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The Five Greatest Pop/Rock Artists of the 1980s

Updated on September 3, 2013

The 1980s was a great decade for music. During the decade there were many great musical acts. The '80s began with then end of disco and ended with the rise of hip hop. Some artists careers were defined in the '80s. Several all time greats were at their peak at this time. While who was the greatest is always debatable, we've complied a list of five greats from that time period who left an indelible mark during the time period.

1. Prince

Surprise, surprise! Let the debate begin. While Michael Jackson and Madonna were more popular, Prince was the most consistent and prolific artist of the big three. He could combine rock, pop, funk, and r&b with ease. He always challenged his listeners. None of his albums ever sounded the same. A musical prodigy, Prince dominated the '80s. He released eight albums during the decade. From 1981-1989 Prince had at least one top 5 pop hit a year! Arguably his best albums during the decade were "1999", "Purple Rain", and "Sign O' The Times". All three albums made VH-1's list of the top 100 albums of all time. "Purple Rain" was his greatest achievement. It sold over 10 million copies. It was the highest selling album of 1984, with an amazing run of 24 straight weeks atop the Billboard 200 charts. At one point Prince had the number one album, song, and movie in the country at the same time! He also won an Academy Award for the score to Purple Rain. Not to rest on his laurels he released his follow up album less than a year later. It sold 3 million copies. Prince also wrote and produced hits for other artists during this time. During his '80s run, Prince released million sellers back to back to back. Only the Beatles or Stevie Wonder could match his skill set or output. Prince was the total package during the 1980s.

2. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was the greatest entertainer of the '80s and arguably of all time. The most stunning visual artist ever. "Thriller" was the greatest selling album of the '80s and all time. The album spent 37 consecutive weeks at number 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It spawned seven top 10 singles on the pop charts! In 1984 he won a record EIGHT Grammy's. Michael Jackson made music videos an art form. His videos weren't just videos they were short films. "Thriller" was an 11 minute long masterpiece. It is regarded as the greatest video ever. A prolific dancer, Jackson set the world on fire with his moonwalk dance on the Motown 25 show. The rest is history, literally. No other artist was as popular. From Pepsi commercials, jackets, dolls, books, and sequined gloves his impact was felt everywhere. He commanded your attention like no other. Only Elvis Presley or the Beatles can rival the frenzy his mere presence caused. After riding the momentum of "Thriller" for almost four years, he released his follow up "BAD", in 1987. It was the first album to have six number one singles on the pop charts. While it didn't match "Thriller", it was a wildly successful and popular album in its own right. If this list was only about album sales and being a world wide pop culture icon, Michael Jackson would be number one by a wide margin.

3. Madonna

Madonna was without a doubt the most popular and influential female artist of the 1980s. She had Michael Jackson's pop sense and Prince's fearlessness. Madonna was a fashion icon as well. Many women and little girls imitated her sense of style. While never being a great vocalist, Madonna was a more than capable singer and great live performer. Madonna's music had universal appeal. Her early singles, "Holiday", "Lucky Star", and "Borderline" all performed well on the dance/pop charts. Her videos were played heavily on BET as well. Along with "Thriller" and "Purple Rain", "Like A Virgin" was a monumental 80s album. Thanks to great dance music and MTV, she was already a star. Her second album, "Like A Virgin", confirmed her iconic status. The album spent three weeks at number one. It went on to sell 10 million copies. The singles, "Like A Virgin" and "Material Girl" were both major hits. Madonna proved she was not an one hit wonder. Her live performance of "Like A Virgin" on the first ever MTV Awards was a landmark performance for the channel. Madonna went on to release two more chart topping albums in the decade. In a highly competitive era, the Material Girl was able to keep up with the big boys.

4. Bruce Springsteen

The Boss. Bruce Springsteen is on the shortlist of artists that have been great for several decades. Bruce was a blue collar musician, a superb songwriter, and great guitarist. Many of his songs became anthems. Die hard Bruce fans may argue that he was better in the '70s. Who doesn't love, "Born to Run"? Others will he say he went commercial in the '80s. No matter what side you may be on, Springsteen added to his legend during the decade. He started off the decade on a high note. His classic album, "The River", was released in October of 1980. It went to number one and produced the top ten single, "Hungry Heart". The album sold 3 million copies. In 1984, the Boss achieved the highest commercial success of his career. "Born in the USA", is another classic landmark album of the 80s. The album reached number one and sold upwards of 15 million copies. It produced seven top ten hits. Three of the singles, "Dancing in the Dark", "Glory Days", and the title track are songs that people of all cultures and backgrounds know. Springsteen embarked on a highly successful tour and proved why he was great live performer. Backed by his legendary band the E Street Band, the Boss was selling out stadiums. In 1987 he released "Tunnel of Love." Though a totally different album than Born in the USA, it went on to sell three million copies. Make no bones about it, Bruce was an '80s icon.

5. Guns N' Roses

While the '80s were being dominated mostly by solo stars, a storm was brewing. These five hellraisers brought a new energy and swagger to hard rock. They are arguably the greatest of the hair bands of that era. Led by charismatic front man Axl Rose, they made an impact almost immediately. They personified the wild side of the decade. The side Michael Jackson didn't tell you about. Guns N' Roses was sex, drugs, and rock n roll. They also had a realism in their lyrics, supplied by excellent songwriting. Image aside they were in fact a great band. Their dynamic lead guitarist simply went by the name "Slash." Their debut album released in 1987 was titled, "Appetite for Destruction." The title itself is brash, bold, confrontational and in your face. With classic singles such as "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Welcome to The Jungle" the album became an instant classic. It is widely hailed as the best heavy metal album of the decade. Some will say they only made one great album for the decade. It was number one and sold 10 million copies. The impact of this record solidified them and paved the way for the great metal and alternative acts of the '90s, including Nirvana. There's no denying Guns N' Roses impact, as they helped close out the '80s.

Hey '80s boy, how could you leave out.......

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston was the best pop vocalist of the '80s. Whitney sold millions of records in the decade. Whitney could easily be on any best of list. When compared to Madonna's influence and impact, Whitney Houston comes up short. With a voice for the ages, she was an '80s icon.

The Police

Pound for pound the Police were better than Guns N' Roses. I gave Guns N' Roses the edge due to their impact and influence on their genre. While the Police have more classic singles, none of their albums compare to "Appetite for Destruction."

Run D.M.C

While these three men from Queens helped make rap music more than a fad, they fall short of the elite on this exclusive list. No one knew if the art form of hip hop music would survive. Their classic song and video, "Walk this Way", with Aerosmith, introduced White America and MTV to rap music. That single was on the "Raising Hell' album, which is arguably the best rap record of the decade. They were also fashion icons during the '80s. Run D.M.C are hip hop royalty and members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and deservedly so.

When lists like these are compiled, many deserving acts will be left off. There are at least 20 artists from the '80s that could've made the cut. I thought the big three were obvious, though the order may vary. The '80s produced several hall of fame artists. Weren't we lucky to have experienced them?


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    • Old King Schultz profile image

      King Gregg Schultz 

      4 years ago from United States of Canada (R.F.F.)

      I have to disagree with boryyhh's reasoning above. Besides, you can't list every relevant singer in a single article. Even though I've never been into her music as personal listening material, Houston definitely was an 80's icon, and stayed relevant longer than some of the artists mentioned in the above comment. Plus, she wasn't even included on the list, so I'm not sure what the big issue even mentioning her name is. To the author, great article/list!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      List is fine, but the 3 artist , included after the list... is the question. You have actually gave a reason not to include Houston, on the list. No impact on the decade. Can't believe you mention her, so she sold records, she's not even in one top 10 selling acts of the decade. On the billboard's list of charting acts for 80, she is 29th. I don't get it..., and sorry, no; this is not American Idol, saying she is best pop vocalist of the decade; when Donna, Summer, Barbara Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Pat Benetar, Ann Wilson (Heart) and Aretha Franklin were are still very relevant and recording is just ridiculous. The Eurythmics impacted the 80's far more than anything she did.

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image


      6 years ago from New York

      I think this was the perfect amount of information; just enough to highlight some of the most influential artists of the decade without dragging it on to the point of losing readers. I wouldn't change a thing about it. :D

    • Man of Strength profile imageAUTHOR

      Man of Strength 

      6 years ago from Orlando, Fl

      Thanks for reading. This list was hard. I thought about U2, Public Enemy, The Talking Heads, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins, and more. At least 20 acts could've been in the top 5. Thanks again for stopping by.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 

      6 years ago from Illinois

      Interesting! You could have included many more though.

    • Man of Strength profile imageAUTHOR

      Man of Strength 

      6 years ago from Orlando, Fl

      Thanks so much Cat. I'm glad you enjoyed it. After the first three selections it was difficult. I'm trying to stretch my wings beyond poetry. Any compliment from you is greatly appreciated. Thanks again.

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image


      6 years ago from New York

      Man of Strength,

      Oooooh the 80's, my most treasured decade!!! If for nothing else... the ending of disco, which I must've been too late to the game to find any kind of appreciation for and really don't care for it at all. But the 80's, they are unrepeatable. You didn't necessarily tell me anything I didn't know about this decade but you blessed me with the reminder and your collection is stellar. Many of the artists you mentioned, had the ability to carry hits over several decades and even if I followed them along the way, the love I had for them in the beginning, could never be matched. I feel like you just stepped into my house during the 80's and felt compelled to write a hub about it :D Each and every person and song you mentioned, was a major participant in my childhood. So well done and absolutely impressed. I couldn't have picked a better lot myself!

      Up and many others!


    • Man of Strength profile imageAUTHOR

      Man of Strength 

      6 years ago from Orlando, Fl

      Yes it was great music, thanks for reading and voting.

    • Eric Prado profile image

      Eric Prado 

      6 years ago from Webster, Texas

      Great music here from a great decade! Voted up.

    • Man of Strength profile imageAUTHOR

      Man of Strength 

      6 years ago from Orlando, Fl

      Thank you for reading it.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this. I bow to you, as I turned from disco to new wave.


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