10. Sinead O'Connor "Nothing Compares 2 U"
Sinead O'Connor freaked 14 year old me out. I was a good, devout Catholic boy, so her later infamous ripping up of the pope's picture on national television scared me. Her shorn head and unconventional manner were hard to assimilate for a boy who had yet to figure his relationship with traditional gender norms. All of that made it hard to appreciate what is a real classic love ballad, one infused with a kind of raw emotion so often missing from the top 40. Whenever I hear this song used as background music in supermarkets and airports I still prick my ears up and drink it in.
9. MC Hammer "U Can't Touch This"
Another song using "U" in the title, but it couldn't be more different. I was getting into rap music at this time, but Hammer was a million miles from Public Enemy and Eric B and Rakim. I didn't care. I still remember taking my lawn mowing money from my first mow of the summer down to Musicland to buy Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, which I promptly wore out over the course of the summer. I had in my walkman during my summer job detasseling corn, and I remember one day, stuck in the detasseling bus on a muddy road in a thunderstorm, me and another kid reciting the whole song vertabim, including that tough part near the end where he says a bunch of lines fast. Like it or not, this song, baggy pants and all, broke hip hop music into the malls, and the world has never been the same since.
8. New Kids On The Block "Step By Step"
The New Kids are one of those true cultural relics of a very specific time, like OK Cola and polyester bell bottoms. My little sister loved them, and I always taunted her for it. My other sister and I would mock sing "Step by step/ooh baby/Gonna get to you girlrlrlrl" and fall on the floor in gusts of laughter. This song is a bit goofy, even by New Kids standards, but is evidently the biggest hit they had. The production is certainly forward looking with more than a dose of new jack swing. The twin onset of grunge and hard-edged rap swept the New Kids into the dustbin of history, only for boy bands to appear again in the late 90s when pop regained its ascendancy.
7. Linear "Sending All My Love"
Linear too is going for the new jack swing boy band vibe here. The production is far less polished, but that's actually a little welcome. There's little minor key flourishes in here, making it a much more compelling listen a quarter century on.
6. Janet Jackson "Alright"
Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation album sort of bridged the gap between the 80s and 90s. It's got both the big synthesized pop sound and the big hip hop beats. This song, unlike a lot of the other hits off of the album, is more about dance than it is about the melody. The Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production still dominates, though.
5. Roxette "It Must Have Been Love"
Okay, here's an embarrassing admission: in September of 1990 I asked for and received a copy of the Pretty Woman soundtrack for my birthday. It was packed with hits, including this one! I'd known Roxette for their slinky "The Look," so hearing this very conventional lost love ballad from them surprised me. The backing has a kind of baroque pop element to it that I have to admit I sort of like. The chorus is awful catchy, too. Dammit, I think this song just got in my head.
4. Heart "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You"
Heart came on the scene in the late 70s with some fantastic hard rock. I would always crank "Magic Man" and "Barracuda" when they came on the classic rock radio. In one of the more improbable mutations a band has undergone, they retooled themselves for the 80s with lots of overproduced ballads in videos draped in fog and lace. This song is not ready for the 90s. Lots of gated snares, watery guitars, and shimmering synths. It's a sign that Heart's run was about to come to an end.
3. Bell Biv Devoe "Poison"
Before the New Kids producer Maurice Starr had created New Edition. Bobby Brown broke out of the group as a big time solo artist, and the other members tried their luck, too. (Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant, anyone?) "Poison" is probably the best post-New Edition song of them all. The beat is absolutely irresistible, one of the most recognizable of the era. There's a cool minor-key vibe to the background vocals and the song avoids the overly bright, sugary sound that had a stranglehold on the charts in the late 80s. I bought this one on cassingle at Wal-Mart after the first time I saw the video on MTV. I still like hearing it.
2. Madonna "Vogue"
If anything, this song taught me the names of a bunch of classic Hollywood stars ("Rita Hayworth gave good face" etc.) This song is Madonna at her best: appropriating gay male subculture and mixing it with fresh dance music and a reserved cool. The gay voguing dance craze was now safe for the Willowbrook Mall. Snark aside, it might be her greatest accomplishment.
1. Wilson Phillips "Hold On"
Speaking of the mall, I think I've heard this song in malls for twenty-six years straight. This group combined children of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. That might sound like a flimsy idea for a group, but Carney and Wendy Wilson and Chynna Phillips made some great harmonies, a disappearing art in the pop world. The melodies almost but don't quite overcome the dated production, which is stuck in the 80s world of big, loud, and obvious. The lyrics are also part of that whole 80s self-affirmation music genre. It's a song meant to be played at corporate retreats and to introduce "inspirational" speakers.