It’s a discussion that radio and music lovers wish they could have about today’s music. Which year of the ‘80s vaunted CHR comeback was better? 1983 or 1984?
Was it the year of Top 40’s post-MTV explosion that still had the last few hits of the yacht rock era (“Africa,” “Never Gonna Let You Go”)? Was it the year when CHR unquestionably ruled?
The year of “Thriller” or “Purple Rain”?
Was it CHR finally coming back to most markets in 1983, including the debut of WHTZ (Z100) New York, or having four stations in some markets by 1984?
1984 is generally considered the epicenter of Top 40’s 1980s heyday—the year that brings it all home. By late 1985, some cracks are starting to show. (The following year, KPWR [Power 106] Los Angeles appears and suddenly the music on KIIS-FM sounds quaint.) But whenever I write about the two years together, there’s always a brief for the previous year as well.
“I am solidly in the 1983 camp,” label head Andrew Curry tweeted earlier this year. “Thriller. Synchronicity. Prince ascends to superstar status. The second British Invasion gives us the first hits from Duran Duran, Culture Club, Eurythmics. 1984 is fantastic. 1983 was better.”
I faced off the years in a few different ways.
Which year had the most enduring records? In four different formats where you would expect to hear ‘80s records, there are more songs in the top 100 most played from 1983 than from the following year. Out of the hundred most-played titles at Classic Hits, there are 13 from 1983 and eight from 1984. There are slight advantages for 1983 at AC, Classic Rock, and Adult R&B as well.
Which year had the most lost hits? In 2020, I began calculating the “Lost Factor” of each of the year’s Top 100 hits according to Billboard, using a formula of chart points in the peak year vs. airplay now. The more enduring a song, the lower its “Lost Factor.” By that standard, 1984 is marginally more enduring (average LF 1.8 vs. 1.9 for the previous year). But that’s a virtual tie, and much lower than the 4.7 from 1982 when a lot of AC-leaning “lost hits” would disappear as radio adapted a new sound.
Which year had the most bringbacks? It’s a sign of 1983’s depth that several songs that Top 40 couldn’t get to that year would go on to become hits later in the decade: “When I’m With You” by Sheriff, “Send Me an Angel” by Real Life (a minor hit both times), “I Melt with You” by Modern English, and “Red Red Wine” by UB40 (although if you go by its American release, that’s 1984).
Which year had more personal favorites? I averaged my personal 1-10 ratings for each of the year’s top 100 songs. That one was a virtual tie, too. 6.2 for 1984 vs. 6.1 for 1983. That said, there are a lot more songs in my iTunes from 1983 (323 titles) than 1984 (248). In general, it feels like there were more places for music to come from in 1983. By 1984, CHR music was fanning out to other formats, rather than vice-versa.
Which was the better year for radio? In 1983, you could hear Top 40 stations transitioning back from AC, gradually weeding the oldies that no longer fit out of the library. There were numerous CHR sign-ons. There were Album Rock stations, so dominant a year or two earlier, scrambling to play ABC and the Fixx (or Michael Jackson and Prince). By 1984, Top 40 radio was dominant but felt more homogenous. I enjoyed stumbling upon an incongruous oldie or two, but by 1984, there was little gold on CHR at all.
Finally, I threw it open to Ross on Radio readers. The majority (62%) chose 1984. Only a few advocated for both (and even though we think of the mid-‘80s as years when nobody didn’t like Top 40 music, I did hear from one or two who preferred earlier music.)
Rich Marino preferred the buzziness of 1983. “Both years were great, but in 1983, there was a feeling that something was building. By 1984, it was already here.”
“Definitely 1983,” wrote Phil Hamburger. That year “was a game changer for the decade after Top 40 getting destroyed in 1980-82 with way too much country and yacht rock.”
“Synchronicity, Naked Eyes, Madness, Bowie, Def Leppard, Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, ‘Sharp Dressed Man,’ Men at Work, ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ Oh yeah, and this whole Thriller album,” wrote Nick Straka.
“There was something for everyone from metal to country,” says Peter King. “1983 wasn’t quite as monocultural,” adds Joseph McCombs.
“Things took a turn for the worse in late 1984,” says Jason Steiner. “Songs like [Dennis DeYoung’s] ‘Desert Moon’ took the excitement out of the format.” Then again, it was the presence of Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” in 1983 that made 1984 better for Tom Schuh.
WHBC (Mix 94.1) Canton, Ohio PD Joel Murphy gives the nod to 1984. “Not just pop. Great year for college/rock/indie, dance/disco, AOR/metal, rap/electro. Even the stiffs were brilliant.”
“I still stump for ’84 because even though the big-hit highlights in ’83 were greater, the panoply in ’84 was just deeper,” says Slate Hit Parade host Chris Molanphy.
“1984 because R&B titles had fully returned to Top 40,” says Steve Sobczuk. “1983 was pretty exciting though.”
It’s worth noting here that both years were particularly great for R&B. 1983 was marked by classics that didn’t quite cross over—Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” SOS Band’s “Just Be Good to Me,” Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Save the Overtime (For Me).” In 1984, I remember KDAY Los Angeles playing some favorites that didn’t cross over at all, e.g., O’Bryan’s “Lovelite.” (Here’s a playlist.)
Despite the few grumbling “none of the above” comments I got, Ross On Radio readers, asked to choose pop music’s worst year a while back, could all agree that it was not 1983 or 1984 (or 1985). None of those years got any votes. The era they really didn’t like was 1990-91, when Top 40 radio was still setting the agenda, but rhythmic pop dominated. (Those years both have high average Lost Factor ratings.)
All of this leads me to wonder which of the years of the last decade will be chosen as Top 40’s bottoming-out year; (that, of course, assumes a recovery, which is still an extreme act of faith now). In the worst year article, I cite 2016-19, the years in which EDM slowed to a crawl and became “trap pop.” Since then, I feel like the biggest hits are better. Now, with the Top 40 record/radio relationship having nearly dissolved, the food is still OK, but the portions remain skimpy.
It’s possible that 2023 will be viewed as the bottoming out year because of country music’s dominance. The “Urban Cowboy” epicenter of 1981 is certainly a “worst year” for many of my respondents. I like the Luke Combs version of “Fast Car,” but I don’t like it being the best or most phenomenal record at Top 40. Whether you regard it as reactive or reactionary, the success of “Rich Men North of Richmond” shows the ability of even an outlier to dominate the cultural conversation more than most pop titles.
That said, I’m writing this article on Thursday, at a time when the pop music pipeline seems to be picking up again. I wish songs like “Bad Idea Right?” by Olivia Rodrigo had come out earlier in the summer. That being the case, neither I nor readers had a hard time coming up with the Song of Summer 2023, which will be announced next week.