The music of the ‘80s has a distinctly unique vibe to it. Despite numerous subgenres like pop, pop rock, hip-hop, and glam rock, the music of the 1980s has a certain “feel” to the sound that comes from the recording techniques, trends, and music producers of the time. Our list of the best songs of the 1980s can help you either find or rediscover some great music that came from the decade.
The music of the ‘80s is characterized by a “clean” recording studio sound. Breathy singers added heavy emotion to intimate ballads like never before, while rockers played the guitar with equipment so sensitive you can hear their fingers slide across the strings. It is the high-fidelity quality of 1980s recording equipment that helped create so many unique sounds and beats.
Even though ‘80s music displays strong genre themes and composition techniques, the best tracks of that decade are absolute earworms. It is quite easy to think of the sounds of the decade to all fit into a few neat categories like those mentioned above. However much more than rock and pop, the ‘80s had smooth jazz, rap, and an abundance of electronic synthpop.
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 are 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 praises, “‘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.”
Time Out exclaims, “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.”
Cleveland.com describes, “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 elaborates, “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. Spinditty comments, “‘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,” details Vinyl Mapper.
4. “Come On Eileen” by Dexys 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. 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. This explosive track is a far cry from the shiny bubblegum pop of the era. Time Out claims, “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.”
Pitchfork relates, “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 reviews, “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.”
You might also be interested in:
- Music Grotto
- Time Out
- Smooth Radio
- Tone Start
- Vinyl Mapper
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.