The Best 80s Music ~ Top 100 of the Decade
There was a time — in the past now — when young people were first discovering what a synthesizer was, when dance music combined with rock, when every sound acquired a visual element, when men began wearing earrings, when the concept of indie-rock was first developed... and things were totally awesome. That time was the nineteen eighties, and these few pages are dedicated to the best 80s music.
“Livin' in the Eighties”
We'll be talking about songs and bands and what made them special, what made them unique, what made their music worthy of living on for those of us who are fans of songs of that decade. We'll be adding little bits of trivia along the way, as well as links to where you can find and download this great 80s music.
Now, it's quite possible that this list is very different from anybody else's similarly titled list, namely because we are interested in what we truly feel was the best music of the decade, not necessarily the most popular. Michael Jackson's Thriller may have been the biggest selling album of the 80s (or of forever for that matter), but you won't find any of those songs on the list. Nor will you find Journey or Hall & Oates or Whitney Houston or anybody else just because they sold tons of records.
Which is not to say that all popular artists are banned from this list. The Police, for instance, sold enough records to bankroll a small country, but they were still very cool so they're here, but since their most popular song, Every Breath You Take is not remotely their best song, it is not on the list. Same for U2, as they have much better songs than their gagillion-selling With or Without You (which is not to say that it is a bad song, just that they have several others that are better).
So, here we go. Following is non-Hollywood's list of what we consider the best 80s music. Enjoy.
Don't You Want Me (1981) by The Human League - #100
It could be argued that the sound which we now associate with eighties music began in 1981 when The Human League's song Don't You Want Me became one of the first all-synth tunes to make it onto mainstream music charts.
Like many of the synth pioneers, The Human League took the foundation laid by Kraftwerk and made it more, well, human. The song Don't You Want Me is a story song which tells of a movie producer who is dumped by the young movie star he felt he created, set to what, at the time, were cutting-edge synthesizer tracks. Take note of the pulsing bass part played out on sharply metallic pseudo-strings.
Los Angeles (1980) by X - #99
The unique vocal pairing and odd harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenca would be imitated by many, many bands to follow, but X was the beginning and their album Los Angeles was simply brilliant.
Tainted Love (1981) by Soft Cell - #98
This tune is certainly one of the definitive songs of the genre. Soft Cell was started by 2 art school friends who would use synthesizer and voice to create soundscapes for theatrical performances. There is a reason that the band's album was entitled Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, and that theater background definitely comes into play as this 1981 classic fits the very definition of the album's title.
Marc Almond's pleading vocals atop very stark and crashing synthesizer parts (you only need to hear the 2 synth "stabs" in the chorus to identify this 80s song). Though this song ended up being the band's only real hit, it is one of the most identifiable of the era and still enjoys airplay today. And who can't help but to join in singing the "Woah oh oh oh oh"s during the chorus?
Hungry Like the Wolf (1982) by Duran Duran - #97
Duran Duran almost was not included on this list because they're so darned pop, but they've made it here because you have to admit that they were a very influential group—bands without counting (even non-pop bands) grabbed a synthesizer and looked to D2 as a model for how to craft a synth song.
And then there's the area in which they were one of the most infulential bands around...in the 80s, music video changed everything and Duran Duran was one of the first to really benefit from the boost that videos came to create. In Simon LeBonn, the group had a lead singer with movie star heartthrob looks. The band was able to really take that ball and run with it by producing very slick, high production-value music videos (and they were arguably the first to put Hollywood production values to the burgeoning format of music video). Probably the best known of these music videos was for Hungry Like the Wolf, which featured LeBonn either chasing or being chased by (it's not entirely clear) a scantily clad supermodel through the jungle. And let's not forget the song's break, which features a woman panting and moaning in a fashion that makes it a bit uncomfortable to listen to with your mom in the room.
Seattle (1987) by Public Image Ltd. - #96
In the 1970s John Lydon was known as Johnny Rotten and fronted punk music's first superstars, The Sex Pistols. Lydon never cared for the term "punk" and after the demise of his notorious band, Lydon formed the band Public Image Ltd. which took his aggression, political fury and sneering criticism of pretty much everything and combined it with more sophisticated musicality than you'd find in most punk bands.
In the mid-80s when a new generation of musicians in the American Pacific Northwest was inspired by the punk movement and began to sow the seeds of what became the alternative explosion of the 90s, Lydon took offense. The result is both P.I.L.'s best and most popular tune, Seattle, which blatantly rails against the same young people who were looking up to him.
Only a Lad (1980) by Oingo Boingo - #95
For many aficionados of eighties music, Oingo Boingo is the most under-rated band of the decade and should have been the band to dominate the decade. During its lifetime the band only flirted with popularity, but was a favorite of those most passionate about music.
Oingo Boingo fearlessly combined synths, tribal rhythms and horn lines with the unique voice of lead singer Danny Elfman to create a sound which was uniquely their own. Only a Lad sees Boingo in a political frame of mind with a quirky twist as it tells the tale of a violent juvenile delinquent who continually escapes punishment.
Charlotte Sometimes (1981) by The Cure - #94
Though Robert Smith is said to dislike having the term "goth" applied to his band, it is no wonder that The Cure often is labeled as such. From the early 80s, when Smith, Tolhurst & Gallup first started experimenting with synthesizers, Charlotte Sometimes is about as goth as goth gets.
A dark, brooding song drowning in synth strings — strings which use big, church-organ-type chords so drenched in reverb they sound as if they are being played in a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Station — which provide the perfect backdrop for Smith's tortured-soul vocals.
Pretty in Pink (1981) by The Psychedelic Furs - #93
Easily the most popular song by the Furs, Pretty in Pink had the distinction of being completely misinterpreted by film director John Hughes and used as the title to one of his hit teen movies (John Hughes: there's an eighties phenomenon as well).
Originally coming out of the punk scene in England, The Psychedelic Furs looked to take the spirit of punk and combine it with musicianship. The 1981 album Talk Talk Talk realized this vision with the full-on, yet melodic guitars of John Ashton. Very soon the Psychedelic Furs would turn to experimenting with synthesizers and atmospheres, but Pretty in Pink provides a tune that just plain rocks.
Senses Working Overtime (1982) by XTC - #92
Though coming to the fore in the early 80s, XTC was a group which did not rely heavily on synthesizers.
1982's Senses Working Overtime is an excellent example of a full band in full swing. The drums on this track are fantastic and breathtaking in an age when drum machines were beginning to take over 80s music.
Back on the Chain Gang (1982) by Pretenders - #91
Chrissie Hynde was basically the only American in the early days of punk in London, where she lived the squatter's life with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Unlike a lot of those in the punk scene, however, she was a practiced musician who could actually play.
Eventually hooking up with the guys who would become The Pretenders, the band wed the energy and attitude of 70s punk and added the jangle-y guitars of the 60s to create a new sound for a new decade, as evidenced in Back on the Chain Gang.
Mad World (1982) by Tears for Fears - #90
Synth pop finally got a heavy does of angst when Tears for Fears hit the scene. Whereas most bands of the era were using synthesizers to create bouncy pop tunes, Roland Orzabal used his to create soundtracks to his own internal pain.
The songs in which Curt Smith took the lead vocals, such as Mad World, tended to be the most popular of the group's tunes, but even with Smith singing, Orzabal's torture came shining through.
Shock the Monkey (1982) by Peter Gabriel - #89
In the 1970s, Peter Gabriel fronted the band Genesis, which at the time was an experimental progressive rock group. Shortly after his departure from Genesis he had a minor hit with Solsbury Hill, meanwhile the band he'd left behind not only went on without him, they went from fringe act to a huge arena rock band selling tons of records around the globe.
Gabriel chose his own path, crafting unique, critically acclaimed albums, though it would be years later before he would break into the big time. Shock the Monkey is a perfect example of Gabriel's artistry, mixing heavy percussion with cutting-edge synthesizer tones, while writing politically-charged lyrics about animal experiments ... a combo only someone like Peter Gabriel could pull off.
People Are People (1984) by Depeche Mode - #88
The decade saw a slew of British synth bands storming the charts, and one of the biggest was Depeche Mode. The band was one of the earliest in the genre, yet unlike the others of the day, Depeche Mode is still active and out there making records.
The earliest of their songs were the bouncy synth pop largely created by Vince Clark, but when Clark left, the band was forced to find a new songwriter, which they did in their very own Martin Gore. Though Gore's style was much, much darker and more serious, the band blossomed — and a perfect example is the eighties anti-hate anthem People Are People.
How Soon Is Now? (1984) by The Smiths - #87
Though they never achieved much in the way of commercial success in the US, The Smiths definitely qualify as one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and music in general. A ton of bands of the 90s and beyond counted the group as an influence.
The potent combination of Morissey (whose lyrics and voice are distinct in this world) and Johnny Marr (widely considered one of the greatest guitarists ever) was short-lived but powerful. How Soon Is Now took the famous Bo Diddley Beat and bent it into something unrecognizably ethereal.
West End Girls(1984) by Pet Shop Boys - #86
West End Girls was the tune that brought Pet Shop Boys into the limelight. The song, which laments the class clashes and doomed loves of East End Boys and West End Girls, is carried along by a pulsing bass line and Neil Tennant's low-key vocals, which gives the song a haunting feel that creeps into the bones and stays there.
Pet Shop Boys have gone on to be the biggest-selling duo in the UK, but this 80s song was what brought their first exposure.
Bring on the Dancing Horses (1985) by Echo & the Bunnymen - #85
Though this song was originally recorded for a John Hughes film, it is usually not thought of in the realm of John Hughes film songs. The song features an interesting use of infinite delay (made famous by U2's The Edge), plus, of all things, a harp.
The odd imagery of Bring on the Dancing Horses is never really explained. Echo & the Bunnymen (who were named after a drum machine, though they stopped using said drum machine very early on) were one of those groups which experienced success in many parts of the world, but were never able to make much of a dent in the US.
Blister in the Sun (1983) by Violent Femmes - #84
Discovered while busking in the parking lot of a Pretenders concert, Violent Femmes took their street-musician approach into the studio with them.
The quirky Blister in the Sun features the same arrangement that the band would use on the street—an acoustic guitar, a bass, and a snare drum. The result is an infectious little tune that will have you humming along.
The One Thing (1982) by INXS - #83
There were quite a few Aussie bands coming over in the decade, and the most successful of them turned out to be INXS.
There were a few songs along the way before they achieved huge international success. The One Thing is one such precursor, with Michaels Hutchence's trademark vocal style (part bluesy wail and part pretty-boy pout) laid atop crispy keys and perky guitars, the song was the perfect setup for the forthcoming album that would send this band into the big time.
Don't Let's Start (1987) by They Might Be Giants - #82
Quirkiness personified. That would be how you'd describe the sound of They Might Be Giants. For most of their history they were 2 guys, one with a guitar and one with an accordian, playing along to a drum machine.
The odd stutter-step syncopation of Don't Let's Start was an unexpected hit with listeners in the eighties.
What is Love? (1983) by Howard Jones - #81
When digital synthesizers first appeared on the scene, with their ability to sequence and instantly play back a performance, it was pretty much inevitable that someone like Howard Jones would emerge.
Jones was a one-man-band, playing and recording all of the parts himself, even going so far as to play live this way. Many of his early 80s live shows were just him ... and a whole bunch of electronic equipment. On What is Love Jones puts in his trademark layers of keyboards, including a beautiful and reverberating cascade of notes during the chorus.
I Will Follow (1980) by U2 - #80
One of the few 80s bands to still be both active and important for decades to come, the band members were quite young themselves with the 1980 release of the album Boy. Right from the start, U2 was known for The Edge's distinctive guitar parts and Bono's passionate-as-passionate-can-be vocals.
I Will Follow is one of the band's signature tunes, pulsing with youthful power and featuring arguably the greatest guitar riff ever played using only 2 strings.
Goody Two Shoes (1982) by Adam Ant - #79
Though coming directly out of the punk scene of the late 70s, Adam Ant embraced the exuberance of eighties pop with this song whose famous taunt "Don't drink. Don't smoke. What do you do?" was repeated at many a party in the early parts of the decade.
The song combines bouncing horn lines and pounding tribal drums with a special Joie de Vivre that few were able to pull off as well as Adam Ant does in Goody Two Shoes.
If You Were Here (1983) by Thompson Twins - #78
Okay, so there never really were any twins in this group, and in fact, when they started out Thompson Twins had seven members (though the main driver of the band was always lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Bailey).
If You Were Here features their unique mix of synthesizers over acoustic percussion, all laid on a foundation of a backward-playing drum track.
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? (1982) by Culture Club - #77
If there is one person whose image brings to mind the eighties, one person whose photo just screams "80s Music!" that one person would have to be Boy George. With his colorful and flamboyant "we don't use the word 'transvestite,' but he's definitely a guy dressed like a girl" look, he and the band Culture Club added several classics to the music of the eighties.
One of their best known tunes, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? is a mellow reggae vibe doused in 80s-style production and featuring Boy George's unique vocal styling.
Beds Are Burning (1987) by Midnight Oil - #76
A bunch of politically-minded Australians with a spastic lead singer who sported a shaved head at a time when pretty much the only young people who did so were "skinheads," Midnight Oil burst onto the eighties music scene with the powerful song Beds Are Burning.
This powerhouse of a tune, which features blasting horn lines and some of the hardest-hitting percussion outside of Led Zeppelin, is a political song dealing with the plight of Australia's aboriginal peoples. And it effin' rocks.
Wouldn't It Be Good (1984) by Nik Kershaw - #75
Though experiencing much more success in the UK (where he spent over a year straight on the charts) than in the US, Nick Kershaw was a master of using bright, happy keyboard sounds and matching them against less-than happy lyrics.
Wouldn't It Be Good is a perfect example of this approach as Kershaw whines about how bad life is in his shoes while the synths march happily along.
I Ran (1982) by Flock of Seagulls - #74
One of the first groups of its kind to get heavy airplay on mainstream radio in the US, Flock of Seagulls hit the ground running in 1982 with their biggest hit, I Ran. This 80s band is noteworthy as a trendsetter in the then-new format of music video and probably even more famous for lead singer Mike Score's hugely sweeping hairdo.
Flock of Seagulls also had in guitarist Paul Reynolds, arguably the greatest guitarist any synth band ever had. And he is in fine form on this tune.
Voices Carry (1985) by Til Tuesday - #73
In the middle of the decade a band fronted by a blonde spiky-haired young woman named Aimee Mann shot up the charts with this song about a young woman rebelling against her controlling, chauvinist boyfriend. Try counting along on this song and you'll notice a rarity in pop music — the time signature changes — instead of the 4 beats which virtually every other pop song you've ever heard has, the verses of Voices Carry slip in 6 beats.
Despite the fact that this 80s song was the band's one and only hit, in later years Mann became one of the most respected figures in the world of independent singer/songwriters.
Let's Dance (1983) by David Bowie - #72
In the 1970s it was pretty much unquestioned that the man at the cuttingest of the cutting edge was David Bowie. Always experimenting and always changing, Bowie somehow managed to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of being the critic's favorite and selling boatloads of records.
For the 1980s, Bowie reinvented himself yet again and turned out one of the slickest (and biggest-selling) albums of the decade. Let's Dance is interesting for how well a notable mismatching worked out — on this synth dance record Bowie enlisted blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the results are unexpectedly magical.
I Want Candy (1982) by Bow Wow Wow - #71
If you're going to be a one-hit wonder, it's best for that one hit to be as big as I Want Candy. When Hollywood needs a song that makes a viewer immediately think "80s," it is usually this one, though the song itself is actually a cover originally written in the 60s and recorded by The Strangeloves.
And it has been recorded several other times since, but the Bow Wow Wow version, with its combo of the Bo Diddley Beat and tribal drums, is certainly the best known.
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