The 1980s were a dynamic decade for music, with new genres breaking through and old ones reaching new heights of commercial success. After punk and post-punk paved the way in the late 1970s, alongside disco and funk, there was a wave of new sounds. New Romantics emerged, punk subgenres expanded and metal mutated into thrash. Meanwhile, pop continued to be a dominant force in the industry with synth-heavy hits such as “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves. The rise of MTV gave visual performers like Michael Jackson and Duran Duran an even bigger global audience while also boosting the profiles of pop stars like Madonna who had been known primarily as a dancer until this point. And all of these different streams combined to create some of the biggest solo artists in music history in the 1980s.
There’s no question that Michael Jackson was the biggest solo artist of the eighties. In fact, he was the biggest solo artist of the entire decade, and arguably one of the biggest of all time. His album Thriller, released in 1982, is the biggest-selling record of all time and his Bad tour is the highest-grossing tour ever by a solo artist. He is the only artist to have had four consecutive albums sell more than 10 million copies, and he has had the biggest-selling album of each decade since the 1970s. However, with so many solo artists on this list, the 1980s can be considered the decade of the solo artist.
Prince was one of the most important artists in the 1980s, not just for his music but for his approach to creativity and ownership. He was a one-man conglomerate who produced, wrote, and played most of his own music, released his own albums (including the soundtrack to the much-loved movie Purple Rain), and owned his record label. He was a creative visionary who pushed boundaries in both his music and his live shows, creating unforgettable dance parties. He was also a prolific artist who released 13 albums in the 1980s, including Sign ‘O’ The Times, which many critics rank as one of his best albums. He has been nominated for 32 Grammy Awards and won seven, including a Song of the Year award in 1987 for the song “Forever in My Life.” It’s easy to see why he was one of the biggest solo artists in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, Madonna proved that she could do more than just dance. The singer and actress set the world alight with her unique brand of pop, bringing a touch of punk and a heavy dose of sex appeal with her. Her self-titled debut album was released in 1983 and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest debut albums ever. Madonna has sold over 300 million records worldwide and is one of the bestselling music artists of all time. She is the only artist to have had a number-one album in the Billboard 200 on six consecutive occasions. In 1983, Madonna received the first of a total of 12 Grammy Award nominations.
Many critics say Whitney Houston’s debut album was the most important of the 1980s. The New York Times listed it as one of the albums that defined the decade, and VH1 included it in its list of 100 greatest albums. The self-titled album was released in 1985 and became the best-selling debut album by any solo artist in history. It was also the first album by a woman to be certified multi-platinum, selling 17 million copies worldwide. Houston was the first person to ever be awarded two consecutive Guinness World Records for Most Successful Pop Singles by a Solo Artist in the 1980s with “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” She also won six Grammy Awards in 1986, the same year she released her second studio album, Whitney.
Cindi Lauper burst onto the music scene in 1983 with her debut album She’s So Unusual, which contained her hit singles “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” It became the best-selling debut album by a female artist ever, and Lauper became one of the biggest solo artists of the 1980s. She won four Grammy Awards for She’s So Unusual, including one for Album of the Year and one for Best New Artist. She became the first singer in history to have the lead single from her first album finish the decade as the #1 song and has won five MTV Video Music Awards.
Stevie Wonder had a long, successful career before the 1980s, but his work in the 1980s was some of his best. He released five albums in the 1980s, including the critically acclaimed and commercially successful album tony, which won Album of the Year at the Grammys. Wonder’s Album of the Year win was particularly significant because he had been boycotting the Grammys since 1973 due to his opposition to apartheid. He ended his boycott in 1984 and participated in the Grammys again in 1985, which was the first time he had performed on television since 1973.