Not only was 1988 the first year in a while where I didn’t have to make at least one or two tough cuts for the best list, it also brought an unusually crowded field of worst-list contenders. This is the start of a three-year stretch where a whole lot of songs seemed to be in a funk. Just a belligerent, low-energy, lounging-around mood that exists as background radiation in all the worst pop of the time. Some of it was outwardly shitty and bad-mood-inducing, while some of it took a lighter tone that somehow grated even more, but all it of it felt downright sluggish, and covering it was such a chore that my usual efforts to keep things succinct have been more successful than usual; no ramble-y 600-word write-ups this week, sorry! I suppose it’s fitting that the peak years of American yuppie excess sound this uniformly placid and listless, but some way, somehow, there are nuances to be explored and takes to be heated yet— on with the show!
#10: Al B. Sure!- Nite and Day
I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but if a music video for a song on one of these lists exists, I have watched the full thing, sitting down at my desk, almost always paying full attention for the entire duration. Especially for the 80s and 90s, I wanted to make sure I really grasped the marketing behind the music, understood why even a song I didn’t like caught on, and with MTV being the force it was, I figured that was just part of due diligence. All this to say that I don’t know if “Nite and Day” would even have made the worst list if I hadn’t sat through four uninterrupted minutes of Al B. Sure! scowling and sneering at the camera like somebody just took a shit in his cheerios, but to me the two are basically inseparable. Why is this unibrowed goof so angry? “Nite and Day” is not an angry song— hell, it’s not even an angsty song! It’s a jet-puffed, synthetic saltine of a sex jam, and Mr. Sure!’s comically leaden expression is sadly well-paired with his joyless, shrill delivery on this joyless, shrill song. It could just be unflattering editing or bizarre directing choices, but the video makes the guy come off like a self-serious, unhappy tough guy who I don’t even want to be around, let alone romance, and the song is so flavorless and grey by itself that it can’t help but be colored by this.
#9: Breathe- Hands to Heaven
For all the shit glam metal gets for devolving into lame selloutery, new wave also hit some awfully shameful lows in the waning years of the 80s. For a prime example, look no further than this flavorless puddle of Bryan Adams backwash courtesy of British sophisti-pop stuffed shirts Breathe. I can only assume that the principal driver of this song’s stateside success was middle-aged churchgoers mistaking it for Christian pop, and tonally, “Hands to Heaven” does indeed hinge on the same sort of sexless, vaguely spiritual ““thoughtfulness”” that would soon become one of the genre’s defining features (to anyone familiar with South Park, just imagine for a moment how well this could work as a Faith+1 song). It is every inch a featureless, generic love song with the sparsest possible sprinkle of Jesus-y portent, so devoid of other distinguishing features that the prayer-hands-emoji tone winds up being the only thing I can even imagine a listener latching onto. In fact, maybe I’m burying the lede a bit; “Hands to Heaven” is mostly bad thanks to slick, lifeless overproduction and a pouty tone, exactly the same as every other sub-par song this year. This may not have been the worst ‘88 had to offer, but it’s certainly the least; more so that even the next 8 songs, I can already feel myself forgetting it.
#8: Taylor Dayne- Tell it to My Heart
Hindsight is 20/20 and all, but man, everything about Taylor Dayne just screams “also-ran” to me. Someone at Arista records said to get a Janet Jackson type on the horn, and 10 months later there was Taylor Dayne, also making loud, in-your-face dance jams, also with the floofy curls and background dancers, and more or less the moment Janet was established and newer hotnesses had arrived, she was out. Am I reaching? It’s possible, but if I am then her breakout single “Tell it to My Heart” certainly doesn’t do much justice to the things that gave Dayne an edge over her competition. I suppose the big ace in the hole she had on Jackson in particular was raw vocal power— she’s really going for it at the top of her lungs here, bless her— but she doesn’t have Whitney Houston’s instinct for occasionally dialing it back a notch or twelve please, and the track’s freeze-dried DX-7 sonic palette can’t absorb that energy across its full runtime. I honestly think if Dayne had come along just a few years later she could have done reasonably well with some of the spacier house and trance sounds that would start crossing over in the early days of the 90s, but over music this bubblegummy, her singing comes off a bit tryhard, and more importantly it just does not get the booty a-shakin’. The best dance-pop is so weightless that it lifts you straight through the clouds, and Taylor Dayne, overall and here especially, seems awfully weighed down by the sheer number of peers around her doing similar things better.
#7: Peter Cetera- One Good Woman
#6: Bobby McFerrin- Don’t Worry, Be Happy
It’s tough to take on a song like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. I’m not the first to note this, but there’s something almost elemental about this song; hating it is like hating “Happy Birthday” or “Hot Cross Buns” or any other little melodic fragment that’s so deeply ingrained in the fabric of reality that it barely even registers as music. How can you hate something so… inevitable? Hell, McFerrin himself seemed to have found it by accident in his travels through much more developed terrain. Even though tons of people hated and still hate this song (it’s arguably the safest pick on this whole list), by now “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” has decisively conquered the haters and losers and set up a permanent residence in American culture. It is, as the kids say, iconic, iconic because it has exactly one bemused little thought that it expresses as single-mindedly and unequivocally as possible. And I cannot stand it. It’s so smug! It’s clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it feels like McFerrin is laughing at us and not with us, like anyone who worries about stuff simply isn’t clever enough to realize what he has. The music video is unbearable too, all smarmy mugging and forced slapstick where the joke is that the comedic rhythm is completely out of whack. I don’t even know what to make of the accent he does. I have said multiple times that all my favorite happy music has some sort of subtle nod to unhappiness, be it a thematic undertone or aesthetic choice, and this is just so much the polar opposite of that that its unkillable earworminess will only ever be a thorn in my side.
#5: George Michael- Father Figure
There’s always a moment, usually around the 80-second mark, where it hits me that “Father Figure” has not gotten to the chorus yet, and while that thought does have the register of impatient watch-glancing, it also strikes me as much more a feature than a bug. That delayed release does a lot to draw the ear to the atmosphere and ambience of the track, and despite his clear best efforts, I just don’t think George Michael is all that good with atmosphere and ambience. It sounds as though he worked very, very hard on the ＶＩＢＥ here, but… I dunno, to what end? I guess he’s shooting for sexy (isn’t he always), but the meticulous synth twiddles on display here are too clinical and cold to get that hot romance cookin’, and after building up such a massive head of steam, I really don’t think the chorus delivers a strong enough sentiment to justify that long wait. Given how little the rest of the song builds on any notions of caring or trust, it scans as a non-sequitur at best and mildly (ugh) Freudian at worst, and in stark contrast to “I Want Your Sex”’s infuriating attempts to talk dirty without talking dirty, ends up almost more unsavory than he’s seemingly realized. Once again, Michael’s talents are clearly on display, but there’s a disconnect between his musical ability and his artistic goals, a square peg forced into a round hole. There’s some kind of nuance or unifying factor getting lost in translation here, and as we all know, poor communication is the least sexy thing of all.
#4: Guns N’ Roses- Sweet Child o’ Mine
It would be easy here to whip up a little screed about how Guns N’ Roses were always tremendously overhyped, how Appetite for Destruction isn’t as good as you remember it and how all their subsequent albums only prove their ability to squander potential. The thing is, though… I get the hype. Especially after watching through their music video catalog, I can’t deny: Guns N’ Roses looked, acted, felt like rock gods, like they knew Appetite was instantly vaulting them to hall of famer status. In a decade where so many hard rock bands seemed like they were playing dress-up, Axl Rose and Slash’s leather and chains felt like the authentic uniforms of hardened street rockers; when they sang about the jungle, they made you believe they had been there. That eternally badass, confident image is so at odds with a clumsy, trite love song like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” that it’s hard for me to believe it could ever have been the band’s biggest hit.
What Axl Rose could do that his hair-metal brethren couldn’t was sound genuinely unhinged, like he was capable of actual acts of unspeakable violence. It’s why their rockers hit with the force they do, kicking musical ass like it’s literal ass. The whole band tries valiantly to make the squishy romanticism of “Sweet Child” into something that makes sense in the world of Axl’s rabid-jackal screech, but the chasm is just too great to bridge. Apart from Duff McKagan’s undeniably impressive contributions on bass, GnR winds up lost in a no man’s land between power ballad cheese and cock-rock sleaze, grasping halfheartedly at both and succeeding at neither. There is honestly nothing about this song that works for me: Slash’s leads and solo are the stuff of Guitar Center nightmares, the groove is too controlled to let the emotion of the lyrics breathe, and the “where do we go now” part has always sounded like it was beamed in from a completely different song with no rhyme or reason. Mostly, it really cannot be overstated how much Axl’s voice clashes with his band’s music when both aren’t cranked all the way into overdrive. For how well they played the part of swaggering L.A. tough guys, I cannot for a second buy into this band’s sensitive side.
#3: Samantha Fox- Naughty Girls Need Love Too
As with any more accomplished or respected act that winds up on a worst list, I want to draw a fine line here and make very clear that I have nothing negative to say about Samantha Fox as a person or even as an artist. A cursory look into her career indicates to me an artist with real substance beyond her hitmaking ability, and without her, “Naughty Girls Need Love Too” frankly wouldn’t even be worth hating. You may be wondering just how risque a song with that title is, and whether a fairly young newcomer, with only one other hit under her belt and not even 22 years old when she stepped into the recording booth, would have the gumption to deliver on it. But lo and behold, Fox is the best thing about this horribly dated cringepop mistake, and especially in the video she projects an intensity and maturity beyond her years— and yeah, if you wanna read innuendo there, I think it’s safe to say Fox wants you to too. But no amount of poise and sexual charisma can save this white English woman from the parts of this song where she slips into a lumbering half-rap cadence that no singer I’ve ever heard could possibly make sound titillating. Samantha Fox is not a rapper, not even on the level of a Vanilla Ice, and her flat, passionless speak-singing just feels plain wrong. I pin this squarely on producers and co-writers Full Force, the culprits behind Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, who (in addition to their typically cheap and shitty production sound) I can only surmise are responsible for “Naughty Girls”’ completely unwelcome and ill-conceived hip-hop intrusions. The members of Full Force even pop in as a backing chorus to swap bars with Fox, failing to accomplish much other than adding more clutter to a track already in desperate need of tighter focus. It’s just a product of its time in all the worst ways, an early attempt to fuse pop and rap that only really makes sense as an early attempt. If it wasn’t the worst song this year, it was certainly the one I most hope we all leave here in ‘88.
#2: UB40- Red Red Wine
UB40 is more or less exhibit A for my aversion to pop-reggae— in terms of tinny, uninteresting production and in terms of a persistent inability to focus on vibes and deeper introspection over immediacy and surface appeal— but for this song in particular I don’t want to over-focus on the genre being nasalled up by mister Ali Campbell here. See, for whatever appeal “Red Red Wine” has or doesn’t have with reggae fans (I wouldn’t know), the appeal which I posit is far more key to its success is not reggae appeal but WINE DRINKER APPEAL. Matter of fact, “Red Red Wine” has much the same bitter, sludgy flavor to me that most burgundys and merlots do, and Campbell’s drawling whine of a singing voice leaves me with a similarly unpleasant feeling of drained grogginess. I just don’t like red wine, y’all, and the worst thing I can say about this song is that I think it very accurately captures its namesake. It’s not helped by the of-course flat and lifeless production, but first and foremost it fails thanks to that trademark late-80s lethargy, passing out in a deck chair with cabernet dribbling into its polo shirt.
#1: The Beach Boys- Kokomo
Never let it be said that I won’t go for easy targets. Everyone and their mom already hates the shit out of “Kokomo”, and everyone and their mom is entirely correct to do so. It would be the worst song of the year even if it didn’t besmirch the legacy of one of the greatest pop groups of the 60s— which, to be clear, it absolutely does. All the frothing hyperbole declaring this a sick joke at the expense of Brian Wilson’s legacy simply cannot convey the eye-twitching, madness-inducing awfulness of “bermuda, bahama, co-o-ome on pretty momma”, of those stupidly chintzy fake steel drums. I get why it was a hit, genuinely: it’s catchier than anything the band had put out in well over a decade. It’s catchier than “Good Vibrations”. I get it stuck in my head without fail every single time it comes on, and without fail every single time I wish it was anywhere else at all. Sometimes an earworm is an earworm because the effect of hearing can only be compared to maggots infesting your brain, shorting all your neural pathways and replacing every coherent thought with “key largo, montego, ba-a-by why don’t we go”. Being that this one is more or less Mike Love’s baby, it’s fitting that it embodies the pitfalls of his most famous quote: “Don’t fuck with the formula”. You know what happens when you don’t fuck with the formula? You find a pocket, you stop paying attention, and you start churning out autopilot, assembly-line gift shop music like goddamn “Kokomo”. It can’t even be saved by a sax solo. A sax solo!