Top 10 Songs of the '80s

Essential Anthems to the Era

The greatest singles of the '80s—as in any era—possess the power to change the world in three minutes. Failing that, these songs at least share the ability to leave their stamp on a vast musical landscape. 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.

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"Every Breath You Take" by The Police

English singer songwriter Sting

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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 that explores obsession, heartbreak, and romantic doom. Somehow, the song seems familiar in spite of its originality. "Every Breath You Take" is definitely one of the finest moments of The Police anthology and the '80s music scene.

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"Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

Survivor Eye of the Tiger

Volcano Records

This Chicago-area mainstream power rock band is known mostly for its power ballads that always had a knack for delivering some of the most bombastic lyrics of the decade. But with this song, featured prominently and appropriately in the film, 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 off-putting, but the hold of the melody and the power-chord opening is undeniable.

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"I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner

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Foreigner enjoyed a number of hits in the '80s, but none reached as high a level of over-the-top romantic longing as this keyboard-heavy love ballad does. Guitarist Mick Jones has always been an underrated songwriter, and his command was never on finer display than when the calmness of this tune's verses explode into a crescendo of a chorus perfectly suited for Lou Gramm's impressively high vocal range. When the gospel chorus kicks in at the end, it's a perfectly appropriate topping for this confection.

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"Jump" by Van Halen

Photo of David Lee ROTH and VAN HALEN
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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. This hit was the highpoint of the band's career. Unfortunately, the genre spent the remainder of the decade rolling slowly downhill from this moment.

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"With or Without You" by U2

Bono and U2 live at De Kuip Stadium

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U2's track to stardom (not to mention its ensuing legendary status) has been an intriguing one, filled with explorations of a variety of music styles and artistic approaches. One of many excellent songs by the group, With or Without You strikes a perfect balance of pop and rock sensibilities. Catchy, hauntingly and indelibly beautiful, it somehow remains both a testament 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.

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"Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses

Guns and Roses
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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 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 to a mainstream music pinnacle no one could have expected.

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"So Emotional" by Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston
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The late, great pop diva Whitney Houston's '80s heyday produced several singles worthy of inclusion on best-of lists, but this one represents her best blend of danceable beats and an irrepressible chorus. Houston was an indisputably fine, precise singer, but perhaps her best attribute was her ability to select top-notch material. This tune is a celebration of an '80s pluckiness we're not likely to see again, and it's so infectious that even a lot of rock fans found themselves subject to its seduction.

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"Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler

Bonnie Tyler
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One of the greatest '80s collaborations was undoubtedly this Welsh female singer, with her unmistakable voice, and Jim Steinman, songwriter-producer of Meat Loaf fame. It was a match made in heaven, as Steinman's gift for lyrical bombast and over-the-top arrangements to match helped him produce his finest musical moment. In concert, Tyler's gritty but sensitive voice perfectly conveyed the longing of this great love song.

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"Endless Love" by Lionel Richie & Diana Ross

Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross
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Speaking of ballads and the '80s, it's impossible to go too far without discussing duets pairing male and female singers. There was no finer example of that phenomenon than this overwrought but undeniably engaging tune from 1981. Lionel Richie certainly covered this same kind of ground effectively in his solo career, but the addition of a capable female singer with whom to exchange verses raises this song to another level. It helped that Ross was beyond capable of carrying the song even all by herself.

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"Centerfold" by J. Geils Band

J Geils Band
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Even though it's easy to get the "na-na-na-na-na-na" part mixed up with the Smurfs theme, this song is a highlight for the entire decade's musical catalog. 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.