We all love ‘80s music: the overblown reverb on vocals; the analog synthesizers and electric drum tracks; the unreal stage personas, and questionable — yet in retrospect, pioneering — wardrobe choices!
However, choosing the greatest track of the ‘80s is a tricky choice. The song must encapsulate the era, both in sound and theme. This decade gave us some of the most epic records of all time, presenting an impossible decision.
Thankfully, someone posted in a forum asking the Internet for their favorites. Get your new playlist ready; here are the 25 best songs of the ‘80s, according to the music lovers in the discussion — in chronological order to avoid arguments!
1. Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
The precursor to New Order got the ‘80s started with a caustic, working-class indictment of romance during economic turmoil. “When routine bites hard; And ambitions are low; And resentment rides high, But emotions won't grow” captured the British era like no other song.
2. The Buggles: “Video Killed The” Radio Star (1981)
On August 1, 1981, MTV went on air at 12:01 pm, and the first video the world saw was The Buggles’ iconic song. Songwriter Trevor Horn was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s “vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists.” If only he had known what would follow!
3. Journey: “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981)
This is every karaoke bar’s favorite song in China, where I once lived. This is so hard to sing, and I wouldn’t even go there if I were you. The strange thing about Journey’s stratospheric single is the chorus appears at the end, with two pre-choruses leading to the catharsis. This one gets goosebumps standing to attention.
4. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (1982)
Jacko must be on this list; don’t be surprised if he reappears. Nobody could, or likely ever will, repeat Michael Jackson’s influence on global pop music. His collaboration with Eddie Van Halen resulted in his greatest song — I will stand by that statement. My favorite moment is Quincy Jones’ creaking door transition to Eddie’s eponymous guitar solo.
5. Bananarama: “Cruel Summer” (1983)
Female band Bananarama had a great decade, though it never quite reached the same levels as big sisters, The Bangles. However, “Cruel Summer” is a memorable tune with a theme of discontent about summertime during oppressive weather.
6. Talking Heads: “Burning Down The House” (1983)
Talking Heads’ blend of minimalist pop joviality was an emblem of this joyous period. It is astonishing that this was the electro-pop band’s only top-100 American track. It didn’t even chart in the United Kingdom — though it had stiff opposition.
7. Metallica: “Fade to Black” (1984)
Ride the Lightning was a brutally melodic album drawing on themes such as the Ten Commandments, World War Two, and capital punishment. James Hetfield suffered shocking burns during an American tour while performing this number. He recalls seeing his skin bubbling when a nearby pyrotechnic unit went off prematurely.
8. The Smiths: “How Soon Is Now?” (1984)
While Duran Duran and Talking Heads donned their shiny suits and guitar keyboards, Morrissey and Johhny Marr created beautifully dark, ironic, angst-ridden art. The song was originally a B-side on another single, then made it onto the next album, consequently defining a generation.
9. A-Ha: “Take on Me” (1985)
Strangely, this ‘80s Hall-of-Famer was a flop in its original 1984 release, not even charting in the U.K. The song’s video helped it reach the hearts and minds of British and world youth via non-stop MTV exposure and its video’s iconic newspaper-style montage.
10. The Cure: “Close to Me” (1985)
The simple keyboard notes that glide over this ‘80s gothic pop song are the song’s musical motif. They add wonderful sarcastic sweetness over the British post-punk goth indie pioneers’ most famous track of the decade.
11. Huey Lewis and The News: “The Power of Love” (1985)
It helped Lewis that his single appeared on the Back To The Future soundtrack, but this song went crazy after its release. The single’s feel-good factor (so missing today in almost everything), fueled by Marty McFly’s on-screen romance, makes this song legendary.
12. Madonna: “Get Into The Groove” (1985)
Where do we start with Madonna? The solo singer single-handedly dominated the ‘80s like no other female star, so choosing her best is futile. This one is the first to appear in the discussion, so it makes the cut. Madonna defined ‘80s pop, and this is how I like to remember her.
13. Tears for Fears: “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (1985)
It starts with that catchy guitar riff, then launches into one of British pop music's most memorable musical recordings, peaking at number two in the singles charts. Its Cold War-era title lyric is evocative of turbulent political times — something we are still familiar with!
14. Bon Jovi: “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1986)
Oh, this band used to be so good. Once Jon Bon Jovi cut his locks in the ‘90s, Bon Jovi went downhill — in my humble opinion. They peaked in the mid-eighties with songs like this, featuring Richie Sambora’s screaming guitar dovetailing with Bon Jovi’s incredible vocal range.
15. Kenny Loggins: “Danger Zone” (1986)
Another movie connection here, this time from Top Gun’s Danger Zone, released by Kenny Loggins. However, the Georgio Moroder arrangement is one of its greatest elements — once you see past the ironic muscle movie connotations!
16. Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer”(1986)
The former Genesis member became one of the biggest solo stars of the ‘80s alongside his contemporary, Phil Collins. Sledgehammer spent four weeks at the top of the U.S. Billboard, amassing millions of sales and launching the stadium career of a pop music titan.
17. The Pet Shop Boys: “West End Girls” (1986)
Electro-pop duo The Pet Shop Boys own plenty of ‘80s music real estate, but no track defines them better than “West End Girls,” which catapulted the band to stratospheric fame in Europe. A 2020 poll in a prominent newspaper voted it Britain’s greatest ‘80s single.
18. INXS: “Need You Tonight” (1987)
Something great happened in the ‘80s. Music fans of all ages were privileged to hear some groundbreaking, uplifting, celebratory music singles. INXS’s “Need You Tonight” stands on some grisly electric guitar, forming the base layer for Michael Hutchence’s manly vocal style.
19. Run DMC: “It’s Tricky” (1987)
“It's tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time, it's tricky,” goes the chorus of this nightclub-bouncing classic. Vinyl mats and dancefloors pulsated to this song in the ‘80s, with Run DMC’s brand of lyrical genius at the peak of the hip-hop mountain. Late ‘80s hip-hop is where it's at.
20. U2: “With or Without You” (1987)
Bono, oh, Bono. Where would we be without you? The uber philanthropist has been more low-key of late, but his contribution to memorable ‘80s song lyrics is immense: “Sleight of hand and twist of fate; On a bed of nails, she makes me wait.”
21. Whitney Houston: “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1987)
Whitney Houston’s Shakespearian tragedy of a career must be remembered for its highlights — and boy, did she give us some. The sheer talent that cascaded from this singer was immeasurable. This single captured America’s sweetheart in all her positive greatness and what an amazing singer she was.
22. The Bangles: “Eternal Flame” (1988)
Eternal Flame saw The Bangles reach the peak of their fame late in the decade with the wonderful Eternal Flame. This homage to Elvis’s eternal memory is not obvious, though its commercial success was — it made number one in nine different countries, including the USA.
23. R.E.M. “Orange Crush” (1988)
I always think of R.E.M. as a '90s band, though we cannot forget they were born in the ‘80s. Orange Crush is a veiled political swipe at the military-industrial complex and agent orange, a nerve agent used in the Vietnam War. “Be all you can be,” sings Michael Stipe referencing his father, who served in the conflict. “In the army.”
24. Chris Isaak: “Wicked Game” (1989)
Another artist I consider more of a '90s legend, Chris Isaak, sneaks in with his masterful bittersweet ballad. Yes, sepia Helena Christensen writhing on the beach feels like the ‘90s, but we must be accurate here. 1989 was a good year for beaches; that is all I will say.
25. Depeche Mode: “Personal Jesus” (1989)
“Reach out and touch faith,” sings Dave Gahan, lead singer of Depeche Mode. The English dark pop pioneers were an antidote to their Reaganite power pop rivals, Duran-Duran.
So, what do you think of this list? Which songs would you remove or add?
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.