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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 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.

 

1984
31

The Pointer Sisters, “Automatic”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Five
After Thriller, a blockbuster album was expected to yield hit after hit, and the Pointer Sisters' late-1983 Break Out, their synth-pop summation, is a paradigmatic example, yielding three Top Ten hits. The best is one of the great Prince rips — "Automatic" is like an inverted "1999," from the fanfare-like synth riff with clipped funk guitar responses to the bassy "Au-to-ma-tic" that caps the chorus echoing "Don't worry, I won't hurt you." The groove powers the arrangement, but this record won a Best Vocal Arrangement Grammy Award for good reason as well. M.M.

1984 Frankie Goes to Hollywood
30

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Relax”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Ten
BBC's Radio One DJs missed the sexual implications of this track's drawn-out hook — probably having missed the Frankie magazine ads featuring taglines like "All the nice boys love sea men" and "19 inches that must always be taken." Not long after they helped the record become one of the most popular in the U.K., the network promptly banned it — a decision that, no surprise, boosted its popularity even more. Of course, even if the record's hard, Hi-NRG sound was mostly the work of producer Trevor Horn, the band themselves were no naïve bystanders. "Morley had his strategy all worked out," backing vocalist Paul Rutherford later recalled, referring to the ZTT Records mastermind who planted those ads. "He wanted it to be like the Sex Pistols — all the outrage, controversy — but this time with all the sex." N.M.