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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


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.