Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
Best 80s Songs: 20 Epochal Tracks From Pop’s Golden Age
Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best 80s Songs: 20 Epochal Tracks From Pop’s Golden Age

Though divisive both politically and culturally, the 80s produced consistently stellar music – as the best 80s songs make abundantly clear.

Back

The 80s is perhaps the most divisive decade in modern history. For some, it was dominated by Thatcherism, strikes and mass unemployment, while for others it was a time of opportunity – an era when corporate business planted its flag on the landscape, and the technology we now take for granted (mobile phones, the internet) first became a reality. In many ways, the music mirrored this divide, with stadium rock, MTV and glossy production values in vogue, while grittier genres such as indie-pop and the burgeoning hip-hop scene provided alternatives. Taken as a whole, however, it coalesced into one hell of a soundtrack, as our run-down of the best 80s songs proves…

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

20: The Jesus And Mary Chain: Just Like Honey (1985)

Formed by Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid, The Jesus And Mary Chain courted controversy from the off, with their feedback-strafed gigs usually lasting just 20 minutes and often ending in riots. It was manna from heaven for the music press, who duly dubbed them “the new Sex Pistols”, but, beyond the nihilism and the deafening noise, the JAMC’s landmark debut album, Psychocandy, proved the group had the talent to outstrip the hype. Though not their biggest chart hit, their fourth single, Just Like Honey, was a magnificent slice of opiated, Velvet Underground-esque pop which wasn’t just a classic song – it showed that indie outsiders could actually crack the mainstream during the aspirational 80s.

19: Kylie Minogue: I Should Be So Lucky (1988)

It’s fair to say that British pop production team Stock Aitken Waterman (mostly known simply as SAW) had a Marmite-style effect on pop consumers during the late 80s. Seemingly ubiquitous in the UK singles chart during the decade’s latter half, they eventually notched up over 100 Top 40 UK hits with help from artists such as Bananarama, Rick Astley, Hazell Dean and Dead Or Alive, but most self-consciously “serious” music fans looked down on their success with derision.

Wherever you stand on SAW’s output, they did at least one undeniably great thing for mankind in getting Kylie Minogue’s career up and running. In retrospect, few would have believed that the former Aussie soap star’s fluffy, SAW-sponsored songs such as Hand On Your Heart and the seemingly omnipresent I Should Be So Lucky would act as the opening chapter in a Madonna-esque pop takeover which continues to this day (Kylie would go on to dominate the charts in the early 2000s, thanks in part to further classics such as Spinning Around, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and Love At First Sight), but sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

18: Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five: The Message (1982)

It’s impossible to overstate the vital role that New York City-based hip-hop crew Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five played in the development of their genre. DJ Grandmaster Flash’s pioneering use of the scratching technique became a cornerstone of the music, while the socially conscious lyrics on songs such as The Message paved the way for everyone from Run-DMC to Public Enemy, N.W.A, The Notorious B.I.G. and beyond.

Formed in 1978, the group initially polarised opinion outside of the hip-hop scene (the group were booed by the crowd at Bond’s International Casino when they opened for The Clash in New York, in 1981) but they persevered and achieved mainstream success with their hard-hitting single The Message and its parent album of the same name in 1982. Without question one of the best 80s songs, The Message was funky and on-trend musically, but, crucially, its dextrous lyric about inner-city poverty (“It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”) was delivered with a passion which continues to speak volumes to the generations of socially-conscious artists that have followed.

17: Echo And The Bunnymen: The Killing Moon (1984)

In the same way that singular guitar bands such as The Smiths and The Jesus And Mary Chain helped indie-pop take on the mainstream during the 80s, the decade offered opportunities for bands from post-punk backgrounds to enjoy success on a global scale. In the mid-80s, former cult-level acts such as U2 and Simple Minds made breakthroughs in the US (and beyond) which have sustained them to this day, while enigmatic Liverpudlian quartet Echo And The Bunnymen made waves with a quartet of fabulous, career-defining albums.

Arguably their creative peak, the Bunnymen’s glorious fourth album, Ocean Rain, remains one of the best 80s albums, and it includes the group’s signature hit, The Killing Moon. With typical bravado, frontman Ian McCulloch is on record as saying, “When I sing The Killing Moon, I know there isn’t a band in the world who’s got a song anywhere near that,” and any listen to this timeless slice of dark, gothic pop makes it hard to disagree.

16: Foreigner: I Want To Know What Love Is (1984)

Effectively slow, impassioned ballads, but with the addition of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production techniques of the day, power ballads were all the rage with the heavy-rock fraternity during the 80s.

Writing a really good one could earn you serious money, too, as Anglo-American rockers Foreigner discovered when their signature hit, I Want To Know What Love Is, topped the charts in both the US and the UK, where it even knocked Band Aid’s ubiquitous charity single, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, off the Christmas No.1 spot. Indeed, such is its timeless appeal, I Want To Know What Love Is doesn’t just rank among the best Foreigner songs – having attracted high-profile covers by Wynona Judd and Mariah Carey, it has long been established as one of the best 80s songs, too.

15: Pretenders: Don’t Get Me Wrong (1986)

It sounds like a highly unlikely combination, but troubled US tennis ace John McEnroe and a British Airways advert collectively inspired Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde to write Don’t Get Me Wrong: one of the best Pretenders songs, and surely one of the best 80s songs to boot.

“He loved playing guitar,” Hynde told Classic Rock of the three-time Wimbledon champion. “He’s a big music person, which is how I knew him, because he used to come to our shows and he was friendly with the band and stuff. I had in mind that I was going to write this song for him to do. Years later, when I was on British [Airways], I heard an announcement – because I did write some of that song on a plane – and I think I nicked one of the top-line melodies from the overhead announcement: ‘Dong-dong-dong-dong… Welcome to British Airways.’”

14: Public Enemy: Don’t Believe The Hype (1988)

Public Enemy’s self-imposed brief for their epochal second album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, was to make hip-hop’s equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s social-commentary-fuelled masterpiece, What’s Going On. On paper, that’s quite an ask, but, to their credit, they pulled it off, making a densely aggressive record which laid down heavy funk, elements of musique concrète and even free jazz as the solid foundation upon which rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav could sound off about the political and social ills of the day.

One of hip-hop’s benchmark releases, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back also bequeathed a series of superb singles, of which the biggest-selling, Don’t Believe The Hype, went Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic. A slice of uncompromising polemic among of the best 80s songs, this potent anti-media broadside foresaw the age of fake news (“I refused to blow a fuse/They even had it on the news/Don’t believe the hype”) decades ahead of its time, and it still sends shivers down the spine.

13: Peter Gabriel: Sledgehammer (1986)

In 1979, future super-producer Trevor Horn’s band Buggles scored a No.1 hit with Video Killed The Radio Star. The future suggested in the song’s portentous title didn’t quite pan out, though the tune did accurately predict that the 80s would be responsible for some of the best music videos of all time, significantly shaping the future of music promotion after US cable channel MTV got off the ground, in 1981.

In fairness, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was a terrific slice of infectiously quirky pop which would probably still have been a hit even without a promo clip. However, there’s no question that Stephen R Johnson’s brilliantly conceived claymation and stop-motion animation video helped the single go Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic while also giving life to many of the images in Gabriel’s lyrics. Reflecting the immense power of the promo clip as the era’s marketing medium of choice, Sledgehammer won nine MTV Music Video awards in 1987 and has since been voted MTV’s No.1 Animated Video Of All Time.

12: Talking Heads: Once In A Lifetime (1981)

Talking Heads’ remarkable fourth album, Remain In Light, was influenced by the sound of New York’s early hip-hop records, along with Afrobeat artists such as Fela Kuti, whom the group were turned onto by their producer and de facto fifth member, Brian Eno. However, the band’s reliance upon creating new material simply through jamming also worked in their favour, with several of the best Talking Heads songs emerging from those sonic experiments.

Perhaps the finest of them all, the seemingly indefinable Once In A Lifetime, came from such a jam, with much of the song’s trance-like feel emanating from Tina Weymouth’s hypnotic bassline and Jerry Harrison’s bubbling synthesiser part. Now widely regarded as Talking Heads’ signature tune, Once In Lifetime yielded a surprise UK Top 20 hit, with its memorable televangelist-inspired video offering many Europeans their first glimpse of frontman David Byrne’s nervy genius.

11: Fleetwood Mac: Everywhere (1987)

Fleetwood Mac must have experienced déjà vu in 1987, when their 14th album, Tango In The Night, repeated the multi-platinum success of the previous decade’s Rumours. An almost faultlessly accomplished set, the record proved to the last laid down by the group’s classic line-up of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, and it bequeathed four huge radio hits, all of which could well have been in contention for a place among the best 80s songs. Arguably the strongest, Christine McVie’s dreamy Everywhere proved to be as ubiquitous as its title prophesied, and quickly took its place among the best Fleetwood Mac songs of all time.

10: Simply Red: Holding Back The Years (1985)

Incredibly, Mick Hucknall wrote his signature hit, Holding Back The Years, while he was still a precocious 17-year-old fronting Manchester post-punk outfit The Frantic Elevators. After forming Simply Red, however, Hucknall realised the song’s full potential. An incredibly accomplished work for a teenager to have composed, Holding Back The Years is a time-stopping, soul-infused ballad full of the yearning and nostalgic regret that only a much more mature person can truly comprehend.

In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Hucknall revealed that he was inspired to write the song by a member of the teaching staff at Manchester School Of Art, where he studied fine art. His lecturer suggested the greatest paintings are produced when an artist is working in a stream of consciousness – a creative process which Hucknall then tried to apply to his songwriting. Holding Back The Years was just the second song the singer wrote using this method, and it’s served him incredibly well ever since. Appearing on the group’s debut album, Picture Book, it topped the US Billboard Hot 100 and (at the second time of asking) went to No.2 in the UK, effectively launching Simply Red and kick-starting a career now worth 50 million album sales and counting.

9: Beastie Boys: (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!) (1986)

New York trio Beastie Boys were seriously big news when they burst onto the scene in 1985. After making headlines performing a high-profile support slot with Madonna, their debut album, 1986’s Licensed To Ill, eventually went diamond (for sales of over 10 million copies) and became the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200.

However, their runaway success came at a price: while the Beasties’ made their name with amusing, if rather puerile hits such as (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!), they struggled to distance themselves from the brattish image they’d initially cultivated as a joke. In part for this reason, their vastly superior second album, Paul’s Boutique, failed on the charts, and it wasn’t until the 90s that the band regained lost ground with albums such as Check Your Head and Ill Communication.

8: Bruce Springsteen: Dancing In The Dark (1984)

According to Dave Marsh’s book Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen In The 1980s, Bruce Springsteen wrote Dancing In The Dark under sufferance and literally overnight after his producer/manager Jon Landau complained that, while he had plenty of material for his new Born In The USA album, The Boss still hadn’t penned the record’s killer single.

Springsteen reputedly vented his frustrations in a new song’s lyrics (“I ain’t nothing but tired/Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself”), but it was worth it, for Dancing In The Dark bore all the hallmarks of the best rock songs. Despite its dejected subject matter, it had plenty of bounce and vitality, and with an uptempo synthesiser riff providing the hook, it was nigh-on perfect. Quickly becoming one of the best 80s songs, Dancing In The Dark spent four weeks at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (where it was kept off the top spot by Prince’s When Doves Cry) and it later rewarded Springsteen with his first Grammy Award, for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male.

7: New Order: Blue Monday (1983)

A classic example of how word of mouth can often be the best form of advertising, New Order’s legendary fourth single, Blue Monday, succeeded in spite of itself. This pioneering slice of sequencer-driven electro-pop was a radical change of direction for the Mancunian post-punk outfit, and it also clocked in at seven minutes – but, once they’d completed the song, New Order had no intention of cutting it down for anything as commercial as a radio edit.

Despite that, Blue Monday became an enormous club hit all over Europe, and a landmark release in a run of game-changing New Order 12” singles. Its underground popularity translated into sales, and it eventually peaked at No.9 in the UK. One of the best-selling 12” singles of all time, Blue Monday’s reputation as one of best 80s songs is now carved in stone. Not a bad result for an attempt to knock up an electronic instrumental that would play in lieu of the encores New Order themselves hated performing.

6: Prince: When Doves Cry (1984)

According to a DVD commentary for the film Purple Rain, Prince was asked by director Albert Magnoli to write a song to match the theme of a particular segment of the movie that involved intermingled parental difficulties and a love affair. By the following morning, he had written two contenders, one of which was When Doves Cry.

Though it was composed after the rest of the Purple Rain album had been completed, the striking When Doves Cry became the record’s lead single. Prince himself played all the instruments, and the song achieved its trademark starkness through what he left out – a bassline, which was almost unheard of for an 80s dance track. Nonetheless, When Doves Cry had a unique atmosphere all its own and, with the help of a memorable promo video which opened with white doves emerging from double doors to reveal the artist in a bathtub, it flew to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1984, helping to make Prince the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously hold top the single, album and film charts.

5: The Human League: Don’t You Want Me (1981)

It’s extremely rare for an album’s fourth single to go supernova, but that’s exactly what happened with The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me when their then label, Virgin Records, released it in November 1981. The band’s acclaimed third album, Dare, had already exceeded expectations by yielding three hit singles (The Sound Of The Crowd, Love Action (I Believe In Love) and Open Your Heart), and The Human League themselves had little faith in Don’t You Want Me, believing it to be their throwaway “Des O’Connor song”.

History, however, showed that the Sheffield synth-popsters couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did the British public take the sleek Don’t You Want Me to heart, but their enthusiasm for it helped the song scoop the coveted UK Christmas No.1 for 1981, selling over 1.5 million copies and cementing the track’s reputation as one of the 80s best songs.

4: Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Relax (1983)

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story is one of the great tales of 80s pop. Originally cult heroes in their native Liverpool, the group were plucked from obscurity and signed to wunderkind producer Trevor Horn’s ZTT imprint in 1983. With help from the cream of the era’s session musicians, Horn’s Midas touch transformed frontman Holly Johnson and co into pop titans, and their three consecutive No.1 hits (Relax, Two Tribes and The Power Of Love), and million-selling debut album, Welcome To The Pleasure Dome, rewarded them with stellar success before their follow-up, Liverpool, effectively called time on the band.

Boosted by a clever (and extremely pervasive) T-shirt campaign, much of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s legend was built by the controversy surrounding their debut single, Relax. One of the decade’s most controversial records, this provocative disco-pop anthem was also a commercial juggernaut, eventually selling a reported two million copies in the UK alone, and easily ranking among the nation’s ten biggest-selling singles of all time. First hitting No.1 early in 1984, Relax remained in the UK Top 40 for 37 consecutive weeks, 35 of which overlapped with an airplay ban by the BBC, instigated by Radio 1 DJ Mike Read, who very publicly complained about the overtly sexual content of the chorus’ kiss-off line, “Relax, don’t do it/When you want to come.”

3: Duran Duran: Rio (1982)

Birmingham’s Duran Duran were given a tough time by some contemporary critics, but were adored by most young female pop fans in the early 80s. Indeed, Simon Le Bon and company could count themselves among the biggest – and most glamorous – pop stars in the world between the release of their self-titled debut album, in 1981, and their third record, Seven And The Ragged Tiger, in 1983. In fairness to the band, it wasn’t all champagne, supermodels and exotic videos; the best Duran Duran songs, such as Girls On Film, Hungry Like The Wolf and Save A Prayer, still satisfy – and their signature hit, Rio, remains right up there with the 80s best songs.

2: Guns N’ Roses: Sweet Child O’ Mine (1987)

If heavy rock really was dying out during the late 80s, no one told Guns N’ Roses, whose 1987 debut album, Appetite For Destruction, moved an estimated 30 million copies worldwide and still ranks among the 20 biggest-selling albums ever released in the US.

In time-honoured tradition, part of the attraction was the band’s legendary rock’n’roll lifestyle, and the fact they could self-destruct at almost any time. However, none of that prevented the Californian quintet from releasing a string of huge hits, with Top 10 smashes Welcome To The Jungle and Paradise City building GNR’ legend, and their lone US No.1, the unassailable Sweet Child O’ Mine, establishing them as the biggest band in the world in the late 80s.

1: Madonna: Like A Virgin (1984)

All the artists featured on this list of the best 80s songs have records which, to some degree, changed the course of music. But if one star embodies the aspirations of the era, it’s surely Madonna. The Michigan-born superstar has inarguably made her mark on every decade since, but she was truly unstoppable during the 80s. Madonna’s self-titled debut album yielded her first international hit, Holiday, but 1984’s Like A Virgin (both the album and its hit title track) introduced her on a global scale, with the album becoming the first ever by a female artist to sell over five million copies.

Madonna’s No.1 hits kept coming as the 80s drew on, and the likes of Into The Groove, Papa Don’t Preach and Material Girl all make claims to being her signature song. Like A Virgin, however, encapsulates Madonna like no other track – it’s the sound of pop at its smart, sassy and provocative best.

You’ve seen our list of the best 80s songs, now check out our best 80s albums.

More Like This

‘Progeny’: A Guide To Each Gig In Yes’ Seven-Show 21LP Live Box Set
List & Guides

‘Progeny’: A Guide To Each Gig In Yes’ Seven-Show 21LP Live Box Set

Compiling seven concerts across 21 LPs, ‘Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two’ presents Yes at the peak of their prog-rock powers.

Astral Weeks: Behind Van Morrison’s Celestial Masterpiece
In Depth

Astral Weeks: Behind Van Morrison’s Celestial Masterpiece

Hailed as ‘the most adventurous record in rock’, ‘Astral Weeks’ ensured Van Morrison’s name would be forever written in the cosmos.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up