Are you a fan of 80s music, or do you think it sucked? Most people are one or the other.
If you love it, you’re in the right place – you’re going to have a feast on the decade’s best songs. If you’re more skeptical, we’ll try and change your mind – because here’s the thing: there’s more to ’80s music than mullets and synthesizers. Promise!
So, grab your ghetto blaster, and check out our pick of the best 80s songs below.
Abracadabra – The Steve Miller Band
A simple commercial hit rhyming “abracadabra” with “reach out and grab ya,”. Though the band started as a blues outfit, like many artists of the ’80s, they took on a more pop sound and began experimenting with different electronic synthesizers. The result was this genius track that still sounds great, ahem, magical.
Related: Poof! Here are some songs with magic in the title.
Hounds of Love – Kate Bush
Appearing on her 1985 album by the same name, ‘Hounds of Love’ was written in honor of one of Kate Bush’s favorite movies, often watched with her family. The song appears on the same album as ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),’ which was resurrected after appearing throughout season 4 of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things.
Related: Check out these classic love songs for him.
Radio Gaga – Queen
Written by Queen drummer Roger Taylor, 1984 hit ‘Radio Gaga’ was always included in live sets from the time of its release to the band’s last performance with Freddie Mercury at Live Aid. The song is a critique of television at the time, which was taking over the radio due to the invention of music videos. To the band, it seemed the visual side of music was now taking precedence over the auditory role.
In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel
Fans of ’80s cinema know Peter Gabriel’s tune ‘In Your Eyes’ from an iconic scene featuring actor John Cusak and his trusty boom box in Say Anything. The single plays as Cusak holds the boom box over his head at his love interest’s window, trying to win her over. Gabriel commented that the song could be interpreted as a love story or a description of a relationship between a person and their faith. For more of his exemplary work, see our list of Peter Gabriel hits.
Related: Find this song on our list of searching songs.
You Can Call Me Al – Paul Simon
Recorded in South Africa during the country’s period of apartheid, Paul Simon’s album Graceland, where ‘You Can Ball Me Al’ appears, ended up introducing South African culture and musical elements to the world after its release. This single involves a lot of wordplays written by Simon, and he penned it after meeting a French composer at a party Simon and his wife hosted.
Related: Listen to more great trumpet songs.
Thriller – Michael Jackson
“It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking in the dark.” Though the king of pop has many hits, none is as enduring as ‘Thriller.’ Perhaps the single’s intricate video featuring Michael as a dancing zombie has contributed to its staying power, making it a classic to play every Halloween. ‘Thriller’ is a rare ’80s gem featuring a horror theme within the lyrics.
Related: Scared yet? Here’s our playlist of Halloween music.
Flagday – The Housemartins
“Too many halos, not enough heroes.” Indie rock group, The Housemartins, released their debut single, ‘Flagday,’ back in 1985. Despite most songs of the day sporting general, pop-specific themes and lyrics, the band grabs the listener by the ears and tackles inequality in a way few bands before and after them have had the guts to do.
Related: Hear similar tunes on our equality songs playlist.
Hit the North – The Fall
Formed in the post-punk era of the later ’70s in Europe, English band The Fall released a few hits, including ‘Hit the North’ and their biggest (an R Dean Taylor cover) ‘There’s a Ghost in My House.’ The band came up with their name as a tribute to one of their favorite writers, Albert Camus. The name comes from his 1950s novel La Chute.
The One I Love – R.E.M
Rock band R.E.M. scored their first hit with ‘The One I Love.’ While touring and working on growing a following organically, bandmate Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics. Though listeners often think the single is a love song, Stipe mentioned in interviews that the lyrics are about someone who habitually uses people for their own benefit.
Fight for Your Right – Beastie Boys
“You’ve got to fight for your right to party.” What college kid didn’t love the Beastie Boys’ rambunctious single throughout the ’80s and ’90s? Though the band originally wrote the song as a joke making fun of commercial rock songs, their fans turned it into an enduring hit song. It turns out that the population segment they were riffing on, frat boys, became their core audience.
Related: Want to fight? Here’s the best fight music.
Fools Gold – The Stone Roses
Created from a funk-heavy James Brown percussion loop, The Stone Roses’ UK hit ‘Fools Gold’ garnered way more attention than they ever thought possible. Due to high demand, they released their record after debuting the single, removing it from the B-side and adding it to the A-side of the album. The song would go on to be recognized as the most popular indie hit of 1989.
Related: Here’s our shiny playlist of the best gold songs.
Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes
College radio airplay of ‘Blister in the Sun’ in the ’80s helped the Violent Femmes gain a sizeable following. The younger crowd is related to singer Gordan Gano’s lyrics that often dealt with feelings of teenage inadequacy. In this track, he tackles out-of-control substance abuse and a girlfriend who’s ready to leave him because of it. Want to hear more from Gano’s gang? Check out our pick of Violent Femmes songs.
Related: You’ll love our list of sunny music.
Shipbuilding – Elvis Costello
Songwriter Elvis Costello weaves a historical tale with ‘Shipbuilding.’ In the song, he tells the story of starving British seaport workers who are happy to have jobs again due to a coming war with Argentina, only to realize the money they are making is at the expense of their own boys the country is shipping off to war.
Related: See more songs from the High Fidelity soundtrack.
Sit Down – James
Both musician Patti Smith’s work and writer Doris Lessing’s books helped singer Tim Booth get through a troubling time in his 20s when he felt very lonely and depressed. Listening to Smith and reading Lessing’s books made him feel better and become inspired again. His song ‘Sit Down’ represents his gratitude towards the women for helping him overcome his depression.
Related: Appreciate yourself with these songs about self love.
My Favorite Dress – The Wedding Present
Songwriter David Lewis Gedge of The Wedding Present gets uniquely vulnerable with their song ‘My Favorite Dress.’ Many artists of the day were still tackling heartache with a masculine slant, but Gedge waded into uncharted territory with his brutally honest take on what it’s like for a guy to see his former lover with a new man for the first time.
Rock the Casbah – The Clash
Drummer Topper Headon came up with the original idea for ‘Rock the Casbah,’ but frontman Joe Strummer changed the sexually-charged lyrics into something with a more poignant message. After Headon was asked to leave the band due to substance abuse issues, Strummer continued recording the song and then released it as an ode to the people of Iran who defied the country’s ban on disco albums and “rocked the casbah.”
Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie
A collaboration between two of music’s most iconic figures, Bowie and Mercury wrote ‘Under Pressure’ during an impromptu recording session in Switzerland. The song’s message is classic Freddie. The lyrics are about being under immense pressure from society but finding peace and a place to rest in love.
Related: You can hear this song on the Sing soundtrack.
Word Up – Cameo
Featuring funky elements paired with early rap slang, Cameo’s ‘Word Up’ was common jargon in the ’80s used by people as an affirmative response to what someone said to them. Many artists went on to cover Cameo’s hit, including Gwen Stefani (in a mashup style with other music) and Korn, who gained much attention after releasing their version.
Related: Find more songs about words.
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Though Jeff Buckley is often considered one of the most important songwriters in contemporary music despite his untimely death, one of his most famous songs, ‘Hallelujah,’ is a Leonard Cohen cover. The layered ballad tells the biblical story of David and intertwines commentary on romance, hardships, and love.
Related: Here are some more songs in C major.
Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel
With influences from blues music of the ’60s, songwriter Peter Gabriel included a horn section in his hit song ‘Sledgehammer.’ The sexually-charged song was originally inspired by a quote from German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, “A good book breaks through like an axe in a frozen sea.”
The Killing Moon – Echo and the Bunnymen
After waking up with a single lyric in his head, “Fate up against your will,” frontman Ian McCullogh constructed one of his most personal songs,’ The Killing Moon.’ Taking on a quoted “to be or not to be” approach with his songs, he never reveals exactly what they’re about, though he does have his own connections to his lyrics. Aside from poetic lyrics, the song also contains a unique blend of middle-eastern instrumentation.
Related: You’ll want to howl with these songs about moons.
Walk This Way – Run DMC and Aerosmith
1980s rap duo Run D.M.C. pioneered the genre by infusing rock elements with rap and R&B. Covering ‘Walk This Way’ with the song’s original creators (Aerosmith) was the perfect opportunity for the rap artists to introduce their music to a broader audience.
Related: Take a walk with our walking music playlist.
Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
Hidden behind lyrics dealing with the consumerist mindset and never being content with what one has is Talking Heads songwriter David Byrne’s impassioned criticism of the “middle class.” He penned lyrics for the song by listening to evangelists on the radio, which he did for other recordings.
Related: YOLO, carpe diem, c’est la vie… Here are some songs about living life with no regrets.
Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders
Though Pretenders’ frontwoman Chrissie Hynde is American, she spent several years in Europe, and the experience profoundly affected her. The band’s hit ‘Brass in Pocket’ is full of British slang and tells the story from a male’s mindset who tries to impress a group of his buddies while at a pub.
Related: Enjoying these 80s hits? Go back in time with these popular 70s songs.
That’s Entertainment – The Jam
Band leader Paul Weller wrote ‘That’s Entertainment’ as a window into the reality of the day-to-day lives of working-class people. He had been hanging out at a bar near his apartment, and when he got home, he wrote the song rather quickly while still under the influence.
Fairytale of New York – The Pogues ft. Kirsty McColl
Celtic punk band, The Pogues, features the talented singer Kristy McColl opposite Shane MacGowan as they tell the story of an Irish couple immigrating to America. The lyrics revolve around Christmas time and allow MacGowan to highlight a few eccentricities of commercial holiday culture. All of these elements make ‘Fairytale of New York’ an Irish punk classic.
Related: Grab a friend and enjoy these duets for karaoke.
Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie
Everyone has been introduced to Bowie’s 1969 hit ‘Space Oddity,’ easily remembering the song’s famous line “ground control to Major Tom.” Bowie’s 1980 song ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is a sequel of sorts for Major Tom. The song continues his story since listeners were first introduced to the character in ’69.
Related: Listen to more great songs from House of Gucci.
Freak Scene – Dinosaur Jr.
Beloved by music critics after its initial release, Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Freak Scene’ tackled different kinds of relationship problems within the lyrics. Though many listeners viewed it as a take on a dysfunctional relationship, it was also written by bandmate J Mascis as a critique of his fellow bandmate Lou Barlow and the negative effect he was having on their music.
Debaser – Pixies
It’s not every day a strange, cult-like Spanish film inspires a hit song, but in the ’80s, the Pixies’ ‘Debaser’ was just that. After watching An Andalusian Dog by Luis Bunuel, the band was inspired by the violent film to write their tune about a guy who wants to destroy everything in his path.
Pretty in Pink – Psychedelic Furs
“The one who insists he was the first in the line is the last to remember her name.” Many listeners thought ‘Pretty in Pink’ was a tribute to a popular girl. But frontman Richard Butler told the press the tune has a darker nature, telling the story of a girl who sleeps with many people because she thinks it makes her popular. But in reality, everyone is making fun of her when she’s not around.
Related: You may know this song from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack.
April Skies – The Jesus and Mary Chain
Released as the first single off their ’87 album Darklands, Scottish rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain chronicles the break-up of a toxic relationship in ‘April Skies.’ The moody tune would become the band’s most successful single, charting high in Ireland, the UK, and New Zealand.
Related: Love isn’t always easy. Check out these toxic love songs.
Suedehead – Morrissey
After going solo (Morrissey originally started out in The Smiths), he released ‘Suedehead’ and several other singles that would go on to be big UK hits. This single deals with a complicated, one-sided relationship with one person hanging on for too long while the other wishes to move forward. It remains one of the best Morrissey songs.
Related: More songs about making a mistake.
When Doves Cry – Prince
Prince’s popular song ‘When Doves Cry’ was written for his movie Purple Rain which complimented an album by the same name. Though Prince didn’t often talk about his personal life, many suspected the song was deeply personal to him, with the doves representing a refuge he could go to to escape his tumultuous childhood.
Related: Fly over to our list of the best songs about birds.
Ghost Town – The Specials
Though ‘Ghost Town’ was written during a time in the band when many original The Specials members were leaving to pursue other projects, people in the UK related to the song on a personal level because it was released during a time of great civil and economic unrest, especially for smaller cities like Coventry (where the band is from).
Related: Boo! Enjoy these supernatural songs about ghosts.
How Soon is Now? – The Smiths
Before going solo and scoring several top hits, frontman Morrisey formed and headed up the band The Smiths. Their tune ‘How Soon is Now?’ playfully details Morrissey’s overwhelming shyness he was experiencing at the time. It’s nostalgic in nature, drawing on childhood memories from band members.
Blue Monday – New Order
“How does it feel? To treat me like you do…” This reflective, conversational song can be interpreted in many different ways. For some, it’s about a failing relationship. Other listeners have found comfort in the tune while dealing with abuse. Others have said it reminds them of dealing with addiction issues. If you loved this, check out our countdown of New Order’s greatest hits.
Related: Is it Friday yet? Here are the best songs about Monday.
Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
After several successful hits with various sexual themes, including ‘Sexual Healing,’ Marvin Gaye developed a reputation for being a bit of a ladies’ man. While this was great for his brand, it caused a lot of stress in his personal life. His father was a preacher, and he grew up in a religious household.
Don’t You Forget About Me – Simple Minds
One of the most popular films of the 1980s, The Breakfast Club, features Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ as one of its pivotal song choices. Capturing teenage angst and passion perfectly, the band wrote the song specifically for the movie. It became their most popular song.
Related: Head over to our list of The Breakfast Club songs.
In Between Days – The Cure
In The Cure’s single ‘In Between Days,’ the title represents a temporary fix instead of a permanent solution. With lyrics highlighting the protagonist feeling like his current relationship is going stale, he develops a wandering eye to keep himself happy, but his current lover finds out.
Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones
A popular song nowadays at sporting events, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ was a successful single addition to their other sexually grandiose tunes. The recording process took a long time, with Mick Jagger originally insisting it was a reggae song for quite a few takes before Keith Richards convinced him otherwise.
Related: Rise and shine! Get energized with these good morning songs for adults.
Africa – Toto
“I bless the rains down in Africa.” After watching a documentary about the violence and poverty affecting so many in Africa, keyboardist David Paich wrote ‘Africa,’ weaving a love story throughout the lyrics. The song has gone on to be featured in many TV shows, including Stranger Things and South Park.
Related: Seeking a thrill? Listen to these songs about adventure.
Call Me – Blondie
Even though disco producer Giorgio Moroder wanted to co-write ‘Call Me’ with Stevie Nicks, he ended up writing it with Debbie Harry of Blondie (Not a bad option to have as a runner-up). The tune was written for and featured in the popular film American Gigolo.
Modern Love – David Bowie
David Bowie drew on his love for Little Richard while penning ‘Modern Love’ and constructed the vocal arrangement in the style of the R&B rocker. The tune is about Bowie’s struggle to find acceptance and love within the religious community. Blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guest appeared on the track and provided some superb lead work.
Related: This song is featured on our playlist of songs with a saxophone solo.
The Message – Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five
Not only was ‘The Message’ a defining song for Grandmaster Flash, but it also helped define the rap genre as a whole, giving way to a grittier, contemporary style. Though the song didn’t chart particularly high in the US, it became a huge hit in the UK and made its way into the top ten.
Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
“She’s a good girl. Loves her mama.” Tom Petty sings about his bad boy ways in one of America’s most recognizable songs with ‘Free Fallin.” The title represents Petty’s fall from grace as he sings about a good girl he’s wronged due to his wandering ways. Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne co-wrote the song with Petty while recording the Full Moon Fever album.
Related: If you like hanging out with “me, myself, and I,’ you’ll love these best songs about independence.
The Breaks – Kurtis Blow
An early hip-hop release that would end up being one of rap’s most significant songs of the ’80s, Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks’ is a tribute to breakdancers across the Bronx and Harlem. The two areas of New York are historical landmarks for African-American dance and music, and Blow wanted to honor New York’s creatives with his track.
Related: If you like this you’ll love our best breakdance songs playlist.
People Have the Power – Patti Smith
Written with her late husband, Fred Smith, the concept of the song was first introduced to Patti by Fred one night when she was making dinner in the kitchen. He devised the hook ‘People Have the Power’ and told her to work on the lyrics. The concept morphed into a ’60s-style protest song built around people coming together for equality.
Related: Find this song on our list of songs about authority.
Rockin’ in the Free World – Neil Young
Folk songwriter Neil Young churned out another socio-political single with ‘Rockin’ in the Free World.’ The tune was not only critical of the US administration in the white house at the time of the song’s release in ’89, but it also coincided with the long-awaited fall of the Berlin Wall. It became synonymous with the event, and people adopted it as an unofficial anthem for freedom.
Drive – The Cars
Bass player Ben Orr sang lead vocals for ‘Drive,’ a Cars hit that frontman Ric Ocasek penned. The tune is from the perspective of a guy trying to help a girl he likes to get her life together. When Orr passed away from cancer in 2000, ‘Drive’ was played at his funeral in his honor.
Related: Go to our playlist of love songs from the 80s.
Just a Friend – Biz Markie
In a rare, vulnerable rap track from the ’80s, Biz Markie uses a self-deprecating tone to casually sing about a girl he meets at a concert. She tells him he’s single, so he pursues the relationship. But it’s not long until Markie shows up when she’s not expecting him, and he catches her cheating on him with a “friend.”
Related: Life can be unfair. Here are some loving someone you can’t have songs.
Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
In 1975 Captain and Tennille released their feel-good tune ‘Love Will Keep Us Together.’ Five years later, in 1980, Joy Division released a cheeky response and declared ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ The cynical song is autobiographical, with frontman Ian Curtis writing the lyrics while going through a painful divorce.
Related: You want it darker? Then head over to our playlist of Donnie Darko songs.
Ask – The Smiths
The Smiths frontman Morrissey (who would go on to have a successful solo career post-Smiths) often wrote about his crippling shyness. With his song ‘Ask,’ he takes a more upbeat approach than usual, pairing major chords with pop melodies while discussing his social anxiety.
Teen Age Riot – Sonic Youth
Written in honor of Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis, Sonic Youth’s ‘Teen Age Riot’ was originally titled ‘Rock’N’Roll for President’ because it playfully imagined Mascis as the leader of the free world. The tune first appeared on Sonic Youth’s landmark album, Daydream Nation.
Recommended: Our curated list of the best Sonic Youth songs.
Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club
A favorite among fans and artists alike, the beat to Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’ has been sampled many times. Just a couple of artists include Mariah Carey with her hit single ‘Fantasy’ and Ziggy Marley with his cover of ‘Tumblin’ Down.’ The single has been licensed many times for TV shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and for various commercials.
Love Shack – The B-52s
“…a little old place where we can get together.” One of the ’80s most-played songs, The B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ was written in honor of a club featured in the novel The Color Purple. They also had a real-life club in mind when writing the tune, a little bar near Athens, Georiga, called Hawaiian Ha-Le.
Related: Laugh all night long with the funniest karaoke songs.
Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
“Speed so fast; I felt like I was drunk.” Tracy Chapman has the unique songwriting ability to capture the spirit of different populations and make it relatable to all. In ‘Fast Car,’ she highlights the struggles of lower-class individuals working to make ends meet. When things get overwhelming, she uses the symbolism of her boyfriend’s car to represent her yearning for escape. If you loved this, check out our countdown of Tracy Chapman’s most popular songs.
Related: Zoom over to our playlist of music about driving.
(Just Like) Starting Over – John Lennon
“Let’s take a chance and fly away.” Appearing on the album Double Fantasy, John Lennon’s ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ was co-written with his wife, Yoko Ono. The song represented a fresh start for them as they rekindled their relationship, which sadly wouldn’t last too long. It charted at number one in both the UK and the US.
Related: If you need a fresh start, here are some songs about a new life.
Dancing in the Dark – Bruce Springsteen
“They say you gotta stay hungry. Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight.” Featured on the generation-defining Born in The U.S.A. album, Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘Dancing In The Dark’ while struggling in the industry. The song represents his trying to write songs for the masses to uphold his record deal while also maintaining artistic integrity. For more of his exemplary work, see our list of Bruce Springsteen hits.
Related: Have a blast with these fun songs to dance to.
More of the best 80s songs:
- Every Breath You Take – The Police
- I Want to Know What Love Is – Foreigner
- With or Without You – U2
- All Night Long – Lionel Richie
- Karma Chameleon – Culture Club
- Everywhere – Fleetwood Mac
- Bust a Move – Young MC
- Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
- Jump – Van Halen
- Walking on Sunshine – Katrina And The Waves
- Take on Me – A-ha
- The Boys of Summer – Don Henley
- Come on Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners
- Tainted Love – Soft Cell
- Whip It – Devo
- Total Eclipse of the Heart – Bonnie Tyler
- Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
- In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
- Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran
- Livin’ on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
- It’s a Sin – Pet Shop Boys
- Like a Prayer – Madonna
- I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do) – Hall & Oates
- You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
- Walk Like an Egyptian – The Bangles
- Need You Tonight – INXS
- Beat It – Michael Jackson
- Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go – Wham!
- Love is a Battlefield – Pat Benetar
- Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Eurythmics
- Brand New Friend – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
- You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) Dead or Alive
- Take My Breath Away – Berlin
- I Love Rock N’ Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
- Don’t You Want Me? – Human League
- Rock Me Amadeus – Falco
- Down Under – Men at Work
- Beds are Burning – Midnight Oil
- Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy
- What a Feeling – Irene Cara
- Money for Nothing – Dire Straits
- Careless Whisper – George Michael
- White Wedding – Billy Idol
- Bad Name – Bon Jovi
- I’m Still Standing – Elton John
- Final Countdown – Europe
- Is This Love? – Whitesnake
- Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
- You Make My Dreams (Come True) – Hall & Oates
- Edge of Seventeen – Stevie Nicks
- Uptown Girl – Billy Joel
- I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) – Whitney Houston
- (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
- If I Could Turn Back Time – Cher
- Holding Back the Years – Simply Red
- Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood
- Bette Davis Eyes – Kim Carnes
- Centerfold – The J. Geils Band
- Ebony and Ivory – Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
- Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
- Ghostbusters – Ray Parker Jr.
- Like a Virgin – Madonna
- Physical – Olivia Newton-John
- Shout – Tears For Fears
- Stuck with You – Huey Lewis And The News
- Total Eclipse of the Heart – Bonnie Tyler
- What’s Love Got to Do with It – Tina Turner