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Best 80s Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Defined The Decade
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List & Guides

Best 80s Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Defined The Decade

From guitar heroes to pop gods and goddesses, the best 80s musicians shaped the decade and made it such a distinctive era.

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For all of its reputation as a decade of greed and excess, the 80s was a golden era for pop music: fashion styles were unique and plentiful, a new world of musical and technological innovation was welcomed in, and the rise of MTV heralded a new breed of superstar to rival the Hollywood star system. To find out who embodied the decade, here is our list of the best 80s musicians – 20 great artists who have become inseparable from that unforgettable time.

Listen to the best of the 80s here, and check out our best 80s musicians, below.

20: Van Halen

One of the most influential bands of their generation, Van Halen turned nearly every 80s kid into headbangers thanks to their era-defining fusion of hard rock and glam metal. The band owed its lasting success to their legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen, whose innovative two-handed tapping technique reignited people’s passion for rock’n’roll. To their credit, Van Halen were never afraid of pop crossover – the iconic Oberheim synth hook on their US No.1 hit, Jump, vaulted them into the mainstream as one of the biggest bands on the planet. It would be a crime to leave Van Halen off this list of best 80s musicians.

Must hear: Jump

19: Chris Rea

Like any vintage sports car, you’ve got to respect the mileage. The reluctant rock star Chris Rea was an impeccably well-oiled songwriting machine for much of the 80s, shifting into gear with massive-selling albums such as Shamrock Diaries, On The Beach, Dancing With Strangers and The Road To Hell. The best Chris Rea songs won the gravel-voiced singer fans the world over thanks to his down-to-earth lyricism and laidback slide guitar (On The Beach, Stainsby Girls), while also evoking roadside respect with his car-themed compositions (Driving Home For Christmas, The Road To Hell, Pt.2). Speeding into our affections and giving Dire Straits a run for his money, Chris Rea deserves recognition as one of the finest musicians of his era.

Must hear: On The Beach

18: Tears For Fears

Originating from Somerset and fronted by guitarist Roland Orzabal and bassist Curt Smith, Tears For Fears were synth-pop underdogs who deserve to be championed among the best 80s musicians. Catching the tail-end of the new wave explosion with their debut album, The Hurting, the duo’s No.3 UK hit, Mad World, was a beautifully melodic but near-suicidal cry for help (“The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”). However, it was Tears For Fears’ second album, 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair, which saw the group at the peak of their popularity, thanks largely to a pair of successive US No.1 hits – the crowd-pleasing anthem Shout and the catchy memento of Cold War ennui, Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Offering us a window into yesterday, Tears For Fears’ music still sounds terrific to modern ears.

Must hear: Everybody Wants To Rule The World

17: Talking Heads

Straddling the line between art pop and funk-inspired floor-fillers, Talking Heads came out of left-field in the late 70s. On a mission to turn pop music inside out, David Byrne’s off-kilter, eccentric persona and the exemplary rhythm section of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, plus Jerry Harrison on keyboards and guitar, were a revelation. Influenced by Afrobeat as well as producer Brian Eno’s ear for sonic weirdness, the best Talking Heads songs captured the 80s’ zeitgeist, while the video for their 1981 single Once In A Lifetime became a new wave cultural touchstone. Featuring a suited-and-booted Byrne dancing like a man possessed, the song evoked the feeling of being in the grip a midlife crisis, frantic with self-denial. Later, the band branched out into twisted Americana with their 1985 hits And She Was and the gospel-choir-backed Road To Nowhere, cementing their status among the best 80s musicians.

Must hear
: Once In A Lifetime

16: Pet Shop Boys

Exploding onto the pop scene in 1985 after hitting No.1 with their rap-influenced synth-pop hit West End Girls, Pet Shop Boys went on to dominate the rest of the 80s – for good reason. The social conscience of Neil Tennant’s wry lyricism and Chris Lowe’s synth-led melodies (It’s A Sin, Domino Dancing, Heart) not only set them apart as some of Britain’s best 80s musicians, but the duo’s formidable talents also saw them rightly elevated as LGBTQ+ icons. By creating coded portrayals of gay lifestyles but often giving them gender-neutral terms, Pet Shop Boys transcended social stigmas during an era terrified by the AIDS crisis, and taught a whole generation to be proud of their sexuality. The best Pet Shop Boys songs did exactly what great art should do: built a bridge over a social chasm and helped bring us all together.

Must hear: West End Girls

15: Lionel Richie

The former Commodores frontman went solo in the 80s and rapidly became one of the decade’s foremost soul balladeers. With his exquisitely crafted R&B/soul ballads, Lionel Richie scored dozens of US Top 10 hits and was a mainstay of MTV for several years, thanks to singles such as the Diana Ross duet Endless Love and the 80s club classic Dancing On The Ceiling. And no 80s-themed party would be complete without a blast of All Night Long (All Night) or a slow-dance to Hello – songs that more than earn Richie his place in our list of the best 80s musicians. As the chief rival to Phil Collins during this period, Lionel Richie sold a whopping 90 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling soul artists of all-time. No one could argue with that.

Must hear: All Night Long (All Night)

14: Spandau Ballet

New Romantic synth-pop stalwarts Spandau Ballet were one of the key players in the Second British Invasion, wowing the US with such hits as their slickly-produced ballad True and the sweeping new wave belter Gold. Mixing their post-punk roots with funk, soul and even jazz, the band’s chief songwriter, Gary Kemp, was complemented by his bassist brother, Martin, and drummer John Keeble, as well as the gargantuan vocal talents of Tony Hadley, blessed as he was with a voice as a large as any swing-indebted crooner. Constantly in a war of attrition with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet’s success spoke for itself, dominating the decade with 17 UK Top 40 hits and selling 25 million records across the globe.

Must Hear: True

13: Tina Turner

In a real-life survivor story, Tina Turner overcame her abusive marriage by becoming one of the 80s’ biggest stars. Rightly deserving of the title of “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”, she hit her stride thanks to unforgettable pop hits such as her comeback cover of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, 1984’s Grammy-winning What’s Love Got to Do With It and 1989’s rousing power anthem The Best, plus albums such as Private Dancer and Foreign Affair. Bringing together her hard-edged soul credentials with the streamlined commercial appeal of pop rock, Turner also became one of the decade’s biggest live sensations. “My dream is to be the first Black rock’n’roll singer to pack places like the [Rolling] Stones,” she once said. By 1988, her dream came became a reality when she performed in front of 180,000 people at Rio de Janeiro’s Estádio do Maracanã. A true inspiration.

Must hear: What’s Love Got to Do With It

12: The Smiths

Hailing from Manchester, the legendary indie icons The Smiths forged an untrodden path from the underground to Top Of The Pops, scoring an undeniably influential run of UK indie disco favourites (This Charming Man, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Panic) that immediately scored the group a place among the best 80s musicians. Johnny Marr’s glassy, jangling guitar riffs beautifully collided with Morrissey’s mournful crooning, filling fans’ ears with maudlin poetry and inspiring a generation of shoplifters to unite and take over. From the swirling majesty of How Soon Is Now? to their masterpiece album The Queen Is Dead the best Smiths songs sowed the seeds for the flowering of Britpop the following decade.

Must hear: This Charming Man

11: New Order

Following the tragic suicide of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s funereal post-punk slowly morphed into New Order’s Technicolor 80s electro-pop. Stepping behind the mic, Bernard Sumner took on singing duty while bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert furthered the band’s mission to fuse the punk ethos of their label, Factory Records, with electronic music. Their international breakthrough was 1983’s Blue Monday, which went on to become the best-selling 12” single of all time. For the remainder of the decade, the best New Order songs (Bizarre Love Triangle, True Faith and Temptation among them) bridged the gap between guitar music and the burgeoning club scene, becoming seminal dancefloor classics in the process. If any 80s musicians deserve to be hailed as pioneers, it’s New Order.

Must hear: Blue Monday

10: George Michael

From the sugar-coated pop of Wham! to the Bo Diddley-esque acoustic strum of Faith, George Michael wasted no time at all in becoming a British pop legend. After spending years as a teenage pin-up thanks to Wham!’s fun-loving jollity (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Club Tropicana), the London-born singer-songwriter sprung a timeless solo-credited classic on the world with 1984’s Careless Whisper, a song he co-wrote, aged 17, with his Wham! counterpart Andrew Ridgeley. If that weren’t enough to secure his place among the best 80s musicians, Michael would go fully solo in 1987, taking over MTV with his leather-clad, guitar-slinging image and breaking records when his debut solo album scored four consecutive US No.1 hits (Faith, Father Figure, One More Try and Monkey). Such a meteoric rise cannot be ignored.

Must hear: Careless Whisper

9: Duran Duran

New Romantic icons and Smash Hits poster boys Duran Duran took over MTV and spearheaded a British pop invasion of the US charts in the 80s. Inspiring mass hysteria akin to Beatlemania in the 60s, the band regularly found themselves performing to thousands of screaming teenage girls, often drowning out the sound of classic hits such as the lascivious Hungry Like The Wolf and the one-night-stand ballad Save A Prayer. As the noise settled, what remained was the music. The best Duran Duran songs were full of timeless hooks and marvellous melodies, with the icing on the cake being Nick Rhodes’ vivacious keyboards, John Taylor’s funky bass lines and Simon Le Bon’s strident vocals. Enough alone to secure the group’s place among the best 80s musicians, their 1982 album, Rio, was a milestone in the development of pop music.

Must hear: Hungry Like The Wolf

8: Eurythmics

The synth-pop duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) were one of many British pop groups to find success in the US during the Second British Invasion. Despite the band’s concerns that the song lacked a chorus, their hit single Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) topped the charts stateside owing to its ricocheting synth lines. Like a female David Bowie, Annie Lennox championed androgyny and created art pop with a punk-inspired DIY ethic, lighting up the decade by becoming one of the most important female artists of her generation. Empowering anthems such as the glossy pizzicato pop of Here Comes The Rain and the unmistakably cherubic vocal hook on There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) are a testament to Eurythmics’ stature among the best 80s musicians.

Must hear: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

7: Phil Collins

While also fronting Genesis, singer-songwriter Phil Collins became an international pop superstar in his own right in 1981 with his UK No.2 hit In The Air Tonight. Pioneering the gated reverb drum sound with producer Hugh Padgham – a technique which every other artist would soon copy – Collins spent year on year as one of the best-selling male artists of the 80s. From the karaoke favourite Against All Odds (Take A Look Me Now) to the decade-closing requiem on the plight of the homeless, Another Day In Paradise, the best Phil Collins songs outpaced much of his competition, thanks in part to his powerful tenor vocals and Motown-inspired songwriting. His 1985 album, No Jacket Required, sold over 25 million copies alone – an astonishing feat that nobody could have predicted at the start of the decade – while the likes of Face Value (1981) and … But Seriously (1989) remain high-water marks that bookended the decade. The 80s would not have sounded the same without them.

Must hear: In the Air Tonight

6: Kate Bush

She was just 19 when she released her debut album, The Kick Inside, in 1978, but Kate Bush quickly developed into the music icon she was always destined to be, with visionary 80s albums Never For Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds Of Love and This Woman’s Work showcasing her evolution from an eccentric, falsetto-voiced pixie to the fairy godmother of progressive pop. A true original with a fiercely independent drive, the best Kate Bush songs tapped into deep and elemental themes of the divine feminine, such as on her UK No.3 hit, Running Up That Hill. With her art-rock sensibilities, Bush carved out a niche completely of her own in the 80s – few of her contemporaries ever came close.

Must hear: Running Up That Hill

5: U2

Something magical happened when Irish post-punks U2 teamed up with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Their 1985 album, The Unforgettable Fire, laid down the blueprint for what would follow, with singer Bono and guitarist The Edge setting their sights on the US heartland with lofty anthems such as Pride (In The Name Of Love). Pioneering a sound that redefined stadium rock forever, their 1987 masterpiece, The Joshua Tree, sealed the deal thanks to songs such as the minimalist ballad With Or Without You and the hymn-like I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Easily snagging a place on our list of the best 80s musicians, U2 became global megastars thanks to Bono’s gospel-inspired lyrical poetry and a neo-spiritual take on rock’n’roll unseen since the death of The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison. U2 reopened those doors.

Must hear: With Or Without You

4: Dire Straits

Coming a long way from the UK’s mid-70s pub rock scene, guitarist and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler firmly established himself as one of the best 80s musicians. Having found himself an in-demand guitarist called upon by 60s legend Bob Dylan, Knopfler swung into greater renown with Dire Straits’ 1980 album, Making Movies, scoring a UK Top 10 hit with the arpeggiated solemnity of Romeo And Juliet. It was in 1985, however, that the band hit their apotheosis – Brothers In Arms became one of the best-selling albums of all time, racking up airplay thanks to singles such as the country-inspired jig Walk Of Life. The album’s powerhouse hit was Money For Nothing – a tongue-in-cheek critique of rock-star excess – which boasted one of the decade’s most outstanding guitar riffs. Dire Straits were the keepers of the flame.

Must hear
: Money For Nothing

3: Michael Jackson

Already famous as a child star of Jackson 5, it was in the 80s that “King Of Pop” Michael Jackson became a true international sensation. From the moment he performed the moonwalk on a 1983 Motown TV special, Jackson set the stage for chart dominance for years to come. In contrast to some of the other artists jostling for position among the best 80s musicians, Jackson’s musical methods were unconventional – he tended to verbalise his melodies from memory by beatboxing them – but his talent was undeniable. With help from legendary producer Quincy Jones, his 1983 album, Thriller, broke records by selling 32 million copies by the end of that year, and spawned seven classic hits, among them Billie Jean and Beat It. He replicated his Midas touch with the cross-cultural appeal of 1987’s Bad.

Must hear: Beat It

2: Madonna

Effortlessly seizing the crown as the “Queen Of Pop”, Madonna was the most successful female artist of the 80s. After showing she meant business with 1984’s Like A Virgin, the best Madonna songs married new wave’s tenacity with a love of controversy and commercial acuity, with dance-pop tunes such as the fashion-conscious Material Girl and the teen pregnancy polemic Papa Don’t Preach summing up the decade. While always innovating as a songwriter, Madonna introduced Hollywood-inspired glamour to the world of MTV, showing a whole generation how pop could kickstart a fashion revolution and push dance choreography to the forefront. Without her, it’s highly unlikely pop music would look and sound the way it does today. The platinum-blonde starlet changed the game for women forever.

Must hear: Like A Virgin

1: Prince

A wildly enigmatic and fearless funk-pop pioneer, Prince easily tops our list of the best 80s musicians. With such a prolific output across the decade, it should hardly come as a surprise. From the futurist synth-pop of 1999 to the panoramic power ballad Purple Rain, the psychedelia-flavoured Raspberry Beret and the gutsy political statement Sign O’ The Times, the best Prince songs proved him to be a genre-hopping force of nature. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released nine albums in ten years (among them era-defining works such a Purple Rain, Parade and Sign O’ The Times) and racked up an astonishing run of 26 US hits – and that’s without counting the songs he wrote but which other people took into the charts (The Bangles, Manic Monday; Sinéad O’Connor, Nothing Compares 2 U). A fashionista who embraced androgynous styles and challenged attitudes towards sex and gender, Prince embodied the 80s through his forward-thinking outlook, his boundary-pushing musicianship and his restless creative spirit. If genius were a colour, it would be purple.

Must hear: When Doves Cry

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