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The 200 Best Songs of The 1980s

The greatest hits of music’s wildest decade – hip-hop, synth-pop, indie rock, metal, Chicago house, Miami freestyle, ska, goth, reggae, acid house, and more

200 best songs of the 1980s


WELCOME TO THE jungle. We got fun and games. The Eighties are one of the weirdest eras ever for music. It’s a decade of excess. It’s also a decade of INXS. It’s got big hair, big drums, big shoulder pads. Not to mention massive stars: Prince, Madonna, Michael, Bruce, Janet, Sade, Cher. New sounds and beats explode everywhere. Hip-hop takes over as the voice of young America. Glam-metal rocks the Sunset Strip. New Romantic synth-pop invades MTV. Thriller becomes history’s biggest hit. Music gets louder, crazier, messier. Do you know where you are? You’re in the Eighties, baby.

So let’s break it down: the 200 best songs of the Eighties, music’s most insane decade. The hits, the deep cuts, the fan favorites. A mix tape of pop classics, rockers, rappers, soul divas, new wavers, disco jams, country twangers, punk ragers, dance-floor anthems, smooth operators, and karaoke room-clearers. There’s all-time legends and one-hit wonders. There’s new rebel voices that expoded out of nowhere. There’s cheese. There’s sleaze. Axl meets Slash. Salt meets Pepa. Echo meets the Bunnymen. Frankie goes to Hollywood. Public Enemy brings the noise. Madonna brings the sex. There’s Chicago house, Detroit techno, Miami freestyle, D.C. go-go. There’s ska, goth, reggae, acid house. But just one song per artist, or half the list would be Prince.

Some of these Eighties songs remain famous around the world. You hear them at weddings, parties, clubs, the karaoke bar. Others make people run and scream in terror. Many are songs you remember; some you desperately try to forget. But every one is a brilliant tune, and each one is part of the unsolvable Rubik’s Cube that is Hair Decade pop.

So welcome to the Eighties. Put this mix tape in the boombox, pump up the volume, and hit play. Push it. Push it real good.

From Rolling Stone US


Debbie Deb, ‘Lookout Weekend’

A Miami party girl scores a pioneering freestyle hit, with producer Pretty Tony Butler’s lethal DMX beats and the teenage Debbie Deb chanting, “Lookout weekend, ‘cause here I come / Because weekends were made for fun.” She transforms into a conquering goddess on the dance floor (“Jumping music! Slick DJs! Fog machines and laser rays!”), stepping into a disco where every one of her fellow party girls is a bomb waiting to explode.


Leonard Cohen, ‘Tower of Song’

Leonard Cohen takes over as the rock world’s elder statesman, a lust-crazed 53-year-old Jewish-Canadian poet murmuring about love and death and the lifelong torment of desire. Cohen’s 1988 album I’m Your Man made him more famous than ever, after years when he couldn’t even get his music released in the U.S. (Nobody even noticed “Hallelujah” until years later.) “Tower of Song” is his life story, especially when he rasps, “I was born like this/I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”


The Jungle Brothers, ‘Tribe Vibes’

The Native Tongues anthem, from the Jungle Brothers’ insanely underrated second album, Done By The Forces of Nature. It’s a utopian throwdown meant to unite the fractious hip-hop scene, with mystic visions of Afrocentric consciousness. As the JBs say, “Work by day, ritual by night, the vibe holds the tribe and it keeps it real tight.” But it’s not an exclusive, purist kind of tribe—it’s the kind with room for guitar solos sampled from the Bee Gees. The JBs shout out to their Strong Island friends—“We all are thinking on the same plateau, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul”—over an incredible trippy headphone groove.


Falco, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’

One of the most ridiculous Number One hits, in an era when ridiculousness was the most crucial pop virtue. Falco rapped in German about Mozart, in a noble effort to make powdered wigs an Eighties fashion trend. (Didn’t really catch on, which proves the Eighties did have some standards.) He slipped words like “superstar” and “punk” into the Teutonic babble, explaining, “If Mozart were alive today, he wouldn’t be making classical music; he’d be an international pop star. And I felt it was time to write a song about him.” (And if Mozart were alive, he DEFINITELY would’ve been writing songs about Falco.) American fans preferred the “Salieri Mix,” with a handy timeline of the composer’s life: “1784: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart becomes a Freemason. 1791: Mozart composes The Magic Flute. On December 5th of that same year, Mozart dies. 1985: Austrian rock singer Falco records, “Rock Me Amadeus!” 


Mecca Normal, ‘I Walk Alone’

An early proto-riot-grrrl pipe bomb. The only sound is the voice of punk poet Jean Smith, with the guitar of David Lester, about a woman walking by herself in a city and feeling like a target everywhere she goes. Every time she sings “I walk alone,” it hits deeper. A song designed to change the way you saw the world around you, and for many who heard it, it did and still does.


John Anderson, ‘Wild And Blue’

John Anderson helped start the New Traditionalist movement that rescued Eighties country radio. His voice in pure Florida backwoods in “Wild and Blue”—no pop fluff, no crossover slickness, just fiddle, banjo, and back-up vocals from his sister Donna. A damn sad cheatin’ song, especially when Anderson sings, “Somebody’s room on the far side of town/With your minds all made up and the shades all pulled down.”


Trouble Funk, ‘Drop The Bomb’

The D.C. go-go scene had some of the era’s heaviest live-band funk, with legends like Rare Essence, E.U., and Chuck Brown’s Soul Searchers. Trouble Funk sum it up “Drop The Bomb”: congas, cowbell, cryptic party chants in the shadow of the White House. Trouble Funk drop the bomb on the Technicolor Crew, the Westside Crew, the White Boy Crew, the Freak Crew, the Potomac Crew, going strong to the break of dawn.


Toto, ‘Africa’

You ever hear this song and ask, “Why exactly do the wild dogs cry out in the night? Are they sad? Need a hug? Were they crying already when Toto got there? Is there a parallel universe where we are all just wild dogs crying in someone else’s Toto song?” You are not alone, friend.


INXS, ‘Never Tear Us Apart’

Michael Hutchence, one of the decade’s great frontmen, makes wine from your tears in a passionate torch song that shows why he’s one of your kind. As he told Rolling Stone, “We don’t fit into the real normal, cleaned-up, corporate rock thing.” “Never Tear Us Apart” has one of his most Hutch moments ever: “We all have wings, but some of us don’t know whyyyyy!”


Joan Armatrading, ‘Me, Myself I’

Joan Armatrading taught herself guitar growing up in a West Indian immigrant family in England. “There wasn’t a female playing the way I played, or singing the songs that I sang,” she told me in 2021. “And there certainly wasn’t a Black person doing it. So there was nothing for anybody to have a reference to.” “Me Myself I” is her tribute to the joys of being a loner. “I wanna have a boyfriend and a girl for laughs,” she sings. “But only on Saturday/Six days to be alone.”


Weird Al Yancovic, ‘Another One Rides The Bus’

“Riding in a bus down the boulevard and the place is pretty packed/Couldn’t find a seat so I had to stand with the perverts in the back.” Weird Al altered the course of accordion history with this song. He first blew up on the Dr. Demento radio show with “My Bologna,” but everyone figured he’d be a novelty one-shot like Tom “T-Bone” Stankus, Freddie Blassie, or Barnes & Barnes. Yet “Another One Rides The Bus” was his pivotal second hit, proving that Weird Al had an endless supply of these gags. It led to “Yoda,” “It’s Still Billy Joel To Me,” “(I Lost On) Jeopardy,” “Chicken Pot Pie,” and maybe his finest narrative achievement, “The Rye or the Kaiser (Theme Fom Rocky XIII).” By now, Weird Al’s career has outlasted almost any of the artists he’s parodied.


Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, ‘Ngicabange Ngaqeda’

A classic of South African mbaqanga, from the compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which opened the world’s ears to how township artists were creating beauty to defy the brutality of apartheid. Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde was “The Lion of Soweto,” the groaner with the deepest bass voice, teaming up with the Mahotella Queens. The Makgona Tshole Band were Johannesburg’s version of Motown’s Funk Brothers or L.A.’s Wrecking Crew—the house band who played on countless dance hits in the Sixties and Seventies. (Here’s to bassman Joseph Makwela, Africa’s James Jamerson.) Before Paul Simon’s Graceland, these artists were making the rhythm of resistance.


Spaceman 3, ‘That’s Just Fine’

Depraved lysergic English boys in a psychedelic guitar trance, which they put on a compilation called Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To. Sonic Boom and Jason “Bassman” Pierce build a spidery loop of feedback and echo, zoned out between the Velvets and the Stooges, where absolutely nothing happens except a stoned dude staring into his amps mumbling “that’s just fiiiine” or “blows my miiind” for five, six, seven minutes, humming a delicate wisp of melody so beautiful it could be Brian Wilson. As romantic as “Surfer Girl,” in its way.


Peter Schilling, ‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’

The story of Major Tom, revisited. German one-shot Peter Schilling does an unauthorized sequel to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Ashes To Ashes,” following Major Tom in his space capsule, as he floats lost through the cosmos. But “Major Tom” became a synth-pop classic in its own right—not bad for musical fan-fic.


Rush, ‘The Spirit of Radio’

Rush take on the radio, searching for signs of life amid all the glittering prizes and endless compromises. It’s a typically ingenious study of how pop music works, tuned into the timeless wavelength of rhythm, with a reggae break at the end. One of Geddy’s most indelible radio moments: “It’s really just a question of your honesty! Yeah! Your honesty!”


Steel Pulse, ‘Chant A Psalm’

“Good tidings I bring you,” David Hinds sings on “Chant a Psalm,” from Steel Pulse’s True Democracy. It was a song of hope, at a time of personal and political conflict for the U.K. reggae stalwarts from Birmingham. Hinds takes comfort in Biblical tales, chanting the names of Moses, Daniel, Samson, and Solomon, telling the faithful, “Attract these angels in dreams and in your prayers.” 


Strafe, ‘Set It Off’

A NYC underground boombox blast, with 808s in overdrive and the question, “Y’all want this party started right? Y’all want this party started quickly?” Not a radio hit, but a song you heard echoed in hits for the next couple decades. 


The Police, ‘When The World Is Running Down’

The bottle-blonde threesome scored so many iconic hits, yet even their deep cuts put on the red light, as in this fan fave from Zenyatta Mondatta. “It was a very difficult time,” Sting said. “There was a sense of urgency and quite a lot of drugs.” You can kinda tell. It’s a juicy groove about the banality of capitalist tedium, as Sting sings about a bored European hiding in his mansion, watching bootleg James Brown videos on his VCR and wondering why his expensive toys are no fun anymore. All that keeps him going is the mantra: “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”


Oran ‘Juice’ Jones, ‘The Rain’

Not exactly the sentimental type, this Oran “Juice” Jones. He sings a smoothed-out R&B ballad about spotting his special lady holding hands with her new guy, so by the time she gets home, he’s got her bags packed. Then he delivers a break-up monologue that should’ve won an Oscar. “What was you trying to prove? This was the Juice! I gave you things you couldn’t even pronounce!” Jones tells her, “You gotta get on outta here with that alley-cat-coat wearing, hush-puppy-shoe wearing crumb cake I saw you with! ‘Cause you dismissed!” But he saves his best line for the end: “You without me like cornflake without the milk!”


Bananarama, ‘Shy Boy’

Shy boys without Bananarama? Like cornflake without milk. The girl gang of Siobhan Fahey, Sarah Dallin, and Keren Woodward had a hell of a run, going from post-punk shoop-shoopers (“Cruel Summer,” “Cheers Then”) to hi-NRG disco queens (“I Heard A Rumor,” “Robert De Niro’s Waiting”) without a moment’s thought given to actually learning how to sing. “Shy Boy” is their most irresistible hit, showcasing their seductively bored pouts and unison vocals, from their debut Deep Sea Skiving. It’s one of the few Bananarama songs where they have any time for boys at all—besides Robert De Niro. 


Minor Threat, ‘Straight Edge’

Hardcore at its most intense: just kids talking to other kids, from town to town to town, without any adult middlemen butting in, expressing emotions that can’t come alive any other way. The D.C. crew’s “Straight Edge” isn’t about following rules—it’s about looking at your life as yours, instead of something you let happen to you. It’s the briefest song on this list, but it’s 46 life-affirming seconds, especially the moment when Ian MacKaye pushes “something I just don’t neeeeed” until his voice snaps in two. 


The Raincoats, ‘No One’s Little Girl’

The Raincoats were redefining punk rock in the early Eighties, with art-school feminist aggro and a very London sense of deadpan humor. “No One’s Little Girl” is a madcap groove, lashing out at misogynistic cliches in the mode of their albums The Raincoats and Odyshape. Gina Birch chants “I never shall be in your family tree,” over Ana Da Silva’s guitar and Vicky Aspinall’s violin.


Ray Parker Jr, ‘I Still Can’t Get Over Lovin’ You’

Ray Parker Jr has always been one of the Eighties’ most insanely underrated pop auteurs, from “A Woman Needs Love” to “The People Next Door” to “The Other Woman.” (“Ghostbusters” is…fine?) Parker started out as a Motown prodigy—that’s him playing the guitar solo on Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby.” For “I still Can’t Get Over Loving You,” he decides to rip off U.K. synth-pop with his own New Wave ballad, purring “I can’t turn you loose, though I know it’s self-abuse”—with a bitterly sad ache in his voice. But he gives a shout out to his Britpop inspiration at the end, when he slips in the line, “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you, girl.” 


Girlschool, ‘Yeah Right’

Feminist metal leather girls from the U.K., in kill-your-parents mode. Girlschool made this rager about every woman’s right to stay out all night raising hell, with Kelly Johnson showing off her hit-and-run guitar riffs. They get an assist from their buddies in Motorhead: Philthy Animal Taylor makes a drag cameo in the video, as somebody’s angry mom.


Ministry, ‘Revenge’

Al Jourgenson, the grand old scuzzbag of industrial metal sludge, has spent the past 40 years ranting about how much he hates his debut album, With Sympathy, where he pranced around with New Romantic synths and the world’s dodgiest faux-Brit accent. (“You did it agaaain! And agaaain! And agaaain!”) Unfortunately for Al, this shit is excellent, so fans won’t let him forget. “Revenge” is the pithiest of teen-psycho break-up plaints. But this fall, Ministry shocked fans by doing “Revenge” live for the first time in four decades.


The Rolling Stones, ‘Undercover of The Night’

One of the great underrated Stones nuggets, from their most underrated era. Whatever else the Stones did or didn’t have going on at any given moment, they always had Bill and Charlie, who go nuts here. “Undercover of the Night” is the only time the Stones set out to make a real Eighties record, crunching the Clash, Grandmaster Flash, Lee Perry, and Duran Duran into an attack on U.S. imperialism in Latin America. 


The Jim Carroll Band, ‘People Who Died’

Has any rock star killed off so many of his friends in one song? Jim Carroll was a NYC poet and punk scenester, putting his tough street life into his book The Basketball Diaries.(You can hear him in the crowd on the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, looking for Tuinols.) “People Who Died,” the hit from his debut Catholic Boy, is a high-speed rock & roll funeral for friends wiped out by drugs, booze, disease, war, subway trains, and killer bikers. Shout-out to Bobby, who manages to die three times.


Samantha Fox, ‘I Wanna Have Some Fun’

Oh, Samantha Fox—the irrepressible trash-disco starlet with the cheeky London accent, a future lesbian icon, returning from her hit “Naughty Girls Need Love Too” for a pro-fun-having anthem, with acid-house strings and a hired B-boy chanting “Sa-Sa-Sa-mantha Fox!” She begins this one with a drunk dial: “Helloooo — it’sme again! Don’t you know it’s hard to keep a good woman down? But then again [naughty yet love-needing giggle] maybe that could be fun!”


Queen & David Bowie, ‘Under Pressure’

Freddie Mercury never packed so many galileo-tastic vocal peaks into one song like he does in “Under Pressure.” It figures that Freddy would hit so many heights in a duet where he’s showing off for a fellow killer queen. But Bowie keeps up by never trying to top the prima donna—instead of competing, they both just stop, collaborate, and listen. “Under Pressure” is a total one-off for both artists, with no parallels in either career. Neither made any other record with this sound. (Neither was big on flutes.) Heartwarming footnote to “Under Pressure,” stupidly left out of the Mercury biopic: Bowie got his hair done at Live Aid by Freddie’s boyfriend. 


Dexy’s Midnight Runners, ‘Come On Eileen’

Kevin Rowland and crew trotted out of the U.K. to score this Celtsploitation banger, with Irish fiddles blazing and “too-rye-aye” chants. They went right to one-hit-wonder heaven in the U.S. Great line: “At this moment, you mean everything.”


Lionel Richie, ‘All Night Long (All Night)’

“That song has created more babies after the song,” Lionel Richie said. “We have populated the world.” “All Night Long (All Night)” sums up Lionel in his pastel era, dancing on the ceiling in a calypso-inspired hit full of Trinidad-via-Tennessee lilt. He adopts a Jamaican accent so over-the-top Phil Collins must have sent him a fruit basket. (“Life is goood, wiiild, and sweeeet!”) As for the African chant, don’t bother trying to translate, because it’s total gibberish—Lionel just made it up, but it works. Bonus points for one of the most pointless subtitles in the history of parentheses.


The Stone Roses, ‘I Wanna Be Adored’

Manchester guitar boys take a glorious ego trip. Drugs are overrated, adoration is underrated.


New Kids on The Block, ‘Hangin’ Tough’

Listen up everybody, if you wanna take a chance. Just get on the floor and do the New Kids dance. Here’s to Joey, Jordan, Donnie, Jon, and Danny, the perfect boy band, as they put you in a trance with their funky song. Chuck D proclaimed himself a fan of the New Kids—“they sincerely love hip-hop”—and that tells you how awesomely weird the late Eighties were. 


Missing Persons, ‘Words’

Teen angst, man. When Dale Bozzio sang, “No one notices/I think I’ll dye my hair blue,” we all felt that.


Ratt, ‘Round And Round’

Ratt came from the Sunset Strip glam-metal scene, but they instantly crushed the competition with their summer-of-’84 smash “Round and Round.” Stephen Pearcy sang like a thug, with seductive neon-light poetry (“looking at you, looking at me” counted as a romantic overshare by ’84 metal standards) and all that mysterious echo in the chorus. Fantastic video, starring old-school comedy legend Milton Berle in drag, and a fancy dinner-party guest who hears Ratt jamming in the attic and naturally sheds her clothes. (Who amongst us, right?) Also, maybe the best Shakespearean allusion in any Ratt song: “Like Romeo to Juliet, time and time, I’m gonna make you mine.” This is not actually what happens in Romeo and Juliet, but hey, it’s a love story—baby, just say yes.


The English Beat, ‘Twist And Crawl’

One of the decade’s slinkiest basslines. The Beat were a multiracial ska crew from Birmingham, flouting the racism around them with their herky-jerky rhythms. Bonus points for their Go Feet record-label graphics, which invited girls to the ska party in a pointed statement of anti-misogyny. (Gwen Stefani always said she got into ska because she wanted to be the Go Feet girl.) “We thought it would be nice to be a dance band,” Dave Wakeling told Rolling Stone in 1980. “We just want to survive World War III by trying to find a place where the bombs might miss.”


L’Trimm, ‘Cars With The Boom’

Psych—you thought you were driving a car, but it’s actually a guerilla boombox for two teenage girls named Tigra and Bunny to cause Miami-bass havoc on the highways. “Everybody beep your horns if you hear us! Beep louder!” 


Modern English, ‘I Melt With You’

The greatest humming solo ever. As Modern English singer Robbie Grey said, “It was about a couple making love as the bomb dropped.” But when the music stops cold for that hmm-hmm-hmm climax, the future’s open wide. When Robbie sings, “Making love to you was never second best”—that was probably meant to sound like a bigger compliment.


Billy Idol, ‘White Wedding’

Billy Idol lets it rip in “White Wedding,” rebel-yelling about sex and religion and shotguns. This was the summer-of-‘82 hit that established Billy as one of the Eighties’ great rock & roll fame sluts, and he sure had some stiff competition.


Peech Boys, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’

Larry Levan was the legendary DJ guru at the Paradise Garage, influencing dance music ever since. (Famously NYC had record stores that opened early Sunday morning, right after closing time at the Garage, so rival DJs could snap up whatever Levan just played.) The Garage didn’t have a liquor license, so the house beverage was fruit punch spiked with acid—that’s where the Peech Boys got their name. Levan puts his whole musical vision into “Don’t Make Me Wait,” evoking a big city full of party people ready to crawl out at sundown and take over.


The Dream Syndicate, ‘Open Hour’

The L.A. post-punk garage band specialized in guitar fireworks, totally shameless about going for a psychedelic buzz. The Dream Syndicate came out of L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene with The Days of Wine and Roses, one of the Eighties’ landmark six-string albums, inspiring bands from Dinosaur Jr to Japandroids. But “Open Hour” was their “Sister Ray” or “Dark Star” or “Marquee Moon,” the jam they kept expanding live, later recorded as “John Coltrane Stereo Blues,” yet best in this KPFK radio jam reissued on the compilation History Kinda Pales When It And You Are Aligned. Karl Precoda and Steve Wynn surf the feedback waves, over a Creedence-worthy groove—8 minutes of guitars doing what guitars were invented to do.


Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’

The Jamaican-born English dub poet Lincoln Kwesi Johnson made a string of politically charged reggae albums, reciting his protest verse in patois. In “Inglan Is A Bitch” LKJ reports on the oppression of Afro-Carribean immigrants in London, from his mighty 1980 Bass Culture.


Dominatrix, ‘The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’

“The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was a kinky NYC club classic shrouded in mystery: the sound of whips cracking, drum machines slapping, synth frills burbling. The narrator is a robot-sex priestess with a fabulously bored voice. “That night, a wild party. Women beat their men. Animals watch beyond the fire. The dominatrix…sleeps…TONIGHT!”