With the start of MTV in 1981, music videos became one of the most popular pop culture phenomena of the decade. The next years featured some of the best music videos not just of the time but in history; many of these helped launch the careers of the era’s biggest superstars, from Michael Jackson to Tina Turner.
1. Thriller — Michael Jackson
It’s impossible to make a list of the best music videos of the 1980s without mentioning Thriller. Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit changed the course of music videos throughout the next decades, introducing the idea of them doubling as short films. The video sparked a dance craze and spun Jackson’s career in a whole new direction. The singer poured his own money into the 14-minute video, which supposedly cost $500,000 to shoot. But it was worth it, becoming one of the most famous music videos of all time and the first music video inductee into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
2. I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) — Whitney Houston
I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) remains one of the biggest songs of Whitney Houston’s career. But the song itself is set off to perfection by the stunning music video, released in 1987. The video used special effects to depict two versions of Houston, one in color and one in black and white, to depict two versions of her life. It gained critical attention for its electric choreography and special effects.
3. Physical — Olivia Newton-John
Only the most naive could overlook the obvious sexual innuendos in Physical. It is said that the 1981 music video was initially intended to be more overt; however, Newton-John reportedly got cold feet before shooting began. To tone down the suggestiveness, the scene was moved to a gym. With the neon leotard fitness craze of the 1980s in full swing, the video depicted Newton-John transforming a crowd of overweight men into muscular hunks. It won a 1983 Grammy for Video of The Year.
4. Take On Me — a-ha
It’s hard to imagine a more classically 80s music video than a-ha’s 1985 Take On Me. The special effects are iconic, combining hand-drawn animation with real-life footage through rotoscoping. This was groundbreaking for the time, leading to the rise in animation in music videos that remained popular well into the 1990s. The music video was wildly successful, and it was well-earned; animator Mike Patterson created more than 3,000 illustrations for the video.
5. Land of Confusion — Genesis
Genesis’ 1986 music video for Land of Confusion is a mish-mash of all the most 80s tropes you can find in one performance. The video features a grand assortment of political commentary, animation, melodramatic acting, and puppets that reportedly terrified children. Nowadays, watching the five-minute video feels nothing short of bizarre, but it was wildly popular in its day and was featured regularly on MTV. Maybe it’s the sheer strangeness that makes it such a classic.
6. Beat It — Michael Jackson
In yet another example of Jackson paying his own way, the 1982 music video for Beat It was completely self-financed. CBS reportedly wouldn’t give him the cash, so Jackson laid down more than $150,000 for the shoot. It was clearly worth it, as the intricately-choreographed short film became wildly popular on MTV. Beat It, along with Thriller, helped catapult Jackson to superstardom, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. To draw on the gang storyline, the singer cast actual gang members as well as professional dancers in the video.
7. Faith — George Michael
The end of the decade saw George Michael rising to fame. His 1987 song “Faith” rose to the top of the charts. It was helped in no small part by the music video, which depicted the singer in a black leather jacket and blue jeans, playing the guitar with an unshaven face. The video helped cement George Michael’s public image as a sex symbol, which would continue throughout the 1990s.
8. I Want to Break Free — Queen
Queen’s 1984 video I Want To Break Free featured the band members, including Freddie Mercury, dressed in drag as they performed. British fans recognized it as a parody of the soap opera Coronation Street. But it was widely speculated to be a statement about coming out of the closet from Mercury. We’ll never know what the real intention was, as Mercury was famously private about his sexuality, though it’s known that he had relationships with both men and women. I Want to Break Free remains great because it is a self-parody as well as a celebration of campiness and identity.
9. Smooth Operator — Sade
Sade’s wildly popular 1984 hit Smooth Operator was only improved by its ultra polished music video. The video surprisingly doesn’t seem very dated; instead of gaudy 80s-era fashion or music tropes, its storyline is just as captivating today. It depicts the titular smooth operator, a swindler making his way through an upscale nightclub. Accompanied by Sade’s sultry vocals, it isn’t hard to see why the music video is remembered as one of the best of the decade.
10. Purple Rain — Prince
It is hard to choose which of Prince’s music videos ranks highest. The singer’s career peaked during the 1980s, during which time he proved that he was a master not just of music, but also of musical performance. Purple Rain became one of Prince’s best-known songs and remains one of his best music videos, alongside When Doves Cry, Kiss, and Raspberry Beret. The song also served as the soundtrack for the film of the same name.
11. Sledgehammer — Peter Gabriel
Released in 1986, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was not only an immensely popular song but also a groundbreaking music video. The video featured unconventional special effects such as pixelation as well as stop motion and claymation, resulting in a one-of-a-kind effect of staggered movement. It was not only incredibly popular but also widely recognized for its artistic value, winning a grand total of nine MTV Video Music Awards.
12. Dancing In The Street — David Bowie & Mick Jagger
Dancing In The Street was much more toned down than many other videos of the 1980s, yet it is widely remembered as one of the best of the decade. Maybe it has something to do with the superstar power of David Bowie and Mick Jagger or maybe it has something to do with the now-dated fashion and dance moves (which still have an irresistible style). The video, which was shot in the streets of London, was filmed as a fundraiser for Live Aid.
13. Every Breath You Take — The Police
Every Breath You Take was first thought to be a love song before people noticed that it’s actually pretty creepy. Leave it up to Sting to pen a ballad that is clearly about a stalker, but make it subtle enough to be mistaken as a romantic song. The music video makes things a bit clearer, as the singer stares intensely into the camera while playing his upright bass.
14. Straight Outta Compton — N.W.A.
N.W.A. was one of the earliest hip hop groups, helping launch the careers of rap artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The 1988 song Straight Outta Compton served as an introductory track on the group’s debut album and is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. The accompanying music video featured the band members on the run from the police. The explicit lyrics were considered shocking for the time and resulted in radio and television edits; nevertheless, the video was groundbreaking in introducing hip hop as a medium of protesting the establishment.
15. Rhythm Nation — Janet Jackson
Much like her brother, Janet Jackson made a name for herself throughout the 1980s not only because of her music, but also her electric dance moves. They were never more on display than in her 1989 music video for Rhythm Nation. The song highlights the social injustices of the time, emphasized by the military uniforms and black-and-white videography; these were also used to illustrate the themes of racial and gender inequality. The video won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography.
16. What’s Love Got To Do With It — Tina Turner
Tina Turner’s 1984 music video for What’s Love Got To Do With It wasn’t nearly as complex as many other videos of the decade, but it still had the power to propel Tina Turner to stardom. She had already released four successful albums, but What’s Love Got To Do With It became her first No. 1 hit. The music video features Turner walking through the streets of New York City, singing and speaking with passersby while dancers accompany her. One of the backup dancers was Pamela Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen’s sister.
17. Material Girl — Madonna
Material Girl fit right in with the materialism of the 1980s, when the economy was soaring. Madonna’s 1984 music video gave a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which featured her famous song Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. The video depicts Madonna as the object of a wealthy movie director’s affection. Ultimately, love wins over money and the queen of pop isn’t swayed by the riches. It is still one of Madonna’s best-known songs and music videos. It was even homaged in 2001’s Moulin Rouge! where it was combined with a cover of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
18. Addicted to Love — Robert Palmer
Robert Palmer’s 1986 hit Addicted to Love was already placing high on the charts when he released his music video. It was considered remarkable at the time thanks to its unique and artistic interpretation. The video depicted Palmer singing to the camera, surrounded by models as his bandmates. The models were intended to imitate store mannequins with lifeless, blank expressions. Addicted to Love was voted one of the best music videos of the 1980s and has been wildly parodied by artists across many genres.
19. Me Myself & I — De La Soul
De La Soul’s 1989 music video for Me Myself & I took a bold step into the emerging world of hip hop. In the age of aggressive, often vulgar rap songs, De La Soul set a marked contrast with a song that was more relaxed and introspective. The music video uses a classroom storyline to illustrate the song’s focus on racial inequality and class divides. It was remarkable for its role in the development of early hip hop, which was marked at the time by heavier, more aggressive groups like N.W.A.
20. Love Shack — The B-52s
There are few music videos that are more quintessentially 80s than the 1989 video for Love Shack. Music throughout the decade had pushed the envelope on what was acceptable in pop culture, exploring many dark or philosophical topics. Love Shack was a welcome break from the introspection. The music video is all about gaudy outfits, crazy dance moves, and larger-than-life hairstyles — which is exactly what we think of when we remember the 80s.
21. Sweet Child O’ Mine — Guns N’ Roses
Sweet Child O’ Mine debuted in 1987, making it one of the later hits of the decade. Its late appearance didn’t keep it from becoming one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s, however. Interestingly, the video is fairly tame in comparison to much of MTV’s rotation at the time. It relies on alternating clips of the band rehearsing and clips of the members’ girlfriends. It was wildly popular on MTV and helped propel Guns N’ Roses to stardom.
22. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) — Eurythmics, annie lennox & dave stewart
The Eurythmics’ music video for Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) was surprisingly progressive for 1983, mainly because of singer Annie Lennox’s gender-bending, androgynous fashion. Her masculine suit and bright orange, buzzed hair made waves, which might be the biggest reason why the video was so emblematic of the time. The rest of the video isn’t terribly remarkable — and most of it is a bit unearthly — but decades later, people still remember that orange hair.
23. White Wedding — Billy Idol
Billy Idol cemented himself as an 80s icon with his 1982 music video for White Wedding. The video became one of the top features on MTV, despite the fact that some parts were censored. It featured a goth-style wedding complete with leather-clad dancers and a wedding ring made of barbed wire, which cuts the bride’s finger when it is placed. The edginess seems extreme by today’s standards, but in 1982, it was both revolutionary and a little bit shocking.
24. Girls Just Want To Have Fun — Cyndi Lauper
Long after the peak of Cyndi Lauper’s career, Girls Just Want To Have Fun might still be her best-known song. The gaudy, bizarre music video seems like peak 80s to us now, but it actually sent a message that was pretty progressive for the time. Decked out in the craziest hair and the brightest clothes, Lauper and her friends communicated that women and men really want the same thing out of life. Even those who didn’t catch the deeper message were mesmerized by Lauper’s electric vocals and dance moves.
25. Karma Chameleon — Culture Club
The 1983 song Karma Chameleon placed high on both the UK and US charts, and its music video was similarly striking. The band embraced the increasingly popular trend of telling a seemingly-unrelated story set against the backing music. The music video depicts a group of travelers on a boat in the late 19th century, dressed in red, gold, and green. They fall victim to a pickpocket who is eventually discovered and forced to walk the plank, after which they continue to celebrate as the boat travels down the river.
26. Money For Nothing — Dire Straits
The members of Dire Straits had long been vocal about their distaste for music videos, so it seems strange to see them on a list of best music videos of the decade. Something must have changed by 1985 when they released Money For Nothing. The music video relied heavily on animation to accommodate singer Mark Knopfler’s dislike of performing in “fake” or gimmicky settings. The result was some of the earliest computer animation combined with live-action performances. The music video became wildly popular, propelling Dire Straits to stardom.
27. When Doves Cry — Prince
Prince makes this list twice, and some people might argue that he earns even more spots for his music videos throughout the 80s. He was a master of crafting his public image through carefully-curated music videos that emphasized both his gender fluidity and his sex symbol status. When Doves Cry might be the best example of this, featuring a naked Prince emerging from a bathtub. The 1984 video caused waves and was nominated by MTV for Best Choreography.
28. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) — Kate Bush
Long before the song’s resurgence in popularity due to the Netflix show Stranger Things, Kate Bush’s music video was widely recognized for its uniqueness and creativity. The video, released in 1985, was emblematic of Bush’s ethereal, otherworldly style. It featured soft lighting, unique outfits, and Bush herself performing an interpretive dance. It might not have been as popular in the mainstream, but that is one quality that makes it stand out among the music videos of the 1980s.
29. Once in a Lifetime — Talking Heads
Released in 1980, Talking Heads came at the earliest stages of MTV. The low-budget, simple music video caught people’s attention maybe just for how bare-bones it really was. It featured David Byrne dancing and singing in front of a green screen showing videos of religious rituals and dances. The religious theme was emphasized by Byrne’s inspiration from Christian preachers, which is evident in his singing style. Even more remarkable was his erratic, jerky dance movements, many of which were based on the rituals depicted in the video clips behind him.
30. Billie Jean — Michael Jackson
The early 80s saw Michael Jackson make a meteoric rise to stardom, and his music videos were a huge part of it. In the first few years of the decade, he released Beat It, Thriller, and Billie Jean, three songs whose accompanying music videos became wildly popular. Like the other videos, Billie Jean showcased Jackson’s dancing talent. MTV initially refused to air it, saying that music from a black artist like Jackson didn’t fit in with their sound. After being threatened with a lawsuit, executives relented, and Billie Jean became the first widely-aired music video by a black musician. It is now considered one of the best music videos of all time.
31. Love is a Battlefield — Pat Benatar
Anger is the underlying emotion in Pat Benatar’s 1983 Love is a Battlefield, and the music video crafts a perfect storyline out of it. It depicts Benatar getting into a fight with her manipulative father and storming out of her house. She eventually goes to a city where she becomes a dancer in a club. Seeing the women there being abused by the club owner, she leads them in a dance revolution to victory. The music video was interpreted as a commentary on gender inequality and the need for feminism.
32. Ghostbusters — Ray Parker Jr.
No one can mention the 80s without talking about Ghostbusters. The main theme song, performed by R&B legend Ray Parker Jr., was popular enough to hit the music charts even separately from the film. The accompanying music video depicted Parker as a phantom dancing alongside CGI figures and scenes from the movie. If you keep an eye on the celebrities appearing in brief cameos, you will spot Danny DeVito and John Candy, among others.
33. Walk This Way — Run-DMC feat. Aerosmith
Run-DMC and Aerosmith set their sights high with their 1986 collaboration Walk This Way. Back in the 80s, hard rock and hip hop just didn’t mix, so the combination was downright revolutionary. The music video perfectly encapsulated the dichotomy between the genres, showing Aerosmith and Run-DMC each trying to rehearse in adjoining rooms. Each group annoys the other until they break the wall down and eventually join one another onstage. The video gained widespread attention not just for its star power but also for its unique collaboration.
34. Hungry Like The Wolf — Duran Duran
Duran Duran set the standard for music videos throughout the rest of the decade with the 1982 video for Hungry Like The Wolf. The video, which was filmed in Sri Lanka, not only helped make them one of the most famous bands of the 1980s, but also set the stage for the kind of cinematic storytelling that would become standard. The video is a not-so-subtle Indiana Jones tribute that won the 1984 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.
35. No Sleep Till Brooklyn — Beastie Boys
No Sleep Till Brooklyn, released in 1987, quickly became one of the Beastie Boys’ signature songs. The music video made waves in the changing music industry of the late 1980s, which saw fusions of punk rock, metal, rap, and other genres. The Beastie Boys’ music video parodied these genres by depicting the band first as rockers, rappers, heavy metal players, and more. It was a standout even in an era that was rife with parodies and self-mockery.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.