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20 Songs That Defined the 1980s: What Was Your Jam?

August 8, 2014 2:20 PM

The 1980s were a wild time for music fans as disco fell by the wayside and pop, new wave and dance grew in popularity and hip-hop was born.

MTV debuted and became the major force in a musician’s success. Michael Jackson was reborn as the ‘King of Pop’ and Madonna became its scandalous queen. Prince seduced millions even if he didn’t quite look the part, and The Buggles let us know just what happened to the radio star.

Here’s our list of 20 songs that defined the music of the 1980s:


 

Video Killed The Radio Star – The Buggles

Tom Freston, the Head of MTV, circa 1981. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Tom Freston, the Head of MTV, circa 1981. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Although released in 1979, The Buggles single didn’t reach its potential until the debut of MTV television network at 12:01 AM on Aug 1,1981. The song’s music video was the first ever shown on MTV and completely changed the rules for future musicians. Although music videos full potential wouldn’t be reached until Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ got the ball rolling for an entirely new landscape in music.


 Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

In the 1980s there was no one cooler than Cyndi Lauper. As one of the first ‘MTV Artists,’ Lauper knew how to play to MTV audiences. Hip, cool videos that featured her fun, funky styles had teens everywhere enamored. With ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ she became the poster child for girl power, diverging from the overt sexuality of peers like Madonna.


Tainted Love – Soft Cell

Soft Cell - "Tainted Love" (Sire, 1982)

Soft Cell – “Tainted Love” (Sire, 1982)

In 1981, Soft Cell covered ‘Tainted Love,’ a previously unsuccessful song by Gloria Jones, slowing down the tempo and replacing the original instruments with synthesizers and rhythm machines. Giving credence to the burgeoning new wave movement, ‘Tainted Love’ was a huge song, becoming a signature 1980s hit.


 Born In The USA – Bruce Springsteen

(AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

(AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

Not just an ’80s staple but an American classic. The Boss’ mega hit ‘Born In The USA’ rocked airwaves in 1984. Although a criticism of our involvement in the Vietnam War, the song has become a patriotic anthem and showed that the best away to our hearts was through our flag.


 Walk This Way – Run DMC & Aerosmith

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Originally intended to feature a rap over a sample of the Aerosmith classic ‘Walk This Way,’ Run DMC decided to do a full tilt remake of the hit. With Steven Tyler and Joe Perry’s help the song became a huge success, merging hip-hop and rock, and is credited as helping launch hip-hop into the mainstream.


 (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life – Dirty Dancing

(AP Photo/Vestron Video)

(AP Photo/Vestron Video)

Proving just how much influence a movie can have, ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes has become a quintessential ’80s song because of the lasting success of its parent film, Dirty Dancing. What we learned from Dirty Dancing: you can’t put Baby, or a movie soundtrack, in the corner ever again.


 In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel

(AP Photo/Fred Jewell)

(AP Photo/Fred Jewell)

Continuing the trend of movies influencing music, John Cusack’s blaring of ‘In Your Eyes’ in Say Anything melted the hearts of girls across the nation. The song has become synonymous with lovelorn hearts because of the film and is a defining 80s moment.


 Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds

(Photo by John W. Ferguson/Getty Images)

(Photo by John W. Ferguson/Getty Images)

Completing our influential movies trifecta is The Breakfast Club’s opening and closing song, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me). Bolstered by John Hughes’ just-right take on teen angst, the Simple Minds anthem transformed into an 80s classic.


 Livin’ On A Prayer – Bon Jovi

(photo by Gabe Palacio/Getty Images)

(photo by Gabe Palacio/Getty Images)

Played at every single wedding no matter who’s it is, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ is the type of song rock bands dream of. Everyone loves singing along to this tune. Everyone.


 Like A Virgin – Madonna

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Bursting on the scene with ‘Holiday,’ it wasn’t until her jaw dropping performance of ‘Like A Virgin’ on the MTV VMA awards in 1984 that Madonna became “Madonna.” Stunning audiences worldwide the boundary-pushing provocateur was born and she has been riding that wave ever since.


 Karma Chameleon – Culture Club

(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Culture Club’s only number one U.S. single, ‘Karma Chameleon,’ is – according to Boy George – about the fear of isolation for being you. What probably made the song such a success is that people everywhere could breathe easy at the fear of not fitting in, if Boy George could do it then they surely had a shot.


 I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2

(AP Photo / Sadayuki Mikami).

(AP Photo / Sadayuki Mikami).

One of U2’s biggest hits off of one of their biggest albums The Joshua Tree, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is quite possibly the biggest rock ballad of the 1980s. And its influence is still felt today. Modern rock bands need look no further than at U2’s career for tips on how to become icons.


 Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie

(Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

(Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

Combining two of music’s most flamboyant acts might seem like a recipe for out of control egos displaying diva-like behavior but ‘Under Pressure’ proved to be a huge hit regardless. With its legendary bassline it went on to become one of the 1980s signature beats.


 I Wanna Dance With Somebody – Whitney Houston

(Photo CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

Cementing Whitney Houston as a verifiable star, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ is that quintessential feel good dance jam from the 1980s. Simple and fresh, it has the power to get many a crowd on their feet at weddings and bar mitzvahs alike.


 Love Is A Battlefield – Pat Benatar

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Proving that women can rock just as hard as men Pat Benatar’s ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ helped pave the way for our more fairer sex to become legitimate rock stars. Fun fact: Pat Benatar was the first woman to play on MTV with ‘You Better Run.’


 Every Breath You Take – The Police

(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

It’s a signature song from the Police and one of Sting’s staples. ‘Every Breath You Take’ proved that new wave and rock could meld into one marvelous track. Although meant to tell the story of a jealous, obsessed lover, we like to think the song tells a happier story and showed the masses that rock stars could have a softer side.


 If I Could Turn Back Time – Cher

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With a music video that left jaws agape, Cher proved she still had it with ‘If I Could Turn Back Time.’ Wearing a revealing thong one piece got the video banned and MTV would only play a censored version after 9 p.m. Of course Cher lived for the controversy and showed us just how much censorship can bolster success.


 Take On Me – A-Ha

(Photo MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the greatest songs to sing along to if only for the challenge of hitting that unbelievably high note, A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ also has an iconic video. Cutting edge at the time, the video featured rotoscoping, live pencil sketch animation, as its main attraction and wowed the MTV generation.


 Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N Roses

(Photo By George De Sota/Liaison)

(Photo By George De Sota/Liaison)

Hard rock had its moment in the spotlight when Guns N Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ crossed charts and became a huge hit across all charts. Proving that maybe those Hair bands weren’t so bad after all, ‘Sweet Child’ showed that a radio friendly hit wouldn’t hurt a bands rep too bad.


 Thriller – Michael Jackson

(Photo credit AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit AFP/Getty Images)

And finally, Where would our list, let alone the world, be without Michael Jackson and his game changer ‘Thriller.’ When music videos were just cheap clips with zero production value Jackson flipped the script and created a 14-minute epic, complete with storyline and special effects. The video forever changed the way artists reach their fans; it made making a music video essential for success. Along with ensuing hits like ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It,’ Jackson became the poster boy for 1980s pop and in doing so a music legend.


 ***Bonus***

Don’t Believe The Hype – Public Enemy

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

You might be thinking why is Public Enemy on this list but bear with us. Forget about the fact that Public Enemy’s first four albums went gold or platinum, or that Rolling Stone Magazine ranked them 44 on its Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list. Forget that they led the charge for political criticism in hip hop and rap and worked to expose the racial injustices of being a young black man in Reagan’s America. Public Enemy introduced the world to Flavor Flav, a man that would give us hours of mindless entertainment on reality classic Flavor of Love. Yes, forget about Public Enemy’s music and appreciate them for the gift that is Flavor Flav.


Think we missed any songs?  What songs do YOU think should have made the list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

–Zach Cole & Joe Cingrana/WCBS-FM


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