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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


Commodores, ‘Nightshift’

After Lionel Richie went off to fiesta forever as a solo star, the Commodores could have given up. Instead, they surprised everyone by coming back stronger than ever in “Nightshift.” It’s a tribute to the fallen R&B pioneers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who both died in 1984. The Commodores raise a toast to their real-life friends and heroes, keeping their names alive on pop radio forevermore, listening to those sweet sounds coming down on the nightshift.


Lou Reed, ‘New Sensations’

Lou Reed celebrates the tender love between a man and a motorcycle, making poetry out of the most ordinary details: “I rode to Pennsylvania near the Delaware Gap/Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map.” (The epitome of what Lester Bangs called “the Lou Reed ‘I walked to the chair/Then I sat in it’ school of lyrics.”) But he gets real emotion out of the cheapshit synthesizers—it figures Lou would make such a great imitation Depeche Mode record, right when Depeche Mode (and everybody else) just wanted to be Lou Reed. Weird revelation from the new Lou bio by Will Hermes: he chose the producer because he loved the drum sound on Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All.” 


Roxette, ‘The Look’

“What in the world can make a brown-eyed girl turn blue?” For the answer to this and other questions, let us turn to a Swedish New Wave boy-girl duo with gooey hair, dubious English fluency (“Her loving is a wild dog”?) and a burning desire to rap about a sex-robot girl who’s a miracle man and a juvenile scam — but she’s got the look.


Fleetwood Mac, ‘Gypsy’

Lightning strikes—maybe once, maybe twice. Stevie Nicks had a fabulously witchy Eighties run, both solo and with Fleetwood Mac, from “Bella Donna” to “Stand Back” to “Ooh My Love.” But “Gypsy” is her most touching autobiography, especially when she sings about how her wild heart “faces freedom with a little fear.” The way she hits the word “fear”—twice—is a seminar in everything that makes her Stevie Nicks.


Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, ‘Islands In The Stream’

Kenny and Dolly always had chemistry. They duet on “Islands in the Stream” like a pair of sassy seniors in a lavender haze, drawling every “ah-haaaa” with a sensual post-coital glow. They were never a real-life couple, but as Kenny told Rolling Stone in 2014, “We just flirted with each other and loved every minute of it.”


Dinosaur Jr., ‘Freak Scene’

J Mascis proves himself the true Eighties guitar god, with an axe that yearns and searches amid all the emotional feedback, a huge inspiration for Nirvana, Pavement, and all that followed. So many greats in his early songbook: “In A Jar,” “Repulsion,” “Little Fury Things,” “Severed Lips.” “Freak Scene” is Dinosaur’s Jr’s most beloved tune, with cleverly self-mocking angst, as J drawls, “Sometimes I don’t thrill you/Sometimes I think I’ll kill you/Just don’t let me fuck up, will you/‘Cause when I need a friend it’s still you.” Then his guitar fucks up. It all ends with the truest final line of any Eighties love song: “What a mess!”


Kim Carnes, ‘Bette Davis Eyes’

Kim Carnes spent 9 weeks at Number One with this proto-indie-sleaze ode to sexual espionage, featuring one of the decade’s pithiest similes: “She’s pure as New York snow.” The song came from Jackie DeShannon, the L.A. folk-rock legend who sang it in the 1970s, but Kim’s hit brings the creepy synth ambience, especially when she rasps, “All the boys think she’s a spy! She’s got Bette Davis eyesssss!” Bette wrote her a thank-you note. Carnes later sang a two-word solo on “We Are The World.” (“When we!”) Taylor Swift did a memorable acoustic version on Speak Now World Tour Live, telling the crowd, “I’d love to play you some music I’m a fan of that’s come from L.A.,” adding, “This song came out in 1981, 8 years before I was born.”


Elvis Costello, ‘New Lace Sleeves’

Elvis called the Eighties “the decade music forgot,” but he made a string of classics, including the underrated gem Trust. “That’s a record that falls between the cracks a little bit,” Costello told me in 2002. “I think it has one of the greatest Attractions performances, ‘New Lace Sleeves.’” It’s a dissection of male vanity, with two lovers facing each other the morning after. Sad but true: “Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere.”


LL Cool J, ‘Rock The Bells’

The hardest old-school rap, with LL rocking over a go-go percussion sample from Trouble Funk. As he told Rolling Stone, “We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal flow—like real low.” Rick Rubin earns his legend with this head-banging production. LL predicts, “Some girls will like this song and some girls won’t”—a rare moment of humility from the self-proclaimed king of crowd rockers. 


Psychedelic Furs, ‘Love My Way’

The Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler was the great sarcastic romantic of the Eighties, a world-weary post-punk roué with a London sneer swiped from David Bowie via Johnny Rotten. He sang about the secret lives of weird girls nobody understands, from “Pretty In Pink” (which inspired the John Hughes/Molly Ringwald film) to “Susan’s Strange” to “The Ghost In You.” The Furs’ first three albums are flawless, with “Love My Way” as the hit from their third, Forever Now. “It’s basically addressed to people who are fucked up about their sexuality, and says, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” he told Creem in 1982. “It was originally written for gay people.” “Love My Way” also inspired some truly tragic dancing in Call Me By Your Name.


Fine Young Cannibals, ‘I’m Not The Man I Used To Be’

Strange as it might seem now, people were obsessed with the Fine Young Cannibals. Especially their mysterious singer Roland Gift—his androgyny, his opacity, the way he sang like Grover with emphysema. Who else would cover a Buzzcocks song like it was a Motown ballad? “She Drives Me Crazy” was FYC’s big hit, but “I’m Not The Man I Used To Be” is their most enigmatic: Brit-soul for a post-hip-hop world, taking the chopped-up Eric B. & Rakim “I Know You Got Soul” guitar lick and turning it into a trembling confession.


Bon Jovi, ‘Wild In The Streets’

Owen Wilson voice: Well, everyone knows Bon Jovi peaked with “Livin’ on a Prayer.” What this song presupposes is, maybe they didn’t?


The Jam, ‘That’s Entertainment’

The tears of a mod, when there’s no one around. The Jam were the biggest band in Britain when they made “That’s Entertainment.” Paul Weller was just a lad of 22, but already a master of Kinks-level songcraft, as in “Start!,” “Going Underground,” and “Boy About Town.” “That’s Entertainment” is his heartfelt acoustic tale of urban melancholy. Weller recalled, “Coming home pissed from the pub and writing ‘That’s Entertainment’ in 10 minutes, ‘Weller’s finest song to date,’ hah!” Don’t sleep on the excellent live version from Dig the New Breed.


The Clean, ‘Anything Could Happen’

The Clean were the flagship band for New Zealand’s legendary indie label Flying Nun, where some of the decade’s freshest rock bands were happening, in the island with the world’s highest sheep-to-human radio. The Clean’s jagged guitar sound was a thing of beauty, especially in wry tunes like “Anything Could Happen,” “Getting Older,” and the Velvets-gone-surf crescendo “Point That Thing Somewhere Else.” They were kindred spirits to New Zealand bands like the Chills, the Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, Bailter Space, the Bats, and so many more. By the Nineties, the Clean were internationally acclaimed kiwi rockers, inspiring indie bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo. 


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘From Here to Eternity’

When Nick Cave announces “I wanna tell you about a girl,” you know it’s going to be a stormy night. The goth-punk demon preacher steps out of the shadow of The Birthday Party with a truly demented tale of sexual obsession, slipping “out of her nightmare and back into mine.” Blixa Barfeld mangles his guitar, while Barry Adamson plays one of the sickest basslines of a bass-intensive decade.


Roxanne Shante, ‘Go On Girl’

You’re the beginner, Shanté’s the winner, having all you competition for dinner. Shanté was queen of the rap battle rhyme—she mixed it up both of the iconic early hip-hop beefs, the “Roxanne” Wars and the Bronx/Queensbridge rivalry, and she’s the only MC who slayed in both of them. “Go On Girl” was written to order by her Juice Crew comrade Big Daddy Kane, over the same James Brown “whooo! yeah! whooo!” loop from Rob Base’s “It Takes Two.” As Shanté boasts, “While you were over here, perpetrating a fraud/I was overseas on the charts with Boy George!”


Haysi Fantayzee, ‘Shiny Shiny’

Even by Eighties standards, Haysi Fantayzee were the most absurd of one-hit wonders. The London boy/girl duo came out of the New Romantic scene with “Shiny Shiny,” two art-damaged kids chanting a death-disco sex chant over a bouncy little jump-rope riff., from their debut album Battle Hymns for Children Singing, chanting, “Shiny shiny / Bad times behind me!” They called it “a party song about dressing up after the bomb has dropped.” God, I loved this group. Haysi Fantayzee weren’t for everybody—in fact, they were for basically nobody. But “Shiny Shiny” up the beautiful excess of Eighties pop at its most delightfully deranged.


Sheena Easton, ‘Strut’

Strut, pout, put it out. Before “Strut,” Sheena Easton reigned as the industry’s most offensively boring pop starlet, a doe-eyed Scottish moppet with stomach-turning dreck like “Morning Train” and “For Your Eyes Only.” So it was a shock to hear her trash it up with “Strut.” She turned into a Prince muse, inspiring him to write her hit “Sugar Walls” (“Come spend the night inside my sugar walls”—subtle) and dueting on “U Got The Look.” Sheena does not play coy in the hilariously kinked-up fetish trip of “Strut,” singing, “All this fascination with leather and lace/Is just the smoke from another fire.” Yet she struts and pouts, until the sugar walls come tumbling down.


Motorhead, ‘Ace of Spades’

Like Lemmy says, the pleasure is to play. “Ace of Spades” is the outlaw existential anthem for Lemmy’s “double-stake or split” philosophy of life, with the classic Motorhead trio of Fast Eddie Clarke on guitar and Philthy Animal Tayor on drums.


Tracy Chapman, ‘Fast Car’

Boston street-corner busker Tracy Chapman cut through the glitz with the gravitas of her deep contralto voice, her folkie guitar, and an acoustic tale of hard times. “Fast Car” didn’t fit in with any trend—just a few chords and the truth. That’s why it was a massive hit in 1988—and that’s why it was an equally massive hit in 2023. Not a bad trick to win an CMA award for the year’s top country song, nearly 40 years after you wrote it.


Hall & Oates, ‘You Make My Dreams’

The most Eighties career of the Eighties? Daryl Hall and John Oates, the boy-boy duo who cruised across the radio dial and crashed every party. They could do it all, from slick pop (“Maneater”) to slicker pop (“Kiss On My List”) to their goth phase (“Adult Education”) to their big bam boom (“Out of Touch”) to kinda-boring slow jams (“One on One”) to this perky New Wave nugget. (The original title was ‘You Make My Dreams’ until streaming services added ‘Come True,’ a micro-controversy in the H2O fandom.) That “yooou-ooo, who-who” chant is some top-quality Oatesmanship, but his six-string rhythm blurt at the 1:55 mark (chik-i-ta-chinnnnng!) is the finest two-second guitar solo of the decade.


Iron Maiden, ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’

Iron Maiden’s definitive metal anthem, from their Eddie-sized monster The Number of the Beast. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is the last words of a doomed prisoner condemned to death, with Bruce Dicksinson counting down the final seconds until his execution. It’s inspired generations of teenage dirtbags to learn guitar. “If someone who’d never heard Maiden before – someone from another planet or something – asked you about Maiden, what would you play them?” Steve Harris asked. “I think ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is the one.”They also released their own craft beer, Hallowed.


Ten City, ‘That’s The Way Love Is’

Deep house evolves into post-Philly mighty-love soul, and for a brief shining moment, it actually slips into Top 40 radio. The Chicago house trio made “That’s The Way Love Is” with producer Marshall Jefferson, of “Move Your Body” fame. Byron Stingily testifies in a Sylvester-worthy falsetto, with lush strings and gospel piano. “When Ten City started, I think we were both at a point where we wanted to expand the genre by writing proper songs while at the same time doing more abstract things,” Jefferson said. Ten City’s entire Foundation album is one to rediscover.


Randy Travis, ‘Forever And Ever, Amen’

The Carolina boy with the richest, deepest, smokiest “aaaw shucks” voice on country radio gobbled up sad songs like they were popcorn. “Digging Up Bones,” “1982,” “On the Other Hand”—ace tearjerkers, every last one of them. But his best was this optimistic pledge of endless love. Great hook: “If you wonder how long I’ll be faithful, just listen to how this song ends.” Spoiler: forever and ever, amen.


Bow Wow Wow, ‘I Want Candy’

Bow Wow Wow’s Annabel Lwin was a righteous voice of New Wave youth gone wild, an authentically surly teenager crackling with confidence, with her band of pin-up boys behind her. She was a London girl from Burma who got discovered working at a laundromat, while singing along with Stevie Wonder on the radio. “I Want Candy” turns a forgotten Sixties bubblegum oldie into a surf-punk rager. That same spirit is there in Bow Wow Wow cult picks like “Jungle Boy,”“Sexy Eiffel Towers,” “Cowboy,” and the Marie Antoinette fave “Fools Rush In.”


Debbie Gibson, ‘Only In My Dreams’

You are now about to witness the power of electric youth. Debbie Gibson invented the whole idea of a teenage girl writing, singing, and producing her own Number One hit. The Long Island high-school theater kid opened the door for the whole Olivia/Billie/Lorde era, with no male Svengali, no phony image. (Her big fashion statement was painting smiley faces on her knees.) Debbie was just 17 when she blew up with “Only In My Dreams,” her splashiest, spritziest disco hit, though some of us Deb-heads will always ride for deep-cut ballads like “Between The Lines.” 


ABC, ‘Be Near Me’

“Our shoulder pads were big,” Martin Fry said. “But so were our ambitions.” The ABC frontman was one of the Eighties’ sharpest, wittiest New Wave wordsmiths—not to mention one of the best-dressed—in the killer trilogy of The Lexicon of Love, Beauty Stab, and How To Be A Millionaire. With “Be Near Me,” the faux-Sinatra poseurs reach their September of My Years phase and discover sincerity.. “What’s your reputation? Ecstasy! What’s your destination? Next to me!” 


Cher, ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’

Cher can not only turn back time, she can transform the entire U.S. Navy into her fleet of boyfriends, in a video where she rocks an entire aircraft carrier while the sailor boys salute. Cher was still just settling into her stunning late-Eighties comeback groove, after returning with “I Found Someone” and “We All Sleep Alone,” but “If I Could Turn Back Time” is the hit that made her Cher forever.


Alaska Y Dinarama, ‘Ni Ti Nu Nadie’

A Spanish New Wave LGBTQ anthem, years ahead of its time. The group Alaska y Dinarama came together in Madrid as part of La Movida Madrileña, the 1980s post-dictatorship artistic explosion, when Spain had one of the world’s coolest music scenes. “Ni Tu Ni Nadie” is a Bowie-worthy blast of glam-rock guitars, Europop strings, and a defiant vow to be yourself no matter who tries to change you. It blew up in gay discotecas all over the world. The Mexican band Moenia did a kick-ass version in 2010. Once heard, never forgotten.


Lucinda Williams, ‘I Just Wanted to See You So Bad’

The country-rock poet finds the sweet spot between Dolly Parton and The Ramones.


Rhythim Is Rhythim, ‘Strings of Life’

Detroit techno visionary Derrick May was one of the “Belleville Three,” producers who helped invent the genre, along with his high-school classmates Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. Under the name Rhythim Is Rhythim, his indie 12-inch “Strings of Life” blew minds in 1987, as a big statement of how ambitious and innovative the new electronic dance sound could get. It’s a mix of bittersweet piano and harsh, glassy strings, with no bass, for a track that feels abrasive yet totally uplifting. “Strings of Life” still sounds like a vision of alien paradise.


Black Flag, ‘Rise Above’

“We! Are tired! Of your abuse! Try to stop us! It’s! No uuuuuuse!” Black Flag walked it like they talked it, defying a hostile world that was actually doing a damn good job of trying to stop them, yet refusing to give up the fight. “Rise Above” is the ultimate hardcore banger, from their classic Damaged, with Greg Ginn’s noise guitar and Henry Rollins’ rage. Black Flag got denounced as “anti-parent,” which they were—not to mention anti-cop, anti-government, anti-TV, anti-beer, and what else you got?


Vanity 6, ‘Nasty Girl’

The best Prince song he gave away. “Nasty Girl” is a hyper-sexual ode to the aphrodisiac powers of drum machines and limousine floors. The three ladies of Vanity 6 give real Lake Minnetonka purification vibes, especially when Vanity herself sighs, “I guess I’m just used to sailors/I think they got water on the brain/I think they got more water upstairs than I got sugar on a candy cane.” The first time Prince made the cover of Rolling Stone, Miss Vanity was right there beside him.


Billy Joel, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’

This actually happened: Billy Joel hit Number One rapping about the JFK assassination and Dien Bien Pau over a Prince riff. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” became everybody’s favorite 20th-century history cheat sheet, the one that makes arenas sing, “Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo!” But considering how famous it is, B.J. goes for a lot of admirably non-obvious history here. (Seriously, fuck those Belgians in the Congo.) This song was Number One the week Taylor Swift was born, which explains a lot. Fun fact: With the recent death of England’s Got a New Queen, Brigitte Bardot is now the senior member of the “We Didn’t Start The Fire” Club.


Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, ‘Road to The Riches’

The same year Billy Joel has a Number One hit trying to rap, Kool G Rap flips a Billy Joel piano loop into a hip-hop classic. Now that’s the Eighties in a nutshell. “Road To The Riches” is a rise-and-fall gangster tale, with Queens mafioso G Rap reporting, “I shot up stores and I kicked down doors / Collected scars from little neighborhood wars.” A Cold Chillin’ landmark, from the days when the Juice Crew reigned supreme and set a rap standard that’s still daunting today.


The Slits, ‘Typical Girls’

London punk women fight the power. The Slits rip apart gender roles in their single “Typical Girls,” over an off-kilter reggae-soaked beat. They chant, “Typical girls are sensitive! Typical girls are emotional!” It sounds halfway between a playground rhyme and a riot. Guitarist Viv Albertine wrote the line “Typical girls stand by their man,” inspiring her then-boyfriend Mick Jones to write his answer song, The Clash’s “Train In Vain (Stand By Me).”


Luther Vandross, ‘Never Too Much’

The essence of Luther, both his velvet voice and his heart of gold. There isn’t a note in “Never Too Much” you’d mistake for anyone else. “There are vocalists,” Smokey Robinson said, “And then there is Luther.” For all the dramatic heights of epic ballads like “A House Is Not A Home” or “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” his most anomalously buoyant hit “Never Too Much” is the Quiet Storm virtuoso at his warmest.


Lita Ford, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’

Best opening couplet of the Eighties: “I went to a party last Saturday night/I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight.” Lita Ford sounds like a total boss even when she’s singing about everyday hassles like getting stuck in traffic and hating her job. She started out as the guitar hero in The Runaways, side by side with Joan Jett. But she’s all swagger in “Kiss Me Deadly,” her moment of glam-metal splendor. Total suburban realness, especially when her voice leaps out of the mix to yell, “You know I like dancing witchooo!”


Bob Dylan, ‘Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’

A lost B-side he left off the album Shot of Love, yet it’s Dylan’s toughest song of the Eighties, and maybe his meanest. He looks around at a world in turmoil: “Cities on fire, phones out of order/They’re killing nuns and soldiers/There’s fighting on the border.” A song full of hard rain and apocalypse.


A Guy Called Gerald, ‘Voodoo Ray’

Madchester acid house at its maddest. Gerald Simpson made the charts with an indie single inspired by the edgiest beats out of Chicago house and Detroit techno, aimed at the ravers in The Hacienda. “Voodoo Ray” has a woozy vibe, like a Joe Walsh wah-wah solo gone techno, with the Roland TB-303 beats bubbling over and femme voices casting their spells. One of the hits that put the acid in acid house.


Spandau Ballet, ‘True’

Seriously, though: why DO I find it hard to write the next line? Spandau Ballet gave us all a New Romantic slow-dance classic with “True,” one of the decade’s most divisive hits—you either love this one or hate it. But some of us cherish every moment, especially the way Tony Hadley turns the word “true” into a 17-syllable sob. The Spandaus tell their amazing story in the must-see doc Soul Boys of the Western World.


George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’

When George Jones sings about seeing an old friend smile for the first time in years, you can bet your bottom dollar this friend is a corpse who’s just died of a broken heart. But Possum makes you wonder if he doesn’t envy the guy—is love like this a curse or a blessing? The 48-year-old Jones, already established as the greatest country singer ever, turned “He Stopped Loving Her Today” into his bone-chilling late-game signature ballad. Any jukebox that plays this song is a goddam crime scene.


Bronski Beat, ‘Smalltown Boy’

“Smalltown Boy” was a hit that couldn’t have happened in any previous pop era—a trio of out Brits with a song about growing up gay, with Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto wail over the gorgeous synth-pop. “We’re gay, but we come across as very ordinary people who make music that is very commercial but isn’t just throwaway trash,” Somerville told Rolling Stone. “In other words, we’ve proved that you can have a hit record without wearing a frock!”


Smokey Robinson, ‘Being With You’

Smokey is the Smokey of every decade, and nobody else is near his league whether it’s the 1960s, the 1980s, or the 2020s. The Motown master was at the top of his game all through the Eighties, with the breezy romance of “Being With You.” He makes this kind of tune sound simple, except nobody writes them (or sings them) like Smokey. As he told Rolling Stone in 1968 (in a profile calling him “the reigning genius of Top 40”), “It has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.” He’s still got it, as in his latest album, the subtly titled Gasms.