1984 was the best year for music ever.
I know there are probably a few Boomers out there who will argue that it was some year in the 60s, but those people would be wrong.
While travelling home from a day of work in Calgary a while back, I listened to a playlist I’ve created called “1984 Hits.” It got me to thinking about this subject once again (my wife and I have discussed it many times, inspiring that playlist) and the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that I’m right. Hell, even Billboard agrees with me!
Some quick history:
The late 70s and early 80s were a bit of a musical wasteland, with record sales dropping and the industry in full panic mode. A big reason why was that record companies were producing garbage (and I’m not referring to disco here). The typical album had one or maybe two decent singles on it and the rest of the record was mediocre at best.
Then came 1982 and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Seven of the nine tracks on the record charted on Billboard, including three that were accompanied by the most groundbreaking videos ever filmed to that point (Billy Jean, Beat It and Thriller, of course). As Thriller took off up the charts and sold albums by the truckload, the message was clear—produce strong albums and the fans will follow.
Two years later, Thriller was still producing hits (the title track was released in January, 1984, a few weeks after the video debuted, and shot to Number 4 on the Billboard charts) and producers and artists were working hard to live up to that standard. By the start of 1984, things were shifting quickly and the industry was flourishing again, thanks to a reinvigorated creative process and the golden age of music videos.
Whether you were getting your music on the radio or on MTV (or Much Music in Canada), this was a glorious moment in which musical styles were mixed and mingled in unique ways and you could hear virtually any genre of music at any given moment. It was a year where several artists were at the absolute top of their game, including some relative newcomers. It all just seemed to come together in a magical way to create a soundscape unparalleled in any other year.
There were hits on the charts in ’84 from a number of well-established artists. Lionel Richie, The Pointer Sisters, Billy Ocean, the Cars, Phil Collins, and Elton John all charted. Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You was his biggest-selling single ever. Chicago 17 was a monster smash album (six times platinum) including their rapiest hit single, Stay The Night (“I won’t take no if that’s your answer / At least that’s my philosophy.”). Hall and Oates had two hit singles off two hit albums (Adult Education and Out of Touch, from Rock ‘n Soul Part 1 and Big Bam Boom, respectively) and were named the most successful duo ever by the RIAA.
This was also the year that Tina Turner made her comeback with What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Former Eagles Don Henley (Boys of Summer) and Glenn Frey (Smuggler’s Blues) were making their presence felt, along with Foreigner, Genesis, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Kenny Loggins. And, of course, Bruce Springsteen had by far his biggest hit—the best-selling album of 1984, in fact—with his Born in the U.S.A. album, which spawned seven top-10 singles, a feat that matched Jackson’s Thriller as the only two records to ever pull that off.
Emerging in ’84
There were some artists who had started to make a splash in the previous few years who exploded in 1984. Most obviously was Prince, whose Purple Rain album spawned five smash hit singles and earned him an Oscar and two Grammies. When he wasn’t killing it on his own, he was also helping the other bands featured in the Purple Rain movie—singles he wrote and produced for The Time (Jungle Love and The Bird) and Apollonia 6 (Sex Shooter) also charted. And if that wasn’t enough, Chaka Khan’s cover of the Prince single I Feel For You won Prince a third Grammy that year for songwriting. Sheila E’s hit The Glamorous Life, written and co-produced by Prince, went to Number 7 on the pop charts and earned two more Grammy nominations. And he also scored a hit for Sheena Easton by writing and producing Sugar Walls for her A Private Heaven album.
Eleven hits in one year? Yeah, that’s pretty good. If it sounded like Prince was everywhere you turned in 1984, it was because he was.
Madonna’s eponymous debut album was producing hit singles in early 1984. In fact, the last single, Borderline, was also the biggest-selling single on that album, setting up the massive follow-up album and single Like A Virgin, which entered the music scene in October like a meteor, turning her into a mega-star and forever changing the pop landscape.
Billy Idol’s second album, Rebel Yell, was released in November of 1983 but three of the album’s singles were released in 1984—Eyes Without a Face, Flesh For Fantasy, and Catch My Fall. The album would eventually go double platinum in the United States and five-times platinum in Canada.
After getting some attention in 1983 for his guitar work on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album and some further success with his debut album later in the year, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble exploded onto the blues scene with Couldn’t Stand the Weather in 1984. The album sold a million copies and put the blues back on the radio and on MTV while establishing Vaughan as a legitimate superstar.
Hot off a solid debut record, Wham! released their most iconic album in ’84. Make it Big went to Number 1 on several charts around the world, and featured most of the singles we think of when we think of Wham! Hit singles Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom, All She Wants, and Careless Whisper all came from that one album. Make it Big, indeed!
In 1983, Bryan Adams’ third album, Cuts Like a Knife, went platinum in Canada and the US, but his 1984 follow-up, Reckless, established Adams as a bona fide superstar. Six singles would hit the top 15, including Run to You, Heaven, and his hard-rocking duet with Turner, It’s Only Love, putting Adams in the same conversation as Jackson and Springsteen.
Interestingly, Bob Clearmountain, who produced Reckless, was also responsible for mixing Born in the U.S.A. as well as Hall and Oates’ 1984 mega-hit LP Big Bam Boom—being involved in just one of those projects would have been impressive; being directly tied to three of the biggest-selling records of that year was amazing.
Speaking of Canadian acts, Corey Hart released his debut album in 1984, featuring his best-known song, Sunglasses at Night. My favourite Canadian band, Platinum Blonde, scored two hit singles in 1984. Meanwhile the Spoons released a double-single in 1984, which spawned two big hits for them. Both produced by Nile Rodgers (who also produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin album), Tell No Lies and Romantic Traffic both charted, with Romantic Traffic becoming one of the band’s signature songs on tour in the years following.
Rock ‘N’ Roll
And of course, we mustn’t forget Van Halen. Their first five albums had sold like hot cakes, bringing hard rock to the forefront of the music industry with multi-platinum record after multi-platinum record. But their sixth album, 1984, released in January, featured their first and only number one hit single—Jump—and their highest-ever chart position, with the album reaching No. 2 in the US and No. 1 in Canada. This album featured more of a pop sensibility, including a lot of keyboards in addition to the scorching guitar solos.
It can hardly be understated how big this record was, in a year filled with huge records—it legitimized what would eventually be known as “hair metal” in a way that had never happened to this point. Bands like Cinderella, Poison, and Bon Jovi owe a debt of gratitude to Van Halen for this album.
Speaking of hard rock, there’s the most iconic “mockumentary” ever created. Rob Reiner’s first attempt at directing a movie was the script-free This Is Spinal Tap, which purports to follow the disastrous American tour of an aging British hard rock band. Musicians have hailed the film as being a fantastic representation of the chaos involved in putting on a tour.
But just as importantly, the soundtrack album features songs from the movie which, frankly, have resulted in one of the better metal albums of that entire decade—play any track from this album side-by-side with a hard rock tune from another contemporary artist and see if you can really truly tell which one is the “real” band and which one is a bunch of comedians screwing around.
This is Spinal Tap was just one of several movies in 1984 to feature soundtracks that had a huge impact on the sound of the year.
For years, the motion picture soundtrack album was something that sometimes did extremely well at the record store—and helped generate extra revenue for the movie. But for some reason, hit records like Saturday Night Fever still failed to impress the Powers That Be. That is, until the early 80s when, like Jackson’s Thriller album, movie producers began to see the power of the soundtrack. Films like Flashdance and the Big Chill had major success on the charts with their soundtrack albums in 1983, leading us into the explosion of major soundtrack albums in 1984.
In addition to Purple Rain and This is Spinal Tap, the album charts in 1984 also included The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, Repo Man, and of course, Footloose.
And if that wasn’t enough, the year wrapped up with yet another huge soundtrack album, Beverly Hills Cop. Four hit singles were released for that one, five if you count Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters (which was officially released as part of the Pointer Sisters’ Breakout album, although the video prominently featured scenes from the movie). But in the last six weeks of 1984, there were no fewer than three songs from that album racing up the charts.
And we must not forget country music. In 1984, the big crossover hit that raced up both the country and pop charts was the Julio Iglesias-Willie Nelson duet, To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before. A perfect example of two seemingly incompatible musical styles blending seamlessly, the song was Iglesias’ breakthrough into the American market and was named Single of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
And the Biggest Hit Was…
A discussion of 1984 music isn’t complete until the top-selling single of the year is mentioned.
There are some Boomers out there who like to think that music with a message ended in the 1960s. But the 80s had its fair share of politically driven music as well. Take, for example, the aforementioned Platinum Blonde, singing about the fear of nuclear war in Standing in the Dark (on the charts in late ’83 to early ’84). Or U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love), yet another hit in 1984.
But the biggest hit of 1984 went to Do They Know It’s Christmas?, a song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, featuring many of the top British acts of the time. In its first week of release in the UK, it sold more than a million copies; eventually, it would sell 11.7 million copies, placing it at number 20 in the all-time biggest-selling singles. The song would also inspire Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to form USA for Africa and release We Are the World a few months into 1985.
Finally, a very honourable mention must go to German band Modern Talking, whose very first single, You’re My Heart, You’re My Soul, was the second-biggest selling tune of 1984, moving eight million units. And the video is, frankly, glorious.
Okay, maybe glorious is the wrong word. But it is… something.
But Wait, There’s More
I could go on and on, but among the other hits of 1984 were:
- Karma Chameleon — Culture Club
- Missing You — John Waite
- Original Sin — INXS (produced by Nile Rodgers!)
- Time After Time — Cyndi Lauper
- 99 Luftballons — Nena
- Red Red Wine — UB40
- The Warrior — Scandal
- The Reflex — Duran Duran (produced by Nile Rodgers!)
- Hold Me Now — Thompson Twins
- Sister Christian — Night Ranger
- I Want a New Drug — Huey Lewis and the News
- Rock Box — Run DMC
- Eat It — “Weird Al” Yankovic
- We’re Not Gonna Take It — Twisted Sister
- Two Tribes — Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Established artists, emerging artists, brand new artists. Pop, rock, funk, blues, country, new wave. Turn on the radio in 1984 and you’d hear all of it, often one after the other. The entire music industry was rediscovering itself after years of mediocrity and what emerged was a world where the old rules didn’t really apply, where creativity was prioritized over safe rehashes of what had come before. The soundscape had renewed vigour, boundaries were broken down (often for good), and the recording industry hasn’t been the same since.