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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. 

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, growling, admonishing — in the 12-inch version, for well over seven minutes. C.E.

1984 John Lennon
82

John Lennon, “Nobody Told Me”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
It's tempting to imagine what might have been had Lennon re-cut the vocal to his final Top 10 hit, something he planned to do after New Year's Eve, 1980. He'd cut the track early in the sessions, deliberately leaving it aside for the follow-up to Double Fantasy — it didn't fit that album's domestic mood. What we've got, though, is plenty: Instead of double-tracking himself per usual, this relaxed take shows how powerfully natural and sharp-witted a singer he was. The song, by the way, was initially written by Lennon for Ringo Starr. M.M.

1984 Jocelyn Brown
81

Jocelyn Brown, “Somebody Else’s Guy”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 75
A disco fave who sang on underground classics like Musique's "Keep on Jumpin'" and Inner Life's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Jocelyn Brown scored her biggest solo hit with "Somebody Else's Guy," a torn, funky lament written when Brown and her sister Annette realized they were both being two-timed. The song remains a party favorite, but back in 1984, Brown and producer Allen George had to fight to get it released. "A lot of older black A&R guys are totally out of touch with the street," the latter told Billboard's Nelson George not long after the single's release. "All the majors turned down 'Somebody Else's Guy,' saying it was too old-fashioned. Yet on an indie, Prelude, it was a huge record. They don't want to give young blood a shot at bringing in an unknown artist." N.M.

 

1984 Robin Gibb
80

Robin Gibb, “Boys Do Fall in Love”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 37
The blue-eyed-soul Bee Gee made his New Wave move late, with stuttering, silly synth-pop that somehow echoed the then-emergent evolution of both Italodisco (the song went Top 10 in Italy) and Latin freestyle (it was shaped by a team of producers who'd just kicked off the genre with Shannon's "Let the Music Play"). Chirpingly cheerful about boys getting love on a Saturday night, yet sheltering a secret sadness that slips out whenever Gibb grabs angelic high notes, "Boys Do Fall in Love" can also be heard as a male mirroring of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." And in its sci-fi video, set in A.D. 2184, people do futuristic things: wearing Devo glasses, for instance, and sliding CDs into a player. C.E.

 

1984 Genesis
79

Genesis, “That’s All”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 6
A simple piano-driven tune written in homage to the Beatles, "That's All" marked the tipping point of Genesis' transformation from prog pomp-masters to pop hitmakers. It was the band's first Top 10 hit in the U.S., as well as the first for Phil Collins as a songwriter (his cover of "You Can't Hurry Love" grazed the top echelon a couple of years earlier). A few months later, Collins would top the chart as a solo artist with "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)," and remain a ubiquitous presence for the rest of the decade. A.S.

1984 the cars
78

The Cars, “You Might Think”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Seven
"Mutt" Lange all but invented the sound of pop metal with Def Leppard's Pyromania and AC/DC's Back in Black, and look what he's done to these rock & roll clowns — turned them into fast machines and kept their motors clean. On the first single from the Cars' 1984 album, Heartbeat City, chrome-plated hooks are buffed free of all art-pop residue or new-wave anomie. Elliot Easton's precise guitar bits go out for a tuneful spin before pulling right back in where they started and Greg Hawkes' keyboards are as persistent and repetitive as a song about an ingratiating stalker calls for. K.H.

 

1984 Hall and Oates
77

Hall and Oates, “Out of Touch”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
"AOR is starting to go more in our direction, which is black-white crossover," Daryl Hall told Billboard in a 1984 story on their Big Bam Boom LP. "Radio is heading more in that direction now than at any time in the past 15 years." He and Oates responded to these shifts with "Out of Touch," the rare tune that becomes a hit on the pop, R&B, dance and adult contemporary charts. With two thick bass lines and drum machine percussion, "Out of Touch" was even a favorite of New York mix-show DJs like Red Alert and the Latin Rascals, who would occasionally play it (or Arthur Baker's dub remix) alongside electro by Hashim and Man Parrish. N.M.

 

1984 General Public
76

General Public, “Tenderness”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 27
After the English Beat dissolved in 1983, vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger formed General Public alongside other refugees from New Wave-era acts like the Clash, Dexys Midnight Runners and the Specials. The Clash's Mick Jones departed the group midway through the recording of their first album, but not before adding guitars to a few tracks, including the deceptively world-weary "Tenderness." Blending sparkling keyboards with Wakeling and Roger's pumped-up melancholia, the track not only laid out the funny-cry-happy appeal of early modern rock, it set the table for similarly quasi-triumphant tracks like Robyn's "Dancing on My Own." M.J.

1984 Billy Joel
75

Billy Joel, “Uptown Girl”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
Billy Joel wrote "Uptown Girl" about his girlfriend at the time, model Elle Macpherson. But the song (released in 1983) came to be more popularly associated with his co-star in the video, Christie Brinkley, who Joel married in 1985. Evidently this Frankie Valli-inspired piece of vocal-group revisionism reminded him of Brinkley as well: The song was dropped from Joel's concert set lists in the mid-Nineties when the couple was splitting up. A.S.

1984 J. Blackfoot
74

J. Blackfoot, “Taxi”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 90
Once a member of thrice-pop-charting turn-of-the-Seventies Stax vocal quartet the Soul Children (and before that a teenage Tennessee State Pen inmate), Mississippi-born J. Blackfoot was already in his late thirties when he grabbed his biggest solo hit. "Taxi" was Top Five R&B, if only Number 90 pop, and even then probably the last blues-guitared, catfish-and-cornbread-fed Southern soul to score so high on either chart. It came from a small-label album called City Slicker, which depicted Blackfoot as a country man navigating urban streets — here, trying to reach his baby across town before her new love does. Hitchhiking won't cut it, so he whistles for a cab and pleads for the driver to take the freeway. Hope he made it! C.E.

1984 Def Leppard
73

Def Leppard, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 61
Def Leppard gave their 1981 single "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" a second chance in 1984, capitalizing on their "Photograph" ubiquity by reissuing their second full-length, High 'n' Dry, with a synthesizer-imbued remix. The effect turned a fragile hard-rock power ballad into something huge, and previewed their late-Eighties reign: bombastic production, multi-tracked harmonies and a pop malleability that transcended hard rock. Mariah Carey took it one step further in 2002 when she turned it into a full-on, symphonically orchestrated R&B song. K.G.

 

1984 Twisted Sister
72

Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take it”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 21
A visually striking band, a chorus that's fun to shout, a video with a parents-versus-kids storyline (in the clip, "I wanna rock!" is the headbanger equivalent of clicking your ruby slippers): How could this fail in the MTV era? "We're Not Gonna Take It" was (and remains) an anthem, through and through, with a simplistic, catchy, knuckle-headed melody so primal that the guitar solo just repeats it. Joan Jett and Green Day have riffed on it, "Weird Al" has turned it into a polka and the Broadway musical Rock of Ages made it a staple of the Great White Way. K.G.

1984 Jellybean
71

Jellybean, “Sidewalk Talk”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 18
Madonna penned the first single to be credited to her then-boyfriend, New York DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez, and handled vocal duties on its chorus. (The breathy Catharine Buchanan, who passed away in 2001, sang the verses.) Similar in style to the ramped-up club music that made tracks like the Benitez-produced "Holiday" early-Eighties radio staples, "Sidewalk Talk" distills the essence of New York — full of fast-moving possibility and flash, but to be handled with caution in order to be survived. M.J.

1984 Midnight Star
70

Midnight Star, “No Parking (on the Dance Floor)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 81
Midnight Star, an electro-funk group from the unlikely locale of Frankfort, Kentucky, went double platinum with their fourth album, No Parking on the Dance Floor, thanks to a string of singles ("Freak-A-Zoid," "Wet My Whistle") that masterfully combined Kraftwerk's minimalist blips with pop-sized hooks. Third single, "No Parking (on the Dance Floor)," was a hypnotic mix of Rick James grooves and vocoder sizzle; and the eye-catching video possibly got a boost from Prince lookalike busting a move. A.S.

1984 Ray Parker Jr.
69

Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Quite possibly the best blockbuster-movie theme song of the decade also triggered one of the 1980s' gnarliest musical lawsuits. And sure, it does sound like Ray Parker Jr. baldly ripped off Huey Lewis, but this is catchier than "I Want a New Drug," exuberant horns and all, and thus charted higher on the Hot 100. Plus: Did the Reagan Era produce a better, truer bridge than "Bustin' makes me feel good"? Alas, it was the apex of Mr. Parker Jr.'s career, and his royalty situation is still a mess; his only hope now is to somehow talk Bill Murray into another sequel. R.H.

 

1984 Van Halen
68

Van Halen, “Hot for Teacher”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 56
The last of the four of singles from Van Halen's blockbuster 1984, "Hot for Teacher," with its legendary intro of Alex Van Halen overdubbing multiple bass drums, wound up being the swan song for David Lee Roth's original tenure with the band. The wildly entertaining video, co-directed by Roth, showed the frontman going on to become "America's favorite TV game show host" — something that was a little prophetic. Within a few months, Diamond Dave would take his increasingly wacky aesthetic to solo clips like "California Girls" and announce his departure from the band. A.S.

1984 madonna
67

Madonna, “Like a Virgin”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
If the hits from Madonna's 1983 debut established her as a star, it was the title track from 1984's Like a Virgin that vaulted her into icon status, rocketing to the top of the Hot 100 in its sixth week on the chart. Madonna has played up the ambiguity of the lyric, which has been interpreted in many ways (most famously and explicitly in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs), but the song was originally conceived by songwriter Billy Steinberg as a tender ballad inspired by a new love after a depressing heartbreak. It was Madonna herself, however, who suggested the title of the parody "Weird Al" Yankovic later recorded, "Like a Surgeon." A.S.

1984 elton john
66

Elton John, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Four
Elton John had dallied with other lyricists since the late Seventies, but 1983's Too Low for Zero reunited him full-time with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, who responded with the words for Elton's finest Eighties hit. It's not a lyric Taupin is especially proud of: On his website, he expresses regret over the line "I simply love you more than I love life itself," a sentiment he calls "false." But it elicits one of Elton's most heartfelt performances, abetted by the first of Stevie Wonder's two great charting-in-1984 harmonica guest spots (the other: Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You"). M.M.

 

1984 Laura Branigan
65

Laura Branigan, “Self Control”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 4
Like this booming bridge-and-tunnel torch-dance diva's even bigger "Gloria" two years before, "Self Control" was an English translation of an Italian pop hit. And though it scaled dance and adult-contemporary as well as pop charts, its sound and mood was just as much post-Benatar rock and goth without making an issue of it: Branigan "live(s) among the creatures of the night," since when the light's out it's more dangerous. In the video, directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame, she descends to the cellar from her bedroom to encounter an orgy of masked, nearly naked freaks and vampires. Especially given the song's decadent Eurotrash past, debts to Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" hardly seem a stretch. C.E.

1984 Matthew Wilder
64

Matthew Wilder, “Break My Stride”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
The debut single from this former Bette Midler backup singer is a jaunty bit of pop-reggae with a chorus tailor-made to help people lift themselves out of whatever malaise they might be in. It was probably inevitable that this idiosyncratic track, marked as much by Wilder's feather-light voice as it was by its "hang in there" poster feel, would be Wilder's only Top 10 hit, but his influence has reverberated beyond the Eighties. "Stride" was interpolated by Puff Daddy for "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," which rocketed past the original's Number Five showing, topping the charts in 1997. In recent years Wilder has produced No Doubt's similarly bouncy Tragic Kingdom, as well as tracks by Miley Cyrus (in Hannah Montana mode) and Kelly Clarkson. M.J.

 

1984 zz top
63

ZZ Top, “Legs”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Although the song was interpreted as a purely lascivious celebration of female anatomy (a fact the video certainly played up), ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons originally wrote "Legs" after he saw a young lady running to get out of the rain. The band reigned over 1983 with Eliminator hits like "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Sharp Dressed Man," the bearded thirtysomething rockers adapting surprisingly well to the MTV era. But the Texas trio saved the best for last with the album's fifth single, which wound up being the biggest hit of their career — 45 years and counting. A.S.

 

1984 Animotion
62

Animotion, “Obsession”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Six
"Obsession" was originally recorded by co-writers Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight and included in the 1983 stripper-hunk love saga A Night in Heaven (starring Lesley Ann Warren and Christopher Atkins — giving this tune extra Eighties points all by itself). But in the hands of S.F. synth-poppers Animotion, "Obsession" is Eighties sleaze so ultimate that Adrian Lyne should be kicking himself for not directing the video. M.M.

1984 yes
61

Yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 1
Buggles mastermind and burgeoning synth-pop genius Trevor Horn was first drafted into Yes to front the band on 1980's Drama after the departure of founding member Jon Anderson. While that album didn't reverse the band's downward creative and commercial trajectory, Horn remained on as a producer when a new side project, Cinema, turned into a Yes reunion when Anderson came back into the fold. The resulting album, 90125, was an unexpected pop juggernaut, with "Owner of a Lonely Heart" perfectly merging Yes' prog ambitions with Horn's cutting-edge sonics and pop smarts. A.S.

1984 John Cougar Mellencamp
60

John Cougar Mellencamp, “Pink Houses”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 8
Adding "Mellencamp" to his name meant the Coug was taking his greasy small-town Midwest populism seriously now. As with Springsteen's to the east, his lyrics left themselves open to misinterpretation and appropriation by all stripes — that interstate running through the old black man's front yard inevitably lured eminent domain-obsessed Tea Party types. But Reaganomics made the simple man paying for the bills and pills that kill timely regardless, and the Hoosier bard's band — anchored by drum hero Kenny Aronoff — made folk-rock kick like three-chord frat-rock. In decades since, artists from Leather Nun ("Pink House," 1986) to Kenny Chesney ("American Kids," 2014) couldn't leave the archetype alone. C.E.

Pat Benatar, "Love Is a Battlefield"
59

Pat Benatar, “Love Is a Battlefield”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
Pat Benatar was already a darling of both rock radio and MTV when she released her first live album, Live From Earth, in late 1983. But it was one of two new studio tracks tacked on to the end that became her biggest crossover success. The video, one of the first with dramatic dialogue outside of the musical segments, was patently ridiculous, with Benatar playing a teenage working girl who stands up to her pimp — but the video's dance sequence became a pop-culture sensation. Benatar, who said she had "two left feet," recalled, "I was crying… I'm happy I did it, but I can't say there was one moment where it was pleasant." A.S.