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by Mosi Reeves

June 5, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1988

by Mosi Reeves  |  June 5, 2014

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

"Sweet desire," murmured Kim Gordon at the beginning of "Teenage Riot" with the alluring coolness of an urban chanteuse. We -- or at least the tastemakers that made Sonic Youth's final indie album one of 1988's best-reviewed recordings -- were utterly seduced. Daydream Nation seemed to capture the excitement and promise of a new American underground that would eventually blossom (or degenerate, depending on your point of view) as Alternative Nation.

The other big story of 1988 was hip-hop. The genre was several years old at this point, but with the sample-crammed, black activist brilliance of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, we finally realized that hip-hop was not just an '80s fad, but a postmodern art form destined to inspire a generation of youth culture. Nation of Millions was the first of many rap albums to top the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critic's poll. Daydream Nation came in second.

In short, we were finally casting off the pastel-colored glow of the Big '80s and entering an age of authenticity or, as the title of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' album went, a Conscious Party. Set over a hippie jangle rhythm, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians' "What I Am" professed a desire to just live, man, yet its sentiments sounded as feminist as anything released that year. Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" wove a tragedy about a homeless family with a poignant, acoustic melody. The Australian band Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning" called for the restoration of Aboriginal homelands. The fact that these songs were major radio hits spoke to our increasing social awareness.

In other ways, it was business as usual. The Pazz & Jop Top 40 was filled with albums by the same old irrelevant baby boomer rockers. (I won't mention any names.) Among the missing that turned out to be canonical works were the Pixies' alt rock gem Surfer Rosa, Bad Religion's anarcho-punk treatise Suffer, NWA's street rap statement Straight Outta Compton (though that one made it onto the 1989 list as controversy surrounding the "Gangsta, Gangsta" group metastasized), and the Pogues' Celtic punk clarion call If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

R&B wasn't given much respect, either. Sure, everyone loved Teddy Riley's New Jack hits like Guy's "Groove Me" and Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." But few regarded Keith Sweat's self-titled debut as a great album worthy of the same kind of plaudits as, say, the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions. Meanwhile, various strands like freestyle, hi-NRG, and house were coalescing into a vibrant kind of dance pop that would rule the charts for the next few years, and yield moments like Inner City's "Big Fun" and Erasure's "A Little Respect." And yes, give it up for Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," her last likeable single from Forever Your Girl before her MTV stranglehold turned truly obnoxious. Pop music was fun, but it seemed like a trifle next to the Serious Albums. Decades later, with the rise of "poptimism" among the critical firmament, the pendulum would swing -- sometimes frustratingly too far -- in the opposite direction.

Country music was undergoing its own cred tests. The Patsy Cline-inspired balladry of k.d. lang's Shadowland found a mainstream audience that usually looked down on Nashville formulae. Meanwhile, actual country fans sent a staggering 49 songs to the top of the Billboard Country Songs chart, nearly one for each week in 1988, including the chart's designated song of the year, Keith Whitley's "Don't Close Your Eyes." (By comparison, only 33 songs went to the top of the Hot 100 chart.) This suggests either a cornucopia of riches or utter chaos. Alas, we don't have space to include them all.

If there was one group everyone seemed to agree on, it was Guns N' Roses, who ascended from L.A.'s hair metal underground to the top of the stadium heap with 1987's Appetite for Destruction, making them the first of many Last Great Rock Bands. In lieu of using yet another single from that chestnut for our list -- sorry, "Sweet Child O' Mine" -- let's focus on their sole 1988 release, GN'R Lies. It captured both sides of the GN'R phenomenon: Izzy Stradlin's affectionate ballad "Patience," and Axl Rose's ugly white-rights screed "One in a Million."

Rose as well as Chuck D of Public Enemy (who made some horrible press statements against gay rights) encapsulated the problem with claiming authenticity as a badge of honor. By default, someone is less genuine. Such arguments over "who's realer" would animate much of the American public well into the 1990s. As for the rest of us squares, we just wanted to hum along to Bobby McFerrin and follow his credo of "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Don't laugh … it's not as easy as it looks.

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