The Least Worthy Number One Hits of the '80s

As we all know, just because a song reaches the top of the Billboard pop charts does not ensure that it's a great - or even a good - song. After all, the pop music market can be fickle, and top hits' general dependence on popularity automatically makes song quality an afterthought. Therefore, it's fairly easy to come up with a lengthy list of '80s No. 1 hits that are questionable if not cringe-inducing. Here's a short list - in chronological order - of the most offensive violators in this category. Tell me these tunes had not already induced your gag reflex during the calendar year of their release. If not sooner.

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Christopher Cross - "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)"

Christopher Cross
Tom Gates/Archive Photos/Getty Images

This 1981 chart-topper is an appropriate place to start this list because it's a song that belongs on this dubious countdown in several ways. First, almost any song from a film soundtrack, especially one as saccharine and easy-listening-infested as this one, raises some major red flags as it climbs the charts. This is because of the watered-down, focus-group qualities such compositions generally take on in order to pursue a mass appeal. Cross' vapid lyrics and cloying vocal performance fit perfectly for a soft rock nugget but should never have reached the level of prominence that ordinarily befits a No. 1 pop tune. Of course, Billboard's pop charts only rarely represent the best that pop music has to offer, a fact proven here.

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Duran Duran - "The Reflex"

Duran Duran
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol

Sometimes a song can begin promisingly enough, benefiting from a strong verse before giving way to an utterly underwhelming chorus. That's definitely the core of what ruins this hit from summer 1984, but there are other circumstances that also cast a negative light on it, possibly unfairly. What I mean is that Duran Duran's catalog is otherwise so vibrant that by comparison this serviceable, now dated pop confection just doesn't measure up. Simon Le Bon does a fine job vocally, but there's simply just not much to work with in the rather impenetrable lyrical content and often mechanical musical qualities of this tune. The early-'80s new wave phenomenon of Duran Duran certainly deserved a No. 1 hit; it just shouldn't have been this one.

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Ray Parker, Jr. - "Ghostbusters"

Ray Parker, Jr.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Arista Records

I suppose I should stop picking on movie soundtrack hits, but in this case, I'm focusing far more on the limitations of novelty songs and how it's very much a mixed message when they generate real pop success. After all, this track is charming of its time, to be sure, and it properly matches the playful tone of the comic film it accompanies. The problem is that its musical value is beyond questionable, suffering from a slightness that even Parker, prone to some silliness anyway in his R&B stylings, has not rivaled previously. Such fleeting, insubstantial emblems of pop culture have their place, but I just wonder if that place should ever be at the top of the mainstream pop charts as one of the music's most popular and most heard tunes.

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Stevie Wonder - "I Just Called to Say I Love You"

Stevie Wonder
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Motown Records

OK, maybe the soundtrack thing is coincidence, but speaking of movies, who can forget Jack Black's memorable skewering (in ) of this gag-reflex-inducing profession of goody-goody romantic love. Let's just say I would hate to sample the collective taste of any couple or family who willingly used this '80s Stevie Wonder song in connection to their wedding, but I'll stop with the insults. The problem with sappy pop like this is that even though it claims so heartily to express real emotion and devotion, it's utterly unrealistic and stubbornly sunny view of romance actually lacks passion at its most vital. I never used to understand why this song always induced some sort of dread in me when I was a kid, but now I think I finally do.

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Starship - "We Built This City"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA/BMG Heritage

The third, nauseatingly pop manifestation of '60s psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane has long been an '80s stepchild, so I shouldn't pile on again here. But I'm going to because I have to. This 1985 chart-topper doesn't offend so much because it's an irredeemable piece of music but rather because it's so utterly disingenuous from its title to its deeply charitable lyrics in terms of the band's place on the music spectrum. Starship's newest lead singer, Mickey Thomas, had already proven himself to be a talented vocalist (listen to Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"), but when paired with Grace Slick and the group's strange blend of new wave, hard rock, and pop, the walls come tumbling down and leave "this city" in sonic ruins.

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Bob Seger - "Shakedown"

Bob Seger
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol/EMI

Back to the movies again, this time for Bob Seger's only single of the '80s that succumbed negatively to the decade's worst musical impulses. Not even fine singing from the Detroit rocker and singer-songwriter can save this heavily orchestrated track from sounding like throwaway material. Even knowing of this song's association with the film franchise doesn't explain how a piece in shambles like this could make it all the way to No. 1 when it retained none of Seger's strengths: strong storytelling, wistful emotion, and rugged wisdom. The tune's cinematic connection may explain the idiocy of the lyrical refrain "Shakedown, breakdown, you're busted," but that rationalization doesn't salvage the weak songwriting here.

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Billy Idol - "Mony Mony"

Billy Idol
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Chrysalis

This is probably one of the very few remakes or cover tunes that have found its way onto one of my song lists, but I don't make the exception with any shred of joy. Though Billy Idol had smoothly made the transition from convincing punk rock artist with Generation X to new wave artist when he went solo, all the way to mainstream arena rock/hard rock artist as the decade wore on, this selection of cover material makes no sense on any level. Released initially on Idol's 1981 EP Don't Stop, the song didn't reach the top of the charts until 1987 on the strength of a live version. For the life of me, I can't figure out how a song that probably never should have come to be in the first place could be covered so persistently and successfully.

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Rick Astley - "Never Gonna Give You Up"

Rick Astley
Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA/BMG Heritage

British singer Rick Astley never had much going for him to promote success during the MTV age. His Opie Cunningham look was stunningly square and certainly didn't match his soulful if grating vocal style. Nonetheless, the heavily orchestrated song was absolutely ubiquitous in 1988, but it really did much to bleach the pop music landscape at that time. Again, going to No. 1 has never been a guarantee of a song's quality on any level, but in this case, it's a real head-scratcher as to how this kind of music could get positive attention from a record label, much less break the local charts, even much less become an international hit. And on and on.

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Steve Winwood - "Roll With It"

Steve Winwood
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin Records

Winwood's generated some genuinely high-quality music back in 1986 and 1987, so the massive success of this track in 1988 left immediate scars on my slowly maturing musical sensibility. Once again, the mechanical nature of its sound and a seemingly synthetic removal of the soul from the arrangement serve as the primary culprits here, not necessarily Winwood's songwriting skills. The problem, however, is that it's impossible to pierce through the layers of '80s overproduction to pay attention to the lyrics or melody on anything but a superficial level. As a piece of final proof, my most vivid memory of this tune is hearing a bad cover band play it during Senior Week at the beach. Not a good memory and I was pretty drunk.

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Beach Boys - "Kokomo"

Beach Boys
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/WEA

The fact that a group of aging, former music legends chose to work closely with John Stamos on comeback music should have been enough to doom this (lack of) effort to permanent obscurity. However, there are more sinister forces at work here, including one of pop's all-time worst lyrical disasters (how could rhyming incessantly with Caribbean place names have ever sounded like a good idea?). Of course, Brian Wilson, the primary genius behind the Beach Boys' music when it was worth hearing, had long been dissociated from the band, among other things, but that fails to justify this paltry, sickening call to housewives and people who don't generally listen to music. So unluckily for us, all, exceptions were made in this case to forge a hit.