On August 4, 1958, Billboard put Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” atop a brand-new chart it dubbed the Hot 100. Prior to that, the industry had relied on a shaky system that aggregated record store sales, radio DJ spins, and jukebox plays to measure a song’s popularity. The Hot 100 finally put all of those competing metrics into one streamlined, genre-crossing place. And 60 years later, while record stores, radio DJs, and jukeboxes have all mostly gone the way of Ricky Nelson, it still remains in use, influencing label decisions and governing artists’ careers, even as changes in how music is released and consumed only further expose its limitations.

The Hot 100 has long reliably served as a capsule of an era: These are the songs and artists that Americans were into that year, at that specific time. But just like its statistical shortcomings, those snapshots are often woefully incomplete. (Think about all the songs you loved in 2017; unless two of them featured Ed Sheeran, the Hot 100 probably doesn’t reflect your year at all.) In this new biweekly column, Off The Charts, we’ll revisit each year since the Hot 100 was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut to be considered “hits,” but that still had a significant impact—and in many cases, capture their respective times better than the songs that did.

To keep things interesting, we’ll be choosing each year randomly—and to make it even harder on ourselves, the rules for inclusion are that the songs and albums they hail from didn’t even make the Billboard 200. Selections will be argued over, in some cases spitefully, by our staff, and then listed in order of release. (We’re not gonna even get into trying to rank them.) Admittedly, it’s not a perfect system, and lots of great songs will still be left out. But of course, the same can be said about the Hot 100 itself.


The year: 1983

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1983

1. The Police, “Every Breath You Take”
2. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”
3. Irene Cara, “Flashdance (What A Feeling)”
4. Men At Work, “Down Under”
5. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”
6. Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”
7. Hall & Oates, “Maneater”
8. Patti Austin And James Ingram, “Baby, Come To Me”
9. Michael Sembello, “Maniac”
10. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
11. Culture Club, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”
12. Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gale, “You And I”
13. Dexys Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”
14. Bob Seger, “Shame On The Moon”
15. Donna Summer, “She Works Hard For The Money”
16. Sergio Mendes, “Never Gonna Let You Go”
17. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf”
18. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”
19. Golden Earring, “Twilight Zone”
20. Frida, “I Know There’s Something Going On”

Is there a more quintessentially “80s” year than 1983? Nearly all of the top songs from this year are obligatory choices for any self-respecting dance club’s retro night—and lying just outside the Top 20 are fellow instant era-signifiers like “99 Luftballoons,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” “Electric Avenue,” “Africa,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Mickey,” “The Safety Dance,” etc. If you were a director looking to soundtrack a flashback montage, you’d start here.

From Billboard’s Top 20, we can discern a few trends: the lasting dominance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which charted an unheard-of five singles that year. The phenomenon that was Flashdance, whose soundtrack yielded two Top 10 songs (“What A Feeling,” “Maniac”) and probably boosted another tune that touched on similar themes of women giving it their all (“She Works Hard For The Money”). A lingering ’70s love of syrupy, slightly overblown R&B and soft-rock ballads whose melodies you now only dimly recall. The near-total banishment of capital-R rock. And more than anything, a predilection for songs for—and about—dancing.

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More generally speaking, the singles and album charts from 1983 reveal the mainstream incursions of new wave—The Police, The Human League, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, U2, Talking Heads, Tears For Fears, Naked Eyes, Big Country, The Fixx, and Culture Club all sold big that year—and heavy metal, which crossed over into pop via charting breakthroughs by Metallica, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Accept, even as its future was being mapped out in debuts by the likes of Slayer, Queensrÿche, Mercyful Fate, and Pantera. This was also a big year across the board for female artists, with Irene Cara, Bonnie Tyler, and Donna Summer’s pop reigns buttressed and challenged by hits from the likes of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Laura Branigan, The Pointer Sisters, Nena, Stevie Nicks, and The Pretenders.

But as usual, the most interesting, influential stuff could be found on the margins—in the so-called “college rock” landscape (just making itself known through the surprise chart success of R.E.M.’s Murmur), as well as in the U.K.’s vibrant crop of new wave bands and in America’s fertile, widespread punk scenes. And while hip-hop had something of an off year—one of its few big releases hailed from Malcolm McLaren, of all people—there were hints of the coming explosion in underground recordings by the likes of Run-DMC, Too Short, and the Beastie Boys. It’s no surprise that our alternate Top 20 reflects these outliers, a version of the “80s” that lasted long after the novelty hits wore off.


Echo And The Bunnymen, “The Cutter” (January 1983)

Echo And The Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch once described “The Cutter” as the second-best song ever written—just behind the band’s classic “The Killing Moon.” (And he didn’t just mean “the best Bunnymen song” either.) McCulloch had reason to be cocky: “The Cutter” is a gorgeous, goth-lite number that builds and swells into something grand and towering, colored with an Eastern vibe that slightly differentiates it from U.K. peers like Joy Division and Simple Minds. Echo And The Bunnymen, despite the name, took themselves plenty seriously, and songs like “The Cutter” demonstrate why. [Josh Modell]


The Go-Betweens, “Cattle And Cane” (February 1983)

The Go-Betweens is one of those bands whose influence far outweighs its popularity, but that’s not necessarily a bad place to be. The group—led by two strong songwriters, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster—moved from Australia to the U.K. in the late ’70s, where it found like-minded souls in the Scottish pop scene. McLennan penned the band’s most memorable song in 1983 with “Cattle And Cane,” a longing, deceptively strange tune that reflects on his childhood in the Australian countryside. The song even has some fun lore: It was written on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, which Cave later claimed never produced another good song again. [Josh Modell]

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Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, “Genetic Engineering” (February 1983)

Smarting from the lukewarm critical reception toward 1981’s commercial breakthrough Architecture & Morality, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark pursued a darker, more defiantly experimental direction on its 1983 follow-up, Dazzle Shipsonly to have the critics belatedly declare its predecessor a masterpiece and this one cold and off-putting. That reputation has shifted, too, over time: Dazzle Ships is now rightly regarded as one of the classics of the era, a restlessly inventive Cold War concept album that’s wry, paranoid, and absolutely heart-stilling in equal measure. And it’s baffling that OMD couldn’t land another hit out of soaring singles like “Genetic Engineering,” a buoyant, lockstep march into a bright nuclear future over a mechanical churn of Teletype clicks and Speak & Spell samples. [Sean O’Neal]


Bad Brains, “At The Movies” (April 1983)

By the time Bad Brains released its first proper full-length, the D.C. quartet was already legendary on the East Coast for its supercharged melodic hardcore, ably captured by producer Ric Ocasek on the essential Rock For Light. The album boasts numerous Bad Brains classics, but “At The Movies” has the album’s catchiest chorus, a refrain that vocalist H.R. returns to in between his almost indecipherably fast words elsewhere. The song comes and goes in a little over two minutes, but it remains one of the band’s best. [Kyle Ryan]


Bauhaus, “She’s In Parties” (April 1983)

Bauhaus played its last-ever show in July of 1983, a week before its final album, Burning From The Inside, was even released. Though somewhat fragmented, the record left us with some of the four-piece’s most memorable experiments. Part dub jam, part goth rocker, “She’s In Parties” finds Bauhaus pushing a pop structure to its extreme, pairing an easy groove with an agitated guitar riff that punctuates Peter Murphy’s dramatic croon and eerie, deadpanned refrain. Before its end, the track shape-shifts through two or three sections that could be other songs entirely—a fitting close to the enigmatic band’s run. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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Violent Femmes, “Add It Up” (April 1983)

The pride of Milwaukee never topped its self-titled 1983 debut, but how could it? The entire first side of Violent Femmes is one frantically strummed classic after another, an extended fit Gordon Gano works himself into and out of until he finally explodes in “Add It Up.” The adolescent theatrics, sexual frustration, and blazing Brian Ritchie bass runs are all there in “Blister In The Sun,” “Kiss Off,” and “Please Do Not Go,” but “Add It Up” is a culmination—one that pivots around the band’s other thematic staples of death and faith, with Gano’s religious upbringing seeping into the hymnlike nature of the song’s haunting, a cappella intro. “Add It Up” would reach it widest audience when Ethan Hawke bludgeoned all the Southern Gothic weirdness out of it for Reality Bites, but it belongs in the old, creaky house built by Violent Femmes. Musical introductions have rarely been as thrilling or startling. [Erik Adams]


Billy Bragg, “A New England” (May 1983)

Back when Billy Bragg was the punkest folkie around, he didn’t need anything more than his pleasantly grating voice, electric guitar, and a poet’s heart to get his points across. Although he’s known—especially in this early era—as a deeply political songwriter, his love songs hit just as hard. “A New England” has a sly feint at cultural commentary (“Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill”), but at its heart it’s just about a desperate longing for connection—old material, for sure, but delivered in a singularly passionate way. [Josh Modell]


New Order, “Age Of Consent” (May 1983)

“Age Of Consent” is the best New Order song from the best New Order album (1983’s Power, Corruption And Lies), but it’s nowhere near the band’s best-known. That’s at least partly because it was so different than New Order’s singles of the era: the big commercial hit “Blue Monday” and the New York dance club-inspired “Confusion.” But “Age Of Consent” is New Order’s perfect pop song. It begins with one of those unmistakable Peter Hook bass lines, so fluid and musical and crucial to the equation, and layers on everything great about the band: a massively catchy synth line, just-busy-enough drumming, a soupçon of amateurish guitar, and lyrics you can sing along with but which mean almost nothing at all. (Oh, and one of those amazing little Bernard Sumner vocal intonations: “Ooh!”) It’s no wonder that, even though “Age Of Consent” wasn’t released as a single, it’s become a fan favorite over the years. [Josh Modell]

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The Smiths, “Hand In Glove” (May 1983)

Sometimes Morrissey’s arrogance is completely justified. The once-and-never-again Smiths frontman has long sung the praises of “Hand In Glove,” while simultaneously bemoaning the lack of chart success for this, the band’s first-ever single. “The sun shines out of our behinds” he sings, and “Hand In Glove” still backs up his cheeky pomposity today, a song that offered the first glimpse of what he and guitarist Johnny Marr could accomplish together. Lyrically, it finds tremendous strength in its vulnerabilities, a pose as defiant and lonesome as its opening blasts of harmonica. “It should have been a massive hit,” Morrissey later said. “It was so urgent. To me, it was a complete cry in every direction. It really was a landmark.” Thirty-five years later, it’s hard to disagree. [Erik Adams]


Minor Threat, “Betray” (June 1983)

Minor Threat hit the studio in January of 1983 to record what would be its final EP, Out Of Step, released just three months before its final show in September of that year. Having already broken up once, the group was feeling fried, and album opener “Betray” reflects frontman Ian MacKaye’s disillusionment with both his band and the scene that nurtured it. More melodic than Minor Threat’s earlier material but no less strident—“I’m not going anywhere ’cause I quit your fucking race,” MacKaye barks—“Betray” shows the band evolving musically even as the end is in sight. “The. End,” MacKaye pointedly says in the song’s final seconds. [Kyle Ryan]


The Cure, “The Walk” (July 1983)

Part of a series of “throwaway” pop songs Robert Smith recorded when The Cure was on the verge of falling apart, “The Walk”—bookended by 1982’s “Let’s Go To Bed” and 1983’s “The Love Cats”—ended up saving the band instead. The single fused Smith’s aching, gothic melodrama to a sprightly synthesizer line (one detractors felt bore a suspicious resemblance to New Order’s “Blue Monday”), and in the process it created a new shade of despair: one you could dance to. It was a balance of light and dark that the group, revitalized by the single’s sudden success in the U.K., would perfect on its American breakthrough, 1985’s The Head On The Door, along the way toward becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. [Sean O’Neal]

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Brian Eno, “An Ending (Ascent)“ (July 1983)

Brian Eno followed up the dark Ambient #4: On Land with Apollo, a collaboration with the multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lanois intended as the soundtrack for Al Reinert’s experimental documentary of the Apollo space missions, For All Mankind. That movie would end up getting recut a few times and delayed by several years, but Eno put out his soundtrack anyway, a characteristically haunting and otherworldly collection of stringed drones and whispering ambient tones. Its centerpiece is “An Ending (Ascent),” a melodic cycle of profound simplicity and beauty, and one of Eno’s most purely moving compositions. The track has since lent its sense of quiet, awestruck grandeur to other films like Traffic and 28 Days Later, but just listen to it now and you’ll feel yourself swept up in your own cinematic moment—or maybe just some measure of peace in your small place in the grand rotation of the spheres. [Clayton Purdom]


Suicidal Tendencies, “Institutionalized” (July 1983)

Feeling shitty about being a teenager is the lifeblood of popular music, but rarely are those frustrations channeled as bluntly—or as effectively—as “Institutionalized” from Suicidal Tendencies’ self-titled 1983 debut. The thrash band keeps it simple, both in its loping, two-chord verse structure and the run-on rants of singer Mike Muir, who laments the problems of a typical mixed-up kid who tries hard, only to find that “it just doesn’t work out the way I want it to”—and meanwhile, his mom just thinks he’s on drugs. Even the honor students can relate to the confusion and suffocation conveyed in Muir’s desperate cry of “All I wanted was a Pepsi!” It’s a cult classic today thanks to the durability of that line (and Repo Man and MTV), but it took years for it to become widely recognized as a classic. [Sean O’Neal]


The Birthday Party, “Wild World” (August 1983)

Before The Birthday Party broke up for good in August of 1983, the Nick Cave-led group cut two final EPs, Mutiny! and The Bad Seed, that rank among its best work. Although it’d just released its most successful album, Junkyard, the year prior, the Aussie band was splitting at the seams, caught up in personnel changes, creative disagreements, and a drug-fueled disarray that lent the recordings a particularly charged energy (see Heiner Muhlenbrock’s short documentary of the Mutiny! sessions). That the spare, roiling “Wild World” hangs on the performances of TBP’s two warring factions—guitarist Rowland S. Howard’s cascading screeches and Cave’s primal howl—makes its fevered come-on feel that much more perilous. The powerful farewell also offers a good glimpse of Cave’s solo career to come. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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Siouxsie And The Banshees, “Dear Prudence” (September 1983)

Following the success of 1982’s A Kiss In The Dreamhouse, Siouxsie And The Banshees largely took 1983 off to work on side projects like The Creatures and The Glove. But the band briefly reunited—this time with The Cure’s Robert Smith newly onboard as guitarist—to record “Dear Prudence,” and unexpectedly scored its biggest U.K. hit ever. The Banshees brought The Beatles classic and 1960s psychedelia fully into the goth-rock era by exploding its gently descending progression into a wall of dreamy, phasing guitars for Siouxsie to drape her languorous “look around, ’round, ’round”s over. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Tom Waits, “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six” (September 1983)

With all the fitful force of delirium tremens, Tom Waits officially shook off his beatnik barfly persona on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, delving into the sort of Fellini circus blues that would define the rest of his career. Nowhere does he blow a bigger hole in the door than on “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six.” A corroded slab of gut-bucket impressionism, the song is structured around little more than a simple, ham-fisted guitar pluck, some droning trombone, and the occasional anvil smack of a bell plate over its shambolic drums, with Waits barking hobo abstractions at you like a liquored-up Steinbeck novel: “I’m gonna cook them feathers on a tire iron spit / And I filled me a satchel full of old pig corn / And I beat me a billy from an old French horn / And I kicked that mule to the top of the tree.” It’s a song with trashcan fire in its belly, a growl of purpose from one of our most idiosyncratic talents. [Sean O’Neal]


ESG, “My Love For You” (October 1983)

While Come Away With ESG inherited some of its best tracks from the New York group’s prior EPs, its original cuts are no less irresistible, showing the same unfussy, economical approach to dance music that made these South Bronx sisters into one of hip-hop and post-punk’s biggest, most unsung influences. Compared to the band’s sparest tracks, “My Love For You” sounds downright lush, even as it’s largely built on a two-pitch bass line and a pair of drumsticks banged together. That extra density you hear doesn’t come from uncharacteristic adornment, but rather clever ways of filling musical space with the simplest sounds—a juicy syncopating cowbell, an eternally ringing cymbal—something ESG did better than just about anyone before or since. [Matt Gerardi]

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Hüsker Dü, “Diane” (October 1983)

In 1983, Hüsker Dü was on the precipice of an incredible run that would produce three classic albums in the space of 14 months. Preceding all of that was the seven-song EP Metal Circus, which mixed the band’s early breakneck hardcore with the more melodic sound that would become its signature. The most conspicuous break with Hüsker Dü’s past, the slow, moody “Diane” tells the story of a real-life murder with a suitably foreboding bass line from Greg Norton and Grant Hart’s plainspoken lyrics from the killer’s perspective. It builds to a crescendo with Bob Mould’s searing guitar, showing Hüsker Dü was only beginning to harness its power. [Kyle Ryan]


Cocteau Twins, “Sugar Hiccup” (October 1983)

With bassist Will Heggie departing Cocteau Twins after the band’s 1982 debut, the stark dark-wave gem Garlands, Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser made 1983’s Head Over Heels as a duo, launching the dream-pop sound they’d become known and widely imitated for. The swooning “Sugar Hiccup,” written in 3/4 time, embodies this new direction, built around the narcotic combination of Guthrie’s effects-heavy guitars and Fraser’s auroral, operatic vocals. The next year, a similar formula would give the band its highest-charting single in the U.K. (“Pearly Dewdrops Drops,” also a waltz), but it’d still be another half-decade before the States fell under the Cocteaus’ spell. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Run-DMC, “It’s Like That” (November 1983)

In 1983, hip-hop was moving beyond its earliest conception of emceeing, thanks in large part to a wave of New York rappers who would go on to define the genre’s late-’80s and early-’90s golden age. Run-DMC stripped away a lot of the then-prominent electro and disco influences in favor of lean minimalism and rock-influenced punch, just as they ditched the costumes and gimmickry of earlier emcees in favor of unaffected (but, good lord, fresh) streetwear. “It’s Like That” was released alongside “Sucker MCs” in late 1983 in advance of the duo’s self-titled 1984 debut, and while it failed to make much of a splash outside the R&B charts, the track contains everything that would soon make the duo such massive crossover successes: slapping drum machines, insistent horn blasts, and two world-class rappers tossing the mic with cold, unvarnished descriptions of modern life. By the end of the track, they’re booming tight couplets about the afterlife over a beat that’s nothing but cavernous blank space. It’s hard to imagine someone saying more with less. [Clayton Purdom]

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RECOMMENDED FURTHER LISTENING

Afrika Bambaata, “Looking For The Perfect Beat
George Clinton, “Atomic Dog
Daniel Johnston, “Walking The Cow
Depeche Mode, “Everything Counts
Kraftwerk, “Tour De France
Public Image Ltd., “This Is Not A Love Song
Lou Reed “Make Up Mind
Slayer, “Black Magic
Social Distortion, “Mommy’s Little Monster
Sonic Youth, “The World Looks Red
Tears For Fears, “Mad World
Wipers, “Doom Town