Last month, list-obsessed Idolator contributor Michaelangelo Matos did his damnedest to find the worst Billboard singles chart of the ’70s; now, he’s turned his attention to the rankings of the Reagan era. After the click-through, a column that finally settles our country’s long-running Ray Parker Jr./Huey Lewis debate:
Project X No. 7: The Best and Worst Billboard Top 10 Singles of the 1980s
When I first decided to choose the best and worst Billboard Top 10 Singles of each decade since the ’60s, I approached it like a party. Mostly, this was due to finding four ’70s lists so lousy I couldn’t decide between them. But asking a dozen friends and colleagues, and quoting their best replies with impunity, made things a lot livelier.
So why am I going it alone for the ’80s? I had a hunch that I might find more candidates for both Best and Worst during this decade–and I did. There are a lot of near-misses in both categories. But this time around there was, to my ear, one obvious leader in each race, with one very close runner-up per.
That probably has something to do with the way the decade’s Top 10s proceeded. From 1980 to 1982, the charts were about equally good and bad. That began changing drastically beginning in April 1983, which began a string of Top 10s with eight or nine good songs. July and August were especially strong; among those months’ inclusions were the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” Culture Club’s “Time (Clock of the Heart),” Madness’s “Our House,” Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For the Money,” Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back,” Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” and the Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.”
But 1984 was a whole other thing, which I figured would happen. I’ve long considered 1984 the greatest of all pop years. The signal difference between the ’70s and ’80s Best and Worst is that where 13 months separated the four ’70s Worst choices, the ’80s gap is less than a year each. The mid-’60s had better Top 10s pound for pound, but by the time ’84 rolled around, it had been a good decade since anyone looking for the most interesting and exciting pop was going to find it all on the radio. (The horrific late-’70s lists unearthed for the last column make this especially clear.) Crucial as radio was, what made ’84 an amazing pop was as much the airplay-scarce (emergent hip-hop, cresting indie rock) as the saturation-ready. But more often than not, the hits deserved to be:
Best, runner-up: July 28, 1984
1. Prince, “When Doves Cry” (Warner Bros.)
2. Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters” (Arista)
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark” (Columbia)
4. The Jacksons ft. Mick Jagger, “State of Shock” (Epic)
5. Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” (Chrysalis)
6. Rod Stewart, “Infatuation” (Warner Bros.)
7. Elton John, “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” (Geffen)
8. ZZ Top, “Legs” (Warner Bros.)
9. Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (Capitol)
10. Pointer Sisters, “Jump (For My Love)” (Planet)
To my ears, the major things standing in this one’s way are Michael-meets-Mick and, less decisively, Rod Stewart. Indeed, the first thing I think of whenever “State of Shock” comes up is “Weird Al” Yankovic guest-hosting MTV and playing a video of a guy standing in a room grunting the guitar riff a cappella. That should be enough to tell you it’s very hard to hear this stuff through nostalgia. Or anyway, it’s my excuse for finding “Infatuation” Grade-A gated-drum corn–that and that it’s Rod at his sleaziest, a mode Stewart had by then absorbed so completely that no one would have noticed if he’d turned into a lizard. Not the lounge lizard that standards rehab has turned him into, but the preternaturally tanned skank my generation will remember him as forever.
Any number of sharp-tongued things could be said about 7/28/84, and when they are I’ll probably find them entertaining. But there is something ideal about this era to me still. “Ghostbusters” may have ripped off “I Want a New Drug,” but it’s a better record. “Sad Songs” is one of Elton John’s finest post-’70s records. And everything else is classic or close enough. “When Doves Cry” and “Legs” alone might be enough to put this one over the top. Still, it’s just wide of the mark drawn mere months earlier:
Best: March 3, 1984
1. Van Halen, “Jump” (Warner Bros.)
2. Nena, “99 Luftballoons” (Epic)
3. Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Portrait)
4. Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (Epic)
5. John Lennon, “Nobody Told Me” (Polydor)
6. Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon” (Epic/Virgin)
7. Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me” (Motown)
8. The Police, “Wrapped Around Your Finger” (A&M)
9. Shannon, “Let the Music Play” (Mirage)
10. Huey Lewis & the News, “I Want a New Drug” (Chrysalis)
Like I said, “Ghostbusters” is the better record. Please, make all the Huey Lewis jokes you want; I’ll laugh at every one. But to me the ringer here is the Police. Considering the Velveeta on the lists that missed the cutoff–I actually considered a Top 10 containing a Journey song–count yourself lucky.
But that’s how it is with new wave glory, and this list has it in spades, usually from people no one considered new wave then or now: Van Halen, Michael Jackson, Rockwell, and Huey Lewis lean on their bright, bobbing synths so hard they practically vibrate, and actual new wavers Nena (credited for the German version of their bilingual hit, notably) and the Police chime in with peppy and moody variations, respectively, of the style. Cyndi Lauper defines herself forever. So, to lesser extent, do VH, MJ, CC, S, and HL&TN. John Lennon rails gently but firmly from beyond the grave. There are two surprises: that of the decade’s pair of greatest singles artists, Prince was only in the runner-up, and that Madonna wasn’t in either.
Has any year-to-year transition fallen off a cliff with the alacrity of 1984 into 1985? What once were vices were now habits, and the excitement of 1983-84 flipped into complacency in record time. Good records, on the radio at least, ebbed drastically. The trend continued through the end of the decade, but in a sense the fact that radio pop got as consistently bad as it did at the end of the ’80s made it more fun, because instead of dragging us along in its desultory wake, listeners had more opportunities to stop, gasp, point, and laugh.
I should probably point out that I found several terrific lists in 1986 and 1987, though none of the caliber of the two ’84s. On the other hand, even the ’80s lists coming off the disastrous late ’70s couldn’t compare to the crap I was wading through, which hit its first peak here:
Worst, runner-up: October 29, 1988
1. Phil Collins, “Groovy Kind of Love” (Atlantic)
2. The Beach Boys, “Kokomo (From the ‘Cocktail’ Soundtrack)” (Elektra)
3. The Escape Club, “Wild, Wild West” (Atlantic)
4. UB40, “Red Red Wine” (A&M)
5. Information Society, “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” (Tommy Boy)
6. Steve Winwood, “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” (Virgin)
7. Kylie Minogue, “The Loco-Motion” (Geffen)
8. INXS, “Never Tear Us Apart” (Atlantic)
9. Whitney Houston, “One Moment in Time” (Arista)
10. Bon Jovi, “Bad Medicine” (Mercury)
Have I ever told you how much I love the words “From ‘Shitty Movie X” in song titles? Well, as Freddie and the Dreamers once put it, I’m telling you now. INXS and Information Society aren’t terrible, but neither are they able to transcend the muck in which they’re mired. I don’t actually hate “Red Red Wine,” but despite my higher-than-normal tolerance for stuff that’s been run into the ground by any rational measure and a general sense of caution about the difference between finding something bad and being sick of it, whatever was once good about the song has been played out since before I was able to vote, so it too gets the gas face. Still, 10/29/88 is almost aggressively pleasant compared to the one that would arrive some ten months later:
Worst: September 9, 1989
1. New Kids on the Block, “Hangin’ Tough” (Columbia)
2. Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted” (Virgin)
3. Gloria Estefan, “Don’t Wanna Lose You” (Epic)
4. Warrant, “Heaven” (Columbia)
5. Richard Marx, “Right Here Waiting” (EMI)
6. Surface, “Shower Me with Your Love” (Columbia)
7. Milli Vanilli, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” (Arista)
8. The Jeff Healey Band, “Angel Eyes” (Arista)
9. Cher, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Geffen)
10. Skid Row, “18 and Life” (Atlantic)
The only drawback to choosing this as the worst of the decade is that it arrived precisely one week after Eric Boehlert’s choice for worst-ever Top 10 Albums list in the Salon piece that inspired mine. But bad taste, or at least what we receive as a result of it, belongs to everybody. I’m especially fond of/appalled by the number of third and fourth singles from shitty albums here: Abdul, Milli Vanilli, Marx, NKOTMFB. The Surface entry ranks among the most tepid R&B ever made. And Cher’s narrow, exposed ass, gawked upon by sailors as her teenage son plays guitar on the ship’s mast in the “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, may well be the most unpleasant big-pop experience my memory holds.
This has been a learning experience. I wasn’t expecting to find lists worse than the weeks of 1985 when the Top 10 included both Starship’s “We Built This City” and Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City,” but 10/29/88 and 9/2/89 did it. Congratulations to both. Let us never speak of them again.
Previously: Project X: Sucking In The Seventies