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Image: Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna
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The year 1984 saw Bruce Springsteen’s landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” released June 4, Prince’s masterwork “Purple Rain” drop June 25 and Madonna’s classic “Like a Virgin” get unveiled Oct. 29.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/20/2009 2:31:52 PM ET 2009-07-20T18:31:52

Suppose one of the best years in pop music happened and nobody noticed.

A quarter of a century ago, in 1984, three of the most significant pop albums ever made came out. The year saw Bruce Springsteen’s landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” released June 4, Prince’s masterwork “Purple Rain” drop June 25 and Madonna’s classic “Like a Virgin” get unveiled Oct. 29. In other words, three of the most important albums ever were released within five months of each other.

Strangely enough, 1984 has gone almost unnoticed in pop history because there was no discernable trend that emerged that year, which is always a prerequisite for a “big” year in music (think the British Invasion of 1964, the punk revolution in 1977 or the grunge explosion of 1991). Yet 1984 was the year the artists who would largely define the 1980s made their definitive statements.

Another reason the year gets overlooked is that there’s no generational “hook” for the media to latch onto. Look back to 1964 and you think of Baby Boomers. Mention 1991 and Generation X comes to mind. The artists that dominated 1984 attracted people from a variety of demographics. If anyone represented a generation it was Madonna, but Baby Boomer-centric publications like Time magazine seemed too preoccupied with criticizing her to hang a name on the legions of teens that identified with her.

Because of all this, 1984 is still better known as a novel on societal dystopia than as a year of pop utopia. All of which is a shame. The aforementioned albums have gone down as classics, consistently making various“best of” lists. Songs like “Glory Days,” “Material Girl” and “Purple Rain” have maintained their power, plus you can still put on these records without having to endure those wince-inducing “what were we thinking?” moments that ruin so much old music.

Born to reign
The most unexpected new superstar of the year, of course, was Madonna. When the year began, only a handful of dance music buffs had heard of her. By the time the year ended, no one would forget her. Credit Cyndi Lauper for paving the way for Madonna. In early 1984, people’s acceptance of Lauper’s idiosyncratic vocal style and persona gave notice that the world would accept a new kind of female star. Madonna, meanwhile, had released her debut album in 1983 to slow sales.

After Lauper, though, Madonna’s high-pitched, proudly “girlish” vocal style suddenly became commercial and the unique look she sported in the “Lucky Star” and “Borderline” videos didn’t seem too weird for MTV.

Slideshow: Madonna Those singles became unexpectedly belated hits, and pushed back the release of “Like a Virgin.” When it finally came out, it went platinum and delivered four top five hits and one No 1.

Springsteen was already popular, but few people suspected “Born in the U.S.A.” would explode the way it did. Pop music in the early 1980s was dominated by British bands, which were making Springsteen’s roots rock seem somewhat quaint. But the Boss was prepared for this brave new world, and made the album’s lead off single the groove-heavy “Dancing in the Dark.” It unexpectedly became his biggest hit to date, rising to No. 2 and the song’s video made Springsteen a regular on MTV, where he was previously barely seen.

Before long, Springsteen was as popular as the rock critics who championed him always said he’d be. “Born in the U.S.A.” topped the charts for seven weeks and went 15 times platinum domestically. The Boss had always been a huge concert draw; now his album sales were matching his live reputation. Seven hit singles were pulled from the album.

Slideshow: The magic of Bruce Springsteen Springsteen might have seemed destined to be a household name, but Prince certainly wasn’t. Three years earlier, he went over so badly as an opening act for the Rolling Stones that he left their tour after just two dates. Yet “1999,” from 1982, gave him a Top 10 album and a trio of hits. When “Purple Rain” came out as a film and a soundtrack, the public was finally ready, maybe because Michael Jackson had paved the way for an African-American to reign.

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“Purple Rain” stayed at the top of the album charts for nearly half the year, selling 13 million copies and spawning four Top 10 hits. Two of those hits went to No. 1; one of them, “When Doves Cry,” was the year’s top single.

All over the place
Not only were the top artists of 1984 not classifiable by style, neither were some of the other artists who made significant musical contributions. Run-D.M.C. released their groundbreaking debut album, which gave rap a less kinder, gentler feel and changed the rules of the genre. The film “Beat Street” was then considered a “break-dancing movie,” but in retrospect brought New York hip hop to the mainstream (along with pioneering rappers Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Moe Dee).

The indie rock scene found hardcore favorites Hüsker Dü release not one but two of their best albums, “Zen Arcade” and “New Day Rising.” The Replacements showed the first signs of being seriously great with “Let it Be” and the Bangles and R.E.M. offered two releases that were arguably their strongest of the 1980s, “All Over the Place” and “Reckoning.”

There was also a lot of commercial music only moms and dads could stand, but if you couldn’t handle the syrupy Phil Collins and Lionel Richie stuff, you could rock out to Billy Idol and Van Halen, both of whom put out some of their best work. The year even ended on a high note with the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the all-star group Band Aid.

When 1984 began, critics feared the still-novel MTV might seriously damage pop music by popularizing musicians who were more about looks than talent. For a moment that year it seemed the video revolution might not be so bad after all. That moment passed, of course.

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