Scanning the news headlines in the week leading up to Christmas 1988 was a grim business in truth. Just a week after 36 people died in the Clapham rail disaster, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all on board and raining fire on the residents below. For the first time ever the Queen recorded an addendum to her already filmed Christmas message, expressing her sympathies for all the victims of recent tragedies. On a lighter note, a then little known government minister by the name of Edwina Currie was on the rocks after accidentally suggesting that all eggs were contaminated with salmonella, prompting the government to shell out a £20 million investment in the egg market to prop things up. Oh yes, and The Sun published its infamous "Sorry Elton" front cover and paid Elton John £1 million in damages after admitting that just about every revelation they had printed about his private life over the previous year had been totally false.
20: Enya - Evening Falls
Stepping out of her family's shadow at last, one time Clannad member Enya had become one of the most unexpected Number One hitmakers of the decade when her Orinoco Flow single had shot to the top of the charts in the autumn. To all-round general surprise she avoided becoming a one-hit-wonder, landing a second albeit rather more minor hit single in the final weeks of the year. Lacking the quirkiness and perhaps above all novelty value of its predecessor, the hauntingly beautiful Evening Falls was still diverting enough to justify a short chart run which saw it peak here just inside the Top 20 for the Christmas chart. By no means her last hit either, as history cheerfully records.
19: Londonbeat - 9am (The Comfort Zone)
Despite a smash hit single in 1973 with Gonna Make You An Offer You Can't Refuse, Jimmy Helms' career had stalled somewhat in the intervening decade and a half. A string of solo albums had disappointed, as did some of the soundtrack work to which he had contributed and instead the American singer had been reduced to earning a crust singing radio jingles. Musical salvation would come thanks to the forming of Londonbeat which saw him team up with three other singers in what was at first an experimental close harmony soul group. The four-piece had already landed a Dutch hit with the single There's A Beat Going On before their second single caught the attention of radio programmers over here, propelling them into the charts for the first time. 9am (The Comfort Zone) was if nothing else a diverting record, an atmospheric semi-acapella tale of commuting ennui. Its chart run was respectable enough, this Number 19 peak on the Christmas chart the final destination of the double-a line. Follow-up single Failing In Love Again was prettier but was to ultimately stall at Number 60. As it turned, greater global stardom for the group was just 18 months or so away.
18: A-Ha - You Are The One
All pop groups have a certain shelf life, after which their initial teen audience moves on to other things. 1988 was the year when A-Ha appeared to be about to hit that wall. The title track from the Stay On These Roads album had made a contractually obligated appearance in the Top 10 at Easter, but when they made the bizarre decision to follow it with the impenetrable and experimental The Blood That Moves The Body they ended up with their lowest charting single to date when it stalled at Number 25, their first since their breakthrough to miss the Top 20. Summertime release Touchy! redressed the balance slightly but even that could only reach Number 13, a peak eventually scaled during the new year lull by the album's chirpy fourth single. None of them were bad records (indeed You Are The One stands proud as one of their best pop hits) but it was proof that even A-Ha were vulnerable to the changing winds of musical fashion.
17: New Order - Fine Time
Having produced the definitive document of their entire career to date with singles collection Substance, New Order found themselves essentially with a clean slate and a chance to strike out in whatever direction they so chose. Their response was to decamp to the newly-cool island of Ibiza for the summer where they immersed themselves in the nascent club scene and the attractions of the Balearic style which would come to define dance music and youth culture for a decade to come. Following tales of wild hedonistic behaviour in between recording sessions (NME and Record Mirror taking delight in reporting in loving detail just who smashed up what and on what substance), the group emerged blinking into the sunlight with what would become their most acclaimed album Technique and perhaps most crucially this lead single. Gone were the lovingly crafted pop symphonies which had been a part of their output for the last three years. In their place was this chaotic melange of beats, vocodered samples and a stream of consciousness monologue from Bernard Sumner which he delivered in a dark, throaty growl that he later confessed was an attempt to sound like Danish synthpop duo Laid Back. I've used the phrase a lot in this retrospective, but like so much dance music from the era Fine Time was genuinely like nothing anyone had heard before. On this one occasion, their notorious insistence on performing live on Top Of The Pops came to bite them on the backside as the track's many layers of noise were just impossible to reproduce faithfully onstage and the resultant performance of the track sounded like a cacophonous mess. Nonetheless, Fine Time was a respectable Number 11 hit and a suitable herald for the January release of Technique which would go on to become the stuff of legend.
16: Rick Astley - Take Me To Your Heart
After a sensational debut which saw him record the biggest selling single of 1987 and a track which would eventually cement his place in internet legend and western popular culture, Rick Astley had released his second album Hold Me In Your Arms in the autumn of 1988. Although Stock/Aitken/Waterman were on production duties throughout, Rick had successfully lobbied to record some of his own compositions, hence the chirpy She Wants To Dance With Me which was released as the album's first single. For the second release normality was restored but whilst the production trio were about to embark on their most successful year ever, the formula for Rick was sounding just that little bit tired. Take Me To Your Heart was Rick Astley by numbers, a single which was jaunty and appealing enough but which offered little that had not been heard before. Indeed the most notable aspect of the track was not its chart run but instead a minor legal kerfuffle as the Inner City hit Big Fun had a bassline that sounded just a little too similar to the Rick single for the comfort of the legal profession.
15: Freiheit - Keeping The Dream Alive
It isn't about Christmas, doesn't sound particularly Christmassy and in fact isn't a Christmas single in any sense of the word, yet this one and only UK hit for semi-legendary German group Freiheit is now something of a seasonal standard thanks to its presence on the chart in this week. The release of Keeping The Dream Alive as a single for the festive market was something of a last-minute choice, the band's British label alerted to its potential only at the start of December and embarking upon a hurried rush release to force it into contention for the Christmas Number One race. As it was the record hit the stores just a couple of weeks too late to be properly established, and despite a late flurry of bets raising the possibility that it might well stand a chance the single floundered thanks to a lack of readily available stock and spent Christmas languishing inside the Top 20, eventually peaking one place higher a fortnight later.
14: Kim Wilde - Four Letter Word
She'd been around since the early 80s and had been top of the US charts two years earlier, but Kim Wilde's career received a major shot in the arm in 1988 thanks to her role as Michael Jackson's support act during his European dates during the summer. Hard on the heels of smashes You Came and Never Trust A Stranger, Four Letter Word was to wind up her third Top 10 hit of the year, although by Christmas the slushy ballad had only limped to Number 14. In truth, it isn't one of her better offerings, the pitch of the track serving only to expose how weak her vocals could be and how the highest notes were just that bit beyond her. Still, at that time she could do no wrong and for all its vocal flaws, Four Letter Word is actually one of the prettiest songs she ever put her name to and I'd suggest is ripe for rediscovery.
13: Michael Jackson - Smooth Criminal
Speaking of Michael Jackson. Compile a Top 10 of the most ludicrous choruses and hook lines of all time and "Annie Are You OK?" repeated ad nauseum must surely be one of them. Winter 88 saw the release of "Moonwalker", Jacko's rather rambling flight of fantasy vanity film which remains a must-see to this day thanks to some of the lavishly staged musical routines it contained. Chief amongst them was the gravity-defying dance for Smooth Criminal which surely helped the track to Number 8 almost immediately upon release in November despite it being no less than the seventh single release from the Bad album. What is more surprising, that there were two more singles to come in 1989, or that Alien Ant Farm took Smooth Criminal back into the chart 13 years later and somehow made it sound even fresher?
12: U2 - Angel Of Harlem
AKA U2's Christmas single, albeit one that is either overlooked by the increasingly desperate compilers of seasonal fare or which the band just refuse to licence. Nonetheless, this is as festive as you can get with copious references to "a cold and wet December day" and "New York like a Christmas tree..." throughout. Fall, I mean Autumn 1988 marked the unveiling of Rattle And Hum, the travelogue album and accompanying film that represented the high point of Bono's love affair with the USA. Hard on the heels of The Joshua Tree, U2 were at their commercial and celebrity peak - hailed with some justification as the biggest band on the planet and in the eyes of most unable to put a foot wrong. Quite simply this was a vanity project for which they had the most unassailable of free passes. Angel Of Harlem was the album's second single, the follow-up to chart-topper Desire and a single which peaked at Number 9 a week before Christmas and was unlucky not to have a presence in the Top 10 on this chart.
11: Petula Clark - Downtown '88
A candidate for the most outrageous remix of all time? It was certain children's TV presenters who turned Petula Clark's most loved hit into something of a cult during the summer of 1988, using it as a bed for write-in competitions during the school holidays. When a re-release of the original failed to catch fire, the staff at DJ mailout service DMC wondered if it would work as a club track (possibly unaware that Petula herself had made a disco version in the mid-70s). They handed the task to Peter Slaghuis (yes, him again) who embarked on what was at the time the most radical deconstruction of a classic hit single ever contemplated. He stripped away virtually the whole of the original production and instead set Petula Clark's vocals over a stuttering, thundering house rhythm that bordered on disrespect and should, in theory, have been a disaster. Yet in actual fact it worked a treat, dragging the song into the 80s as a stripped to the bone house track. Just as the mechanical clanks started to overstay their welcome Slaghuis brought the faders back up and allowed Tony Hatch's original production to force its way back into the mix in a manner which made it sound almost triumphant and heroic. The new version of Downtown raced into the Top 5 just a few weeks after it first appeared, helped not a little by Petula herself, who despite knowing nothing of the remix at first or even being involved in its release, gamely made herself available to promote the track to the extent that she appeared on Top Of The Pops waltzing around to a style of music she was almost certainly totally unfamiliar with. Just as the Bomb The Bass record worked by treating the source material with the appropriate respect, Downtown 88 worked as a one-off by taking the opposite approach and presuming that nothing was sacred.