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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

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns;

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. 

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18

a-ha, “Take on Me”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
The little Norwegian synth-pop song that could, "Take On Me" began its journey in 1984, when a-ha released the first version of their debut single, along with a cheap, performance-driven music video. A slightly different re-recording, and the now-iconic video with rotoscoped animation, helped drive the song to the top of the American charts in 1985. The band only had one more Top 40 hit in the States, but remained stars all over Europe for the rest of the decade. Few pop singles have the lasting legacy of this one — rock bands (mxpx, Cap'n Jazz) covered it in the Nineties, boy bands (the Jonas Brothers, A1) covered it in the Aughts and Pitbull recently scored a Top 10 hit by borrowing the melody for "Feel This Moment." A.S.

 

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17

Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
"Minimum space, maximum joy:" It's not only the ethos of the lithe lothario in Sade's silky smash, it's a pretty apt description for the song itself, a lighter-than-air classic that crossed lines between R&B, jazz, adult contemporary, pop and dance music. The opening track on the group's debut album, Diamond Life, it signaled the arrival of a bright new star in frontwoman Sade Adu, and provided the soundtrack to a decade of excess and soft-focus sensuality. J.M.

 

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16

Tracey Ullman, “They Don’t Know”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Eight
Tracey takes on… Lesley Gore? In 1984, British sketch-comedy repertory player Tracey Ullman was an unknown commodity in the States. Her debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, was a peak moment of new wave's obsession with the girl-group era, covering early-to-mid-Sixties singles from Irma Thomas, Marcie Blaine and Sandie Shaw (and even Sixties revisionists Blondie). But it was this cover of Kirsty MacColl's 1979 swooner "They Don’t Know" that became an international smash — Ullman made the connection more explicit by amping up the kitsch, adding Spectorian production, indulging huge harmonies and performing in a brilliantly acted video that showcased her comedy chops. Three years later she would have her own half-hour series in America that would introduce an animated family named the Simpsons. C.W.

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15

Nena, “99 Luftballons”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Two
At the height of Germany's anti-nuclear movement, two years before Chernobyl left radiation across the nation, six years before reunification, West Berlin Neue Deutsche Welle cuties imagine how "neunundneunzig" balloons floating over the Wall might turn the Cold War hot. In the B-side's English translation, its title seemingly references 1956 French art-film short The Red Balloon. "The war machine springs to life" and the city turns to dust — a.k.a., the abandoned post-atomic wasteland tomboy singer Nena strolls across in the video. Her musicians gave martial krautrock a synth-funk bubblegum bounce, and the German version barely missed topping ugly America's imperialist pop chart regardless. C.E.

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14

John Waite, “Missing You”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Former Babys vocalist John Waite scored his only solo hit with "Missing You," a song that desperately attempts to convince an ex that he isn't hurting as bad it seems. "John epitomized the tortured poet artist, the romantic figure that's my big weakness," MTV's Nina Blackwood recalled in VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave. "He was a walking Byronic archetype, down to his look and his cologne." Years after the two had exchanged letters and gifts across the Atlantic, Waite, now married, invited Blackwood to meet him at his studio. When she declined, he could do nothing but write "Missing You" — eventually playing it for her at Little Steven's 57th Street apartment. Later, when another VJ, Mark Goodman, asked if the song really was written about Blackwood, the tortured poet artist paused and responded: "It was written about her and a bunch of other women." N.M.

 

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13

Newcleus, “Jam on It”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 56
At the nexus of electro, funk, DJ culture and "Purple People Eater"-style novelty records lie Brooklyn quartet Newcleus, who bang-dang-diggy-diggy'd their way to a helium-voiced cult hit in 1983 with "Jam on Revenge." The even catchier "Jam on It" exploded while the band was on tour with fellow funkateers Cameo — Cozmo D said the bass line (inspired by Yazoo's slick new wave track "Situation") was always a crowd pleaser. But the fact that Chilly B rapped on it, an early pop triumph for the slowly rising hip-hop scene two years before Run-D.M.C. would hit the Hot 100, probably is the song's biggest legacy. "Sure enough, that record just kept going and going," said Cozmo. "So, now all of a sudden, we're rap artists!" C.W.

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12

U2, “Pride (in the Name of Love)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 33
U2's Top 40 debut was a dedication to the resilience of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision for peace. It's a big concept that required a big song, and luckily the group's soaring guitars and industrial-strength drums (not to overlook guest vocals by the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde) made for an anthem that was up to the task. Unsurprisingly, "Pride" has become a concert staple for the band and its message has transcended genres thanks to covers by everyone from C+C Music Factory to John Legend to the nü-metal group Flyleaf. K.G.

 

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11

Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
"Survivor" and "comeback" are hideously overused critical clichés but damn if Tina Turner didn't deserve both of them. A musician so inseparable from "domestic violence" that Jay Z still peppers hit singles with references to it, Turner had gone more than a dozen years without a Top 10 hit. That personal history seemed audible in her rasp, adding a resonance to this anti-romantic ballad that even a great singer like Donna Summer, who'd turned it down, wouldn't have. At 44, Turner was the oldest solo female artist to score a Number One hit — a record that stood for 14 years until the 52-year-old Cher's "Believe." K.H.

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10

Sheila E., “The Glamorous Life”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Seven
Prince and Sheila E. maintained a behind-the-scenes relationship for years — as her new memoir reveals — and it's not hard to hear on this irresistibly frisky funk-pop morality play: Prince didn't even bother mixing his guide vocals down. The song, written by her Purple pal, is one of the most generous giveaways of his career, full of coy turns of phrase ("They made love, and by the seventh wave she knew she had a problem") — though "The Glamorous Life" truly comes alive with percussion à la Sheila, mixed hot and up front. The horns are also an early sign of the jazzier touches that would come to adorn his music, particularly on 1987's Sign 'O' the Times. M.M.

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9

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Nine
Originally recorded as one of the cassette demos that eventually became 1982's harrowing Nebraska, "Born in the U.S.A." keynoted its blockbuster follow-up, an album Springsteen was adamant be a lot more optimistic (i.e., not difficult, as evidenced by mega-hits like like "Dancing in the Dark"). Yet Springsteen's screaming vocal, coupled with Max Weinberg's reverbed-out military drumming, is just as unsettling once you grasp the lyrics' desperation — "Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go" is no metaphor for the Vietnam-veteran narrator. President Reagan's re-election committee missed this entirely and requested to use it as a campaign song. Springsteen declined. M.M.

Prince 1984

Event: Artist: Photographer: Credit: Redferns Copyright Holder:

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

8

Prince and the Revolution, “Purple Rain”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Eight
Even edited down to a radio-friendly four minutes from the eight-and-half-minute LP version (which was already edited down from the 11-minute performance recorded at First Avenue in Minneapolis), "Purple Rain" feels long — and that's meant as the highest compliment. The emotional ground that Prince's signature power ballad covers — from Wendy Melvoin's introductory chords to his own climactic, heroic solo flight — is vast. And just think how weird it'd have been if Stevie Nicks had written the words, as Prince had asked her to. K.H.

 

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7

Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
This is what it sounds like when Eagles cry. For pure, lethal nostalgia, nothing beats this phenomenally catchy and casually devastating slice of synth-pop melancholy. Not only the bleeding heart of Don Henley's second solo album, Building the Perfect Beast, the tune's Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed French new wave clip cleaned house at the second-ever VMAs in '85 — it was MTV's very own The 400 Blows. It lyrical legacy remains "Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac," the "Deadhead" part later updated by pop-punkers the Ataris to "Black Flag" in 2003. Whoever covers it next can choose from "White Stripes," "Deadmau5" or "Death Grips." R.H.

 

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6

Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Written with Rob Hyman of Philadelphia's Hooters before that band's mid-Eighties heyday, this ballad was, as Lauper told Interview, "180 degrees" from its predecessor, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun": "They were opposites." But the song showcased Lauper's stylistic range and, especially, her vocal depth — she sounded both vulnerable and tough, like a Ronnie Spector who'd heard Patti Smith. She got the title, but not the plot, from a 1979 movie starring Malcolm McDowell as a time-traveling H.G. Wells. The following year, Miles Davis would cover it on his album, You're Under Arrest. M.M.

 

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5

Michael Jackson, “Thriller”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Four
In the worst of all possible alternative universes, songwriter Rod Temperton stuck with his original title: "Starlight." Fortunately, in our happier, weirder world he went with "Thriller." The final hit single from the blockbuster album that popped out seven of them (starting way back in October of 1982) is a perfect mix of campy winks and genuine chills, aided spooktacularly by a synth bass that's even creepier than Vincent Price luxuriating in the word "evil." The music video for "Thriller" was also quite popular. K.H.

 

Prince 1984

Prince performing on his 'Purple Rain' tour in Detroit, MI on November 4, 1984. *** NO SALES TO: THE NETHERLANDS, BELGIUM, GERMANY, AUSTRIA, SWITZERLAND, FRANCE + UK *** © Govert de Roos / Retna Ltd.

© Govert de Roos/Retna Ltd.

4

Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
In 1984, Prince ruled every major musical category — pop, R&B, rock, dance — with one album, the soundtrack to Purple Rain. With that album's opener, "Let's Go Crazy," he flashed the breadth of his mastery in one song: sprinting Linn drum-machine groove, blackout-dizzying guitar solo, adrenaline-swizzling synth solo, all kicked off by a fonkily reverbed testimony from the bandleader himself as a church-organ swelled. His band the Revolution (full collaborators for this alchemical moment in time), flaying every turn and breakdown, until it all concluded with Prince turning Hendrix into a cartoon superhero, while hopping off his motorcycle to kiss Apollonia in the video. C.A.

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3

Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
Ten years since her last Number Three hit, Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good," Chaka Khan finally matched it. For Khan, it recharged her career. For Prince, this high-tech cover of a 1979 album cut was a late feather an unstoppable year — beyond his Number One album/singles/movie were hits he also wrote for Sheila E. and the Time. For producer Arif Mardin, who'd been producing records since the mid-Sixties, it was a chance to change with the times, and possibly change them himself: "As we were mounting the recording onto the main master," he told NPR, "my hand slipped on the repeat machine — ch-ch-ch-ch-Chaka Khan. So we said, 'Let's keep that, that's very interesting.'" For America, "I Feel for You" was another early meeting with hip-hop culture (and its uncanny ability to be pop music) thanks to a Melle Mel rap, a sampled Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and video full of breakdancers. C.W.

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2

Madonna, “Borderline”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 10
"I dared to believe this was going to be huge beyond belief, the biggest thing I'd ever had, after I heard 'Borderline,'" Seymour Stein, the record man who signed Madonna, recalled. "The passion that she put into that song, I thought, there's no stopping this girl." His gut was right on target: The fifth and final single from Madonna's 1983 debut album was her first to hit the Top 10. The melodic synth-a-palooza with the plunky low end was one of two on the LP penned by Reggie Lucas, who used a drum machine instead of a live drummer for the first time on the tune, doubling a synth bass with Anthony Jackson on electric bass guitar ("They're playing so tight you can't tell the difference," Lucas said). Madonna turned in a sweetly-sung, restrained but emotional vocal (her voice wavers just so when she gets to "Feels like I'm going to lose my mind") about a beau who has her heart twisted. The radio remix, which trims nearly three minutes from the tune, boasts one of Madge's most iconic fade-outs, standing by as she "la la la"s into the void. C.G.

Prince1984

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13: RITZ CLUB Photo of PRINCE, Prince performing on stage - Purple Rain Tour (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Richar E. Aaron/Redferns

1

Prince and the Revolution, “When Doves Cry”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
The year's biggest hit (five weeks at Number One) was also its most visionary. After the shrapnel of Prince's introductory guitar volley settles, a hypnotic Linn drum pattern syncs with a synth figure courtly enough for a minuet. Vocals of cold menace and desperate abandon vie for preeminence until climatic screeches of pain carry the day. It's a song that has everything — except a bass. Prince brazenly lopped off his original bass line the studio and then, according to engineer Peggy McCreary, boasted, in true Prince fashion, "There's nobody that's going to have the guts to do this." K.H.

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