Top Hard Rock Songs of the '80s

For the purposes of this list of premium '80s hard rock songs, I consider the broad term of hard rock to apply to loud, guitar-heavy rock music generally played by long-haired male musicians at slow and medium tempos. I make that distinction to explain why I leave punk rock and hardcore out of the equation for this particular list. In addition, while any music that is genuine heavy metal falls into this category, some subgenres of metal like pop metal or hair metal may not constitute hard rock at all (consider Bon Jovi or Poison, for example). Here's a look at some top '80s hard rock classics, in no particular order.

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Tesla - "Modern Day Cowboy"

Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch of Tesla perform live in California during the summer of 1992.

Tim Mosenfelder/Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Built on some fantastic riffing and a powerful twin-guitar attack, this somewhat futuristic-sounding offering from Tesla's 1986 debut release, Mechanical Resonance, still stands as the band's finest moment. The quintet never quite fit into the pop-metal strain in vogue at the time, projecting something intriguing and distinctive in its sound as well as in its place of origin - Sacramento instead of Los Angeles. This solid track likewise stood a breed apart from its rock radio peers of the time in the sense that it actually rocked hard. My only complaint would be Jeff Keith's somewhat thin voice, but an inaccurate association with hair metal couldn't spoil this band's prime spot at the top of the '80s hard rock heap.

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Dokken - "Into the Fire"

Considered by some to be Dokken's finest album, 1984's 'Tooth and Nail' contained many hard rock gems - including the rocking "Into the Fire."
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra

This L.A. band transcended its hair metal visual image and propensity toward sappy romantic lyrics and power ballads for one reason and one reason only: the contributions of guitarist George Lynch. Without Lynch's powerful, imaginative riffing and speedy, exhilarating solos, Dokken would have never escaped the heap of moderately talented melodic metal bands of the mid-'80s. After all, Don Dokken's vocals never really exceeded competence, though his sense of melody was strong. No, it's all about Lynch, and on this track, his gorgeous solo still shines as one of the most dazzling in all of '80s hard rock's considerable fretwork.​

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Guns N' Roses - "It's So Easy"

L.A. hard rock band Guns N' Roses injected some much-needed raw energy into the hard rock scene.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

When trying to cull one song from probably the best hard rock album by the best hard rock band of the '80s, I could have picked any of a dozen tracks and not gone wrong. I choose this one, however, because it's the best approximation of the menace, threat and breakneck assault Guns N' Roses delivered in its blend of old-school hard rock, metal and punk. And it's not just Axl Rose's liberal use of profanity and confrontational lyrics that bring a consistent sense of danger; the entire band starts a collective sonic riot that sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did more than two decades ago when the L.A. quintet emerged.

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Metallica - "Master of Puppets"

Metallica's 'Master of Puppets' revolutionized hard rock and heavy metal in 1986.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra Records

In my mind, metal in the '80s never seemed more broodingly gothic, precise or intelligent than in the work of Metallica, one of the most important of America's thrash pioneers. The San Francisco-area quartet deliberately stayed quite removed from L.A.'s Sunset Strip scene, developing a speedy and brutal sonic assault informed by both punk and classical influences. This epic track from the band's 1986 classic album of the same name crystallized perfectly all of Metallica's originality and sonic intensity from prime ingredients like James Hetfield's distinctive growl and crunching riffs.

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Motorhead - "Ace of Spades"

Motorhead's 1980 LP 'Ace of Spades' is usually regarded as the legendary heavy metal band's finest album.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sanctuary/Classic

If Metallica represented the refined, intellectual side of speed metal, England's Motorhead went for the jugular with a biker-bar, broken-bottle-attack kind of ferocity. This 1980 title track to one of the band's and heavy metal's most signature albums simply pummels the listener with uncontrolled riffing, a merciless rhythmic assault and the throat-ripping vocal exploits of Lemmy Kilmister. Hard rock literally can't get much harder than this, even when the music stops about halfway through for one of metal's all-time classic lines: "You know I'm going to lose and gambling's for fools, but that's the way I like it, baby, I don't wanna live forever."

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Iron Maiden - "Flight of Icarus"

Iron Maiden emerged during the early '80s as one of the prime representatives of British metal, and 1983's 'Piece of Mind' was an album highlight.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI

Well, of course there's going to be a song on this list from Iron Maiden, the perfect manifestation of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. Deciding which one, however, is both the hard part and the fun part. I've always been a huge fan of this tight, melodic track that chronicles a key tale from Greek mythology with economy and dramatic tension. The song's musical attributes are plentiful as well, from the familiar, galloping rhythm section to the twin-guitar attack of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. But lead singer Bruce Dickinson's primal wail at the end of the song truly puts this one over the top.

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Judas Priest - "You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise"

Judas Priest started the '80s with a bang, releasing one of the most seminal heavy metal albums of all time in 1980's 'British Steel.'
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Here's another curveball for you, a sleeper track from this other great British metal band's masterpiece, 1980's British Steel. There are plenty more prominent Judas Priest tracks to settle on for this list, but I like this one because it proves beyond a doubt that some heavy metal was of high enough quality to generate deep album cuts that deserve to be revered as classics. Frontman Rob Halford's vocal performance here is typically powerful and impressively piercing, and the twin guitars of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton always work incredibly well on both riffing and solos.

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Queensryche - "Breaking the Silence"

American heavy metal band was uniquely cerebral and political, and 1988's 'Operation:Mindcrime' became a concept album masterpiece.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol/EMI

Genuine hard rock received a real threat from the dominion of hair metal during the late '80s, but luckily bands like Guns N' Roses, Tesla and Queensryche maintained the form's punishing sonic integrity through each band's distinctive sound. This Seattle band worked effectively as an outsider, injecting elements of progressive metal into a cerebral concept album of melodic hard rock, 1988's Operation: Mindcrime. This track effectively spotlights the group's strengths: precise, often complex songwriting, dense dual guitars, and the powerful vocals of frontman Geoff Tate. A hard rock classic of any era.

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Scorpions - "I'm Leaving You"

Germany's Scorpions became one of the most successful European hard rock bands of all time, hitting its peak with 1984's 'Love at First Sting.'
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Mercury

Germany's Scorpions became hugely popular in America during the mid '80s, riding in on a wave of melodic, slightly operatic metal that always remained highly accessible for mass audiences. There are several of the band's tunes more well-known than this fine album track from 1984's Love at First Sting, but I don't know if there any that are better. The band has been known to rock harder than on this mid-tempo track, but I've always felt the group is at its best when its approach is more deliberate and lingering. This one doesn't have the fury of a hurricane perhaps, but it's a powerful showpiece nonetheless.

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AC/DC - "Hell's Bells"

Several essential tracks appeared on the AC/DC bounce-back classic LP, 'Back in Black,' which followed the death of frontman Bon Scott
Single Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic/WEA

Because I prefer this quintessential hard rock band's Bon Scott era to the still successful and ongoing Brian Johnson version, I tried to squeeze AC/DC off this list. But ultimately I had to include a track from one of hard rock's all-time classics, 1980's Back in Black. Angus Young clearly lost no riffing chops following the sudden death of Scott, and Johnson jumped right in as a sensible, organic replacement. And even though he lacked the menace of his predecessor, Johnson gives a spirited performance of a vintage AC/DC tune at the band's artistic peak. This isn't metal, but it's premium hard rock without a doubt.