Top New Wave Artists of the '80s

Audience view at a rock concert

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When people consider the variety of music genres that peaked during the '80s, new wave often comes up as one of the first topics of discussion. Once a term used somewhat interchangeably with ​punk rock, new wave eventually expanded to include almost any quirky yet mainstream pop/rock form of the first half of the decade. At its core, however, the style featured a heavy focus on guitars and keyboards supported by an unwavering if complicated pop sensibility. Here's a short list, in no strict order, of the most influential and important artists that fell under the valuable if overused new wave designation.

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The Cars

Elliot Easton and Benjamin Orr performing on stage with the group the Cars

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One of the original and most musically balanced torchbearers for the new wave style, the Cars both exemplified and defined new wave with their sweeping, accessible sound. Blessed with a genius songwriter in usual frontman Ric Ocasek, a powerful guitarist in Elliot Easton and the distinct keyboards of Greg Hawkes, the Cars tapped into classic rock, album rock, post-punk and mainstream pop/rock to build a wide appeal. The presence of bassist and supporting lead vocalist Benjamin Orr helped the group scale even greater heights, ultimately becoming one of the top-selling and most consistently excellent bands of the era.

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Talking Heads

portrait of Talking Heads

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Almost all of the early New York City punk rock bands would ultimately take on the new wave descriptor, which is actually rather appropriate given the array of experimental styles found in that city's mid-'70s scene. Still, the way the term was co-opted by the mainstream pop establishment probably didn't please sophisticated, arty outfits like Talking Heads. In response, after blithely ignoring the so-called stylistic and fashion rules of early new wave, the group pressed on to release a string of critically acclaimed, exploratory albums of exciting music. As difficult to categorize as the new wave term itself, Talking Heads achieved great consistency without ever resorting to a mere formula.

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Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello performing

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A common characteristic of the most enduring artists of the new wave era, perhaps by necessity, is an overriding versatility and searching needs to test the boundaries of what pop music had to offer. Costello was inspired by the British pub rock scene and developed his sound as punk rock broke there, but his talents as a songwriter and performer always challenged expectations, perhaps even his own. Without even delving into his post-'80s work as a terrifically well-rounded musical genius, an observer must view Costello's work within that decade as unwavering in its sense of adventure and artistic passion. Exploring influences as disparate as R&B and country music, Costello became one of new wave's most impressive legends.

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The Police

The Police

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The proximity of the Police to the punk rock revolution in England may have had as much to do with the band's inclusion in the new wave category as its reggae-inflected sound, but the trio certainly reflected the variety ultimately housed within the genre. Starting off as a bona fide punk band, the Police slowly evolved to spotlight world music influences as well as the veteran precision of guitarist Andy Summers. However, everyone knows that the central essence of the group lay in the personality and songwriting of frontman Sting. The band's relatively brief '80s existence (a long-awaited 2007 reunion was tremendously successful) did nothing to diminish its impressive layers, only one of which fits the description new wave.

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Duran Duran

Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon performing
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Though largely driven by a fascination with dance music and considered little more than a prefabricated boy band by some music purists, Duran Duran was always a quintet devoted to a unique kind of musical fusion. The band's singular combination of guitar rock, synth-pop, and Euro beats proved immensely popular in both Britain and America, and at one time the Duran Duran furor rivaled that of the Beatles two decades before. Though plenty adept musically, the group attracted more attention for its photogenic appeal than its songwriting, a handicap that has haunted Duran Duran only slightly over what's now a more than 30-year career on the pop music landscape.

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Culture Club

Culture Club Performs At Pechanga Casino

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During the early '80s, an unsuspecting American public probably had no idea what to call a neo-soul pop band led by an androgynous cross-dresser. So naturally, Culture Club quickly secured the new wave label just in time to score hit after hit on the American pop charts. Musically, the group had little in common with the guitar-based pop or synth-heavy dance music that had otherwise been christened with the marketable signifier. But the group's tight songwriting and a fine showcase for the smooth vocals of Boy George found plenty of takers among radio programmers and the record-buying public, and MTV helped Culture Club make the most of its unusual visuals.

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The Pretenders

The Pretenders in performance

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Coming cleanly out of a veteran presence within England's punk scene of the '70s, Chrissie Hynde was certainly primed for success in the new wave '80s. However, the band she put together for the 1980s self-titled release was one of the first of the era to combine roots rock with a guitar-fueled punk attitude. Hynde's first-rate songwriting contributed most to the Pretenders' sound and legacy, but her ability to bounce back from the tragic deaths of two founding members may be even more impressive. With a completely different supporting cast, Hynde kept the Pretenders relevant throughout the '80s and beyond, releasing a critically acclaimed record in 2008 to boot.

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portrait of band INXS

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If you think you're noticing a distinct pattern in this list, you're probably right. Assuming, of course, that the pattern you see has to do with each artist being many, many things in addition to a new wave band. Australia's INXS grew out of Australia's pub rock scene, which as in England boasted a strong link to punk rock. But the group also demonstrated a vibrant evolution during which Michael Hutchence emerged as one of pop music's premier frontmen and INXS went from recognizable new wave guitars and keyboards to sultry dance beats. As usual, quality songs are the foundation of any band's success, and INXS enjoyed nearly a full decade of that kind of magic.

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The Go-Go's

The Go-Go's in performance

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Perhaps few of us knew it at the time, but the groundbreaking all-female Go-Go's actually held one of the most intimate connections to punk rock of all the new wave acts, having cut their teeth in the late-'70s Los Angeles scene. The group's bright sound exhibited in its early-'80s hits may not have obviously reflected that fact, but while they lasted, the Go-Go's earned massive popularity through solid songwriting and savvy production. Even during the band's drug-addled later years, the Go-Go's remained capable of producing dynamic guitar pop that maintained a deep niche within the era's pop culture fabric.

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Billy Idol

Billy Idol performs live

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As the leader of genuine first-wave British punkers Generation X, Idol certainly had plenty to draw from to support a successful spiky-haired new wave image. But the clever singer-songwriter injected hard rock guitar into his muscular sound, achieving an expansive appeal in the pop music landscape. Perhaps most surprisingly, Idol managed to embrace mainstream rock and a rising pop sensibility without sacrificing his former underground credibility. In a nutshell, Idol's career deftly sums up the magical nature of new wave, a genre often simultaneously organic and contrived and yet fully opportunistic in manipulating the '80s climate to its will.