25 Of The Best Songs From 1988

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Some would say that 1988 was the best year in music. It was the time when hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy & The Fresh Prince released a new album. A new band named N.W.A. was about to be propelled to fame for influencing the gangsta rap subgenre.

The year 1988 also witnessed Bobby Brown leaving New Edition to follow a solo career. Some indie and rock bands came to prominence with their breakthrough albums, such as Sonic Youth, while others were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Supremes.

But what better way to relive this year than going through 25 of the best songs from 1988? Have fun reading!

1. “A Groovy Kind Of Love” By Phil Collins

First on our list is Phil Collins’ “A Groovy Kind of Love,” which he released in 1988 from the album Buster: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. It was a hit, reaching the top of the charts in the US and UK.

Thematically, the song title refers to a pleasing love affair, which the narrator and his love interest share and enjoy. The lyrics emphasize his feelings whenever he is around her, highlighting the deep connection between them.

The song was among the soundtracks of the 1988 film Buster, which solidified its place in pop culture during this time.

2. “I Hate Myself For Loving You” By Joan Jett And The Blackhearts

A lot of wonderful things happened to the rock band Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1988. First, their sixth studio album, Up Your Alley, was released and certified Platinum. Second, its single “I Hate Myself for Loving You” reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Third, the song earned the band a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Lyrics-wise, the song is about a woman who loves a man who is not good for her. Despite being aware of that, she gives him chances, knowing fully well that he’s not exactly loyal. This conflict between love and self-disgust is what gives the song its emotional depth.

This song was released at a period known for its vibrant music scene. It fits well within this context. The fact that the song was featured in several movies cements its place in pop culture during the late ’80s.

3. “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” By New Kids On The Block

The boy band New Kids on the Block‘s success in the late 1980s was propelled by their 1988 single “You Got It (The Right Stuff).” This song encapsulates the youthful and energetic spirit of this era.

In the lyrics, the narrator expresses his admiration and attraction for a woman who has “the right stuff.” She is the embodiment of everything he wants in a woman. It’s no surprise he has fallen for her.

As a song from 1988, the song is characterized by a catchy melody and unforgettable chorus. These features reflect the music trends of the era. And the themes of young love were prevalent in popular culture at this time.

4. “When It’s Love” By Van Halen

Up next is “When It’s Love” by Van Halen, a powerful ballad released in 1988 from their eighth studio album, OU812. The song explores themes of love and the pursuit of fulfillment.

The lyrics find the narrator in a quest to understand love. He searches for something that would fill the void in his life and contemplates how to recognize when it’s love. He is lost for words on how to explain it best. He just knows that “it lasts forever.”

“When It’s Love” reflects the musical landscape of the time, where power ballads were a popular genre. In addition, it shows the era’s fascination with incorporating personal feelings within the pop-rock genre.

5. “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)” By Information Society

One of the characteristics of the ’80s music scene is its blend of electronic beats and catchy lyrics. One example that fits right in our list is “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” by Information Society.

During this era, synth-pop music was the “in” thing, and this song is the perfect example. It consists of electronic sounds that lend the song a danceable rhythm. The lyrics, on the other hand, talk about a common theme in pop music, which is the complexities of relationships.

At its core, the song seeks understanding and transparency in communication in the context of a romantic relationship. The narrator wants to know what his partner thinks and feels, suggesting that some things you just can’t hide.

6. “How Can I Fall?” By Breathe

The late ’80s was a time when emotive ballads and pop songs about love and relationships dominated the airwaves. One of the most popular songs during this era is “How Can I Fall?” by the English pop band Breathe.

Thematically, the song explores themes of uncertainty, vulnerability, and one’s longing for reassurance in love. It strikes a chord with listeners because many can resonate with the message.

In the lyrics, the narrator struggles as he deals with a tumultuous relationship. He finds it difficult to separate himself from the relationship despite knowing it is toxic and not right for each of them. It holds him back, yet he can’t seem to get himself free.

7. “I’ll Always Love You” By Taylor Dayne

What’s not to love about Taylor Dayne‘s “I’ll Always Love You”? Nothing. It’s a song typical of the late 1980s. The lyrics are simple but poignant as the narrator pledges her undying love. The song was released in 1988 from Dayne’s album Tell It to My Heart.

When you find someone who accepts all of you, including all the not-so-pleasant stuff about you, then you are lucky. That’s what the love interest finds in the narrator of the song. She gives him a love that is pure and eternal and offers a relationship built on trust.

Musically, “I’ll Always Love You” is an example of pop and R&B sounds that characterized the late ’80s. The steady rhythm perfectly accompanies Dayne’s emotive delivery of the ballad.

8. “Roll With It” By Steve Winwood

In the ’80s, blue-eyed soul artist Steve Winwood was going through some personal problems. He co-wrote his 1988 single, “Roll with It,” a motivational anthem about moving forward despite life’s challenges.

At its core, the song reflects resilience and perseverance, encouraging listeners to adapt to challenges and not give up. Instead, work with what life gives you, knowing that things will eventually be better. Winwood sings that when life gets tough, “Don’t stop and lose your touch.”

Winwood was already in his 40s when the song topped the charts in the US. He was just one of the older crowd, alongside The Beach Boys and George Harrison, representing pop music at this time.

9. “Bad Medicine” By Bon Jovi

Like many of the songs on this list, Bon Jovi‘s “Bad Medicine” is proof of the era’s penchant for rock anthems containing emotionally charged and complicated love narratives.

Thematically, the song is about a tumultuous and passionate love affair. The narrator compares an addictive and damaging relationship to “bad medicine.” Despite knowing it’s bad and unhealthy, he couldn’t help but crave it.

The song contains many tongue-in-cheek medical analogies. One of which is the narrator’s love being compared to a disease that no doctor can cure. In addition, he is addicted to his lover because her “kiss is the drug.”

10. “Listen To Your Heart” By Roxette

The late 1980s was a good era for the Swedish pop-rock duo Roxette. They released their breakthrough album, Look Sharp!, in 1988, which contained the single “Listen to Your Heart.” The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart but topped the Billboard Hot 100.

Lyrically, the narrator sings about a situation where a woman contemplates ending her romantic relationship. She is encouraged to listen to what her heart says before making an important decision.

This could be seen as a plea to not rush into decisions based on external influences. Instead, one must take time and consider many factors before arriving at a decision.

11. “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” By Chicago

Another example of an emotionally charged power ballad of the late 1980s is Chicago‘s “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.” It explores emotions associated with love and heartbreak, which were widely explored in pop music during this time.

Thematically, the narrator expresses his fear of losing his loved one and his longing to be with her. At first, he believes that it doesn’t matter if they don’t stay together. Only upon contemplation does he realize how his life is incomplete without her love.

The song was a success for the band, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was featured on their album Chicago 19, which was also a commercial success. It went Platinum and produced other hit singles aside from “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love.”

12. “One Moment In Time” By Whitney Houston

One of the memorable things about the 1988 Summer Olympics is the soundtrack album that features Whitney Houston‘s “One Moment in Time.” The song was written specifically for the occasion and bears the message about seizing the moment and reaching for one’s dreams.

In the lyrics, the narrator is resolved to make the most of every opportunity that comes her way. She expresses her desire to give her very best despite the pain and the rise and fall she goes through.

Upon its release in 1988, the song topped the UK Singles Chart. In the US, it peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

13. “Baby, I Love Your Way/Freebird” By Will To Power

The dance-pop group Will to Power scored a #1 hit with the 1988 song “Baby, I Love Your Way/Freebird.” For those of you who don’t know, this is a medley of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

Fortunately for the group, a radio station played the song, and others followed suit. The song received a lot of airplay on pop and adult contemporary radio. Unexpectedly, it was a hit among the older listeners who knew the original songs.

One of the reasons why the song appealed to them is because it was repurposed as soft rock. It was perfect for listening even while working.

Did you know that this was the second medley to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100? The first one had the longest title but was shortened to “Stars on 45 Medley,” released a few years prior.

14. “One Good Woman” By Peter Cetera

Another popular song of the late 1980s is Peter Cetera‘s “One Good Woman.” It was considered for use in the Tom Hanks film Big, with lyrics reflecting the storyline of the movie.

Thematically, the heartfelt ballad is about undying love and devotion. Here, the narrator showcases his deep affection for someone and lists down all the things he loves about her.

Much to Cetera’s surprise, “One Good Woman” was not included in the soundtrack for the film. Nevertheless, the song peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart for four weeks.

15. “Kokomo” By The Beach Boys

The years leading to the release of The Beach Boys‘ “Kokomo” were a trying time for the rock band. The single’s unexpected success was a break from the challenges they were facing at the time. It topped the chart for a week, being their first #1 song in 22 years.

In the lyrics, Kokomo is a destination where lovers go to find enjoyment and happiness. It serves as an escape from the hardship of life and where people can find peace. The place is a picture of fun, with sun-soaked beaches and romantic nights under the stars.

The song was aptly featured in the movie Cocktail, which further enhances the song’s association with leisure and good times.

16. “Don’t Be Cruel” By Bobby Brown

With the powerhouse team of Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Daryl Simmons behind the song “Don’t Be Cruel” and Bobby Brown performing it, it’s no surprise the single was a critical success. It dominated the R&B chart and peaked at #8 on the Hot 100.

This song marked Brown’s transition from a teen idol to a solo artist bearing a seductive image. The transition was emblematic of the late ’80s music scene’s shift toward assertive styles, particularly in the R&B genre.

Thematically, the song is about a man pleading for his lover not to be harsh toward him. He argues that he “would never be cruel to you” and would do everything for her.

17. “Dreamin’” By Vanessa Williams

The 1988 version of the song “Dreamin'” by Vanessa Williams became a hit. In fact, it was her first #1 hit on the R&B chart while it peaked at #8 on the Hot 100 pop chart.

At its core, “Dreamin'” is a song about longing and desire. Here, the narrator expresses a deep emotional yearning to be with the man she loves. It’s about those moments of daydreams and fantasies that one typically goes through when in love with someone.

Unfortunately, she does not know how to tell him how she feels. She couldn’t figure out how to “say it right.” And until then, she keeps hoping he’ll appear in her dreams every night.

18. “Can You Stand The Rain” By New Edition

From New Edition‘s album Heart Break comes the single “Can You Stand the Rain?” The ballad, released in 1988, became one of the most powerful love songs in R&B history.

Thematically, the song is about enduring love. It poses the question in the title, where the rain is a metaphor for the challenges, obstacles, and tough times. The song explores unconditional love that remains constant and strong despite the difficulties.

A song from 1988, it features the R&B and pop influences that characterized the era. It has become a timeless classic, with New Edition’s harmonious vocals and the song’s soulful melody.

19. “Edge Of A Broken Heart” By Vixen

In 1988, hair metal bands were the rave. But the rock band Vixen stood out for several reasons. One, the band was an all-female group. Two, they were the only female group to score a hit single that year. That’s thanks to Richard Marx-penned song, “Edge of a Broken Heart.”

In the song, the narrator is going through a tough time as she decides to break free from her relationship. She feels heartbroken that her partner does not treat her well.

She finally realizes that she’s been living on the edge of a broken heart for far too long. And now she is adamant to put an end to it.

20. “Teardrops” By Womack & Womack

One of the greatest songs of the late ’80s that had been covered several times is Womack & Womack‘s “Teardrops.” The song was released in 1988 from their album Conscience.

Lyrics-wise, the song speaks to the universal human experience of heartbreak and longing. The lyrics find the narrator, who is reminded of a past lover through music and dance. They remember the pain and sadness of their separation and miss their ex intensely.

In essence, “Teardrops” is about the emotions that come from confronting one’s feelings of loss and heartache. This might have resonated with listeners back in 1988, especially those who have been through the same experience.

21. “Straight Up” By Paula Abdul

Up next, we have Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up,” her first top-40 hit in the US. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the top 10 in other countries. The song was also a critical success for Abdul as it earned her her first Grammy nomination.

Notably, the late 1980s music was characterized by songs exploring love, romance, and heartbreak. “Straight Up” fits into this category, but it also stands out because of its direct approach to the topic.

Lyrically, the narrator encourages listeners to stand up for their needs and demand honesty from their partners. She wants her own love interest to tell her, straight up, whether his love is for real or he’s just having fun.

22. “Domino Dancing” By Pet Shop Boys

The English synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys released “Domino Dancing” in 1988 from their Introspective album. The single was a success, peaking at #7 on the UK Singles Chart and topping charts in Finland and Spain.

In the lyrics, the narrator is going through a tough time in his relationship and reminisces about the good times. But now, he feels like he’s losing her. He feels betrayed and cheated on, and he is powerless to do anything about it.

The title is a metaphor for the unraveling of their romantic relationship. Just like dominos that fall one after another, the relationship falls apart when triggered by actions and emotions.

23. “Nothin’ But A Good Time” By Poison

If there’s an anthem of enjoyment that stood out in 1988, it’s Poison‘s “Nothin’ But a Good Time.” It is the lead single of their Open Up and Say… Ahh! album and reflects the band’s lifestyle of hard partying and fun.

In the lyrics, the narrator expresses his desire for escape and enjoyment. He wants to break free from a mundane life and its struggles.

He wants nothing more than to have a good time, thinking it justifies a life of “slavin’ every day.” He further argues that enjoyment is not a daily occurrence but rather something he’d like to do every now and then.

24. “The Valley Road” By Bruce Hornsby And The Range

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1988, Bruce Hornsby of Bruce Hornsby and the Range says that he writes songs to paint a picture. And that’s just what he did with their single, “The Valley Road.”

The song explores themes of love, hope, and societal expectations. The narrative follows a woman from an upper-class family who becomes pregnant by a man from a lower class. For her father, the man is “good enough to hire, not good enough to marry.”

The single peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 shortly after its release. It also topped the adult contemporary chart and became their third #1 atop this chart.

25. “Girl You Know It’s True” By Milli Vanilli

The dance-pop track “Girl You Know It’s True” by Milli Vanilli became an international hit shortly after its 1988 release. This was originally by the group Numarx, but Milli Vanilli’s rendition was what made it famous.

The song, at its core, is a confession of love and desire. It encapsulates the feelings and emotions of a man deeply in love, convincing his love interest of his genuine affection.

The song’s success could be attributed to the fact that the late ’80s had many dance-pop and synth-pop tracks on the charts. It fits right into this trend with the song’s catchy rhythm and memorable melody.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest 1988 Songs

For those who were around in the heyday of these 1988 songs, may our list bring you back to the good times. But for those who were born long after the popularity of these tracks, we hope you discovered new songs to add to your playlist!

This compilation is far from exhaustive, and we wish we were able to include songs that gave you a peek into what music was like back in the day. So if you know some more 1988 songs that deserve a spot on this list, let us know. We’ll be happy to include them.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.