10 Songs That Defined the '80s

The age of hair metal, new wave, and post-disco.

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10 Songs That Defined the '80s
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The 80's fashion may look weird now, but their music still stands the test of time.

Here are the 10 most important songs of the 80's and by important, we mean songs that represent the spirit of that time the best.

Honorable mentions:

Welcome to the Jungle - Guns 'N' Roses
Hungry Like a Wolf - Duran Duran
Born in the USA - Bruce Springsteen
Danger Zone - Kenny Loggins
Eye of the Tiger - Survivor
Careless Whisper - George Michael

10. Soft Cell - Tainted Love

This song by the UK synthpop band song combines drum machine beats and tinkling, synthesizer-generated effects, along with a chorus from The Supremes 1964 hit “Where Did Our Love Go” – all of which coalesce to create a futuristic sound perfectly engineered to usher in a new decade.

The international success of “Tainted Love” paved the way for other famous synthpop acts like Depeche Mode, The Pet Shops Boys, and Erasure. Moreover, Soft Cell’s lo-fi electronica influenced future artists from Moby to Paul Oakenfold, and without the handclap, Casio beats in “Tainted Love” there would be no EDM.

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9. Madonna - Like a Virgin

Madonna is a prominent culture symbol of the 1980’s. Her music and image were shown in a new, sexualized way, and with the development of music videos and other types of media due to the electronic era, her image was one that was highly shown, and her music rang out especially in the hearts and ears of teenage girls, who often idolized this fresh-faced “bad girl”.

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8. Twisted Sister - We're Not Gonna Take It

This is the mighty anthem for anyone lashing out at an authority figure and ready to put up a fight. The song is short on specifics, so it can apply to just about any situation where "we" are battling "the powers that be." This all-purpose approach was intentional and gave the song a timeless quality.

The lead singer Dee Snider told the story behind it: With We're Not Gonna Take It, whether I was singing about my parents, my teachers, my bosses, my peers, people around me, I felt it was important not to define it by actually naming names and singing, 'Dad, you're so trite and jaded, I hate my teachers, too.' And thus, the song has had a life in sporting events, at political rallies, at protests, pretty much anybody who's not taking something from somebody else, they're going to break into 'We're Not Gonna Take It' all over the world.

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7. Simple Minds - Don’t You (Forget About Me)

Performed by Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is the theme song in the 1985 John Hughes film The Breakfast Club. Propelled by the success of the coming-of-age comedy drama, which starred Brat Packers Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Emilio Estevez, amongst others, the song was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart for three weeks.

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6. Cyndi Lauper - Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

While Cindy Lauper’s song was the soundtrack for every girl who just wanted to go to the mall, shop for a new Swatch, and rifle through the racks at the United Colors of Benetton store, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” also characterized the optimistic spirit and carefree frivolity of the decade.

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5. RUN-D.M.C. and Aerosmith - Walk This Way 

An interesting thing about this collaboration is that Aerosmith had been messed up with some heavy drug use and were basically done for. But then they got clean and this song was their comeback. The success of it put Aerosmith back on the map and they took it, stayed cool, and never looked back.

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4. The Police - Every Breath You Take

In a decade dominated by synthesizers, drum machines, and dance beats, The Police scored the song of the decade and helped established themselves as the number one rock band in the world with this haunting number about obsessive love. Nowadays, it's played on pop, rock, adult contemporary and jazz stations alike.

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3. Bon Jovi - Livin' On A Prayer

This song tells the story of Tommy and Gina, two kids working to make it on their own despite constant hardships. It struck a chord with America's youth, especially the ones from New Jersey. The characters in the song relate to the working class fans Bon Jovi played to. "Tommy" works on the docks, while "Gina" works in a diner.

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2. Nena - 99 Luftballoons

Besides being a very successful non-English language song in the US, "99 Luftbaloons" has the strongest message of all other songs on our list. A lot was happening in those days, the stare-down between man and tank in Tiananmen Square, the release of the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, and the fall of the Berlin Wall all occurred in ‘89. Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” defined an era of mistrust, suspicion, and nuclear fear, but by 1989 those fears, for the most part, were over.

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1. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean

"Billie Jean" is a historical song in many respects. First, it was largely responsible for bringing down MTV's color barrier; before it began airing that clip, the station excluded most black artists on the basis that they didn't fit its "rock" format. Second, because it's an essential pop-song. Producer and record mogul Antonio "LA" Reid told Rolling Stone: "Billie Jean is the most important record Michael has made, not only because of its commercial success but because of the musical depth of the record. It has more hooks in it than anything I've ever heard. Everything in that song was catchy, and every instrument was playing a different hook. You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces and I think you'd have 12 different hits. Every day, I look for that kind of song."

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89 comments sorted by best / new / date

    vivec1
    Allow me just make this little tweak...
    friday.the.13th.jasonx
    Though the song is from the 80's i'd say it's a song that defined the 00's as it was part of the beginning of meme culture.
    eddiehimself
    I think you will find that numa numa is the song that started off the viral video:
    friday.the.13th.jasonx
    I said "part of the beginning". I never claimed it was the very first though the song is a lot older anyway. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment memes and viral videos started because there's so many. 
    eddiehimself
    It's actually extremely easy, because digital content is date stamped and usually records number of hits. This is the earliest video to meet the criteria of "going viral" and thus it's the first viral video. It's not a difficult concept. 
    friday.the.13th.jasonx
    Not every site is still up after 13 years, also not everything is date stamped. Plus videos can be uploaded to multiple places so it's hard to say which site it originally came from unless you already know. Also the term "viral video" actually predates the internet therefore it's not the first viral video. Also I said it's "part of the beginning of meme culture" The Numa Numa video is not a meme. Rickrolling is probably one of the first internet prank trends (Note i'm not saying it definitely is the first i'm saying one of the first).
    twiggy3634
    I would've included "Take On Me" by A-Ha and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears For Fears, but it's a pretty solid list and good representation of the 80s. Now here is a list of soley rock songs the rep the 80s, in my opinion. 10. Master of Puppets - Metallica 09. Jesse's Girl - Rick Springfield 08. Tom Sawyer - Rush 07. Here I Go Again - Whitesnake 06. Round and Round - Ratt 05. Jump - Van Halen 04. Don't Stop Believing - Journey 03. Welcome To The Jungle - Guns 'N Roses 02. Crazy Train - Ozzy Osbourne 01. Back in Black - AC/DC   
    nathandavis87
    I like this list wayyyyy better. Minus Rush. I don't like their singer even though the music is great. Nothing but respect for them.
    N7Crazy
    Most people connect "Don't You (Forget About Me)" with the breakfast club, but because I saw it before the Breakfast Club, I'll always connect the song with the ending of the Futurama episode where Fry tries to get back his lucky clover from his brother who he felt ripped his identity off, only to find out that it wasn't his brother but his nephew who recieved it, in memory of himself.
    KBI2113
    Is it odd that as a man, I absolutely love "girls just wanna have fun"? I just love the beat and flow of the lyrics, not to mention Cyndi's vocals.
    twiggy3634
    I agree, it's a very well-constructed song. Top notch songwriting and production.  
    Iceman10129
    Sorry, but no Pour Some Sugar On Me, Come On Eileen, When Doves Cry, Sweet Child of Mine, or Don't Stop Believin.  Were you even alive in the 80's?!
    GOLDIE93
    Unlike most people on UG, I was a teenager in the 80s. This list is actually fairly representative of the time. If you turned on MTV or Much Music, this is what you would have seen all day long on a 4 hour rotation.....Now whether these were the best songs of the time or not is pretty debatable.
    Rayan_A
    Funny, the "honorable mentions" list is better than the actual list.
    The_Wilrus
    I know my avatar is Springsteen but that Careless Whisper sax solo.....IS the 80s. See video also.
    GenerationKILL
    "defined the 80s" GNR, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Dire Straits are nowhere on this list and don't even get an honourable mention despite all of these artists being HUGE sellers and touring acts in the 80s.  Not even a single mention of Billy Idol, MTV's first real star either. Once again, a UG "list" misses the mark and just makes everyone scoff. 
    jesse1994
    I'd wonder where the David Bowie songs were, but man that dude defined every decade 60's forward. 
    zalant
    This! 'Let's Dance', 'Modern Love', and 'China Girl'. Flippin' huge!! Of those 3, for the decade, I'd have to go with 'Let's Dance', though it's difficult to pick just one. 
    javdoc
    I would have expected "Sharp Dressed Man" or "Legs" or something from Eliminator.....
    javdoc
    Downvotes?  Really?  Um, for anyone actually alive during the 80's, Eliminator was a huge album, this is not intended as a slight on ZZ Top at all.  Their exclusion from the list is the slight.....
    andriyy
    For me personally, nothing more 80's, than Prince's Purple Rain and Michael Jackson's Give Into Me.
    soapalot
    Give In To Me was a 90's song. A great song though, featuring Slash no-less.
    andyjohnston
    I miss the 80s. The only thing that exists now that wasn't better back then was technology like computers/internet. If I had a time machine...
    Eifler121
    I feel like this list proves that the 80's was mostly shit. Just because things are mostly shit now doesn't mean there was some pinnacle time we can go back to and everything be great.
    Walldude63
    While the 80's were mostly crap there was some epic music. Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, Metallica, Megadeath, AC/DC, Dio, Anthrax, Four Horseman, Triumph, The Cult..  there was enough good Rock/Metal to wipe away the stench of Warrant/Winger/Poison. Plus we had the advantage of record stores, where we could go hang out all day waiting for a midnight release, or go the morning of release day for bands that hadn't "made it" yet. I remember walking out of the store at 10am with Master Of Puppets and not listening to anything else for days... 
    Eifler121
    I'm just not into any of that. I respect Maiden, Metallica, and the Cult, enjoy a couple Triumph songs a couple Priest riffs, but none of those are in my regular rotation, or all of their 80's stuff is shit compared to what they did a decade prior.
    nathandavis87
    Most of those bands were not around in the 70's...
    Eifler121
    I only like Ozzy with Sabbath, and Sabbath with Ozzy, I only like anything by AC/DC before Brian Johnson, and that's about all I really care for other than what I mentioned.
    Playtodie
    80's ? That's Kenny Loggins and Danger Zone ! (and also THe Final Countdown by Europe) Edit : LANAAAAA !
    JustStayDown90
    Bullshit. First of all, you can't possibly just choose 10 songs for this. But if you could... I've never even heard of "99 Luftballoons." Replace that shit with Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" and maybe the list becomes acceptable.
    nathandavis87
    You have definitely heard the English version. I think it is called 99 red balloons instead. I do agree rebel yell is beast.
    JustStayDown90
    Just looked it up, and I'm absolutely sure I've never heard of it before. I was born in the early 90s, so I don't claim to be an expert or anything, but I'm pretty sure that Rebel Yell is more characteristic of the 80s. 
    Glass_Ceiling
    It's never too late. I feel bad for you, you missed the very best era mankind has ever known. Sue your parents
    zalant
    I recall that song being pretty damned popular at the time. I agree that it may not hold up like Rebel Yell, but it was big. I wouldn't put it in my top 10 as far as being decade-defining, though. Maybe (as someone else said in here) the top 25.
    WardLucas
    Sorry list. THE song of the 80s is Huey Lewis and the News' Power of Love.
    OriginOfFeces
    More like "10 overrated songs from the 80s"... Seriously. You can not define 10 years of music with 10 of these hit songs. 
    creme09
    fun fact: Nile Rodgers of Chic produced that Madonna album and the two of them had to fight like hell to get "...Virgin" released as a single.
    hylianloach91
    You just made a best of the 80's music list without Duran Duran. May god have mercy on your soul.
    tomaxandxamot
    Twisted Sister live - go watch some clips - you'll have a new appareciation - preferrably "Under the blade" 
    zalant
    Yes! Dee's voice was so powerful, raw, and pure. I don't know if those words really go together, but that's what I think of. Image aside, dude could seriously sing his ass off.
    TinaSanders
    So old...
    The9
    You young whipper snappers. This was proper music, not that nonsense you call music now a days
    kramer242
    I grew up partially 80-90s and still enjoy music from all the decades I've been alive.... Never got into hair metal but the 80s had alot of good stuff going.... All the decades did and all had their fair share of crap also
    Ikillintel
    How the hell was RATT-Round & Round left off this list? It was #12 on the US charts in 1984 that was a HUGE accomplishment for a Hard Rock/Hair band. The Japanese teens absolutely lost their minds and if I remember correctly RATT was an even bigger success over there.