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MusicThe 60 best ’80s songs

The 60 best ’80s songs

Where do we even begin with defining the ‘80s? Though it’s remembered by those who were there as an era of colourful, garish fashion, perms and shoulder pads, the decade was also one of remarkably varied and innovative music, and ‘80s influences have seeped into songs produced ever since.  

Some of our biggest stars had their golden era in the 80s, from Madonna to Kate Bush, Marvin Gaye to Paul Simon. But it wasn’t just a time of explosion for their success – there are plenty of New Wave artists on our list, too. Keep an eye out for the likes of the Talking Heads, NWA and Biz Markie when you’re having a scroll. Here are our picks for the best ‘80s songs ever made.

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Best ’80s songs, ranked

‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ by Whitney Houston

Image: Arista Records

1. ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ by Whitney Houston

In 1987, Houston was still very much a fresh-faced siren with the crystal-clear voice and a world of possibilities at her feet. Her approach to this song – which, when you break it down, is more about loneliness than love – says a lot about her ability to radiate warmth and positivity through her singular sound. It’s miles away from the struggles the singer would face later in her career. Always a party starter and roof-igniting karaoke jam, the song become a bittersweet rallying cry in the years since her death, still urging every last wallflower on to the dance floor. Ella DoyleGuides Editor

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‘The Perfect Kiss’ by New Order

Photograph: Apple

2. ‘The Perfect Kiss’ by New Order

Sure, the album version of ‘The Perfect Kiss’ (on 1985’s ‘Low Life’) is also an excellent song; a glitzy, funky display from a ’80s seminal pop bands at the height of their powers. But this version is the one that’s most glorious. Released as a single and included on the 1987 ‘Substance’ compilation, you get all of the OG tune plus an extra couple of minutes of outro that only adds further impact to Peter Hook’s low-slung, thumping bass, the ribbiting frog textures and head-spinning synth hits.Ed CunninghamNews Editor, Time Out UK and Time Out London

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‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac

Photo by Warner Bros

3. ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac

Despite being one of the later singles from Fleetwood’s era-defining album and only achieving moderate chart success upon release, you’d be hard-pressed to come by someone who doesn’t have to fight the urge to tap, hum and sway in time to this luxurious, sensory track. Is it the angelic backing choir, the tingly opening bells, or the impossibly smooth layers, that make it so addictive? Who knows. What we do know is this has to be one of the most pleasing songs of the decade.Liv KellyContributing Writer

‘Modern Love’ by David Bowie

Image: EMI America

4. ‘Modern Love’ by David Bowie

Bowie was all over the place during the ’80s: duetting with Jagger, clambering into spandex for Labyrinth, getting buried alive for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and ultimately embarking on a midlife crisis that resulted in a worrying beard and Tin Machine. But before all that, he managed to lay down some of the decade’s best tracks, including this nihilistic, Nile Rodgers–assisted soul boogie from 1983. We defy your feet to stay on the floor as that cyclical, cynical, irresistible chorus hurtles on.James ManningContent Director, EMEA

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‘Once in a Lifetime’ by Talking Heads

Photograph: Apple

5. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ by Talking Heads

You really have Brian Eno to thank for ‘Once In A Lifetime’. Under his guidance, Talking Heads pieced together snippets of jam sessions and the beginning of a song titled ‘Right Start’ to (unbeknown to them) create a moment in music history. Tina Weymouth’s distinctive bassline, Jerry Harrison’s bubbling synthesiser and Byrne’s sermon-inspired half-singing half-talking all collide to create something incredible. It’s an art pop anthem unlike anything else of its time.Georgia EvansCommercial Editor, Time Out

‘Express Yourself’ by Madonna

Image: Warner Bros.

6. ‘Express Yourself’ by Madonna

Madge spend the entirety of the ‘80s practicing what she preached on this career-defining smash, among the last of her ‘80s mega-hits and the crowning achievement of the Like a Prayer album. It’s a glorious encapsulation of a first act that included ‘Lucky Star,’ ‘Like a Virgin,’ ‘Material Girl,’ Borderline,’Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘True Blue’ – any of which could easily hold their own on this list. But ‘Express Yourself’ wasn’t just a stadium-ready anthem for the queen of pop: It’s an eternal anthem for anyone looking for a song about their own embrace of individuality. 

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‘Purple Rain’ by Prince

Image: Warner Bros. Records

7. ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince

Prince was so prolific in the ’80s that 90% of this list could be his and it would still be correct. But forced to pick one Prince song, ‘Purple Rain’ is the obvious choice. It’s a swelling, perfectly crafted masterpiece that spotlights everything that made Prince Rogers Nelson an absolute legend: his gift for unique melodies; his multinstrumentalism; his uncanny vocal ability to shift from guttural to falsetto, from aggrieved to ethereal; and his unmatched ability to absolutely slay a guitar solo. It’s Prince at his best, a song that remains as impactful today as it was nearly 40 years ago. 

‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy

Image: UMC

8. ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy

‘Nineteen eighty-nine…’ The first five syllables of Public Enemy’s most zeitgeisty hit, made at the request of Spike Lee for his groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing, pack a ton of punch. And it only gets more intense from there, building a manifesto of what to take swigs at, including this gem: ’Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / You see, straight-up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Mother-fuck him and John Wayne / Cuz I’m black and I’m prou.’ And that’s the truth, Ruth. 

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‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five

Image: Sugar Hill Records

9. ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five

With its synthed-out beat and terse ‘don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge,’ Flash’s legendary contribution to the hip-hop era wasn’t just a banger: It announced to the world that hip-hop wasn’t an idle pastime. Here was a movement that had just as  much to say as the protest-obsessed hippies of the ’60s… the very same music fans who inexplicably pushed back against the music of young, assertive and frustrated Black men looking to raise awareness and change the world through music.

‘Straight Outta Compton’ by NWA

Image: Ruthless Records

10. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ by NWA

The title of the track of NWA’s debut doesn’t just announce the arrival of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren. It announced the arrival of west-coast rap in the most aggressive, game-changing way imaginable, leaving the dominant hair rockers of the time little choice but to get out of the way. There are only a few moments in musical history where you can feel a tectonic synced perfectly to the beat. This is one of them.

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‘Close to Me’ by the Cure

Image: Elektra

11. ‘Close to Me’ by the Cure

Robert Smith’s un-merry men spent roughly half of the ’80s making desperately sad goth rock, and the other half writing some of the best pop songs of all time. Naturally, there was a certain amount of leakage between the two – which is why 1985’s ‘Close to Me’ is a strong contender for the band’s best song, with its yearning lyrics matched by ultra perky brass riffs (inspired by a New Orleans funeral march, obvs). There’s also an album version of this without the trumpets, but why would you even want that? James Manning

‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush

Photo by EMI

12. ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush

‘Running Up That Hill‘? Not even the best track on ‘Hounds of Love’, mate. Kate Bush’s ability to distil esoteric source works into visionary pop songs is, of course, most famously manifested in ‘Wuthering Heights’. ‘Cloudbusting’ is adapted from a much stranger work: Peter Reich’s ‘A Book of Dreams’, his memoir of growing up as the child of psychiatrist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich. It’s very weird, basically, but what Bush did with it is remarkable, a five-minute fable of childish love and terror set to quite extraordinary music, rhythmic strings that are gradually overtaken by crashing waves of military drums. It’s overwhelmingly emotional and quite possibly the best-produced song of the entire decade.

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‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye

Image: Columbia

13. ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye

Gaye already gifted the world arguably the greatest song about sex ever, ‘Let’s Get It On,’ in 1973. Nine years later, though, he came awfully close to outdoing himself with ‘Sexual Healing,’ his first non-Motown single (released just two years before he was fatally shot by his father). The steamy track is decidedly more ’80s, with a drum-machine propulsion, busy guitars and a pleasing base of synths. It also boasts perhaps the most fitting last line in a sex song to date: ‘Please don’t procrastinate / It’s not good to masturbate.’

‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Bruce Springsteen

Image: Columbia

14. ‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Bruce Springsteen

The Boss pinched the title of an old crooners’ standard to write his own classic, the finest single from his massive Born in the USA album in 1984. Bursting with ambition, frustration and sex, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is also Springsteen’s dance-floor peak, with a typically stunning sax solo by the late Clarence Clemons to top it all off. And there aren’t many songs from the era that come with an important warning about fire safety in the chorus. 

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‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ by Tina Turner

Image: Capitol Records

15. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ by Tina Turner

In 1984, Tina Turner was 44 and on the comeback trail. Having finally split from her abusive husband and artistic Svengali, Ike, she’d spent years in a limbo of cameos, Vegas shows and dud solo albums. But the hit album Private Dancer and its chart-topping single, ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ – her first top-10 song in more than a decade – made the tough soul icon a solo superstar. The video found her strutting around New York City in a jean jacket, leather miniskirt and feather-duster hair – a bruised but defiantly happy paragon of independence.

‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson

Image: Epic

16. ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson

We get so used to the sleek, funky side of Michael Jackson on the hit parade that was Thriller that it’s easy to forget how hard ‘Beat It’ actually legitimately rocks. And it’s not just Eddie Van Halen’s famous finger-busting solo; it’s that perfectly formed sneer of a guitar riff – conceived by Jackson and played by session ace Steve Lukather – those exaggered downbeats that feel like medicine balls being slammed down on a concrete floor and the raw desperation in MJ’s voice as he chronicles the harsh truths of the street-fighting life. As much of a dance-floor killer as it is, ‘Beat It’ is a genuinely heavy song, psychologically as much as sonically.

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‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division

Photo by Factory Records

17. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division

Although forever bound up in the tragic legend of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis – who died by suicide shortly before its release – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ doesn‘t need any myth-making to stand as a work of genius. It’s an overwhelming roar of melancholy melody, almost Phil Spector-ish in its breadth of sound, exquisitely offsetting Curtis‘s mournful, mannered lyric about the collapse of his marriage. That the surviving members of the band almost immediately formed the pioneering New Order is nothing short of remarkable.

‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners

Image: Mercury

18. ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners

Maybe not surprising, coming from a band named after an amphetamine, but the UK group propels the juddering rhythms of its classic 1982 single like a dynamo, chugging through tempo changes while picking up steam for the big finish. The lyrics, about songwriter Kevin Rowland’s youth as a sexually repressed Catholic kid, verge on dirty while remaining innocuous enough for your work-party karaoke sing-along.

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‘You Make My Dreams’ by Hall & Oates

Photograph: Apple

19. ‘You Make My Dreams’ by Hall & Oates

Is this the happiest song ever written? Quite possibly. There’s a bounce to ‘You Make My Dreams’ that is ridiculously infectious – you can’t hear the ‘Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh’ without smiling or wanting to get up and dance with a loved one. Its catchy chorus is the perfect embodiment of those early moments of love and your excitement for whatever the future may hold. Hall & Oates may have made a name for themselves via soft rock and smooth-jazz-inspired diddies about stained and complicated romance, but ‘You Make My Dreams’ is an unashamedly optimistic banger. Georgia Evans

‘How Soon Is Now?’ by The Smiths

Photo by Rough Trade

20. ‘How Soon Is Now?’ by The Smiths

Yes, singer Morrissey has not gone on to cover himself in glory. But the fact that anyone even knows who he is nowadays now is entirely a testament to how extraordinary The Smiths were. Any number of their songs could slot in here, but it’s understandable why ‘How Soon Is Now?’ is generally held to be The One, Morrissey’s simple but perfectly formed lyric about ‘a shyness that is criminally vulgar’ meeting Johnny Marr’s remarkable music, a strange and entirely intoxicating mix of clubby bottom end and swampily reverberating slide guitar that sounds like nothing else made before or since.

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‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears

Image: Mercury

21. ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears

We may dismiss the ’80s as an era of musical cheese, light on substance and heavy on excess. But the decade delivered some of music’s most emotional, teary moments, the more affecting for the fact that the vehicle is pop. This 1985 hit by Tears for Fears is one such song, an existential meditation of sorts, opening with the line, ‘Welcome to your life — there’s no turning back.’ It’s a serious pop song, as bassist-singer Curt Smith remarked: ‘It‘s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.’

‘Every Breath You Take’ by the Police

Image: A&M

22. ‘Every Breath You Take’ by the Police

Too many people mock the ’80s as an age of excess, yet loads of classic singles from the era are studies in cool restraint (see: Phil Collins – no, honestly). It’s just that they spent a butt-ton of money on everything. So though Stewart Copeland could be a florid, flashy drummer, and though Sting was known to dash a few extra flicks on his grooves, ‘Every Breath’ measures each note microscopically, as if arranged with OCD, which makes the stalking vibe that much subtly creepier.

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‘Just Like Honey’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Image: Blanco y Negro

23. ‘Just Like Honey’ by The Jesus and Mary Chain

The first four iconic seconds of the Ronette’s ‘Be My Baby’ have been sampled again and again over the past 50 years: Billy Joel, the Magnetic Fields, the Strokes, Amy Winehouse, Dan Deacon, Gotye… the list goes on. But only one band had transformed that groundbreaking phrase into a musical piece that defined an era (almost) as deeply as the Ronettes. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Just Like Honey’ captures a certain proto-shoegazey, bittersweet longing that pristinely characterizes the hazy milieu of the ‘80s – not to mention gave Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation a killer outro a few seconds before the credits roll. 

‘The Sweetest Taboo’ by Sade

Image: RCA

24. ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ by Sade

Sade is just so damned smooth. It would be easy to be consumed by envy if we weren’t all being lulled into a dopey, two-stepping, love-drunk stupor. The Nigerian-born, U.K.-raised singer-songwriter is in top form on this hit single from her multi-platinum-selling second album, Promise. When it comes on, you’ve got no choice but to relax and drift off into the quiet storm.

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‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ by the Clash

Image: Epic

25. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ by the Clash

As the 1970s turned in the 1980s, punks and rockers (and there was a difference then) both became enamored with the sounds coming out of New York City. Even the Stones went disco and dabbled with rap. No guitar act better assimilated hip-hop than the Clash, probably because they had so much practice sponging up dub. This final single – or the last that matters, anyway – was a dry run for Mick Jones’s sampling-loving crew Big Audio Dynamite, a bit of Isley Brothers meets a Bronx boom box. Jones liked it so much he sampled the track a decade later in ‘The Globe.’

‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley

Image: RCA Records

26. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley

The meme known as Rickrolling – wherein someone baits you with an enticing link, which points instead to the video for this 1987 dance-pop smash – always seemed a little puzzling to us, mainly because, like, who wouldn’t want to be surprised with another exposure to this suavely buoyant megajam? Those synthesized strings, that thumping boots-and-pants beat, Astley’s weirdly robust croon and his romantic-wooing-as-used-car-salesman-pitch come-on (‘You wouldn’t get this from any other guy’)… It all adds up to three and a half of the most effervescent minutes in the ’80s canon.

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‘Super Freak’ by Rick James

Image: Gordy Records

27. ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James

Catchier than a flytrap, more sordid than your craziest night out, Rick James hit the summit of his career with the wild funk of ‘Super Freak.’ A global hit in 1981, the star’s signature song finds him joined by the mighty Temptations on backing vocals – including James’s uncle, Melvin Franklin. Even that sampling by MC Hammer can’t diminish its greatness.  

‘Take On Me’ by A-ha

Image: Warner Bros. Records

28. ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha

The first and biggest hit by the Norwegian electropop trio A-ha, ‘Take On Me’ rose to international popularity in 1985 on the strength of its groundbreaking video, a mix of live-action and pencil-drawn animation that starred dreamy lead singer Morten Harket as the hero of an escapist romance between a lonely woman and a comic-book adventurer. (It won six MTV Video Awards.) The song’s masterfully infectious synth riff would be enough to secure it a spot on any list of ’80s classics. But ‘Take On Me’ is also distinguished by Harket’s improbably octave-spanning vocals, whose seeming effortlessness has inspired countless screeching karaoke wipeouts.

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‘Just a Friend’ by Biz Markie

Image: Cold Chillin’

29. ‘Just a Friend’ by Biz Markie

Hip-hop hit its golden era in the ’80s. Biz Markie was both emblematic of the genre’s giddy charms and the man responsible for its ultimate downfall. As critics continued to peg rap as a passing novelty, this big, lisping teddy bear from Long Island thumbed his nose at such stuck-up stupidity. He overtly recycled refuse from pop’s past and amped up the humor, daring haters to resist his charms. His records were as much comedy albums and demonstrations of sampling as pretentious works of art, which made them even greater works of art. Eventually, he had the shit sued out of him, and hip-hop was forever changed. But the greater loss is Biz’s sense of self-deprecation. ‘Just A Friend’ is the opposite of the braggadocio that would become a hallmark of the art form. 

‘All Night Long’ by Lionel Richie

Image: Motown Records

30. ‘All Night Long’ by Lionel Richie

It’s impossible to feel bad when this tune’s Caribbean-inflected rhythms start pumping from a nearby speaker. The perma-coifed Commodores frontman’s 1983 single smashes any attempts to resist its groove. And that bit that sounds like made-up gibberish? It is. Richie attempted to find some suitable foreign phrases but got impatient and invented his own international party language.

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‘Africa’ by Toto

Image: Columbia

31. ‘Africa’ by Toto

Toto was a collection of studio ringers with credits on Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs records. Wrapped in chest hair, sunglasses and terry cloth, these feathery dudes were too anonymous to be deserving of the term supergroup. ‘Africa’ was their contribution to the wave of telethon pop that clogged the Reagan era, another patronizing plea for charity like ‘We Are the World’ and Band Aid. A Yamaha GS1 synthesizer is made to sound like a mbira; there’s a gong in there somewhere, for some reason. It’s Heart of Darkness as told from the tanning deck of a luxury yacht. Thankfully, the lotion-slick groove reeks more of coconuts than crisp money. Oddly, it’s become the unofficial theme of the New England Revolution MLS soccer club, and an unexpected mega-hit for Weezer to boot. 

‘Blue Monday’ by New Order

Photo by Factory Records

32. ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order

Eighties synthpop can seem kitsch today because it was so aggressively determined to sound like the future back then. Why is ‘Blue Monday’ different? Why does it still feel like the future? From that utterly distinctive bass drum intro to Bernard Sumner’s eerie, oblique ‘how does it feel?’ vocal, the icy synths, menacing bass, weird gregorian chant sound and much more, New Order’s seven-and-half-minute masterpiece is both breathtakingly bold and strangely indifferent to the listener, like some vast incomprehensible alien creature. It is the apex of synthpop, a song so daring that it broke ground that nobody – not even New Order – has even tried to cover since.

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‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club

Image: Virgin

33. ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club

There are few ’80s icons quite as evocative as Boy George, but the British singer is so much more than an icon of style and gender fluidity. There are plenty of mournful songs in Culture Club’s discography, but in many ways the band stands out as something of a sunny yin to The Cure’s goth yang, and ‘Karma Chameleon’ is perhaps the most upbeat of them all. It endures as a pick-me-up all these years later, a celebration of the vibrant colors of humanity and the power of a well-placed harmonica line. 

‘Don't You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds

Image: Virgin Records

34. ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds

Jim Kerr’s soulful yowl was never better than on this fist-raising banger, an earnestly overwrought piece of melancholic pop bliss. Whether you think of it as ‘the song from The Breakfast Club’ or ‘the song that made The Breakfast Club cool,’ it’s one of the era’s definitive anthems. 

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‘Time After Time’ by Cyndi Lauper

Image: Epic

35. ‘Time After Time’ by Cyndi Lauper

Those who grew up in the ’90s should know this from two awesome movie dance scenes: a sexy one in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom and a silly one in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But for the ’80s crowd, it’s a classic slow dance that stands up as one of the strongest songs of the decade. Cyndi’s mad orange hair might be dated like lukewarm milk, but ’Time After Time’ still smells fresh to us. James Manning

‘West End Girls’ by Pet Shop Boys

Photo: Parlophone Records

36. ‘West End Girls’ by Pet Shop Boys

No ’80s list would be complete without British synth-popsters the Pet Shop Boys. While the duo achieved its greatest success on home turf, this 1985 ode to London street life was written and recorded in New York, as the pair recalls in our interview, and bristles with urban seediness (note: It’s partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland). That’s thanks in no small part to Neil Tennant’s coolly annunciated delivery, a hypnotic take on the hip-hop flows of the era.

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‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ by R.E.M

Image: IRS

37. ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ by R.E.M

‘That’s great, it starts with an earthquake,’ begins Michael Stipe  – and the rumbling and rambling get crazier from there in R.E.M.’s ironic beat poem. The lyrics pour out in a nervy jumble of apocalyptic imagery, military danger and mass-media frenzy, with pointed name-drops of pop-culture figures (Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev, Leonard Bernstein and Lester Bangs) united only by their initials. Unlike its evil twin in 1980s rock, Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ the song was not a huge pop hit; on its 1987 album, Document, R.E.M. was still emerging from the niche of college rock. But its cut-through-the-chaos message still connects with anyone aiming to clear out a polluted stream of consciousness.

‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell

Image: Phonogram Records

38. ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell

Turning jaunty Motown influences into icy synth pop may sound like sacrilege, but that’s exactly what English duo Soft Cell did when it covered Gloria Jones’s 1965 funky stomper in 1981. Ditching the original’s energy for Marc Almond’s cut-glass tones and unashamedly machine-driven melodies, Soft Cell’s version soon became huge, paving the way for the ’80s synth-pop explosion that followed.  

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‘Under Pressure’ by Queen & David Bowie

Image: Elektra

39. ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen & David Bowie

Oh, that ill-fated bassline. Before Vanilla Ice famously ripped off – er, was inspired by the work of Queen bassist John Deacon, that subtle, infectious plucking heralded the meeting of two wildly influential rock icons. Considering the titanic forces at work in this tune, it’s relatively understated, but it does ultimately climb to the sparkling heights that both Bowie and Freddie Mercury inhabited with such ease.

‘With or Without You’ by U2

Image: Island Records

40. ‘With or Without You’ by U2

Oh, it’s so easy to mock U2: the bombast, the shades, the pomp, the uninvited infiltration of your iTunes… But the band’s 1987 opus, The Joshua Tree, contains three of its mightiest songs in a row, of which ‘With or Without You’ is its most affecting. The song’s bittersweet sentiment is perfectly matched by the music — at turns delicate and yearning, then surging and desperate. Play it somewhere you can howl along, loudly. Preferably in the album’s namesake desert. 

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‘Where Is My Mind?’ by the Pixies

Image: Rough Trade

41. ‘Where Is My Mind?’ by the Pixies

Has a drum introduction ever sounded this big? Those unforgettable snare snaps comes courtesy of producer Steve Albini, and it’s one of the many touches the band’s most popular song (one that wasn’t even released as a single in ’88) has going for it: Among the many others, there’s Kim Deal’’ haunting, reverb drenched backing vocals that so many indie-rock groups would go on to ape, a cracked-voiced Black Francis spitting out cryptic-cool lyrics, and deceptively simple lead guitar and bass combo that still gives us goosebumps. 

‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses

Image: Geffen

42. ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses

If you’re in an ’80s cover band and you’re not playing this song on a nightly basis — well, there’s just absolutely no way you’re not. Of all of the iconic guitar riffs on this list, the opening line from ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ takes the air-splitting cake. The third single from Guns N’ Roses’ shining debut, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, it was the band’s first and only number one single. More than three decades on, it never fails to make us sing our fool hearts out on the dance floor.

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‘You Can Call Me Al’ by Paul Simon

Image: Warner Bros. Records

43. ‘You Can Call Me Al’ by Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s Graceland, in hindsight, seems like an ultra-square reaction to everything the ’80s stood for: Here was a ’60s folk rocker teaming up with a cadre of South African musicians for a folksy world-music pop album. But Graceland slaps. Specifically, the lead single slaps, especially on the iconic slap-bass solo fired off nonchalantly by Bakithi Kumalo. What could have been a midlife-crisis misfire instead became a phenomenon. 

‘We Got the Beat’ by the Go-Go’s

Image: IRS

44. ‘We Got the Beat’ by the Go-Go’s

Looking back, it’s hard to really realize the impact of The Go-Go’s, the first studio-backed all-woman rock band that wrote its own songs. That’s because the Go-Go’s arrived fully formed, ready to shake the industry with songs like this pop-fueled post-punk anthem that changed rock history the minute the first DJ hit play. 

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‘Call Me’ by Blondie

Image: Polydor

45. ‘Call Me’ by Blondie

Debbie Harry roared into the ’80s with expected style, her punk/glam credentials firmly in-tact, with this shredder announcing that the New Wave icons of the ’70s were more than capable of holding their own in a new decade. The song served as the official theme for the Richard Gere film American Gigolo, outliving the movie in sheer relevance by a solid 40 years and counting.

‘Push It’ by Salt-N-Pepa

Image: Universal

46. ‘Push It’ by Salt-N-Pepa

Complexity, be damned! Sometimes all you really need for a truly memorable hit is economy, as proved by this stone-cold classic from 1988. On ‘Push It,’ all-gal Queens hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa made pop magic via a seemingly simple combination of Casio beats; a few big, dumb keyboard stabs; and a lot of impassioned, steamy cries of ‘Ooh, baby baby.’

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‘Whip It’ by Devo

Image: Warner Bros. Records

47. ‘Whip It’ by Devo

Few bands rode the new wave-wave out of the ’70s punk/CBGB scene with the zany aplomb of Mark Mothersbaugh gang of weirdos, transitioning from the rollicking ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ era to the earworm that is ‘Whip It.’ Released in 1981, ‘Whip It’ was way ahead of its time, defining the mid-’80s sound years before everybody else realized the power of weird hats, quirky lyrics and a firm embrace of your inner dork. Hell, they’re still ahead of their time. 

‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler

Image: Columbia

48. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler

Nobody writes grandiose heartbreak like Jim Steinman, and he’s never done it better than in this smash 1983 epic ballad for the raspy-voiced Welsh belter Bonnie Tyler. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ was originally conceived as a song for a vampire – it even showed up later in Steinman’s 2002 Broadway fiasco, Dance of the Vampires – and its gothic underpinnings are front and center in the song’s lurid video. This is longing on a supernatural scale, and Tyler holds her own against the thundering arrangement as she roars out some of the least quiet desperation ever known to pop music.

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‘Jump’ by Van Halen

Image: Warner Bros. Records

49. ‘Jump’ by Van Halen

The Pasadena guitar heroes entered the synth (and cocaine!) era in a huge way with this powerhouse. Sure, it also might mark the band’s slow transition from raw rock gods to elder statesmen — a metamorphosis they would complete a few years later with Sammy Hagar — but even now, the combo of that simple synth riff and Eddie’s decimation of his guitar strings manages to lift you every time you hear it. 

‘The Breaks’ by Kurtis Blow

Image: Mercury Records

50. ‘The Breaks’ by Kurtis Blow

The Sugarhill Gang is largely credited as hip-hop’s breakthrough in 1979, but Kurtis Blow’s 1980 hit arguably laid more road, ditching the goofier side of Sugarhill’s opus in order to show a rawer, more visceral side of the genre mainstream America was still wrapping its head around. 

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‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins

Image: Virgin Records

51. ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins

You’d think that Mike Tyson air-drumming to Phil Collins’s 1981 signature hit in The Hangover would’ve somehow sapped ‘In the Air Tonight’ of its eerie potency. But no, the song – shot through with the Genesis-drummer–turned–solo-hit-maker’s post-divorce bitterness – still unfolds with a dramatic tension worthy of Stanley Kubrick, layering haunting guitar wisps, pillowy synth chords and Collins’s ghostly vocodered lead turn over a rudimentary Roland CR-78 beat. Oh, and there’s also the little matter of the greatest drum fill in pop history at the 3:40 mark.

‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel

Image: Geffen

52. ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel

The former Genesis singer spent much of the ’80s coming off like a more self-serious version of David Byrne, walking a parallel path incorporating world sounds, polyrhythms and blaring horns to match his personal brand of funk (the other Genesis frontman would later walk the path of… songs about how he walked). The singer’s iconic stop-motion videos may be remembered more than the music itself, and that’s a shame. This is Gabriel at his most playfully groovy. 

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‘Free Fallin’’ by Tom Petty

Image: MCA

53. ‘Free Fallin’’ by Tom Petty

Is there anyone who doesn’t like this song? The famously cantankerous Lou Reed loved it, as did Tom Cruise’s go-get-‘em titular character in Jerry Maguire (who, no disrespect, doesn’t seem like the most scrutinizing music listener). And to this day, we’re betting the fanbase for the breezy sing-along fave (co-written by Jeff Lynne) still runs the gamut – from get-me-out-of-here teens to the dads they think are lame, and from snobs who wouldn’t be caught dead doing karaoke to people who live for it.

‘Paul Revere’ by the Beastie Boys

Image: Def Jam

54. ‘Paul Revere’ by the Beastie Boys

The Beasties went out of the ’80s with the genre-changing Paul’s Boutique, the first step in distancing themselves from the shouty frat-pack obnoxiousness that made them household names. But while much of their landmark Licensed to Ill has aged poorly, ‘Paul Revere’ absolutely kills, from its sing-along cowboy lyrics to the innovative bass groove that would be aped for decades to come. The B-Boys spent their careers atoning for License to Ill. ‘Paul Revere’ endures because it still feels like talented musicians cosplaying as douchebags rather than the other way around.

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‘I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)’ by Hall & Oates

Image: RCA

55. ‘I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)’ by Hall & Oates

Yacht rock gets a lot of flack from the hipper-than-thou, but Hall & Oates isn’t some laid-back, piña-colada swilling pair of finance bros. The bassline here is a stealthily funky ear-worm, and the sonic detrius that floats around in its wake is slinky, sexy and pure. What, precisely, H&O can’t go for is one of those mysteries that’s never been definitively solved, which adds to the allure. 

‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ by Duran Duran

Image: Capitol

56. ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ by Duran Duran

With its driving beat and raw sexualtity, Duran Duran’s signature hit remains a powerhouse in its simplicity and robust sound. It’s also a sleeper hit on karaoke night… if you can pull it off. Which you absolutly can’t, no matter how hungry you are. But it’s still fun to try. 

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‘Everything Counts’ by Depeche Mode

Photo by Mute

57. ‘Everything Counts’ by Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode began the ’80s as adorably puppyish synthpoppers and ended it with the demon blues of ‘Personal Jesus’ (their most famous song, ‘Enjoy the Silence’, is actually from 1990, fact fans). ‘Everything Counts’ is the key transitional moment between the two modes of Mode, a mournfully catchy electropop song that takes furious aim at ’80s greed culture. It was a hit twice in the ’80s, originally in 1983, then again in 1989 in an enjoyably OTT live version. Anti-capitalism has never sounded so jaunty. 

‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ by Neil Young

Photo by Reprise

58. ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ by Neil Young

Neil Young’s ‘80s output was so genuinely baffling that his label Geffen famous sued him for releasing music unrepresentative of Neil Young. Although the suit was rightly dropped, you can see Geffen’s point: from vocodered electronics to retro ‘50s rock’n’roll, Young spent most of the decade making aggressively weird music with little bearing on his records. That is, until he left Geffen, at which point he immediately dropped ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, a propulsive rock anthem for the ages with a chorus to die for and a magnificently scathing lyric about George Bush Snr’s America.

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‘Teen Age Riot’ by Sonic Youth

Photo by Blast First

59. ‘Teen Age Riot’ by Sonic Youth

By the time they split up in 2011, Sonic Youth’s legend as one of the most avant-garde bands ever to sign to a major label was very much sealed. But if you want to look at why DCG Records decided to take a punt on such a pointedly out-there band, you have to look to their late ‘80s output when the Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon-fronted group put out a clutch of strangely-tuned but gloriously melodic pop songs, none more so than ‘Teen Age Riot’, a perpetual crescendo of pure, sunny wonder.

‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ by Bon Jovi

Image: Mercury

60. ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ by Bon Jovi

For a good decade there, it seemed as though ‘Born to Run’ was the absolute final word in blue-collar rock & roll mythmaking – but then along came the Boss’s fellow Jerseyans Bon Jovi, who slathered the old story of two hard-luck dreamers longing for escape with a thick coat of glam-era bombast. Whether you take this 1986 hit as a cheesy relic or the apex of steroidal FM rawk, Bon Jovi’s tale of guitarist turned dock worker Tommy and his diner-waitress main squeeze, Gina, is essentially flawless, right down to guitarist Richie Sambora’s iconic talk-box–assisted opening hook and that vertigo-inducing key change after the bridge.

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