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Top 10 Songs of 1989


Here's a musical look at the last calendar year of the '80s, a time during which much pop music was already in the process of saying goodbye to the previous decade. From the changing state of R&B and hip-hop to the rise of alternative rock to the earliest signs of grunge, 1989 served as a transitional year, to be sure, but it also pumped out some memorably high-quality tunes.

1. Soul II Soul - "Back to Life"

Jazzie B. of Soul II Soul
Catherine McGann/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Not that it will come as much of a surprise, but I've never been a huge fan of hip-hop or a close follower of R&B beyond some late-'70s and early-'80s soul. Nonetheless, I've always recognized the rather singular nature of this '80s dance-pop classic, which performed impressively on three charts, going all the way to No. 1 in R&B and dance circles and peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song's bread and butter, of course, clearly emerges in the transcendent vocals of Caron Wheeler, but the ensemble also contributes to the overall quality of one of 1989's finest singles.

2. The Cure - "Lovesong"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra

After spending a great deal of the '80s as a cult act and a true alternative to mainstream rock bands, the Cure finally enjoyed its first major hit with this tune. What's more, the band did so without sacrificing a scrap of Robert Smith's brooding vocal style or the group's signature, melodically mopey sound. It's not so much that this track possessed a particularly pop-friendly sound not also found on "In Between Days" or "Just Like Heaven." But I guess the time was just right for the band to register a Top 10 hit on three different charts, including a No. 2 showing on the Billboard Hot 100.

3. Fine Young Cannibals - "Don't Look Back"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/London-Sire

As one of two bands that emerged from the ashes of the English Beat in 1983, the Fine Young Cannibals truly left a lasting mark on 1989, delivering the almost irritatingly ubiquitous "She Drives Me Crazy" and "Good Thing," both of which stormed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 that year. But to me it's this song, which reached a respectable No. 11 on the Hot 100 and No. 9 on the modern rock charts, that accurately represents the best side of this interesting band. Of course, the vocals of Roland Gift are impeccably soulful, but the tune's peppy melodic genius lingers more deeply than most three-minute singles.

4. The Pixies - "Here Comes Your Man"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Chrome Dreams

Though far less dissonant and, perhaps, challenging than the alternative rock legends' typical output, this track from the Pixies' 1989 masterpiece, Doolittle, brims with quirky delight from start to finish. On display are the many talents of Black Francis for all to see: his cryptic lyrical musings, a truly impressive pop songwriting sense, and a signature wail. Of course, none of that really matters without the minimal but absolutely essential vocal contributions of Kim Deal and the wonderfully jagged lead guitar of Joey Santiago. Pixies fans may cringe to hear this, but this should have been a Top 10 single.

5. Bobby Brown - "Every Little Step"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen
Before the allegations of drug abuse, reality TV and his tumultuous marriage to Whitney Houston, former New Edition star Bobby Brown produced undeniably infectious pop like this. At the same time, he popularized the late-'80s and early-'90s movement called new jack swing, which blended soul, dance and hip-hop styles to great success. Brown's prolonged rapping break within this song and others may now sound more Fresh Prince than he ever intended, but the meat of the tune delivers great melodies with flair and conviction, helping to claim Top 5 status on the pop, R&B and dance charts.

6. Skid Row - "18 & Life"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino Atlantic

This Sebastian Bach-led, late-'80s hard rock outfit never quite fit into the pop-metal niche that dominated at the time, mainly because the band exuded a toughness that wasn't just an act. Although Bach could hit angelic high notes, he retained a nasty edge that bled into the music. Instrumentally, Dave "the Snake" Sabo and Scott Hill provided melodic guitars that nonetheless went for the jugular. Add to these ingredients Rachel Bolan's cringe-inducing nose chain and this song's gritty, merciless tale of youth gone dead and you have a band that had more in common with hardcore punk than the Sunset Strip music scene's typical hardcore porn leanings.

7. Don Henley - "The Last Worthless Evening"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen
Despite their success, the Eagles remain a polarizing act among music fans, and that certainly goes for one of the group's most visible members in his solo career as well. But it's difficult to ignore the trinity of superior talents Henley undoubtedly possesses: a voice for the ages, a haunting sense of melody, and lyrical genius. This exploration of modern relationships, one of Henley's most pervasive obsessions, suffers from not a misstep on its way to dissecting alienation, longing and fear and how such emotions cloud romantic fulfillment. Even if Henley always sings about the latter in its most idealized form.

8. Dead Milkmen - "Punk Rock Girl"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Ryko/Rhino
The post-punk novelty rock of the Dead Milkmen may have seemed a little too slight for its own good, overflowing with quirks and accordion and references to fellow cult artist Mojo Nixon. It's true there was a significant segment of the rock audience that had no idea what to do with the band, but listeners who got it undoubtedly fell in love with its geeky sense of fun and defiantly singular sense of humor. The tale of a day's romp with the song's titular female (laugh if you must), this track constituted the band's short-lived breakthrough, climbing, surprisingly enough, to No. 11 on Billboard's modern rock charts.

9. Indigo Girls - "Closer to Fine"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic

Just as the Dead Milkmen served as pioneers for much of the punkish joke rock that followed during the '90s, Atlanta's Indigo Girls blazed a serious trail for the rash of introspective female singer-songwriters that emerged en masse during that decade. The duo of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray got its start on the strength of this cerebral and powerful acoustic anthem that was a perfect match for a new generation of college students. Taking harmonies to a level unheard of for the often slick, electronic '80s, the Indigo Girls injected a much-needed organic element into '80s music that has proved continuously influential.

10. Neil Young - "Rockin' in the Free World"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Well, it was inevitable that 1989 possess certain transitional characteristics to be so close to a new decade, and folk rock legend Neil Young's transition from crooner to snarling pre-grunge powder keg took place with a fury toward the end of the '80s. This track, filled with anger at what Young deemed an increasingly conservative, backward-looking American culture, undoubtedly laid the foundation for the rock music genre that would change the entertainment world by 1991. Much of this had to do with Young's dark political outlook, but listen to his unruly lead guitar for a real harbinger of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

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