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Best '80s and '90s New Wave Songs

DJ Funktual is a YouTube artist and big fan of popular culture and music. He's been an online writer for several years.

Learn about the very best '80s and '90s new wave songs!

Learn about the very best '80s and '90s new wave songs!

New Wave Songs List

New wave is a genre of rock music tied to 1970s punk rock that became popular in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Its greatest classics were released in the '80s, but the genre has existed for nearly 40 years. Until it became a truly distinct genre, new wave music was similar to punk rock. It subsequently engendered subgenres and fusions, including synth-pop.

Although the new wave incorporates much of the original punk rock sound and ethos, it exhibits more complexity in its songwriting and lyrics. Here's an in-depth list of the greatest new wave songs of all time!

Top 10 Best '80s and '90s New Wave Songs

  1. "Rock Lobster" by The B-52's
  2. "People Are People" by Depeche Mode
  3. "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners
  4. "Once In A Lifetime" by Talking Heads
  5. "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics
  6. "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats
  7. "Cars" by Gary Numan
  8. "Pop Musik" by M
  9. "Whip It" by Devo
  10. "99 Red Balloons" by Nena

1. "Rock Lobster" by The B-52's

"Rock Lobster" clocks in at 183bpm, which is just ridiculously fast. It was a surf record made by weirdos from Georgia. It tears up the dance floor. It mixes well with "Modern Love" by David Bowie and "Tenderness" by General Public. For a new generation, however, this song may also forever be immortalized by Peter Griffin's acoustic performance on Family Guy.

2. "People Are People" by Depeche Mode

Just one of many sad songs from a man named Gore. It was their first commercial hit in the U.S. back in the summer of '85 when it peaked at number 13. More importantly, it showed America who would become the most successful band of the genre. The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order all had their moments on top, but overall Depeche Mode (which means fast fashion in French) ruled supreme. Also, while "Personal Jesus" is a better song overall, "People Are People" turned the tide for all the doubters. Alternative music was commercially viable and would get more airplay from here on out.

3. "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners

I almost made this number one, but I have trouble giving the title to a one-hit wonder—although it should be noted that they had many ska hits in the U.K. The overalls will be etched in our brains forever. One more thing: Is it just me or does this song feel like a prequel to Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping?" From Ta Loo Ra to Danny Bo.

4. "Once In A Lifetime" by Talking Heads

A surreal foresight into a midlife crisis by the Heads. Their ability to stretch the boundaries of what a pop song could be is their modus operandi. Where would music be without the immortal phrase, "Same as it ever was?" Also, the hilarious arm-chopping motion by David Byrne made the video an MTV staple.

5. "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics

Rhyming the words "made of this" with the word "disagree" might be a bad move for 99.9% of the people out there. However, for two pop geniuses like Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, it's all gravy. The song works because of its melody. The pulsing keyboard beat heats things up, but the line, "Keep your head up, moving on," is the icing on the cake.

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6. "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats

I loved this record as a kid and now, as an adult, I can see why. It's a kids song! "Ssss aaaa ffff eeee tttt yyyy Safe-ty Dance and then the keyboard chimes in." That's the version we all loved. The video, of a European countryside (or was it Bilbo's hobbit hole) is quickly taken over by the cast of The Wizard of Oz. This is so new wave that you can argue its merits for number one, but let's face it—it gets annoying fast.

7. "Cars" by Gary Numan

Some songs get popular in an instant and some, like "Cars" just linger in the underbelly of the psyche until they are repackaged into a TV commercial. Then we go "Oh, yeah. That's a good song by that pale'faced freak who could barely sing. But yeah." For the record, it was a top 10 hit in 1980, but only because it sounded so good blasting in a roller rink. The radio mostly ignored it.

8. "Pop Musik" by M

The song that started it all. During the summer of '79, many people believe that this was the first new wave song ever. It wasn't, but man it shot right to #1 and was a global smash that told everyone listening what music would sound like for the next eight years. It even had some staying power, as it stayed on the Hot 100 for six months.

9. "Whip It" by Devo

I don't think I'm at all qualified to judge a song like this. A psych professor maybe? There is so much, yet, at the same time, so little going on. Thunderclaps and rockabilly via synthesizers and flower pots? It clocks in at less than 2 minutes and 15 seconds, making it one of the shortest songs of the 1980s. This video is notorious for freaking mothers out as their child watched that new thing called MTV.

10. "99 Red Balloons" by Nena

Urban legend claims that she died on tour, but Gabriele "Nena" Kerner is still alive today (and is probably living back in Berlin, where the band first started). Wherever she is, she can always say that she wrote an anti-war song that was a smash hit in pretty much every country in the world. Nena and John Lennon, wow. We first heard and loved it as a German tune called "99 Luftballons." The English version has always been considered lame, but that's the one everyone seems to know, so . . .

11. "Take On Me" by a-ha

Another great video means another great Family Guy parody, another piece of perfect pop. This time it comes from Oslo, Norway. These guys went for the high note like nobody else. Their follow-up song was called... what? Anybody remember? "The Sun Always Shines on TV." It made it to the Top 20 on their name alone, but as soon as people heard it, a-ha came crashing down. Alas the sun never again shined on them, at least, not in America.

12. "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles

This is also mistakenly assumed to be the first new wave song ever, which is impossible considering both "Pop Muzik" by M and "My Sharona" by The Knack were both out earlier in '79. However, the consolation prize is that it was the first video ever played on MTV. Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn. The duo both joined the group Yes in '80 and Downes would form Asia in '81. Horn become a prolific producer and is widely credited for the career success of soul singer Seal. Erasure also did a crazy cover a few years ago, make sure you check it out!

13. "How Soon Is Now?" by The Smiths

A lot of Smiths fans out there are in on the joke here. Morrissey would only be happy with the miserably unlucky number 13. "I am human and I need to be lo-uh-oved, just like anybody else does." This is timeless club music too. In fact, you may remember that SoHo sampled it for "Hippychick." Try mixing it with "My Doorbell" by the White Stripes.

14. "Brass In Pocket" by The Pretenders

We now bring you ironic moments in pop music: The one song Chrissie Hynde hates is the one song of hers that every woman loves. So she grits her teeth and plays it. This is also true of her ex-husband Jim Kerr. He hates the most popular song of his career too—"Don't You (Forget About Me)" was a soundtrack song he didn't write or want to record, but it probably extended the life of his band Simple Minds exponentially. Life is funny like that... sometimes.

15. "Situation" by Yaz

Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode in 1982 in search of more creative freedom. He would go on to make the New Wave Classic Album, "Upstairs at Eric's." With hits like "Don't Go" and "Only You," Yazoo, as they were sometimes credited as, was a huge smash. Also, "Situation" was every dance instructor and aerobics teacher's best friend. Everyone had this record. The mannequins on the cover are classic.

16. "Blister In The Sun" by the Violent Femmes

If the name of the band didn't clue you in, then maybe it was the line, "big hands I know you're the one." What was great was that no matter how flaming this song was, it also had built-in credibility with everyone. A song universally respected on merit. It was difficult to mix because of the time signature, so nobody bothered. Just play the whole song. It's really short, and it has one of music's most memorable intro/outros ever. The whispering is hilarious. I often think James' song "Laid" was a Femmes song that they forgot to write.

17. "Rock The Casbah" by The Clash

This is a funk-hybrid mixed with New Wave as Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and the gang move even further away from their punk roots. This album, "Combat Rock" killed the band, and everybody knows it. But, damn, it was still worth doing. The sheik and the aardvark in the video were so bizarre and right. (Sigh) I miss Joe.

18. "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" by Joe Jackson

Does Joe want her or him? Who cares? The conversational style of the lyrics is so difficult to pull off without the rhymes sounding forced and corny. You've got to give him props, because he certainly pulls it off. A lot of people seem to think that Elvis Costello sings this song, but no.

19. "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell

This cover of the Gloria Jones soul classic was originally part of a 12" medley, along with The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" However, it was never done as anything but a 45 single in the U.S. So, we all played the 12" and segued out. It is so completely overplayed now that I can't stand it, but if you're doing an '80s set and you want a sure-fire hit with the ladies, play this.

20. "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Now this is an interesting record! When it first dropped, they were a craze. That beat was unrelenting and the lyrics were seemingly about a man trying to delay an orgasm. Chaos ensued. The perfect video with the fans just mauling the band onstage during a performance. "Frankie Say: Relax" t-shirts are still selling on eBay, no doubt. There is also a great line in the movie "The Commitments" about the band as well, but I won't spoil it here.

21. "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" by Dead Or Alive

Was Pete Burns the jealous evil twin of Boy George? Maybe. Was this song better than anything Culture Club ever recorded? Most definitely. The 12" version is a DJ crate necessity because it had the "I, I, uh-uh-uh-uh, I" part at the beginning. People will still be remixing this song in 50 years.

22. "Don't You Want Me" by The Human League

This song should be higher up, in terms of quality of songwriting and execution of vision. However, people in the U.S. just never took to the HL like they did with other similar bands (ABC, Thompson Twins, Tears For Fears, and so forth.) This also mixes great with "True Faith" by New Order, "The Promise" by When In Rome, "Right On Track" by The Breakfast Club, and HL's other big hit, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination."

23. "Town Called Malice" by The Jam

This is a great song! The problem is, not a lot of people know it. This song will probably make a comeback as part of a movie. It's got a cinematic feel to it, too. Sounds like a cooler version of "Walking On Sunshine" which is in every movie so they'll get to it. Mark my word. Soundtrack Rebirth Candidate #1.

24. "Our House" by Madness

Like "Safety Dance," this is really a kid's song. Ska-Rock pioneers Madness have four great songs, as far as I know. While this song is the worst of their four hits, it was their only hit in America and, boy, is it fun. For a little while, at least. Since I brought it up, the other songs are "One Step Beyond," "It Must Be Love," and "House of Fun."

25. "Just Got Lucky" by JoBoxers

This song struck soundtrack gold during the closing credits of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and good for those guys, because they must be broke. In a genre built around one-hit wonders, this was atypical, but still a pretty little ditty nonetheless.

26. "Down Under" by Men at Work

This song is as easygoing as they come. It was not just a calling card for this band, but for an entire country as well. The "Born in the U.S.A." of Australia took the filthy taste of Crocodile Dundee and baby-eating dingos out of our mouths. Although those movies weren't out yet, so maybe it was the taste of a vegemite sandwich.

A great sense of humor can go a long way toward endearing yourself to the world. Their videos for "It's a Mistake," "Be Good Johnny," "Overkill," and "Who Can it Be Now?" were always on MTV in the early days. They recorded their own death sentence with that sense of humor though. It's called "Dr. Hekyll & Mr. Jive." I'm serious. You can look it up.

27. "Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel

What a song, wow. That line "Grab your things! I've come to take you home," gets you every time, doesn't it? The beautiful guitar work, mmm mmm. Points off on this list however because it isn't very 'Wavy'. It is a standard on classic rock station playlists coast-to-coast since its re-release. Let me explain.

After leaving Genesis in '75, Gabriel released this song in April of 1977. It was not a smash, but he knew he had a hit on his hands, so he waited until 1983, when he rereleased it as a live recording for a follow-up/piggyback to his first Top 40 hit in the States, "Shock the Monkey."

Billy Idol did the same thing in '87, with his live cover of "Mony Mony" and it went to #1 even though none of the stations were playing the live version. They were all playing his original 12" from back in '81. It worked so well that Billy tried it again three months later with "Hot in the City," but it failed to crack the Top 40. Stay tuned for more of Billy's antics in reissues.

28. "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo

Also known as: "I Wish I was in Tijuana eating barbecued iguana." How original can a song be? The crescendo at the beginning deposits you right in the middle of a bad dream for our south-of-the-border disc jockey/narrator. Nod to I.R.S. Records for finding guys like this all the time. 1983 wouldn't have been the same without them. Word of mouth can take a song very far indeed.

29. "The Promise" by When in Rome

By 1988, New Wave music was starting to become mainstream and was wearing a bit thin, as well. This was the rare integrity track in your DJ set because all the girls loved it! It went all the way to #11 on the charts, but what was their follow-up track? Anybody? It was "Heaven Knows" and it peaked at Number 95, and another one-hit-wonder was born. It is now known to a whole new generation as the tether-ball song from the end of the film "Napoleon Dynamite."

30. "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors

Here's The Great Debate: Is this song about masturbation or not? The band says no, but the lyrics say yes. Like "spanking the monkey," and "turning 'Japanese,'"—both being slang terms for wanking. Also, lines like, "I got your picture and I look at it all by myself," and "I often kiss when there's no one else around" only add fuel to the fire. Leave me a comment and you decide.

31. "Puttin' On The Ritz" by Taco

Aw jeez, this song just broke my New Wav-O-Meter. Written by Irving Berlin in 1929, it was a #1 song for Harry Richman, in 1930. 25 years later, Taco Ockerse (his real name) was born to Dutch parents in Jaharta, Indonesia. Raised in Germany, he dreamed of pop stardom. He signed with RCA in '83, and this single was soon certified gold.

32. "Dancing With Myself" by Billy Idol

Billy can repackage an old hit like nobody else. This song was originally recorded by the London punk band Generation X, which was led by Billy Idol. Weird fact: His new version is a classic, well-known punk-wave dance floor screamer, but it never entered the Hot 100 Billboard charts. The video of vampish zombie-babes climbing the walls was on MTV every hour in 1983. How is it that it was never among the 100 most popular songs? Baffling. He clearly fashioned himself as a blond Sid Vicious and his "sweat, sweat, sweat-sweat-sweat AAAaaWWWWWW," was pretty mean.

33. "West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys

Neil Tennant was a writer for the British fanzine Smash Hits, where he must have figured out the secret formula for street smart pop hooks. The guy rapped with a monotone British accent about suicide and fashion, and people were incredulous to explain why they loved it. They had five Top Ten hits from '86-'88, but this was their debut single and their only Number one in the U.S. I guess for some people, "Sometimes, you're better off dead, the gun's in your hand..."

34. "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" by Tears for Fears

If you listen to the lyrics, you'll understand why Dennis Miller chose it as the theme song for his political-comedy show. There's a whole lot more going on here than in your average #1 pop song. I absolutely love the bridge part, "There's a room where the light won't find you. Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down." I always like the bridge the best though. "I can't stand this indecision married with a lack of vision" is Bush-worthy to say the least. This is a freakin' song right here!

35. "Close To Me" by The Cure

To be honest, I don't have a preference between the 1985 album cut and the remix from 1990. They are very different, but both really good in their own way. The beat, of course, always gets better with newer versions but you really should get both versions. Ditto with "Safety Dance," "19," and "Rock Me Amadeus." You have to get both versions. DJ's note: the one from '90 mixes great with "Live is Life" by Opus and "Seattle" by PiL.

36. "Hold Me Now" by Thompson Twins

Some songs thrive simply because they slip so well into the background that you don't ever realize that you know all the words to them. Lyric question? Does xylophonist / backup singer Alannah Currie say "Oh, my cold Italian heart" toward the outro? It is not listed in the official lyrics and I know outros usually aren't because it's just skatting by the vocalist, but I'm so curious? FYI, Ms. Currie is from New Zealand which makes the quote that much weirder.

37. "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes

Catchy, catchy, catchy as hell. This song is a guilty pleasure that I can't resist. Do I hate his voice or do I love it? This song has an intro that is very mixable. Some suggestions, "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division, "Grey Cell Green" by Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and "We Got The Beat" by The Go-Go's all mix well with this song.

38. "In a Big Country" by Big Country

Who doesn't love this song? I mean, at least the first minute or so anyway. I even love the way it annoys me with bagpipe overkill. These dudes from Scotland were that group I wanted to root for, but didn't. I hear the album is great, but I never got around to picking it up. That's what I'll end up doing after I post this. Trying to find a Greatest Hits for Big Country. Wow, my whole life just passed before my eyes.

39. "Every Breath You Take" by The Police

I'm completely biased and I admit this straight up. Most Police songs are some form of ragga. This brooding, aching, creep you out, and break your heart song is not. They simplified the arrangements and stripped it down to a baseline that sounds like a stalker's footsteps. It became the biggest song of the year. It spent 8 weeks at Number 1 in the summer of '83. From July 9th to September 2nd, which is like the whole summer.

Coincidentally, the second biggest song of the year was also of the stalker variety. It spent seven weeks at #1 through March and most of April. Can you name it? While I give you time to think about it, check this out. In 1983, 27 weeks of the year were conquered by only four Number One Songs. If "Billie Jean" is your answer, then you are correct, sir!

A lot of people believe that the intro to "Billie Jean" in all it's moonwalkin' glory is the best piece of pop music ever. Seriously. I'd compared it to both the riff and whisper from "Satisfaction" and the vocals from Aretha's version of "Respect." But "Every Breath..." was just a little better. Here's why I think that is.

I actually believe that the bridge of "Every Breath You Take" is the greatest piece of recorded music ever. Just pure honesty and soul bearing going on right there. I sing it at the top of my lungs every time. Wanna try it? Cool. Okay, ready, (boom boom boom) "Since you've gone, I've been lost without a trace! I dream at night..."

40. "Shoot You Down" by apb

If you don't know this song, you need to go wherever you go and get it right now. Download it while you finish reading my list. This funky-ass, rock the dancefloor, new wave jam is also a best bet to be reborn a la the soundtrack. The album was finally released on CD at the behest of thousands of fans and one of them, Matt Pinfield, does the amazing liner notes. The album is called Something to Believe In and you'll love almost every track. Soundtrack Rebirth Candidate #2 . Long Live apb!

41. "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M.

It was 1991, but it was New Wave-Folk and it was downright moving in a way we don't always understand. Michael Stipe claims to be mystified by it still to this day. Every once in a while everything just falls into place perfectly. "Life . . . is bigger."

42. "Ca Plane Pour Moi" by Plastic Bertrand

The little Belgian song that could. This international super duper Punk Smash is one of our favorites because it's overtly friendly and doesn't overstay its welcome. I often thought that Lindsey Buckingham got the idea for "Holiday Road" (aka the theme to National Lampoon's "Vacation") right here.

43. "Save a Prayer" by Duran Duran

Why is this so high? Because every single hot new wave chick in the world loved it, that's why. This was, after all, the girls' medium. All the men of New Wave are androgenous and wimpy, and all the girls are powerful and venomous. Guys like me, who were into Rush & Van Halen, made it a point to learn about Depeche Mode and Yaz because we wanted to know about those girls. Those really cool, gothy, punk, "grrl power" babes, with their hair flopped over their eyes. Ahhh, memories. "Save 'em til the morning after."

44. "Need You Tonight" by INXS

Whether or not Michael Hutchence was doing a Jim Morrison impression is not relevant. All INXS songs have the same formula, almost. Here they just found the secret ingredient. This was the peak for an Australian band that would end up going from so underrated to way overrated in just three years. Mostly because they were never able to overcome their own masterpiece. Everything after that sounded so lame by comparison. Same story as the Eagles and "Hotel California."

45. "I Got You" by Split Enz

Before there was a Crowded House, there was Split Enz. Two brothers from New Zealand who could really write a hook. They broke up, and one brother Neil Finn would go on, perhaps naming his new band as a way of explaining why the old one couldn't go on. This song is most commonly searched for on Limewire as "Frightened" by Crowded House, but it isn't. Now let's all gleefully sing, "I don't know why sometimes I get frightened, you can see my eyes..."

Best '80s New Wave Songs #46-102

46-6465-8384-102

46. "One Way Or Another" by Blondie.

65. "Ever Fallen In Love" by The Buzzcocks

84. "Rush" by B.A.D. II

47. "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club

66. "Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2

85. "Lips Like Sugar" by Echo & The Bunnymen

48. "Celebrate" by An Emotional Fish

67. "Dear God" by XTC

86. "Someday, Someway" by Marshall Crenshaw

49. "Heartbreak Beat" by The Psychedelic Furs

68. "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" by The Police

87. "Why Can't I Be You?" by The Cure

50. "Don't Change" by INXS

69. "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats

88. "Antmusic" by Adam & The Ants

51. "Holding Back The Years" by Simply Red

70. "What's So Funny Bout (Peace Love & Understanding)" Elvis Costello

89. "Shout" by Tears For Fears

52. "Kiss Me" by Stephen ‘tin tin' Duffy

71. "Alive & Kicking" by Simple Minds

90. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" by U2

53. "True Faith" by New Order

72. "White Wedding" by Billy Idol

91. "The Look Of Love" by ABC

54. "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements

73. "Our Lips Are Sealed" by The Go-Go's

92. "Red Skies" by The Fixx

55. "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" by U2

74. "Burning Down The House" Talking Heads

93. "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow

56. "Perfect Way" by Scritti Politti

75. "Ship Of Fools (Save Me From Tomorrow)" by World Party

94. "This Woman's Work" by Kate Bush

57. "Spirit In The Sky" by Dr. & The Medics

76. "Live Is Life" by Opus

95. "Kiss The Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)" by INXS

58. "Don't Stand So Close To Me" by The Police

77. "Train In Vain" by The Clash

96. "Desire (Come And Get It)" by Gene Loves Jezebel

59. "Love & Pride" by King

78. "Modern Love" by David Bowie

97. "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" by The Clash

60. "Life In A Northern Town" by The Dream Academy

79. "Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)" by Icicle Works

98. "The Honeytheif" by Hipsway

61. "Love Plus One" by Haircut 100

80. "Genius Of Love" by Tom Tom Club

99. "Oh L'amour" by Erasure

62. "My Sharona" by The Knack

81. "Oh Yeah" by Yello

100. "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure

63. "Up The Junction" by Squeeze

82. "Cry" by Godley & Crème

101. "Tempted" by Squeeze

64. "New Song" by Howard Jones

83. "Din Daa Daa (Trommeltanz)" by George Kranz

102. "I Melt With You" by Modern English