5 Songs From The 1980s That Are Decade-Defining

Let’s rewind the clock to a decade of excess, innovation, and synthesizers on full blast. The 1980s brought us legwarmers, neon lights, and a soundtrack that remains iconic to this day. From power ballads that belted out our teenage angst to dance hits that still get our feet moving, the ’80s had a song for every mood. Whether you crave the rebellious spirit of punk rock or the synth-laden anthems that defined MTV, buckle up for a journey through the best 1980s songs that defined a generation, according to 10 expert reviews. Music icons from the time, like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna, U2, and Duran Duran barely scratch the surface of the decade’s most iconic sounds. While the music that flowed from this time period is endless, we endeavor to wade through the volumes to discover the best songs of the 1980s to listen to next. Did we miss your favorite track? Let us know in the comments below!

The List: Best Songs of the 1980s, According to Fans

1. “Purple Rain” by Prince (1984)

“Purple Rain” is auditory bliss, Prince plays this song with such emotion and skill that there are really no other songs quite like it. Prince was so wildly ahead of his time with this rock song that it is important to appreciate that he released it at a time when he was known for R&B. Pitchfork raves, “[Prince] wrote a brazen homily for the future of music, using a wistful guitar riff, floor-to-ceiling drums, dulcet swells of string and organ, and an indomitable two-word hook meant to be sung by a chorus, a room, an arena full of people. But it’s the sweltering guitar solo—so good it still moves people to tears—that brought the song into the upper echelon of stadium ballads.”

Music Grotto adds that “‘Purple Rain’ is one of the most iconic songs of Prince’s career, becoming one of his signature songs until the end of his life. The track is the quintessential 1980s pop ballad. It was first featured in Prince’s film of the same name. But its most iconic moment came at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show when Prince performed it live—appropriately, in the rain.”

As Time Out says, “Prince was so prolific in the ’80s that 90% of this list could be his and it would still be correct. But forced to pick one Prince song, ‘Purple Rain’ is the obvious choice. It’s a swelling, perfectly crafted masterpiece that spotlights everything that made Prince Rogers Nelson an absolute legend.”

2. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson (1982)

From the title alone, some readers can already hear this song playing in their heads. This 1982 release was a pop smash hit that had fans across the world emulating Michael Jackson’s dance moves and fashion style. Smooth Radio says, “There are several claims on the meaning behind this classic song’s lyrics. One suggests that they came from a real-life experience, in which a female fan claimed that Michael Jackson (or one of his brothers) had fathered her twins. However, Jackson stated that it was actually based on groupies he had encountered.”

According to Cleveland.com, “There was no other option. When you look at the entire landscape of pop music in the 1980s, it centers around the release of ‘Billie Jean.’ Michael Jackson’s earth-shattering hit made everything that came before it feel old. Everything that came after had the unenviable task of living up to it. It’s the ultimate pop song.”

Tone Start writes: “Each layer of the song slowly creeps in, and you’re just on the edge waiting for Michael’s famed vocals to come in. The record slowly creeps up in energy, and once everything comes together, it sends chills throughout your body.”

3. “When Doves Cry” by Prince (1984)

The most iconic songs of the ‘80s are impossible to separate from famous films, music videos, and live performances that feature them. Several artists would cover this Prince classic, but none would be able to outdo the original artist. As Spinditty says, “‘When Doves Cry’ was the top-selling single of 1984, and the music video, directed by Prince himself, was controversial due to its sexual nature. The song rose in popularity again after Prince’s death in 2016 and remains one of his signature songs and a defining smash hit of the ’80s.”

NME adds, “Released as the lead single from his seminal ‘Purple Rain’ album and film, the bass-free ‘When Doves Cry’ was a thing of graceful beauty. A slice of Freudian autography, the deceptively simple music was played by the man himself. A generation uniting number that would alter Prince’s career, confirming his place as a titan of ‘80s pop.”

“Prince’s sixth studio album ‘Purple Rain’ was nothing short of theatrical as it was the soundtrack to the autobiographical film of the same title. ‘When Doves Cry’ is a part of a dramatic scene where Prince is recollecting on his love and familial life, and is a drum and synth-based hit with no bass. The song reached number one on the charts in 1984, and ‘Purple Rain’ solidified Prince as one of the biggest and prolific pop stars of the ‘80s,” points out Vinyl Mapper.

4. “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)

“Come On Eileen” is a glorious drunken bar song that has been caterwauled to women named Eileen since 1982. Of all the one-hit-wonders of the ‘80s, this classic always seems to be a great choice to get everyone singing along. As Glamour explains, “Nothing takes me straight back to Missouri college piano bars and late nights closing it down like ‘Come On Eileen.’ It’s impossible not to feel fun and carefree when it comes on.”

Time Out offers, “Maybe not surprising, coming from a band named after an amphetamine, but the UK 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.”

Music Grotto states, “The 1980s were full of massive hits from bands that qualified as one-hit wonders, never returning to the charts after their 15 minutes of fame. One of these was 1982’s ‘Come On Eileen,’ a groovy dance track from British band Dexys Midnight Runners. It was so popular that it even displaced Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ at [number one] on the charts, but the group never had another hit.”

5. “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. (1988)

“Straight Outta Compton” is definitive west coast rap that condemns police brutality. Time Out writes, “The title of the track of N.W.A.’s debut doesn’t just announce the arrival of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren. It announced the arrival of west-coast rap in the most aggressive, game-changing way imaginable, leaving the dominant hair rockers of the time little choice but to get out of the way.”

This explosive track is a far cry from the shiny bubblegum pop of the era. Pitchfork says, “If militarized tanks crushed the doors of Compton homes, this was the nuclear response: Led by four nihilistic villains who would smother your mother and make your sister think they loved her… If the N.W.A film exaggerates them as Marvel Comic titans, that’s just how this song made them seem. It wasn’t the first gangsta rap salvo, but it might be the one that matters most. Insurrection in its most sawed off form.”

Vinyl Mapper also mentions, “N.W.A’s hardcore rap provided clear documentation and representation of the group’s experiences within their community, speaking on police brutality and a black man’s experience in Los Angeles as they formed the beginning of the L.A. rap scene.”

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Comments

  1. Where’s Duran Duran??? The Police???? Or U2??? That’s what the 80’s were all about….

  2. “Every Breath you take” by The Police was the biggest single of 1980s- it is the most played song on the radio to date and with 1.3 Billion views on YouTube, and 800 million + plays on Spotify. It sold 7 million copies as a single making one of the best selling singles of all time.

  3. I only liked one of their picks and that was Bon Jovi. I grew up in the 80s and can think of a whole bunch of songs that defined the 80s

  4. Gary Numan-Cars? Genisis- Mama? Queen – Another one bites the dust? All of those sends people into fits of air guitar, air drums and air keyboard spasms. 😁

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