Blessed with good looks and a lovely voice well-matched to both up-tempo dance tunes and soft, emotive ballads, Gloria Estefan spent much of the '80s as one of pop music's most enduring superstars. Though her early years with the Latin music-infused Miami Sound Machine yielded little widespread success, the singer found massive payoff as a crossover artist particularly on the U.S. pop and adult contemporary charts. Here's a chronological look at the best Gloria Estefan songs of the '80s, several of which she composed herself.
Though far from the highest-performing single from Miami Sound Machine's 1984 English-language debut LP Eyes of Innocence (that distinction belongs to the distinctively silly "Dr. Beat"), this track demonstrates an immediate ability on the part of Estefan to fuse styles nimbly and convincingly. This tune works as a dance tune but also as a genuinely appealing pop and rock number, anchored primarily by Estefan's game delivery and vocal charms. Not a classic by any means, this song nevertheless set the stage for the massive career the band would soon enjoy as a crossover artist.
Oddly enough, this rousing and obviously Latin music-inspired single made no mark on the Spanish language charts, instead becoming Miami Sound Machine's first American Top 10 pop hit in late 1985. Nevertheless, the combination of abundant Latin rhythms and high-tempo vocals in the chorus with Estefan's slick but passionate mainstream delivery of the verses works rather magically well. Instrumentally, the rollicking piano and energetic horns help turn the proceedings into a full-tilt tropical romp. On a personal level, I remember this tune fondly from a Mark Harmon-Kirstie Alley TV movie I encountered during my wobbly first forays into pubescence. Ah, the halcyon days before cable TV.
3. "Bad Boy"
The second single from 1985's Primitive Love finds Miami Sound Machine with another upbeat, horn-infused pop hit full of charm and hooks. Estefan immediately found her niche image as a slightly naughty girl next door who could be suggestive without resorting to much in the way of skin-baring, gyrating vulgarity. This made the group's work popular with both teenage girls and their parents, but what really holds up are the tune's broad but melodically solid songwriting touches. This is playful, rather harmless pop, but it does possess a certain undeniable quality even for music fans otherwise disdainful of mid-'80s dance pop.
Her longtime fans in Spanish-speaking markets would probably find this hard to believe, but Estefan remains a somewhat underrated female vocalist in the U.S. She's certainly enjoyed plenty of hits over the years, but it's been all too easy to label her strictly as either a dance pop or adult contemporary artist. This ballad and its straightforward musical payoffs could be partially responsible for that perception, but it's hard to fault someone for near perfection. This is an '80s slow-dance classic, and it's also a truly solid and genuinely lovely pop music composition.
Following the somewhat disappointing chart showing and general novelty sound of previous single "Falling in Love (Uh Oh)," Miami Sound Machine returned for a time to its Latin grooves with its lead-off single from 1987's Let It Loose. Proving that she still had the capacity and inclination to commit to an upbeat tune, Estefan presents one of her finest lead vocals here. Co-written with longtime MSM composer Enrique Garcia, this tune returned the group to the Top 5 in 1987 and represents essentially the last time the band would play a prominent role in Estefan's music.
It was no secret that Estefan had become the focal point of Miami Sound Machine long before, but the Top 10 success of this particular ballad squarely placed the singer in the role of solo artist. To her credit, Estefan was always a major creative force in the band she fronted, and this highly effective 1988 ballad showcases her role as both crooner and modest sex symbol. Still, the main thing is that it's delivered in the form of a solid, emotionally engaging melody and a nuanced vocal performance. Late-'80s adult contemporary very rarely got better than this.
Estefan's move to near-total if still unofficial solo status certainly paid off for the singer, as this ballad became her first No. 1 pop hit. Lyrically and thematically, Estefan may have been verging into some stale territory at this point (after all, second-person direct address showed up in almost all her singles), but this certainly stands out as a fine showcase for one of pop's most accessible and consistent voices. The island beats and sassy dance moves had by now receded for Estefan, but her status as North American pop star continued to rise nonetheless.
It would be nice to recognize one of Estefan's late-'80s rump shakers as one of her best songs, but unfortunately the artist's non-ballads were suffering in quality at this point even if not in sales. This could hardly be determined on the charts, as the cloying "1-2-3" peaked at No. 3 in 1988 and "Get on Your Feet" just fell short of the Top 10 in 1989. Even so, this track, Estefan's second of three No. 1 pop hits during the span of 1988-1991, qualifies as stronger music even if it certainly subscribes to a clear songwriting formula. The passionate chorus is the key here, as Estefan has never sounded better interpreting her own composition.