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Top 10 Songs of 1988

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Here's a look at 10 of the most striking, singular tunes from 1988, a year dominated by some pretty lame pop hits and hair metal posturing but somehow still rich with delightful surprises. Most of the year's best moments did not coincide with hit singles, instead residing in the evolving niche of post-college rock alternative music. Nonetheless, 1988 certainly rewarded patience on the part of listeners everywhere, as new artists with fresh approaches frequently helped stave off stagnation.

1. When in Rome - "The Promise"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin

Definitely one of the most elegant synth pop tunes of the '80s, this song actually benefited from a revival of sorts, at least for me, as the result of its memorable placement leading into the end credits of the recent indie film sensation Napoleon Dynamite. But in its time, this track fell just short of cracking the Billboard pop Top 10 while becoming a No. 1 hit on the niche dance charts, a nice showing indeed. Although the band that gave us the tune undoubtedly stands as a bona fide one-hit wonder, the song's beautiful and stately pop mystique must have inspired some raging envy in Spandau Ballet for its precise, classy approach.

2. The Church - "Under the Milky Way"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Arista

As I was perusing the major hits of 1988 to determine this list, I got more and more depressed at what seemed like a real scarcity of quality music. Until I remembered this gorgeous alternative pop tune from the Australian band the Church, which also released a really great album that year in Starfish. While the song climbed only to No. 26 on the Billboard pop charts, Steve Kilbey's haunting, utterly unique lyrics and vocals combined with wonderfully throwback chiming guitars helped fill a 1988 void in truly memorable, emotionally evocative music. Unless you think Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" is deep or something.

3. Steve Earle - "Copperhead Road"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of MCA
While this has never been anywhere near my favorite Steve Earle tune (after all, there are so many other unbelievably good songs in his catalogue), it urgently belongs on this list because of its wonderfully challenging impact on the somewhat static rock scene of the time. Aside from being a dense, rather specific story song, which can be the kiss of death in mainstream rock, this amazing track features some haunting, bagpipe-sounding accordion, not to mention prominent mandolin as its rhythmic foundation. But beyond these daring instrumental choices, this is a song that flat-out rocks the paint off your walls.

4. Living Colour - "Cult of Personality"

Album Cover Photo Courtesy of Epic Records

Speaking of daring, this striking track from one of hard rock's few all-black quartets made one hell of a splash on MTV and rock radio in 1988, and rightfully so. Fueled by the blistering, unorthodox guitar playing of Vernon Reid and the forceful, soaring vocals of Corey Glover, this tune drew from hardcore punk paths blazed by bands like Bad Brains as well as conventional hard rock and classic rock influences. Despite slick production, the band's performance was raw and dangerous, injecting also a startling level of political consciousness into a culture more interested usually in listening to Tiffany at the mall.

5. Tracy Chapman - "Fast Car"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra

Although Bruce Springsteen was most certainly still churning out highly personal, confessional songwriting during the late '80s, it was nice to see a woman pick up the singer-songwriter mantle and usher the form into a new era. Chapman's surprising success with this track, which climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard pop charts, helped attract a fresh audience for music that actually tried to be about something other than perpetual adolescence. Detailing the despair of a forgotten working class amidst fleeting moments of hope, this tune brought some much-needed seriousness to a "Don't Worry, Be Happy" pop music climate.

6. Breathe - "Hands to Heaven"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin

Well, we now have irrevocable confirmation that I have no shame if I'm putting this song on this list. But I don't care; in the words of Jim Cunningham's clients in Donnie Darko, "I'm not afraid anymore." Yes, this song, despite its egregiously cheesy saxophone and startlingly overwrought vocal performance, simply is one of the catchiest, most against-your-will '80s love songs with an unfailing capacity to rend hearts of true romantics everywhere. Although singer David Glasper displays an annoying tendency to overuse vibrato, this is a karaoke keeper I've always loved whether I was into hair metal or punk rock.

7. Midnight Oil - "Beds Are Burning"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia
Though not a monster hit by any means, this track about aboriginal settlers in Australia, of all things, made an unmistakable mark on 1988 at several distinct levels. For one, the shaved-head countenance of seven-foot-tall frontman Peter Garrett made quite an impression when the band hit MTV. But beyond the visual, his utterly captivating yelp of a singing voice lent anger and immediacy to the band's personal take on a narrowly specific social problem in its homeland. The song's sound seemed old and new at the same time, employing driving rock beats, a nifty horn intro and a soaring gem of a chorus.

8. George Michael - "Father Figure"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia
George Michael's smash album Faith stretched across both 1987 and 1988, easily becoming one of pop's most iconic flashpoints for musical timing. In contrast to his image as one-half of the often slight and goofy Wham!, Michael emerged as a stubbled sex symbol with a masculine, even slightly dangerous edge. His new image perfectly fit this tune, an elegant pop song replete with sexual tension and soaring melody. In Michael's hands, the tune becomes an almost spiritual experience, aided by gospel-tinged backing vocals, a fact that contrasts wonderfully with the racy, controversial subject matter.

9. Jane's Addiction - "Jane Says"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic Records/ATG

If there was one pre-Nirvana band most responsible for the rise of alternative rock in the late '80s into the '90s, it was probably Jane's Addiction. The wildly inventive L.A. quartet helped force the transition between the more melodic, pop-oriented college rock era to the eclectic, slightly dangerous new strain sometimes called modern rock. This song, while probably not the most representative track from the group's classic album Nothing's Shocking, certainly stands as its most recognized anthem. The acoustic guitars may be gentle, but Perry Farrell's lyrics of fringe life and wailing vocal style are anything but.

10. Guns N' Roses - "Sweet Child O' Mine"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Some might argue that the era's premier truly hard rock band may have softened its methods and execution for this rocking power ballad that shot to No. 1 on the pop charts, but a closer examination reveals that the tune largely retains the band's raw guitar sound despite the gentle nature of its sentiment. Axl Rose may sing a bit more sweetly here, but as the song explodes into its rocking conclusion, the band's sense of menace returns in a breathtakingly bombastic display. There were better songs in 1988 than this, but there sure as hell weren't many, especially with the kind of unbridled energy found in the performance.

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