How bad a year has it been for pop singles?
Here's a clue: Three of the four most engaging hit singles so far in 1987 are leftovers from albums released in 1986: Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and Lyle Lovett's "God Will."
Another sign of how uninspiring it has been so far this year: Three Bruce Willis singles made the Billboard magazine Top 100 sales chart.
But you can't blame all the woes on one man--though it's tempting. How sad that Top 40 radio programmers, in their lust for ratings, don't have more respect for pop history than to allow themselves to be seduced by Willis' "Moonlighting" celebrity into playing his hapless remakes of such classics as "Respect Yourself" and "Under the Boardwalk."
The real villain in the pop marketplace these days, however, is the quiet return of disco.
Disco got a bad name in the late '70s because of the anonymous, assembly-line tone of the music during the "Saturday Night Fever" saturation. Rock disc jockeys, picking up on a growing backlash, launched an aggressive, self-serving "Death to Disco" campaign.
In their zeal, the jocks and jockettes branded anything with even a trace of dance-floor sensibility as disco and therefore alien to rock. This meant that lots of excellent records--many of them by English producers and artists who mixed their new-wave instincts with the dance vitality--became outcasts.
This failure by rock stations to play what turned out to be some of the most interesting music of the early '80s left the door open for a station such as KPWR in Los Angeles to design a format around the dance-oriented style. Unfortunately, it was a trap.
Even at its height, the rock-disco synthesis (embracing everyone from Donna Summer and Grace Jones to Pete Shelley and Heaven 17) only produced a dozen or so (at best) noteworthy singles a month, far too few to feed a station's need for 24 hours a day of dance music.
Still, the novelty of the format was enough to make KPWR's experiment inviting for a while--and the ensuing high ratings were a signal to record companies to flood the market again with more dance-oriented tunes. Most of that music, however, has been in the same faceless, formula-conscious vein that gave disco a bad name a decade ago. The parade of offenders includes Expose, Company B, Stacey Q, Mel & Kim, Jody Watley, Lisa Lisa, Georgio and Cover Girls.
Here's my list of the best singles so far in 1987. As in past years, only singles that made Billboard magazines's Top 100 pop, soul or country charts at least once during the past six months were eligible.
1. Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" (Geffen)--This duet with Kate Bush from Gabriel's highly acclaimed 1986 album, "So," is one of the most graceful and sophisticated protest songs of the modern pop era. Though designed as a dialogue between a supportive wife and a husband who has lost self-esteem after losing his job, the song is also a broader reflection on a social system that uses rather than cares for its citizens.
2. U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (Island)--The only single from a 1987 album among the first four records on today's ranking, U2's gripping ballad is, like "Don't Give Up," further evidence of the maturity of rock. Songs of faith are usually expressions of unquestioning devotion, but this Irish band, led by singer and lyricist Bono Hewson, deals with questions of purpose and faith from the perspective of someone who acknowledges his own uncertainties.
3. Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" (Warner Bros.)--The fact that Simon's "Graceland" won a Grammy for best album and sold more than 3 million copies without any of the songs getting enough air play to break into the Top 10 of the singles chart shows just how irrelevant the Top 10 has become. This tune is an exquisite commentary on the gap between technology and human relations ("These are the days of miracle and wonder. . .").
4. Lyle Lovett's "God Will" (MCA/Curb)--This immensely promising country-oriented songwriter from Texas has written a cheating song with enough cleverness and bite for ol' Hank Sr. to have appreciated.
5. L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" (Def Jam)--The budding superstar of rap serves us his resume.
6. Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" (Paisley Park)--This sermon about AIDS, crime and drugs seemed too obvious in its topicality when released in April, but the record's quiet, insistent tone has becoming increasingly effective since then.
7. Fleetwood Mac's "Big Love" (Warner Bros.)--The rhythmic adventurousness of "Tusk" meets the smoothness of "Rumours" in this eerie tale of romantic deceit.
8. Randy Travis' "Forever and Ever, Amen" (Warner Bros.)--Travis may still sound too much like Haggard and Frizzell, but he's finding some terrific country songs, including this pledge of devotion written by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet.