20 Best ’80s Songs
When you think of the best ’80s songs, do you automatically flash to synthesizers, asymmetrical haircuts, the safety dance and sunglasses at night? Well, you’re not wrong, but it should also make you think of much, much more. It was the decade that made one-named new artists Madonna and Prince household names. The string of smashes that Michael Jackson released during the period earned him the title King of Pop. In the ‘80s, rap went mainstream, big hair would never be bigger and artists had a bitchin’ new outlet with which to promote their music: MTV. It was, like, totally awesome!
‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’
The 12th and final track rushed onto Def Leppard‘s already-way-behind-schedule album ‘Hysteria,’ ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ rocketed the English hard rockers to crossover superstardom in 1987. The track’s recipe of beefy drums, crunchy guitars and layered vocals was cooked up in a production so deliciously dense that listeners couldn’t gobble it up fast enough. The fact that it’s also stuffed with tasty hook upon tasty hook? The sweetest part of all. We defy anyone to resist shouting along to the mid-song chant, “You got the peaches / I got the cream.”
The lyrics claim the song is for “only the sexy people,” but absolutely everyone gets on out there and dances when Salt-N-Pepa’s ’80s hit ‘Push It’ is in effect. Originally released as a B-side in 1987 and later added to a reissue of the group’s ‘Hot, Cool and Vicious’ album, the undeniable jam helped the hip-hop crew push open industry doors, earning them a Grammy nod and the first-ever platinum album certification for a female rap artist. Sampled by everyone from Destiny’s Child to Miley Cyrus, the song’s sparse beat and simple synth melody are so pleasingly familiar that it’s hard to believe the track didn’t always exist. (Tl;dr? ‘Push It’ is real good.)
‘With or Without You’
It became such a standard that ‘Friends’ famously proclaimed it Ross’ favorite song, but when on-the-rise Irish rockers U2 released ‘With or Without You’ in 1987, no one dreamed that millions soon wouldn’t be able to liiiiiive without the moody ballad. Considered sonically and structurally WTF at the time, the first single off the now-seminal ‘Joshua Tree’ features a prominent ambient guitar overlay that helps its slow-burn arrangement build to a powerful climax. Listeners still debate exactly what Bono‘s deeply poetic lyrics are about (love? God?), but there’s no debate what this ’80s song did for four lads from Dublin: propel them to worldwide superstardom.
In 1985, Janet Jackson was a former childhood TV star with a pair of underperforming albums to her (very famous) name. The next year, she became Janet — Miss Jackson if you’re nasty! The 19-year-old broke professional ties with her family, hooked up with super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and dropped her groundbreaking third album, ‘Control.’ With its heavily syncopated second single, ‘Nasty,’ she showed she was now truly in firm control of a bright musical career. The track’s fierce and funky girl-power heavily influenced a generation of artists, including a young Britney Spears. Nasty boys simply didn’t stand a chance with anyone, anywhere, ever again.
That gong-like noise at the beginning of ‘Beat It’? It’s the sound of Michael Jackson being anointed a true crossover phenomenon. With the third single off of 1982’s ‘Thriller,’ he added more than a dash of rock to his R&B/pop, even winning the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Its accompanying video, portraying a gang fight turned dance-off, is still considered one of the finest examples of its genre, as is the stinging solo by hard-rock guitar god Eddie Van Halen that slashes through it like — well, like a couple of gang members tied together in a knife fight. (Spoiler alert: Only one other MJ song beats it on this Best ’80s Songs list.)
Funny that a hard-rock band with one of the mightiest guitar heroes ever would have their biggest hit with a synth-driven pop song. But ‘Jump,’ off Van Halen‘s ‘1984,’ still showed off enough of Eddie Van Halen’s signature fretwork fireworks to please old fans as it earned new ones. The fun track, still popular in sports arenas nationwide, catapulted the quartet to their first (and last) No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its playful and colorful video, featuring the oversized personality and kung-fu acrobatics of frontman David Lee Roth, is also the portrait of a great group becoming the biggest band in the land.
‘Come on Eileen’
The mother of one-hit wonders, ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners became the scourge of women named Eileen when it hit the top of the charts in 1983. It also ticked off Michael Jackson, since its ascension effectively blocked him from ever enjoying back-to-back No. 1 hits. But absolutely everyone else loved the fiddle-tinged ditty with the cray-cray “Too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye, aye” lyrics. Here’s a fun party trick: Request ‘Eileen’ at the next wedding you attend, then sit back and enjoy what 40-somethings and 50-somethings do when the song stops for a second, then starts up again real slow before getting faster and faster. Oh, the wonders you will see!
‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’
As the first single off her second album, ‘Whitney,’ ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ helped Whitney Houston make history as the first female artist ever to top the Billboard 200. Critics dismissed it as a dance-pop trifle, but audiences everywhere loved the tune, which led the charts in 13 countries and cemented her newfound status as a global superstar. The fourth of her record-breaking seven consecutive No. 1 hits, ‘I Wanna Dance’ also won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The song’s colorful video memorably showed a Whitney that was all bright-eyed and bushy-haired — just the way we wanna remember her.
‘Hungry Like the Wolf’
Start with five cute Brits with killer haircuts and catchy tunes (always a good combination, as Directioners can attest). Add in a sexy video lovingly filmed in an exotic locale, play it in heavy rotation on this newfangled thing called MTV, and you have the beginning of another British Invasion (this time in the ’80s)! With 1982’s ‘Hungry Like the Wolf,’ Duran Duran burst onto the scene out of seemingly nowhere and do do do do do‘d their way into unsuspecting American girls’ hearts. This song was just the beginning of a decade-long domination for the new wavers, and made their newly minted Durannies voracious for more. Just ask your mom.
‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’
It is a known fact that before this song peaked at No. 2 in 1984, females were not widely believed to be active pursuers of amusement. Cyndi Lauper changed that mistaken perception with ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ giving herself both a career and a career-defining song. That the high-spirited, high-voiced track was actually written by a man should bother no one (especially since Lauper changed up some lyrics to include it on her debut solo album, ‘She’s So Unusual’). Its silly, colorful clip — following a boho-punk Lauper as she dances through the streets and debates her pro-wrestler dad — was enjoyed by gals of all ages (and a whole lot of guys) in the ’80s.
‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’
Even back in the ’80s, the iconic Slash guitar riff that kicks off ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ sounded like a siren signaling the dawn of a New Rock Age. When the drums come crashing in and Axl Rose’s distinctive vocals soar, it was confirmed beyond a doubt: Guns N’ Roses came to reclaim rock for the masses. Dropped in 1988, the third single off their debut album, ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ became GN’R’s first, and only, No. 1 hit in their home country. A sticky-sweet love song cleverly disguised in a hard-rock wrapper, this ’80s tune was — and still is — guiltless ear candy for music fans of all tastes.
‘Every Breath You Take’
Here is what the Police‘s ‘Every Breath You Take’ most definitely is not: a love song. Here’s what it certainly is: the greatest stalking-song-regularly-mistaken-for-a-love-song ever written! Sure, Sting‘s vocals sound mellow enough and the sparse instrumentation seems gentle and pleasing, but the tune’s undertone was nothing if not genuinely sinister. Behind the music, the English trio was having a rough time of it, though, despite its world domination with 1983’s ‘Synchronicity.’ So, unfortunately, as the Police recorded what would become their signature hit — considered one of the best breakup songs of all time — they themselves were splitting up (at times violently).
‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’
As simple and direct as the genre it celebrates, ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was a massive hit right out of the box for Joan Jett. A big beat and chunky guitars propelled the cover song to the top of the charts in January of 1982, where it remained for seven weeks and helped Jett’s solo career get off the ground. Generations of tough chicks and their guys have since dropped a dime (and more) in the jukebox to sing along to the rock anthem, notably covered by Britney Spears 20 years later. Hey, maybe it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but who doesn’t like it?
‘Livin’ on a Prayer’
Gina and Tommy probably have no idea what they started. Ostensibly about a down-on-their-luck blue-collar couple, ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ became the biggest of the many big songs brought to us by Bon Jovi. The big-haired New Jersey band was already on top of the world with their album ‘Slippery When Wet’ in 1986 when the talk-box of its second single squawked its now-famous opening riff. That it charted for a second time 26 years later (thanks to a viral video featuring a dancing Boston Celtics fan that made the rounds in late 2013) is evidence the crossover classic from the ’80s sounds just as good today.
‘When Doves Cry’
Can you picture this: life without ‘When Doves Cry’? Scary, but the world almost never heard the stark, sexy jam: The first single off Prince‘s now-legendary ‘Purple Rain’ soundtrack was also the final song he wrote for the film. ‘When Doves Cry’ was his first-ever U.S. No. 1 and went on to become the top-selling single of 1984. Because he’s Prince and is a crazy multitalented genius, he played every single instrument on the track, except for bass. But because he’s Prince and he does whatever the heck he wants no matter how radical, ‘Doves’ does without a bassline completely.
Unfortunately, no video was available for this classic track from the ’80s on YouTube — but we’re sure you’re familiar with the song already!
‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’
From the first “Hey” to the last “La la la,” 1985’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ is a simply unforgettable, prime cut of synth-pop majesty. Written for the classic John Hughes high school flick ‘The Breakfast Club,’ it was originally rejected by three other artists before being offered to Simple Minds . . . who also passed on it. But the Scottish rockers wisely changed their minds and reworked it to their liking. They never liked the final product as much as the rest of the world did, but it nevertheless became the band’s only No. 1 hit on these shores — and the one for which they’ll be forever remembered.
‘Take on Me’
In the wrong hands, falsetto plus quick tempo equals hilarity. And if you’ve ever heard a ballpark full of people butcher ‘Take on Me’ (ahem, Washington Nationals fans), you’d appreciate the mastery of A-ha’s original that much more. Despite its insane two-and-a-half octave vocal range, people love trying to sing along to the charming, synth-driven 1985 smash. The photogenic Norwegian trio won a whopping six MTV VMAs for the song’s inventive video, a fantasy depicting a woman pulled into the panes of a comic book. Don’t think you know the ’80s tune? If you’ve heard Pitbull and Christina Aguilera‘s ‘Feel This Moment,’ you know it.
‘Don’t Stop Believin”
Don’t believe that ‘Don’t Stop Believin” is actually more than three decades old? We don’t blame you, since the 1981 power ballad has never stayed out of popular culture for long (even just being named the “Best Driving Song”). The top-selling catalog track in iTunes history, the Journey classic famously ended the final episode of ‘The Sopranos.’ As the first single ever from the cast of ‘Glee,’ it re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 4. in 2009, some 28 years after its initial release. And while we love that and the many other cover versions out there, for us, nothing can top the Bay Area rockers’ thumping original from the ’80s. That you can believe.
‘Like a Virgin’
As an artist, Madonna was still fairly shiny and new when her second album, ‘Like a Virgin,’ dropped in 1984. Nevertheless, nobody believed she was anything like a virgin after hearing the lyrics to the bouncy title track, which became her first No. 1 hit. And the song’s video, showing her seductively romping on a Venetian gondola, didn’t change anyone’s minds. Nor did her performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards that year, when she shockingly rolled around in a wedding dress and humped the stage. Which, like everything that Madonna does, was exactly how she wanted it. She was well on her way to greatness.
The first real thriller from ‘Thriller,’ ‘Billie Jean’ is the song with which Michael Jackson became MICHAEL JACKSON. With a minimum of instrumentation but a maximum of funk, the tune about a groupie-gone-wrong spent seven weeks at No. 1 in 1983. Jackson infused the track with a killer bassline and vocal hiccups galore, but it was his electrifying on-screen performances to the song that caused a true worldwide sensation. The iconic ‘Billie Jean’ video was the first by a black artist ever played on MTV, and Michael moonwalked his way into HIStory — and an Emmy nod — to the song on the ‘Motown 25′ special. “She said I am the one,” he sings. He had to be No. 1 on our list of the Best ’80s Songs as well.