Top 30 Songs of 1983
The '80s were a decade of radical reinvention, and many of its predominant musical trends began to solidify in 1983.
It was a year that saw new wave and glam metal vying for public attention; that saw several of the previous decade's rock titans getting their careers back on track; and that found progressive and art-rock acts making forays into full-fledged pop territory.
It could be weird, garish and downright creepy — but also brilliant and exhilarating. Sample the year's highlights below in our list of the Top 30 Songs of 1983.
Billy Joel paid tribute to the sounds of his adolescence on An Innocent Man, evoking Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on the Top 5 hit "Uptown Girl." The relentlessly upbeat melody is a world apart from 1982's downbeat The Nylon Curtain, but the soaring backing vocals and infectious hooks make "Uptown Girl" a pure pop triumph.
Your enjoyment of "Mr. Roboto" depends largely on your sense of humor. If you try to take it seriously, you'll have a bad time. But if you accept Dennis DeYoung's bizarre robo-camp spectacle on its own terms, you'll have a blast.
After successful stints in Black Sabbath and Rainbow, Ronnie James Dio proved he was ready for solo stardom with Holy Diver, the debut album from his eponymous solo band. The title track is an all-time metal classic, a riff-heavy stomper given a stately elegance thanks to Dio's operatic vocals.
Elvis Costello dismissed "Everyday I Write the Book" as "kind of a hack pop song," and "an exercise in writing that sort of bad Smokey Robinson song, with all the tricks of the trade." But the bespectacled rocker was downplaying his own versatility. "Everyday I Write the Book" is a clever, delectable new wave-soul hybrid, and it granted Costello his first Top 40 hit in the U.S.
26. Nena, "99 Luftballons"
The original German lyrics to "99 Luftballons" tell a harrowing tale: A military general mistakes 99 balloons for UFOs and sends his pilots to investigate, thus prompting a full-scale war that leaves all sides devastated and without a victor. The poignant anti-war message is couched in a bouncy new wave melody streaked with melancholy, and it ends with a haunting sendoff: "I've found a balloon / I think of you and let it fly."
Genesis pivoted from prog to pop on their self-titled album, as best heard on the Top 10 single "That's All." Anchored by a strutting piano riff and Phil Collins' snarling vocal, it expertly melds Genesis' intricate songwriting talents and mainstream pop ambitions.
Robert Plant hit his stride on his sophomore solo album, which yielded two Top 40 hits in "Big Log" and "In the Mood." The former contains Plant's signature mystique and sensuality, filtered through a modern prism of synthesizers, drum machines and shimmering, clean guitars.
After a streak of underperforming albums, Elton John got back on track with the platinum-certified Too Low for Zero. Lead single "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" shows John at his best: jazzy piano, an R&B shuffle and a powerful-but-unfussy lead vocal. Stevie Wonder's yearning harmonica solo is the icing on the cake.
It's easy to make fun of "Sister Christian," especially if you've seen it used in that iconic Boogie Nights drug deal scene. But if you suspend your prejudices for a moment, you'll be forced to admit that Night Ranger's biggest hit is an expertly crafted AOR ballad with a legendarily inscrutable lyric to boot.
Ozzy Osbourne's career hung in the balance after the tragic, premature death of guitarist Randy Rhoads, but the Prince of Darkness pressed onward with the help of axman Jake E. Lee on Bark at the Moon. The album's title track is a stone-cold classic, full of furious riffs, one of Ozzy's most lucid vocal performances and two epic solos that cemented Lee as a worthy successor to Rhoads' throne.
Duran Duran embraced the sounds of sleek synth-pop on Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and its chart-topping single "The Reflex" is a sterling example. It's not so much a sonic reinvention as a natural evolution, and its digitized percussion, plucky guitar work and ping-ponging vocal hooks make it one of their most indelibly catchy songs.
19. New Order, "Blue Monday"
The throbbing kick drum announces itself. On "Blue Monday," New Order consummated their shift from Joy Division's postmortem post-punk to alternative dance pioneers. With its nonlinear structure, gooey synth-bass and Bernard Sumner's robotic vocal delivery, the track heralded a dance music revolution and remains the bestselling 12-inch single of all time.
Stevie Nicks couldn't get Prince out of her mind, even on her wedding day. The singer was driving with her short-lived husband Kim Anderson when the Purple One's "Little Red Corvette" came on the radio. Inspired by the melody and lush production, Nicks wrote "Stand Back," a defiant pop-rock anthem with a pulsating groove and tasty synths courtesy of Prince himself. Steve Lukather also lent his talents to the star-studded track, which granted Nicks a Top 5 hit.
Kiss desperately needed a win by 1983, hobbled by dwindling album sales and personnel shifts. They scored it with "Lick It Up," a throbbing pop-metal anthem whose video found the band members ditching their signature face paint. The song showed a new side of Kiss, physically and musically, and proved they could hold their own against the younger rock acts they had directly influenced.
Yes erased all traces of their prog-rock past on the glossy, synthetic chart-topper "Owner of a Lonely Heart," but that's not to say it lacks the band's signature. The sampled drum loops, crunchy power chords and synth-brass stabs sound impressively futuristic, and the soaring chorus put the band in the same standing as Duran Duran or the similarly evolving Genesis. As far as sonic facelifts go, this is one of the decade's most successful.
15. Pat Benatar, "Love Is a Battlefield"
From: Live From Earth
Released as the lead single and one of two studio recordings off Live From Earth, "Love Is a Battlefield" strikes a perfect balance between Pat Benatar's hard-rocking origins and the predominant pop-rock sounds of the mid-'80s. Danceable drums, synthesizer squalls and Neil Giraldo's shimmering lead guitar give the track a new wave bounce, while Benatar's explosive vocals keep it rooted in smoldering arena-rock territory.
No small feat following a breakthrough masterpiece like The Number of the Beast, but Iron Maiden caught lightning in a bottle yet again with Piece of Mind. "The Trooper," in particular, became one of the band's signature songs, and it's no mystery why. The band's signature rhythmic gallop, dual-lead guitars and Bruce Dickinson's banshee wail are all on proud display on this bloody battlefield anthem that tackles the folly of war.
Motley Crue was primed for the big leagues by the time they released Shout at the Devil, refining Too Fast for Love's glam-punk-metal hybrid with tighter performances and songwriting. Lead single "Looks That Kill" is a taut arena-metal stomper, sporting tense riffs from Mick Mars, relentless drumming from Tommy Lee and a feral vocal from Vince Neil. Decades later, it still sounds dangerous.
Metallica didn't release "Seek & Destroy" as a single from Kill 'Em All, but it's nonetheless become the album's most popular song. It's easy to see why: The seven-minute thrasher features the blistering riffs, breakneck tempo changes and communal, rage-inciting vocals that would come to define the band's best work. "Seek & Destroy" is a remarkably sophisticated early-thrash classic, delivered with the ferocity that only four 20-year-old street urchins could summon.
U2 had been building toward the epic, post-punk grandeur of War since their debut album Boy arrived three years earlier. Lead single "New Year's Day" is a nervy, arena-ready rocker that, alongside "Two Hearts Beat as One" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," helped shape the genre's direction in the '80s. The Edge's textural guitars add gravitas, while Bono's soaring vocals raise a political consciousness that still resonates in music today.
Quiet Riot agreed to cover Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize" with producer Spencer Proffer in exchange for studio time to record three of their originals. They originally planned to sabotage the performance, but they ended up recording such a strong first take that frontman Kevin DuBrow had no choice but to sing his heart out. Good thing, too, because "Cum on Feel the Noize" rightfully became one of Quiet Riot's signature hits, a readymade arena-rock anthem that helped make Metal Health the first metal album to top the Billboard 200.
Annie Lennox was "totally depressed" and "curled up on the floor in the fetal position" at a dismal Eurythmics gig when an improvised synth line from bandmate Dave Stewart piqued her interested. She leapt to her feet and started playing the other synth, and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" was born. The dark, chilly synth riffs match the song's bleak, nihilistic lyrics, which paint relationships as exploitative and parasitic. Yet through the darkness, the song's effervescent hooks shine, and the "hold your head up" bridge is a testament to the band's perseverance.
Don't let the dreadful music video fool you: "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" is peak Journey, anchored by Jonathan Cain's tense keyboard riff and Neal Schon's stabbing guitars. Steve Perry sells the drama with a vocal performance that's equal parts soaring and deliberately ragged: When he wails "Promises we made were in vain, in vain, in vain," his anguish is palpable.
The brilliance of "Pink Houses" lies in its duality. Lyrically, it's a story about the myth of the American Dream, and the U.S. government's unwillingness to extend a hand to those in need. But these nuances get swept away in the deceptively ra-ra singalong chorus. Mellencamp envisions an America for everyone — but he's unflinching about its shortcomings.
Years before Nirvana and Green Day were even a twinkle in the public's eye, Billy Idol helped launch punk into the mainstream with Rebel Yell. The title track roars out of the gate with a vicious combination of lush, radio-ready synths and Steve Stevens' laser-like guitar. Idol's vocal fits the song title to a tee, as his melodic, muscular howl shoots the song into the stratosphere.
"Sharp Dressed Man" is the perfect synthesis of old-school and new-school ZZ Top: a four-minute tour de force of greasy blues-rock riffs, ass-shaking beats and sleek, futuristic production. Equally paramount to its success was its music video, which was in constant MTV rotation and remade ZZ Top into unlikely kings of cool. "Sharp-dressed depends on who you are," sagely bassist Dusty Hill told Spin in 1985. "It's all in your head. If you feel sharp, you be sharp."
Despite the mixed critical reception to David Bowie's Let's Dance, there's no denying the immediate impact of its title track, a dance floor-ready exhortation sweetened by Chic's Nile Rodgers. The unabashed post-disco instrumental melds with Bowie's chilly, disaffected vocals and Stevie Ray Vaughan's smoldering guitar solo to make one of the Thin White Duke's most beguiling concoctions.
On their sole U.S. Top 10 hit, Talking Heads blend the sharp, arty post-punk of their early days with the funk and worldbeat excursions of Speaking in Tongues' predecessor, Remain in Light. The result is essentially an art-school take on a P-Funk song, complete with David Byrne's slick white-boy raps. It sounds simultaneously nonsensical and dead serious — a microcosm of the decade's best art.
Def Leppard spent years refining the deceptively simple lead riff and stadium-sized chorus to "Photograph." When it finally clicked, magic happened. Like the rest of the star-making Pyromania, the song softens the band's harder edges with soaring pop hooks and Mutt Lange's rich, multilayered production. A singing guitar solo from Phil Collen sends it over the top. Def Leppard would score bigger hits in the future, but "Photograph" remains their definitive anthem.
The Police's biggest hit is "an aggregate of hundreds of others," Sting once admitted, "but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn't realize at the time how sinister it is." The bandleader's accidental stalker anthem only serves to emphasize the dueling impulses of a person unhealthily consumed by love. This conflict, which plays out over a hypnotic groove replete with Andy Summers' iconic guitar lick, makes "Every Breath You Take" one of the most darkly captivating hits of not only the Police's oeuvre, but the entire decade.
Top 40 Albums of 1983
Gallery Credit: Michael Gallucci