Maybe all this confession does is pinpoint my age, but some of my favorite memories of 1983 are of listening to Casey Kasem and marveling at the variety and quality of pop music released that year. From Celtic influences to the early rustlings of hair metal, the memorable hits of 1983 never wavered from a special kind of intrigue. And oh yeah, Michael Jackson had a few minor hits this year as well, not to mention flashes in the pan like Prince and Madonna.
Although this song lies unmistakably on the edge of being overexposed through '80s flashback weekend radio shows, there's a reason for its ubiquitousness. It's a perfectly constructed Celtic pop tune with unintelligible lyrics that somehow manages to attain optimal accessibility despite the apparent strikes against it. How during the '80s, the age of the synthesizer, could a song featuring a scraggly lead singer in overalls and a prominent banjo part possibly rule the charts? Quality. Enough said.
It would not be unreasonable to argue that more than one Michael Jackson tune should crack this list, and perhaps this choice will generate even more controversy for being my single selection from the blockbuster album Thriller. But for my money, Jackson has never released a prettier tune than this one, a quiet and delicate ballad containing some really interesting melodic and rhythmic turns. Most importantly, Jackson does some of the best singing of his career on this tune.
Not even layers and layers of synthesized production and an androgynous robot look covering up the inherent beauty of a female lead singer could doom this song to obscurity. Once again, I ask why in a rhetorical manner, only to retort, to myself, that the song's tunefulness and exquisite structure simply could not be contained. Lyrically, this tune deftly goes to some strange and dark places, but the singing of Annie Lennox always lets the light back in. Stunning vocals and masterful synth work help make this one a worthy smash hit.
Though "Hungry Like the Wolf" would be an obvious choice here, I've always found Duran Duran's breakthrough album's title track to be the more evocative of the two. To me, "Rio" more clearly exhibits what was unique about this band in the first place, particularly in the nifty interplay of keyboards and guitar that launches the song. More than that, the tune does what all great pop music should in taking listeners to a sonic and imaginative place they never knew existed.
Not only did Prince release his first truly brilliant music in late 1982 that ruled the charts throughout 1983, but this great combination power ballad/rocker was the moment he became transcendent. Everything that was wonderful about Prince's songwriting at his peak is on display here, layered carefully and skillfully in a perfect arrangement. Great use of synthesizer to open, sultry and soulful singing in the verse, and then a seamless and unforgettable chorus. All of these parts add up to a finished product as sleek as the song's topic.
So very many have tried, but probably no band has been able to combine hard rock riffing with irresistible pop hooks as well as this hitmaking English quintet that has never had qualms about being accessible. This unbelievably tight song is the best evidence for this claim from Def Leppard's entire storied career. Its lyric plumbs the well-worn territory of image and fantasy but in a way so innocent and heartfelt that the sentiments never seem forced. And melodically, it's a tasty dessert.
The most savvy of '80s musicians displayed a stunning grasp of the importance of niches. Perhaps never has this been executed more masterfully than in this New Romantic classic, a song perfectly suited for excessive crooning. Somehow, the over-the-top arrangement and performance of the tune never even come close to overshadowing the beautiful melody that drives the verses. And when things become a bit overdone in the chorus, the dramatic effect seems lived-in and earned. Well done, lads.
Another great riff here, but more important to this song's success is the well-executed transformation from progressive rock to straightforward pop/rock for the band in question. Jon Anderson's vocals stand as the only element of this tune that even lets the listener know this is the same band known for '70s magnum opi like "Heart of the Sunrise." But none of that matters when you let it fall away and just listen to one of the most solid pop songs of the decade, or any other.
At first glance, this song from heavy metal's originator of the devil horn salute might seem like a strange choice for this kind of list. But upon close inspection this tune is simply a brilliant pop song bolstered and surrounded by rock guitar and what then was a rare use of keyboards in hard rock. Despite Ronnie James Dio's patented howl, the song is a classical pop piece, supported melodically by a rousing, buoyant verse and rounded out beautifully with a nifty repeated chorus.
When people speak of the theatricality of '80s music, they usually don't mean it as deeply or as literally as demonstrated by this Dennis DeYoung concept album vehicle. The concept was clearly lost on the entire band and sometimes even DeYoung himself, but that doesn't keep this song from being a consistently pleasurable sonic endorphine of a lost era. When DeYoung emphatically shouts his robot pleas for understanding, I always laugh at just how fully I tend to believe him.