100 Best Singles of 1984: Pop's Greatest Year - Rolling Stone
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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 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.

1984 billy idol
55

Billy Idol, “Rebel Yell”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 46
"White Wedding" had already made Billy Idol an MTV star before he released 1983's Rebel Yell. But the album's title track and lead single didn't take off until a 1984 re-release following the success of "Eyes Without a Face." Idol didn't write the song about the whiskey — although he was introduced to the brand when he saw some other rock stars, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, taking swigs from a bottle of Rebel Yell. A.S.

1984 Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
54

Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, “Say, Say, Say”

Hot 100 Peak: Number One
In what would become one of pop's most famous and turbulent intergenerational friendships, Paul McCartney became something of a big brother to the only pop star of the Eighties whose popularity rivaled that of the Beatles. Although their first collaboration, "The Girl Is Mine," is mainly remembered as the weakest link in Thriller's chain of hits, their second duet, for Macca's 1983 Pipes of Peace, found common ground with an uptempo rock song. It was Number One for six weeks between 1983 and 1984, and, as Billboard reported last year, the 40th biggest hit of all time. A.S.

 

1984 "Weird Al" Yankovic
53

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Eat It”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 12
Even the man's own Twitter bio acknowledges that this will forever be "Weird Al" Yankovic's tastiest calling card. The Michael Jackson parody won him his first Grammy (for Best Comedy Recording, beating out Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor) and rhymes "Raisin Bran" with "kids starving in Japan." The video, with its non-stop barrage of visual gags, helped establish MTV (and music video as an iconic medium) almost as much as the videos it was spoofing. MJ loved it, or at least tolerated it. R.H.

1984 Cherrelle
52

Cherrelle, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On”

Hot 100 Peak: Number 79
The Minneapolis-based producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis began developing their distinctive sound — sweeping synths, crisp bass lines, irresistible melodies that straddled the line between electro-funk and R&B — as members of the Time in the early Eighties. The sinewy, synth-drum-heavy "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" was one of a handful of tracks the pair produced for Fragile, the debut album by the Los Angeles-based singer Cherrelle. "Turn" only just broke into the Hot 100, but it eventually became known as one of Jam & Lewis's signature tracks, as their sound started to dominate the decade via Janet Jackson, New Edition and George Michael. In 1986, blue-eyed soul man Robert Palmer took a smokier version to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, and Mariah Carey used the original instrumental bed for her 2001 version, which appeared on the soundtrack to her notorious quasi-biopic Glitter. M.J.

1984 Dan Hartman
51

Dan Hartman, “I Can Dream About You”

Hot 100 Peak: Number Six
The 1984 "rock & roll fable" Streets of Fire was a critical and commercial flop, but the retro-futuristic lead single from its soundtrack, "I Can Dream About You," dominated radio long after the movie left theaters. Dan Hartman's version of "Dream" doesn't appear in the movie, where "Dream" is performed by the in-universe band the Sorels; instead, actors Grand L. Bush, Stoney Jackson, Mykelti Williamson and Robert Townsend mime a version performed by vocalist Winston Ford. But Hartman's version dominated radio, in part because it encapsulated the mid-Eighties vogue for callbacks to the early Motown era. (In 2005 Daryl Hall revealed that Hartman had actually written "Dream" for Hall & Oates.) Hartman gives as much oomph to his impassioned vocal performance as he does to the track's delectable guitar solo, making for a track that, today, ably doubles down on the idea of "retro." M.J.

 

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