8 of the Top Rock Bands of the ’80s

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Defining what is distinctly ’80s rock can be a bit tricky. With bleed over from the ’70s and a booming music scene that encouraged innovation and excess, the genre took off in many directions with a number of different rock flavors battling it out in the charts.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of artists that stand as paradigms of the era. Whether they lean towards debauched glam metal or belting arena rock, here are 8 groups that unequivocally are the ’80s and maintain lasting impacts today.

1. Guns N’ Roses

Despite popping up midway through the decade, Guns N’ Roses seismically shifted the tides of rock n’ roll when they came around. Appetite for Destruction brought something entirely new to the rock sphere while their grungy look quickly became adopted by their predecessors and progeny alike.

2. Journey

Arena rock was certainly alive and well (and probably the best it has ever been) in the ’80s. At the top of that pack sits Journey. They launched into the decade with Departure, which featured “Any Way You Want It,” before following it up with Escape, which spawned a number of hits – “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Who’s Crying Now,” and “Open Arms” to name a few. The rest of the decade was similarly affluent for the band as they toured their platinum-selling albums around the biggest venues in the world.

3. Van Halen

Perhaps being the most consistently successful group of this entire list, Van Halen had six different albums go multi-platinum in the ’80s – talk about a great run. Moreover, they defied the odds of switching out lead singers, maintaining their success while incurring line-up changes. Their sound is distinctly ’80s with a penchant for synthy keyboards and Eddie Van Halen’s piercing guitar lines.

4. R.E.M

For being one of the most pervasive rock groups of the era, R.E.M built their fame slowly—song by song and album by album. Despite releasing a number of records from the start of the decade, they didn’t receive their commercial break-out until 1987 with Document. Their alternative approach to rock became deeply influential in the ’90s and still lingers around today.

5. Bon Jovi

When we think of great ’80s rock albums, Slippery When Wet almost immediately comes to mind. The 1986 LP led Bon Jovi to worldwide fame, which they continued for the rest of the decade. There are few songs that feel as good to sing along to as “Livin’ On A Prayer” or “You Give Love A Bad Name.” Though they would begin to suffer from burnout by the end of the decade, Bon Jovi certainly ruled the ’80s.

6. Mötley Crüe

As the world was beginning to put just as much of an onus on a band’s image as they did their sound, we needed a group that wasn’t afraid to resort to full-fledged debauchery in order to keep our attention – enter Mötley Crüe. Love ’em or hate ’em, no one can deny they are endlessly entertaining. No group has quite committed to the rockstar bit in the same way. Their heavy metal theatrics also gave them a firm standing on the charts, making them some of the most prolific rockers of the era.

7. KISS

Though KISS had a fumbling start in the ’80s, Creatures of the Night (1982) revitalized the glam rockers’ career and sent it soaring to new heights. Their follow-up effort, Lick It Up was similarly well received despite taking a huge leap of faith, shedding their ubiquitous make-up. Though the ’70s were undoubtedly their prime, KISS proved they could roll with the punches that the MTV generation dealt.

8. Aerosmith

Much in the same vein as KISS, Aerosmith came into the ’80s with a whimper that was largely drowned out by the fierce belt they were delivering the decade prior. By 1985 though, the group collectively started towards sobriety and welcomed new voices in the writer’s room. The result was the stellar Permanent Vacation, which brought the group to superstar status once again. Their follow-up effort, Pump, was similarly lauded, cementing their place among the top rockers of the decade.

Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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