1987 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Glam Metal arrives on the Pop charts but Gen-X genres are pushing at the ramparts on MTV’s 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball.
Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we do a deep dive into a year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s top trade publication, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush, we’re turning the clock back to 1987, the year Hard Rock broke through on the Pop singles charts on its own terms for the first time in almost 15 years.
Glam Rock, a.k.a. “Hair Metal,” gradually built a following among Rock fans in the early ’80 who’d come to see Mainstream Rock as a disappointing, directionless muddle after its dominant mode in the ’70s, Progressive Rock or “Prog,” petered out around 1978. But Rock radio continued playing the favorites from what’s since been called Rock’s “denim and leather” era, and anything new that those aging artists put out. And fans would breathlessly anticipate these releases hoping to hear something worthy of existing in the same universe as the older classic stuff. It rarely was. Usually it sounded more like a lame attempt to stay relevant (or chase a buck) by jumping aboard the latest non-rock-adjacent bandwagon lighting up the charts. Disco, New Wave, Synthpop.
After years of disappointments, the burgeoning Glam Metal scene was Rock fans’ vote of no confidence. Musically and lyrically, it was ’70s Hard Rock stripped down to its basics, jettisoning all of Prog’s mysticism, sprawl and compositional ambition and zeroing in on catchy riffs, straightforward song structures, guitar pyrotechnics, and lusty, uncomplicated (some would say “shallow”) lyrics. And the aesthetic: showy, flashy, colorful spandex, headbands, hairspray and even makeup, ready-made for MTV, with image and attitude like a comic book version of the wildest sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll fantasies of adolescent boys.
Glam Metal: the big headline, but not the only one in ’87. ’87, also the first full year of MTV’s Sunday late-night nod to the left of the dial set, 120 Minutes, that took viewers “two hours into the future of music.” Wait, did that mean you were going forward in time two hours? Or were you visiting some unspecified future time for two hours? I think it’s the latter, but either way, they had no trouble filling the time in the dead of night with videos by what were then called “College Rock” artists because the only place you could hear them on the radio was on college stations. 120 Minutes: a huge milestone on the road to Alternative Rock’s breakthrough in the early ’90s.
By the way, MTV also had a show for Metalheads since ’85, which was renamed Headbanger’s Ball in ’87. And also in ’87, Yo! MTV Raps launched, but only in Europe. It was ported over to MTV America in ’88. The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill may’ve been the first #1 rap album ever, in ’87, with its big hit “Fight for Your Right to Party,” but like College Rock, Hip-Hop was still mostly underground. In ’87 Billboard critic Nelson George observed a generation gap in Black music. Older audiences including industry insiders and radio programmers were shunning it, but Rap albums were still selling like crazy and making the charts. Billboard finally acknowledged Alt Rock in ’88 when it launched its Modern Rock Tracks chart, later renamed Alternative Songs. The Hot Rap Tracks chart followed in ’89.
#10 Robbie Nevil – C’est la Vie
So Glam Metal, College Rock and Hip-Hop: three emerging genres that were in play in ’87, but a new default Pop-R&B sound had emerged in the mid-80’s, which had lots of flavors. But the core of it was a syncopated, Electro synth-beat-driven sound rooted in the New York and Miami Post-Disco dance scenes. In ’87, Billboard was just calling it “Urban Crossover.”
Our #10 song is a great reflection of that new Pop sound in that here was a songwriter, a white dude from L.A., who’d built a resume writing songs for mainstream R&B acts like The Pointer Sisters, El DeBarge and Earth, Wind & Fire, making his move and stepping in front of the mic. Not looking to break new ground; just looking (along with his producers) to hit the Pop bullseye and score a hit. And he did. Kicking off our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987, it’s Robbie Nevil’s “C’est la Vie.”
Robbie Nevil (no relation to The Neville Brothers or Aaron Neville), “C’est la Vie,” #10 as we count down the top ten songs of 1987 here on the Chartcrush Countdown Show. The song stayed in the top 40 for 16 weeks in early 1987 peaking at #2 for two of them, and was a #1 Dance hit too. Nevil’s follow-up in ’87 was also a top 20 hit, but his fortunes quickly waned and he went back to songwriting and producing.
#9 Whitesnake – Here I Go Again
At #9, our first Glam Metal song. In 1973, rocker David Coverdale came out of nowhere to replace Ian Gillian as the lead singer of the British Hard Rock band Deep Purple, right when they were at their peak (Gillian had quit over internal quibbles and exhaustion from constant touring). The Coverdale-fronted version of Deep Purple was pretty successful, but not very stable, so they split in ’76, and in ’77, Coverdale released his first solo album, entitled Whitesnake.
OK, now fast-forward ten years. Now it’s 1987 and Whitesnake is no longer an album title by a solo artist, it’s the name of a band. Wait. No. it is an album title because Whitesnake’s 1987 album was titled Whitesnake, but now it’s a self-titled album by a band, not a solo artist. Wait. No. That’s not right either. Coverdale fired everyone in the band Whitesnake right after the album Whitesnake was done, and he’s the only guy who gets any facetime in the videos. So is it a solo album? Well, I don’t know. But at #9 it’s Whitesnake: “Here I Go Again.”
“Here I Go Again,” Whitesnake, the #9 song of 1987 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown. Now as if the whole Whitesnake saga isn’t confusing enough, there are actually three different versions of “Here I Go Again,” recorded by different Whitesnake lineups. The first from 1982, then they re-did it for their 1987 self-titled album. But the version we just heard isn’t either of those. It’s a special “radio-mix” version that was only released as a single, but was recorded after the album, and after David Coverdale fired his entire band.
A huge factor in Whitesnake’s success in ’87: their music videos, “Here I Go Again” and their other hits “Still of the Night” and “Is This Love.” All three starred Coverdale’s girlfriend and future wife (for a couple years), actress Tawny Kitaen. But Kitaen was already the poster girl of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip Metal scene as Ratt guitarist Robbin Crosby’s girlfriend since high school. This is the Metal scene that produced Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and W.A.S.P. as well as Ratt. Metal fans knew Kitaen from the video for one of Ratt’s biggest hits, “Back for More,” and from the covers of both of Ratt’s first two records, all before she hooked up with David Coverdale.
#8 U2 – With or Without You
So as I mentioned, so-called “College Rock” in the late ’80s was gradually building momentum to burst out into the mainstream as “Alt Rock” in the early ’90s. MTV launched 120 Minutes in ’86 and Billboard was gearing up to launch its “Modern Rock” chart in ’88. At the end of ’87, the Indie Rock band R.E.M. scored their first top ten crossover Hot100 hit with “The One I Love,” and got their first Rolling Stone cover with the headline “Rock’s Most Influential College Band Graduates.” But another band that was just as big on college radio also had their big breakthrough year on the Pop charts in ’87 and got their second cover earlier in the year when Rolling Stone proclaimed them “Band of the ’80s”. At #8, the debut single from their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree, it’s U2, “With or Without You.”
Before “With or Without You,” the #8 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987, U2’s highest charting hit on the Hot100? “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which peaked at #33 in 1984 and was only their third Hot100 entry since 1980. Pretty disappointing considering the massive airplay they got on MTV with several videos. But ’87 was their year.
Despite its three weeks at #1, “With or Without You” missed Billboard’s year-end top ten at #15, but U2 was still Billboard’s #2 Pop singles artist of the year, behind only Madonna. Two other singles from their Joshua Tree album were big hits: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (#1 for two weeks in August), and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which stalled at #13 but stayed on chart almost as long as the other two.
They never had another #1 hit, but U2 remained one of the top Rock bands for the next three decades. Their 30th Anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree was the highest-grossing concert tour of 2017.
#7 Gregory Abbott – Shake You Down
Now back at #10 we heard Robbie Nevil’s “C’est la Vie.” At #7, another one-hit exemplar of the default late ’80s Electro-R&B-inflected Pop sound that Billboard was calling “Urban Crossover” in 1987. Not to be confused with Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” from the Beverly Hills Cop II Soundtrack, which was the #9 song of 1987 according to Billboard’s year-end Hot100 (#14 on our Chartcrush ranking), here is R&B singer Gregory Abbott at #7, “Shake You Down.”
Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down,” #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1987’s biggest hits. Abbott described the song at the time as a “groove ballad,” which critics picked up on and have been using to describe songs ever since. It topped the Hot100 for a week in January in the middle of season three of Friday night’s can’t-miss TV show on NBC, the crime drama Miami Vice. Which I only mention only because Abbott bore more than a passing resemblance to Philip Michael Thomas, who played detective Ricardo Tubbs on the show opposite Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett. In the era of video music, lots of people in ’87 thought “Shake You Down” was Philip Michael Thomas.
#6 Starship – Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now
Have you ever seen the ’80s romantic comedy Mannequin? Andrew McCarthy, Kim Cattrall pre-Sex in the City? Guy who does department store windows falls in love with a mannequin, and she comes to life? Well, its main title song was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar and was the #6 song of 1987. It’s also the first of nine #1 songs, all by different artists, and 11 Best Original Song Oscar nominations for songwriter Diane Warren, whose future credits included some of the biggest hits of the ’90s. #6 on our countdown, it’s Starship: “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Starship. Previously Jefferson Starship, and previous to that, Jefferson Airplane. And yup, the female singer is none other than Grace Slick, who played both the Monterrey Pop and Woodstock festivals and sang “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” way back in the psychedelic ’60s.
Airplane had splintered several times since the ’60s. Slick was the only original member on “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” and even she’d been in and out of the group over the years. They had to drop the “Jefferson” from their moniker and go by just Starship after Slick’s fellow founding member and baby daddy Paul Kantner quit in 1984 and sued. In ’89, the original Airplane reunited for a new album, which, like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us,” sounds nothing like their ’60s stuff.
#5 Los Lobos – La Bamba
On the U.S. Pop charts up to 1987, there’d been #1 singles sung in Italian, French, German, even Japanese. But never one in Spanish. Tejano singer Freddy Fender’s 1975 hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” has a verse in Spanish, but the #5 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987 is the very first U.S. #1 that’s entirely in Espanol.
It’s by a hard-working Chicano band from L.A. who’d been playing bars, weddings, and what have you for 14 years by ’87, and never aspired to Pop stardom. But Pop stardom found them when the family of teen ’50s rocker Ritchie Valens nominated them to do the cover versions for the 1987 Valens biopic starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Ritchie Valens, killed in the same 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. His original version in ’58 and ’59 only got to #22 as the B-side of his #2 hit, the ballad “Donna,” but Los Lobos took it all the way to #1 nearly 30 years later in 1987 and it was the #5 song of the year: “La Bamba.”
Los Lobos’s version of “La Bamba,” from the soundtrack of the Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba,” #5 as we count down the top ten from 1987 on this week’s Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. It just missed Billboard’s 1987 year-end ranking at #11. Los Lobos also appears in the movie. They’re the band playing “La Bamba” in the Tijuana brothel where Valens first hears the song. After “La Bamba,” Los Lobos continued putting out albums all the way into the 2020s, with a loyal following among Roots Rock fans, but no more entries on the Hot100 since 1987.
#4 Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
Narada Michael Walden was Billboard’s top charting producer for the second year in a row in 1987. Our #6 song, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” That was his. But it wasn’t his biggest hit of the year. His biggest was our next cut at #4, by a singer whose debut album in ’85 generated four top ten hits, and whose follow-up album, released right at the beginning of ’87, yielded five. And of those nine top ten hit singles from her first two albums, seven in a row were #1s, a record that still stands. And speaking of that second album, it debuted at #1 on the album chart, the first album ever by a female artist to do that. Its debut single was the upbeat summer hit 1987. It’s Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”
Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” the fourth of her record seven consecutive #1 singles, the #4 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987, coming off a red hot debut year in ’86 with two songs among the top ten hits of the year: “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All.”
Whitney’s incredible success began a frenzy of virtuoso female singers on the Pop charts over the next ten-plus years: Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Vanessa Williams, Toni Braxton and others, comparable to what happened in the early ’50s when the public couldn’t get enough of virutoso male singers and a tsunami of belters and crooners hit the charts.
Whitney, the original Pop diva of the Pop Diva era, out diva’d everyone on the #1 song of 1993, “I Will Always Love You.” Her live Superbowl version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was even a hit, first after she did it in 1991 when it peaked at #20, and then again after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 2001, when it got all the way to #6.
#3 Heart – Alone
Power ballads. Slow songs performed with a Hard Arena Rock or Heavy Metal arrangement—complete with distorted guitars, loud drums, the rock vocal style, but a ballad that starts slow and builds. Arguably no band in rock history was more successful with power ballads than the band with the #3 song in our countdown: veteran Arena Rockers, Heart, featuring the sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. “Alone.”
The biggest hit of Heart’s long career, “Alone.” Big in the ’70s; huge comeback in the mid ’80s. The momentum shifted for Heart when Ann Wilson, who we just heard singing “Alone,” teamed up with Mike Reno from the group Loverboy on the top 10 hit “Almost Paradise” for the movie Footloose. Heart’s “Never” and another power ballad, “These Dreams” followed in ’85 and ’86. And then “Alone” in ’87, the #3 song of the year on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987.
#2 Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer
In its “Year in Music” article in the December 26, 1987 Billboard, longtime writer-editor Paul Grein went so far as to compare the impact of the third album by our next act at #2 to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, pointing out that in the months after its seven weeks at #1 on the album chart in January and February ’87, five similar bands cracked the top five albums for the first time. Those bands were: Cinderella, Poison, Whitesnake, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard: Glam Metal bands. In June of 1987, four out of the top five albums were by Metal bands.
So who was this Michael Jackson caliber phenomenon that Paul Grein says opened the hair metal floodgates? Well they’d been at it since ’83. They were from New Jersey, and the album that started the flood, aptly named for the purposes of that metaphor, Slippery When Wet. It was the first Metal album to produce three top ten singles, and the biggest of them was 1987’s #2 song. It’s Bon Jovi “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Four weeks at #1, February into March, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the biggest single off their Slippery When Wet album. But not the first, and not even the first #1 from the album, which dropped in August of ’86. “You Give Love a Bad Name” hit #1 for a week around Thanksgiving, before “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Bon Jovi put a unique blue collar New Jersey spin on Glam Metal, different from the L.A. swagger of Mötley Crüe or Ratt, or the colder metallic edge of British or German Metal bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, The Scorpions or even Def Leppard. And boy did the girls go crazy for smilin’ front man Jon Bon Jovi. But you have to give their fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen some credit for establishing a beach-head for the band, injecting the whole working class North Jersey ethos into ’80s Pop with the stadium-sized anthems on his ’85 album, Born in the U.S.A.
#1 George Michael – Faith
OK, well we’re down to #1, here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1987, and it was also the #1 song on Billboard’s year-end chart for 198…8. Hmm? What’s going on there? Well, Billboard’s year-end rankings are not based on the calendar year. They can’t be. They have to get an issue out with their official year-end charts before New Years. So, every year they set a cutoff for the chart year, which varies, but for 1987, it was December 5th. This song hit #1 on the weekly chart a week after the cutoff, December 12th, which was, yes, the first week of Billboard’s 1988 chart year. So, most of the song’s chart run was counted by Billboard towards 1988.
Here at Chartcrush, our rankings are based on the calendar year, and we count every song’s entire chart run in whatever year it scored the most ranking points, which for our song at #1, was 1987.
Now here’s another twist. For the same reason Billboard’s #1 song of 1988 is in our 1987 countdown? Their #1 song of 1987, The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” is in our 1986 countdown! Anyway, our artist at #1 wasn’t new to the yearly top ten; his Pop duo Wham! notched Chartcrush’s #2 song of 1985, “Careless Whisper.” Here’s George Michael at #1 with his year-straddling solo smash, “Faith.”
“Faith” hit #1 on December 12, 1987, stayed for four weeks and was on the chart until March ’88: our Chartcrush #1 song of 1987. George Michael never made the top ten on a year-end Hot100 chart again, but he had six more top tens on the weekly Hot100 in the ’90s.
A series of arrests for lewd acts and drug use though (a lot of them in, of all places, public restrooms) caused a lot of head shaking and face-palming, and tarnished his reputation in the late ’90s and 2000s. But he had dedicated fans, who paid him a heartfelt tribute after he passed away prematurely from heart problems on Christmas Day 2016 at the age of 53.
So that’s our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1987. Before we wrap up, let’s take a quick look at the songs that made the top ten on Billboard’s year-end ranking, but not ours. I just mentioned “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Earlier I mentioned Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” from Beverly Hills Cop 2. #1 for a week in August and Seger’s only career chart-topper. It made Billboard’s year-end top ten at the #9 spot, but missed ours at #14. The only other is Billboard’s #8 song, Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s “The Way It Is,” which had its week at #1 December 13, 1986. That was after Billboard’s cutoff for the ’86 chart year, so they have it in the ’87 chart, but it’s still calendar 1986, so it’s #8 on our Chartcrush ranking for 1986. With “Walk Like an Egyptian,” that’s two of Billboard’s 1987 year-end top ten hits that should’ve been counted in ’86 if you’re doing things by the calendar, as we do here at Chartcrush.
Thanks for listening to our 1987 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Check out our website, chartcrush.com, for written transcripts and streaming links for this and other Chartcrush countdown shows, plus chart run line graphs and other choice extras. We count down a different year every week on this show, from the very beginning of the charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune in again next week, same station and time, for another edition of Chartcrush.