Worldwide icon-chevron-right North America icon-chevron-right United States icon-chevron-right New York State icon-chevron-right New York icon-chevron-right The absolute best ’80s songs
Purple Rain, Prince
Photograph: Courtesy Warner Bros Purple Rain

The absolute best ’80s songs

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

By Tim Lowery and Time Out editors
Advertising

Now that ’80s nostalgia is into its fourth decade (and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon), it’s high time we cooked up the definitive list of the best ’80s songs ever.

Our sonic roundup of the era that brought us Miami Vice, mall culture and more awesomely cheesy entertainment than any sane person can handle is wonderfully diverse. There’s hair metal, sure, and more than a smidge of synth-pop, but there are also some killer rockers, diva jams, new-wave classics, hip-hop standouts, lovelorn ballads and even a bit of indie rock.

Thirsty for more essentials to go with this definitive ’80s music list? Check out our guide to the best ’80s movies.

Listen to these songs on Amazon Music

RECOMMENDED:
🎶 The best ’90s songs
🎉 The best party songs ever made
🎸 The best classic rock songs
🎤 The best karaoke songs
🕺 The best pop songs of all time

Best ’80s songs, ranked

Robert Smith de The Cure
Foto: Cortesía Meltdown Fest

1. “Close to Me” by 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?

2. “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.

Advertising

3. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston

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? 

“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty

4. “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty

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.

Advertising
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy

5. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy

“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. 

best 80s songs

6. “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.

Advertising
“Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye

7. “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye

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.” 

“Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen
Foto: Columbia

8. “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. 

Advertising
“What's Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner

9. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner

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.

10. “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. 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 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.”

Advertising

11. “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.

“More Than This” by Roxy Music

12. “More Than This” by Roxy Music

Roxy Music’s most played song on Spotify by a country mile (the runner up, “Avalon,” draws about half the audience) didn’t even crack Billboard's Top 100 in the States upon its release. Listening to it now—and, we assume, then—that’s a tough pill to swallow. Writer-singer Bryan Ferry’s falsetto during the verse draws you in, his romantic mantra of a chorus absolutely floors you, and the whole thing is shrouded in a plaintive, synthy, beautiful glow.  

Advertising
“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads

13. “Once in a Lifetime” by 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—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 more than three decades.

No soporto perder: Sobreviviendo a The Police
Foto: Cortesía IMDB

14. “Every Breath You Take” by 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.

Advertising

15. “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.

The Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy

16. “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain

The first four iconic seconds of the Ronette's "Be My Baby" have been sampled again and again over the past 50 years: Billy Joel, the Magnetic Fields, the Strokes, Amy Winehouse, Dan Deacon, Gotye…the list goes on. But only one band had transformed that groundbreaking phrase into a musical piece that defined an era (almost) as deeply as the Ronettes. The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey" captures a certain proto-shoegazey, bittersweet longing that pristinely characterizes the hazy milieu of the ‘80s—not to mention gave Sophia Coppola's Lost In Translation a killer outro a few seconds before the credits roll. 

Advertising
'With or Without You', U2
Foto: Island Records

17. “With or Without You” by U2

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.

Foreigner
GettyImages/ Michael Loccisano

18. “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner

If ever there was a time for an enormous chorus, it was the ’80s—and this 1984 smash from Foreigner offers an example of this that's at once gleaming, gorgeous and gut-wrenching. The verse 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, sure, but also uplifting, featuring the New Jersey Mass Choir, the Thompson Twins and Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday. Commented Mick Jones, of the recording process: "We did a few takes, and it was good, but it was still a bit tentative. Then they [the choir] got round in a circle, held hands and said the Lord's Prayer. And it seemed to inspire them, because after that they did it on one take. I was in tears, because my mum and dad were in the studio too, and it was emotional." Sniff.

Advertising
“The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade

19. “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade

Sade is just so damned smooth. 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.

'Never Gonna Give You Up', Rick Astley
Foto: RCA Records

20. “Never Gonna Give You Up” by 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, 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.

Advertising
“All Night Long” by Lionel Richie

21. “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie

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.

"Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake

22. “Here I Go Again” by 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 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.

Advertising
Toto – Africa

23. “Africa” by 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 patronizing 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. Oddly, it's become the unofficial theme of the New England Revolution MLS soccer club.

“Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush

24. “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush

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.

Advertising
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash

25. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash

As the 1970s turned in the 1980s, punks and rockers (and there was a difference then) both became enamored with the sounds coming out of New York City. Even the Stones went disco and dabbled with rap. 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. Jones liked it so much he sampled the track a decade later in “The Globe.”

"The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis & the News

26. “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News

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.

Advertising
“Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper

27. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper

Those who grew up in the '90s should know this from two awesome movie dance scenes: a sexy one in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom and a silly 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 be dated like lukewarm milk, but “Time After Time” still smells fresh to us.

"Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners

28. “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners

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.

Advertising
“She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals

29. “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals

Fine Young Cannibals were so much weirder and cooler than you remember. The trio, a splinter from 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.

'West End Girls', Pet Shop Boys
Foto: Parlophone Records

30. “West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys

No ’80s list would be complete without British synth-popsters the Pet Shop Boys. While the duo achieved its greatest success on home turf, this 1985 ode to London street life was written and recorded in New York, as the pair recalls in our interview, and bristles with urban seediness (note: It’s partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland). That’s thanks in no small part to Neil Tennant’s coolly annunciated delivery, a hypnotic take on the hip-hop flows of the era.

Advertising
“End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M

31. “End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M

“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake,” begins Michael Stipe—and the rumbling and rambling get crazier from there in R.E.M.’s 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 and 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; on its 1987 album, Document, R.E.M. was still emerging from the niche of college rock. But its cut-through-the-chaos message still connects with anyone aiming to clear out a polluted stream of consciousness.

“Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie

32. “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie

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.

Advertising
“Just a Friend” by Biz Markie

33. “Just a Friend” by 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 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. 

“Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies

34. “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies

Has a drum introduction ever sounded this big? Those unforgettable snare snaps comes courtesy of producer Steve Albini, and it’s one of the many touches the band’s most popular song (one that wasn’t even released as a single in ’88) has going for it: Among the many others, there’s Kim Deal’s haunting, reverb drenched backing vocals that so many indie-rock groups would go on to ape, a cracked-voiced Black Francis spitting out cryptic-cool lyrics, and deceptively simple lead guitar and bass combo that still gives us goosebumps.

Advertising
 “Down Under” by Men at Work

35. “Down Under” by Men at Work

This 1981 platinum-certified single is essentially Australia's unofficial national anthem, incorporating country pride, lots of local slang ("fried-out Kombi," "head full of zombie") and even the tune of a popular Aussie children's song, "Kookaburra," for the flute part. Insanely popular in its home country, the song also made waves internationally, shifting millions of copies and becoming an instant karaoke classic. We'll still pass on that Vegemite sandwich, though, thanks.

Nu Shooz – I Can't Wait

36. “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz

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.

Advertising
“Don't Stop Believin'” by Journey

37. “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. This song represents the apex of scream-along arena-scale pop-rock.

"Pictures of You" by the Cure

38. “Pictures of You” by the Cure

The ’80s were not a time of subtlety. 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 baptism inviting the lovelorn to let the layers of reverb-laden guitar spill over their heads and wash their pain away. 

Advertising
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell

39. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell

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.  

“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler

40. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler

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. 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.

Advertising
"Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses

41. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses

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. More than three decades on, it never fails to make us sing our fool hearts out on the dance floor.

“What Have You Done for Me Lately” by Janet Jackson

42. “What Have You Done for Me Lately” by Janet Jackson

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. 

Advertising
“Super Freak” by Rick James

43. “Super Freak” by Rick James

Catchier than a flytrap, more sordid than your craziest night out, Rick James hit the summit of his career with the wild funk of "Super Freak." 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. Even that sampling by MC Hammer can't diminish its greatness.  

“Tugboat” by Galaxie 500

44. “Tugboat” by Galaxie 500

The first single ever recorded by the indie-rock outfit, “Tugboat” consists of only two chords, some scant lyrics about not wanting to do much of anything, save being a tugboat captain (a reference to the Velvet Underground's Sterling Morrison, a clear hero), and...that’s about it. Yet within those self-imposed limitations lies something truly dreamy, with the song rising and falling like the sea, propelled and subdued by the trio’s delicate chemistry. 

Advertising
“Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac

45. “Everywhere” by 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, 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. 

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

46. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

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.

Advertising
“Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa

47. “Push It” by 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," 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." 

“Livin' on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi

48. “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi

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.

Advertising
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard

49. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard

A sleeper hit for the English heavy-metal band in 1987 (it didn't get much play until the band recorded a promo clip for its North American release), “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is among the group’s finest efforts. The sexual innuendo is awesomely over-the-top (did any teen couple in the '80s not make out to this song?), but in reality the chorus was penned while singer Joe Elliott and his producer were sharing a cup of tea…with sugar. So there's that.

'Bizarre Love Triangle', New Order
Foto: Factory Records

50. “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order

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.

Looking for more classic tunes?

Pitchfork Music Festival 2016, Friday
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

The best karaoke songs ever

Music

We’ve assembled a list of the best karaoke songs ever, from raucous party songs you can sing while tipsy to tender love songs for serenading your boo. So grab the mic, knock back a drink and prepare to belt out one of these surefire hits.

Advertising
Recommended

    You may also like

      You may also like

        Advertising