10 Best Hit Songs of the 1980s

My list of the ten worst songs of the 1980s has received thousands of visitors over the last couple of weeks. I’ve received comments accusing me of hating the 1980s, so I thought that I’d set the record straight with a list of great singles from the 1980s. Some are number one smashes, some charted lower initially but went on to become the artist’s signature song.

There was a wealth of great music in the 1980s – there’s no room on this list for hit machines like Prince, New Order, and Michael Jackson Here are ten 1980s hits that still thrill me.

10 Best Hit Songs of the 1980s

#10: Back in Black – AC/DC

from Back in Black, 1980
When AC/DC lost frontman Bon Scott to acute alcohol poisoning in February 1980, they considered breaking up. Instead they recruited new lead vocalist Brian Johnson, and ‘Back and Black’ was a tribute to Scott. The opening riff is kinetic and propulsive, and powers the song along, perfectly complemented by Johnson’s high-pitched screaming. ‘Back in Black’ only reached #37 on the charts, but it’s become AC/DC’s signature song – when it was re-released in 2012 it topped the UK rock and metal chart.


#9: Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) – Kate Bush

from Hounds of Love, 1985
Kate Bush’s star faded a little with 1982’s excellent-but-weird The Dreaming. She stormed back into public consciousness with 1985’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, with its galloping rhythm and lyrics about swapping genders. It reached #3 on the UK charts, although Bush remains relatively obscure in the US, a creative genius not yet recognised by the rock and roll hall of fame.


#8: Don’t Dream It’s Over – Crowded House

from Crowded House, 1986
New Zealand’s Neil Finn built ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ around the percussive Maori guitar strum. Coupled with Mitchell Froom’s production and organ solo, the result is a magical 1980s song. The first single from Finn’s newly formed Crowded House, the song ascended to #2 on the US charts. Finn later suggested that the song could have reached #1 if had included “(Hey Now Hey Now)” in the title.


#7: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) – Whitney Houston

from Whitney, 1987
Whitney Houston was a terrific singer and she’s great on this dancefloor filler. Her over-singing on slow ballads like ‘I Will Always Love You’ rubs me the wrong way, but here she effortlessly navigates a sophisticated vocal melody. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ was a smash hit – when Whitney arrived a month later, it was the first album by a female artist to debut at number one on the US chart.


#6: Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads

from Remain in Light, 1980
New York quartet Talking Heads were constantly fascinating over their first few years, evolving from nervy new wave to richly layered art-rock with funk and African influences. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is the best-known song from Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece, Remain In Light. The verses consist of David Byrne aphorisms – “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/ With a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well/ How did I get here?” Producer Brian Eno is clearly audible on backing vocals in the chorus.


#5: La Bamba – Los Lobos

from La Bamba, 1987
Los Lobos have amassed an impressive back-catalogue over a career that dates back to the 1970s, a melting pot of Mexican and United States music. But their most famous moment is their cover of Ritchie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’, for the 1987 movie of the same name. An international chart-topper, it turbo-charges a Mexican folk-song with a muscular rock ‘n’ roll arrangement.


#4: Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty

from Full Moon Fever, 1989
Tom Petty reinvented himself as a folk-rocker with 1989’s Full Moon Fever. ‘Free Fallin” was written and recorded in two days, Petty working with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, and it’s simple yet effective. Petty’s verse lyrics are evocative (“she’s a good girl/crazy about horses”), and the huge, harmonised chorus is a great pay-off.


#3: How Soon Is Now? – The Smiths

from Hatful of Hollow, 1984
Johnny Marr’s guitar usually jangles; on ‘How Soon Is Now?’ it pulses with tremolo. Morrissey adds his usual crooned, love-lorn vocals, and the result is a magical 1980s indie single. It sneaked into the UK top 30, largely because it had already been released as a b-side and on Hatful of Hollow, but it’s still The Smiths‘ signature song.


#2: Like A Prayer – Madonna

from Like A Prayer, 1989
Pop chameleon Madonna was huge throughout the 1980s, with a string of hits like ‘Material Girl’, ‘Like A Virgin’, and ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. ‘Like A Prayer’ was Madonna’s seventh number one hit, and it employs the same powerful blend of sex and religion as the best work of Al Green and Prince. Prince plays the guitar introduction, while Andraé Crouch directed the gospel choir.


#1: Fight The Power – Public Enemy

from Fear of a Black Planet and Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1989
‘Fight the Power’ was commissioned by Spike Lee for his 1989 movie ‘Do The Right Thing’. As always, Chuck D. and Flavor Flav are a terrific duo, with Flav bringing levity to Chuck D.’s articulate and politically aware rap. They’re backed by multiple James Brown samples, from ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘Hot Pants’.

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Did I omit your favourite 1980s hit?

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Aphoristical
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.
Articles: 693

60 Comments

  1. Hmm, interesting list. While none of your picks would rank in my top 10, I do especially love “How Soon is Now?” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. You didn’t ask, but my Top 10 of the 1980’s are:

    1. Every Breath You Take – The Police
    2. West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
    3. Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears For Fears
    4. Bette Davis Eyes – Kim Carnes
    5. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
    6. Careless Whisper (extended version) – George Michael
    7. What’s Love Got To Do With It – Tina Turner
    8. What Have I Done to Deserve This? – Pet Shop Boys w/Dusty Springfield
    9. Good Thing – Fine Young Cannibals
    10. Alone – Heart

  2. The cure – just like Heaven
    The psychedelic furs – Heaven
    Simple minds- alive and kicking
    The clash- Bankrobber.

  3. Congrats, Graham, I’ve never received thousands of comments on any post to date. I guess this also means I haven’t gotten as much criticism! 🙂

    My favorite tunes from your list are “Back in Black”, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Free Fallin'” and “Like a Prayer” though like “Borderline” even better.

    Some other ’80s tunes I still dig a lot are “Under the Milky Way” (The Church), “Down to London” (Joe Jackson), “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (Tears for Fears), “Ship of Fools” (World Party) and “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel).

    • I didn’t get 1000s of comments, just 1000s of views. Glad I didn’t get 1000s of comments of the calibre I’ve been getting – I spammed the ones that called me a moron.

      Borderline is my other favourite Madonna big single. I’ve just been reviewing the Waterboys – I should move onto World Party sometime.

      • Jeez, it’s amazing how much Internet rage there is these days. I feel like the pandemic has made things even worse. It’s led to more polarization. Plus many people find themselves with more time on their hands and evidently use it to let out their frustration.

        Luckily, I haven’t experienced it myself. In large part I believe that’s because none of my posts has gotten thousands of views, so I have much more limited visibility. Plus, I purposely try to keep the blog positive, since I feel there’s already so much negativity around us. I guess this leaves less room for attack.

        In any case, we’re writing about music here, for crying out loud. Even if I disagree with your or any other fellow blogger, it would never occur to me to call people names. That’s just inappropriate and frankly pretty immature.

        • I am asking for it a bit, writing a blog post about worst songs. But I have the control – if anyone name calls I can just hit spam and they’re gone. Happy to have intelligent arguments about why my song choices are wrong though.

  4. I find it amusing that people would think you “hate the 80’s” because you dare criticize. Hey, it was one of our longer decades! Anyway, everybody knows you love the 80’s more than life itself. Interestingly, I”ve been meaning to do an ’80’s list but it didn’t even occur to me, not even when you did your worst of.

    As to your list, there is some overlap as you’ll see when I unveil mine. I wouldn’t have a Whitney Houston tune but unlike you, I do love “I Will Always Love You.” I find it thrilling in a way. I’m a big Los Lobos fan and I like their version but it doesn’t make my Hot 10 list. “Back in Black” was this close. I like your Top 4 but they don’t make my list. I find it odd that Johnny Marr said he wanted an intro as instantly recognizable as “Layla.” That surprised me as I figured that that generation of rockers looked on Clapton as if he were about as relevant to them as Frank Sinatra. List:

    10. Should I Stay or Should I Go – The Clash
    9. Running Up That Hill – Kate Bush
    8. Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
    7. Mayor of Simpleton – XTC
    6. Don’t Dream It’s Over – Crowded House
    5. In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
    4. Fall On Me – R.E.M.
    3 – In a Big Country – Big Country
    2 – Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears
    1 – Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

    • You should use some of this stuff on your own blog – you’re being generous.

      Whitney Houston is the only artist on my list that I don’t own an album by, but that one song is transcendent in my opinion.

      I like your list – I didn’t realise you were into British arty stuff like XTC and Kate Bush.

      • Well, the way I see it, we’re having a conversation so it’s all the same whether it’s here or on my blog. Plus I’ll eventually do my 80’s piece and reference (and probably reuse) this.

        I don’t own any of Whitney’s stuff but she was a talent for sure. Tragic.

        I’m not a big Kate Bush fan and in fact she’s not nearly as big here as elsewhere.

        I flat-out love XTC. Even read a book about them.. You can find my post on them from several years back. I guess they’re “arty” but to me they’re just great pop rock, like Squeeze or 10cc.

  5. Hating the 80s? Oh, Yea I would be accused of that…and fairly at times but overall I didn’t hate the 80s…just a lot of the radio things.
    A list would depend on what I’m listening to at the time. There were some songs I did like a lot.
    But my list would not be a good representation of the 80s for the masses…just me. You have a much better cross-section.

    In no order

    The La’s – There She Goes
    Born in the USA (it’s the Twist and Shout vocal of the 80s)
    How Soon Is Now? (The Intro alone is worth it)
    Sunday Bloody Sunday
    Bastards of Young
    The Waiting by Tom Petty
    Bette Davis Eyes
    Raspberry Beret
    Video Killed The Radio Star (it was released in 1979 but I think it’s fair to say it was a song of the 80s)
    You Shook Me All Night Long – ACDC

    • There She Goes is a great call – I haven’t thought about it for a long time, but spinning the album right now. The Waiting is my favourite Petty song, but I’ve never heard it on the radio, just on The Simpsons.

      • Lee Mavers is an interesting person… I heard the Waiting on the radio when it was released…after that they played the live version from Pick Up The Plantation for some reason here. It is a great song…but yea…I can’t argue with Free Falling.

  6. Ha Ha! You’re very brave even treading this path! 😀
    (Overall, personally, I think I liked your Top 10 WORST than your Top 10 BEST!)
    And that’s what makes listening to music so interesting, right?
    🙂

  7. I don’t know how I can narrow the 80’s down in to a list of 10 songs. That would take some serious thinking which at 6 am isn’t possible right now. But I enjoyed the variety of genres on your list. Great stuff.

  8. Some fine choices there, I’m a big fan of Whitney as well (the back-up vocals of ‘dance’ toward the end of the song will never fail to put a smile on my face).
    Add some Cure / hit-making machine artists you referenced in the honourable mentions, and I think we’d have some eerily similar lists!

    • I’ve never really focused on the backing vocals – I’ll keep an ear out for them next time.

      It’s clear that more alternative music has charting in the UK than the US in that decade. The Cure were pretty big.

  9. I’m not big on either “worst”or “best” lists so my ten will just be tracks that are very nostalgic for me for the decade in question and are in no particular order:-

    The Jam – A Town Called Malice
    UB40 – Dream A Lie
    The Beat – Hands Off She’s Mine
    Roxy Music – Avalon
    Kid Creole & The Coconuts – There’s Something Wrong In Paradise
    Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart
    Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing
    The Style Council – Long Hot Summer
    The Who – You Better You Bet
    The Four Tops – Loco In Acapulco

    • I thought about including Sexual Healing and More Than This (rather than Avalon), and A Town Called Malice is great. Your list is quite focused on the early 80s, and mine has a lot of late 1980s for some reason.

    • It’s awesome that you have Kid Creole and the Coconuts. But I would put Stool Pigeon or Maladie D ‘Amour instead. And You Better You Bet is also one of the great ’80s songs. The Who’s 80s stuff is actually much better than people think.

  10. Some really great songs in there and definitely a few that I like a whole lot. I would have Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time in there as well as Never Tear Us Apart (obviously!). I’d also have Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (again, I love that tune) and Everybody Wants to Rule the World and… Huey Lewis’ Power of Love… oh man, this could get tricky…

    … and where is Never Gonna Give You Up? C’mon!

  11. Interesting picks. I love Back in Black, Once in a Lifetime, and anything by Kate Bush or The Smiths (yes, I’m American, lol). I don’t care for the Whitney song or the Madonna song that everyone but me loves. To me, Tom Petty had several 80s songs that were far better than Freefallin’. I recently did a playlist of the 300 best songs of the 1980s. Ranked. Here’s my top ten:

    10. “Our Lips Are Sealed” – The Go-go’s
    9. “Joystick” – Dazz Band
    8. “Shock the Monkey” – Peter Gabriel
    7. “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” – Michael Jackson
    6. “Everything She Wants” – Wham!
    5. “Ain’t Nobody” Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
    4. “Love Is a Stranger” – Eurythmics
    3. “Ashes to Ashes”- David Bowie
    2. “When Doves Cry” – Prince & The Revolution
    1. “Need You Tonight” – INXS

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. This is really a challenge. And every list is correct. As all music lovers have their own preferences and the universe of songs is huge. My list:

    The Police – Every little thing she does is magic
    U2 – The unforgettable fire
    Echo & the Bunnymen – The killing moon
    The Cure – Just like heaven
    REM – The one I loved
    Van Halen – Panama
    Iron Maiden – The Trooper
    Prince – Purple rain
    Inxs – Never tear us apart
    Aha – Stay on these roads

    • Thanks for writing in. The Killing Moon is a really good one that didn’t cross my mind – I’m not sure if I would have squeezed it into the top ten, but it’s very good.

  13. The Go-go’s were nominated for the Rock Hall of Fame this year. It’s their first nomination. There’s a lot of people that think they have a really good chance. Historically, they are the first all-female band that played all the instruments and wrote all the songs to hit number one.

  14. Great list! Can’t really argue with anything on it, although while I appreciated Whitney’s talent, never really into her. The 80s for me were second half of high school, college, and grad school, so the formative years. Its almost impossible to limit this to 10, and if you asked me tomorrow I would probably have an almost completely different list. Not all of these were hits I guess, but were my favorites during the decade. Here goes in no particular order:

    Bruce Springsteen – Open All Night; one of my top artists so had to include something; something from BUSA is the obvious choice but I loved this one from Nebraska – about the only uptempo one on that record
    U2 – Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – my favorite from one of my favorite albums of decade
    AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long – agree with you re: the album; this was the first song I heard on it and so it stuck
    Prince – Let’s Go Crazy; so many possibilities from this album, but always loved the beginning of this song
    Crowded House – Don’t Dream Its Over – everything you said, x10 – one of my all time favorite songs
    Bangles – Manic Monday – another Prince entry, always loved Susanna Hoffs voice
    John Mellencamp – ROCK in the USA; another of my favorite 80s artists, and a fun song off of Scarecrow
    Sinead O’Connor – Mandinka – this song blew me away when I first heard it; her voice was aggressive, alien, scary.
    Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes. from another of my favorite albums of decade
    Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless – had to include something from TH.

      • She exploded on the scene here in like 1987 – so different and original. Hit a commercial height with nothing compares to U (another Prince one) and stirred up some controversy by tearing up a picture of the Pope on live tv and then kind of faded – I think she became a nun at some point – not Catholic though 😀

        • I know Nothing Compares 2 U – it’s hard to avoid! Just haven’t really heard anything else apart from that. I was old enough to remember the pope tearing thing.

  15. Nice list. I’m a fan of any 80s music list. Here are some of my favorites off the top of my head. I tried to stick to hit songs instead of the deeper cuts, but I’m not looking at the charts so 1 or 2 might slip in. In no order.

    Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)

    Small Town Boy (Bronski Beat)

    We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (Jermaine Stewart)

    Digging Your Scene (The Blow Monkeys)

    How Soon Is Now (The Smiths)

    One More Night (Phil Collins)

    Same Ole Love (Anita Baker)

    Through the Years (Kenny Rogers)

    Fall On Me (R. E. M.)

    Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick)

  16. Any list of 80’s songs that misses:
    Take on Me – A-ha
    Your Love – The Outfield
    Africa – Toto
    Kyrie or Broken Wings – Mr. Mr
    Jump – VH or a Van Hagar if you prefer
    I just died in your arms tonight – Cutting Crew
    Welcome to the Jungle – G’n’R
    Here I go Again – Whitesnake
    A Prince, MJ, George Michael (or Wham), or Journey songs
    Then you’re just fooling around and having fun. 😄
    Haha
    I want The Cure in my list, but you can’t rewrite history and put them in there b/c they’ve aged well.

  17. I missed this whole post somehow even though I saw your Worst of the ’80s post. Your list is pretty decent, and your commenters really came up with some good ones. I gotta look for mine. I think I might have got rid it.

    • Good to see some New Zealand in your top ten – we both had Neil Finn in there, even though different bands. More Than This is magical too – it’s a great production.

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