21 Of The Most Famous Singers Of The 1980s

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

In pop music history, the 1980s were a fascinating time. Influences from R&B and hip-hop collided with hard rock, punk, and the British Invasion to produce a truly eclectic sound across the airwaves. The advent of MTV propelled many artists to fame that they couldn’t have experienced by voice alone.

Colorful, energetic, and enduring, the decade of the ’80s was a fantastic one for music fans. Keep reading as we dive into 21 of the most famous singers of the 1980s.

1. Michael Jackson 

There’s scarcely a person alive in the 1980s who doesn’t know the name Michael Jackson. A consummate musician, dancer, and entertainer, he dominated the decade with his style and onstage charisma.

Jackson began at a young age as part of the popular Jackson 5 group in the Motown days. He found even more success when he split from his siblings and went solo, giving the ’80s some of its most recognizable songs.

“Bad,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” were some of the biggest hits in history, winning Jackson multiple awards and setting industry records. 

Often his music was accompanied by elaborate music videos or short films, adding to the enormous appeal of his voice and dance moves.

2. Madonna 

As controversial as she was successful, Madonna remains compelling today as both a singer and cultural icon.

The overt sexuality and adult themes in her music made her a target of religious indignation, overlooking her monumental achievements as a woman in pop music.

The height of Madonna’s fame was in the 1980s, with hits including “Like a Virgin,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Material Girl,” and “Like a Prayer.”

Part of her enduring legacy is how she reinvented herself with nearly every album, presenting a different look and style every few years to remain interesting and relevant.

The Queen of Pop went on to found multiple organizations and production companies, showing that she’s more than just a voice. It’s clear there are still many years of fame ahead for this superstar.

3. Freddie Mercury

As frontman for the power-rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) was one of the loudest voices of the 1980s.

His signature mustache and lanky frame commanded arenas and radio stations for the entire decade, inspiring confidence and musicality in many artists to follow.  

The self-titled Queen albums in the early ’70s, as well as Jazz in 1978, made them an entertainment staple by the 1980s.

The singles of this era took on a less dramatic tone and became more playful, such as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Under Pressure,” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” In all, Mercury shone with his typical flamboyant leadership. 

Mercury succumbed to AIDS complications in 1991, only mentioning the illness the day before his death. Still, as with many musical legends, his legacy endures.

4. Whitney Houston 

Nicknamed The Voice, Whitney Houston was one of the best-selling singers of the 1980s, with famous songs like “Saving All My Love for You,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and “How Will I Know.”

Her vocal acrobatics and impressive range enriched her radio appeal and informed the style of many other artists in the R&B and pop genres. 

She was awarded various accolades for her career highlights over the years, which only multiplied when she entered the movie industry.

Her starring role in The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner featured one of her most famous songs, “I Will Always Love You.” Though Dolly Parton wrote the single, Houston brought it to the spotlight for a new audience.

5. Prince

Not merely a singer, Prince Rogers Nelson was also a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who attained huge fame for his imaginative music and eccentric style.

The peak of his career hit in 1984 with the film Purple Rain, which also featured his song of the same name. Other notable Prince-penned tunes also became 1980s fixtures, like “Raspberry Beret” and “Little Red Corvette.”

Known for the Minneapolis sound that influenced artists such as Lizzo (another Minnesota native), Prince always retained ties to his home state, including his home studio Paisley Park which became a museum after his death.

6. George Michael 

One of the loudest voices of the 1980s was half of a duo called Wham! The other member, Andrew Ridgeley, also reached some acclaim, though not to the level of his musical partner, George Michael. The duo’s singles included “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Last Christmas.”

Just before separating from Wham!, Michael released the well-known love ballad “Careless Whisper.” This was followed by his solo debut album Faith, which had four tracks reach #1 on Billboard charts.

Michael was a style pioneer and heartthrob for women around the globe, an irony when he came out as a gay icon in the late ’90s. Nevertheless, his music remains a favorite of the era for its positive, upbeat feel and dance-able rhythms.

7. Bruce Springsteen 

While most of the big ’80s artists were about big hair and colorful clothing, Bruce Springsteen embodied another aesthetic. The New Jersey-born rocker symbolized the working man’s grit with popular songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Glory Days.”

Springsteen has toured with the E Street Band since 1972. The group had their breakthrough in 1975 with the album Born to Run. Both Springsteen and the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

The high-energy shows led by Springsteen (often called the Boss), which sometimes ran for several hours, still continue today even after four decades.

8. Tina Turner

The 1980s Tina Turner that most people know is actually a second iteration of a performer who was big twenty years prior. Ike and Tina made up a duo in the 1960s that saw success with hits like “Proud Mary” and “A Fool In Love.” 

After ending her rough marriage with Ike, Turner’s comeback two decades later was staggering, setting world records for ticket sales and winning Grammy awards.

Topping the charts with songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” and “The Best,” she managed to surpass the success of contemporary artists many years younger.

9. Billy Joel 

The performer known as the Piano Man is much more than a set of keys. A songwriter comfortable in multiple styles, Billy Joel has put out several famous albums and sold out arenas for the duration of his lengthy career.

The 1980s were the height of his popularity and a particularly creative phase for Joel. His music took various directions, incorporating rock, doo-wop, and even classical influences.

Some of his most well-known singles of the decade include “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “You May Be Right,” “Uptown Girl,” and “The Longest Time.”

10. Elton John 

Composer, pianist, and singer Elton John draws comparisons to Billy Joel, which are fair, considering their styles and stage personas followed the same trajectory.

Both began as bar piano entertainers before launching huge international careers as touring artists. The primary difference is that Elton John is from the UK, while Billy Joel is American.

John, sometimes called Rocket Man for his single of the same name, enjoyed a rewarding decade in the 1980s. “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” were both new tunes, and his Breaking Hearts album released more chart toppers.

During this time, he also collaborated with other high-profile artists such as Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and created one of his highest-charting single, “That’s What Friends Are For.”

11. Phil Collins

Our eleventh singer is best known as the frontman of the English progressive-rock band Genesis. Phil Collins had the unique position of being singer and drummer concurrently, a role he occupied after Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1975.

Collins is decorated for his work with Genesis and his solo career, a venture that began in 1981. His songs “In the Air Tonight,” “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now),” and “Another Day in Paradise” are some of the most recognizable tunes from the decade.

He enjoyed a thriving acting career alongside his singing and songwriting, appearing in Miami Vice and a handful of films. His work has gained him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

12.  Janet Jackson

Next up, we have another product of the prolific Jackson family. Though Janet Jackson was popular in her own right, she didn’t see quite the success of her brother Michael.

However, she created a niche for herself as a woman of color with two popular albums in the 1980s, Control (1986) and Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989). Her hit “Nasty” was indicative of her sexualized image of the era, which drew comparisons to Madonna.

Controversial at times but also creating music that focused a spotlight on social issues, Jackson became a dominant figure of the pop industry and remained on top throughout the ’90s as well.

13. Steven Tyler

Famous for his androgynous fashion and onstage energy, Steven Tyler rose to fame as the singer of Aerosmith. The height of the band’s popularity was in the 1970s and faded as Tyler encountered substance abuse issues in the early 1980s.

However, with their Run-DMC collaboration of the smash hit “Walk This Way” in 1986, Aerosmith saw a huge resurgence in popularity.

Soon after, Tyler got clean and hit his stride in the late ’80s. He then embarked on a solo career and also joined forces with Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper, and Santana.

The image of his voluptuous mane, large mouth, and flamboyant clothing creates an iconic picture of the 1980s that most rock music aficionados instantly recognize.

14. Lionel Richie

As the lead singer of 1970s funk band the Commodores, Lionel Richie started gaining prominence. He wrote much of the band’s material, as well as songs for other artists (such as “Lady” for Kenny Rogers).

Richie’s solo album debut in 1982 included the singles “My Love,” “You Are,” and “Truly.” However, it was his second album, Can’t Slow Down (1983), that put him on the map as a staggering success.

“All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello” shot up the charts and helped catapult the album into an all-time bestseller. Today, Richie remains a touring artist, songwriter, and TV judge.

15. Billy Idol

Born William Michael Albert Broad, Billy Idol is an English singer and punk rocker. He began his musical career as the lead singer of London’s Generation X and guitarist of Chelsea before relocating to New York as a solo artist.

Idol’s punk image is closely intertwined with the rise of MTV in the early ’80s. “Rebel Yell,” “Dancing With Myself,” and “White Wedding” were all massive hits in the early part of the decade.

In 1988, Idol dropped a greatest hits album before temporarily removing himself from the public eyes by the mid-90s due to injuries sustained from a vehicular accident.

16. John Mellencamp 

American singer-songwriter John Mellencamp’s name has undergone several iterations, some including the addition of “Cougar.”

The artist produces simple, down-to-earth rock music with Midwestern themes, the majority of which have reached #1 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. Singles like “Jack and Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” and “Cherry Bomb” are staples of the ’80s rock sound.

Besides songwriting and live shows, Mellencamp was also heavily involved with Farm Aid concerts beginning in 1985. In 2008 and 2018, he was inducted into both Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, respectively.

17. Cyndi Lauper

Born Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper Thornton, American singer-songwriter and actress Cyndi Lauper’s megahit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is one of the most significant earworms of the 1980s.

She also brought the world “All Through the Night” and “Time After Time,” the latter earned Lauper seven awards. She also brought to us the soundtrack to the film The Goonies (1985).

In a career that’s spanned four decades, Lauper has garnered Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and multiple other awards from various organizations. She is also famous for her fashion style, a combination of eccentric clothing and colored hair, as well as her impressive four-octave vocal range.

18. Don Henley

Singer and founding member of the Eagles, Don Henley has had a long and illustrious career in the music industry. His debut album, I Can’t Stand Still, dropped in 1982 and produced several singles that became foundational 1980s tunes.

Though having moderate success with his second album, his third album, The End of the Innocence (1989), helped cement his reputation as a skillful rocker and songwriter.

“The Boys of Summer,” “Dirty Laundry,” “The Heart of the Matter,” and “Not Enough Love in the World” led him to win several Grammy awards during the era.

19. Ozzy Osbourne

The career of Black Sabbath’s lead vocalist, Ozzy Osbourne, is an example of making lemonade out of lemons. In 1979, he was fired from the band that propelled him to stardom due to drug and alcohol use.

Rather than fade away, Osbourne entered the decade of the ’80s as a solo artist and released 12 albums, most of which were top-20 hits.

The heavy-metal genre found its king when Osbourne released Diary of a Madman (1981). “Over the Mountain” and “Flying High Again” became commercial hits, and he began collaborating with other big names in the industry, like Lita Ford and Gary Moore.

Osbourne’s fame would sustain throughout the 1990s despite his multiple relapses into substance abuse and family controversy.

20. Pat Benatar

Born Patricia Mae Andrzejewski, Benatar is one of the most decorated pop-rock songstresses in history. She has produced several multi-Platinum albums, won four Grammys, and enjoyed many decades of live shows and songwriting success.

She began the 1980s strong with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Other huge songs include “Heartbreaker,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” and “We Belong,” all top-10 hits.

Her full vocals and tough-girl look made her one of the endearing images of the decade. Recently, in 2022, she was added into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

21. Rod Stewart

English rocker and songwriter Rod Stewart is famous for his raspy voice and eccentric style—particularly his spiky blonde hair. He is one of the most prolific artists of the 1980s, beginning with Foolish Behavior (1980) and continuing on with a new-wave sound throughout that era.

“Forever Young,” “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” and “Young Turks” contributed to his popularity in the UK and the United States. Stewart, together with guitarist Jeff Beck, saw significant MTV airplay with their duo “Infatuation” in 1984.

Stewart has also seen acclaim for his many cover songs, ranging from Motown to contemporary pop. He also recorded an album called It Had To Be You, which featured tunes from the Great American Songbook.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1980s Singers

You don’t have to have grown up in the 1980s to appreciate its music. Exciting and spanning multiple genres, the decade’s artists got a boost from the advent of MTV, especially those who offered a colorful or controversial image. 

Nestled in between the disco of the ’70s and grunge of the ’90s, the 1980s were indeed a unique time for the music industry.

Its enduring songs run the gamut from campy karaoke fodder to soulful and deep messaging, proving there’s something for everyone from that era.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.