Much like the 1950s was the golden age of rock and roll, the 80s can arguably be considered the so-called golden age of pop music. As a result it was quite a challenge coming up with a list of the top 40 pop songs of the 80s. Music with a message was out the window, replaced by a fluff genre that’s sole purpose was to entertain. Now don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing 80s music – I grew up in the decade and love most of the songs you’ll see on this list. That being said, even the most hardcore 80s music fan has to admit that there isn’t a lot of depth to most of the tunes of that decade. Still, there was some exceptional music created in the 80s, and some of the biggest musical artists of all time soared to superstardom during that golden era. Here are my picks for the top 40 best pop songs of the 80s:
40 – Nena – 99 Luftballoons – Actually a protest song, this tune by German singer Nena floated all the way to #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts back in 1984. Nena later released an English language version titled 99 Red Balloons. The song didn’t do as well in the U.S. as the German version, but it did go on to hit #1 in the UK.
39 – Bananarama – Cruel Summer – With a name like Bananarama you know you’re dealing with an 80s band. This 3 female trio scored a huge hit with this song back in 1983, and people my age will remember it was featured in the smash hit movie, The Karate Kid.
38 – Berlin – Take My Breath Away – Though not as upbeat as most of the songs on this list, this ballad was a huge hit for one hit wonder German group Berlin. The song was featured in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun way back in 1986, and earned the group a Grammy Award for Best Original Song.
37 – Devo – Whip It – Featuring one of the most amusing music videos of the 80s, where the band wore red flower pots on their heads, this song only peaked at #14 back in 1980, but has since gone on to become an one of the biggest favorites of the decade.
36 – Cameo – Word Up! – Another of what is sure to be a plethora of one-hit wonders on the list of the top pop songs of the Eighties, Word Up! is a catchy blend of funk, rap and pop music. Sadly, Cameo faded into obscurity after that brief burst of fame, but no one will forget the bright red athletic supporter worn by Larry Blackmon in the music video.
35 – Wang Chung – Everybody Have Fun Tonight – Only narrowly avoiding the moniker of one hit wonder thanks to their song, Dance Hall Days, Wang Chung cranked out one of the most memorable party tunes of the decade with this anthem. Play it at a party and watch the crowd go nuts.
34 – Katrina and the Waves – Walking on Sunshine – This song has the distinction of being one of the most upbeat songs in a decade of upbeat songs. Bubbly to the extreme, but fun to sing and dance too, the song gave Katrina and the Waves their only U.S. top 10 hit. I can’t listen to this song without picturing Jack Black going nuts to it in the film High Fidelity.
33 – Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax – Few songs exemplify the 80s like this tune from this controversial English band. The song was enormously popular in both the U.S. and the UK, and after the BBC banned the song, labeling its record sleeve and lyrics obscene, it soared to #1, staying there for 5 weeks.
32 – The Pointer Sisters – Neutron Dance – Though their hit, I’m So Excited is most often pointed to as their signature song, for me the song Neutron Dance has more of an 80s vibe. This tune cruised all the way to the top 10 back in 1984, riding the coat tails of the enormously popular Eddie Murphy film, Beverly Hills Cop, which featured the tune on its soundtrack.
31 – Robert Palmer – Addicted to Love – One of the most casually cool performers of the 80s, Robert Palmer also had one of the best videos (at least from the guys’ perspective). Featuring beautiful fashion models, in super short mini-dresses all playing the guitar with Palmer in the middle, this video ensured the slick crooner instantly became the envy of guys everywhere. Oh, and the song was pretty good too.
30 – Paula Abdul – Straight Up – Though today’s youth will identify her as a former judge on the massively popular talent show, American Idol, at one point Paula Abdul was a pop music queen, reeling of a string of hits in the late 1980s. It soared all the way to #1 on the Hot 100 Billboard Chart, making her a household name, and launching what was a brief, but very successful music career.
29 – Toni Basil – Mickey – Perhaps no other song on this list sums up the 80s for me more than this one. Completely devoid of any sort of message, this song is about fun and bouncing up and down. If you happen to be in a club when the DJ spins this particular track be ready to dodge the stampede of women who rush to the dance floor.
28 – John Cougar – Jack and Diane – Though now known as John Mellencamp at the time of this song’s release this oft-reinvented artist went by John Cougar. The song put Mellencamp on the map, reaching #1 on the Billboard Charts, and remains to this day his biggest hit.
27 – Eurhythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Though the younger people in the crowd may identify more closely with the Marilyn Manson version of this song, this tune was a massive hit for this pop music duo back in 1983. Its stylish accompanying music video helped the track reach #1 in the U.S. and hit #2 in the UK, and is widely considered the group’s signature hit, and one of the best songs of the 80s in any genre.
26 – Janet Jackson – Nasty – Though she didn’t enjoy the staggering popularity of her brother Michael, Janet Jackson managed to carve out a pretty successful music career of her own in the 80s and 90s. Janet scored a #3 hit from this track from her 1986 album control. A young Paula Abdul also helped choreograph the music video, and even appeared as a dancer as well.
25 – Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time – This pop princess with a punk attitude and appearance didn’t stick around the music spotlight for very long, but during her relatively short time there she managed to make quite an impact. Her ballad, Time After Time from the album, She’s So Unusual launched to #1 on the U.S. singles charts, and is second only to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on the list of Lauper’s most commercially successful songs.
24 – Madonna – Material Girl – You knew this lady would be showing up sooner or later on the list of the top 40 pop songs of the Eighties. Over the past three decades she has been one of the biggest recording artists in the world, and the 80s was the decade that launched her career. This song was just one of a long string of hits during the decade, and the accompanying music video was one of the best of the 80s.
23 – Kool and the Gang – Celebration – I’ll admit, I’ve perhaps allowed some personal bias to creep into this list. This song is arguably more funk than pop, but it is my favorite song of the decade, so I’ve given myself some leeway here. It was a massive hit back in 1980-81, going all the way to number one, and is still heard at weddings and sporting events to this day.
22 – Modern English – I Melt With You – Though it didn’t chart as well as most of the other songs on this list, this new wave band’s 1983 hit has withstood the test of time better than most tunes from the decade. For some reason it has become an immensely popular choice for advertising campaigns, and its lyrics and/or melody have been heard in ads from companies ranging from Burger King to M&M’s.
21 – George Michael – Faith – Though he would later seem to regret releasing this fluffy album, George Michael definitely managed to cash in on the 80s, first as a member of the duo Wham! and then as a solo artist. Faith was a smash hit from the album of the same name, and the music video had girls everywhere swooning and guys trying in vain to grow that impressive five o’clock shadow.
20 – Blondie – Call Me – One of the most influential groups of the late 70s/early 80s Blondie had a string of hits that merit consideration for this list. However, in the end Call Me simply had to get the nod. It is the band’s signature hit, their biggest selling song, and topped the singles charts in both the U.S. and the UK back in 1980.
19 – Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Right Round – Did I say that Toni Basil’s Mickey was the epitome of 80s music? This song could certainly give it a run for its money. Another one hit wonder, Dead or Alive created an 80s anthem that still gets regular airplay today.
18 – Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart – Speaking of Eighties songs that still get regular airplay today, this powerful ballad from Bonnie Tyler certainly fits that description. One of the biggest ballads of the 80s, the song was a number one hit for Tyler and sold a staggering six million copies. If you want a good laugh, check out the literal Total Eclipse of the Heart video on YouTube.
17 – The Go-Go’s – We Got the Beat – If not for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ rock anthem I Love Rock and Roll there is little question this song would have been a number one hit. Unfortunately it hit the airwaves at the same time and had to settle for number two, where it stayed for 3 straight weeks. It is the band’s most successful single, and though it is pure 80s, it is actually an homage to the fashion, music and dancing of the 60s.
16 – The B-52’s – Love Shack – Much like the Go-Go’s the B-52’s were strongly influenced by the 60s. Though it never hit number one – peaking at #3 on the Billboard Top 40 charts – I can’t think of a single song from the 80s that gets more airplay today on radio than this tune.
15 – Whitney Houston – How Will I Know – Though her life has been a shambles in recent years, back in the 80s this incredible vocalist was certainly a contender for the title of Queen of Pop. During that era Houston enjoyed a string of massive hits, including this one from her debut self-titled album, which spent 15 consecutive weeks in the top 40, including spending a pair of weeks at #1 back in 1986.
14 – INXS – Need You Tonight – Few albums in the 1980s enjoyed as much success as this Australian band’s Kick. The album was laden with hits like Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart and New Sensation. However, it was Need You Tonight that was the only track to make it all the way to #1 and helped drive more than 10 million album sales in the U.S. alone.
13 – Michael Jackson – Beat It – What would a list of the greatest pop songs of the 80s be without an appearance by the King of Pop himself. To be honest I could have included a dozen M.J. songs on the list, but restrained myself for sake of variety. Beat It was one of many of Jackson’s #1 hits and helped his massive album Thriller become the biggest selling album of all time.
12 – Duran Duran – Hungry Like the Wolf – One of the biggest bands of the 80s and arguably of all time, Duran Duran has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and had an incredible 21 hits in the Billboard Hot 100. Part of the so-called second wave of the British Invasion the group had trouble establishing themselves on U.S. soil. However, this song, and more particularly, the music video, thawed out American audiences who had previously given the band a chilly reception, and after that a long string of hits followed.
11 – The Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian – Though they weren’t an 80s supergroup like some of the others on this list, The Bangles strung together enough hits to be a force during the decade. This catchy tune reached #1 on the Hot 100 back in 1986, claiming the spot for 4 weeks. When one thinks of 80s songs this is one of the very first that springs to mind.
10 – Men Without Hats – The Safety Dance – I always like to inject a little Canadian content on these lists, and though both Bryan Adams and Corey Hart would have been good choices, I decided to go with this new wave band from Montreal. The song was a big hit for the band, peaking at #3, but its longevity is even more impressive as the song still continues to get regular radio airtime, and still gets the occasion spin even in nightclubs.
9 – Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen – One of the biggest one hit wonders of all time, this song has the impressive distinction of ending Michael Jackson’s massive hit Billie Jean’s 7 week run atop the Billboard charts back in 1983. It also managed to prevent Jackson from having back to back #1 hits, enjoying a one week stint at the top before Jackson snatched back the spot with Beat It.
8 – Culture Club – Karma Chameleon – There is no shortage of colorful characters from the 80s, but you’d be hard pressed to find one more colorful than Culture Club front-man Boy George. His cross-dressing certainly didn’t seem to turn off listeners as this tune made it to number one in a whopping 16 countries, including a three week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.
7 – Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go – As big as George Michael has become as a solo artist for those who grew up in the 80s he will always be a member of the duo Wham!. The band was a pop culture phenomenon during the early-mid 80s and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go is their signature hit. The song soared to number one in both the U.S. and the UK and helped their album Make it Big reach 6x platinum in the United States alone.
6 – Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – If you are having a house party and want to see all the women go nuts at once just throw on this song. It is the party anthem of women everywhere. The song reached #2 on the U.S. Hot 100, and the music video, featuring former wrestler Captain Lou Albano, is one of the best of the 80s.
5 – Prince – When Doves Cry – Though it is hard to fit Prince’s music into one or even a few genres, he is widely considered one of the most influential artists of the 80s and he could easily have half a dozen songs on this list. From the massively popular and critically acclaimed album Purple Rain this song is probably Prince’s biggest hit. It topped the charts for a whopping 5 weeks in 1984 and was the top selling single of that year.
4 – A-Ha – Take on Me – Yes, they are a one hit wonder, but what a hit it was. This song is an absolute 80s classic, and the music video can throw its hat in the ring as not only one of the greatest of the 80s, but arguably one of the greatest of all time. The cutting edge rotoscoped animated video got tons of play on MTV, which helped drive this Norwegian pop duo to the top of the charts back in 1985.
3 – Madonna – Like a Virgin – You knew you hadn’t seen the last of Madonna on this list of the best pop songs of the decade. Though not her first hit, this was the single that really put Madonna on the map, and also ignited the controversy that has followed her around for the bulk of her career.
2 – USA for Africa – We Are the World – Though most of the music on this list carries no message whatsoever, this collaborative effort written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and performed by an incredible 47 artists certainly sets itself apart. The profits from the incredible success of the song, which was the first single to be certified multi-platinum, went to help fight famine in disease in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, which had been crippled by drought.
1 – Michael Jackson – Billie Jean – It seems only fitting that the King of Pop should sit atop the list of the top 40 greatest pop songs of the 80s. As I mentioned above Billie Jean spent a staggering 7 consecutive weeks atop the charts back in 1983, and is widely considered Jackson’s greatest recording. The song won a pair of Grammy Awards, and its revolutionary music video is considered one of the greatest ever made.