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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 Huey Lewis and the News
49

Huey Lewis and the News, “If This Is It”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 6
In its day, Huey Lewis and the News' 1983 smash Sports was as ubiquitous and monolithic (and Caucasian) as Weezer's Blue Album or Katy Perry's Teenage Dream were in theirs — consider that this pristine slice of whimsical doo-wop melancholy was the album's fourth single. A primo example of the band's "big fat rockcraft" (as Robert Christgau grudgingly put it), the song is best remembered for its goofy broiling-beach-bum MTV clip, wherein the News gamely consent to being buried in Santa Cruz sand up to their necks. The two requisite swimsuit models now report that Huey and Co. were perfect gentlemen. R.H.

1984 The Go-Go's
48

The Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 11
It should be illegal to buy a keyboard in this country without testing it via the peppy, wrist-dislocating riff that kicks off this, the leadoff track and one true undeniable moment on 1984's otherwise disappointing (and band-derailing) Talk Show. A Charlotte Caffey/Kathy Valentine joint (few Eighties crews had a deeper songwriting bench), it narrowly tops the decade's other big pop song named "Head Over Heels" on infectious charm alone, though it helps that the video isn't set in a library. Best clapping sound effects this side of "Jack and Diane," too. R.H.

1984 billy idol
47

Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 4
Inspired by the super-creepy 1960 French horror flick Les Yeux Sans Visage (that's what the lady is chanting on the chorus), "Eyes Without a Face" is Billy Idol's monster power ballad, his very own "Maps" or "Beth" or "Free Bird." With a slithery, Public Image Ltd.-worthy bass line by salsa king Sal Cuevas, it's the indisputable highlight of Idol's 1983 album Rebel Yell, if not his whole career (and the video is a minor masterpiece of extreme-close-up sneering). R.H.

1984 Eurythmics
46

Eurythmics, “Here Comes the Rain Again”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Four
The dramatic flourishes of Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again" prove worthy of an action flick with a voluminous budget. Partly, that's due to Eighties screen score king Michael Kamen (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) and members of the British Philharmonic Orchestra signing on for its thrilling string arrangements. Also credit one of Dave Stewart's most-pristine productions blending the orchestral bits with bright synthpop, krautrock and even doo-wop backing vocals. When it rains, it pours: Annie Lennox's lines dance in and out of the shadows at all the right moments. R.F.

1984 Billy Ocean
45

Billy Ocean, “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Born in Trinidad and raised in Essex, Billy Ocean had been making records in the U.K. for a decade before breaking the U.S. R&B charts with 1981's "Nights." But "Caribbean Queen" went Number One pop in America for good reason: Ocean's lithe but powerful tenor gets its juiciest melody, not to mention a perfectly suited lyric: Bravado ("In the blink of an eye, I knew her number and her name") is softened by vulnerability ("Love was the furthest, furthest from my mind"). "Caribbean Queen" became Jive Records' biggest American hit since two years earlier, when A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran (So Far Away)" hit the Top 10. M.M.

1984 Shannon
44

Shannon, “Give Me Tonight”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 46
The follow-up to Shannon's smash debut single 1984's "Let the Music Play" operates in the same vein, with "Play" producers Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa creating a slightly icier, yet still club-ready track over which the New York-based singer could unspool her tale of romantic frustration. "Tonight" has a particularly powerhouse vocal performance by Shannon, and it turns almost wrenching near the song's end. It didn't catch the ear of pop radio programmers the way "Play" did, but its chilly atmospherics and lyrical soap operatics did help further establish the parameters of the dance subgenre eventually known as "freestyle." M.J.

 

1984 talk talk
43

Talk Talk, “It’s My Life”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 31
British New Wavers Talk Talk scored their biggest American hit with this soaring synth-pop gem: Warm synthesizer washes, a robust bass line and Mark Hollis' vocal gymnastics asserting independence. For the accompanying video, Hollis pointedly disses lip-syncing by standing in the London Zoo as squiggly animations dance in front of his closed mouth. (The label later forced him to redo it, so they added overblown fake singing via green screen to the original footage.) It only climbed to Number 31, but No Doubt's lite-rock cover hit Number 10 in 2003. R.F.

 

1984 Philip Bailey & Phil Collins
42

Philip Bailey & Phil Collins, “Easy Lover”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Two
Two guys named Philip — one from Earth, Wind & Fire, and one from Genesis — curdled one of the finest examples of premium-grade Eighties pop cheese. It's about a lover of the easy variety, but good luck parsing much else. Riding essentially a sped-up version of the heavy guitar/synth interplay that starts Harvey Mason's '81 jazzy slab of funk "How Does It Feel," "Easy Lover" is pretty much all harmonies, all Bailey in the stratosphere and all fun. Co-written by Mason's future Fourplay bandmate Nathan East, and originally on Bailey's album Chinese Wall, the track was accompanied by a goofy video starring the duo navigating helicopters, dressing rooms and eventually a soundstage to film a music video within a music video. R.F.

 

1984 Bananarama
41

Bananarama, “Cruel Summer”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Nine
Though they "dressed like blokes," as member Keren Sera put it, Bananarama were a classic girl group, albeit in English synth-pop guise. "Cruel Summer" was their "Where Did Our Love Go?" or "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" — a classic the second it left the speakers. As with many English acts on this list, this was their American breakout, hitting the Top 10 and garnering them an unexpected fan: Sara Dallin told The Guardian about Mike Tyson "burst[ing] into 'Cruel Summer' when he saw us" at a hotel in Los Angeles. M.M.

1984 Duran Duran
40

Duran Duran, “The Reflex”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
Full of surrealistic imagery and a tour de force vocal performance by Simon LeBon, the opening track of Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger was a bit amorphous on first listen, its disparate elements never quite congealing. But after being given a sleek, yet feisty remix by Chic's Nile Rodgers (who would become a frequent Duran Duran collaborator; he recently blogged about working with them on their forthcoming album) the track became a pop smash. Under Rodgers' guidance, the flinty guitars and popping bass of "The Reflex" played off LeBon's whined "why-y-y-y-yyyy" in a deliriously fun way, and radio programmers took to it as well; "The Reflex" eventually became the MTV darlings' first Number One hit in America. M.J.

 

1984 Deniece Williams
39

Deniece Williams, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
If Deniece Williams had stuck with her original plan, she'd have been a nurse, and the Footloose soundtrack would lack its most effervescent hit. Instead, Williams dropped out of Morgan State University and dove headlong into a career in music, highlighted by this effort, which would become her second Number One and earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. In the decades since, she's transitioned to gospel, won three Grammys and thoroughly secured her place in Eighties lore by recording "Without Us," a.k.a. the theme song to Family Ties. J.M.

1984 ratt
38

Ratt, “Round and Round”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 12
Junky, trashy, downright ratty, these Hollywood rodents' first and biggest smash was as close as hair-metal got to garage punk — which might explain why, before Atlantic picked them up, they'd put out a debut EP on an indie label whose other acts were the Alley Cats and Surf Punks. "Out on the street, that's where we'll meet," pouty Stephen Pearcy starts, ready to rumble, and before long the compact crunch, circular structure and tuneful twin-guitar breaks are framing confessions of self-abuse. In the video, Milton Berle — uncle of a band manager — dresses in drag, making the world safe for glam metal's own cross-dress routine. C.E.

1984 Whodini
37

Whodini, “Friends”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 87 
An early victory for rap's pop appeal, Brooklyn trio Whodini blurred the lines until the vocal harmonies of hip-hop groups like the Crash Crew felt like the vocal harmonies of R&B groups like Frankie Beverly and Maze, until the quiet-storm beats of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (which "Friends" recalls) could be played next to a Run-D.M.C. stomper. The timeless message on this track — "Friends: How many of us have them?"— gave Whodini pop-rap crossover before the Fresh Prince and hunk status before LL Cool J. "That's the title they've given us, the sex symbols of rap," rapper Jalil told the L.A. Times in 1986. "The last sex symbol in rap was Kurtis Blow. But now you've got three for the price of one!" C.W.

1984 Cyndi Lauper
36

Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Three
1984 was a banner year for female masturbation in pop music. Cyndi didn't outright say the "m" word like Prince did on "Darling Nikki," but her code was hardly subtle — she's not reading Blue Boy for the articles or worrying she'll go blind because glaucoma runs in the Lauper family. The pearl-clutching busybodies of the PMRC, who listed "She Bop" among the "Filthy Fifteen" songs corrupting Eighties teens, were right to be worried: With everyone acting like sex should be solemn or sleazy, Cyndi's ecstatic gulps and yelps showed us it could just be goofy fun. K.H.

 

1984 The Romantics
35

The Romantics, “Talking in Your Sleep”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 3
These Detroit power-poppers with poofy hair so astounding, it's gif-worthy, hit it big in 1979 with "What I Like About You," which 51 percent of Americans still think was the Kinks. Impressive! This was a calmer, moodier, creepier piece of jangle-noir, caught halfway between the Buzzcocks and the Strokes, just catchy and charismatic enough to avoid being overpoweringly pervy. Kris Kross later sampled it, which is the highest compliment a song of this type can receive, other than a restraining order. R.H.

1984 Night Ranger
34

Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
A power-ballad standard — it's been in Rock of Ages, on Glee and can be heard on the Emotion 98.3 station in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. "Sister Christian" is a really big, often ridiculous ode to drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy's virtuous younger sister, a roller-coaster ride of somber pianos and searing solos that took the band to the upper reaches of Billboard. More than a decade later, director Paul Thomas Anderson unearthed it for Boogie Nights, where it scores one of the film's most memorable scenes. J.M.

 

1984 Bruce Springsteen
33

Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Two
Springsteen had been recording Born in the U.S.A. for two years — much of it was cut prior to the release of its predecessor, Nebraska — and he wanted to be done. However, his manager, Jon Landau, refused to let him call it quits: They needed a hit single. Springsteen got angry and irritated, wrote a song about it — and that song eventually spent four weeks at Number Two, beaten out successively by Duran Duran and Prince. Nevertheless, it was the push Springsteen needed to become a bona fide pop star: "Dancing" was the first of Born in the U.S.A.'s seven Top 10 hits. M.M.

 

1984 queen
32

Queen, “I Want to Break Free”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 45
After 1982's synth-dance mixed-bag Hot Space, an abandoned soundtrack (for The Hotel New Hampshire) and side- and solo-project distractions, Queen's 11th album was released at a sketchy time in the band's career — yet, "I Want to Break Free" is perhaps their most oddly in-your-face bit of playful uplift. Written by bassist John Deacon, it's a mid-tempo declaration with no chorus, just Freddie Mercury's love-lost verses building up drama until a goofy synth solo leads to a subdued instrumental bridge, another verse, and Mercury wailing the title repeatedly on the outro. The song became a controversial firestarter due to its video, in which the band members dressed in drag as a parody of British soap opera Coronation Street, with choreography provided by the Royal Ballet. Brit fans got the joke, but fans in America viewed the cross-dressing as a coming-out for Mercury, who wore a wig and fake breasts in the video and onstage (the video was banned by MTV and rocks were hurled at Mercury during a concert in Brazil). Conversely, in most of the rest of Europe, the song was viewed as an anthem of resistance against political oppression. C.A.