An effort to count down the best and most memorable songs of the '80s can certainly begin with a short list of tunes covering the entire decade, but in order even to approach doing this chore justice it's necessary - at the very least - to break down the decade's songs by year. Here's an attempt to suss out the best the '80s had to offer musically, but of course it's just a start.
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The greatest singles of any era possess the power to change the world in three minutes, or failing that, they at least share the ability to leave their stamp on a musical landscape already filled nearly to capacity. These are the essentials, the '80s tunes that almost always come to mind when thinking about the decade's music and culture. Both popular and sound in terms of quality, these pop songs include immediately recognizable favorites from "Every Breath You Take"
to "With or Without You"
to "Sweet Child O'Mine."
Please check out the full list for the other titles that are practically impossible to exclude from the cream of the crop.
Here's a look at some of the best and most memorable songs from 1980, and not necessarily just the biggest hits. Many songs hit No. 1 or even the Top Ten this year, but few of them truly epitomize the exciting transitional period between the '70s and '80s. Accordingly, the best tunes from this year tended to contain elements of the decade just passed even as they forged new paths, such as the blending of disco beats with heavy use of synthesizer, an instrument that would play a huge role in the '80s. Blondie
, Air Supply
and Kool & the Gang
stand among the familiar artists of the early '80s with contributions worth singling out for this list.
By 1981, remnants of the '70s began to fall away from the new decade's musical offerings, especially with the advent of MTV
late in the year. In this way, '80s music began to fully embrace its own individual fashion and sound this year, and the results truly launched a new era of both making and experiencing music. As disco faded, musicians found new applications for keyboards and guitar, launching new wave
as a brand new style. Artists like Hall & Oates
, Rick Springfield
made the most of the sweeping possibilities of this exciting period.
As MTV continued to extend its influence, artists began to emerge and thrive almost on image alone. Even so, much quality music was released in 1982, ranging from straight-ahead rock to synth pop
to guitar-based new wave. Rock and pop styles flourished and intertwined to create an impressive display of originality that still resonates today, exemplified by ensembles like the Human League
and Men at Work
1983 may have been the year of Michael Jackson
, but it was also a year that embraced an array of pop music perhaps like never before. So many artists from disparate backgrounds who performed in various styles found success this year, and that was only one thing that increased the dynamism of the Top 40 charts. From Celtic influences to the early rustlings of hair metal
, the memorable hits of 1983 never wavered from a special kind of intrigue. This was a year ruled by Duran Duran
and Def Leppard
, if you happen to remember those specific obscure blips on the pop music radar.
At least musically, 1984 was far from an Orwellian year of doom. Instead, it was the year major stars came out to shine, just in time to join the video revolution. At the same time, new wave and synth pop styles continued to evolve even as new paths began to emerge. While 1984 undoubtedly saw the release of several of the decade's best and most important albums, it also continued to be a showcase for all sorts of new artists, styles and sensibilities. In that way, it may be one of the toughest years to slice up into a best-of list. Nonetheless, duty mercilessly calls, and I must answer, with a little help from minor stars like Cyndi Lauper
and Billy Idol
Aside from being right in the middle of the '80s chronologically, 1985 was undoubtedly a central year in the decade’s musical offerings. Many of the most popular and highest-quality tunes this year stood as big, sweeping statements of both style and substance. There was room for straight-ahead rock here but also unabashed dance music, post-punk
and new wave keyboard pop. In essence, perhaps 1985 was the most organic and welcoming year of the decade in terms of musical variety. Tears for Fears, Dire Straits
, and ABC
were among the artists that made an indelible mark on 1985 pop culture.
Here's a look at 10 of the most memorable pop tunes from 1986, a diverse bunch of songs made up of familiar classics and tracks that were emblematic of the year by artists ranging from Heart
to Peter Gabriel
to the Bangles
. I can't say this was one of my favorite years within the context of my own life, but many of the songs that defined the period helped me muck it through somehow and remain significant elements of my ever-changing musical memory. Come along and see which of these tunes from that year lent meaning to your life back then or persist in doing so on a continuing basis.
While 1987 was certainly a year that really began to usher in the era of hair metal in earnest, its best songs demonstrated a diversity that the decade has not always been credited for. Veteran artists mingled with fresh ones to offer singular takes on rock and pop styles, from Crowded House to Tom Petty
. Kindly peruse my list of the top songs from 1987, in no particular order and certainly with no claim toward a collection that cannot be challenged.
Here's a look at 10 of the most striking, singular tunes from 1988, a year dominated by some pretty lame pop hits and hair metal posturing but somehow still rich with delightful musical surprises. Most of the year's best moments did not coincide with hit singles, instead residing in the evolving niche of post-college rock alternative music. Nonetheless, 1988 certainly rewarded patience on the part of listeners everywhere, as new artists with fresh approaches like Living Colour, Tracy Chapman and Guns N' Roses
helped stave off stagnation.
Here's a musical look at the last calendar year of the '80s, a time during which much pop music was already in the process of saying goodbye to the previous decade. From the changing state of R&B and hip-hop to the rise of alternative rock to the earliest signs of grunge, 1989 served as a transitional year, to be sure, but it also pumped out some memorably high-quality tunes. The Cure
, Skid Row and the Indigo Girls
helped make up the motley list of hitmakers from 1989.