Tuesday, July 27, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1983

The music scene in 1983 could probably be summed up in one word: fun. If you look at any generic "hits of the '80s" CD compilation --or any "one-hit wonders" collection, for that matter-- this is the year that will almost always generate the most selections. From the cultural standpoint 1983 was the apex of the decade, from Cabbage Patch Kids and The Smurfs to VHS players and cinder block-sized portable phones, and mainstream and college radio equally embraced this forward movement. The synthisizer sound that was dismissed as too weird less than five years earlier had become an unofficial requirement for a hit record, while underground jangle-pop acts like R.E.M. and Violent Femmes found inspiration in forgotten records by '70s acts like Big Star, Shoes, and The Modern Lovers. Heavy metal notwithstanding it was hard to find a song in '83 that you couldn't dance to, as evidenced by albums #1, 8, and 10 on the list below.

Note: where's Thriller, you ask? Though that Michael Jackson bestseller made its greatest cultural and commercial impact in 1983-84, it was a December 1982 release. If you keep reading, you'll notice I didn't exclude Jacko's greatest work altogether.


1. Power, Corruption, & Lies, New Order. It's funny the way fate works. Had Joy Division frontmen Ian Curtis not committed suicide in 1980, the world never might've known the plantative vocal stylings of his bandmate Bernard Sumner. When JD regrouped as New Order a year later, Sumner assumed command if only because nobody else wanted to. Three years after Curtis' death, his surviving bandmates eschewed the monotone gloom of their previous work and became the premier dance-rock hybrid on the planet with their sophomore effort, Power, Corruption, & Lies. "Blue Monday" is the masterpiece here, embodying all the sonic progress the band had made since Closer; it is not only the best selling 12" single of all time but the gold standard of that particular format.
2. Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits. A truly icococlastic musician can take their distinctive, immediately recognizable sound, scrap it on a moment's notice, then reemerge with an artistic statement which completely rearranges your perception of that artist. Such is the case with Waits' eighth album; in trading his archaic '30s-style jazz caterwauling for Kurt Weill cabaret and odd time signatures, Waits ushered in a new, relentlessly weird chapter in his long musical career.
3. Synchronicity, The Police. In their six years as a major-label act, this puckish power trio churned out five dilligent albums, all enjoyable but not without their flaws. Which of the five was the best is up for debate; some will suggest Zenyotta Mondatta, others claim their debut Outlandos d'Amour was tops, but I'm adamantly in the Synchronicity camp. With the exception of the insipid "Mother," this is a strong top-to-bottom set of songs. If I had to pick a favorite track, however I'd probably go with either "Synchronicity II" or "King of Pain."
4. Murmur, R.E.M.
5. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes
6. Kill 'Em All, Metallica
7. War, U2
8. Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, Eurythmics
9. The Crossing, Big Country
10. Madness, Madness. In their native UK Madness are nothing short of icons; the leading bands of the late-70s ska revival, they've churned out one witty, quirky album after another for more than three decades. Regrettably, in the US they're just another a one-hit wonder. In the American conscious Madness is remembered only for "Our House," the leadoff track on a special self-titled compilation of their third and fourth albums. Considering that neither of those two albums have ever had a proper American release, Madness is a strong introduction to an underappreciated band at their thoughtful, energetic peak.

Honorable Mentions: Let's Dance, David Bowie; Touch, Eurythmics; Uh-Huh, John Cougar Mellencamp; Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon.


"Come On Eileen," Dexy's Midnight Runners
"Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo
"I Melt With You," Modern English
"Too Shy," Kajagoogoo
"The Lovecats," The Cure
"Working Girl," The Members
"Just Got Lucky," Joboxers
"Der Kommissar," After The Fire
"Rockit," Herbie Hancock
"Atomic Dog," George Clinton

"Photograph," Def Leppard
"Goody Two-Shoes," Adam Ant
"Ain't Going Down," Eric Clapton
"Tear-Stained Letter," Richard Thompson
"The Longest Time," Billy Joel
"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," Elton John
"Everyday I Write the Book," Elvis Costello
"For a Rocker," Jackson Browne
"Jeopardy," Greg Kihn Band
"Always Something There To Remind Me," Naked Eyes


1. "Thriller," Michael Jackson. Were you expecting a different clip at #1? For some this is the be-all end-all, ushering in music videos as an art form and unquestionably inspiring countless others. With the possible exception of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" two years earlier, music videos weren't particularly cinematic; this epic 14-minute movie forever altered that dynamic.
2. "Every Breath You Take," The Police. The companion clip to the consummate stalker song is as elegant as its subject matter is unsettling. The choosing of a neo-noir setting is genius.
3. "She Blinded Me With Science," Thomas Dolby. If there's a candidate for the daffiest video of the '80s, this would probably be it. Science!
4. "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This," Eurythmics. It is generally presumed that dreams are a subconscious reaction to what happens in your everyday life. The cows and the cellos I can understand, but that big ol' Commodore PC? Preposterous!
5. "Twilight Zone," Golden Earring. Speaking of dreams, this self-aware homage to the great French new wave movies of the early '60s has a vaguely surreal element that draws you in but never quite lets you go.

Honorable Mentions: "Cool Places," Sparks feat. Jane Wiedlin;
"The Safety Dance," Men Without Hats; "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Bonnie Tyler; "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," Cyndi Lauper.

Your thoughts?


  1. Ah, 1983, the year music video programs like TBS's "Night Tracks" and NBC's "Friday Night Videos" premiered giving an alternative to anyone who still didn't have MTV when it really was "Music Television"...