This article contains the top 80s songs of the musically iconic decade.
If you were a 1980s child, you probably had a slap band with your favorite band’s name on it, and chances are you listened faithfully to a cassette tape with your playlist on it. Create a new playlist with these best 80s songs.
What Were the Some of the Best Songs of the 80s?
You can find the best songs of the decade in many different musical styles. People were open to being a little corny when it came to the music they listened to regularly. They also learned some new dance steps, like the moonwalk. Consider these 80s songs:
1. (Just Like) Starting Over by John Lennon
(Just Like) Starting Over was the last single released by John Lennon before his untimely death. The song part of Lennon’s Double Fantasy album in 1975 contains some beautiful music. After a five-year absence from the music industry, Lennon felt that the song was a great way to show fans that he was performing again. The record label released the song on October 27, 1980, in the United States, which was also when Mark David Chapman purchased the gun he used to kill Lennon.
2. (Oh) Pretty Woman by Van Halen
Van Halen was not interested in singing (Oh) Pretty Woman because the band was ready for a break after their Fair Warning Tour, but his producer insisted that the band release a single to keep its name in front of fans. Initially released by Roy Orbinson in 1964, the song was instantly successful after Van Halen’s band released their version on February 6, 1982. MTV, which was less than 6 months old, insisted on having a video. Van Halen thought up an idea featuring a drag queen to accomplish this. In the video, Michael Anthony plays a Samurai, Alex Van Halen plays Tarzen, Eddie Van Halen plays a cowboy and David Lee Roth plays Napoleon. While the video seems calm by today’s standards, MTV’s executives found it raunchy and gave it very little airplay.
3. 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton worked as a secretary for Northern Outdoor Sign when she first moved to Nashville in 1964. Directors hired her as an actress for the movie 9 to 5. After no one cared for the music written for the film, Parton wrote the song on the set, drawing inspiration from her days as a secretary and her unique hidden talent to make her nails sound like a typewriter. The song was the opening and closing theme song for the 9 to 5 television series airing from 1982 to 1988.
4. Abracadabra by The Steve Miller Band
Steve Miller wrote the music to Abracadabra, but he was not pleased with his lyrics. He had met Diana Ross in 1966 when they both appeared on NBC’s Hullabaloo. While out skiing in Sun Valley, Miller accidentally ran into Ross on the slopes. It sparked Miller’s inspiration, and he hustled down the slopes to a nearby restaurant and wrote the lyrics to this song in about 15 minutes. While the song drew a lot of airplay following its release on June 15, 1982, it did not draw big crowds to notable venues. Therefore, it marks the start of a six-year hiatus in Miller’s career before he returned as a classical performer and started drawing crowds again.
5. All Night Long (All Night) by Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie says that he never set out to create a new musical style. Instead, he watched entertainers around him and copied their primary style. Richie drew inspiration for All Night Long (All Night) from the drummer for the Commodores who Richie performed with from 1968 to 1982 to create this song that he started writing while on a Caribbean vacation. Richie called one of the embassies in Africa to learn some African words. The worker told him that Africa had many different languages, inspiring him to create the phrase “So, ‘Tambo liteh sette mo-jah!’?” after the conversation. To pronounce the Jamaican words correctly, Richie’s wife insisted he talk to her Jamaican-born gynecologist. When he called, the gynecologist put Richie on hold. Despite Richie’s fame, he insisted he could not be bothered while with a patient.
6. Angel Of Harlem by U2
U2 was an up-and-coming band from London when their lead singer was inspired to write Angels of Harlem. When they landed at JFK airport, they had never been in a limousine. The driver happened to be a person of color listening to Billie Holiday music on WBLS on the car’s radio. Bono fell in love with the sound and wrote Angels of Harlem. U2 headed to the iconic Sun Studio in Memphis to record the song. The band hired legendary “Cowboy” Jack Clement to produce the piece to get the right vibe. This producer had a long successful career producing many Motown artists who were creating songs in the vibe that the band wanted to achieve.
7. Another Brick In The Wall (Part II) by Pink Floyd
The addition of children singing in Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) was not without controversy because no one paid the children’s choir for their work. Instead, the school got a tiny payment. Additionally, the children’s choir received studio recording time and a platinum record. While it sounds like many children are singing on the single, there were only 23 children. The effect of there being many more children comes from overdubbing them 12 times.
8. Another One Bites The Dust by Queen
If Michael Jackson had not intervened, the band would not have released Another One Bites the Dust as a single. While others had suggested it, Michael Jackson was hanging out backstage after a Los Angles concert with the band when he said he thought the band should release the song as a single. The meeting led to several jam sections between Freddie Mercury, who sang this song so much that his throat bled, but they did not release any music together to the public.
9. Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes
While Bette Davis had already won two Academy Awards and received 10 nominations, she was not a big star in the eyes of her 9-year-old grandchildren until Jackie DeShannon wrote this song about her eyes that Kim Carnes turned into a hit. Upon hearing the music for the first time, Bette wrote a note to Carnes thanking her and her band for turning her into a star in her grandchildren’s mind as they thought it was so cool to have a grandmother who was the subject of a hit song.
10. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson wrote Billie Jean about a woman who accused him of being the father of one of her twins. Producer Quincy Jones found it funny that she said he was the father of only one of the twins, and this song was Jackson’s answer to the woman’s statement. The movie video for this song was the first to feature an individual of color that received heavy play on MTV. The video that millions of teens loved had everyone out in their yards trying to moonwalk.
11. Call Me by Blondie
Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder came up with the idea for this song about a prostitute. He approached Fleetwood Mac about singing the music, but he turned it down. After signing the paperwork with Blonde to sing the song, Debbie Harry made significant changes to it. The contract Moroder signed had him collaborating on several more pieces. Still, when he arrived at the studio and found the guitarist fighting with the keyboard player, he refused to work with another rock ‘n roll band ever again.
12. Careless Whisper by George Michael
George Michael wrote this song when he was 17 years old on his way to his job as an usher at a movie theater. Andrew Ridgeley later edited it. Ten saxophone players auditioned for the sax solo when it was first recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios before one player suggested slowing down the recording while he was playing and speeding it up later. The release of this song in 1984 spared rumors that Wham was breaking up, but Michael’s performed the song many times on this band’s tour before finally releasing it again after the band’s demise.
13. Centerfold by The J. Geils Band
Keyboardist Seth Justman wrote the song Centerfold for the band’s Freeze Frame album. Producer EMT singled it out to be the lead song on the album and for release as a single. The song telling the story of a guy who discovers years later that his high school crush had turned into a centerfold model was a departure from the band’s standard blue’s style.
14. Ebony And Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
For seven weeks, radio stations could not play Ebony and Ivory enough to please their listeners. Then, everyone grew tired of this song that compares racial equity to the keys on a piano and asks why everyone could not just get along. Suddenly, many who had praised it was calling this song the worse music of the decade. It has been parodied many times, including by Joe Piscopo, playing Frank Sinatra, and Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live.
15. Endless Love by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie wrote Endless Love for an unsuccessful movie by the same name starring Brooke Shields. While people hated the film, the song became very popular after its release as a single. Franco Zeffirelli asked Lionel Ritchie to write an instrumental piece, and Ritchie drew a piece of unrecorded instrumental music out of his repertoire. Zeffirelli changed his mind and said he wanted him to write a full duet for himself and Diana Ross, the most popular female vocalist in the early 1980s, to sing. Richie accepted the challenge, producing this wonderful song.
16. Every Breath You Take by The Police
Sting wrote this song for The Police’s Synchronicity album while sitting at the same desk where Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels. On the surface, this song’s key makes one think it’s a love song, but it has a very sarcastic undertone. Synchronicity was the last album from The Police because it was apparent that Sting was no longer willing to listen to his band, and they were angry about being ignored. Sting started to write a pop ballad, but he did not write a harmonic development in the middle, which was the last part of the song finished. Therefore, the song’s storyteller remains trapped as a protagonist.
17. Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor
Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan wrote The Eye of the Tiger for Rocky III. When Sylvester Stallone drafted the movie, he used Another One Bites the Dust, but he could not secure the rights to that song. Therefore, the team developed this inspirational pump up song. Initially, the duo was bothered by the lack of rhyming of eye and tiger, but they soon realized that their first draft rhymed rival with survival and decided to go with Eye of the Tiger as Stallone had already included that ling in the script.
18. Flashdance… What a Feeling by Irene Cara
Flashdance…What a Feeling was one of the first movies to insert songs as a significant way to communicate messages without turning the film into a musical. The song led the way for later creations, like Footloose and Dirty Dancing. It was a tightly guarded secret that body double Marine Jahan performed the dance scenes in the film and the music video for a long time.
19. Funkytown by Lipps Inc.
Many people growing up listening to the best 80s songs desired to move to a big city and away from small towns. Minneapolis resident Steven Greenberg, who called New York City “Funkytown”, conveyed that desire in this song. It was the first song from this group. They continued to produce new music for about four years with different musicians, but they never found the success they did with this one.
20. Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr.
In 1984, Ghostbusters movie starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver was a blockbuster hit. The film’s director Ivan Reitman insisted that Ray Parker Junior used the movie’s name in the song. After first resisting the idea, he wrote the song in just a few days. Parker took inspiration from his son, who suddenly shouted ghostbusters as the writer worked away. Yet, Parker had trouble coming up with the song. He was up at 4:30 a.m. worrying about it when he saw a commercial for a drain cleaning company. The song inspired the music to the song. Since Parker was on a tight deadline, he hired his girlfriend and some of her friends to shout the chorus.
21. Guitars, Cadillacs by Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam moved to Las Angeles with a dream to make it big in country music after the release of Urban Cowboy. Yet, he heard a lot of noise from industry insiders who could not appreciate the quality of his music. He hired Pete Anderson to play a gig with him. The two instantly hit it off. Dwight borrowed $5,000 from a friend. Pete and Dwight recorded Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc in the middle of the night when studio time was cheaper. That album’s release changed country music’s sound throughout the 1980s by combining hip-hop and traditional honky-tonk.
22. I Love Rock ’N Roll by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Arrow’s lead singer Alan Merrill and guitarist Jake Hooke wrote I Love Rock ‘N Rolln as a knee-jerk reaction to Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, where the band seems to apologize for being rock ‘n roll musicians to aristocrats. Joan Jett heard the song and fell in love with it, but the rest of The Runaways did not like the song. She finally recorded it as a B-side with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols, but it remained largely undiscovered. Then, in 1981, Jett re-recorded the song with her band, the Blackhearts, and it became a hit.
23. I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty
Someone tried to burn down Tom Petty’s home with his family, a housekeeper and himself in it. The trauma suffered by Petty after the fire was the inspiration for writing I Won’t Back Down. The song was the first released by Petty without crediting his backup band, the Heartbreakers. Petty admits that he does not like the song, which he calls a naked song. Yet, he is very proud of the number of people who have let him know that this song had an influential impact on them when they were going through a difficult time.
24. If I Had A Boat by Lyle Lovett
Almost everyone can relate to the childish language used by Lyle Lovett in If I Had a Boat. Most people can relate to Lovett’s desire to be independent. The singer tried to ride his pony across a pond as a child while attempting to be independent. The pony did not suffer any harm, and Lovett grew up to love animals and being independent. The song’s message may draw on Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Tonto for inspiration. Many people who listened to 80s music watched the Lone Ranger, so the symbolism in the song was easy for them to grasp.
25. Jump by Van Halen
Jump was the first song of the 80s to be recorded at Van Halen’s new Los Angeles studio called 5150 Studio. The studio’s name comes from the police code for a mental case. The 1984 album featuring this song was the last time that David Lee Roth appeared with this band. The band may have written parts of this song on the tour bus as early as 1979, but they always felt that it did not fit the overall theme of any of their albums. In particular, the song features a keyboard solo to be played by Eddie Van Halen. As with other attempts to include keyboard solos, David Lee Roth and Ted Templeman opposed the idea.
26. Just Called To Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder
While many who loved the funky sound of Wonder’s earlier work, like Superstition and Higher Ground, many were even more impressed with Just Called To Say I Love You because it had a middle-of-the-road sound causing many to fall in love with this artist. The song beat out other hits, including Ghostbusters, Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) and Let’s Hear it for the Boy to win an Oscar for best original song.
27. Lady by Kenny Rogers
Lionel Ritchie wrote Lady and called his lawyer and told him that he had just written a hit. His lawyer told him to give it to Kenny Rogers to perform because it would become even more significant. Ritchie did as his lawyer suggested. When he launched his solo career a year later, he captured Rogers’ audience and his own Commodore audience. This is one of the best music of the 80s because it played directly to those looking for an over-the-top love song, which was a prevalent choice during this decade.
28. Let’s Go Crazy by Prince & The Revolution
This song written for the movie Purple Rain has one of the most known intros in pop music as Prince takes on the persona of a preacher reminding people that there is an everlasting party to come in heaven. Prince likely took inspiration from similar intros in pop music written by George Clinton. The song used in Purple Rain is much longer than one released as a single so that the song would more equally balance with Erotic City in the United Kingdom and Take Me With U in the U.S.
29. Like A Virgin by Madonna
Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg considered this the best song they wrote. The pair wrote several number one songs, including Whitney Houston’s So Emotional, Hearts Alone and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors. This song is found on Madonna’s second album and cemented the idea in listeners’ minds that this artist did not shy away from controversy. Many listeners found this song caused them to question the line between sexual freedom and repression. The first time that Madonna performed the title track was at the first MTV Video Music Awards. Unlike many bands of the decade, Madonna was very comfortable using digital music. During the recording of this song, she kept asking Nile Rodgers of Chic fame why they could not just use the drum machine instead of live performers. He replied that if they did not use live musicians, then anyone could sound like Madonna.
30. Magic by Olivia Newton John
Written by Olivia Newton John’s longtime producer John Farrar for the movie Xanadu, fans fell in love with the song, but they did not like the movie, which was a box office flop. Its easy-going melody brought this artist a whole new group of followers who loved the song’s major faith and destiny message. Newton released this single with Food Country in the United States and Whenever You’re Away From Me in the United Kingdom on the reverse side. You can hear both songs in the Xanadu movie, but they are not on the movie’s soundtrack album.
31. Maneater by Hall and Oates
Many people fell in love with the elegant ideas presented by easy-to-sing lyrics, like “a she-cat tamed by the purr of a Jaguar” in Maneater. Many also fell in love with the saxophone playing of Charles “Mr. Casual” DeChant in this song.
32. Mountain Music by Alabama
Randy Owens almost couldn’t get his record label RCA to give the go-ahead to record Mountain Music. First, label executives insisted that radio stations would never play it because of the drum solo. They also emphasized that some lyrics in the song, like “Skinnin’ cats,” were too hard for people to understand. Instead of failing, this song became one of the band’s biggest hits.
33. Old Hippie by Bellamy Brothers
Old Hippie takes a realistic look at the men and women who served in World War II and the war’s aftermath on those lucky enough to make it home. For many listeners in the 1980s, it struck a chord between optimism and reality that they appreciated.
34. Passionate Kisses by Lucinda Williams
While many remember Passionate Kisses as the song that gave Mary Chapin Carpenter her first Grammy, Lucinda Williams recorded the song for her album four years earlier. In 1984, Williams, who wrote the song, moved with her boyfriend to Los Angeles and wrote the song along with The Night’s Too Long and most of the songs on her Rough Trader album within a year.
35. Physical by Olivia Newton John
Songwriters Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick wrote about the physical side of sex in this hit recorded by Olivia Newton John. Many listeners found that a refreshing switch from the usual romantic songs. The timing was great as MTV had just started when the song’s video was released. It jumps on the theme of aerobics, which was becoming a popular form of exercise and on the issue of gay men as a group of men pair off with each other as this song about physical sex comes to an end.
36. Queen Of Hearts by Juice Newton
Queen of Hearts reached a top 10 chart position in the United States, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and South Africa. The song, written by Hank DeVito, uses a gambling motif to show that even though the song’s lead character had fallen in love, she knew it was a bad idea from the beginning. The song sparked controversy because Dave Edmunds recorded the music first and claimed that Newton stole his arrangement, but she is the one that turned it into a hit.
37. Rock and a Hard Place by The Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger says that Rock and a Hard Place is one of those songs with a 70s vibe that the moment you hear the first note, you head to the dance floor. This song recorded at Montserrat’s AIR Studios and London’s Olympic Studios was released in October and November 1989, so it barely made the cut off to be one of the songs of the 80s. It was the second single released from the band’s Steel Cover album.
38. Say Say Say by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson called Paul McCartney on Christmas Day in 1980 and suggested they collaborate on some songs. The duo first worked on Say Say Say in 1981, but it was not the first of the three songs that they eventually collaborated on was The Girl is Mine, which appeared on Jackson’s Thriller album. Producers released this song and The Man on McCartney’s Pipes of Peace album.
39. Say You, Say Me by Lionel Richie
Ritchie earned an Oscar for Best Original Song for Say You, Say Me. Director Taylor Hackford ordered it as the theme song for Winter Nights. While Atlantic Records wanted to release this song on the movie’s soundtrack album, Motown, who owed Richie’s contract, refused. Therefore, they released it in 1984 and on the Dancing on the Ceiling album in 1986.
40. Seven Year Ache by Rosanna Cash
Rosanna Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, penned this song after a fight with her husband at a French restaurant in Los Angeles, California. It is doubtful that her husband was playing around because he directed this song’s production. It was released on an album by the same name, with every piece having something to do with being in love, falling out of love and reconciliation. This album proved that Rosanna could step out of her father’s shadow and was the first one she went on tour to promote.
41. Shout by Tears for Fears
Inspired by the book Prisoners Of Pain, Shout by Tears for Fears features the Primal therapy technique. Besides Roland Orzabal, who wrote this song, John Lennon and others went through this type of therapy. The record label released it on the album Songs From the Big Chair, which takes its name after the popular Sybil movie.
42. Smoky Mountain Rain by Ronnie Millsap
After years of failure, Ronnie Millsap finally found success with Smoky Mountain Rain. Dennis Morgan and Kye Fleming wrote this song that Tom Collins produced. The writers originally called this song Appalachian Rain but changed it after discovering Millsap’s background. It was put on Millsap’s greatest hits album as an afterthought.
43. Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones
One of the most iconic Rolling Stones songs, Start Me Up, featured sexually implicit lyrics that did not always make sense and had distinctive guitar riffs. They originally recorded the song in 1977 but were unhappy with the results. It reemerged on the Tattoo You album in 1981. This song was one of the first from this band to be featured on MTV and cemented the band’s following with Americans. Many viewers were introduced to new music through MTV before purchasing the album and concert tickets.
44. Stuck With You by Huey Lewis and the News
Huey Lewis and the News released Stuck With You in 1988 on the band’s fourth album. Chris Hayes and lead singer Huey Lewis wrote this song about a girl that Huey loved but did not necessarily have the same feelings about him. When he showed her the song, she hated it.
45. Sussudio by Phil Collins
Phil Collins knew he needed to write a new song, but he wasn’t feeling inspired. He set up a drum machine pad, a keyboard and a microphone. Suddenly, the word Sussudio came out of his mouth. He tried to find a word to replace it, so he used it as a girl’s name in this hit describing a grade-school love affair. When accused that his song sounded a lot like Prince’s 1999, he did not deny the fact.
46. That’s What Friends Are For by Dionne & Friends
That’s What Friends Are For was initially written as the closing credit song for the movie Night Stalk. In 1985, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight remade the song to raise money for Aids research, a misunderstood disease in the 80s. In addition to raising over $500,000 for research, the song received a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by A Duo Or Group With Vocal and Song Of The Year. It was the first time that a Grammy was given to Elgon John.
47. Forever And Ever Amen by Randy Travis
Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote Forever and Ever Amen that Randy Travis released on his Always and Forever album in 1987. Schlitz’sSchlitz’s son, who often told his mother that he would love her forever and ever after saying his nightly prayers, inspired this song. Schlitz brought the song idea to Overstreet, and the duo wrote the song in about two hours.
48. The Waiting by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty says that waiting for this song to develop was a painful process. He says that he quickly wrote the song’s chorus after hearing Janis Joplin say that waiting was the hardest part on television. The band released the song on its Hard Promise album, which the band considered charging $1 more than the average price because of their popularity.
49. Total Eclipse Of The Heart by Bonnie Tyler
Jim Steinman, who wrote numerous hits for Meat Loaf, wrote Total Eclipse of the Heart. Meat Loaf was suffering some financial difficulties, and his record label had instructed him to write his own music. Therefore, this song went to Bonnie Tyler. This song was the first song by a singer from Wales to enter the U.S charts. Tyler’s distinctive voice is a result of throat cancer, which she developed in 1976.
50. Upside Down by Diana Ross
Diana Ross’ biggest hit as a solo performer was Upside Down. She ended up writing the music herself after telling her producers to find her something fun to sing. She attended a Chic concert and later told reporters backstage that she wanted her concerts to sound like that during her solo career. She released the song on her 1980 album.
51. Waiting For A Girl Like You by Foreigner
Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones says that he had no control over this song because it simply came out. Lead singer Lou Gramm who assisted with the writing, concurs. Many considered this one of the best songs of the 80s for uniting people, and many incorporated it into their weddings. The song opens with a synthesizer intro played by Thomas Dolby, which was very unusual for a Foreigner tune.
52. What’s Love Got To Do With It by Tina Turner
Songwriters Terry Britten and Graham Lyle gave What’s Love Got to do With it to Tina Turner. She hated it. Turner was launching her solo career after enduring spousal abuse and was following the advice of her manager Roger Davies, who instantly fell in love with the song that talks about a woman in a relationship because she enjoyed sex but felt no emotional ties. The song was one of the biggest hits of Turner’s career, winning her three Grammy awards.
53. Wild And Blue by John Anderson
Wild and Blue was the first hit song written by John Scott Sherrill. He was breaking up with his wife while writing the music and had started seeing someone else who he described as wild and blue. To produce the family back-in-the-woods vibe, John Anderson’s sister sang the high harmony.
54. Woman In Love by Barbra Streisand
Barbara Streisand’s best-selling album was Guilty, which featured the song Woman in Love. Barry and Robin Gibb, who were enjoying their success as the Bee Gees, wrote the song.
55. You Better You Bet by The Who
Pete Townshend wrote You Better You Bet while secretly dating a girl and still married to his wife. The song features a man who smokes and parties too hard, telling his lover that he loves her, and she replies that he better. This was the first The Who song with Kenney Jones on drums. Lead singer Roger Daltrey says this was a painful period for the band because Jones did not fit in, but he was a terrific drummer. The music video to this song was the first one played more than once on MTV.
Music changed rapidly during the 80s as advances in musical instruments changed in many bands. Many groups added their first synthesizers during this decade and created sounds that had proven impossible, especially financially, in earlier decades. Fans started expecting these items, so bands constantly tried new stunts to keep their followers entertained.
Especially in the early part of the decade, many people focused on racial equality. As with other social ideas, this carried over to the music that people listened to regularly. There were many great songs performed as duos, with one singer being black and one being white.
Of course, you may want to use modern technology to skip being frustrated by scratched albums and having to rewind cassette tapes with a pencil.
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.