Counting Down the Best Songs of the 80s
The 1980s defined itself as a decade of rapid change–taking from the counterculture of the 1960s and innovations of the 1970s to create unconventional and captivating and experimental music that introduced hip-hop into the mainstream, synthesizers into pop music, and music videos as a seminal part of pop culture history by the creation of MTV.
While the world turned into a “computer society” and as wars continued to erupt, these changes were both apparent in both song lyrics and on the streets. These high-charged emotions and new-age developments influenced the formation of 80s bands that would change the definition of what a top hit could be.
50. Brian Eno and David Byrne – “America is Waiting” – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)
Why it’s the 50th Best song of the 80s
The novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Nigerian writer Amos Tutola tells a series of surrealist stories about a young boy who enters a journey through a phantom-filled forest. If Brian Eno and David Byrne were looking to represent the novel with a soundtrack, they did just that through their interest in African pop and the opportunity to document it through analog sampling of news broadcasts and vocals pulled from polyethnic music on “America Is Waiting,” which at the time they had called the process “found vocals,” over funky instrumentation.
Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Remain in Light were produced by Eno, and may take influence from Afrobeat and Fela Kuti, but My Life in the Bush of Ghosts features those world music artists in a lush and fantasmal sound, pulling Byrne away from the CBGB scene while further influencing Eno is his experimental music career.
49. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (1989)
Why it’s the 49th Best song of the 80s
Film director Spike Lee was looking to Long Island hip-hop group Public Enemy to compose an anthem on Black pride for the soundtrack to his upcoming film Do the Right Thing. It was the summer of ‘89, and Public Enemy was about to embark on a tour with Run D.M.C. while Lee’s film was depicting the racial tensions in his BedStuy, Brooklyn neighborhood. Public Enemy had already released two records before “Fight the Power,” talking about black empowerment, and influenced by funk and soul and taking inspiration from James Brown and sampling his song “Funky Drummer”. The single doesn’t stray away from those themes–creating an anthem that spoke volumes and Public Enemy eventually included the song on their 1990 record Fear of a Black Planet.
48. Metallica – “Master of Puppets” – Master of Puppets (1986)
Why it’s the 48th Best song of the 80s
The success of Metallica’s Master of Puppets was a slow trickle, taking decades for the metal band and third studio album to reach platinum certification. But since its release, the record has become a seminal part of the band’s career and metal music history, as bassist Cliff Burton’s final performance with Metallica. “Master of Puppets” weaves together thrash metal, speed metal, and intense song lyrics written about the negative and controlling effects of drug use
47. Daniel Johnston – “Walking The Cow” – Hi, How Are You? (1983)
Why it’s the 47th Best song of the 80s
Daniel Johnson emulated his emotions and personal experiences into the simplicity of a tinker toy organ and a Sanyo boombox recorder. Introduced to the world through mixtapes he’d put into bags at the Austin McDonald’s he was working at, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wearing a Hi, How Are You? shirt to be forever immortalized and praised as a purveyor of the Outsider genre. “Walking the Cow” talks about love lost, and its piano solo evokes all the emotion just as much as Johnston’s frail vocals.
46. Herbie Hancock – “Rockit” – Future Shock (1983)
Why it’s the 46th Best song of the 80s
If instrumentalist Herbie Hancock wanted the perfect name to emulate his 1983 album, Future Shock surely nails it. The instrumental opener “Rockit”’s robotic synthesizer would be a defining sound of the 1980s and the rest of the record heavily focusing on a funk sound. Hancock may have shocked his listeners, originally deriving from a jazz and fusion background as a part of trumpeter Donald Byrd’s quintet to this new age sound categorized as postmodern. But in a music world just anticipating the future of electronic music, it worked. Hancock was searching for a new sound in New York dance clubs before its release and eventually won a Grammy for “Rockit” while taking over the MTV circuit late into his career
45. Paula Abdul – “Straight Up” – Forever Your Girl (1988)
Why it’s the 45th Best song of the 80s
Paula Abdul’s career didn’t start in music, but on the basketball court as a Lakers Cheerleader. That then garnered the interest of Janet Jackson, who hired Abdul as a choreographer for her music videos. She was then signed to Virgin Records for the release of Forever Your Girl style of new jack swing became just as prominent as Jackson’s solo career in the ‘80s, the album’s third single “Straight Up” an anthem about honesty in a relationship, and leading Abdul into consecutive Billboard-charting hits.
44. Galaxie 500 – “Tugboat” – Today (1988)
Why it’s the 44th Best song of the 80s
Galaxie 500 songs are just as emotional as the sad pop songs the New Romantics were balladeering on MTV around the same time as its 1988 release, with added phaser pedals and percussive drumming on “Tugboat” which didn’t receive its notoriety until decades later. The band cites The Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman as big influences, and the drone of Spacemen 3 to complete the sad boy trifecta of influence on Today, and its emotions run just as real on this debut dream-pop release.
43. John Lennon – “Watching’ The Wheels”- Double Fantasy (1980)
Why it’s the 43rd Best song of the 80s
John Lennon’s final record Double Fantasy, released three weeks before his death, serves as a dialogue about his tumultuous marriage with Yoko Ono. Lennon began writing music for the album after a five-year break and a 600-mile sailing trip from Newport, RI to Bermuda, where he arrived after guiding the boat through 120 mph winds. Inspired by the island, Lennon’s songs are soft and emotional and their use of new wave beats that flow as Lennon balladeers about the media’s perspective on his years at home raising his son Sean. Although Double Fantasy didn’t receive recognition till after the former Beatles’ passing, it is a see-sawing piece of artistic documentation of two perspectives of a relationship.
42. Kraftwerk – “Computer Love” – Computer World (1981)
Why it’s the 42nd Best song of the 80s
In a pre-internet world just on the premise of every household owning a personal computer, Kraftwerk was ahead of a movement in society that didn’t fully exist yet. The group has always been pioneering and in 1981’s Computer World released what emulated electronic hooks using vocoders and synthetic percussions they created through self-made instruments. The lyrics on “Computer Love” are simple, but talk about the evolution of technology and its personalizations, self-described as “robot pop” but essentially creating electronic music. Coldplay gave them contemporary recognition after using the riff from “Computer Love” for their 2005 hit song “Talk.”
41. Wipers – “D-7” – Is This Real? (1980)
Why it’s the 41st Best song of the 80s
Before Nirvana, there was the band Wipers. Before Wipers, lead singer GreSage was producing a record for pro-wrestler Beauregarde at the age of 17 and studying record grooves under a microscope. Sage wanted to be a one-man show as producer and manufacturer for Wipers, but signed with Park Avenue records for their debut Is This Real? The Portland-based band perfected the thrashing and heavy three-chord sound on “D-7” that became an imminent part of the Pacific Northwest alternative scene. “D-7” has a pummeling and angsty sound in every instrument. Sage’s sharp vocals and cynical lyrics answer the album title’s seemingly rhetorical question, posing just as much contemplativeness as the emotions on the record itself. Kurt Cobain has cited Wipers as one of his top influences and Nirvana has covered “D-7.”
40. Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” – Private Dancer (1984)
Why it’s the 40th Best song of the 80s
Tina Turner’s career started in soul music, her raspy vocals becoming a distinct part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. After her split with Ike, both in music and an abusive marriage, Tina turned what was becoming a nostalgia act into a full-fledged successful solo career, 1984’s Private Dancer becoming her breakthrough album with the hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Turner’s first number one hit. Her ability to use her powerful and gritty voice alongside an 80s rock-pop background gives the song cathartic energy and provided her own career as a hit-making pop star.
39. The Police – “Every Breath You Take” – Synchronicity (1983)
Why it’s the 39th Best song of the 80s
The Police recorded Synchronicity amid high tensions in what would paradoxically become their last and biggest hit-making album. The sessions for Synchronicity were recorded separately and multi-tracked later, and Sting controlled most of the production on this Police record that diverted away from their previous albums. Synchronicity minimizes the band’s reggae influence and sounds less upbeat, but provided the biggest hit of 1983 with “Every Breath You Take” which sounds new wave and sings about a jealous relationship. Following the release of the album in 1984, The Police performed at New York’s Shea Stadium, the largest concert at the venue since the Beatles in 1965, and the band self-proclaimed themselves as the “biggest band in the world.” The band would soon break up, but “Every Breath You Take” lives on in constant hit radio circulation and won The Police Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance By Duo Or Group With Vocal.
38. Diana Ross – “I’m Coming Out” – Diana (1980)
Why it’s the 38th Best song of the 80s
Diana Ross had already made a career for herself by 1980, from the Supremes to her debut solo record that includes the anthemic hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Yet, on her eleventh studio album Diana, Ross somehow outshines herself for a whole new generation of impact with “I’m Coming Out,” recruiting Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic to write material that was both innovative and dancey. Rodgers was inspired to write the hit after watching a group of drag queens impersonating Diana Ross and the song soon provided an anthem for the LGBTQ community. Ross decided to remix the original record, which had lengthy instrumentals that were shortened and sped up, and dissolved her relationship with the Chic co-founders, but the controversy didn’t stop the worldwide hits off Diana or the influence of its celebratory funk.
37. The Smiths – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Queen is Dead (1986)
Why it’s the 37th Best song of the 80s
The Smith’s dynamic of Morrissey’s dismal lyrics with the upbeat, jangle pop rhythms of Johnny Marr works through their intersecting melodies and future rivalries. The band’s third album The Queen is Dead’s poetic structures mask the clever parodic themes on the record, but the band still sticks to their bleak outlook on life, whether speaking on the U.K. monarchy or loneliness, which at times sounds like a teenager’s bad-mouthing diary. Guitarist Johnny Marr was inspired by The Stooges and the Velvet Underground, while Morrissey was influenced by Shakespeare and long-time favorite Patti Smith, and the whole band was taking from the U.K’s Kitchen Sink movement. The Smith’s received their biggest hit from the album, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” a song that compares a fatal car accident to the singer’s unconditional love for their partner. The Smith’s went on to inspire bands such as Radiohead and My Chemical Romance.
Why it’s the 36th Best song of the 80s
The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut release Psychocandy’s flanging guitars and dreamy tones are precursors to multiple indie rock genres. The band wanted to create an album that sounded like a Shangri-Las record, a group that had also made an impact on the ‘70s punk scene. What Psychocandy does is combine the goal of creating that typical pop structure but as if it were being performed in an echo chamber; the album’s opener and the group’s most famous hit “Just Like Honey” takes the drum riff from “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. Then, what sounds like guitar feedback hitting an electric saw drone in, and so begins a whole generation of shoegazers.
35. Gang Starr – “Manifest” – No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)
Why it’s the 35th Best song of the 80s
Brooklyn-based hip-hop group Gang Starr is known for their use of sampling jazz and soul music on their debut record No More Mr. Nice Guy. With stanza-like rap storytelling that creates its catchiness and prolific energy full of wisdom, Gang Starr’s music is just as smooth as the songs they take from, such samples including “A Night in Tunisia” by Charlie Parker and James Brown’s “Bring It Up” on their hit “Manifest.” Gang Starr implements inspiring lyrics about learning about yourself and handling the world surrounding you through intelligence and, as mentioned, manifesting that good energy into one’s life.
34. Bad Brains – “Banned in D.C.” – Bad Brains (1982)
Why it’s the 34th Best song of the 80s
Initially influenced by jazz fusion, then punk rock, followed by reggae after seeing Bob Marley live, Bad Brains had soon created their unique form of hardcore punk. Comparative to the influence band Death in the Detroit music scene, Bad Brains had a hold of the D.C. area as one of the only black bands in the punk scene, influencing Black Flag and Minor Threat, and later Jane’s Addiction to form, and following the lead of Detroit band Death on pushing the boundaries of who was playing rock. After the band was banned from venues in Washington D.C. for their rowdy live shows, they depicted their experience in the song “Banned in D.C.” and has become a punk legacy that introduced their Positive Mental Attitude ethos to a thrashing
33. The Feelies – “The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness” – Crazy Rhythms (1980)
Why it’s the 33rd Best song of the 80s
The Feelies’ “The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness” starts with a dripping sound, a foreboding guitar strum, and a snickering snare drum, then continues in a shredding symphony that was a protest against the New York punk scene from a Jersey band across the river. The no-frills attitude does not carry on in their music, which sounds strategically written as not so much power pop, nor new wave, but a brain of its own taking a little experimental drone from the Velvet Underground and a little bit of progression from The Beatles. The crazy rhythms on their debut Crazy Rhythms being haphazard and jangling pop over clean guitar and vocals, with clicks and cowbells in between that percussionist Dave Weckerman compares to a suburban life of blenders and lawnmowers. The result of Crazy Rhythms was not a commercial success, but an underground following that has Influenced R.E.M and Weezer.
Why it’s the 32nd Best song of the 80s
For an intensely political band, San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys made nothing short of an intensely political debut record to match, their debut album released just on the cusp of Ronald Regan entering office. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables reflects the left-wing movements that vocalist Jello Biafra took part in before and during the band, and introducing a form of hardcore punk that had surf-rock guitar styles influenced by Muddy Waters. The political consciousness of “Holiday in Cambodia” is satire in its title, singing about white privilege amid the Cambodian Genocide, but the band’s message is a concrete part of a punk music that was disparate from the nihilism growing within the genre.
31. De La Soul – “Me, Myself & I” – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
Why it’s the 31st Best song of the 80s
Rolling Stone Magazine claimed Del La Soul’s debut record 3 Feet High and Rising as “psychedelic hip-hop.” The 24-song record concept was supposed to sound as if the group took three microphones from Mars. Instead, 3 Feet High and Rising is something organically of the earth talking on real-life subjects, with hip-hop that is an upbeat use of comical and fun wordplay that reflect their positive attitude that was a part of the 1990s hip-hop collective Native Tongues. “Me, Myself & I” a song about individuality, featuring a sample of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” and helped them reach number 1 on the R&B and hip-hop charts.
30. The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me” – Dare (1981)
Why it’s the 30th Best song of the 80s
David Bowie once told NME that he saw “the future of pop music” at a 1978 Human League show. After the departure of The Human League’s two former keyboardists Martyn Ware and Ian Craig’s, lead singer Philip Oakley decided to reinvent the band with their third album Dare. The 1981 album is wholly electropop and introduces the group’s breakthrough hit “Don’t You Want Me.” Although Oakley initially hated the pop duet and wanted it off the album, the song has been on constant radio rotation ever since, introducing one of the most famous synthesizer intros and representing Dare’s as a neatly produced pop album that Bowie had the correct intuition about.
29. Paul Simon – “You Can Call Me Al” – Graceland (1986)
Why it’s the 29th Best song of the 80s
Simon and Garfunkel had only released music for six years and after their disbandment went on to have successful solo careers. Paul Simon released seven solo albums before putting out 1986’s Graceland and had slowly been diverting from the folk sound of his youthful music career into a pop career influenced by Zulu music. “You Can Call Me Al” could be a Simon and Garfunkel hit if stripped down to their acoustic sound, but Simon on his own created an upbeat, drum machine-filled record that is multicultural respectfully while writing ambiguous lyrics he says are about mundane thoughts. Simon traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to record with African musicians and the song includes a penny whistle solo. Graceland became the biggest selling album in Africa since Michael Jackson’s Thriller and peaked at number 3 on the Billboards.
28. Whitney Houston – “How Will I Know” – Whitney (1985)
Why it’s the 28th Best song of the 80s
Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” is an anthem originally written for Janet Jackson, but Houston’s five-octave range makes the song about questioning the love of a man into the hit it would become, with vibrant and resilient energy that was more pop than R&B, and peaked in 1986 at number one on the Billboard 100.
27. Sonic Youth – “Teen Age Riot” – Daydream Nation (1988)
Why it’s the 27th Best song of the 80s
The brain workings of Sonic Youth come from being bystanders of various Manhattan music scenes–from the avant-garde loft apartments, the proto-punk of Patti Smith and Richard Hell, the early ‘80s CBGB scene that included both the No Wave and New Wave movements, and then remnants of the Beatnik poet scene. Sonic Youth created a sound that seemed to mix all of their side stage admirations, and five albums into the band’s career was Daydream Nation, an underground success just before their “Kool Thing” days. Kim Gordon’s droning bass, Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldos’ fuzzy, distorted guitar, and “Teen Age Riot’s” politically-charged lyrics create a frenzied, experimental, and poetic piece of alternative rock noise that soon led to the band signing a major label record deal with DGC Records.
26. Queen – “Another One Bites the Dust” – The Game (1980)
Why it’s the 26th Best song of the 80s
As the first Queen record to use a synthesizer, The Game is a different approach for a band that’s previous records had a bombastic and orchestral rock and roll sound. Freddie Mercury maintains his immaculate falsetto, Brian May’s solos are still powerful, and the band grows into creating more disco music on their first number one record. Their hit song “Another One Bites the Dust” is a sharp and groovy Chic-inspired track that Michael Jackson suggested the band make a single and became a song a hit in 17 countries. This propelled the band to continue in that funk direction and created an album that established them even more as arena rock legends.
25. The Go-Go’s – “Our Lips Are Sealed” – Beauty and the Beat (1981)
Why it’s the 25th Best song of the 80s
A seminal part of the L.A. punk scene included members of the Go-Gos, who were playing with the Germs and various underground bands before forming as the first all-girl group to be on the Billboard charts in the ‘80s. Their love for The Buzzcocks and ‘60s bubblegum hits made Beauty and the Beat the album it is, packed with songs about love and fun that could cater to both punk and teenage demographics. Beauty and the Beat gave the band their biggest hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” written by rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlen and former Fun Boy Three and Specials member Terry Hall about their affair, and defined both power pop and the group’s position as mainstream stars.
24. The Cure – “Just Like Heaven” – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
Why it’s the 24th Best song of the 80s
The Cure was well established as a post-punk band noted for their goth rock appeal, releasing 4 albums that were intentionally dark and morbid. Wanting to write something more cheerful, The Cure’s vocalist Robert Smith took reins as the primary songwriter in the ‘80s. “Just Like Heaven” became The Cure’s biggest hit, a song influenced by The Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” and written about Smith’s long-time girlfriend with whimsical dream-pop energy that has made it a Wedding song staple. The results turned them into glorified pop stars — Smith became a common feature in the teen tabloids, and the video for “Just Like Heaven” was on high rotation on MTV.
23. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right to Party” – Licensed to Ill (1986)
Why it’s the 23rd Best song of the 80s
The ‘80s introduced rap rock, starting with Run D.M.C.’s cover and collaboration of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and then continuing the soon-to-be commercial legacy on with the Beastie Boys: three Brooklyn boys whose hardcore punk transformed into what would become the first rap group to have a no. 1 on the Billboard charts. Part slapstick, part satirical, with some deeming them the “Marx Brothers of hip-hop,” Beastie Boys’ debut record Licensed to lll produced sardonic party-anthem hits as “Fight For Your Right to Party” which features lead guitar from Kerry King of Slayer, nasally vocals, and raunchy talk rhymes that come off as if someone had handed a microphone to the back of the classroom schoolboy antics. The music video for “Fight For Your Right to Party” has since become a part of pop culture history and the song reached number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 at its peak.
22. The Stone Roses – “I Wanna Be Adored” – The Stone Roses (1989)
Why it’s the 22nd Best song of the 80s
In what was defined as the ‘Second Summer of Love’ by the U.K. tabloids, Manchester’s Stone Roses released their 1989 debut record Stoned Roses into a scene heavily intertwining indie rock with acid house music. “I Wanna Be Adored” is a song that describes idolization as a sin, as lead vocalist Ian Brown has said, and has ethereal dance rhythms with house snare beat and baroque-like song structures while experimenting with hypnotic sound overlays. Establishing themselves as successors to the Smiths in jangle pop and Mancunian haughtiness, with Oasis on the way as future precursors influenced by the band, The Stone Roses would go on to have a hit with “I Wanna Be Adored,” reaching #18 on the Billboard charts in 1990.
21. N.W.A – “Straight Outta Compton” – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Why it’s the 21st Best song of the 80s
N.W.A’s hardcore rap provided clear documentation and representation of the group’s experiences within their community, speaking on police brutality and a black man’s experience in Los Angeles as they formed the beginning of the L.A. rap scene. 1988’s Straight Outta Compton is a controversial record evoking all of those emotions, sampling drum beats and guitar riffs to make its heavy sound. And while “Straight Out of Compton” rarely received radio play for its controversial and upfront lyricism, it would become the first hardcore rap album to receive platinum status while creating successful solo careers and household names for N.W.A. members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E.
20. Grace Jones – “Pull Up To the Bumper” – Nightclubbing (1981)
Why it’s the 20th Best song of the 80s
Emerging out of the fashion scene, Grace Jones began her music career releasing disco records. The Jamaican singer evolved her sound on her fifth release, Nightclubbing, a suave record that is the ultimate cool club soundtrack, reworking songs by Iggy Pop, Bill Withers, Sting, and more. “Pull Up To the Bumper” is written by Jones herself, and its lyrics stirred controversy for its innuendos, but is a dub art-pop song with spoken-word vocal structures and rhythms influenced by reggae artists such as Sinsemilla. Nightclubbing became Jones’ breakthrough record and culminates various genres that put her music into a category of its own.
19. Kate Bush – “Babooshka” – Never for Ever (1980)
Why it’s the 19th Best song of the 80s
Kate Bush sounds like a Baroque poetess while describing the events of “Babooshka,” the opening song on 1980’s Never For Ever, as if it were folklore where Bush dresses up in an alias to see if her husband is having an affair. The effects on Never For Ever carry with ethereality, as sounds of glass or shimmering reverb into synthesizers, sitars, horns, and strings play alongside heavy metal rock guitars. It all works together swimmingly, with Bush’s theatrical falsetto vocals that are otherworldly making her an avant-garde innovator that would become a commercial favorite as the first female U.K solo artist to reach number 1 on the charts
18. Violent Femmes (1982)
Why it’s the 18th Best song of the 80s
Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano wrote the material for their debut record during high school, writing their top hit “Blister in the Sun” about his adolescent insecurities, but the band was discovered the same year of their graduation on the streets of Los Angeles by Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott just before a show at the Oriental Theater. Lead singer Chrissie Hynde asked them to be an opening band that night. Violent Femmes had already become a best-kept secret, performing “Blister in the Sun” as a busking trio, but became a hit-selling sensation after the release of the eponymous debut Violent Femmes, that combined Gano’s gospel background, high energy acoustic-based punk, and a character-based, poetic lyrical style that established folk punk as a genre.
17. Nirvana – “Love Buzz” – Bleach (1989)
Why it’s the 17th Best song of the 80s
Nirvana’s 13-song debut Bleach with SubPop records shows the energy and nihilistic attitude that became a part of the Seattle-based band’s success in the 1990s. Establishing the grunge subculture as a household name among their contemporaries Mudhoney, and influenced by Melvins and Black Sabbath, “Love Buzz,” a cover of the psychedelic rock band Shocking Blue, shows all the elements that made Nirvana what they are: their disdain for commercialism that would become their ultimate hypocrisy, sludgy guitars, varied influences, and basic but vulnerable lyrics that soon brought them to acclaimed status.
16. The Replacements – “I Will Dare” – Let It Be (1984)
Why it’s the 16th Best song of the 80s
While the title of 1984’s Let It Be is a nod at The Beatles’ breakup album after a decade of global success, The Replacements’ third release stays right in the Minnesota suburbs where the band expands their sound from their hardcore roots to brashy power pop. Let It Be is a slice of life imagery that holds the seminal record together as a story about the doldrums of youth and individuality, dealing with sexual identity, getting your tonsils out by a greedy doctor, the social competitiveness of high school, and the band themselves rebelling between a punk scene they felt was too limited to be unruly and experimental and the commercial world of MTV successes. “I Will Dare” grows up with their use of additional percussions, including a mandolin solo performed by R.E.M’s Peter Buck who was originally set to produce the album. The band is featured on the cover of Let It Be, hanging out on the roof of bassist Tommy Stinson and guitarist Bob Stinson’s childhood home, and just how every Replacements fan in the mid-’80s would be listening to “I Will Dare” during the era of change.
15. Paul McCartney – “Coming Up” – McCartney II (1980)
Why it’s the 15th Best song of the 80s
Put former Beatle Paul McCartney in a room with a 16-track and he will produce a futuristic record influenced by Talking Heads and John Cage. McCartney II is a piece of proto-electronica with his same upbringing of blues and soul in mind. The record is as if McCartney had pushed his past catalog through an MRI machine in an attempt to sound both robotic and the Paul of the 1960s, with the bowl style haircut that McCartney mocks in the music video for the hit “Coming Up.” The video also features Paul impersonating Ron Mael of Sparks and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, and the song uses a varied-speed machine to experiment with his vocals. It wasn’t Paul’s best-selling solo record, but proves as a sonic science experiment that has become a cult favorite by both Beatles and experimental music fans.
14. Modern English – “I Melt With You” – Mesh & Lace (1981)
Why it’s the 14th Best song of the 80s
Before Modern English’s success with “I Melt With You,” the hit-makers 1981 debut album Mesh & Lace provided post-punk to the likes of their inspiration from Joy Division, and tells the story of intellectual pummeling art-rock that would define the 4AD label’s sound. Instead of the harsh and shouting vocals, “I Melt With You” talks languidly and its bombastic lyrics sound like it metaphorically talks about two people coming together and creating their own world through those emotions. But amid the upbeat pop sound, the band actually wrote a song about the world ending and a couple, as lead vocalist Robbie Grey has said, “making love as the bomb dropped.” It became Modern English’s one and only hit.
13. Laurie Anderson – “O Superman” – Big Science (1982)
Why it’s the 13th Best song of the 80s
What does Big Science mean to avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson in 1982, just as the digital revolution was beginning? On her debut record named after the term, it sounds as if it derives from outer space or the center of the Manhattan art scene in the early ‘80s. Anderson took parts of her live performance piece United States Live to create her debut record as part of a seven-album deal with Warner Brother Records. Anderson sound like the soft-spoken narrator singing about the homogeneity of daily American life. Instead, she is running her vocals into a vocoder to harmonize the message with minimalist lyrics and unconventional percussions, including glass harmonicas, bagpipes, Farfisa organ, accordions, horn instruments, and found sounds. “O Superman” became a hit in the UK through BBC radio DJ John Peel, and Anderson continues to produce compelling art today.
12. Dexy’s Midnight Runners – “Come On Eileen” – Too-Rye-Ay (1982)
Why it’s the 12th Best song of the 80s
Frontman Kevin Rowland originally formed Dexy’s Midnight Runners aiming to sound like a Northern Soul band. The Birmingham-based band was interested in northern England culture in general, and as their lineup alternated so did their aesthetic–from emulating working-class styles including northeastern prep to De Niro in Mean Streets, branded as the “Athletic Monk” look, to their more famous look of overalls and gypsy scarves during the release of Too-Rye-Ay. After the band had not been doing well commercially, Rowland thought a change needed to be made that was more Celtic-oriented. He eventually hired a trio of string players and gave members of Dexys Celtic stage names to match. This is how their greatest hit “Come On Eileen” came to be, with Rowland influenced by Chairmen of the Board’s vocalist General Johnson’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time.” That same passionate range fills up Too-Rye-Ay and provided Rowland with the commercial success he had always searched for.
11. Devo – “Whip It!” – Freedom of Choice (1980)
Why it’s the 11th Best song of the 80s
As Devo’s music transformed from rock to a more synthesizer-based sound, their musical themes stayed consistent on politics and consumerism in an ironically upbeat attitude. Freedom Of Choice produced their biggest hit “Whip It!” a song about Jimmy Carter that reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. The rest of the album sings about nationalism and idealisms on freedom, as the album title suggests, with a pummelling surge of electronica that would follow the band for the rest of their career.
10. Prince – “When Doves Cry” – Purple Rain (1984)
Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain was nothing short of theatrical as it was the soundtrack to the autobiographical film of the same title. “When Doves Cry” is a part of a dramatic scene where Prince is recollecting on his love and familial life, and is a drum and synth-based hit with no bass. The song reached number one on the charts in 1984, and Purple Rain solidified Prince as one of the biggest and prolific pop stars of the ‘80s.
9. Madonna – “Lucky Star” – Madonna (1983)
Why it’s the 9th Best song of the 80s
A dance hit-making machine for four decades straight, Madonna’s start began in the Manhattan downtown scene where she was a part of New York punk band Breakfast Club, before turning to a more funk-oriented sound. Influenced by George Clinton, David Bowie, and Donna Summer, she developed fresh pop music on 1983’s Madonna using newly released synthesizers and drum machines making some of her greatest hits, including “Lucky Star” that takes from a childhood nursery rhyme and turns it into a funk song. Madonna paved the way to
8. Bruce Springsteen – “Hungry Heart” – The River (1980)
Why it’s the 8th Best song of the 80s
While there is no concrete concept on The River, Bruce Springsteen once again emulates the working-class experience in his 5th studio album. The narrative is straightforward in the double album, a paradox between somber and upbeat songs about mortality, addiction, abuse, and love. The lovelorn of “Hungry Heart” shows Springsteen’s poetic nature in a song originally penned for the Ramones. Throughout his discography, Springsteen has shown he knows how to write empathic music about the emotional doldrums of life with passionate and theatrical sprawls that define New Jersey’s sound.
7. Talking Heads – “Once in A Lifetime” – Remain in Light (1980)
Why it’s the 7th Best song of the 80s
Although Talking Heads speak a minimalistic language about the hum drums of large buildings and shiny automobiles, they truly experimented with a complex sound on 1980’s Remain In Light. The band continued those themes in their hit song from the record, “Once In a Lifetime,” and while it all sounds satire and upbeat, while Byrne wears a giant suit that would become a part of his act, Byrne implemented a production method that fused rock with worldbeat, possessing the same ideas that would later translate into his 1982 collaboration with Talking Heads producer Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz became influenced by the dub and bass of Sly & Robbie they heard while vacationing in the Bahamas.
6. David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Why it’s the 6th Best song of the 80s
After the release of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, he was searching to record more commercially successful albums with 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Freaks. Bowie was fueled by seeing the success of new wave artists such as Gary Numan, and Scary Monsters allowed him to use a lengthy songwriting process instead of improvising his work as he had done previously. The results were a theatrical album filled with funk that he claimed to be “the epitome of the new wave sound at the time,” featuring Robert Fripp of King Crimson on guitar and covering fellow new wave artist and Television singer Tom Verlaine. Although Bowie had moved on from glam rock and alternate personas on his albums, he continually broke through the musical barriers with prolific ease, while never forgetting his roots—even referencing Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes,” the biggest hit from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) about the spacemen’s all-time low as Bowie is dressed up like a Pierrot. The music video for “Ashes to Ashes” became the most expensive video in its time, costing about 500,00 dollars to create, but became an influential part of the music video world for its artistic surrealism.
5. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – “The Message” – The Message (1982)
Why it’s the 5th Best song of the 80s
The message was clear for Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, who communicated on the tribulations of city life that have been deemed “conscious hip-hop” for its realism, emotional range, and ability to collaborate with the ebbing art and music scenes happening in NYC in the early 1980s. The group has featured samples from Tom Tom Club to Blondie and the first commercial use of scratching and turntablism on a record, released on Sugarhill Gang’s label Sugarhill Records, “The Message” is the epitome of emcee funk that expanded the possibilities of instrumentation, rhythm, and songwriting.
4. Tom Tom Club – “Genius of Love” – Tom Tom Club (1981)
Why it’s the 4th Best song of the 80s
The rhythm section makes the heart beat. Talking Heads’ side project Tom Tom Club, featuring bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, took their pulsating beats and recorded the eponymous debut album Tom Tom Club.
Tom Tom Club picks up a more child-like and inquisitive sing-song, hip-hop meets new wave style that was both influential as it was contemporaneous—during a time when both genres were emerging from their respective basement scenes and into the 1980s MTV stardom. “Genius of Love” has been sampled over 40 times, including on Mariah Carey and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five songs, and the band themselves produced a hit that became more popular than any Talking Heads songs had in the early ‘80s.
3. The Clash – “Rock the Casbah” – Combat Rock (1982)
Why it’s the 3rd Best song of the 80s
The Clash could be categorized into pub rock for their snarling sound and straightforwardness. The sociopolitical elements of Combat Rock and their dub-influenced nuances created an uproarious success, making songs like “Rock the Casbah,” written by drummer Topper Headon, a perpetual radio hit about their manager Bernie Rhodes. The beat of “Rock The Casbah” resonates with their album’s theme: a combat boot in the thick mud of war and imperialism described with a new wave guitar riff and Joe Strummer’s lyrics that reinstated what he aimed to be an “anarchic energy,” while being heavily influenced by Stanley Krubick’s film Apocalypse Now.
2. Michael Jackson – “Thriller” – Thriller (1982)
Why it’s the 2nd Best song of the 80s
According to producer Quincy Jones, during a high-volume playback in the studio of Michael Jackson’s record Thriller, the speakers exploded and set on fire. Jones knew it was going to be a hit record, and Thriller achieved that by becoming the highest-selling record in history–selling 500,000 copies per week at the time of its release during the December 1982 holidays.
Dawning a red leather jacket or sequined outfit, paired with dance moves that would enter every household in both name and movement, pretending to be monsters against a heavily synthesized horror-themed hit of the century featuring a macabre narration by actor Vincent Price, while daydreaming about being bigger than the Beatles, Jackson created his own world inside “Thriller,” an anthemic pop song that showed Michael’s aspirations were at the level of box-office hits and lead roles, recruiting Animal House and Blues Brothers director John Landis to direct a 14-minute music video for his most popular song that pushed the threshold of concepts in music videos.
Thriller is a defining moment for Jackson both personally and professionally, as he was still growing out of the Jackson 5 limelight and the foreshadowing of his father and former manager Joe Jackson who was fired just before Michael entered the studio to record Thriller. And just as his sister Janet would do a few years later, Jackson established individualism and created a household name branching him apart from his constricted youth, to make a record that blended all of the elements of successful music at the time, while establishing him as the “King of Pop.”
1. Pixies – “Here Comes Your Man” – Doolittle (1989)
Why it’s the Best song of the 80s
It’s the memorable snarl and frenetic energy possessing 1989’s Doolittle that could sucker punch you with no-frills basslines and complex lyrics. “Here Comes Your Man” is unpretentious in sound, but not so much in its cathartic energy, speaking about vocalist Black Francis’ story about a train full of hobos experiencing an earthquake, while at times providing 50s progressions against thrashing guitars that made it a piece of nominal alternative rock both fun and inquisitive. Francis’ lyrics are intense, clever, and sensual, with dynamic shifts from loud and fast to soft and amicable. Pixies humbly deny their genre-defying influence, but the likes of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Radiohead, and more have name-dropped the band as inspiration.
What are Your Top 80s Songs?
The 80s were jam packed with incredible artists and an evolving music scene. Now that you’ve perused my list of the top 80s songs, I want to hear from you. Are there any of your favorite 80s songs that were left off the list? Any you think I scored too high or too low? Leave a comment below!