense the way Jett does here. Her unassailably cool, confident performance is the key that unlocks the song’s lyrical blend of furious score-settling and pleading desire, that makes “betcha can’t treat me right” equal parts jeering put-down and enticing challenge. If hair metal was all about sex and drugs and rock and roll, “I Hate Myself For Loving You” is the rare instance of the genre that actually manages to bring some sexiness to the table, without forgetting the rock & roll.
#5: Michael Jackson- Man in the Mirror
If you watch the video for “Man in the Mirror” with the sound off, you might assume it’s a very heavy-handed, hectoring sort of message song, something in the vein of “We Are the World”, which Jackson co-wrote only a few years prior. In sharp contrast to “Thriller”, which got a pretty major boost from its video, every bit of affection I have for “Man in the Mirror”, I have in spite of this terrible, stupid video, this pointless slurry of Bad Things Happening in the 20th Century. Atom bombs! Race riots! JFK’s funeral and homeless people pushing shopping carts and Hitler at the pulpit! It looks like B-roll for a bad Michael Moore ripoff. There’s not a song on Earth that could live up to the absurd self-importance of that video, but especially not “Man in the Mirror”, which is only barely about bad things happening and gets much, much worse if you take it to be primarily about that. “Man in the Mirror” is a frothy, feel-good gospel tune about confronting your own shortcomings and making peace with your own journey of personal growth. It’s easy to see why Jackson fell in love with the song the way he did, and even easier to see why people responded so strongly to his rendition of it. I am in no mood to relitigate the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson here; suffice to say that an acknowledgement of past mistakes and a resolution to do better casts his troubled personal life in a much more sympathetic light than, say, “Dirty Diana” (which will not be making this list, sorry). Not only does such a statement carry more weight coming from such a flawed man, but the song is boosted further by Jackson’s soft, willowy voice sounding so at-home over the uplifting music. As the track progresses, his vocals are able to comfortably build in energy and force along with it until the key change hits and the choir starts up and Jackson gives it his all until he finally catches the holy ghost and starts rhythmically screaming “WOO” and ad-libbing over an extended outro. To my ears at least, it’s the sound of a man desperate to better himself, likely unsure if he really can, getting a glorious, fleeting taste of true redemption through his own art. Music video aside, cheesy production aside, allegations aside, I think that’s pretty amazing.
#4: Billy Ocean: Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car
Justice for Billy Ocean! I felt awful about putting “When the Going Gets Tough” on my ’86 worst list, a fun, bouncy bit of pop-funk spoiled by an incompetent mastering job that the songwriters and performers surely had little to do with. Even though Ocean’s other hits had him solidly in like-him-don’t-love-him territory, I was really rooting for the guy to finally get all the way in my good graces and show that he had a bona-fide pop masterpiece in him. Joy of joys, in 1988 Ocean’s final smash hit, “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” proved every bit the banger “When The Going Gets Tough” should have been and then some, one of the brightest, happiest synth baubles to ever do a little dance atop the Billboard charts.
Producer and co-writer Mutt Lange, freed from the aggro constraints of the rockers he usually worked with, goes hog wild cramming every inch of this song with every hook he can muster, and Ocean belts them all out so enthusiastically that you’ll barely even notice how nonsensical the lyrics are. Ocean really finds a new gear on this, recalling past greats like Jackie Wilson who weren’t afraid to tap into rock intensity to give their uptempo R&B an extra kick in the pants. Any other 80s belter would have tried to smooth over the second half of the chorus, which delays the final, melody-resolving line with a boisterous interjection of “get in the back seat, baby!”; Ocean dives into it like the chorus is over for good, and returns afterward sounding happily bemused. Just like Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” over two decades ago, “Get Outta My Dreams” is flawless feel-good music, only stumbling ever-so-briefly in the bridge before (what else) a rippin’ sax solo moves things right back to synth-y major-key bopsville. Good going, Mr. Ocean. I’m glad we could leave things on a positive note.
#3: INXS- New Sensation
Where “Need You Tonight” played it coy, slowly building to its most intense moments and savoring the come-up, “New Sensation” lays all its cards on the table right away. It leans as far into outright rock as INXS ever dared to lean, with a brash, jangling main riff and a diamond-hard rhythm section that the rest of the band seems to repeatedly ping right off of. Thing is, there really isn’t much of anywhere for the song to go once you acquaint yourself with those things. INXS was smart enough to realize this themselves, which is why they spend four entire minutes just riding that groove. It’s a good enough groove to ride for four minutes. It’s a good enough groove to ride for forty minutes. “New Sensation” is aptly named: the whole thing is just sensational, and it feels new the entire way through. The immaculate production could have rendered it sterile but it rocks too damn hard, the slamming drums could have gotten overbearing but the rest of the song is too lithe and funky to allow it, Michael Hutchence’s fierce performance could have overwhelmed the music but they match each other faultlessly. It’s not quite my pick for best hit of 1988 (see: next two songs), but in the best way possible, it may just be the most 1988 hit of 1988, wringing charm and danceability from a hundred nearly-dead trends and, incredibly, looking great doing so.
#2: Cheap Trick- The Flame
Alright. Time to pony up. I’ve spent eight worst lists near-exclusively complaining about all the horrible, drippy ballads the 80s produced, so it’s only right that before the decade ends I finally cave and reveal to the world what I consider an 80s power ballad done right. Naturally, because nostalgia is the only force powerful enough to turn corporate soft rock into something you feel things about, my selection again comes courtesy of Read the Hits: Cheap Trick’s big, gooey stadium sop “The Flame”.
You may notice that Cheap Trick’s last year-end hot 100 appearance was almost a full decade ago. Cheap Trick’s label noticed this as well! The band had been trying and failing to recapture the magic of At Budokan for five albums and two dozen unsuccessful singles, and the suits at Epic Records finally got fed up, bought a couple stock ballads, and told Cheap Trick to pick which one would be theirs and which one would be Chicago’s. The band was incensed; guitarist Rick Neilsen reportedly snatched the demo cassette out of the player and tried to stomp it to pieces. Neilsen and his bandmates have since softened on the song (I would too, if I were getting those royalty checks), but I understand their initial resistance. “The Flame” is, by and large, not designed to be a band effort. Sure, this makes the sense of catharsis when they finally rev up into the chorus all the sweeter, but even then, three-quarters of Cheap Trick don’t get too much to do here. Even Nielsen’s guitar solo is unusually perfunctory, skittering around one quick round of the verse melody before he returns to the background.
No, the soul of “The Flame” belongs to Robin Zander and Robin Zander only, the guy who single-handedly took this song from a largely unremarkable piece of lovelorn melodrama to the ultimate ode to shirt-rending heartache and loneliness. He starts off quiet and reserved, arches into those first higher notes (and it FEELS so… LONE-ly) like a cat stretching its spine, sorrowfully hangs onto the crystal-clear falsetto notes of the prechorus as long as he can until they crumble before the strident, starry-eyed hook, belts the title line with the gravitas of a man genuinely professing his eternal, undying love for the one he can never have. His performance here could populate an entire “top 10 best moments in pop this year” list all by itself, right down to the gauzy, graceful keyboard plinks he’s also credited with. In his hands, the weepy poetry of the lyrics becomes devastating; when he laments that he can’t see through this veil across his heart, I want to rush directly to his side to tell him that it’ll all be okay. “The Flame” stands the test of time because one man sang his goddamn heart out. It’s all about conviction. It’s always all about conviction. Singing “after the fire, after all the rain, I will be the flame” and sounding like you actually mean it? That’s conviction.
#1: Tracy Chapman- Fast Car
Every line in “Fast Car” is a gut punch. The narrator lives with an abusive, alcoholic father. She’s saving up to leave with a convenience store clerk’s wage. She and her friend (lover?) make it out and keep struggling until she finally leaves them, just as her mother left her father. Every moment of joy or relief is in the past tense, a fleeting memory that keeps her going through all the pain, and Chapman’s beautiful voice just makes it hurt all the more. I know the people in “Fast Car”. I’ve met them over and over, I’ve watched their lives fall apart and I’ve watched them realize their dreams and lose it all again, and hearing it all play out in song is… a lot. Starting over means ups and downs, it means old routines get replaced with new ones, it means you never really escape the worst parts of your childhood, you just learn to ignore the ache and to only cry at weddings and funerals. “Fast Car” captures it all: the highs and lows of an adulthood no one prepared you for, the weight and the weightlessness of not having anyone else to take care of you.
“Fast Car” is a song about putting in years of work to make things better and things still being kind of shitty. It’s a song about running away, about how sometimes people need to do it and about how sometimes they don’t know how to stop. Is it a sad song? I don’t even know— it’s sure as hell not happy, but “sad” feels like too limiting a word for what Tracy Chapman accomplishes here. Two decades prior to this song’s release, Otis Redding released “Dock of the Bay”, a song about a hard-won moment of respite from a life of pain and disappointments; when I reviewed it, I called it a “life song”. “Fast Car” details the long, treacherous road to such a moment, and the small moments of beauty that give you the strength to keep going. It’s only fitting that it be a “life song” too, and in the absence of a “Hey Jude” to show it up, it’s only fitting that I name it my favorite pop song of 1988. To everyone out there in fast cars right now, I hope you find your dock of the bay.