The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1982

Here we are, folks. After only two years, we’ve arrived at the true, honest-to-god NINETEEN EIGHTIES, in all its hairsprayed, sweatbanded, pink-and-blue glory. Though pop would hardly cease evolving over the next decade, and some key innovations hadn’t hit the scene just yet, the pop music of 1982 is nonetheless instantly recognizable as 80s music- No music fan worth their salt could possibly mistake the vast majority of these songs for 70s releases. Overall, the ‘82 year-end was a small step up from the previous couple years- a bit more vibrant, a bit more energizing, a bit less scattershot and anything-goes. The industry had largely recovered from the fallout of the disco backlash, Sony and Phillips were nearly done developing their new Compact Disc Digital Audio players, and MTV was terraforming the pop world into the towering behemoth it would become in the following years. We’re now well on our way to the decade’s adrenalized, coke-fueled pinnacle, so let’s savor the come-up with another round of sparkling 80s pop gems. On with the show!

#10: The Cars- Shake It Up

The Cars were, in many ways, the perfect band for their times, fusing a throwback, 60s rock-n-roll style with new wave glitter and a hint of punk grit. It was a weird recipe, and one that could have easily turned the band into unbearable gimmick merchants, but the whole thing was firmly held together by the razor-sharp pop instincts of frontman Ric Ocasek. Sure, the band had a fair number of divergent stylistic inclinations, but underneath every song was always a killer hook, something you could get stuck in your head for a full month, and that superhuman ability to craft irresistible, radio-ready choruses was what really made The Cars a band that music fans of all stripes could get behind. After their self-titled 1978 debut launched them into stardom, they had struggled a bit to find their footing, putting out two albums that leaned increasingly into stiff, nerdy new wave at the expense of memorable songwriting, but in ‘81 they went back to their pop rock roots with Shake it Up!, to great commercial success and only slightly diminished creative returns. The title track, their first single to crack the Billboard top 10, is a succinct encapsulation of everything The Cars were great at. They don’t sacrifice those synths ‘n’ keys from their last two LPs, they just use them as another tool in their arsenal of upbeat, infectious fun, right along with the crisp, danceable grooves and meticulously arranged backing vocals. The cheery synth line at the core of this song never once feels gratuitous or unnecessary- it’s a synth line because a synth was the right instrument for the job. And, lest you forget that these guys are an actual rock band, guitarist Elliot Easton delivers a pretty bitchin’ solo that completes that classic Cars blend of retro rock and modern pop. If there’s any weak point here, as with many Cars songs, it’s Ocasek’s herky-jerk, hiccuping singing style, which rarely stands in the way of the music but also rarely elevates it in the way someone more traditionally tuneful might have. I know it’s probably sacrilege to Cars devotees, but for all the improbable charisma he brought as a frontman, Ocasek was a songwriter first and foremost, and getting out of his own way as a vocalist was generally the best he could do. Still, it’s not nearly enough to tank the song, and that chorus alone is a pretty persuasive testament to this band’s knack for meat-n-potatoes pop brilliance.

#9: George Benson- Turn Your Love Around

George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” was written by session guitarist Jay Graydon, (probably best known for his solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg”), Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, and frequent Chicago collaborator Bill Champlin. That’s not a lineup that should really inspire a great deal of confidence for a George Benson single, but against all odds, this trio of soft-rock royalty struck gold and came up with a delightfully breezy R&B lark that easily stood toe-to-Toto with all three men’s best work to date. That’s thanks in no small part to George Benson himself, who does an admirable job of working every chord change and chorus lead-in until it bleeds. I’m a sucker for just cutting every instrument out at the end of each verse and letting it all crash back in at once for the chorus, and this is a fantastic example of that, largely because of how hard Benson is selling it- he’s clearly having a blast in the recording booth here, and that makes it that much easier to have a blast listening to it. Here, Benson practically defines what a funk-pop vocal should be in the early 80s, digging underneath all that production polish and coming up with something that feels emotionally-charged and relatable without sacrificing an ounce of fun or bright, broad appeal. It is hampered ever so slightly by the use of an Linn LM-1 drum machine for the percussion, which can’t quite bring the flexibility a live session drummer could have, but therein also is one of this song’s greatest successes: taking cutting-edge musical technology and meshing it with the soulful imperfection at the heart of R&B.

#8: Earth, Wind & Fire- Let’s Groove

The 80s were not particularly kind to Earth, Wind & Fire. After all, as one of the principal architects of late-70s pop-soul, they were by 1982 officially the music of yesteryear- their sound was so bound up in the particular excesses and pleasures of the disco boom that reimagining it in a world dominated by Journey and the Go-Go’s feels next to impossible. Sadly, the synth era would, in fact, sweep EW&F away from the mainstream in fairly short order, but before it did we got one weird, wonderful last hurrah for one of the greatest pop acts of the 70s. “Let’s Groove” is totally, unabashedly a late-70s disco song, with only a single synth bass added to “modernize” the sound, and it works anyway because these guys know their shit. They throw everything they’ve got at this song: a two-part verse that doubles as a verse/prechorus, a huge singalong hook, a dramatic bridge to ramp up the intensity, a nonsense chant that you’ll get stuck in your head since it’s just that damn catchy, multiple vocalists, and of course their trademark horn section just laying it the hell down. It’s a celebration of everything cheesy and ridiculous about disco, right down to that absolutely hilarious video, and it still became an honest-to-God top 10 hit purely off Maurice White and co.’s unshakeable belief in the magic of fun, funky dance music. They would only notch one more top 40 hit after this-”Fall in Love With Me” in ‘83- before receding from the pop limelight and settling into their status as R&B trailblazers. They had enough hits to comfortably pay their bills, and if this song is any indication, they had no intention of bowing to trends or abandoning the sounds that made them their fortune. Improbably, this proudly behind-the-times dance tune that veers dangerously close to self-parody makes an odd sort of sense in 1982. This is the sound of a band who knew they were on the way out, and who refused to end their career as hitmakers on anything but their own goofy, loveable terms. Groove on, Earth, Wind & Fire.

#7: Loverboy- Working for the Weekend

Throughout the 70s, I generally found myself unimpressed by the midwestern arena rock stylings of bands like Foreigner and Styx, and yet I just can’t help but have a big ol’ soft spot for their most notable spiritual successor: Canada’s own Loverboy. For one, their rock-star posturing was nearly always in service of simple, satisfying songcraft, rather than the other way around. For another, keyboardist Doug Johnson’s contributions wound up the beneficiary of advances in commercial synthesizer technology around this time, and the band generally stayed on the right side of cheesy excess as a result. “Working for the Weekend”, their most enduring hit, succeeded mainly by mining the contrast between Johnson’s tense, threatening synth stabs and Paul Dean’s joyously major-key guitar heroics. It strikes a careful balance between the two, slipping into a darker mode just when the stadium bombast gets a bit too cloying and erupting back into gleeful abandon when the glowering angst starts to wear thin. That tonal contrast also helps the admittedly-sort-of-dumb lyrics go down a lot smoother, and with Mike Reno’s impressive rocker shout to seal the deal, the song ultimately has enough muscle to back up its aspirations to headbanging good times. Perhaps not quite the ultimate ode to the weekend (see: “Stomp!”), but a damn fine rock tune nonetheless.

#6: Dazz Band- Let It Whip

Though Motown’s response to the MTV takeover mostly took the form of wimpy, generic balladry that could easily blend in amongst all the Air Supply and REO Speedwagon, they did take a fair few stabs at more uptempo material in the 80s, trying to find a version of funk that made sense for the new decade. Though it doesn’t do much to deliver on the portmanteau of “dance” and “jazz” they used as their name, Dazz Band’s “Let it Whip” still ranks as one of the most noteworthy of these attempts, a cunning fusion of 70s funk and 80s synthpop that wound up surprisingly close to capturing the best of both worlds. Though I’m personally partial to 70s production as far as funk goes, the smashing snares and overall robotic feel of the beat here do an impressive job of translating that forceful sense of groove into a more keyboard-driven context. Speaking of which, the keyboard tones here sound great across the board, and the seamless blending of synth-bass and traditional slap technique especially stands out as the kind of deft production work Motown would largely eschew in the following years. Sadly, although their nasal, staccato vocals were quite well-suited to synth-funk, Dazz Band doesn’t really come across here as a band destined for superstardom. This song is primarily the achievement of producer and co-writer Reggie Williams, and without his continued involvement, Dazz’s fifteen minutes of fame came to a pretty abrupt end. Still, as one of Motown’s few entries into the early-80s cavalcade of one-hit wonders, “Let it Whip” is a dated-yet-charming success, one of the last times for a long time that the Motown machine would produce something that could really get a crowd moving.

#5: Soft Cell- Tainted Love

In a very 80s-y best list, “Tainted Love” is a damn strong contender for the most 80s-y thing here. It is definitive early-80s new wave; if this list were ranking the songs with the most long-term impact and greatest cultural stature, “Tainted Love” would easily place in the top 3, right alongside “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (neither of which will be appearing properly on this list, sorry). It’s also pretty high up on my ranking of “songs I had no idea were covers”! Seriously, this thing dates back to nineteen sixty-four? You’d never in a million years know it from even a studious listen. It was originally written by one Edward Cobb, nearly redeeming himself from a full decade of suckage in The Four Preps, and though Gloria Jones’ bouncy soul original is certainly good, it feels like a foregone conclusion that it wouldn’t become a hit until the 80s. This song was made for the robotic keyboards and scowling angst of Soft Cell. The gut-punching “BOMP-BOMP” punctuating each line seems custom-built for the brash synth tones used here, and the comparative warmth of that first half of the chorus is highlighted beautifully by the chilly, sterile atmosphere of the thing. Most of all, it’s the perfect fit for Marc Almond’s sharp vocals. The instrumentation here really lets him sulk and seethe and wallow in the way the lyrics are just crying out for- they aren’t very detailed, but there’s still real pain there, a sense of tortured commitment to a relationship sucking the life out of the narrator, and Almond does everything he can to perform it as such. The catty edge in his voice also does a lot to enhance the music video, where he dons a toga and laurel wreath and petulantly stamps about the set like a pallid little prince- it undercuts the angst of the song while still perfectly amplifying the scenery-chewing melodrama.

#4: A Flock of Seagulls- I Ran (So Far Away)

I really need a pithy name for my running list of “big hits from albums where a different song should have been the big hit”- something that rolls off the tongue. I’ll go with my first instinct and call it “the wrong kid died”, after that one joke in Walk Hard. “TWKD” for short. And here we may have the very most heartbreaking instance of TWKD, with A Flock Of Seagulls’ 1982 smash “I Ran”. It’s a great song, but for me at least, its greatness is overshadowed a bit by the failure of follow-up single “Space Age Love Song” to crack the top 20; it stalled out at #30 and permanently set Mike Score and co. on the path to one-hit wonder-dom. “Space Age Love Song” is the best pop song of 1982, bar none. Hell, it’s arguably the single best thing to come out of the British new wave scene: a shimmering bit of post-punk fueled by guitarist Paul Reynolds’ soaring, day-glo arpeggios, it flawlessly marries Joy Division at their most wrenching with Blondie at their most glamorous and I truly can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyway, like on “Space Age Love Song”, Reynolds is very much the star player on “I Ran”, injecting oodles of color and excitement with his fills and solos, but though the song itself isn’t nearly as devastatingly gorgeous, the rest of the band arguably turns in more impressive performances here. In particular, frontman Mike Score does a great job of working around his rather limited voice, adopting a cold, tense tone that fits with the song’s themes of escape and alien abduction. The shoestring-budget video, arguably the biggest driver of the song’s success, completes the song’s b-movie sci-fi atmosphere, a core of real fearfulness and horror wrapped in charmingly amateur attire. Though new wave would quickly find its home in pop gloss and maximalism, songs like “I Ran” serve as a nice reminder of a time when the genre still had room for smudged mirrors and crinkled aluminum foil amongst all the teased hair and synthesizers, a winning blend of pop sparkle and weird, rough edges.

#3: Rod Stewart- Young Turks

By nature, a project as time-and-energy-intensive as this one is going to seem more comprehensive than it really is. I like to think these lists serve as accurate snapshots of a year, or at least not misleading ones, but the fact of the matter is that there’s always a lot that gets left out. In 1982, Rod Stewart had been a big name in rock for a full decade, and this is the first real mention he gets? But yes, I promise I have Takes™ on Rod Stewart, and fairly nuanced ones at that. He’s always seemed a bit of a tragic figure to me, his undeniable versatility and willingness to experiment being dragged down by a raspy, awkward voice that couldn’t take full advantage of it. Nonetheless, he managed some real quality material, both on his own and with the Faces, throughout the first half of the 70s, so even in the face of a mildly embarrassing disco pivot in ‘78, he wasn’t a total lost cause coming into the eighties or anything. After all, Stewart’s real talent had always been his ear for good melodies, so if trends moved away from the dancefloor fodder he couldn’t manage all that gracefully, perhaps his move to pop could yet prove fruitful. And, joy of joys, in late 1981 it truly did with the new wave anthem “Young Turks”! Somewhere in the digitized landscape of synthpop, Stewart managed to find a sweep and pathos that connected him back to his blues-rock roots, delivering a bracing, honest portrait of intergenerational conflict and youthful rebellion. Though the bright, colorful keyboards convey all the naive optimism of the song’s subjects, the very real stakes that the lyrics acknowledge highlight a realism that makes the drama feel grounded and genuine- even his little rocker ad-libs feel earned, and the whole thing is only enhanced by the music video’s street-level shots of downtown L.A. It tells a story that’s fully-realized and detailed while maintaining a universality- young hearts, be free tonight / time is on your side– that made it a prime pop offering for the dawning era of uber-satisfying blockbuster music.

2: Kool & the Gang- Get Down On It

Kool & the Gang wasted no time capitalizing on the success of “Celebration”, and with “Get Down On It”, they managed to expertly toe the line between recognizing that what wasn’t broken didn’t need fixing, and using their newfound status as pop stars as a chance to get a little bit more idiosyncratic. The “Celebration” formula is largely intact here- gang-vocalled choruses, funky midtempo grooves, and a vibrant horn section- but the tweaks are what make this a strong contender for the band’s greatest achievement. The use of keyboards is much more prominent, with the chorus instrumental in particular largely built around it, and as a result they manage to shed their last vestiges of 70s cheese and emerge as a band fully able to evolve and adapt to the landscape of 80s pop. The music video is better- an explosion of color and shapes built on a glitchy effect causing images to trail across the screen. Most importantly, it was a lot less shy about the band’s dancefloor origins. Yes, this is a proper dance song, commanding the listener to get their back off the wall and, as the title suggests, get down on it. J.T. Taylor’s easygoing vocal charisma and the surprisingly effective pseudo-rap bridge set it apart from any lingering bad memories of disco, and most importantly, the dead-on melodies give it almost every bit the universal appeal “Celebration” had. Having already proven they could make a party song for everyone, Kool and the Gang here took on the bigger challenge of making a dance song for everyone, and their success was all the more impressive.

#1: Willie Nelson- Always On My Mind

Though his status as an outlaw country trailblazer looms large over his body of work, Willie Nelson has always been, at heart, a student of the craft of songwriting, and his abiding love and respect for pop standards dates at least as far back as his lovely 1978 covers collection Stardust. “Always on My Mind” is, plainly and simply, a beautifully-written, deftly performed pop song. It stands starkly apart from damn near anything else to hit the charts in ‘82, in much the same way Nelson (who was nearly 50 when the song became a hit) stood apart from the popular bands and singers of the time: there’s a clear maturity and genuine, hard-earned wisdom to the music and performance here that provides a completely different listening experience than high-energy new wave or rowdy hard rock. The relationship described in the song, if not irreparably damaged, is at the very least on the rocks, and the wonderful subtlety of the lyricism is in how there’s no one load-bearing cause of the strife between the narrator and his partner. No one here is malicious or spiteful, it’s as simple and as mundane as time passing, slowly taking a loved one for granted, a hundred “little things he should have said and done”, and just never took the time. It’s so moving and so gripping because it’s an ordinary, everyday story and it could easily happen to anyone, but the narrator is still tangibly desperate to reaffirm that the spark hasn’t gone out, hoping it’s not too late to be a better partner and to be more present and emotionally engaged in his romantic endeavors. Nelson really sells it too; where a smoother, less weathered voice could have had trouble articulating a relationship with so much history and baggage, Nelson’s sharper country twang makes the regret feel almost oppressively vivid, and he arches into the chorus with a fond familiarity that truly drives home his sincere desire to make amends. It may be an odd choice for a year so dominated by bright, flashy synthesizer music, but “Always on My Mind” delivers the kind of nuanced storytelling that balances tasteful restraint with heartstring-tugging emotionality, and for that it’s my favorite pop song of 1982.

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