Music for Occupational Therapy: The best songs of 1989

Note: this is a co-venture with my friend Angie Aguayo. We both chose a year vital to us in music and wrote it up. See her take on 2007, a genius year, here.

When I think of music I think of 1989. That was the year I first noticed the things my mom was listening to. It was the year my taste was formed. It was when everything I would be into for the rest of my life was set. There isn’t one song on this list I rediscovered and most of these songs are classics.

But what do you make of the year as a whole? When I examined the top 100 singles I was struck by what an eclectic year it is. The last blasts of 80s synth pop dropped. We got some all time classic rock. The outer edges of R&B rose up. And there’s a lot of godawful droning adult contemporary.

Just to give you perspective, here are songs not on my list: Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Right Here Waiting, The Promise, Listen To Your Heart, Once Bitten Twice Shy, Welcome to the Jungle! On Our Own I had to cut from this list in the last cull! think about how good the music is when the songs I listed aren’t in the top 10 for me. 1989 ruled. And here’s 10 reasons why.

Let’s look at a group it’s all too easy to mock. The 1980s ended musically with their exposure if you ask me. But here’s the thing? Does it matter that they were frauds when you hear the music? Nah. It only matters that proper credit be given.

10 Milli Vanilli- Baby, Don’t Forget My Number. Charles Shaw, Brad Howell, and John Davis are the men who actually performed on the album and I want to credit them here because they were three brilliant session men who gave us some incredible pop hits. This is my favorite but Girl You Know It’s True and Blame it on the Rain are so good. This gets the edge because the beat is sublime. Just a great song.

As I said, On Our Own by Bobby Brown was the absolute last song cut. And I cut it because I listened to the song I cut for it this morning taking my daughter and my nieces to day care. I have nostalgia for Brown. But look there’s no way I can be forgiven for putting that song over a true classic.

9 Young MC- Bust a Move. In the birth pains of rap, you saw a lot of junk litter the charts. When I write about 1990, and I intend to, I’ll look at how bad the joke rap was. But this? Impossibly tight. Impossibly smooth. It’s also a bit of a joke but it’s a great joke. How do you act in an awkward situation? Bust a move! Have fun! That’s the eternal power of Bust a Move. It’s a celebration of just having a good time told through some of the bounciest rhymes. This is definitely too low.

Confession: I think Madonna wasted more talent than the average artist dreams of having. An underrated vocalist of the classic vamp mode and a genius at finding collaborators to use her right, I feel like 1990-1997 marks a genius burning their talent first to shock then chasing awards she wouldn’t ever get. While I get that she shocked for a reason, what did she say? Nothing. Except once.

8 Madonna- Like a Prayer. Look, pointing out spiritual and sexual ecstasy are the same is an old observation. But this still shocked a lot of people, especially in the wake of The Last Temptation of Christ. And like that film, everyone involved still had epic success because they made a masterpiece that outlived the controversy. This song is a straight up powerhouse on every level from her never better vocals to the choral work. But it’s the blunt force of the euphemisms that makes the song work. There’s no getting around how shocking the song still feels and taking on the church will never stop being stunning.

I want to talk about an unsung legend. Paul Carrack had one hit under his own name, the perfect Don’t Shed a Tear, but as a traveling vocalist, he’s an icon. Squeeze’s Tempted? That’s him. How Long by Ace? Yup. He’s played so many instruments with so many iconic artists. One of the coolest guys you’ll ever read about. He notches an entry on one of his for hire jobs.

7 Mike + the Mechanics- The Living Years. Paul Carrack was the voice of the decade, know him or not. What I love about this song is how it looks at guilt over failing to have a relationship with your father. It’s sonically pristine but so steeped in grief. You hope you are never thought of life this and you hope you do all you can as a son.

European dance music has always been a big deal going back to waltzes. Every decade has a version. The 80s felt harder edged and slicker while the 1990s felt bouncier and more female led. Think Real McCoy and Ace of Base. But all trends have overlap. As proof, I point to here.

6 Roxette- The Look. Confining Roxette to one decade is actually a huge error. They had hits as late as 2000 in America with the utterly sublime Wish I Could Fly. But they never came close to the genius of this pop masterpiece. Which is funny because the verses are utter nonsense and only existed as something to sing. But they work. They sound amazing. This song is silly, delightful, perfect.

The grand enigma when you look back at 1989 is what happened to Fine Young Cannibals. The group had everything going for them with two monster hit songs and a movie star level frontman in Roland Gift whose distinctive vocals were instantly recognizable. And after 1989? They only recorded a couple more songs and nothing more. Had the continued on, they might have been more. But their story ends sharply in 1989. But damn what a story.

5 Fine Young Cannibals- Good Thing. A song about a man confused by a woman who left him, it purposely evokes 60s soul. And that’s what makes it magical. The whole song is just this bouncy throwback filled with a great jangly piano and absurdly great vocals by Gift. It feels bold like the 80s but also like you could hear it next to those classics. Just a perfect, perfect song.

I want to stress there is some junk on this list. The biggest song this year was Look Away by Chicago. Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings was huge too. Inspiring pap and droning adult contemporary were in many ways the sound of the late 80s. So to have a song so profoundly amazing as the next song at only 93 is absurd. But here we are.

4 Michael Jackson- Smooth Criminal. This would be higher on my list but it’s been covered by everyone. That doesn’t stop it from being perfect. From the moment it begins, this is an atomic force of energy. Michael Jackson’s image looms large but you forget he could crush the delivery and he absolutely murders here. And talk about a perfect beat. This was produced by Quincy Jones at his utter best. I love that the song and video consciously evoke film noir because this is the hyper slick 80s version we need. It’s Smooth Criminal. What else do I say?

One weird thing I’ve done is consciously avoid rock. Of course I have. It was almost all hair metal and I’m sorry but hair metal is atrocious start to finish. Either it was sickeningly sincere or grossly leering. And I hate both. Nothing wrong with being horned up. But make it sound appealing.

3 Love and Rockets- So Alive. In my opinion, synth music was never better in the 80s than it was in the late 80s. And it was never as perfected as it was here. The members of this band started in Bauhaus and you can tell. This whole thing is a dark, sexy journey. It’s a seduction and all of it works. It feels like something you hear whispered by a bonfire in the woods illicitly drinking. I know a lot of the music of the 80s feels aged badly but this feels like it could be any time. It just happened to be in the 80s.

Like it or not, your parents taste is in you. All of us have it. And look, this was a year when I was 5. Of course all the music I heard was filtered through my mom. My mom loved Like a Prayer for example. I know that whole album, which is fantastic. My mom also loves Rod Stewart. So here we go.

2 Rod Stewart- My Heart Can’t Tell You No. Rod Stewart is one of the greatest interpreters in pop music history. He isn’t a songwriter. He’s an actor. And he sells every word. This is a song on the same tier as Me and Mrs. Jones, a song about how incredibly awful infidelity is filtered through the third person’s perspective. He hates it. He hates himself. He can’t hate her. This is such a dark song but with some utterly fantastic production and Stewart never sounding better, it’s amazing. You can’t not listen to it.

So. For my number one, I’m breaking a rule I keep. And I probably won’t keep it on future lists either. But I try to. One song per artist. I want variance. But my hand is forced here. One group had two songs so great the list looked wrong without them. They were THE sound of 1989. And never again.

1 Fine Young Cannibals- She Drives Me Crazy. I don’t think this is remotely a controversial choice for the best song of 1989. How can it be? There isn’t one thing bad about it. If Good Thing is all throwback, this is 1989 to the second. It’s full force synth with an aggressive sound. But the lyrics don’t get lost. This is like Good Thing a song about a woman who frustrates a man though in this case she strings him along in an abusive relationship. But you get why he stays. Gift just sells the joy he feels even as he’s in hell. The song is a dark joke really but it’s the most satisfying dark joke ever. We only got two iconic singles from this band but 1989 and pop music wouldn’t be the same without them.

So that’s 1989. What will I do from here? For one thing for my book, I’m doing top 10s of 1999-2016. This is a test run at that which is why it’s here. I’m planning to look at 1988, 1990, and possibly 1987 and 1991 as well since Todd in the Shadows covered their worst lists. But for now? This was you looking at what I heard on the way to Iccupational Therapy.

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