The 1980s were a phenomenal time for music. Although I accept that the 1970s were most probably the best for Rock music, I don’t think the 1980s were too far behind. The quality and diversity of music around this time were epic.
It’s no surprise then, that putting together a list of the best 80s Rock bands was far from easy. I hope my selection has at least one or two of your favorites among them. Apologies in advance for any glaring omissions. So, let’s get to it and take a look at the first band.
Top 12 Best 80s Rock Bands
Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses were undoubtedly one of the most important and influential Rock bands of the 1980s. They were formed in Los Angeles in 1985 and were best known for their high energy and hard sound.
Likewise, they were known for the incredible lead guitar solos, courtesy of Slash. And for the incredible vocal style and abilities of their lead singer, Axl Rose.
An interesting fact about Axl Rose is that he has the largest vocal range of any other Rock or Pop singer. Yes, even greater than Mariah Carey or James Brown!
I was lucky enough to see Guns N’ Roses live in 1990. And, I can tell that Axl Rose’s vocal ability was phenomenal. He’s by far the best vocalist I’ve ever heard live, and I’ve heard plenty. Sorry, Robert Plant!
So, with Axl’s vocal ability, together with his amazing musical talent, and in tandem with Slash’s great guitar playing and ability to write catchy solos, this was a band destined for success.
And, oh boy, were they successful…
They achieved their first hit with their debut album titled, Appetite for Destruction, released in 1987. One of their best-known singles, “Welcome to the Jungle”, was released off the album. Although, staggeringly, considering the popularity of the song since, only reached #67 in the US.
The release of their following albums, Use Your Illusion 1 and Use Your Illusion 2, consolidated their commercial success. And the rest, as they say, is history. If ever there was a rock band that symbolizes the 80s, G’n’R is as close as it gets.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
These guys are awesome and my personal favorite on the list. Their musical style is a little hard to define. They have been described as playing Alternative Rock, Funk Rock, and Punk Rock. Included in these genres, it’s also clear to hear influences from Hip-Hop and Rap.
Regardless of how you want to classify them, there’s no denying their own unique style. One that’s so much loved and admired by fans and musicians alike.
Starting the 80s…
The band was formed in Los Angeles in 1983. There have been numerous changes in the line-up, so I’ll just stick to naming the current band members. They are Flea on bass, vocalist Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith on drums, and John Frusciante on guitar.
They achieved immediate commercial success with their first album, the self-titled Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was released in 1983 and has sold over 600,00 copies worldwide. Not bad for a first album, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers was one of the best 80s Rock bands. But equally impressive was their evolution into the 90s and beyond. Happily, this also came with increased commercial success and musical acclaim.
In my opinion…
The best album of all came in 1999, Californication. An incredible piece of musical work and an equally original and innovative video to go with the single, “Californication”. This was released in 2000 and off the same-titled album.
The single was a hit around the world and remains one of their most performed songs. It’s a song that I’ll always associate with the video that was endlessly played by MTV at the time.
I’m a big fan of Metallica, although I openly accept they’re not for everyone. Metallica is well-known for its characteristic heavy sound. It’s fair to say that they are a Heavy Metal group.
However, in the same way that Ozzy Osbourne always gets included as a Rock artist, I’m putting Metallica in this bracket too.
Another band hailing from Los Angeles…
They were formed in 1981 and the original line-up comprised James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Cliff Burton. Sadly, the bassist, Cliff Burton, died in an accident in 1986. The current long-time bassist is Robert Trujillo.
There are so many highlights for this band that it’s hard to know where to begin. Put simply, they are one of the most successful Rock bands of the 80s and likely of all time. Their album sales and live ticket sales are staggering.
They’ve sold over 125 million albums; half of that alone is in the US. This makes them one of the top ten best-selling bands of all time. The most popular album is Metallica, which is often referred to as The Black Album. It’s sold over 22 million copies to date. Wow!
The numbers around their live performances are even more amazing. Frankly, they couldn’t be any better since they have grossed more in ticket sales than any other metal band, selling nearly 20 million, to be precise. Wow, again! Make no mistake; this is a super hard-working and talented group of musicians.
You may be starting to spot a trend here because this is yet another band formed in Los Angeles. Like Metallica, they also came together in 1981. What were they putting in the water in LA back in the 80s?
Motley Crue is still together and making music. This in itself is incredible. However, even more, amazing is that, after a few short stand-ins, they are now together with the original lineup. Namely, Vince Neil (lead vocals), Tommy Lee (drummer), Nikki Sixx (bassist), and Mick Mars (lead guitarist).
I’d wager that all of these names, except for Tommy Lee, are unfamiliar to most of you. Let’s face it, with Tommy Lee having been married to Pamela Anderson at the height of her fame and appearances in Baywatch; he’s not a name we’re ever likely to forget. Rock n’ Roll lifestyle, indeed.
A raucous success…
Although not on the same level as Metallica, quite frankly, they’re not that far behind. Their 100 million plus record sales might not get them in the all-time top ten commercially speaking. But they’re no slouches either.
Their best-selling album, Dr.Feelgood, has sold close to seven million copies. It’s a great album, but I believe Shout at the Devil, released in 1983, has more musical merit. That said, they will live on as one of the most well known Rock bands from the 80s.
Blur has most commonly been linked with the Brit-Pop genre, and rightly so. They were undoubtedly instrumental in shaping the sound of a generation within the UK.
The band, originally named Seymour, comes from London. They formed in 1988 and were very active in performing and producing music during the late 80s. However, although they formed in the 80s, I fully accept that most of their most influential and popular music was released in the 90s.
So, what makes them so special?
Predominantly, Blur captured the mood and feelings of a generation. This was very much a case of music of its time. The sound had a swagger and optimism that was in contrast to the Grunge music coming out at the same time.
A blurry oasis?
I can’t honestly write anything about Blur without also discussing Oasis. Both of these bands were so pivotal in changing the music scene in the UK that it feels wrong not to make the connection.
I have to say; I think Oasis was better. However, they were formed in 1991, so, unfortunately, this is why there’s no separate entry for them on a list of the best 80s Rock bands. But, I’d still recommend you listen to “Definitely Maybe” and “What’s the Story Morning Glory”.
Our trip over to the UK didn’t last long. We’re now back in the US with the only all-girl Rock band from the 80s on the list.
The Bangles were formed in Los Angeles and, like so many other popular bands before it, also in 1981. What an abundance of talent LA has experienced over the years? It’s truly amazing.
The Bangles were, and still are, one of the few girl groups that played their own instruments and wrote most of their own songs. Now, don’t start shouting at the screen; I know there are others. But I’m sure you’ll agree they’re genuinely few and far between.
The original “Singles” Ladies…
I think it’s fair to say that, despite releasing several albums, The Bangles are better known for their singles. This is evident since they only released four albums through the 80s but a whopping 16 singles in the same period.
The better-known singles include “Manic Monday” released in 1985, “Walk Like an Egyptian” released in 1986, and “Eternal Flame” released in 1989. Of these songs, “Walk Like an Egyptian” was commercially the most successful.
It not only reached #1 on the US Billboard charts but also was the best-selling single of the year. The Bangles were a band that seemed to epitomize girl Rock/Pop of the era. Few other bands enjoyed the same level of success at the time.
However, the fame quickly came and went. Having burned so brightly, they disappeared in 1989. They reformed a decade later but never hit the same kinds of success they enjoyed in the 80s.
The Eternal Flame of fame is not to be. I think I’ve still got a poster of them lying around somewhere, though.
Bon Jovi was formed in 1983 and is one of the few bands on the list not to come out of Los Angles. Shocking, I know.
They hail from New Jersey and are made up of John Bon Jovi, David Bryan, Tico Torres, Hugh McDonald, and the incredible Phil X on lead guitar. This is the current line-up though the band has seen plenty of changes over the years.
But, oh, that hair…
Pop Rock, Glam Rock, or Soft Rock are probably the best descriptions of Bon Jovi’s musical style. When they first hit the scene, they were energetic and fun, with more than a touch of glamour about them.
The big hair and flamboyant clothes made them a huge hit with their fans. However, the quality of the music is what ultimately propelled them to stardom. And is what’s kept them there even to this day.
They released their first album in 1984…
It was this album that also contained two of their biggest hits, “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name”. In my opinion, these are the two singles for which Bon Jovi will be most remembered.
In many ways, Bon Jovi is a Rock band synonymous with the 80s. They seemed to be played and seen everywhere at the time. If you weren’t hearing their music on the radio, they were touring somewhere near you. Or, you’d be reading about them in the news.
Poison is a band very much in the same mold as Bon Jovi and coincidentally formed in the same year. They played the same kind of music and even had the same big hair and colorful clothes. Maybe it’s because they come from Pennsylvania, close to Bon Jovi in New Jersey, and used to swap clothes.
Although they never quite reached the same heady heights as Bon Jovi, they weren’t too far behind. During their career, which is still ongoing, they have sold over 50 million copies. I’m sure you’ll agree that impressive by any measure.
Unlike Bon Jovi…
Poison was slow when it came to releasing albums. It wasn’t until 1986 that they released their debut album, Look What the Cat Dragged In. Happily, the wait was worthwhile as it went on to sell three million copies.
Two years later, they released their second and most successful album, Open Up and Say Ahh! This has sold more than eight million copies to date. Surprisingly, for a band we so much associate with the 80s, this was it for all records released until the 90s.
No sooner had the 70s ended than R.E.M. burst onto the musical scene. Formed in 1980 in the US, they came hot on the heels of the Punk era. Although the influence of Punk and New Wave in their music is evident, their style evolved into something much different.
The roots of Alt Rock?
I’d describe them as an Alternative Rock band. Although, in many ways, they pioneered their own sound.
The lead singer Michael Stipe is probably the most recognizable name among the four-piece band. The other three were Bill Berry on drums, Peter Buck on lead guitar, and Mike Mills, who was a multi-instrumentalist.
They ceased being active in 2011, and during their time making music, all four band members remained unchanged.
Quietly conquering in the 80s…
It wasn’t until 1983 that they released their first album, Murmur. Like much of their music in the 80s, it received critical acclaim and a good amount of commercial success. It sold close to two million copies, which was much the same as the subsequent five albums released in the 80s.
It wasn’t until the 90s that R.E.M. found its stride. The release of Out of Time in 1991 sold 16 million copies, and Automatic for the People in 1993 sold close to 14 million copies. These are their two stand-out pieces of work and the ones for which R.E.M. will be most remembered.
Sonic Youth was formed in New York in 1981. There are clear influences in their music from the late 70s Punk scene in both America and the UK. The fast guitar playing and style are reminiscent of The Cure, which is intended as a huge compliment.
The original band was made up of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, both on guitar and vocal, together with Kim Gordon, on bass and vocals. They played in the band until they ceased to be active in 2011.
During the early days, they had a series of drummers. Although, none stayed for long until Steve Shelley joined in 1985.
A hard-working group…
Always busy either recording or playing. During the 80s, they released six studio albums, and over their career, they released sixteen. Their debut album was Confusion Is Sex which was released in 1983. The most commercially successful album of the decade was Daydream Nation, released in 1988.
There’s no doubt that Sonic Youth never reached the same kind of popularity as any of the other groups on my list. However, in my opinion, it still doesn’t stop them from being one of the best 80s rock bands.
Their creativity, exceptional live performances, and central role in the creation of No Wave music make them a worthy inclusion.
The Smiths were an Alternative Rock group formed in 1982 in Manchester, England. Their success was based on the partnership of the lead singer, Morrissey, and lead guitarist, Jonny Marr.
Morrissey provided the lyrics as he was naturally more of a poet than a musician. Whereas Jonny Marr was and still is a musical giant. It was Jonny Marr who provided the musical impetus and direction for the band. His ability to play new and exciting styles of music is incredible.
After The Smiths split in 1987…
Jonny Marr went on to play in The The, The Cribs, and Modest Mouse, amongst others. It’s no surprise that during his time with these bands achieved their highest levels of commercial success.
Interestingly, for all of Jonny Marr’s brilliance, The Smiths will most probably be remembered for Morrissey’s incredible lyrical ability. His lyrics are down-to-earth, straightforward, but poignant.
Coming out of Manchester, it’s maybe no surprise. And, it makes me believe that Morrissey was heavily influenced by Ian Curtis from Joy Division, who came from Salford, right next to Manchester.
The Smiths released their first album in 1984, entitled, The Smiths. It went to #2 in the UK, though achieved less success in the US, reaching only #150. Over their career in the 80s, they released three more albums. The second album, Meat is Murder, went to #1 in the UK and #110 in the US.
The man from Manchester…
Meat is Murder was and still is a strong indication of Morrissey’s position on animal welfare as a committed vegan. Many of the subjects Morrissey wrote and continues to write about are concerned with this kind of social issue.
The Smiths have currently sold over four million albums, with more than half of that number coming from the UK. Morrissey went on to a solo career and has sold a further two million albums around the world.
The Smiths, like Sonic Youth, may not have been the most popular Rock band of the 80s. But, I honestly think they were one of the best rock bands in the decade, if not one of the best bands of all time. The fans, myself included, love The Smiths and love Morrissey.
I’m finishing my list of the 12 best Bock bands of the 80s with an absolute giant of a band, U2. Easily the most popular band out of the twelve, having sold an unbelievable 175 million records over their career. This makes them one of the best-selling bands of all time. That’s genuinely astounding.
So, what made and continues to make them so popular?
To say that this is an incredible bunch of talented musicians is an understatement. All the accolades will generally go to the lead guitarist, The Edge, and lead singer, Bono. Yet, the bass player Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., are no less an integral part of the equation.
They were formed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1976. However, they didn’t release their first album, Boy, until 1980. Consequently, I think it’s fair to say they are very much a band of the 80s.
Boy received a good amount of commercial success, and to date, has sold 1.5 million copies. It also received a huge level of critical acclaim and airtime, which were fundamental in driving the band forward when future releases came.
Thinking back on the band’s albums in the 80s…
It made me realize just how phenomenal their music output was during this period. October, War, and The Unforgettable Fire were the first three follow-up studio albums to Boy. And they all enjoyed ever-increasing sales.
However, it was The Joshua Tree, released in 1987, that gave them their first # in both the US and UK. What’s more, it’s also their best-selling album, having clocked 25 million sales and counting.
The final album release of the 80s was Rattle and Hum. While not the most popular, it still clocked up to 14 million sales. To put that into context, that’s more than twice what Morrissey sold throughout his entire career.
An unforgettable band…
I love U2 and want to finish by saying that Bono has one of the greatest rock voices of all time. Better than Axl Rose live? I’m honestly not sure, although I should know as I saw U2 in the summer of 1980 in Leeds, England.
However, they were playing pretty much as an unknown band, as part of a weekend music festival, Futurama 2, along with another 39 acts. For the life of me, I still can’t remember a single thing about them. How annoying. Anyways, let’s wrap this up.
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Best 80s Rock Bands – Final Thoughts
So, there you have it. Music is highly subjective, but I think my top twelve contains some of the best 1980s Rock bands, as well as some of the most influential.
All too often, 80s music is written off as somehow less important than that of the 70s. However, dig a little deeper, and you quickly uncover the amazing depth of talent. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip back in time.
Until next time, happy listening.