The phrase ’80s music usually garners a near-immediate sonic and aesthetic rendering: synths, big hair, questionably large vocals, and probably leather and spandex. But beneath it all, the decade was a glorious bridge between the groove of the ’70s and the incoming garage rock and pending gangster rap of the ’90s. From the depths of New Age punk to the tail-end of Motown’s brightest hits, here’s the best of what the era had to offer.
“The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats
New Wave synth-pop superheroes Men Without Hats fully lean into their quirk with “The Safety Dance,” a trippy anthem with explicit instructions that this is a track meant only for those who want to dance—no one else.
“This Charming Man” by The Smiths
“This Charming Man” is an undeniably sunshiny cut centered around a painfully stylish, (probably) overly dramatic gentleman, who “would go out tonight, but (he hasn’t) got a stitch to wear.” An all-too-familiar feeling, Charming Man.
“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton
Peel back the sticky layers of synth and overproduction dominating the scene at the time, and there lies Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” It’s a cut-to-the-point, altogether endearing yet effective anti-capitalism rally cry for the ages.
“Call Me” by Blondie
Just edging in with its 1980 entrance, Blondie’s “Call Me” has a sweet-enough message: Call Debbie Harry whenever and she’s gonna likely be available. But its delivery is a bit more sinister: a chugging bass line, paired with a primal Blondie scream on its chorus.
“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie
There’s obviously something otherworldly about David Bowie, and there’s obviously something superhero-esque fantastical about Freddie Mercury. The combination—on a track written by Bowie and only occasionally played together by the two—makes for the explosive, theatrical, and notoriously and heavily sampled “Under Pressure.”
“99 Red Balloons” by Nena
With its original version in German, Nena was kind enough to crossover her 1983 “99 Red Balloons” for American audiences. The slinky cut is perfectly quirky, complete with a quintessentially ’80s-synth breakdown.
“Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League
“Don’t You Want Me” is a duet done right. It leads with its iconic and extremely karaoke-ready “Don’t you want me, baby” chorus before doing a quick point-of-view pivot switch.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston’s ethereal vocals aren’t just for ballads. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a testament to the power of golden pipes on a well-timed dance track. Queue it up for next week’s karaoke run, but only if you’re cool with missing a few notes.
“I’m So Excited” by The Pointer Sisters
Forever immortalized in countless movie and TV show montages, “I’m So Excited” is the world’s favorite beacon of undeniable infectiousness.
“Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa
In 2019, misogynistic rap fans’ favorite complaint is that the new class of female rappers are overly raunchy in a way that’s never been heard before. It’s a claim that’s problematic and moot regardless, but above all, it’s simply factually incorrect. “Push It” from 1986 is one of Salt-N-Pepa’s many sexually liberated female anthems.
“Party All the Time” by Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy is a lot of things. He’s an actor, a writer, a comedian, and occasionally, an artist. Though his music career was short-lived, “Party All The Time” is a surprisingly airtight track, still fit for any party playlist.
“It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls
“It’s Raining Men” is camp at its best. The Weather Girls commit to this concept track with a spoken-word intro, roaring chorus, and fantasy storyline we can all relate to.
“When Doves Cry” by Prince & The Revolution
The ’80s ushered in an era of dance music that didn’t compromise emotional sentiments with its upbeat sounds. As leader of the charge, Prince’s “When Doves Cry” is an honest, cutting track that still warrants a bit of a body bounce.
“Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye
Just as things seemed to be cooling down for one of the ’70s most ubiquitous figures, Marvin Gaye dropped “Sexual Healing,” a raunchy departure from the incredibly socially aware soul singer.
“Like a Prayer” by Madonna
Decades before cancel culture, there was Madonna. There was Madonna, the Catholic Church, and “Like a Prayer.” Politics aside, the boundary-pushing blend of Madonna’s usual pop prowess paired with well-timed gospel infusions makes for a notable, dance-worthy bop.
“You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi
No one does over-the-top quite as well as Bon Jovi. Meant for mega amps and jam-packed arenas, “You Give Love a Bad Name” is one of the most roaring cuts from a decade that already spared no subtlety.
“Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones
Somewhere right in the middle of the Stones’ reign is their iconic 1981 “Start Me Up.” It’s a fairly simple track, led mainly by the heavily convincing, varied Mick Jagger vocal performance, as he slithers between full-bodied belting, the occasional spoken word, and some top-of-the-notch gravel-y singing.
“White Wedding” by Billy Idol
“White Wedding” is Billy Idol’s eerie plea to his little sister on her big day. Its exact intended message is still up for debate, but the track remains one of the only goth wedding songs on the market.
Listen to all of the picks below and follow Harper’s BAZAAR on Spotify.
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