From a pop perspective, the ’80s delivered an embarrassment of riches, giving us some of the greatest pop stars in musical history: Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. The era of excess delivered on its promise sonically with such glittering, shimmering, loud, ridiculous, passionate musical gems like "Faith" by George Michael and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," and even indie anthems like New Order's "Temptation" and the Smiths' "This Charming Man" made a beeline for your radio. This is the golden period of karaoke songs, and songs from ’80s movies stand the test of time. So tease up your hair, prep your breakdance routine, and get ready to wear your heart on your shoulder pads—here are the greatest ’80s songs ever made.
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.—Tristan Parker
Two decades before T-Pain fell in love with a stripper (and subsequently a bartender) and Kanye West made 808s & Heartbreak, Ohio outfit Zapp’s frontman Roger Troutman was serenading ladies with the aid of Auto-Tune’s weirder, funkier uncle: the talk box. Troutman wasn’t the first to use the mechanism (Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and Stevie Wonder all preceded him), but he was arguably one of the best. And when the innovative funk man set it against those sparkling synths and ambling drum machine beat, there wasn’t one among us who wasn’t in the mood for a little digital love.—Kristen Zwicker
Oh, it’s so easy to mock U2: the bombast, the shades, the pomp… 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. Anyone who’s driven through the desert will recognize its massive vistas in this blown-open sonic landscape. Play it somewhere you can howl along, loudly.—Sophie Harris
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Universal Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal 1982 song “Planet Rock.” Combining a sped-up sample of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” with a thumping Roland TR-808 beat, Bambaataa, along with producers Arthur Baker and John Robie, created a seven-and-a-half-minute dance floor bomb that shook the foundations of hip-hop and electro-funk (not to mention Detroit techno and Miami bass). Simply put, there was a world before “Planet Rock” and there was a world after, and those two worlds were not the same.—Kristen Zwicker
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." Job done.—Tristan Parker
A white-hot tribute to late frontman Bon Scott, the title track to AC/DC's seventh studio album has been covered by Muse, Shakira, the Foo Fighters, Santana and countless others. The album, released in 1980, went on to become the second-highest-selling album in history, cementing the Aussie outfit's status as one of the biggest hard rock bands of all time.—Kristen Zwicker
One-hit wonderful, “I Can’t Wait” is Nu Shooz’s only real smash, topping the charts around the world in 1986. In 1984, husband and wife duo John Smith and Valerie Day recorded the tune, which was remixed in the Netherlands a couple years later—and it’s this clean, clipped, super funky version of the song that landed the Shooz their record deal and influenced a generation of “chillwave” aspirants some 25 years later.—Sophie Harris
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 braggadocio.—Brent DiCrescenzo
“I wanna rock right now / I'm Rob Base and I came to get down / I'm not internationally known / But...” If you were born between 1970 and 1985, there's no way you didn't finish that line in your head. Just no possible way. Unless, of course, you're alone right now, in which case you rapped it aloud. This party-igniting flip of Lyn Collins's "Think (About It)" was released in 1988, served as the intro theme to the inaugural season of Yo! MTV Raps, eventually went platinum and still makes us get stupid—we mean outrageous.—Kristen Zwicker
You could be forgiven for thinking Janet Jackson appeared as a fully-formed superstar, but in actuality her first two albums were met with mixed reviews and achieved only modest success. All of that changed with "What Have You Done for Me Lately," the lead single from her third effort, Control. With a no-nonsense attitude and some killer dance moves (the video was choreographed by Paula Abdul), Jackson established herself as one of R&B's leading innovators, and a woman who wasn't afraid to demand what she deserved.—Kristen Zwicker
Is this song really about that? The opening tune on Milwaukee-buskers-turned-alt-rock-superstars Violent Femmes' self-titled debut starts with one of the more recognizable guitar licks of the modern era, and then proceeds to sing about, um, masturbation—or so everyone thought. That interpretation was disputed by frontman Gordon Gano in an interview with the Village Voice in 2013, but one thing isn't up for debate: "Blister in the Sun" is a catchy, unfettered romp that sounds just as fresh now as it did 30 years ago.—Kristen Zwicker
Bush was discovered when barely into her teens, knocking out genius tunes on a piano in her cozy Kent, England, home. Her erudite songs referenced literature by Emily Brontë and James Joyce, resulting in knotty and outlandish pop music. But her aching sensuality allowed her strangeness to connect with a mass audience. Like Bowie, she was trained in mime, giving her singles a sense of performance and movement, even if you couldn’t see the nifty videos. “Running Up That Hill” was so huge because it was her most digestible—though still weird, with its galloping drums and a Fairlight synthesizer hook that sounds like pan pipes from deep space. Few songs from the era are so rich and perfect.—Brent DiCrescenzo
Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr was allegedly spurred to write this poppy upbeat single after jealously eyeing the radio success of labelmates Aztec Camera. Whatever the motivation, we're glad he did. Though it didn't top the charts upon release, the 1983 tune became an anthem for the ages, pairing Marr's jangly guitar runs with a delightfully hyperactive bass line and Morrissey's dandified yarn about male affection.—Andrew Frisicano
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
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" was originally penned and sung by Robert Hazard in 1979, but it didn't become a worldwide hit until Cyndi Lauper reclaimed—and rewrote—the song for the ladies in 1983. It established Lauper as a playful pop phenom and became a global feminist anthem, inviting women everywhere to step out from under society's expectations and walk in the sun.—Kristen Zwicker
Roxy Music’s luxurious farewell sails over the clouds in a golden glider, a beauty of utmost elegance that puts the swan in swan song. Bryan Ferry’s misty voice rolls over the sunset synthesizers like a fog. By 1982, this aging art-rock icon should not have been so heavenly: Brian Eno was long gone, as was the drummer. Whittled down to a trio, Roxy smuggled its art-rock pedigree into penthouses, dressing brainy prog in a tuxedo, and the result is just goddam gorgeous. It feels like a spa day after a rough breakup, condensed into four minutes.—Brent DiCrescenzo
The ’80s were not a time of subtlety. Eye shadow was bright, suits were powerful, and when it came to hair and emotion, bigger was always better. The Cure frontman Robert Smith had both, and wielded the latter to devastating effect in this single from the band’s 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration. Smith’s poignant songwriting was like a post-punk baptism, inviting the lovelorn to let the layers of reverb-laden guitar spill over their heads and wash their pain away.—Kristen Zwicker
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. Nearly three decades on, it never fails to make us sing our fool hearts out on the dance floor.—Kristen Zwicker
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 (which inspired a hilarious YouTube parody). 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.—Adam Feldman
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.—Hank Shteamer
Penned by Rufus keyboardist David J. "Hawk" Wolinski, this 1983 tune is pure, ecstatic funk. Restrained it ain't—and why would you want it to be? Strap in, as primo belter Chaka Khan harnesses her most primal instincts and delivers a fierce clinic on diva ad libbing.—Andrew Frisicano
Sade is just so damned smooth. That honeyed voiced, the effortless beauty, 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.—Kristen Zwicker
A firm salute, please, for veteran rock chick Pat Benatar, who commanded the airwaves with a take-charge attitude, a spandex wardrobe and the voice to back up both of them. After dropping out of Juilliard and working her way up the ladder at New York nightclubs, she broke out with swaggering songs like “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” but 1983’s “Love Is a Battlefield” finds her moving toward a softer-edged epic-pop sound. Some aspects of the production may flirt with kitsch—that spoken-word intro! That whistling in minute four!—but Benatar’s intensity hammers through them to offer a conflicted yet defiant battle-of-the-sexes anthem.—Adam Feldman
Maybe not surprising, coming from a band named after an amphetamine, but the U.K. 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.—Andrew Frisicano
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 Mercury inhabited with such ease.—Kristen Zwicker
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.—Hank Shteamer
This quintessential Hall & Oates jam was not only one of the duo’s biggest, but it was also one of the first number-one hits to use a drum machine. That's a neat bit of trivia, but everyone knows the song's magic lies in that inescapable bassline groove, which is likely what sent it to top of not only Billboard's Hot 100 chart, but the R&B/Hip Hop and Dance Club charts as well. And of course, what self-respecting ’80s smooth-pop hit would be complete without a steamy sax riff?—Kristen Zwicker
Rapture. That’s “Everywhere” in a nutshell. Sung by Christine McVie, this delectable swoon of a song appears on the band’s 1987 album, Tango in the Night (the last disc to date to feature the classic Mac lineup), and it’s the kind of track that needs to be played at least three times in a row, preferably on a roadtrip involving lots of singing along, to reach satisfaction saturation.—Sophie Harris
Everything in a New Order song is a percussion instrument, from the metronomic drumming to Peter Hook’s bass lines to the synth fills to Bernard Sumner’s rhythmic sigh-singing. That’s why the band will be a dance-floor killer until a comet demolishes us. Each and every element in the song is dancing. By the middle of the decade, the band was mining house music heavily enough to join a union in Chicago though always balancing disco ecstasy with melancholy in true Mancunian fashion. A New Order single is like if architecture was flush with hormones.—Brent DiCrescenzo
Don’t let Puff Daddy ruin this for you. Now that “I’ll Be Missing You” is nearly two decades old (gulp), that steady, ceramic, arpeggiated riff is again property of 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.—Brent DiCrescenzo
This 1982 track and its video offer everything an ’80s hit should: a synth intro, tight pants, big hair, overt pelvic thrusting, a scantily clad babe atop a muscle car and, of course, a banging chorus that you just can't help but belt out—even as you cringe at its cheese factor. Listen out for "drifter" in the chorus, which replaced an earlier recording using the word "hobo," after lead singer David Coverdale worried that it sounded too much like "homo." Apparently the aforementioned crotch moves, hot model and fast car weren't enough to assert his manhood. Like we said, the ’80s in a nutshell.—Kate Wertheimer
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.—Hank Shteamer
It wasn't just a souped-up DeLorean that safely spirited Back to the Future's Marty McFly home to the '80s: He was also aided by this ditty from harmonica-blowing everydad Huey Lewis, who penned the song for the 1985 blockbuster's soundtrack. It's about as sappy as they come, but Baby Huey smartly slips in a line about how love doesn't require a credit card, which, as anyone who's gone on a date in the past 50 years can tell you, is totally bull. But it's a sweet thought.—Andrew Frisicano
1981 was the year that a band from Sheffield named after a sci-fi board game became pop superstars, and it was “Don’t You Want Me” that sealed the deal. But it almost didn’t. The Human League’s Phil Oakey tried to stop his “nasty song about sexual power politics” becoming the last single from the band’s era-defining Dare album. Virgin ended up releasing Oakey’s sordid but potent duet with the group’s teenage backing singer Susan Ann Sulley anyway. The rest is karaoke history, baby.—James Manning
Though it proved a surprise commercial hit for David Byrne's new-wave art-pop experimentalists, it's easy to forget just how deliciously weird this song sounded back in 1981. Serving up a heady—occasionally otherworldly—mixture of Afrobeat, funk, pop, rock, disco and psychedelia, the chorus of this existential anthem is huge enough to have stuck around for over 30 years.—Tristan Parker
When she strode on the scene in 1988, Neneh Cherry was one of those pop stars who made you do a double take—what the? who the?—before you ran out of the house to buy the single (on cassette, natch). The stepdaughter of jazz musician Don Cherry, Neneh was raised in Stockholm, New York and London, which explains her deliciously odd accent and assured street smarts. Decades before a very pregnant MIA performed at the Grammys, Cherry made her British-TV debut performing this hip-hop classic pregnant and proud—and delivering one of hip-hop’s freshest flows to this day.—Sophie Harris
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.—Andrew Frisicano
With jukeboxes and leather jackets, “Faith” was dressed up as old-time rock & roll, but the uptight shuffle remains gloriously modern. Michael produced the track himself with micromanaged minimalism. The guitar, claps and drums are so closely microphoned and clipped that the acoustic instruments pop and lock like the best electronic dance music. The hermetically sealed precision of the 1987 title track makes for surprising sexual tension. It’s all audio close-ups, the sonic equivalent of zooming in to a close shot of his tight denim ass.—Brent DiCrescenzo
Fine Young Cannibals were so much weirder and cooler than you remember. The trio, a splinter off the English Beat, had its roots in ska, but over two albums chiseled a new pop sound that would echo onward from Massive Attack to TV on the Radio. But you could still smash faces at the roller rink to it. The arrangements on the sophomore album, The Raw & the Cooked, are spare and inflated, like punks playing to Wall Street. In this opening cut, big sloppy washes of distorted guitar crashes over a rigid drum machine, as Roland Gift lifts it to the sky with his helium falsetto.—Brent DiCrescenzo
In 1980, hip-hop had just begun to bubble up from the streets of New York onto the international stage, scoring its first hit the previous year with the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." British punk outfit the Clash, which was recording in New York at the time, decided to try its hand at the new style, and the result was this funky gem. Despite the searing bassline (which was played by Norman Watt-Roy of the Blockheads, not Clash bassist Paul Simonon), the tune was far from the Clash's most commercially successful single. However, it became an underground hit and continued the band's legacy of genre-hopping experimentation.—Kristen Zwicker
That drumbeat. That simple bass progression. Those deliciously decade-appropriate synths. That infectious, descending lead guitar line. And then, the icing on the cake, those opening lyrics: “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick / The one that makes me scream, she said.” Everything about this song—the sticky-sweet sound, the pop poetry, the way singer Robert Smith enunciates like he’s fallen harder than anyone has fallen—oozes ’80s romanticism. (It’s also from an album called Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, for chrissakes.) It would prove the British outfit’s first hit across the pond and soundtrack too many young loves (and young loves lost) to count.
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.
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. You can practically hear 23-year-old smiling through the chorus, urging every last wallflower on to the dance floor. Who can resist?
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.
“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 / 'Cause I'm black and I'm proud.” And that’s the truth, Ruth.
As a cocksure teenager, Prince passed on four major-label record deals, demanding artistic autonomy until Warner Bros. granted it. Years later, he would infamously scrawl “slave” on his cheek, and emancipate himself from his given name, referring to himself by a proto-emoji. And yet, the sharp crack of a proverbial whip yielded some stunning results in 1984. The Purple Rain soundtrack was thought to be complete, but the director needed a power ballad to lay over a montage of domestic discord. Prince whipped up two tunes overnight, the winner being “When Doves Cry.” With such little time, he didn’t bother with a bassline. Debussy once noted, “Music is the space between notes.” Prince decked the emptiness with eyeliner and silk. It would be the pinnacle of his career. There’s something to be said for having a boss.
At nearly seven and a half minutes, "Blue Monday" is one of the longest songs ever to show up on the U.K. singles chart. With its chugging synths and stuttering drum machine beat, it was a particularly visible signpost along New Order's journey from post-punk into dancier, Italo-disco-inflected terrain. Considering "Blue Monday" went on to become the best-selling 12-inch single of all time, it's safe to say the band was headed in the right direction.
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.”
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.
In 1984, Tina Turner was 44 years old 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. The message was clear: Turner’s career still had fabulous legs.