BEST SINGLES : Singling Out the Best Pop Singles in a Singular Year

It’s normally easy to put together a list of the year’s 10 best singles: Just think of what songs you’d most like to hear on a jukebox.

Under that system, the 1988 list for me would start with two records by the Pet Shop Boys, the stylish English duo that combines a sly pop imagination with a dose of ABBA-like instincts for seductive melodic hooks. Both “Always on My Mind” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This” were near-perfect exercises that celebrate the vitality and charm of pop.

But the jukebox system doesn’t work for 1988.

The last 12 months were distinguished by a series of unusually thoughtful or sensitive works--records that may not have had the immediate or universal jukebox snap of the Pet Shop Boys or dozens of other pure pop releases, but which reflected a seriousness of theme that made them ultimately even more affecting.


No record summarized that purposefulness and craft more than Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”

As in the past, eligibility was limited to records that appeared at least once during 1988 on Billboard magazine’s weekly list of the nation’s best sellers. The rule is to keep the list focused on records that reached the pop mainstream.

My choices for the year’s best singles:

1--Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (Elektra)--None of 1988’s many distinguished records offered a more distinctive or original vision than this masterful, folk-accented chronicle of a woman--trapped in a poverty cycle--struggling with obligations and fantasies.


2--Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (Epic)--The socially conscious song (by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard) is a strong vehicle, but the most commanding element here is Jackson’s remarkably impassioned, gospel-edged vocal.

3--U2’s “Desire” (Island)--Like “Mirror,” this record--built around an urgent, Bo Diddley beat--suggests change begins in the individual. It’s a snarling look at the intoxicating lure of ambition and power.

4--Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Geffen)--This may be as tender and affecting a hard-rock ballad (about innocence and love) as any band has given us in the ‘80s.

5--Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up” (Columbia)--Despite the song’s comforting country melody, “One Step Up” is one of the most naked and finely detailed hits ever written about the breakup of a marriage. Among the chilling lines:


It’s the same thing night on night

Who’s wrong baby, who’s right

Another fight and I slam the door

Another battle in our little war


When I look at myself, I don’t see

The man I wanted to be.

6--Prince’s “Alphabet Street” (Paisley Park)--A splendid folky-funk exercise that mixes spiritual doctrine in a witty dance-floor environment.

7--Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind” (EMI-America)--You can’t make a much better pure pop record than this combination of country sentimentality and hyperactive pulse.


8--Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (EMI-America)--Dusty Springfield’s seductive guest vocal helps bring alive a classic mix of downbeat sentiment and upbeat music.

9--D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (Jive)--An irresistible mix of rap bravado, traditional teen Angst and Coasters humor.

10--Fairground Attraction’s “Perfect” (RCA)--While just one of a dozen possibilities, this disarming, loping tale of romantic declaration gets the final spot on the list because I’m hooked on the way lead singer Eddi Reader finds a way to rhyme perfect and worth it.

THE SINGLES FILE: Colleagues Steve Hochman and Don Waller also had “Fast Car” on top of their 10-best list, but five other Times contributors voted for other records.


Their lists: Dennis Hunt

1. Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid.”

2. Elton John’s “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That.”

3--Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.”


4--Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild, Wild West”

5--Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative”

6--Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.”

7--Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams.”


8--Julia Fordham’s “Happy Ever After.”

9--"Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

10--INXS’ “New Sensation.”

Patrick Goldstein


1--Eric B & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.”

2--Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.”

3--LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali.”

4--"Parents Just Don’t Understand,”


5--Depeche Mode’s “Route 66 / Behind the Wheel.”

6--EU’s “Da Butt.”

7--Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West.”

8--"Alphabet Street.”


9--Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek a Boo.”

10--Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.”

Paul Grein

1--"Man in the Mirror.”


2--Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

3--"What Have I Done to Deserve This.”

4--"Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

5--Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy.”


6--Phil Collins’ “Groovy Kind of Love.”

7--Brenda Russell’s “Piano in the Dark.”

8--Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day.”

9-- “My Prerogative.”


10--Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting for a Star to Fall.”

Steve Hochman

1--"Fast Car.”

2--Midnight Oil’s “The Dead Heart.”


3--Talking Heads’ "(Nothing But) Flowers.”

4--Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.”

5--John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning.”

6--House of Freaks’ “40 Years.”


7--"Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

8--"Love and Mercy”

9--Paul Kelly’s “Dumb Things.”

10--Michelle Shocked’s “Anchorage.”


Connie Johnson

1--Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.”

2--Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got.”

3--Take 6’s “Spread Love.”


4--"Man in the Mirror.”

5--Was (Not Was)'s “Spy in the House of Love.”

6--"Fast Car.”

7--Ice-T’s “I’m Your Pusher.”


8--Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever.”

9--Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya’ Like Me Now.”

10--George Michael’s “Father Figure.”

Don Waller


1--"Fast Car.”

2--The Reivers’ “In Your Eyes.”

3--Hothouse Flowers’ “Don’t Go.”

4--"Da Butt.”


5--Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield.”

6--The Godfathers’ “Birth, School, Work, Death.”

7--Stetsasonic’s “All That Jazz.”

8--Guns N’ Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone.”


9--Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

10--Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You.”

Chris Willman

1--"(Nothing but) Flowers.”



3--Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care.”

4--Amy Grant’s “Lead Me On.”

5--Reckless Sleepers’ “If We Never Meet Again.”


6--10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here?.”

7--Crowded House’s “Into Temptation.”

8--"Love and Mercy.”

9--U2’s “Angel of Harlem.”


10--"Dumb Things.”

LIVE ACTION: Former Byrds Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman will team up for shows Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Friday at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura. . . . Ireland’s Hothouse Flowers will be at the Coach House on Jan. 17. . . . Johnette Napolitano and Bob Forrest will be at McCabe’s on Jan. 20, while Joe Ely headlines Bogart’s on Jan. 20 and the Palomino on Jan. 21.