The 80s is an often maligned decade for music. Part of the problem is that it had such a hard decade to follow. The 70s was a golden age for rock music, with whole new genres developing and a world of experimentation taking place.
However, with the benefit of Captain Hindsight here in 2022, the 80’s rock scene was far better than many of us gave it credit for at the time. My look back at the decade has turned up some real classics. So, here is my list of the 25 best 80s Rock Songs.
- Top 25 Best 80s Rock Songs
- Another One Bites the Dust – Queen (1980)
- Ace of Spades – Motorhead (1980)
- I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (1981)
- Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads (1981)
- Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie (1981)
- Don’t Stop Believin – Journey (1981)
- Back in Black – AC/DC (1981)
- Eye of the Tiger – Survivor (1982)
- Rock the Casbah – The Clash (1982)
- Every Breath You Take – The Police (1983)
- Beat It – Michael Jackson (1983)
- Jump – Van Halen (1983)
- White Wedding – Billy Idol (1983)
- Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
- Summer of 69 – Bryan Adams (1985)
- Money For Nothing – Dire Straits (1985)
- Bigmouth Strikes Again – The Smiths (1986)
- Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel (1986)
- Walk This Way – Run-DMC (Feat. Aerosmith) (1986)
- With or Without You – U2 (1987)
- Wanted Dead or Alive – Bon Jovi (1987)
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 (1987)
- Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns ‘N’ Roses (1988)
- Welcome to the Jungle – Guns ‘N’ Roses (1988)
- Free Fallin – Tom Petty (1989)
- Looking for More Rockin’ Tunes?
- Final Thoughts on the Best 80s Rock Songs
Top 25 Best 80s Rock Songs
It may not be a surprise to learn that the music for this song was written by bassist John Deacon. The whole song is very much a bass-driven affair. As a result, Deacon wrote one of the best basslines of the decade. He got his influence for the bassline from “These Are the Good Times” by Chic. You can hear it, right?
It’s not your standard Queen rock ‘n’ roll anthem…
It was a bit of a risk for the band as it wasn’t like anything they’d done before. Michael Jackson convinced the band of the song’s merits, and it became Queen’s second and last Billboard Hot 100 #1.
It stayed there for three weeks and was also a Top 10 hit in multiple countries. With over seven million copies sold, “Another One Bites the Dust” is Queen’s biggest-selling single.
Ace of Spades – Motorhead (1980)
From the opening bars, “Ace of Spades” grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you on a high-octane joy ride of metal madness. Lemmy’s ferocious opening bassline sets the tone for the musical assault about to come your way.
Never released as a single in the US, the song peaked at #13 on the UK chart. But now, it features at #442 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs list. And as high as 155th in British magazine NME’s comparable list.
No other song on my rundown packs the kind of ferocious punch delivered by “Ace of Spades.” Anyone who experienced the band playing it live likely considers the permanent hearing damage well worth it.
This staple Rock song of the 80s was originally written and recorded by the British band, The Arrows. The Joan Jett version took the world by storm, topping the charts in six countries. Including seven weeks atop the US Billboard Hot 100.
It’s a song that all purveyors of Rock n Roll can rally around. You don’t have to sing like Joan Jett to scream this one out at karaoke. It’s tough guitar riffs all the way in this homage to the devil’s music.
Furthermore, it was considered just good enough to creep into Rolling Stone’s Greatest 500 Songs list at #491.
Talking Heads were one of the most innovative bands of the 1980s. And “Once in a Lifetime” perfectly showcases their desire to push the boundaries of Rock n Roll as an art form. Co-written with legendary producer Brian Eno, the song performed well on various European charts. But, it failed to break into the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.
However, it’s since been recognized as one of the most influential songs of the 80s. Likewise, Rolling Stone placed it as high as #27 on their 2021 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
The creative process…
Talking Heads were inspired by the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti and early Hip Hop. The resulting soundscape is like nothing the Pop world had ever heard before.
Lyrically, the song is a rallying call against the mundanity of living your life along societal norms, about how people drift through life half asleep. And, never question whether adopting those expectations is a productive way to spend what precious little time we have on this earth.
This is what you get when two juggernauts of British Rock music collaborate in perfect unison. It doesn’t always work when acts this big perform together. But, the stars aligned on this one.
Just like “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s another classic bassline that gets the song going and keeps it rolling. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie deliver a soaring and majestic account in a duet for the ages.
This legendary 80s rock song reached the top of the UK charts. And it maxed out at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also deemed worthy of 429th place in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest songs list.
Following on from the last track, we have another inspirational 1980s rock anthem. “Don’t Stop Believin” is an uplifting call to follow your dreams no matter how bad the situation is. All you’ve got to do is keep believing in yourself.
A Top 10 hit all over the world; it’s had enduring popularity over the years. Additionally, it is the most downloaded digital track from the 20th century, with over seven million downloads in the US alone.
Given the competition, that’s some accolade. In fairness, who can forget that opening piano riff? Not Rolling Stone magazine, which has it 133rd on their list.
Back in Black – AC/DC (1981)
The opening guitar riff of “Back in Black” has to be one of the most memorable in Rock n Roll history. The song is a homage to former lead singer Bon Scott who had died the year before.
New frontman, Brian Johnson, was asked to pen the lyrics for the song and told not to make it morbid. Under considerable pressure, he did a wonderful job of commemorating the fast-living Aussie.
The song wasn’t a massive hit at the time, peaking at #37 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has since gone on to be one of the all-time great Hard Rock tracks. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #29 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
Eye of the Tiger – Survivor (1982)
“Eye of the Tiger” was the second biggest hit of 1982, only being beaten in sales by Olivia Newton John’s “Physical.” It spent an incredible six weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100. As well as 15 weeks in the Top 10. The latter figure is a joint record for the decade.
It was written for and released at the same time as the hit movie “Rocky III.” And it has since become a classic song about never giving up and always striving to reach your goals.
You have to wonder how many people, ironically or not, have this song on their workout playlist. However, you can’t deny it’s got a great energy to it. Perfect for building up an inspirational sweat.
Rock the Casbah – The Clash (1982)
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was a ban placed on western music in the country. “Rock the Casbah” was inspired by those events and portrays a ban on rock music by a fictional Iranian king.
It was The Clash’s highest-charting US hit, peaking at #8. It’s a thoroughly entertaining romp with a high-energy piano part taking the lead. The song has gone on to become one of The Clash’s signature tunes.
The band also released a remixed dance version called “Mustapha Dance,” which is well worth a listen. No doubt, one of the best 80s Rock songs ever.
There was no missing this song throughout 1983. It spent eight weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 and was a Top 10 smash all over the world. It’s also gone on to have a lasting legacy, with Rolling Stone ranking it #84 on their 500 Greatest Songs list.
“Every Breath You Take” also has the distinction of being the song to receive the most radio plays in history. By 2019, that number had reached a staggering 15 million.
This is another commonly misunderstood song. Many people often take this song to have a far more positive meaning than it does. It’s, in fact, about an obsession with a lost love. With lyrics that any serial stalker could easily relate to.
Beat It – Michael Jackson (1983)
You don’t tend to associate The King of Pop with Rock music. But he’s written a few songs that fall into that category. “Beat It” is one of them.
Legendary producer, Quincy Jones, was influential in getting MJ to include a Rock song on the Thriller album. And this is the amazing result. Any song that includes a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen cannot call itself anything other than Rock music.
And what a solo it is too…
That combination of Jackson’s soaring vocals and Van Halen’s aggressive guitar playing made it a gigantic hit worldwide. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks and was in the Top 5 alongside “Billie Jean,” another #1 hit from Thriller.
It’s impossible to over-express the seismic impact Jackson had on music in the 1980s. It says a lot about his innate talent that he could knock out one of the best rock songs of the 80s, despite the genre not being familiar territory.
Jump – Van Halen (1983)
Synth Rock at its finest. Van Halen’s keyboard-driven smash hit was the band’s biggest-selling single. It reached the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 and on several other charts around the world.
“Jump” is a bit of a departure from their more guitar-driven sound, using a synth line as the lead throughout. It seemed to jive with the public and has since become one of the most iconic sounds of the 80s.
Its upbeat message to make the most of life has resonated with listeners ever since. Rolling Stone magazine believes it to be an important enough song to rank it 177th on their 500 Greatest Songs list.
White Wedding – Billy Idol (1983)
Probably Billy Idol’s most recognizable song. “White Wedding” was a big hit for the British rocker on both sides of the Atlantic and down under.
Despite the imagery of the title, the song is a dark and foreboding tale of the pain caused by watching your true love walk down the aisle with somebody else. The ominous guitar intro kind of gives the game away from the off.
“White Wedding” has stayed in the public imagination, thanks to the fact it’s a bloody good song. But also because it’s been used so many times in TV and movies over the years. Also, who doesn’t like to sing along to that anthem of a chorus? Anyone?
Often mistaken as a patriotic anthem by those who don’t listen to lyrics. However, “Born in the USA” is Springsteen’s damning indictment of American military foreign policy.
The song has often been used by politicians who only focus on the rabble-rousing chorus, ignoring the desperate narrative of the verses. As protest songs go, the story told in this song is as cutting as anything produced in the 80s.
However, despite the subject matter, the song does rock. It’s hard not to sing along to that chorus. “Born in the USA” reached #9 in the Billboard Hot 100. Incredibly, it was one of seven Top 10 singles released from the album of the same name.
Summer of 69 – Bryan Adams (1985)
Bryan Adams’s nostalgic ode to being young was a big hit in the US and Canada on its release. They were feel-good times, and “Summer of 69” is a feel good 80s Rock song.
When we look back, hopefully, most of us have had that one golden summer. One without a care in the world at the peak of our youth. That’s what this song represents for many.
Bryan Adams is about the closest thing that Canada has to Bruce Springsteen. This song, in particular, evokes the music and arrangements of The Boss.
Featuring one of the most recognizable guitar hooks of the 1980s, “Money For Nothing” was Dire Straits’ biggest-selling single. It spent three weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.
The song relates to comments made by workers in an appliance store who were reacting to music videos on MTV. Mark Knopfler overheard the conversation and quickly wrote the best lines down. If you listen carefully, you can hear the dulcet tones of Sting singing the “I want my MTV” line.
Ironically, Knopfler wasn’t a fan of music videos…
He felt they distracted from the purity of the music. MTV convinced his record label that they would only play it if it had a concept video of some kind.
The subsequent video used innovative graphics which were groundbreaking for the era. And it went on to win an MTV award for Best Video in 1986.
The Smiths were truly one of the most important Rock bands of the 1980s. The contrast of Johnny Marr’s upbeat guitar riffs with Morrissey’s completely honest, funny, and original lyrics, earned them a cult following and inspired countless other indie bands.
“Bigmouth Strikes Again” typifies this wonderful combination. And, with hindsight, it is probably their most iconic song. The lyrics rip into the negative experiences the band was having with the music press at the time.
It’s littered with wonderfully creative lines that could only have been written by Morrissey. It wasn’t the band’s biggest hit. But, it’s since been recognized as one of their greatest songs and a landmark in the progression of independent music.
Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel (1986)
“Sledgehammer” was Peter Gabriel’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart on its release in 1986. Gabriel brings his typical sophistication to the table in this Rock/Funk/Soul fusion, creating one of the most enjoyable and danceable tracks of the decade.
The musical style of the song is in tribute to the amazing Soul music Gabriel grew up listening to. Likewise, the song is remembered for its outstanding video, which employs Claymation and stop-motion video techniques to brilliant effect. It must have taken an eternity to shoot.
It won nine MTV Video Music Awards at the 1987 event, a record for any single video. The combination of musical, lyrical, and visual creativity earns “Sledgehammer” its place on the list of best 80s Rock songs. A spot it will likely maintain indefinitely.
Run-DMC’s version of Aerosmith’s classic featuring the band themselves was one of the first Hip Hop/Rock crossovers with worldwide chart success. The fact that it appealed equally to fans of both genres probably goes a long way to explaining its success.
It’s a saucy story of a guy reminiscing about his sexual conquests as a young high school student. It’s full of lines that would probably get it canceled in our brave new world. But, the 80s were a more tolerant time, and no one batted an eyelid.
Another very entertaining video here, too. Run-DMC and Aerosmith are musically at war in neighboring studios until Steven Tyler smashes down the wall that divides them, and both bands perform together. It’s considered a classic of the time.
With or Without You – U2 (1987)
The first single from their wildly successful album, The Joshua Tree, “With or Without You,” went on to be U2’s most successful single to date. It spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Its legacy has lasted the test of time. As a result, Rolling Stone magazine placed it 131st on their 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
It’s a classic 80s-era U2 song about a troubled relationship featuring the signature sustained guitar sounds of the Edge and the emotional delivery of Bono at his best. It has gone on to become a fan favorite and has been a regular staple of U2’s live performances ever since.
The third single from their multi-platinum selling album, Slippery When Wet. “Wanted Dead or Alive” is a 1980s Rock ballad inspired by the outlaws of the wild west. Jon Bon Jovi saw similarities between their lives and life on the road in a band and was inspired to pen this 80s rock staple.
On its release, it peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since gone on to be sold or downloaded over four million times. It’s also been used in many major TV and movie productions, including “The Sopranos” and “Deadliest Catch.”
The 1980s was the decade that saw U2 steadily grow into the giants of stadium rock that they have become. By the time they released their fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, they were famous enough to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
The album produced two #1 singles, with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” being the second, spending three weeks in the top spot.
The band’s experimentation with a gospel choir and the spiritual yearning of the lyrics made it one of the standout Rock hits of the 80s. Rolling Stone ranked it as high as 93rd on their 500 Greatest Songs list.
A split second into the opening guitar riff of this song, and you know what you are listening to. It’s that iconic. Couple that with one of the most legendary guitar solos in Rock music, along with Axl Rose’s unique vocal delivery, and what have you got?
An instant rock classic that should be included on every list of best 80s rock songs.
Taken from their multi-platinum debut album, Appetite for Destruction, it was the band’s biggest hit and only single to top the Billboard Hot 100. It features prominently on numerous Best Song lists, including Rolling Stone magazine’s 40 Greatest Songs That Changed the World.
Yes. This is Guns ‘N’ Roses’s second song on this list. But, after hours of deliberation, choosing between the two proved impossible. This was enough evidence for me that both should be included.
Axl Rose wrote the lyrics of “Welcome to the Jungle” about the dark side of Los Angeles street life. A place where you can get “whatever you may need – If you’ve got the money honey – We’ve got your disease.”
The 80s in a nutshell…
Guns ‘N’ Roses are often looked down upon as part of the Hair Metal scene. However, for a couple of years there, they captivated the Rock scene. Propelling them onto stadium band status before imploding in a mess of booze and drugs.
Axl Rose screaming away as only he can do, combined with Slash doing his magic on guitar, was an unforgettable combination for a moment there.
Free Fallin – Tom Petty (1989)
Tom Petty’s first single as a solo artist was also his biggest hit. Released at the tail end of the decade, it evokes images of a time and place in Californian Americana. Petty was a frequent driver on Ventura Boulevard. Therefore, the song is mostly a reflection of what he used to see whilst on the road.
This is another song with a chorus that’s virtually impossible not to sing along with. The public certainly loved it, pushing it as high as #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. The critics also approved it, making it 219th on Rolling Stone’s comprehensive list.
Looking for More Rockin’ Tunes?
Well, then take a look at our detailed articles on the Best 70s Rock Songs, the Best 90s Rock Songs, the Best 70s Rock Bands, the Best Rock Drummers of All Time, and the Different Types of Rock Music to find more awesome Rocks song and artists.
Of course, you need to hear those rockers. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, and the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2022.
Final Thoughts on the Best 80s Rock Songs
So there you have it. My chronological list of the 25 best rock songs from the 80s. The 80s was a decade where the influence of electronic music was starting to make a big impact. That didn’t stop a whole lot of classic and experimental Rock songs from being made.
Hopefully, you generally agree with the selections. They are in chronological order rather than on merit. It would be a hard task to pick a winner from that list.
If you think we made any glaring omissions, let us know in the comments who you would have included.
Until next time, rock on, and happy listening.