The 50 best ’80s songs

From pop hits to hair metal, grab your Walkman and celebrate a golden era of musical excess
The 50 best ’80s songs
By Time Out editors |
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There have been cooler decades, we’ll give you that – but when it comes to pop music the 1980s delivered an embarrassment of riches. This was an age of pristine pop that gave us the holy trinity: Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. It was an age of excess that provided us with more brilliantly ridiculous karaoke anthems than any other. And it was also an age of individuality, when even an eccentric indie band could take over your radio. So bouff up your hair, prep your dance routine, and get ready to wear your heart on your shoulder pads – here are the 50 greatest songs the ’80s ever produced.

50
Tiffany – I Think We're Alone Now

‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ – Tiffany

Though this song was first recorded in 1967 by Tommy James & The Shondells, synthpop songstress Tiffany repopularised it in 1987 by turning it into a chart-topping teen anthem. A tour of America’s shopping malls (remember when that was a thing?) solidified the song’s success, earning Tiffany a permanent spot on any best-of-the-’80s list. Kate Wertheimer

49
Milli Vanilli – Girl You Know It's True

‘Girl You Know It’s True’ – Milli Vanilli

It wasn’t just the music that became synthesized in the ’80s: everything got the imitation treatment. Food manufacturers went on an additives frenzy, everything was made out of plastic, make-up trends made humans look like robots… So it’s little wonder it turned out that even the pop stars themselves weren’t real, as in the case of German dance-pop duo Milli Vanilli. The pair was rumbled for lip-synching along to ‘Girl You Know It’s True’ in 1989, a year after the song (which celebrates authenticity) was released. Does it make the song any less excellent and era-defining? Absolutely not. Sophie Harris

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48
Biz Markie – Just a Friend

‘Just a Friend’ – 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 humour, daring haters to resist his charms. His records were as much comedy albums and demonstrations of sampling as pretentious works of art – which of course made them even greater works of art. Eventually Biz 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

47
Tears For Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World

‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ – Tears For Fears

We may dismiss the ’80s as an era of musical cheese, light on substance and heavy on excess (turn up the treble! more sax!). But the decade delivered some of music’s most emotional moments, all the more affecting for the fact that the vehicle was 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.’ Sophie Harris

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46
Def Leppard – Pour Some Sugar on Me

‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ – Def Leppard

A sleeper hit for the Yorkshire heavy metal band in 1987, ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ didn’t get much play until the band recorded a promo video for the US market, but it was always going to be the group’s finest hour. The sexual innuendo is awesomely over-the-top (did any teenage couple in the ’80s not make out to this song?), but the chorus was actually written while singer Joe Elliott and his producer were sharing a cup of tea… with sugar. So there’s that. Kate Wertheimer

45
Whitesnake – Here I Go Again

‘Here I Go Again’ – Whitesnake

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 the smell of cheese. 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

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44
U2 – With or Without You

‘With or Without You’ – U2

Oh, it’s so easy to mock U2: the bombast, the shades, the property empire… But the band’s 1987 opus ‘The Joshua Tree’ contains three of their 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

43
The Cars – Drive

‘Drive’ – The Cars

Early Cars hits were all tight leather trousers and sunglasses, but by the end of their career, they were producing records like Michael Bay makes movies, filled with special effects, perpetual sunsets and supermodels. ‘Drive’ was their ultimate slow-dance, and the template for every Killers song ever. Layers upon layers of keyboards and digital choirboys stack up to make a millefeuille of gooey, ethereal new wave. Brent DiCrescenzo

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42
Huey Lewis & The News

‘The Power of Love’ – Huey Lewis & The News

It wasn’t just a souped-up DeLorean that safely spirited Marty McFly home to the ’80s in ‘Back to the Future’: 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, though 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 total bullshit but a sweet thought. Andrew Frisicano

41
Grace Jones – Pull Up to the Bumper

‘Pull Up to the Bumper’ – Grace Jones

The ’80s would have been much less fun and interesting without the towering presence of Beverly Grace Jones. She was a clergyman’s daughter from Jamaica who became an androgynous icon: dominating New York’s catwalks, teaming up with Christopher Walken and Arnie on screen and intoning suggestive traffic metaphors on this filthy funk classic from 1981. James Manning

40
Nu Shooz – I Can't Wait

‘I Can’t Wait’ – Nu Shooz

One-hit wonderful, ‘I Can’t Wait’ was 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

39
Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight

‘In the Air Tonight’ – Phil Collins

You’d think that Mike Tyson air-drumming in ‘The Hangover’ to Phil Collins’s 1981 signature hit would’ve somehow sapped ‘In the Air Tonight’ of its eerie potency. But no, the song (shot through with the Genesis drummer -turned-solo hitmaker’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 vocals 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

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38
Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ – Bonnie Tyler

Nobody writes grandiose heartbreak like Jim Steinman, and he’s never done it better than in this smash 1983 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 Broadway fiasco ‘Dance of the Vampires’ – and its gothic underpinnings are front and centre 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

37
Journey – Don't Stop Believin'

‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ – Journey

By this point, you know where you stand on this one: you hear Jonathan Cain’s piano intro, and you either swell up with joy or wince in pain. Whatever your take, you’re about to get flattened by an emotional steamroller: four minutes of undiluted underdog yearning and a portrait of anonymous lost souls praying for luck and love on the streets of nonexistent South Detroit, starring Steve Perry’s scarily, swoopingly elastic voice. Whether it’s playing over the ‘Sopranos’ finale, turning up on ‘Glee’ or simply blasting out of your earbuds at the gym, this song represents the apex of scream-along, arena-scale pop-rock. Hank Shteamer

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36
Foreigner – I Want to Know What Love Is

‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ – Foreigner

If ever there was a time for an enormous chorus, it was the ’80s – and this 1984 smash from Foreigner offers an example that’s at once gleaming, gorgeous and gut-wrenching. The verse here is contemplative and blue, an account of how bruised and confused the heart can feel, then the chorus sweeps you up with a heartfelt plea to understand what the hell’s going on. It’s blustery, but also uplifting, partly thanks to the presence of the New Jersey Mass Choir. Sophie Harris

35
Roxy Music – More Than This

‘More Than This’ – Roxy Music

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, the ageing art-rockers should not have sounded so heavenly: Brian Eno was long gone, as was the drummer. Whittled down to a trio, Roxy smuggled their art rock pedigree into penthouses, dressing brainy prog in a tuxedo, and the result is just gorgeous. It feels like a spa day after a rough break-up, condensed into four minutes. Brent DiCrescenzo

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34
Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time

‘Time After Time’ – Cyndi Lauper

Those who grew up in the ’90s should know this from two awesome movie dance scenes: one in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Strictly Ballroom’, and 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 have dated like lukewarm milk, but ‘Time After Time’ still smells fresh to us. James Manning

33
Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give You Up

‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ – 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 – who wouldn’t want to be surprised by another exposure to this suave mega-jam? Those synthesized strings, that thumping boots-and-pants beat, Astley’s weirdly robust croon and his romantic-wooing-as-used-car-salesman pitch (‘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

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32
New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle

‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ – New Order

A New Order single is like if architecture was flush with hormones. Everything is a percussion instrument: the metronomic drumming, Peter Hook’s basslines, the synth fills and even Bernard Sumner’s rhythmic sigh-singing. That’s why the band will be a dancefloor killer until a comet demolishes us: each and every element in the song is dancing. By the middle of the decade, on ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the band were mining house music heavily enough to join a union in Chicago, but always balancing disco ecstasy with Mancunian melancholy. Brent DiCrescenzo

31
REM – It's the End of the World as We Know It

‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ – REM

‘That’s great, it starts with an earthquake,’ begins Michael Stipe – and the rumbling and rambling get crazier from there in REM’s punk-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, 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. But its cut-through-the-chaos message still connects with anyone aiming to clear out a polluted stream of consciousness. Adam Feldman

30
Rick James – Super Freak

‘Super Freak’ – Rick James

Catchier than a flytrap and more sordid than a night out with Charlie Sheen, the wild funk of ‘Super Freak’ was the summit of Rick James’s career. 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. Neither today’s changing attitudes toward gender equality nor the song’s sampling by MC Hammer can diminish its greatness. Oliver Keens

29
The Police – Every Breath You Take

‘Every Breath You Take’ – The Police

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

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28
Fine Young Cannibals – She Drives Me Crazy

‘She Drives Me Crazy’ – Fine Young Cannibals

Fine Young Cannibals were so much weirder and cooler than you remember. The trio, a splinter off The Beat, had their roots in ska, but over two albums they chiselled a new pop sound that would echo onward from Massive Attack to TV On The Radio. The arrangements on their second album ‘The Raw and the Cooked’ are spare and inflated; in this opening cut, big sloppy washes of distorted guitar crash over a rigid drum machine as Roland Gift lifts it to the sky with his helium falsetto. Brent DiCrescenzo

27
Hall & Oates – Private Eyes

‘Private Eyes’ – Hall & Oates

In the early-’80s subgenre of songs about surveillance – see ‘Eye in the Sky’, ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ and ‘Every Breath You Take’ – none is as straight-up catchy as this mid-period Hall & Oates hit. The Philly duo were in the process of giving their rock-and-soul sound a shiny new wave makeover (complete with synthesizer), but the secrets to the song’s lasting pep are its backing harmonies and, especially, some good old-fashioned handclaps. Adam Feldman

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26
George Michael – Faith

‘Faith’ – George Michael

With the jukeboxes and leather jackets in the video, ‘Faith’ was dressed up as old-time rock ’n’ 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 makes for surprising sexual tension. It’s all audio close-ups, the sonic equivalent of zooming in to a close shot of Michael’s tight denim ass. Brent DiCrescenzo

25
Bruce Springsteen – Dancing in the Dark

‘Dancing in the Dark’ – 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 dancefloor 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. James Manning

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24
Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen

‘Come on Eileen’ – Dexys Midnight Runners

Maybe it’s not surprising, coming from a band named after an amphetamine, but Kevin Rowland’s Celtic soul crew propel the juddering rhythms of their classic 1982 single like a dynamo, chugging through tempo changes while picking up steam for the big finish. The lyrics, about Rowland’s youth as a sexually repressed Catholic kid, verge on dirty while remaining innocuous enough for karaoke at the office party. Andrew Frisicano

23
Pat Benatar – Love is a Battlefield

‘Love Is a Battlefield’ – Pat Benatar

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. She broke out with swaggering songs like ‘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 (the spoken-word intro, the whistling) may flirt with kitsch, but Benatar’s intensity hammers through them to offer a conflicted yet defiant battle-of-the-sexes anthem. Adam Feldman

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22
Tina Turner – What's Love Got to Do With It

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ – Tina Turner

In 1984, Tina Turner was 44 years old and on the comeback trail. Having finally split from her brutally 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 Ten 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 denim 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. Adam Feldman

21
Rufus and Chaka Khan – Ain't Nobody

‘Ain’t Nobody’ – Rufus and Chaka Khan

Penned by David J ‘Hawk’ Wolinski – the keys player from Chaka Khan’s band Rufus – this 1983 tune is pure, ecstatic funk. Restrained it ain’t – but why would you want it to be? Strap in as primo belter Khan harnesses her most primal instincts and delivers a fierce clinic on diva ad libbing. Andrew Frisicano

20
The Clash – Should I Stay Or Should I Go

‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – The Clash

As the 1970s turned in to the 1980s, punks and rockers (and there was a difference then) both became enamoured with the sounds coming out of New York City. Even the Stones went disco and dabbled with rap. But 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. Brent DiCrescenzo

19
The Cure – Close to Me

‘Close to Me’ – 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

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18
Lionel Richie – All Night Long

‘All Night Long (All Night)’ – Lionel Richie

It’s impossible to feel bad when this tune’s Caribbean-inflected rhythms start pumping from a nearby speaker. The perma-coiffed 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

17
A-Ha – Take on Me

‘Take on Me’ – A-ha

The first and biggest hit by the Norwegian electropop trio, ‘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. 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. Adam Feldman

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16
Toto – Africa

‘Africa’ – 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 patronising 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. Brent DiCrescenzo

15
The Human League – Don't You Want Me

‘Don’t You Want Me’ – The Human League

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

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14
Soft Cell – Tainted Love

‘Tainted Love’ – Soft Cell

Turning jaunty Motown influences into icy synthpop might sound like sacrilege, but that’s exactly what Soft Cell did when they covered Gloria Jones’s funky stomper from 1965 in ’81. 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 synthpop explosion that followed. Tristan Parker

13
Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance

‘Buffalo Stance’ – Neneh Cherry

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, of course). 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 classic tune pregnant and proud – and delivering one of hip hop’s freshest flows to this day. Sophie Harris

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12
Bon Jovi – Livin' on a Prayer

‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ – Bon Jovi

For a good decade there, it seemed as though Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ was the absolute final word in blue-collar rock ’n’ roll myth-making. Then along came the Boss’s fellow New Jersey boys Bon Jovi, who slathered the old story of two hard-luck dreamers longing for escape with a thick coat of glam-rock 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 squeeze, Gina is essentially flawless, right down to guitarist Richie Sambora’s iconic talkbox-assisted opening hook and the vertigo-inducing key change after the bridge. Hank Shteamer

11
Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill

‘Running Up That Hill’ – Kate Bush

Bush was discovered when barely into her teens, knocking out genius tunes on a piano in her cosy Kent 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

10
Best 80s songs – The Smiths

‘This Charming Man’ – The Smiths

Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr was allegedly spurred to write the music for this 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

9
Fleetwood Mac – Little Lies

‘Everywhere’ – Fleetwood Mac

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 road trip involving lots of singing along – to reach satisfaction saturation. Sophie Harris

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8

‘Push It’ – 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’. NY 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

7
Madonna – Into the Groove

‘Into the Groove’ – Madonna

A song so quintessentially ’80s, from its sharp synth bass to its inclusion in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, this popgasm has only one critic: Madonna. Years after its 1985 release, she said that she felt like a dork singing it. Fine, Madge, but you can’t have looked as dorky as the millions of us who sang it into our hairbrushes. Oliver Keens

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6
Prince – When Doves Cry

‘When Doves Cry’ – Prince

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 start 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 ‘When Doves Cry’ overnight. With such little time, he didn’t bother with a bassline. Debussy once noted, ‘music is the space between notes’; Prince decked that emptiness with eyeliner and silk, and it would be the pinnacle of his career. There’s something to be said for having a boss. Brent DiCrescenzo

5
Michael Jackson – Bad

‘Beat It’ – Michael Jackson

We get so used to the sleek, funky side of Michael Jackson 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 exaggerated 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 dancefloor killer as it is, ‘Beat It’ is a genuinely heavy song – psychologically as much as sonically. Hank Shteamer

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4
David Bowie, Brixton Academy, November 1991
© Justin Thomas / justinthomasphotography.co.uk

‘Modern Love’ – 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 Manning

3
Talking Heads

‘Once in a Lifetime’ – Talking Heads

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, otherworldly mixture of Afrobeat, funk, pop, rock, disco and psychedelia, this existential anthem is huge enough to stuck around for over 30 years – as strange as it ever was. Tristan Parker

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2
Whitney Houston

‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ – Whitney Houston

In 1987, Whitney was still a fresh-faced siren with a 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 roof-igniting party starter, 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 dancefloor. Who can resist? Andrew Frisicano

1
Pet Shop Boys
© EMI Records UK/Eric Watson

‘West End Girls’ – Pet Shop Boys

The greatest song of the ’80s? Surely it’s impossible to name just one. But there is a track that could have come from no other decade; which combines lush synths and me-generation lyrics, street life and sophistication, pop class and traces of the first wave of hip hop. That track is ‘West End Girls’.

Neil Tennant was still working at ’80s pop bible Smash Hits when he and Chris Lowe recorded their first hit as Pet Shop Boys, mashing up Grandmaster Flash, Michael Jackson and TS Eliot into a hypnotic dance track that made pioneering use of sampling technology. The duo re-recorded the song with Stephen Hague the next year, adding a video that obliquely referenced apartheid and Madonna, and guaranteed their place as one of the era’s defining acts. Pop, art and politics: an anthem for the ages, and a paradigm of the ’80s. James Manning

Listen to the 50 best ’80s songs

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