It’s Year-End List Season! 2018 Edition

Year-end list season is upon us! While I know that eventually I should make more of an effort to move away from lists and into substantial reviews on this site… there’s no denying that lists and especially countdowns are just so fun to do. And readers of this page seem to enjoy them as well, so I’ve no incentive at all to end them completely! While lists get a lot of flak, I’ve always loved them for the convenience of collecting one’s thoughts into one place, making it all the more easier to compare and contrast with others. Year-end lists also feel like a great way to finish up a long, tired twelve months – a sort of ceremonial ribbon atop the accumulation of everything that occurred through that time, and a final goodbye before we all move on to start fresh with a new year. And heaven knows this year has been particularly long and tiresome… so let’s get to it!

So I’m sure you might be asking what lists y’all should be expecting this time around. To quell these thoughts, I’ll lay out which lists I plan on publishing in a rough chronological order. While I do intend to keep on this order for the most part, depending on time and energy, the order in which these are published are subject to change.

  1. Worst Hit Singles of 2018
  2. Best Hit Singles of 2018
  3. Best Non-Hit Singles of 2018
  4. Best Albums of 2018
  5. Best Films of 2018

This basic order depends on a variety of factors. The Worst Hit Singles of 2018 is first because, while I do enjoy writing about what I consider to be the worst songs on the Hot 100 this year, I don’t wish to dwell too much on the negative aspects of the year – there’s already been a hell of a lot of negativity in 2018 that’s not even remotely related to music or film. This is also why I am not writing about the worst non-hits singles, albums, or films; for the latter two in particular, I don’t often seek out those that I know I’ll dislike, so it’ll just be a couple lists of mere disappointments. And yes, I am planning to just get it out of my system first so I’ll have time to gush about the things I do love.

After Worst Hit Singles comes Best Hit Singles. These two are coming before any of the others primarily to coincide with Billboard releasing their annual list of the top 100 songs of the year. The year-end list should be published by Billboard sometime in December, so I plan to have my own lists up slightly before this, if not around the same time. At this time, I don’t know how long these lists will be; the past couple years I’ve done twenty, but I’ve been contemplating making them a little shorter with a list of dis/honorable mentions. Same goes with the other lists – I’ll know when I get there.

Unlike the Hit Singles lists, my lists for Best Non-Hits, Albums, and Films will all rely on stuff specifically released within the calendar year. Currently, I am scrambled to get everything I missed during the year, while also keeping up with new material that has any possible of making my final lists. My personal deadline for the former two is the first week of January, roughly speaking. Nonetheless, I plan to release these gradually from late December ’til about mid-January. The Non-Hit Singles list will come first, since I tend to go through singles a lot faster, while I want to have my Best Albums list up sometime in the next month. Realistically speaking, due to the oddity of the release calendar when it comes to films, I will likely not have the Best Films up until around February. That’s okay, though – I don’t particularly mind having this list coincide with the Oscars!

And in case you desire a more organized version of everything I just stated above, here is a rough list of dates of when I want to have these up:

  1. Worst Hit Singles of 2018: Dec. 1-7
  2. Best Hit Singles of 2018: Dec. 7-15
  3. Best Non-Hit Singles of 2018: Dec. 20-27
  4. Best Albums of 2018: Dec. 25-Jan. 7
  5. Best Films of 2018: early to mid-Feb.

And, once again, all of these date regions are certainly subject to change depending on whatever happens to hop up in my personal life to delay one to all of these, or not.

I’ve been a tad flakey in past years when it comes to these year-end lists, so I really plan on giving it my all this time around. I’ve been preparing for them all very diligently this time around, so I really hope it shows in my final results. I’m super excited to get all of these out and share with y’all my final thoughts about the wild and crazy year that was 2018!!

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1977) by Thelma Houston

Alright, time for another one of these. Despite having only written in length about a handful of disco singles in the past, it remains one of my favorite ever genres to review. With all the intersections of culture, identity, and a multitude of common themes, there really is more than meets the eye with a lot of these singles often played on dance floors. And of course, many of them are exactly that as well – mindless uptempo dance tunes meant to get club-goers in the mood to boogie all night long, with no ulterior motives in place. There’s a whole lot of trash in this genre, that’s for sure, but for some reason that only makes the true gems shine all the more brighter.

Take this song, then. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston, with its dreamy first couple of verses that take its time before really exploding in a wave of emotion once that chorus really, truly kicks in. This is true 70s dance floor fodder, if I’ve ever seen it. I’ve already written a couple sentences about this song for my overview of 1977’s top 100 songs, but it honestly needs far more than just a paragraph. This truly is one of the definitive singles of the disco era, and for more ways than that which may be evident on the surface. I do hold true with my conclusive statement in my initial write-up on this song – Houston really did deserve a much bigger career than she eventually got, even if the power of this single does surpass generations.

Few may know, however, that this record as we know and love it is actually a cover song from a couple years earlier. Written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, with collaboration from Cary Gilbert, this song was initially handed over to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – with lead vocals by Teddy Pendergrass – for their 1975 album Wake Up Everybody under Gamble & Huff’s label Philadelphia International. Although the album’s lead single of the same name would become a top 20 hit on the pop charts, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” failed to make much of a splash at all (although it reached #5 in the UK). This original record contained many elements that comprised what has defined the 70s Philly Soul sound – particularly the swelling strings, rhythmic hi-hat cymbals, and soulful vocal delivery from Pendergrass. And like the better-known cover that would follow, this version introduces the song’s basic format of softer verses offset by a more intense, passionate chorus. To casual listeners, not too much seems to have been changed from this original version to the chart-topping cover version – however, the changes that were made were certainly vital to the song’s eventual success.

In 1976, the song was brought over to Motown for a disco-infused cover version. This wasn’t exactly a new idea for the disco scene – most notably, Gloria Gaynor’s cover of The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a smash hit the previous year and would go on to become one of the defining hits of the genre. Taking a preexisting, recognizable pop tune and laying a dance beat over it just seemed like one of the quickest, easiest ways to make a quick buck in this thriving industry. Although “Don’t Leave Me This Way” wasn’t quite as huge of a hit, my guess is that the ways in which the Philly Soul sound lent their aesthetic to what would become the predominant disco sound (especially the lush instrumentals and intense lyrical themes) made this particular track attractive enough to cover. Initially, producer Hal Davis intended this to be Diana Ross’s follow-up to her own disco-infused chart-topper “Love Hangover”, but it was reassigned to give up-and-coming performer Thelma Houston a chance. This recording was released as a single in December 1976 and gained enough traction to top the Hot 100 for a single week in April 1977, as well as the disco and soul charts. Additionally, it won the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance (from a female artist) – not bad from an artist who had never had a hit to her name in ten years of recording!

I’ve found that the best way to discuss cover songs (especially particularly exceptional ones like this) is to compare and contrast it from the original and recount how it changes the overall sound and/or mood of the record. In the Blue Notes’ version, a softer, sleeker R&B production is favored, with flutters of guitar riding above the prominent violins and deep percussion. Moreover, Pendergrass is husky in his delivery, mournful at first with his utterances of, “Don’t leave me this way; I can’t survive…”, but then brought to an emotional climax in the chorus (“Ahhh, baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you”) with assistance from the backup vocalists. Thelma Houston’s version, on the other hand, takes things in a slightly different direction. The vibrant strings are still here, but the drumming opts more for a four-on-the-floor disco rhythm and the bassline that runs throughout the track is just spectacular. And while there’s no denying that these instrumentals bring their own power to the track, much of it is guided by Houston herself, with thick, textured vocals that basically guide the whole track. Unlike Pendergrass who sticks pretty strictly to the basic melody, Houston takes her own liberties with it, flowing in, out, and around the song like a show-stealing gospel singer.

And there’s no denying that the chorus is just so, so much stronger here. I mean, it’s perfectly passable in the original, for sure; it gets the job done and is not at all unpleasant to the ears. Yet somehow, when Houston sings, “My heart is full of love and desire for you”… it’s somehow all the more believable. The emotional gravitas she brings to the recording is absolutely perfect for the general extravagance that so clearly defines the disco era. It’s similar to the extra weight that Gloria Gaynor puts on her version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” – the situation certainly seems all the more dire than when 12-year-old Michael Jackson sings these same words, as pleasant as he makes it all sound.

It is a tad ironic, I guess, that this song would be one to so successfully fill the dance floors of every club in the country, considering that its lyrics are very explicitly concerned with the topic of yearning and struggle to the point of emotional pain. The first verse alone states clearly, “I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive, without your love”, blatantly teasing some suicidal ideations. There’s no denying, though, that darkness and sad times have been at the heart of disco since these early days – take a look at The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”, which contains the line, “I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self-destruct”. Or even Bee Gees’ smash hit “Stayin’ Alive”, which clearly outlines the roughness of inner-city living in its lyrics. This song’s chorus, then, works as a sort of catharsis – when Houston sings, “You started this fire down in my soul / Now can’t you see it’s burning outta control” she asserts her own agency in this situation by making a clear demand to be treated the way she deserves. Certainly this must have resonated to the many on the dance floors, who possibly retreat to discos to escape their own dismal realities.

And that’s really all there is to say here. With all this kept in mind, it’s really no wonder how this has come to be known as one of the defining singles of the disco era. Sadly, Motown didn’t do much to keep Houston’s career alive in the mainstream, and with the plethora of other disco acts popping up at this time, she soon faded into obscurity. Nonetheless, the powerhouse performance she gives on this track alone is one for the ages. Such displays of unbridled sonic ecstasy are the reason why so many folks find their calling out on the dance floor, especially during these days when disco divas reigned supreme. And considering that this isn’t even the original version of this heartbreak tune, this record really has no business being as good as it is. Nonetheless, I’m so glad it is.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Hit the Road Jack” (1961) by Ray Charles

It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these… so I might as well jump back on the wagon! After devoting a good chunk of my time to Halloween TV specials and then to the interesting pop music scene of 1987, it’s nice to jump right back into this Hot 100 Number-One Singles challenge. Now, out of the three number-one singles that Ray Charles had accomplished in his illustrious career, I have so far covered one – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, his final single to top the chart. After this post, I will eventually get to writing about his first number-one single, “Georgia on My Mind”. Nestled in between, of course, is “Hit the Road Jack”, which many would consider to be Charles’s definitive song – or at least the most well-known.

By 1961, Ray Charles was reaching an impressive amount of crossover success. In particular, 1959’s “What’d I Say” mixed gospel, jazz, and blues with sexual undertones, creating his first top-ten hit that pop radio both loved and attempted to ban. Additionally though, his sixth studio album album The Genius of Ray Charles of the same year eschewed the R&B flair of his early music in favor of a more polished, traditional pop sound. As a result, this album was his first top 20 entry on the Billboard 200 and is widely considered among his best. Nonetheless, Charles’s contract with Atlantic Records dropped later that year and he then signed with ABC-Paramount. Upon this change, he had almost completely abandoned writing his own material; although this would eventually grant him his first chart-topper in “Georgia” (a Hoagy Carmichael composition), his role as a musician relied almost entirely on him recording covers and reinterpretations of preexisting material.

It was around this point that Charles met songwriter Percy Mayfield. A successful R&B performer in his own right, Mayfield’s career came to a tragic halt when a severe car accident left his face disfigured. Not willing to back off completely, Mayfield opted for a turn to writing for others, in which he found some comparable success. He came to the attention of Charles with an a capella demo of his latest composition, titled “Hit the Road Jack”… and the rest, as they say, is history.

While “Georgia on My Mind” hit listeners with a sumptuous blend of strings, piano, and a backup choir, “Hit the Road Jack” marked a brief detour in sound for Charles’s recordings, with its heavier emphasis on punchy horns and stronger, high-tempo percussion. While this is a far cry from the rawer, gospel-infused recordings of his earlier years, the energy demonstrated by the recording brings us back to these more vibrant days, especially after “Georgia”‘s easy listening vibes. And it’s clear that many listeners appreciated this change as well – not only did this song hit number-one on the Hot 100 for two weeks and on the R&B charts for five weeks in the fall of 1961, but it would eventually win the Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording  and was, overall, the 19th biggest pop song of 1961 as a whole.

All of this is amazing considering just how deftly this song makes its presence known. In terms of length, this song runs at exactly two minutes in length, and while it’s true that pop records in these days tended to be shorter than in later decades, most at least broke the two-and-a-half minute mark. Additionally, the quickness in tempo and simplicity in this format somehow seems to make it whizz by even faster. Without only a couple bars of an instrumental intro, The Raelettes  – Charles’s backing girl group – hit us immediately with that earworm of a hook: “Hit the road, Jack, and don’tcha come back / No more, no more, no more, no more”. After this, Charles comes in with a verse which, of course, only consists of a few brief lines before the hook comes in again. Wash and repeat, and then the outro, and then we’re finished.

The immediate reaction one would normally have to this song is that it is catchy as all hell – maybe not so much Charles’s verses, but definitely the Raelettes’ hook. The second reaction is that this song is pretty damn feisty in its depiction of a failing, loveless relationship, almost comically so. Charles’s first verse indeed carries the crux of the idea. While the first half demonstrates his exasperation for his partner in a fittingly exaggerated manner (“Oh woman, oh woman, don’t treat me so mean / You’re the meanest woman that I’ve ever seen”), he waves his white flag in the second half and admits that it’s all over (“I guess if you say so, I’ll have to pack my things and go”). The Raelettes’ contributions in the chorus act as a collective voice of his soon-to-be ex, with their energetic demands of him “hitting the road” pulling back no punches and the repetition of “no more” asserting that this has gone on for far too long.

It’s when the second half of the song kicks in that things start to get really interesting, During what I assume to be the same conversation, Charles’s character in this song attempts to assuage the situation by promising that he will improve himself to make their relationship work (“Now baby, listen baby, don’t you treat me this way / ‘Cause I’ll be back on my feet some day”). It is at this point, in possibly the most radical moment of the song, where Margie Hendrix of the Raelettes steps in for a solo, interrupting this verse with a statement of defiance (“Don’t care if you do, ’cause it’s understood / You ain’t got no money, you just ain’t no good”). While casual listeners might’ve been none the wiser, the fact is that Hendrix and Charles were themselves involved in a romantic affair that had turned sour at this point. Although it’s only two lines, Hendrix’s solo is incredible in the way it so strongly and effortlessly seeps anger and betrayal from every word she sings. After this, Charles repeats the latter half of the first verse (“I guess if you say so…”), but it somehow sounds meeker and less confident than before, as if he was genuinely hurt by her words, proving that his character is really not just a work of fiction. It’s an amazing moment in pop music, even more incredible considering that this is only a fraction of this already very short song.

The rest of the Raelettes do offer support to this scenario, though, with strong declarations of, “That’s right!” after each chorus. These are offset by Charles’s howls of, “What you say?” during the chorus itself, which both act as a leader’s call for for repetition (typically found in gospel choir performances) and this man’s cries of disbelief over his partner’s requests. The last few seconds of the song contain a flurry of Charles’s pleas of denial over these demands, which at this point are pretty comical considering all we’ve just witnessed. Although while many are quick to only praise the performance of Charles and the Raelettes, especially with that vocal hook, I do think that the horns of this song are pretty spectacular as well. It’s the very first thing that listeners hear upon pressing play – those couple of bars of descending instrumental that anticipate the petty drama about to occur. These horns also punctuate the verses with the right amount of flavor, making them pop at just the right moments.

Overall, this was a very welcoming somewhat-return to form for Ray Charles. While he would continue on the easy listening path, eventually recording Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and nabbing his final number-one single “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, this brief detour back to his feistier roots showed that he still had that energy in him. While a brilliantly catchy pop-soul tune on the outside, “Hit the Road Jack” also managed to highlight the ways in which the format could so creatively display the musician’s personal life – perhaps unintentionally so. But really, everyone always comes back to it for that nursery rhyme of a hook, which contains a universe of emotions that listeners could contextualize for their own needs. And sometimes, their needs might solely contain an utterly satisfying, short slice of early 1960s R&B, an undeniable classic.

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Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1987

100. “Love You Down” – Ready For the World: I’ve heard from more than a couple sources that as fun and fresh as the early- to mid-80s year-end Hot 100 is, they only get more dull and uninteresting through the transition to the next decade. And since I’ve got 2018 year-end lists to start compiling, I’ll just try to get through this one as quickly as possible. “Love You Down” is the follow-up hit single from the guys who brought us the banger “Oh Sheila” and… well, it might be a pretty good indicator of what we have to look forward to. Instrumentally, it’s a pretty standard slow-paced R&B sex jam with generic keyboards and an admittedly competent bassline. They attempt a younger guy/older woman scenario in the verses (“It never really mattered too much to me / That you were just too damn old for me”), but the simple chorus of, “Let me love you down” basically negates this into boring, pedestrian territory. Let’s move on.

99. “Funkytown” – Pseudo Echo: Of course, since New Wave and synthpop were big this decade, it would only be a matter of time where we came across groups that served watered-down versions of these trends to nab an easy dollar. That’s not to say that the original “Funkytown” itself was some lush, complex masterpiece, but at the very least you could dance to it. Pseudo Echo’s cover is just a bunch of commercial, lifeless fluff set alongside repetitive lyrics that now serve no other purpose except to remind listeners of an earlier, better record. I’m not feeling this.

98. “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys: So lately, I’ve been working the long-overdue task of listening through all of Beastie Boys’ studio albums. I’ve always been aware of the admittedly bro-ish nature of their earlier material, and their first album Licensed to Ill exemplifies this pretty succinctly. While I’ve always admired the group’s musicianship, rhymes, and role in changing the mainstream rap game, there’s also no denying that their lyrics are often replete with sexist, chauvinistic tendencies (though they’re far from alone in this). With that being said, “Fight For Your Right” is one of the less abrasive cuts from the record – despite it being the rowdiest. While the rhymes are far less crafty than what the trio are capable of, it makes of for this with a fierce rhythm that takes advantage of the rap-rock style set up by “Walk This Way” in the previous year. The lyrics are certainly bratty and even kind of sloppy, but they’re all relatively innocuous teenage gripes over parents, teachers, and the right to be partying, smoking, porno-reading, long-haired teens. Seriously, the phrase, “fight for your right to party could have only been born and bred in the 80s – certainly any reason to get drunk and yell, “Paaaarty” at the top of your lungs.

97. “I’ve Been in Love Before” – Cutting Crew: Oh hey, Cutting Crew – I always assumed these guys were a one-hit wonder. Marching through the 80s have opened my eyes to so many lies such as these. Anyway, this song is dreamy, guitar-and-synth-laden, and melancholic – but somehow, not in a very good way. The chorus alone practically says it all: “I’ve been in love before / The hardest part is when you’re in it”. They’re just not trying very hard at all with these heartbreak ballads at this point. You can practically feel all the shortcuts this song is taking to be completely listenable yet not at all substantial. I can already tell that the rest of this year is going to a real slog.

96. “Meet Me Half Way” – Kenny Loggins: Oh yeah, this song! Earlier this year, in a bout of inexplicable boredom, I attempted to watch as many films distributed by Cannon that I could stomach. Needless to say, this challenge ended soon, but one of the films I watched was Over the Top, wherein Sylvester Stallone plays an arm wrestler trying to win a championship as well as the affections of his estranged son. It’s pretty much as messy as it sounds, and I don’t think I could think of a better song to serve as generic soundtrack fodder than this one. Just as Stallone was hot off the Rocky IV block, Kenny Loggins had cemented himself into movie soundtrack legend with his successful theme to Top Gun, “Danger Zone”. Really, this is all to avoid actually talking about the song at hand. “Meet Me Half Way” is insipid, lifeless, and a total waste of the talent that Loggins have proven to possess time and time again. The melody is practically non-existent, the synths are obnoxious, and… well, it’s just boring. Honestly, there’s not much else to say except I hate it.

95. “Ballerina Girl” – Lionel Richie: What did I do to deserve this? So, I know I’ve covered my fair share of bad Lionel Richie ballads in the past, but this has to be the absolute worse. There’s just nothing to hang onto here: the synths are on autopilot, the lyrics rise barely above Hallmark card material, and Richie himself is just phoning it in at this point. I can’t remember the last time I covered a song on this challenge that possessed as little of a pulse as this one. And the fact that this went to #7 on the pop charts just demonstrates how lackluster of a year this is. Just… yikes.

94. “Right on Track” – Breakfast Club: Alright, finally, something worth giving a damn about. So, everything about this screams 80s, from its glossy synthesizer riff, to its dance-rock rhythm with a funky bass, to its lyrics that make little sense at its core (“How far away can you go and still be dancing with me?”). Still, it’s just the right amount of extravagant and weird to be pretty endearing despite wearing every bit of its cheese on its sleeve. Even those completely out-of-place backing gospel singers are charming in their own weird way! There’s nothing amazing here, but it’s suitable for those looking for a deep cut to add to their 80s dance party playlist.

93. “Doing It All For My Baby” – Huey Lewis and the News: So the music video for this song is eight minutes long and a pretty decent parody of monster horror films – cool! Honestly, though, this is probably the most interesting thing about this track. I’ve already been pretty lukewarm on this group through the years, but this is a particular kind of bad. They definitely took their cues from Billy Joel in their homage to 60s doo-wop, but the end results are totally limp and I’m not convinced anyone in the group gives a damn. The “Doin’ it, doin’ it”s in the final third are also just annoying. Unfortunately, this won’t be the last Huey Lewis & the News song we’ll see here, as their album Fore! was a pretty sizable hit this year. Oh, joy.

92. “Don’t Get Me Wrong” – The Pretenders: Whew… I can breathe again. So with this song, the Pretenders have definitely strayed from the feistiness of “Brass in Pocket”, but they stick to the jangle pop that gave them a top ten hit in “Back on the Chain Gang”. This song is definitely poppier than either of those two songs, but while it could have fallen flat on its face, I find it absolutely charming. The melody is delightful and I love the way Chrissie Hynde sings lines like, “I see neon lights whenever you walk by”. The gear change in the bridge always makes my heart swell (“Once in a while, two people meet…”) and while the song doesn’t try anything new from that point onward, its bubbliness is still admirable. It’s an adorable little love song and I’m just thrilled to come across something this fantastic after so many drab songs in a row…

91. “Victory” – Kool & the Gang: Before starting this challenge, I never would have guessed that Kool & the Gang were this successful on the charts – this is the 14th song of theirs I’ve covered so far! Nonetheless, this seems to have been one of their forgotten ones, as I can’t find too much information on it online. After only one listen, it’s not hard to see why. This has the standard form of funky flair that a lot of the group’s song’s possess, but much more on the watered-down, generic side of things. It’s probably fun to have as background music to a dance party, but that’s really all it is – background music. It’s not bad by any means and I even really dig some of the ambitious vocal bits. It just doesn’t stick.

90. “Cross My Broken Heart” – The Jets: And here’s yet another song wherein pretty much every description in the previous song fits as well. I was actually under the impression that The Jets were a one-hit wonder group – “Crush on You” doesn’t really make any promises! So yeah, this is some glossy, love-centered dance-pop that is pleasant enough to fill some radio time. Nonetheless, the lyrics are painfully pedestrian and there’s nothing here that elevates this beyond simple movie soundtrack fodder. Let’s just continue.

89. “Respect Yourself” – Bruce Willis: Alright, so I guess before Bruce Willis’s acting career really took off with the Die Hard franchise, he tried, among other things, a music career. This was his only big hit, a cover of a 60s hit from The Staple Singers, which gained prominence as an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. So who better to take it on than a bulky white dude with a terrible singing voice?? Okay, it’s not all bad. The Pointer Sisters supply backing vocals here, and they are absolutely great, especially June Pointer who gets the second verse to herself and performs it with all the vim and vigor it deserves. Willis, on the other hand, ha all the charisma of a karaoke singer with a little too much to drink. Enough said.

88. “Who Will You Run To” – Heart: As noted in my 1986 post, Heart were at the top of the world in the throws of their very successful comeback. Even though I consider this one of their more middling tracks, there are definitely good things about it. Diane Warren collaborates with the band here and crafts her typical brand of fiery, energetic love ballad. The guitars and drums chug along rather nicely and Ann Wilson’s powerhouse vocals remain restrained at crucial moments while ripping through the tune in others. Overall, I’ve definitely heard better from all involved, but I’ll take it!

87. “Just to See Her” – Smokey Robinson: Smokey Robinson’s output in the 60s is beautiful and timeless in all the right ways. Even though I haven’t heard much of it, I couldn’t say the same for his hits in the 80s – “Cruisin'” and “Being With You” just didn’t do it for me (though I see the appeal of the former). Unsurprisingly, “Just to See Her” falls in this camp as well. The melody is bright and sunny, especially in the chorus, which I appreciate, but there’s no denying that he’s basically attempting to cash in on the Lionel Richie crowd. There are good things about this – that smooooth bass, Robinson’s silky vocals, that twinkly keyboard solo – but overall, it doesn’t mesh into a cohesive fully-realized end product. Sorry, Smokey.

86. “Brilliant Disguise” – Bruce Springsteen: I know I might be biased with a lot of opinions on artists I cover throughout this challenge (Prince and Cyndi Lauper, for example), but I truly can’t envision anyone not being totally won over by Bruce Springsteen. With “Brilliant Disguise”, he hits another one out of the park. Amidst a subtle organ and dreamy guitar, Springsteen emits an obscure series of statements regarding anxieties and insecurities over his relationship. Apparently much of this was in direct reference to his real-life marriage, which would end the following year. It’s clear that the emotions on display here are fresh and genuine, and although this feels like a slightly watered-down Springsteen sound, it still goes down very smoothly. It lacks a lot of the kick that makes his best songs so resonant, but by its own right this is some good, good stuff.

85. “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” – Glenn Medeiros: It’s intriguing to me that after Gerry Goffin divorced from Carole King, King went on to an illustrious solo career while Goffin transitioned to writing schlocky R&B ballads for the next couple decades. This has to be among the dullest of the bunch. The most exciting aspect of the instrumentation is the guitar chords that pop in midway through the chorus, and even that doesn’t bring much of a pulse. Medeiros is… okay. This kid is only sixteen here and boy does it show. I can see some potential for growth there, but at this stage, his voice does nothing for me. This is just so… blah. Definitely not for me – or anyone, for that matter.

84. “Heat of the Night” – Bryan Adams: Another year, another boring Bryan Adams song. But honestly, this one isn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. The rhythm is sharp and the guitars do a pretty good job at cutting through into something genuinely listenable. It’s well-structured, decently produced, and even Adams himself sounds less like he’s phoning it in than in comparable singles. The “Where you gonna hide when it all comes down?” part is cool – it reminds me of the chorus to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” and I wish it went on for a little longer. Anyway, this one is just fine. It’s another indicator of how bad this year is that a Bryan Adams song rises above half of this list so far. God help me.

83. “Something So Strong” – Crowded House: Well okay, this is pretty nice. So just like Air Supply and Men at Work, Crowded House are an Australian act that the US allowed to have a crossover career for a brief amount of time. While they had a much bigger hit which we will surely cover later, this was their follow-up. It’s clear that there are some talented musicians on display here and the chemistry within the band shows. The song has got a pleasant jangle-pop sound to it, led by lovely guitars and punctuated by some fun organs. The lyrics are some typical poetic love stuff… yeah. Not too much else to say about this one. It’s a fun radio hit, even if it’s relatively surface level.

82. “Midnight Blue” – Lou Gramm: Wherein Lou Gramm momentarily dips out of Foreigner and tries his hand at the dreaded solo career. Just at surface level, this is pretty  much the entirety of mid-80s AOR encapsulated in a single song. Guitar-synth combination, backup gospel singers for no reason, a midtempo rhythm, standard verse-chorus-verse structure… yup, all here. For what it is, though, it is pretty enjoyable. While Gramm isn’t really bringing his A-game here in terms of vocals, he does a fine enough job. The lyrics are kind of lame (“I used follow; yeah, that’s true / But my following days are over; now I just gotta follow through”), including the half-baked half-chorus. Still, this is a nice passable bit of heart-pumping rock n roll, and I can’t turn that away.

81. “Big Love” – Fleetwood Mac: A Fleetwood Mac single in 1987?! Well, Stevie Nicks is none to be found here, but still. This song doesn’t hold a candle to the band’s best material, but it’s still pretty solid. Lindsey Buckingham’s vocals are totally stellar as is his guitar-playing, especially that singular rolling guitar lick that plays throughout. The format of the record is… interesting. The heavy breathing during the choruses adds a tremendous, erotic atmosphere to the song, but as they continue into the track’s instrumental bridge, the effect wears down so deeply. By the climax, it’s gotten distracting to the point of comedy and even annoyance. I don’t know what the intended effect of it was, but I doubt it was this. If the outro had gone on for a couple measures longer, it would’ve completely ruined the whole thing – as it stands, though, everything else surrounding this irritation sounds fine and even great. Eh, I’ll take what I can get.

80. “Point of No Return” – Exposé: This, to me, is the definition of freestyle – or at least the freestyle that my mom introduced me to. The keyboard riff at the start is pretty damn definitive of the genre as a whole… I think? Anyway, the melody is fun and bouncy, with the faceless female vocalist providing a pretty decent counterpart for the bubbly instrumentals. The lyrics are a whole lot of nothing – but this is a mindless club song anyway, so what more could you possibly ask for? Yeah, not amazing, but I wouldn’t mind giving this a spin or two on a night out.

79. “Diamonds” – Herb Alpert: Okay, so picture this: a Herb Alpert track… with vocals by Janet Jackson… produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. One of these things is not like the other. Honestly, I did not expect such a vastly overproduced track from the guy who had previously given us “Rise”. It’s the strangest blending of early New Jack Swing and smooth jazz. Even stranger, for the most part it does work! I give thanks to 1985’s obsession with saxophone in pop music, which seemed to open up the door to these weird meldings. Generally speaking, though, as catchy as this is it’s only about as good as a weaker track of Jackson’s. In other words, it’s warmly welcomed on any 80s party playlist, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for forgetting about it the second it finishes.

78. “Is This Love” – Survivor: This was the final of Survivor’s inexplicable string of hits achieved in the wake of “Eye of the Tiger”. Good riddance, honestly. This is about as formulaic and bland as all the rest, only with the added dread of an annoying keyboard that thinks its more powerful than it actually is. I’m not at all convinced that the vocalist wants to record this – even the final chorus key change sounds ineffective as all hell. Oh well. Bye-bye, Survivor – you sure milked that Rocky cow down to the last drop.

77. “Let Me Be the One” – Exposé: Somehow, despite “Point of No Return” ranking a full two spaces higher on the Hot 100, here “Let Me Be the One” places a couple notches higher than it. Just an interesting observation. I know that Exposé were a girl group and probably shuffled around their lead vocalists here and there, but it actually alarmed me how much different this sounded from “Point”. The production here is less high-energy dance-oriented and and more darker, slinkier, even sexier. Moreover, the vocalist here sounds completely in her element, providing the track with just a shade of huskiness to amp up the intimacy. I especially love when she allows herself to explode in the pre-chorus (“Only you can make me feel this way…”), even if the chorus itself opts for a poppier sound that is, frankly, underwhelming. Anyway, the lyrics here are still as paper-thin as they come, but there’s still a whole lot to enjoy here.

76. “The Finer Things” – Steve Winwood: Bleh, not a fan of that croaky keyboard in the introduction at all. There’s something about the verses that just seem too rough and unpolished for me – I can’t quite place it, but it just doesn’t sound right. Of course, this is all tightened up in the chorus, where Winwood lets his positivity meter skyrocket (“The finer things keep shining through”). I dunno, I’ve never been too hot on Steve Winwood, but this is pretty alright. Minimal complaints had.

75. “Big Time” – Peter Gabriel: Songs like this and “Sledgehammer” only constantly remind me how I should listen to So… or just more Peter Gabriel in general. Really, though, this sounds like this was marketed especially to those who enjoyed the funk-gospel-infused “Sledgehammer” and wanted more – even the music video employs a stop-motion style very similar to the predecessor’s! About the song, though – it’s vibrant, funky, and peculiar at all the right angles. The lyrics sure are idiosyncratic (“I had it made like a mountain range / With a snow-white pillow for my big fat head”), but manage to avoid going off the deep end completely. The textured party production really steals the show here – without it, I’m sure we’d be looking at a much, much less interesting song. Peter Gabriel sure can work his pop chops pretty well.

74. “Wanted Dead or Alive” – Bon Jovi: In the previous year, we discovered Bon Jovi and their breakout single “You Give Love a Bad Name”. While that was a whole bunch of over-the-top, cheesetastic glam metal fun, this is their big single where the group decide to dial things back a bit. The group takes on a bit of an outlaw country vibe for this one, from the Morricone-esque guitar twang to the lyrics about the lonely life on the road (“Sometimes I sleep; sometimes it’s not for days”). Jon Bon Jovi is about as convincing of a rugged outlaw as I am, but this song is alright. At the very least, it effectively combines the mindless singability of their huge choruses with a slightly dingier tone. The sentiment is as ankle-deep as they come – especially that corny line, “I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all!” – but it’s harmless.

73. “Rock Steady” – The Whispers: Interestingly enough, even though this is the Whispers’ most successful single (at least for the pop charts), I know them better for their disco-era jam “And the Beat Goes On”. The party atmosphere of that song, combined with their effortless harmonies, make it a favorite bit of retro dance-floor fare for yours truly. Eight years later, though, they’ve finally nabbed their way into the top ten with “Rock Steady”! It’s just as light-hearted and enjoyable, with an obviously more updated sound to account for the heightened influence of drums and synths in R&B. The result is a slightly more stiffer sound than what I’m used to from these guys, but it’s got a loose flow and killer hook nonetheless. As more and more traces of New Jack Swing make their way onto the charts, I’m growing excited for the future of R&B/funk in the upcoming years.

72. “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” – Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine: So, uh, this is only the fourth single from Miami Sound Machine I’ve encountered so far and I’ve already grown so tired of them. The tropical-sounding drums are a little bit enticing, but the rest of the production feels so flat and lifeless in comparison. Gloria Estefan doesn’t sound like she’s trying very hard here and the twists and turns the instrumentation takes (especially during the chorus) is just so clumsy and unpleasant to the ears. I’m not completely averse to repetitive choruses, but there’s just nothing to offer here except the title reiteration – which doesn’t even make that much sense in the first place. Moving on; hopefully this will embark from my memory soon.

71. “Casanova” – LeVert: Contrary to other rediscoveries I’ve made through the years here, LeVert are the true definition of a one-hit wonder – “Casanova” is their one and only hit to make the top ten, or the top forty for that matter. As for the song itself… well, I’ve really got nothing much to say here. Seriously, I’m stumped. The members sing this punchy little love song pretty competently, though the lyrics themselves don’t really expand much on the pre-chorus of the namesake (“I ain’t much on Casanova…”). The production is very minimalist and rigid, and… that’s it. I’ve just got no strong opinions on it one way or another. Oh well.

70. “When Smokey Sings” – ABC: This was the final major hit for New Romantics ABC (even though they hung around on the UK charts for a little while longer). Here, they replace their smooth, pleasant vibes found on “Be Near Me” for something a bit more rough around the edges. Specifically, they go for a similar kind of Motown-pop hybrid that Wham! opted for with “Freedom”, ensuring that those two songs would make a hell of a mashup. It makes sense here, though, considering that this song clearly works as an homage to Smokey Robinson himself – and Luther Vandross, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye, as well. Anyway, my thoughts on this one are conflicting. While I don’t particularly mind the change-up in style that ABC take here, I think that it may have worked better without the dense poetry they carried over from their earlier material. It’s not that deep, guys! Despite this, though, it’s a fine listen, even if it clearly not among their best.

69. “Someday” – Glass Tiger: These guys again?! So, I made it very clear in the previous year’s post that I was not at all fond of this band’s breakthrough single, “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”. And of course, they had to go and nab another spot on one of these year-end lists! Okay, to be fair, this is relatively inoffensive – the instrumentation, production, and lyrics all match in mood pretty effectively. I still don’t like this vocalist’s performance, but it doesn’t ruin the song on its own. Its one major crime, though, is that it’s boring as sin – while “Don’t Forget Me” solidified Glass Tiger as that one annoying band I’ve got to watch out for, this doesn’t give me any sense of defining factors whatsoever. It begins, does its thing, and then slowly fades away. Probably for the better, I’d say.

68. “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” – Genesis: I should probably actually get around to listening to some Genesis albums so I have some sense of what to look forward to when these singles pop up. So far, they’ve all kind of ended up being a little bit different from another in very different ways. This one seems to take a bit of a detour into the group’s prog-rock roots, with some interesting darker instrumentation choices taken throughout and especially in the spooky bridge. I guess maybe I would enjoy this more if there was any further substance in this… since, y’know, the lyrics are awful. What in the world is, “I’m coming down like a monkey” supposed to mean anyway? The chorus also seems blatantly tacked on, “Tonight, tonight, tonight… I’m gonna make it right tonight, tonight, tonight”. I guess the production has a lot about it I could admire, but for the most part I find myself wishing for the days of “Misunderstanding” or even “That’s All”.

67. “Stand By Me” – Ben E. King: Well, this is a nice bit of fresh air break from the monotony. Thanks to the success of the film of the same name, a classic bit of pop soul goodness from twenty-five years earlier finds itself on the pop charts once again. I wrote about it very briefly in my overview of 1961 all the way back in May of 2015! I think it’s cheating to talk in depth about this song, a relic of the culturally rich 1960’s, in comparison to 1987 which has been one of my least favorite years I’ve covered so far. Basically, though, it’s really cool that this song gained enough traction to once again touch the hearts of an entirely new generation. Add another thirty years onto this, and it’s as timeless as ever.

66. “Breakout” – Swing Out Sister: Alright, back to ’87 now. Okay, maybe I’m a bit too hard on this year as a whole – it’s not all bad, after all. I’ve actually never heard of Swing Out Sister before writing for this list, so this was a nice little slice of sophisti-pop to add to my listening register. The synths and horns are as lively as one would expect, but also relatively restrained to add to its heightened sense of polished mood and structure. The lead vocalist isn’t that great of a singer, but the song doesn’t ask for any vocal gymnastics anyway. It’s just a simple, poppy little radio tune and doesn’t pretend to be anything more than this. It’s sweet!

65. “Mandolin Rain” – Bruce Hornsby and the Range: “Mandolin Rain” is the follow-up single from Bruce Hornsby and the Range after “The Way It Is”, which we’ll be talking about briefly later in the list. From the introductory piano riff with the jazzy synths, I knew this was going to be a little bit of a slow burn. Indeed, while this song is rich in instrumental texture and admirable in the poetic reminiscence of its lyrics, it is very, very much late-80s in its sound and feel. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful of course – Hornsby alone sells the hell out of this one with his anguished yet humanly vocals. I love the touches of mandolin that pop in and out, just enough to carry the thematic element of the title while leaving listeners wanting more. Overall, it’s just a warm, comforting little song that I’m sure could only benefit from being played live.

64. “To Be a Lover” – Billy Idol: Yep, it still blows my mind that this was only the second super sizable hit Billy Idol had accomplished on the pop charts as of yet (after “Eyes Without a Face”). He seemed to be such a huge defining factor of what I understood to be popular music of the 80s, standing toe-to-toe with Madonna and Michael Jackson. Anyway, this was never a favorite of mine. Idol’s Elvis-like swagger certainly is admirable and the synthesizers do their part to create a dark-yet-danceable atmosphere. Nonetheless, the backup gospel singers, while enjoyable, seem awfully misplaced amidst everything else going on. Billy Idol is already a pretty weird choice to cover an old R&B song, and it turns out pretty much how I expected. It’s just a pretty messy track and doesn’t leave much for me to grab onto the way “Mony Mony” and “Rebel Yell” do. Oh well – at least I have those tracks.

63. “Can’t We Try” – Dan Hill featuring Vonda Shepard: I had to look up why the name Dan Hill sounded so familiar… and then, I wish I didn’t. A decade earlier, this guy obliterated our eardrums with the maudlin “Sometimes When We Touch”, and somehow managed to find his way back on the top 10 once again. Using standard smooth R&B production, with the twinkly keyboards and such, Hill and newcomer Vonda Shepard belt out a typical, generic heartbreak ballad to less-than-middling results. While it’s not nearly as immediately detestable as “Sometimes”, it’s probably just as awful. I’ll just leave Dan Hill in the dust from this point onward.

62. “Come Go With Me” – Exposé: Yay, more Exposé! It’s actually pretty cool how they are one of the most present artists in this list, alongside others like Prince and Madonna. Actually, this song is the first breakout single from the group, as it was the first of theirs to chart in the Hot 100 as a whole. With that in mind, it makes more sense that their sound here isn’t quite as fleshed-out as in the other two singles we’ve covered. While the verses and chorus chime along nicely, they don’t have the sheer definitive quality as “Point of No Return” had. Additionally, they are altogether lacking in the sense of distinct personality that “Let Me Be the One” demonstrated so well. For the most part this is rather typical, by-the-numbers dance-pop, with the exception of the few bars near the end where the lead singer gets a chance to show off her pipes. Yeah, for a starter single, this ain’t bad!

61. “Change of Heart” – Cyndi Lauper: Yay, more Cyndi! Right off the bat, this production is very heavy on the percussion, which is certainly different than anything else we’ve heard from Lauper up until this point. And for a while, things look a bit iffy, as it seems that her vibrant personality is being drowned out in oodles of synth and lyrical clichés. Eventually, though, she finally shines through and offers as great of a Lauper performance as we could ever want. Sure, it’s probably not quite up to par with the best tracks off She’s So Unusual, but it’s a damn good pop song through and through. Considering that Latin influences were changing the dance-pop game by this point, I think she did a pretty good job all things considered.

60. “Sign ‘o’ the Times” – Prince: Prince has always been quite a master at doing the most with the least amount of musical properties at his disposal. Here, he strips his sound way, way down to little more than a few pre-programmed synthesizer sounds set on a loop for five minutes. Over this, he muses on “modern” issues such as AIDS, drug addiction, and the arms race. And… well, that’s pretty much it. If I was unfamiliar with the album from which this song comes (Sign ‘O’ the Times, as well), I would have assumed that this was from a groovy concept album about dark times in the inner city – a sort of proto-Rent, if you will. Anyway, this is one of the best, most innovative pieces of music to come out of this year as a whole and I’m all the more convinced that Prince can simply do no wrong.

59. “Bad” – Michael Jackson: Our first number-one! So, even though Jackson’s solo singles haven’t come around these parts for a few years (not counting his contributions to hits by Rockwell, Paul McCartney, and The Jacksons themselves), it’s not controversial to state that he’s become a defining factor of the decade at this point. So when he released Bad, his follow-up to Thriller, it was unsurprisingly huge. I mentioned on my review for “Dirty Diana” that the Bad singles never quite stood toe-to-toe with those from Thriller, but that might not exactly be the truth! The only difference here is that Jackson in “Bad” is definitely putting on a front that might not completely work – I mean, “Your butt is mine”? Come on… Still, the silliness of it might actually work in its favor at times; at the very least, it’s a damn catchy chorus. Other production decisions from Quincy Jones also make this an interesting jam, particularly the sequence of synth chords immediately before the chorus. Anyway, I’ll write a longer review for this one when the time comes, but this is some good, harmless fun!

58. “La Isla Bonita” – Madonna: Of course, it was only a matter of time before Madonna would get around to introducing some of that trendy Latin flavor into her music. Honestly, though, this actually isn’t as bad as it could have been. The translation of Latin instrumental into an electric groove is unexpectedly endearing. I enjoy the melody, as stiff as it is, although I could never get the feeling that Madonna herself is completely comfortable in this new style. She was just never much of a crooner at this point, and the larger emphasis on her voice apart from more minimalist production results in the song never quite reaching its full potential. Still, I love the congo drums at the intro, the castanets fluttering throughout, and the Spanish guitar right after each chorus. It’s just fine.

57. “Don’t Disturb This Groove” – The System: The straightforwardly named R&B group The System actually had a bit of a minor hit before this one, 1982’s “You Are in My System” which hit big on the R&B and Club charts. This is their first (and only) top ten hit on the pop charts, though, so here we are. Their style is so interesting to me – laden with layer upon layer of synthesizer, they sound as if Spandeau Ballet leaned slightly more into the R&B than the jazz. It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the song isn’t all that interesting. It’s basically just a typical, flatly-written sex jam and goes on for a little too long. In particular, the lyrics just about kill it for me: “Excuse me for a moment, I’m at a loss for words / By election, sheer perfection… You’re my lollipop and everything, and a little taste of sin / Causing fire and desire in this mortal soul to live”… Okay, if I don’t pay all that much attention to the words, I can see some appeal to this, especially with its production quality. In any case, though, I think I’m done here.

56. “Carrie” – Europe: Oh hey, it’s Europe. I know them for that one song, “The Final Countdown”, with that kickass synth riff and overblown lyrics about the apocalypse… or was it space travel? Anyway, this is actually their highest charting single on the pop charts, making it all the way to #3. And it’s unbelievably lame. This is basically the lowest common denominator of power ballads, with drums that pound lazily, guitars that chug along and just kind of sit there, and lyrics that amount to the least interesting breakup scenario imaginable. It is now very clear that 1987 was a mistake.

55. “Songbird” – Kenny G: As I was saying, 1987 was a mistake. But let’s move on. To be completely honest, I find Kenny G’s particular brand of sterile smooth jazz kind of endearing, in the same way that I find movie theater carpets, VHS fuzz, and mall smells endearing. It’s the aesthetic, man. Also, there’s some interesting things going on in the production in which the saxophone is enveloped, such as the gleaming keyboard and the relaxing drum machine. And to be completely honest, I don’t have too much of an opinion on Kenny G’s contributions to his own composition. It’s a lovely melody (until he kind of goes off the rails about halfway through), but I can also see jazz aficionados fuming when this was a hit, claiming it to be the death knell of jazz and so on and so forth. Since I’m not a jazz aficionado, I have no opinion one way or the other, so I’ll leave it like that. But to me, “Songbird” is like a nice, new coat of paint – it’s fresh and new and nice for the first little while, and then after some time it becomes just another thing that hovers in the background, every so often making you aware of its existence, though it really doesn’t matter in any case. But how fucking weird is it that this was a top five hit? Pretty weird, huh?

54. “Don’t Mean Nothing” – Richard Marx: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Mr. Richard Marx! I’m actually familiar with Richard Marx for his lighter adult contemporary ballads, but I suspect those will come later. This, however, sounds more like a young, hip rocker looking to leech off some of that Springsteen and Bryan Adams sound. I must admit, I am a fan of the charismatic guitars here, holding up the midtempo groove pretty damn well. Marx aims high for that gritty, rock ‘n’ roll vocal swagger and… it works? I mean, it’s not the best sounding stuff ever, but I somehow don’t hate his voice the way I do Bryan Adams, even if they do sound somewhat similar and he tends to falter on those high notes. I’m not gonna contemplate on the lyrics much since, as the chorus goes, “They don’t mean nothin’ at all”. Alright, with that, I’m done here.

53. “I Heard a Rumour” – Bananarama: Bananarama is one of the most fun artist names to type on a keyboard, so I’ll dig any excuse for them to pop up again. Also, I genuinely liked “Cruel Summer” and I have a feeling that “Venus” was just a fluke from which they can undoubtedly bounce back. The verdict? Well, it’s better than “Venus”. Even though the production is still over-saturated in electronic dance-pop effects, at least the melody shines through more. It’s obvious that they’re attempting more of a Madonna route with this one, but at least the synths are pleasant to listen to and shimmering guitar at the bridge gives it some added unique flavor. It’s still not quite at the beautiful territory of “Cruel Summer”, but for what it is it’s pretty nice.

52. “Luka” – Suzanne Vega: Oh gosh… now, this is quite a change from what we’ve seen so far. While the 80s pop charts have ’til this point been practically defined by their overblown, hedonistic rock anthems and dance-pop drowned in keyboards, “Luka” opts for a rather simpler guitar-and-drums setup. I’ve heard this song every now and then over the years, but I’ve always placed its sound somewhere in the mid-90s! I guess that this kind of jangly pop-rock was but one genre that largely developed from the decade, but there’s nothing else quite so earnest that has made its way onto the Hot 100 through the years. And the subject matter… ooh, boy. The light, folkiness of the record might distract a casual listener from the vague statements in the lyrics, but that doesn’t make them any less heartbreaking. Though I do find it interesting that Suzanne Vega’s only other pop hit, a dance remix of her song “Tom’s Diner”, is so far divorced from the vibe this song puts forth. I don’t know how real-life victims of child abuse feel about this song (I should probably research that on my own), but it sure left a mark on me nonetheless.

51. “Little Lies” – Fleetwood Mac: Oh cool, more Fleetwood Mac – their biggest hit of this year, no less. Although the instrumentals of this song have a much more poppier edge to them than I’m used to, it’s also the first song of theirs in a while that actually feels like it could’ve come from the band in their prime. The keyboards are a bit of a weird touch, but the catchy chorus (“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies”) swims along so nicely and naturally. It’s also nice to hear the alternating vocals of McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks working against each other in such smooth, pleasant ways. Yeah, it’s yet another Fleetwood Mac song about a rocky relationship, but why fix what ain’t broken?

50. “Will You Still Love Me?” – Chicago: Boy, am I tired of Chicago – and even more surprised that everyone else aren’t at this point, considering how long they’ve been around and how long they’ve been remarkably dull. This song, for example, comes from their eighteenth studio album, and it’s so clear at this point that they are fresh out of ideas. This is just yet another in a long, long, long line of uninspiring, unfulfilling, utterly boring Chicago ballads. Okay, one positive is that vocalist Peter Cetera has left, him being easily the most reprehensible quality of their sound. This new guy isn’t anything worth really praising, though. Bleh, I’m so done.

49. “Hip to Be Square” – Huey Lewis and the News: Here’s yet another one of the Fore! singles, and it’s probably the one that you, average reader, have probably heard of. Its usage in the film American Psycho actually elevates what is actually a rather sub-par pop tune. It’s pretty obvious that this is a whole big pie in the face to what are utterly Huey Lewis and the News’ primary customers. Yep, you guessed it – squares. The folks who listen to this only for its catchy rhythm, stiff guitars, and poppy horns and don’t bother to take thirty seconds of critical thinking on this one will undoubtedly have the the entire joke fly right over their heads. Then again, being in on the joke doesn’t automatically absolve you of these crimes and grant you a ticket to coolsville. After all, you are listening to Huey Lewis and the News. Basically, listening to and talking about this song at length will inherently make you sound pretentious as all hell – as I probably sound right now. Ah, hell.

48. “Let’s Wait Awhile” – Janet Jackson: Amidst the hard-hitting R&B-pop jams of Control, Janet Jackson and Jam-and-Lewis also recorded a stunningly understated slow jam to mix the vibes up a bit. It’s actually pretty remarkable how much the team succeeded at crafting a more toned-down version of what had become their signature style at this point. Jackson’s voice is soft and wispy, which one might be tempted to strike down as a weakness, but the switch-up is great in the way it allows this never-before-seen angle of her personality to really shine through. It’s a pretty sultry little ballad, which almost contradicts its theme of holding off ’til the time is right – but also fleshes these exact sentiments out just right. I personally prefer the more hard-hitting stuff off Control, but I also never minded this one at all!

47. “In Too Deep” – Genesis: Okay, yikes. I officially have no idea what to think of Genesis any longer. While the instrumentals on “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”at least gave me something to latch onto, the slow, chintzy keyboards here are just dreadful. The lyrics are awful too; it’s actually pretty remarkable how they say so little with so many words (“All this time, I still remember everything you said / There’s so much you promised, how could I ever forget”). This has got to be the worst from Genesis I’ve heard thus far. What an embarrassment.

46. “Causing a Commotion” – Madonna: During my Madonna-thon some time ago, I never got around to listening to any of Madonna’s soundtrack cuts (save for “Into the Groove”). I completely forgot that some songs from her film Who’s That Girl? were actually hits in and of themselves! From the looks of this track alone, though, it doesn’t seem like I’m missing much. This is fun and spirited for what it is, but it also sounds like five or six other Madonna songs, with little to no personality of its own. It even repeats the line, “Get into the groove”, as if to remind listeners of what they could be listening to. It hits all the right Madonna buttons for sure, but does little else with what it’s got.

45. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” – Michael Jackson with Siedah Garrett: Michael Jackson sure has some unusual choices for his kickoff singles on new albums – the first single of Thriller, for example, was “The Girl is Mine” of all songs! And here, for his much anticipated follow-up, is yet another ballad duet, this one even more on the smooth R&B side of things. The melody is lovely and pronounced, especially hitting its strengths around the couple lines leading up to the chorus. Jackson has proven by this point that he can nail a ballad pretty well, and while Siedah Garrett does a great job matching his pace, it is pretty distracting how similar they sound. At points I struggle figuring out where one’s voice ends and the other’s begins. Anyway, this is a rather pretty, relatively harmless ballad, certainly one of the better ones in a sea of utter mediocrity.

44. “Touch Me (I Want Your Body)” – Samantha Fox: And now we’re back on the dance-pop circuit. Though this one is a tad on the edgier side than from the likes of Madonna or Shannon or Exposé. For one thing, there’s Samantha Fox herself, who simply oozes erotic sensuality from her confident demands (“Touch me, touch me / I want to feel your body / Your heartbeat next to mine”) to her straight-up moans of sexual pleasure. Another aspect of note is the prominent electric guitar which rides of equal footing with the thumping bass and shimmering synths. The melody might be relatively limp compared to the catchy singable qualities of her competition, but there’s no denying that the thudding production and charisma of Fox carries its own charms. It’s probably the closest the 80s has to the disco classic “More, More, More” by Andrea True, in all the best ways.

43. “You Got It All” – The Jets: I never thought I would come across so many tracks by the Jets on this Billboard project, but here we are. Like the previous Jets song and the one before that, this one is pretty pedestrian in sound and content. While I can see this one faring well for some unknown karaoke singer out there, it doesn’t make for very exciting listening content. I do admire the chord progression in the verses but… yeah, it just never does anything particularly interesting with its tools. Meh. Moving on.

42. “Who’s That Girl” – Madonna: And here’s the other Madonna soundtrack cut that made a splash this year. Much like “La Isla Bonita”, this song takes some Latin flavor into its sonic recipe, and for the most part it works pretty well. Like “Causing a Commotion”, though, this feels very much like someone opted to make the most generic-sounding 80s pop diva tune imaginable. Despite some of its lyrical flaws (“You’re spinning ’round and ’round / You can’t get up, you try, but you can’t”), the bridge after the second chorus takes on a bit of a different vibrancy that works rather well despite its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality. Songs like these probably exemplify the most mindless of 80s pop landscape, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

41. “Jacob’s Ladder” – Huey Lewis and the News: With the mess of a cultural marker that was “Hip to Be Square”, it’s nice to get back to the utterly forgettable tier of music that I’ve been used to hearing from Huey Lewis and the News for a while. This one definitely goes through one ear and out the other with no fuss made in either direction. I do really dislike the way Lewis sings, “Step by step, one by one”, and the bass rhythm in the verses seems a bit off to me for some reason. But as a whole entity, this song is enormously “okay” and mostly forgettable. It’s so strange how this has left the public cultural consciousness entirely, despite it actually topping the charts for a week.

40. “Land of Confusion” – Genesis: Ah, finally, a Genesis track with a pulse. I feel like everyone alive during this track’s heyday probably can’t divorce this track from its iconic video featuring a bunch of grotesque puppets, since this was an MTV staple at the time. Listening to it thirty years after the fact, though, this really just sounds like a perfectly solid pop rock track with lyrics that are shockingly resonant (“Too many people making too many problems / And not much love to go ’round”). The pulsing synths sound great set amidst those guitar chords and Phil Collins’s vocal delivery is as impassioned as ever. I even like that strange proggy switch-up in the final third. Honestly, for what is essentially an 80s version of a 60s/70s style protest tune, one can do so much worse.

39. “Somewhere Out There” – Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram: Normally, I would bemoan the fact that yet another one of these adult contemporary R&B ballads has wriggled their way onto the charts. But this one is a little different – this one has got my childhood involved. An American Tail was one of my most beloved films of my childhood, so the Mann-Weil composition “Somewhere Out There” has always held a soft spot in my heart. I honestly think it’s a really beautiful song, especially placed in the context of the film, but also vague enough to work in any number of contexts. Despite this, though, there’s no denying how hokey this is. I’ve made clear my dislike of Linda Ronstadt, and she over-sings here as much as she ever has. I’ve no real opinion on James Ingram – he’s just boring. What really gets me, though, is how this specific context is shifted to a blatantly romantic one, which is probably the one meaning to this song that doesn’t completely work (at least to me). And even despite this, it also just feels like these performers are singing these words with about as much heart as any run-of-the-mill karaoke performer. This cover is just bogus, and probably the one record to set off a million other hit adult contemporary R&B ballads set over the credits of an animated feature. Thanks a lot, you two.

38. “U Got the Look” – Prince: On a more positive note, this is yet another bombastic success for Prince. Alongside a punchy beat, Sheila E.’s fantastic percussion, and roaring guitars, Prince continues to generate an entire form of sexuality unmatched by no one else. Admittedly, the lyrics here are among his weaker ones (“You got the look, you must’ve took / A whole hour just to make up your face”), but this is made up for with that infectiously catchy chorus that is performed with a sped-up effect that makes Prince sound drastically more feminine. Obviously, I’m into this! The spoken interludes are an unusual touch, but also only further add to the dense, layered, utterly urban atmosphere that this song (along with “Sign o’ the Times”) so thoroughly radiates. It’s songs like these that remind me that I really, really, really need to get around to actually listening to that dang album…

37. “Control” – Janet Jackson: This was the fourth single Janet Jackson released from her album of the same name, despite it being the first track from the album itself. To me, it feels less like a single and more like it was written for the album itself – from the spoken-word intro, to a simpler form of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s signature production, to the assertive lyrics themselves (“When I was seventeen, I did what people told me…”). And because of these factors, I never found myself gravitating toward this one the way I so easily did toward “Nasty” and “When I Think of You”. It’s more of a thesis statement to the album than a track specifically prepared for radio play, which is maybe why the stuttering outro never really appealed to me much. Nonetheless, everything about it still absolutely shines – this is one good ass album, folks!

36. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” – Aretha Franklin and George Michael: When Aretha Franklin passed away this past August, one of the many videos that made the rounds in honor of her legacy was a live duet of Franklin and George Michael performing this song together. It was actually my introduction to this song as a whole. Keeping up with the powerhouse that is Franklin and her voice is a task in and of itself, but Michael had proved with this track that he is surely more than just the pretty-faced lead of Wham! Some might minimize their efforts by dubbing this the 80s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and with little blame really. The pop-rock-gospel production places this squarely in its decade, while there is enough in the chorus alone to draw comparisons (“When the river was deep, I didn’t falter / When the mountain was high, I still believed”). Still, even though this might not be the most magnificent of recordings, it does respectfully exemplify the skill of two talented performers at opposite ends of their career paths – and for that, it’s certainly admirable.

35. “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” – Georgia Satellites: Another true example of a one-hit wonder. Whenever I heard this as a kid, I always assumed that this came from the 70s, around the time of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the rest of those country-rock bands from the era. Little did I know that this is an early example of what we, today, would call bro-country. There is some real skill and energy being demonstrated by all involved here, but there’s no denying that at its core, this is a song about a complaining that he can’t get laid. The honky-tonk sound and rhythm, while fun, is essentially just a front to give it some illusion of depth that it does not possess. I’m not that much of a snob that I’ll complain whenever it comes on – especially in a drinking environment, which this is surely made for. But eh, it’s okay.

34. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – Kim Wilde: I’ve said time and time again that the best cover songs are the ones that do more than just remind the listener of a much better song they’d rather be listening to – it recreates it into something different, something that works. It’s impressive, then, that Kim Wilde’s cover of this Supremes song does exactly that: the song is familiar, but the changes to the sound are crucial to crafting this into a club jam with preexisting material. In particular, the “oooh”s in the chorus are pumped up to a degree that make them all the more resonant and crucial to the main melody. The synths and Hi-NRG production is all window-dressing, but it sounds pleasant and works with Wilde’s strengths to make this tune really pop. Altogether, this is quite a great cover of a 60s classic. Honestly, it’s probably the one version of the tune that comes to mind for me when the title is mentioned… although I have a soft spot for the Vanilla Fudge cover as well.

33. “Heart and Soul” – T’Pau: And now for one of my favorite pop songs of the entire decade. T’Pau had a string of hits in the UK, their home country, but “Heart and Soul” remained their only major hit in the States – and even then, it took its usage in a jeans commercial for anyone to even take notice. The keys at the start are so magical, huge, and iconic, and the follow-up synth riff makes me so deeply nostalgic for a time I was never a part of. The highlight of this song, though, is vocalist Carol Decker, who gives probably one of the most standout performances of this entire year. Helped by some vocal layering effects, she effortlessly moves from some casual rapping and soft crooning in the verses, to more intense belting in the lines leading into the chorus. And then there’s the chorus – “Give a little bit of heart and soul” isn’t a really meaningful phrase at its core, but the vibrancy at which it’s pronounced here captures universes in ways not previously imagined. That chorus alone might just encapsulate the 80s as a whole for me. I know this was huge in its day, but I’m not sure it’s given the same legacy status as so many other classic tunes from this era. Heaven knows it deserves it.

32. “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” – Cutting Crew: And here’s the song that I’ve always incorrectly assumed was the sole hit from Cutting Crew. It certainly is the one that everyone remembers, but probably for good reason. That certainly is one hell of an intro, with an intense keyboard symphony chiming along for a few bars before the vocalist slides in with that killer hook: “I, I just died in your arms tonight”. Apparently the frontman was inspired by the French phrase “la petite mort” in reference to an orgasm… but there’s no way anyone could get a sense of that from these lyrics. “Her diary sits on the bedside table / The curtains are closed, the cats in the cradle”… wow, how sexy. And, “I should have walked away”? Sure, Jan. Anyway, after that memorable intro, the song sort of just plateaus into the typical drums-and-guitar setup all the way ’til the end. It’s good pop-rock, but nothing entirely memorable. It’s worth it for that hook, though.

31. “Lost in Emotion” – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam: Alright, now this is more like it… well, kind of. I mentioned in my 1986 overview that my mom has always been really into Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, thus I was introduced to her at an early age. This definitely has more meat on its bones than “All Cried Out”, with a moody, Motown-inspired backing beat with minor Latin inflections and a fun, danceable vibe overall. Where this continues to falter is, sadly, Lisa Lisa herself. While there are points where she definitely shines, such as the swelling pre-chorus (“Am I a fool ’cause I don’t know just how you feel…”), much of her singing feels very flat and uninspired. And while I can see some charm in the chorus (including that cutesy mispronounciation of, “que sera, que sera”), that bridge almost goes off the rails completely in its inconsistency with the rest of the tune. Again, it’s an improvement, but it’s also no “I Wonder If I Take You Home”.

30. “Open Your Heart” – Madonna: With all the new directions with which Madonna has been experimenting in her style, it’s pretty interesting that her best hit from this year is one that sounds the most like the sound she used to break out. The candy-coated synths are a great touch, as are the subtle touches of guitar to bring a little edge into it. Madonna herself sounds completely in her element, crooning and soaring with the melody when it allows. That chorus is also one of her most iconic: “Open your heart to me, baby / I hold the lock and you hold the key”. It’s one hell of a pop song, for sure. But more importantly, it gave us one of the most important moments in gay girl pop culture: Britney Spears singing this song in her underwear at the very start of Crossroads. God bless.

29. “Lean on Me” – Club Nouveau: At long last, we’ve reach the top thirty, which means that we’d inevitably reach all the totally essential stuff from the year… right? Well, this is yet another cover, and admittedly a pretty cool one. Club Nouveau took Bill Withers’s original classic tune, added in some pumped-up bass, handclaps, and a groovy beats, and sang it with an actual, real backup choir. It’s actually remarkable how well this song fits with this style of production behind it, considering its roots. Its one glaring problem is that this style hardly ever switches up or introduces any other elements besides just covering the song straight, so after the first minute or so it becomes dull. I’m also not completely sure how I feel about the, “We be jammin'” outro – it just feels forced and completely out of place within everything else. Still, it’s cool that this made it to the top of the charts for a couple weeks – surely a new trend of punchy R&B is underway.

28. “The Next Time I Fall” – Peter Cetera and Amy Grant: Oh, okay, so while Chicago were doing their own thing with their shiny new lead vocalist, Peter Cetera has continued to make bad music on his own. Well, this time he has a companion in contemporary Christian artist Amy Grant… which is just baffling. Though she actually sounds rather pleasant here, if a bit uninterested in what she is singing about. Cetera, on the other hand, sounds probably the worst he’s ever sounded – he’s essentially just squealing and squirming his way through this track in the most convoluted and over-sung way possible. The verses are drab and generic (“Love, like a road that never ends…”) and the chorus is messy as hell, with the first half clashing harshly with the melody switch-up in the second half, and “Ooohh”s that feel like placeholders that forgot to get changed. Adult contemporary ballads are one of my least-liked genres altogether, but this feels like the climax of a decade’s buildup of utter schlock. Totally forgettable… well, save for those awesome synths at the start that promise a much better song than it actually delivered.

27. “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes: When I first downloaded this song from Limewire, it was incorrectly listed as being sung by Patrick Swayze, so every time I listen to it I picture that exact image. Of course, this song is best listened to through its usage in the ending of Dirty Dancing, which is just utterly ridiculous and wonderful in all the right ways. As a song, this is a great duet, with a catchy melody that feels like it could have come from any decade. Jennifer Warnes isn’t terribly impressive here, but she does the job alright. Of course, Bill Medley shines as much as he always has. There’s enough old school vibes in the production to get a bit of that 60s nostalgia (including a sonic reference to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”!), but also enough modern keyboard tones to invigorate the sound overall. I think there’s a lot of empty spaces that could have been tightened on this record, but overall it’s a pretty solid duet. Definitely a huge step up from “Up Where We Belong”.

26. “Only in My Dreams” – Debbie Gibson: Yet another one of these female pop stars crafted in response to the wave of Madonna fever sweeping the nation. The melody to this one is absolutely infectious, so cutesy, bubbly, and effortlessly catchy. I even love the little “aah”s in the instrumental filling out the parts between the verses and chorus. Although I don’t get much of a personality from Debbie Gibson (at least not through this song alone), I can’t deny that she shows some real potential and, yes, has some real pipes on her. Honestly, there’s not too much to say about this – it rides entirely on that monster of a melody, does its job and does it well. It’s a real earworm for sure, and that alone makes it a more-than-decent pop song.

25. “Notorious” – Duran Duran: Well, this is a change. After making a huge mark near the start of the decade with their unique brand of pretty-boy new wave, Duran Duran lost a couple members, pulled Nile Rodgers on board for production, and released this – a new funked-up take on their sound. And… it’s not bad! That guitar/bass riff is totally killer – everything else on this song could be awful, and it would still probably be saved by the strong support of that riff alone. It’s a good thing, then, that this isn’t awful. It’s pretty cool how decently the boys can wear a funk outfit and do so convincingly. Of course, the melodies of this song are only mere shells of what they used to be, but the chorus (or is it a pre-chorus?) makes up for it pretty solidly. Of course, it’s always gonna sound like there’s something missing without their standard New Romantic sound attached to it – but it’s smooth, funky, and catchy, and for what it is, I’ll take it.

24. “I Want Your Sex” – George Michael: Oooooh boy. So, my best guess is that this song was pretty controversial in its day? I mean, there have always been songs about sex on pop radio, but none of them have ever actually straight-up said S-E-X in its lyrics – much less its title and main hook! For that alone, this is a pretty ambitious choice of a record for George Michael to cut. The main keyboard riff is grimy and minimalist enough to evoke an intimate eroticism from its sound alone. Michael emphasizes this with his aching vocal delivery in the verses (including a falsetto bit that has to have been Prince-inspired) and a more husky request in the chorus: “I want your sex, I want your love”. Where this completely loses me, though, is in the second half of the song, where he clumsily declares amidst a poppier melody, “Sex is something that we should do; sex is something for me and you”. See, while many songwriters of years past had been limited by censors to watering down any explicit sexual imagery or declarations in their songs, another reason why they do it is because it’s generally understood that it tends to sound better. While literally stating, “Sex is natural, sex is good” in a song is technically more liberating, it also unfortunately comes off as a tad clumsy, lazy, even clinical. But then again, these are my 2018 ears doing the talking – I’m sure this might have been the hottest shit in 1987. And for that, George Michael, I salute you.

23. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – U2: Hey, U2. So, the first time I talked about U2 was when I reviewed their award-winning 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind – not the best introduction on this site, I’m aware. Truthfully, though, I’ve been a fan of U2 for many years and am especially fond of their material from the 80s. The Joshua Tree is probably their best album and was one of the biggest albums from this year – and one of the biggest singles from said album is this, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. The arpeggios by the Edge are nothing short of astounding and Bono’s vocal delivery hits the right series of emotions so perfectly and resonantly. The production here is beautifully textured, especially at the later bits when a troupe of backup gospel singers are brought in to strengthen Bono’s pleas and desires. It really is a lovely masterpiece of a song, and while it’s never been my favorite from the band, there’s no denying the power it evokes from every simple fragment of its notes and rhythms. I love it.

22. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” – Whitney Houston: Here, I’ll start cutting down my thoughts on the number-one singles, so I’ll have something to write about when I get into longer reviews at a later date. With this Whitney Houston chart-topper, I feel like a lot of the same notes from “Greatest Love of All” are being hit – yet significantly less resonating, for some reason. Houston sounds gorgeous, as she does on many of these ballads, but there are also more than a handful of moments of over-singing that do more harm than good. It’s a good thing she has a bunch of great ones under her belt already – this one, not so much.

21. “The Lady in Red” – Chris de Burgh: Chris de Burgh had been around in the art rock field for a while before this song’s rise to prominence, but this was the first time he had broke through to a mainstream audience. Honestly, I can hear some of the appeal with this instrumental – the Casio backup is a little lame, but this made up for with some lovely guitar chords during the chorus and additional electronic elements throughout. Plus, de Burgh just sings the hell out of this one. Sure, it’s lyrics amount to little more than much of the adult contemporary ballads we’ve seen time and time again here; in fact, it probably has more in common with ballads from the 70s, where they were at their kitschiest. But somehow this one feels a little different, a little more important. Nevertheless, karaoke bars and vaporwave tracks have not been the same ever since.

20. “At This Moment” – Billy Vera and the Beaters: Oh, I’ve heard this song before. I’ve just always assumed it was much older than it was. And no, I’m not talking about it actually being a song from 1981, with exposure on Family Ties bringing it to the mainstream and eventually to the number-one spot. I mean, it sounds like it could’ve come from Barry Manilow in his prime. Unfortunately, that’s not too much of a compliment – it’s a pretty basic heartbreak song, with not too much to work with besides a few notable lines. I can see its appeal – I just can’t completely agree with it.

19. “Mony Mony” – Billy Idol: If you’re interested in a bit of Hot 100 trivia, this record is the only chart-topping hit cover in the chart’s history to directly replace another cover of another hit from the same band at the top spot. More on that one a bit later. It is a bit strange, though, that this live version of this tune was the one that charted, as I’ve always personally preferred the polished studio version from earlier in the decade. Idol obviously has a lot of energy on display and his rendition of the Tommy James tune totally works. I’ve just never been a fan of this particular version.

18. “I Think We’re Alone Now” – Tiffany: And this is the tune that “Mony Mony” replaced at the top spot! I’m wondering if they placed them next to each other on purpose… Anyway. I honestly feel like the producers of this track totally missed the point. I forgive Tiffany herself for being only sixteen at the time, but the flat, sterilized nature of this track removes all sense of mischief and provocativeness that the original so wonderfully portrayed. This is too polished and overproduced to be satisfying bubblegum – it just feels like yet another product from the pop machine. Next!

17. “Head to Toe” – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam: And another one from Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. My favorite part of this song is the way the melody in the pre-chorus reminds me of the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine”. I also really like the, “Ooh baby, I think I love you” part. Everything else, though, is dullsville. Lisa Lisa’s voice is just too flat and powerless for any of her lines to really work all that well. The tempo of this one is also more dull and plodding than the group’s past high-energy freestyle, which doesn’t work in its favor. Yeah, totally not feeling this one.

16. “Looking For a New Love” – Jody Watley: After Janet Jackson’s big break, it was only a matter of time that other pop stars would come out of the dark to give us some similar-sounding stuff. Formerly of Shalamar, Jody Watley is the first of these and this is her breakout hit. There’s some nice stuff happening with the synths, particularly at the intro, but throughout as well. Additionally, the percussion-heavy beat is nice and funky. Watley herself might not have the most outrageous pipes, but she carries the attitude of this song quite well, particularly with the spoken parts which come off equal parts sexy and fearless. The melody in the chorus is especially infectious – usually “yeah, yeah, yeah”s would annoy me for their filler quality, but here it feels like it fits right in with the entire tone. Finally… did, “Hasta la vista, baby” originate from this song? If so, that’s freakin’ dope.

15. “With or Without You” – U2: Oh yes. So, this was the other big Joshua Tree cut from this year, and this one was huge. One can probably figure out why with just one listen. The guitar-keyboard combo that introduces the song is just so pure and lovely, and the textured sound that just builds and builds – alongside Bono’s anguished vocals – is one of a kind. While much is made about the climactic vocalizations after the second chorus, to me it’s always been about the buildup. This is, once again, not among my absolute favorite of U2 songs, but it sure is unmistakably sad & beautiful.

14. “Always” – Atlantic Starr: Yet another one of these wedding ballads that loves to plant a spot or two in the top ten or twenty songs of the year. To me, this is just like any other one of these songs from Lionel Richie or his ilk. This is a whole lot easier to swallow than “Secret Lovers”, that’s for sure, but the generic instrumental leaves little to the imagination – as does the line, “Let’s go make a family”. Yeah, it’s that kind of song. It’s not detestable enough to make much of a negative impact – it just doesn’t leave much of an impact whatsoever.

13. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – Crowded House: I have this theory that on average, songs that reach a number-two peak are usually more consistent in quality that the actual chart-toppers. I’ve even considered doing a series on those that peaked at that penultimate spot, though I’m not sure who else would be interested in that sort of thing. Anyway, this song is the one most associate Crowded House with, and honestly for good reason. A lot of it’s lyrics might come off as poetic gobbledygook (“There is freedom within, there is freedom without / Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup”), but the subtle confusion contained within each of the lines further elevates the sense of disillusionment encompassed in the song as a whole. The thickly chanted, “Hey now, hey now” in the chorus is absolutely iconic, as is the follow-up croon of, “Don’t dream it’s over”. And once that organ pops in – absolute bliss. It’s one of those records which I desperately feel like deserved the number-one spot, but I’m also satisfied with its long-standing positive reputation, despite it never having done so. It’s just a magical, melancholic little song – and I’m so glad it’s here at all.

12. “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” – Wang Chung: …And this is where my theory starts to crack a little bit. Indeed, this track also peaked at number-two, though I would debate whatever positive reputation it continues to cling onto today. The production is pretty standard poppy New Wave stuff, and I can’t complain about those synths that really drive the party atmosphere pretty well. What I can complain about, though, is the sheer inanity of these lyrics: “The words we use are strong; they make reality”“Rip it up, move down / Rip it up, move it down to the ground”, and of course, “Everybody Wang Chung tonight”. It’s just a big ol’ mess of a song, although the sound it carries on its back is basically a big ol’ encapsulation of how the 80s took a revolutionary New Wave sound and morphed it into barely palatable radio pop. The rift between “Dance Hall Days” and this is deep and disheartening.

11. “La Bamba” – Los Lobos: Yay, more Hot 100 trivia! Not only was this cover super important to bringing Los Lobos to the top of the charts, but I also believe it remains the only song entirely in Spanish to top the Hot 100 (no, “Despacito” or “Macarena” don’t count). I was planning on writing a post on the interesting history of the song “La Bamba” itself, so maybe I’ll finally get around to that soon. In any case, this is a terrific cover, with Tex-Mex guitarwork that is both parts fun and absolutely impressive. It’s straight-forward, but continues to be enjoyable for its new modern flair. This more than makes up for all the flabby, faceless tunes that 1987 has given us so far.

10. “Livin’ on a Prayer” – Bon Jovi: Top ten, fuck yeah! And it’s no surprise that this one would be here – “Livin’ on a Prayer”, a.k.a. every karaoke bar’s worst nightmare. There’s no denying the absolute hugeness of this song’s sound, from the introductory distorted talkbox thing, to Jon Bon Jovi’s lyrics of hard times for a middle-class couple, to that monster of a chorus. I think the song’s biggest flaw is the way the overwhelming hair metal aesthetic contradicts the very real, human issues its lyrics are so concerned with. This is especially true with regard to the “woah”s of its chorus, the messy guitar solo, and that goddamn key change. Of course, when you’re drunk at 2 AM, this is the best song in the world… so I guess it evens out.

9. “Shakedown” – Bob Seger: Honestly, this sounds more like a punchline to the joke of, “What if Bob Seger, but in the 80s?”. The only thing is, this is actually quite better than it has any business being! The overblown keyboards, drum machines, and horns are totally infectious in their wild, stupid energy. Bob Seger also, amazingly, works very well with this uplifted aesthetic, especially when his voice gets a little lower in the chorus. I can imagine classic rock purists being absolutely infuriated by this record, and while this certainly isn’t great and doesn’t hold a candle to “Night Moves” or “Still the Same” – it’s fine. We could all use a little dumb fun from time to time.

8. “The Way It Is” – Bruce Hornsby and the Range: Since I’m a 90s kid, I’m obviously more familiar with this song’s prominent sampling in 2pac’s “Changes”. And of course, since I’m millennial trash, I much prefer the way this is used in that song than with the original record itself. There are some heavy stuff referenced in its lyrics which I don’t think Hornsby really properly represented with the weight they deserved – the drum machines certainly don’t help matters. The piano solos are nice, but I don’t think they serve much of a purpose besides existing just to exist. Maybe I’ll warm up to it when I get around to writing a longer review.

7. “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake: A.k.a. the one where Tawny Kitaen dances atop the roofs of two Jaguars. I’ve always thought it was a smart idea to start off with those admittedly lovely synths, only to switch up into a tighter, crunchier guitar-rock sound in the first full chorus. The rhythm is catchy enough, but from this point forward it sort of just meanders and peters out ’til the end. The one highlight, of course, is that singular emotional yowl in the bridge. Other than that, though, this is kind of boring. Moving on.

6. “C’est La Vie” – Robbie Nevil: This sounds a little ahead of it’s time, if we’re being honest. While the bass-heavy synths, horns, and backup gospel singers are sooo 1987, Robbie Nevil’s voice and personality as a whole feels like it would fit right into the boy band craze of the mid- to late-90s. Additionally, this production just feels… weird. Some of the percussion elements feel like they were stripped from a completely different song, the backing vocalists possess a lot more personality than backups are usually given agency for, and every now and then, there’s this symphonic keyboard effect often used in New Jack Swing that gives this song a strange, interesting edge. And that’s not even mentioning that completely bizarre false end on the album version. On top of all this, though, this has a certain kind of spunky energy that I love in songs like these. It’s nothing amazing, but goodness is it admirable how much better it’s held up over most songs on this list.

5. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Starship: Diane Warren strikes again. Let it be known, that I totally dig Diane Warren and will love almost anything she has a hand in. Case and point: this. Much like “We Built This City”, this is a giant slice of 80s cheese, with feel-good synths and sing-a-longable melodies up to our ears. And also like “We Built This City”, I enjoy this so damn much and don’t agree with any of the hate at all. Grace Slick especially sounds strangely in her element – even more impressive, considering she gave us “White Rabbit” of all things!! This is just so cuddly and warm and the right kinds of corny. Fuck the haters.

4. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – Whitney Houston: It’s a bit strange that out of all the wonderful recordings that Whitney Houston had put out in her (sadly short) life, this seems to be one of her most beloved. Don’t get me wrong – out of her uptempo tunes, this might just be the best. The melody really kicks, the synth-laden production is bright and lovely, and the song as a whole is absolutely party-friendly. I’m just not totally convinced that Houston was the proper choice for it – her voice and personality are just too huge for a tune that would’ve worked better done slightly more toned down. There’s no denying that this is a stone-cold classic in any case, though.

3. “Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott: Uh… so, it’s pretty strange how the third biggest song of this year is one of the list’s most faceless, right? Those keyboards alone could have come from damn near anything, really. I guess Gregory Abbott is alright as a vocalist, but there’s absolutely nothing here that screams “star quality” whatsoever. This is really just another run-of-the-mill sex jam, with terrible lines like, “We’ll go all the way to heaven” and a dismal spoken bridge to boot. 1987 really was a mistake.

2. “Alone” – Heart: And now for the very best of 80s Heart comeback singles. It starts slow and timid, with verses that honestly could use a bit of work. This is all made up for by the explosive chorus, wherein Ann Wilson belts out effectively in a fit of anguish and yearning. There’s also some really cool synth work on display here, as well as Nancy Wilson’s guitar work that holds the whole song up without being too showy. Overall, there’s a reason why this is often declared among the best of the 80s power ballads – it’s emotionally vulnerable, yet also powerful and affirmative in its stances on love and heartbreak. The Wilson sisters have done it again.

1. “Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles: Even though I generally agree that 1987 has been an underwhelming year as a whole, what I can give it props for is its representation of women on the list as a whole. Overall, there are forty tracks that are credited to at least one female artist – exactly half of those are credited to a solo performer or an all-female group! Although there are certainly more of the former than the latter, the contributions of all-female groups like Bananarama and Exposé are indispensable and so, so important. And with “Walk Like an Egyptian”, we finally have an all-female group top a year-end Hot 100 chart for the very first time. This is huge!! But since I’m here to review the song… okay, yeah, it’s dated, and maybe a bit culturally insensitive. Nonetheless, each member does their part very well, to the exotic-sounding percussion, to the fun, nifty guitar and bass riffs, to the energy so effortlessly exerted by the lead vocalist. Actually, to every member who contributes vocals! It’s a silly little novelty song that basically amounts to a whole lot of nothing – but damn does it sound real good. Not a bad way to cap off the year, I must say!

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Lyzette’s Top 14 Halloween TV Specials

About two years ago, I embarked upon a quest to watch as many made-for-TV Christmas specials as possible. This resulted in my top 13 animated Christmas specials. In an attempt to recreate some of this surprise magic I discovered on this journey, I decided to spend most of my free time in October to watch as many Halloween TV specials as possible. It was actually a bit harder this time around, mainly because I usually like to marathon horror movies around this time. Having to trade some of my free time away from horror films was a tough move. But in the end, I think the right decision was made.

Halloween is far away my very favorite holiday. As a kid, it used to be a great excuse to run around visiting strangers’ houses in costume, yelling “Trick or treat!” and collecting as much candy as possible. These days, I’m less enamored by sugar and more fond of red wine, but I still love to dress up every year and enjoy all the spooky offerings the holiday has to offer – including the film and TV specials of the season. As with the Christmas viewings, I widened my scope to include stuff from as many decades as possible, both animated and live-action, some as short as ten minutes and others around feature-film length. Nonetheless, I largely emphasized animated specials from the 70s-90s with a runtime of around 20-35 minutes.

As the title states, I am listing my favorite Halloween specials as proven by my journey through this colorful pile of TV shows and made-for-TV movies. I’ve written about a lot of these, but others I simply lacked the time and/or energy. Unlike the Christmas post, I will be including both animated and live-action fare. While many of these are suitable for all ages, there will also be some adult-oriented stuff here – just a mild disclaimer! Other than this special notice, if you’ve taken a look at my Christmas post, you probably have some idea of what to expect here.

Before I move on to the definitive list, I’d like to include a couple lists of honorable mentions. The first involves specials that were originally aired as “Halloween episodes” and certainly carry the same spooky energy as many of the others – but their plots were not specifically centered around the holiday. Just separating these out from those that are in order to keep things from being totally misleading!

  • Adventure Time – “The Creeps” & “From Bad to Worse” (2011): From a Clue-style murder mystery, to a zombie invasion (the second one in the show). Both of them are chock full of the kind of absurd awesomeness one would expect from Adventure Time.
  • Animaniacs – “Draculee, Draculaa” (1993): Some of the best segments of Animaniacs involve Yakko, Wakko, and Dot performing and endless array of pranks on prominent figures. In this case, it’s Count Dracula (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) and it’s as enjoyable as it sounds.
  • Dave the Barbarian – “That Darn Ghost!” (2004): Dave the Barbarian never quite got the recognition it deserved, but this episode is one of the funniest, most clever bits of its one entire season. Also, they invent Halloween at the end!
  • Festival of Family Classics – “Jack o’ Lantern” (1972): If you enjoy Rankin & Bass’s Christmas specials, you’d probably enjoy their traditionally animated take on Jack Pumpkinhead. It’s super weird, but super worth watching, if you can find it.
  • Futurama – “The Honking” (2000): Not among the top tier of episodes from this usually incredible show, but it takes the tried-and-true concept of werewolf affliction in an interesting new direction nonetheless.
  • The Muppet Show – “Vincent Price” (1976) & “Alice Cooper” (1978): Typical Muppety humor to be found in these episodes, but the inclusion of these guests make it a tad more macabre. The Vincent Price episode is especially wonderful.
  • The Powerpuff Girls – “Boogie Frights” (1998): I was so sad to leave this off. It’s a fun premise that takes the freaks who come out at night, adds in a disco theme, and throws in an ending that references Star Wars for some reason. It’s one of my favorite PPG episodes ever.
  • Spongebob SquarePants – “Graveyard Shift” (2002): Technically the plainly titled episode “Halloween” is the first official Halloween episode of Spongebob, but I always found this very in the spirit as well. It’s the one with the Hash-Slinging Slasher and the Nosferatu punchline. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the show and I revisit it every year.
  • Tiny Toons Night Ghoulery (1995): I’m still waiting for this one to completely click with me, but I sure admire the hell out of it. In a “Treehouse of Horror” style anthology, the Tiny Toons characters lampoon such spooky bits of media as The Nightmare Before ChristmasThe Twilight Zone, Night of the Living Dead, and others. It’s a blast!
  • Toy Story of Terror! (2013): Nothing about this screams “Halloween” at all, but it does make for a genuinely thrilling mystery tale. It’s certainly one of the better Toy Story spinoff shorts we’ve got.
  • Two Heads Are Better Than None (2000): A Nickelodeon made-for-TV movie featuring Kenan & Kel, this begins as a wacky family road trip and ends up in a sort of proto-Get Out scenario. It’s uneven, but good, childish fun.

And now, a second list of honorable mentions, this one for all the TV specials and episodes that undeniably center around Halloween, but unfortunately missed this cut this time around.

  • The Amazing World of Gumball – “Halloween” (2012): Gumball is one of the most innovative kids’ animated shows out there, and the first Halloween special showcases all that makes the show so wonderful to watch.
  • Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special (1978): This is a bizarre TV special, in that it is mostly an assorted collection of Looney Tunes shorts clumsily spliced together to create some sort of narrative centered around Witch Hazel. Good to watch for nostalgia’s sake, I guess.
  • A Disney Halloween (1982): An even clumsier splice-a-thon than Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special, this is nonetheless a pretty cool 80s relic, in that it joins together a bunch of little clips from various Disney animated films, in a time where it was very hard to watch such films in pieces. It’s kind of boring in retrospect, but might be good for kids.
  • Ed, Edd, n Eddy’s Boo Haw Haw (2005): This does some really impressive stuff with the idea that one can actually watch way too many horror movies! The animation is also a slight cut above what I’m used to from the show, so that’s neat.
  • Even Stevens – “A Very Scary Story” (2001): It really takes a lot for me to enjoy the sterilized writing in most Disney sitcoms, but the concept of zombie possession through a school’s routine eye exams is too compelling to pass up – and for the most part, it delivers!
  • The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (1979): This Emmy-winning TV special features a collection of the most famous horror monsters (Dracula, the mummy, the wolfman, etc.) teaming together to make Halloween scary again. Unfortunately, the dust really shows on this one and it’s rarely as enjoyable as that description promises. Still, it’s fun to watch grown adults run around in silly costumes – plus it ends with a disco dance!
  • The Halloween Tree (1993): A classic Ray Bradbury story is given the 90s Cartoon Network treatment. Sadly, this doesn’t always work in its favor, as the writing is mostly disjointed and sloppy. Still, I could see young kids really enjoying this one.
  • The Last Halloween (1991): This is a weird one. This TV special won an Emmy for its special effects – but the early 90s CGI on this one really shows. As does the truly awkward humor. Nonetheless, there’s enough unintentional camp in this one to make it worth the watch – at least I think so!
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – “Life’s a Masquerade” (1993) and “Trick or Treat” (1994): The first of these two Power Rangers episodes features an insidious Frankenstein monster as the villain; the second features a rapping pumpkinheaded guy. These are just as watchable as all those other cheesy MMPR episodes, but with the added bonus of Halloween costumes and general festive aesthetics to boot.
  • The Proud Family – “A Hero For Halloween” (2002): Proud Family were always very hit-or-miss, but the magical realism edge given to Penny’s Halloween experience as a high-flying, wish-granting superhero make this well worth a watch.
  • The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile (1979): Unfortunately, the pacing of this particular short is a tad too leisurely to casually recommend it to just about anyone. However, this is worth the watch if only for the scene where the pumpkin meets his boy – which actually brought a little tear to my own eye!
  • Rugrats – “Candy Bar Creep Show” (1992): There are certainly far better Rugrats episodes out there, but the first Halloween episode succinctly captures the melding of confusion and joy upon first discovering the wonderful wackiness of the holiday.

Alright, the final list is down below. However, I should also note that, unlike my Christmas list, this list will not be ranked! I frankly just found it rather impossible to rank any one as better or worse than the other… so feel free to imagine your own ranking! Alright, here we go now… THE BEST OF THE BEST!

The Adventures of Pete and Pete: “Halloweenie”

The selections on this list will be in alphabetical order by main title or series title, so we’re kicking things off with something a bit more unusual than what these lists usually have. I am a bit too young to have remembered the very early, pre-Nicktoon days of Nickelodeon, but I have watched a few episodes of The Adventures of Pete and Pete since then. Despite having never grown up with this show, I feel a strange sense of nostalgia watching it, certainly helped by its effortlessly 90s vibes, killer soundtrack, and awesome cinematography. The Halloween episode, “Halloweenie”, is definitely a favorite of mine for possessing an abundance of these characteristics, and much more. Little Pete is hoping to break the town record for most houses visited in a single Halloween (something I’d undoubtedly at least half-attemped myself), but Big Pete is torn between accompanying his brother out of loyalty or avoiding the ridicule of his classmates for trick or treating at much too old of an age. This is all the more complicated by a league of vandalizing school bullies with pumpkins for heads! Really, though, there are so many pumpkins in this whole episode, giving it that extra Halloween edge. The camerawork absolutely kills, the use of suspenseful music is just fantastic, and Iggy Pop appears in a pullover sweater and orange cardigan. Really, everything about this is just perfectly, gleefully seasonal.

Bob’s Burgers: “Tina and the Real Ghost”

I was fiercely debating whether I wanted to add this episode to this list or “Fort Night”, which is less spooky but offers an interesting take on the claustrophobia horror genre. In the end, I went with the spooky one. At its peak, Bob’s Burgers was among the funniest, most well-written animated family-centered sitcoms ever – a fair replacement for the throne once possessed by The Simpsons and Family Guy. Awkward preteen Tina Belcher had become a fan favorite at this point, so it was only a matter of time before we’d get an episode centered primarily on her endearing crush on the ghost of a thirteen-year-old boy named Jeff. Fully skipping past the morbidity of the restaurant possibly housing the murder of a child, Tina takes Jeff to school (via shoebox vessel) and typical elementary school drama occurs… because of course it does. The actual Halloween night scenario is actually pretty climactic, with Tina getting the last laugh at the end of the night. Alongside all this are Bob’s Burgers‘ brand of idiosyncratic humor, such as a side-plot that illuminates the BS of paranormal investigators, as well as Gene’s terrific Turner and Hooch costume. Sometimes all we need from our Halloween fare is a middle-school love story between a girl and a ghost – nothing more!

Community: “Epidemiology”

What’s more frightening than a college campus Halloween party with an ABBA soundtrack no one can turn off? How about all of the above with a zombie epidemic thrown in for good measure! While I generally enjoy the Christmas episodes of Community more than the Halloween ones, it’s hard to deny how much fun it is to watch the gang (all costumed) run to avoid being bitten by their peers and faculty. The series has never shied away from building entire episodes off of movie references (“Contemporary American Poultry” being probably the best at this), and this one works as sort of a giant mish-mash of every zombie movie/TV show imaginable. Of course, it’s the ABBA soundtrack that underscores it all and really adds a cherry atop this wonderfully spooky cake. Other highlights include the Dean’s fabulously flashy Lady Gaga costume, Abed’s awesome xenomorph costume, and the climactic slow crawl to the air conditioner featuring an admittedly impressive bit of grotesque body performance by Donald Glover – certainly fitting for Halloween. But the real reason it’s on the list? Probably the ABBA. Yeah, it’s the ABBA.

Freaks and Geeks “Tricks and Treats”

One of the greatest mysteries of TV (for me, at least) is how a show as great and timeless as Freaks and Geeks was only allowed a single season. Thankfully, it’s an incredibly consistent single season – I could probably make a top list of Freaks and Geeks episodes alone, and still have to make some painful cuts. Nonetheless, the episode “Tricks and Treats” always stands out to me as the one episode where I realized just how special this show really was. Like “Halloweenie”, this episode deals much with the internal tension faced in questioning just how old is too old for trick or treating and other childish trifles of Halloween. It also deals with the essential need for high schoolers to fit in with their peers and the constant fear of humiliation by these very folks. It’s got the usual sense of cartoonish joy and chaos basically inherent to these Halloween specials, but with the lingering sense that something is just off. Not even the good intentions are paid off well, as Mrs. Weir’s homemade cookies for trick or treaters are passed off by their parents who instruct their children to not accept homemade treats out of paranoia over hidden drugs or razorblades (undoubtedly fostered by the media). Altogether, this results in one of the most depressing Halloween evenings on this list, crumbling downward into pure disaster. Obviously this episode works best when it’s connected to the series as a whole, but it’s great for those seeking a more heartbreaking take on the holiday.

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure

Yeah, I really have no idea why it had taken me so long to get around to this. Like I mentioned in my longer review, Garfield’s animated series and specials never really appealed to me all that much. It’s all for pretty shallow reason, though – I tend to like my animation on the more edgier, darker side of things and the mere aesthetic of Garfield never quite caught my interest past the comic strip. With that being said, had anyone told me that Garfield’s Halloween Adventure contains a single image that would have undoubtedly been nightmare fuel for me as a kid, I would have rushed over to it sooner. Sure, its spooky bits are sandwiched between some pretty wholesome scenes with Garfield and Odie trick or treating and singing about the harmless joy of Halloween. But then they stumble upon a tall, dark house and… well, I’ll just leave the rest to you. It’s easy to see why this has had consistent syndication through the years – it’s bright and cheery enough for all ages, yet its surprisingly dark turn kicks this up a notch for lovers of horror stories like myself. And it ends on a sweet, endearing note! One thing’s for certain: this is one that I won’t be passing up any longer.

Gravity Falls: “Summerween”

I will never stop lamenting over Gravity Falls‘ far-too-early termination – it really was one of the freshest, most creative kids’ shows we had, in an era where fresh, creative kids’ shows really weren’t all that hard to find. Upon revisiting a handful of their episodes recently, I’ve found that I’m especially upset that we’ll never get a sequel to what I consider among their better episodes, that being “Summerween”. The episode takes a variety of really cool, unique ideas, throws them together in a big ol’ candy bag, and somehow ends up with a perfect combination of sweet and spooky. While I’m generally a bigger fan of the episodes that feature more of Grunkle Stan, this is more than made up for by the introduction of the Summerween Trickster, who is definitely one of the coolest designs the show has ever put out. There are moments of terror and hilarity at equal portions, but the episode also takes a few moments to underline some of the more delicate moments of the plot, primarily with the kids’ growing up and eventually growing out of Summerween traditions. There’s a whole lot to love here and while the show’s plot would grow deeper and darker as it went on, it’s the clever, colorful episodes like this one that really get to the crux of what makes the series so enjoyable. I only hope that the passage of time would treat its reputation as kindly as some of the best, most beloved holiday specials.

Halloween is Grinch Night

As I posted in my Halloween list a couple of years ago, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is my favorite animated special to watching during the Christmas season. The combination of its colorful atmosphere with sly, rhythmic prose characteristic of Dr. Seuss is one for the ages, and at the moment at least I’m pretty sure that nothing else of its type could top this for me. As these things go, however, it was only a matter of time before a sequel would be cranked out… or in this case, a prequel! Halloween is Grinch Night surmises that none of the events of the first Grinch special have happened (yet) – in fact, this special takes place on a night known as Grinch Night wherein a series of events triggers the Grinch to coming into Whoville and terrorizing the poor frightened Whos! Instead of the Christmassy atmosphere from the first program, the stunning backdrops are instead replete with ominous browns and oranges. The Seussical rhyme patterns are back, but the music is much more frantic and the music numbers not quite as cheerful. And yes, the part that everyone remembers from this one is the third-act hallucinogenic sequence that frankly comes plumb out of nowhere – yet somehow fits right in. To go from the Christmas special to this might result in a kind of whiplash effect, but by its own right this is pretty damn wonderful for its decidedly scarier take on the Grinch mythos. It fits right in with Halloweentime, and the autumn season as a whole!

Halloweentown

I actually intended on watching the entire crop of these made-for-TV films during this Halloween season. As time and sheer luck would have it, this didn’t quite happen – but boy, am I glad that I finally got around to the series’ first installment! As with a lot of other stuff on this list, Halloweentown is one of those pieces of media that you just have to take for what it is. The writing involves itself with some pretty tamed-down humor typical of Disney Channel programming, and this results in some pacing issues and a more than a handful of jokes that simply don’t land. Yet moving past this, though, there are more than a few glimmers of light to find in this. The concept seems simple enough, but the amount of love and care it takes in its world-building goes far beyond my own expectations. Debbie Reynolds and Judith Hoag carry the film quite well, as does Robin Thomas as the charmingly deceptive Kalabar. The characters are great, the plot is compelling, the designs are creative and impressive – even the dated special effects bring their own bit of magic to the table. While I’d always thought that three sequels to this film seemed a bit excessive, I’m now fully aware of the rich potential for growth in its narrative and I can’t wait to watch all the rest!

Hey Arnold!: “Arnold’s Halloween”

I still think a whole lot about “Arnold’s Christmas”. As I mentioned before, its sentimental value and effortless maneuvering through some really complex, heavy themes is absolutely impeccable. Here, the sentimentality is toned down quite a bit – though that doesn’t mean the show gets any less dark. In a retelling of the real-life story of Orson Welles’ catastrophic 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds (which, for the most part, is a myth itself), Arnold and friends opt to use the heightened paranoia surrounding the Halloween festivities to play a prank on the adults. It is assumed that their staged broadcast of an extraterrestrial landing could only be heard by members of their immediate circle and their makeshift alien costumes could be easily pulled off as a blissful punchline. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out so well for Arnold, Gerald, Helga, and the rest of the gang… it turns out pretty horribly, in fact. It primarily remains pretty cartoony, but as Hey Arnold! has proven time and time again, something darker always lies beneath this presumably innocent kids’ show. Overall, I enjoy it for its clever writing, filled with enough twists and turns to hold up the average horror flick. This time, however, the results lie nicely above average.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

And just so I check off the little box that requires this very special to be on every list of this type – here it is! Okay, so I dare not be too harsh on this one. After all, it pretty much is the definitive Halloween special and we probably wouldn’t have any of these other ones here if not for this one’s mere existence. Like most Peanuts cartoons, the charm here comes from its sheer innocence, from the simple illustrations, even simpler animation, real child voice actors, and characters doing things that real-life kids do on Halloween, such as trick or treating or bobbing for apples. And yeah, sometimes kids do such inane things as sitting in a pumpkin patch all night, waiting for an imaginary creature to fall from the sky and give them presents. Even having watched this countless times and knowing exactly how it ends, I still somehow always wait on bated breath that Linus will be greeted by the presence of his beloved Great Pumpkin. On a side note, I’ve always been bored by the Red Baron parts as a kid – it was always my cue to leave the room to take off my costume or get cookies from the kitchen. Even as an adult, this scene still sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when I’m already so infatuated with the Halloween imagery of the rest of the special. Some things never change, I guess.

King of the Hill: “Hilloween”

Generally speaking, I’ve never been too much of a King of the Hill fan (besides the hilarious memes, of course). However, I’ve always really admired their Halloween episode, which takes an approach to the holiday that I couldn’t imagine many other programs ever daring to touch. It’s Halloween time and while Hank is lamenting to Bobby about how the holiday has lost its scary factor, Luanne is slowly pulled in by a new member of Bible study who claims that Halloween is a Satanic holiday. Throughout the episode, it soon becomes clear that this woman and other fear-mongering Christians of the group intend on ridding the town of the holiday altogether – which leaves Bobby concerned that his father may have his own ulterior feelings about the holiday. The conflict involves two warring forces: these paranoid religious types, and regular ol’ horror lovers who just want to celebrate in peace. At its climax, this point is further hammered by paralleling a hilariously obtuse “Hallelujah House” with adults of the community trick or treating out of protest. Basically, this whole entire episode is brilliant and doesn’t get the recognition nor the respect that it desperately deserves. It’s just edgy enough to actually get me to consider watching the show… for a little bit, at least.

The Simpsons: “Treehouse of Horror V”

Yeah, one of these just had to make the cut – what kind of list would this be if it didn’t?! Anyway, this season I attempted to watch through every single “Treehouse of Horror” episode that has existed so far. I’ve actually gotten the closest to finishing as I ever had, but long story short: you can basically skip every one after “Treehouse of Horror XII” and you wouldn’t be missing much. Honestly, though, the moment I started watching the fifth installment, I knew it would be the best of the batch. It’s the only one where all three segments are incredibly consistent, with “The Shinning” obviously being the best of the bunch. I feel like not enough love is given to “Time and Punishment”, which is a pretty simple Bradbury-esque concept that, nonetheless, rides along the wave of humor that this show executes so damn well. And “Nightmare Cafeteria”… oh gosh. Later seasons have attempted to redo this brand of pitch dark humor, but none have ever gotten close to accomplishing it quite so gruesomely. Okay, so more often than not, Simpsons‘ Halloween episodes have nothing at all to do with Halloween itself. But what can I say – they’re staples to the genre and I’d be nothing if I didn’t save a spot for America’s favorite family.

Witch’s Night Out

I first discovered this special a couple years ago and have made it a case to include it in my Halloween viewing every single year from then on. Though it’s from 1978, it seems to have only gained a bit of a following within the past handful of years – though I imagine this to be different from its home country of Canada. The story here is pretty simple – in a strange town where most folks are named after adjectives, two children named Small and Tender are bummed that their Halloween costumes aren’t scaring anyone. Fortunately, with the help of an eccentric witch (voiced by Gilda Radner!), they are transformed into a real ghost and werewolf. Unfortunately, though, the other townfolk don’t take too kindly to this. I just plain adore the look of this special, with its unadorned, simple-colored illustrations balanced by some bizarre voice acting and erratic animation that could only have come from the 70s. Overall, I just love the note of positivity it signs off on – specifically, the love for Halloween to offer the opportunity for the weird and cast-off to express their creative side and just be someone else for the night. And who can forget that catchy-as-hell theme music: “It’s Halloween witch magic!”. If any of these specials deserves a wider reach and a more positive reputation, it’s this one.

The Worst Witch

It took a lot of sitting and thinking on this one to really come to terms with how much I actually enjoyed it. Sure, the garishness of its costumes and cheapness of its special effects took a lot of getting used to… but then once I was, I sure was hooked. I’m not at all familiar with the line of children’s books from which this it based, but I do think that this made-for-TV film really nails its concept of “dark magic for kids” pretty well, and did so years before the Harry Potter series would come along and expand on this very idea. Fairuza Balk gives a stellar, sweet performance as the titular charismatic youngster who just plain can’t do a dang thing right. The strengths of this special all come down to how rich it is with its specific brand of ridiculous camp, from the awkwardly edited scenes of Mildred turning the class bully into a pig, to a group of witches dancing and cackling in the woods for eons, to the hilarious 80s green screen of Mildred’s broomstick rides. And I dare not forget the contribution by Tim Curry and his flashy, psychedelic musical number that really needs to get more love around these parts. Anyway, it’s pretty clear that this special is flawed in a number of ways, but it sure is charming nonetheless. I knew I would’ve definitely obsessed over this one had I watched it as a youngster myself.

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