The 1980s are known as a decade of good times and excess, and nowhere is that more evident than in its hard rock bands. From heavy metal bands to iconic rockers enjoying a rejuvenation to newcomers, the hard rock bands of the 80s saw musical geniuses create music that is still popular today.
Yes, Led Zeppelin is more of the late-60s or 70s band, but arguably, no band made more news in 1980 and several years after drummer John Bonham suddenly passed away in September. Seemingly on their way out, when tragedy struck, everyone was reminded of why these guys were called “rock Gods” as their music saw an upsurge.
Since then, rumors of the band reuniting have sprung up regularly, and in fact, the three remaining musicians have gotten back together occasionally.
Coming of age in the late 1970s, AC:DC made some of the best music of their storied careers in the 1980s. The tragic passing of lead singer Bon Scott opened the door for vocalist Brian Johnson and the breathtaking album Back in Black. The rest is rock history, as the band produced three decades of hit after hit.
AC/DC is still touring today. The band has never been known for its musical complexity. It has, however, produced some of the most fun, raw hard rock of any band ever.
Rush had an almost cult following before the 80s, but Moving Pictures in 1981, headlined by the thundering Tom Sawyer, launched them into rock and roll icon status. They continued to be popular through several stylistic iterations until their disbanding in 2018 due to drummer Neal Peart becoming ill with brain cancer.
The band has always been known for superb musicianship, musical complexity, and lyrics that have embraced everything from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead to fast cars and environmental and social reform. Known for its great music and hardcore fans, Rush has made great music for four decades.
Van Halen is more than David Lee Roth running around the stage with no shirt or Sammy Hagar's soaring vocals. The band is known as a mixture between AC/DC's simplicity and Rush's musical complexity. However, the musicianship has always been overlooked in favor of Roth's antics and live shows that were non-stop action from start to finish.
Featuring the late Eddie Van Halen along with Roth, few groups had a more profound impact in the 1980s, starting with mega-hits like Jump and Panama on the album 1984. That album cemented Van Halen's place in hard rock, and then Roth took off on a solo career, opening the door for Sammy Hagar and another decade of hits.
The 80s were a cycle of popularity, excess, downfall, and rejuvenation. Early in the decade, the band lost some of its edge as several members struggled with substance abuse. Many had written the band off. Then, in 1986, a collaboration with Run-DMC set the stage for a comeback with 1987's multi-platinum Permanent Vacation.
Once the band cleaned up, their musicianship became more precise, their reputation more stable, and since then, they have produced a solid four decades of hits.
Metallica is a cross between hard rock and heavy metal. Better known as a heavy metal band, Metallica blew our minds in 1986 with Master of Puppets. They established their status as hard rock mainstays in the late 1980s, setting the stage for mega-hits like Enter Sandman in the early 1990s. Metallica is still doing it through the present day.
Judas Priest, like Metallica, has a reputation for hard rock and head-banging heavy metal. If you like either or both, there is something for you in virtually all their albums. The band became prominent in the early 1990s and produced several hits over the decade, including Breaking the Law and Living After Midnight.
Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses announced itself in 1986 with Appetite for Destruction. That album single-handedly dominated the hard rock scene, and in the process, the band's music became as legendary as its reputation for excess. They produced great music for over a decade, but they got their first major hits mid-decade, and many still consider Appetite their greatest album.
The Scorpions were one of those bands that enjoyed moderate success through the 70s and early 80s and then had a string of hits that made them icons. Rock You Like a Hurricane put them on the map as a mega-band mid-decade, and the band enjoyed commercial success through the 1990s.
If you are looking for great hard rock music, Iron Maiden is a superb example. The band formed in the 1970s and produced several commercially successful albums throughout the 1980s, beginning with its eponymous album in 1980. It is hard to find a Maiden album without at least one song you do not like.
Def Leppard exploded onto the American scene with Photograph in 1983 on the album Pyromania. They represented 80s hard rock probably more than any other band during that period, but without the icky drama of the “rock-n-roll lifestyle.” Musically talented, Def Leppard has produced hits in each decade since that first major album.
KISS was one of those bands in the 80s that produced hits but was more known for musical stability album after album. With several major hits under its belt, KISS was known for soaring anthems and living up to its hardcore reputation, at least in how they looked on stage.
A mainstay of hard rock and a pioneer in metal music, Motorhead is credited with significantly influencing heavy metal, thrash metal, and even late 80s punk. Their Ace of Spades album established them as a force in the mid-1980s.
Ozzy launched to fame with Black Sabbath in the 1970s. He lived up to his reputation on stage for outrageousness, which often overwhelmed the amazing music he produced. You know a musician is talented when your “edgy” music gets used in car commercials decades later, which a couple of Ozzy's hits have.
Golden Earring saw commercial success in the 1980s, and everyone was waiting for them to break out as a mega-band. That, unfortunately, never happened, but they did produce several hits throughout the decade. Twilight Zone is probably their most well-known hit.
Mr. Big was known for heavy metal and soft rock music. If that sounds like an eclectic mix, it was, but it also made them very popular in the 80s because every album had something for every taste in rock music.
Poison was the quintessential “hair band” that produced many mega-hits, including Nothin' But A Good Time¸ Talk Dirty To Me, and Every Rose Has Its Thorn. For many, their sound was not as heavy as Guns N' Roses but still provided a major heavy metal influence.
As strictly an 80s hard rock band, there are few more iconic bands than Bon Jovi. It is difficult to find a song you do not like on any of their albums. With mega-hits like Bad Medicine, You Give Love a Bad Name and Living on a Prayer, Bon Jovi's music has been used in movies and television with a longevity that rivals Led Zeppelin or even The Beatles.
Another band that seamlessly played through genres, as a hard rock band, Foreigner, produced several mega hits in the 1980s. Jukebox Hero is probably their most famous example of their hard rock chops.
Bad English was a supergroup that produced several hits in the late 80s. When I See You Smile is their most successful single, and their lifespan was short, but they produced two very good albums before breaking up.
Boston saw its most successful period in the mid to late 70s but still played a significant role in shaping the 80s hard rock scene. The band had basically broken up in the late 70s but came back in the mid-80s to remind everyone why they were one of the most popular bands ever.
Whitesnake was a successful mix of blues and hair band with slight heavy metal undertones. Starting with the album Come and Get It, Whitesnake ran through the cycle of success, excess, breakup, and reunion at least two times in the 80s. In many ways, Whitesnake is synonymous with what the 80s hard rock was all about.
After a decade of turmoil, tragedy, and even one felony, Quiet Riot exploded onto the hard rock scene in 1983 with Metal Health. The band billed itself as a heavy metal band, and they certainly have their moments, but overall, their sound is more harder rock, and a few of their hits are still popular today.
The band Slaughter personified “glam metal.” Up All Night was their first major hit, but many hits followed after that. Slaughter was another band that merged hard rock with a heavier sound bordering heavy metal. In many ways, Slaughter's music is quintessentially 80s, mixing soaring musicianship with lyrics that personified the excess of the decade.
Loverboy is another one of those bands that captured the 80s for anyone that wants to understand what made the decade so iconic. Part hard rock, part soft rock, part love songs, and part head-banging, Loverboy produced several albums that enjoyed commercial success throughout the 80s.
Survivor rose to fame with the Rocky movies and enjoyed success through a few different albums across the decade. Their most famous song is probably Eye of the Tiger, which quickly became an anthem heard in pro sports arenas, even through the present day.
Night Ranger was founded in 1979, and it only took about five years to produce the anthem Sister Christian, which still gets played today. Between then and now, Night Ranger produced several mega-hits over the 80s before breaking up in 1980. The band sold over 20 million albums worldwide.
Motley Crue was huge in the 80s hard rock scene and synonymous with glam metal, hair bands, and using scantily clad models in their music videos. The only knock on the Crue by critics was that they seemed to pattern their music after what they supposed the rock-n-roll Life was. Whether that was true or not, their music was and is popular.
ZZ Top made great music for over 50 years. Mixing blues with a harder rock sound, their hits like Gimme All Your Lovin', Cheap Sunglasses, and Sharp Dressed Man made it clear the band members were superb musicians who loved making the music that made them famous.
Skid Row almost did not make the 80s, releasing their first album in 1989. 18 and Life helped them explode onto the scene and qualify for this list. Their music greatly impacted the hard rock scene, although music tastes were migrating to punk at that point.
Joan Jett became an icon for hard rock in the 80s. Mixing superlative musicianship with catchy lyrics and an edginess, Jett's music and voice were at times breathtaking, cementing her status as an 80s icon. For many, Jett's music was the sound of the 80s and an amalgam of everything everyone in that decade loved about it.
Pat Benatar started making hits in the early 80s and never stopped until long past the decade's end. She is one of the icons built on the legacy of Suzy Quatro, solidifying the fact that women could rock as hard as the guys and produce music as fun to listen to that would stand the test of time. Eventually, Benatar moved to a pop sound, but she got her chops in hard rock.
Top 80s Hard Rock Bands, Final Thoughts
In many ways, 80s hard rock resembled the decade: A lot of fun, some skill mixed in, and music that has stuck with us for decades. This sampling is just that, a sampling, as many other worthy hard rock bands of the 80s left their mark. These are the giants, but there are many other niche groups and bands that almost made it with a lot of good music.