For a decade, the pop-culture world lost all sense. Aqua Net was eating away the ozone layer, cocaine was so thick on the ground, half the people at church services had a bindle in their pocket, and gender fluid rockers were dominating the airwaves. The 80’s were a time of low fashion, sitcoms, MTV, leather, and eye-gouging neon colors everywhere. Greed was good, disco was dead, and car lots couldn’t keep stocked with the DeLorean DMC-12. Somehow, this gave rise to some of the greatest music of all time. It’s time now to don your leg warmers and your Member’s Only jacket to celebrate the greatest 80’s rock hits ever put on a mix tape.
What Makes ‘Rock’
We could argue all day over what is rock, what is pop, and what is hip-hop. To say nothing of metal or punk. For our purposes, we define rock as more of a feeling than a dictionary definition. Getting lost in genre debates means missing out on great music. And that’s the only unforgivable sin.
When Doves Cry – Prince
Prince’s meditation on dysfunctional home life and the effects it bears on the human psyche might be even more poignant now. As the damage of the past and its effect on each of us is slowly being understood by the laughable “science” of psychology, we see how some wounds never heal.
Blue Monday – New Order
Not riddled with complex lyrics, “Blue Monday” is the mainstream progenitor of electronica. While the synth is a little too thick and dated, it has perfectly murky feelings that capture the anger, frustration, and depression of a wounded lover. Plus, choral background vocals.
Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield
You can practically draw a direct line between the fun, bubblegum hit “Jessie’s Girl” and the entire career of many modern pop artists. It’s an ironic twist on a feeling we’ve all had, sung by a superficial, emotionally stunted knob. It’s childish jealousy personified.
Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
The Ozman’s hit is still a hard-hitting ode to the manic madness we all have had from time to time. It has a surprisingly kind message of a normal, gentle mind thrust into a diseased world. How our own instincts can be wrecked by the advice of others as they offer advice from a brain no healthier than our own.
Push It – Salt-N-Pepa
Empowerment slapped into a song so good that it still beats most anything on the radio, this is sound advice to anyone who needs to get out there and get what’s rightfully theirs. More than another workout tune, these are disenfranchised women spitting Oprah’s message before there was an Oprah.
Welcome to the Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
The 80’s was a time of cultural awakening, when the curtain was pulled back on violence, poverty, and the destructive power that drugs were having on society. “Welcome to the Jungle” shows us that even in civilized urban sprawl, there’s predators, prey, and survival is a matter of wits, fists, and danger around every corner.
Master of Puppets – Metallica
Moody, broody, and an anthem of hostility toward the greedy human forces, and uncaring universe. “Master’s” driving riffs help tell the story of our lives being hijacked by too many powers beyond our control.
Walk This Way – Run-D.M.C.
There’s no excuse for Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit’s rap/rock hybrid mess, but “Walk This Way” shows how good the enmeshment of hip-hop and slamming rock can be. Behind that is the truth of the alluring power that women wield over men, and how any female can be Lady MacBeth.
Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
By now, you’re likely so sick of this song that its somehow lower than cliché. But think back to the first time you heard the story of a city boy and a small town girl taking a midnight train. When we ache for something different, and are forced to sometimes live on nothing but faith and the skin of our teeth.
Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
Gorgeous gender bender Annie Lennox’s haunting voice and simple lyrical scheme is timeless. Even when it’s mauled by whiny shock noise-machine Marilyn Manson, it’s enough to build a career. It’s the manifestation of want, all twisted through our own social mores.
With or Without You – U2
Arguably one of the greatest love songs of all time, “With or Without You” describes and decries the bittersweetness that is our relationships. Spurned, scorned, wounded, and yet sometimes we can’t help but go back for more. Such sweet pain.
Tainted Love – Soft Cell
The phrase “toxic people” is fairly new to pop-psychology. But they’ve always been there. After you’ve tired of the agony of couplehood gone awry, this is the hymn of escape.
Every Breath You Take – The Police
Here’s love gone creepy and wrong from the other side. While U2 and Soft Cell lamented injury, “Every Breath” shows the pure fixation and control of a soon to be abuser. It shows how fine the line is between love and obsession .
You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
The depth of AC/DC can be measured in centimeters. Rather than hoping to affect an air of depth, Angus Young in his short pants has embraced the art of the single entendre. If it doesn’t make you want to dance – horizontally or not – then it’s likely you have no soul.
We’re Not Gonna Take It – Twisted Sister
Irony aplenty, Dee Snider might be the one man who captures everything 80’s in one body. Built like a pro wrestler, but adorned in tacky makeup, shouting punk rebellion, he advises us all to stop letting the bastards win.
Detox Mansion – Warren Zevon
Zevon isn’t as widely known as many, but his tongue-in-cheek style and deadpan vibe should be on your list. A cheery, mocking talk and taunt toward rehabilitation for the rich and famous, you can tell in an instant he speaks from experience.
Under Pressure – Queen with David Bowie
A track so funky, Vanilla Ice made a whole career ripping it off, this is two true musical masters – Bowie and Mercury – strutting their stuff as they appeal to the woes we face, and the support of others that will see us through.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? – Tina Turner
Ms. Turner is the ultimate survivor. What’s she learned from living with some of the most brutal conditions in life is that love is never an excuse to be untrue to yourself, or to tolerate anyone who won’t respect you.
Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard
It’s going to either start in your shoulders and move to your hips, or the other way around. It’s not deep, it’s dance or die abandon.
Blister In The Sun – Violent Femmes
Addiction is agony most of the time. When it isn’t, it’s a frightful roller coaster of confidence, psychosis, and internal discord. Put simply, it’s caught here in all the herky-jerky glory of a fiend who needs to get well.
Livin’ On A Prayer – Bon Jovi
Imagine if “Don’t Stop Believing” was a lot more optimistic, and you’d have “Livin’ On A Prayer.” It’s the same hope, faith, and dreams, but with a lot less desperation.
Another One Bites The Dust – Queen
Though used in every kind of context, the tale is actually about the slow demise of homosexuals from AIDS. A dismal topic that is largely ignored in American history class, Mercury and his band of merry men managed to often slip in this subject behind tunes that are fun, and can apply nearly anywhere, for good or ill.
Just Like Heaven – The Cure
No one knew the words “goth” or “emo” in the 80s. Which was much better. Though the mawkish Robert Smith should be tried for war crimes for starting both trends, when atop his game he made young love and sex sound sweet as honey butter.
Beat It – Michael Jackson
The King of Pop’s anti-gang message is a fun listen, with writing that prizes intellect over aggro masculine violence. At a time when many minority communities were hotbeds of brutality, Jackson’s hope was that solutions could be found over bloodshed.
Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
Love and loss are inextricably tied. Never is that more clear in Lauper’s look at the fading of the past, and the questionable constancy of the people we count on to forever be there for us.
Super Freak – Rick James
Though many point to the latter 60’s and the summer of love as the sexual revolution, it wasn’t until years later that musicians were forthright about how much seriously weird fornication was going on. Before that it was oblique, but funk brought it into the fore and made it acceptable for everyone to be honest about their needs.
Jack and Diane – John Cougar Mellencamp
A life of mediocrity awaits most of us. Wage slavery, settling for a partner we don’t love, and losing sight of what made life worth living are all wrapped up in this story of a teenage couple in a small town. The point is made: Enjoy today, because it only gets worse.
I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
The phrase “boy toy” was coined in the 80s, and Joan Jett’s aggressive, empowered outlook shows why. A woman out there to get what she wants, it should be played on a loop in every little girl’s nursery.
Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
When you need to pump iron, when you need to overcome, there isn’t anything out there that will get you in gear like EotT. Just don’t try to call it “EotT” because you’ll look like an ass.
Africa – Toto
Love and loyalty painted in a way only a young man with more testosterone than brains could do it. “Africa” takes a gentler approach to interracial love than “Brown Sugar” in a time when tolerance was barely starting to blossom. Difficult to believe how far we haven’t come in decades.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody – Whitney Houston
If Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and Celine Dion had a child that was the perfect mix of all of them, that child might be allowed to do Whitney Houston’s hair. A unique voice, with pop flair, a touch of funk, and a jive that makes you move, it’s tough to call this rock, but we’ll fight anyone who wants to claim it doesn’t belong here.
Tom Sawyer – Rush
A montage, gearing up for battle song as much as advice for life. Today’s rebels have to be coy, clever, and ruthless. They also should be backed by beats from the incomparable Nell Peart and wild, warbly notes from instruments old and new.
Born In The USA – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen is perhaps one of the purest patriots ever to pick up a microphone. He loves America like few others. What he doesn’t do is hide behind the flag, choosing instead to point, unabashedly at the flaws of his homeland. He believes the US can truly be great, but only through honesty, repentance, and acceptance of the ills that every nation undergoes.
Money For Nothing – Dire Straits
Subsumed within this glib tune that features the wicked work of Mark Knopfler on the guitar is a lot of darkness. Reflecting on society, hatred of the artist, and condemnation by working class folks in a culture of celebrity, it’s pep with long knives.
It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine) – R.E.M.
Pop culture references that would shame They Might Be Giants and outshines “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” R.E.M. manages to do more in this song than most bands accomplish in whole careers. Now, get out a lyric sheet and start memorizing for a real Karaoke kill shot.
Jump – Van Halen
“Push It” for white boys who need to get off their ass, “Jump” is mostly good advice, like you’d get from an older brother.
It Takes Two – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
To this day, there is perhaps no quicker way to fill a dance floor than to put this on the box. Rob’s flow is right, no denying, and though it’s clearly a dance/hip-hop track, it has enough rock feel to slide in on pure soul.
Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
Letting go isn’t always a kindly gesture and liberation can mean causing pain. Sometimes the only path is through recklessness and irresponsibility, whatever the cost.
Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode
The rise of metal during the 80s ushered in an open disdain for many organized religions. In a grungy, contemptuous attack on the commercialism of belief, and commodification of spirituality, Depeche Mode takes no prisoners.
Fuck Tha Police – N.W.A.
Ice Cube would agree that this incisive indictment of law enforcement is rap, not rock. But you’re going to be the one to tell him. Be assured, that’s going to be a bad day.
Let’s Dance – David Bowie
Pushing boundaries musically, if not lyrically, the tone is somber as the words strike a chord that’s nothing short of adulation. Only a master like Bowie could turn such basic phrases into something more complex, taking us through highs and lows in a few minutes.