8 Iconic Male Vocalists of the 1980s

The 1980s ushered in a new era of music unlike anything that had come before. The Second British Invasion was underway, new genres like hip-hop and hard rock were emerging, and MTV was redefining the concept of music video—and how music was consumed in general. There was a huge amount of talent and amazing music to be heard, but a few names stand out—not just because they were great performers, but because their vocal ability, too, made them utterly unforgettable.

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1. Freddie Mercury

There’s no doubt about it: Queen wouldn’t have been Queen without the soaring vocal ability of frontman Freddie Mercury. Mercury’s stunning four-octave range was only part of what made his singing performances so incredible. He also had amazing vocal versatility; he could switch from a gentle croon to a powerhouse belt with ease.

In the ’80s, Queen continued their massive success from the previous decade with releases like “Another One Bites the Dust,” “I Want to Break Free,” “Radio Ga Ga,” and “Under Pressure.” Sadly, Mercury began losing his voice toward the end of his life as AIDS took its toll. Nevertheless, he gave his final performances his all, as well, delivering an appropriately dignified finale to his career.

2. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was an extraordinarily talented entertainer, from his innovative songwriting to his dynamic dance abilities. But his vocal talent was the real driving factor behind his success, and was evident from the time he was a child.

He began singing lead vocals as a pre-teen while still in The Jackson 5. His versatile voice became a launching pad for creative experimentation with sound effects and falsetto, the latter of which became his signature. The rise of his solo career in the 1980s—combined with his pioneering use of music videos as high art—made him one of the quintessential artists of the decade.

3. Prince

Prince was an ’80s icon not just for his flamboyant performances and unabashed sexuality; his voice was also a stellar element of the Purple One’s artistry. Like Michael Jackson, he often sang in falsetto, jumping octaves with ease. In addition to his amazing voice, he was a skilled instrumentalist with the ability to adapt to many musical genres.

Prince almost defied categorization in terms of his vocal register. Though he was a tenor, his four and a half-octave range encompassed registers from baritone to soprano. In some ways, he used his voice as another instrument, jumping between octaves and styles and employing non-singing vocalizations in truly stunning ways.

4. Billy Idol

Beginning his music career in the mid-1970s, punk singer Billy Idol became a major player in the Second British Invasion of the 1980s. His first album, released in 1981, made him an instant superstar thanks to accessible tracks such as “White Wedding” and “Dancing with Myself.”

Idol was also a master of the music video, which helped popularize him further on the then-new MTV network. These hits, along with Idol’s distinctive vocal abilities, made him a key figure in the evolving pop rock scene of the decade. Songs such as “Rebel Yell” show off Idol’s abilities to perfection as he oscillates from seemingly tender and emotional to raspy and guttural.

5. Phil Collins

Phil Collins made his mark on countless aspects of the 1980s music scene. A skilled drummer and piano player, he also helped pioneer new techniques in the emerging technology of the decade. One of these was the gated reverb technique, which Collins included on his 1981 hit “In the Air Tonight.”

His powerful voice was perfect for his unique and intense musical style, which flourished after he took over from Peter Gabriel as lead singer of Genesis and later struck out on a solo career. Between his solo hits and much-lauded compositions for films throughout the 1980s, Collins was undeniably one of the biggest names of the decade.

6. David Bowie

The start of the 1980s was an odd time for Bowie, who had retired his glam rock personas of the previous decade. He was looking for a new direction, which led him to explore the New Romantic genre, releasing hits like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Modern Love.” One of his major successes was his 1981 collaboration with Queen, “Under Pressure.”

Though adapting to the ’80s was an entirely new venture for Bowie, the pop star proved how versatile and talented a singer he was. His drive to experiment with effects and vocal techniques resulted in sounds and songs that were just as enthralling, ethereal, and transporting as his earlier work.

7. Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel rose to fame in the 1970s as the lead singer of Genesis. In 1975, he struck out on his own and released three solo albums through the end of the decade. But it was his 1982 single “Shock the Monkey,” which cracked the U.S. Top 40 charts, that really established him as a solo artist. From there on out, Gabriel’s gritty, powerful voice provided a steady soundtrack for the 1980s. He received four Grammy nominations for the 1986 song “Sledgehammer,” which was revolutionary for its suggestive lyrics and groundbreaking music video.

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel]

8. Marvin Gaye

Early in his career, Marvin Gaye made a conscious choice to change his vocal style, hoping it would be more universally appealing. He was certainly proven right after scoring plentiful hits for Motown’s Tamla label throughout the ’60s and ’70s, including “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “What’s Going On,” and “Let’s Get It On.”

Late in his career, Gaye enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to “Sexual Healing,” a huge hit in 1982 that won two Grammys. Gaye’s remarkably versatile vocal talents and ability to switch between octaves, genres, and styles helped maintain his status as one of the most influential figures in music before his tragic death in 1984.

Photo by Alain BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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