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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


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.