1. Marianne Faithfull, "I Ain't Goin' Down to the Well No More." Faithfull's re-emergence in the late-70s was one of the most startlingly wonderful in rock and roll. Eight years later, she made the move into the chanteuse she's run with pretty much ever since. It was an eclectic transition, to say the least … she covered Dylan, no surprise there, redid "As Tears Go By" (no surprise there), stepped back to the days of Tony Bennett and mixed it with some Tom Waits and Doc Pomus. This song was perhaps the most intimately bare of the set: a middle-aged English woman, in her time the essence of a certain kind of beauty, with a voice ravaged by smokes and junk, offers up an acapella version of an old Leadbelly song.
2. Terence Trent D'Arby, "Wishing Well." And people think Prince changes his name too often. D'Arby was born Terence Howard, took on his stepfather's name to become Terry Darby, added his middle name and an apostrophe when he became a singer … and then years later, he changed his name again, this time to Sananda Maitreya. Whatever his name, it's hard to remember 20 years after the fact how big a deal D'Arby was in 1987. He was cocky and ambitious, and his music was a fine blend of old and new. "Wishing Well" hit number one, but nothing else did, and while he's more than a one-hit wonder, D'Arby's career hasn't come anywhere near what was expected.
3. Prince, "Bob George." Meanwhile, the guy who had already reached the heights expected of D'Arby was becoming increasingly weird. Fresh off of one of his greatest albums, Sign 'o' the Times, Prince entered the studio to … well, there is more than one story, but apparently he wanted to make a record that would help him regain some of the black audience he had purportedly lost. The resulting album was funk, for the most part, but weird-era-Prince funk, and Prince's weird was a lot different than, say, George Clinton's weird. Just before its release at the end of 1987, Prince pulled the album, making it an instant bootleg classic. He released Lovesexy in its place, not getting around to giving an official version of The Black Album, as it was called, until 1994. "Bob George" features slowed-down vocals that make Prince sound like a psychotic body-builder, lyrics that could have passed for lesser Geto Boyz, minimalist production with hot gee-tar, and cutting remarks about "that skinny motherfucker with the high voice" that should have given away the joke. Good luck finding a video for this one.
4. Eric B. & Rakim, "Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness)." Sometimes it's hard to decide what year a song belongs in … where do you stick The Black Album, for instance? In this case, the tough decision is to decide who the artist is. Eric B. & Rakim did the original "Paid in Full," but they are reported to have hated this seven-minute mad version created by Coldcut. Settle in, because this one takes awhile to tell. Eric B. & Rakim were among the greatest artists of the old-school rap era. Rakim is honored to this day as arguably the most influential rapper ever. The Paid in Full album was named the greatest hip-hop album of all time a couple of years ago by MTV. Which is to say, it's impossible to overstate the importance of this album. Meanwhile, an Israeli singer named Ofra Haza had become a surprise favorite amongst European club fans. Her music didn't clearly fit into any category with obvious connections to club music, as is evidenced by this All-Music Guide description of one of her early albums. "Inspired by the ancient melodies taught to her by her mother, in 1985 Haza recorded Yemenite Songs, which featured traditional instruments as well as lyrics drawn from the 16th century poetry of Shalom Shabazi; not only a major hit at home, the album was also a worldbeat smash in England as well." One of her songs, "Im Nin' Alu," did sound like worldbeat, and it was a big hit across the globe (it, also, has lyrics by Shalom Shabazi). Here the chronology gets confusing … "Im Nin' Alu" was a hit in 1988, but she had recorded an earlier version for the Yemenite Songs album. Whatever … among the people who knew of Haza's song were a couple of English club DJs who went by the name of Coldcut. Like all good remix artists, they sampled a wide variety of material in search of the perfect sound. In this particular case, those sounds included "Paid in Full" … and "Im Nin' Alu." Meanwhile, Eric B. had done some on-target sampling of his own in the original, in particular the bass line from a Dennis Edwards track, "Don't Look Any Further." So, what do we have? Bass from a Motown track, excellent work by Eric B. & Rakim, an Israeli singer, two English DJs, and … a track so magnificent it fulfills every promise of the first sample on the track: "This is a journey into sound." A journey that takes in the world and forces you to shake your booty.
5. The Bangles, "A Hazy Shade of Winter." So far, we've had Marianne Faithfull covering Leadbelly and Ofra Haza sampled into Eric B. & Rakim. So why be surprised by this one? The Bangles had impressed Prince, who wrote "Manic Monday" for them … this is all connected somehow. Anyway, Marianne had Leadbelly and Coldcut had Ofra Haza … the Bangles had Simon & Garfunkel. I swear, you can't make this stuff up! Of course this recording was for a Robert Downey drug movie.
6. Roy Orbison and k.d. lang, "Crying." Now here is an influence that makes perfect sense. It's a rare singer that can take on a Roy Orbison ballad, much less one who can pull off a duet with the Man. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you k.d. lang. Now, k.d. had a rather intimate relationship with irony in her early career … she's always been capable of belting out the big ones, but especially in her country years, there was more than a little tongue in cheek. "Crying" may be a great piece of acting, but I don't buy it … I think lang locks into the song and actually feels it. No one takes over a Roy Orbison song, but their duets were not just a master and his junior.
7. Pet Shop Boys, "Rent." Can't say that shuffle play has done particularly well with this segue. In any event, I'm not sorry this song popped up … it's the story of my life, and my wife hates it when I play it. (For those who don't know me, I'm the singer in this one, not the one being sung too … that would be my wife.) I'm just surprised it took until 1987 for someone to crystallize the concept of romance down to this: "I love you, you pay my rent." For all of my posturing about which artists and songs best reflect "my hopes and dreams," the truth is, there are very few songs that get me down as accurately as this one.
8. Bruce Springsteen, "Tougher Than the Rest." Bruce is still my favorite, though. Tunnel of Love was his last truly great album, and that was 20 years ago. It's easy to forget … his concerts remain inspirational, and he's made much more than an album's worth of good music over the last twenty years … plus, who cares about albums in the 21st century, anyway? Nonetheless, even someone as great as Bruce Springsteen peaked before he turned 40. The video for this song is fascinating in a plane-crash kind of way. First, the video itself is a mess … a song about a couple of lonesome potential lovers circling each other with fear and anticipation, the video of the song itself is fine, but it's interspersed with shots of typical Bruce concert hijinks that are jarring in the context of the song. Then there's the OTHER inserts, of various loving couples … it's very sweet and nicely diverse, but it's not really that happy of a song. But what REALLY makes the video interesting is the interplay between Bruce and Patti … lots of long loving looks from Patti, which is no big deal until you remember that Bruce was still married to Julianne at the time. Not that you couldn't imagine a certain level of unhappiness in Bruce's love life after listening to Tunnel of Love.
9. Michael Jackson, "The Way You Make Me Feel." Can't have Prince without Michael, at least not in the 80s. Is it just me, or have the events of the past 20 years resulted in a lack of appreciation for the greatness of Michael Jackson back in the day? Bad was no Thriller in terms of sales, but then, Tunnel of Love was no Born in the U.S.A. and people didn't hold that against Bruce. There are a lot of terrific songs on Bad, including this one, but there are also the kind of hints that in retrospect seem more than hints ... as Christgau wrote at the time, "[T]he more knowable he gets, the more fucked up he seems. This is a record that damn near wrecks perfectly good dancin' and singin' with subtext."
10. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, "Light of Day." I'm gonna have to quote Christgau again, because his line about Joan Jett is one of his best ever. After giving her then-latest release a B+ for the fifth straight album, he wrote "not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea." (He finally broke down and gave her an A for her greatest hits compilation in '97.) If you haven't already watched the video at the top of this post, now's the time … you can watch two great populists having a real good time together. Also recommended for fans of hot-shit guitar playing.