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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 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.

1984 Rebbie Jackson
58

Rebbie Jackson, “Centipede”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 24
As sinuous and vocally self-assured as any Jackson family record not made or fronted by Michael, his squeal-prone eldest sibling's first and highest hit was nonetheless written and produced by him. And his repressed, tormented sexuality runs all through its slithering electro-funk: "You crawled into the bathroom window, to bite him with your love," like a smooth criminal — only here the metaphor is a creepy-crawly arthropod with way too many legs, a "hot" one for some reason, that turns into a snake in the final verse. On Rebbie's album, she also covered Prince's "I Feel for You," only a week after Chaka Khan did. The Pointer Sisters had done it two years before, actually, but Chaka won. C.E.

1984 Scorpions
57

Scorpions, “Rock You Like a Hurricane”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 25
Scorpions could barely crack the Top 40 in their native Germany, let alone cross it at all in the States before the primal, fist-banging call-to-arms "Rock You Like a Hurricane." Its guitar riff (which mirrored the melody of the salvo) was seemingly cut from the same swath as metal anthems like "Iron Man" and "Smoke on the Water." It all added up to for a powerful, seething proclamation of rock, an undeniable call to play air guitar like few songs had done before. The song and its video (whose cage match predicted the next year's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) made Scorpions megastars in 1984, notching them a triple-platinum album and paving the way for huge hits throughout the decade. K.G.

 

1984 Bronski Beat
56

Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 48
Balancing melancholia and backbone in his falsetto, Jimmy Somerville lends soulful voice to disenfranchised LGBT youth in Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy." The tumultuous synthpop anthem gives listeners encouragement run away because "The love that you need will never be found at home." It's easy to hear why the Beat's hissing drums and keyboard loops found a heartbeat in clubs, but the "It gets better" message — poignant without being heavy handed — keeps Somerville singing it to this day. Recently, he reinvented it as a piano ballad. R.F.