1989 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Euro-Disco and Paula Abdul arrive as the Cold War ends, Teen Pop peaks, Milli Vanilli lip-syncs and some of Boomerdom’s top acts score their final big hits.
Welcome! This is The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show and I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we take a look back at the top 10 songs of a year in Pop music as determined by our exclusive ranking that’s based on the weekly Pop charts published at the time in the music biz’s top trade pub and chart authority, Billboard magazine. And this week we’re turning the clock back to 1989, aside from the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska in March, and the 6.9 earthquake in the Bay Area in October right before game three of the World Series, a year of remarkably few “breaking news” headlines. Which cleared newspaper column inches and broadcast minutes for ongoing human-interest stories like AIDS and homelessness and environmental concerns like acid rain and the ozone hole.
But as relatively quiet as things were here in the States, ’89 was a monumental year out in the world, as communism collapsed and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the new President, George H.W. Bush, declared that the Cold War over. All year, Americans watched in disbelief as massive protests rocked the capitals of Eastern Bloc countries Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Romania. And since the Soviets for a change weren’t sending in the tanks, the communist regimes in those countries, one after the other, dissolved.
In East Germany, the symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, was dismantled. But not before Knight Rider and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, wearing a piano scarf and flashing leather jacket, got to sing his hit “Looking for Freedom” in front of it on New Years Eve. There was even a massive Rock concert in the Soviet Union itself, the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August. The event inspired Scorpions’ 1991 hit “Wind of Change.”
Sadly, communist China’s pro-democracy movement: nipped in the bud when the tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June and between 200 and 2,600 protesters were killed, depending on who you believe.
South Africa, not a communist country, but the new president there released activist and future president Nelson Mandela from prison and desegregated public facilities as first steps to ending apartheid.
So the ’80s, closing out with some historic changes on the world stage, and music was changing too. Eight of Billboard’s top 10 albums of 1989 were first or second releases. So, lots of fresh faces on the charts and on MTV. In April, Liz Taylor dubbed Michael Jackson the “King of Pop” at the Soul Train Heritage Awards, but as he settled into his new Neverland Ranch in California, he seemed to be going off the deep end with skin bleaching, plastic surgery, O2 sleeping chambers and trying to buy Elephant Man bones. The UK Sun dubbed him Wacko Jacko, and it kinda stuck.
Meanwhile, Queen of Pop Madonna got in trouble when the Vatican condemned her blasphemous video for “Like a Prayer” and urged a boycott that got Pepsi to pull its ad campaign with the song. With its three weeks a #1 in April, “Like a Prayer” ought to be in our 1989 countdown, but with all the controversy it was off the chart completely just nine weeks after being #1, one of the fastest drops for a #1 single in Madonna’s career. MTV and video in the ’80s had brought pop culture into America’s living rooms like never before. The Culture Wars were only getting started.
#10 Soul II Soul – Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)
Our #10 record had only just entered the top ten December 2nd, which was the last week of Billboard’s 1989 “chart year,” so it didn’t make their ’89 year-end Hot100. And since those weeks before the cutoff didn’t count toward 1990, it’s only #42 on their 1990 ranking. Now here at Chartcrush, we don’t do “chart years;” instead, we factor every song’s full chart run in the calendar year it had most of its chart action, and that puts the song at #10 for 1989.
Billboard did have it as the year’s #1 Dance hit though: a taste of the Euro-Disco wave that was about to crest on the Pop charts in the early ’90s. It’s U.K.-based “sound system” collective Soul II Soul with singer Caron Wheeler, who co-wrote, “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me).”
Soul II Soul’s residency at South London’s The Fridge nightclub: credited with setting the tone of 1988’s so-called “Second Summer of Love” in the U.K., and also in Ibiza, the Spanish island famous for its club scene. After the wall came down, East Berlin also became a Techno Mecca.
“Back to Life” had the longest chart run of any song in our countdown: 28 weeks, peaking at #4, after their Hot100 debut, “Keep on Movin’,” earlier in the year. It started out as an a cappella but they completely reworked it with new lyrics and that groovy, shuffling backing track.
House music exploded onto the charts ’89 into ’90: Belgian outfit Technotronic, just three weeks behind “Back to Life” on the Hot100 with the dancefloor anthem “Pump Up the Jam,” which got all the way to #2 in January of ’90. Then Madonna’s “Vogue” and Snap!’s “The Power” in the Spring.
#9 Paula Abdul – Cold Hearted
Next up at #9 on our Chartcrush Countdown of 1989’s biggest hits, the only act with two songs in the top ten. And since both songs’ chart runs were entirely within Billboard’s December to November “chart year,” they’re also both in Billboard’s year-end top ten: a rarity for ’89 relative to other years, comparing our Chartcrush rankings with Billboard’s. Reason being: some of the year’s top records were hits at the end of ’89 into ’90, so Billboard split their chart runs for ranking purposes between the two years.
Boy Band New Kids on the Block had six singles on the Hot100 in 1989 so they grabbed top honors on Billboard’s Hot100 artist ranking that combines all charting songs. But our newcomer at #9 was #2 overall and the top female. Her album, Forever Your Girl, was the biggest debut album in history up to ’89 with 10 weeks at #1 on the album chart. Here’s the first of two Paula Abdul hits we’ll be hearing in our countdown, the third of her three straight #1’s in ’89, “Cold Hearted.”
Paula Abdul started out in the early ’80s, a freshman in college who beat out 700 girls for a spot on the L.A. Lakers cheerleading squad (the Lakers’ ’80s dynasty years with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), graduating to head choreographer after less than a year, and then to choreographing music videos. It was, afterall, the dawn of the MTV era! “Cold Hearted,” #9 as we count down 1989’s top ten biggest hits here on this week’s Chartcrush Show.
#8 Debbie Gibson – Lost in Your Eyes
At #8, the last top ten hit by the singer whose first hit “Only in My Dreams” in ’87 signaled the start of the late ’80s Teen Pop explosion. New Edition and The Jets had already scored R&B crossover smashes in ’85 and ’86, but this wholesome girl Singer was pure Pop. And she remained one of top acts along with Tiffany, the aforementioned New Kids on the Block, and latecomer Kylie Minogue until Teen Pop petered out circa late-1990 as its fans matured and House, Grunge, Hip-Hop, plus the overarching cultural postmodernism that paralleled the end of the Cold War in the West, surfaced edgier poses from the underground. But in ’89, Teen Pop was at its peak, and its biggest chart hit that year was our #8 song: what Record Mirror called a “big, moodsome ballad,” Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.”
Fun fact: Debbie Gibson is the sole songwriter on all her top 20 hits, and that was also her playing piano on “Lost in Your Eyes,” #8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1989. It was the lead single from her second album, Electric Youth, which didn’t do quite as well as her triple platinum debut Out of the Blue. “Only” double platinum. And after two more top 20s from Electric Youth in ’89, Debbie Gibson faded from the charts. In 2020, though, at the age of 49, she was back in the top five on the Dance chart with “Girls Night Out.”
#7 Milli Vanilli – Blame It on the Rain
Now, speaking of the postmodern taste inversion I mentioned that rendered wholesome Teen Idols like Debbie Gibson passe in the early ’90s, Glam Metal bands had been pushing the sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll envelope for years, but in ’89, Miami Rap group 2 Live Crew dropped the mic on Pop smut with their aptly-titled As Nasty as They Want to Be, the first album ever to be ruled obscene by a U.S. District Court. The music world rallied, the ruling was overturned on appeal, and the album went Platinum, so straight-up porn and misogyny had a green light heading into the ’90s.
But a scandal that pop culture couldn’t abide in ’89 was the revelation that Rob and Fab, in fact, are not the ones singing on our #7 song, or the other three 1989 megahits from their album Girl You Know It’s True. It was a glitchy hard drive during a live concert on MTV that did them in. The recording stopped and skipped and it was obvious that they were lip-syncing. After that, they had their Best New Artist Grammy canceled and lived in infamy. But they sure were riding high in ’89. At #7, it’s Milli Vanilli’s fourth and biggest hit of the year, “Blame It on the Rain.”
German producer Frank Farian, the actual the culprit behind the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing scandal. He liked their look (thigh-high boots, Spandex shorts and corn-row hair extensions), but not their vocals so much. So he brought in session singers but put Rob and Fab on the album cover and sent them out on the road. And Girl You Know It’s True went six-times platinum, yielded six top five hits and Milli Vanilli was Best New Artist at the Grammys before anyone was the wiser. Four of their songs, all from that album, were among the top 25 hits of 1989 according to our Chartcrush rankings. Elvis in ’56, The Beatles in ’64, The Jackson 5 in 1970 and Usher in 2004: the only other acts in Pop history who can say that. “Blame It on the Rain,” the fourth and last of those hits at #7.
#6 Richard Marx – Right Here Waiting
At #6 as we continue counting down the top hits of 1989 here on this week’s edition of Chartcrush, the only song in our countdown that’s also in the top ten on Billboard’s year-end Adult Contemporary chart. He started out as a Songwriter, writing hits for Kenny Rogers and James Ingram, but once he decided to step up to the mic himself, he was an immediate success. His self-titled debut album went triple-platinum in 1987, its lead single, the Rocker “Don’t Mean Nothing” was a #3 hit, and he became the first male artist ever to make the top five with his first seven singles. At #6 it’s Richard Marx, “Right Here Waiting.”
Even after becoming a star himself, Richard Marx continued to write songs for other artists. In fact, he wrote “Right Here Waiting” for Barbra Streisand. But she rejected it! “I’m not gonna be right here waiting for anyone,” she said. So he cut it himself for his second album, Repeat Offender, and it was the #6 song of 1989, not bad. It was #1 for three weeks in August, but it just missed Billboard’s year-end top ten at #11.
#5 Linda Ronstadt featuring Aaron Neville – Don’t Know Much
12 of the top 20 Hot100 acts in ’89, on the chart less than two years—the most since 1971 for that metric. And as you’d expect in a year like that, some of the previous generation’s stars struggled. New albums in 1989 by Boomer icons Diana Ross, Paul McCartney and a reunited Jefferson Airplane bombed relative to expectations. But others thrived. Neil Young reinvented himself for the Grunge era on his album Freedom, and The Rolling Stones mended fences within the band and had ’89’s top tour: Steel Wheels, their longest ever.
Up next on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1989, a pairing of two Boomer legends who both burst onto the charts in 1967 with massive hits: Californian Linda Ronstadt with her Folk-Pop Hippie group The Stone Poneys on “Different Drum,” and New Orleans’ own Aaron Neville with his Soulful “Tell It like It Is.” Here they are together on the same record in 1989. At #5, “Don’t Know Much.”
Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville on 1989’s #5 hit, “Don’t Know Much” here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. The song, co-written by legendary Brill Building Songwriters Barry Mann and wife Cynthia Weil, and versions by Righteous Brother Bill Medley in ’81 and Bette Midler in ’83 didn’t have much impact. But in ’89 it was a huge comeback for both Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt.
#4 Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire
And at #4, another chart veteran since the early ’70s, and by our point tally, the #5 Hot100 artist of the ’80s decade behind only Hall & Oates, Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson, in that order. It’s yet another hit that got a raw deal from Billboard’s year-splitting with their year-end charts, with its first eight weeks in their 1989 chart year (up to December 2), and the next 11 in 1990, where they have it at #35 on the year. But factoring its full chart run in the calendar year it earned the most points makes it our #4 song of 1989.
He wrote it after listening to a young Gen-Xer bellyaching about how nice it must’ve been to grow up in the ’50s when “nothing happened.” Huh? Want a list? Well here it is: exactly 118 things in chronological order, in Billy Joel’s list song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Billy Joel, obviously influenced by R.E.M.’s list song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” which for all its fame since the ’80s, barely scraped the Hot100 when it came out, just a few months before Billboard unveiled its Modern Rock Chart to finally start keeping track of what was on College radio.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” #1 for two weeks in December, and #4 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1989. Joel’s 11th top ten hit off his seventh straight top ten album, but only his third #1, and his last. After his final Pop album River of Dreams in ’93, he stepped away from the Pop chart game, but his Face to Face tours in ’94 and ’95 with fellow piano-man Elton John filled stadiums across America.
#3 Paula Abdul – Straight Up
At #3, the girlfriend of America’s hottest new late-night talk TV show host, whose syndicated show debuted mostly on the fledgling Fox network in ’89. Fox, only on the air a little over three years, struggling to get a ratings foothold against the big three, ABC, CBS and NBC, and Arsenio Hall went head-to-head against the undisputed king of late-night since the ’60s, Johnny Carson. He never beat Carson, but The Arsenio Hall Show‘s young, diverse audience made it the first major platform, certainly the first late-night show, that put African-American cultural sensibilities on an equal footing with mainstream America’s. Not many radio stations would play Hip-Hop in 1989, but Arsenio had the Fresh Prince, Tone Loc, MC Hammer, Young MC, even Ice-T. And his girlfriend appeared on just the seventh episode in January, right as our #3 song cracked the top 20. It was her breakthrough hit after the first two singles from her debut album Forever Your Girl went nowhere. Here again, Paula Abdul, “Straight Up,”
Paula Abdul’s chart breakthrough, “Straight Up,” took home four of the MTV Video Music Awards “moon men” trophies it was eligible for in ’89, the #3 song of 1989 here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Her follow-up album Spellbound produced two more #1 hits in 1991, but her chart fortunes waned during peak Diva in the mid-to-late ’90s, only to become a household name all over again in the ’00s as one of the judges on the first eight seasons of American Idol.
#2 Janet Jackson – Miss You Much
Now as I mentioned earlier, before she was a Pop star, Paula Abdul was an in-demand choreographer of music videos, and her first client, who hired her out of the Lakers’ cheerleading squad, was our act at #2. Abdul choreographed the videos for all three of the upbeat mid-’80s hits that made her a star: “What Have You Done for Me Lately”, “Nasty” and the title song from her multi-platinum 1986 album Control. The lead single off her next album, Rhythm Nation 1814, came out in August ’89 and became the first of its seven singles to peak in the top 5 over the next three years. It’s Janet Jackson with “Miss You Much.”
“Miss You Much,” #1 for all of October 1989, four weeks, and the #2 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown. Janet’s first two albums came out in the early ’80s when she was still just in her teens and playing a young student in the TV show Fame, and most folks just thought of her as Michael Jackson’s little sister. The Bubblegummy music on those albums barely dented the charts, but in ’85, Janet parted ways with her family and her career took off, first with Control and then ’89’s socially-conscious Rhythm Nation 1814. By the end of the decade, Janet had not only stepped out of her brother’s shadow, she’d eclipsed him, and her run of massive Hot100 hits continued all the way ’til her wardrobe malfunction in the 2004 Superbowl halftime show got her blacklisted by Viacom President Les Moonves.
#1 Phil Collins – Another Day in Paradise
Now, in a 2014 piece, Billboard writer Kenneth Partridge argued that 1990 was the best year for music in the ’90s, despite two of the year’s biggest hits being 1989 “holdovers” by “Pop’s old guard” that left aging Boomers “feeling simultaneously guilty about their wealth and blameless for instigating the world’s problems.” The latter reference, to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and the former to the record we have at #1 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown. Well, as I pointed out when we heard “We Didn’t Start the Fire” at #4, it really wasn’t a 1990 hit at all; it was a 1989 hit. And so was the other one.
At #1, the seventh and final chart topper by the ’80s most unlikely Pop star, having started out as the drummer in a ’70s Prog Rock band. He became the front-man of that band, Genesis, after leader Peter Gabriel quit and went solo in 1975, and remained even after his own solo career took off in the early ’80s. Record of the Year at the Grammys, it’s Phil Collins’ exhortation to think twice and count your blessings when you see a homeless person, our #1 song of 1989 is “Another Day in Paradise.”
Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise,” the #1 song of 1989 according to our exclusive Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show ranking that factors every song’s full Hot100 chart run into whichever calendar year it had the majority of its chart action. Now, we’re only able do that, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. Billboard‘s press deadline for their year-end issue forces them to end every “chart year” weeks before the actual end of the year on the calendar. “Another Day in Paradise” was in the top ten November ’89 through January ’90. They have it at #7 on their 1990 Hot100 recap. But it might’ve ranked higher than that had Billboard continued (in 1990) what they started in ’89: factoring the full runs for songs that were moving up the first week of their chart year.
I don’t want to get too far in the weeds with this, but the change was their attempt, after over 40 years doing year-end recaps, to finally give songs whose chart runs go from one year into the next a fair shake. The trouble with rolling that out in ’89, though: half the songs that ended up in their top ten were really 1988 hits. Even the #1 song, Chicago’s “Look Away.” So when the ranking appeared at the end of ’89, folks were like “Huh? That was #1 last Christmas!” And going down the list, Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” at #2 and Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” #3, also 1988 hits, plus two more.
So there was a whole lotta head shaking from fans. The news media even ran with the story, and for 1990, Billboard reverted back to factoring only weeks in its chart year like they’d always done, and Soul II Soul, Ronstadt & Neville and Billy Joel joined the long list of year-straddling hits that’ve fallen through the cracks over the years. Only “Another Day in Paradise” made the top ten of Billboard’s 1990 ranking, but at #7 since its first five weeks of chart action weren’t factored.
Of the seven songs from Billboard’s year-end top ten that weren’t in our 1989 countdown, only two were true 1989 hits. Billboard had the title cut and breakout hit off of Milli Vanilli’s album Girl You Know It’s True at #8.
“Girl You Know It’s True” was the Milli Vanilli’s only single before their lip-syncing scandal that didn’t get to #1. It peaked at #2 and is #19 on our ranking.
At #7, Billboard had another big Adult Contemporary smash.
Nine years after 1980’s “The Rose,” the title song of the film she starred in, Bette Midler repeated that trick with the movie Beaches and its song, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which lands at #13 on our 1989 ranking.
Well I hope you enjoyed our rough ‘n tumble 1989 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. That’s all the time we have. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi, and I want to thank you for listening! Hey, check out our website, chartcrush.com, for written transcripts and links to stream this and all our Chartcrush countdown shows on Spotify, plus our full top 100 chart, chart run line graphs and other hella extras. Every week on this show, we count down a different year from the beginning of the charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune again, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.