The 1980s was unlike any other decade in music history. The ‘80s gave birth to MTV, and with it epic music videos that stand as iconic to this day. The ‘80s also was the decade in which hip-hop, synth pop, and techno got their legs while artists from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Foreigner and Queen released massive hits that solidified their places in any best-ever discussions. The ‘80s were rad, and the music is proof.
Of course, any discussion about best and greatest and most monumental or culture-changing is subjective, but there are clear ways to track which music actually had the biggest impact—in the form of record sales, radio plays, and awards won, among other measurements.
Stacker wanted to see which songs from the ‘80s were truly the best and decided to use Billboard as the standard bearer. Billboard's chart rankings consist of radio airplay, sales data, and streaming data to help determine which songs from the 1980s were the cream of the crop. We looked through the charts and compiled the perfect list of the top 25 songs from the decade.
Will the list be filled with Michael Jackson? Does Prince make an appearance? Are there some head-scratching surprises? How anyone thinks about the best songs of the decade can be more about feel, but this empirical list is all about the numbers and the money made.
Here are the top 25 hits of the ‘80s based on their overall popularity.
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2/ BERTRAND GUAY/AFP // Getty
The country was reaching its peak over Madonna in 1984 after her self-titled platinum album the year before. She released “Like a Virgin” in November 1984, but the world was already fully teased when she performed the title track at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards dressed in a wedding gown a couple of months before. The song was such a big hit that Weird Al Yankovic parodied it with his own version, called “Like a Surgeon.”
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Artist: Captain & Tennille
The husband-and-wife duo of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille, better known as Captain & Tennille, were Grammy Award-winning artists with loads of classic songs like “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Lonely Night,” and “Muskrat Love.” But their hit “Do That To Me One More Time” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980 and has since been featured on big-time shows and movies like “The Simpsons” and “200 Cigarettes.” Unfortunately for the couple, love did not keep them together; they divorced in 2014 and Dragon died in 2019.
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Artist: Phil Collins
English recording artist Phil Collins first became famous as the lead singer for the hit band Genesis, but it was his solo career that made him a mega-star. In 1989, Collins released the single “Another Day In Paradise” for the “...But Seriously” album, which was his seventh #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, which has been covered by Brandy, Ray J, and others, was about caring for the homeless and not turning a blind eye to poverty.
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Artist: John Cougar
“American Fool” was John Mellencamp's biggest album, and featured now iconic songs like “Jack & Diane,” “Hand to Hold On To,” and, of course, “Hurts So Good.” The 1982 song helped earn Mellencamp a Grammy Award in 1983 for Best Rock Vocal Performance and it spent considerable time at the top of music charts. The song's popularity also took hold in film and television; it was prominently featured in the classic movie “Footloose,” in addition to TV shows like “Will & Grace” and “Cold Case.”
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Released in 1981, the epic ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You” by Foreigner was a monster hit, but has the dubious distinction of being in the #2 spot on the Billboard charts the longest without ever reaching #1. But cry for Foreigner, as the single was part of the hit record “4” which was #1 on the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. “Waiting” was also big in the pop culture world as it was also featured in “Footloose” (literally in the same scene as “Hurts So Good”) and recently found a new audience when it was part of Netflix's popular show, “Stranger Things.”
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Artist: Lionel Richie
Today, new fans of Lionel Richie might be familiar with him from his judge role on television's “American Idol,” or as the father of reality stars Nicole and Sofia Richie. But in the 1980s, Richie was one of the biggest recording artists and song writers on the planet. “All Night Long (All Night)” was released in 1983, hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and was nominated for three Grammy Awards. In one of the biggest performances of his career, Richie memorably sang the song at the 1984 Olympics Closing Ceremony, along with 200 breakdancers on stage. In pop culture, the song has been heard on everything from “The Simpsons” and “The Fifth Element” to “The Wedding Singer” and “South Park.”
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Artist: Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie has had five #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Say You Say Me” was among them. The song was originally recorded for the film “White Nights,” starring Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov and won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song in 1986. Though it was recorded in 1985, the song didn't appear on a Richie album until his release of “Dancing on the Ceiling” in 1986.
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Artist: The Steve Miller Band
Yacht rock icon Steve Miller is known for a cavalcade of memorable songs like “The Joker,” “Fly Like An Eagle,” and the 1982 #1 hit “Abracadabra.” The song is from the 1981 album of the same name and was, according to Miller, inspired by watching Diana Ross and the Supremes. More recently, the song may be remembered as part of the soundtrack to “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” film about dueling magicians.
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Artist: Michael Jackson
With the recent release of the documentary “Finding Neverland,” Michael Jackson's reputation has taken a hit. But as problematic as he may be today, when he released “Billie Jean” in 1983, The King of Pop was the biggest recording artist on Earth. The song, about a woman who falsely claims a man is the father of her child, won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song and earned Jackson a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The song is also known for when Jackson was filming a Pepsi commercial where it was prominently featured, and his hair caught fire in an explosion on set.
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Artist: Diana Ross
If there was anyone who could drag disco kicking and screaming into the 1980s, it was Diana Ross. Ross had six #1 hits on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, including “Upside Down” which is also listed as #77 on Billboard's Greatest Singles of All Time. The classic song, first released in 1980, has been remixed, sampled, and covered by many artists, including Destiny's Child, Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, and others.
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Artist: Dionne & Friends
“That's What Friends Are For” was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and recorded by Rod Stewart in 1982. But anytime someone references the tune or sings it in the car on long road trips, it's the Dionne & Friends version from 1985 that featured the epic talents of Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. The cover tune was originally recorded to help AIDS research and reached #1 on the charts along, with winning Grammy awards for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group, in addition to Song of the Year.
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Artist: Paul McCartney And Stevie Wonder
Released as a single in 1982 by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, “Ebony And Ivory” dealt with race, but it's also how McCartney described harmony in life and on the keyboard. The hit song was #1 on the Billboard charts for seven weeks and was both loved by fans and chided by critics. “Saturday Night Live” famously spoofed the song with Eddie Murphy playing Stevie Wonder and Joe Piscopo playing Frank Sinatra, hilariously tweaking the lyrics.
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Artist: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Though she didn't write it, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts' version of “I Love Rock ‘n' Roll” in 1981 made the song a worldwide hit. The song was #1 on Billboard's charts and is a rock icon that continues to get consistent airplay to this day. In popular culture, the song was famously featured in the movie “Wayne's World 2,” in addition to the Britney Spears film “Crossroads,” in which Spears recorded her own version and released it on the album, “Britney.”
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Artist: John Lennon
There's a sad legacy linked to the John Lennon song “(Just Like) Starting Over” released in 1980. Lennon was coming off a five-year hiatus from recording music and “Starting Over” seemed the most appropriate title. The song was a moderate hit on the charts at first, but it skyrocketed to #1 after Lennon was slain, just three weeks after the song's album “Double Fantasy” was released.
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Artist: The J. Geils Band
Listening to the lyrics closely on The J. Geils Band's “Centerfold” it becomes pretty clear that the song is about how heartbroken the singer is to find out his old crush has bared all for Playboy magazine. The single is from the album “Freeze Frame” and was released in 1982 and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Centerfold” also has immense pop-culture cachet; it's been featured in movies and TV shows like “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle,” “The Watch,” “The Office,” and “Glee.”
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Artist: Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers is one of the most successful recording artists of all time because of hit songs like his 1980 classic, “Lady.” Written by Lionel Richie and performed by Rogers, “Lady” reached #1 on multiple Billboard charts, including Adult Contemporary, Hot 100, and Hot Country Songs. Younger fans might also remember the song from a 2013 episode of “The Simpsons” or from the movie “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”
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Debbie Harry and her band Blondie wrote the song “Call Me” for the 1980 movie “American Gigolo” starring Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton. The song hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and stayed there for six straight weeks. On the awards side, “Call Me” was nominated for both a Grammy and a Golden Globe, but lost for both. “Call Me” and its suggestive lyrics has been featured in countless movies and TV shows, such as “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” “Bride of Chucky,” “Quantum Leap,” and “Borg vs. McEnroe.”
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Artist: Paul McCartney And Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson was a veritable hit machine in the 1980s, so when he teamed with Paul McCartney for “Say Say Say” in 1983, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the song would reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The year 1983 was enormous for Jackson; he released “Thriller” at the end of 1982, for which he ultimately won six Grammy awards. Including “Say Say Say,” Jackson had 13 #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, while McCartney had nine of his own.
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Repopularized by Rami Malek's Oscar-winning role in the 2018 Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites The Dust” was Queen's best-selling single. Released in 1980, the song launched to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was popular enough that Weird Al Yankovic parodied the hit with his own version, “Another One Rides The Bus.” The song also has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows, such as “My Name is Earl,” “Cold Case,” “Iron Man 2,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and “American Crime Story.”
Artist: Irene Cara
Although “Flashdance...What A Feeling” is Irene Cara's only major hit song, it was so big that it represented the peak of her career in 1983. The song was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it also won Cara a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song, in addition to two Grammy awards for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Cara also was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for her role in the movie “Fame,” for which she also sang the catchy title song, “Fame.”
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Artist: The Police
The year 1983 was huge in music. The Billboard Hot 100 included #1 hits like “Billie Jean,” “Flashdance...What A Feeling,” “All Night Long (All Night), and “Say Say Say.” But the longest running #1 hit of the year was actually “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, which held the #1 spot for eight weeks. The song also won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. “Every Breath You Take” is actually about an obsessed lover that Sting wrote while mired in a love triangle involving him, his wife, and her best friend.
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Prominently featured in the blockbuster movie “Rocky III,” Survivor's “Eye Of The Tiger” was one of the biggest hits of 1982, let alone the entire 1980s. The song was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and spent a whopping 25 weeks on the chart in general. The song was Survivor's only #1 hit, but it has been used in countless movies and TV shows, in addition to political rallies and anything else with the need to pump up a crowd. Movies and shows include “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Shazam!,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Big Hero 6,” and many more.
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Artist: Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
Written by Lionel Richie and performed by Richie and Diana Ross in 1981, “Endless Love” is one of the most popular love songs of all time and was #1 on multiple Billboard charts, including the Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, and Hot Black Singles. “Endless Love” was famously covered by Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross in 1994 and has been featured in the television shows “Scandal,” “Glee,” and “The King of Queens,” along with the movies “Happy Gilmore,” “Blended,” and “Baby Mama.”
Artist: Kim Carnes
Winner of multiple Grammy awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes is an indelible classic that spent nine consecutive weeks at the top spot on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and 26 weeks total in 1981. The song has been a major hit on both the big and small screen, having been featured in everything from “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” to “Raising Hope” and “Take Me Home Tonight.” Apparently actress Bette Davis was a fan of the song and wrote letters to Carnes and songwriters Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon to thank them for making her relevant again.
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Artist: Olivia Newton-John
Olivia Newton-John was already a major star after her turn as Sandy in the blockbuster movie “Grease.” But Newton-John achieved megastardom by shedding her clean-cut image with the salacious and suggestive song, “Physical” in 1981. Not only did Newton-John become the fantasy of many teenagers, her song spent 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the video won a Grammy for Video of the Year in 1983. “Physical” has always been a big hit in pop-culture as well, having been featured on “The Simpsons,” “Glee,” “Good Luck Chuck,” “Meet the Fockers,” “The Office,” and many more movies and television shows.