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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


The Human League, ‘Don’t You Want Me’

The Human League made one of the Eighties’ most Eighties albums with Dare, full of high-gloss electro-beats and romantic angst. So much to savor here: “Love Action,” “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” “Open Your Heart.” But “Don’t You Want Me” is a soap-opera duet: a boy and a girl tell two sides of the same tragic romance. Phil Oakey recruited Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall at his local disco. As Sulley said, “He wanted a tall Black singer and he got two short white girls who couldn’t sing.” That much is true. But the power of “Don’t You Want Me” is the emotion in those all-too-human voices.


Beastie Boys, ‘B-Boy Bouillabaise’

The 13-minute capper to the Beasties’ landmark second album Paul’s Boutique—three jerks telling the story of their long, strange hip-hop friendship, with the Dust Brothers weaving countless samples into a broader-than-Broadway epic. It’s one of the most loving musical portraits of New York ever made, all the more poignant for coming from homesick exiles stranded in Los Angeles. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” filters a 1970s funk vibe through a 1980s rap prism, with more flavor than Fruit Stripe Gum: the dusted bass of “Hello Brooklyn,” the late-night subway party of “Stop That Train,” the scratched-up Ernie Isley guitar that anchors MCA’s fuzzed-out grandeur in “A Year and a Day.” The Eighties’ answer to Side Two of Abbey Road. Best moment: “I play my stereo loud! I disturb my neighbor! I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor!”


King Sunny Ade, ‘Ja Fumni’

The master of Nigerian juju already had over 40 African albums to his name. But King Sunny Ade scored his international breakthrough with Juju Music. “Ja Fumni” was a mind-blower for listeners around the world: talking drums doing call-and-response, trippy pedal-steel twang, Ade’s polyrhythmic guitar and hypnotic Yoruba vocals. His 17-piece African Beats were famed for their 8-hour live shows. No artist from Africa had ever made such a splash in the U.S., influencing bands from Talking Heads to Phish. The King opened the door for the 1980s world-music boom; his best sampler is The Best of the Classic Years. And his influence still grows: when WizKid shared a stage with Ade in Nigeria, he famously bowed to the ground in respect. 


Salt N’ Pepa, ‘Push It’

Wait a minute—this dance ain’t for everybody, only the sexy people.  Salt and Papa, two Queens girls who met playing spades in the school lunchroom, raised the game with their rap sisterhood. “We were just doing us,” Pepa told me in 2017. “We brought fun, fashion, and femininity to hip hop. Before us the style was hardcore—even the ladies were in baggy jeans. Then here comes Salt N Pepa in the spandex!”


The Jesus And Mary Chain, ‘Just Like Honey’

Enter Jim and William Reid, two pasty Scottish brothers who haven’t seen the daylight since they started this band. “Just Like Honey” is a classic girl-group nugget drenched in noisy guitar feedback, turning the “Be My Baby” beat into a shockingly unsarcastic love song to a bold girl who lives in a honey-dripping beehive. “Just Like Honey” became Scarlett Johansen’s memorable theme song in Lost In Translation.


Sonic Youth, ‘Teen Age Riot’

Sonic Youth were already a great NYC noise band before they learned how to write songs, on Evol and Sister. But they kick off their epochal 1988 double-album trip Daydream Nation with “Teen Age Riot,” one of the great opening songs in the history of vinyl. The Youth welcome you in with Kim Gordon chanting her witchy incarnations. (“Spirit desire! We will fall!”) Then the guitars of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo kick in, Steve Shelley hits the drums, and before you know it, you’re zooming down the fast track into the unknown. So many Nineties futures begin in this song.


Shannon, ‘Let The Music Play’

The New York freestyle shot heard around the world. No electro-disco song had come on so loud, so aggressive, so in your face, with every beat delivering a full-body slam. Shannon Green sings about love on the dance floor, making eye contact with a hot stranger, praying to the DJ for a sign, pleading, “What does love want me to do?” Then the 808s kick in and love puts her into a groove.


U2, ‘Bad (Live)’

There’s been a lot of talk about this next song. Maybe, maybe too much talk. But U2 had one of the craziest decades any rock stars have ever had, in their strange journey from “big-hair Dublin boys singing about Jesus in Latin” to “play the blues, Edge.” They never soared higher than in “Bad,” the 8-minute live epic from Wide Awake in America. (The feeble studio draft isn’t really even canon.) Desperation, isolation, desolation—but a hopeful ending if you want to hear it that way, especially in Bono’s plea to “come on down,” which translates as “Joy Division stole this song from David Bowie, we’re stealin’ it back.” This is a rebel song, and it turned everyone else at Live Aid into a footnote (yes including Queen, sorry).


Marvin Gaye, ‘Sexual Healing’

Marvin Gaye hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, when drugs and divorce left him living in a van in Maui. But he started over in his music, playing with new toys like the Jupiter-8 and TR-808, inspired by the synth-pop he was hearing on the radio. In “Sexual Healing” he turns all the heavenly sounds in his head into electronic whispers and sighs, for a wake-up wake-up wake-up moment of redemption. Nobody would have guessed it was the end.


The Clash, ‘Spanish Bombs’

Here’s why there was only one Clash. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones sing a powerfully urgent lament for the Spanish Civil War, the toughest kind of war to sing about—the kind where the good guys lost. “Spanish Bombs” is full of grief, but not resignation. With right-wing regimes on the rise in 1980, just as they are now, it’s a song about revolutionary strength in the face of defeat. And it hits home now, in these days of evil presidentes. “Spanish Bombs” might be music from another time, further away now than the Civil War was then, but it’s a reminder that the future is unwritten.


Rick James, ‘Super Freak’

The king of “punk funk” with an ode to the kind of freaky girls you read about in New Wave magazines, and how he yearns to taste them every time they meet. This lady has an appetite for the Rick James lifestyle—incense, wine, candles, limousines, drugs, girlfriends, the works. As he said in 1983 “I wanted a silly song that had a bit of New Wave texture to it.” “Super Freak” was just one hit from his 1981 opus Street Songs, but it never goes out of style. Rick James will always be the poet laureate of Very Kinky Girls. 


Culture Club, ‘Karma Chameleon’

The Very Kinky Boys would like a word. Boy George and crew deliver a classic ode to peace, love, and understanding, but with the Boy’s own bitchy wit.


Neneh Cherry, ‘Buffalo Stance’

One of the decade’s finest lyrics: “Wearing padded bras, drinking beer through straws.” A longtime London punk scenester with an avant-jazz heritage scores a saucy global dance-floor hit about sex and money, co-produced by Tim Simenon, who racked up acid house hits as Bomb The Bass. Neneh Cherry makes a great joke out of her flimsy rap flow, with her real English accent sounding even more awesomely fake than her fake American accent. But no way is she letting that stop her from talking her shit. “It’s something that sends tingles up your spine,” she said. “It’s the sex in my voice.” Love when Neneh calls out to her DJ, “Bomb the Bass, rock this place”—the “rock me, Joe” of 1989 Club MTV culture. 


David Bowie, ‘Ashes to Ashes”

The Thin White Duke steps into the Eighties with one of his greatest and eeriest songs. With a young generation of New Romantics imitating him, Bowie wanted to prove he could out-New and out-Romantic them all. In “Ashes to Ashes” he revisits the most famous character he ever created: Major Tom, the lost astronaut from “Space Oddity.” As he said, it’s about “spacemen becoming junkies.” But it’s definitely David Bowie who feels stranded in outer space, looking down at the wreckage of his life, disconnected from reality, over the spooky synths. By the end, he’s pleading, “Want an axe to break the ice/Wanna come down right now!”


The Minutemen, ‘This Ain’t No Picnic’

Three punk corndogs from San Pedro, California, coming from the hardcore scene but still in love with the Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult riffs of their youth. The Minutemen’s double-vinyl sprawl Double Nickels on the Dime is one of the all-time great American punk statements, home of their famous proverb, “Our band could be your life,” a celebration of solidarity and brotherhood as well as a fuck-you to the powers that be. “This Ain’t No Picnic” is the masterstroke: a two-minute blast of blue-collar rage, with childhood best friends D. Boon and Mike Watt slamming it all into your ribs.


Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, ‘It Takes Two’

A Harlem teen named Rob Base steps to the mic and declares “I wanna rock right NOW,” over the most iconic break of the hip-hop golden age, that James Brown/Lyn Collins “whooo! yeah! whooo!” looping into eternity. “‘It Takes Two’ went everywhere,” Rob Base told me in 2017. “When me and E-Z made the record, we made it for the neighborhood. We didn’t think it would do what it did. We made it for the neighborhood skating rink. It was called Rooftops—that’s where everybody used to go skating at.” But their street beats went global. “When it started traveling around the world, we were shocked. Different genres of music was even taking it in, freestyle—we did rock clubs doing that record. We wanted a nice good party record with a street feel to it.”


Cyndi Lauper, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’

Cyndi Lauper sings the word “girl” several million times here, yet each time she digs a little deeper, sticking up for every girl who wants to be the one to walk in the sun. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” explodes with pop feminist bravado, with her all-inclusive demand for fun on her own terms, so tough behind her deceptively gaudy comic image. There’s so much power in all her Buddy Holly-via-Poly Styrene hiccups and chirps. And putting her mom in the video was such a radical statement in itself. Just another perfect song on her perfect debut She’s So Unusual—how could you live without “She Bop”? “Money Changes Everything”? Her version of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”? Hell, the whole thing?


Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

What’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion? 


Tina Turner, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’

Love, love will tear us apart. Again.


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’

Meet Axl. Meet Slash. Do not let them take your credit card to the liquor store.


The Talking Heads, ‘This Must Be The Place’

A love song from the last place anyone expected: the mind of David Byrne. “This Must Be The Place” is the Talking Heads’ warmest, most passionate peak, transcending the alienation of Fear of Music and Remain In Light. Byrne sings, “I’m just an animal looking for a home/Or share the same space for a minute or two,” over the swamp bass and quasi-Hawaiian synth sighs. In the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne turns it into a romantic dance with a living-room lamp, and somehow makes the song feel even sadder.


Big Daddy Kane, ‘Ain’t No Half Steppin’’

Nobody could step to Big Daddy Kane. Hip-Hop’s golden age was peaking in the legendary summer of ’88, but Kane was the champ—a one-two punch of virtuoso poetics and smooth-operator charisma. He made his name with the Juice Crew in Queensbridge, alongside his high-school friend Biz Markie. But “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” is the battle rhyme where he claims his crown, over Marley Marl’s jazzy rump-shaker sample. He goes Friday the 13th on any sucker MC fool enough to challenge him on the mic, warning, “Up on the stage is where I’m-a getcha at / You think I’m losing? Pssssh, picture that.” Only Big Daddy could get so ill on his creative process: “Brain cells are lit, ideas start to hit/Next the formation of words that fit/At the table I sit making it legit / And when my pen hits the paper … aaaaw shiiit!” Forever the Kane, forever the King. 


Diana Ross, ‘I’m Coming Out’

The Motown queen wanted a song to tell the world how she felt about heading into her 40s, a divorced single mom ready to start over. The Chic masterminds Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards gave her a disco hit that doubled as a tribute to gay men they saw in the clubs dressed up as Diana Ross. As Rodgers says in his excellent memoir Le Freak, “It would be be a cool idea to have Diana talk to her gay fans in slightly coded language.” But it wasn’t so coded, lyrically or musically. “I’m Coming Out” remains a pride anthem that’s also a tribute to a monster drummer—Tony Thompson, damn—and a Nile guitar riff worthy of Biggie. Miss Ross still opens her live show with it. 


Depeche Mode, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’

The definitive synth-pop dance cut. Vince Clarke quit the Mode soon after writing “Just Can’t Get Enough,” after their all-killer no-filler debut Speak and Spell, but carried on his noble career Yaz and Erasure. Martin Gore took over the songwriting for Depeche Mode, and took them to a whole other level of artistic and commercial success, right up to their great new Memento Mori. You could call this the most successful break-up of all time, since we got twice as much great music out of it. “Just Can’t Get Enough” will always evoke sideways haircuts, bouncy Casio beats, mesh-and-leather tops, the entire ethos of the Martha Quinn era.


The Replacements, ‘Left of the Dial’

“A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin,” Paul Westerberg told Rolling Stone, right before Tim came out. “You should be able to clear a room at the drop of a hat.” The Replacements never had any trouble with that. But they evolved from Minneapolis punk brats to the great American rock band of the Eighties, with the rugged confessions of Let It Be and Tim. “Left of the Dial” is a heart-on-fire guitar rager about growing older, missing your friends, getting your heart ripped out by that song playing on the radio. It sounds better than ever now on the new Tim (Let It Bleed) remix—the way it was always meant to sound.


Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, ‘Planet Rock’

“Planet Rock” was the electro-hop 12-inch that totally transformed how this planet rocks. DJ Afrika Bambaataa from the South Bronx hooked up with producer Arthur Baker and synth wizard John Robie, with a beat from German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. “Planet Rock” is a sci-fi tribal vision of Mother Earth as one big starship, full of universal people looking for the perfect beat. This song was more than a giant hit—it was the mothership that gave us Miami bass, Detroit techno, Latin freestyle, Memphis crunk, ATLien rap.


Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’

A very Eighties romance: “You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job.” The greatest of English synth-pop duos team up with a Sixties gay icon they’ve worshiped all their lives, for a lavishly witty and mega-bitchy breakup song. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” is full of ironic melancholy, especially when Neil Tennant asks, “Now I can do what I want to? Forever? How’m I gonna get through?” The way the Divine Dusty bats her eyes and glances off that last chorus with “a-ha-haaaa” is a whole career’s worth of jaded cool in three seconds. The Pet Shop Boys were Cardi B’s favorite group as a child—pray we get a duet on this with Megan.


George Clinton, ‘Atomic Dog’

Woooof! George Clinton already had a lifetime of funk genius behind him when he dropped “Atomic Dog”—after the rise and fall of his Parliament-Funkadelic collective, some fools even thought he was finished. But Dr. Funkenstein just got back to the lab and devised his biggest bomb ever. George was partying hard the night he freestyled “Atomic Dog” (“I was out of my head,” he recalled), barking and growling “bow wow wow, yippy-oh yippy-yay” over that monster bass. But it inspired countless hip-hop producers, especially on the West Coast—Dr. Dre built an empire on this bassline.


New Order, ‘Temptation’

The ultimate Eighties band: four antisocial post-punk twits from Manchester accidentally turn into disco visionaries. New Order were still shell-shocked from the death of Ian Curtis when they began dabbling in low-budget synth beats. Yet “Temptation” sent them on their way to defining 1980s club sounds, one oblique 12-inch at a time. They kept tinkering with “Temptation” over the years, but they got it right the first time—the original 9-minute single from the Factus 8 1981-1982 EP. “Temptation” proves Bernard Sumner could be a brilliant poet of dance-floor social anxiety (“Confusion,” “Weirdo,” “The Perfect Kiss,” “All The Way”) when he wasn’t hilariously awful at it. (Like, they actually released “1963”?) But when they chant “Up, down, turn around, please don’t let me hit the ground,” they sound like they’re having fun for the first time in their lives.


Grace Jones, ‘Nipple to the Bottle’

Grace Jones spent the 1970s making the scene at Studio 54, but the Eighties is when she blew up into an artist. She had her own massively influential funk/reggae club sound, her butch flat-top haircut, and her Caribbean band starring Sly and Robbie. As she said, “When I sing a song I need to get into character, because it is all theater for me.” When Madonna started in 1982, she told the U.K. press she wanted to make music for “the kind of people who might like Grace Jones.” “Nipple to the Bottle” was her ultimate rage-queen feminist anthem, snarling like the ultimate New Wave cyborg dominatrix. The bass-heavy 12-inch mix is the killer, as she chants, “I won’t give in and I won’t feel guilty/You rant and rave to manipulate me!” Everyone dreamed of being as cool as Grace Jones. But nobody is.


Siouxsie & the Banshees, ‘Spellbound’

Goth demon queen reinvents rock & roll. John McGeoch plays his flanged-to-heaven guitar over Budgie’s power-stumble drums, while black-lipstick goddess Siouxsie Sioux testifies about psychological disintegration and why it’s fun. She chants “It sends you spinning, you have no choice,” in the voice that launched a million cobweb-gathering twirlers to make each other dizzy on the dance floor. 


R.E.M., ‘Sitting Still’

The Georgia boys in R.E.M. changed the rock game in the early Eighties. You could pick any song off their classic debut Murmur for this list. (Well, not “We Walk” or “9-9.”) You could pick “So. Central Rain” or “Fall On Me” or “Wolves, Lower” or “Good Advices.” Who else had songs like this? Nobody. (Wait, “Harborcoat”? “Catapult”?) R.E.M. had their own high-energy, low-budget DIY sound—loads of guitar, but no solos, no keyboards, no spandex. They were audibly Southern, from some town nobody’d heard of, like they had no idea bands were required to move to New York or L.A. (“Gardening at Night”? “Green Grow The Rushes”?) Michael Stipe’s voice surges in “Sitting Still” with urgent emotion, without any clue what the lyrics mean. (Maybe Stipe does not believe this song goes “sit on top of the big hill” but I do.) Eighties R.E.M. were one of the best bands who ever existed—except they got twice as great in the Nineties. 


Eric B. & Rakim, ‘I Know You Got Soul’

Eric B. & Rakim not only changed the future of music, but changed the past, turning James Brown into a brand new groove. Eric B slices up a dusty groove from 1971—“I Know You Got Soul,” from JB’s sidekick Bobby Byrd—reducing it to the hardest guitar lick, while Rakim grabs the mic like he’s on Soul Train, with his most fiercely complex poetics. The group Stetsasonic called it right and exact in their pro-sampling polemic “Talkin’ All That Jazz”: “Tell the truth, James Brown was old, till Eric and Rak came out with ‘I Got Soul.’” (Or as Greg Tate wrote in 1988: “Hip-hop is ancestor worship.”) Like everything else Eric B and Rakim did in the Eighties, “I Know You Got Soul” is a radically prophetic move, claiming the future in the name of hip-hop.  


Sade, ‘Smooth Operator’

Sade Adu makes her elegant entrance—as if she’d make any other kind. The Nigerian-born fashion student turned chanteuse in the U.K. New Romantic scene, adding some Nina Simone to the Bowie/Ferry diamond-life aesthetic for her own unique world-conquering style. Her whole mystique is right there in “Smooth Operator,” where she’s the worldly bon vivant with too much of her own past to care about beginners or sensitive hearts. In the video, she sings with tears pouring down her cheeks, but nobody’s ever been in less danger of blowing their cool. Part of her discreet aura: Sade-the-singer has kept Sade-the-band together for over 40 years, without most fans noticing or even caring. No need to ask—it’s Sade.


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.