On September 10, 1988, Billboard magazine debuted its Modern Rock Tracks chart, which was devoted to a burgeoning radio format and loose genre that had been birthed earlier in the decade.
I’m going to leave most of the history of this chart to Chris Molanphy, who wrote a terrific article a few years ago for Pitchfork on the subject. The short of it: Throughout the next several decades, the chart saw significant changes in both the kinds of music that appeared on it, all the while still technically collecting the same loose “genre.” The list also received a name change in 2009 to “Alternative Songs,” which I suppose is a little less jargon but still means nothing. To wit; “alternative” to what, at this point?
In this feature–which I am calling “Alternative to What?” and will be a recurring one at 45s and 40s–I will review every single number one hit this chart has had. If I finish this before the end of 2016 (or 2017), I will simply hold off on reviewing the number ones for that year at the end of it, and will continue to review the number ones on a yearly basis after that. I am not the first person to have the idea to review all the number ones a chart: Most notably, Tom Ewing has been writing about the number ones on the UK Singles Chart on his Freaky Trigger website since 2003 (that chart goes back to 1953; as of this writing, he is in the middle of 2001). Sally O’Rourke had been reviewing the number ones of the Billboard Hot 100 on her No Hard Chords blog, but unfortunately stopped writing about it sometime in 2014, while the list remained in the middle of the 1960s. Just a few days ago, Thomas Inskeep began a project of reviewing all of the number ones on the Billboard Hot Country Songs from the 1980s at To All The Songs I’ve Loved Before.
Alternative to What? is influenced by each of those blogs, although I won’t be doing individual, long entries for each and every song like they do. After all, there’s only so much one can write about Papa Roach in 2016.
For the first entry, we’ll be looking at the chart’s first year, 1988. Since the chart premiered in September, there are just five songs we will be looking at.
These early charts capture how this chart was before Nirvana hit: a lot different “alternative” genres, but mostly a focusing on British guitar bands from the end of new wave and post-punk, the elders of the American alternative scene and quirky singer-songwriters who didn’t really fit on any other chart.
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Peek-a-Boo”
Reached number one on September 10, 1988. || Number one for two weeks (non-consecutive)
The Banshees were one of alternative’s progenitors, so it’s unsurprising that they topped the inaugural Modern Rock chart. “Peek-A-Boo” is driven by Siouxsie Sioux’s fantastic, fractured vocal performance that comes out of every which way of your speaker. This largely sample-based dance song is a little different from the band’s usual guitar driven sound, but still distinctively a Siouxsie and the Banshees song. It’s also a good example of the variety of content that did well on this chart early in its life. It wasn’t just guitar-driven rock (although that made up a lot of it), but also dance music, folky singer-songwriters, world music–essentially anything that was a little left-of-center of the regular top 40. A good start to this chart.
Big Audio Dynamite – “Just Play Music!”
Reached number one on September 17, 1988 || Number one for one week
Big Audio Dynamite, the band formed by Mick Jones after he left the Clash, were nearing the end of their original incarnation when they topped the chart with “Just Play Music!.” The band was soon to transition to Big Audio Dynamite II–the roman numeral seemed to merely note the difference in personnel surrounding Jones as the two versions weren’t too different musically from one another.
“Just Play Music!” is a bit poppier and less guitar driven than some of BAD’s other singles, but it has much of their other sonic trademarks: a danceable rock track with hooks that are broken up by voice samples from old films or spoken work records. Yet, it’s not particularly memorable as a song, especially compared to “The Bottom Line” or “E=MC2” before it (or “The Globe” and “Rush” after it). BAD’s strengths were in hooky choruses and guitar-driven dance-rock and neither one of those are present on “Just Play Music!.” The early years of Modern Rock Tracks had a bunch of semi-forgotten, but great, number ones. This wasn’t one of them.
The Psychedelic Furs – “All That Money Wants”
Reached number one on October 1, 1988 || Number one for three weeks
I like The Psychedelic Furs just as much as the next ‘80s new wave geek, but I don’t think this one stands out as much as their other singles. The Furs seemed to be one of those bands for whom this chart came a little too late for. In fact, “All That Money Wants” was the obligatory new song off of their greatest hits album All of This and Nothing and pales in contrast to stuff like “The Ghost of You” and “Love My Way” that came before it. There are still a lot of likable aspects to this, but it doesn’t really catch the ear.
U2 – “Desire”
Reached number one on October 22, 1988 || Number one for five weeks
There are only a few bands who were huge on this chart when it started who can still get a single on the chart with ease in 2016: Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Depeche Mode being among them. U2, however, ranks above all of them, with the most entries onto the chart of any artist in its history, with 41. “Desire” was the big hit off of Rattle and Hum, an interstitial release that was the soundtrack to the deeply portentous documentary of the same name. “Desire” was also the first single to reach number one on both the Modern Rock Tracks chart and its older, sister chart Mainstream Rock Tracks (then called Album Rock) –and it wouldn’t be the last either.
“Desire” is a workmanlike take on American rock & roll from U2. As someone who prefers U2’s work before The Joshua Tree in comparison to the rest of their discography, I feel as though songs like “Desire” get in the way of all the things I like about the band’s emotional post-punk sound. The Edge can do a lot more with a guitar than what he does on “Desire”, and Bono’s vocal melody isn’t particularly memorable. This was a number three pop hit on top of its rock success, but it hasn’t stuck around the way hits from the albums surrounding it have. U2 would have better number ones on this chart than this one
R.E.M. – “Orange Crush”
Reached number one on November 26, 1988 || Number one for eight weeks
Another all-star of this chart, R.E.M. were the band that virtually invented this entire radio format, so it’s little surprise they had a number one on this chart as soon as possible. Unlike U2, I like pretty much everything R.E.M. has ever put out, and they were a fantastic singles act throughout their career (with a few exceptions). “Orange Crush” was the first single off Green, the band’s major label debut, and was issued largely to rock radio; “Stand” would be the record’s pop hit. The song captures R.E.M. at their most angular, with Michael Stipe’s oblique lyrics referencing the Agent Orange chemical infamous during the Vietnam War. “Orange Crush” isn’t my favorite of Green’s singles, but it’s a good start for the band on the format that they built.
Other hits of note:
Billboard’s website has an archive of the top 20 of every week of this chart (since the chart goes 40 positions, they’re unfortunately missing half of it, but I’ll gladly take it over nothing). Below are quick rating of every song that made the top five on this chart in 1988, but did not manage to take the top spot:
The Bangles, “In Your Room”: 7/10
Camouflage, “The Great Commandment” (#3): 6/10
Cocteau Twins – “Carolyn’s Fingers” (#2): 8/10
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – “What I Am” (#4): 6/10
The Escape Club – “Wild Wild West” (#3): 6/10
Jon Astley – “Put Love to the Test” (#3): 4/10
The Primitives – “Crash” (#3): 10/10
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “The Killing Jar” (#2): 8/10
U2 – “Angel of Harlem” (#3), 6/10
UB40 – “Breakfast in Bed” (#4): 2/10
The Waterboys, “Fisherman’s Blues” (#3): 9/10
Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers – “Tumblin’ Down” (#5): 5/10