It’s not that 1988 didn’t produce any memorable pop, rock, or R&B hits–it’s the year of George Michael’s “Faith,” for example–it’s just that many of the more successful songs from the year aren’t as enduring as songs from other years.
Maybe it’s a product of where music was at the time. Big hair rock, pop ballads, and dance pop seemed all equally popular, and college (or alternative) radio was climbing towards the mainstream. This musical polyglot is kind of characteristic of the charts for most of the rock n’ roll era, so maybe it’s not unusual. The dearth of really ensuring, standout hits that have survived the ages is the more interesting thing.
Apparently, September 1988 is a good reflection of the year as a whole. You’ll know the songs, or you won’t, but only one of them has stood the test of time to achieve the iconic status I’m talking about. And even that only sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks.
5. “Peek-A-Boo” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
I don’t know this song and I really don’t know much at all about the music of Siouxsie and her banshees. I know they had fans–passionate fans if my world were any indicator–and I know they had a lot of success. I bet this song is not indicative of their best, either artistically or in terms of sales, but it’s a historic song for this month of 1988. In the second week of September, Billboard debuted their “Alternative” charts, meant to capture music that was big but not as “commercial.” This was the first #1 song on those charts.
4. “Finish What Ya Started” by Van Halen
Van Halen had become “Van Hagar” in 1985 and still managed to continue their success of the David Lee Roth era. They had a hit album in 1986 (5150, which topped the level of success they had with their monumentally successful album 1984) and followed it up with 1988’s OU812. This was a decline for the band in terms of sales, but it produced a set of hit singles including this late addition to the album. It peaked at #2 on the “Mainstream Rock” charts in early September and then began its quick decline. It’s a catchy song, yes, but it’s also a great microcosm of the kinds of simple masculinity that built big hair rock in the era.
3. “Another Part of Me” by Michael Jackson
Michael was a factory churning out musical success in the 1980s and early 1990s. At his best and most successful, those songs entered the popular cannon of music in ways most artists only dream of. Not all were songs that get a lot of play today, but they were still hits for the time. His album Bad was the first in history to produce five consecutive #1 songs. This was the sixth, which hit the #1 spot on the R&B charts in September 1988 even though it only made it to #11 on the Hot 100, ending his record-setting streak. It was a known song already, having been written and recorded for his 1986 3D Disney movie “Captain EO.” The video gives us none of that (after all, it was still playing at Disney’s parks) but instead goes live to show what Michael loved to show–just how big a cultural phenomenon he was.
2. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
I was a teenager in my sophomore and then junior year in 1988 and, like most teenagers, my friends and I had strong opinions about music. This was one of those songs that you either liked or hated, at least in my little world. At the time, I probably said stuff about it that suggested I was in the “hate” camp. I mean, it was kind of easy pickings for hard rock fans. But I didn’t really hate the song. First, it was catchy–like the kind of catchy that when you hear it it sticks with you for most of the day. Second, lots of people–friends and family–loved the song. But the most important reason was Bobby McFerrin himself. The man was everywhere on TV and he was a really nice guy. Plus, he played all the “instruments” on this song because all of them were just him and the sounds he made with his voice and body. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in the last week of the month where it stayed for two weeks. And trivia note: it was from the movie Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise.
1. “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
Out of all the songs on this week’s list, this is arguably the only one to have achieved that iconic status. Funny thing is, it only hit #1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks before fading away! Of course, it was a hit on the rock charts, too, but it only peaked at #7 there. Fans were fickle in 1988. That said, the song grew to be the biggest song for a hard rock band that had lots of big songs and, in many ways, it is the 80s hard rock ballad song of the era. It’s a contender for that title because of its “legs” in our culture. Its cultural endurance owes a lot to the video (equally iconic) but also to the blend of ballad tendencies, with pop and hard rock. It’s as solid song as the band ever produced, and it still deserves listening to, 31 years later.