1990 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
The Cold War ends, but The Gulf War energizes the charts, yellow ribbons trend and postmodern irony, serial shock and taste inversion enflame the Culture War.
Welcome! This is The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, and I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a different year in Pop music and count down the top 10 songs according to our recap of the weekly charts published at the time in Billboard, the music industry’s top trade mag. This week on Chartcrush, we’re turning the clock back to 1990, a transitional time in, not just America but the World.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989: a symbolic end to the Cold War as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to modernize the Soviet system and open things up with his glasnost and perestroika policies. There wasn’t much of a choice. President Reagan’s reforms had pulled the West out of its ’70s “malaise” into a decade of prosperity that made the differences between the two opposing philosophies in the Cold War too glaring for anyone to ignore. Elsewhere, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and South Africa’s racist apartheid segregation system was on its way out. And there were free elections in a Soviet satellite country behind the Iron Curtain, Poland. A McDonald’s even opened up in Moscow! Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters staged a star-studded production of his opus The Wall in Berlin in 1990, and German Heavy Metal group Scorpions released their song “Winds of Change.”
But a different wind was blowing in U.S. culture. It had been breezin’ and gustin’ for decades in Lenny Bruce’s biting, vulgar comedy, Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, Punk’s primitivism and studied irony, cult movies by Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the Monty Python gang. All of those, quirky oddities when they appeared, so they could be safely giggled at and ignored if what activist-intellectual Susan Sontag had labeled in the ’60s “the new sensibility” wasn’t your thing.
But right at the moment when the arc of world history bent decisively in America and the West’s favor, postmodernism achieved critical mass and the line between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” wasn’t just being blurred; as critic Roger Kimball observed a few years later, it was being erased and even inverted, so that “lowbrow” became “highbrow.” Gangsta rappers like Ice-T, Public Enemy and N.W.A. didn’t go mainstream despite being “ghetto,” but because they were “ghetto.” In Rock there was Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grunge which had been underground for years; in R&B, Bobby Brown and the ultra-steamy bad boy Slow Jamming of Jodeci and Silk. Even in Country, you can think of Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Neo-Trad and “Friends in Low Places” as part of the inversion.
Which reached its tipping point in 1990, even if it was two more years before insurgent candidate Pat Buchanan made headlines by slapping a label on it in his prime-time “Culture War” speech at the ’92 GOP convention. Pop of course had contributed to social change before 1990, but the big difference after 1990: in Postmodernism, as theorist Marshall McLuhan put it in the ’60s “medium is message.” Now, music was change: shock and envelope pushing on all fronts, the rule, not the exception. Even having standards suddenly rendered unhip and fringy. Pop culture was now simply “culture.”
#10 Michael Bolton – How Am I Supposed to Live Without You
Don’t expect an hour of trailblazing bottom-is-now-top milestones though, in our Chartcrush Countdown for 1990. You’ll hear a few echoes of it for sure, but the Postmodern taste inversion played out over years and decades. ’90 was just the pivot point. #10 as we kick things off: a Singer-Songwriter who by the ’00s was doing Crooner tribute albums. But in the first half of the ’90s, his blend of Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul and Power Balladry was a down-the-middle bullseye for the Pop charts. Here is Michael Bolton’s own version of his song that singer Laura Branigan had already scored a hit with in 1983. It was his first #1: “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.”
Hard to believe, but Michael Bolton’s band before he went solo—a Hard Rock outfit called Blackjack—opened for Ozzy Osbourne. Even after scoring his first AC hits he didn’t sever his Hard Rock roots, co-writing KISS’s 1990 Power Ballad “Forever.” “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, just missing Billboard’s year-end top ten at #12 because the first few weeks of its chart run were in Billboard’s 1989 “chart year.”
#9 Damn Yankees – High Enough
That’s what Billboard uses when it compiles its year-end charts, a discrete “chart year,” usually November to November. Only activity within the chart year is counted. It’s a baked-in problem since they have to print and mail an issue with their year-end charts before New Years, but it’s problematic because that’s not how charts work. Charts are a continuum, and not every song’s full run falls within one of Billboard’s chart years. For songs that are still on the chart when the chart year ends—the points for year-end rankings get divided between two years: a distinct disadvantage vs. songs with runs all in the same year. Well there are five—count ’em five—songs like that in our 1990 countdown. And as you’d expect given what I just laid out, none are in the top 10 of any Billboard year-end chart. They’re in our Chartcrush Top Ten though, because with the benefit of hindsight we get to correct this by counting every song’s full chart run toward whichever year it earned the most points based on weekly Hot100 chart positions. Cool, huh?
Anyway, “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” was the first of the five, and the only one that entered the chart in 1989. Phil Collins’ massive hit, “Another Day in Paradise” was split between Billboard’s ’89 and ’90 chart years, and Billboard has it as the #7 song of 1990. But by our Chartcrush ranking, it saw most of its chart action in ’89, not ’90 and shakes out as our #1 song of 1989!
Now the #9 song in our countdown didn’t make the top 10 until mid-December 1990 after a three-month climb, and then it stayed on the chart all the way into April: the first of four songs we’re gonna hear this hour that started on the chart in ’90 and went into ’91. It’s by a Rock supergroup, one of several that formed in the late ’80s, this one with ’70s guitar God Ted Nugent, plus Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades from Arena Rock bands Styx and Night Ranger, respectively. During the Gulf War they incorporated patriotic displays into their live shows, and that turned out to be the start of Nugent’s long career as an outspoken political activist. Here are Damn Yankees, at #9: “High Enough.”
Damn Yankees, “High Enough,” the #9 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1990.
#8 Bette Midler – From a Distance
So the Gulf War. Mission: repel Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Hostilities didn’t start ’til January ’91. But Operation Desert Shield—the buildup—began just days after the Iraqi invasion in August of ’90. It was America’s first major military involvement since Vietnam, and the public was riveted. Yellow ribbons for the troops were everywhere: lapels, porches, cars, even on the cover of Rolling Stone. Yellow ribbons for loved ones being kept away from home, a meme that started in the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, inspired by Tony Orlando & Dawn’s 1973 hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (‘Round the Ole Oak Tree).” Music acts from The Rolling Stones to Lenny Kravitz & Sean Lennon chimed in (“High Wire” and a remake of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” respectively). There was even a We Are the World-type celebrity assemblage called Voices That Care—as if the only thing missing from the ’80s stadium benefit frenzy had been a war to protest, and now here one finally was!
“Voices That Care” peaked at #11, and Whitney Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner” from Superbowl XXV got to #20. But by far the biggest Gulf War hit was our song at #8, the second of our four songs that charted ’90 into ’91. Billboard has it at#15 on the year 1991, but it was recorded months before Iraq invaded Kuwait, came out right after and resonated: ten weeks in the top 10 November to January, peaking at #2 for a week, it’s Bette Midler’s “From a Distance.”
Bette Midler, fresh off her #1 hit in ’89, “Wind Beneath My Wings” from the movie Beaches, which she also starred in. That was Record and Song of the Year at the 32nd Grammys held in 1990. And then “From a Distance” won Song of the Year at the 33rd Grammys in ’91, first recorded by Texas Country-Folk singer Nanci Griffith and a hit in Ireland in ’88. But timing, of course, is everything, and Bette Midler and the Gulf War took it global.
#7 Madonna – Vogue
Next up on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1990, harkening back to my intro about the triumph of postmodernism, the singer that scholars who study and write about this stuff for a living (including consumer branding guru Stephen Brown in 2003) almost all agree is the “personification of postmodernism” Quote: “If, as someone once argued, the postmodern condition is characterized by fragmentation, de-differentiation, pastiche, retrospection and anti-foundationalism, [she fits the bill]… the blurring of sexual, ethnic and artistic boundaries; the serial shock tactics.” Of course, she never would’ve gotten away with any of it without the demographic current of Generation X, having internalized lifelong rebellion as a supreme virtue, looking to differentiate itself from the older Baby Boom who’d instilled that value by endlessly hyping how their Hippie counterculture had turned everything upside down in the ’60s! Boomers aged 26 to 45 in 1990: getting a little long in the tooth! And the singer (a Boomer aged 32) doubled down on shock in 1990, getting her video banned on MTV and then selling nearly a half million copies of the videotape and then showing up on the ABC News show Nightline to talk about it for the full half-hour. At #7, it’s not that song, “Justify My Love,” but it was 1990’s #1 best-selling single, about and inspired by a dance she’d seen in New York’s Gay club scene, using hand gestures and body poses to imitate Hollywood stars, and models from the dance (and song’s) namesake fashion magazine. It’s Madonna with “Vogue.”
“Strike a pose!” #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue.” That video and the one MTV banned, “Justify My Love:” black and white photography with costumes and themes evoking the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s ultra-pornographic but artsy Gay sex photography that was making headlines in 1990. The uproar over the National Endowment for the Arts using tax dollars to fund Mapplethorpe exhibits in museums and galleries led to the NEA revoking several grants. But as much attention as all that got as a flashpoint in the Culture Wars, no one brought it all to America’s living rooms like the artist Billboard had just named “Artist of the ’80s Decade,” Madonna.
#6 Wilson Phillips – Hold On
Next, the song Billboard had at #1 on its year-end Hot100 chart for 1990, pushed down to #6 on our ranking by factoring other songs’ full chart runs, but also, the extra juice we award for weeks at #1. Despite nine weeks in the top 10, the song only topped the chart for one week. It’s a trio of California Gen-Xers: Carnie and Wendy Wilson, and Chynna Phillips: daughters, respectively, of ’60s legends Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & Papas. Their debut album sold millions and produced three #1s, making them the best-selling female group up ’til then—a record previously held by The Supremes. A lot was made at the time about generational baton passing and such. At #6, the lead single from that self-titled debut album, Wilson-Phillips, “Hold On.”
Wilson-Phillips “Hold On,” #6 as we count down the top 10 hits of 1990, here on this week’s edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Now those straightforward, innocent harmonies really stood out in 1990, influencing or at least foreshadowing countless female Alt- and Indie-Pop and Rock bands later in the decade. Chynna Phillips exited after another less-commercial sounding (and less successful) album in ’92, and that was it for Wilson-Phillips until their reunion album in 2004, which only got to #35 on the Album chart.
#5 Roxette – It Must Have Been Love
Our #5 song was #2 on Billboard’s 1990 ranking, and beat Wilson-Phillips in our Chartcrush ranking by just one point, so practically a tie. And it was a hit at the same time, Spring into Summer. It’s the first and only soundtrack song in our countdown, from Pretty Woman, the movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, by a Swedish Pop duo that had a string of top 10s from ’89 to ’91. Roxette: “It Must Have Been Love.”
“It Must Have Been Love” from Pretty Woman: #5 on our Chartcrush Top Ten countdown for 1990.
#4 Mariah Carey – Vision of Love
So Madonna was Billboard’s artist of the 1980s decade. Up next at #4, the debut by the singer who went on to be Billboard’s artist of the 1990s decade. And the song entered the chart the same week that Madonna’s “Vogue” spent its third and final week at #1. She wasn’t after Madonna’s edgier, younger, Dance-oriented audience though. The Adult Contemporary format had undergone a huge transformation in the ’80s, becoming the new home for smooth R&B—which was great news for Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle, Billy Ocean, Anita Baker—even Whitney Houston, all of whom anchored themselves on AC, and then crossed over to the more fickle Pop charts to score some of the biggest hits of the ’80s. The stage was thus set for ’90s Divadom and Mariah Carey. The very first of her record 18 career #1’s: “Vision of Love.”
Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love,” the first big hit since Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” in 1975 with vocals in the whistle register. And Mariah also gets the credit for popularizing melisma in modern Pop: stretching syllables out over multiple notes: something new in 1990. Mariah, not the only ’90s Pop Diva debuting in 1990. After a decade singing in French, Canadian Celine Dion’s first English-language hit “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” entered the chart in December on its way to #4.
#3 Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
Now for all of 1990’s significance as a cultural cusp year, our #3 hit is really the only song in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown that can be called “Alternative.” It’s a song written by Prince from a 1985 album by one of his side-projects, The Family, but got a makeover in 1990 by an Irish singer with a shaved head and lots of in-your-face stands on controversial issues. It’s Sinead O’Connor. Her first and only hit: “Nothing Compares to U.”
Sinead O’Connor “Nothing Compares to U” at #3. Author Ken Partridge wrote in Billboard in 2014 about 1990 that “Aging boomers must have been even more confused than teenagers trying to decide if Jane Child’s ear-to-nose chain was a better look than Sinead O’Connor’s shaved head.” Jane Child, the other female act besides Sinead who debuted in 1990 with a bold new look, scored one hit (“Don’t Wanna Fall in Love”) and then vanished from the Pop charts. Not sure what happened to Jane Child’s career, but Sinead took the iconoclastic pose too far. Fellow disruptor Madonna’s quintessentially postmodern response to accusatory finger-pointing was typically a big smile and “Well you don’t understand, it’s all ironic, don’t take it too seriously.” By contrast, Sinead wrote angry open letters, tore up the Pope’s picture on live TV, cancelled gigs where they were going to play the national anthem and refused her Grammy. The first and only time she met Prince, who wrote “Nothing Compares,” he told her she shouldn’t cuss so much in interviews, which she didn’t like so she punched him and walked out.
#2 Mariah Carey – Love Takes Time
At #2, it’s the second Mariah Carey song in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown her breakout year, 1990. “Vision of Love,” which we heard at #4, was also in the top 10 on Billboard’s year-end chart, but this one, yet another song whose chart run was split between ’90 and ’91, so it wound up Billboard’s #76 (!) song of 1990. If you count its full chart run, though, it’s even bigger than “Vision.” #2 on the year by our Chartcrush reckoning. Again, Mariah Carey, the ballad, “Love Takes Time.”
The second of two year-end top tens for Mariah Carey her first year on the charts, 1990: “Love Takes Time.” What a start! Columbia Records, then headed by Carey’s future husband Tommy Motolla, had spent over a million bucks launching her, and she was back in the top 10 for 1991 with the title track off her second album, “Emotions,” on her way to becoming Billboard’s #1 Hot100 artist of the ’90s decade. The million was money well-spent.
#1 Stevie B – Because I Love You (The Postman Song)
And that gets us to #1 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1990. It topped the Hot100 for the last four weeks of the year and stayed on the chart ’til March: yet another year-straddler, which Billboard ranked at #12 on the year 1991. That’s not bad, but again, counting it full chart run in the calendar year it had the most chart action, it comes out Chartcrush’s #1 song of 1990! Stevie B’s “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).”
Now John Legend’s “All of Me” in 2014 was the first record with only piano and vocals to top the Hot100. Stevie B’s “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” has strings and bass so it doesn’t qualify, but it scratched the same itch in 1990 as “All of Me” did in 2014: the intimacy of just a singer and his or her instrument. It wasn’t a typical song for Stevie B. He’d emerged from the Miami Club scene with his Dance hit “Party Your Body,” But just as Glam Metal acts were scoring massive hits with heartfelt stripped-down acoustic songs, so Stevie B scored big with “Because I Love You.”
OK, so that’s the top 10! Now as I’ve been saying, five of the songs in our countdown were absent from Billboard’s year-end charts because their chart runs got split between adjacent years. So there were several songs from Billboard’s official published 1990 ranking that got bumped.
Billboard’s #10 song was Jon Bon Jovi’s solo song for the neo-Western Young Guns II
Emilio Estevez, who produced and starred in Young Guns II had approached Bon Jovi about using their song “Wanted Dead or Alive” for the film, but Jon Bon Jovi didn’t think a song about a Rock group on the road was a fit for a Western—so instead, he wrote “Blaze of Glory” and brought in guitar god Jeff Beck to do the solo. “Blaze of Glory” notches in at #21 on our Chartcrush ranking.
At #9, Billboard had another soundtrack cut, from politically incorrect comedian Andrew Dice Clay’s movie, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.
The biggest hit of Billy Idol’s career, “Cradle of Love,” was #19 on our ranking. A bad motorcycle accident in February of ’90 meant that Idol had to shoot the video for that song from the waist up, and turn down some big film roles. He never again reached the level of success he enjoyed in 1990.
In 2014, a Billboard feature cleverly pointed out that 1990 “was such a scary and exciting time that we needed two songs called ‘Hold On.'” Wilson-Phillips’s was Billboard’s #1 song. We heard it at #6 in our countdown). The other: a completely different song.
Billboard’s #8 song of the year (#15 on our ranking), R&B Girl Group En Vogue’s first hit, “Hold On.”
And finally, Billboard’s #4 song of 1990 was a New Jack Swing classic that was top 10 for an impressive ten weeks from May to July, but only made it to #3.
Bell Biv Devoe, three members from multi-platinum ’80s boy band New Edition, re-branding for the ’90s. “Poison” was #17 on our Chartcrush ranking.
And we’re gonna have to leave it there, folks, because we’re out of time! I hope you enjoyed our 1990 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 shows, plus chart run line graphs and other “schwingy” extras. We count down a different year every week from the beginning ofthe charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune in again next week, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.