The 10 Best Songs of 1988

So I’m gonna do this. From here on out, every Wednesday, I’m going to post my 10 best songs from a year in the 1980s and I’m going in reverse order. Y’all dug my 1989 review and I’m glad. Let me stress that this blog will still be autism focused btw. I’m going to write up my ER trip soon. But these are neat and cool so let me fire them here.

I noted 1989 was a great year. 1988 might be better. 1989 is where you can see things getting weird for 1990, and yes my plan is to do the 1990s after this, but in 1988 everything was still high and tight. All the trends were in place but they were just better. I even have a few songs on this list from genres I wasn’t high on last list. Lots to cover. Let’s go. Oh and this time, I am reinstating the one song per artist rule. There aren’t any examples as impossible to leave off like last time.

I’ll be blunt. I don’t get much hair metal. When I do get to the 90s, it’ll be clear why. I think the survivors became great rock bands but I’m not a hair metal guy. However, I have exceptions. And if you do a really great power ballad, then you make my list. They don’t come better than this, y’all.

10 Cheap Trick- The Flame. If all power ballads were The Flame, I would love them. The problem is they’re all transparent ploys for their female audience. This though? This is amazing. This drips sincerity. The song sounds truly heartfelt even if it’s just as manufactured. And talk about power. So many power ballads are soft. Not this. It’s a loud, screaming cry. The best of the best.

The 80s have an image of being tacky. True. The thing was by 1988 that was largely muted. The 80s got tasteful. INXS was huge this year with material that still feels sexy and classy and not on my list I fear. But that was the thing. The songs that were big have aged great. Nothing is too humiliating. Except this.

9 The Escape Club- Wild, Wild West. This song is impossibly tacky and everything wrong with culture in the 80s. It has gunshot sound effects and it talks about heading to the 90s as if that was an exciting thing. It’s very guilty pleasure. But you know what? It’s a good guilty pleasure. This is an unspeakably silly song and I kind of have to love it. Part of it is that it’s so catchy. You hear it and you won’t forget it. But I think it’s also just such a symbol of a culture looking to a neon future blindly. We need songs like this.

For the longest time, there was a song where I knew the tune but not the words. I could hum it but I didn’t know it. Then I learned it. Same for a 70s soul song. Knew the tune, not the words. The soul song was Ace’s How Long and if you read my last entry, you know what’s coming.

8 Paul Carrack- Don’t Shed a Tear. For someone who only had one hit under his own name, I assure you Paul Carrack is probably thrilled with his career. That said, his one hit is the kind of song we need. It’s a breakup song where the singer is perfectly fine moving on. It’s pure strength. It’s not angry or vicious though. The relationship was bad and it’s a good thing it ended but there’s no threats. He’s just happy to move on. And so will we.

One of the hardest cuts I had to make last list was How Can I Fall? by Breathe. That is an absolute beast of a song and really it belonged on the list. It’s about a man ready to leave a woman and he knows it’s a bad idea. It’s mature and it’s great. But it didn’t fit. Well. I’m not making that mistake again.

7 Breathe- Hands to Heaven. This is of the same cloth. These guys only had these two songs to make a dent in the states and really they’re so similar to Fine Young Cannibals in that way. The song is about having one night to be with someone before you have to go. Why? Maybe he’s in the army. Maybe it’s work. Maybe it’s a one night stand. The point is it’s a limited situation. We’ve all been there. And it’s never sounded this good. This thing could’ve been recorded on silk. Sophisti-pop at its best.

I’m going to spoil it for future lists. Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll will not make my best of list in 1982. That’s partially because there’s a lot of really great songs in 1982 and that’s partially because that isn’t one. It’s not a song I like. It feels manufactured and forced. Jett sounds bored on it honestly. And I know what she sounds like when she’s not.

6 Joan Jett and the Blackhearts- I Hate Myself For Loving You. There is not one bad part of this song. From its beat to Jett just going for it on the vocals, you can tell she means the hate part. This is a song about loving someone awful and shredding yourself for it. There were a lot of great women in rock in the 80s and Jett was the real deal. This song still feels raw and anthemic.

So, I should note that I do listen to the songs before I put them here. And that costs songs spots often I fear. Last list, I listened to what I thought was a lock and slashed it because it wasn’t what I remembered. But things can go differently. One song I thought had had all its power drained by overplay shocked me and earned a spot.

5 Robert Palmer- Simply Irresistible. This song has become such a stock song for movies and ads it’s easy to forget it utterly beats you over the head with its power. The percussion on this song is a beast. Palmer’s vocals are full force powerful. The video’s imagery has permanently made this a relic of what was sexy in the 80s but the song is a bit more timeless than credited. It helps that Palmer clearly loved the same soul songs I love and gives a bit of that energy to what truly is an 80s powerhouse. This one holds up.

There’s no way my lists won’t ultimately be steeped in the women of the 80s. I’m soft this year but next year, I expect more to pop up. I love Mall Pop. I love women in rock. And I respect the queens of the 80s. And I definitely respect The Go-Gos. They were broken up by 1988 but front woman Belinda Carlisle had two hits this year. Heaven is a Place on Earth is one of the hardest cuts on this list. But I’ll argue her other song is that good.

4 Belinda Carlisle- I Get Weak. Weak is a funny word for the title because this is the opposite of that. This is a song that makes being deeply in love with someone seem profoundly strong and seductive. Carlisle had one of those great voices it seemed you could only have in the 80s, throaty and smoky. The song is steeped in that crystalline synth vibe that the decade thrived on. The song also has exactly the right perfect pacing. It goes slowly, building to full force with the titular declaration. Nothing weak at all.

I’m drawn very strongly to the retro vibe of a lot of 80s music. I love 60s music. I could easily do a column on every year of that decade and just never go low on music to list. So a cover of a 1962 song by the guitarist of the ultimate 60s band? Easy.

3 George Harrison- Got My Mind Set On You. There’s not much to say here. This is just an impossibly tight song. It doesn’t hurt that Harrison, of course on guitar and killing, was joined by ELO’s Jeff Lynne on bass and keyboards as well as producing. This is a jam session song of the best kind. The song has that classic energy through and through.

The number one song of 1989 was a bad Chicago song and that bugs me. The 80s were a great decade. We could’ve done better. And I think in 1988 we did.

2 George Michael- Faith. I used tight for the last song. This is tighter. This song is all restraint. The lyrics are spit in a way that makes delivery seem like it came from a straight jacket. The guitar riffs are quick blasts until a good rolling solo. And the thing is that’s the point. The song is about a man debating losing control in love. He’s been hurt. This should sound like this. All music should sound this good.

My number one song comes from a fascinating artist. A guy who had three massive hits in the US. He fought the industry hard, even rejecting the dance pop he was known for to move into the soul he loved. In 1993, tired of the industry, he retired and actually stayed away for 7 years. He did this at 27, to be clear. He only returned in the 2000s and has kept a low profile in the US but has actually had quite a bit of success in the UK largely sticking to what he wants to do. I say all of this to say that while I absolutely love the memes and jokes associated with this song, I respect Rick Astley.

1 Rick Astley- Never Gonna Give You Up. I have a theory this song is a meme precisely because people love this song. How can you not? This is the best example of what you’d see out of the industry machine. It’s just as finely crafted a pop song as it gets. Astley didn’t write the song but his vocals are the thing that makes it next level. He sounds great and the whole thing is infused with joy and life. This was a big hit then. It’s a phenomenon now. It’s timeless and that’s wonderful. He truly never will give us up.

Next time: Todd in the Shadows bemoaned 1987 as a terrible year in a great video. I’m going to see if that’s true.

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