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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


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Atlantic City’

“Atlantic City” is the centerpiece of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, just the man and his acoustic guitar. A Jersey guy has debts no honest man can pay and a wife no broke man can keep, so he does a little favor for the mob. All those things that used to seem so important—well, mister, they’re deader than the Chicken Man. All he can tell his wife on his way out the door is, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


De La Soul, ‘Eye Know’

De La Soul open up rap’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Posdnous, Maseo, and the late great Trugoy the Dove had their own fresh style, grabbing inspiration from anywhere, with their producer Prince Paul piling on the samples. “Eye Know” was just one highlight from their Native Tongues masterwork 3 Feet High and Rising, with a little help from Steely Dan, at a time when the Dan were not necessarily the hippest band to appreciate. But as Posdnous told Rolling Stone, “When me and Dave [Trugoy] worked in the mall, we would just hear songs playing in the loudspeakers. They would always play Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ and we were, even then, aspiring to be a group, and we were like, ‘Yo, that could be a dope song to use.’” So won’t you smile for the camera?


Hüsker Dü, ‘Celebrated Summer’

The Minnesota punk trio spent the Eighties making the most ferociously emotional rock records around, in landmarks like Metal Circus, Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. The Huskers pushed the limits of the hardcore scene, blowing Mohawked minds at a time when it was still controversial to learn a fourth chord. “Celebrated Summer” is their most intensely cathartic song, with Bob Mould raging about the kind of summer that takes an instant to pass but a lifetime to get over. Halfway through, his guitar buzz pauses, and he busts out his 12-string acoustic guitar for a hushed moment of loneliness. His question: “Do you remember when the first snowfall fell? / When summer barely had a snowball’s chance in hell?” Tough stuff.


Bonnie Tyler, ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’

Power Ballad Armageddon. In this corner: Bonnie Tyler, the Welsh pop belter with the sandpaper voice. In that corner: Jim Steinman, the lord of mega-pop overkill, composer of operatic rockers for Meat Loaf and Air Supply, the guy who calls himself “Little Richard Wagner.” Result: “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a Number One ballad that spirals through about 12 climaxes, with the ultimate karaoke credo, “Once upon a time I was falling in love/Now I’m only falling apart.” Killer ending: the guy with the glowing eyeballs chirps one last, “Turn around, bright eyes!”


Adam and the Ants, ‘Stand and Deliver’

“I’m the dandy highwaymen you’re too scared to mention! I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention!” Adam Ant was the great New Wave provocateur of his era, flouncing in pirate drag. He declared war on everything boring about the Eighties, in classics like “Prince Charming,” “Antmusic,” “Zerox,” “Goody Two Shoes,” “Jolly Roger,” and the yes-it-really-happened “Ant Rap”? But “Stand and Deliver” is his ultimate glam manifesto, with Adam yelping and howling over tribal drums and mega-twang guitar, with his message to the world: if you’re not making a bizarre spectacle of yourself, what are you even doing with your life? Or as Adam laments, “It’s kinda tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he’s making!” 


Funky Four Plus One, ‘That’s The Joint’

The most effervescent old-school Sugarhill rap, from a crew of South Bronx kids. “We got golden voices and hearts of steel,” the Funky Four boast, with Plus One herself, the pioneering female MC Sha-Rock. They keep passing the mic for verse after verse, over the funk groove of the Sugarhill house band and Doug Wimbish’s bass. “That’s the Joint” captures the spirit of early rap at its most utopian. Lil Rodney C sums up what it’s all about: “Just chilling hard, living in luxury, and being very proud to be an MC.”


Pixies, ‘Debaser’

The Pixies rip into their second album Doolittle with “Debaser,” blasting through the loud/quiet/loud formula, but without the quiet part. Frank Black screams about the notorious “slicing up eyeballs” scene in the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali film Un Chien Andalou, while Kim Deal adds her ineffable Midwest cool to the chorus. The best thing to happen to the word “groovy” since Simon and Garfunkel broke up.


Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’

“Face down in a memory, but feelin’ alright”—you’ve probably had a few nights like that. Roseanne Cash claims her crown with a country-rock tale eviscerating a smooth-talking ladies’ man as he prowls all over L.A., ripping him to shreds. (“Heartaches are heroes when their pockets are full”—true that.) I will never understand why this song isn’t as famous as “You’re So Vain,” but it’s an absolute Casanova-killer, and the best L.A. singles-bar song of a very L.A. singles-bar era. What a chorus: “The boys say, ‘When is he gonna give us some room?’/The girls say, ‘God, I hope he comes back soon.’”


Eddy Grant, ‘Electric Avenue’

Eddy Grant wrote “Electric Avenue” after the 1981 Brixton riots, where African-Caribbean youth battled the police. But it became a global smash, a radical mix mashing up reggae, synth-pop, punk and funk, with a drum loop distorted to roar like a revving motorcycle. His voice hits home with a no-bullshit adult style of working-class anger, growling, “Can’t get food for the kid—good gaaaawd!”