While 1984 undoubtedly saw the release of several of the decade's best and most important albums, it also continued to be a showcase for all sorts of new artists, styles and sensibilities. In that way, it may be one of the toughest years to slice up into a best-song list. Nonetheless, duty mercilessly calls, and I must answer.
With this song and in general with her smash hit album Private Dancer, Turner fully emerged from a niche soul/R&B career and blossomed into a megastar. Combining her passionate and incomparable vocal style with a driving rock groove prove to be a magical combination here, as the gentle, expressive verses explode into driving guitar parts and the most rousing singing of Turner's storied career. It's a pleading yet sexy, powerful yet vulnerable tour de force that stands up very well today.
Although Irish band U2 was still a couple of years away from superstardom, I believe this song represents the pinnacle of its initial, fiercely political college rock phase. In fact, there are simply no better moments in rock than the Edge's unforgettable guitar opening and the riff that fuels the entire song. If you can't get inspired by this one, either musically or lyrically, you may have misplaced your soul. Best line: "Free at last, they took your life, they could not take your pride."
Few songs scream "1984" for me as much as this tune, but I mean that in the best possible evocative way rather than the dated insult that can sometimes accompany such a claim. A longtime and chameleonic fixture in the music business, Hartman reached the rare goal of pop perfection here. Vocally, he out-Halls Daryl Hall and presents an impassioned, lovely blue-eyed soul vocal performance. The song recalls the era with an aching intensity, but by itself it's close to the perfect pop song.
Another example of an artist emerging from a niche into pop stardom, former bona fide punker Billy Idol transformed his sound into highly accessible pop/rock without sacrificing quality, at least at this stage in his '80s career. This tune's lovely, haunting synthesizer beginning later melts into a great, driving guitar riff that cuts across eras better than any pop technician ever has. Along the way, Idol's near-crooning never seems forced and proves that his decision to diversify was a good one.
For me Peter Cetera always seemed like an adult contemporary evil genius. On the one hand, the pop direction he introduced to Chicago inevitably stripped away much of what made the band unique from a jazz-rock fusion standpoint. On the other, it's hard to argue with the quality of the pop confections that resulted from his influence. This song is a frustrating example of this viewpoint, as it's undoubtedly a lovely melody. But it does hurt to hear the cruel relegation of the horn section.
One thing you can always say about Madonna's greatest '80s successes is that she sure knew how to pick 'em and they certainly knew how to pick her. This song was and is the perfect match for her sexy/innocent persona that helped launch her into the stratosphere. It also happens to be an extremely calculated and skillfully wrought blend of rock, pop and dance music that ultimately stands as a can't-miss formula. But without Madonna's one-of-a-kind delivery the song never reaches its potential.
One of the most eminently danceable and hummable tunes of the '80s, Ocean's biggest hit has to earn a place on this list. Ocean is a great, expressive singer, and somehow the depth of the groove helps you forget just how silly the lyrics get at times. The decade certainly had its share of carefully concocted pop songs, but few embraced a moment in time as unabashedly and deftly as this highly versatile tune with an undeniably broad appeal.
It doesn't take long to figure out how important someone thought saxophone was to the '80s sound. Cheesy application of that instrument during the opening of this smash hit threatens to ruin it, but George Michael's mastery of melody won't allow that to happen. Even lyrical missteps like "Guilty feet have got no rhythm" can't begin to overshadow the pure joy of this song's rising and undulating melody. His overwrought vocal delivery also manages to work somehow on talent alone.
One of rock's greatest singers, leave it to Henley to combine such a dark and brooding lyric with one of the decade's brightest and enduring melodies. And Henley doesn't stop with one of the most haunting uses of keyboards I've ever heard. By enlisting Tom Petty's Heartbreaker collaborator Mike Campbell's tasty guitar licks and songwriting input, he introduces yet more layers to this pop/rock classic. This song would have been a hit in any era, but it's even better in the context of the '80s.