Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The KLF, Dead Moon, and some band called Nirvana were the bleeding edge of ’89

The KLF, Dead Moon, and some band called Nirvana were the bleeding edge of ’89

Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The year: 1989

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1989

1. Chicago, “Look Away”
2. Bobby Brown, “My Prerogative”
3. Poison, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”
4. Paula Abdul, “Straight Up”
5. Janet Jackson, “Miss You Much”
6. Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted”
7. Bette Midler, “Wind Beneath My Wings”
8. Milli Vanilli, “Girl You Know It’s True”
9. Will To Power, “Baby, I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley”
10. Anita Baker, “Giving You The Best That I Got”
11. Richard Marx, “Right Here Waiting”
12. Boy Meets Girl, “Waiting For A Star To Fall”
13. Debbie Gibson, “Lost In Your Eyes”
14. Gloria Estefan, “Don’t Wanna Lose You”
15. Warrant, “Heaven”
16. Milli Vanilli, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You”
17. Roxette, “The Look”
18. Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy”
19. Bobby Brown, “On Our Own”
20. Phil Collins, “Two Hearts”

Michael Jackson was officially nicknamed the “King Of Pop” in 1989, coronated by the divine provenance of Elizabeth Taylor at the Soul Train Music Awards in a ceremony that proved legally binding. While it’s difficult to pin down an exact date on when people started calling Madonna “Queen Of Pop,” there’s an argument to be made that this year—which boasted the release of Like A Prayer; the controversial, Catholics-and-Pepsi-enraging clip for its title track; and her crucifix-grinding performance at the MTV Video Music Awards—was when she truly earned it.

Together, these pop tyrants represented the twin poles of popular music at the tail end of the ’80s; just about everything else fell somewhere along their axis, either in imitation or in response. Billboard’s hottest singles that year tell us that more successful artists than not were churning out their own spin on new-jack-swinging dance-whatever: Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown, New Kids On The Block, and Roxette all achieved peak saturation that year. Meanwhile, the ne plus utra of fabricated studio pop, Milli Vanilli, landed four chart-topping singles, kicking off an impressive career that would make them the No. 1 musical draw from 1989 all the way through 1990, spanning two decades. As Janet Jackson’s massive album declared, in 1989, we were all part of the Rhythm Nation.

Perhaps it was a rejoinder to this surge of slick, junior-high-dance sounds that so much of the rest of the Billboard chart was anchored by such lugubrious adult-contemporary fare: Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting.” Simply Red’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” The Jeff Healey Band’s “Angel Eyes.” Mike And The Mechanics’ “The Living Years.” In fact, somehow the biggest song of the year wasn’t a boombox-friendly kidz bop anthem, but rather Chicago’s sad, Dianne Warren-penned “Look Away.” It was bookended by the final No. 1 single of ’89—and thus the decade—Phil Collins’ yuppie guilt trip, “Another Day In Paradise.” In between, Don Henley and Cher mined sad, middle-aged Boomer nostalgia with “The End Of The Innocence” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” while Billy Joel literally just read off a list of famous shit that happened in the ’50s. Truly, 1989 was a boom time for songs that would someday stir the souls of people standing in line at CVS.

This was the kind of smoothly commercial climate where even the likes of Warrant, Poison, Bon Jovi, Bad English, White Lion, and Great White could be seen as edgy, simply because they gussied up their own soporific ballads with slightly louder guitars and hairspray. But 1989 was also a peak year for what would soon be widely known as “alternative”: New wave icons like The Cure, R.E.M., Love And Rockets, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and The B-52s all enjoyed massive commercial peaks that year, while albums from the Pixies, The Replacements, Faith No More, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and The Stone Roses all found their way onto the charts, collectively pointing—along with bubbling-under debuts from Nirvana and Green Day—toward what lay just ahead. And while hip-hop was mostly represented on radio by novelty hits like Tone Loc, Biz Markie, and 2 Live Crew, seminal albums by the likes of De La Soul, Too $hort, Geto Boys, EPMD, The D.O.C., and Beastie Boys were also big sellers that year, similarly presaging rap’s dominance in the coming decades.

With such a surprisingly diverse representation of genres, we actually had to dig a little deeper than usual to find the fringes—into the noise and hardcore scenes of New York; the acid house raves of London; Seattle, right before anyone cared—but the result is another strong list of fascinating stuff taking place nowhere near Michael and Madonna’s thrones.

Renegade Soundwave, “Blue Eyed Boy” (January 1989)

The London-based Renegade Soundwave was at the nexus of the industrial, dance, and hip-hop scenes that converged in the late 1980s, melding all of those disparate genres with fluid ease and relatively primitive technology, and creating a blueprint for a generation of electronic artists like The Chemical Brothers to follow. While its ’89 debut, Soundclash, also yielded the U.K. dance hit “Probably A Robbery,” there’s a lot more contemporary appeal in its opening track, “Blue Eyed Boy.” Under the same, grooving Mandrill sample that was later lifted for Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” the trio lays some watery dub bass, stabs of synth-brass and reggae guitar, and random digital noise to gird some extremely British rapping about its titular pretty face and his run through the urban jungle. It’s both clearly of its time and sounds like it could have been released yesterday. [Sean O’Neal]

The Frogs, “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)” (March 1989)

Does rock history boast a more confounding band than The Frogs? The Milwaukee duo, formed by brothers Jimmy and Dennis Flemion in 1980, made absurdist, lo-fi pop songs about having sex with fetuses and tonguing their grampa’s balls, yet it also openly courted arena-rock stardom—and seemed genuinely baffled when it didn’t achieve it. Thanks to famous fans like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Billy Corgan, they did eventually play arenas, at least. But even then, no one knew quite what to make of something like 1989’s It’s Only Right And Natural. A satirical semi-concept album about homosexuality, it finds the Flemions singing goofy paeans to anal sex and pedophilia that both mock and propagate ugly conservative stereotypes; predictably, it earned the ire of both ugly conservatives like Pat Robertson and critics who accused them of homophobia. Of all its tracks, “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)” is the most relatively benign introduction (and its “That was a good drum break” opening is also instantly familiar, thanks to being sampled by Beck), finding the Flemions winsomely sizing up all the men with “juicy asses” they’re aching to make love to tonight. Like the rest of The Frogs’ output, it’s sort of funny yet endearingly sincere, weird without ever straying into pretentious, and wholly unlike anything else. You may not love it, but it’s hard not to respect it. [Sean O’Neal]

Gorilla Biscuits, “Start Today” (March 1989)

The New York hardcore scene of the ’80s had a well-deserved reputation for violence, a notoriety some of its bands practically celebrated. By the late ’80s, many of them had veered into thrash and metal, but a more positively minded strain of hardcore also emerged that was best embodied by Gorilla Biscuits, which took the speed and intensity of hardcore, but made it catchier and removed the tough-guy posturing. The title track from Gorilla Biscuits’ second album, “Start Today” has typical chugga-chugga hardcore guitars, but here they’re melodic, not pummeling. With frontman Anthony “Civ” Civarelli singing about proactivity—“Procrastinate, it can wait, I put it off / Let’s start today”—Gorilla Biscuits helped reshape NYC hardcore into something that welcomed everyone. [Kyle Ryan]

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, “Men At Work” (March 1989)

Kool G Rap could sort of do it all as a rapper; he’s a technical virtuoso, a storytelling savant, wry and characterful and fun. And he sort of does it all on Road To The Riches, his debut with DJ Polo, kicking sex raps, lacing a Gary Numan sample, and essentially inventing the grand mafioso rap tradition that’d come to dominate the ’90s with the title track. But who are we kidding? It’s “Men At Work” that still feels like a hazardous material, with Marley Marl’s furious “Apache” breaks and instigating cuts spurring the rapper to preposterous levels of lyrical fury. It’s a battle rap as drawn by Hieronymus Bosch—a furious carpet-bombing of the competition, turning rappers to vapor before jettisoning to hyperspace. In an era when lyrical shit-talk was the name of the game, “Men At Work” is the standard-bearer. [Clayton Purdom]

Operation Ivy, “Knowledge” (March 1989)

A 1:42 song by a teenage band that released just one studio album—itself recorded in just one day—“Knowledge” is an improbable icon. But 30 years later, it remains the signature song by Operation Ivy. The short-lived, yet seminal ska-punk group’s songs reflected the gritty instability of the East Bay, but also took in the area’s progressive, “we’re all in this together” social consciousness. Skewing toward the latter, “Knowledge” takes the familiar complaint that teenagers shouldn’t be expected to know what to do with their lives while finding bliss in ignorance: “All I know is that I don’t know nothin’,” howls singer Jesse Michaels in its chorus. “Knowledge” quickly became a classic, go-to cover for young punk bands—including one named Green Day, who recorded “Knowledge” for its second EP. [Kyle Ryan]

Pussy Galore, “Undertaker” (April 1989)

In 1989, the New York City rock scene was a thriving cauldron of noise and experimentation represented on one end by the art-pop soundscapes of Sonic Youth, and on the other by Pussy Galore. The epitome of defiantly anti-commercial scuzz-rock—led by the swaggering Jon Spencer, who would go on to find greater critical and commercial success with Blues Explosion—Pussy Galore began as pure noise, but slowly developed a ’60s garage-rock vibe that harnessed its politically incorrect rants and jagged riffs to a more accessible format. With its second album, Dial ‘M’ For Motherfucker (label Caroline Records vetoed the original title, Make Them All Eat Shit Slowly), the band’s weirdness is no less pronounced, but it also yields traditionally catchy, eminently listenable tracks like “Undertaker.” Pussy Galore disbanded the following year, but its influence on NYC-derived noise endures. [Alex McLevy]

The KLF, “3 a.m. Eternal” (May 1989) 

The original version of what would become The KLF’s worldwide smash “3 a.m. Eternal” boasts none of the duo’s self-described “stadium house” frippery—no raps from Ricardo Da Force, no screaming crowd samples, no one shouting out the group’s Illuminati-inspired alter egos, the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu. But while it wasn’t nearly as successful as its 1991 “Live At The S.S.L.” remix, the 1989 cut issued as part of The KLF’s Pure Trance series has aged far better, largely because it lacks all those thoroughly early-’90s trappings. “3 a.m.” is a hypnotic head trip, locating itself squarely inside the rave-floor K-hole of “London by night / On my own” that’s described by guest vocalist Maxine Harvey over its gently undulating acid house beat. With its Situationist bent and deeply held philosophy of sowing chaos, The KLF was one of the most enigmatic electronic bands of its era. But “3 a.m. Eternal” offers nothing but a direct hit of spacey dance pleasures. [Sean O’Neal]

Gang Starr, “Manifest” (June 1989)

The duo of Guru and DJ Premier released six albums together, and five of them are stone-cold classics, a body of work that represents the platonic ideal of minimalist New York hip-hop. The sole exception: 1989’s No More Mr. Nice Guy, which has only flashes of brilliance alongside ill-fitting experiments. Interestingly, it also contains two versions of “Manifest,” the duo’s first single, and it’s on the remix where you can hear the two fully inhabiting their style. Guru’s verses are identical—implacable and smooth, like always—but Primo’s grown seemingly overnight from a serviceable producer to a master, layering perfectly chopped James Brown drums under a loping Miles Davis sample, and creating dense montages of scratches between the verses. Placed as it is shortly after the lesser version in the album’s runtime, it sounds like a thunderclap of inspiration, two musicians finding a groove they’d ride into eternity. [Clayton Purdom]

Negativland, “Helter Stupid” (June 1989)

In 1988, Minnesota teen David Brom killed his parents, brother, and sister with an ax, a horrible crime that became a moral panic after police homed in on Brom’s “punk” haircut and alleged disagreements with his dad about music. It was the exact kind of huffy sensationalism that plunderphonic pranksters Negativland loved to mock, and so it did—by making it all much, much worse. The Bay Area band inserted itself into Brom’s story with a satirical press release that falsely attributed a recently canceled tour to being under federal house arrest over the possible role its 1987 song, “Christianity Is Stupid,” might have played in the Brom murders. Naturally, reporters soon came calling, with the band maintaining the ruse for magazines and clueless local newscasts; Negativland then made hay of the entire hoax with 1989’s Helter Stupid, an album-length media critique released decades before “fake news.” Helter Stupid’s centerpiece is this title track, an 18-minute collage of sound bites from TV journalists, Charles Manson, John Lennon and—in its most brazenly stolen sample—The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” that skewers our national hunger for pop psychology-driven scandals, even as Negativland, by its own admission, was culpable of fostering the same. It’s a fascinating, funny, and—fittingly—ethically compromised statement on our participation in our own manipulation. [Sean O’Neal]

Nirvana, “School” (June 1989)

It would take two years for everyone to catch up to Nirvana, along with the rest of the Seattle scene that would dominate the early ’90s. But Kurt Cobain, alienated since birth, was already sneering at Seattle’s social-climbing cliques in “School.” The pummeling track from the band’s Sub Pop debut, Bleach, is bluntly direct, consisting of just three lines screamed over an open-E guitar riff any pissed-off teen could pick up and play: “Won’t you believe it? It’s just my luck,” Cobain deadpans on the verses, answered by his yowl of “No recess!” on the chorus and a lowing, nightmarish “You’re in high school again” in the bridge. Anyone who’s ever felt trapped in literal high school can relate, but “School” also resonates deep in the primal centers of anyone who, like Cobain, just generally feels like an outsider. Even after Nevermind blew up (or especially after), “School” remained a staple of Nirvana’s live sets, Cobain’s anguish over being forced to mingle with the popular kids only growing more all-encompassing when “the Seattle scene” expanded to the entire world. [Sean O’Neal]

Syd Straw, “Future 40’s (String Of Pearls)” (June 1989)

These days, Syd Straw is probably best known as a teacher on cult Nickelodeon show The Adventures Of Pete & Pete. But in her heyday, she was an impressively throaty singer with a solo career as well as a stint in supergroup Golden Palominos, alongside the likes of Michael Stipe and Matthew Sweet. Her debut, Surprise, is a fine showcase for her commanding vocals, and while it’s best remembered for her popular dBs cover, “Think Too Hard,” it’s the Straw-co-written “Future 40’s (String Of Pearls)” that’s a better snapshot of her persona. Featuring Stipe on backing vocals, it resembles an R.E.M. song with Straw’s appealing fierceness at its center. “Hey man, I’m making moves / And I am so much stronger than you,” Straw confidently declares, and while neither she nor the album ever really got their due, it lays some lovely tracks for the next crop of ’90s female singer-songwriters to follow. [Gwen Ihnat]

Spacemen 3, “Hypnotized” (July 1989)

The release of “Hypnotized” marked the beginning of the end for Spacemen 3, whose lysergic space rock had just begun to take hold in the U.K. and beyond thanks to 1989’s Playing With Fire and its storming lead single, “Revolution,” the previous year. Taking a break from tour, Jason Pierce and Peter Kember convened to capitalize on the growing buzz by recording a couple of new tracks they’d been working on separately. When Kember’s contributions were cut from “Hypnotized”—a Pierce-penned song that Kember felt stole from his style of guitar playing—an irrevocable rift was created that would dissolve the band by the end of the year. But, at the risk of trivializing what a shame that was… maybe it was worth it? “Hypnotized” is a gorgeous, neo-gospel number that points toward the direction Pierce would take with Spiritualized, a beautifully bluesy church-organ dirge swept along by washes of shimmering echo and horn swells. It became the band’s biggest song in the U.K., earning Spacemen 3 heretofore-untold radio spins and critical plaudits alike, right before it would implode. Better late than never, we guess. [Sean O’Neal]

Galaxie 500, “Blue Thunder” (September 1989)

Cambridge, Massachusetts trio Galaxie 500 couldn’t have been more at odds with the bombastic pop dominating the charts in 1989, or even the burgeoning grunge movement. On Fire, the group’s sophomore album, homes in on a jangly, introverted dream-pop aesthetic that shuns aggression and rewards close listening. Any of On Fire’s songs would be a worthy nominee for this list, but opener “Blue Thunder” (also released that year on a split single with Flying Nun staple Straitjacket Fits) stands apart for its gradual tidal build and Dean Wareham’s wordless, cracked-falsetto chorus. It’s all punctuated by a moving guitar solo built more on feeling than virtuosity. Galaxie 500 would break up by 1991, but its influence would prove crucial to the slowcore movement of the ’90s and to shoegaze and dream pop for decades to come. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Transvision Vamp, “The Only One” (September 1989)

In just about any European country, Transvision Vamp’s second album, Velveteen, would be disqualified for consideration in this list. The band’s hooky synthesis of ’80s punk and glammed-up pop—which wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Billy Idol, and other such purveyors of slickly accessible rock—found massive success overseas, aided by sing-along vocals from the effervescent Wendy James. Velveteen stayed on the U.K. album charts for 32 weeks, and songs like “The Only One” demonstrate why: Boasting an anthemic melody and shiny production (with just enough crunch to the guitars to seem edgy, derived from its members’ pasts in noteworthy punk groups like Agent Orange), “The Only One” is a track about tempestuous love that is pure pop simplicity, with a repeated refrain that won’t be leaving your brain anytime soon. [Alex McLevy]

The Wedding Present, “Brassneck” (October 1989)

Led by David Gedge, The Wedding Present always seemed on both sides of the romantic coin, both lovestruck and bitter, and never more so than on “Brassneck.” While the verses relay a painful story of an unappreciated love letter, the tinny buzzsaw of the guitar ably conveys Gedge’s anger in the chorus as a heartfelt rant (“I’ve just decided I don’t trust you anymore”). Still, the music remains resolutely buoyant, so that we’re sure this guy will bounce back from devastation in short order—if he hasn’t already—before Gedge ends with a plaintive, “Just don’t forget you ever knew me,” and we’re back to questioning whether it could take longer than we thought. [Gwen Ihnat]

Jungle Brothers, “Doin’ Our Own Dang” (November 1989)

There would be no Native Tongues movement without the Jungle Brothers, whose pair of funky, upbeat, experimental, intellectual, and utterly alive albums in the late ’80s charted a path forward for hip-hop’s best minds. Straight Out The Jungle is arguably the trio’s finest moment, released in the same year that fellow travelers Queen Latifah and De La Soul released their debuts to much greater public acclaim. You can hear all of them together on “Doin’ Our Own Dang,” an early posse cut where everyone involved sounds utterly enthralled by the possibilities of their young movement. Q-Tip starts his verse enunciating every word in “A tree is growing,” secure in the knowledge, even then, that what the Jungle Brothers planted would stand for decades. [Clayton Purdom]

Happy Mondays, “Hallelujah (Club Mix)” (December 1989)

There’s a moment in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People where Factory Records head Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) marks the looming epochal shift in music—“the birth of rave culture, the beatification of the beat”—by drawing a straight line between Factory’s dance-rock Dionysians Happy Mondays and disc-spinning club DJs. That pivotal flip was captured on record, too. On the Mondays’ 1989, U.S.-only Hallelujah EP, its breakthrough title track received two noteworthy, era-defining remixes: Steve Lillywhite’s “Hallelujah (MacColl Mix),” featuring vocals by his wife, Kirsty MacColl, adds a Europop sheen to Shaun Ryder’s junkie come-ons, but it’s Paul Oakenfold and Andrew Weatherall’s “Club Mix” that leaves the biggest impression. With its insistent four-on-the-floor beat, repetitive piano lines, hypnotic Gregorian chant samples, and general MDMA atmosphere, it bridges the gap between the funked-up post-punk of the past and the acid house of the then-future, establishing the euphoric spirit of the Madchester scene in one six-minute track. Even with “rave culture” now old enough to be a nostalgic memory, “Hallelujah” remains a forward-facing banger. [Sean O’Neal]

Dead Moon, “Dead Moon Night” (1989)

Dead Moon, led by husband-and-wife duo Fred and Toody Cole, would never approach the national recognition of the biggest bands to emerge from the Pacific Northwest’s grunge explosion, but it undoubtedly left a massive influence on each and every one of them. They were the epitome of DIY, touring constantly to a cult of fans and recording, mastering, and releasing their albums on the Coles’ own label, right up until 2006. And with the opening track of their second album, they also made themselves a killer de facto theme song. Self-referential and endlessly shoutable, “Dead Moon Night” is the quintessential distillation of this pioneering band, with macabre lyrics and an undeniable garage-blues chug that make it as apocalyptic as it is joyful. [Matt Gerardi]

Half Japanese, “Put Some Sugar On It” (1989)

Jad Fair hit a prolific streak that bordered on the compulsive in the last three years of the ’80s, churning out not only three albums—and around 100 songs—with his group, Half Japanese, but also a couple of solo efforts and a joint record with Daniel Johnston. Fair’s near-boundless capacity for producing endearingly scratchy, two-minute pop shambles made the title of 1989’s The Band That Would Be King (later borrowed for a documentary on the group) seem less like a cheeky joke than a serious proposition. After all, why shouldn’t Half Japanese be huge when it’s capable of churning out sweet little gems like “Put Some Sugar On It”? A simple three-chord love ditty—Fair famously said all of Half Japanese’s songs were either “love songs or monster songs”—“Sugar” combines Velvet Underground-esque jangling drones with Fair’s own earnestly nerdy entreaties for affection into something perfectly imperfect. [Sean O’Neal]

Naked Raygun, “Treason” (1989)

By 1989, Naked Raygun was in its twilight, having spent nearly a decade as the best-known Chicago band in a punk scene that was still pretty regional. Although the group would go on to release one more album the following year, 1989’s Understand? remains Naked Raygun’s last great record, and “Treason” one of its all-time best songs. Raygun emerged from Chicago’s hardcore scene, but the band always favored a more melodic style that “Treason” encapsulates well: catchy but not poppy, powerful but not stupefying. The verses sound pensive, thanks to singer Jeff Pezzati’s questioning vocals and John Haggerty’s repetitive guitar lead, which makes the knockout chorus hit harder. “Soldiers Requiem,” from 1988’s Jettison, may be Naked Raygun’s signature song, but “Treason” comes a close second. [Kyle Ryan]

Bad Religion, “I Want To Conquer The World
Ciconne Youth, “Into The Groove(y)
Coldcut, “Beats And Pieces
Digital Underground, “Doowutchyalike
Guided By Voices, “Navigating Flood Regions
Robyn Hitchcock, “Madonna Of The Wasps
Kitchens Of Distinction, “Prize
Mudhoney, “This Gift
Screaming Trees, “Where The Twain Shall Meet
The Vaselines, “Sex Sux (Amen)

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