The winds of change were blowing by 1989 (no, not that wind), and it was evident all across the rock music spectrum. Big-haired, sex-obsessed rockers were still clinging to the charts, but they had to contend with a nascent alt-rock revolution. Factor in some creative pop-rock hits and impressive returns to form by several of the genre’s elder statespeople, and it made for a diverse and wildly entertaining year of music.
See the highlights below as UCR revisits the Top 35 Songs of 1989.
35. XTC, “Mayor of Simpleton”
From: Oranges & Lemons
XTC spent so much time and money trying to get Oranges & Lemons right that Virgin Records threatened to drop them. Cooler heads prevailed, and the band was rewarded with its highest-charting album in years, spearheaded by lead single “Mayor of Simpleton,” a delectable jangle-pop tune anchored by sunny guitar arpeggios and a deceptively demanding bass line.
34. Bad English, “When I See You Smile”
From: Bad English
This chart-topping power ballad from the supergroup comprising members of the Babys and Journey is admittedly formulaic. But John Waite‘s vocals are so beguiling and the chorus so undeniably catchy — particularly during the key change in the final go-round — that it hardly matters.
33. Eric Clapton, “Pretending”
The ’80s were not kind to Eric Clapton, who traded fiery blues-rock for milquetoast adult-contemporary pop throughout the decade. He began a promising course-correction on Journeyman, whose lead single and opening track, “Pretending,” features tasty wah-drenched licks and a robust vocal performance that make up for its woofy production.
32. The Replacements, “I’ll Be You”
From: Don’t Tell a Soul
The Replacements were a legendarily shambolic live act, often performing under the influence and crashing and burning mid-song. But they got their act together on “I’ll Be You,” which sports anthemic hooks and raw, earnest vocals from Paul Westerberg. The song granted the band its only Billboard Hot 100 placement (No. 51), and Tom Petty even nicked the “rebel without a clue” lyric for “Into the Great Wide Open.”
31. Prince, “Batdance”
Prince gleefully tore up the rulebook for writing a smash hit time and time again throughout his career. The chart-topping “Batdance” was a shining example, careening wildly between throbbing dance beats and scratchy, funky grooves. The “Batman!” chants and incendiary guitar solos are the kind of idiosyncratic touches that could only come from the Purple One.
30. The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Head On”
The second single off the Scottish alt-rockers’ third album is the post-punk platonic ideal: cavernous, digital drums; yearning, fizzy melodies and just enough guitar grit to remind listeners of their noisy past. Their effort was rewarded with a No. 2 peak on Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay chart.
29. Lenny Kravitz, “Let Love Rule”
From: Let Love Rule
Lenny Kravitz was doing “retro-rock” before it was widely recognized as such, combining soul, neo-psychedelia and fiery riff-rock on his debut album Let Love Rule. The title track coasts on unhurried grooves and the bandleader’s sensual screams, occupying a space between Prince and Guns N’ Roses.
28. Tesla, “Hang Tough”
Tesla always had more meat on their bones than most of their glam-metal kin, from whom they made a clean break on their sophomore album, The Great Radio Controversy. “Hang Tough,” in particular, lives up to its name: a rough-and-tumble rocker that evokes Aerosmith’s denim-and-leather racket more than Poison‘s spandex-and-Aqua-Net confection.
27. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Knock Me Down”
From: Mother’s Milk
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first gold album is best remembered for its cover of Stevie Wonder‘s “Higher Ground,” but its follow-up single, “Knock Me Down,” provides its musical and emotional core. A heartrending ode to late guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died of a heroin overdose, the song shows RHCP mixing their signature funk-punk tumult with devastating pathos, a formula that would turn them into superstars in short order.
26. Paul McCartney, “My Brave Face”
From: Flowers in the Dirt
After a near-decade of flops, Paul McCartney got back on track with Flowers in the Dirt, his best-received album since 1982’s Tug of War. He and collaborator Elvis Costello prove excellent bedfellows on lead single “My Brave Face,” a sprightly rocker with a melancholy undercurrent that sounds more than a little Beatlesque in its wistful bridge.
25. Extreme, “Play With Me”
Boston rockers Extreme get impressive mileage out of naming literal children’s games on “Play With Me,” the lead single off their self-titled debut album. The high-energy track’s indisputable highlight is guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, whose gobsmacking solos and fills immediately positioned him as an heir to the throne of Eddie Van Halen.
24. Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Crossfire”
From: In Step
From the opening notes of Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughan staked his claim as a blues-rock guitar messiah. But on the swaggering In Step single “Crossfire,” he proved he could also write songs, pitting smoldering guitar licks against blustery horns and a bass-heavy groove. A helicopter crash killed Vaughan roughly a year after In Step‘s release, making “Crossfire” a tragic final stand rather than a launching pad for greater mainstream success.
23. Warrant, “Heaven”
From: Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich
At first glance, there seemed to be little to distinguish Warrant from their poofy-haired, spandex-clad peers. But on songs like “Heaven,” frontman and chief songwriter Jani Lane proved his knack for soaring melodies and pristine pipes, riding the combination of naked vulnerability and radio-ready cheese to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
22. Stevie Nicks, “Rooms on Fire”
In the liner notes of her Timespace greatest-hits compilation, Stevie Nicks revealed she wrote “Rooms on Fire” about her producer and brief romantic partner Rupert Hines. “It always seemed to me that whenever Rupert walked into one of these old, dark castle rooms [where we recorded], that the rooms were on fire,” she wrote. “There was a connection between us that everyone around us instantly picked up on, and everyone was very careful to respect our space.” The resulting track is full of twinkling keys, shimmering guitars and Nicks’ inimitable voice, at once both aloof and burning with desire.
21. Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man”
Kurt Cobain famously told Rolling Stone that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his attempt “to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.” Indeed, the Boston rockers accomplished a similar feat on the Doolittle breakout track “Here Comes Your Man,” an enchanting alt-pop anthem full of languid, bittersweet melodies and jangly guitars expertly dialed to take college radio by storm.
20. Tears for Fears, “Sowing the Seeds of Love”
From: The Seeds of Love
The Seeds of Love found Tears for Fears expanding their labyrinthine new wave sound to incorporate elements of jazz-rock, neo-soul and Beatlesque pop. The latter two are especially evident on “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” a rollicking, orchestral romp that makes pit stops in Strawberry Fields and Pepperland on its journey toward soul-pop nirvana.
19. Roy Orbison, “You Got It”
From: Mystery Girl
Roy Orbison enjoyed a massive career resurgence just before his death thanks to the Traveling Wilburys‘ multiplatinum debut album. The comeback continued on Orbison’s posthumous Mystery Girl and its Top 10 lead single “You Got It,” written and produced by fellow Wilburys Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. It was a fitting goodbye from the legend, full of Lynne’s high-gloss handiwork and sweet melodies that evoke the classic “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
18. Bonnie Raitt, “Thing Called Love”
From: Nick of Time
Bonnie Raitt’s career seemed dead in the water when she roared back with the chart-topping, Album of the Year-winning Nick of Time. “Thing Called Love” is an unhurried blues-rocker, full of swampy guitar licks and sung with the steely impatience of a woman who’s been wronged more than once and is now wresting back her destiny.
17. Queen, “I Want It All”
From: The Miracle
Nearly two decades into their career, Queen proved with “I Want It All” that they were still capable of the thundering, empowering arena rock that first launched them to stardom. The track became a fan favorite and Top 10 hit in several countries, and an anti-apartheid anthem in South Africa. Freddie Mercury tragically died of AIDS before getting to perform it live, but his successors dutifully carried the torch and kept it a set list staple for decades to come.
16. Alice Cooper, “Poison”
After years of booze-induced commercial exile, Alice Cooper cleaned up and mounted a late-’80s comeback that culminated in 1989’s platinum-selling Trash. He and song doctor du jour Desmond Child co-wrote lead single “Poison,” a bristling, melodramatic pop-metal anthem with just enough bite to sit nicely alongside the shock-rocker’s ’70s hits. It peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, tying “School’s Out” for his highest-charting song.
15. The Rolling Stones, “Mixed Emotions”
From: Steel Wheels
Despite its occasionally workmanlike nature, Steel Wheels marked an overall return to form for the Rolling Stones after years of intraband dysfunction and critical misfires. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rebooted their songwriting partnership for “Mixed Emotions,” a raucous, uptempo rocker with gorgeous chorus harmonies that granted the Stones their final Top 10 entry on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 5.
14. The B-52’s, “Love Shack”
From: Cosmic Thing
You might adore “Love Shack,” and you might despise it — either way, you can’t deny its status as a new wave classic. After years of commercial decline, the B-52’s roared back with this poppy rave-up full of sassy, supersized hooks and dancefloor exhortations. It became their first Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
13. The Cult, “Fire Woman”
From: Sonic Temple
The Cult had tried on several different skins over the years, from goth-rock mystics on Love to retro-rock revivalists on Electric. On Sonic Temple, they teamed up with super-producer Bob Rock and transformed into full-blown arena rock stars. The new identity fit them like a glove on the monstrous “Fire Woman,” full of Ian Astbury’s blustery howls and Billy Duffy’s red-hot guitar riffs. The song pushed the album to platinum status briefly positioned the Cult to seize the hard rock gauntlet.
12. Nirvana, “About a Girl”
Before Nevermind turned them into superstars, Nirvana had already proven their mastery of the nervy punk-pop and soft-loud-soft dynamics on their debut album Bleach. Kurt Cobain reportedly wrote “About a Girl” after listening to Meet the Beatles! on repeat, and the track bristles with the same youthful energy and unshakable melodies. It was an early masterpiece and a harbinger of even greater things to come.
11. Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt collaborations also yielded a pair of songs for Costello’s Spike: “Veronica” and “Pads, Paws and Claws.” The former gave Costello his biggest U.S. hit ever, peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. The sunny, baroque pop-rock exterior masks a chilling story of an elderly woman grappling with dementia, inspired by Costello’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
10. Madonna, “Like a Prayer”
From: Like a Prayer
Some critics were slow to acknowledge Madonna as a bonafide artist rather than just a pop star and sex symbol, but “Like a Prayer” rightly put them in their place. The ornate, gospel-influenced pop-rock smash blends spiritual searching and sexual innuendo, and its “sacrilegious” video earned the condemnation of the Vatican and led to a canceled Pepsi sponsorship — all proof that Madonna was doing something right.
9. Skid Row, “Youth Gone Wild”
From: Skid Row
Blame it on their joint Canadian and New Jersey roots or a general lack of decorum, but Skid Row always rocked a twinge harder and came off as more genuinely menacing than their L.A. peers. Case in point: “Youth Gone Wild,” a quintessential bad-boy anthem powered by steel-toed riffs, stadium-ready hooks and Sebastian Bach‘s defiant, megawatt vocals.
8. Motley Crue, “Kickstart My Heart”
From: Dr. Feelgood
Legend has it Nikki Sixx wrote “Kickstart My Heart” about his experience overdosing on heroin and being revived with a shot of adrenaline by paramedics. The bassist’s brush with death inspired Motley Crue to get sober before making the chart-topping Dr. Feelgood. The whole album rocks with earth-shaking clarity, and “Kickstart My Heart” features some of the band’s most muscular riffs and indomitable hooks — a high-water mark for Motley Crue and glam metal at large.
7. Faith No More, “Epic”
From: The Real Thing
With dynamic new lead singer Mike Patton at the helm, Faith No More vaulted from scrappy rap-metal oddballs to platinum-selling alt-metal trailblazers. On breakout single “Epic,” Patton’s percussive raps and sneering vocals combine with titanic grooves and stabbing guitar riffs to create an off-the-wall anthem that hinted at rock’s impending zeitgeist shift.
6. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
From: Pretty Hate Machine
Glam metal still ruled the roost in 1989, but the bubble was close to bursting, making way for a new vein of brooding, unsettling rock. Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” epitomized the revolution with its incessant drum loops, menacing synths and Trent Reznor‘s blisteringly charismatic vocals. Soon, everybody would try to jack Reznor’s style, but few would come close.
5. Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence”
From: The End of the Innocence
Don Henley waded further into adult-contemporary pop waters on his third solo album, and its title track remains one of his most plaintively beautiful songs. It’s a delicate lament about the decay of the baby boomer generation, from political corruption to the splintering of once-happy families. It’s also not difficult to read it as a belated eulogy to the Eagles, who succumbed to fame and excess nearly a decade earlier.
4. The Cure, “Lovesong”
The Cure’s eighth album summed up everything they’d learned over the past decade, traversing goth dirges, psychedelic jams and pure pop earworms. “Lovesong” combines all three, soaring on the strength of Robert Smith‘s anguished vocals and a hauntingly beautiful guitar-and-keyboard hook.
3. Tom Petty, “Free Fallin'”
From: Full Moon Fever
Tom Petty could write a generational anthem as easily as most people could tie their shoes. What started as a couple chords and an attempt to make Jeff Lynne laugh quickly morphed into one of his most enduring hits, a heartland rock staple about nobody in particular but with a wistful ache that’s universally understood.
2. Aerosmith, “Love in an Elevator”
Permanent Vacation revived Aerosmith’s career; Pump proved they were there to stay. “Love in an Elevator” combines the sleazy, monolithic riffing and double entendres of the band’s drug-fueled ’70s heyday with skyscraping pop hooks and Bruce Fairbairn’s big-budget production. It’s fun, ribald and rocks hard as hell — in other words, it’s quintessentially Aerosmith.
1. Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Twenty years into his career, Neil Young made a roaring comeback with Freedom and its single “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The song rocks with primal fury and stinging clarity, while its cliche, patriotic refrain belies a scathing rebuke of the George H. W. Bush administration and societal rot. Casual listeners completely missed the point. What else was new?
1989’s Best Classic Rock Albums
This year brought important albums from across a dizzying spectrum, but 1989 was also a great one for tried-and-true classic rockers.
Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso