Why 1984 Was the Greatest Year in Pop Music

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

As an avid chart watcher and pop music listener since childhood, I am making a bold claim here, but hear me out: 1984 was the greatest year in pop music.

For purposes of this essay, I’m going to start with 1955, which is largely regarded as the beginning of the rock era. (Sorry, 1940s — so many good songs, but maybe I’ll count you down some other day.)

Before I get to ’84, I will count down the years that deserve special mention, from number 5 to number 1.

5. 1973. While this might seem an odd pick to many, the year has many high points to recommend it. While it wasn’t a great year for iconic albums (the big exceptions being Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd and two by Elton John, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), it was a great year for singles. Many classic songs still in regular rotation today came from 1973, including “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack), “Crocodile Rock” (Elton John), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), “You’re So Vain” (Carly Simon), and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight and the Pips). It was also a big year for Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Jim Croce, and The Carpenters. Also, it was a banner year for female vocalists, who have not always been dominant on the charts. Diana Ross, Helen Reddy, Cher, Vicki Lawrence, and Maureen McGovern all had #1 songs, and it was the year we first heard from Bette Midler and the Pointer Sisters. The year was chock-full of rock, pop, country, and R&B hits — there may not have been another year when the singles chart and radio airplay were so un-segregated.

4. 2009. It’s no coincidence that this is the year that the iPhone came to prominence, quickly followed by social media and streaming. 2009 may have been the last year for great radio. This was also a great year for female vocalists. Pink, Mariah, Beyonce, and Kelly (last names not needed) all had a big year, but — get this — it was also the year we heard, for the first time, Adele (in the US), Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry. Rapper Drake began his chart dominance that year. The biggest success of the year was the Black Eyed Peas (with another female vocalist, Fergie), who gave us a huge album and two huge singles (“Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling”). There was a lot of variety on the charts, from bands like Nickelback and Dave Matthews Band, to rappers like Kanye and Eminem, to country acts like Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts. And TV’s American Idol was still having an impact. Besides Kelly, Carrie Underwood, David Cook, and Daughtry also had a good year. Like 1973, it will be rare to see the charts this un-segregated in the streaming era.

3. 1964. I know I’m gonna get blowback on this one, because the meteoric rise of the Beatles changed pop music forever, and it happened in 1964. But if we look at the year as a whole, it was kind of a bipolar year on the charts. While the Beatles were a phenomenon, and with Motown just beginning to emerge, these were signs of a new world order, musically. But those two phenomena couldn’t carry the whole year. Besides the wave of Beatles’ songs that year, we also fondly remember “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Roy Orbison), “I Get Around” (Beach Boys), “My Guy” (Mary Wells), and “Dancing in the Street” (Martha and the Vandellas). But some of the other big hits were bubble gum songs by now-forgotten artists like Jan and Dean, The Newbeats, and The Serendipity Singers. While we remember some of the middle-of-the-road hits of the time (“Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong and “People” by Barbra Streisand come to mind), many by other big artists like Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Bobby Goldsboro are now gathering dust in a box of 45s. Still, we also had the Four Tops and the Temptations and The Four Seasons, portending some great things ahead. A good year it was.

2. 1968. I can make a better case for 1968. By now, the British invasion that began in 1964 was in full swing. Also, the important folk music scene, with their timely songs of protest, and Motown and rock bands were all having a huge impact on this historic year. For those who wanted something softer, we had great artists like Herb Alpert, The 5th Dimension, and Dionne Warwick. The Beatles had their biggest hit, “Hey Jude,” in an otherwise relatively quiet year for them. But who can deny the impact of iconic songs by Marvin Gaye, Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, The Rascals, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and The Doors? And if you wanted to ignore all the upheaval in the country, you could have fun listening to The Monkees or 1910 Fruitgum Co. There was only one year better than 1968.

1. 1984. To be honest, I could make a case for either year that bookended 1984 (1983 or 1985), but the middle year was when it all came together. It’s hard to find another year that offered so many iconic albums. Look at this list:

· Prince, Purple Rain

· Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA

· Tina Turner, Private Dancer

· Madonna, Like a Virgin

· Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual (technically released in late ’83, but all the hits came in ’84)

· Phil Collins, No Jacket Required

· Van Halen, 1984

· Sports, Huey Lewis & The News

· Sade, Diamond Life

· Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down

But, in addition to those albums, we had carryovers from the previous year that were still best-sellers and singles from them were still being released:

· Michael Jackson, Thriller

· The Police, Synchronicity

· Billy Joel, An Innocent Man

1984 was the year we first heard from Bon Jovi, with their platinum self-titled album and hit singles that followed. We first heard from Wham! Featuring George Michael. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was a big hit, but there was promise of bigger things with their early 1985 follow-up, “Careless Whisper.” Whitney Houston’s big hits were soon to come, but she first charted in 1984 in a duet with Teddy Pendergrass (“Hold Me”); 1985 would be her breakout year.

Most prominently, it was the year we first heard from Madonna. Her first chart success was “Holiday”, which only reached #16 but is still a radio airplay staple. She ended the year with “Like a Virgin”, which cemented her status as a superstar.

The new version (‘80s-style) of the British invasion was a force to be reckoned with: Duran Duran, Culture Club, The Eurythmics, Billy Idol, and The Thompson Twins, to name a few. John Waite’s “Missing You” was one of the top songs of the year.

American acts that made an impact included The Cars, Pointer Sisters, Kool & The Gang, Chaka Khan, Kenny Loggins, and Rick Springfield.

Finally, we still had some holdovers from the ’70s who continued to chart: Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John, The Jacksons, Olivia Newton-John, and — making an ’80s comeback — Chicago.

For consistent excellence, on the whole, it is hard to argue against 1984 as the greatest year in pop music. Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Madonna, Phil Collins, The Police, Billy Joel? Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Culture Club, The Eurythmics?

Come on, name me another year with such a deep bench, all of whom still get radio airplay and fill stadiums today (if alive and active!).

1984, the best of pop music. Orwell didn’t predict that.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.