A surprisingly good countdown, with a bunch of true classics contained therein.
1 2 DIRTY DIANA –•– Michael Jackson – 9 (1st week at #1) — Talk about a song that hit the top on sheer momentum: this was the fifth and final #1 off Bad, but when’s the last time you heard it? Or heard anyone say they like it? Robert Christgau famously called this song “as misogynistic as any piece of metal suck-my-cock,” and he’s not wrong. This takes the paranoia and distrust of women of “Billie Jean” to its worst possible extremes; the only saving grace here is Steve Stevens’s ridiculously shredding solo.
2 1 FOOLISH BEAT –•– Debbie Gibson – 11 (1) — The youngest artist ever to have a self-written, -produced, and -performed #1 (she was 17 at the time), Gibson clearly knew what she was doing. I’ve always been surprised that her star fell so quickly, because being such a consummate pro, I would’ve thought she’d have been more able to ride shifting pop trends than she was. But still, five top 5 singles — and a pair of #1s — is an achievement that many would give up an arm for. Her other #1, also a ballad (“Lost In Your Eyes”), is utter pablum, but “Foolish Beat” is smart. Just start with that title! I’m actually more than a little surprised that some enterprising indie kids haven’t covered this tale of heartbreak by now, because it could stand up to a genre-revisionist treatment quite nicely, methinks. In summary: if you were expecting me to poop all over this, you’re wrong.
3 5 THE FLAME –•– Cheap Trick – 13 (3) — I mean, I really can’t begrudge Cheap Trick’s only (soon-to-be: the very next week) #1 record. Bun E. Carlos: “Tom Petersson rejoined in 1988, and then the vice president at Epic Records told us he had these two songs and they’re both gonna be #1. He goes, ‘We got one for you and one for the group Chicago, but you can have first choice.’ He said, ‘I think the one ‘The Flame’ would be good for you guys.’ The other one was ‘Look Away,’ and it sounded like some girl singing on the demo. We really didn’t like that song anyway, so ‘Sure, we’ll do ‘The Flame.’ We’re game.'” Robin Zander sings the hell out of it, too.
4 4 MAKE IT REAL –•– The Jets – 12 (4) — This pile of nuclear sludge was co-written and -produced by the manager of the Polynesian-American would-be (and briefly-were) Osmonds; that’s really all you need to know about it.
5 6 THE VALLEY ROAD –•– Bruce Hornsby & The Range – 10 (5) — This is a C+-at-best of a song, a middling adult contemporary (where it hit #1, in fact) song. But the video is just — ugh. Hornsby has a smarmy perma-grin plastered on his face — if you’ve ever wondered what the DNA of both Dave Matthews and John Mayer is, here you go — and because part of the chorus goes “walk on, walk on,” it features lots of people, you’ll never guess, walking. Mostly doing “funny walks.” Which aren’t funny at all. Bruce Hornsby was an asshole, y’all.
6 9 MERCEDES BOY –•– Pebbles – 9 (6) — I wanna ride, and I suspect you do too. And this made it — I hadn’t recalled this — to #2! Were it not for the aforementioned Cheap Trick, Pebbles would’ve had a #1 pop single. If only.
7 10 POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME –•– Def Leppard – 11 (7) — One of the greatest records of “Mutt” Lange’s career, hands down, and arguably the single that took Def Leppard from a big rock band to international superstars. It was, amazingly, the fourth single from Hysteria, and the one that saved it: not only did the success of this monster send its parent album to #1 almost exactly a year after its release (it spent six weeks there across three stints, trading off with the likes of Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses [’88 was a good year for hard rock] and, er, Steve Winwood and Tracy Chapman), but this #2 smash (kept from the top by the fast-rising Richard Marx, see #15) also led to its follow-up, the ballad “Love Bites,” giving the Sheffield band their one and only US #1 single. They even got the ridiculous “Armageddon It” into the top 3, and with glam tribute “Rocket”‘s bringing up the rear, Lep ended up with six top 20 singles from Hysteria (started by the #19 “Animal” and the #10 title track). But goddamn, this record: full of absurd double- (and single-) entendres, including the so-obscene-it’s-hilarious I-can’t-believe-they-got-this-on-top-40-radio “You got the peaches, I got the cream”; awesome drumming from Rick Allen, outfitted with a kit that allowed him (and still does to this day) to drum with one arm and both feet; that incredible twin-guitar attack of Phil Collen and the late Steve Clark; Lange’s arena-sized production; and of course, Joe Elliot’s son-of-glam super-sized vocals. If you wanna call it hair metal, be my guest, though to me this is just one of the finest hard rock singles of its era, and a guaranteed party-starter from here until the end of time. God bless ’em.
8 11 NOTHIN’ BUT A GOOD TIME –•– Poison – 11 (8) — This is almost the photo negative of the preceding single, a fluffy, light, and oh so silly hair metal record. It’s ain’t bad, but it ain’t great either, and it does not ensure a “good time.”
9 16 NEW SENSATION –•– INXS – 8 (9) — — The best single from the overrated Kick from a band I’ve always found overrated themselves. This, at least, swings.
10 3 TOGETHER FOREVER –•– Rick Astley – 12 (1) — I’ve always attested that the best Stock Aitken Waterman production is Bananarama’s “I Heard A Rumour,” but their numbers two and three records are this classic and the classic that preceded it in his discography. Obviously “Never Gonna Give You Up” is sublime, but there’s a certain jouissance to “Together Forever” that nudges it just ahead of the former for me. Pledges of life-long devotion are never a bad thing, either. This is a great song, produced deceptively simply, and Astley sings his heart out on it. A perfect single.
11 15 NITE AND DAY –•– Al B. Sure! – 13 (11) — It had already topped the R&B chart two months prior, and was just shy of its #7 pop peak this week. Oh, and it may be the best record in this entire countdown. Even with the likes of Def Lep and Rick Astley, discussed above, there’s a real magic to this single, largely I think down to its production by Sure! and his right-hand man Kyle West. This is feather-light new jack swing, next-gen R&B that, real talk, paved the way for the likes of Tevin Campbell and Jodeci (both of whom Sure! and West would work with). There are so many perfect little touches: the keyboard squiggles in the verses, those heavenly stacked all-Sure! backing vocals, the way the verses ascend into the chorus like the clouds exposing a brilliantly blue sky.
12 8 ALPHABET ST. –•– Prince – 10 (8) — Even Godlike geniuses should not always be given total control of their videos. The song, for me, is midlevel Prince — still better than most music in the world, but when it comes to Prince, I expect better.
13 14 I STILL BELIEVE –•– Brenda K. Starr – 14 (13) — Did you know that Starr’s father was the organist for the Spiral Staircase, responsible for the glorious 1969 single “More Today Than Yesterday”? (For my money, “Yesterday” does in one record everything that Three Dog Night attempted and failed over their entire career.) That record peaked at #12, one notch higher than Starr’s own enduring single, which — more fun facts — was produced by Eumir Deodato! Sure, this has been covered by Mariah Carey, but Starr’s is the superior version, very classically late-’80s NYC pop ballad, with a singer who you can hear is a ’round-the-way girl. This is absolutely of a piece with the ballads by all of the ladies of freestyle, from Sweet Sensation to Exposé, yet for some reason (and it’s not just Mariah), this one’s endured. Of which I strongly approve.
14 12 KISS ME DEADLY –•– Lita Ford – 14 (12) — You should get a cream for that, Lita.
15 19 HOLD ON TO THE NIGHTS –•– Richard Marx – 7 (15) — I’m a surprising sometimes-defender of Marx, but this ballad is a bit too schlocky by half.
16 7 ONE MORE TRY –•– George Michael – 12 (1) — The organ’s very churchy, but nothing else about “One More Try” is. GM of course sounds impeccable, but for my money it’s the least interesting of all of Faith‘s singles, and a bit of a plod. Not bad, just not up to the standards of Faith.
17 18 BEDS ARE BURNING –•– Midnight Oil – 14 (17) — THEY! WERE! SO! STRIDENT! Talk about a band without a sense of humor, or any idea how to have a good time: Midnight Oil were all political and serious, all the time. That said, back in the summer of ’88 I dearly loved their US breakthrough Diesel and Dust (the other side of the TDK 90 I had it taped on was Tracy Chapman, which makes all the sense in the world). What they had to say was extremely important, but it’s not much fun to listen to these days.
18 20 LOST IN YOU –•– Rod Stewart – 9 (18) — Rod’s Out of Order album, which inexplicably housed a quartet of top 20 singles, was co-produced by Andy Taylor and Bernard Edwards, so why does it sound like a musical abortion? And if it’s a video set in a strip club you wanna see, well, Mötley Crüe did it much better the previous year.
19 21 RUSH HOUR –•– Jane Wiedlin – 9 (19) — It’s a cute enough pop ditty, but — well, I hate to say it, but her music was more interesting when she was high. That said, I once spent a wedding reception seated next to Wiedlin, and she’s a perfectly lovely person and fine conversationalist.
20 23 HANDS TO HEAVEN –•– Breathe – 12 (20) — Headed to #2 (stopped cold by the heinous song below it in this countdown), this really is the definitive sophistipop ballad, isn’t it? I’ve always regretted that Alfred and I didn’t include this in our definitive sophistipop guide. They performed much better in the US — a trio of top 10s from their debut (of which this was the biggest), and even two smaller top 40 singles from the 1990 follow-up — than in their native UK, where only this even made the top 40, a rare instance of sophistipoppers succeeding more bigly on the other side of the ocean from their home. Soft, jazzy pop like this is pablum to me.
21 29 ROLL WITH IT –•– Steve Winwood – 4 (21) — This is absolute nadir of adult contemporary “beer commercial rock,” and it’s vulgar and gross and I loathe it with all my heart.
22 28 MAKE ME LOSE CONTROL –•– Eric Carmen – 7 (22) — Carmen struck while the iron was hot and went one notch higher than his Dirty Dancing comeback smash “Hungry Eyes”; that made it to #4, but this climbed to #3. It’s a slight ’60s Brill building pastiche (I mean, dance with the one who brought you, I guess) with thundering drums, and I’d like very much to never hear it again.
23 13 CIRCLE IN THE SAND –•– Belinda Carlisle – 12 (7) — For whatever reason, this song always makes me think of lost love; it’s got a very appeallingly wistful feel to it.
24 30 PARADISE –•– Sade – 8 (24) — You wanna talk consistency? 33 years on, these UK legends have released nine albums, including a live disc and two compilations, and every single one has made the US pop top 10. Their days of hit singles are long behind them — this was their final single to hit the US top 20, and their sole R&B #1 — but consistency is the very essence of their game. This single’s a fine distillation of their formula-not-formula, a jazzy R&B record with a tinge of funk (in this case, the bass), topped by Helen Folasade Adu’s super cool vocals.
25 27 TALL COOL ONE –•– Robert Plant – 12 (25) — a/k/a The One Where Robert Stopped Running Away From His Led Zep Legacy. And the video came complete with a dance!
26 32 PARENTS JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND –•– D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – 7 (26) — Jazzy Jeff was the talented one, in case you were wondering.
27 34 SIGN YOUR NAME –•– Terence Trent D’Arby – 6 (27) — I’ve no interest in arguing whether it was his big mouth that hurt his career in the US, but Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby is indisputably one of the greatest, most audacious debut album titles ever, and is a solid soul-pop record (though I’ve never quite gotten those who gush over it — it’s fine, but he’s no Prince, people). Released as the follow-up to the #1 “Wishing Well,” this climbed to #4, but it doesn’t move quickly enough for me; its tempo is just sluggish.
28 40 1-2-3 –•– Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine – 5 (28) — Astoundingly, this was the fifth and final single from 1987’s Let It Loose, which took four singles before it finally gave Gloria and her band of merry men their first #1, the lovely ballad “Anything for You.” (All three of her/their #1s, in fact, were ballads.) So at this point, this was pure gravy, basically a well-earned victory lap, as clearly evidenced by its “live” video, in which no members of the MSM, Gloria included, even try to hide their mile-wide smiles — and why would they? (Added bonus: Gloria in leather chaps!) This single is pure unadulterated joy and I love it utterly and if you disagree with me you are WRONG!
29 17 EVERYTHING YOUR HEART DESIRES –•– Daryl Hall & John Oates – 12 (3) — After three years off, post-Live Aid, Daryl & John returned with a new record deal on Arista, and a slightly less slick sound on Ooh Yeah!. But, as I touched on in my 2016 PopCon paper “What Does An Imperial Phase Sound Like?,” the times had, suddenly, passed the boys by. Lead single “Desires” performed quite ably, making it to #3 pop and even #12 R&B (!), but not even Hall’s ever-more-resplendent lion’s mane of blonde hair could cover up the fact that their Imperial Phase had ended. Subsequent singles tanked (apart from 1990’s not very good Jon Bon Jovi [oh, the indignity!] co-production “So Close,” which Clive Davis’s payola got to #11), and their hitmaking days were over like that. On the whole, Ooh Yeah! is no patch on their previous work, either, so I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. Saddened, sure, but every artist’s string of hits has to end sometime.
30 38 THE COLOUR OF LOVE –•– Billy Ocean – 6 (30) — The follow-up to the vomitous #1 “Get Outta My Dreams” (etc.) is a wallpaper-bland ballad that Billy doesn’t even seem to sing as if his heart’s in it.
31 39 JUST GOT PAID –•– Johnny Kemp – 8 (31) — Identikit early new jack swing from Teddy Riley, who could and would do plenty better, with a personality-less singer on the credits.
32 31 SUPERSONIC –•– J.J. Fad – 11 (30) — How did this wonder, a west coast rap single by a female trio (produced by Dr. Dre, Yella, and Arabian Prince, I might add), scrape up to #30, you ask? Sales: it sold over 500K and was certified gold. Oh, and it’s also a little marvel of a late ’80s pop-rap song that never fails to bring a smile to my face…
33 45 DO YOU LOVE ME –•– The Contours – 5 (33) — …as opposed to this 1962 zombie of a record, resurrected by the horror that was Dirty Dancing. I hate every single thing about this record, and I couldn’t really tell you why, apart from that I generally loathe “instructional” dance records, from “The Twist” all the way to “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” If you really wanna see me angry, play this. I dare you.
34 41 I DON’T WANNA LIVE WITHOUT YOUR LOVE –•– Chicago – 5 (34) — Bill Champlin is a key figure in yacht rock, and he’s singing lead here (as he did on most Chicago singles between the eras of Peter Cetera and Jason Scheff), but this most definitely ain’t yacht rock. This is Adult Contemporary gruel, co-written by Diane Warren and produced by Ron Nevison. This lead single from Chicago 19 (to be followed by “Look Away,” which bridged years chart-wise and was the #1 song of 1989 and may be even worse), this is terrible — but its we-don’t-know-what-the-fuck-we’re-doing video must be seen to be believed. Seriously, watch it.
35 42 I SHOULD BE SO LUCKY –•– Kylie Minogue – 9 (35) — I don’t care for Kylie’s cover of “The Locomotion,” which came after this and was a top 3 smash in the US, but that’s less her fault and more that song. This however is one of my favorite of her Stock Aitken Waterman singles, with a mature vocal that belies her young years and a confident step in both her vocal and the song’s lyrics. It only made it to #28 in the US — I presume, perhaps, because it just sounded too not-American? — but deserved much better.
36 47 I DON’T WANNA GO ON WITH YOU LIKE THAT –•– Elton John – 3 (36) — Last year, I said I’d give this an A-. These days, make it a straight-up A. Everything else I said at the time still applies, especially regarding that absolutely bananas Shep Pettibone “’80s-est thing the ’80s ever ’80s’d” remix.
37 25 NAUGHTY GIRLS (NEED LOVE TOO) –•– Samantha Fox – 19 (3) — Full Force: what a nutty career they’ve had, from “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and “Roxanne, Roxanne” to “All I Have to Give” and “Don’t Phunk With My Heart.” Their work on the first Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam album is still my favorite, but this comes close. And it is/was so unexpected: what were these six hip-hop guys from Brooklyn doing writing and producing for a topless model from London? Making magic, it turns out, because both this and “I Wanna Have Some Fun” are pretty cracking singles, and definitely a couple notches above the likes of “Touch Me.” Love the orchestra hits in this — Full Force loved orchestra hits — and the fact the even when singing, Fox sounds so British; the contrast between her vocals and the hip-hop-influenced beat is magical.
38 44 LOVE CHANGES (EVERYTHING) –•– Climie Fisher – 8 (38) — Oh, the joyfulness of this! I discovered “Love Changes (Everything)” first on the syndicated radio show Rock Over London — which was really more like indie and pop music from the British isles — because this fabulous, vibrant Stephen Hague production (remixed slightly by Bob Clearmountain) had climbed to #2 in the UK (kept from the top by Pet Shop Boys’ “Heart”). I remember being stunned when it actually made inroads in the US, because something about this just seemed so classically Brit/pop to me. Hearing it now, it makes total sense: this is very much of a piece with the likes of Go West, only far superior. Rob Fisher knew from great pop singles, having been half of Naked Eyes; Simon Climie was a superb vocal foil for him. This is pure Vitamin D.
39 43 TROUBLE –•– Nia Peeples – 8 (39) — Paula Abdul before Paula Abdul, but without the songs. Also, Peeples inexplicably has her own Vevo channel.
40 35 HEART OF MINE –•– Boz Scaggs – 10 (35) — Don’t know how this made it into the pop top 40, because I cannot imagine top 40 radio playing this in 1988, but an unsurprising #3 on the AC chart. Smooth, because it’s Boz, but way too glossy, because it’s produced by Stewart Levine (“Holding Back the Years,” “Up Where We Belong”). A huge hit at the time on VH1.