Alternative to What? is a recurring feature on 45s and 40s in which Ryan Gibbs explores and rates every number one single on Billboard magazine’s Alternative Songs chart.
Foreword: Before we go into this year’s entries, I’d like to note that the day after I published my entry of this series, Consequence of Sound published a long feature which ranked every number one on the Alternative Songs chart from worst to best. It was a total coincidence–I pitched this feature to our editor a few weeks before in advance of the launch of 45s and 40s and CoS’ feature probably had a long gestation due to the amount writers that worked on it. However, while my series and that feature have the same subject, the approaches are a little different. I’m rating these songs on a 10 scale, but I’m not necessarily ranking them in order and I’m definitely not doing the whole of the chart all at once. As for my opinions on the rankings? I appreciate that they had some recent stuff fairly high, but I definitely believe that The Lumineers’ indie-folk-by-numbers “Ho Hey” is better than either of XTC’s number ones.
For the second column, we’re taking a look at the chart toppers for 1989, the chart’s first full year of existence and one that sees several veterans of the genre have their first number one hit. For most of them, it’s the first top 10 American chart entry they had ever had in their career. It’s also a better indicator of the state of alternative radio before grunge hit than the truncated list from 1988: mostly British, with most of the American representation coming from two bands from Athens, Georgia. The year 1989 is fairly terrific for this chart, with four all-time great songs all in a row and a fairly good showing from the rest of the entries as well.
Julian Cope – “Charlotte Anne”
Reached number one on January 21, 1989 || Number one for one week
Julian Cope is a specific kind of artist that this chart loved early in its existence and stopped appearing on the chart once grunge took hold; a former member of an influential band–normally the lead singer and usually British–with a well regarded solo career. In this case, Cope was the lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes, a band whose horn-heavy sound he mostly eschewed for his solo career. “Charlotte Anne” is a cool, ornate psychedelic pop song that utilizes Cope’s husky voice well. It’s a rather good lost gem from this era of alternative music to boot.
R.E.M. – “Stand”
Reached number on January 28, 1989 || Number one for two weeks
There are some R.E.M. fans who don’t like “Stand,” but I’m not one of them. The big hit off of their sixth album Green is an infections, inhumanly catchy piece of power pop. R.E.M. was pretty unbeatable as a singles act for most of their run, and this is the most “single”-y of all of their songs. The lyrics are relatively simple, but what takes it over the top is the killer melody and Peter Buck’s effects-heavy guitar solo. “Stand” is a goofy song, and the lyrics aren’t much, but the band wasn’t intending it to be a statement song as some of their other big hits were and, instead, was a tribute to hyper-catchy bubblegum and power pop tunes of the ’60s. The song was also a top 10 pop hit, and rightfully so.
Lou Reed – “Dirty Blvd”
Reached number one on February 11, 1989 || Number one for four weeks
“Dirty Blvd.” is a talk-sung story song that recalls Lou Reed’s best solo work. However, that’s also all it really does–it recalls the songs off Transformer or Berlin without matching them. I’m not as harsh on its parent album New York as some people are, but I feel that “Dirty Blvd.” isn’t one of its better moments. The lyrics are inconsistent; some are terrific (“Back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming/he’s found a book on magic in a garbage can/He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling/'”At the count of 3” he says, “I hope I can disappear”‘), others not as much (“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor/I’ll piss on ’em/that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says” uggggggh ). That matters with a song by a performer as poetic as Reed, where lyrics are the single most important part of the entire song. Reed’s delivery is all over the place, running from cool, detached narration to cruel nonchalance. That inconsistency is what drops “Dirty Blvd.” into the average range. The next year, Reed would reunited with former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale for Songs for Drella, a much better use for his great talents than “Dirty Blvd.”
The Replacements – “I’ll Be You”
Reached number one on March 11, 1989 || Number one for one week
The Replacements are one of those bands that were a bit “too late” for the Modern Rock Tracks chart. The chart’s late ‘80s establishment meant that the band’s most popular songs were a few years behind them when they released “I’ll Be You”. The song was also their sole Hot 100 entry. Die-hard fans of the Mats aren’t too kind to the Don’t Tell a Soul LP the song comes from–although it’s held in much higher regard than the two albums that came after it–but I think it gets a bad rap. Most of the songs are more polished than the band’s previously ragged sound, but Paul Westerberg is still a terrific frontman even if the lyrics to the song aren’t up to snuff (“left a rebel without a clue”? Very cliché). It’s a good song in a discography full of great ones, and that shouldn’t be a reason to ignore it.
Elvis Costello – “Veronica”
Reached number one on March 18, 1989 || Number one for two weeks
Here’s where the chart starts to great with number ones. Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” is the story of an elderly woman experiencing memory loss and deterioration–loosely based off of his own grandmother and the Alzheimer’s disease she had in the last few years of her life. The lyrics are a mix of fading memories and present day snapshots of the aging, ignored woman. Costello’s vocal delivery is fantastic and it’s a great power pop tune from a master of the genre. Of note, Costello co-wrote the song with Paul McCartney, who also provides bass guitar and backing vocals. It was Costello’s biggest pop hit in America to boot.
XTC – “The Mayor of Simpleton”
Reached number one on April 1, 1989 || Number one for five weeks
One of the greatest singles bands of the entire 1980s exits the decade gracefully with the wonderful “The Mayor of Simpleton.” The lyrics are sweet declaration of unconditional love, put together in the wordy, intricate style of singer Andy Partridge. Oranges and Lemons was the first album in ages that the band promoted with television appearances. The band had two singer/songwriters and it was noticeable that the single they performed on most shows was Colin Moulding’s equally fantastic “King for a Day” and not Partridge’s “Mayor of Simpleton,” a major hit for the group that was their only entry onto the Hot 100 (notice a trend with some of these number ones?). That was likely to do with Partridge’s discomfort in performing in front of an audience. The song didn’t really need the television appearances to become a hit, though, and its quirky video did the job just fine as a promotional tool. “The Mayor of Simpleton” is a tremendous pop song from a band that was masters at making them.
The Cure – “Fascination Street”
Reached number one on May 6, 1989 || Number one for seven weeks
The Cure’s mighty Disintegration is considered to be one of the best albums of 1989 and the group’s artistic triumph. Coming off significant anticipation and a rise in popularity for moody, gothic rock, the first single–in America, at least–“Fascination Street” nearly missed the top 40 of the pop chart. It’s a mood-setting song that encapsulates the album’s tone well, and the song is impressive instrumentally with each member of the band getting a time to shine. The song is also an example of something I’ll come back to once 1991 comes around: a “base-builder” single. These were usually the first single off the album and targeted to alternative and college radio in order to build interest in the album before the label launched a giant pop hit. I’m not entirely sure if this is why “Fascination Street” was selected for the American market instead of “Lullaby,” the first single everywhere else, but it did prove a great jumping off point for their all-time classic “Lovesong”–which didn’t make number one this chart!
Love and Rockets – “So Alive”
Reached number one on June 24, 1989 || Number one for two weeks
Love and Rockets are not an example of the “former-member-of-an-influential-band” category that frequently appears on this chart, but they’re certainly related to that. The band consisted of three-quarters of the seminal gothic-rock band Bauhaus and were successfully able to cultivate a sound and career that was completely distinct and independent from their former band. “So Alive” is a shimmering piece of cool and calm dance-rock that is influenced more by glam rock–and especially T. Rex–than their gothic past. It was also a major pop hit, reaching as high as number three on the Hot 100 in a year that saw some of the biggest crossovers yet for alternative music. This is also the last in a consecutive stretch of four songs that I gave perfect 10 scores. I never inasmuch give two 10s in a row for the rest of this feature. I’m not saying that these are the best songs to ever reach number one, but they’re the best collection of them all in a row.
Public Image Ltd. – “Disappointed”
Reached number one on July 29, 1989 || Number one for one week
No, I’m not disappointed by “Disappointed.” It’s a fine enough song for the later era of Public Image Ltd. (PiL) where they traded in the weird climes of “Poptones” and “Flowers of Romance” for a dancier, upbeat sound–on their singles, anyway. Mind you, this is still a band led by John Lydon so there’s still plenty of sneer to be found. The real MVP of “Disappointed” is the late John McGeogh, a former member of Siouxsie and the Banshees and one of the greatest post-punk guitarists of all time. His chiming, intricate playing often pulls the spotlight off of Lydon and his lyrics and the song’s middle section is a great example of his use of textures and layering.
Some PiL fans aren’t very kind to their later works, but I quite like them, particularly because of tracks like “Dissapointed” that highlight the playing of McGeogh and the rest of the members–for my money, the best group of musicians that Lydon has ever played with, save for PiL’s original lineup.
The B-52’s – “Channel Z”
Reached number one on August 5, 1989 || Number one for three weeks
In 1989, The B-52’s returned from a hiatus resulting from the death of their guitarist Ricky Wilson. Wilson died from AIDS in 1985. Produced at different intervals by Don Was and Nile Rodgers, Cosmic Thing was the perfect comeback for the band, turning them from college and new wave favorites into a pop force. Yet, can you believe than neither “Love Shack” nor “Roam” were the first single off The B-52’s great comeback album Cosmic Thing? Instead, it was “Channel Z” a terrific late-era new-wave number that holds up quite well to those giant hits. The song is also a bit more “alternative” than those more overtly pop songs. It also feels a little more dated, especially with that twinkle effect on the keyboard. That’s unusual for The B-52’s considering the timeless feel of all of their music. It’s still a terrific piece of late ‘80s alternative music, especially the harmonies from Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson.
Hoodoo Gurus – “Come Anytime”
Reached number one on August 26, 1989 || Number one for three weeks
“Come Anytime” is one of those songs that grows on you each time you listen to it. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but then the hookiness of the thing gets at you. The only number one for journeyman-Australian-act Hoodoo Gurus, this is the kind of solid, unassuming song that wouldn’t have had a chance to make number one on this chart come 1994.
The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
Reached number one on September 16, 1989 || Number one for four weeks
This song was omnipresent on both alternative and top 40 stations well into the mid-90s. For a time, I developed a distaste for “Love Shack,” but with a few decades removed from its ubiquity, I’m able to take it for what it is: a truly unique party song from one of the very best bands of its era. In their heyday, The B-52’s were the best live rock & roll band in America, and they brought much the atmosphere that made them a formidable concert act into the studio for this song. All three singers knock their performances out of the park.
Tears for Fears – “Sowing the Seeds of Love”
Reached number one on October 14, 1989 || Number one for one week
Tears for Fears were practically guaranteed a worldwide hit with the first single from their years-in-the-making following to 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair. Kudos, I guess, for it being a highly-political six-minute Sgt. Pepper pastiche. “Sowing the Seeds of Love” piles on one late-period Beatles cliché after another and it never once justifies its length or multiple distinct sections. The single edit is a better listen and one of many justifications for such things existing. The edit is a very solid song, and the band actually pulls off the whole “I Am the Walrus” shtick fairly well. Yet, there’s nothing about it that brings it over the hump and into greatness the way that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “Head Over Heels” do. Overall, a good effort bogged down by its overt stylistic tributes.
Camper van Beethoven – “Pictures of Matchstick Men”
Reached number one on October 21, 1989 || Number one for three weeks
The only modern rock entry for college rock staples Camper Van Beethoven was a big one, going all the way to the top spot. The song is a cover of a 1968 psychedelic hit by Status Quo and features a couple of noteworthy changes to the original–a change in lyric to the bridge, an echo effect added to the second verse and, most notably, the guitar line transferred to violin. All of these changes work and the cover proves to be an equal to the original. The violin hook is really memorable and David Lowery’s nasal vocal works for the lyric. Camper Van Beethoven would split shortly after the release of the single, with Lowery finding success in the ’90s as the lead of the group Cracker.
Ian McCulloch – “Proud to Fall”
Reached number one on November 11, 1989 || Number one for four weeks
Here’s another example of that “solo-hit-from-the-lead-singer-of-an-influential-band” phenomenon that I mentioned earlier, in the form of a song from Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch. McCulloch’s solo career seems to get the footnote treatment in the history of the Bunnymen, although certainly not as much as the album that they made without him. McCulloch’s “Proud to Fall” sounds–shock–like Echo & The Bunnymen. The drums, courtesy of The Cure’s Boris Williams, are big, the guitars chiming and McCulloch’s stately vocals are front and center. However, it doesn’t grab me the way real Bunnymen songs do and it’s missing a lot of things that made that band great–especially Will Sergeant’s guitar playing. Echo & The Bunnymen would get back together in 1996, to the benefit of both parties.
Kate Bush – “Love and Anger”
Reached number one on December 9, 1989 || Number one for three weeks
The amazing Kate Bush scored her only number one of this chart with “Love and Anger,” the first single from her much anticipated The Sensual World album. The song plays on Bush’s great lyrics and delivery and features guitarwork from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who played a role in discovering her in the mid ’70s. The long gestation period between albums after Hounds of Love meant that Bush didn’t have many chances to have other hits on this chart–releasing just one more album, 1993’s The Red Shoes, before disappearing for more than a decade–but her only chart topper is a great one.
The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Blues from a Gun”
Reached number one on December 30, 1989 || Number one for three weeks
The first number one for The Jesus and Mary Chain and, coincidentally, the number one single on the chart on the day I was born. The song comes from Automatic, an album recorded by central members Jim and William Reid alone with programmed bass and drums. The song is largely sung by guitarist William Reid as opposed to Jim, the band’s usual singer which is probably why it’s a little less striking than the album’s better remember second single “Head On.” “Blues from a Gun” succeeds largely from its own loudness, that’s not a knock on the song either–after all, one of the band’s signatures was their unique use of overwhelming volume. It’s a perfectly fine song, but one that doesn’t stick out much as a number one.
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 as opposed to nothing). Below are quick ratings of every song that made the top five on this chart in 1988, but did not manage to take the top spot:
10,000 Maniacs – “Trouble Me” (#3): 7/10
Adrian Belew – “Oh Daddy” (#5): 5/10
The Alarm – “Sold Me Down the River” (#3): 6/10
Bob Mould – “See a Little Light” (#4): 10/10
Big Audio Dynamite – “James Brown” (#2):5/10
The Cowboy Junkies – “Sweet Jane” (#5): 7/10
The Call – “Let the Day Begin” (#5): 8/10
The Cult – “Fire Woman” (#2): 8/10
The Cure – “Lovesong“: (#2): 10/10
The Creatures – “Standing There” (#4): 8/10
Deborah Harry – “I Want That Man” (#2): 3/10
Depeche Mode – “Personal Jesus” (#3): 10/10
Elvis Costello – “This Town” (#4): 6/10
Fine Young Cannibals – “Good Thing” (#2):7/10
Fine Young Cannibals – “She Drives Me Crazy” (#5): 5/10
Joe Jackson – “Nineteen Forever” (#4): 2/10
Lenny Kravitz – “Let Love Rule” (#5): 5/10
Midge Ure – “Dear God” (#4): 2/10
The Mighty Lemon Drops – “Into the Heart of Love” (#5): 4/10
Morrissey – “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” (#3): 10/10
New Order – “Fine Time” (#3): 8/10
The Ocean Blue – “Between Nothing and Something” (#2): 7/10
Pixies – “Here Comes Your Man“: 10/10
Pixies – “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (#5): 9/10
Ramones – “Pet Sematary” (#4): 5/10
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – “Madonna of the Wasps” (#2): 6/10
The Smithereens – “A Girl Like You” (#3): 9/10
The Sugarcubes – “Regina” (#2): 5/10
Tin Machine – “Under the God” (#4): 5/10
Violent Femmes – “Nightmares” (#4): 5/10
The Waterboys – “Fisherman’s Blues” (#3): 9/10
Wire – “Eardrum Buzz” (#2): 9/10
Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers – “Look Who’s Dancing” (#2): 4/10