The 50 best ’80s songs

Grab your Walkman, turn up the treble and get ready to celebrate pop’s golden era with these best ’80s songs

Photograph: Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock

Like cockroaches or the styrofoam in your takeout container, the best ’80s songs will be around long after you and I have shuffled off this mortal coil. The decade, which yielded some of the greatest pop anthems in history (“Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”), as well as a good portion of the best karaoke songs and best workout songs out there, refuses to go quietly into obscurity. And why should it? These tunes, some of the best party songs ever, stand the test of time. So do up your hair, prep your dance routine, and get ready to wear your heart on your shoulder pads—here are the best ’80s songs ever made.

Listen to the best ’80s songs

Top ’80s songs list

1
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston

In 1987, Whitney 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?—Andrew Frisicano

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2
“Take On Me” by A-ha

“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, sampled back to glory by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera in 2013’s “Feel This Moment,” 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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3
“Don't Stop Believin'” by Journey

“Don't Stop Believin'” by 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, soundtracking a White Sox World Series run, 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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4
“Modern Love” by David Bowie

“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 Manning

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5
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson

“Beat It” by 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 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.—Hank Shteamer

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6
“When Doves Cry” by Prince

“When Doves Cry” by 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 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.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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7
“Into the Groove” by Madonna

“Into the Groove” by Madonna

A song so quintessentially ’80s, from its sharp synth bass to its inclusion in her flick 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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8
“Blue Monday” by New Order

“Blue Monday” by New Order

At nearly seven and a half minutes long, "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.—Kristen Zwicker

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9
“Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen

“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.—James Manning

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10
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears

“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 (turn up the treble!, more sax!, etc.). 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 a 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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Comments

2 comments
Elaine S

I can't believe The Waitresses' "I Know What Boys Like" didn't make this list!


Fun to remember some really cool tunes though!

Cookie Monster moderator Staff WriterTastemaker

Great list! I think I have all of the tracks on my iPod. :)