Do you have a favorite 1980s song? You didn’t need to grow up in the decade to appreciate some of the great music that came out of it.
The 1980s were a unique time in music that gave us new styles, genres, and artists.
It thankfully left the disco era of the 70s long behind and ushered in a new pop culture movement.
This was also the MTV era, which would change the way we consumed music. Image now became more important than ever.
Artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson reigned supreme, and a new art form called Hip Hop started taking over.
So how do you narrow down the best song of the 1980s amongst all the great choices? Well, that’s what I’m going to attempt here today.
This, of course, is subjective, but I’m trying to take into account my perspective, chart success, and the impact each song had.
OK, deep breath. Here we go with the top ten.
#10. You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) — Dead or Alive
If you ever go to a bar, club, or listen to an 80s throwback night; this song will make an appearance.
Dead or Alive was another British band that made up that second invasion going into the 1980s.
They released the single in England in 1984 and it hit number one. In the U.S., it made it to number 11.
You wouldn’t think so to hear it, but a lot of the influence of this song comes from Luther Vandross, of all people.
The thing is, the studio was not excited about it. One member of Dead or Alive had to take out a $2500 loan to record it, and the studio still thought it was awful.
Regardless of that, you can’t picture the 80s without this song.
#9. She Drives Me Crazy — Fine Young Cannibals
A bit of a one-hit-wonder, the Fine Young Cannibals perfectly captured the 80s sound with “She Drives Me Crazy.”
It used the 80s snare drum “pop sound” to great effect.
I was never aware the FYC was a British band. Their album, “The Raw and the Cooked” came out in 1988, which featured the hit single, “She Drives Me Crazy.”
The song went to number one when it came out on December 26, 1988, and to me, really stands out as one of the best 80s songs.
This song always comes to mind when I think back to the decade and those nights listening to the radio with my dual-cassette recorder, hoping my fingers could act quickly enough to record it.
(kids, if you don’t know what a cassette recorder is, ask your parents).
Even though it was only #1 for one week, it was an enormous hit around the world.
#8. Karma Chameleon — Culture Club
I think Culture Club was way ahead of their time in the 80s — not that they were underrated by any means.
George Alan O’Dowd aka Boy George was already controversial and intriguing, and it made for the perfect band.
Karma Chameleon is from the 1983 album, “Color by Numbers” which is an amazing album.
Culture Club had a ton of top ten hits, but Karma Chameleon was their only #1 when it stayed there for four weeks in 1984.
Boy George states that this song is all about alienation, and the fear of trying to stand up for something. Fun fact: it was almost called “Cameo Chameleon.”
This song was a juggernaut in the 80s and holds up well after all these years.
#7. Billie Jean — Michael Jackson
This could easily be number one on the list, but I feel the other choices offer a better snapshot of the 80s.
Billie Jean is so good that it could have come out in any era and still fit right in.
This song is so iconic that you can identify it by the first snare drum note.
Then, one of the best bass lines in history soon kicks in. That’s followed by one of the most memorable synth parts ever recorded.
This song is pretty much perfect and was Michael Jackson’s fasted rising #1 single. It also sold over 10 million copies, making it one of the biggest singles in music history.
#6. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun — Cyndi Lauper
I don’t care who you are, just listening to the first few seconds of this song puts you in a better mood.
This song helped launch Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper aka Cyndi Lauper and her brand of bratty pop music.
Fun fact: this isn’t an entirely original song. It was first recorded in 1979 by Robert Hazard until Lauper re-recorded it and released it in 1983.
Even though it was a massive hit, and nominated for a Grammy, it only reached number 2 on Billboard.
#5. Livin’ On A Prayer — Bon Jovi
This is the anthem of all anthems. It’s also a song that can bring every drunk person in a bar together like they are long-lost friends.
No one really knows all the words, but EVERYONE knows the chorus.
Bon Jovi was just heavy enough to be a real rock band but poppy enough to be played on the radio.
I still thought they were a little badass and had to keep their tapes hidden in my room.
Livin’ on a Prayer came out in late 1986 and was featured on Bon Jovi’s third album, “Slippery When Wet.” It was their first number one and had one of the heaviest rotations on MTV at the time.
Livin’ on a Prayer went through several recordings as Bon Jovi wasn’t happy with it at first.
The characters of Tommy and Gina are based on real-life friends of Bon Jovi who had experienced the same type of struggles he sings about.
The song reflects the trickle-down economics of the Reagan era.
#4. Pour Some Sugar on Me — Def Leppard
Def Leppard was one of my favorite bands of all time, as they had that approachable appeal: like Bon Jovi.
Def Leppard had a pretty heavy musical sound, but it still had a pop sensibility to it. I was too scared to listen to bands like Iron Maiden, so Def Leppard presented a more gentle version.
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” is another great anthem rock song in the spirit of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” It has a punchy, but airy sound to it and still rocks all these years later.
They released it on April 16, 1988, and was obviously a massive hit — but it didn’t reach number one.
It was kept at #2 thanks to Richard Marx’s “Hold On to the Night” which is just hilarious.
#3. Walk This Way — Run DMC & Aerosmith
Rock meets rap and the song that rejuvenated the career of Aerosmith. Hip Hop was starting to explode, and a three-man group from Queens would take it to the next level.
Formed in Hollis, Queens in 1981 Run-DMC was made up of Daryl “DMC” McDaniels, Joseph “Run” Simmons, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell.
They were the first rap group to have a gold album (1984) and also be nominated for a Grammy.
Run DMC was the first to go platinum, multi-platinum, the first rap group to appear on MTV, and the first to appear on American Bandstand and on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The members of Run DMC were flipping through albums while in a studio and came across an old album by Aerosmith called “Toys in the Attic” from 1975.
Aerosmith was pretty washed up at that point, but Run DMC liked the sound and started freestyling over “Walk This Way.”
This was while they were recording the iconic “Raising Hell” album, and producer Rick Rubin suggested they remake the song.
The band wasn’t down with the idea but ended up recording it with Rick Perry and Steven Tyler.
There was no intention to release this as a single, but Rubin still pushed for it.
It was a smart idea. “Walk This Way” hit #4, which was higher than the original had. Rap was still pretty new, so this was a monumental moment for the new genre.
This led to one of the most famous music videos ever made. Perry and Tyler were actually reluctant to appear in it, as they didn’t want to appear that they were being made fun of.
#2. Beat It — Michael Jackson
I have a terrible memory, but I specifically remember the first time I heard “Beat It.”
“Beat It” was released way back on Valentine’s Day in 1983. The approach with “Beat It” was Quincy Jones challenging Michael Jackson to make a rock song.
Jackson was never involved — or interested — in rock music, but took on the challenge.
The approach with “Beat It” was to create a rock song that people of all ages could like.
It wasn’t just for high school dirtbags, but a mainstream, accessible rock song. Here are a few fun facts:
- It was certified 5x platinum
- Sold over 7 million copies
- It’s considered the song — and video — that launched Michael Jackson into superstardom
- It features an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo (R.I.P.)
- The video for “Beat It” was actually filmed on Skid Row in Los Angeles
#1. Take on Me — A-Ha
This may not be number one on every list of the best 80s song — but I guarantee it’s on the list somewhere.
A-Ha was formed in 1982 in Norway and released the album “Hunting High and Low” in 1985 that contained “Take on Me.”
This song is the perfect embodiment of the 1980s and the growing shift in pop culture. The visuals from the video were iconic and embraced the new medium of the music video.
MTV and A-Ha go hand-in-hand, and each one helped in the success of the other.
It’s far from the best song ever recorded — but it defines the 80s. “Take on Me” was first released in October 1984, then re-released in 1985 as it went through 3 different versions.
The earlier version had more of a punk feel to it before it became the more melodic version we know.
“Take on Me” is the ultimate in 80s synthpop and strong melody. You can still get a feel for its punk origins because of its relatively fast tempo of 169 beats per minute.
It mixes a lot of interesting drum patterns and really shows off the vocal range of singer Morten Harket.
What makes this the best song of the 80s to me, has to do with the visuals in the video. It wasn’t just enough to have a great song, but you had to have a great video to go along with it.
A mediocre song could be made better by a great video, and a poor video could ruin a great song. “Take On Me” combined these two things beautifully with its artistic, pencil-drawn visuals in one of the most famous music videos ever made.
Phew, I’m exhausted. If your favorites weren’t included on this list, please form a single-file line with all the other people I may have insulted.
It’s impossible to make a definitive list of the best 80s songs, but from my perspective; I think I did a pretty good job.
I think we can agree that most of these songs would exist on a list of the best songs of the 1980s.
The order of the songs may change, but you’ll always see most of these choices.