Billboard’s Modern Rock chart was just 13 months old in October ‘89 and it was… well, kinda weird
The definitive history of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks (nowadays called Alternative Songs) chart was written by chart historian Chris Molanphy, and you should read it if you haven’t.
Just over a year into its history (that first September 1988 chart is here, on page 19), the chart was still figuring itself out — I mean, the first single from Steel Wheels was in the top 30, for pete’s sake. In a year’s time, there was definitely less goth and more rock, but the likes of Shelleyan Orphan (and the Cure, of course, who are eternal) were still poking around the chart. Also: not one but two song titles ending in exclamation points!
Listen along, won’t you?
[this week, last week, weeks on chart, title, artist]
1 3 (7) SOWING THE SEEDS OF LOVE — Tears for Fears — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, boiled down into a six-minute single.
2 2 (7) JAMES BROWN — Big Audio Dynamite — What is this techno-pop sampledelic garbage? There’s not even a song here. And while Mick Jones has many things, “soul” is not one of them.
3 4 (5) SOLD ME DOWN THE RIVER — The Alarm — The Alarm were an average bar band with a bigger recording budget, and this song does nothing to disabuse me of that notion.
4 7 (5) PICTURES OF MATCHSTICK MEN — Camper Van Beethoven — CVB, the archetypal American ‘80s college rock band, covering an obscure Status Quo song from 1968 — and then getting to #1 on the Modern Rock chart with it? It was a strange, and occasionally wonderful, time. Nothing about this makes sense on paper, but when you hear it, everything clicks perfectly.
5 5 (9) BETWEEN SOMETHING AND NOTHING — The Ocean Blue — I was so enamored of the Ocean Blue’s eponymous debut when it came out in 1989; it sounded so much to this Smiths fanatic like a less-rocking, American version of The Smiths. Its guitar textures? Dreamy. And David Schelzel’s vocals made him sound like the perfect non-threatening boyfriend.
6 1 (7) LOVE SHACK — The B-52’s — A fine pop record which I never, ever need to hear again. I prefer literally everything on Cosmic Thing, a good-to-great album with a lot of great subsequent singles. And I’ll never be unhappy that this made the B’s huge, because they more than deserved it.
7 6 (7) WAY OF THE WORLD — Max Q — Max Q was a very short-lived Michael Hutchence side project. Coming off the massive worldwide success of INXS’s Kick, there was destined to be lots of curiosity about this; said curiosity quickly vanished, as the self-titled album was pretty dull. Hutchence plus samples and some political toe-dipping? How revolutionary.
VIDEO: Max Q “Way of the Way”
8 10 (4) REGINA — The Sugarcubes — The first single from their second album Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!, is deliriously wonderful, a showcase for Björk’s swooping, soaring vocals, with her vocal foil Einar Örn — basically, the ‘Cubes’s Fred Schneider — doing his thing opposite her. If you recall this song, what you likely recall is Einar shouting “I! REALLY! DON’T! LIKE! LOB! STER!,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Delightfully off-kilter.
9 8 (7) KNOCK ME DOWN — Red Hot Chili Peppers — Remember a time before the Peppers were every worst fraternity nightmare in musical form? This is pretty much the cut-off point, the last moment that their punk-funk thing still worked for them. And us.
10 9 (3) IF IT’S LOVE — Squeeze — A Squeeze song that no one recalls because it’s even more mediocre than most of their catalog.
11 11 (3) I WANT THAT MAN — Deborah Harry — If this were by Stacey Q, say, no one would care. Nothing against Deborah, but this is an awful song, and unfortunately, she doesn’t do anything to distinguish it. She’s better than this.
12 17 (2) PERSONAL JESUS — Depeche Mode — And just like that — not really “just like that,” of course, but you know what I mean, I trust — DM became one of the biggest bands in the world. Violator advanced them so far, both musically and commercially, and the just-released “Jesus” was its first salvo. Still one of their finest moments on record, and give Flood (co-producer, along with the band) plenty of credit, as his sonic fingerprints aren’t just all over this record, but his DNA’s in it. “Personal Jesus” is Depeche Mode’s genius.
13 12 (4) SICK OF IT — The Primitives — A year after “Crash,” and still UK indie-minded, but perhaps a smidgen less unique than its predecessor was. That guitar wooze in the chorus is great, though.
14 23 (2) INTO THE HEART OF LOVE — The Mighty Lemon Drops — The Lemon Drops and their brethren the Woodentops were practically the UK’s answer to R.E.M., all jangly boys pop-rock, only with a British twist. I won’t say “of lemon,” because that’s just far too obvious. This song is fine, and sturdy, but in five minutes I’ve forgotten it, and that’s never the case with R.E.M.
VIDEO: The Mighty Lemon Drops “Into the Heart of Love”
15 16 (4) DECLINE AND FALL — Flesh for Lulu — This sounds like the opposite of goth, like Bad Religion-lite or something. What the fuck happened to them? What a quick, precipitous fall-off.
16 27 (2) KINGDOM OF RAIN — The The — Matt Johnson’s band The The were one of the great, original British bands of the ‘80s, and have never received the credit they deserve. His songwriting, good God. And he was capable of coaxing a genuine sensuousness from the lower end of his voice, which especially served him well in duets with strong female singers. On his previous album Infected, the Neneh Cherry-featuring “Slow Train to Dawn” was a highlight, and on 1989’s masterpiece Mind Bomb — seriously, one of the year’s finest full-lengths — Johnson matched vocals with Sinėad O’Connor on “Kingdom of Rain,” one of a trio of top 20 Modern Rock hits the album spun off. Johnny Marr’s on guitar, too. This ain’t just a great pop single — this is art.
17 20 (5) HE’S GOT A SHE — Exene Cervenka — Ripping off the melody of Josie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer,” and going no further. Who knew Exene could be so dull?
18 26 (3) SELF! — Fuzzbox — Fuzzbox’s second album, Big Bang, sounds a bit as if Stock Aitken Waterman produced them — or, alternately, like Bananarama as a guitar band. Either way, it’s great, albeit without the scruffy punkiness of their debut. I like ‘em both; YMMV. “Self!,” their only-ever US charting single, is a precious gem of a record, with guitars that crank and drums that push your ass to the dancefloor. I’ve always wished they’d made more than two albums — what a blast Fuzzbox were.
19 15 (16) LOVESONG — The Cure — A lovely little love song that I’ve never known exactly what to do with — what’s Robert Smith doing singing a love song? Additionally, three decades of overplay has dulled its appeal to my brain’s pleasure centers; that said, it’s still a fine, fine Cure pop record.
20 13 (8) SHE BANGS THE DRUMS — The Stone Roses — Who could’ve known what was coming, what the Roses were portending? The purest, most brilliant essence of Madchester, truly dance-oriented rock with an added psychedelic swirl, and in Ian Brown, a classic, excellent, British frontman. Their debut album is sheer perfection, and “She Bangs the Drums” is its perfect distillation.
21 21 (3) SUGAR DADDY — Thompson Twins — This is a pleasant enough little electro-pop trifle, but from the Twins, it’s a disappointment. They knew, and did, better.
VIDEO: Tracy Chapman “Crossroads”
22 — (NEW) CROSSROADS — Tracy Chapman — Acoustic-based coffeehouse folk-rock without any of the spark that made Chapman’s debut such a sensation.
23 30 (3) SHATTER — Shelleyan Orphan — The opening violin, sawing away, denotes goth in spades. And then the saxophone appears and makes things confusing. Later, there’s a clarinet — that makes more sense. The drums are kinda Bow Wow Wow/Adam and the Ants, even though I know that reading that makes no sense — by which I mean, heavy on the toms. This is a perfectly-wrapped little gothic bonbon that I can listen to repeatedly.
24 — (NEW) BLACK SHEEP WALL — The Innocence Mission — This single from their debut definitely has similarities with the likes of 10,000 Maniacs, but also has some goth undertones. Imagine Natalie Merchant fronting a goth-folk indie band and you’re most of the way there — really. It’s kind of compelling.
25 18 (3) NO SOUVENIRS — Melissa Etheridge — Earnest lesbian folk-rock with the sheen of AOR production.
26 — (NEW) DRAMA! — Erasure — I’ve never gotten what people see so much of in the other (admittedly) iconic queer UK synth-pop duo; Pet Shop Boys are much more to my liking, thanks. But I can tell you what I don’t like about Erasure, most of all: Andy Bell’s voice, which kinda gives me gay panic. And I’m gay. Vince Clarke, as well, would’ve done well to stop trying to re-write ABBA songs a couple years earlier into their career. (That said, the best thing Erasure ever did was the ABBA-esque EP, which fit them like the proverbial glove.) (“Drama!” is a far cry from the best thing they ever did.)
27 14 (13) COME ANYTIME — Hoodoo Gurus — Now, this is how you make rockin’ college rock work. Love the way it starts strummy and then the electric guitars kick in. A former #1.
28 28 (5) MIXED EMOTIONS — Rolling Stones — I have no idea what this is doing here [actually, I do, kinda — a few of Billboard’s Modern Rock reporting stations were actually Album Rock-ers which tilted towards less hoary music, and this had just recently topped said chart], but I love that it makes no sense on this chart. I also dig the song; I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes Steel Wheels, even as it sounds like a “gotta get on the road” cash-in excuse. Blame the Chris Kimsey/Jagger/Richards production, which is tough and loud. (Follow-up single “Rock and a Hard Place” is ever better.)
29 — (NEW) LOVE IS A SHIELD — Camouflage — Goth-dance with vocals so heavily affected that all I can say is Girl, really?!
30 19 (5) NO BIG DEAL — Love and Rockets — Their previous single, the fluke pop smash “So Alive,” was slinky, and fairly unlike standard-issue L&R. This was more like their usual sound, with some more clanking and clonging going on. Daniel Ash’s vocals are perfectly matched to the sound of it.