Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Tina Turner – “The Best”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #15 in November 1989
Fully aware that she had created and promoted the Greatest Comeback of the Modern Rock Era, Tina Turner could be forgiven for recording “The Best,” I suppose.
This self-referential anthem crowned a helluva chart run that began in 1984: a #1 pop single in “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and two more top tens from Private Dancer; #2s in 1985 (“We Don’t Need Another Hero”) and 1986 (“Typical Male”); and between them a Bryan Adams duet and a couple top twenties. No wonder pro sports, car commercial producers, Applebee’s, and, uh, Joe Biden have used “The Best” when they needed rabbles roused.
After two estimable global hits, Foreign Affair announced itself as a new tent pole. It begins with a synth bass as thick as the walls of Fort Knox. Turner enters, a stun cannon. Subtlety wasn’t her métier, and in most cases a good thing; on “The Best,” she resorts to what I’d call her preset: blasting verses and choruses into rubble when she’s feeling kind, vaporizing them when not. Where 1984’s “Let’s Stay Together” benefited from the tension between her aggression, and the shifts from spareness to the sudden brass punctuations of the British Electric Foundation’s arrangement, “The Best” functions as an uninhabited demonstration of prowess. The “Freeway of Love” sax is too predictable to annoy. The drums clatter from here to Helsinki.
An important note: “The Best” had a life before Tina. Bonnie Tyler originally recorded this Chapman-Knight composition a year earlier; it went nowhere besides the Norway top ten, cursed by Mike Chapman’s flattening effect on rhythm sections. It also had a life after Tina: she re-recorded it with Australian Jimmy Barnes as “(Simply) The Best” in 1992 to promote the New South Wales Rugby League season. Other than Turner’s contributing a phlegmier performance, that version is a note-for-note reproduction if you discount Barnes’ guy-at-a-karaoke-bar appearance. In other words, despite its okay American chart position “The Best” lingered longer than bigger and superior hits like “Typical Male.”
But in the States it took a while to realize that Turner had faded. “She’s more like Ray Charles or Tony Bennett–her iconic clout is heaviest when she’s selling products other than her own expertly sultry recordings,” Robert Christgau theorized. Certified multi-platinum and cougher-up of three top forty entries, 1986’s Break Every Rule was, along with Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, one of 1986’s New Jerseys: a hit, but a deluxe, hollow one. The well-titled followup “Steamy Windows” sputtered to #39. Her last American top ten, “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” redresses the wrongs of “The Best”: by feeling out the contours of the straitjacket of an early nineties adult contemporary arrangement before slithering free for the sake of a triumphant chorus, Turner demonstrated her intuition for wringing pathos out of the constraints of pop form. Better than the shrieking blankness of “The Best” at any rate.