A bit of a change-of-pace for this entry. The focus will not be on one song, or a couple songs, but rather an entire chart.
This countdown was from Memorial Day weekend, 1988. In it, Casey counted down the top new artists of the 1980s. Which seems a little strange since there was a year-and-a-half left in the decade. But in the spring of 1988, Casey’s reign as host of AT40 was about to come to an end. I don’t think it would be announced until later in the summer, but by May Casey knew that he would be leaving as host of the show he created in 1971 because of a contract dispute. So I’m wondering if he chose to do this countdown as a way of beginning his good bye process.
Regardless of it’s origin, it was a fun countdown to listen to. Partially because I can’t remember ever hearing a countdown like it that went away from the weekly top 40 format, other than in the end-of-year countdowns.
But it also struck me as compelling because I tuned in just after it began and something jumped out as me as odd and kept me listening for the next couple hours, even as I ran errands and picked up kids from school.
Before we jump into the list, a note on methodology. Well, Casey never really explained the methodology but I gathered that this list of artists was made based on their performance on the Billboard singles chart. And it was limited to artists that charted for the first time in the 1980s. So, as Casey pointed out in the final half hour, no Bryan Adams, who charted in 1976 (!), and no Prince, the Police, John Cougar Mellencamp, or Pat Benatar, who all charted in 1979.
I turned the countdown on in the mid–30s. I believe the first artist I heard was The Jets at #36. Then came #35. Casey said this Irish band, after years of building a loyal fanbase on “college and alternative radio,” had blown up the previous year to become the biggest band in the world.
Obviously this was U2. And I thought it funny that the “biggest band in the world” was checking in at #35. In a way that makes sense, as they had only cracked the Top 40 once before 1987, and that was “Pride (In The Name of Love)” which peaked at 33. But as you will see, the two #1’s and #13 single they had in ’87 challenges what some bands that would come later in the countdown would have.
I knew some of the bands that charted higher would make me laugh, or in some cases react with outrage. So here are the rest of the artists from that countdown, with some commentary.
(By the way, worth noting that about an hour of the time I was listening to this countdown was while I was pulling the poison ivy or whatever vines off our trees. Although the steroids the Mrs. put me on have helped some, I’m still itchy as hell. Thanks for asking.)
34 Night Ranger.
Right away we have a “Really?” Night Ranger had a few hits, but were they really bigger than U2 in 1987? They did have six top 20 hits, but none that got past #5. For each act Casey had a little blurb about their success before playing one of their songs. The blurb for Night Ranger was Jack Blades saying that they had reached the point where they could put out an album and know it would sell a million copies and they would tour it for a year. Simpler times.
33 Belinda Carlisle
OK, she was pretty big. One of two artists who will appear both as a solo artists and as part of a group.
32 Lisa Lisa
I loved LL, but bigger than U2? Suspect.
Come on, man…
30 Howard Jones
I liked HoJo, but mercy.
29 Corey Hart
Not a one-hit wonder.
Belinda appears again. This seems low for one of the most influential bands of the decade.
27 Bon Jovi
New Jersey came out in the fall of 1988. They would be much higher had this list been done at the proper end of the decade. Speaking of, I’ve been dabbling with my Best of the Decade list for months. It’s time to get serious about it.
26 Pet Shop Boys
I forget that they weren’t just an arty band, but had four top 10 hits after their #1 smash “West End Girls,” the only one I really liked.
The kid is hot tonight!
24 Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
When you have one of the biggest songs of the decade, you can ride it a long way. Had only two other top ten songs with a handful that barely dented the back half of the chart.
Say what now? I think I owned their debut album but I only remember two songs. But, goddamn, they had a great run. The four singles off their debut charted 5–5–7–1. Then the singles off their second album, which was released in 1989 after this list, went 8–10–9–17. I had no idea. Respect.
22 Tears for Fears
A vote for good music, this. It helps to have your first three singles go 1–1–3.
21 Thompson Twins
Another that seems high. Four top 11 songs, but none higher than #3. I’d push them down the list.
20 George Michael
The other artist to chart twice. Faith was in the midst of its run, having already produced two #1’s, with three more to come. Do this list later in the year and George is probably #2 on the whole damn thing.
19 Human League
Again, one massive hit and a few minor ones add up.
18 Billy Idol
You will all be pleased to hear that Casey played the live version of “Mony Mony” to represent Billy’s work.
Two huge hits, including the biggest song of 1987, and you push up against the top 15. Still seems a little high given their overall output.
16 Miami Sound Machine
This one kind of amazed me. Casey pointed out they were one of the biggest selling acts in the world before they began singing in English and charting. I don’t think that had anything to do with this placement, though. Looking at their output, this ranking makes no sense. They had a steady run of 10–8–5–25–5–36–6 before this countdown. But that really doesn’t seem to merit #16 on the list.
15 Laura Brannigan
“Glory-Gloriaaaaaaaaa!” But, again, this kind of makes no sense. Three top ten hits and two other top 20’s. I’m starting to think Casey’s staff was just making these up as they went.
“What about Laura Branigan, we haven’t included her yet?”
“Shit, I don’t want to have to re-do the whole thing. Just put her in the next spot.”
14 Irene Cara
The female Kenny Loggins. Two massive, timeless, title tracks from two different movies. Four other top 40 hits were the icing on the pie.
Funny how a group that got laughed at by many for their first video became one of the biggest acts of the decade. A vote for good music here.
12 Janet Jackson
Five top-five hits off one album is epic. Another artist who jumps higher if we go to the end of the decade and include the first two singles from Rhythm Nation.
11 Men at Work
Had two #1 singles – including one of the iconic songs of the decade – along with #3 and #6 hits. Two other minor hits. Then they disappeared. Perhaps the ultimate ‘80s band.
I only liked two Wham! songs (“Everything She Wants” and “Freedom”), so this seems high to me. Then I looked and saw they had three #1’s and two #3’s in their brief run. Since this was a singles-driven countdown, #10 makes sense.
9 Christopher Cross
Here’s the “Holy shit!” entry of the list. Dude was huge for about three years then completely disappeared.
It keeps happening, but here is the clearest case of how one blockbuster song followed by a series of singles that peppered the top ten can elevate a band. “Eye of the Tiger” is one of the biggest songs of the decade. The rest of their songs, most with second lead singer Jimi Jamison, were big in the moment if largely forgettable. But “Tiger” was so big it really drags those five other top 20 hits a long way.
7 Cyndi Lauper
The breakout star of the summer of 1984 had a really good run through the late 80s. Eight top ten hits in under seven years is great work.
6 Culture Club
This seems high to me, too. But a #1, two #2’s, their first five singles all hit the top ten, followed by three that hit the top 20. I suppose that’s more impressive than Men at Work’s accomplishments.
5 Whitney Houston
For several artists Casey played little audio clips from interviews. Whitney in 1988 did not sound like the Whitney who would be a reality TV famous/infamous a decade-and-a-half later.
4 Duran Duran
For awhile they were bigger than the Beatles. At least in terms of sales; never in terms of influence or quality. Nine top tens and some of the most unforgettable videos of the decade made them iconic.
3 Air Supply
These wankers had a shitload of terrible songs that people bought the fuck out of. If I ever do my breakdown of the best weekly Top 10’s of the decade, they will always be the element that drags a week down.
2 Huey Lewis & the News
God damn, Huey! 1982–1989: #7, #36, #41, #8, #6, #6, #6, #18, #1, #1, #3, #1, #9, #6, #3, #25.
Was there any doubt?