The 40 Best 80s Bands of All Time
The 80s was a amazing decade for music, characterized by the boom of hair rock, the popularity of metal music, the emergence of post-punk, and the democratization of synth-driven pop music. From Depeche Mode to Metallica, 80s bands have also been among the best and most beloved.
In this list, you can find the 40 best 80s bands that made the biggest impact in the world of music at the time.
Popularized by the unforgettable hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)” and led by the charismatic Annie Lennox, the London synth-pop duo Eurythmics sounded so unapologetically 80s it was poetically disbanded in 1990.
Eurythmics has since made a few comebacks to tour live and record two new albums, but their main output was released during the 80s. With a whopping 75 million records sold worldwide, Eurythmics was announced as one of the 2022s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
39. Twisted Sister
The New Jersey heavy-metal band Twisted Sister captured two of the major trends of 80s rock – makeup usage and anti-authoritarianism and exaggerated them to almost cartoonish levels. The result was a string of back-to-back hits that should earn them a place in any top-80s-band list.
Led by the uncanny Dee Snider (who dressed as a flamboyant 19th-century metalhead), Twisted Sister was active between 1972 and 1989 before making a comeback in 1997 and disbanding for good in 2016.
Their hilarious music videos for “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” featuring the “Animal House” actor Mark Metcalf as the “grown-up” stereotype, continue to live in the popular imagination today.
Long before the reality show “Rock of Love” was met with underwhelming reviews, Poison was actually one of the finest representants of glam rock in the United States and sold an impressive 50 million records worldwide.
Their heyday came in the heyday of the glam era – the 80s, of course. Led by the sex symbol Bret Michaels, Poison were at their best with “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” a multi-platinum album with a cover that looks like an ad to a man’s hair salon.
Poison was successful all the way through the 90s and remains active today.
Before the 80s came the 70s, and it was in the 70s that the rock singer David Coverdale made a name for himself. After leaving Deep Purple, he formed Whitesnake, a still-active group that was among the best English hard-rock acts the world has ever seen.
Even though Whitesnake’s music screamed more of 70s fuzz than of 80s glam, they were extremely successful during the Yuppie Decade and embraced the typical commercial-rock sound of the time without ever losing their essence.
A true rock fan should love any Whitesnake album, but their 7th record (the self-titled “Whitesnake”) is perhaps the most balanced example of their art.
36. The Fall
Active between 1976 and 2018, the English band The Fall was one of the ultimate post-punk acts of the 80s, which, considering the competition, was not a small feat.
In the era of glam metal, it makes sense that a band such as The Fall managed to pierce through the cracks and gain a cult following with their autistic attitude, rough arrangements, small-venue gigs, and depressive take on society.
If glam is about taking classic stadium rock and making it even more grandiose, post-punk, as seen in the music of The Fall, is about creating nuanced punk without losing aggression and catchiness.
The United States and the United Kingdom are home to most great hard-rock acts of the 80s. But, with more than 100 million records sold worldwide, the still-active Scorpions are the fabulous German exception.
Scorpions have been around, with numerous formation changes, since 1965 but were at their best during the decade that saw the Berlin wall fall – a major historical event that they tackled brilliantly in their ballad “Wind of Change.”
The newest studio album of Germany’s top hard-rockers was released in 2022 and is titled “Rock Believer.” Their best is arguably the seminal “Blackout,” released in 1982.
Formed in San Diego, California, Ratt is considered to be one of the most influential bands to come out of the fertile hair metal scene of Los Angeles in the 80s.
Led by the singer Stephen Pearcy (Ratt’s only remaining founding member), this still-active all-American music group was mainly famous during the decade of glam and released back-to-back chart-topping singles before disbanding temporarily in 1992.
They had great hair, great stage presence, catchy riffs, and more than one memorable stadium hook: what more did you need to make it big in the 80s?
33. Tears for Fears
One of the great music news of 2022 was the return of the Somerset duo Tears for Fears, with the release of the album “The Tipping Point.” Formed by the multi-instrumentalist songwriters Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, Tears for Fears owned the New Wave sound of the 80s.
Duran Duran could be here too, but Tears for Fears were just neater, more modern-sounding, and more consistent than their Birmingham counterparts. Their 1985 masterpiece “Songs From the Big Chair” is one of those rare albums in which any song sounds like a single and that is as refreshing today as it was when it first hit the shelves.
32. Van Halen
Before the passing of Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen was one of the longest-lasting, most successful hard-rock bands in the world. Active since the 70s, they were a decade-spanning, stadium-ready music act with plenty of hits to their name and more than 80 million records sold worldwide.
In the 80s, the California group was at their very best, headlining sold-out shows and putting out some of the most energetic live performances America has ever seen. True to the spirit of the time, they also dressed flamboyantly and boasted magnificent hairstyles.
Van Halen released six studio albums in the 80s, including the acclaimed “Women and Childen First” and “1984.”
Devo, sometimes stylized as DEV-O, were pioneers of the New Wave style and one of the first major synth-pop bands in the world. Their catchy one-hand keyboard riffs and characteristic red hats remain as unmistakably 80s as the leg warmer. Make no mistake, though: putting substance over style, Devo knew how to make great songs.
Even though it was released in 1978, Devo’s seminal debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” helped to kickstart their successful 80s career and was met with enthusiasm by both critics and fans.
Before disbanding in 1991, this Akron, Ohio band relied on satirical lyrics, odd time signatures, and dissonant electronic details to set itself apart from all other music around.
30. Mötley Crüe
It’s sad that the love life of drummer Tommy Lee made more headlines over the years than the music of Mötley Crüe per se. After all, this talented glam rock group from Los Angeles deserves to go down as one of the best music acts of the 80s.
Fully embroiled in the spirit of 80s glam, Mötley Crüe was known for its hedonistic approach to music and live performance. They were popular throughout the 80s, but had to wait until 1989 to land their first number-one record: the beloved “Dr. Feelgood.”
Anti-intellectual, sensorial, and firmly spectacular, Mötley Crüe’s career embodies many of the best traits of 80s rock.
29. Depeche Mode
Like an omen to what was about to come, the electronic-music band Depeche Mode was formed in 1980. Pretty much unstoppable ever since, they pioneered the classic synth-pop and New Wave sonority of the decade but did it in their own peculiar way.
Based in Essex, Depeche Mode sounded (and still sounds) like no other band in the world, combining catchy keyboard melodies with eerie electronic sounds, profound melodies, dancy grooves, and hints of Gothicism.
Describing their sound as dark would be accurate, but lazy. Even though Depeche Mode does navigate the somber side of pop music (some of their albums are even labeled ‘darkwave’ records), there’s no shortage of light and humanity in their contagious songs.
Not to be mean to the genius of the guitarist Chris Stein, but would Blondie ever sell 40 million records worldwide if it wasn’t for the irresistible charm of its lead singer Debbie Harry? As one of the ultimate beauty symbols of the 80s, Harry was the ‘it girl’ who pushed Blondie to the top of the charts.
To be fair, Blondie’s two best albums, “Parallel Lines” and “Eat to the Beat”, were both released in the late 70s. However, their popularity remained throughout the 80s.
Considering they were the hot thing in New York City (which was the hot place to be in the Yuppie Decade), Blondie’s reggae-fueled brand of New Wave deserves to be featured on any 80s music list.
27. Talk Talk
The craziest thing about the London group Talk Talk is that they sounded simultaneously 80s and anti-80s. Before disbanding in 1991, the band of Mark Hollis, Lee Harris, and Paul Webb authored some of the most influential albums of the decade, including the unforgettable “Spirit of Eden.”
While some describe Talk Talk as one of the first post-rock bands in the world, the term Art Rock fits their sound a whole lot better. They relied heavily on grand atmospheres and timbral nuances, but they also knew how to absorb the music that was being made around them and incorporated catchy synth lines, stadium-ready hooks, and passionate baritone vocals into their music.
Far from being forgotten, Talk Talk is still remembered as one of the best bands of all time more than two decades after leaving the scene.
Do these guys really need an introduction? The band the Australian people know as Akka Dakka has been one of the biggest rock groups in the world since the late 70s.
In the 80s, they were pretty much as huge as they are today, led brilliantly by the charismatic “schoolboy” Angus Young. They released some of their most important albums back then, starting with the seminal “Back in Black.”
“Back in Black,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” are but three of their many 80s power hits.
Steven Tyler and Joe Perry’s Aerosmith was one of the top rock bands of the 80s, but they got there by following the classic guidelines of the genre: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. In the age of hair rock, Aerosmith’s contagious live performances preserved the authenticity that had already made them huge in the 70s.
Perry and the guitarist Brad Whitford left the band at the beginning of the 80s due to internal disputes but returned for a successful comeback tour in 1984. Since then, the Boston band’s been going on strong and even landed a concert residency in Las Vegas in 2019.
Like Aerosmith, Pixies was also founded in Boston, Massachusetts. The two rock groups, however, couldn’t be any more different. Instead of focusing on an old-school blues sound, Pixies had their eyes on the future from the get-go. They helped to define the future of indie by coming up with jangle hits such as “Here Comes Your Man” and pioneered the rougher alt-rock sonority that would later hit mainstream radio in the early 90s.
Inspired by 60s surf rock and unafraid of testing the limits of loudness with their 4AD noise-pop albums, Pixies was one of the most unique music acts of the 80s and deserves to be among the most influential alternative American bands of the 20th century.
Pixies released three studio albums in the Yuppie Decade and they were all major commercial and critical hits. The unmistakable “Doolittle,” however, is by far their superior work.
23. Joy Division
The post-punk band Joy Division was disbanded in 1980. So, what are they doing on this list? Well, Ian Curtis and company did release the highly-influential album “Closer” in 1980 but, most of all, they came up with all the principal archetypes that would characterize English post-punk in the 80s.
The result of a depressed English working-class society that saw its youth hooked to the sound of punk, Joy Division was poetically formed after two of its members attended a Sex Pistols concert. Curtis’ tragic suicide at the age of 23 led to the precocious end of the group, which later gave way to the even more influential New Order.
Heavy metal is an umbrella term that defines many top 80s bands, but there’s a clear difference between glam metal and… true metal? More concerned with the speed of his riffs than the quality of his makeup, Dave Mustaine founded the thrash metal favorites Megadeth in 1983 and changed the sound of metal forever.
With more than 38 million records sold worldwide, Megadeth continues to be among the ultimate favorites of the genre and did some of their best work in the 80s. Their 1986 thrash masterpiece “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” is perhaps their best sample from that period.
While it’s hard to dispute that the United States is the world’s capital of hard rock, one of the best bands in the history of the genre was actually born in Toronto, Canada. Before disbanding in 2018, Rush showed the world there’s more to Canada than big moose and maple syrup.
Led by the tireless Alex Lifeson, Rush hit the mainstream in the 70s but retained its popularity throughout the 80s. Consistency is one of the reasons why they can be fairly considered one of the best hard-rock acts ever known to man.
In the Yuppie Decade alone, they authored at least four all-time masterpiece albums: “Permanent Waves,” “Moving Pictures,” “Signals,” and “Grace Under Pressure” (all released successively between 1980 and 1984).
20. Pet Shop Boys
In the decade of great hairstyles, show-offs, and stage pyrotechnics, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe still managed to hit it big by being the cleverest men in pop. Their contagiously dancy synth-pop singles helped them to sell more than 50 million records worldwide and become the most successful duo in U.K. music history according to the Guinness Book of Records.
While Pet Shop Boys have never stopped releasing new music since 1981, it’s undeniable that their best works came in the 80s. For a taste of what this talented London duo is capable of, I’d recommend their seminal 1987 album “Actually.”
If you had a hipster friend during the 80s, there’s a good chance his or her favorite band was XTC. The Andry Partridge group pioneered the New Wave sound in the 70s and combined it with multiple influences in the following decade to build one of the most consistent pop discographies of the 20th century.
From electronic music and ska to proto-Britpop and hardcore experimental music, XTC did it all. They were beloved by the critics for decades, but their pièce de résistance will always be the psychedelic-infused “Skylarking.”
18. Guns N’ Roses
The history of Guns n’ Roses reads like a downfall. After spending 15 years making a “masterpiece,” Axl Rose and company saw their 2008 album “Chinese Democracy” stiff and were deemed ‘done’ by many.
But before all of that, the group that popularized the hat-wearing guitarist Slash was almost unanimously beloved by rock fans, with the 80s being arguably their best decade.
Even though Guns n’ Roses hit it big in the 90s, they were at their most exciting in the 80s, when they shook the very core of the rock scene with their incredible debut “Appetite for Destruction.”
The authors of the saddest song ever released, R.E.M. was an American alternative rock band that dominated the imagination of the indie scene during most of the 80s. Formed in Georgia in 1980, they were one of the first major rock groups to delve deeply into the black hole of human emotions, possibly inspiring the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead.
It’s hard to even compute how influential Michael Stipe’s group may have been to their peers in the alternative scene. But R.E.M. was far from being a niche phenomenon. Before disbanding in 2011, they sold a whopping 85 million records, compelling both mainstream audiences and hardcore music snobs.
Just like the musical “Cats” was the poster child of 80s Broadway, KISS was the ultimate rock banner all other glam bands were forced to swear allegiance to. Considering KISS was already huge in the 70s, it’s not ridiculous to say that, in a way, they either predicted or invented what 80s rock music would look and sound like.
Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley were among the world’s first rockers to realize that showmanship was half of the game. Their knack for putting on a great show allowed them to sell more than 100 million records worldwide and become one of the most recognizable bands in the history of rock music.
15. The Cure
Despite the name, the music of The Cure spread like a virus and got from Crawley, West Sussex to the world. The fathers of Gothic Rock were led from the very start by the charismatic Robert Smith, The Cure’s sole surviving founding member, and were among the most influential bands of the 80s.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, The Cure redefined 80s coolness and challenged many of their society’s inherent prejudices with songs as memorable as “Boys Don’t Cry.” Choosing their best record is a nearly impossible task, but the seminal “Disintegration” should make for a safe bet.
14. Sonic Youth
The guys of Sonic Youth are the teenagers all teenagers dream of being. Looking almost too cool to bother, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon were at the forefront of New York City rock for three decades and did some of their best work in the 80s.
Disbanded in 2011 as veterans and bonafide legends, these three alt-rock icons remained together for 30 years and produced one of the most influential indie discographies any music buff can think of. Their 1988 magnum opus, “Daydream Nation,” features songs as emblematic as “Candle,” “Silver Rocket,” and “Teen Age Riot.”
For their noisy, anti-pop sonority and carefree attitude (almost predicting 90s Shoegaze), Sonic Youth’s music was dubbed No Wave in the 80s.
13. Dead Kennedys
The boldest provocateurs of San Francisco, California, Dead Kennedys were never afraid to tackle the most controversial topics. From their name (a reference to John F. Kennedy) to the amazing “California Uber Alles” (echoing Nazi Germany), the band of the incendiary Jello Biafra was more than a punk group, it was THE punk of the 80s.
In a decade where the simple riffs of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were taking new, weirder forms under the moniker of post-punk, it was up to the Dead Kennedys to show that punk (even without the post) wasn’t dead. They did their job with utter perfection.
12. Bon Jovi
Close to 9 million people live in New Jersey. However, it’s nearly impossible to find one who isn’t proud of coming from the same American state that gave Bon Jovi to the world.
The pride of Sayreville, New Jersey, Bon Jovi is yet another phenomenal stadium-ready, guitar-soloing, hook-screaming, and glam-rocking band from the 80s.
And yet, Jon Bon Jovi’s group may be the very best, at least by 80s guidelines. Their most famous songs will live in your head for months, even if you don’t want to, and their sheer infectiousness may help to explain why they’ve sold more than 130 million records over the years.
For better or worse, Bon Jovi is what multi-platinum rock sounds like: not only back in the 80s, but right now.
11. New Order
From the ashes of the depressive Joy Division was born a synth-pop/post-punk group that fully encapsulated the spirit of the 80s and created some of the best club-ready tracks of the decade.
From suicidal to dancy, the former Joy Division members Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook proved there was more to their craft than Ian Curtis’ charisma by releasing five game-changing studio albums in the 80s. The very best? Possibly the melancholic “Power, Corruption & Lies.”
New Order continued to push the envelope before disbanding in 1993. Since then, they made two comebacks: the first in 1998 and the second in 2011.
The world was different in the 80s: for one, U2 was (still) not the biggest rock band on the planet. It wasn’t until 1980 that Bono, The Edge, and company introduced themselves to the world with their breakthrough debut “Boy,” putting Ireland on the rock map.
While today it’s almost a clichè to praise U2’s work, their output in the 80s was like a breath of fresh air into the pop-rock scene, much due to their groundbreaking combination of post-punk and stadium rock, a sound that sums up the decade like none else.
Another band that needs no introduction, Queen truly is a decade-spanning phenomenon. Huge in the 70s and still big when Freddie Mercury passed away in the early 90s, this iconic group from London was naturally among the best bands of the 80s.
If you’ve never sung along to one of Queen’s 80s stadium anthems before, you probably need to leave the house more. The “Flash’s Theme,” “I Want It All,” “Under Pressure,” and “Who Wants to Live Forever” are but a few of the hits they came up with during the Yuppie Decade.
8. Judas Priest
Even though the 70s records of the Birmingham heavy-metal legends Judas Priest have been universally acknowledged by now, they were pretty much ignored at the time of their release. Founded in 1969, the band had to wait until the start of the 80s to finally get the recognition they deserved.
The commercial success of the iconic 1980 album “British Steel” allowed Judas Priest to dive headfirst into the pantheon of metal, a place they have never left since.
Fast forward to the future, and Judas Priest has sold more than 50 million records (as stated on their Wikipedia page) and an estimated 1 trillion pieces of merchandise (as stated by myself). In 2022, they were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Do you think modern music sucks? Well, the highly-influential German group Kraftwerk created pop’s future, so they may have something to do with it.
Tired of the entrancing repetitiveness of their early 70s Krautrock records, Kraftwerk changed the world of music forever by imagining what robot pop should sound like. The music equivalent to an Isaac Asimov sci-fi novella, Kraftwerk was as close as the 80s ever gotten to be in the future.
Still active and touring, this tireless band from Düsseldorf crossed all the barriers of electronic music and introduced mainstream audiences to the sounds of equipment as bizarre, by the standard of the time, as the Vocoder and the Minimoog. They rank as one of the most influential bands of all time, let alone the 80s.
6. Talking Heads
When a new decade starts, music fans often look for clues about what’s to come. In 1980, nobody needed to have Sherlock Holmes’ deductive power to realize that “Remain in Light,” by the Talking Heads, was the defining record of the 80s.
Combining New Wave and post-punk with a myriad of other influences (from Afrobeat and Club to Peter Gabriel-type arrangements), “Remain in Light” is an otherworldly record that sounds as refreshing today as it did at the time of its release. Without sounding like anything else, it seems to encapsulate the whole of 80s American pop in a deliciously positive nutshell.
Led by the brilliant David Byrne, Talking Heads have other almost-as-great records and were at the forefront of New York City’s music scene up until their disbandment in 1991.
Up until Lemmy was killed by death in December 2015, Motörhead was the heavy metal band that made all others look like sissies.
While it’s silly to put any timestamp on the catalog of one of rock history’s ultimate acts, it’s fair to say that Motörhead enjoyed one of the best periods of their career during the 80s. They started the decade in style, releasing the memorable “Ace of Spades,” and ended with the same flair, thanks to a 1987 album simply titled “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Motörhead will go down as one of the coolest rock acts to ever touch the surface of the Earth. Their sound was a combination of everything good in metal and punk, both in terms of musicality and attitude.
4. The Smiths
Time hasn’t been kind to Morrissey, the lead singer of The Smiths. But before he was turned into an online meme due to his relatively obnoxious political views, Morrissey was the lead singer of what’s arguably the most impactful indie rock act of the 80s.
The Smiths released their four studio albums between 1984 and 1987, in what has to be the most prolific artistic period the city of Manchester ever witnessed. Today, they’re all remembered as masterpieces in their genre, from the introspective “The Smiths” to the sarcastic “Strangeways, Here We Come.”
Active between 1981 and 2019, Slayer was one of the most influential thrash metal bands of all time. Their early output is often credited as being their best, which may help to explain why they rank so high as one of the top 80s bands ever.
Slayer sold more than 20 million records worldwide, but that number (huge by any means) needs to be put into the context of the relatively small thrash niche. What truly makes Tom Araya, Kerry King, Dave Lombardo, and Jeff Hanneman so great is the sheer musicality that can be found in each of their supersonic compositions.
Today, Slayer still is the band you should show your friends anytime they say “I’m not a metal fan.”
Metallica sold more than 125 million records worldwide. And yes, they’re a metal band. The guys that most casual listeners associate with the metal genre, Metallica have been through it all since 1981 – they were a cult act, they sold out stadiums, they broke into the mainstream, they lost some of their core fans, and they continued pushing the envelope.
True metalheads may not agree with the path Lars Ulrich or James Hetfield have chosen, but no true rock fan would dare to leave Metallica out of a top-80s-band list. After all, pretty much all of their best works, including the breathtaking metal symphony that’s “Master of Puppets”, were released in the 80s.
1. Iron Maiden
Everybody, even people who don’t care about heavy metal, know the words ‘Iron Maiden.’ They refer to a band from Leyton, East London that’s been active since the mid-70s and released most of its seminal records in the 80s. But to call Iron Maiden “a band” can be literally profane.
After all, heavy metal is an official religion, and Iron Maiden is its highest deity. Over the years, this highly-influential group sold more than 200 million records. Sure, that’s a lot less than the 600 million albums sold by The Beatles but just 40 million fewer than the ones sold by The Rolling Stones.
If that doesn’t give you an idea of how huge Iron Maiden is in the context of the metal niche, nothing will. The 80s were the golden era of metal music, so it makes sense that the Gods of Metal should rank number one on our top-80s list.
It’s almost commonplace to pity the 80s as the decade that put an end to the authenticity of the 60s or the politically-driven music of the 70s. But more than the age that created the foundations of commercial mainstream pop, the 80s were a time filled with huge bands, grandiose live shows, and songs so catchy they stick to our brains like bubblegum.
From the cosmopolitan pop of the Talking Heads to the nauseatingly fast riffs of Slayer, the 80s were as abundant in quality as any other decade in the history of 20th-century music.
Metallica Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Kreepin Deth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slayer Featured Image (Top-Right) by: Selbymay, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Judas Priest Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Frank Schwichtenberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
U2 Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Remy, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons