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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


Run-D.M.C, ‘Sucker MCs’

Run-D.M.C’s bombshell debut single flipped hip-hop from club music to street music. As Jam Master Jay said, “There never was a B-boy record made until we made ‘Sucker M.C.’s.” It’s two rappers from Hollis, Queens, boasting about their wild style—“I cold chill at the party in a B-boy stance”—over the toughest stripped-down DMX beats. “Sucker MC” was made from the streets, for the streets, designed to blast out of boomboxes on the corner. The Golden Age of Hip-Hop was about to begin, with Run, Daryl, and Jay leading the way.


The Cure, ‘Just Like Heaven’

Robert Smith’s most wildly romantic song. “Just Like Heaven” spins on the dizzy edge, showing why none of his many imitators could match his flair for lipstick-meltingly mournful melodrama. The Cure began the Eighties as the miserabilist goth puppets of Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography, yet somehow became bona fide pop stars. “I remember on the Kiss Me tour we were in Los Angeles,” Smith told Rolling Stone in 2004, “and there were girls taking their clothes off and lying down in front of the bus to stop us from driving away. And I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t really what I imagined I would be doing with this band.’”


N.W.A., ‘Straight Outta Compton’

When it comes to opening tracks on debut albums, there’s no mission statement like “Straight Outta Compton.” Dr. Dre’s production sounds the alarm like a siren, while Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren bang on the streets of L.A., with the first gun going off halfway through the first verse. “Straight Outta Compton” completely changed the hip-hop game and put the West Coast on top of the heap—that’s the power of street knowledge.


Janet Jackson, ‘Nasty’

Her first name ain’t Baby, it’s Janet, Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty, and after this song, nobody would ever make that mistake again. “Nasty” was the definitive statement from Control, Janet Jackson’s declaration of independence, still a teenager but breaking free from her family and a bad marriage. Janet formed one of the all-time symbiotic singer/producer bonds with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—their “Nasty” beat makes anyone 40% nastier with each listen.


The Smiths, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’

One day in 1982, Johnny Marr knocked on Morrissey’s door and declared, “I’ve come to form the world’s greatest band.” They proved it in “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s always been The Smiths’ fan favorite, double-decker bus and all—bassist Andy Rourke called it “the indie ‘Candle in the Wind.’” It’s a song that explores the darkened underpass of the heart, where a late-night drive with a friend is an epic quest. (In case you were wondering, Morrissey couldn’t drive, so he spent a lot of time in Johnny Marr’s car.) Moz sings about not having a home, but countless fans have heard some kind of home in this song. 


Kate Bush, ‘Running Up That Hill’

Nobody ever accused Kate Bush of being a conventional 1970s pop star—her first hit was about Wuthering Heights, after all. But she hit heights that were even more wuthering in the Eighties, when she got her hands on the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, like a mad scientist in her own lab. She turned her art-rock fantasies into cloudburstingly vibrant sonic dreams like “Running Up That Hill.” It crashed the U.S. Top 40 in 1985—but became an even bigger hit in 2022, spending the summer in the Top 10. It sounded bizarre on the radio between Lizzo and Harry Styles, just as it once sounded bizarre between Phil Collins and Falco. But it’s a song that can be heard countless times without ever fading into the background.


Duran Duran, ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’

Duran Duran blew up into worldwide pop idols with “Hungry Like the Wolf,” the hit that summed up the Eighties so perfectly, it’s a bit scary. “Hungry Like The Wolf” is their arty glam-disco sex strut, the archetypal New Romantic banger: rock guitar, funk bass, synth glitter, Simon Le Bon’s over-the-top moans. And even sworn enemies will play air drums to that chorus. This song made DD made the era’s most divisive band, with their innovative mix of Chic and the Sex Pistols. Every detail is calculated to provoke, from the opening sound (a woman’s laugh) to the climax (a woman voicing slightly different emotions). But “Hungry Like the Wolf” still lights up any room.


The Go-Gos, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’

Meet the Go-Gos: the five coolest punk-rock girls in town, cruising in their convertible in the Southern California sunshine. “Our Lips Are Sealed” was their debut hit, making every other band seem hopelessly boring. Especially since no other band had Gina Schock banging the drums. But Jane Wiedlin based it on her real-life love letters. “I was having a dramatic, traumatic, long-distance romance with Terry Hall of the Specials,” Wiedlin told me in 2000. “He had a fiancee at the time—nowadays I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole, but I was 19 and I was like, fiancee schmiancee, man.” Yet most fans hear it as an ode to femme bonding. “I prefer thinking of it that way,” Wiedlin said.  “More interesting.  But it’s a song that people find their own meaning in.”


Whitney Houston, ‘How Will I Know?’

Whitney’s creative breakthrough—the hit everybody liked. Although she dominated the radio with balladry like “Saving All My Love For You,” she saved her most soulful vocals for this bubbly Eighties hormone-crazed glitz-pop rush, loosening up with teen-angst lyrics worthy of the Smiths. (Very close to “This Charming Man,” honestly). Her debut album mostly sells her as a staid grown-up, but here she really sounds 22, feeling the eternal philosophical love-is-strong vs. I-feel-weak dilemma. Whitney rolls out her whoops and growls and mmm-hmmms, for a hit that refined virtuosity as euphoria.


Public Enemy, ‘Bring The Noise’

Public Enemy kicked down the doors in “Bring The Noise”—their most adventurous, radical, raging shot, with the explosive production of the Bomb Squad. “Most people were saying that rap music was noise,” said the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee. “And we decided, ‘If they think it’s noise, then let’s show them noise! But we’re also gonna give them something to think about.” “Bring The Noise” goes right for the jugular right from the opening words: a sample of Malcolm X saying, “Too black, too strong.” Chuck D booms louder than a bomb, over Flavor Flav’s motormouth hype man. “Bring The Noise” dropped in the fall of 1987 on the soundtrack of the none-too-revolutionary Less Than Zero, but it makes a bold claim on history, with shout-outs to Run-D.M.C., Anthrax, Sonny Bono, and Yoko Ono.


Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’

“Billie Jean” was the hit that turned Thriller into Thriller—the song that turned a hit into a phenomenon. Nobody could have imagined a song like this before—especially since his previous single was “The Girl Is Mine.” MJ’s voice came on sounded so fragile and haunted, even before you noticed how disturbing the lyrics were, over nearly five minutes of creepy strings and heavy drums and paranoid bass. He never made another record that sounded anything like “Billie Jean,” and neither has anyone else.


Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’

Grandmaster Flash worried that “The Message” would flop. “It was a shock,” he told Record Mirror in 1982. “At first we were a little too afraid to release ‘The Message.’ It was a little too truthful.” But it became the most famous of hip-hop classics, a war report direct from the streets of inner-city America. “The Message” was a total knock out of the park,” said Chuck D of Public Enemy. “It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.” “The Message” takes off from Duke Bootee’s poem about ghetto life, with Reggie Griffin’s future-shock keyboards and MC Melle Mel chanting, “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” As Flash said, “It had no call and response, nothing happy in it.” But it changed hip-hop forever.


Madonna, ‘Like A Prayer’

Madonna was at the center of the Eighties pop universe, but she saved her show-stopper for the end of the decade. “Like a Prayer” is her most passionate hit ever, as she goes down on her knees in the midnight hour to experience the most divine disco rapture. She wears so many of her favorite disguises in “Like a Prayer”: sex priestess, hippie mystic, bad Italian party girl, contrite Catholic penitent, Eurotrash poseur, floor-humping bride, gospel-disco soul searcher. Yet they all sound like the same woman. Take us there, Madonna. 


Prince, ‘Kiss’

Who else? Prince spent the Eighties as the most maddeningly brilliant and unpredictable genius in the game. He kept the world trying to guess his next move, while everyone was still catching up with what he was doing a few moves ago. If 1999 isn’t the decade’s best album, that’s just because it’s Sign o’ the Times—still a tough call. Prince has a couple dozen songs that could top this list, but “Kiss” is the sound of Prince showing off, his most playful and perverse hit, proving he’s 6 or 7 of the planet’s best singers. “Kiss” is deceptively minimal funk, a total surprise when it hit the radio in the spring of 1986, after the triumph of 1999 and Purple Rain, then the candy fluff of Around The World In A Day. There’s no bass at all, giving him room to peacock all over the avant-purple electro-slither. He coos “You can’t be too flirty” in the flirtiest falsetto imaginable, saving his sex-crazed screams for the end. When “Kiss” hit Number One, another Prince song was runner-up: The Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” But all over “Kiss,” he does the twirl with the future.