80s nostalgia usually focuses on the decade at its most outlandish: big hair, Day-glo shirts, scrunchies, Boy George, New Coke… call it the Wedding Singer effect. And that goes doubly for the music. Pop on most any ’80s playlist and you’re bound to hear the same cycle of kitchy, seemingly alien vintage pop: Synthy goth songs, lite hip-hop, the occasional punk infusion and a whole lot of hair metal.
But the ’80s sound was so much more than the sum of its eccentricities, and there’s a huge difference between an “’80s song” and a “song from the ’80s.” This is the decade that gave us Prince and Madonna, MJ and NWA. New Wave stalwarts like Talking Heads and Devo found new grooves while transcendent artists like Marvin Gaye and Paul Simon offered up some of the best work of their careers. And as the decade wore on, rap’s wave turned into a tsunami that changed the face of pop music.
In gathering our list of the ’80s very best, there was a lot to consider: Lasting impact, cultural relevance, actual musicianship, catchiness, coolness and, of course, nostalgia. But mostly, we curated with maximum enjoyment in mind while limiting the list to one song per artist. From genre-defining works of genius to ear-worm flights of fancy, these are the best songs of the ’80s. And don’t get your scrunchies in a bunch: Some hair metal definite snuck in.
Best ’80s songs, ranked
Image: Warner Bros. Records
1. “Purple Rain” by Prince
Prince was so prolific in the ’80s that 90% of this list could be his and it would still be correct. But forced to pick one Prince song, “Purple Rain” is the obvious choice. It’s a swelling, perfectly crafted masterpiece that spotlights everything that made Prince Rogers Nelson an absolute legend: his gift for unique melodies; his multinstrumentalism; his uncanny vocal ability to shift from guttural to falsetto, from aggrieved to ethereal; and his unmatched ability to absolutely slay a guitar solo. It’s Prince at his best, a song that remains as impactful today as it was nearly 40 years ago.
2. “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
We get so used to the sleek, funky side of Michael Jackson on th ehit parade that was Thriller that it’s easy to forget how hard “Beat It” actually legitimately rocks. And it’s not just Eddie Van Halen’s famous finger-busting solo; it’s that perfectly formed sneer of a guitar riff — conceived by Jackson and played by session ace Steve Lukather — those exaggered downbeats that feel like medicine balls being slammed down on a concrete floor and the raw desperation in MJ’s voice as he chronicles the harsh truths of the street-fighting life. As much of a dance-floor killer as it is, “Beat It” is a genuinely heavy song, psychologically as much as sonically.
Image: Arista Records
3. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston
In 1987, Houston was still very much a fresh-faced siren with the crystal-clear voice and a world of possibilities at her feet. Her approach to this song — which, when you break it down, is more about loneliness than love — says a lot about her ability to radiate warmth and positivity through her singular sound. It’s miles away from the struggles the singer would face later in her career. Always a party starter and roof-igniting karaoke jam, the song become a bittersweet rallying cry in the years since her death. You can practically hear 23-year-old smiling through the chorus, urging every last wallflower on to the dance floor. Who can resist?
4. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
“Nineteen eighty-nine…” The first five syllables of Public Enemy’s most zeitgeisty hit, made at the request of Spike Lee for his groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing, pack a ton of punch. And it only gets more intense from there, building a manifesto of what to take swigs at, including this gem: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / You see, straight-up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Mother fuck him and John Wayne / ‘Cause I’m black and I’m proud.” And that’s the truth, Ruth.
Image: EMI America
5. “Modern Love” by David Bowie
Bowie was all over the place during the ’80s: duetting with Jagger, clambering into spandex for Labyrinth, getting buried alive for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and ultimately embarking on a midlife crisis that resulted in a worrying beard and Tin Machine. But before all that, he managed to lay down some of the decade’s best tracks, including this nihilistic, Nile Rodgers–assisted soul boogie from 1983. We defy your feet to stay on the floor as that cyclical, cynical, irresistible chorus hurtles on.
Image: Ruthless Records
6. “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA
The title of the track of NWA’s debut doesn’t just announce the arrival of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren. It announced the arrival of west-coast rap in the most aggressive, game-changing way imaginable, leaving the dominant hair rockers of the time little choice but to get out of the way.
Image: Sire Records
7. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads
David Byrne’s hugely influential Talking Heads had many songs that seem more definitively ’80s than this Speaking in Tongues standout, but few have endured across decades more seamlessly. With its sweetly tingling synth notes and Tina Weymouth’s pulsing bassline, it’s a lovely, dreamlike song, one that feels timeless because you can’t quite tell whether it was gifted to us from the past or the future.
8. “Close to Me” by the Cure
Robert Smith’s un-merry men spent roughly half of the ’80s making desperately sad goth rock, and the other half writing some of the best pop songs of all time. Naturally, there was a certain amount of leakage between the two—which is why 1985’s “Close to Me” is a strong contender for the band’s best song, with its yearning lyrics matched by ultra perky brass riffs (inspired by a New Orleans funeral march, obvs). There’s also an album version of this without the trumpets, but why would you even want that?
9. “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty
Is there anyone who doesn’t like this song? The famously cantankerous Lou Reed loved it, as did Tom Cruise’s go-get-’em titular character in Jerry Maguire (who, no disrespect, doesn’t seem like the most scrutinizing music listener). And to this day, we’re betting the fanbase for the breezy sing-along fave (co-written by Jeff Lynne) still runs the gamut — from get-me-out-of-here teens to the dads they think are lame, and from snobs who wouldn’t be caught dead doing karaoke to people who live for it.
10. “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye
Gaye already gifted the world arguably the greatest song about sex ever, “Let’s Get It On,” in 1973. Nine years later, though, he came awfully close to outdoing himself with “Sexual Healing,” his first non-Motown single (released just two years before he was fatally shot by his father). The steamy track is decidedly more ’80s, with a drum-machine propulsion, busy guitars and a pleasing base of synths. It also boasts perhaps the most fitting last line in a sex song to date: “Please don’t procrastinate / It’s not good to masturbate.” Recommended
11. “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen
The Boss pinched the title of an old crooners’ standard to write his own classic, the finest single from his massive Born in the USA album in 1984. Bursting with ambition, frustration and sex, “Dancing in the Dark” is also Springsteen’s dance-floor peak, with a typically stunning sax solo by the late Clarence Clemons to top it all off. And there aren’t many songs from the era that come with an important warning about fire safety in the chorus.
Image: Capitol Records
12. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner
Image: Sugar Hill Records
13. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five
With its synthed-out beat and terse “don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge,” Flash’s legendary contribution to the hip-hop era wasn’t just a banger: It announced to the world that hip-hop wasn’t an idle pastime. Here was a movement that had just as much to say as the protest-obsessed hippies of the ’60s… the very same music fans who inexplicably pushed back against the music of young, assertive and frustrated Black men looking to raise awareness and change the world through music.
14. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears
15. “Every Breath You Take” by the Police
Don’t let Puff Daddy ruin this for you. Now that “I’ll Be Missing You” is nearly four decades old (gulp), that steady, ceramic, arpeggiated riff is again property of the Police. Too many people mock the ’80s as an age of excess, yet loads of classic singles from the era are studies in cool restraint (see: Phil Collins — no, honestly). It’s just that they spent a butt-ton of money on everything. So though Stewart Copeland could be a florid, flashy drummer, and though Sting was known to dash a few extra flicks on his grooves, “Every Breath” measures each note microscopically, as if arranged with OCD, which makes the stalking vibe that much subtly creepier.
Image: Warner Bros. Records
16. “Take On Me” by A-ha
Image: Blanco y Negro
17. “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain
The first four iconic seconds of the Ronette’s “Be My Baby” have been sampled again and again over the past 50 years: Billy Joel, the Magnetic Fields, the Strokes, Amy Winehouse, Dan Deacon, Gotye… the list goes on. But only one band had transformed that groundbreaking phrase into a musical piece that defined an era (almost) as deeply as the Ronettes. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” captures a certain proto-shoegazey, bittersweet longing that pristinely characterizes the hazy milieu of the ‘80s—not to mention gave Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation a killer outro a few seconds before the credits roll.
Image: Island Records
18. “With or Without You” by U2
19. “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade
Sade is just so damned smooth. It would be easy to be consumed by envy if we weren’t all being lulled into a dopey, two-stepping, love-drunk stupor. The Nigerian-born, U.K.-raised singer-songwriter is in top form on this hit single from her multi-platinum-selling second album, Promise. When it comes on, you’ve got no choice but to relax and drift off into the quiet storm.
Image: RCA Records
20. “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley
Image: Motown Records
21. “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie
It’s impossible to feel bad when this tune’s Caribbean-inflected rhythms start pumping from a nearby speaker. The perma-coifed Commodores frontman’s 1983 single smashes any attempts to resist its groove. And that bit that sounds like made-up gibberish? It is. Richie attempted to find some suitable foreign phrases but got impatient and invented his own international party language.
22. “Africa” by Toto
Image: Gordy Records
23. “Super Freak” by Rick James
Catchier than a flytrap, more sordid than your craziest night out, Rick James hit the summit of his career with the wild funk of “Super Freak.” A global hit in 1981, the star’s signature song finds him joined by the mighty Temptations on backing vocals — including James’s uncle, Melvin Franklin. Even that sampling by MC Hammer can’t diminish its greatness.
24. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash
25. “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News
It wasn’t just a souped-up DeLorean that safely spirited Back to the Future‘s Marty McFly home to the ’80s: He was also aided by this ditty from harmonica-blowing everydad Huey Lewis, who penned the song for the 1985 blockbuster’s soundtrack. It’s about as sappy as they come, but Baby Huey smartly slips in a line about how love doesn’t require a credit card, which, as anyone who’s gone on a date in the past 50 years can tell you, is totally bull. But it’s a sweet thought.