Top 20 Songs of the 1980s

Any discussion of the music of the 1980s is likely to spur harsh discussion and heated words about the best songs of the decade. Madonna, U2 and The Police dominated a decade when Phil Collins left Genesis and hair metal found its way to the top of the charts.

So, how do you pick the top 20 songs of a decade when everything from country crossovers to R&B; topped the charts? Arbitrary rules, of course.

For this list, the first arbitrary rule is that no matter how dominate an artist was, they get one song on the list. Everyone knows it was the decade of Madonna, Michael Jackson and hair metal, but it was also the decade when new wave and punk and something called college radio hit the top of the chars.

The second arbitrary rule is that an artist who defined the decade may or may not be listed with everyone’s favorite song. The song listed is representative of the artist and the decade. Some songs may be more representative of the decade than others.

The third arbitrary rule is, well, there is no third arbitrary rule – on to the list!

20. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Come On Eileen With soul influences and British heritage, this song is one of the many one hit wonders that graced the charts in the 1980s. And the song itself was all about the spirit that summed up the decade, it was all about “in this moment, you mean everything.”

This song also epitomizes everything that was music in the 1980s – a new sound that incorporated everything that had been college radio and alternative music and brought it to the mainstream. Come On Eileen also has the distinction of preventing Michael Jackson from having back to back Billboard number one hits with Beat It and Billie Jean.

19. Alabama The Closer You Get. While Barbara Mandrel spent part of the decade telling us she was Country, When Country Wasn’t Cool, country super group Alabama proved that having a southern twang and a “fiddle in the band” wouldn’t necessarily keep you off the charts. Dozens of country singles made the crossover to pop and rock hits, not the least of which was 9 to 5 from Dolly Parton, a definite song of the decade.

18. USA for Africa, We Are the World. As famine ravage Ethiopia and the decade of greed flowed across the United States, big charity concerts and songs to raise money for musicians favorite causes were a big part of the 1980s. John Cougar Mellenkamp and Willie Nelson combined to make FarmAid a benefit for family farmers losing their farms, HBO united comedians to do standup to benefit the homeless and Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote the song inspired by Harry Bellafonte’s vision.

American artists and friends united to perform one of 1985’s biggest hits, We Are the World. As of last year, the song had raised more than $63 million to fight famine in Africa. In February 2010, artists reunited to record an updated version of We Are the World to benefit victims of the Haiti earthquake. Richie’s son-in-law Joel Madden and his granddaughter were among the participants in the new version.

17. Dire Straits, Money for Nothing. Though Dire Straits had been around since 1977 and long before MTV, they performed the anthem that melded the get rich quick attitude of the 1980s and the new medium of music television. With their Brothers in Arms album, Dire Straits taught us that all you had to do to get you Money for Nothing was to “play guitar on the MTV.

16. Guns ‘N Roses, Patience. By the end of the decade, no one ruled rock quite like Guns ‘N Roses. Though their initial video for Welcome to the Jungle didn’t make headlines, the follow-up video for Sweet Child o’ Mine brought Axl, Slash and the boys to national prominence. They rereleased Welcome to the Jungle after becoming a household name and Patience proved that the Axl could sing as well as he screamed.

15. A-ha, Take On Me. With eyeliner and big hair, A-ha brought Norweigan synthpop to the top of the MTV charts and then to the Billboard charts. Spurred by the unique half-comic, half live rotoscoping video, the song reached the top of the charts and won the band six video music awards from MTV. Unfortunately, it was also the only American success for the band.

14. INXS, Need You Tonight. With the good looks of Michael Hutchence and catching lyrics, the Australian band INXS combined rock and new wave to make the ladies scream. With tunes like Devil Inside and Mediate, the band provided some of the much appreciated diversity of the decade. With the albums Listen Like Thieves in 1985 and Kick in 1987, INXS brought a decidedly new sound to American rock.

13. Pat Benatar, Hit Me With Your Best Shot. A classically trained vocalist with punk roots, Pat Benatar was the lady of the early 1980s and bears a lot of responsibility for making punk mainstream. Though “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is without a doubt her most well-known work, some of her other hits including Hell is for Children had much more to say, socially, about the decade.

12. Van Halen, Jump. Though their first self-titled album hit the airwaves before the 1980s, it was the on stage antics of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in the video for Jump off the album “1984” that cemented the band as one of the headliners of the decade. Panama and Hot for Teacher helped propel the album to the top of the charts, but couldn’t stop the band and David Lee Roth from going separate ways for the next two decades. Roth reunited with the band in 2007.

11. Phil Collins, In the Air Tonight. Throughout the 1980s, Phil Collins as a solo performer and with Genesis seemed to be perpetually on the radio or television. In addition to his solo hits, Collins moved from drummer to lead singer for the Genesis 1986 album Invisible Touch and sent the title song and Land of Confusion to the top of the charts. The political message of Land of Confusion was clearly no mistake as Collins followed it up in 1989 with the hit Another Day in Paradise addressing homelessness.

10. Wham!, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley formed the British pop duo that had girls flocking to watch and hear Michael while Ridgeley orchestrated the band’s image. The song seemed to be the embodiment of the flightiness of the middle years of the 1980s.

9. Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. If Pat Benatar brought punk to the mainstream, Cyndi Lauper made it fun. With the combination of her soulful voice, wild clothes and hair color of the day, Lauper made every girl feel like she could sing about her broken heart one minute and then dance around the room with Captain Lou Albano the next.

8. Bon Jovi, Livin’ on a Prayer. With the chart-topping success of Slippery When Wet, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora brought us You Give Love a Bad Name, Livin’ on a Prayer, and Wanted Dead or Alive. When the 1986 album debuted, Bon Jovi was opening for.38 Special and by the year’s end, had progressed to headlining major arenas. Livin’ on a Prayer and Wanted Dead or Alive remain the band’s signature songs.

7. Whitney Houston, Greatest Love of All. In 1985 when Whitney Houston released her self-titled first album, she skyrocketed to success, scoring more sales for a debut album than any woman had done before. You Give Good Love made it to the top of the R&B; charts and hit #3 on the pop charts, catapulting the singer into the spotlight.

With her follow-up hit How Will I Know, she became one of the first African-American women to go into heavy rotation on the MTV video schedule. The song the Greatest Love of All became a signature song for the album that moved Whitney Houston from a promising new voice to a powerhouse singer and actress.

6. U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday. Though the band has been able to reinvent itself over and over as the decades pass, The Joshua Tree was protest music at its finest and helped give American audiences a better understanding of the conflict in Ireland. With the politics and history lessons of Pride (In the Name of Love) and New Year’s Day, U2 taught the 1980s generation that passion and causes could be cool.

5. Prince, Little Red Corvette. At the other end of the spectrum, Prince reminded us throughout the decade that life could be a celebration of sex, cars and life. With dance hits like Dance, Music, Sex, Romance and the widely misunderstood 1999, Prince brought energy and passion to the music, but nothing struck a chord with listeners quite like When Doves Cry from the album Purple Rain. Prince also influenced the other songs and performers of the decade, penning such tunes as Nothing Compares 2 U which was performed by the very controversial Sinead O’Connor.

4. Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me). Providing further that trying to categorize the music of the 1980s is virtually impossible, the theme song from the movie The Breakfast Club is perhaps one of the most iconic songs of the decade. Coming from the new wave of music, Simple Minds saw their biggest hit affiliated with the Molly Ringwald movie, a sure sign that it was a staple of the 1980s.

3. The Police, Every Breath You Take. Before he went on to a promising solo career later in the decade, Sting was still the frontman for The Police and Synchronicity was one of the biggest albums in the world. Though the band split up in 1984, there can be little doubt that the New Wave influence of The Police as well as the reggae, jazz and punk that influenced their music would change the world of rock.

2. Madonna, Like A Virgin. No other woman so profoundly influenced the decade of 1980s as Madonna. Her ever-changing re-invention of herself represented the metamorphosis of music over the decade, from Like a Virgin to Papa Don’t Preach to Like a Prayer, Madonna showed the women of the 1980s how to find themselves and be what they wanted to be. Her ability to be strong and sexy showed a new generation of women that women’s liberation could be hot and sexy.

1. Michael Jackson, Billie Jean. If Madonna was the queen of the decade, Michael Jackson was the king. As Jackson transitioned into adulthood, he taught the world to moonwalk and then to love the creatures of the night with Thriller. His collaborations, including his work with USA for Africa, and his personal life aside, nothing says 1980s like a sparkling white glove.