A+ List – 1984
As much as the ‘80s are maligned musically, ’84 was an outstanding year for pop music. Check out my lengthy list of Honorable Mentions below #20, many of which are as good/even better than the twenty annotated below in alphabetical order.
1. “99 Luftballons,” Nena. Nena’s international smash is supposedly an anti-nukes protest song, but as far as this limited linguist knows, it could be about not spilling beer in your Jägerschnitzel. As foreign language U.S. hits go, better than “Sukiyaki” or “Dominique,” in the same league as “La Bamba” and “Gangnam Style.” Lead singer Nena (Gabriele Kerner) continues to busy herself with music, television, and movie projects in her native Deutschland.
2. “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley. The great man himself, “I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead ‘Deadhead’ bumper sticker on it!” The Ataris would replace the Deadhead sticker with the Black Flag rectangles.
3. “Cool It Now,” New Edition. You can’t just go out and manufacture another version of The Jackson 5 and make undeniably great pop singles. Unless, you can.
4. “Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen. Before the Born in the U.S.A. album, Springsteen wasn’t a major artist on the pop charts – he had a million rock crit rave reviews, one Top Ten hit (“Hungry Heart”), and a rep for the best live shows on the planet. “Dancing in the Dark” put his biceps on MTV and pop radio and started his ascent as a long term commercial brand. I dance in the dark often – toe stubbing remains an occupational hazard.
5. “Eight Miles High,” Hüsker Dü. In the mid-1980s, Bob Mould was more than ready to rage against the machine or any person, hot dog, or squeegee placed in his path. This is the vocal performance of a man who has chosen his hill to die on and is purging his soul for eternity.
6. “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen. Nobody heard this song in 1984 and we’re all a bit sick of it now, but it became a standard for a reason. As Iman Lababedi noted two short hours ago, “There are only two performers in the rock era who have never had a serious dip in songwriting quality – one is Dylan, the other is Cohen.” One can only assume that Iman rates the late Wild Man Fischer in a not so distant third slot.
7. “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics. Love didn’t keep the new wave Captain & Tenille together, but the melancholy “Here Comes the Rain Again” kept them at the top of the pop charts. Annie Lennox has spent the last three decades involved in charity work and releasing new material. Her 2014 release is a collection of jazz/pop standards (“I Put A Spell on You,” “Mood Indigo”). Think of her as the sweet, sadomasochistic dominatrix next door.
8. “Hero Takes a Fall,” The Bangles. Susanna Hoffs and company were a fine pop band with their updated ‘60s jangle pop style and had no finer moment than the harmonious, self penned “Hero Takes a Fall.” I’m not sure about their management though. I caught them live when “Walk Like An Egyptian” was the #1 single in the country. They were playing in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
9. “Hold Me Now,” Thompson Twins. Robert Christgau calls this song “a classic on chord changes alone” and once again he is correct.
10. “I Want You Back,” Hoodoo Gurus. This Sydney garage band is in the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame, but never spilled out of the college/modern rock waste bin in the U.S. Songwriter Dave Faulkner on an unappreciated remake, “’I Want You Back’ was one of the few songs of mine to ever be covered by another artist, a fellow mysteriously named Simon F, produced by Billy Idol’s then-guitarist Steve Stevens. Some writers refer to their creations as their ‘children,’ well this felt more akin to having your child grow up to be a serial killer.”
11. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn’s leftist Christian activism seemed pretty cuddly in his “Wondering Where the Lions Are” days, but a trip to post revolutionary Nicaragua gave him a different perspective about military force and politics. “These people were dealing with this fear every day – Guatemalan helicopters would fly over the camps, maybe drop a bomb on them, or some soldiers would kidnap some of the refugees, take them into the woods, and chop them up. You know the scene at the end of the movie ‘Apocalypse Now?’ That’s nothing compared to what I saw.” You think those people had problems? You should see how much I pay for cable.
12. “It’s My Life,” Talk Talk. Not to be confused with The Animals or Bon Jovi, “It’s My Life” went Top 40 in seven countries in 1984, but not in the band’s native U.K. Proving that sometimes persistence isn’t stalking, the song was reissued in England in 1985 with less success, but after being reissued AGAIN in 1990, it went to #13. In 2003, No Doubt had a major international hit with their cover version.
13. “Jump,” Van Halen. Smokin’ Eddie V. was known for his carnival guitar solos, but got all synthed up for “Jump,” a stylistic change that was reportedly unpopular with his then wallflower lead singer. The musical evolution, or calculation, did vex some of the band’s hardcore fans, but it also expanded their audience, giving the group their only #1 pop single. Producer Ted Templeman, “No longer viewed as threatening to those with a chronic fear of metal, the band somehow became amusing and even endearing to middle America.” It’s too bad that Kriss Kross didn’t do a cover version.
14. “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club. Boy George and the boys had a number of high quality singles during their 1982 to 1984 run on the pop charts with this one going #1 in ten countries and selling over five million copies globally. I can hardly think of this tune without a high school memory of a less than chaste girl sexually pursuing her religious boyfriend. Her words, “Every day is like revival/You’re my lover, not my bible.”
15. “New Sensations,” Lou Reed. While not exactly “Born to Be Wild” thematically, Lou sheds off his snake skin, embraces positivity, and enjoys a rural motorcycle ride. A happy Lou was kind of like Ronald McDonald with Tourette’s – completed unexpected but replete with entertainment possibilities.
16. “Nobody Told Me,” John Lennon. “Nobody Told Me” was originally penned for Ringo; I can easily imagine that his delivery of the “Most peculiar, Mama” line would have been wickedly droll. Released posthumously, this was one of the last times we got to enjoy Lennon’s songwriting brilliance. I sure miss that guy.
17. “Rock Box,” Run-D.M.C. A few years into rap’s existence, Run-D.M.C. innovated by matching their aggressive hip hop style with hard rock guitar, a formula that would make money rain from the sky on their “Walk This Way” cover. I still look back fondly on those early ‘80s days when Areosmith’s career was as healthy as pom-pom sales at a Nick Cave gig.
18. “Round and Round,” Ratt. Ratt’s one fantastic melodic hard rock number pole vaulted the band into three decades of breakups, reunions, lawsuits, side projects, and general acrimony. So, you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?
19. “They Don’t Know,” Tracey Ullman. “They Don’t Know” was penned/released by U.K. pop star Kirsty MacColl in 1979, but comedienne Ullman’s sweet, retro take went to #8 in America in ‘84. Ullman would go on to have continued success in the television sketch comedy genre from 1987 to 2010, which is the entertainment equivalent of a 1,000 year flood.
20. “Unsatisfied,” The Replacements. On the Let It Be album, Westerberg’s songwriting chops and the band’s snottier than thou punk rock posture resulted in one of the best albums of the decade. Has there EVER been a better summation of the basic spirit of rock ‘n’ roll than, “Look me in the eye/Then, tell me that I’m satisfied/Hey, are you satisfied?”
Random A+ Generator List
Cruel Summer, Banarama
Don’t Worry Baby, Los Lobos
Forever Young, Alphaville
How Soon is Now, The Smiths
I Feel for You, Chaka Khan
I Will Dare, The Replacements
The Glamorous Life, Sheila E.
Head Over Heels, The Go-Gos
Jungle Love, The Time
Lake of Fire, Meat Puppets
Lesson Two: The James Brown Mix, Double Dee and Steinski
Let the Music Play, Shannon
Love is for Lovers, dB’s
Lovecats, The Cure
A Matter of Time, Los Lobos
Middle of the Road, The Pretenders
Money Changes Everything, Cyndi Lauper
My Ever Changing Moods, The Style Council
Peace in Our Time, Elvis Costello
Pink Houses, John Mellencamp
Pink Turns to Blue, Husker Du
Solid (as a Rock), Ashford & Simpson
Summer’s Gone, The Kinks
Talking in Your Sleep, The Romantics
Tenderness, General Public
Thriller, Michael Jackson
What’s Love Got to Do with It, Tina Turner
When Doves Cry, Prince