This article will introduce you to the most memorable and best 80s rock songs of all time.
The 80s was a great decade for rock music, spawning numerous new artists and developments in the realms of new wave, heavy metal, glam rock, punk rock, and soft rock, to name a few.
This list draws on music critics, awards nominations and wins, and record sales to distil twenty-five of the best 80 rock songs.
25. With or Without You – U2
In 1987, Irish rock band U2 released their single ‘With or Without You,’ taken from their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree. It is often considered U2’s best song with critics usually selecting it when compiling their Best Songs of all Time lists.
Despite its popularity, the track went through multiple ups and downs before its release, at one point guitarist the Edge calling it ‘awful.’ Luckily, the band worked through their differing opinions and settled on the version we know and love. The song became U2’s first No. 1 in both Canada and the United States, topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and staying there for three weeks.
24. Just Like Heaven – The Cure
Inspired by Robert Smith’s soon-to-be wife, ‘Just Like Heaven’ describes a dreamy day spent with his lover at the seashore. Allegedly Smith’s favourite Cure track, ‘Just Like Heaven’ comes from the group’s 1987 album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
Although finding greater success with later singles, ‘Just Like Heaven’ was The Cure’s great American breakthrough and is continuously placed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of all Time list.
The track stayed in the UK’s Top 40 for five weeks, despite a few less-than-positive comments from critics, and was the band’s first Top 40 hit in the United States.
23. Poison – Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper’s single ‘Poison’ was released right at the end of the decade in 1989. In the iconic track, Cooper talks about a love interest who he’s infatuated with but who is bad for him. The artist lists his desires while highlighting why he should not follow through.
‘Poison’ became one of Cooper’s biggest hits, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart. The track is certified gold in the US and platinum in the
UK putting it neck and neck with Cooper’s other hit track ‘School’s Out.’
22. Need You Tonight – INXS
Pop-rock track ‘Need You Tonight’ offers another brilliant 80s riff that’s instantly recognisable. Released as the first single off Kick, the band’s 1987 album, the track achieved their highest charting position, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the only INXS single to do so.
The iconic riff came to main composer Andre Farriss’ head randomly while travelling to Hong Kong. He immediately stopped what he was doing to record it while it was fresh in his mind, resuming his journey straight after. The track uses electronic elements that INXS hadn’t played with much before, layering multiple guitars and drum tracks.
21. Alone – Heart
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson make up the heart of this hard rock group, with Ann Wilson producing some of the most impressive female rock vocals of all time alongside Nancy’s masterful guitar playing.
‘Alone’ reignited fans of Heart that got lost during their popularity decline at the end of the late 70s and early 80s. The i-Ten cover features the effortless belts Ann became known for accompanied by a piano riff and synthesisers. ‘Alone’ spent three weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and is the band’s most successful single to date in the United Kingdom.
20. Rebel Yell – Billy Idol
‘Rebel Yell’ is the title track of Billy Idol’s 1983 album, released as the lead single. Despite rocky success on its initial release, the track received critical acclaim and a VH1 public vote ranked it 79th on their best hard rock song of all time list.
A ‘rebel yell’ was a battle cry coined during the American Civil War (it’s also the name of a popular Kentucky bourbon) and was used to amp up troops to charge into battle. Idol changed the meaning of the phrase in his hit song to be a cry of love rather than war.
19. Dancing in the Dark – Bruce Springsteen
Often used as Bruce Springsteen’s encore at music festivals, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is an uptempo dance-rock track that plays around with synthesiser riffs, a new venture for the artist. The track was his biggest selling hit and aided his album Born in the U.S.A. to become the artist’s best-selling album of his career.
Written in a single night, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ entered the Top 10 in ten countries, two of which – Belgium and the Netherlands – hit No. 1. The track went 4x platinum in the United States and 2x platinum in the United Kingdom.
18. Ace Of Spades – Motörhead
Adrenaline fuelled track ‘Ace of Spades’ spent a whopping thirteen weeks in the UK Singles Chart. Upon its release in 1980, the track proved that the public craved an unapologetically powerful record, being included in both NME’s and Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Best Songs of All Time lists.
The lyrics of the classic 80s rock song reflect the chaos of the music, discussing gambling and potentially risking everything for the chance of gaining more. Critics enjoyed the track with many praising and ranking the track on their respective ‘best of’ lists. The track has sold over 200,00 digital copies and reached the top of the UK Rock & Metal Singles and Albums Charts in 2016.
17. Africa – Toto
Toto is an interesting band thanks to its lineup of session musicians. Founder David Paich and Jeff Porcaro had played regularly together and soon decided to form their own group. In 1982, they released their fourth studio album Toto IV, of which ‘Africa’ was the final track.
The song was immediately loved by both critics and fans, shooting to No. 1 in the US, and making the top ten in the UK.
‘Africa’ remains popular among music lovers, featuring in a range of media from TV shows such as Stranger Things to video games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It remains on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Best Songs of All Time list and has reached 1 billion streams on Spotify.
16. Girls Girls Girls – Mötley Crüe
Mötley Crüe bleeds rock ‘n’ roll. Their sound, image, and general antics are exactly what you’d expect from a glam rock band. Their 1987 track ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ is the ultimate rock track, exclaiming the group’s love of strip clubs and the girls that work there.
Mötley Crüe achieves exactly what the band wanted. Many conservative groups were vocal about their dislike for the group and with the release of ‘Girls, Girls, Girls,’ these groups were triggered even more, inadvertently bringing more attention to the record.
The track found subtle success in both the UK and the US, peaking at No. 26 and No. 12 respectively.
15. Here I Go Again – Whitesnake
‘Here I Go Again’ by Whitesnake has several different versions. With an original, a re-record, and several radio mixes (all recorded by Whitesnake themselves), the track was set up for success. The first re-recorded radio mix was released as a single, reaching No. 1 in 1987 and became the band’s only No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Written by lead singer David Coverdale and former lead guitarist Bernie Marsden, the track has been featured several times on various publications’ lists of the ‘best songs of all time,’ and reached No. 9 in the UK Singles Chart.
14. Start Me Up – The Rolling Stones
Taken from their 1981 album Tattoo You, ‘Start Me Up’ was the album’s lead single. With an instantly recognisable riff and a chorus that you can pick up on your first listen, the track quickly became a staple in the Stones’ setlists. Despite being released significantly later than their heyday, the song remains a Stones classic.
‘Start Me Up’ reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 7 on the UK Singles Chart. Still to this day, the 80s rock song is used to open live shows performed by the band and is heard across various sporting stadiums.
13. The Final Countdown – Europe
Used as a soundtrack to pivotal moments in both media and real events, Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ is a glam rock staple. The track is played during multiple sporting events, used to pump adrenaline into the crowds and is a firm favourite in American high school bands.
Upon its release, ‘The Final Countdown’ reached No. 1 in twenty-five countries, including the UK. It also charted in the top ten in the United States, Australia and Canada, making it Europe’s most recognised song.
Due to the overexposure the song has experienced, many have criticised it. However, if you can imagine hearing the track for the first time, there’s no denying the power it holds.
12. Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor
Can anyone listen to this song without doing a bit of shadowboxing? I don’t think so! Released as the theme song for Rocky III, the track was a match made in heaven, securing the legacy of both the music and the film. During its hype in 1982, MTV and radio stations had the song on a loop, topping the charts, and holding No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 6 weeks.
Co-writers Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan were initially unsure of the title, considering that it was too on the nose. They needn’t have worried as the group won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal and sold nearly 1 million copies in the UK alone. One of the most iconic 80s rock songs.
11. Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds
The sentimental ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ comes from The Breakfast Club soundtrack and from the minds of Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. It is best known for being the theme of the aforementioned cult classic film but has also cropped up in various media since.
In May 1985, the song became a No. 1 hit in the US and is the band’s only No. 1 on the US Top Rock Tracks chart, topping it for three weeks. The track stayed in the UK charts from 1985 to 1987, one of the longest time spans for any single despite it only reaching No. 27. An enduring classic on its time and beyond.
10. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll – Joan Jett & Blackhearts
‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a straight-up and down proclamation of love – love for rock, that is. Joan Jett, one of the most iconic female rock stars, took the Arrows song and made it her own, recording with her band the Blackhearts.
Although it was originally released in 1979 with two members of the Sex Pistols, Jett decided to re-record with the Blackhearts. A wise decision as that version went to No. 1 for 7 weeks on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. The track has been included in both Billboard and Rolling Stone’s respective Greatest Songs of all Time lists.
The track is one of the most iconic 80s rock songs, and this list would not be complete without it.
9. Every Breath You Take – The Police
On your initial listen, ‘Every Breath You Take’ may be interpreted as a love song. However, after revisiting the track, it’s clear it’s much more sinister than that. Despite the not-so-subtle stalker undertones of the song, it became the most-played song in radio history, awarding Sting with a BMI Award.
‘Every Breath You Take’ comes from The Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, becoming the biggest hit of the year in both the US and Canada, topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks. The track has won two Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Truly one of the great 80s rock songs, this track has endured the test of time. The song continues to get hours and hours of airtime, and is amongst the most-streamed songs on Spotify.
8. I Wanna Know What Love Is – Foreigner
The first ballad on this list comes from the one and only Foreigner. ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’ expresses the singer’s desire to explore a love he’s never known. It discusses the previous heartache he has experienced, and his concern about falling in love again.
Released in November 1984, the song became the band’s biggest hit, reaching No. 1 in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The heart of the song comes from the gospel choir that joined lead singer Lou Gramm in the final chorus. The added voices allow the lyrics to hit harder, inviting the listeners to sing along with them.
7. Back In Black – AC/DC
With a riff that every aspiring guitarist learns right away, AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ is a no-hold-back, raw rock ‘n’ roll classic.
The classic 1980 track was written as a tribute to Bon Scott, the former lead singer who had passed away earlier in the year. His replacement Brian Johnson does an outstanding job filling Scott’s shoes, creating a track that is loved by fans old and new.
Many consider the opening riff of ‘Back in Black’ as one of the greatest guitar riffs of all. Although the single release only peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the lasting impression it made makes the matter of charts almost irrelevant.
6. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
Journey’s classic ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ offers a triumphant soundtrack to those who press play. This 1981 track is Journey’s most adored song and paired with its simmering positivity surging throughout, it’s no wonder that the track has stood the test of time.
The track was placed in front of a younger audience with its use in the TV series Glee. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ was used to close the very first episode and then replayed multiple times throughout the show.
Journey’s original went 5x platinum in the United States and 4x platinum in the United Kingdom and received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2021.
5. Money For Nothing – Dire Straits
Taken from their fifth studio album Brothers in Arms, ‘Money for Nothing’ was Dire Straits’ most successful single, reaching No. 1 and remaining there for three weeks on both the Top Rock Tracks and the US Billboard Hot 100.
‘Money for Nothing’ taps into the frustration of being a working-class, underpaid worker watching the rockstars on MTV rake in thousands all while not working as hard. It was inspired by comments Mark Knopfler heard a delivery man say while watching MTV claiming ‘that ain’t working.’
In 1985, the track won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and was nominated for Record and Song of the Year.
4. Rock You Like a Hurricane – Scorpions
‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’ is Scorpions’ signature song. Taken from their ninth studio album Love at First Sting, the track is a straight up-and-down rock anthem that explores sexuality and the attitude you can gain when empowered by it.
Despite the track only peaking at No. 25 on the US Billboard Hot 100 upon its release in 1984, MTV put it on a heavy rotation VH1 has included it on multiple ‘best’ lists.
‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’ has also re-emerged in the public consciousness due to its features in current television shows. Both dark comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Netflix’s magnum opus Stranger Things have used the song in their soundtracks.
3. Another One Bites the Dust – Queen
Queen, although dominating the UK, took a while longer to catch on in the United States. Having only topped the US charts once in the 70s, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was a welcome addition to their list of US chart-toppers.
In fact, the track was so popular, it spent 15 weeks in the Billboard top 10, making it the longest-running top ten song of 1980.
Written by the group’s bassist, John Deacon, the song won an American Music Award and received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. With countless covers floating around, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ encapsulates everything great about the band – fun, catchy, and the perfect stadium anthem.
2. Livin’ on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
Truly an anthem that has stood the test of time and is continuously screamed at every New Year’s Eve party, Bon Jovi’s 1986 hit ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ gave the band their first No.1 Billboard hit. The track has become the group’s most recognisable song with a chorus that won’t soon be forgotten.
Online voters for VH1 ranked ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ at No. 1 on The 100 Greatest Songs of the ‘80s in 2006 and still, in 2021, it remained on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. With the track consistently featured in media from TV shows to video games, the legacy lives on as new generations discover it.
Undoubtedly one of the best 80s rock songs from this legendary decade.
1. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Taken from their debut album Appetite for Destruction, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is possibly Guns N’ Roses’ most recognised and loved song. Despite the song’s heavy nature, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is a love poem. With Axl Rose avoiding clichés and opting instead for more unusual imagery, the song feels powerful and genuine.
After the release of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ in 1988, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart and became the group’s only US No. 1 single. Many publications include the track in their respective countdown lists, and a 2004 poll named it the best riff of all time, voted by Total Guitar magazine readers.
A legendary track that is clearly amongst the most enduring and best 80s rock songs.
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