The 1980s was a decade of iconic music, marked by the rise of MTV, the emergence of new wave and synth-pop, and the continued dominance of classic rock.
Some of the greatest rock songs of all time were created during this era, with bands like Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, U2, and AC/DC producing hit after hit. From power ballads to guitar anthems, the ’80s had something for everyone, and its influence can still be heard in the music of today.
In this article, we will take a closer look at 23 of the best rock songs of the 1980s, exploring the stories behind the music and the enduring legacy of these iconic tracks.
Want to know more about the best rock songs of all time? Check out our post here.
1. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” By Guns N’ Roses
Released in 1987 in Guns N’ Roses‘ album Appetite for Destruction, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” remains a timeless classic to this day. It features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock music history and frontman Axl Rose’s powerful vocals.
The song’s lyrics describe the singer’s awe and admiration for this woman’s beauty, personality, and individuality. The chorus is a tender declaration of affection and commitment, with the singer praising the unforgettable line, “She’s got eyes of the bluest skies as if they thought of rain.”
The guitar riff, catchy melody, and emotional vocals of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” have made it one of the most iconic rock ballads of all time. The song’s music video also became an instant hit and helped to cement the band’s place in rock music history.
2. “Livin’ On A Prayer” By Bon Jovi
An anthem for anyone struggling to make ends meet, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is a quintessential ’80s rock song, complete with catchy lyrics, guitar riffs, and a memorable chorus. The song’s music video, which features the band performing in front of a live audience, also helped to propel its popularity.
The song’s lyrics tell the story of Tommy and Gina, two young people struggling to make ends meet and dreaming of a better life. The chorus is a rallying cry for perseverance and hope in the face of adversity.
Considered the band’s signature song, “Livin’ on a Prayer” was released on the album Slippery When Wet in 1986. It received critical acclaim at the time, staying four weeks on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and topping other charts across the globe.
3. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” By U2
A beautiful and powerful ballad that showcases Bono’s emotive vocals, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is about searching for meaning and purpose in life.
Included in U2‘s album The Joshua Tree in 1987, it resonated with many people at the time. The song’s gospel-inspired sound also helped to set it apart from other rock songs playing the radio airwaves during that decade.
The lyrics describe a journey of seeking and questioning, with the singer expressing a sense of restlessness and longing for something more meaningful in life.
The chorus features the repeated line, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” which serves as a reminder that despite the singer’s efforts, he has yet to find a sense of purpose or satisfaction.
4. “With Or Without You” By U2
Next up, we have yet another well-known U2 ballad. Included in the same album, The Joshua Tree, mentioned above, “With or Without You” is the one of band’s most covered songs.
It describes a relationship that is marked by both intense passion and deep-seated conflict, with the singer expressing a sense of ambivalence and uncertainty about whether to stay or go.
The chorus repeats the line “With or without you,” which tells us of the singer’s inner struggle and the difficult choice he faces. The song also touches on themes of sacrifice, forgiveness, and the search for meaning and connection in life.
5. “Don’t Stop Believin'” By Journey
Released in 1981, “Don’t Stop Believin'” is one of the earlier rock songs to become smash hits of the 1980s. Hard rock band Journey included it in their album Escape.
As you can surmise from the title, the song is about never giving up on your dreams. It takes listeners through a journey of life and the importance of staying positive and optimistic in the face of challenges. The chorus encourages the listener to hold on to their dreams and never give up.
The uplifting message and catchy melody of “Don’t Stop Believin'” make it an instant crowd-pleaser. The song’s famous piano intro also helps to make it instantly recognizable.
6. “You Give Love A Bad Name” By Bon Jovi
It’s quite obvious that Bon Jovi had their peak during the 1980s, as their “You Give Love a Bad Name” is among the popular hits of the time. The song was the group’s first to land at #1 on Billboard Hot 100.
The high-energy rock anthem describes a tumultuous romantic relationship that has gone sour, with the singer expressing a sense of betrayal and disillusionment.
The chorus features the memorable line “shot through the heart, and you’re to blame,” which serves as a powerful indictment of the partner who has caused the singer so much agony.
The music video for “You Give Love a Bad Name,” which features the band performing in front of a live audience, also helped to make it a fan favorite.
7. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” By Def Leppard
Another rock group that was able to put out great music during the 1980s was Def Leppard. Released in 1988, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” peaked at #2 on Billboard Hot 100, but it helped push its album, Hysteria, to the top of Billboard 200.
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” is about the pleasures of physical desire and the joy of living in the moment. The chorus is a playful invitation to indulge in the sweet things in life.
The song’s upbeat sound and riveting riffs take the listeners in, and the music video, which features the band performing in a club, also added to its popularity.
8. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” By Tears For Fears
English pop rock band Tears for Fears did well in their 1985 song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” From their album Songs from the Big Chair, this rock hit topped US Cashbox and Billboard Hot 100, as well as reached international success.
The synth-pop beat gets the body moving, while the catchy melody encourages listeners to sing along. However, the lyrics describe a world marked by political and social turmoil, with people vying for power and control at every turn.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is Tears for Fears’ signature song. In 2013, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde recorded a version of the song for the film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
9. “Every Breath You Take” By The Police
English rock band The Police were at their peak during the 1980s, and the greatest song they released that decade was “Every Breath You Take” in 1983. The haunting and beautiful ballad features Sting’s recognizable vocals.
The narrator and his lover have separated, but he still feels that they belong together and begs her to return. The catchy lyrics make it sound as if he is almost obsessive, as with every move she makes, he’s watching her every day.
Though not the Police’s first song to top the Billboard charts, it’s their most popular. It peaked at #1 on the Hot 100 list and stayed there for eight weeks. It also reached double-Platinum status in the UK and Italy.
10. “Billie Jean” By Michael Jackson
There are a number of reasons why Michael Jackson‘s classic rock song “Billie Jean” is among the best songs of the 1980s. Not only was it an awesome song, but it introduced several of the King of Pop’s signature looks and moves, including the iconic moonwalk.
The memorable lyrics tell the story of a woman named Billie Jean, claiming her son is the narrator’s. However, he strongly denies this, even after having seen that the child has his eyes.
The bassline of “Billie Jean” and Jackson’s electrifying performance helped to make it an instant masterpiece of the era. It won a total of eight awards, including two Grammys: Best R&B Male Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song.
11. “Jump” By Van Halen
From the album 1984 and released that same year, “Jump” is a high-energy rock anthem that features David Lee Roth’s powerful vocals and Eddie Van Halen‘s blistering guitar solo.
Most everyone probably knows the lyrics to this motivational synth-rock masterpiece. Its lyrics invite every listener to take risks and not be afraid to seize the moment. The chorus encourages us to jump into life and live it to the fullest.
“Jump” was an instant hit, landing at #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and Mainstream Rock charts. Over the years, the song has been used as a sporting anthem and features in many films, like Ready Player One and Sing.
12. “Karma Chameleon” By Culture Club
A pop rock classic, “Karma Chameleon” is Culture Club‘s second song to take the #1 spot on the UK Singles chart. Featured in the band’s 1983 album Colour by Numbers, the song stayed at the top for six weeks. It’s also their only #1 song in the US.
Featuring the vocals of Boy George, the song appears to be talking about a toxic relationship in which one of the partners, whose love “used to be so sweet,” just comes and goes.
However, the singer has explained that it’s more about fearing letting the world know your true self, and instead, the narrator hides like a chameleon so he won’t be ostracized.
13. “Here I Go Again” By Whitesnake
British rock band Whitesnake had a hand in giving the world hit rock songs during the 1980s. One of them was “Here I Go Again,” which was released in 1982 in their album Saints & Sinners.
The song’s lyrics describe the journey of a person who is searching for meaning and purpose in their life, with the singer expressing a sense of determination and resolve to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way.
The initial release of the song was a moderate success. It was the re-release in 1987 that “Here I Go Again” became a Billboard Hot 100 topper. It also ranked #1 on Canada’s Top Singles chart.
14. “The Final Countdown” By Europe
We bet that most readers here are probably familiar with the famous intro of the Swedish band Europe‘s hard rock song “The Final Countdown.” The keyboard riff is the soul of the song and is considered one of the most iconic of all time.
Released as the title track in 1986, “The Final Countdown” features Joey Tempest’s soaring vocals. It’s a song about perseverance and determination, and its catchy chorus and driving beat helped to make it an instant hit.
Though it peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, “The Final Countdown” landed on #1 on charts all over the world, including UK, Spain, Germany, South Africa, and many more.
Like “Jump,” the song has been used as a sports anthem to help rally crowds and has appeared on TV and in documentaries like The Road to Glory.
15. “Summer Of ’69” By Bryan Adams
From the year 1984, we have Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams singing us his memorable moments in the rock ballad “Summer of ’69.” Included in his fourth studio album, Reckless, the song is considered one of Adams’s best.
The song looks back at the narrator’s summer in 1969. It was during that time he bought his first six-string guitar and jammed with his first band. It was also the summer he met the love of his life.
Sadly, this relationship did not last, even though he was promised forever by the girl, yet he wishes he could go back to that summer and relive those moments because, for him, they “were the best days of [his] life.”
16. “Money For Nothing” By Dire Straits
One of the most recognizable intro hooks in music history is in “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. The guitar riff by Mark Knopfler certainly drags listeners into the song and invites them to sing along.
The song’s lyrics describe a working-class man who is envious of the extravagant lifestyles of rock stars and complains about the seemingly effortless wealth and fame they enjoy and often take for granted.
Released in 1985 in the album Brothers in Arms, “Money for Nothing” became a commercial success. It landed the top spot on Billboard Hot 100. It also won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
17. “Listen To Your Heart” By Roxette
Swedish pop-rock duo Roxette rose to popularity during the mid-1980s. “Listen to Your Heart” is one of their greatest hits from their second studio album, Look Sharp! released in 1988.
The song holds great advice for those uncertain if they should end a relationship or not. If you’re wondering if the fight is worthwhile, Roxette says to “listen to your heart before you tell him goodbye,” or else you might end up regretting your decision.
The song was not a topper on Billboard‘s Hot 100 list (though it peaked at #8), but it did climb up to #1 on both the Mainstream Top 40 and Dance/Mix Show Airplay charts.
18. “Back In Black” By AC/DC
Another song with a very recognizable guitar riff intro, “Back in Black,” is one of Australian rock band AC/DC’s more popular songs. It, along with the same-named album it was released in, made the band one of the biggest-selling music groups of the 1980s and beyond.
The song is a shoutout of having overcome hardships, and the narrator is now back on track. He’s letting everybody know that nothing can derail him, so they best “get out of [his] way.”
“Back in Black” might not have topped the Billboard Hot 100, but it received many accolades over the years as one of the greatest songs of all time. It has also been featured in many films, like Iron Man, Megamind, and Spider-Man: Far from Home.
19. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” By Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
In 1975, the rock band Arrows recorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it was not their version that became popular. Six years later, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts made a cover and took the song to the top of Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is actually a love song, wherein the narrator bonds with a guy she’s met over the rock and roll music playing through the jukebox. They dance and enjoy their time together while the beats they love playing in the background.
Many versions of the song have been released through the years, including by Britney Spears, LadBaby, and Forever Young. However, none have topped Joan Jett’s version from the ranks, which was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016.
20. “I Want To Know What Love Is” By Foreigner
Our next song is a soft rock classic that came out in 1984. By the British-American rock band Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is” is the lead single of the group’s fifth studio album, Agent Provocateur.
The song is a heartfelt plea for the narrator to know what true love is. He’s asking someone to show and help him understand the real deal. The ballad’s uplifting chorus and emotional lyrics helped to make it a hit with fans.
The emotional intensity and vulnerability of “I Want to Know What Love Is” have made it a timeless hit, and it continues to resonate with listeners around the world who share this universal desire for love and connection.
21. “The Power Of Love” By Huey Lewis & The News
Anyone who has seen the blockbuster hit Back to the Future would be familiar with “The Power of Love.” Huey Lewis and the News recorded the song for the movie in 1985.
The song features early in the movie, with lyrics detailing how love is a very powerful thing: It can “make a one man weep, make another man sing,” and it’s “tougher than diamonds and stronger than steel.”
Anybody who has experienced true love can attest to these words. “The Power of Love” was certainly powerful enough to win Favorite Single and Favorite Video Single American Music Awards and a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
22. “Eye Of The Tiger” By Survivor
Released in 1982, Survivor‘s “Eye of the Tiger” was written as the theme song for the movie Rocky III and quickly became an iconic anthem of the 1980s, winning a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal.
With its driving beat, soaring vocals, and catchy guitar riffs, “Eye of the Tiger” became a motivational and inspirational song that encourages listeners to overcome challenges and fight for their dreams.
The song is a classic and a staple of sports arenas and workout playlists. It continues to inspire new generations of fans and stands as a testament to the enduring power of rock music.
23. “Footloose” By Kenny Loggins
We end this list with an upbeat song by Kenny Loggins. Written for the 1984 movie of the same name, “Footloose” can get anyone dancing with its heavy beats and smooth guitar riffs.
The message of the song, too, is a wonderful reminder not to work so hard that you’ll end up worn and forgetting to have fun. It tells us to simply let loose and enjoy life before it passes us by.
The popularity of “Footloose” reached all over the world during the 1980s. It topped charts in the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. By the end of the decade, it was #4 on Billboard Hot 100. The way it was critically received, we’re sure it got many people footloose.
Summing Up Our List Of Great 1980s Rock Songs
The 1980s was a decade of musical innovation and experimentation, and the rock genre played a vital role in shaping the sound of the era.
The ’80s produced some of the most memorable and enduring rock songs of all time. These songs continue to inspire and influence new generations of musicians, and their impact can be felt in the music of today.
As we look back on the greatest rock songs of the 1980s, we are reminded of the power of music to connect us across time and space and the way it can serve as a reflection of the hopes, dreams, and fears of an entire generation.