Any devout ‘80s music fan knows that hearing “Beat It,” “Like a Virgin,” “All Night Long (All Night)” or “Dancing in the Dark” incessantly doesn’t exactly fulfill that craving for nostalgia.
Radio station playlists are increasingly tight, repeatedly playing just a few dozen songs, and while SiriusXM’s “‘80s on 8” channel drops in “auditory gems,” it’s mostly their weekly Big 40 Countdown where you’ll be reminded of the glory of Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” or Paul Davis’ “65 Love Affair.”
We understand your frustration.
Back when we used to talk to our colleagues in an office (one day…), AJC TV-radio reporter Rodney Ho and I would frequently discuss the merits of the “lesser” hits of the ‘80s. He’s a self-described chart geek, and I’m an MTV savant, so our knowledge and interest about the third single released from Debbie Gibson’s second album was mutual. (That would be “No More Rhyme” if you’re interested.)
We decided that this was the ideal time to share our eccentric enthusiasm with you. Through numerous texts, calls and emails, we whittled down our picks and realized how much we appreciated this diversion from the endless gush of pandemic-related news, so we hope it brings you a smile as well.
Our list could have numbered in the hundreds, but here we present 60 artists (and videos!) from the ’80s and their inescapable, overplayed, I-never-want-to-hear-that-song-again hit, along with one worth checking out.
You know “Livin’ On a Prayer”: Tommy and Gina are as ingrained in rock lore as Jack and Diane and Lady Madonna thanks to this ode to working class heroes that is also a beacon of hopefulness.
But don’t forget “She Don't Know Me”: The follow-up to their minor breakthrough, “Runaway,” this achingly melodic 1984 single has the distinction of being the only song in Bon Jovi’s exhaustive canon not written by a band member.
You know “Walk Like an Egyptian”: The all-female band is best known for this kitschy dance tune which struck a pose at No. 1 in 1986.
But don’t forget “If She Knew What She Wants”: A few months earlier, this sweet, harmoniously melodic follow-up single to “Manic Monday” peaked at a mere 29 but deserved better.
You know “The Reflex”: The height of Duran mania crested with the British quintet’s first No. 1 single in the U.S. in 1984. Great song that still makes zero sense.
But don’t forget “Meet El Presidente”: The third single from 1986’s “Notorious” album –Duran Duran’s first release following the departures of Roger and Andy Taylor – is a dazzling mélange of funk, percussion and brass with signature production from Nile Rodgers.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
You know “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”: Alan Merrill and The Arrows wrote and recorded this in 1975 as a B-side that floundered, but Jett’s sneering breakthrough from 1981 remains prime pool hall jukebox material (Merrill, incidentally, died last month from COVID-19 complications).
But don’t forget “Fake Friends”: A minor hit in 1983 featuring serrated guitar and bracing lyrics that showcase the frank approach that still defines Jett today.
You know “What’s Love Got to Do with It”: The shimmery ballad marked Turner’s remarkable comeback in 1984 and made short jean jackets cool for a brief window.
But don’t forget “The Best”: That creeping synthesizer heartbeat, anthemic chorus and Turner’s typically idiosyncratic vocal delivery equate to perfection (and an Edgar Winter sax solo!).
John (Cougar) Mellencamp
You know “Jack & Diane”: His only No. 1 hit showcased his innate storytelling ability and way around a memorable chorus.
But don’t forget “Check it Out: While Mellencamp could go political or angry, he is especially good at just reflecting on the travails of life. Case in point: this toe-tapping country-inflected song that hit No. 14 in 1987.
Kool & the Gang
You know “Celebration”: Even four decades after its release, this song is unescapable at weddings, sporting events and parties galore.
But don’t forget “Let’s Go Dancing (Ooh La La)”: Like “Celebration,” this party song has no deeper meaning but is simply meant to get you on the dance floor.
You know “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”: The world’s introduction to the crazy-haired cutie from Queens, will forever remain a staple of bachelorette parties and car singalongs.
But don’t forget “Boy Blue”: Written for a friend who died of AIDS, the fourth single from Lauper’s second album, “True Colors,” only reached No. 71 on the Billboard Hot 100 despite its tender message and sweet chorus.
You know “Karma Chameleon”: Although “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” introduced the colorful Boy George and Co. to the MTV brigade in 1982, the band’s first U.S. No. 1 the following year made Culture Club ubiquitous.
But don’t forget “Church of the Poison Mind”: Between the blazing harmonica, locomotive background vocals from Helen Terry and Motown sheen, how is it even an argument that this is the best song on “Colour By Numbers”?
Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine
You know “Conga”: Latinos didn’t get a lot of love on the pop charts in the 1980s so this dance hit was like a hip-swiveling kick in the Calvin Klein jeans of that era.
But don’t forget “Falling in Love (Uh-Oh)”: As aggressive as “Conga” was, this nimbly light tune rides high on Estefan’s swooning voice and an earworm chorus.
A Flock of Seagulls
You know “I Ran (So Far Away)”: A worldwide Top 10 smash – except, ironically, in their homeland of England – the song is synonymous with the “Star Trek”-worthy hairstyle of singer Mike Score.
But don’t forget “Space Age Love Song”: A sumptuous keyboard riff, a mesmerizing melody and simple lyrics about love at first sight. What could go wrong?
Tears for Fears
You know “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”: This magically memorable 1985 confection immediately makes you want to wave your hands in the air or hold up a lighter.
But don’t forget “Woman in Chains”: This underrated 1989 single featuring Oleta Adams is not just gorgeous but also thought provoking, addressing both the oppression of women and the oppression of the feminine side of men.
You know “Rebel Yell”: This was his signature hit song, the one that musically personified his punk rock sneer and tight leather wear.
But don’t forget “Hot in the City”: This fist-pumping, head-bopping 1982 rocker shows that underneath Idol’s sneer is a great pop songwriter.
Men Without Hats
You know “Safety Dance”: The Canadian New Wavers said their 1982 breakthrough hit was written as a protest against bouncers who wouldn’t allow pogoing in dance clubs. All we know is that any band with a maypole in its video deserves lifelong recognition.
But don’t forget “Pop Goes the World”: With tinkling instrumentation and numerous key changes (as the best ‘80s songs will be remembered), the song that arrived five years after “Safety Dance” proved that really, MWH weren’t one-hit wonders.
Prince and The Revolution
You know “When Doves Cry”: The lead single from the 1984 “Purple Rain” soundtrack commandeered the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks.
But don’t forget “Take Me With U”: We can’t disguise the pounding of our hearts when we hear this jaunty, jangly exultation of infatuation.
You know “Cruel Summer”: This breakthrough top 10 U.S. hit for this British girl group perfectly captured the languid, oppressive heat of the season. Swedish pop group Ace of Base nabbed a top 10 hit themselves in 1998 with a slavishly pointless cover.
But don’t forget “I Heard a Rumour”: This superbly catchy, horn-inflected 1987 top 5 hit actually charted higher than “Cruel Summer” but is not played nearly as often by pop oldies radio stations. (Last week, “Cruel Summer” was spun on radio stations tracked by Mediabase 24/7 597 times; “I Heard a Rumour”? Just 14 times.)
You know “Love Shack”: This now classic from the Athens band has been flogged to death at every karaoke bar in America.
But don’t forget “Channel Z”: From the same “Cosmic Thing” album, this purely political song was about how media distracts people from serious issues like climate change, which was impressive given this was written in 1989.
You know “Pour Some Sugar on Me”: An anthem overplayed in strip clubs and rock bars with equal annoyance, it’s the most toothless hit from a band that has produced a ton of worthier classics.
But don’t forget “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak”: Although the song with the evocative twin-guitar opening is familiar to some rock radio listeners, it never charted on its initial 1981 run and clocked in at an unmemorable No. 61 for its 1984 re-release. But hey, Mariah Carey covered it in 2002, so take a bow, fellas.
You know “Smooth Operator”: This Nigerian-born Brit’s cool, sexy vibe was solidified by her first top 10 single in 1984.
But don’t forget “Hang On To Your Love”: This follow-up single sacrifices smoothness for an intense urgency to “hang on” but sadly didn’t even crack the top 100.
You know “Jessie’s Girl”: No matter how many stellar albums (17) or robust singles (34) Springfield has released during his nearly 50-year career, he’s still relegated to trotting out this three-chord declaration of yearning every time he steps on a stage.
But don’t forget “Honeymoon in Beirut”: The second single from Springfield’s 1988 “Rock of Life” album – a midlife crisis detailed in music – couches a crumbling marriage in gorgeous harmonies.
You know “Sweet Dreams”: The duo’s only No. 1 single in 1983 introduced America to their infectiously propulsive New Wave technopop and Annie Lennox’s incredible vocal intensity.
But don’t forget “Who’s That Girl?”: Lennox layers this song’s stark backdrop with scarily subtle anger and hurt about a cheating lover. It’s criminal it didn’t even land in the top 20.
You know “Love is a Battlefield”: The classic MTV video about Benatar’s character escaping a gold-tooth-wearing pimp is deeply intertwined with this moody rock classic.
But don’t forget “Little Too Late”: The drums and her vocal chops sell the female empowerment edge of this song, which only hit No. 20 on the pop chart.
You know “Working for the Weekend”: Is there a classic rock station in existence that hasn’t blasted this at 5 p.m. on a Friday? It’s the Canadian band’s biggest hit and the one we least want to hear ad nauseam.
But don’t forget “Queen of the Broken Hearts”: Between the crunchy guitar and delectable keyboard swipes, THIS is the ultimate Loverboy singalong. Also, red bandannas for all!
The Go Go’s
You know “We Got the Beat”: This all-girl group possessed punk-heavy roots but their party sensibilities carry the day with this now-legendary early 1980s gem.
But don’t forget “Turn to You”: This is simply The Go Go’s at their best: great female harmonies, fine drum work and uber-melodic riffs.
You know “What I Like About You”: Though “Talking in Your Sleep” was the bigger chart hit, this simplistic bar rocker from their 1980 debut album became the Detroit quartet’s signature song through live appearances and commercial use.
But don’t forget “One in a Million”: A sweeter encapsulation of the band’s ‘50s-era black-leather-and-pompadours style.
You know “Faith”: With those Ray Bans and that hip wiggle in tight jeans, Michael broke out as a monster solo artist in 1987 with this infectious No. 1 ditty.
But don’t forget “Kissing a Fool”: An old soul, Michael taps the big-band era with this classy single that didn’t sound like anything on the top 40 charts in 1988 in the best of ways.
You know “Don’t Stop Believin’”: It wasn’t the band’s biggest hit (see “Separate Ways [Worlds Apart”] and “Open Arms”), but thanks to its resurrection during the brilliant finale of “The Sopranos” in 2007 has become the anthem du jour at sporting events.
But don’t forget “Only the Young”: Originally recorded by Scandal in 1984, the blissful anthem of hopefulness on the 1985 “Vision Quest” soundtrack flourishes under yet another commanding Steve Perry vocal.
You know “Never Gonna Give You Up”: He is forever tied to this late 1980s synth-driven pop song that became a huge YouTube prank joke (“Rickrolling”) where this particular song suddenly interrupts something else.
But don’t forget “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man”: This follow-up single is more mid-tempo sweetness and light highlighting Astley’s ability to seamlessly interconnect soul and pop.
You know “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”: John Hughes’ movies (“Pretty in Pink,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) offered a platform for multiple now-classic ‘80s songs. This staple from “The Breakfast Club” introduced Scotland’s Simple Minds to the U.S.
But don’t forget “All the Things She Said”: In 1986, a year after their soundtrack breakthrough, the band soared on the strength of an insinuating guitar riff and soulful backup vocals from Robin Clark.
The Thompson Twins
You know “Hold Me Now”: This pop classic is a romantic paean to lasting love even through those inevitable difficult times.
But don’t forget “Lies”: This No. 1 dance hit barely scraped the top 40 but still resonates 38 years later courtesy of lead singer Tom Bailey injecting the proper bile and venom to his vocal reading of the lyrics.
You know “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”: A No. 2 winner in the U.S. in 1986 – and the song that truly introduced the British group to the masses – strangely wasn’t a hit in its native land.
But don’t forget “Let's Go”: With its pumping beat and chant-along chorus, the 1987 song was a worthy palate-cleanser from the monotonous “Everybody Have Fun…”
You know “Sister Christian”: Written and sung by drummer Kelly Keagy for his sister, Christy, it hung around the chart for 24 long, long weeks.
But don’t forget “When You Close Your Eyes”: Night Ranger is one of the most melodically underrated bands of the decade, and anxious vocal from Keagy and Jack Blades is relatable to anyone who wondered where they stood in a relationship.
Men at Work
You know “Down Under”: Likely most people’s introduction to Vegemite came courtesy of Colin Hay and his Australian crew on this worldwide smash.
But don’t forget “It's a Mistake”: Its lyrical content focuses on the military, but – much like other Men at Work nuggets “Be Good Johnny” and “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive” – it’s Hay’s deliberate vocals that render it distinctive.
You know “Alone”: There is no denying the from-the-gut power of Ann Wilson’s voice, and this No. 1 from 1987 remains a concert standout.
But don’t forget “There's The Girl”: Wilson and sister Nancy tend to recall their giant-haired ‘80s period with a sigh (though it certainly was lucrative). It’s a shame, because this glistening track from 1987’s “Bad Animals” album showcases Nancy’s honeyed vocals and knack for earworm choruses.
You know “Can't Fight This Feeling”: This No. 1 from 1984 is REO’s biggest hit and exemplifies the popular power balladry of the era.
But don’t forget “Don't Let Him Go”: Even though the band struck chart pinnacles with slow and sappy, they could also toss out a snappy guitar rocker with a Bo Diddley beat.
You know “Gloria”: Originally a hit in Italy – where it was composed by Umberto Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi – its bright keyboards and singalong chorus received new life when used in the 2019 film “Gloria Bell” and as the good luck charm of the St. Louis Blues hockey team during last year’s Stanley Cup run.
But don’t forget “The Lucky One”: Branigan’s 1984 “Self Control” album spawned a few audio treasures (the title track and “Ti Amo” among them). But this is a beauty that builds to a textbook pop thumper.
You know Heaven”: An admitted ripoff of Journey’s “Faithfully,” the lighters-in-the-air prom theme gave the Canadian rocker his first No. 1 in the U.S.
But don’t forget “This Time”: A couple of years earlier, in 1983, Adams followed up “Cuts Like a Knife” with this infinitely better rock pumper (trivia alert – Lou Gramm of Foreigner sings backup vocals).
You know “Sunglasses at Night”: The woozy keyboards and Hart’s ridiculous warnings (“don’t switch the blade on the guy in shades”) somehow turned the Canadian singer into an MTV staple.
But don’t forget “Boy in the Box”: The title track of his 1985 album – a year after “Sunglasses” catapulted him to fame – uses sharp synthesizers and electronic drums to detail Hart’s struggle with his newfound celebrity.
You know “Africa”: While there is much to mock about this unavoidable hit, inexplicably introduced to a new generation in 2017 by Weezer, there is also no denying its insistent melody.
But don’t forget “Pamela”: The band’s last Top 10 hit – from 1988 – swings under a lite-funk backbeat from the masterful Jeff Porcaro (and also resembles material from then-newcomer Richard Marx).
You know “Fast Car”: She wore her earnest social consciousness on her sleeve with this surprise top 10 hit about foiled dreams on the edges of poverty.
But don’t forget “Baby Can I Hold You”: This ballad about how hard it is to fully express regret is as simple as it is achingly beautiful.
You know “In Your Eyes”: Sure, “Sledgehammer” was his No. 1 hit but the film “Say Anything” turned this ballad into an iconic backdrop to an iconic moment in 1980s moviedom.
But don’t forget “Don’t Give Up”: A complete contrast to “Sledgehammer,” this poignant, pensive duet with Kate Bush was a big hit in Europe but barely made the Top 100 in America.
You know “Heaven is a Place on Earth”: The Go-Go’s frontwoman polished her punk-pop roots, enlisted Thomas Dolby to play keyboards and earned her first No. 1 as a solo artist.
But don’t forget “Summer Rain”: Her 1989 album “Runaway Horses” spawned a bigger hit in “Leave the Light On,” but the stacked harmonies and Carlisle’s distinctive vibrato give this tale of a soldier going off to war a bittersweet caress.
You know “Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)”: A nudge from Jon Bon Jovi helped the Philly glam rockers nab a record deal that would eventually lead to crossover Top 40 success with this 1988 power ballad.
But don’t forget “Somebody Save Me”: Frontman Tom Keifer possesses an undervalued blues snarl and it was used to prime effect on this audio equivalent of a punch to the jaw.
You know “Need You Tonight”: By the time the Australian New Wave rockers released the six-times-platinum “Kick” album in 1987, frontman Michael Hutchence could deliver a slinky hip-swayer like this seductive plea without breaking a sweat.
But don’t forget “Don't Change”: Five years earlier, in 1982, INXS embraced a purer synthesizer-driven sound, evidenced to perfection on this affirmation of life. The song was also the last the band ever played during their final show in 2012 (Hutchence died by suicide in 1997).
You know “Take on Me”: What is the greater touch point for this song – its bouncy keyboard jabs or the richly creative (even by today’s technological standards) video?
But don’t forget “The Sun Always Shines on TV”: The Norwegian trio could have slipped into one-hit-wonder infamy, but this follow-up single, while not a major hit in the U.S., demonstrated A-ha’s cinematic flair and penchant for layered synths.
You know “Lost in Your Eyes”: Though beloved by teens for her endearing of-the-times outfits and effervescent pop tunes, Gibson’s most significant chart success came with her ballads – this gooey valentine and “Foolish Beat,” for which she became – at 17 – the youngest person to write, produce and perform a No. 1 hit.
But don’t forget: “Staying Together”: This is what we learned from the kinetic fourth single from Gibson’s 1987 “Out of the Blue” debut: the keytar will not be denied.
You know “Eye of the Tiger”: Yes, we know. You hear it and visualize Sylvester Stallone, as you should since this soundtrack smash will forever be associated with “Rocky III.”
But don’t forget “Is This Love”: Four years after “Eye” and a string of perfectly pleasant, if interchangeable mid-tempo radio additions (“I Can’t Hold Back,” “High on You”), singer Jimi Jamison delivers this standout.
Huey Lewis & the News
You know “The Power of Love”: This earnest power-pop “Back to the Future” No. 1 hit from 1985 was the group’s biggest hit.
But don’t forget “Walkin’ on a Thin Line”: The band was known for fairly light lyrical content but this 1984 top 20 single is about a soldier suffering from PTDS packaged with a sheen of melancholy amid the pop hooks.
You know “Holding Back the Years”: This British band’s No. 1 1986 single holds up well after all these years, a thoughtful, soulful think piece about leaving home as a teenager.
But don’t forget “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”: This hook-filled top 30 hit uses repetition to great effect but may have suffered on the charts by explicitly slagging Reaganomics.
You know “True”: An MTV staple in its early years, this sax-inflected ballad also became a wedding favorite and was literally featured in “The Wedding Singer.”But don’t forget “Gold”: Lead singer Tony Hadley sells this melody-packed tune, a bit of a James Bond spoof.
You know “Heat of the Moment”: That opening guitar riff is so ‘80s pitch perfect, the tight chorus so sing-along happy, this is pop rock at the decade’s best, a far cry from the prog-rock roots of many of the band’s members.
But don’t forget “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”: This post break-up song is pure dramatics in all its Asia-like glory.
You know “Morning Train”: This comically dated 1981 song was this British chanteuse’s break-out hit but is so popular, it remains a staple on her concert set list nearly 40 years later.
But don’t forget “Almost Over You”: This gracefully sad, yet hopeful, post-relationship song peaked at a mere 25 on the Hot 100 in 1983.
You know “Footloose”: The 1980s movie soundtrack maven pumped out his only No. 1 hit using frighteningly catchy riffs and that scream “I’m totally loose!”
But don’t forget “Don’t Fight It”: Loggins paired with the vocally compatible Steve Perry in this equally catchy, high energy duet that inexplicably missed the Top 10 in 1982.
You know “Take My Breath Away”: Thanks to its placement as the love theme in the film “Top Gun,” this became the band’s only No. 1 hit yet doesn’t really represent their New Wave DNA.
But don’t forget “Masquerade”: Teri Nunn brings real pathos to bear in this techno masterpiece about the many actors who never make it big.
You know “Goody Two Shoes”: The flamboyant Ant’s biggest U.S. hit addressed the fact he doesn’t drink or smoke and its super repetitive chorus made for great top 40 fodder.
But don’t forget “Strip”: Not drinking, smoking or ingesting drugs? Ant did have a vice: copious sex and this delightful nugget captures that particular sin with a wink and nod to the Middle Ages.
Pet Shop Boys
You know “West End Girls”: This atmospheric breakthrough No. 1 synth-pop single about city life was inspired by a James Cagney and a T.S. Eliot poem “The Waste Land.”
But don’t forget “Suburbia”: This melodically chipper but lyrically depressing song about life in the burbs was a top 10 smash in Europe but an unfortunate afterthought at No. 70 in America.
You know “People are People”: This industrial-sounding plea for unity broke the Brit synth-pop band stateside in 1984 but it was never a band favorite: Depeche Mode hasn’t played it live in 32 years.
But don’t forget “A Question of Lust”: Martin Gore beautifully interprets how lust for others could cause trust in a relationship “to crumble to dust.”
You know “I’m So Excited”: This peppy early 1980s hit was so exciting, it landed in the Top 40 twice and became a staple on TV and in film.
But don’t forget “Dare Me”: June Pointer takes no vocal prisoners in this very ‘80s-sounding dance hit.
You know “Don’t Dream It’s Over”: This New Zealand band’s Beatle-esque sensibility is in full display with this emotional tune that explores the challenges of a relationship with a tinge of hope at the end.
But don’t forget “Better Be Home Soon”: This sweet, contemplative piece about an emotionally absent partner is songwriter and lead singer Neil Finn at his best.
You know “Every Time You Go Away”: Young took a Hall & Oates album cut and turned it into a No. 1 masterpiece of soulful restraint and longing.
But don’t forget “Come Back and Stay”: This was Young’s first U.S. charting hit in 1983 but it only peaked at No. 22 despite a pitch-perfect early MTV-era pop feel.
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