The new wave songs and musicians of the 1980s helped to transform music into what it is today, influencing every genre from rock to pop, and many of these songs retain their popularity to this day.
Learn about some of the most famous 80s new wave songs and what they’re all about. They’re sure to get you dancing!
Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears
This Tears for Fears hit explores the dangers of wanting more power than is healthy. While it wasn’t one of the group’s favorite songs, it became their biggest chart-topper, hitting number two in their home country of Britain and charting in other countries.
Related: Check out these royal songs with king or queen in the title.
Tainted Love – Soft Cell
Soft Cell covers Gloria Jones’ 1962 classic here. It tells a universally relatable story of an unhealthy romantic relationship for the protagonist, who has trouble leaving even though he knows he has to. The cover became tied in with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s after its release.
Related: Find this tune on our playlist of 1980s love songs.
Don’t You Want Me – The Human League
Here we learn the story of a man and a waitress. The two are in a romantic relationship that fails after the waitress becomes famous with the man’s help. He wants her to get back with him and threatens to end her career if she doesn’t: “it’s me who put you where you are now, and I can put you back down too.”
Related: You won’t be able to get enough of the best songs about obsessive love.
Burning Down the House – Talking Heads
This is a typical funk song in that the lyrics aren’t designed to make much sense. Instead, the whole track has a feel-good vibe. ‘Burning Down the House’ became Talking Heads’ biggest hit and is still used in pop culture to evoke nostalgic feelings from the 1980s.
Related: Is it getting hot in here? It will with the best songs about heat or fire!
Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds
Simple Minds’ classic hit remains popular today, largely because of its iconic use in the film The Breakfast Club. The lyrics find its protagonist hoping a lover won’t forget him and will see him with recognition if they cross paths in the future. The song was unusual for the group, as they did not write it or spend much time working on it.
Related: Listen to the rest of The Breakfast Club soundtrack songs.
Always Something There to Remind Me – Naked Eyes
While Naked Eyes’ 80s version and its more modern sensibility made the song an enduring hit, Lou Johnson first sang this Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned track in 1963. The protagonist can’t get over a love interest because he sees reminders of the pair’s romance everywhere he goes.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Eurythmics
This track explores the darker side of our dreams, which we sometimes use to hurt others. It became Eurythmics’ first single in the United States after reaching number one in the United Kingdom. Despite its haunting undertones, the song remains a favorite dance track for many listeners.
Related: Rock out with the best female rock songs.
I Ran – A Flock Of Seagulls
A man finds himself attracted to a woman on this track. He is afraid of his feelings but can’t get over them. The two are then abducted by aliens, which isn’t too crazy since this song is the opener for an entire album about an alien invasion on earth. A Flock of Seagulls was one of many groups in the 80s who found success due largely in part to promotion by MTV.
Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
This is a sarcastic response to the song ‘Love Will Keep Us Together.’ Ian Curtis wrote the heartbreak-infused lyrics while his marriage was falling apart. The song did not chart after its release, and Curtis died a month later. The song was re-released a month after his death and finally found success.
Related: This is one of the songs in Donnie Darko.
Down Under – Men at Work
While this song is a celebration of Men at Work’s native Australia, it also criticizes the changes that the country was experiencing in the 80s. Despite its criticisms, ‘Down Under’ became the unofficial anthem of Australia in 1983 after the country won America’s Cup.
Related: You won’t want to miss our 80s hits playlist.
Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran
Here’s one of many songs of the 1980s that owed much of its popularity to MTV and the new musical technology of the decade. The lyrics are said to be based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Duran Duran won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Short Form Video with this song, which received the honor alongside the group’s other hit ‘Girls on Film.’
Related: This song features on our playlist of the best songs about wolves.
Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
This song was written as a dance anthem about rhythm. It helped mark the era when the punk scene was losing popularity as young people wanted to find music to dance to that didn’t have as rough of edges as what had recently been in style.
Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles
‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was inspired by a science fiction story about an opera singer who found her career useless in a world without sound. Trevor Horn wrote the song after spending years as a frustrated music producer who kept working with unsuccessful artists. The song’s video was the first to air on MTV and helped the song and the channel find success.
Related: Tune into these songs about radios.
Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs
This song was originally written for gay listeners who were questioning their feelings; it was designed to encourage them not to worry about their place in the world. The song encourages listeners to embrace not fitting into the status quo: “Love my way, it’s a new road.”
Related: Find the courage to be yourself with these songs about self confidence.
The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats
Men Without Hats encourages listeners to break the mold and stop conforming to what their friends do in this piece. The song highlights the punk bands’ dissatisfaction with authority. The song has made numerous appearances in media in the 21st century.
Related: The best songs about finding yourself will take you on a path of self-discovery.
You Might Think – The Cars
‘You Might Think’ finds its male narrator surprised that his girlfriend puts up with his problematic behavior. The song’s video won the first MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year after its release in 1984.
Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins
The song ‘Hold Me Now’ was the biggest hit The Thompson Twins ever released. Inspired by a real relationship, the song explores the feelings that arise between a man and a woman after a separation that ends in reconciliation. While the song utilized real instruments, it was written with a drum machine.
She Blinded Me with Science – Thomas Dolby
While this song is somewhat silly on some levels, it remains one of the most recognizable hits of the 1980s. It tells the story of a scientist who falls in love with his lab assistant. Thomas Dolby has said that the mad scientist character in the song is partially based on himself.
Just Like Heaven – The Cure
Here’s a song that evokes the serene feeling of spending time with a loved one at the seaside. The lyrics sound much like a romantic film screenplay. The song had strong female influences, as the band members’ girlfriends were always close by during recording.
Related: You’ll find this song on our list of the best songs with heaven in them.
Whip It – Devo
This 80s staple was one of the first hits to rely on synthesizers for its main instrumentations. The lyrics criticize the degradation of society and the human tendency for resorting to violence; a satirical novel with similar topics inspired the song.
I Melt with You – Modern English
While this song seems light and romantic on the surface, its lyrics are quite dark upon further inspection. The track tells of a couple sharing a passionate moment as the world ends around them. The track has been very popular in commercials since its release.
Spin Me Round (Like a Record) – Dead or Alive
‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ became a huge hit in multiple countries. It has been remixed and re-released multiple times and was also sampled on ‘Right Round’ by Flo Rida in 2009. The lyrics find the track’s protagonist spotting a lady he wants to meet based on his attraction to her.
Blue Monday – New Order
This track’s narrator seems to have had a rough life, either from addiction or a troubled relationship of some kind. Beyond that, the lyrics are somewhat abstract and up to the listener’s interpretation. ‘Blue Monday’ is considered one of the most influential electronica songs and was possibly the first British dance track to make its way to New York City clubs.
Related: Here are the best songs about Mondays to get you through the worst day of the week.
West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
The Pet Shop Boys contrast London’s high-class West End and rougher East End in this track. The listener is taken on a journey through the West End’s club scene, where the band spent quite a bit of time. This was the group’s first hit, though it took a re-release for the song to hit number one in the UK and US.
Related: Take a trip to our songs about London playlist.
Don’t Stand So Close to Me – The Police
This song finds a teacher and student in a questionable situation. Sting insists the lyrics are not from real-life experience as a teacher; instead, it seems that the book Lolita inspired the song’s themes. The track won The Police a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Group in 1981.
Related: Do you have a secret someone? Here are some forbidden love songs.
It’s My Life – Talk Talk
The protagonist here asserts his individual independence as half of a relationship that seems less than happy. It seems he’s finally realizing that he is being hurt in secretive ways: “Funny how I blind myself. I never knew.”
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me – Culture Club
Boy George eventually said that this song was written about his six-year relationship with Culture Club’s drummer, Jon Moss. He sings of the hurt he endured in the relationship within the lyrics.
Take on Me – A-ha
The male narrator of this track asks a lover to take a chance with him before it’s too late. The music video for the track played a large part in its success, as its cartoon protagonist was quite appealing to audiences.
Related: Hear this song on our list of pop songs.
Two Tribes – Frankie Goes To Hollywood
This track’s ‘Two Tribes’ are the United States and the Soviet Union and the Cold War between the two countries. The lyrics were inspired by former US President Ronald Reagan’s belief that the return of Christ would occur after a nuclear war.
Related: Prep your playlist with the best songs for the end of the world.
Our House – Madness
Madness sings of a packed house full of happy people and happy memories. The protagonist is torn between loving a secure life at home with family and wanting to break out on his own away from his childhood house. The track won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song in 1983.
Related: This song is also on our list of the best songs about home and family.
Need You Tonight – INXS
Here we find a narrator desperate for passion with a woman he has intense feelings for. The final song was mostly unchanged from its demo version; its false ending was the only significant difference between the two. The song was covered by Bonnie Raitt in 2016 for the album Dig in Deep.
Related: This tune is one of the top throwback songs.
Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
This piece is about the futility of fighting even the more harsh changes in one’s life, as well as the pointlessness of being unhappy with your life as it is. MTV’s promotion of the song’s video helped it gain popularity in 1981 after failing to top the charts for quite some time after its 1980 release.
Related: Here are some more of the most famous songs of all time.
Something about You – Level 42
Level 42 considered holding back on releasing this one, which ended up being the band’s biggest hit in the United States. It seems that the protagonist can’t grasp the fact that a love fueled by pure intentions still went sour: “How, how can it be that a love carved out of caring, fashioned by fate, could suffer so hard?”
Girls on Film – Duran Duran
Duran Duran explores the exploitation of fashion models in this track. The five members of the band who wrote the track likely drew from personal experience, as they were known to date models. The song’s controversial music video served to further highlight its main message.
Poison Arrow – ABC
This track pays homage to the music of Kevin Ayers, an influential figure in the psychedelic movement in England. It shows romantic love as a positive and negative thing that can destroy innocence: “Who let that girl into this room, so innocent, yet doomed?”
Turning Japanese – The Vapors
The protagonist here is feeling out of his mind after losing the woman he loves and feels very passionately about. This went on to be The Vapors’ only hit in the United States; they only had minor success in the United Kingdom after this hit and eventually broke up as a group.
True – Spandau Ballet
Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet had a crush on Clare Grogan, which inspired this piece. The song contains hidden messages to Grogan and also draws inspiration from the novel Lolita, much like another 80s hit, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me,’ by The Police.
Related: Use these 80s sing along songs on your next karaoke night.
Come on Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners
Unlike other hits of the 80s, this track relied on real instruments rather than synthesizers, giving it a unique sound. The song was based on a real relationship that Kevin Rowland had with a girl named Eileen when they were both young. The track also explores the challenges of passionate feelings as a Catholic and the blurred lines between lust and love.
Shout – Tears for Fears
Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy helped Tears for Fears write this piece. This type of therapy encourages patients to scream and shout to deal with their frustrations; the group was a follower of this methodology. Many of John Lennon’s songs were also inspired by Primal Therapy, which he went through in 1970.
Related: Enjoy our playlist of songs about being free.
Tempted – Squeeze
Chris Difford of Squeeze has said that this song chronicled what he saw while taking a cab ride and anticipating a good tour experience. While the song is based on Difford’s experiences, Paul Carrack sang the lead vocals for the track.
Related: Listen to more songs from Reality Bites.
People are People – Depeche Mode
This call for unity suggests that people should put their differences aside and work together to make a better world. While this was a big hit for Depeche Mode—particularly in the United States—it wasn’t one of the band’s favorites due to its less imaginative lyrics when compared to their other songs.
Related: Find peace with others with the best songs about unity and love.
More Than This – Roxy Music
‘More Than This’ is about a relationship that falls apart. While the song found some popularity after being featured in the film Lost in Translation, it was not a chart hit. Roxy Music had some more success in the United Kingdom.
Related: See our playlist of songs from Lost in Translation.
Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You) – A Flock Of Seagulls
Mike Score wrote this song after meeting a love interest on tour and not wanting to forget her. Despite the romantic helpfulness of the track, Score never met the young woman again. This was one of three Top 40 hits in the United States for A Flock Of Seagulls, despite being known for ‘I Ran (So Far Away)’ more than their other hits.
Wouldn’t It Be Good – Nik Kershaw
This was a hit throughout Europe and in Canada after its release. The lyrics seem to find Nik Kershaw wishing he was in another person’s shoes. This person doesn’t know how easy they have it in life and seemingly could also benefit from understanding Kershaw’s struggles better.
Related: Check out the rest of the Pretty in Pink soundtrack songs.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
Here’s the song that became Cyndi Lauper’s first solo release and hit. The song is still seen as a representation of 1980s culture and the female mindset of the decade. It highlighted a type of young woman who enjoyed having fun and wearing bright, “cheap” clothing that was still fashionable and modern.
Related: Looking for the best wedding reception playlist? We got you covered.
Goody Two Shoes – Adam Ant
‘Goody Two Shoes’ explores the stress and destruction that comes with being constantly bothered by the press, as Adam Ant had members of the press asking him about his personal life and trying to find something shocking to write about. It has also been said that a Dexys Midnight Runners concert inspired the song, with some lyrics reportedly being about Kevin Rowland.
Related: Walk a mile or two with our playlist of shoe songs.
Alive and Kicking – Simple Minds
Simple Minds celebrated personal and professional success in this track. The upbeat music for the track was written before the lyrics and inspired much of their positivity. Robin Clark provided backing vocals for this hit.
Kids in America – Kim Wilde
This song is an ode to youth and their life in the United States during the 80s. It was Kim Wilde’s first single and a hit in both the US and UK. The Jonas Brothers covered this as ‘Kids of the Future’ for the movie Meet The Robinsons in 2007.
Related: Celebrate the USA with the best patriotic songs.
Dance Hall Days – Wang Chung
This is an unusual piece that demonstrates how situations can be simple and pure at the start and become more complicated as time goes by. Wang Chung was more popular in the United States than in their native United Kingdom; this was the group’s only hit there.
Related: Boost your mood with the best songs that make you dance.
Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club
‘Genius of Love’ pays homage to the artists that inspired this musical pair, who were members of Talking Heads. The group worked with family members to create their songs, including this track.
Related: This song is on our playlist of the best funk songs.
Vacation – The Go-Go’s
Bass player Kathy Valentine wrote this song based on a chance meeting with a boy she was attracted to when she was young. The Textones first released the song without success; The Go-Go’s made it a hit after tweaking some of its lyrics and length.
Related: Fuel your trip with these vacation themed songs.
I Want Candy – Bow Wow Wow
This classic is about meeting a guy who is sweet as candy. It is clear that the protagonist also finds this guy to be attractive. While this is arguably the most popular version, it is actually a cover of a 1965 song by The Strangeloves inspired by the book Candy written by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.
Related: You can hear this song on the Marie Antoinette movie soundtrack.