It’s becoming increasingly clearer that the 1980s was a transitional time for rock and roll. It wasn’t that the music derailed from its natural lineage, it’s just that the game changed almost cosmically thanks to the inception of MTV and the importance of the music video, a noticeable reaction to the monkey wrench that was “punk,” the increasing popularity of hip hop, and the synthesizer. The notion of what it meant to make “rock and roll” held an entirely new context in the 80s, especially considering that many of the legendary artists from the preceding 3 decades now had to fight extra hard for relevancy. Yes, at large, this era is wrapped in an ugly stigma, despite many incredible artists emerging/making a stand over these 10 years, and I think that all boils down to the focus on pop music. Even rock at its most creative was still seemingly always candy coated to some extent in the 1980s; some of it was incredible, some of it was abysmal. For the artists that carried their careers into the decade with the hope of commercial success, it seemed that the only way to do so was to actually “go pop.” Some did it on their terms, some resigned to the fads completely, and others (who do not appear on this list) were simply content with relevancy in their own circles (Elvis Costello, for example.) In order to keep up with newcomers like U2 and R.E.M., it seemed almost inevitable that some of rock’s biggest legends would have to sell their musical souls and go pop. Many survived, and many walked away with an irremovable stain on an otherwise incredible career. It could have been everything from an album to a single song to a slight overhaul to a complete change in direction. Here is the definitive ranking on who pulled it off, and who didn’t.
Words cannot express how disappointing it is that this group evolved from the iconic Jefferson Airplane. They were strikingly successful in the 80s, with hits like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and “Sara,” but they are most remembered for their infamous disaster, “We Built This City.” Their songs still maintained this weird undertone of rock and roll, but they were so thickly candy coated that you could only properly file it under “pop.” Starship may have only existed as an individual entity in the 1980s, but they come from an impressive lineage that is severely tarnished by their existence, especially considering they produced what many consider to the best worst song ever.
Styx wasn’t ever particularly considered a great rock band, but at least they were considered a rock band. They maintained the integrity of their sound going into the 80s, but everybody cocked their heads a bit when they unleashed the epic “Mr. Roboto.” While not their only, or necessarily even their biggest hit, the track remains their claim to fame for essentially jam-packing every little qualification for “novelty one hit wonder” into one song. At best, “Mr. Roboto” is only ever going to be filed under “guilty pleasure,” but the group’s biggest pop moment made them a truly definitive fixture of the decade, and that’s something worth noting.
It’s a shame that a group that started out making such groundbreaking music ended up where Genesis did in the 1980s. Post-Gabriel, the band released a few glimmers of hope, but completely crossed over into shameless pop music that barely even resembled their classic works. Tracks like “That’s All,” “Invisible Touch,” and “I Can’t Dance” were certainly better than some of the other “of the moment” radio staples, but on principle alone, it’s hard to really praise them all that much. Without striking up too much of a debate, this was as close as it will ever get to selling out. Aside: it’s not even worth getting into the whole “Phil Collins debacle.”
22. Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker’s brief stint with pop music comes in the form of one track, the cheese-tastic, definitively 80s ballad, “Up Where We Belong.” This duet with Jennifer Warnes was a massive hit in the early part of the decade and gave this raspy, soulful rocker a proper view from the top. Of course we’re all familiar with his classic “You Are So Beautiful,” which went on to be a sizable hit in the 70s, but this recording really saw Mr. Cocker venture into a commercial territory he wasn’t really meant to be apart of. Yes, the song was a massive, Grammy winning hit, but in hindsight, we’re all just trying to forget about it.
21. Philip Bailey
Philip Bailey has one of the most dynamic voices to ever grace soul music. He racked up countless hits with Earth Wind & Fire, even into the 80s, but when he broke out of the group, he only managed to finagle one of his own. “Easy Lover” does everything it can to be a rock song, but this thing is just dripping with shameless pop-iness. When you resign to collaborating with Phil Collins, that’s bound to happen, though. The song is relatively harmless, but it far from lives up to the incredible pieces crafted with his band, and therefore doesn’t sit all that nicely in the grand scheme of 80s hits. It’s strange calling Philip Bailey a one hit wonder, but he really is.
20. Paul McCartney
Why, Paul, why?! He always was the most pop-oriented Beatle, but even his early solo/Wings material had a great quality to it. When Macca enter the 80s, all bets were off, and we were given songs like “Pipes Of Peace,” “Ebony and Ivory,” and “Say Say Say.” Even working with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson couldn’t really help him out. It’s not that the songs were bad, it’s just that they didn’t live up to his quality, and, quite frankly didn’t really fit him as the artist we all know and worship. Yes, he landed himself some big hits, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a win for Paul here.
19. The Who/Pete Townshend
The Who really only had one hit in the 80s, “You Better You Bet.” Falling in line with Pete Townshend’s own embracement of new wave, the group, while still maintaining a somewhat cool rock edge, released their most instantly commercial tune to date. The track isn’t a sell-out or a shameless attempt at success, but it certainly has a poppiness to it that sticks out in their catalog. Similarly, guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend tackled a bit of pop himself in his solo career with tracks like “Let My Love Open The Door.” The reason they’re not ranked higher is because they refused to really cross over all the way. In this case, it could have kept the success going.
18. The J. Geils Band
One word: “Centerfold.” This once bluesy, soulful group pulled one of the biggest 180s in rock at the time and released the bouncy, poppy megahit we know as “Centerfold.” It turned them into radio stars for only a brief period of time, but there was certainly an impact. The group is still highly recognized for their early work within the appropriate circles, but their lone super hit really puts a tarnish on that legacy. If you choose to listen to the song and realize it’s actually pretty awesome and its delirious catchiness is nothing but endearing, then you’ve got nothing to really complain about. Their bid for pop stardom wasn’t really so bad, all things considered.
17. Billy Joel
Billy Joel is a renowned, Hall of Fame singer-songwriter with more classics to his name than any one artist could hope for. In the 1980s, he was a pop star, and he knew it. Still finding a way to appeal to the masses that bought into tracks like “Piano Man” and “Just The Way You Are,” Mr. Joel decided to go bigger and even catchier. There’s always been a pop element to his tracks, but there’s no denying songs like “Uptown Girl” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and their shameless bid for radio attention. Still, these songs remained far superior and maintained enough musical integrity to be tolerable, but they don’t hold a candle to Billy in his element.
16. Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan (…Chaka Kahn…) always reserved her pop-iest moments for her solo career outside of Rufus, but there was one track in particular that really stood out as an attempt to really tackle the times. “I Feel For You,” a Prince cover, became a pop R&B staple of the decade rather quickly, and we can all be thankful for that. Not only is the original track fantastic, but her rendition does it justice. This epic pop moment, however, failed to really establish her as an artist with staying power, and although she’s an enormous name and figure in soul and funk, this was really her crowning pop jewel (and yes, let’s not forget about “I’m Every Woman” in the 70s.)
15. Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul may have helped lay the groundwork for rock and roll and soul, but by the time the 1980s rolled around, it was clear she wanted to have some fun. Aretha has a voice that could making anything sound good, and that’s pretty much what carried hits like “Freeway Of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” her duet with George Michael. Her only really magical moment in a musical context was her collaboration with Eurythmics, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” but Aretha Franklin re-established herself an important force in music, this time as a full-fledged pop star.
14. The Kinks
The Kinks were one of the most important acts to emerge in rock’s earlier days, and they have gone on to influence every genre from metal to punk. However, when the 80s hit, they felt comfortable enough to embrace their pop undertones to their fullest extent on a little song called “Come Dancing.” This bubbly new wave track was primed for radio, and it’s no surprise that it caught on. This may have been The Kinks at their most intentionally commercial, but it didn’t hinder their legacy one bit. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t really add much to it either, and the band are still pretty much mainly recognized for their 60s classics.
13. Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton is a living legend for all music, not just county. She is one of the most (if not the most) prolific, important songwriters and performers of her generation and genre, period. There has always been something compelling about her music that has garnered millions of fans the world over, but in the 1980s, there were two very key moments that proved Dolly could rock some serious pop star status. The first, a little ditty called “9 to 5” took country pop to a new stratosphere, and the second, “Islands In The Stream” (with Kenny Rogers,) borderline topped that. These were amazing pop songs with a country twist, and it took Dolly to pull it off.
Progressive rockers Yes are legends, but they haven’t always had a presence in the commercial realm. In 1983, they essentially just lightened up a little, and went on to score a massive international hit with “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” The song never shies away from their rock roots, but they take a strikingly then-modern approach on the production and arrangement and end up with a pop-tastic masterpiece. Their entire 90125 LP dazzles with a similar mentality, and while they pull it off quite well, it doesn’t really hold up to the progressive masterworks they are most noted for. The fact that it made them accessible is definitely a major plus.
It’s safe to say that Heart went “pop” in the 80s by comparison to their psychedelic-tinged rock masterpieces of the 70s like “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You,” and “Barracuda.” They never shied away from making rock music entirely, but there was a watered down commerciality to their mega hits that seemed indulgently modern at the time (which means they couldn’t sound any more dated now… a far cry from their timeless early tunes.) Still, they racked up tons of hits like “These Dreams,” “Never,” “What About Love,” and “Alone,” to name a few… and objectively speaking, they’re really not bad. In fact, it’s ok to think they’re pretty awesome.
10. Bruce Springsteen
Anyone who tries to argue that “Dancing In The Dark” isn’t a pop song is deaf. Anyone who tries to argue that The Boss didn’t pull it off is, too. The height of Springsteen’s reign as an icon really occurred in the 80s, with an already impressive 70s catalog to fall back on (which is, in hindsight, where all of his true classics are.) While still maintaining his “E-Street sound” and his rock roots, he cranked his catchy level up to 11 and scored massive hits like the aforementioned track, “Born In The USA,” “Glory Days,” and “Tunnel Of Love.” Yes, they were pop songs, but they were Bruce’s pop song, and that makes them great.
Queen is a group where you’re always going to struggle to place them into any one category. Every monumental moment in their legacy was important for an entirely different reason, but that’s what made them so great. Through it all, the band maintained the energy and sharpness of stadium rock, but they cranked out some indulgent pop numbers in the 80s, the height of their popularity. Tracks like “I Want To Break Free,” “Under Pressure,” and “Radio Ga Ga,” proved rock and roll could still have integrity in the Pop World, but still be deliriously catchy. The only reason they’re not higher on the list is because there were almost “too rock.”
08. Steve Winwood
Because the genius that is Steve Winwood started his career when he was so young in groups like Traffic, Blind Faith, and Spencer Davis Group, by the time he entered the 80s, he had a stacked catalog, but the youthfulness of a modern pop act. Naturally, he felt compelled to capitalize on this opportunity, but he did so entirely on his terms. Tracks like “Higher Love,” “The Finer Things,” and “Valerie” are 80s anthems at this point, but they are on a completely different level than most of what was being played alongside them on radio. The danceable, catchy quality to his tracks only proved he was a jack of all trades.
07. Fleetwood Mac
From the moment Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks entered Fleetwood Mac, the group became a commercial tour de force with countless hits a little album called Rumours. By the time the 80s came around, the group had almost entirely weened out rock and roll into their sound, and, without losing a shred of integrity, became a full on pop act. They only released 2 albums in the decade, both of which were highly pop-oriented, but their final release as their classic lineup, Tango In The Night, was the real stand out. With tracks like “Little Lies,” “Seven Wonders,” “Big Love,” and “Everywhere,” the group made pop music that was actually worth listening to.
Blondie has always maintained a somewhat (post-)punk quality to their image and personality, but they never seemed to hold back from shipping out dazzling pop numbers with a twist. Now, in the 1970s, we arguably saw the group’s most commercial effort, “Heart Of Glass,” but what made them so unique in the 80s was the route they took to embrace the modern sound. They were a full-fledged pop group by then, but the new wave influenced “Call Me” and the hip hop tinged “Rapture” proved they were always progressing. The fact that they maintained their cool through it all is actually a testament to their genius.
05. Tina Turner
Tina Turner didn’t see much of her own success outside of her career with then-husband Ike, but her 1984 LP, Private Dancer, helped stage one of the biggest comebacks in pop history. A far cry from the soulful, bluesy, frenzied rock of her Ike & Tina days, this album launched one of the most compelling pop careers of the whole decade, especially with tracks like “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (you may know it.) Tina held onto her roots, but simply made tracks primed for modern radio that dazzled with her incredible voice and rejuvenating energy through even her most poignant moments.
04. The Police
The Police were always commercially viable to some extent, but radio really made them a staple once they rolled into the 80s. The only reason they aren’t entirely “definitively 80s” is because of tracks like “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle” that established the trio pretty seriously in the 70s. As time went on, the group held onto their distinctive sounds, but it was clear they were going for era-defining pop at the same time with tracks like “Every Breath You Take” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” It just happened to be pop music on their own terms, and the music was fantastic.
03. Peter Gabriel
The former Genesis frontman spent most of the 70s and the very beginning of the 80s crafting a legendary catalog of art rock masterpieces and laying the groundwork for new wave as we knew it. Then, Peter Gabriel unleashed So upon us, and everything changed. This was undeniably a pop record, but not necessarily a conventional one. It still had that textbook Gabriel “je ne sais quoi,” but with a commercially viable sheen to it. Tracks like “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” and the immortal “In Your Eyes” live on as some of the finest radio-friendly moments the decade had to offer, and he never lost one ounce of cool.
02. David Bowie
Bowie has always been about pushing boundaries and weaving his own perspective into the world around him; it’s why we love him. Still, he was never all that shy about making accessible records to send out to the masses. When you talk about “80s Bowie,” you’re going to spend a lot of the focus on his incredible Let’s Dance LP. With Nile Rodgers onboard to help with production, we were gifted some of the greatest pop moments of the decade, all of which were injected with that same artistic genius you’d expect from the incomparable David Bowie. This is what the fusion of pop and rock should always sound like.
01. Hall & Oates
These guys were the duo of the 1980s, hands down. Daryl Hall and John Oates made some of the most memorable, catchy, and downright incredible pop music of the entire decade, yet managed to pull it off with all of the artistic integrity of their authentic 70s soul classics. It wasn’t that they conformed with the times, they defined them. The music always had a quality about it that stood out from the pack, but sat nicely on radio alongside the countless one hit wonders and throwaway pop fodder that polluted the airways. Hall & Oates figured out how to beat the system, and it was quite simple all along: make great, catchy music, and people will listen.