After a survey of the first four months of number one songs in the 1980s, it is pretty clear that there are no real baseline qualities for what gets to the Top of the Pops. There are good, and clearly, there are very bad. So clearly being #1 is not sufficient criteria for pop immortality. Indeed, there is a rich history of #2 songs in the decade – here are my favorite from each year.
1980 – “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl” by The Spinners. 1980 was not a difficult call among #2s. The silver medal is really more gloriously cheesy than actually good (“Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross). The Spinners are not a vocal group who rolls off the tongue the same way you get from say The Temptations or The Four Tops, but you look at the record and they had a ton of songs everybody knows. “Could it be I’m Falling in Love”, “Rubberband Man”, “Then Came You”. This cover is one of their best. Extra points for the suits.
1981 – “Just the Two of Us” by Grover Washington Jr/Bill Withers. 1981 was a tough competition for #2s. Indeed, both George Harrison (“All Those Years Ago”) and John Lennon had #2s (Lennon’s “Woman” being his finest song). But despite how much of a Beatles fan I am – Washington’s music and Wither’s vocals are just too much.
1982 – “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Gos. This was held out of the #1 spot by “I Love Rock and Roll” – and of course it is the Go-Go’s signature song. This is one of the songs that has not really dated – it still kicks ass.
1983 – “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant. This was tricky – as Culture Club had a pair of number 2 hits in 1983 – including “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Time (Clock of the Heart)” (“Time won’t give me time” – has any philosopher expressed the problem with life better?) But this reggae-pop tune is one of the real earworms of the decade. It’s appeal is a bit more time capsule – but it still works, “oy!!!”
1984 – “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. This was a very very tough field with “Purple Rain” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (which still features the most amazing guest vocal credit in history given the artists actual obscurity). But while seeing multiple people belt out “Purple Rain” in karaoke – Lauper’s signature song is more fun and memorable (or maybe I am nostalgic for Capitan Lou Albano) – and she really can sing.
1985 – “Easy Lover” by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins. This is one of my favorite disposable pop songs ever. Bailey, the high voice in Earth, Wind and Fire, only really had this as his big pop solo success. This song has everything good pop music has – a great hook, something to falsetto to, and an energetic beat. Considering “Raspberry Beret” and “You Belong to the City” by Glenn Frey were among 1985’s candidates (and if we are honest “Raspberry Beret” is a better song), coming out on top took something.
1986 – “Manic Monday” by the Bangles. When I am feeling snarky, I cite this as Prince’s best song. Certainly this is an objectively perfect song – both musically and lyrically. No case of the Mondays has ever been expressed better.
1987 – “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael. Just like how “Billie Jean” was actually not the first single on Thriller, actually THIS was the first single released from George Michael’s explosion onto the solo scene. If I remember correctly, this song was featured in the second Beverly Hills Cop movie. Either way, I remember this being amazingly controversial when it came out – even if it seems rather tame now. It’s doubly funny given his own sexual orientation. As I have noted before – among closeted singers, Michael was remarkably convincing in 1987.
1988 – “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys. I noted above that The Spinners were one of those bands where you kind of don’t realize just how many hits they produced. They weren’t exactly obscure – just not something which leaps to mind. In perusing 1980s music for this missive – or just First Wave on Sirius, you forget how successful (and good) the Pet Shop Boys were. One of the more successful duos in history (and I think the most among Brits) – this is one of their biggest hits. Dusty Springfield’s hairdo is a bit unfortunate and dated though.
1989 – “Love Song” by The Cure. Speaking of First Wave, we come to the kings of mopey ballads, the Cure. One of the inexplicable things about Top 40 radio is how a classic mopey love song like “Just Like Heaven” barely nicked the Top 40 – but this gets to #2. I’m not complaining, this is a terrific song in its own right. I’m just noting that you would never pick this over “Just Like Heaven”
BONUS: Back to 1988. Interestingly Def Leppard would hit number one – but not with their signature song. Growing up, this would always be very high when MTV did their Top 100 videos of all time. This was a #2 as well. And as long as there are people dancing for money – did they know this was the song’s eternal destiny? Did Jack White know that his ultimate legacy will be a hook pep bands play? I don’t know.
BONUS 2: Back to 1989. Can people really deal honestly with the idea that Milli Vanilli, by dance-pop standards, was actually good? The scandal of their lip syncing is well known – but you can’t unhear the songs. Given how manufactured so many pop singers are in 2017 – you still have to give a hat tip to the songs produced. Milli Vanilli might be a punch line – but “Girl You Know It’s True” would still work.