Okay, it's a bold statement, but I stand by it: 1984 was the year that Top 40 radio achieved perfection. Spurred by the twin successes of MTV and Michael Jackson's Thriller, radio playlists were fully shaken out of the doldrums they'd been in since the disco slump of 1979. Colorful and photogenic British new wave and synth pop acts had been making slow inroads into the Billboard Top 40 since Gary Numan's "Cars" back in early 1980. But the UK pop stars of the day were making overt plays for the American airwaves, and established stateside artists ranging from Prince and Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel and Tina Turner were responding with some of their biggest-selling albums. And in the middle of it all, two newcomers named Cyndi Lauper and Madonna Ciccone were offering very different -- although equally interesting -- new takes on what it meant to be a female pop star. Here, in chronological order by the week they debuted on the chart, are a baker's dozen of 1984's biggest and best. We could have chosen at least as many more.
Tina Turner -- "Let's Stay Together" (chart debut February 18, reached #26)
In one of the first cases of a vintage R&B star being brought back by younger musicians, a thoroughly washed up Tina Turner was recruited by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of the electro-pop trio Heaven 17 to record vocals for a song by their side project the British Electric Foundation. That track led to a hit single with a stark but impassioned synth-driven take on the Al Green classic "Let's Stay Together." That single's U.K. chart success led Capitol Records to sign Turner to an album deal, resulting in the massive-selling Private Dancer LP. She had bigger songs later in the year, including the career-defining #1 "What's Love Got To Do With It," but this smaller hit still sounds the best.
Tracey Ullman -- "They Don't Know" (chart debut March 17, reached #8)
British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman later became a beloved TV figure (not least because she gifted us with The Simpsons), but this note-for-note cover of the late Kirsty MacColl's brilliant 1979 girl-group homage was the first we ever heard of either of these talented women. Literally: that explosive "BABY!" that slams home the final verse is MacColl's powerful voice, not Ullman's charming but thin instrument. And yes, that's Paul McCartney at the end: Ullman was co-starring in his big-budget vanity project Give My Regards To Broad Street when the video was filmed.
Billy Joel -- "The Longest Time" (chart debut April 7, reached #14)
After a string of albums that seemed like increasingly naked attempts to be taken seriously as a songwriter, Billy Joel made the best album of his career just by going back to the '50s R&B and pop singles that had been his first musical love. An Innocent Man had bigger hits, like "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl," but perhaps the best was this doo-wop homage that doubled as an atypically sincere love song for his then-new sweetheart Christie Brinkley. Both his later albums and the marriage went south, but whadaya gonna do? To their credit, Joel and his touring band were unafraid to look like complete ninnies in this silly video taking place at a high school reunion.
Madonna -- "Borderline" (chart debut April 14, reached #10)
After the dancefloor-centric singles "Everybody," "Burning Up" and "Holiday," Madonna proved her pop suss with this incredibly hooky single. It's as easy to move to as any of her other early tracks, but the beat was de-emphasized by the bell-like synth riffs and addictive synth-bass pulse. Brazilians call the sense of aggreeable melancholy on display here saudade, and it gives "Borderline" an elegance that her next couple of singles, "Lucky Star" (the video of which was extremely important to my 14-year-old self for obvious reasons) and "Like A Virgin," would lack.
Cyndi Lauper -- "Time After Time" (chart debut April 21, reached #1)
The goofy "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" made it seem like Cyndi Lauper was going to follow Nena's "99 Luftballoons" into the annals of one-hit-wonders, but this heartbreaking ballad made it clear that despite her perhaps-questionable fashion sense, she was a genuine talent. She's So Unusual was jam-packed with hits ranging from "She Bop," the most overt hit about female masturbation until DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself," to a gorgeously minimal cover of Jules Shear's "All Through the Night." But "Time After Time" was the only one awesome enough that no less than Miles Freakin' Davis recorded it.
Night Ranger -- "Sister Christian" (chart debut April 21, reached #5)
All together now: MOTORIN'! The archetypal power ballad, "Sister Christian" was the song that made it okay for girls to like poodle-haired dudes in spandex and mascara. Although this means Night Ranger were therefore partially responsible for some of the worst hits of the pre-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" era, the song's use in the supremely bizarre home invasion scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights almost makes up for "When I See You Smile" by Bad English.
Duran Duran -- "The Reflex" (chart debut April 28, reached #1)
The original mix of "The Reflex" that opened Duran Duran's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was kind of a botch, sluggish and overlong. For the single, the Durans enlisted Chic's Nile Rodgers (yes, the same dude who made Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" so awesome) to remix the song from top to bottom, and his tighter, punchier and more inventive take scored the band their first American #1 hit. As primitive as it seems now, this video looked positively state of the art in the spring of 1984. It was mildly controversial in the halls of Levelland Junior High, as I recall: the sequence that starts around 3:20 was rumored to suggest...um, y'know...it's a giant wave of white fluid hitting audience members in the face, you figure it out.
Bruce Springsteen -- "Dancing in the Dark" (chart debut May 26, reached #2)
Born in the USA was lavishly praised from nearly all corners critically, but living in a small west Texas town at the time, I distinctly remember a lot of Springsteen's biggest fans around me finding "Dancing in the Dark" an overt slap in the face. Powered by a nagging synth riff and a booming, Phil Collins-like four-on-the-floor snare, it sounded like a "f---y little disco song" to the "Born To Run"-loving jocks. I found his willingness to listen to recent musical trends rather encouraging, but I was mostly just into the video for the really cute girl he pulls out of the audience at the end, who a decade or so later turned out to be Courteney Cox.
Dan Hartman -- "I Can Dream About You" (chart debut June 2, reached #6)
A primo piece of Hall and Oates-style '80s blue-eyed soul from a writer-producer who'd had a minor disco-era hit called "Instant Replay," "I Can Dream About You" was somewhat notorious at the time for its video. Not the one above, which was rarely if ever shown on MTV, but the actual clip that MTV had in heavy rotation at the time, which is seen in the TV screens in this version. That clip was a scene from the now-forgotten teen-angst flick Streets of Fire, in which a doo-wop quartet (including future indie director Robert Townshend and Forrest Gump costar Mykelti Williamson) lip-syncs Hartman's vocal. To this day, there are probably people who adore this song who have no idea that it was sung by a baby-faced white guy with a really bad perm.
Prince and the Revolution -- "When Doves Cry" (chart debut June 9, reached #1)
Nearly three decades later, it can be hard to remember just how weird this song sounded when it first hit the airwaves with a burst of Hendrixian feedback and some mumbled chanting. As skeletal as it is undeniable (ever notice that it doesn't have a bass line?), "When Doves Cry" was the song that confirmed that Prince was even weirder, and even more talented, than we had thought. As a musician, anyway: Purple Rain is a strong contender for the coveted title of Worst Film With The Greatest Soundtrack.
John Waite -- "Missing You" (chart debut July 21, reached #1)
The thing about John Waite, who had been the leader of a short-lived rock band called The Babys before he went on to a solo career (and who later was the frontman of the aforementioned Bad English), is that there's this weirdly cynical vibe about him. You just can't believe a word the guy sings. Ironically, that's what makes the chorus "I ain't missing you at all" work as well as it does: a more empathetic singer wouldn't put across the paradox nearly so well.
Bananarama -- "Cruel Summer" (chart debut August 11, reached #9)
Back in the pre-internet 1980s, it sometimes took literally years for a British hit single to attract enough of an American audience to hit the U.S. charts. Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" was the "Blurred Lines" of the summer of 1983 in their native land, but unless you were the kind of person who haunted the import section of your local record shop, it was a little over a year later before it reached your ears. Even though it had been the opening track on the trio's self-titled second album, released in the spring of 1984, it hadn't been London Records' first choice for an American single off the album. That honor went to "Robert De Niro's Waiting," a bouncy little tune that underneath its happy-go-lucky surface appears to be about the post-traumatic stress of a sexual assault victim.
George Michael -- "Careless Whisper" (chart debut December 22, reached #1)
When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley started Wham!, the duo meant for their music to be a cynical commentary on Thatcherite economic policy. Seriously: go listen to their first single, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)." Or better yet, don't: it's absolute rubbish. When a song as fluffy as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is a huge improvement over your prior output, it's clear that you started from a bad, bad place. But that first American hit's follow-up "Careless Whisper" (released as a George Michael solo single everywhere but the US, where it was somewhat confusingly credited to "Wham! featuring George Michael") was the first indication of Michael's Elton John-like talent. And you can't fault that sax solo: it just encapsulates the 1980s, doesn't it?
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Janelle Arthur hasn’t been in danger on American Idol, so don’t panic just yet. Detroit music night didn’t take down the country queen with a Motown challenge. She did, however, sink down low and come right back up to the top in an hour of television on Wednesday night. It was a perfect narrative, played out before the episode was even halfway over. And it brought her dark horse status up another peg.
Of course, adding to Janelle’s rise was the fall of another girl or two. Both Angie Miller and Kree Harrison, while still fairly great, feel a wee bit from grace, Angie a little more than Kree because Angie dropped everything we love about her for a “fun” performance of “Shop Around.”
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Making things even more interesting were Amber Holcomb and Devin Velez, who both stepped up their game after being in the bottom two last week. And if we didn’t have a hard enough time deciding on favorites, Burnell Taylor and Candice Glover were amazing as always.
Lazaro Arbos was also there, and not nearly as terrible as last week, though he seems a bit out of place in this tenacious group.
With the songs of Detroit (and people from Detroit), here are our top eight contestants in order from best to worst:
1. Janelle Arthur with “You Keep Me Hangin On”
Before Janelle got to her own solo performance, she was paired with competition darling Kree for a performance of “Like a Prayer.” And while Keith Urban and Mariah Carey praised the girls for supporting each other when the lyrics got the better of them, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson pointed out the obvious: Kree outshined Janelle.
Luckily for Janelle, when she took to the stage for her countrified version of the Supremes song, she stole back the spotlight. She’s almost cheating by rearranging this song so completely, but in the end it doesn’t matter. This is her sweet spot. She sits there comfortably with a guitar at the center of the stage, plucking our heart strings by bringing out the true gravity and angst of the lyrics of the song, something Keith points out we’ve never seen before. And the rubies on the top of Janelle’s tiara come when she ends her performance with adorable, genuine tears in her eyes and tells Keith, who she was afraid to play for, that her guitar was made by her uncle.
If anyone won the night, it’s Janelle.
2. Burnell Taylor with “My Cherie Amour”
I’m going to go ahead and admit my bias: If you’ve been reading these recaps you know Burnell is one of my favorites, but you may not know that “My Cherie Amour” is one of my all-time favorite songs. And Burnell sang it to perfection as only he could.
I do, however, worry about Burnell, because as we saw this week, Burnell isn’t exactly great as moving around the stage as your average pop star, but he is so much more. When Nicki called him “artsy” I realized why broad audiences might have trouble latching onto what Burnell does, but it is artistic. It is wonderful. And it is 100 percent Burnell. All I can do is hope that voters love him as much as I do.
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3. Amber Holcomb with “Lately”
Finally, Amber gave us a connection to her performance. As always, her vocals are flawless and effortless, but we’ve come to expect that at this point and she still ended up on the chopping block last week. Guest mentor Smokey Robinson tells her the same thing I’ve been saying: you have to make people believe that you connect. And she does it. She doesn’t need to try on the vocal, so it’s clear that she’s putting more effort into making that connection. It was great to finally see her join us in 2013 instead of getting stucking in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and while her performance wasn’t the complete package, she did give the best vocals of the night, as Randy said.
4. Candice Glover with “Heard It Through the Grapevine”
Smokey Robinson was not wrong when he said “She is singing personified.” And if Amber hadn’t worked so hard to move up the ranks this week, Candice would be right back in the Top 3. Her rendition of “Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a little too ‘80s with the use of the sax and she had a few small imperfections in her voice, but when it comes down to it, Candice and the music are one. She’s not learning someone else’s song and singing it, she simply is the music. So while she may not be the tops for me this week, she is the number one singer on this show overall.
5. Kree Harrison with “Don’t Play That Song”
Kree may have made Smokey Robinson swoon when she sang his best friend Aretha Franklin’s song, but when she hit the stage, something didn’t quite meet Smokey’s praises. Don’t get me wrong, our Kree is not capable of being awful, but she is capable of picking a song that stretches her to a few less-than-perfect places. There were parts that clearly strained her, where she looked up into the sky, searching for the note. But she is still one of the most talented people on this show and the judges are right: it is admirable to take on Aretha. So she may have had a few hiccups, but all in all, Kree pulled it off.
6. Devin Velez with “Tracks of My Tears”
Once again, Devin has come back into his sweet spot and he’s even added a little something extra: a smile. The problem is, he’s earning back our affection when we’ve already laid so much of it on the girls (Angie, Kree, Janelle, and Candice) and he still feels a little stiff. Still, Devin is clearly a talented singer. I’d like to say we’ll see him open up even more as the competition continues, but if his bottom three trend continues, his inability to jump all the way to the front of the pack may be his undoing.
7. Angie Miller with “Shop Around”
What happened to our Angie? Sure, the girl was having fun, but this felt remarkably like Allison Williams’ sad performance of “Stronger” on the Season Finale of Girls, except that when Angie got to the worst part (the moment she seemed to flub the lyrics) she knew it. She’s still got a good voice, but the only thing that keeps Angie from veering off into boring territory is the fact that when she bonds with a song a chemical reaction takes place. In this performance, even when the vocal was good, that chemical reaction was missing and she simply sounded like some well-dressed young lady on Star Search, and we know this girl can do better.
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8. Lazaro Arbos with “For Once in My Life”
With a great song choice, Lazaro’s confidence is back, he’s doing his Lazaro thing. But for me, it’s still not enough to surpass the other singers in the competition. It constantly feels like he’s chasing the song everytime he sings, even when he’s as excited about a song as he is about this one. Even in the group number, when his imperfections should be nice and comfy, masked by the other singers, it’s Lazaro’s voice that brings the performance down. His pitch is still off. His voice still lacks the strength and pleasant quality he needs to keep up with the other contestants, and the judges seem to know that, but all they can do is call out his strengths and tell him he’s got courage. This is why the poor kid is stuck in a competition that constantly points out how behind he is compared to his peers.
Who do you think will go home? But who really should go home?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox (2)]
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