While 1984 graced us with some of the strongest, most lasting albums of the '80s (Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Madonna's Like a Virgin, Prince's Purple Rain, and Van Halen's 1984), the year was so thick with important pop music that there's plenty of competition for the top 10 albums culled from the rest of the crop. Luckily, it was a fine year for musical styles from mainstream rock to underground rock, so the quality level is pleasantly high indeed.
I'll grimace just a bit as I do this, but this pure mainstream rock album represents the finest, most cohesive moment for this Bay Area bar band. On the band's next release, a thoroughly commercial pop sound would emerge, but for now Huey Lewis & the News provided a highly listenable bridge between its rough-and-tumble past and the increasingly pop leanings the band would display during pretty much the rest of its '80s dominion. Ultimately, "Heart & Soul" and "Walking on a Thin Line" stand among some of the decade's tightest pop/rock songs, while the band's three other major hits from this smash album set the stage for the widest audience possible in the future. This is a strong, workmanlike band at its artistic peak.
2. Yes - 90125
Although purist fans of this band, one of the biggest progressive rock acts of the '70s, would be loath to admit it, this is a damn good mainstream rock album that manages to meld about half of the original band's membership and influence with an entirely new component of its sound. That element happened to be singer, songwriter and guitarist Trevor Rabin, whose collaboration with Jon Anderson, original lead singer of Yes, turns into pure gold on memorable tracks like "Changes," "It Can Happen," and, of course, the smash hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart." This record is a rare example of a vintage reunion that doesn't merely exploit a legacy but actually creates something new and unique musically.
If you're thinking that 1984 was frequently the year of the chronically unhip, you may be on to something. Nonetheless, this signature album from this very mainstream Canadian rocker contains a lot of good music if it fails to blaze any new sonic trails. Ultimately, this record belongs on the list because its most well-known and biggest hits probably are only its fifth and sixth best songs, respectively. In other words, as successful as those songs are, Bryan Adams has far more to offer in great mid-tempo rockers that hold up very well a quarter-century later. Just sample "One Night Love Affair," "It's Only Love," "Somebody," and "Run to You," and then tell me I'm wrong. Well, don't actually tell me; it's a figure of speech.
This solid, highly accessible release from one of new wave's finest bands contributed mightily to the universal soundtrack of the summer of 1984, injecting the upbeat "Magic" and "You Might Think" into the greater consciousness. But as usual, the Cars remained a bastion of pop versatility, dropping one of the most haunting ballads of the decade in "Drive" (perfectly sung by the late Benjamin Orr) and containing the wonderful throwback singles "Hello Again" and "Why Can't I Have You?". This is one of America's greatest pop/rock bands at its commercial and artistic peak, and anyone suggesting that '80s artists were incapable of releasing strong, deep albums need look no further than this record for a rebuttal.
As one of several mind-blowing, expansive indie rock masterpieces of 1984, this double LP from one of the most singular post-punk bands of the Minneapolis scene is as forceful as it is angry, hurt and confused. Bob Mould's screaming vocal style had long been the perfect instrument for communicating extreme angst, but it's his songwriting that always elevated the band's work to so much more than just another hardcore-inspired band of outsiders. But that's not enough for the Huskers: drummer Grant Hart was also an accomplished writer and singer, and the give-and-take between him and Mould represented one of the most interesting Lennon/McCartney reprises in rock history. A simply indispensable album for fans of cutting-edge '80s rock.
This shining debut helped take punk and new wave into a new period even as the purest forms of those genres continued to die out. Lauper's brightly colored hair and clothing, combined with her similarly peppy girlish energy, brought a slightly rebellious, thoroughly feminine aesthetic into pop music in a big way. Madonna may have had a much larger visual and cultural impact on 1984, but Cyndi Lauper was not far behind, making "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" into an inescapably catchy anthem and also proving her worth as an effective songwriter as well as an interpreter. She made the great Jules Shear's "All Through the Night" wonderfully her own and also unleashed a touching and beautiful pop song in her moody "Time After Time."
It just so happens that all three of the indie bands on this list that released major, influential records in 1984 were on the seminal SST label masterminded by Black Flag guitarist and founder, Greg Ginn. This isn't a coincidence, as by now that label had spearheaded a widespread (if decidedly unknown in the mainstream) underground network. Bands like Husker Du, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, though based in different geographical areas, toured incessantly to capture and sustain a rabid fan base. This record infuses the band's earlier, more basic hardcore sound with a kind of country psychedelia that was quite unprecedented. Unfortunately, the band is more revered than the record was ever heard, but that can now easily be rectified.
Within bands or genres, friendly and respectful competition between contrasting forces often creates compelling music. While Husker Du was hard to beat in the internal friction category, San Pedro, California's Minutemen, also a powerful trio, took a serious run at its contemporaries with a double album of its own. This is unbelievable, mind-stretching stuff, and when I talk about this album I'm always compelled to state, one way or another, that the group clearly belongs on the very short list of the greatest rock bands of all time. The phenomenal rhythm section of bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley is unrivaled, and frontman D. Boon triumphs as a raw mouthpiece of righteous indignation and independent spirit.
As Germany's most famous hard rock export, the Scorpions had been at it for nearly a decade when this album broke through, but there's no doubt it represents the peak and synthesis of the group's finest impulses. Though "Rock You Like a Hurricane" has always received so much attention so as to become an almost unnecessary listen, the breadth of ground covered by the scorching rocker "Coming Home," the mid-tempo anthem "Big City Nights," and the wonderfully melodic power ballad "Still Loving You" continue to impress today. I was never a huge fan of Klaus Meine's vocals, but the dual guitars of Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs were distinctive within '80s hard rock.
Probably the most dignified bridge band between truly heavy metal and the poppy hair metal phenomenon of the late '80s, this Los Angeles quartet packed a serious guitar punch and musical toughness that helped keep it somewhat distanced from the latter category in which it appeared to belong. This record runs the gamut of '80s hard rock styles, from the pulverizing, near speed metal of the title track to the chiming, melodic ballad "Alone Again." In between, the forceful, refined sounds of guitarist George Lynch made this a memorable listen all the way through, particularly tracks like "Just Got Lucky," "Heartless Heart," and "When Heaven Comes Down." This was a hair metal band one didn't have to feel so ashamed of liking.