Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about 1989. That’s 1989, the album by Taylor Swift, not 1989 the year. Which begs the question: What about the real 1989? What’s that? Chopped liver?
Apparently so, because, you know, Taylor Swift.
In case you haven’t heard, a professional Bruce Springsteen impersonator named Ryan Adams (lovingly, or horribly depending on your point of view) re-recorded Taylor Swift’s, brilliant, but divisive album, 1989, in its entirety. In response, the internet shit it’s pants. That’s when professional Ryan Adams impersonator, Father John Misty, decided to troll the both of them by doing a couple versions of Swift’s songs in the style of the Velvet Underground (sigh).
I have no intention of getting into this mess. My two cents, which admittedly don’t matter, are this: I’ve listened to everybody’s 1989 and all of it leaves me with is a sad, nagging, impression that the best 1989 of all is, well, none of the above.
1989, the year, is better than all of them.
Which is why I bring to you today–as someone who is intimately familiar with that year because I lived through it, as a teenager no less–the 20 most iconic songs of 1989. I have taken great pains to bring you this list. I’ve ravenously re-consumed all of the music from 1989–well, a lot of it anyway. But the hard work has paid off! These 20 songs represent 1989 in its full glory: the good, the bad, and the Bette Midler. Though I have tried to emphasize the most impressive music of the year, I also recognize that I would be doing a great disservice to you if I didn’t expose you to the wide array of pop music that made 1989 what it was: the hot pink death rattle of an incredibly cheeky decade.
Feel free to tell me what a bullshit list this is in the comments section!
1) Madonna: “Like A Prayer”
I quite frankly can’t imagine of a better way to kick off our list. This song oozes 1989. It simply reeks of it–it was, after all, the number one song of the year. It’s the Honey I Shrunk The Kids of pop music. Listening to it now will surely make you stupider–the lyrics are just dunderheaded–but who cares! “Like a Prayer” will, “take you there.” You know, to 1989, where Madonna is the biggest star in the world and MTV still played videos–usually Madonna and Aerosmith ones. Which probably explains a lot about why they quit playing them, actually (how you gonna top, “Love In An Elevator”? Right?).
Wallow in it, you know you want to.
2) Tears For Fears: “Sowing The Seeds Of Love”
Apparently, in 1989, the world was “Sowing The Seeds of Love.” And Tears For Fears would like us to “think about it,” and “talk about it.” Well, I must say, I have thought about it, actually, and I simply can’t figure out what the heck “sowing the seeds of love” means. All I know is, it sounds awfully sentimental to me. Speaking of which, this song should make you sentimental for 1989 even if you weren’t alive at the time. There is probably no other year that this could have become such an enormous hit. Since then, it’s become a part of our national sub-consciousness (it’s the sort of song we hear going about our daily activities at grocery stores, restaurants, or filling up our cars) so it’s easy to overlook what a strange and unlikely hit this really was. I mean, c’mon’, is he rapping on that first verse?
He sure is. And if we’re being honest, my man can flow.
3) The Cure: “Fascination Street”
That bassline–my goodness. The incomprehensible lyrics that evoke horror and insanity in equal measure. It’s like a musical hurricane: terrifying, larger than life, bearing down on you with God’s fury, relentlessly beating on everything until the world succumbs to it’s power and finally lets it wash over creation.
Also, Robert Smith’s hair game was seriously on 100 in 1989. 2015? Not so much.
4) Janet Jackson: “Miss You Much”
“Miss You Much” is one of the greatest R&B jams of all time and her 1989 album Rhythm Nation is bulletproof. Ms. Jackson just released a new album, too, and it ain’t half bad. Which, let’s give the woman some credit, is a major triumph in and of itself.
Maybe it’s time we all realized that Janet is at least as good as her brother was. Also, there is nothing “malfunctioning” about her wardrobe in this video.
5) Chris Isaak: “Wicked Game”
I have it on good authority that this song sounds exactly the same as heroin feels. I could watch this video on repeat until I die and not feel the slightest bit unfulfilled–it’s that sexy. Which is to say, love is a lot like heroin, too. It sucks you in, you wallow, shit gets real. Chris Isaak knows this all too well, apparently. And by the end of the song when, with a whimper, he sings the words that, clearly, not even he believes: “Nobody loves no one,” you’ve got to feel for him. Because you just know he’s completely fucked.
6) Technotronic: “Pump Up The Jam”
If there is a beautiful woman in neon green spandex saying you can make her day by “(getting) your booty on the floor” why wouldn’t you?
She needs a place to stay!
Fugazi is one of the greatest bands America has ever known. You should know that right off the bat. “Waiting Room” holds a very special place in the punk rock canon. It was (and still is) the anthem, every bit the tune “Psycho Killer” or “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” were. With that in mind, you should listen to the lyrics of this song, or rather, don’t.
I realize it’s only a google search away, but I’ll never look up what Guy Picciotto is actually saying on the backups during the chorus here. What it sounds like he’s saying is sooo much better. As any of my friends will tell you, this is what he really sings (thanks Jake for pointing this out to everyone):
Ian MacKay: I don’t want the news!
Guy Picciotto: I’m Gary Busey!
Ian MacMay: I don’t want the news!
Guy Picciotto: I wanna party!
8) Biz Markie: “Just A Friend”
One of the great tragedies of 1989 was how Biz Markie got pigeonholed as a novelty act. Dude could rap and not for nothing, he could beatbox with the best of ‘em, too. Unfortunately, this was his only hit. I guess that’s what being funny gets you. And he was hilarious! All dressed up like Amadeus talking about how an anonymous girl–he brilliantly calls her, “Bla, Bla, Bla”–broke his heart. Except you can totally tell he doesn’t really care.
They don’t make ‘em like this no more.
9) Ministry: “Thieves”
Ministry’s A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste tore through America’s suburbs the same way And Justice For All did a couple years earlier. Which is to say, if you were 13, like I was, hanging out with the kids smoking cigarettes in the parking lot–the same ones smuggling bottles of Schnapps from their parents liquor cabinets into school–then you were probably smoking weed and bumping the hell out this. It was the hardest thing I’d ever heard up until that point in my life. It spoke to my soul, because, you know, fuck the system.
“Thanks!” Al Jourgensen screams, presumably at the “thieves and liars” of the world, “Thanks for nothing!”
Take that, you bastards!
10) Ton-Loc: “Wild Thing”
“Couldn’t get her off my jock, she was like static cling,” raps Ton-Loc as if it were a problem. This song is silly and that’s the point. Nobody was worried about a damn thing in 1989, everything was just peachy. First of all, communism was crumbling. Which is to say, “Wild Thing,” hit the streets just in time for America to do a sexy victory lap as we watched the Berlin wall come down. All of this adds to “Wild Thing’s” legend even if in the grand scheme of things Tone-Loc isn’t all that important of a rapper.
Still, for a few months during the summer of 1989, he was the hottest thing in the world. Hope he saved his money!
11) Paula Abdul: “Opposites Attract”
First things first. The cartoon cat (in this video) is A) doing the running man and B) definitely getting a little rapey with Paula Abdul.
Even as a huge pop star, Paula Abdul got no respect! But if you were a teenage girl in 1989 you were eating lucky charms, watching Saved By The Bell, and dancing your ass off to this shit. These are all good things. So stop the hate on Paula, for crying out loud! All she ever wanted to do was make the perfect soundtrack to your next slumber party. That’s it. How the hell are you gonna hate that? Slumber parties rule.
12) Depeche Mode: “Personal Jesus”
When it comes to 80s electro-pop, Depeche Mode were the kings. So if it’s been a while since you’ve heard Violator, fix that, right now. You’ll thank me.
For years, the closest thing New York City had to a 9/11 memorial was the ruins of a piece of corporate art called, “The Sphere” (the city still displays it in Battery Park, pictured here to the side). “The Sphere” was originally at the base of the twin towers and was badly damaged when two of the world’s largest skyscrapers came tumbling down on top of it. There’s a plaque at the memorial explaining the sculpture’s original artistic meaning (it’s about world peace) and there is also a small flame coming out of the ground that never goes out, signifying how New York will “Never Forget” or something like that.
In any case, I lived in NYC for over a decade so I took a lot of visitors to see “The Sphere.” And like clockwork, every single time I saw that eternal flame this godforsaken song by The Bangles popped into my head.
That’s when I would start singing:
“Close your eyes / Give me your hand, darlin’ / Do you feel my heart beating?”
It didn’t go over well. I mean, the song is horrible. And my a cappella version of it, even worse, if you an imagine that.
It was an awful thing to do. But if you think I disrespected the fallen by singing that song, try to keep in mind that an eternal flame is a completely saccharine, utterly phony, way to honor the good people who lost their lives that day.
Nevertheless, I’m probably still going to hell for singing “Eternal Flame” to people who’s only crime was being in my proximity. But if it’s any consolation, every time I did it, it lingered in my head for days. If that’s not a punishment that fits the crime I don’t know what is.
14) Young MC: “Bust A Move”
It can be hard to talk to girls. I should know. I’ve been single for a very long time because busting a move is terrifying.
Young MC has no patience for “Poindexters” like me, which is evidently why he wrote this bad ass song. Putting yourself out there can be hard, but having the confidence to “bust a move” is a big part about being a man, I suppose. So with that in mind, I’ll try to heed his advice next time a shorty “dressed in yellow” says “hello.”
15) Nirvana: “School”
I didn’t hear this song until the early 90s (after Nevermind was released). Still, I’d like to think I would have loved it in 1989. It was the perfect song for an awkward kid trying to navigate the cruel world of Junior High. That shit is rough! Not only were you expected to shower with a bunch of assholes, those same fools would slam your locker door closed while you were looking for your pencil and knock the books out of your hand as you walked to class. Still, I could deal with all of that except there was something else that was much, much, more nefarious going on in Junior High:
16) The D.O.C.: “It’s Funky Enough”
Dre approves of this song’s funkyness. Nuff said.
17) The B-52’s: “Love Shack”
If there is anyone out there who wants to start a B-52’s cover band, be aware, I do a dead-on Fred Schneider. It’s unreal how good I am. If only the printed word could conjure the emotions I could stir in your heart by singing the words: “There’s a monster in my pants and it does a nasty dance!“
How you would cherish it!
Anyway, B-52’s cover band. If you’re with it, hit me up on my gmail. I’m dead serious.
18) Skid Row: “18 And Life”
Of course this song had to be on here. And yes, it had to be #18–because it was just too perfect. Other than that, all you need to know is that 1989 was the absolute nadir of butt rock. This song is the worst, which is why you have to listen to it–if we don’t learn from our mistakes we’re doomed to repeat them. I could have just as easily used Lita Ford and Ozzy’s “Close My Eyes Forever,” or Winger’s “Heaven,” but Skid Row really is the pinnacle of bullshit, so here you go!
This song was everywhere in 1989 and it seemed like all the girls I had a crush on were blasting it. I would be all like, “The Smiths are way better,” and they would be all like, “you’re gay.”
Oh yeah, calling people “gay” was a thing in 1989, too. But you know what’s really gay? This. Not that there is anything wrong with that…
19) Bette Midler: “Wind Beneath My Wings”
I’m sorry I had to do this to you: two terrible songs in a row but them’s the breaks. This one is going to be hard. Easily the worst song of 1989–maybe of all time–but definitely the worst of 1989. And that’s saying something (two words: Milli Vanilli). Not to mention, it was only a year earlier when we had to endure the singular agony of Whitney Houston’s “One Moment In Time.”
Now this. It hurt so, so bad.
20) 2 Live Crew: “Me So Horny”
After Skid Row and Bette Midler I believe a palate cleanser is in order.
This song, for all its disgusting, chauvinistic, tendencies was nevertheless my theme in 1989. Truth be told, I was horny (as teenagers tend to be). I remember the first time I heard this. It was in English class and we had a substitute teacher who had completely lost control of the room and didn’t give a fuck. One of the kids busted out a tiny tape deck (one that looked like this) and started booming this at full volume. The sub did nothing to stop it. We danced, somebody (probably me) got punched in his dick. It was good times. Anyway, this little ditty spoke to my soul, as it did to many a young boy in 1989. 17 years later all I can honestly say about “Me So Horny” is:
“Me love you long time.”
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify here.
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you’re enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com