The new wave genre arose in the 1970s, a conglomeration of many subsets of rock. These included everything from punk to ska, synth-pop, and more. It might be difficult to define, but there is no denying that these top new wave songs deserve to go down in history.
1. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) — Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, And Dave Stewart
British band Eurythmics wasn’t widely known outside their native UK until they released Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) in 1983. The music video, as well as singer Annie Lennox’s unique look, caught the world’s attention; as a result, the song was an international hit. It rose to the top of the charts in both the US and the UK and remains the band’s best-known hit.
2. Don’t Stand So Close To Me — The Police
The Police’s 1980 single Don’t Stand So Close To Me was written with their fanbase in mind. The group had a large number of teenage fans, which inspired the song about a teacher having a sexual relationship with a student. It was a hit around the world, earning a Grammy Award For Best Rock Performance By A Group the following year.
3. Always Something There To Remind Me — Naked Eyes
Always Something To Remind Me was first composed in the 1960s and recorded by multiple artists during the decade. But the song became most famous when the new wave band Naked Eyes covered it in 1983. Their version gave it a modern, synth-pop-inspired makeover that propelled it to international attention.
4. Video Killed The Radio Star — The Buggles
Video Killed The Radio Star was released in 1979 and was famously the first video to air on MTV when it began in 1981. It was a massive hit in the UK and Australia but a sleeper hit in the US before climbing to the top of the charts in 1980. The song’s lyrics are a commentary on the rapidly-changing technology of the 20th century.
5. I Don’t Like Mondays — The Boomtown Rats
British band The Boomtown Rats composed the song I Don’t Like Mondays about the 1979 shooting spree of Brenda Ann Spencer, who opened fire on an elementary school playground one morning. The title came from her reply when a journalist asked her why she had done it.
6. The Big Country — Talking Heads
The Big Country is a 1978 new wave song by Talking Heads. The track describes flying over a beautiful suburb, but the singer insists that he would never live there. Frontman David Byrne has said that the song is a tongue-in-cheek response to the people who called him a snob who looked down on small-town communities.
7. Christine — Siouxsie And The Banshees
Siouxsie And The Banshees made a musical departure from their past work with the 1980 song Christine. The track features instrumentals such as acoustic guitar and electric organ. The song is about Christine Sizemore, whose struggle with dissociative identity disorder was chronicled in the book The Three Faces Of Eve.
8. Blue Monday 88 — New Order
New Order’s 1983 song Blue Monday 88 has been widely praised, becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time in the band’s native UK. The track was driven by distinctive synthesizer music, which would become a feature of their musical direction throughout the decade. It was composed to provide a simple encore for their live performances.
9. Rock Lobster — The B-52’s
The B-52’s were known for composing songs that have strange and nonsensical lyrics, and their 1978 track Rock Lobster certainly falls into that category. The song is a description of a party with a variety of marine animals in attendance, both real and fantastical. There are also silly noises in the background to add to the absurdity.
10. Tainted Love — Soft Cell
Tainted Love was first composed in the 1960s before the advent of the new wave genre. But the song received a second life when the band Soft Cell covered it in 1981. The duo gave it a new wave makeover, swapping out synthesizers for the original instruments.
11. Don’t You (Forget About Me) — Simple Minds
Scottish band Simple Minds released Don’t You (Forget About Me) in 1985. It was famously featured in the John Hughes’ film The Breakfast Club, which played a significant role in the track’s popularity. Today, it is considered one of the quintessential songs of the 1980s new wave.
12. Come On Eileen — Dexys Midnight Runners And Kevin Rowland
English band Dexys Midnight Runners fused new wave with traditional Irish music and instruments in their 1982 single, Come On Eileen. The track was a hit around the world and is still one of the most popular songs to come out of the UK new wave genre of the 1980s.
13. You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) — Dead Or Alive
You Spin Me ‘Round (Like a Record) was one of the biggest hits of 1985. The new wave dance-pop song was released by the UK band Dead Or Alive, which had previously only seen moderate success. The hook was later sampled by hip hop singer Flo Rida in his 2009 song, Right Round.
14. Only The Lonely — The Motels
Only The Lonely was The Motels’ brooding song, released in 1982, about the loneliness and pointlessness of success. The track was a hit, particularly because of its music video. It marked a departure from the band’s older sound and was inspired in part by frontwoman Martha Davis’ grief over her parents’ deaths.
15. Watching The Detectives — Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello’s eclectic contributions to music spanned genres from new wave to punk rock and, in the case of 1977’s Watching The Detectives, even reggae. The track combined reggae and new wave in an ambitious fusion project, with a cynical story about two lovers losing interest in one another.
16. Love Will Tear Us Apart — Joy Division
Joy Division was an influential British band in both the alt-rock and new wave genres throughout the 1980s. Their 1980 hit Love Will Tear Us Apart is one of their most iconic tracks. It was inspired by frontman Ian Curtis’ adulthood diagnosis of epilepsy and his fears about fame. This was released mere weeks after Curtis’ death by suicide.
17. Vienna — Ultravox
Britpop band Ultravox released Vienna in 1981, and it quickly became a staple of both the band’s repertoire and the new wave genre as a whole. The song contrasts a grandiose, over-the-top classical romance ballad with an ending that slumps as the singer realizes the romance wasn’t that important to him.
18. Another Girl, Another Planet — The Only Ones
Another Girl, Another Planet largely escaped mainstream notice when it was released in 1978. It was only years later that it hit the charts in New Zealand and music critics came to regard it as an excellent new wave song. It has come to be regarded as an excellent piece, both musically and lyrically.
19. To Hell With Poverty — Gang Of Four
Gang Of Four’s 1981 hit To Hell With Poverty is lyrically ambiguous, leaving its meaning open to interpretation. The song is written from the point of view of a working-class person forswearing poverty, knowing that their money will go right back into their employer’s hands the moment they spend it.
20. The Things That Dreams Are Made Of — The Human League
The Things That Dreams Are Made Of was originally released in 1981. At the time, it was a modest success, becoming a staple of The Human League’s live shows. But it wasn’t until 2008, when the song was remixed as a dance version, that it became a hit, peaking at number two on the UK dance charts.
21. One Way Or Another — Blondie
At its surface, Blondie’s 1978 hit One Way Or Another sounds like a playful song of flirtation or seduction. But it was actually inspired by the lead singer’s experience with an obsessed stalker, which caused her to move across the country. It has been called one of the band’s best tracks.
22. Psycho Killer — Talking Heads
Talking Heads’ 1977 song Psycho Killer has caused questions about the nature of the lyrics since it was first released. It seems to follow the thought process of a serial killer, disguised under a catchy, punchy beat. The song has been called one of the essential tracks in the development of modern rock and roll.
23. Rock Me Amadeus — Falco
Falco was an Austrian musician who normally may have been unknown on the international music scene, if not for his 1985 hit Rock Me Amadeus. The song remains the only single in German to hit number one in both the US and the UK. It depicts the life of Mozart as a superstar of the 18th century, much like modern-day rock musicians.
24. I Want Candy — Bow Wow Wow
I Want Candy was originally released in the 1960s, though this version wasn’t widely successful. In 1982, the British band Bow Wow Wow gave the single a new wave cover, which led to it becoming widely known. It has come to be considered one of the essential songs of the genre.
25. Passion Is No Ordinary Word — Graham Parker & The Rumour
Passion Is No Ordinary Word is proof that new wave can go in many different directions. The 1979 song by British musician Graham Parker is a ballad about repressing one’s feelings. Though it wasn’t a chart-topping hit, it has become one of his signature songs, with the singer saying that it is one of his own favorites.
26. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out — The Smiths
The Smiths were a huge influence on the genres of alt-rock and new wave through the last few decades of the 20th century. Initially released in 1986, it didn’t receive widespread attention until after the group disbanded in the late 1980s. These days, it has been recognized as one of the best new wave songs of all time.
27. Never Say Never — Romeo Void
Romeo Void perfected the art of creative satire with their 1982 new wave hit Never Say Never. The music video was hugely popular in the early days of MTV as a parody of Godard’s Breathless. It was popular on the mainstream rock charts and has become widely associated with the new wave scene of the early 1980s.
28. Underpass — John Foxx
John Foxx had previously been a member of Ultravox before starting a solo career in the late 1970s. His first release was 1980s Underpass. Though the song was highly experimental and did not feature extensive vocals—except for a few verses spoken in a robotic monotone, followed by a repeated chorus.
29. Ghost Town — The Specials
New wave, like many other emerging genres of the 1970s and 1980s, often tackled social issues of the time. The 1981 single Ghost Town by the British band The Specials was released during extensive riots throughout the UK, prompted by police violence and racial discrimination. The song includes commentary on poverty and unemployment, which were rife in Britain at the time.
30. Tank — The Stranglers
The Stranglers released Tank in 1978, at the height of the development of new wave music. The song is a commentary on nationalism and the pride of sending men off to war. The album, along with the track, was critically acclaimed and considered some of the band’s best work, though the single failed to chart.
31. Hungry Like The Wolf — Duran Duran
Duran Duran was highly popular throughout the 1980s, but one of their best-known songs is 1982’s Hungry Like The Wolf. The track’s music video, which was filmed in the Sri Lankan jungle, was a hit on MTV and propelled the band to international fame. It also won a Grammy Award the following year.
32. Two Tribes — Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Frankie Goes To Hollywood was a leader on the new wave scene, and one of the band’s best songs was 1984’s Two Tribes. The track was a war protest song at the height of the Cold War. It contrasts the war’s major powers, with battling melodies of American funk music and traditional Russian instrumentals.
33. Just What I Needed — The Cars
Just What I Needed isn’t just a new wave song; it also draws elements from pop rock and hard rock. The 1978 track from The Cars was a hit, with critics praising the combination of high-energy, danceable instrumentals with the excellent vocal performance from frontman Benjamin Orr.
34. Our House — Madness
British band Madness released Our House in 1983, a new wave and reggae fusion song that became their biggest hit. The track also became well-known for its music video, which depicted the members of the band as a working-class family, including one male member dressed in drag to play a mother figure.
35. Senses Working Overtime — XTC
Senses Working Overtime was one of many British new wave hits in the early 1980s. It was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic and was also known for its music video, which pioneered the use of double-speed shooting.
36. I Could Be Happy — Altered Images
Scottish band Altered Images wasn’t widely known in the US—until 1982 when they released I Could Be Happy. The song charted around the world and became highly popular on MTV thanks to its unique and innovative music video.
37. The Killing Moon — Echo & The Bunnymen
The Killing Moon was a 1984 hit that was praised for its complex instrumental elements as well as its introspective lyrics. The music drew inspiration from David Bowie, orchestral scores, and Russian balalaika music. Composer Ian McCulloch believed he had been divinely inspired to write the song.
38. Just Can’t Get Enough — Depeche Mode
English band Depeche Mode was largely categorized as an electronic music group, but their 1981 song Just Can’t Get Enough existed in the space between synth-pop and new wave. The track was popular on the dance charts in the US as well as on the singles charts in the UK and Australia.
39. Echo Beach — Martha And The Muffins
Canadian rock group Martha And The Muffins wasn’t widely known outside their homeland, but their 1980 song Echo Beach was an international hit. The song was inspired by a fantasy place described in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Ultravox.
40. Whip It — Devo
New wave bands of the 1980s and 1990s found freedom in writing songs with meaningless lyrics, and audiences didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was easy to find meaning in the lack of meaning—which was part of the point. Devo’s 1980 hit Whip It was only one of many new wave tracks that followed this philosophy.
41. Down Under — Men At Work
Australian band Men At Work released Down Under in 1980. A new wave classic, it was an international hit, including in the US where it spent four weeks at number one on the charts. In Australia, the song has come to be a matter of national pride and continues to be popular to this day.
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.
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