Project X: Living In The Eighties

Apr 30th, 2007 // 22 Comments

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

  1. Jupiter8

    I was always much happier not knowing what Nena was singing about…”Worry,worry, super scurry” indeed…

    It’s notable the second worst week has 3 remakes-two of which are gawdawful (sorry, now-beloved Kylie)…

  2. yetimike

    Nice job again, Matos!!!

    Everyone loves Rockwell, even when they think he’s MJ….

  3. Reidicus

    Ah, I now remember why I finally turned my back on mainstream pop for good in 1988. (In 1987 I was listening to Dokken and R.E.M. in equal measure, one of those schizophrenic years most music geeks have before completely growing up.)

    The 1983/84 lists make good shopping lists. Wait, did I say that?

  4. AcidReign

    …..Dokken’s “In My Dreams” had a monster guitar solo in it, well worth learning note-for-note!

  5. MameDennis

    I’m pretty sure it was actually a federal law that all us fifth grade girls had to own the “Cocktail” soundtrack. (On cassette, of course!)

  6. The Illiterate

    Didn’t Parker claim he’d stolen the “Ghostbusters” riff from M’s “Pop Muzik”, and he figured that’s where Lewis had gotten it, too? A great defense, even if untrue.

    “Karma Chameleon” was my 8-year-old son’s favorite song at the time. We heard it endlessly, and it still held up.

    That ’89 list is truly horrific, even if I can’t remember a single thing on it except Cher. Or maybe its horrificity is why I can’t remember.

  7. Chris Molanphy

    Add my “amen” to the list here for the supremacy of ’83-’84. Honestly, the catalyst – and I know nobody likes to give them credit for anything anymore – was MTV, then in its second/third year of existence and throwing more good bands (mostly British, but not all) up the charts.

    The pop charts were arguably going through one of their Yank-centric phases just before 1982, and MTV came along like a laxative to unblock this backlog of great New Wave/New Romantic/Postpunk acts that were on their third, fourth, umpteenth albums and finally give them major U.S. exposure. Seriously, think about it: Human League, Madness, the Clash, Golden Earring, Def Leppard, Billy Idol – all were U.S. Top 10 debutantes in 1982-84, and none were on their first or second album. Hell, add Van Halen to that list while you’re at it – about as American as a band gets, and on their sixth album they finally break the upper reaches of the charts thanks to Diamond Dave cavorting for the camera in three shades of spandex.

    One final note from the chart geek: Brace yourself for some rude awakenings in the ’90s. Everything that made the charts work in the ’80s fell apart after ’89 – radio started to narrowcast, the labels started pulling songs from single release (until 1998 Billboard chart rules mandated that a song be released on 45/cassingle/CD-5/12-inch to make the Hot 100), and an entire movement – early-’90s alt-pop – went all but unnoticed on the pop charts. You’ll have plenty of candidates for “worst” Top 10 week; but you’ll also be scratching your head wondering why the biggest acts of the decade – from Pearl Jam to Tupac – are so underrepresented.

  8. blackwidow

    It’s really hard to ignore nostalgia in evaluating these songs. I mean, this is my childhood, all there is black and white. But…Kokomo…yeah…eww. I’m already scared of the earworms this article will create. Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…

  9. Chris Molanphy

    Studying your lists a bit more carefully, a few more notes - these are the songs I’d rescue from the “worst” lists:

    UB40, “Red, Red Wine” – ‘Cuz it’s a Neil Diamond song. ‘Cuz UB40 never gave up on America (this was a single from a 1983 album that got rereleased in ’88 thanks to a radio station mixup in Phoenix, Ariz.). ‘Cuz it’s better than that damn Elvis cover they drove through my skull five years later.

    INXS, “Never Tear Us Apart” – About as classy as radio ballads got at this time; Hutchence’s vocal histrionics were a damn sight better than the post-Whitney shit dominating the airwaves. And the big hook – dropout…[pause]…tremolo strumstrumstrumstrum – was pretty original for the time.

    Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted” – Would I have preferred if Paula’s singing career had never existed? Definitely, but among her hits, this and “Straight Up” are the feistiest and most interesting. “Forever Your Girl” and “Opposites Attract” were far, far worse. I guess that’s not saying much.

    • Skid Row, “18 and Life” – While GnR were off bickering over Use Your Illusion, Bach & co. were the only hair-metal act pumping out hits with a little grime on them. Emphasis on little.

    That’s about it. I have no argument with your choice of the lists. Nevermind couldn’t come fast enough.

  10. Matos W.K.

    @dennisobell: er, I did rescue UB40 and INXS.

  11. mackro

    I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t mind “Kokomo”? Granted, Carl’s the only reason I don’t mind it. And sure, it pales in comparison to the better 70s stuff, but the Beach Boys also released a lot of really REALLY shitty stuff before and after “Kokomo”. (Stamos calling!)

  12. Chris Molanphy

    @Matos W.K.: Duly noted, sorry. I wasn’t sure if they qualified as exceptions in your book. I guess the larger message is, those with only two forgivable singles each, those lists are pretty friggin’ awful.

  13. chrisb

    I’m fascinated by those of you who mentioned the nostalgia factor. I guess that plays a bigger role in this sort of thing than I give it credit… mainly because I’ve always believed that 1991, the year I became a dedicated music fiend, is the undisputable greatest year in rock music ever.

  14. samethingbackwards

    Matos insanely OTM about a. 1984 being the greatest top 40 year ever, b. 1985 being a massive drop-off and c. the late 80s being generally ghastly pop years, though not as much as most of the 90s would turn out to be. Warrant’s “Heaven” is really pretty, though – Chuck Eddy calls that kind of stuff mall-blues, and that gets it exactly right.

  15. FionaScrapple


  16. jetfan

    Matos, what Journey song were you eluding to in your introduction?

  17. highlifer

    Word on rescuing Skid Row. The worst thing about that chart is the insinuation that “18 and Life” is the worst song on it.

  18. Thatgirl

    @AcidReign: That’s actually a guitar on “Jump,” it just sounds like a synth. (Eddie Van Halen mentioned iin an interview once that DLR was always trying to get themn to put in a big synth sound and less guitar, so he liked that song bec it sounded like synth.)

  19. Trackback

    Urgh! A Music War is one of the most criminally overlooked music films ever made. In 1981, the music scene was smack dab in the middle of punk giving way to New Wave.

  20. AcidReign

    @TGIY: It’s still a synth, even if it’s triggered by a guitar. Various flavors of the Roland Guitar synth kept popping up in the 1980s, that music stores wanted to sell us! For me, it was easier to get what I wanted out of a synth to just buy a keyboard, and learn it from scratch. I’ve still got a Roland D-70 (solid steel case) that has all those glassy/bell-ringie 80s sounds on it. I love it. They don’t make keyboards like that anymore!

    …..Eddie has done other weird stuff, like plugging an electric piano into his amp on “And the Cradle Will Rock.”

  21. JohnnyLIT80s

    It’s common knowledge that 1983 is The Best Year For Music Ever. Just ask any Lost in the ’80s readers.

  22. Jfrankparnell

    Can noboby praise the value of Shannon’s “Let the Music Play?” Note to DJs: Drop this 45 between your blog-culled electro-crap and watch the speakers melt with thanks. Other than Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” it might have the best whip-crack sound of all time.

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