Best bands of the 80s
I’ve recently looked at the top selling albums of the 80s, as well as giving my recommendations for the best 80s compilation albums. But what of the artists and bands who made the music? Who were the top solo artists and the best bands of the 80s?
Artists – such as Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson – will soon be covered in a separate post, while this one will look specifically at bands. From new wave to all types of rock bands and heavy metal, here are the top 80s bands any music fan needs to know. And listen to, of course.
I include pop, rock and metal bands here – although it is hard to pin most of the following down into any one genre. This is very much a personal opinion, too. In other words, feel free to disagree.
Hard rock, punk rock, alternative rock, heavy metal, glam metal, new wave, new romantics, synth pop and even hip hop – they were all musical terms that popped up repeatedly during the 80s. And here are some of the bands of the 80s that were the most talked about.
The 10 best bands of the 80s
Do not underestimate these British boys. Duran Duran were formed in the Midlands in the late 1970s, and their first, self-titled album was released in 1981. The hit singles Planet Earth and Girls on Film came from it, the latter causing something of a storm due to the sexual nature of its video. MTV which has recently been launched – helped to catapult Duran Duran to fame across the pond as well as in their home country and elsewhere.
Part of their attraction, of course, was the sex appeal of various band members. I seem to remember everyone at school fancying John Taylor, but I preferred the front man. Still do. I love Simon Le Bon’s voice, and it seems my 7-year-old daughter does too. She loves me to ask Alexa to play Rio. I so wish that he’d sung A Different Corner during The Brits’ 2017 tribute to George Michael. Wham and Duran Duran were contemporaries, after all.
An interesting fact about Duran Duran. John, Roger and Andy Taylor are not related. What were the chances of that? Not to mention having a lead singer whose mere name tells you he’s good…
Whether you call them New Wave or New Romantics, there’s no denying the success of Duran Duran. Still going strong and making music, the band are now on their fourteenth album. For a rounded flavour of their sound, just buy the Greatest album. My favourite Duran Duran track is Save a Prayer, from their second album, Rio. Stylish pop with some soul.
See Duran Duran: Greatest here
I’m not going to lie. The fact that Neil Tennant is a Geordie, like me, might have something to do with my love for The Pet Shop Boys. I also adore the fact that they called an album Please – apparently so people could go into Woolworth’s and say “Could I buy The Pet Shop Boys’ album Please?” I remember reading that in the music press at the time.
Neil Tennant was a music journalist himself before he and Chris Lowe hit the big time – for iconic music mag Smash Hits, no less. I used to collect copies of that during those days of Top of the Pops. The duo made the 1999 Guinness Book of Records as UK music’s most successful double act to date. No mean feat.
The Pet Shop Boys were one of the leading lights in synth pop, and like Duran Duran they enjoyed success stateside, racking up five top ten singles there during the decade. Very aptly, their greatest hits LP is called Pop Art, and it’s a must for the collection any 80s music fan who doesn’t already own any of the boys’ music. My top PSB track is, without doubt, West End Girls.
View The Pet Shop Boys: Pop Art here
A less obvious choice, this one, perhaps. So why? Well I think that of all famous 80s bands, The Smiths really blazed their own trail through the decade.
For me, their music partly paved the way for the indie bands of the following decade. It was, therefore, something of a precursor. They are also from Manchester – the spiritual home of the whole 90s music scene. As Salford University is my alma mater, I do love that photo featuring ‘Salford Lads’ Club.’
I remember lots of Smiths tracks being played at our student union, well into the mid-1990s, when some other 80s music had fallen out of fashion somewhat. Music critics revered Morrissey and co too – all four of the Smiths’ albums were listed on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest 500 albums ever.
Unlike Duran Duran and The Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths’ time as band was relatively short. They broke up about five years after forming, and have never got back together. Their music, however, definitely does live on. This Charming Man is my personal favourite track. It is notably more cheery than many of their others.
Check out The Sound of The Smiths here
I know Mark Knopfler and his bandmates may not be everyone’s taste – but they did have the number one 80s bestselling album, Brothers in Arms. Which my Dad, for one, certainly spun on the turntable a few times. Again, perhaps the North Eastern factor comes into that. We love to see our own do well.
While Money for Nothing, Sultans of Swing or Romeo and Juliet seem to be played most often, I have a particular fondness for Walk of Life. ‘Dad’ or ‘Classic’ rock is how I would probably describe Dire Straits, but their music is no less enjoyable for that.
At the time of writing Dire Straits’ greatest hits album, Sultans of Swing, scores an average of 4.7 stars on Amazon. Proving that plenty of people do enjoy a bit of the kind of 80s rock that I wouldn’t really say was flinty enough to be described as such. Dad rock, indeed.
See Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing here
In the same way as I wouldn’t describe Dire Straits as a rock band, I don’t really think of Bon Jovi as heavy metal. There were a lot of ‘metallers’ hanging around Newcastle in the 80s – as well as attending my high school in Northumberland. From memory, they were more likely to listen to Slayer or Napalm Death than Jon Bon Jovi and co.
So what are Bon Jovi, and other similar rock bands? Hard rock? Soft metal? Quite a few people search online for terms like ‘best hair metal bands’ or ‘best 80s hair bands’. Unless they’re actually searching for 80s-style hair accessories, they presumably mean famous 80s bands whose members had big hair. And there were certainly a lot of those around.
Unlike others, Bon Jovi carried on after being one of the biggest bands of the 80s, into the 90s and way beyond. Although Richie Sambora left in 2013, they are also still selling a lot of music, concert tickets and memorabilia. While Slippery When Wet and the subsequent album New Jersey saw their peak, even today they are far from has-beens.
Favourite track? A very predictable Livin’ On a Prayer. I’m not going to apologise for that. The song transcends time and still sounds blooming brilliant. Resist that urge to play air guitar if you dare…
Discover Bon Jovi Greatest Hits: The Ultimate Collection here
Whether you were a fan or not – there’s no way I could have left out George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. My favourite boy band of the 80s – well, at least until another duo came along later in the decade. But more on that below.
One of the first songs I ever actually owned was Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. While it’s not now my favourite Wham! tune, it is undoubtedly upbeat. As were so many of their songs.
I was one of millions of gutted teens when the boys announced that they were due to split. Along with that came The Final, an album I originally owned on vinyl and now on CD. I still play it often. You can’t beat a bit of Wham when you need a lift. In fact, I believe very few can beat George Michael’s voice, which seems equally suited to pop songs or ballads.
My number one Wham track? It has to be Club Tropicana. Who wouldn’t want a friend-filled space with endless sunshine and free drinks?
View Wham: The Final here
So I’ve said that I rate the dulcet tones of George Michael highly. Well one day I Googled who had the greatest voice ever. Just out of sheer curiosity, and to gauge the opinions of others. And one name that came up repeatedly, on various lists, was Freddie Mercury’s.
Their Greatest Hits album is in my music collection, and was the fourth best-selling album of the 1980s. Even though some of the big hits pre-dated that decade. Not only that – it is the biggest selling UK album ever. According to Wikipedia, approximately one in three British households own a copy. And that’s on top of any other Queen albums owned.
A couple of interesting parts of Queen’s 1980s history involve some other massively successful artists. Michael Jackson saw Queen perform live in Los Angeles, and apparently suggested to Mercury – the band’s record label – that they should release Another One Bites The Dust as a single. It was number one in the singles chart for three weeks in 1980.
The following year, Queen joined forces with the musical might of David Bowie to record Under Pressure. The story goes that this was an unplanned collaboration, and came about when Bowie dropped into Queen’s recording studio in passing. One hit wonder Vanilla Ice sampled Under Pressure‘s bassline for his 1990 hit Ice Ice Baby, and a subsequent lawsuit apparently resulted in Queen and David Bowie receiving their royalties.
Queen remain perennially popular, and are not only one of the best 80s rock bands. They are one of the best bands ever – in any genre.
Check out Queen: Greatest Hits here
And so we return to lighter pop – and my biggest teenage crush ever. Matt Goss of Bros. I’m not claiming that their music has stood the test of time in the way of 80s greats like Queen, but they did make history. Not least for the legions of screaming fans they attracted.
Brosmania was legendary. Brosettes were everywhere, clad in ripped, faded Levi’s teamed with chunky leather shoes and belts. The former fastened with Grolsch bottle tops, of course. The phenomenon was covered in the 2018 BBC documentary Bros: After The Screaming Stops. I wrote about my own experiences, too, which you can read here if you like.
Bros have something in common with another band in this list – they were also managed by Tom Watkins, who was also in charge of The Pet Shop Boys. Despite selling around 16 million records across the globe and winning best British breakthrough act at the Brits in 1989, news stories circulated about them having lost all their money.
Each of the three band members is now successful in his own right. Craig Logan is in music management. Luke Goss has starred in various Hollywood films, and his twin Matt has various residencies at large Las Vegas venues.
Bros’s comeback gig, performed at the O2 arena in London in August 2017, was a success, and attended in droves by many of their original fans. Who – like me – are now in their forties.
Find out more about Bros: Gold here
While they may not be one of the world’s biggest selling bands of all time – INXS were certainly one of Australia’s biggest musical success stories ever. With the notable exception of Kylie Minogue, who is, ironically, an ex-girlfriend of frontman Michael Hutchence.
One of the best known Australian bands other than INXS is Midnight Oil, and in fact there are some close connections between the two. Midnight Oil’s manager Gary Morris first approached INXS when they were known as The Vegetables. Support gigs for ‘The Oils’ among others followed. It is said that the name INXS was devised by a member of The Oils’ crew.
INXS are my favourite band ever, so I couldn’t leave them out of this list. I will give another reason to back up their inclusion, though. Of all the great 80s bands, I think they had something different about them. Some of their songs could be described as pop or new wave rather than rock, but they were definitely a rock band.
For me no other band is in exactly their niche. The amount of gravelly, grungy edge to their tracks is music to my ears like no other. Not to mention that I fancy the pants off Michael Hutchence, of course. Who sadly died just a year after I was hanging out in the Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney, one of the best known Australian gig venues. The writing was even on the wall – literally, as the band had scribed it during one of their visits.
A documentary about the troubled life of Michael Hutchence was released in 2019. Entitled Mystify, it charted the ups and downs of the late singer’s life. Exactly what happened that day at the Ritz-Carlton in Double Bay is still open to speculation, though the death was classed as suicide by the coroner. For what it’s worth, I think it was. Why do all the legends die young? RIP MH.
Discover INXS: The Very Best here
Guns ‘n’ Roses are a bit heavier than Bon Jovi. While the former are icons of glam metal – or glam rock – GNR have icons in themselves, in the form of Axl Rose and Slash in particular. Would they been such a success if they were still called William Bruce Rose Jr and Saul Hudson respectively? We can only speculate…
Though the band are American, us Brits can probably claim Slash as our own. He was born in London, and lived in the Midlands until he was five, before moving to Los Angeles.
Guns and Roses also enjoyed fame beyond the 1980s – their Use Your Illusion world tour took place between 1991 and 1993. We have a copy of Chinese Democracy – their 2008 album that was the band’s sixth – right here in my home.
Back in the day, GNR were just about as famed for their rebellious rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle as their music. As one of the world’s best selling music acts ever, that’s saying something. Presumably age has mellowed them somewhat. Again my favourite is predictable – Sweet Child O’ Mine, of course. as much an anthem of the 80s as Jump by Van Halen.
See Guns ‘n’ Roses Greatest Hits here
Who would make your Best Bands of the 80s list?
I realise that my choices here will not agree with yours. It is called musical taste, after all. Perhaps I have none. I have previously been described as having ‘eclectic’ taste in music, and I can’t argue with that at all.
One missing act that perhaps stands out like a sore thumb is U2. Massively successful, but I just don’t love them or their music. Another is Fleetwood Mac – another band that made the 80s best selling albums list. But – ditto. OK, but none of their albums or singles are anything I’d rush to listen to. You just like it or you don’t, at the end of the day. And that can be quite separate, I think, from whether or not you recognise it as good, high quality music.
Musicians of the 80s in many ways paved the way for everything that came after. Just as artists and bands of the 70s and 60s did before them. Would we even have pop or rock music without The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
In my music collection, there’s room for all kinds of music. Except perhaps for thrash metal and most rap. And of course anything that didn’t come from the 1980s or 1990s… only kidding. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the vast majority was from those two decades. Just as my a lot of my dad’s is from the 60s or 70s. It’s the music of our youth; the sounds that got us through our formative years. It is, surely, how our musical preferences are formed too.
- Best bands of the 90s
- 80s top selling albums
- 80s best selling artists
- Top 100 1980s singles
- Greatest 80s compilations
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