In a recent poll, the 80s were considered the worst period for music over the last five decades. The poll was conducted in the UK, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, and America.
But, what was most interesting was to look at the reasons for the answers that the people questioned gave. Most were basing their opinions on the behavior and attitudes of the people involved rather than the music.
Not Always Pretty
Every decade has carried its controversies since the 50s. But. the 80s, unfortunately, did seem to excel in that area. Hedonism, in many cases, was the order of the day. That is not a pretty sight for some.
But, if we are going to look at the most famous singers of the 1980s, it’s probably best if we just look at the music they produced. And, in some cases, it was an exceptional decade. Let’s remind ourselves.
Top 13 Most Famous Singers Of The 1980s
George Michael was born in North West London and arrived on the scene as part of the Glam-Pop duo Wham in 1981. With Andrew Ridgeley, he had success with songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Last Christmas.” The duo’s first album, Fantastic, went to #1 in the UK in 1983.
As a duo, they set records everywhere, even becoming the first Western Pop act to perform in China in 1985. The view of scantily clad dancers and piercing strobe lights raised a few eyebrows amongst the powers that be, if you know what I mean.
By this time, the writing was on the wall as Michael began having successful solo singles, although still under the Wham name. “Careless Whisper,” with its saxophone solo, went to #1 in the UK and America, and other countries. Wham officially ended in 1986 with their final single, “The Edge of Heaven.”
Needless to say, he went on to greater things…
George became somewhat of a “pin-up” character for many young girls, which was ironic as he came out as gay in the late 90s. And, he suffered at the hands of the press and the law for some of his, shall we say, “unfortunate” antics.
But, let’s close this look at George with another view of the man. His fundraising for AIDS awareness was unsurpassed, as was his support for LGBT issues. After his death, people came forward saying how he had personally paid for hospital treatment for them or their children but wanted it kept quiet.
And All From His Own Pocket
Charities like the McMillan Trust, The Terrence Higgins Foundation, and Childline then admitted he had been personally supporting them financially for years. He paid for IVF treatment for a lady so she could have a child. He gave money for projects in the community where he grew up. I could go on.
What a refreshing change to those “so-called superstars” whose publicity machines let the world know how philanthropic they were. But they weren’t when they started avoiding tax and hiding their money away. Basically, a bunch of hypocrites.
You might know who they are; usually, the loudest “look at me, aren’t I good” voices. Whether you like his music or not, a great entertainer with a great voice and one of the good guys.
Moving on now to the singer/songwriter known as “The Piano Man.” Born and bred in New York, his early life influenced his music. He dropped out of school to become a musician and signed his first record deal in the early 70s.
By the 80s, he was an established performer with a great catalog of music behind him. Joel has been able to write and perform in a range of different styles, which is one of the reasons he is still popular today. He is still able to sell out arena concerts.
In terms of record sales…
This was a clever return to the music he grew up with, its style including ‘doo-wop’ and ‘rhythm and blues. This album also included another classic Joel song, “Tell Her About It.” The end of the 80s also saw him give us all a history lesson with the excellently constructed “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
Billy Joel was the American version of The British Sir Elton John…
Similar in so many ways, as musicians, and performers. But Billy Joel wrote his own lyrics while Elton John relied on Bernie Taupin. He was inspired to become a musician just by looking at John Lennon and seeing the rebelliousness in his eyes. He continued through the 80s producing great songs and still does.
He first appeared as a member of The Commodores in the 70s. Lionel not only wrote songs for them but also for others. One notable work was “Lady,” sung by Kenny Rogers. By the 80s, he had outgrown The Commodores and wanted to do new things. His first solo album, entitled simply Lionel Richie, was released in 1982. It reached #9 in the UK and #3 in America and produced songs like “Truly.”
But, it was the release of his second album, Can’t Slow Down, where he firmly established himself as an international entertainer. This second album reached #1 in the UK, America, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. That album produced singles like “All Night Long,” “Stuck On You,” and a track that became a standard song for him, “Hello.”
Lionel produced another album that scored heavily, Dancing on the Ceiling, and another successful single, “Say You, Say Me.” After Dancing on the Ceiling, he seems to have disappeared as a front-line entertainer. One critic remarked he had quit while he was ahead.
Possibly he did, but if so, there is nothing wrong with that. Better to do that than drag it out and become someone that used to make good records. That said, he was one of the most famous singers of the 1980s. And, musically, he remains one of the most memorable singers from the 80s.
Phil Collins had been the drummer for the British Progressive Rock band Genesis, formed in the 60s by Charterhouse school students. Collins wasn’t an original member, but when he joined Gabriel along with guitarist Steve Hackett, they were a formidable Progressive Rock line-up.
When Peter Gabriel left in the mid-70s, Collins became the singer, which was quite a unique situation. The band also became, shall we say, “less progressive” after Gabriel’s departure.
However, the success continued through the 70s, and they became one of the biggest-selling bands in that period with a succession of successful albums.
Collins’s solo career began in 1981…
His first album was Face Value, it reached #1 in the UK and #7 in America. It included the song that was instrumental in making him a household name with its iconic drum sound, “In the Air Tonight.” He wrote tracks for movie soundtracks, including one for the 1984 film Against All Odds.
It was amusingly said that all of his songs were about his divorces, and he was the only man ever to make money from a marital split. Unfair really, but he did play on it a bit. However, he was quite capable of writing great songs such as “Another Day in Paradise.” That was a song where Collins addressed the problems of homelessness in his album, But Seriously.
These days, Phil is a shadow of himself, and ill health has taken its toll. He can’t play drums anymore but continues to try and tour when he can.
Let’s move on now to an inclusion that might be a surprise for some people. Cyndi Lauper arrived in the 80s with the song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” It was written by Robert Hazard, and he released it as a single in 1979. But, it is Lauper’s version we all remember. She included it on her album, She’s So Unusual.
And, unusual she was…
Her voice was somewhat different, with a heavy New York drawl. A voice that could span an incredible four octaves. And her dress sense was best described as “different.” Brightly colored hair mixed with highly colored clothing. Was this a tongue-in-cheek ridicule of some of her 80s contemporaries who dress like that but only for the camera? She was like it all the time.
Another great track, her best in my view, she co-wrote with Rob Hyman that also came from the She’s So Unusual album, “Time After Time.” It reached #3 in the UK and hit the top spot in America in 1984. She also brought us the soundtrack of The Goonies film in 1985.
In later years, she championed various causes and is very much an activist, especially for LGBT rights in America. Her charity work was recognized at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2013.
What about singers who are not just the front of the band or a good solo act, but also great singers? On that list, Freddie Mercury probably sits at the top of the pile. I can’t think of any frontman for a band that could start to compete with Queen’s main man when he was on his game. He was a force of nature and could be staggering. You couldn’t take your eyes off him for one minute.
He led Queen through the 70s…
And, into the 80s when they produced albums like The Works. This gave us memorable tracks like “Hammer To Fall” and John Deacon’s song “I Want To Break Free.” But, it also gave us one of Freddie’s finest vocal performances, the masterpiece “Is This The World We Created.”
Queen produced some notable albums during the 80s, and Freddie led from the front until he could lead no more. His flamboyant act and presence on the stage set a standard that no one has been able to follow. And, one last thing I should mention. Freddie’s range meant he could sing over six octaves. There aren’t many that could even get near that.
Whitney Houston was one of the biggest-selling singers of the 80s. She started as a backing singer working with artists like Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Morrison. She sang with her mother, and at one of those concerts, she was spotted and signed up by Arista.
They weren’t wrong…
Her first album called, Whitney Houston, went to #2 in the UK and #1 in America. That album produced tracks like “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know.” She followed that up with the album Whitney which went to #1 in eight countries, including the UK and America.
A life mixed up with great success but also plenty of tragedy. She died far too young at 49, and possibly before we had even heard the best of her. Space is at a premium, and a few more of the most famous singers of the 1980s need to be mentioned.
Or, Sir Elton, as he is known, released nine albums in the 80s, including Sleeping With the Past, which was #1 in the UK. He also enjoyed some success with singles, including “I’m Still Standing,” which reached #4 in the UK and #12 in America. And he had important collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight.
One of the lead singers and the drummer of The Eagles. During the period when the band was all fighting each other and everyone else in sight, Henley made some notable solo albums.
His first solo album was I Can’t Stand Still, released in 1983. That gave us the single “Dirty Laundry.” He followed that up with probably his best solo album, Building The Perfect Beast. That brought forth the excellent single “The Boys Of Summer.”
It would not be until 1994 that the toys stopped being thrown out of The Eagles’ pram. Until then, he continued to release good albums that affirmed his place as one of the main singers of the 80s.
A singer who sold an enormous amount of records, especially in the 80s. I have to say, I had little time for him. He was credited with things that he just didn’t create, like the “Moonwalk.” That was first seen by the jazz musician Cab Calloway. In the 1950s. And an African-American dancer Bill Bailey also did it.
And many of his songs relied on the input of others for their success. “Beat It,” for example, was “made” by that intro and solo guitar by the “Flying Dutchman” Eddie Van Halen.
But, like him or not, Michael Jackson was one of the most successful singers of the 1980s. And there is no doubt his voice was excellent and could cover most styles. He still has an army of fans, but it is for his record sales that he is included.
I won’t be going along with all this “the artist formerly known as” nonsense. Prince Rogers Nelson was a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter who was, to say the least, original and very creative.
His high point was probably the film Purple Rain, which also included his song of the same name. But, he did more than that, even though it seems to get all the attention. Another 80s song that was important for him was “Little Red Corvette.”
The “image crisis” that he suffered in creating names for himself only succeeded in alienating him from a larger audience. In some circles, he became a figure of fun because of it. That is a shame because, as a talent, writer, and musician, he was way above all that.
The man that some refer to as “The Boss” was still going strong during the 80s. And he hasn’t stopped yet. He produced some classic tracks, “Hungry Heart” is just one. That was taken from his double album The River and also included the track “The River.” A critic of American capitalism, he refers to the effect having no job can have on you and your family. Good for him.
Anna Mae Bullock, or Tina Turner as we know her, was probably the best female singer of the 80s. That statement is all the more remarkable because, for the previous decade, she had been out of favor for a while.
She had arrived with her then-husband Ike with songs like “River Deep Mountain High” in 1966. Ike had always been the focal point, but now people were taking more notice of this lady with the voice. They split up in 1976, possibly as a result of that, and she started a solo career.
It didn’t go so well, to begin with…
Her success in the 80s could be called a comeback, and what a comeback it proved to be. There had been a few years with no album releases until 1984, when she brought out Private Dancer. That changed everything and gave her a hot single in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
That song was written by a couple of British songwriters and was offered to Cliff Richard, Donna Summer, and Bucks Fizz. The latter rejected it because their manager said it was not a song a woman could sing. Yeah right! It did quite well with a woman singing it.
She followed that with the album, Break Every Rule in 1986. And another ground-breaking winner in Foreign Affair in 1989. That album gave us two more great singles in Tony Joe White’s song “Steamy Windows.” And what became her signature tune and representative of her position in Rock and Pop music at the time, “Simply the Best.”
Concert halls and Arenas were sold out worldwide…
The girl was back and with a vengeance, and the 1980s belonged to her. Twenty years later, she was still doing it at Wembley Stadium in London on her One Last Time: Live in Concert world tour.
Two concerts with 80,000 at each, filmed for posterity. I was lucky, I knew someone and got a ticket close to the stage. She was just entering her 60s and produced a performance that would have killed singers twenty years younger. Breathtaking, or in other words, simply the best.
Need More Great Music from the 80s?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best 80s Rock Songs, the Best 80s Love Songs, the Most Famous Male Singers Of The 1980s, the Most Famous Female Singers Of The 1980s, and the Best 80s Rock Bands for more incredible song selections.
Of course, you need to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, and the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2023.
Most Famous Singers Of The 1980s – Final Thoughts
The 1980s was an interesting decade. There were some bad things, people claiming fame and fortune who weren’t fit to tie the boots of some. But, it produced, just like every other decade, some great music by some great performers, as we have seen.
So, let’s say here and now, that all the people on my list had something very special. But this is a list that mentions just some of the best 80s singers.
Until next time, happy listening.