1989 was an advent of change for popular music culture. Vinyl records were slowly being phased out of existence, outside of a DJing context. Cassette tapes had quickly usurped vinyl as the “go to” approach for convenience in music listening, but cassettes were in danger of being surpassed by the compact disc.
Launched in August of 1981, MTV completely changed how music reached listeners and viewers, producing an entire crop of artists who were grown in the music video medium. Hip-hop was ascending from cult stature to something far more important, while the “Second Summer of Love” spilled from English shores to clubs the world over. R&B had again mutated as it had earlier in the 1980’s, this time it morphed into something harder, sleeker, at times grittier, it was a formidable sound called “new jack swing.”
Through all of these changes 12 recording artists shined at the close of the 1980’s. Some of these individuals were established, trying to reignite interest in their work for a new generation. There were others who were trying to secure a legacy outside of their ‘80’s genesis and some were just getting started. The records these artists released varied in critical, commercial, and creative arenas, but each album furthered respective legacies.
Quality is what tied all these records together, making them the exception to the rule of mediocrity in the music of 1989. Exploring what made these records special will identify why they continue to inspire and attract new listeners 20 years later.
De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
(March 1989, Tommy Boy)
Hip-hop was still an unpredictable art form when a trio of Long Islander’s released their debut in 1989. 3 Feet High and Rising revealed that hip-hop wasn’t limited to braggadocio or partying, but addressed varying ideas like any other genre of music could. Handsomely compelling MCs, with one bad DJ: Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy (Dave Jolicouer), and Maseo (Vincent Mason) strikingly wove in elements of throwback soul and jazz, taking sampling to a new level. Cuts like “Eye Know” and “Me, Myself, and I” are now identified as living hip-hop archetypes, this type of conceptual approach in hip-hop hadn’t been done. De La Soul soon became figures for the forefront of the “socially conscious” hip-hop movement from this release onward.
Recent Work: The Grind Date (2004, Sanctuary)
Like a Prayer
(March 1989, Warner Bros.)
Not as creatively successful in its forward trajectory as True Blue (1986), from a singles standpoint Like a Prayer was a winner. The singles were solid pop constructs built on top of an already laid foundation of musical momentum. The rock/gospel explosiveness of the title track or the soul-lite treats of “Express Yourself” and “Cherish” demonstrated Madonna’s ear for musicality, songwriting, and her growing improvement as a singer. Like a Prayer did have its seductive moments outside of its released output; the Latin fueled “Spanish Eyes” was a highlight. It gave hope that Madonna would return to crafting albums that spun out singles and album tracks, which of course she did.
Recent Work: Hard Candy (2008, Warner Bros.)
Another Place and Time
(April 1989, Atlantic)
After spending the 1980’s flexing her artistic muscles, Donna Summer sought pure pop simplicity on her 14th album, Another Place and Time. Produced by S.A.W. (Stock, Aitken, & Waterman), the production trio behind the successes of Rick Astley, Dead or Alive, Bananarama, and Kylie Minogue. S.AW. placed Summer’s unmistakable presence in inescapable pop hooks and melodies where she brought deeper dimensions to the hits “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt,” regarded highly by Summer devotees and casuals alike.
Recent Work: Crayons (2008, Burgundy/Song BMG)
A Night to Remember
(May 1989, Epic)
Lauper’s third album ditched her image-led ditziness to embrace an inner songwriter that had tried to surface on her first and second albums. Without question, Lauper as a vocalist had been proven and with a steelier batch of songs to support it, her voice soared. The glorious rock epic “I Drove All Night” set her version of that song in stone, just as powerful was her hand at the sparkling romance of the title track. A Night to Remember was the stage Lauper used to be more than an ‘80’s flash in the pan, but rather one of the leading lights it produced.
Recent Work: Bring Ya to the Brink (2008, Epic)
Larger Than Life
(May 1989, MCA)
Watley’s sophomore set upped the ante started on her eponymous debut from 1987. Firmer and groovier in its execution, it set her own blueprint for R&B reinvention that carriedy her into the next two decades. Larger Than Life divided deftly between dance funk, and love songs while blowing open what was a burgeoning trend. Chaka Khan with Melle Mel (“I Feel For You,” '84), Rene & Angela with Kurtis Blow (“Save Your Love,” '85) were the first collisions of hip-hop and R&B, though Jody Watley added her take to this movement. Working alongside hip-hop titans Eric B. & Rakim on “Friends,” a tale of true friendship in the “me” decade, it became one of Watley’s biggest hits. Watley wasn’t just an urban diva, she was the urban diva and Larger Than Life evidenced this.
Recent Work: The Makeover (2006, Avitone)
(May 1989, Warner Bros.)
Serving as a bookend collection of sounds to a decade Prince helped define; Batman was also a tie-in soundtrack to Tim Burton’s smash hit film of the same name. Prince’s sexy, kooky Minneapolis attitude was on display on the searing flash of “Electric Chair” to the goof-funk of “Trust.” After several conceptually led albums, it was nice to hear Prince simply get loose. Prince coasted comfortably and Batman succeeded in being a Prince record that had all his fun tricks with none of the frills.
Recent Work: LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND (2009, NPG)
Swing Out Sister
(May 1989, Fontana)
Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell were anomalies in 1989. Inspired and sounding like the peerless lounge, jazz, and pop of the halcyon '60s era, they didn’t necessarily fit into the mainstream on either side of the Atlantic. Regardless, this British duo crafted an immaculate and stronger effort in their sophomore set Kaleidoscope World. Lyrical affirmations and moody portraits of love and life conflicts colored in sumptuous orchestral backdrops. With Drewery providing vocals and Connell arranging, this duo could do no wrong when it came to doing what they did best.
Recent Work: Beautiful Mess (2008/2009, Avex Trax)
Cuts Both Ways
(July 1989, Epic)
Gloria Estefan catapulted to fame with floorfillers like “Dr. Beat,” “Conga,” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” as a member of the Miami Sound Machine. They'd break ground by infusing authentic Latin rhythms and melodies with contemporary pop and dance music. Estefan herself flowed well with the ballads “Words Get in the Way,” “Can’t Stay Away From You,” and “Anything for You” all written by her. Stepping out exclusively on her own, with the Miami Sound Machine still behind her, Cuts Both Ways straddled the poles of adult contemporary and uptempo pop. Estefan’s songwriting featured prominently on the whole record, and Cuts Both Ways has become a fan favorite in the process with hits like “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Get on Your Feet.”
Recent Work: 90 Millas (2007, Burgundy/Song BMG)
Rhythm Nation 1814
(September 1989, A&M)
After the self-identified freedom of her third album, Control (1986), many didn’t know what avenue Jackson embark to next. She continued to make room to dance and celebrate, but did turn an eye to societal concerns with her fourth album. Working alongside constant producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Rhythm Nation was sculpted from the heated trends in black music. Its message focused stance didn't always cooperate, but when it did, as on the funky attack of “The Knowledge” or the breeziness of “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” this album cemented Jackson’s icon status. It can’t go without saying that those unconvinced of Jackson’s singing abilities were left speechless with “Miss You Much,” and “Someday Is Tonight.”
Recent Work: Discipline (2008, Island Def Jam)
Let Love Rule
(September 1989, Virgin)
Predating the retro cool of the 1990’s, Lenny Kravitz didn’t hide his love of Led Zepplin, The Beatles, and Sly and the Family Stone as Let Love Rule ran in the same vein as those acts. Kravitz did put his twist on his childhood heroes, as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. Passionate on the fuzzy vintage title track or oozing devil-may-care on “Mr. Cab Driver,” Kravitz’s music was clearly here to stay, but it took a few more records for him to internalize his love of past music heroe and find his own voice later.
Recent Movement: It Is Time for a Love Revolution (2008, Virgin)
(October 1989, PWL/Mushroom/Geffen)
Out of all the S.A.W. acts, Kylie Minogue went onto achieve massive recognition, barring America, globally rivaling only Madonna. With her second album Enjoy Yourself, Minogue dished the same doe-eyed froth that made her debut Kylie (1987) so catchy and possibly irritating to some. Enjoy Yourself was a weaker record than Kylie, its singles key to its appeal. The tarty “Never Too Late,” and sing-along shimmer of “Hand on Your Heart” found Mingoue with a pleasantly unique voice all her own. Thankfully, the only way to go was up and each following record built on the merely playful backbone of Enjoy Yourself’s singles.
Recent Work: X (2007/2008, Parlophone/Capitol)
(November 1989, BMG/Arista)
Ms. Stansfield didn't reach our shores until early 1990, she began her British reign in the winter of 1989. Probably the finest example of blue-eyed soul excellence since her American predecessor Teena Marie, Affection was modern and classic in its compositions and vocalizing. The mournful, shuffler of “All Around the World” became an instant anthem, coupled with the spiky “What Did I Do to You," and coy “You Can’t Deny It” sealed the deal for Stansfield. Affection placed Stansfield’s voice, beautiful and potent, within the pantheon of blue-eyed vocalists forever.
Recent Work: The Moment (2004, ZTT)
Music, true music, is forever timeless. It is not limited to ideas and concepts such as “old school” or “new school,” it is far more universal and pervading than that. Records like these reflect the current tastes in popular music at that particular period, however each artist present went into these albums with a specific goal. That goal was that the record would sound as fresh and engaging outside of its period of creation. All of these records have achieved this and each of the artists featured here continue to maintain a presence today, building on an already alloyed fanbase.
In 2009, we are again at such a crossroads of change in music, will this era produce acts and albums that will hold up? We’ll have to wait and see what time will reveal, in the meantime one can enjoy these classics until we know.
[Editor's Note: Written by Quentin Harrison (me) in the July 15th-21st, 2009 issue of The Dayton City Paper. Main art created by Brenda L. Mullins, art co-conceived by Ms. Mullins & Mr. Harrison. Special thanks to Jody Watley for providing artwork & believing.-QH]