Each decade has a bit of a unique sound. These top rock bands of the 80s are some of the best rock and roll acts that performed, recorded, and featured on media in that era. Some of them are even still going strong now.
Let’s look at some of the biggest and best bands from the 1980s. If you’re interested in what makes this period and its music so interesting, consider learning more about music theory
The Bee Gees are pretty much synonymous with the disco 1970s. Still, their extreme popularity carried over into the next decade and they reinvented themselves into a soft rock powerhouse.
This long-lived band had some turmoil in the 1980s as the success of their mega-album Saturday Night Fever faded into the rearview mirror. Their 1987 album ESP was not as well-received, but their music remained immensely popular, and they still have legions of fans.
At first glance, you might think Toto is a bit of a one-hit-wonder. But, with a fairly extensive catalog of hits, their doubters are proven wrong. The perception of limited success probably comes from the chart-busting and durable popularity of “Africa,” their most successful and widely-known song.
However, if you listen to any collection of rock music from the 1980s, you’re bound to hear other Toto hits like “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “I’ll Be Over You.”
Hall and Oates
Hall and Oates are a rock duo whose widest success spanned the 1980s. They had their first hits in the 1970s, but their run of successful number one singles carried them into the next decade, and Daryl Hall and John Oates remain the number one selling rock duo in music history.
Their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a capstone to their career, and both remain active but mostly work separately now.
Foreigner is one of the most successful rock bands of all time, and a significant part of that success came in the 1980s. They already enjoyed a reputation for powerful rock ballads from 70s hits like “Head Games” and “Cold as Ice.”
The next decade saw more hits like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” which are both among their sixteen top thirty hits. Their catalog also features nine top ten hits.
Genesis wasn’t just a rock act. They were one of the biggest acts in all of music in the 1980s. Building on successful progressive rock albums of the 1970s, Genesis had five hit records in the following decade.
Their 1986 album, The Invisible Touch, featured five number one hit singles and went on to become the best-selling Genesis record ever, with more than seven million copies sold.
Chicago’s initial recordings and commercial success predate the 1980s. But in the aftermath of the death of their founding guitarist, Terry Kath, the band and producer David Foster took their sound in a new direction, with a focus on softer rock.
The results were two of the band’s best-selling albums. Chicago 17, released in 1984, featured the hit song “You’re the Inspiration.”
The Doobie Brothers
The Doobie Brothers have an impressive catalog of rock hits. The 1980s didn’t start out so well for the band, as their first release of the decade, One Step Closer, failed to live up to their previous commercial successes.
But, by the end of the decade and despite some turmoil in the group, the Doobies would embark on a mega-tour that was quite successful and led to a live album that sold millions of copies.
Steely Dan didn’t have much recording success in the 1980s. But, they didn’t have to. Their catalog of hits from the 1970s were radio staples throughout the 80s.
Songs like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” were ever-present throughout the decade. Their only album from this period, Gaucho, came out in 1980 and saw a torturous production fraught with difficulties. But it was also incredibly successful.
The Ramones weren’t just a rock band from the 80s. The band is among the greatest music acts of all time, with accolades from Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though all of the original band members have since died, their music lives on.
Though none of the bandmates were actually brothers, they all adopted the surname ‘Ramone.’ Their hits from the 80s include the smash hit “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” and “Pet Semetary,” two of the band’s most famous recordings.
Winger is a successful hard rock and glam metal band led by Kip Winger. Their self-titled debut album came out in 1988. Combined with excellent record sales, their MTV music videos were exceedingly popular, making tracks like “Madalaine,” “Seventeen,” and “Hungry” household names.
Rush was one of the most successful bands in history. Though Canadian, they sold more than 26 million albums in the US, placing them in the top 100 bands of all time commercially. Their three 80s albums, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals, all built on their previous success.
At the beginning of their run, their music was a bluesy rock. Then they experimented with synthesizers. By the end of the 80s, they had a hard-edged power rock style.
Yes self-identifies as a progressive rock band. Some might call their music a pop version of rock. However you categorize it, their sound was big in the 1980s. Their biggest hit was probably, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from their 1983 album, 90125.
They also received multiple Grammy nominations in the 80s, and they continue to tour and record today.
Styx had already seen success in the 1970s, with huge hits like “Come Sail Away.” By the turn of the decade, the band was world-famous.
Their 1981 album, Paradise Theater, took their fame and success to a new level, thanks to the popularity of songs like “The Best of Times,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and “Mr. Roboto.” They had additional success into the 90s and beyond and continue to tour today.
If you had a radio in the late 1980s, the sounds of Warrant came out of the speaker at some point. The band had a quick run of success with featured songs on the soundtrack to the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Then, they released their album Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich and achieved mega-band status with the smash hit “Heaven,” a power ballad. Changing musical styles and band members through the years, the band remains a fixture of the 80s rock scene.
REO Speedwagon had a hard-edged, hard rock discography before 1980. The new decade saw them reinvent their sound into more of a pop-rock band, and the hits kept coming. Songs like “Keep on Loving You,” “Take it On the Run,” and “Don’t Let Him Go” were radio fixtures throughout the decade.
Their 1985 tour was wildly successful. By the end of the decade, their mainstream popularity was in decline, but their 1988 album The Hits still had plenty of commercial success.
The Cars were, in some ways, part of a rock revolution. The 1980s were a bit of a melting pot of sounds, featuring punk and hard rock. The Cars brought a unique flair with a bit of a new wave sound to the decade with songs like “Shake it Up,” “Drive,” and “Tonight She Comes.”
Their success grew on the back of their popular music video for “You Might Think.”
Their sound was part of the fabric of the 80s rock scene.
Blondie is another band that grew out of the collision of various types of rock. Some call their sound ‘new wave,’ describing that changing type of music that took over in the 1980s. Their songs were sometimes funky, sometimes disco, and often punk.
But sometimes, you can find elements of reggae and pop in their recordings. Blondie had a hiatus by 1982, but Debbie Harry’s solo albums kept the band relevant throughout the decade.
Judas Priest was recording hard rock and metal music as early as 1969. But their commercial success didn’t come until the 1980s, mostly on the back of their album British Steel. Some of the songs on that album, like “Breaking the Law,” showed their mastery of weaving a ‘catch’ or commercially appealing sound to their recordings.
This, in effect, made their brand of heavy metal more accessible to the masses. Their success only grew through the 80s, and it continues today.
Pink Floyd’s catalog extends well beyond the 80s, with wide-ranging success before and after that decade. They already had hit albums like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall that defined psychedelic rock.
They had massively popular records in the 1990s with the Division Bell. The 1980s saw a lot of turmoil in the band, with a bit of a power struggle between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, but those struggles also yielded two legendary albums, The Final Cut and A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
AC/DC is an Australian band that had massive success in the 1980s, born out of previous commercial success and tragedy. Their sixth album, Highway to Hell, hit the airwaves in 1979. Almost immediately after its acclaim, lead singer Bon Scott passed away, the victim of acute alcohol poisoning.
With Brian Johnson, the band finished recording their next album, Back in Black. With songs like the title track, plus “Hells Bells” and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the band achieved the pinnacle of rock success, and they are widely held as one of the best rock acts of all time.
Mötley Crüe has sold more than 100 million records, and they’re one of the biggest rock acts from the 1980s. With Vince Neil up in front, Nikki Six on bass, and drummer Tommy Lee, they brought a lot of flash as perhaps the premiere glam rockers of the decade.
Lead guitarist Mick Mars might not enjoy quite the same level of name recognition, but his phrasing was often the glue that held the band’s sound together.
Bon Jovi was one of the most successful rock acts of the 1980s. Their music helped other rock music acts make the jump from hard rock and metal to a style tuned for a pop audience.
With hit singles like “Runaway,” “Only Lonely,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the band’s four albums of the 1980s were wildly popular, and their fame only grew through music videos on MTV. In many ways, Bon Jovi was a defining sound of the decade.
Poison represents the essence of the glam metal era of the 80s. They had three major albums in the 1980s, including Look What the Cat Dragged In, Open Up and Say…Ahh!, and Flesh and Blood. Songs like “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” were radio and music video staples, and the band lived hard, played hard, and rocked even harder. They have multiple platinum records in their discography and continue to tour today.
People sometimes lump Twisted Sister in with other glam rock acts. But frontman Dee Snider believes they were something different, perhaps an uglier version of metal or hard rock. However, the band used lots of makeup, and their act was a hit with large swathes of rock audiences.
Their signature hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is a mainstay on any rock music collection of the 1980s, along with their other most famous hit, “I Wanna Rock.”
Quiet Riot is a heavy metal band that’s among the great acts in hard rock history. Their first album, Metal Health, was a massive breakthrough, representing the first time a heavy metal act charted on Billboard’s list of top albums. It featured two of the most iconic 1980s rock songs: “Cum on Feel The Noise” and “Metal Health (Bang Your Head).” Despite the fact that the entire original lineup has passed away, the band continues to tour and record.
Kiss became famous for its over-the-top rock performances in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, their trademark face paint and outlandish costumes were on the shelf, and their commercial success took on a whole new dynamic.
Their album Lick It Up went platinum, and the band was a fixture on MTV. The original four members of the band are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Journey is one of the most successful bands in American history. They had a run of success in the 80s that started with the 1981 song, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and a follow-up album, Escape. This was the band’s seventh record and their most successful. A 2005 survey named Journey the fifth-best American rock band of all time.
Skid Row started out touring small clubs and venues as a hard rock and heavy metal band in the mid-80s. The band hit it big with their self-titled debut album, featuring “I Remember You.” The group had close ties to Bon Jovi, and they joined them on tour, increasing their fame. They toured with other major acts for the rest of the decade and into the next and still perform live shows today.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the biggest names in all of rock and roll music, particularly in the southern rock category. Even before the 80s, they had an impressive catalog, but they also had a major tragedy.
A plane crash in 1977 killed members of the band, their staff, and the pilots of the jet. In the aftermath, the band took a break, before reforming in the mid-80s for a tour that would become the double live album, Southern By The Grace of God. This record featured most of the surviving members of the group and helped spur the band to continued success.
The Marshall Tucker Band
The Marshall Tucker Band sometimes falls into the blues-rock or southern rock categories, but their fifty years of popular and commercial success reveal that they’re simply a great rock band.
During the 80s, the band’s catalog of songs from previous hit albums like Running in the Wind and Long Hard Ride were fixtures on the radio and the band continued to record. But, it was a difficult period as the band struggled with the death of co-founder Tommy Caldwell.
The Allman Brothers Band
The Allman Brothers Band is one of the biggest acts in rock history, with an expansive catalog of hits and an unrivaled record of touring the country. Forced to navigate breakups, rehabs, the death of founders Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, and a changing musical landscape, the band continued to thrive.
The 80s was a period of turmoil, but they toured heavily through much of the decade, released new albums like Brothers of the Road, and even appeared on Saturday Night Live. Up until the death of Gregg Allman in 2017, the band continued to tour.
.38 Special was arguably one of the strongest rock bands of the 1980s. Fronted by Donnie Van Zant (whose brother Ronnie was the founder of Lynyrd Skynyrd), they had a series of hits throughout the decade, as they made a transition from southern rock sounds to a more arena rock style of music. Some of their most famous 80s hits include “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” and “Teacher, Teacher.”
Molly Hatchet’s 1981 album title, Take No Prisoners, encapsulates much of what made this southern-inspired band successful. They had a hard-hitting style that took the best of the blues, southern rock, and more. Their biggest hit is undeniably the track “Flirting With Disaster,” but they also had about a dozen other albums and toured extensively with top acts throughout the 1980s.
ZZ Top had a distinctive style of hard-hitting blues licks with speedy and chugging rhythms. Their breakout success came on the back of the 1980s video music scene and the premiere of their song “Legs.”
The music video for this hit song would help propel ZZ Top to the top of the charts, and they would stay there on the strength of other hits like “Sharp Dressed Man.” They had additional hit albums in the 1980s, and they continued to record and tour until the death of bassist Dusty Hill. The band lives on, however, in accordance with Hill’s wishes.
The Georgia Satellites
The Georgia Satellites had three albums in the 1980s: In The Land of Salvation and Sin, Open All Night, and their debut self-titled record. Their subsequent success arguably would not have happened without the immense popularity of their song “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” featured on their first release and marking their best-charting song. It was only prevented from hitting number one by Bon Jovi’s rock anthem, “Living on a Prayer.”
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Big Lebowski, you’ll know that the Dude can’t abide the Eagles. But, that’s contrary to the prevailing sentiment, as the Eagles are one of the best-selling groups of all time.
They were on hiatus during most of the eighties, but it made no difference. Their hits are synonymous with the decade, as they remained mainstays on the radio and in pop culture. With hits like “Take It Easy,” “The Long Run,” and “Lyin’ Eyes,” highlighting an extensive collection of songs spanning different genres, it’s fair to say that the Eagles are now part of the vernacular music of the 1980s.
For some people, the name Led Zeppelin equals rock and roll. Their commercial success includes incredible statistics, with perhaps 300 million albums sold, eight consecutive number one albums in their native UK, and six consecutive number one albums in the US.
The band was on hiatus for much of the decade but still found time for major concerts like Live Aid in 1985. The band enjoys a legacy of immense influence on rock music, both in the 1980s and now.
Fleetwood Mac had a lot of success that predates the 1980s. They even already had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But, as the decade changed, the band dealt with the departure of guitarist and singer Bob Welch.
His replacements, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham would help propel the band into worldwide stardom. They released two albums in the 80s, Mirage and Tango In The Night, and toured extensively.
The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys had some big bumps in the road during the 1980s. Their most successful albums were arguably from the 1960s, and the band struggled with their identity, musical style, and personal relationships. In 1983, one of the founding members, Dennis Wilson, died in a drowning incident. But, they had an unexpected smash hit with the song “Kokomo,” featured in the Tom Cruise film, Cocktail.
The Bangles were at the forefront of the pop-rock wave of music in the 1980s and 1990s. With three female performers forming the nexus of the band, they were also a bit of a novelty. But, their musical chops and performance quality earned them accolades and success. They toured with Cyndi Lauper, and their single “Walk Like an Egyptian” is part of the fabric of the 80s rock band scene. “Manic Monday” was also exceedingly popular.
The Go-Gos dub themselves ‘the most successful all-female rockers of all time.’ Featuring Belinda Carlisle on lead vocals, the band walked a bit of a line between punk and then a more pop-oriented sound.
Their debut album, Beauty and the Beast, hit the airwaves in 1982 and was a huge hit. The band was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy that same year, and their popularity and composition remained consistent until 1985.
U2 is one of the biggest names in rock music, and many of their biggest hits came in the 1980s. Their Irish roots feature prominently in their third 80s album, War. This album brought them notoriety and commercial success, and then a successful tour.
They enjoyed a lot of airtime on MTV due to some well-timed concert appearances and finished the decade with two massively successful albums, The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.
The Cure is part of the new wave of rock music that grew out of the ‘post-punk’ period. Their style showed that progression across their first three albums, and their fourth, Pornography, was a venture into a gothic rock phase. They went further towards pop with their 1984 album, The Top, which had a decidedly pop feel. It was also their most successful and led to a worldwide tour.
Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses are one of the biggest, brashest acts in rock and roll history. They are also representative of the explosion of hard rock with a nearly heavy metal edge that took place in the 80s. Their 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction, featured multiple top 10 singles, including one of the band’s biggest early hits, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
They went on to release one more album, G N’ R Lies, before the end of the decade and went on to continue their success in the following decade.
Queen was already one of the biggest arena-rocking bands in the world in 1980. Then, in 1981, their compilation album, Greatest Hits, launched their record sales into the stratosphere, going nine times platinum. They highlighted the 1985 Live Aid concert, and the death of frontman Freddy Mercury in 1981 only led to even greater success.
Def Leppard’s still around, but their greatest success came in the 1980s. Their debut album, On Through the Night, led to 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry and the band’s most famous song, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” Though their 1987 album Hysteria sold more copies, ‘Heartbreak’ is an 80s anthem that’s instantly recognizable to a broad audience.
The Pogues were an English band, but their appeal was international. They started out quite small, performing in pubs and bars, before their self-produced single “Dark Streets of London” took their fame and fortune to new heights.
They went on to see commercial success with albums Red Roses for Me and Rum Sodomy & the Lash but never became a breakout mega-band. However, their reunion in 2006 saw them play sold-out concerts across the US, Japan, Ireland, and the UK.
Hüsker Dü occupies a unique place in rock history. Along with bands like the Ramones, they helped bridge a gap between thrashing hard rock and a new generation of rock that was more melodic, accessible, and popular.
Today, many regard them very favorably for their energy and attitude. In the 1980s, their intensity never wavered, despite variations in style between hard attack albums like Metal Circus and the more theatrical Zen Arcade, which is 33rd on Rolling Stone’s list of the top one hundred albums of the decade.
The Smiths had seven albums in the 1980s. Each of them helped cement the band’s legacy as one of the most prominent groups of the decade.
They had an overall cohesiveness that many indie bands ever achieved, and their style became almost a rebellion against dance rock and soft pop. Their influence continues today, and many of the band members have gone on to individual success.
INXS was another band that straddled the lines between different styles of rock. In the 1980s, their music was quite popular, with their song “Original Sin” blowing up in their native Australia, and then becoming internationally famous. They performed at Live Aid in 1985, and their tour for their album Listen Like Thieves saw some call them one of the top bands to see live in the world.
Men at Work
Men at Work blew up on the rock scene in 1983. But their hit song “Who Can It Be Now?” started the show in 1981 for this new wave rock quintet. When their album Business as Usual came out two years later, it was so popular that it ended up number one on the charts in the US. They also recorded major hits with “Down Under” and “Be Good Johnny.”
Van Halen is probably one of the most recognizable names in rock music history. The 1980s was a pivotal time for the band, as in 1985, David Lee Roth left his role as the frontman to pursue solo ventures. Sammy Hagar took over his duties, and the hits kept on coming.
Van Halen had successful recordings both before and after the decade of the 80s, but some of the biggest hits came in 1984 with “Jump,” “Hot For Teacher,” and “Panama,” all featuring Roth, and then “Why Can’t This Be Love” with Hagar.
The Dire Straits achieved the pinnacle of musical success with their very first single, 1978’s Sultans of Swing. It was not only a top ten hit in the UK and the US, but for many, it’s the first song they think of if you ask them to name a hit rock song from the 1980s or beyond. The band has plenty of other hits and multiple Grammy awards, and they’ve sold more than 100 million records.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were an iconic band that saw commercial success in the 1980s and beyond. They had a run of albums featuring hit singles as their popularity grew. Tom Petty passed away in 2017, but his expansive catalog lives on, and many of his most famous albums come from the 80s, including Long After Dark, Southern Accents, and Pack Up the Plantation: Live.
Deep Purple had an extensive history before the 1980s. Until 1984, the band was on a nearly decade-long break, pursuing various solo projects. Their reunion in 1984 spawned the album Perfect Strangers, which was a huge success in the UK and US. The ensuing tour was also remarkably successful and led to the House of Blue Light album and more touring that led to a popular live album.
Top Rock Bands Of The 80s, Final Thoughts
The best rock bands of the 1980s are a great illustration of how this decade marks a shift in popular musical taste. The rock music of this decade represents a confluence of southern, punk, ska, reggae, gothic, glam, arena, and blues-rock.
The resulting ‘new wave’ of music took the best aspects from all these genres and created a new and distinctive sound. Some acts never had to change, as they continued to enjoy commercial success. Every act on this list of rockers represents the best of the decade.