100 Best Singles of 1984: Pop’s Greatest Year – Rolling Stone
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100 Best Singles of 1984: Pop’s Greatest Year

Let’s go crazy: The standout songs from radio’s ‘Thriller’ season

From Prince to Madonna to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen to Cyndi Lauper, 1984 was the peak of pop stardom. Here's the 100 best reasons why

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From Prince to Madonna to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen to Cyndi Lauper, 1984 was the year that pop stood tallest. New Wave, R&B, hip-hop, mascara’d hard rock and “Weird Al” Yankovic all crossed paths on the charts while a post-“Billie Jean” MTV brought them into your living room. In the spirit of this landmark year, here are the 100 best singles from the year pop popped. To be considered, the song had to be released in 1984 or have significant chart impact in 1984, and charted somewhere on the Billboard Hot 100.

1984
100

Corey Hart, “Sunglasses at Night”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Seven
With help from producer Jon Astley, who'd worked on the Who's Who Are You (Pete Townshend was his brother-in-law at the time), Hart rode to short-lived stardom on a distinctively Eighties synth ostinato that was all nagging paranoia and Orwellian menace. He soon demonstrated a keen knack for dodging success, turning down Spielberg's offer to screen test for the role of Marty McFly and passing on an invite to record "Danger Zone" for the Top Gun soundtrack. Still, his career bounced back some in the Nineties, with Hart writing for and performing with fellow Canadian Celine Dion. K.H.

 

1984
99

Scandal feat. Patty Smyth, “The Warrior”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Seven
Holly Knight wrote Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield"; Nick Gilder sang "Hot Child in the City." This songwriting collaboration mashes together the martial melodrama of the former and the latter's post-apocalyptic urban sleaze — and was more fun than both. Smyth aced the tuff Eighties strut required here, then quickly mellowed out, dueting on ballads with the Hooters and Don Henley — though any woman who dated Richard Hell and married John McEnroe was surely capable of sticking to her guns. K.H.

1984 Dead or Alive
98

Dead or Alive, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 11
A brash, ravishing gender-bender with a fresh mouth and no legit hits, Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns was in danger of being dismissed as a catty Boy George knock-off by 1984. But then he sought out the young hi-NRG production trio of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman — who'd just had a club breakthrough with "You Think You're a Man" by John Waters' gender-bending grand dame Divine. Their partnership with Dead or Alive resulted in synth-disco burner "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," which became a U.K. Number One hit (Number 11 in the U.S.). Burns claimed to have written the song by allusively splicing Luther Vandross' club jam "I Wanted Your Love" with chirpy pop-dance blip "See You 'Round Like a Record" by Little Nell (a.k.a. New York nightclub doyenne Nell Campbell), which Stock Aitken Waterman spiffed up in a 36-hour cocaine-amped recording session. Whatever the formula, the song had remarkable staying power, being re-released three more times as a single during the next 20 years. It finally hit Number One thanks to a re-imagining by Flo Rida and Ke$ha in 2009. C.A.

1984 Peter Wolf
97

Peter Wolf, “Lights Out”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 12
Peter Wolf bailed on the J. Geils Band in 1983 due to "creative differences," and his 1984 album Lights Out bore the first fruits of his liberated-frontman labor. Produced by Wolf and electro-funk pioneer Michael Jonzun, the record backs up his swaggering voice with future-sounding R&B signifiers that were in vogue at the time — and some synth brass here and there. The title track's popping bass and squealing guitar give way to a percussion-heavy breakdown that sounds destined for a 15-minute extended remix. And why not? Wolf let out his post-last-call flirtations convincingly enough for the track to peak at Number 11 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart. M.J.

 

1984 Tears for Fears
96

Tears for Fears, “Mothers Talk”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 27
Inspired by Raymond Briggs' nuclear-fallout graphic novel When the Wind Blows, "Mothers Talk" was the first single off Tears for Fears' dominant Songs From the Big Chair. After a quick Barry Manilow sample (how's that for subversive?), the track's electronic churn builds into a thump somewhere between circa '84 acts Art of Noise and Run-D.M.C. It was eventually overshadowed by slower hits like "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," but it shows mercurial Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith — yelping "We can work it out!" — at their most rebellious, both topically and rhythmically. R.F.

1984 Depeche Mode
95

Depeche Mode, “People Are People”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 13
Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore once enumerated a list of favorite topics, including "relationships, domination, lust, love, good, evil, incest, sin, religion, immortality." This, their first American hit (not even "Just Can't Get Enough" had charted), hits many of those notes — a rare song about racism that neither shrinks from nor oversimplifies its topic, while remaining catchy as a nursery rhyme. Nevertheless, the band grew tired of it and retired it from performance after their 1988 tour. M.M.

1984 Bon Jovi
94

Bon Jovi, “Runaway”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 39
With their very first single, glam-metal trailblazers Bon Jovi nailed the perfect combination of desperation and decadence that would define their career, thanks to "Runaway"'s slithery synths and suggestive lyrics. It came after years of woodshedding, since the band wrote the song in 1980 or '81. The tune only hinted at the unifying power of songs like "Livin' on a Prayer," "I'll Be There for You" and "Bed of Roses," but it showed that these New Jersey no-goodniks had found the nexus of heartfelt balladry and hard-rock guts that would define huge swaths of hard rock later in the Eighties. K.G.

 

1984 jacksons mick jagger
93

The Jacksons feat. Mick Jagger, “State of Shock”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
Michael Jackson began 1984 at Number One: Thriller broke the all-time sales record, topping the month-end charts for January, February and March, and the Paul McCartney collab "Say Say Say" was the most popular single in the country for the first two weeks of the year. Sixth months later, he and his brothers scored their final group Top Five by recruiting none other than Mick Jagger to plead for a little "mouth-to-mouth re-susc-it-ation" on the arena funk "State of Shock." Appropriately, the tune was a live favorite, performed both by Jagger (with Tina Turner) at Live Aid and during the closing medley at the Jacksons' Victory Tour, one the highest-grossing shows of the decade. N.M.

 

1984 Tommy Shaw
92

Tommy Shaw, “Girls With Guns”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 33
Shaw had begun playing guitar for heartland AOR pompers Styx in 1975, right when they were losing their early heavy-metal cred, but in the next few years he nonetheless wrote their most rocking radio standbys — "Blue Collar Man," "Renegade," "Fooling Yourself" — not to mention 1981's "Too Much Time on My Hands," the band's most New Wave single. His only real solo hit took off from the latter: Buoyed by a band of Brits including Wings drummer Steve Holley, its giddy, boinging enthusiasm and uplift oddly could have fit right in on Bad Religion's soon-disowned powerpop bubbleprog masterwork Into the Unknown the year before. C.E.

1984 Laid Back
91

Laid Back, “White Horse”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 26
Perhaps the most unconvincing anti-drug song of all time, "White Horse" (slang for both heroin and cocaine) became an electro-funk standard by locating that unmistakable Eighties niche of playfully naughty garbaggio. With a wheezing, slide-whistle click-and-thud 808 beat, some proto-acid flickers and a comically ominous Euro voice intoning random claptrap like, "If you wanna be rich/Then you got to be a bitch," Danish duo Tim Stahl and John Guldberg created a time-capsule of borderless synth-and-drum-machine flukery (though you can certainly hear hints of Green Velvet's sly techno prankishness). The B-side of dubious European hit "Sunshine Reggae" (Jack Johnson's ballsy by comparison), "White Horse" was a Number One dance track in the U.S. (Number 26 pop), thanks in part to the help of Prince, who urged Warner Bros. to release a 12-inch single featuring "White Horse" on one side and "When Doves Cry" on the other. C.A.

 

1984 Bruce Springsteen
90

Bruce Springsteen, “Cover Me”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Seven
Bruce Springsteen originally wrote the second single from Born in the U.S.A. for disco queen Donna Summer — although, thanks to the intervention of manager Jon Landau, the Jersey legend wound up keeping it for himself. Its lightning-bolt guitar line and metronomically precise drumming are given extra dramatic heft by Springsteen's fiery, pleading performance. The shimmering, dubby Arthur Baker remix, which adds vocalist Jocelyn Baker and foregrounds the bouncing-ball bass, is enough to make one dream of an alternate universe where Springsteen ditched rock in favor of disco-ball dreams (it just missed the Top 10 of the Hot Dance Club Play chart). M.J.

1984 Steve Perry
89

Steve Perry, “Oh Sherrie”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
Steve Perry was still a member of Journey when he released Street Talk, his first solo album, and the lead single from that record, written for his then-girlfriend Sherrie Swafford, bore many of his band's signature touches — pealing guitars, urgently pled verses and a sense of arena-rock pomp. (Perry's exuberant vocal performance helped, too.) The clip became an MTV staple because it sated the era's then-overwhelming appetite for more music that sounded like Journey, but its presentation of Perry as everyman, embarrassedly rolling his eyes at an overblown Medieval Times video concept and blowing off work to hang out with the woman he loved (played by Swafford herself), helped it stick in the public's mind decades later. M.J.

 

1984 Lionel Richie
88

Lionel Richie, “Stuck on You”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 3
The ex-Commodore grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, hearing the Grand Ole Opry, and his Seventies band's "Easy" and "Sail On" had a subliminal rural tinge, so it's no shock that he'd eventually try country — even, per the 45 sleeve, a cowboy hat — on for size. Early Eighties Nashville hitmakers like Earl Thomas Conley, Razzy Bailey and Ronnie Milsap had singing styles steeped in R&B, so Richie's timing was right. A down-home countrypolitan arrangement, toasty-cozy crooning and heading-back-home theme out of "Midnight Train to Georgia" helped "Stuck on You" go Top Five pop, Top 25 country and Top 10 R&B. Has any single done that since? C.E.

1984 Pointer Sisters
87

The Pointer Sisters, “Jump (for My Love)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
The Pointer Sisters may have dabbled successfully in Forties retro and M.O.R. previously, but pleasure-droid synthpop was just them. Their full-tilt conversion into glossy Eighties electronics was as exciting a makeover as the Bee Gees going disco. We had to wait till 1992 for Kris Kross and House of Pain to definitively prove the Jump Theorem (every hit single called "Jump" is awesome), but this gravity-defiant hit (released in close proximity to Van Halen's "Jump," it should be said) clued us in early on. K.H.

 

1984 the police
86

The Police, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Eight
"Every Breath You Take" stole all the oxygen, but the moody keybs and tiny-cymbal crashes and Sting's 200-pound Greek mythology shout-outs ("You consider me a young apprentice/Caught between Scylla and Charybdis") all added up to "Wrapped Around Your Finger" being the powerful secret hero of the indomitable Synchronicity. It is for the best that 5 Seconds of Summer didn't actually attempt to cover it; and whoever lit all those candles in the video (it was most likely neither Godley nor Creme) hopefully got a raise. The one-two punch of this and "Tea in the Sahara" is the best surprise-bummer-ending album closer of the Eighties. R.H.

1984 Bryan Adams
85

Bryan Adams, “Run to You”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Six
The former glam-rocker and future schlockmeister from Canada, at his commercial and creative peak, borrows hard-popping six-string jangle from the Byrds via "Don't Fear the Reaper." He and perennial writing partner Jim Vallance earmarked the song for Blue Öyster Cult, who turned it down. So Adams kept it for himself, parlaying a moral quandary about being Somebody Else's Guy into his career's most impassioned performance — even though the video suggests that who he's cheating with isn't another woman, but his guitar. C.E.

1984 R.E.M.
84

R.E.M., “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 85
Nameless when they played it in 1983 on Late Night With David Letterman (their TV debut), and later tagged "Southern Central Rain" before being abbreviated by singer Michael Stipe, this suggestive, ambling almost countryish song was quickly identified as R.E.M.'s obvious crossover shot (though it only got as far as Number 85 on Billboard). The band's label, I.R.S. urged a move to a bigger, pro-style studio to record second album Reckoning and Pete Buck even used the "Rockman" amp set-up (developed by Boston's Tom Scholz) for his 12-string Rickenbacker on the chiming, inviting intro. Stipe's lyrics were cryptic and doleful till toward the end, when the band locked into an insistent, would-be krautrock drone, with a plinking piano, pealing guitar and Stipe wailing "I'm sorry." This was R.E.M.'s commercial throat-lump moment, when their mystery became not just something to immerse yourself in, but a stance to adopt and buy into. Refusing to lip-sync for the video, Stipe sang live, while his bandmates were obscured by scrims, unwittingly setting in motion the cult of authenticity that would dominate the alt-rock Nineties. C.A.

1984 Diana Ross
83

Diana Ross, “Swept Away”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 19
Propelled by backup vocals, production and a guitar solo from Daryl Hall while Arthur Baker keeps the multi-layered machine-funk percussion up to date, the supreme Supreme makes her last great single — and also, simultaneously, one of her hardest rocking and most oceanic. After a whisper-spoken intro about a dream tryst on an island beach, her singing turns Middle Eastern, then the fling floats out to sea since "nothing lasts forever" even if "the rise and fall is endless." So she just rides the torrential current, cooing, flirting, gro