Many rock bands formed in the 1980s and had a significant impact on music culture at the time. True music fans are well aware of how the decade shaped the evolution of rock music. Here’s our list of the best bands of the 80s:
1. Guns N’ Roses
From Los Angeles, California, Guns N’ Roses is definitely one of the most influential USA rock bands in history. After giving just about every American band on our list a six-year head start, Guns N’ Roses soared to the top mainly on the merits of only one studio album. They debuted in 1985 with frontman Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin, bass player Duff McKagan, and the iconic guitarist Slash forming a formidable band of superstar talent.
Appetite for Destruction was a true generational shift, removing the pretense and excess that had crept into mainstream rock music. ‘GN’R Lies,’ released in 1988, included a half-worth album of new acoustic material, proving the band wasn’t a one-hit-wonder.
James Hetfield, vocalist/guitarist, and drummer Lars Ulrich, founded the band in Los Angeles in 1981. Metallica dominated the decade sprinting from one award to the next – best new metal band, coolest metal band, the most essential metal band – at lightning speed. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo are among many who have joined the band. Having outdone themselves artistically and financially with each of its first three albums, the band was devastated by the demise of bassist Cliff Burton in a charter bus accident in 1986.
The band finished the decade as the undisputed kings of metal, and, miraculously, they would soon win the title of the world’s greatest rock band.
3. Van Halen
Lead singer David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and drummer Alex Van Halen are the founding members of the American hard rock band Van Halen. Van Halen had the most constant commercial success of any 1980s rock band, with six multi-platinum albums released between 1980 and 1988.
Sammy Hagar and Wolfgang Van Halen were among the later members. Already the leader of a new school of guitar wizards, Eddie Van Halen virtually single-handedly introduced keyboards to hard rock with the band’s first and only No. 1 song, “Jump.” Their album “1984,” which included the hits “Jump” and “Panama,” sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
R.E.M., an Athens, Georgia-based rock band, was founded in 1980 by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe. The unidentified quartet that would become R.E.M. performed their debut gig at a friend’s birthday celebration when the 1980s were only four months old. Out of Time and Automatic for the People were REM’s most successful and popular albums. The Athens, Ga.-based band progressively built their fan base over the decade, combining the Byrds’ folky Rickenbacker jangle with post-punk fury and Michael Stipe’s dense, sometimes indecipherable lyrics.
The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. However, switching to Don Gehman, the producer of John Mellencamp’s ‘Lifes Rich Pageant,’ for 1986’s ‘Lifes Rich Pageant,’ helped them loosen up their sound.
5. Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi is an American rock band founded in Sayreville, New Jersey, in 1983. Jon Bongiovi’s early twenties were a period of growth for him. With his first track, “Runaway,” the inexperienced rocker received regional radio airplay in New York. As word of the song spread, the leader put together a band, which included guitarist Richie Sambora.
By 1984, the band had a record deal, a name, and a debut album in the form of ‘Bon Jovi.’ The album featured a re-recorded version of “Runaway,” which became a hit in the United States, peaking at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. Bon Jovi has 16 studio albums, five compilations, and three live albums.
6. Mötley Crüe
Mötley Crüe is an American heavy metal band founded in 1981 in Los Angeles. The seriousness, glamour, luxury, and spandex are all present. Motley Crue was perhaps the ultimate band that best embodied ’80s rock.
After honing their craft on the famed Sunset Strip, the band released their debut album, ‘Too Fast For Love,’ in 1981. ‘Shout at the Devil’ would confirm their spot as one of rock’s most thrilling acts. Mötley Crüe’s albums have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Conservative groups condemned the band’s wicked methods, but spectators lauded their great concerts. With hit after hit, the band would rule the decade.
7. ZZ Top
With their blues-inspired guitar skills and trademark facial hair, ZZ Top pays homage to their Texas heritage. Unlike many other bands on this list, ZZ Top did not have to make a comeback or overcome personal difficulties to find their place in the 1980s.
In 2004, the members of the band—singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard—were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Synthesizers and music videos suddenly attached to the back of a career that had been steadily ascending for a decade. Their album “Eliminator,” which includes the songs “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs,” has sold over 10 million copies in the United States. The Texas quartet shot to fame thanks to the computer-assisted slickness of 1983’s ‘Eliminator,’ which included a series of amusing visuals.
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red-Hot Chili Peppers are an American rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1983. The participants were high school classmates who prioritized recreational activities over formal education.
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ early years were in the 1980s, with singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Jack Irons, and guitarist Hillel Slovak forming the band in 1983. They are certainly one of the best alternative rock bands in history. In 1984, the trio issued its self-titled debut album, which showcased the group’s unique blend of funk and rock.
9. The Cars
The Cars sprang to prominence in the late 1970s, but in the 1980s, they established themselves as the dominant new wave band. “Good Times Roll,” Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” were among the band’s early hits. Even yet, ‘Shake It Up,’ released in 1981, sparked new interest, reaching platinum sales and a hit with the title single. The band’s final album of the era, ‘Door to Door,’ was released in 1987. However, it fell short of the expectations set by their previous efforts. In February of 1988, the Cars officially disbanded.
10. Hall & Oates
Daryl Hall and John Oates, the best-selling duo in music history, had six #1 smash singles in the mid-’80s, featuring “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “Maneater.” Hall & Oates shifted their sound from a blue-eyed soul ensemble to a polished pop duo with soul inflections when their trio of mid-’70s hits disappeared from the charts. In 2014, the team was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
They ran 12 Top-10 hits, including five No. 1s, over the next four years, starting with 1981’s “Kiss on My List,” en route to becoming the largest pair of the rock era. They returned in 1988 with ‘Ooh Yeah!,’ which gave them another hit with “Everything Your Heart Desires,” their last single.
11. Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth, a New York City-based American rock band, debuted in 1981. Sonic Youth’s distinctive kind of music enlightened the globe to creative forms of rock. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo were original members, with Steve Shelley joining in 1985 after a series of short-term drummers. From 1999 through 2005, Jim O’Rourke and Mark Ibold were also members of the band. In 2011, the band gave its final performance. It’s considered one of the best rock bands of the 1980s.
Journey’s only member who appeared on all of the band’s albums is Neal Schon. Greg Rolie, Ross Valory, George Tickner, and Prairie Prince are among the other founding members. Journey had become a platinum-selling band at the start of the 1980s.
They kicked out the decade with the release of ‘Departure,’ an album that yielded the song “Any Way You Want It.” With ‘Frontiers,’ released in 1983, Journey showed no signs of slowing down, selling millions of copies and marking hits with “Separate Ways” and “Faithfully.”
‘Journey Escape,’ a video game for the Atari 2600, was built in which gamers attempted to navigate the band through swarms of groupies, paparazzi, and promoters on their way to their next show.
“Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Separate Ways,” and “Faithfully” are among the top hits.
13. The Bangles
The Bangles are a Los Angeles-based pop-rock band established in 1981. “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “In Your Room,” and “Eternal Flame” were among the band’s tracks that clinched a spot among the best the 80s had to offer.
Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, Debbi Peterson, and Michael Steele were the founders of the band’s classic composition. It’s one of the 80s’ greatest rock bands, and for good reason.
14. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
With ‘Damn the Torpedoes,’ released only months before the 1970s ended, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers entered the 1980s as a rising star. Unlike many renowned names based on 1960s ideas, Petty realized the importance of music videos as both artistic and marketing drivers early on. His unique videos for songs like “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” helped the pieces reach the Top 20. In the second half of the decade, Petty’s career nearly fell apart, but he bounced back in 1989 with the quintuple-platinum ‘Full Moon Fever.’ Although it was billed as a solo album, it included significant contributions from Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and two of the backup band’s other three members.
Ratt is a San Diego-based glam metal band that rose to prominence in the 1980s, with albums certified as gold, platinum, and multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Stephen Pearcy, Robbin Crosby, Warren DeMartini, Juan Croucier, and Bobby Blotzer constituted the band’s iconic lineup.
Blondie’s popularity in the 1980s was primarily limited to the first few years of the decade, but what a run. Between 1980 and 1981, the band released three of their four No. 1 singles, with “Heart of Glass” (1979) missing out. “Call Me,” a driving, addictive tribute to hedonism, was sung and co-written by Blondie. The song fits the film’s tone, but it also effectively depicts ’80s decadence at the decade’s start.
“Call Me” was an international smash and the best-selling single in the United States in 1980. Blondie’s fortunes would eventually deteriorate, culminating in 1982’s critically panned ‘Hunter’ album and the band’s disbandment later that year, but there’s no doubting that the band made significant contributions to the general sound of the 1980s.
Whitesnake epitomizes the 80s sound and everytime we hear “Here I Go Again” a rush of nostalgia overcomes us. We think that the overall style, sound and success with record smashing hits such as “Is This Love” and “Still Of The Night” secures a spot for Whitesnake as a great 80s band.
18. The Go-Go’s
The Go-blazed Go’s brightly at the start of the 1980s like a shooting star, only to fade away swiftly. Despite their brief existence, they earned their spot amongst the 80s giants on this list. It all started with their debut album, ‘Beauty and the Beat,’ released in 1981. The groundbreaking new wave record spent six weeks at the top of the ‘Billboard album chart, breaking down barriers for female groups.
‘Talk Show,’ released in 1984, had the lowest sales of the band’s previous recordings. Members of the gang began arguing behind the scenes, frustrated. Differences in creativity and drug addiction merely added gasoline to the fire in some instances. The Go-split Go’s up in May 1985 and were separated for the rest of the decade.
In the 1980s, Devo found its stride. ‘Freedom of Choice’ was their most successful album in terms of sales. The album “Freedom of Choice,” released in 1980, sold over a million copies and featured several of their best songs, like “Whip It,” “Girl U Want,” and the title track.
Devo’s brilliantly strange style of new-wave resonated with listeners worldwide. Fans dressed up in bright jumpsuits and headgear resembling Lego-style “energy domes” to match the band’s distinct look. The band would produce five studio albums during the decade, including ‘Oh, No!’ To those already mentioned, add ‘It’s Devo’ (1982), ‘Shout’ (1984), and ‘Total Devo’ (1988). Other artists may have sold more records or filled more venues, but few have had the same impact on the era as Devo.
20. Skid Row
Skid Row is an American rock band founded in 1986 in Toms River, New Jersey. The group achieved mainstream success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with its first two albums, Skid Row (1989) and Slave to the Grind (1991), certified multi-platinum.
Poison is an American gothic metal band that started in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1983. The group was a commercial success from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, selling 15 million copies in the United States and over 50 million albums globally. Bret Michaels may be still relevant for other reasons than his music, but that doesn’t detract the impact that Poison had as a band overall.
Aerosmith dragged into the 1980s at an average vigor, with guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford departing before the band’s debut album of the decade, ‘Rock in a Hard Place,’ was completed in 1982. The original fivesome regrouped for a tour a few years later, and the tragically overlooked ‘Done With Mirrors’ was released in 1985.
But it wasn’t until 1987’s ‘Permanent Vacation,’ when the band got sober and embraced outside songwriters, that they rose to superstardom once more. That brilliant album and their even better 1989 follow-up, ‘Pump,’ created an endless stream of radio and MTV singles, earning Aerosmith the title of “comeback of the decade.”
This British ska-punk band had a more challenging time breaking through in the United States than in the United Kingdom, specifically during their heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Until 1983’s “Our House,” which broke into the top 10 thanks to MTV’s considerable music video broadcast.
Warrant, an American rock group founded in 1984 in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, had international success from 1988 until 1996, with five albums selling over 10 million copies worldwide. It is considered to be the most recognizable 80s bands due to hits like “Cherry Pie”.
25. The Pretenders
The band’s self-titled debut album was launched in January 1980 and was a commercial and critical success right away. You can object to their choice of American bands based on their origins in England, but Ohio-born frontwoman Chrissie Hynde has remained the Pretenders’ only permanent member.
Although just one single from the album reached the top 20 –”Brass in Pocket” – the album was a hit with fans and has been praised as one of the best debuts in rock history. ‘Pretenders II’ was unable to maintain the momentum established by its predecessor. Even though the band’s lineup constantly changed, the hits kept coming. The band went on hiatus in 1989. This transfer marked the end of a period marked by victory and upheaval, but what a success it was.
The winger is an American heavy metal band from New York City that rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The group received an American Music Award nomination for “Best New Heavy Metal Band” in 1990.
27. Huey Lewis And The News
Patrick Bateman, we’re looking at you for some input on this one.
Clean and polished, Huey Lewis and The News were certainly radio friendly. This helped establish them as a bonafide household name throughout the 80s. With so many countless radio singles throughout the 80s, it’s hard to leave these guys off of this list. We’d say that the album “Sports” in 1983 became their most important album in terms of launching them into the greats of the 80s (with their self-titled debut album not receiving much attention). This success would continue on their next LP “Fore!” in 1986. While they may have closed the decade with less commercial success, they were a flame that burned quite bright throughout the mid 1980s, and as such they deserve a spot on this list.
Kiss was dragging behind at the start of the 1980s. Their first two albums were on the verge of colliding with a stone wall. In 1982’s ‘Creatures of the Night’ and the audacious Hail Mary they launched the next year – stripping off their makeup and simplifying their sound for the hair metal period with “Lick It Up,” they were reborn artistically. Kiss was back as stadium superstars, with singles like “Heaven’s On Fire,” “Tears Are Falling,” and “Forever” keeping them on MTV’s radar.
29. ‘Til Tuesday
‘Til Tuesday’s claim to fame, aside from its brilliant frontwoman, was the 1985 top 10 song “Voices Carry,” which couldn’t be avoided on radio stations or MTV no matter how hard you tried. ‘Til Tuesday was a Boston-based new wave band. From 1982 until 1989, the band featured Aimee Mann, Robert Holmes, Joey Pesce, and Michael Hausman.
Heart had a slow start to the 1980s. ‘Bebe le Strange’ (1980), ‘Private Audition’ (1982), and ‘Passionworks’ (1983) were their first three albums of the 80s. The band was dumped by their label due to poor sales, only to be picked up by Capitol. The decision resulted in some of the band’s most commercially successful songs (our favorite has to be “Alone”). A decade that began with a decreasing trend became one of Heart’s defining periods.
Queen is certainly one of the best bands of all time, but many believe their best period was in the 1970s. However, they had so many hits in the 1980s that it’s hard to not include them on this list, too. Look, it’s Queen and they were rocking hard in the 80s, so they definitely deserve a spot here.
The 1980s were a period of enormous rock dominance, with hair metal, glam rock, and new wave paving the way for new performers while also offering new inspiration for older groups. This was (arguably) the best decade in music history, including some of the best albums and artists in the genre’s history. Technology also influenced rock, as the experimentation with electronic keyboards that began in the 1970s intensified as other instruments became more popular. Guitarist-based artists sought to incorporate them into their sound. Let’s look at the 80s rock bands who ruled the decade.
The music industry had its greatest decade in the 1980s, in our opinion.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and 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.