There is something about early ’80s songs that have the power to transport us to a simpler, more care-free and wild time: In 1981, the first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched, the Cold War was ending and MTV hit the air. By showing videos around the clock, MTV introduced a whole new way to experience popular music, and ultimately defined a generation.
Those early ’80s songs began looking and sounding more vibrant: synthesizers became staples and genres from hip-hop to hair metal grew increasingly popular, while oh-so-cool fashion icons like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper left an indelible pop cultural impact.
The best part about early ’80s songs is that they have stood the test of time over the last 40+ years. Here are 20 of our retro-MTV favorites, for your listening pleasure and some fascinating facts about each.
1. “Our Lips Are Sealed” — The Go-Go’s (1981)
The Go-Go’s delivered a burst of positive girl-power pop in their 1981 hit. While girl groups had been a staple of pop music since the ’60s, The Go-Go’s made history for being the first all-female band who wrote all their own songs and played all their own instruments to have their album hit number one on the Billboard chart. Not bad for a band that started out as a scrappy California punk group!
2. “In the Air Tonight” — Phil Collins (1981)
Admit it: You have that drum break running through your head right now, don’t you? The Genesis singer/drummer’s atmospheric hit helped define the slick style of the decade. Uses of the song in the classic Tom Cruise movie Risky Business and the debut episode of Miami Vice further solidified “In the Air Tonight” as an early-’80s classic that instantly signified a sophisticated atmosphere.
3. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (1981)
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” may have been a cover (it was originally written and performed by The Arrows, a British band, in 1975), but in the early ’80s it became eternally associated with trailblazing hard-rocker Joan Jett. With her swaggering vocals and signature dark eye makeup and shag haircut, Jett inspired many women to embrace their edgier sides and sing along.
4. “Come On Eileen” — Dexys Midnight Runners (1982)
When you think ’80s, overalls and Celtic fiddle aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind. Enter the British band Dexys Midnight Runners, who had a surprising hit with this jaunty tune. While frontman Kevin Rowland originally said Eileen was about a girlfriend in his youth, he later admitted that he made her up, and there was no real Eileen. The band would continue to release albums later in the ’80s and even into the 2000s, but “Come On Eileen” remained their biggest hit.
5. “Hungry Like the Wolf” — Duran Duran (1982)
With their glamorous new wave tunes, Duran Duran may have been the most ’80s of ’80s bands. “Hungry Like the Wolf” was all over MTV, and the video, which was filmed in Sri Lanka and had a cinematic, escapist vibe inspired by Indiana Jones, won a Grammy award. The band would earn a devoted following and score hits throughout the decade, thanks to their sparkling synth earworms and their dashing good looks.
6. “I Ran (So Far Away)” — A Flock of Seagulls (1982)
Only in the ’80s would you get a frontman with such a wild hairstyle! “I Ran” featured a mix of synthesizers and guitar riffs that made for an irresistible new wave bop. While A Flock of Seagulls didn’t reach the heights of other ’80s bands, they’ll forever be associated with the era thanks to how much airplay the low-budget but memorable music video for “I Ran” received.
7. “Let’s Dance” — David Bowie (1983)
By 1983, David Bowie had already been through many different musical phases, from pop to glam rock to experimental art rock. He showed no signs of slowing down or becoming a nostalgia act, though, as “Let’s Dance” became one of his biggest hits. The song came following a string of darker albums — but for “Let’s Dance” (and the album of the same name), he went for something more accessible, and worked with superstar producer Nile Rodgers, who also used his hit-making magic with Diana Ross, Madonna and Duran Duran.
8. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — Eurythmics (1983)
The new wave duo Eurythmics hypnotized MTV viewers one of the most powerful ’80s songs, which had a strikingly surreal music video. Singer Annie Lennox cut a dramatic figure with cropped orange hair and an androgynous outfit, and became a trendsetter who stood out among the more typically feminine pop stars of the day. In an interview, Lennox said, “I was trying to be the opposite of the cliché of the female singer,” and she certainly succeeded
9. “Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson (1983)
One could easily devote a list of ’80s hits solely to Michael Jackson songs, given just how massively popular the singer was then. While Jackson had been famous since childhood, as part of The Jackson 5, the success of his 1982 album Thriller pushed him into the stratosphere. Thriller plays like a greatest hits album, since every song on it, “Billie Jean” included, was virtually inescapable. “Billie Jean” also holds the distinction of being the first video from a Black artist to get airplay on MTV.
10. “Karma Chameleon” — Culture Club (1983)
With his soulful voice and flamboyantly gender-bending style, Culture Club frontman Boy George was a unique figure in ’80s pop. The catchy “Karma Chameleon,” featured a memorable bit of harmonica and lyrics about what George called “the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing.”
11. “Every Breath You Take” — The Police (1983)
Is it romantic or is it creepy? That’s the eternal question about the biggest song from The Police. In 1983, frontman Sting said, “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” That didn’t stop it from becoming the top song of 1983, however, and it’s remained a staple of radio, soundtracks and even (eek!) weddings ever since.
12. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Of the many power ballads that came out during the ’80s, few have quite as much staying power as “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Walk into any karaoke bar at any time, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear someone belting out this theatrical hit even now, decades after it topped the charts. The song was written by Jim Steinman, who was well-known for his equally dramatic collaborations with Meat Loaf.
13. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” — Cyndi Lauper (1983)
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” endures as one of the catchiest female empowerment anthems of all time. When Cyndi Lauper burst onto the scene, her quirky, colorful fashions inspired many a fan, and her bubbly voice proved just as effective for iconic pop songs as it did for gorgeous ballads. While it’s impossible to think of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” without thinking of Lauper, the song was actually written by a man, Robert Hazard. As she describes it, “It was written by a guy and he was writing, ‘Hey, we’re lucky. They want to have fun. Here I am.’” Ever the iconoclast, Lauper changed the original song to fit her persona and it became her signature tune.
14. “Like a Virgin” — Madonna (1984)
Madonna has been a star for so long now that younger folks might forget what a huge splash she made when she first came on the scene. Singing sexually suggestive lyrics and wearing her signature pile of accessories, Madonna became a superstar, and her performance of “Like a Virgin” at the very first MTV Video Music Awards was one of the defining moments of the decade. Rolling around seductively in a wedding dress and “Boy Toy” belt, she was unapologetically powerful, and would go on to take many more bold risks.
15. “When Doves Cry” — Prince & The Revolution (1984)
Singer, songwriter, dancer, actor, multi-instrumentalist, sex symbol — Prince could truly do it all. He even directed the music video for “When Doves Cry,” which was one of his biggest hits and featured prominently in the movie he starred in that same year, Purple Rain. With evocative lyrics that seamlessly blend romance, family drama and surrealism (what does it actually sound like when doves cry, anyway?) the song managed to be both artful and hugely popular.
16. “Dancing in the Dark” — Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Bruce Springsteen released his debut album in 1973, but a decade later he had his biggest hit with “Dancing in the Dark.” The mix of Springsteen’s signature poignant lyrics and contemporary synths proved to be an iconic combination, perfect for ’80s songs. Springsteen’s everyman stylings stood in sharp contrast to some of the more over-the-top musicians of the era, and the simple but effective music video (shot by Scarface director Brian De Palma) gave Friends actress Courteney Cox one of her first appearances, as a lucky audience member who gets to dance onstage with The Boss.
17. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — Tina Turner (1984)
Comebacks don’t get better than this: In 1984, Tina Turner burst back onto the scene following the abuse of her former husband and musical partner and years of being regarded as a nostalgia act. “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” a defiant anthem that spoke to countless women, became her bestselling single and proved that mature women deserved a place on the pop charts (at age 44, she became the oldest female artist to have a number one hit).
18. “Take On Me” — a-ha (1985)
With its groundbreaking mix of live-action footage and animation, “Take On Me” was one of the most creative music videos of the decade. Combined with poppy synths, lovestruck lyrics and singer Morten Harket’s soaring falsetto, it was a surefire hit that still feels romantic today. And while the Norwegian band didn’t have another song this big in the US, “Take On Me” remains iconic — so much so that the video has nearly 2 billion views on YouTube!
19. “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” — Tears for Fears (1985)
Tears for Fears had many hit ’80s songs, and “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” is one of their biggest. Often interpreted as a political song about greed and power, it mixed dreamy synths with cutting lyrics. The song was originally written with the lyric “Everybody wants to go to war,” but was changed to be more upbeat, said guitarist Roland Orzabal.
20. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — Simple Minds (1985)
John Hughes’ teen films were some of the most beloved movies of the ’80s, and their soundtracks helped them win over the hearts of a generation of young people. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was famously featured in The Breakfast Club, and it perfectly captures nostalgic teenage emotions. While it became Simple Minds’ best-known song, it wasn’t actually written by the band. Originally written by record producer Keith Forsey specifically for the film, the song was first offered to musicians Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol, both of whom passed on it.
Totally ’80s songs!
While these 20 awesome early ’80s songs sound perfectly of the time, they never get old. The ’80s was a decade for playfulness and uplifting, poppy style, and we can’t help but feel nostalgic for the fabulous music of the era.
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