Back in the ’80s, pop music was ignited through new wave, romantics, and other formulations, just as rock began diverging across assorted paths—from raging Back in Black metal and songs that slipped into iconic movie soundtracks to more stadium-filling anthems. The 1980s fueled some of the biggest rock songs in history.
In the era of rotary phones, neon bracelets, side ponies, and other teased updos, Pound Puppies, and those long-démodé Cavaricci bottoms, some of the most memorable rock songs left an indent on the decade and kept hands raised high.
Though the catalog of songs within the ’80s is plentiful—and one that could be broken down by year, alone—here’s a chronological look at just 10 of the more anthemic rock songs spanning each year, from 1980 through 1989.
1. 1980: “You Shook Me All Night Long” AC/DC
Pushing open the 1980s, AC/DC gave one of the best shoves they could out of the 1970s and into the new decade with their bombastic “You Shook Me All Night Long,” off the band’s seventh album, Back in Black. Though the title track is one of AC/DC’s more primal rock classics, the tongue-in-cheek humor of “You Shook Me All Night Long” was just the song to rouse the masses for the decade ahead.
2. 1981: “I Love Rock N’ Roll” Joan Jett
Later in the decade, Joan Jett released an explosive spell of “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” off her sixth album, Up Your Alley, but her very first, and highest-charting (No. 3, Hot 100), solo hit “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”—originally written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker and first recorded by British rockers the Arrows in 1975—just said it all. Released two years after Jett parted ways with The Runaways to pursue her solo career, the song is still a universal anthem … to rock.
3. 1982: “Africa” Toto
Reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Africa,” off Toto’s fourth album Toto IV, is just one of those songs most people can’t help sing along to—preferably in unison—whenever it comes around. In 2018, Weezer acquiesced to fans’ request to cover the 1982 hit (along with a video starring Weird “Al” Yankovic) and also released their rendition of another Toto IV hit “Rosanna.”
4. 1983: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” U2
Into its marching thumps, and heavier subject matter—”Bloody Sunday,” a term given to the Jan. 30, 1972 incident in Derry, Northern Ireland where British Soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians—”Sunday Bloody Sunday” made more take more notice of this “newish” band from Dublin. Off the band’s third album, War, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” remains a classic within the U2 catalog and along with the War single “New Year’s Day,” opened the band to a greater audience.
5. 1984: “We’re Not Gonna Take It” Twisted Sister
Written by Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider for the band’s 1984 album Stay Hungry, the chorus of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” came to Snider fairly quickly but took three more years to flesh out the song lyrics before its release. The song remains one of the heaviest metal songs of protest and is still used by groups who need the perfect rallying cry.
We’ve got the right to choose, and
There ain’t no way we’ll lose it
This is our life, this is our song
We’ll fight the powers that be, just
Don’t pick on our destiny, ’cause
You don’t know us, you don’t belong
6. 1985: “Don’t You Forget About Me” Simple Minds
Mid-decade, ’80s music flourished and so did film, including the 1985 John Hughes teen cult classic The Breakfast Club. The soundtrack to the film centered around Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” written by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff for the film.
7. 1986: “Livin’ On A Prayer” Bon Jovi
Slippery When Wet birthed multiple stadium hits for Bon Jovi—”You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” and the power ballad “Never Say Goodbye,” along with their second-highest charting hit “Livin’ On a Prayer.” Written by Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and Desmond Child, “Livin’ on a Prayer” remains a signature Bon Jovi song.
8. 1987: “Pour Some Sugar on Me” Def Leppard (1987)
1987 was a tectonic year for rock with INXS’ Kick, U2’s The Joshua Tree, and the metal breakthrough of Guns N’ Roses’ debut Appetite for Destruction. And then there was Def Leppard with their oeuvre Hysteria, birthing multiple hits, including the band’s biggest “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
9. 1988: “One” Metallica
The first Metallica album following the death of bassist Cliff Burton, …And Justice For All was a more progressive release for the band with longer running tracks, including the seven-plus minute “One,” written by drummer Lars Ulrich and singer James Hetfield. “One” was the band’s first song to chart in the U.S. and was also the first song to win a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance.
10. “Free Fallin’” Tom Petty (1989)
Tom Petty closed out the 1980s with a free-flowing hit off his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever. Along with hits “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” opening track “Free Fallin’,” written with Traveling Wilbury bandmate and longtime Heartbreakers’ producer, Jeff Lynne, peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and is Petty’s longest-charting song.
(Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)