The greatest singles of the '80s - as in 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. And while chart performance, radio airplay and longevity are all important criteria to help build a list of the best of the best, these essential '80s songs announce themselves as vital through sheer force of gravity. Each of these tunes, presented in no particular order, is simply impossible to ignore in the context of '80s music.
Regardless of how many times this song is played, it retains a magic that exists only for the most solidly constructed, universally themed and uniquely presented musical compositions. Sting's songwriting centerpiece from 1983's Synchronicity achieves a rare pop/rock perfection, featuring a top-notch vocal performance, a groundbreaking guitar riff and a highly personal lyrical theme exploring obsession, heartbreak and romantic doom that somehow seems familiar in spite of its fierce originality. Definitely one of the finest moments of the career of The Police as well as the '80s music scene as a whole.
This Chicago-area mainstream power rock band known mostly for its power ballads always had a knack for delivering lyrics that stand among the most bombastic of the decade. But with this song, featured prominently and appropriately in the film Rocky III, Survivor brought fist-pumping arena rock to an entirely new plane of soaring bravado. The somewhat silly overuse of metaphor and cliche at times grows a bit offputting, but the hold of the melody and power-chord opening is undeniable.
Some '70s and '80s hard rock bands turned to pop out of desperation or just pure greed as the hair metal phenomenon kicked off. In the case of Van Halen, the stylistic turn seemed as organic and wonderful as the splendid synthesizer riff that fuels this tune, or David Lee Roth's exuberant leap, or Eddie Van Halen's infectious grin. On this one occasion, the band wrote a nearly perfect pop song, and unfortunately it spent the remainder of the decade rolling slowly downhill from this moment.
U2's track to stardom (not to mention its ensuing legendary status as well) has been an intriguing one, filled with explorations of a variety of music styles and artistic approaches. However, this tune, one of many excellent songs from The Joshua Tree, strikes a perfect balance of pop and rock sensibilities. It's catchy, beautiful and hauntingly memorable, and somehow it remains both a document of its era and a timeless classic. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the song has one of the best if simplest bass lines in rock history.
As raw and unabashed as they were, Axl Rose and his then-mates knew how to craft intricate and polished rock songs. The band's sound was no happy accident, and this song more than any other reveals Guns N' Roses at its peak collectively and individually. Never has Rose revealed his versatility as a singer more completely than through the calm verses and more fierce chorus sections of the tune. It's a tour de force of rock guitar buoyed by an unexpected lyrical sweetness, and the song's broad appeal helped take 1987's Appetite for Destruction to a mainstream music pinnacle no one could have expected.
Even though I sometimes get the "na-na-na-na-na-na" part mixed up with the Smurfs theme, this song is a highlight for me personally and for the entire decade's musical catalogue. The band's frontman, Peter Wolf, was tailor-made for the '80s with his Mick Jagger swagger and exuberance, even though he had more than paid his dues before the band went pop. It may be undeniable that the group reached its highest level of success during the '80s, but this tune's memorable playfulness is a big reason why.