Let’s be entirely honest here: Not all of the music made in the ’80s was good. And that’s coming from somebody grew up with it as the soundtrack to his life. Yes, some of it was amazing. Some of it… not so much. But as a true ’80s kid, I loved it all—the good, the bad, and the really, really ugly. Do I love Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” or “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Dance? Absolutely not. But when I hear those familiar chords, a smile still creeps over my face, and I find myself singing along, even as my brain shouts, “No, no, no!”
It’s okay if it happens to you too. If you love ’80s music that the rest of the world has decided is frivolous and silly, forget them! Your happiness is more important than their approval. Here are 25 songs from the era that should make you stop what you’re doing and belt out every lyric at the top of your lungs.
1. “Every Breath You Take” — The Police (1983)
It’s the song everyone slow-danced to at prom during the ’80s, thinking it was the most romantic tune ever written. It wasn’t until adulthood that we really paid attention to the lyrics and realized just how creepy it actually was. “Every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you?” Yikes!
2. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — The Clash (1982)
It’s a song that let us coexist with dual personas: the snarling punk rocker who wasn’t afraid to push back against authority, and the insecure teenager who was really indecisive about a relationship. “Should I stay or should I go?” Sure, Joe Strummer probably wasn’t writing about whether to keep flirting with a girl in algebra class, but that’s how many of us took it.
3. “Ghostbusters” — Ray Parker, Jr. (1984)
Walk up to anybody who came of age in the ’80s and ask them one simple question: “Who you gonna call?” There’s only one possible way they’re going to answer. “Ghostbusters!” And then that’s followed by as much of the rest of the song as they can remember. You’ve never seen so much smiling on a person’s face as when they start singing about the forced extradition of extraterrestrials in 1980s New York.
4. “Hello” — Lionel Richie (1984)
Lionel Richie has never been cheesier than with this 1984 hit—and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. You have to sing it with maximum emotive gravitas, which involves clenching your fist and looking off meaningfully into the middle distance. Nobody feels embarrassed or awkward when caught singing this song because it’s designed to be embarrassing and awkward.
5. “Once in a Lifetime” — Talking Heads (1981)
It’s the only song ever recorded that makes anyone singing it instinctively behave like they’re wearing a huge oversized white suit. If repeating lyrics like “same as it ever was, same as it ever was” doesn’t make you start dance-shrugging like you’re a weird, skinny dude surrounded in fabric, then you weren’t watching nearly as much MTV as your peers in the ’80s.
6. “Beat It” — Michael Jackson (1983)
It’s the song that made every kid in America try to master the Moonwalk. “Beat It” was just that infectious, causing even the most shy among us to leap out of our chairs and sing along like we were trying to negotiate a friendly dance competition between rival gangs.
7. “Take On Me” — A-Ha (1984)
You can argue all you want that the only reason this song holds up is because of that wildly inventive video featuring rotoscoping (or pencil-sketch animation). But, honestly, it really is fun to sing, and it requires at least an attempt to hit that ridiculously high falsetto note at the end. Few of us can get there without our voice cracking like an angry cat, but it never stops us from trying. That high note is every ’80s kid’s White Whale.
8. “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” — Bonnie Tyler (1983)
A break-up song so full of melodramatic self-pity that it almost feels like singing it can cure a broken heart. Sure, we all eventually figured out that it’s really about vampires. But Dracula is the last thing on your mind when belting out, “Turn around, briiiiiiight eyyyyyyyeeees!” We can almost feel that first teenage rejection again, and oh, man, it hurts so goooood.
9. “Kiss on My List” — Hall & Oates (1980)
The quintessential earworm by the duo responsible for some of the most inescapable earworms of the ’80s, “Kiss on My List” is one of those songs you only need to hear a few times before it becomes a permanent fixture in your subconscious. Just the first few notes are enough to make you sing it in its entirety. And then you’ll wonder, like you do every time the song pops into your head again, what else is on this dude’s list? I mean, if a kiss is up there as one of the “best things in life,” what comes in second? A cozy pair of sweatpants? A warm bagel? Just how deep does this list go?
10. “Walk This Way” — RunDMC (ft. Aerosmith) (1986)
It was a crossover hit for the boys from Queens, New York, that got the whole world hooked on hip-hop. White, black, it didn’t matter—everyone knew the lyrics and wasn’t afraid to rap along. As long as you didn’t take it to the next step and invest in chains and a bucket hat, “Walk This Way” was harmless fun.
11. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — Def Leppard (1987)
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” is the best song about sex that no parent or authority figure gets too mad about because it sounds like a song about British people enjoying their afternoon tea. We still don’t entirely understand why this is supposed to be sexy. Who’s having the sugar poured on them, and why do they enjoy it so much? Wait, never mind, we don’t want to know.
12. “Blister in the Sun” — Violent Femmes (1983)
It’s just some acoustic six-strings and a drum, and the vocals are nasally at best, but there’s something about this perennial favorite that sounds as rebellious today as it did back in the ’80s. It’s got a hormonal energy that makes you want to snarl and dance and knock over furniture and make a spectacle of yourself.
13. “Don’t Stop Believin’” — Journey (1981)
Long before it was given a second life by The Sopranos and a third by Glee, ’80s kids were reminding each other to “hold on to that feeeeeling.” Part of what makes this song so darn entertaining is the clapping. Seriously, that’s a big part of it (“Don’t stop…” clap, clap… “believin’”). It’s like you’re suddenly a cheerleader, even though you’re just a working stiff stuck in rush hour traffic, listening to the oldies station and singing along to that song that reminds you of the summers of your youth, filled with sweet, sweet freedom.
14. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — R.E.M. (1987)
Nobody actually remembers all of the lyrics to this 1987 classic from America’s greatest rockers. Maybe you remember bits and pieces of it. (“No fear, cavalier, renegade, and steering clear” and then nothing until “Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom.”) And of course everyone remembers the part where you shout out “Leonard Bernstein!” For a true ’80s kids, challenging yourself to see how many “It’s the End of the World” lyrics you still remember is like a mental exercise for aging brains.
15. “Faith” — George Michael (1987)
If you ever meet somebody who claims they despise “Faith,” walk in the other direction—because they’re either lying to you, or they might be fundamentally evil. Listen, even Pitchfork, the internet’s highest bar of indie music criticism, gave the Faith album an 8.7 rating, a rare high score for music also beloved by suburban teenagers. There is no shame in shaking your hips along to the beat as George Michael reminds you that not everybody “has a body like you.”
16. “Push It” — Salt-N-Pepa (1988)
You could be 18 years old or 58 years old, and there’s still so much joy to be had from singing every scandalous lyric in this late ’80s masterpiece. Yes, that’s right, I said “masterpiece,” because that’s what it is. It’s pretty much four minutes of saying “p-push it real good” over synth-beats. But nothing makes a dance chaperon start frowning quicker, and that’s all the evidence you need that you’ve been successfully rebellious against the powers that be, or at least every responsible adult within earshot.
17. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” — Guns N’ Roses (1988)
This song was the common ground between lovers of pop-rock and the metalhead purists. That may not sound all that remarkable, but it was an astonishing feat at the time. Metal, real metal, never came close to satisfying people who loved hummable melodies. And the pop crowd, well, let’s just say they didn’t venture into metal territory beyond Twisted Sister. But with “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses created a world that was safe for both factions to coexist peacefully. You could be the tough, sneering metalhead who also loved a big, head-swaying, fist-pumping, singalong chorus.
18. “Just a Friend” — Biz Markie (1989)
There has never been a better example of the life lesson, “Not everything you love will be good” than the Biz Markie song “Just a Friend.” No, it is not a good song. It’s arguable that it’s a pretty awful song. Some might even call it excruciating. But if it was playing on the radio or MTV at the right time in your life, it’s like a tattoo on your soul. It hasn’t aged well. You recognize its flaws, and you might even be the first one to laugh at it—and yet, you love it all the same. Even after all these years, you can sing along to every lyric. (“Yoooou… you got what I neeeeeed… but you say he’s just a friend…”)
19. “Mickey” — Toni Basil (1982)
This song is like a chemical equation for perfect pop music. It’s got clapping (see: “Don’t Stop Believin’” for details), repetition (“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey! Hey Mickey!” repeated ad nauseum), and a catchy melody that’s so simple, literally anybody could figure out the chords on a synth-piano after just five minutes.
20. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — Whitney Houston (1987)
Has any other song ever composed in human history brought every single person to their feet at a wedding? The answer is no. Don’t even bother looking. Nothing else comes close to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
21. “Eye of the Tiger” — Survivor (1982)
It’s hard to fathom, but there are actually people who exercise regularly and, when hitting a wall, they don’t imagine the melody of “Eye of the Tiger” playing on a constant loop in their brain to get them through the final few sets. Can you imagine? How does someone stay motivated to push themselves further, and sweat harder, and growl as their muscles ache and beg for mercy, when they’re not hearing the lead singer from Survivor shout at them, “Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival”?
22. “Africa” — Toto (1982)
Do not ask an ’80s kid if he or she likes Weezer’s cover of “Africa.” I’ll save you some trouble—no, we don’t. Because Rivers Cuomo’s version is unnecessary. It’d be like rebuilding Stonehenge, or the Great Sphinx of Giza. When you’ve already got one of these Wonders of the World, why does it need to be done again? You’ll never recreate the magic, the awe-inspiring beauty, the breathless audacity of these marvels of human achievement. Just listen to the original “Africa,” and feel gratitude for its abundance of musical riches.
23. “Love Shack” — The B-52’s (1989)
You could be exhausted from a 40-hour work week, under-slept and under-caffeinated, ready to crawl home and go to sleep, but the moment the opening chords to “Love Shack” hit your ears, you’re on your feet and singing along like a crazed dance machine. That’s how much power this song possesses. We are all just mannequin dummies in its hands. We follow the rhythm that is dictated for us. You can try and fight it, but you’re just kidding yourself. If you’re truly depleted, you can always sing along with the Fred Schneider talking part. “Hurry up and bring your jukebox money!” It’ll still get you to the happy place.
24. “You Shook Me All Night Long” — AC/DC (1980)
This hard-rocking song about sex was so vague, you could listen to it with your grandma and not feel awkward. Sure, a few lyrics walked the line of appropriate, like “Working double time/on the seduction line.” But other than the word “seduction,” nothing about it makes any sense, and it’s certainly not the kind of wordplay that’s going to get anybody scolded by an adult. So you sing it knowing it’s all really dirty while not having any clue why it’s dirty, and it feels like a victory.
25. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” — Billy Joel (1989)
You didn’t have to be a Billy Joel fan to be addicted to this monster hit from the twilight of the ’80s. It was the kind of song you listened to on cassette and then would rewind again and again as you tried to figure out every lyric. It was a history lesson that we actually wanted to sit through, just so we could shout/sing lines like “Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball/Starkweather, homicide, children of thalidomide!” Never before has a pop song made us feel so smart by just kinda-remembering some of the lyrics.