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The Top 10 Greatest Pop & Rock Songs of the 1980s

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

My favorite songs from the 1980s

My favorite songs from the 1980s

Music in the 1980s

Music was something I was always very, very attracted to, and I'm still just that way. There was always a radio on in the home I grew up in, and when we got in a car to go somewhere, the radio was on, or perhaps there were eight tracks or cassette tapes playing in the automobile.

New wave, synthpop, and glam rock were the go-to genres of music. Now that I'm all grown up, when I hear that old stuff, it drums up all kinds of memories for me. I tend to love it all now, but obviously, I love some of it more than others.

So what's the methodology here? I picked a song from each year that was a Billboard number one hit song—one that meant something to me. This is a subjective article, as I don't want to be a person who presents things in a robotic way. Here are my top 10 songs of the 1980s.

1. "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen (1980)

Persons much younger than myself wouldn't be able to comprehend the inescapability of it all. Almost no one had headphones, as there wasn't much in the way of portable devices with which to connect them. Most persons did not have portable radios either, not in 1980, save in their cars, and those were of pretty low quality, especially compared to today.

You had stereos in homes, and when you were in someone's home, there was little escape from whatever was playing there. Well, you don't necessarily even want to escape. Some things are more infections than Covid-19, and such was that bass line to Another One Bites the Dust. You couldn't get away from it, even if you wanted to. It got into you, and it made itself a home inside of you.

This was Queen's second US Billboard number one hit. It stayed at numero uno for three weeks, but John Deacon's bass line? That thing is going to be inside of my head until the day I die. Seven million copies of the single were sold. I'm not the only one infected. Interestingly enough, it was Michael Jackson who heard the song at a performance, and suggested to Freddie Mercury that the song be released as a single.

In the 1980s there were Christians who were finding things via backmasking in just about every hit song. This had started way back the previous decade. Supposedly the song, when played backwards, suggests to you that you should smoke marijuana. I can not for the life of me imagine how, when normal persons listen to the song forwards, as normal persons always do, anything is accomplished by the technique.

The official video was shot at Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. I have been there many times, but the place was imploded like the WTC towers, and no longer exists. Freddie Mercury says as much credit goes to Michael Jackson as anyone, as Jackson insisted to Mercury the band needed a song folks could dance to.

Weird Al Yankovic, everyone knows who he is, right? Well, his parody of the song, Another One Rides the Bus was the first epic parody song of his I remember, and there were many more to come.

2. "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang (1981)

Celebration was the first and only number one hit for Kool & the Gang, however, it was one very sweet party. Saxophonist Ronald Bell was inspired to arrange the song from reading the Quran. When God had created man, the angels had all celebrated. And so there is the global celebration suggested by the song.

Myself, I was very small, in second grade, I believe, and inside the gymnasium of my school. There was a cheerleader in there. Probably she was a high school cheerleader, and I have no clue who she was, but I'd never seen a girl in a cheerleader outfit before, and I just kept staring at her, probably my mouth was open in awe. At this moment of bewilderment at the beauty of the human female, Celebration was playing on the loudspeakers.

I may have also had a religious experience, just as Ronald Bell was hoping to convey, but probably not exactly what he had in mind. The song would hit Billboard's number one slot for both Dance and R&B. The keyboard riff is what really drives the tune, in my mind.

Today the song is popular at sporting events, weddings, and has been played nationally in association with the release of American hostages. Well, it's a very upbeat and joyful tune, and you certainly do not need an excuse to try to make the atmosphere as celebratory as possible. Everyone needs to feel good.

3. "Beat It" by Michael Jackson (1982)

If you weren't there in the 1980s, it's not really possible for me to describe just how big a deal Michael Jackson really was. The only way I know how to say it is that he was the biggest music star since Elvis Presley, not that I was alive during the big Elvis years, but there it is.

The album Thriller was the biggest hit piece of music in the world. I bought it on cassette tape, and everyone loved the thing. In my teens other friends would make fun of me, "hey Todd, remember when you owned Michael Jackson's Thriller?" Everyone would laugh. Well, I'm now old enough I love the thing all over again, purely for the memories.

I loved the title track and the video to that was absolutely stunning to my young mind, and then there was the late and great Vincent Price doing spooky Vincent Price stuff, and the song Beat it, well now that featured none other than legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen, and one of his coolest guitar solos ever. Eddie's guitar solo, and I'm not joking, caused a monitor speaker to catch on fire. Now that's a hot song!

Beat It spent three weeks at number one. It was Michael Jackson's rock and roll song, and it had been Quincy Jones who suggested to him that he should do a rock song. Seven million copies of the single sold worldwide. It's one of the single biggest selling singles of all time, and nobody but nobody could compete with Michael Jackson at that time.

4. "Let's Dance" by David Bowie (1983)

Let's Dance is a perfect example of a song which I had no love at all for in the 1980s, but now when I hear it on the radio, or I'm playing it in my home, everyone around is also going to be listening to it, whether they like it, or not. I liked the old Bowie Space Oddity kinds of things, and I loved him in Labyrinth, but I wasn't into the synthesizer heavy music he was making in the 80s.

Nobody cared what young me thought. Synthesizer music was all the rage then, and this was a number one hit. You have to wait until the end of the song to hear it, but Bowie had recruited a young Stevie Ray Vaughan to play a blues solo on the song, and he did so.

The music video was filmed in a remote place in Australia, and there are local persons in the video. They were inside this business establishment, and they did not know who David Bowie was, or what was even going on. One might consider that Bowie had taken advantage of those persons. David likely did not care, he wanted the video to portray authentic behavior for the sake of art.

I know people who think of Bowie as some sort of god. I'm certainly not one of them, but I can appreciate his high minded intellectualism, though not necessarily his methods. References to red shoes and tales by Hans Christian Anderson are all well and good, although a bit creepy and absolutely snobbish.

5. "Jump" by Van Halen (1984)

Now when it comes to my own musical heroes, there's few on the pedestal where I place Eddie Van Halen. No, I can not play guitar like that at all, but that has nothing to do with it. This guy was and is one of the greatest guitarists to have ever lived, and he was a singular hero of my childhood.

Jump was the single biggest hit Van Halen ever had, and what's funny about it is how it is so keyboard heavy. Now, if you did not know any better, you might have thought Eddie was experimenting with learning keyboards, as the keyboard stuff in the song is not earth shattering playing, but the fact of the matter is Eddie was winning piano competitions as a young man.

Keyboards were nothing new to Ed Van Halen. He could have been the world's greatest pianist had he chose to be so. David Lee Roth was at the height of his appeal here, all that jumping and primping about. I've never been in the athletic condition required to do the sort of gymnastic stuff he is doing in the video. I think everyone was impressed by the display.

I recall the dumb anti-rock music Christian conspiracy theorists saying the song was all about encouraging suicide. Just how someone could watch the video and hear the song, it's all so upbeat, and think that is beyond me. That was just nutters being nutters, however, the song did come about due to Roth thinking about a man who had threatened suicide. Maybe I'm the nutter.

The song and the album featured synth departures from the previously established very hard rock for the band. Daryl Hall and John Oats get an assist here for being cool with Ed having copied some stuff from Kiss on My List.

6. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears (1985)

The video comes off as extremely dorky. The sentiment? Oh that's far beyond timeless. Everybody wants to rule the world, and there's no doubt about it, in the general sense. A band out of England saying that is rather fitting. Was there ever a more imperialist sort of people?

This is another great example of something I hated at the time, but appreciate now. The song just takes me back to a time where the life was mostly ahead of me, instead of behind me, as it surely is now. I once knew a guy from the most remote small town in Texas. He didn't finish high school, and he wasn't very smart. He loved Tears for Fears more than any other band, and I thought that was the strangest thing ever.

People are strange. Music is art. Art can just up and affect the most unlikely of persons in any number of ways. This is New Wave music, and the beat is shuffling and dreamlike. Take a long gander at the lyrics, and you'll fall into a poetic rabbit hole. It's heady stuff, really; and especially so when you internalize all the social and political stuff going on at the time.

Believe it or not, the BBC wound up banning the song at one time during the Gulf War. I guess it hit too close to the mark. The BBC, of course, is trash, whether you've got your tv license, or not.

7. "Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles (1986)

Holy mother of cultural appropriation! Will you look at all these racist white women making fun of people of other cultures! Cancel the Bangles! Racists!

It's 2020 now and we have an epidemic of Marxist morons running around calling everyone racists, Nazis, and fascists. Just never you mind that no human being could possibly pass their asinine purity tests, and that they've got not a single one of them who could give you the Merriam Webster definition of what fascism actually is.

Having fun while being a white person was okay in the 1980s, and it didn't involve burning down some black owned business in Minneapolis, Seattle, or Portland to prove you're "woke" either. Yes, sometimes when people look back on an idealized past and say it was better, you can make an objective case for them being right.

Let me tell you a thing I think: Susanna Hoffs is one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked on God's green earth. How about that? Huh? How dare I not be attracted to transgenders. What a transphobe, it's the current year, and all of that.

This song caused some tensions within the Bangles, as members were seeing their personal contributions shot down by record producers, who wanted to maximize this thing, as they knew it could be a hit. The whistling in the song? Yeah, the producers shot down the entire band there, that's a machine whistling, bud, not a single one of those women.

Back to this being the current year. Princess Diana and Muammar Gaddafi were both still alive back then, although I do suspect neither one of them agreed to have their images used and altered to make the video. Susanna Hoffs eyes. Just wow, huh? She suffered from stage fright, and would look at specific people in the audience in order to combat the issue, she was just looking from the one on the right to the one on the left, but it sure was enchanting.

8. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" by U2 (1987)

U2 was one of the biggest bands ever. Straight out of Ireland, and white middle class suburban America was in love from the start. Well, the start was a bit before The Joshua Tree, but I know I had never once heard of the band or any of their music until The Joshua Tree, then you couldn't' get away from them, as they were ever present on the radio.

I have to admit the album was gorgeous. The sound was very fresh, and distinct. I didn't know of anyone who sounded like they did. The band had a personality which just stood out from the crowd, and seems like almost every white person in America claims to be half Irish.

Yes, this song is very much meant to sound like Gospel music. The song is meant to have a sort of religious undertone. I'd say the artists achieved what they were looking for in the hit. It's thought of as one of the top one hundred greatest rock songs of all time.

Larry Mullen Jr. had come up with a more unusual drum beat than normal. He does things with a tom-tom which nobody ever seems to understand, and the beat intrigued everyone in the band, and the record's co-producer. "The Edge" came up with a chiming arpeggio soaked in effects, as always, and they were on their way.

The song did not come together easily. It was said to have been constructed like a building, over time. It wasn't one of those half hour things where you go,"boy howdy, I believe we've got a hit!" As a matter of fact, what the name of the thing should be was one of the last pieces of the puzzle. So once the title was decided, and then the title inserted into the lyrics, it was a wrap.

9. "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses (1988)

What an absolute breath of fresh air this whole Guns N' Roses thing was. No, I don't care how trashy you may have felt the members of the band were, I may be inclined to agree with you on that. I'm not saying you want these people for house guests, I'm saying that Appetite for Destruction was about the best thing there was to listen to once I became aware of it.

All kidding and seriousness aside, Slash is someone I have a huge amount of respect for, and Axl Rose? Buddy, that guy can hit FIVE octaves, and maintain notes all the way from top to bottom. I don't care if you like the sound of his voice, or not, what he can do is something extremely rare among human beings. Five octaves, dude.

This album truly marked the beginning of the end for Glam Metal. This motley crew called Guns N' Roses was way more motley a crew than Motley Crue, and buddy, we hadn't even made it to Grunge yet. There was something raw and visceral going on here. You couldn't fake the vibe Guns N' Roses were putting out. You knew these people were every bit the scumbags they purported themselves to be, and you friggin' loved it too.

The opening guitar riff is well recognized as one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, but Slash didn't like the song at first because, to him, that legendary riff was nothing more than a string skipping exercise. Imagine that. It was just him practicing string skipping to keep his chops up, and he accidentally comes up with something which stuck in everyone's mind.

Axl Rose wrote the lyrics in honor of girlfriend Erin Everly, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The "where do we go" was jam session improvisation where Rose was literally asking the band where do we go now? It became part of the song, like magic. Just like the opening riff was an accidental bit of genius, so was the breakdown. A true American work of art.

10. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison (1989)

As a straight white guy, I have exactly one entitlement, and that is that I can critique other straight white guys with impunity. It's the only right I have more legitimate than anyone else's rights, and I'm certainly going to use it.

I'm not going to lie here, I loved poison when I was in about the seventh grade. By the time it was 1989, I was busy reading Hemingway and Pynchon, and I was horrified there were persons shallow enough to enjoy this stuff. Well, I got older, and I got a whole lot shallower.

This band was everything the 1990s would reject. Good riddance. The usefulness of the music is relegated to juvenile memories, and no more, and no less.

Brett Michaels says the thing was inspired by a visit to a laundromat in Dallas, Texas. Well okay, I was born in Dallas. Great music often does come out of Dallas, maybe learn to pick better girlfriends next time, pal.

1989 was a terrible year for music. I can begrudgingly appreciate this cut, but none of the other number one Billboard hits from that year make me want to do anything but chug bleach. Goodbye 1980s, and hello 1990s. I'm not sure the world got better, but the world or Rock and Pop music would certainly change. Thanks for reading.

Welcome to the 1980s

Big things began in the 1980s. Technology was on the rise. Capitalism was becoming more dominant, and with it, wealth was flourishing. There was still the big conflict between communism and capitalism, primarily between the Soviet Union and the United States.

I was born in 1974. So most of my childhood was in the 1980s. I remember well the fear people had that there would break out a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. We practiced getting under our desks at school, as though that would do much to save us.

I also remember well, as a small child, the AIDS epidemic. Suddenly people were afraid to have sex with strangers, which isn't such a bad thing, but I was nowhere near ready for any of that. AIDS was huge in the international consciousness.

Iran and Iraq went to war. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Then we learned of words like Glasnost and Perestroika. Suddenly, there were things called computers, and we even had some in our schools.

China was doing extreme authoritarian Chinese things, and that's not changed, but in the 1980s in the United States, everyone female had great big fluffy hair. I've no clue what that was all about, but I remember the tv show Dallas, and I remember it being a big deal. I was born in Dallas.

By the end of the decade, eastern and western Germany were reunified, but the sad joke is Germany lost 40% of its territory over the last one hundred years. There were space shuttles and space shuttle explosions. Science fiction was something we could all get into; the world was changing very fast, just as it is today.

© 2020 Wesman Todd Shaw


James A Watkins from Chicago on August 13, 2020:

Thank you for this marvelous journey through the music of the 1980s. You are truly an excellent writer. I never knew SRV played the solo on Let's Dance. I had always assumed it was Nile Rodgers. That is very cool. I totally agree with you about Eddie Van Halen. He takes a back seat to nobody who ever played an axe - including my very own blind guy Jimmy Schrader (r.i.p.). As for 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World,' I loved it then and I love it now (shades of Reuben James). The guitar solo is quite refreshing, too.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 03, 2020:

@Pamela - I never was a huge fan either, but the song is something which is pretty unforgettable. That bass line which you hear is just an earworm.

I honestly don't see the appeal of queen at all, however, they had some songs which I would never wish to be without. This is one of them.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 03, 2020:

You really listed the 'not-so-good' things that happened in the 1980s. It really brought back memories. I am quite a bit older than you, but I really love listening to music of many types.

I like all your music choices except for Queen. I know how popular they were and still are for some, but for some reason I never cared for their music. The rest of the music is good. This is a very good article.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 02, 2020:

@Kenneth - you're certainly impressing me. I can write about music endlessly, as it's one of the number one things I think about each and every day.

Incense and peppermints are right up my alley, as are Mississippi Queens.

Kenneth Avery on August 02, 2020:

@ Wesman:

In closing, I suggest that you write one more hubs about this topic because music cannot really be searched, studied, edited, and researched because it is too deep and wide.

So do another hub about going through "the Dark Door," where you will hear (the original) Jefferson Airplane; Strawberry Alarm Clock; Grand Funk Railroad; Leslie West and Mountain and all in this vein.

This will work. I know it. I never told you about me being a prophet.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 02, 2020:

@ Mr. Happy - there you go. You can NOT disappoint me with guitars, my guy.

In this case, I'm positive I have never before heard this, but you can be sure I will not forget it.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 02, 2020:

@Kenneth - Mr. Happy is one of those strange deals where I really like that guy, and want to give him a hug, or something. I'd invite him to dinner, and you as well. We're just completely the opposite in some ways, but I can't do anything but have respect for the man.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 02, 2020:

@Mr. Happy - I've considered writing a thing about every gosh dang year and its music. I'm grasping at straws for what I can do here and be appreciated, and make money.

What I had been doing is NOT currently working, and I'm poor as fuck; and I like to eat more than Ramen noodles.

That Modern Talking thing, I've seen and heard that before, although I do not recall when or where. I have a mind that sticks to music like boogers stick to a window.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 02, 2020:

I shall check this out. I am working on a short schedule--health concerns. Thanks for the heads-up (or down), but do check the podcast I mentioned. You might get a kick from ir.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on August 02, 2020:

P.S. Since You like "the guitar heavy stuff", this is what I came up with:

It's called "Ciocarlia"/"The Lark" (I have no clue why, haha!! I do like the song though). It's a Romanian band from ages ago.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 02, 2020:

Peace to you, my friend, Wesmann . . .appreciate your hub as well as the response to you toward my remarks about your fine work. I also respect my good friend Mr. Happy, for every ounce of his elaborate creativity and to you both, carry on your fine works.

I am not promoting this but check out a hilarious podcast entitled "Podcast Kenny." Nuff said.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on August 02, 2020:

"Music videos were all the rage. OMG, they were better than movies, in some cases." - So very true!! I definitely like the videos from the 80s and 90s more than the ones today.

"Supposedly the song, when played backwards, suggests to you that you should smoke marijuana." - Someone played the song backwards? Haha!! People have issues ... lol

"Weird Al Yankovic, everyone knows who he is, right?" - I can't stand his "music" LOL He gets 10/10 on creativity but that's about it on my end.

Okay, You sent me back to the 80s so, I gotta share with You the song that defines 80s pop music for me, haha!! (I'm European so, You gotta keep that in mind.)

"The single spent four weeks at the top and a total of 24 weeks on the singles chart in Germany[2] and eventually went gold, selling well over 250,000 units there.[4]":

"I know people who think of Bowie as some sort of god. I'm certainly not one of them" - Me neither but hey: "to each their own".

Haha!! I clicked on the Van Halen video: the hair styles of that time are priceless, haha!! Women and men had the fluffy and wild, hair-cuts. That "Modern Talking" takes the cake in my opinion though (for make-up and hair - and those guys weren't gay!!).

"Holy mother of cultural appropriation!" - Haha!! Well, we did all that back then and it was cool. Now it's not. We used the "Blood Eagle" (look into it!) as a method of execution at a certain time. Now we do not. (Thank the Gods!)

"No, I don't care how trashy you may have felt the members of the band were" - I know next to nothing about Guns N' Roses, except that there are a few tracks which are pretty awesome, in my opinion. (And I bought their T-Shirt a month ago: "Live and Let Die with Covid 45") Haha!! (The money goes to fund those who want to learn to play music but do not have money so, I though it was worth it.)

Never heard that Poison song and can't say I heard of the band either. I didn't pass 30 seconds listening to it.

Man, I love the background information You offered here for the songs and music in general. I love music!! So, do one for the 90s now!!! Haha!! I really enjoyed the read: thank You!

Cheers! Stay safe and all the very best!

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 02, 2020:

@Kenneth - thank you very very much, Sir. My dad listens to Chuck, Buddy, and Elvis to this day. He's always got his radio going, or it's like he's uncomfortable.

I guess these days he's listening to music from his satellite dish or whatever on the television.

Beatles, Hendrix and Zeppelin were much more my speed. You know I love the guitar heavy stuff.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 01, 2020:

Hi Wesman,

A great job with this hub. Spot on. And I was born in 19253 and lived with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and others,but "my" genre of music was Jimi Hendrix; Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and maybe a few more. Your collection is without a doubt, a wonderful job.

Keep up the great work and keep rockin'

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 01, 2020:

Thank you, Lee. Music is one of my favorite things, always has been, and I am starting to think a lot of it is because songs are tied to memories for me.

Lee A Barton from New Mexico on August 01, 2020:

Great trip down memory lane!