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The best pop music of 1983


In 1983, singles proved to be a much better vehicle for amusing, adventurous pop music than albums were. Whether we’re talking about the traditional 7-inch single or the expansive 12-inch configuration, singles have yielded a wide variety of pleasures over the last 12 months. The following is a list of 10 of the best of them.

  1. Michael Jackson, “Beat It” (Epic): A toss-up with Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” I’m choosing “Beat It” for its impact as a crossover success and its extraordinary video. The song is a taut rocker featuring a wittily histrionic guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, of the hard-rock band Van Halen. Crisp vocals and a terse melody combined to make it the most widely heard pop song of the year. And once you saw the video, you couldn’t hear the tune without thinking of Jackson’s slinky moves.
  2. S.O.S. Band, “Just Be Good to Me” (Tabu, 12-inch): Immediately lovable in part because it was so completely disposable, this state-of-the-art rhythm & blues single was a substantial crossover hit on the pop charts, a healthy sign that barriers are breaking down in rock radio’s segregation of black and white artists. A dreamy love song featuring a sinuous instrumental hook, ”Just Be Good to Me” was the romantic dance song of the year from a group that always seems to come up with a hit just when you thought you’d heard the last of them.

  3. The Police, “Every Breath You Take” (I.R.S.): Another dreamy love song, this one with a nasty edge. Lead singer Sting murmured the lyric with the intensity of an obsession: Despite the pulsing, minimalistic beauty of the melody, you could never be sure, when he sang “I’ll be watching you,” whether he was a doting lover or a peeping tom. All of which also helped to make it the most pleasingly ambiguous hit of the year as well.

  4. Herbie Hancock, “Rockit” (Columbia, 12-inch): The jazz keyboardist teamed with two members of the avant-rock band Material and rap deejay Grandmaster D. St. to create an influential instrumental. The scratchy chorus riff, bolstered by Hancock’s dithering synthesizers, created a thick web of rhythm that ensnared every listener within hearing range. “Rockit” was probably the most popular bit of music in dance clubs across the nation.

  5. P-Funk All-Stars, “Generator Pop” (Uncle Jam): It never became the major hit it deserved to be, but this latest incarnation of George Clinton and his usual gang of raucous collaborators was a bright, zippy pop song with funk rhythms undulating just below the surface of the melody. It is to Clinton’s credit that he didn’t try to copy his 1982 hit “Atomic Dog” – he waited to do that on the new P-Funk All-Stars album, with a tune shamelessly entitled “Copy Cat.” Good fun all around.

  6. Stevie Nicks, “Stand Back” (Modern): Call me sentimental, call me a sucker for singers in platform boots (I always kind of liked Kiss, too), but I found the pounding intensity of this moody rock tune irresistible, and Nicks’ throaty vocal the height of pop sexiness. After listening to it countless times, I still have utterly no idea what it’s about, but that’s part of its allure. Nutty and sensual at the same time.

  7. Run-D.M.C., “It’s Like That” (Profile, 12-inch): This rap tune featured harsh, angry vocals, as Run and D.M.C., two New York rappers, traded vehemences back and forth with increasing rancor, excoriating Reaganomics in the bluntest terms. When combined with a sharp, percussive rhythm track, it was a scary, compelling performance.

  8. Grandmaster and Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill, 12- inch): Another rap screed, but one that gives the lie to the charge that rap is a limited genre. This ferocious condemnation of cocaine utilized smooth harmonies and coursing synthesizer lines to create a streamlined song whose accusations stung. The biggest disappointment in pop music this year was the fact that Grandmaster didn’t release a new album, but this single was as good as substitutes get.

  9. Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, “Searching for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy, 12-inch): Working in collaboration with producer Arthur Baker, Bambaataa came up with sounds that have never been heard on record before, a wildly original combination of rap sound effects and synthesizer noises that formed a dense thicket of melody. Searching for the perfect beat, Bambaataa and Baker found a series of fascinating ones.

  10. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Save the Overtime for Me” (Columbia): Knight’s first pop hit in years was a well-deserved success. This was a rich, complex ballad with a novel organizing metaphor in the title. Knight’s voice has never sounded stronger or more supple, and the melody was both lush and inviting, never merely sentimental. It inspired one of the year’s most charming videos as well.

Ken Tucker / Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) / December 25, 1983



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