Was 1989 The Greatest Year in Musical History?

Hell yes, says Jim Butler

“1989, the number, another summer,
Sound of the funky drummer,
Music hitting your heart ’cause I know you got soul”

Public Enemy, Fight the Power


Despite the protestations of small-minded reactionary bores, music, fittingly, just like time, never stands still. There is always something new worth listening to. The key is to remain inquisitive, open to new ideas and keep that inner 16-year-old sense of wonderment alive. 


Unfortunately, too many people stop listening once they hit a certain age and store their musical tastes in aspic, blithely declaring that year x, y or z was the best year for music ever. 


And yet… some years can’t help but acquire a certain potency. Some cultural historians and old punks (sometimes one and the same) will refer to the scorched earth, year zero significance of 1976. Baby boomers hail the landmark years of 1966 and 1971, when the likes of Bob Dylan and The Beatles helped cement popular music as the voice of a generation thanks to their ground-breaking albums, Blonde on Blonde and Revolver, or when David Bowie transformed sexual politics and just about everything else. 

One could also make a case for 1956, when Elvis’ gyrating hips were the midwife present at the birth of rock & roll; 1977 (the real year punk broke) and 1988 (the second summer of love, following the original in 1967, thanks to the acid house explosion).


In each of these cases, however, the years in question merely continued – or popularised – movements, moods and feelings already in place. They were neither created in a vacuum nor were they an unmistakable full stop on the face of popular culture.

The Year Everything Changed

The year traversing 1 January to 31 December 1989 is a little different though. It also didn’t appear from nowhere (really the idea of a year zero is a red herring), but certainly with the benefit of hindsight it did signal the end of something and, subsequently (although perhaps not meaning to), the start of the modern digital age as we know it today. At the risk of resorting to hyperbole, it really was the year everything changed. Or as Ian Brown, singer of the Stone Roses, one of the year’s emblematic bands, would have it: what the world was waiting for.


Not that you would have known this by looking at the singles chart – often a fundamental arbiter of cultural shifts – on the first morning of 1989. There, at the top of the hit parade and resplendent in all their manufactured Stock, Aitken & Waterman glory were Kylie and Jason with their nauseous duet, Especially For You. The rest of the Top 10 was made up of acts like Cliff Richard, Erasure, Status Quo, Kim Wilde, The Four Top and Bros. 


The year – seemingly – did not get off to the most auspicious start. But at No.4 and No.6 were Inner City and Neneh Cherry, notable harbingers of what was to come. Their dancefloor-based stylings (Detroit house and a UK take on hip-hop-inspired club culture, respectively) demonstrated that the underground was not only stirring but would come to – if not take over – recalibrate the mainstream heading into the decade that would end the century.


In 1989, youth culture got its last hurrah. Everywhere you looked there were clear and distinct style tribes. Indie kids could introspectively contemplate the meaning of existence while listening to The Wedding Present, House of Love, Pixies and The Wonder Stuff. Goths emitted their patchouli-flavoured scents while swaying their black and purple uniforms to The Cure, Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim. Hip-hop’s golden age was in full swing and the year saw albums drop from De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising), Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), NWA foot soldier The D.O.C. (No One Can Do It Better) and EPMD (Unfinished Business), while Public Enemy and NWA caused untold moral panics with their uncompromising black power rhetoric. Elsewhere, in the US at least, grunge was beginning to bloom: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Tad all released seminal albums.


The year’s most crucial and certainly most celebrated music, however, came from people with their eyes and ears open to the feelings engendered by the world’s wider socio-political movements. In the year of Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of Eastern Bloc communism, solidarity and collectivism were in the air. 

After a decade of Thatcherism, British youngsters wanted a new attitude of harmony and, most significantly, a new beat to dance to. Acid house, and its attendant offspring, certainly gave them that. In 1989 a new Sheffield label released its first 12-inch from the shop that gave the imprint its name, Warp. The Forgemasters’ Track With No Name was manna for those dancers lost in the unrelenting rhythm of bleep. In London, Soul II Soul hit the top of the charts with both their single Back to Life and the influential album it was pulled from, Club Classics Vol. One


It was in Manchester, of course, that this new spirit hit the most memorable ecstatic heights. Bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, alongside producers 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald, took the rave era’s key signifiers to bold new heights. Following a summer recording in Ibiza, Mancunian statesmen New Order released their Balearic album, Technique.


The incredible thing about most, if not all, of the music mentioned is that it remained largely hidden underground. The media had yet to cotton on to the alluring tales from the dark side of popular culture and this was of course pre-internet and social media, where nothing is underground for longer than five seconds. 


The other aspect largely forgotten in our post-tribe world where the history of recorded music is just a click away, is how much hard work it was to maintain and cultivate these cultural identities. Today, we’re all hip-hop and indie fans. We all dance – broadly – to the same music. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is for another discussion.


It was different in 1989. But things were changing. People coming together felt good. Taking over the mainstream felt righteous. Cool was becoming popular. It’s true when they say the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there: 1989 is proof positive of that and just one reason why those 365 days deserve the accolade of the Greatest Year in Musical History.

10 Albums That Define 1989

  • Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique (Capitol Records)

  • Pixies Doolittle (4AD)

  • The Stone Roses The Stone Roses (Silvertone)

  • De La Soul 3 Feet High & Rising (Tommy Boy)

  • New Order Technique (Factory Records)

  • Nirvana Bleach (Sub Pop)

  • Soul II Soul Club Classics Vol. One (Virgin)

  • Madonna Like a Prayer (Sire)

  • The Cure Disintegration (Fiction)

  • Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

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