At long last, our trek across the 80s has brought us to the smoldering crater that is 1989. The year it all went wrong. The single worst year of chart pop I have ever had to sit through, worse song-for-song than any other year-end hot 100 I’ve encountered to date. Delving into the reasons why ‘89 sucked so badly could fill an entire PGTY-length series: Reaganomics and the resultant entertainment industry bloat, overzealous reliance on hot new tech, the unfortunate timing of every once-vital trend of the baby boomers losing any remaining specks of luster while the next generation of musical innovators was still gearing up to sweep it all away… I could genuinely go on for hours. But I must once again beat one of my favorite old drums and say that even the most wretched, agonizing years to wade through have something to offer. Filling out this year’s best list to a full 10 was no easy feat, and I’ve had to keep myself sane with thoughts of the greener pastures ahead, but I’ll nonetheless stand behind the following 10 tracks as the best representatives of this horrible, stupid year— on with the show!
#10: Skid Row- 18 and Life
Sebastian Bach was a true-blue headbanger who just so happened to have a knack for catchy ballads and a cascade of lustrous blond tresses that really popped on MTV. Where so many glam lunkheads struggled to muster convincing slow-burns, Bach’s band Skid Row managed to infuse theirs with the same goofy doodling-flaming-skulls-on-your-math-homework enthusiasm that made their rockers such a blast. I mean, right off the bat it’s obvious these guys are simply too earnest and dorky to write the kind of groupie-baiting, love-you-forever piffle that some of their contemporaries settled for. No, they’re a METAL band, and even when they get all midtempo and anthemic, they write about METAL things like MURDER and PRISON and the true star of the show is obviously going to be a soaring, shredding Dave Sabo guitar solo. Really, just the fact of a hair ballad about juvenile delinquency and substance abuse makes “18 and Life” one of the more entertaining songs this year, and the patently overblown sound of the thing works in perfect tandem with the lyrical melodrama and the band’s surprisingly solid chops to give the finished product juuuuust enough weight for Bach and co. to not seem out of their depth. As their genre started to fall apart around them, Skid Row would only double down on this devotion to metal showmanship and intensity, and their 1991 follow-up Slave to the Grind dived headfirst into NWOBHM worship and even a few streaks of borderline thrash, solidifying their cred in a way few of their fellow chart-toppers could have hoped for but abandoning their crossover success in the process. Bands like this would be forever frozen in time going forward, and it’s refreshing to see one realizing in real-time that their geekiest and most over-the-top influences could only give them a more colorful past to revisit.
#9: The Bangles- In Your Room
How far has the idea of the “I’m Back, Bitch” single penetrated? Is this a thing people know about? In case it isn’t: an “I’m Back, Bitch” single is a single, almost always the lead single, from a massively popular artist’s new album, which exists for the sole purpose of convincing the listener that THIS ARTIST IS STILL A VERY BIG GODDAMN DEAL, often with lyrics proclaiming exactly that. Classic examples include Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback”, Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” (and, in its own way, “Forgot About Dre”), and perhaps the grandpappy of ‘em all, Oasis’s “D’You Know What I Mean?”. For a band that always excelled in such a sensible, everyday way, there’s a little more “I’m Back, Bitch” in “In Your Room” than you might expect (though it’s not a full-fledged instance of the phenomenon), a sense that, for the first time, Susanna Hoffs and co. are straining a bit to hit their mark. It doesn’t help that new producer Davitt Sigerson isn’t quite the dab hand that David Kahne and Rick Rubin are when it comes to drum production, and Debbi Peterson’s performance ends up flatter than it could have been, but despite this the performances are still fairly top-notch across the board. No, the bridge is where the strain becomes most obvious, featuring some extremely Footloose organ stabs and a couple crunchier, more dramatic chord changes that feel so deliberately songwrite-y that it instantly calls attention to the more classically Bangles parts of the song, seemingly inviting the listener to ooh and aah over their ability to repurpose previously unrelated musical idioms for their own ends. This cuts right past the surface level pomp and glitter to the very soul of the “I’m Back, Bitch”: festering insecurity that the world is starting to get bored with you. Far from coloring the song as an obvious, craven bid for continued relevance, though, that insecurity is the biggest point in this song’s favor by far, doing wonders to humanize the narration and give the romantic overtures some tension and flavor. Like so many songs of its kind, it’s about teenage infatuation, but mostly only by virtue of tone, all giggly never-befores and only-ones. It’s tryhard by design, sounding like a nervous kid trying (and frankly, mostly succeeding) to bluff her way to being her partner’s ultimate fantasy, and that imperfect, youthful mix of nervousness and excitement comes across so well that for all I know, the more concerted arrangement could just be a deliberate choice to highlight that idea. Still, to me “In Your Room” sounds like a band starting to feel the pressure, and finding a song that allowed them to explore that pressure in a compelling and unique way.
#8: Guns N’ Roses- Paradise City
In September 1988, the British band Talk Talk, then best known for their new-wavey 1984 single “It’s My Life”, released Spirit of Eden, widely considered to be the first album in the post-rock genre. The term “post-rock” has often been the subject of debate, but given the point at which it was conceived, I find it fitting; ’88 feels like the moment that albums like Appetite for Destruction stopped being possible. In my eyes, the lineage of loud-n-heavies that began with Led Zeppelin ended right here in “Paradise City”, with Axl Rose wailing for the listener to take him home. Really, this song is the perfect send-off for the rockstar era, not only in its lyrical fantasy of a big badass city full of beautiful women, but in its shedding of any unnecessary ego and pretense for a lean, mean hard rock machine that packs a lot more brains than it may seem at first blush. Any of the song’s three main sections would have been a bit lacking on their own, but together they’re a tour de force, switching things up right when you start to get bored and carefully rationing out that earworm of a chorus so it’s as familiar as possible without wearing out its welcome before that final, glorious charge through the gates of hell. Honestly, the chorus here is so insanely memorable that I tend to remember it as occupying more or less the whole song, when in actuality the less shrieky verses and Slash’s solos are what make the song so successful and ensures that the listener never feels like they can guess the rest from where they are. The music video also deserves a special mention: whoever was filming and photographing this band between 1987 and 1990 should have won an award for how impossibly cool and charismatic they make the whole band look here. It may actually be the best a rock band has looked on camera to date. When hair metal died, “Paradise City” was the heaven that it went to, a place where all its sins could be forgiven and its strengths shone as brightly as ever.
#7: Edie Brickell & New Bohemians- What I Am
Is “What I Am” good? Irrelevant, I say! What “What I Am” is is prescient, and for a band that wouldn’t even survive to see the alternative revolution, I can’t help but award points for that kind of foresight. Of all the hits of ‘89, this one is by far the most 90s- listen close and you’ll hear the seeds of Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Alanis Morissette, Gin Blossoms and sundry other heroes of late-gen-X jangle, practically an entire blueprint for easygoing slacker-rock with a slight punk edge and even slighter jam and/or folk influences. What Edie Brickell seems to unlock so effortlessly here is the way this music works so many of its weaknesses into strengths: the lyrical slightness highlights the song’s ambiguity in a way that invites interpretation, and the earthy, naturalistic production sound gives the rhythm section a gentle heft that prevents the jammier moments from spiraling into wankery. The harshest thing I can say about “What I Am” is that it doesn’t make much of a pitch for New Bohemians as an enduring chart presence, and the band would in fact split in 1990 after an unsuccessful second album; the most notable thing Brickell herself did after ’89 was marry Paul Simon. Despite their clear-eyed early adoption of sounds that would soon define their generation, this was an act destined to hand the football off to more ambitious and singular artists. Still, even in such a primordial form, getting to hear the start of a new chapter for guitar pop being written in real-time was, in the best way, an experience only 1989 could deliver.
#6: R.E.M.- Stand
Mainstream rock in the 90s was, in large part, defined by the underground rock of the 80s. Over the course of the next dozen-ish best lists, we’re actually going to be doing a fair bit of backfill on punk and various other various forms of anti-establishment rock that sprang up throughout the decade, because it was these scenes and styles, much more so than contemporaneous hitmakers, that began to inform the ethos of guitar music around this time. Hell, many of 90s rock’s big names literally started in the 80s underground! One of the biggest was Athens, Georgia’s own R.E.M., a band I adore and listen to all the time even when I’m not doing so for PGTY. They had been the hottest band on the block for a good long while by the end of the decade, but their 1988 major label debut Green still marked a moment of uncertainty for the band— could they make the leap from little college band that could to viable hitmakers and/or beloved cultural icons? As it turns out, they darn sure could… but not without a hiccup or two along the way. Though the bitter, dramatic “Orange Crush” is as worthy an asskicker as any in the band’s oeuvre, their first pop crossover “Stand” is a bit of an odd one. To be frank, it gets by mostly on the band’s consistent ability to write interesting, memorable melodies and pair them with appealing, well-produced instrumentation, more so than anything it does mindblowingly well in and of itself. R.E.M. were music nerds before they were music stars, and it really shows; they know the pop rulebook well enough to riff on cliches and reassemble their myriad influences into an endless variety of fun new shapes. On “Stand”, the shape is that of an old-school dance song like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion”, but y’see the joke is that the dance is just… standing around. It’s kind of a thin premise (something something commentary on generational apathy, yawn) and the execution doesn’t feel quite as smooth as their best singles, but the band commits to it hard enough that it never outright falters. Especially when that second key change hits (there are two key changes!), it’s really just plain as day that R.E.M. write songs for people who love songwriting, and even when they aren’t working at peak capacity, it’s always a pleasure to watch them work.
#5: Madonna- Like A Prayer
Maybe it was just the relative paucity of other main pop girl knockouts this year making an artist I’ve always struggled to love seem better by comparison, but I think Madonna really stepped up to the plate this year, delivering some of her best and most iconic hits with the mega-ambitious mega-seller Like A Prayer. This, the title track, is in many ways the perfect Madonna song, the kind of unlikely union of high-concept provocation and staggeringly obvious execution that no one has really pulled of as successfully since. On the visual side, we get a whole mess of loaded religious imagery for perhaps Madonna’s most controversial artistic statement to date, one that certainly holds trace amounts of her big-screen aspirations both for (mostly) good and for ill. TL;DR she makes out with a Catholic saint, portrayed by noted non-white actor Leon Robinson, and sings in front of some burning crosses. As someone with only secondhand exposure to Catholicism, I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds about where exactly the blasphemy is here and what the implications are. As a matter of fact, “Like A Prayer”’s greatest credit is, to me, how trivial all those things look in the face of that commandingly danceable groove, the sheer positive energy pouring forth from Madonna and her collaborators, the sparkling funk licks and the gospel choir (same one as “Man in the Mirror”!) plowing right over these pointless, convoluted rituals that have warped so many minds over the years. Oh, speaking of which, how great is it that one of the all-time lapsed-Catholic anthems so heavily features one of the most recognizable forms of specifically Protestant music out there? That’s so meta! Madonna’s goal here is nothing more or less than sonic ecstasy, a bliss that doesn’t need some shadowy intermediary meddling in such a deeply personal feeling. All the framing really does, contrasting the music with the oppressive weight of Catholicism, is turn that bliss into something genuinely radical.
#4: Roxette- The Look
Roxette formed in 1986, seemingly at the perfect time to do for INXS’s taut, funky dance-rock what ABBA did for disco, and if “The Look” has much appeal beyond that infallible Swedish musical math being applied to such a compelling and singular aesthetic, then I’ve yet to discover it. This is 80s synth maximalism in its purest form, less a performance of a song than a machine executing a directive, and especially given its combo of chugging keyboards and propulsive percussion, it almost verges into industrial-rock territory in its heaviest moments (coincidentally, this song peaked only 6 months prior to the release of Pretty Hate Machine). Not that Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle don’t bring anything new to the table, of course: both of ’em sing on the track, and they have a fair bit of fun trying to fit some solid vocal interplay into a tune this thrummingly forceful. Not only do they succeed, they actually manage to flip the melodic focal-point all over the darn place throughout the song, perfectly fitting those infectious guitar riffs and synth fills into the gaps between words so as to keep you humming along nonstop until the very end. It’s not my favorite song of the year, but it’s surely one of the most focused, zeroing in on the goal of a dance groove that can bulldoze everything in its path and hitting every mark with absolute aplomb.
#3: Madonna- Cherish
“Cherish” edges out “Like A Prayer” for a lot of the same reasons I prefer Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” to “Go Your Own Way”: less toothsome and tonally nuanced, but such a fun, infectious jam that you scarcely even miss those things. I mean, let’s be real, “Like A Prayer”‘s legacy comes mostly from that video; strip all the discourse away and it’s a simple, happy love song about appreciating the spiritual nature of intimacy, and “Cherish” takes that core idea and runs with it. Here, Madonna throws her full weight behind wringing every last drop of remaining juice out of the nearly-spent strain of burbling synth-heavy joypop that had run all throughout the decade, and the result is everything “I Want Your Sex” should have been, a beam of musical sunshine that values devotion and connection for its own sake, and not because it’s secretly Very Kinky. For how high up on the list it is, it’s not a song that requires much justification to love— hell, so much of its appeal lies in its breezy effortlessness that even analyzing it at all feels like missing the point. Look: Madonna is famed for her controversies and her ability to spark debate, but what “Cherish” shows that without her infamous ability to inflame, Madonna still had some serious pop songwriting chops, and in putting said chops towards something with so little baggage, she positively flies.
#2: Mike + the Mechanics- The Living Years
One unique and perhaps-undervalued aspect of late 80s rock is that it was, as a whole, getting older. Sure, you had your younger hotshots in bands like Bon Jovi or U2, but it’s actually pretty striking the sheer number of middle-aged rockers still seeing real chart action in the years leading up to Nevermind; certainly there’s never been a point since where the top 40 was less uniformly ageist. It’s a real shame that so much of what the older folks brought to the table during this time wound up being lethargic, disengaged pabulum, because a song like “The Living Years” perfectly shows the sheer emotional potential of pop that explores adult problems on an adult level. After hundreds of hits that waste watery synth balladry on cookie-cutter love songs, it was truly electrifying hearing that stifling sonic palette put to actual use for an uncomfortable and knotty look at one man coping with the death of his estranged father and the pressures of his own fatherhood. The desaturated, wispy music here serves not as a poor attempt at capturing romantic passion or agonizing heartache, but as an introspective, somber backdrop that fits the subject matter perfectly. So much of the best music this year got its juice out of forecasting sunnier days ahead, but the overcast sky of “The Living Years” achieves something much more profound: a look into a world where the aging hitmakers of the 80s used their position of experience not to fritter away their comfortable pre-retirement years, but to reflect on the passage of time itself.
#1: The Cure- Lovesong
Well, here we are. The best pop song of the worst year in pop history, the only single on the entire 1989 year-end hot 100 that I can wholeheartedly and without caveat describe as a “great song”. And guess what? It’s another TWKD— Much as I like this song, “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You” (which didn’t even get a single release until 1990, bah) are both better songs in their own right, and more representative excerpts from the Cure’s magnum opus Disintegration. Disintegration represented the culmination of everything Robert Smith and his bandmates had accomplished over a full decade as reigning champions of the goth-rock underground. For the entirety of the ‘80s, the kids may have been listening to George Michael or Duran Duran or whoever else, but the cool kids were listening to The Cure (at least, the British cool kids were; supposedly the American cool kids were more into the Replacements). As with “Stand”, “Lovesong” gets the lion’s share if its mileage from all the band’s most reliable assets: Smith’s wounded, dissociative croon, the plush layers of keyboard and guitar, the cavernous production and the utterly heartbroken lyrics. Amazingly, though, fitting those things into a tune as bouncily efficient and direct as “Lovesong” doesn’t require sanding them down in the slightest, the radio hooks only giving the band’s dark depths more contrast. Of course, for a band so renowned for being glum and morose, “Lovesong”’s title is probably meant to be taken with a bit of a wink to the camera. If “Lovesong” is about anything it’s about longing, contending with the absence significant others leave behind. Unlike just about any other pop song about missing someone though, there’s no sense of optimism here, just a sad promise that “I will always love you”, here there and everywhere and until the end of time. I can’t even tell if the relationship in the song has even ended yet, Smith just sounds so resigned to his malaise that even the present-tense verses sound like distant memories. A catchy pop tune about love flipped into a desperately lonely wail of grief— what could be more goth than that?