As 1967 defined the 60s, and 1976 and 77 jointly defined the 70s, 1984 defines the 80s. However, where ‘67 and ‘76 represent two apexes of one of the most creatively fertile periods in pop music history, ‘84 is more like the last triumphant celebration before everything began falling apart. This is, honestly and truly, the last year for the next two-plus decades that I can unreservedly say was great for pop. As always, it bears repeating that EVERY YEAR has its highlights and lowlights, and I am by no means saying that there wasn’t any great pop music through the rest of the 80s and beyond. Nonetheless, ‘84 is, for me, the clear demarcation point between the 80s pop world’s meteoric rise to an unprecedented position of cultural dominance, and its gradual, humiliating decay into a morass of burbling auditory garbage. As the Reagan administration cruised into a second term, the avatars of excess and greed that dominated the decade as a whole began to worm their way into stereos across the nation, rabidly milking the sounds of new wave and synthpop down to the very last drop and repackaging the results in ever-more shoddy trappings. However, anything that can be so cravenly copied and degenerated for 5 full years must have been doing something pretty damn right in the first place, so before we get thoroughly sick of synths and big hair and guitar solos we’ve got an all-star batch of undeniable 80s smashes to heap praise upon- On with the show!
#10: Quiet Riot- Cum On Feel the Noize
It’s my firm belief that every hair-metal band gets one and ONLY one true classic. No matter how much the rest of their discography plumbs the depths of craven, misogynistic stupidity, even the most mindless hair metal bands were gifted with a single slamming pop staple, with a behemoth hook and a huge helping of wonderfully over-the-top guitar riffs. Though Quiet Riot has never had the rock-bottom reputation of some of their contemporaries (Crue, Leppard, Poison et al), “Cum On Feel the Noize” nonetheless defines this principle in every meaningful sense. The great hair metal hits of the 80s all have a feeling of pure, adrenaline-fueled serendipity, gleefully barreling through cliché after cliché and somehow avoiding disaster by a nose. That’s exactly the feeling at the heart of this song’s appeal. Quiet Riot crank the dumb-fun energy of the 1973 Slade original as far up as it’ll go and then some, supercharging their chugging glam shuffle with a big gated bash’n’crash beat and an electrifying touch of synth. More importantly, guitarist Carlos Cavazo burns the house down with one of the funnest metal guitar solos of all time, 30-odd seconds of joyous, unhinged momentum. It serves as final proof that Cavazo was the right choice to replace legendary original guitarist Randy Rhoads, a perfect blend of grinning pop sparkle and steely technicality. By all accounts, “Cum On Feel the Noize” should be way too overblown to work, and yet it miraculously winds up the rare pop-metal track able to cater to both the top 40 and the headbangers lurking underneath it.
#9: Huey Lewis & the News- The Heart of Rock & Roll
I like Huey Lewis & the News. Their flagrantly un-hip yuppie image and inoffensive, middle-of-the-road sound make them a hard band to really get excited about as a critic, and yet I’ve found their output across the mid-80s to be thoroughly enjoyable and well-constructed. To just dismiss them as a boring, unchallenging pop-rock band would be to ignore their consistently appealing production, their rhythm section’s ability to punch above their weight class with bouncy, melodic grooves, and their keen sense of how to lean into their uncoolness without coming off too smug about it. “The Heart of Rock & Roll” hinges on a narrator who isn’t young or cool enough to actually identify with any sort of cutting-edge musical movement, but who’s still open-minded and amiable enough to appreciate those movements from afar, and Lewis is the perfect guy to give voice to such a narrator. The flashy outfits and musical aggression may leave him more puzzled and bemused than anything else, but he’s smart enough to see that the crowds are embracing these new bands for the same reason he embraced stuff like The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival- at the end of the day, it’s the same irresistible rhythms and the same rebellious spirit reinvented for a new generation. The music complements this idea perfectly with a savvy blend of old-school rock and polished, catchy new-wave. Saxophonist Johnny Colla’s bright, bluesy solo is a particularly standout moment, but Sean Hopper’s keyboards are just as crucial to the track’s aesthetic, balancing warmer organ tones with more choppy synths to drive home the old-is-new message at the core of the song. All in all, it’s a lesson in how to play it safe without watering yourself down, a fun, agreeable little number that manages to make a bit of a point in the process.
#8: Tina Turner- What’s Love Got to Do With It
The 80s was a great time to be a pop star two decades past your prime. For all the young new wavers and hair metallers the decade spawned, you could make a solid case that its biggest beneficiary wound up being 60s legacy acts whose fanbases were around this time starting to settle into a financially-stable middle age. Most of these comeback singles hover between mildly-annoying and perfectly serviceable- the 60s aren’t far enough in the rearview yet that folks like Aretha Franklin and George Harrison can’t still capture a bit of that old spark, but it’s also usually apparent that they’re coasting on nostalgia a bit, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s all just the tiniest bit pandering. Not so with Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. Turner had a longer road back to the top 10 than most of her contemporaries did: her career had stalled following a long, arduous divorce with her husband and musical partner Ike, and she had spent the six or so years prior to this song’s success surviving mostly off of opening slots for younger artists and minor chart hits in Europe. She was about as close to “washed-up” as a 60s pop star could get, but after an unexpectedly successful cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in ‘83, Turner’s label rushed to capitalize on it with a full album, and picked up a stray number a UK songwriting duo had been shopping around for a while as the follow-up single.
There are plenty of timelines out there where one of the half-dozen other artists Terry Britten and Graham Lyle offered this song to ended up making it a hit, and I’m certain that almost all those versions are lesser than Tina Turner’s; “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is nothing without her. Actually, that’s a little unfair, since the song itself is still very nice, offering a tastefully arranged bed of atmospheric synths to contrast with Turner’s visceral performance. But lyrically, it’s cagey and standoffish, and a voice that sounds like it has truly loved and lost is absolutely crucial to its success. I’m sorry, but “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken” just would not hit as hard if it wasn’t coming from this woman specifically. In her hands, this song becomes about so much more than just denying your own feelings- it’s about what it means to be hurt by someone, about moving past trauma, about the ways our pain stays with us. It’s an all-time great pop performance, rendering the broad and universal deeply, powerfully intimate and honest. Yeah, the production has aged a bit here and there, but the raw force and emotion of Tina Turner’s voice shines through as brightly as ever.
#7: Bruce Springsteen- Dancing in the Dark
‘84 saw its fair share of enormous blockbuster releases, and of the albums that dominated the charts over the course of the year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. was perhaps the most surprising. After 1982’s Nebraska found The Boss more reflective and uncommercial than ever before, I don’t think anyone’s money was on a pop pivot replete with big stadium choruses and more synths than you could shake a keytar at. Seemingly all the pieces were in place for an instantly-dated swing at selloutery, but though the hooks got bigger and the tunes got slicker, Bruce kept his focus on the emotional lyricism and socially-conscious edge that had always been his biggest selling points. Lead single “Dancing in the Dark” is actually the last song Springsteen wrote for the album, and specifically deals with his creative burnout at the time. He had basically been writing and recording music for over two years straight and at the very tail end he was tasked with writing not just one more song, but a hit single. Who could blame him for feeling he had nothing left to say? But the brilliant trick of “Dancing in the Dark” is how it connects that mental state to a universal truth about working under capitalism: You don’t stop working once you’re exhausted. You stop working when your masters decide you’ve generated them enough profit. Here, Springsteen runs headlong into a startling insight: The way it stands, music and dance and painting can and will be turned into the same soul-sucking grind as steelworking or fixing cars or anything else. It shows through so perfectly in the music: the relentless chug of the keyboards and drums offer up the cinematic sparkle all the best 80s pop does, but Bruce doesn’t seem to feel the good mojo in the slightest. His performance here rings as worn-out, beleaguered- for a brief moment, he’s both an iconic rockstar and a working stiff on the edge of collapse. Really listen, and you realize that even self-expression can leave a person tired and bored with himself. All there is left to do is share the moment, and hope the fleeting magic sees us through. Speaking of which…
#6: The Cars- Magic
After Shake it Up launched them to pop stardom, The Cars were poised for genuine chart dominance with their 1984 follow-up Heartbeat City. Ric Ocasek and co. seemingly realized that they’d only get this chance once, and they delivered with absolute aplomb: Heartbeat City displayed the band’s poppiest and most tightly-focused work yet, sacrificing rock cred wherever necessary to deliver the best hooks humanly possible. The chorus of “Magic” is as shiny and sleek as they come, and although the verse leans a bit more into new-wave angularity, crack open the hood and you can see it’s still built on hammering home a simple, sturdy melody (Play any one line on a piano and see how simple-yet-emphatic it really is). Ocasek’s ever-ungainly vocal styling are here supported by a backing choir and the most forceful synth tones of his career; the effect is that of an everyman narrator being nearly swallowed whole by the song’s surging energy. As the song’s music video alludes to, it’s music to make you feel like you can walk on water, and through the miraculous power of pop music, maybe for a moment we really can.
#5: Scandal- The Warrior
80s pop is, before anything else, big. Whatever else you want to say about the hit songs of this time, they carry an oversized sense of zeal and confidence that makes them stand out from the pop of any other era, and one of the best examples of 80s bigness this year was “The Warrior”. It’s not a perfect song by any means: the lyrics sidle right up to the line between fun-ridiculous and ridiculous-ridiculous, going to some pretty awkward lengths to stretch the core concept across the entire runtime. The melody and arrangement aren’t terribly interesting, mostly casseroling late-70s glam leftovers in with some flashy synth-pop and modern AOR (thank co-writer and former worst-list entrant Nick Gilder for that). And yet, it all comes together, because it sounds so damn big. Frontwoman Patty Smyth immediately makes her mark here as a powerhouse belter. Even when she reels it in for the quieter verse sections, her performance positively simmers with frustration and drama; it would be delightfully campy if she wasn’t selling it so hard. Her unrestrained earnestness, combined with some deft guitar work from bandmate Zack Smith, elevates the song into something genuinely kind of epic-sounding. It’s fitting that her iconic getup in the song’s music video includes a electrified shock of saiyan-esque hair- If Dragonball Z AMVs had been a thing in the mid-80s, this would have doubtlessly soundtracked more than its fair share of them. “The Warrior” is 80s cheese at its very cheesiest, tossing aside every conceivable limit of good taste, and doing it so energetically that you can’t help but go along for the ride.
#4: The Cars- You Might Think
If there’s one thing Ric Ocasek knew, it was how to recognize a great melody, and more so than any other song he ever made, “You Might Think” is bursting at the seams with ‘em. That opening keyboard riff is gloriously, essentially 80s- it’s only five notes, but it comes at you with so much energy and spunk that you just can’t help bobbing your head along to it (thanks in large part to Mutt Lange’s massive-sounding production). The whole song plays out in a similar fashion- one hooky, satisfying melodic idea after another, each one so perfectly simple you’ll smack yourself for not having thought of it before. The lyrics could conceivably be the weak spot here, since some lines do read a little awkwardly (especially in the prechoruses), but even those get enough mileage out of the core conceit that the song’s lovestruck tone comes across all the same. “You might think I’m crazy / But all I want is you” is a compelling enough phrase that everything else can kind of circle it rather than actually expanding on it, and since it feels like such a great fit for the upbeat music, Ocasek manages to tie the whole thing neatly together. I think my favorite part is the lead-in to the third verse, where every repetition of the main keyboard riff is accompanied by a delightful little guitar fill- it both raises the intensity for the final go-round and stuffs even more catchiness into the track right at the eleventh hour. “You Might Think” is the immaculate pop gem Ocasek was always destined to create, cleverly packing a metric ton of ear-pleasing songwriting into a pint-sized single. Thank goodness The Cars went out on a high note with this and “Magic” and didn’t try to cash in on Heartbeat City’s success with an album of lame soft rock crap!
#3: Michael Jackson- Thriller
I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding this.
Michael jackson was a very talented man. He also was, and remains, extremely controversial, leaving behind one of the most tarnished legacies in the history of modern music through a procession of criminal allegations and PR scandals across the last 2 decades of his life and beyond. He had the raw talent and charisma to completely reshape pop music in his own image, even as the industry upbringing that allowed him to do so crippled him mentally, and more likely than not drove him to some truly unforgivable actions. I’d be lying if said all that baggage didn’t make it harder to enjoy Jackson’s songs for the well-made pop bangers they undeniably are. I liked “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall” and “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. I really liked “Beat It”. But… I dunno, something about all the drama surrounding Jackson just turned me off them a bit, just enough that none made it onto any previous best lists. I’m not even saying he was definitely for-sure guilty of all the things he was accused of, it’s just the controversy itself. It feels like I can’t fully, unreservedly enjoy those songs without “taking a side”, so to speak, and it’s all just more baggage than I want attached to music that shouldn’t require a whole lot of intense thought.
But something about “Thriller” feels bigger than MJ. Maybe it’s just that this is one of the few songs of his I knew before I knew anything else about the guy, but from where I stand, “Thriller” truly has taken on a life of its own in a way none of Jackson’s other megahits have… and as a side bonus, it’s one of the best songs he ever made. Partially it’s because its success feels so indebted to other creatives. Make no mistake, Jackson’s vocal performance here is an undeniable career highlight, but Vincent Price’s ghoulish narration, Quincy Jones’ gleaming synth-funk production and Rod Temperton’s masterful build-release songwriting are all absolutely critical to this song being the juggernaut it is. Hell, even John Landis’ music video (and especially Deborah Nadoolman’s costume design) deserve a share of the credit for “Thriller”; though I don’t much care for the way it shuffles all the verses and choruses to be back-to-back-to-back, the sheer number of indelible images and scenes it offers places it in the rarified ranks of music videos that have meaningfully expanded what the artform is capable of. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for feeling the same conflict over “Thriller” that I do over most of Jackson’s other songs, but there’s just no way for me to moralize myself out of being impressed by this song’s stellar craftsmanship and enormous cultural impact. I guess I really can’t resist the evil of… THE THRILLER!!!
#2: Nena- 99 Luftballons
“99 Luftballons” was seemingly the last gasp of New Wave’s punk origins before it was swallowed whole by cheesy pop. A truly bleak fable of nuclear apocalypse set off by power-hungry generals desperate to flex their nations’ military might- no wonder everyone preferred the version they couldn’t understand! It’s a pretty biting satire from a band with seemingly little interest in political statements, highlighting both the potential human cost of the war games being played by the governments of the time, and how pointless the bloodlust fueling them truly was. It’s an anti-war anthem for a world that had become angrier and more cynical since the idealistic 60s, a bitter recounting of an armageddon that at the time must have felt more inevitable with every day, all due to something as innocuous as a bundle of balloons. In the Vietnam era, the youth were naive enough to believe that they really could protest their way out of the global north’s imperial death march. By ‘83, most had seemingly accepted how powerless they really were. It would have been easy to simply give up and wallow in nihilism, but Nena refuse to make it that simple. The last verse here is by far the darkest, but also the only place where a flicker of hope emerges: after civilization has seemingly been destroyed, the narrator wanders the wreckage, and comes across- what else?- a balloon. She lets it up into the sky; there are no war ministers to shoot it down anymore. In combination with that last mournful, rising guitar note, it’s an incredibly potent yet ambiguous ending: even if we can’t stop the world’s destruction, perhaps we can find something beautiful and true amongst the rubble. Though we no longer live quite so close to the precipice of nuclear annihilation, that’s a sentiment that I think can be rallied behind to this very day. It helps, of course, that the band rocks out here with a tenacity the charts hadn’t seen since the early days of Blondie. Even the slightly jankly bridge slowdown packs a strutting melody you’ll get stuck in your head all the same, before revving back up into another bombshell verse. “99 Luftballons” brought back the wit and social critique new wave originally built its name on, without sacrificing an ounce of the hard-hitting pop songwriting the genre had abandoned those things in favor of, a best-of-both-worlds that could have only been possible in this particular cultural moment.
#1: Prince and the Revolution- Let’s Go Crazy
1999 was the album that made Prince a superstar; Purple Rain was the album that made him a god. The album and the film of the same name dominated the charts and the box office simultaneously over the summer of ‘84, and the four top-ten singles they spawned found Prince’s artistic ambition and pop instincts both growing at an exponential rate- every song was bolder, weirder, catchier and more elaborately produced than anything he had released before. If an annoying technicality hadn’t kept Purple Rain’s monolithic title track from the ‘84 year-end, Prince may well have ended up the first-ever artist to claim both the number-one and number-two spots on a PGTY best list. But alas, “Let’s Go Crazy” winds up topping the best list alone here, and though it is a shame we can’t discuss one of the best pop songs of the 80s here, we at least have the considerable consolation of being able to discuss one of the other best pop songs of the year, a smashing uptempo rager calling for us all to live in the moment and celebrate life while we have the chance to live it. This is one of the flat-out funnest pop songs of the entire decade. The song by itself is a blast, with Prince bringing a fierce, headstrong charisma to his vocal performance and the Linn LM-1 drum machine augmenting the live drums for a beat that’s as forceful and expressive as it is modern-sounding. But it’s the intro and outro that really put it over the top. The intro is the perfect lead-up to the explosive first verse: Prince puts nearly every prior spoken section in a pop song completely to shame, delivering a gloriously hammy soliloquy that still has enough of an emotional core to get a listener genuinely invested. And that outro? Pure guitar-hero nirvana, seamlessly bringing together the unhinged shredding of Eddie Van Halen and the nasty psychedelic funk of Eddie Hazel. If there was ever a doubt that Prince deserved a place amongst the greatest rock guitarists of all time, here he lays it permanently to rest in less than 60 seconds. “Let’s Go Crazy” is, true to its name, the sound of one of the most talented pop stars of the decade going absolutely crazy, overflowing with ideas and knocking each and every one out of the park.