The 1980s were a decade of excess, from overly produced music videos and hair-bands to the prominence of luxury brands like Versace and Armani. Music was no different, with pop culture being dominated by the synth sound and singers with big hair and bigger voices. The 1980s is widely considered the “second golden age” for popular music, coming after the first wave in the 1950s and introducing new subgenres that are still prominent today. The 80s saw a resurgence in guitar-driven rock bands led by dynamic frontmen, which is why icons like Prince, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and David Bowie all released their most successful albums during this period. This list details some of the biggest 80s music acts based on album sales, awards and recognition by historians.
The Synth Era
The 1980s saw the rise of electronic dance music, particularly house and techno with artists like Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaata, and The Human League. Synthpop was also a popular genre, where a synthesizer is used as the lead sound source with pop-rock bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure coming to prominence during this period. Wham! charted highly on this list not just because of their crossover appeal but also because their album “Music From the Edge of Heaven” had a heavy influence on the synth sound. Kraftwerk, a German electronic band, were among the pioneers of electronic music, releasing some of the first completely synthesized songs. One of their most famous singles, “Autobahn”, was released in 1978, influencing a generation of musicians.
Widely recognized as the King of Pop, Michael Jackson had a huge cultural impact with songs like “Thriller” and “Billie Jean”. Aside from his music, he was also an accomplished dancer and the majority of his songs are still considered iconic today. Jackson was discovered by Berry Gordy in a talent show at the age of 11. He released a few successful singles with the Jackson 5, but in 1979, he became a solo act. His first solo album “Off the Wall” became the first LP to produce 4 Hot 100 number-one singles in the Soundscan Era. After releasing “Thriller”, his most successful album, he broke records with the live performance of the song “Billie Jean” and the album “Bad”. In total, Jackson has won 13 Grammy awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Widely considered the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna Louise Ciccone became one of the most famous singers in the world during the 80s and 90s when she released a series of albums that have sold millions of copies worldwide. Before she became the megastar that she is today, Madonna started her career in New York City as a waitress and a dance instructor. In 1982, she released her debut album “Madonna” and became an instant pop icon due to her edgy lyrics and provocative imagery. Her next album “Like a Virgin” catapulted her to superstardom and became the best-selling album by a female artist at that time.
The Purple One was an American singer-songwriter, actor and multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis. He was one of the most prolific artists of the 80s, releasing multiple albums and singles each year, and his sound has influenced generations of artists since. In 1982, Prince released his third album “1999”, which produced the hit single “1999”, considered one of the most classic pop songs of the 80s. He went on to release other successful albums, like “Purple Rain” and “Sign o’ the Times”, while also producing songs for other artists like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, the Bangles’ “Manic Monday”, and Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
David Bowie was an English singer, songwriter, actor and producer. Bowie was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, releasing records that have been highly influential on both rock and pop music. Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” has been called one of the best albums of the ‘80s and Bowie has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Bowie was also a pioneer of the crossover between music and pop culture as he was known to be one of the first musicians to break down the barrier between “high art” and “low art”.
U2 and Billy Idol
U2 was an Irish rock band formed in 1976. The band’s line-up remained the same for the duration of their career with the only exception being the departure of the original drummer and their initial producer. U2 is one of the most successful rock bands of all time with their 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” becoming the biggest-selling album of the 1980s. Billy Idol is an English rock musician. He is a singer, songwriter, and actor. He is perhaps most recognized for his brash, punk-inspired sound and image as well as the synthetic-sounding and artificial-looking spiky blond hair that he wore as part of his image.
In this era of excess, music was no different. The decade saw a resurgence in guitar-driven rock bands led by dynamic frontmen and iconic vocalists, an increase in electronic dance music, and an emergence of hip-hop that put a fresh spin on the pop culture landscape.