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One of the Most Influential Decades in Rock Music–and all anyone cares about is the (really) bad hair!

Most people look at the 80s and cringe. Disco, dance-pop, bad hair, even worse fashion (remember poofy shirts and head-bands?). Quite a few rock bands emerged out of this decade–for the better. They left their mark and their legacy is still considered significant today.

This is my list of who I consider the coolest of the Rock performers during the 1980s, and the most dominant. The crème de la crème.


They had to have at least Two(!) albums come out in the 80s. They had to have consistent radio-play over a good portion of the decade. They needed to influence more than just this decade, their 80s material is still being played today. And they had to be somewhat cool–you know, not fashion trending acts nor bands/artists firmly planted in corny, silly, or foofoo music (a la George Michael or Madonna). Therefore, they needed to be ROCK bands, or at least really cool Pop bands.


They might have been good in the 70s, but they completely dominated in the 80s. “Any Way You Want It”, “Who’s Crying Now”, “Stone in Love”, “Don’t Stop Believin'”, “Open Arms”, “Separate Ways”, “Be Good to Yourself”, and, oh yeah, “Faithfully”. Couldn’t go a hour without hearing JOURNEY on the radio.

Van Halen

No matter whose singing them, the songs VAN HALEN gave us in the 80s were just plain awesone. “And the Cradle Will Rock…”, “Unchained”, “(Oh) Pretty Woman”, “Dancing in the Street”, “Panama”, “Jump”, “Hot for Teacher”, “Why Can’t This Be Love”, “Dreams”, “Black and Blue”, and “When It’s Love”–yeah, that’s a lot of hit singles. Did I mention “Panama”?


Remember when U2 was JUST a great rock band? Me neither. But with hits like “New Year’s Day”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Pride”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Angel of Harlem” and, of course, “Where the Streets Have No Name” U2 became 80s (and beyond) rock gods.

The Cars

The coolest nerds around. “Touch and Go”, “Shake it Up”, “Since You’re Gone”, “Magic”, “Drive”, “Hello Again”, “I’m Not the One”, “You Are the Girl” and video-hit “You Might Think”. One of the most respectable bands to come out of this usually derided decade.


Coming from the 70s as all prog and pompish, Phil Collins turned these guys into classic Pop/Rock (at least until the radio-friendly Pop-turd ‘Invisible Touch’ landed in 1986). “Turn It on Again”, “Misunderstanding”, “Abacab”, “No Reply at All”, “Paperlate”, “Mama”, and “That’s All”. I’ll even give some credit for “Land of Confusion” and “Throwing It All Away”.

38 Special

Lynyrd who? Johnny Van Zandt’s brother Donnie ended up in the arguably BIGGER (not better) band with 38 SPECIAL releasing 10 years of hits. “Rockin’ into the Night”, “Hold on Loosely”, “Caught Up in You”, “Back Where You Belong”, “Teacher, Teacher”, and “Back to Paradise”. AOR? Definitely, but who cares?

Billy Squier

Came out of nowhere, and “disappeared” again after 1991. But what a beautiful decade. “The Stroke”, “In the Dark”, “Lonely Is the Night”, “Everybody Wants You”, “Rock Me Tonite”, “Love Is the Hero” w/Freddie Mercury(!), “Don’t Let Me Go”, and “Don’t Say You Love Me”. Left the 80s as cool as he arrived.

Peter Gabriel

The king of weird became the king of weird…and introspective. Releasing some of this decades most memorable hits. “Biko”, “Games Without Frontiers”, “Shock the Monkey”, “Sledgehammer”, “Big Time”, “Red Rain” and the ultimate song of professing your love (at least according to John Cusack in ‘Say Anything’) “In Your Eyes”.

Tom Petty

Not a bad decade for a funny looking dude with a nasally voice. “Here Comes My Girl”, “Refugee”, “The Waiting”, “You Got Lucky”, “Change of Heart”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Rebels”, “Jammin’ Me”, “I Won’t Back Down”, “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, and a little known number called “Free Fallin'”. Oh, and the TRAVELING WILBURYS!

Robert Plant

LED ZEPPELIN may have set the stage, but Robert Plant was the epitome of cool in the 80s. “Slow Dancer”, “Big Log”, “In the Mood”, “Sea of Love”, “Little by Little”, “Heaven Knows”, “Ship of Fools” and “Tall Cool One”. Almost made one forget the demise of ZEPPELIN. Almost;)

ZZ Top

ZZ Top showed us what attitude mixed with guitars could do. And beards, don’t forget the beards. “Cheap Sunglasses”, “Pearl Necklace”, “Gimme All Your Lovin'”, “Got Me Under Pressure”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Legs”, “Sleeping Bag” and “Velcro Fly”.


New vocalist/badder attitude. “Back in Black”, every DJ’s wet-dream “You Shook Me All Night”, “Hells Bells”, “For Those About to Rock”, “Who Made Who”, “Heatseeker” and “That’s the Way I Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”. I can still barely understand a word Brian Johnson is “singing”.


The 80s is the decade QUEEN become Pop legends WTF?–still cool. “Play the Game”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want to Break Free”, “Hammer to Fall”, “One Vision”, “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “I Want It All”. Plus ‘The Highlander’ soundtrack! (We’ll ignore the ‘Flash Gordon’ S/T)

Ozzy Osbourne

Before Ozzy became known as the “mumbler” he was simply the craziest Metal freak of all time. His 80s solo material was WAY cooler than his SABBATH stuff. “Crazy Train”, “Mr. Crowley”, “Over The Mountain”, “Flying High Again”, “Bark at the Moon”, “Shot in the Dark”, and “Miracle Man”–nuff said. And he liked biting-off bat heads;)

The Rolling Stones

After two decades, the STONES kept getting cooler. Coming out the gates with “Start Me Up”, “Hang Fire”, “Going to a Go-Go” they continued with “Under Cover of the Night”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “One Hit” and “Rock and a Hard Place”. Legends who never seem to die, nor age–except Keith Richards who looks like he may have died back in the 70s.

Honorable Mentions

Night Ranger, Scorpions, The Smithereens, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, The Cult, Ratt, Dokken, REM, Whitesnake, Talking Heads, The Police, Joan Jett, Loverboy, and Dio. Maybe not enough “hits”, not cool enough, or not consistent enough across the entire decade. Still some really good bands, and many that I’ve not included/missed(?). And, of course, I left off the bands I personally don’t like…author’s prerogative;)

I’ve almost ignored the so-called Hair Metal acts that helped to destroy Rock’s image. As most of those bands started late in the decade and either quickly died or continued on (sans make-up) after this decade ended. And many were utter crap.

All around, the 80s remains perhaps the most influential decade for Metal, as well. NWOBHM began the 80s; it has METALLICA’s best work; German bands HELLOWEEN and ACCEPT/UDO emerged strong. And bands like PRIEST, MAIDEN, SLAYER, MEGADETH, MOTORHEAD, and ANTHRAX kept the fires burning throughout.

Unfortunately, most of these bands received next to no airplay during the 80s. Their influence stayed mostly under the radar and would only emerge in the Metal bands coming later.

Chad Schulz, Feb. 2014