Arbitrary Rankings: Top 30 Songs of the 1980s

People have mixed opinions about the 80s, especially in terms of the pop culture of the decade and even more so towards the music. Many associate the 80s with a musical wasteland of bad synth-y pop (Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309”, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” – 2 so-bad-they’re-good classics in their own right), while others celebrate the domination of electronic music led by bands like Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys. Getting the three Arbitrary Analysis writers together in order to rank the best songs of this decade was a strange undertaking, combining three distinctly varied tastes (Jake favours the synth-pop, Keith sort of leans towards the post-rock, and Kevin…well, no one can explain Kevin’s taste in music) to create one bizarre list. Using an intensely scientific method (each person picks their favourite songs then distributes 100  points among them, add them all together and rank accordingly), these are our favourite songs of the 1980s as a group, followed by our personal lists at the end. Click the song titles to hear the songs. Enjoy.

220px-John_cougar-jack_diane_s30. “Jack & Diane”
John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp was one of the main leaders behind the heartland rock movement, which was characterized by classic instruments (drums, guitars, etc.) and lyrical appeal to blue-collar America. This tune perfectly exemplifies this, and also why the movement was so popular, because the song is so fantastic and accessible. The moral is clear and the chorus is catchy, which is part of the reason the song was such a hit. Mellencamp wrote the song about a past relationship he had, depicting the idealism that commonly exists in young relationships. Originally he was not happy with how the tune came out, but thankfully with some extra help from his producer (including the addition of clapping to the final production), the tune turned into what it is today.            – Kevin

220px-NewOrderPower,Corruption&Lies29. “Age of Consent”
New Order

Power, Corruption & Lies is one of the greatest albums of this decade and a personal favourite of mine, and “Age of Consent” is the best song on the album. In fact, it’s the song that first hooked me into New Order. I heard it and it felt like it just made sense: of course this exists, of course it goes like this, of course it’s amazing. What I’m trying to say is that there’s something about this song that suggests its inevitability, that such a weird, vaguely baroque pop song would sound so nice. It’s that element of effortlessness that makes it so rewarding to listen to, especially when New Order – despite their brilliance – are so inconsistent. – Jake

220px-Nwaexpressyourself28. “Express Yourself”

N.W.A. are hard, alright? We got that. Their hip-hop classic Straight Outta Compton is a definitive soundtrack to the brutal gangster lifestyle idolizing drugs, crime, and violence. Yet suddenly in the centre of the album is a change of pace, “Express Yourself”, a positive and uplifting track on the importance of believing in yourself and staying true to yourself no matter what anyone else thinks. Serving as both a criticism of rappers praising the gangster lifestyle without ever seeing it and a thoughtpiece on what it means to truly be unique, “Express Yourself” is a hip-hop classic. – Keith

I want Lady Gaga to sample this track. -Kevin

DontYouForgetAboutMe27. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”
Simple Minds

The Breakfast Club, need I say more? – Kevin

Maybe something about the melody? The vocals? Something?! – JakeThe Breakfast Club, need I say more? – KevinThe Breakfast Club, need I say more? – KevinThe Breakfast Club, need I say more? – KevinThe Breakfast ub, need I say more? – Kevin

220px-Siouxsie_Cities26. “Cities in Dust”
Siouxsie & The Banshees

When compiling my personal list, it was difficult to choose which Siouxsie & The Banshees song I wanted to include. For a while it was “Peek-a-Boo”, which is a wonderfully strange pop song, but in the end I went with “Cities in Dust” because I think it speaks more towards the band itself and is more representative of who they were and what they could do. The album it comes from, Tinderbox, is otherwise a little boring, but this song stands out for its uncharacteristic upbeat rhythm, matched with the very characteristic dark lyrics, this time about the devastation of Pompeii in 79 A.D. Maybe not the most typical inspiration for a dance-punk hit, but it sure as hell works. – Jake

220px-BillyJoel_Fire25. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
Billy Joel

Billy Joel needed a place on this list, and this happens to be one of my favorites of his many amazing songs. He has a unique tone, which combined with his spectacular songwriting ability, has led to a catalogue of major hits. This particular tune is entertaining and catchy, as well as thematically poignant, certainly worth its place on this list. The tune is structured around various newsworthy subjects that occurred between his year of birth (1949) and the year of the song’s release in 1989. The meaning of the song is essentially that the world is a mess, but has always really been this way, despite younger people assuming it’s a recent phenomenon. This is definitely a classic 80s song worth re-listening to. – Kevin

220px-XTC_-_Dear_God24. “Dear God” 

Alright, maybe the song is a little too “melodramatic” or something like that, but honestly, this song just pulls at the heart strings so effectively it’s really easy to become an emotional wreck after listening to it. Opening with vocals from a young boy praying to God asking for help, the song turns into a new-wave rock affair questioning the existence of God with all the darkness in the world around us. Finally, at the pummelling climax, singer Andy Partridge shouts all the things he’s lost faith in including God itself. Dear God is a theatrical rock prayer which is both catchy and emotionally devastating. – Keith

220px-CocteauTwins.BlueBellKnoll.lp23. “Carolyn’s Fingers”
Cocteau Twins

There are plenty of Cocteau Twins songs that I could’ve gone with (“Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops”, “My Love Paramour”, “Lorelei”), but “Carolyn’s Fingers” is what struck me as the clearest example of the band’s signature ethereality (a quality perhaps only rivalled by Sigur Rós). It’s easy to put on pretty much any Cocteau song and lose yourself in its beauty and layered construction, and “Carolyn’s Fingers” – the song that put their name on North America’s map – hits that sweet spot of dream pop perfection, surely inspiring later acts like Beach House. Emotional, celestial, and meticulous. – Jake

220px-Jessie's_Girl22. “Jessie’s Girl”
Rick Springfield

More than any other song on my personal list, this one almost always gets stuck in my head. This is okay though, because I love it! It’s such a classic lyric, with a great hook and a memorable bridge. It also sort of feels like an early “Stacy’s Mom”, so that works for me. Unrequited love is a theme not at all uncommon to popular music, but what makes this tune unique is the added element of the subject falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. This song is a fixture of the 80s power-pop genre, and continues to earn radio play for it’s catchiness and overall fun. – Kevin

Jesus Christ… – Jake

I knew this would grind your gears. here

220px-Sonic_Youth_Teenage_Riot21. “Teen Age Riot” 
Sonic Youth

This song right here is somewhere we’ve all been. It’s waking up and just thinking, “Man. I wish I didn’t have to get out of bed today.” It’s procrastinating on every little thing because you just don’t feel like doing anything. It’s the indifference to the monotony of day to day life. Yet instead of a song about self-loathing, Sonic Youth put together a track about the pure enjoyment of all the good times. Because those are the things that make life, the teenage riots that actually made you get out of bed, it’s all those times you were just having a time that makes it all worth it. – Keith

HLAH_UK20. “Head Like a Hole” 
Nine Inch Nails

Before the mud-drenched Lollapalooza performance, before the concept albums and the soundtracks, Trent Reznor was a janitor and assistant engineer at Right Track Studio in Cleveland, where in 1988 he recorded some of his own demos for free, which would eventually become Pretty Hate Machine. “Head Like a Hole”, one of NIN’s most successful singles and a mainstay in Reznor’s live performances ever since, is the standout track from those demos and established Reznor’s talent for angst-ridden industrial rock – although in these early days, NIN was far more about synth-pop (this would change by 1992’s metal-influenced Broken). Trust me, I could go on forever here, but “Head Like a Hole” is a perfect example of NIN’s thematic concerns and musical aggressiveness. – Jake

DexysMidnightRunnerComeOnEileen7InchSingleCover19. “Come On Eileeen”
Dexys Midnight Runners

I really love this song. It’s full of fun and excitement, characteristic of 80s songs, but this tune really stands out, and for that reason wins a place on this list and in my heart. I love this song so much I learned it on the trombone (true story). This is a true 80s classic, with a catchy chorus and a unique bridge that adds listener interest. Musically, the introduction is also very unique, in that it consists of Celtic-style fiddling played over a drum beat, a style very uncommon to pop music of the time. The key in the song also changes three times throughout, which adds a level of complication to the music, unmatched by other songs of its genre. These factors have helped “Come On Eileen” stand out and remain a fixture of popular 80s music.             – Kevin

220px-Thisheatdeceit18. “Cenotaph”
This Heat

This Heat’s 1981 post-punk masterpiece Deceit has only gotten better as time has gone on. Its ideology and rebellious nature still works perfectly for disturbing the system and tackling problems found throughout the world today. In “Cenotaph”, the group chants “History, history repeats itself,” over dissonant guitars, and continue to rant about the problems of war. “Cenotaph” is a disturbing punk classic that works for any generation, as we can truly see, history repeats itself. – Keith

220px-AshesToAshes317. “Ashes to Ashes”
David Bowie

David Bowie has managed to become an icon on an unparalleled level, as a cultural force and as a musical prodigy. The 80s were perhaps not as fruitful for him creatively as the 70s had been, but it was the decade he became a mega star. In the midst of all that, he was still releasing some fantastic music, like “Ashes to Ashes” off the hit-and-miss Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Acting as the album’s lead single, Bowie re-inhabits the character of Major Tom almost in an effort to put a cap on the past decade or so of his career and to signify his evolving persona and creativity. Certainly a complicated and sonically refined song, “Ashes to Ashes” only continued to prove Bowie’s indisputable brilliance. – Jake

WestEndGirls-PSB2198516. “West End Girls”
Pet Shop Boys

Making an 80s list without the Pet Shop Boys would be just plain silly. Their iconic sound is very visible in this track (it’s just so funky!). There is a ton going on in the instrumental arrangement, which really makes the song come alive, even when the vocalist isn’t exactly singing. Lyrically, the song is very interesting. At its heart, it discusses class issues and inner-city pressure. Significantly, the tune takes inspiration from T.S Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”. It is very special when a song can be easily identified as pop, while still having solid lyricism and meaning, which is part of the reason this song is a pop classic and has withstood the test of time. – Kevin

220px-PaulRevereBeastieBoys15. “Paul Revere”
Beastie Boys

Now here’s a little story I’ve got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well. The highlight from Beastie Boys first album is not one of its many hit singles, but a hilarious track sharing the story of how the Beasties all met. The most comedic of any Beastie Boys song (which is saying a lot), “Paul Revere” also triumphs in its simple rhyming pattern and minimalist yet unforgettable beat. “Paul Revere” sums up all the greatest parts of the Beastie’s charm in one track. – Keith

SoftCellTaintedLove7InchSingleCover14. “Tainted Love”
Soft Cell

Originally written by Ed Cobb and sung by Gloria Jones in 1965, no one really cared until Soft Cell covered it in 1981. Now, it is one of the most-covered songs of all time (probably most notably by Marilyn Manson). However, Soft Cell’s version remains a synth-pop classic, reigning as one of the best one hit wonders ever recorded. Led by synths and rhythm machines, their cover is constantly played on the radio to this day and it’s hard to argue with such a winning combination of arrangement and execution. – Jake

220px-DepecheModeNeverLetMeDownAgain13. “Never Let Me Down Again”
Depeche Mode

Violator is one of my favourite albums, as Depeche Mode really hit it big and largely set the path that electronic music would follow for years to come. “Never Let Me Down Again” is not on Violator, it is on Music for the Masses – a far less influential album, but this song in particular could’ve fit right in on Violator and is in fact better than much of that album. Lyrically, it’s a simple song, and somehow only Depeche Mode could get away with a ridiculous line like, “Promises me I’m as safe as houses, as long as I remember who’s wearing the trousers”. But it’s indicative of the direction the band would soon be going in, and acts itself as one of their highest successes with its sincerity and typical pomposity. – Jake

220px-Love_Will_Tear_Us_Apart_song12. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Joy Division

Pure Agony. Joy Division’s breakthrough 1980 hit “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is the quintessential heartbreak song and with good reason. Ian Curtis’s deep and miserable vocals counteract the high-pitched synthesizers throughout, creating a completely melancholic atmosphere with brief hints of beauty. What makes “Love Will Tear Us Apart” so special is how infinitely re-playable it is. In a darker mindset, the song will completely slay the listener, yet it can be thrown on at any time and still feel nearly as rewarding with the upbeat instrumentation. It’ll make you cry, it’ll make you dance, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” will make you feel like never before, and by the time it’s done you’re already hitting the repeat button. – Keith

220px-Prince_doves11. “When Doves Cry”

Prince is a true pop icon and his work has undoubtedly changed the music world as a whole. “When Doves Cry” is the perfect mix of dance-inducing and thought-provoking. His vocal style is so enticing and interesting, which matches the uniqueness of the instrumental arrangement. Prince’s first American #1 single discusses distrust and the feelings associated with a relationship falling apart. The way the content is presented is so interesting though, because it involves bold choices from Prince, such as him leaving out a bass line. Prince has said that including a bass part would have made the song more conventional than he wanted it to be. This speaks to both Prince’s originality and the originality of this particular tune. This is not only one of the best songs of the 80s, but one of my favorite songs of all time. – Kevin

220px-TFF_Shout10. “Shout”
Tears for Fears

What better way to kick off the top ten than “Shout”, one of the songs most associated with the 80s and a perfectly divisive one at that. Taking the easily defensible conceit of the merits of protest and the importance of killing ignorance, “Shout” is a straightforward pop song that ranks among the most catchy of the 80s. Using repetitive lyrics as stand-ins for mantras and rallying cries, “Shout” takes this simplicity and builds on it to create one of the most purely ecstatic and purposeful electronic hits there is. It’s definitely better than that cover art… – Jake

220px-Rip_It_Up_(single_cover)_Orange_Juice_19839. “Rip It Up”
Orange Juice

This is by far the most obscure pick on my personal list, but how could I not? The mix of the funky backing track, the lead singer’s unorthodox delivery, and the impossibly catchy hook make this tune the perfect 80s synth-pop track. “You know me, I’m acting dumb dumb”. Pure gold. But beyond that questionable lyric, the tune is also emotionally accessible. This tune discusses a fight between two people who love each other and don’t want to be fighting, but because of pride find themselves unable to stop. Often times with songs like this where the lead singer’s voice is so bizarre, we forget about looking for the meaning within the song, which is equally as important as the beat, melody, and tune. “Rip it Up” is just such an interesting track that I feel deserves some more appreciation than what it received in its time. – Kevin

220px-Eurythmics_SDAMOT8. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

It is so limiting and narrow and pointless to say that an endlessly popular band who wrote one of the most iconic pop hits in history deserves more attention, but fuck it, Eurythmics do. Although this song gets played all the time and is covered repeatedly and will be until the end of time, they have an entire discography of almost equally great songs. I say almost, of course, because “Sweet Dreams” is one of those flawless pop songs that just works on every level. Annie Lennox’s multi-tracked vocals are hauntingly striking against the new wave synths, and it all comes together in a way that very few pop artists are able to accomplish. – Jake

220px-Youmademerealise7. “You Made Me Realise”
My Bloody Valentine

Raw and real, My Bloody Valentine’s work pre-Loveless may not have been as shoegaze-y and dreamy, but it was certainly capable of packing an equal punch. Sonically, this song smashes you in the gut as soon as it begins and doesn’t let up until it’s done. Although the song moves at a fast pace and has a complete “in your face” punk feel, what separates this song is Kevin Shields’ masterful guitar work. The entire track begins to disintegrate as waves of dissonant noise from Shields guitar destroy the listener. Harsh. Unforgiving. Fun. “You Made Me Realise” shows an early My Bloody Valentine already displaying their genius with brilliant instrumentational layering and satisfying builds and releases. (Yeah the song is spelt Realise not Realize) – Keith

220px-NewOrderBlueMonday6. “Blue Monday”
New Order

The only artist with two songs on this list, New Order have earned it considering how influential they were in the 80s and beyond. Sometimes, great things are birthed from the ashes of tragedy (wrote that myself). New Order is one of those, as the remaining members of Joy Division cut their losses (Ian Curtis) and started a new band. “Blue Monday” is widely understood to be their signature song, with its many remixes and versions (the best is still the seven-and-a-half minute original) and its status as a dance club classic. There’s that throbbing bass line, one of the best things anyone’s ever done with a synthesizer, and Bernard Sumner’s deadpan delivery, and the lovely outro that lasts just long enough. It was an unusual hit at the time, and it feels timeless when listening to it today. – Jake

220px-Thereisalight5. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
The Smiths

This song is just one of those tunes that I can listen to constantly. The Smiths were such an important band for the promotion of the British independent music scene of the 1980s, because of Morrissey’s effortless vocals and their emotionally impactful lyrical content. Part of what makes this band so cool to me is that they somehow effortlessly combine cool detachment and emotional thickness in their songs, in a way I didn’t imagine was possible. This tune is about love. In fact, a love so strong that it’s worth dying for. Considering the strength of the emotions being discussed, the instrumentals and Morrissey’s vocals are both delivered in a surprisingly detached way, which is synonymous with the majority of The Smith’s music. This tune always sticks with me long after I stop listening to it. – Kevin

220px-Blue_Rodeo_-_Try_single_cover4. “Try”
Blue Rodeo

In my opinion, Blue Rodeo is the best Canadian band to release music in the 80s. Blue Rodeo perfected the country-rock genre through their heavy vocals, ambient guitars, and very full sounding arrangements. “Try” is both catchy and heartbreaking, a true 80s classic. I love that this tune juxtaposes laid-back instrumentals with powerful and intense vocals. Thematically, the song is very accessible, which is potentially why it transcends the time period it was created in. It’s essentially a song about trust and how it affects relationships. Everyone can connect to this, and everyone can also pull their own deeper meaning from the slightly vague lyrics. I would certainly never call myself a country fan (except for Shania), but this song, and Blue Rodeo’s greater catalogue of work, has won me over for life. – Kevin

Seriously??? – Jake

You bet your butt

220px-Closetomecover3. “Close to Me”
The Cure

Having not lived during the 80s, when I think of the decade, my mind immediately goes to The Cure. Robert Smith was a star made for the 80s, with his style, attitude and emotive songwriting. “Close to Me” is, for me, the greatest thing the band ever did and is easily one of my favourite songs of all time.

Regardless of your interpretation, it’s a song about feeling trepidation and anxiety, probably in relation with sex, and as such it’s an easy song to relate to. “I’ve waited hours for this, I’ve made myself so sick,” – who can’t recall a time when you’ve been anticipating something so desperately that you make yourself feel sick? It’s a song that can apply to any situation, and isn’t that partly what music is about? Identifying with it, making it your own, feeling connected. Whether or not it’s just about losing your virginity, “Close to Me” is a triumphant, deeply felt and forever enduring song.

It was, in fact, the first song I remember hearing by The Cure and it’s hard to argue with something so sentimental and meticulously constructed. For my money, the quintessential Cure track, and the paramount song of the 80s.         – Jake

220px-Running_up_that_hill2. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
Kate Bush

It always interesting to look back at older pop music as trends and fads of the time quickly become present. While listening to “Running Up That Hill”, you can definitely hear “eighties vibes” and it fits right into trends and fads of the mid-80s, yet it hasn’t aged a day. The percussion blasts in while reverberated guitars smoothly accompany Bush’s voice performing multiple vocal melodies and its clear this track is from the ‘80s’ but it still feels as if music production couldn’t ever simply sound any better than this.

And then suddenly the chorus comes in and it’s one of the most triumphant pop choruses ever. Extra layers are built each time whether it be harmonizing vocals, heavily distorted guitar, or just a bunch of bell like noises, it’s a barrage of stunning sounds.

The entire song really does feel like you can just see Bush “running up that hill”, and it’s one of the most satisfying things you can ever witness. A musical masterpiece that’s as moving as it is gorgeous, “Running Up That Hill” is easily one of the greatest pop achievements of all time. – Keith

220px-Talk_Talk_-_Spirit_of_Eden_cover1. “The Rainbow”
Talk Talk

Timeless is a phrase that is thrown around in music so frequently it has nearly lost all meaning. [I just used it for “Blue Monday” and I stand by it, motherfucker. – Jake] Yet about halfway through the opening track to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, “The Rainbow”, it’s hard not to think to yourself, “now this is definitely timeless.”

It’s almost unfair for this track to be topping a list counting down the best songs of the 1980’s, because truthfully it doesn’t sound like a track from the 80s. This song could have existed at any point in time and to this day sounds as fresh and innovative as ever.

Throwing away their synth-pop roots and going for a more ambitious sound, Talk Talk sort of stumbled upon the post-rock movement with its gorgeous building crescendos and soft yet somehow heavy spirit. “The Rainbow” serves as a touchstone for what creative bands can achieve with traditional rock instrumentation when they put their minds to it.

It’s easy to throw a bunch of fluffy adjectives at “The Rainbow” to try and explain its power. Blissful. Spiritual. Euphoric. But you need to look no farther than the title to find a perfect image to accompany the song, all the colours of the rainbow displayed in nine moving minutes. – Keith

Personal Lists


  • Close to Me – The Cure (15)
  • Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Eurythmics (10)
  • Blue Monday – New Order (8)
  • Shout – Tears for Fears (8)
  • Never Let Me Down Again – Depeche Mode (6)
  • Tainted Love – Soft Cell (6)
  • Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie (5)
  • Head Like a Hole – Nine Inch Nails (5)
  • Carolyn’s Fingers – Cocteau Twins (5)
  • Cities in Dust – Siouxsie & The Banshees (5)
  • Age of Consent – New Order (4)
  • Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division (4)
  • There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths (4)
  • Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie (4)
  • People Are People – Depeche Mode (3)
  • Monkey Gone to Heaven – Pixies (2)
  • Love Action (I Believe In Love) – Human League (2)
  • Like a Prayer – Madonna (1)
  • Lovesong – The Cure (1)
  • West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys (1)
  • Take on Me – A-Ha (1)


  • Try – Blue Rodeo (13)
  • There is a Light that Never Goes Out – The Smiths (10)
  • Rip It Up – Orange Juice (8)
  • When Doves Cry – Prince (7)
  • Come On Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners (5)
  • Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfeild (5)
  • We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel (5)
  • Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds (4)
  • Down Under – Men at Work (4)
  • West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys (4)
  • Jack and Diane – John Mellencamp (4)
  • I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers (4)
  • Word Up – Cameo (3)
  • Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads (3)
  • She Drives Me Crazy – Fine Young Cannibals (3)
  • Faith – George Michael (3)
  • Blue Monday – New Order (3)
  • My Prerogative – Bobby Brown (3)
  • Africa – Toto (3)
  • Fairytale of New York – The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl (2)
  • Maneater – Daryl Hall & John Oates (2)
  • The Boys of Summer – Don Henley (1)
  • Safety Dance – Men Without Hats (1)


  • The Rainbow – Talk Talk (30)
  • Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) – Kate Bush (25)
  • You Made Me Realise – My Bloody Valentine (10)
  • Cenotaph – This Heat (5)
  • Teen Age Riot – Sonic Youth (5)
  • Paul Revere – Beastie Boys (5)
  • Dear God – XTC (5)
  • Express Yourself – N.W.A. (3)
  • I Wanna Be Adored – The Stone Roses (3)
  • P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – Michael Jackson (2)
  • I Will Dare – The Replacements (2)
  • Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division (2)
  • Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes (2)
  • How Soon Is Now – The Smiths (1)