Top European Pop and Rock Artists of the '80s

Not many artists from mainland Europe (and Iceland) were able to make that jump into the English-speaking markets, and the ones who did often were saddled, unfairly or not, with the condescending one-hit wonder tag. Even so, here are 10 of the most notable European artists of the '80s, and without them the decade wouldn't have had quite the same exotic flavor.

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Germany's Scorpions easily became one of the most recognizable European music acts of the '80s.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

This pioneering and versatile German hard rock band nearly achieved world domination during the early and mid '80s, taking its twin-guitar attack, fist-pumping arena rock majesty, and accessible heavy metal sound to never-before-scaled heights. 1984's Love at First Sting stands as a major hard rock album regardless of decade, fueled by a number of unforgettable anthems, including the striking ballad "Still Loving You" and the mid-tempo gem "I'm Leaving You" - as well as the ubiquitous, riff-legendary "Rock You Like a Hurricane." Basically, American fans couldn't get enough of these Teutonic warriors. If only Scorpions guitarist Rudolf Schenker could have shared some of his band's widespread popular appeal with brother Michael's brilliant group, UFO.

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Golden Earring

Veteran Dutch rock band Golden Earring scored an '80s classic with the epic 1982 track "Twilight Zone."
Single Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol

By the time the '80s rolled around, this Dutch classic rock band had long been veterans of the rock scene in Europe and had also enjoyed quite a hit in Britain and America with 1974's "Radar Love." But that somewhat annoying, almost-novelty tune was nothing compared to the intensity and mainstream rock appeal of 1982's rocking "Twilight Zone." It's one of the few songs of the decade that really doesn't sound dated in the least, and if it's a one-song '80s legacy the band retains, there's plenty of solace in the fact that it's a solid one.

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Norwegian synth pop group a-ha enjoyed major success in Europe during the '80s, but across the Atlantic the band became known for one unmistakable song.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Although it tends to inspire a love-it-or-hate-it response among listeners, the glossy synth pop classic "Take on Me" really made a splash in America in 1985, riding the wave of a joyful keyboard riff and an innovative, memorable video clip all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. The Norwegian band that delivered the song valiantly tried to maintain its popularity in the U.S. on the heels of that one monster hit, but it was probably an impossible feat to match for a European act.

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Austrian pop star Falco became a larger-than-life musical figure in Europe, even if perhaps his impact in America seemed far more marginal.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Ariola

Austria's biggest rock star achieved worldwide stardom by sheer force of will and a playful, flamboyant approach to making commercially viable music. His "Der Kommissar" introduced an early-'80s Teutonic rap to the varied pop music stew, and Falco was one of the few European artists with enough clout and gumption to forge American hits in his native tongue. Falco's most famous composition, "Rock Me Amadeus," employed the artist's best feature, his sense of light-hearted daring, to become a No. 1 U.S. pop hit.

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Swiss heavy metal band Krokus became one of the most successful rock music acts from mainland Europe to build solid North American success.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Arista

This Swiss heavy metal band became huge stars worldwide during the mid '80s by bringing a singular but undeniably mainstream style to hard rock. Along with a couple of other artists on this list, the former progressive rock band pioneered what came to be known as power metal or Euro metal, categories that referred to the prevalence of high-pitched, soaring vocals and epic, slightly symphonic arrangements that defined the subgenre. "Screaming in the Night" is a bona fide hard rock classic.

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German singer and pop music icon Nena Kerner was originally just a member of the band called Nena, but ultimately she came to be known worldwide by that memorable, pithy name..
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic

Though many remain unaware of the fact, German singer Nena Kerner was actually just one member of quite an impressive band that became her namesake. Even so, she and she alone became a major '80s icon, aided by her unique sense of style and stunning good looks matched perfectly with the burgeoning phenomenon of MTV. However, the band's signature tune, "99 Luftballons," remains not only an important relic of '80s pop culture but also retains significant power as a Cold War document of unease and doubt.

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The Sugarcubes

Icelandic alternative rock band The Sugarcubes injected some welcome oddity into the late-'80s pop music landscape.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Elektra

This Icelandic band, led by the striking looks and vocals of Bjork, took it upon itself to inject a fresh, much-needed amount of oddity into '80s music at the end of the decade. After all, by then even the controlled strangeness of some post-new wave acts had faded away entirely, and New Kids on the Block had become the pop (cough) gold standard. So, to say the least, the frenetic, anguished delivery of Bjork and Co. on "Motorcrash" amply filled the niche of "something just a little bit different."

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Swedish pop metal band Europe reached a wide audience of American music fans during the late '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic

At the risk of getting my meta ya-ya's out a bit too much, this poppy Swedish band belongs on this list if only for the delicious over-the-top nature of, well, pretty much all the music they recorded, as well as frontman Joey Tempest's blustery name and blond locks. But really, the music has its merits - in the form of very catchy melodies and an appropriate fusion of epic, symphonic tendencies with light hard rock. If "The Final Countdown" is like nails on a chalkboard to you, try the soaring power ballad "Carrie."

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Vangelis built a huge American audience on the strength of his majestic theme from the early-'80s film 'Chariots of Fire.'
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Universal Motown Records Group

This Greek electronic composer had enjoyed a long and varied career for nearly two decades before his soundtrack for the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire shot him to international stardom. By 1982, the film's main theme had forced Vangelis' way forever into the memories of children and teenagers, who surely imitated the slow-motion running scene from the film in droves when they made spectacles of themselves in public during the early '80s. OK, well, maybe that was just me.

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Jan Hammer

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen Records

Our lone Czech on the list is another soundtrack specialist, in his case making a memorable sonic impression on the small screen. Hammer's accompaniment for the heavily stubbled Crockett and suave, soft-spoken Tubbs on Miami Vice was nothing short of transcendent, providing moody atmospherics at the proper dramatic junctures but mostly shining through as one of the decade's top TV themes. Oddly enough, Hammer had previously been a pretty major jazz fusion musician before stardom beckoned.