Top 40 80s pop artists
By John Earls | January 17, 2022
It’s the ultimate face-off as the count down our favourite 80s pop artists…
It is, of course, the impossible task: distil music’s most creative and varied decade down to a mere 40 artists. The Classic Pop team has only just finished wiping the blood away caused by the fights creating such a list entails, but we reckon we’ve got the 1980s covered here.
Everyone has favourite artists that we couldn’t find room for. What do you mean, no Orange Juice, Nick Heyward or Kajagoogoo? But who from this selection could you possibly ignore? Our criteria was simple but strict: if you essentially broke through in the 70s – like Blondie, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello – you were out.
However, we’ve briefly alluded to some established artists whose careers got a much-needed shot in the arm during the 80s thanks to some landmark albums. Acts more suited to a rockist publication are also out, so no Def Leppard or Guns N’ Roses. There are other magazines for that sort of thing. Instead, let’s celebrate the colourful, eccentric and varied world of the finest pop of the 80s. What an incredible playlist it makes…
40 KIM WILDE
Marty’s eldest daughter is such a friendly staple of daytime TV and (thanks to her other passion) gardening shows, it’s easy to overlook just how huge she was, with 19 Top 40 singles. Massive in America, too, Kim supported Michael Jackson on the Bad tour, while her Top 30 album Here Come The Aliens proved Kim is still no slouch at energetic power-pop.
39 DIRE STRAITS
When they weren’t popularising CDs thanks to the pristine sheen of Brothers In Arms, at the time Dire Straits seemed an austere and somewhat workmanlike presence among the 80s riot of colour. But their imperious yacht rock has aged better than many contemporaries. Of all the bands yet to reform, they’d probably sound the most dignified if they did.
Morten Harket’s lethally sharp cheekbones and the glossy Take On Me video meant a-ha should have been as disposable as any boyband. Instead, they’re still creating stadium-sized melancholia over 30 years later. A precursor to 90s Scandipop, they’re still not given the credit their luxurious pop deserves – possibly because Morten is still so distressingly handsome, the swine.
37 JANET JACKSON
Janet could easily have been written off as Michael’s annoying kid sister, one Jackson too many. But if you’re fronting industrially-tooled R&B and promoting the deliciously filthy side of pop her brother was seemingly too asexual to convince with, who cares who your siblings are? Pretty much Britney Spears’ whole career was taken from the robofunk of Nasty.
David Sylvian’s refusal to engage with his past means Japan’s legend has faded. It shouldn’t: even now, it’s still impossible to fully grasp the real meanings of their complex, grandiose material. Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were so in awe of the music the Catford-birthed band smuggled into the Top 40 that they threw parties to celebrate their rival splitting up.
35 GENESIS/PHIL COLLINS/PETER GABRIEL
Genesis going from their prog period to Invisible Touch in a decade was the equivalent of Radiohead getting DJ Khaled to produce their next album. Phil Collins somehow found time to pioneer the blokey confessional album with Face Value, while Peter Gabriel went poppier than his old mates on the day-glo world of Sledgehammer.
As prolific as their friends in The Smiths, the difference was that R.E.M. carried on being magnificent for ages. Arriving fully-formed with the mysterious Murmur, by the end of the 80s R.E.M. were a fully-fledged arena powerhouse thanks to Green. Only Arcade Fire and The National have come close to rivalling them as North American college rock kings.
You’d have got pretty long odds on U2 being the biggest band in the world at the start of the 80s. Seemingly through the sheer scope of their ambition, they knuckled down and realised exactly what the world demanded – and promptly served up indestructible anthems by the yard. Having got stellar, they went Year Zero on their career, but that’s for another decade…
32 TEARS FOR FEARS
Precious few bands are capable of drawing on Jungian philosophy while creating stone-cold bangers, but precious few bands managed to distil the differing volatile temperaments of Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal long enough for them to be so cohesive. There are too few Tears For Fears songs out there, but what we’re gifted with is usually sublime.
31 LUTHER VANDROSS
Soul music generally went mad in the 80s, waylaid by the rise of hip-hop and feeling the effects of the decade’s anything-but-soulful synthetic production techniques. Some talents were able to rise above. Learning his craft as a backing singer for David Bowie and Diana Ross, once he was allowed the spotlight, Luther’s seductive voice truly shone.
30 THE POLICE
Sting has been a caricature for so long, it’s easy to forget just how inventive The Police were. Swallowing up stadiums via songs as downright sinister as Every Breath You Take is impressive, as is the way they graduated to stardom without losing the intensity of three people who plainly hated each other. Like The Jam, they knew exactly the right moment to split.
They might not have quite been the original girlband, but they certainly set the template on how the Spice Girls to Little Mix operate: make being in a pop group look the most fun imaginable, while ensuring you’ve got the best tunes on the block. The fervour surrounding Siobhan Fahey rejoining showed how much Bananarama still matter
28 THE ASSOCIATES
An operatically-voiced gay guy singing defiantly abstract disco about social anxiety? Only in the 1980s could The Associates have become crossover stars. With Billy Mackenzie’s stratospheric voice, their songs could have coasted. Instead, via the gloriously strange Party Fears Two and Club Country, Alan Rankine crafted drama worthy of his bandmate.
Yes, Trevor Horn’s production on The Lexicon Of Love was wonderful. But it would have been nothing without songs injected with Oscar-worthy drama. The rest of ABC’s decade – the rockist Beauty Stab, back to silky soul and still finding time for proto-house – badly needs reassessing, too. And Poison Arrow has the best spoken-word section of any pop song.
Eurythmics were determined to make memorable videos, and their various images are so iconic it’s almost overshadowed how consistent the music was. Annie Lennox simply had to be a star, while Dave Stewart is one of the best grafters in music. That’s not an insult: it’s harder to write a hit single than a freeform jazz odyssey. Together, they were unstoppable.
25 DEPECHE MODE
Set to be pure-pop titans with Vince Clarke, once he left Martin Gore ensured Depeche Mode became a far more deviant proposition. Uniting misfits with an outsiders’ worldview and doomy anthems, they weren’t a band so much as a way of life: it’s been that way ever since. Even without Depeche’s dark carapace, you’re left with an arsenal of bangers.
24 YAZOO/ALISON MOYET/ERASURE
Like a non-evil Simon Cowell, Vince Clarke knows how to spot a star: first, he kickstarted Alison Moyet’s career with Yazoo and then did it all over again with Andy Bell. Alison thrived on her own, while Erasure are still a force for good. Why hasn’t anyone erected a statue in his honour?
23 CULTURE CLUB
As Boy George told Classic Pop recently, just the sight of Culture Club – a mixed-race band fronted by a flamboyantly-dressed gay singer – was a statement in itself. Their music was just as important: classic soul tales of forbidden love with an added pop twist which sent them stellar. Too intense to last at the time, it’s impossible not to cheer on their comeback.
22 THE CURE
They happened to thrive in the 1980s, but The Cure would be fantastically other no matter when their music was created. The Cure are The Cure: it’s one of the great unwritten rules of pop music. And, let’s be clear, they make pop music, not rock music: Robert Smith is too in love with melody and experimentation to be anything as dull as a rock singer.
21 FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
Two of the decade’s biggest singles had videos involving watersports and nuclear war. Hurray! What the band bought was insouciant cool (Paul Rutherford), a belief that pop could be about anything (Holly Johnson) and a devilment that they were getting away with it (the other three, aka The Lads). It didn’t last, but good lord, what a debut album.
20 TALK TALK
Were Talk Talk ever actually real? No, honestly: their fourth album, 1988’s Spirit Of Eden is such an out-there masterpiece that it couldn’t have been made by regular people. The myth of Talk Talk is the most enigmatic in pop, primarily because their music lives up to the mystery.
It’s true that Madness’ albums weren’t generally as strong as their hits, but labelling them “a singles band” shouldn’t be an insult. You try writing era-defining songs as joyful as Our House, Driving In My Car and House Of Fun and then you can carp about filler tracks. Moreover, since their return, the albums have been fantastic, too. You didn’t make Baggy Trousers. Madness did. They win.
18 KYLIE MINOGUE
The ultimate Stock, Aitken Waterman creation and so much more, Kylie should have had one album and scarpered like every other soap star. Instead, here she is, more than 30 years later, still perfectly poptangular. Nobody else developed from the SAW factory went on to be bigger: some singers really are just born to be pop stars.
17 SOFT CELL
Even in a decade of deviants, Soft Cell are the ultimate example of smuggling a dark heart into the mainstream. Marc Almond is right that he and Dave Ball should have written more pop songs, but The Art Of Falling Apart and This Last Night In Sodom are perfect outsider art. Dave is right to claim Depeche Mode essentially stole their career when Soft Cell split.
16 THE STONE ROSES
The Stone Roses weren’t the purest example of rave culture, but the scene saved them from getting stuck as the unpromising goths they started out as in 1985. Three years on, they had one of the all-time great rhythm sections, a spectacular guitarist and a messianic singer holding it together. When their eponymous debut album arrived in 1989, the 1990s began.
15 THE HUMAN LEAGUE
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh quit after The Human League’s first two albums flopped. Heaven 17 were great, and everyone assumed Phil Oakey was a spent force, especially when his big idea was recruiting two singers he’d seen dancing in a club. The result? The Dare album and its passably successful single Don’t You Want Me. That’s how you get revenge.
14 KATE BUSH
Like Robert Smith, Kate Bush would be the same in 1920 or 2020 as when she happened to float into existence with Wuthering Heights. Never has someone taken such a languorously perfectionist approach to their music, while simultaneously plainly not giving a stuff what anyone else thinks of it. It makes her an incredibly powerful presence, and her music utterly timeless.
13 THE SPECIALS
2019 album Encore was one of the all-time great comebacks, but that shouldn’t be a surprise: everything The Specials do is a sign of total commitment and integrity. Their role as one of the UK’s first crossover multiracial bands was politically important; songs as intense and provocative as Ghost Town and Too Much Too Young more than lived up to that pioneering status.
12 SPANDAU BALLET
From the forefront of club culture on Journeys To Glory to timeless stadium ballads with Through The Barricades in just five years, Spandau Ballet’s heartthrob image overshadowed what a varied songwriter Gary Kemp is. Immense multi-genre anthems, and such a sharp fashion sense that even David Bowie copied their look: what else do you want from a band?
11 THE SMITHS
Far more than mining misery, Morrissey’s scabrous wit was matched every step by Johnny Marr’s melodic powers. Their dignity in refusing to reform means the brutal power of The Smiths’ live shows has been largely forgotten.
That Morrissey has been so serially unpleasant over the past few years means that many fans no longer want a reunion. That’s heartbreaking.
10 PET SHOP BOYS
One of the most distinctive voices in music, unrivalled attention to detail, endless array of killer lyrics, subsuming club culture into titanic pop songs when they’re not crafting heart-stopping ballads… Ever since West End Girls introduced them to the world, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have shown the importance of pop, without ever overstating the fact.
9 PUBLIC ENEMY
Their riotously powerful music would have been enough to earn their place here. That they were a genuine cultural phenomenon, too, means Public Enemy’s influence has lasted longer than any other peer. Mainstream USA was right to be scared of them: after Public Enemy, sectors of American society’s downtrodden finally had a voice. And what a voice.
8 NEW ORDER
Overcoming the tragedy of Ian Curtis’ death, Joy Division emerged just as strong with their new identity. A proper band, four strong personalities were reflected in mixing dance music with a melancholic undertow. The best-selling 12″ of all-time in Blue Monday, one of the greatest videos in True Faith and possibly the best ever B-side with the majestic 1963: they made it all look a blast, too.
7 DURAN DURAN
In a decade that ultimately saw the rise of the solo singer, Duran Duran were the ultimate 80s band. They didn’t become its biggest stars just because John Taylor was always Smash Hits’ Most Fanciable Male (though it helped). For a band so ginormous, Rio and Seven And The Ragged Tiger were, at their core, both immensely poppy and powerfully strange albums.
6 WHITNEY HOUSTON
Whitney Houston’s skyscraping voice gave birth to an over-singing am-dram vocal style that’s still distressingly prevalent. It wasn’t Whitney’s fault that her successors entirely missed the point: Whitney could properly sing, and nobody since her has been able to capture the sheer joy present in every note of I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) and How Will I Know.
5 ADAM ANT
“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” summed up the message of 80s music: no matter how strange you are, you too could be a huge pop star. That was typified by Adam Ant’s own rise: a seemingly washed-up punk at the start of the decade, within 18 months he was Britain’s biggest pop star. He did it with colour, style and songs that sounded
4 MICHAEL JACKSON
With just two albums, Michael Jackson was the decade’s biggest personality. Fifteen of his 19 album tracks in the 80s were singles, every one of them massive – beat that for quality control. Every aspect of his image was worthy of university degree courses, while his tours remain the standard for stadium theatrics. For a decade, Michael knew exactly how to use his golden voice.
3 GEORGE MICHAEL/WHAM!
As shuttlecocks-down-the-shorts cheesy as Wham! looked, it was soon obvious that their music was sturdier than boyband fodder, with George Michael’s songs full of fun and lust. Wham! had a yearning, too, which George developed once he couldn’t go any further creatively with Andrew Ridgeley. Put all of that together, and Faith was the perfect debut solo album.
Far from the greatest singer or songwriter, Madonna exemplified control: putting the right team in place to deliver an endless stream of fantastic singles. Madonna always looked fantastic, and her live shows helped reinvent what was possible in stadium pop’s first era. You could say Madonna invented Girl Power before the Spice Girls, but Madonna wasn’t so limiting: hers was simply Power.
Prince is possibly the only bona fide genius in 1980s music. How else to explain just how gifted he was as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, performer and style icon? He was certainly the most prolific songwriter, releasing his own albums at such a prodigious rate that Warner could barely keep up with him, while finding time to donate songs to others which would have been the best in many artists’ whole careers: I Feel For You, Manic Monday, Nothing Compares 2 U… and that’s before examining the mythical piles of unreleased songs Prince insisted remain in his vaults which are only now beginning to surface.
So, sure, Prince could write – and there couldn’t have been anyone better to perform his songs than Prince And The Revolution either. Nobody better captured raw, crackling sex better, whether he was being explicit or seemingly playful like Kiss. He transcended genres, because while he excelled at pop, rock, R&B and soul, he was always Prince, superior to any boundaries. Prince’s career had the occasional misfire, like his Graffiti Bridge film, but that was irrelevant because something brilliant would follow before you knew it.
Prince was locked in a space race with Madonna, David Bowie and Michael Jackson in the 80s to see who would have the greatest live show. For performance, Prince won: it was in concert that fans were reminded that here was possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation as well as its finest songwriter. No wonder Prince rarely spoke: decades on, us mere mortals are still trying to fathom out how he managed it all.
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