At the end of the 80s, the vibes shifted. No ifs ands or buts. The Berlin Wall fell and New Labour and New World Orders rushed into the space left behind. The end of history! Fuckin’ A. What didn’t shift was the pop charts, at least at first. I’d actually say it took longer to wash the 80s off of pop than it did the 70s or 60s, with flecks remaining past the midway point even despite one of the most widely-reported changings of the guards in pop history. Of course, that change was slower to reach these 10 songs, most of which are firmly stuck in either the neon synthpop 80s or the new jack no-man’s-land of 1989 to approximately 12 months after Billboard first published this year’s Hot 100. We’ve still got a fair bit of DX-7 abuse to beat into submission, so let’s hop to it- on with the show!
#10: Michel’le- No More Lies
Mostly lost in the shuffle of the post-Janet new jack gold rush, Michel’le Toussaint (yes, she was born with the apostrophe) was a decently skilled and diverse vocalist in an unfortunately crowded field. This one’s low on the list for that nicely squelchy synth-bass and an undeniably sticky hook (the highest of her doots grated at first, but it gets the job done). However, it still falls victim to some dated production and one of my greatest musical pet peeves: lyrics stuffed awkwardly into metric lines of the wrong shape. In combination with all the (unfortunately rather tedious) phone-call spoken snippets scattered around the track’s back half, it almost clinches that askew arrhythmia into a consistent aesthetic, but Michel’le, for all her very real talent, doesn’t have the idiosyncratic charisma necessary to own it and the whole thing just falls flat. It’s not a total failure, but “No More Lies” comes up just short enough in just enough places that appreciating it for what it is becomes a sadly tall order.
#9: KISS- Forever
Would “Forever” be better in a vacuum? It’s tough to imagine it being much worse, that’s for damn sure. KISS spent the entire 80s struggling for direction, hiring and firing band members left and right and floundering to appease either pop or rock audiences even as their early work became a cornerstone of the hair metal movement. It’s as if younger, hungrier bands spent the decade leaching out their positive attributes one by one, leaving behind only the unrecognizable, withered husk of a once-vivacious combo. “Forever” was co-written by, brace yourself, Michael Bolton, and boy does it show in the worst way. Wasn’t this band’s entire appeal predicated on spectacle and excitement and columns of fire and shit? Well, maybe so, but even the rowdiest, roughest hard rock show needs a slow song, and since Peter Criss wasn’t around anymore to sing “Beth”, we got this, every inch a placeholder ballad focused wholly on vaguely gesticulating towards songs in this sort of mold. A little “Angel” there, a little “Keep On Lovin’ You” here— actually, there’s a lot of “Keep on Lovin’ You” in the mix here- and a bit of “Every Rose Has its Thorn” to tie it all together. The piss-poor poetry here could have been coughed up by a middle-schooler, and if Paul Stanley’s late-thirties rasp had any remaining power to evoke that youthful idealism, then the arrangement’s trudging, overpolished Boltonisms do zip to indicate as much. None of it sounds like it would so much as raise one single yuppie eyebrow, it does not stimulate thought or emotion unprompted and it does not kick any sort of ass whatsoever. If you want to know why everyone still treats Kurt Cobain like the messiah reborn, here you go: 12 months pre-Nevermind, this is what passed for rock & roll.
#8: Paula Abdul & The Wild Pair- Opposites Attract
Say this much for Paula Abdul, she knew where her bread was buttered. At the turn of the 90s, musical ability was less crucial than ever to success in the pop world, and despite the many things “Straight Up” did do right, it speaks volumes to me that Abdul spent the the remainder of her 15 minutes leaning even harder into the things that set her apart visually while her music got more and more forgettable. More mugging at the camera and oodles more dance moves, performed in this case by Abdul and a Roger Rabbit-style cartoon cat portrayed by collaborator Dennis Stevens. This isn’t some “shallow talentless pop star” slight, either: Abdul was a born star onscreen, a fantastic physical actor with a hugely expressive face, not to mention two pretty damn nimble feet. If it sounds like I’m putting off discussing the actual song it’s because I am; though her more uptempo style is still, in an absolute sense, a welcome reprieve from power ballads, the most noteworthy element being a rather spot-on Chuck D impression from Stevens leaves the rest of the song to rotely trudge through stale dance-pop beats and childish “I’m like x, they’re like y” lyrics (do they subvert this structure at any point? They do not!).
#7: Taylor Dayne- With Every Beat of My Heart
Maybe five worst lists ago, this would have gotten off easy, but in 1990, “With Every Beat of My Heart” was simply too little too late, blaring out the same spangled DX-7 chords already defanged a hundred times over by acolytes of Lauper and Duran. By contrast, Taylor Dayne is as too-much as ever, nearly verging into Tom Jones levels of brassy overpresence. Man, what I wouldn’t give for a voice this powerful to sing literally anything besides the very safest and most unprovocative pop imaginable. With the right gal at the helm it’d be just another drop in the overfilled bucket of mainstream synthpop; by misusing its star as badly as it does, “With Every Beat” becomes a stark reminder of just how long overdue this shit was for retirement from the charts.
#6: New Kids on the Block- Step By Step
Yep, I think I’ve officially decided I don’t like these guys. Matter of fact, the more time I spend with them, the more they start to seem less like a prototype of a boy band and more an amalgam of all of every boy band’s most plastic and pandering qualities. The improvement over last year is Jordan Knight only briefly dipping into his falsetto, though unfortunately he doesn’t have anywhere near enough vocal charisma to not rely entirely on the stickiness of the hook, with that descending “gii-i-i-i-irl“. That hook is the savingest grace of the year, the one moment that scans as identifiable in isolation, with the rest of the song full of starchy fake drums, boring love-you-girl lyrics and… synths? I literally cannot recall what other instruments this track contained not 5 minutes after listening to it, probably safe to say synths! The impressively listless music video, seemingly in search of a second idea after “these are five young men, make them look fun and attractive” for its entire runtime, seals the impression that NKOTB was following the money first and foremost, and what’s worse, they weren’t even following it all that closely.
#5: Paula Abdul- (It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me
For most of its runtime, “The Way That You Love Me” is Paula doing Paula (which is to say, it’s Paula doing Janet, and no more than adequately). Roughly two and a half minutes in, things get interesting when Abdul makes a horrifically misbegotten attempt at a “breakdown”, before (in the original video at least) abandoning said attempt entirely for a quick tap-dancing routine. Sometimes it’s almost too obvious to even say out loud, y’know? It took three tries for this thing to become a hit and I’m shocked that anyone thought it deserved more than one. It is such boilerplate early-90s pop that it literally became a ToneBank demo. It has no distinguishing features and nothing to prevent it from fading from my mind the exact second it stops playing; for how well “Straight Up” played to Abdul’s raw onscreen physicality, Oliver Leiber’s basic-bitch beats and synths do her no justice whatsoever. I’m just glad that the hype quickly died down for Paula Abdul the singer after that second album, so Paula Abdul the choreographer could get back to doing what she’s best at.
#4: New Kids on the Block- This One’s for the Children
Have I mentioned yet that I sort of despise NKOTB’s production style? The percussion is all brittle and clicky, the arrangements are anemic as hell, and the vocal mixing gives not so much the impression of five men in perfect unison as one man with a grating effect on his voice (makes sense in this case I suppose, only two Kids show up here). Just a really chintzy, unappealing listening experience overall. Anyway, “This One’s For the Children”. An aptly-titled song at the very least, since surely anyone over the age of 7 could only roll their eyes at this absolute virtue-signal of a ballad. And that is unquestionably what this is, by the way: as far as ostentatiously proclaiming your sterling morality goes, this drab, mechanistic explanation of basic human empathy is certainly no slouch. The fact that NKOTB’s fanbase was mostly comprised of actual children makes this condescension marginally less repellent, but I’m firmly of the belief that children deserve no less than adults when it comes to art, and surely we can all agree they deserve more than witless tripe like “many people are happy, and many people are sad”. In short, proof that Christians are always the quickest to rub their righteousness in everyone’s face.
#3: Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers- Swing the Mood
“Swing the Mood” is the exact kind of lazy hack garbage that gave sampling a bad name with critics for damn near the entire 90s. A series of 50s rock oldies pasted together with trumpets and drums lifted from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”, the lone original musical concept here is the introduction of each new song-segment with an annoying vocal chop (so Bill Haley’s “one two three o’clock” becomes “o-o-o-one….”, etc etc). Except they also don’t even stick to that pattern, introducing a couple segments with no chopping and using “Tutti Frutti” exclusively as an intro chop despite the fact that it’s a better song than literally all the other selections. There’s no clever layering whatsoever (obviously) and only a rudimentary display of beat-matching ability; small wonder it came from and first caught on in Britain, a country so poorly-versed in jazz that they likely mistook the horn for Miles Davis. Of all the songs on this list, this is the one I’d most easily and happily delete from existence if given the ability— if any one part is pleasant enough in a vacuum, isn’t that all the more reason to abandon it for the original article?
#2: Chicago- What Kind of Man Would I Be?
New year, new decade, same old bullshit from the pop world’s most reliable bullshit artists. No one who knows anything at all about these lists needs yet another fire-and-brimstone indictment of Chicago as The Commodification of Rock Made Flesh; even for a project as rife with flogged dead horses as PGTY, this has become a very old song and dance. Would it shock you to hear this is a dishwater-dull ballad containing not one remotely novel turn of phrase or attention-grabbing chord change? It shouldn’t! The law of large numbers dictates that at some point this band would release a single that didn’t sound exactly like all the rest, but that assertion assumes that monotony and featureless sentimentality hadn’t, by 1990, become their principal goals. If there was ever a flame of passion in this thing, it was buried long before “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” slunk its way into the top 10. It’s business as usual, just another ballad from just another self-titled album. And Jesus Christ, Jason Scheff, knock it the hell off with that Cetera impression. What an embarrassment.
#1: Vanilla Ice- Ice Ice Baby
What else could it possibly have been? “Ice Ice Baby”‘s badness is damn near foundational to an entire genre. The context of golden era hip-hop explains away Robert “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle’s infamously weak rhyming and the pilfered Queen bassline as artifacts of their era, but rather than that context flattering those features the reverse happens; that whole pre-Chronic epoch of rap, I feel, has this song’s stink on it now to some small extent, and the future of the genre from 1991 on can be pretty easily seen as a deliberate reaction against not just Ice but the entire scene that produced him. So much about what rap culture has come to champion over the past 30 years- the emphasis on tight, consistent flows and layered, confident lyricism, the drive to sample music from unexpected places or in unexpected ways, even the aversion to dancing- might as well come straight from a rulebook with a big picture of Ice’s doofy grinning mug on page one, the words “NOT LIKE THIS” in red underneath. Don’t get me wrong, this thing sucks from here to Timbuktu, but how could it not after thirty years as the floor any self-respecting rapper must always stay appreciably above? The sheer synapse-tickling density of ideas I fell in love with on albums like Funcrusher Plus and Enter the Wu-Tang stands in direct contrast to the horrible, stupid millisecond of silence following “lyrical PO-et”, while the simple, boisterous rhymes of the Beastie Boys recedes into seasoning for their increasingly dense production. Sometimes, hating pop means accepting that the common wisdom has it right; a world where “Ice Ice Baby” is anything but a humiliating stain on rap history is almost too alien a concept to consider.
And now, our new non-hit honorable mentions section:
- Cocteau Twins- Heaven or Las Vegas
- The Flaming Lips- Five Stop Mother Superior Rain
- Oingo Boingo- Long Breakdown
- Public Enemy- Revolutionary Generation
- Mark Heard- Our Restless Hearts
- Judas Priest- A Touch of Evil
- Jellyfish- Baby’s Coming Back
- Pixies- Dig For Fire
- Primus- To Defy the Laws of Tradition
- Dwarves- Drug Store