A recent article in the online publication American Songwriter named 13 songs as the ones that “captured the essence of the 1980s.”

The list was the work (and opinion) of one writer—named Matthew Kayser—who, for the most part picked some real winners, songs that when you hear them you immediately think of that decadent decade full of pastel colors, big hair, and parachute pants.

The following thirteen songs were listed along with brief write-ups intended to convince readers of each one’s worthiness:

“Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson

“Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses

“Take On Me” – a-ha

“Material Girl” – Madonna

“With or Without You” – U2

“Every Breath You Take” – Police

“Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey

“Purple Rain” – Prince & the Revolution 

“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper 

“Beat It” – Michael Jackson

“Hungry Like The Wolf” – Duran Duran

“Tainted Love” – Soft Cell

“Eye of the Tiger” – Survivor 

Now, these things are always a matter of opinion, and suggesting that anyone’s take on this topic is “wrong” is, admittedly, a pretty arrogant stance to take, particularly when there’s no right or wrong answer and no real objective criteria by which to judge it. 

That said, and assuming the list has to be limited to 13, there are (at least) two songs on Kayser’s list that should be replaced with two others, IMHO.

First, I’ll name the two ‘80s songs that should be on the list but weren’t.  They’re both No. 1 tunes and they both smashed the charts in the spring of 1985: Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.”

With Simple Minds’ record, you get a tune that represented all the angst of the decade, an anthem bemoaning the fleeting nature of young friendships, the biggest hit from any of the John Hughes “Brat Pack” films—in this case The Breakfast Club (which is now enshrined in the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance)—and a song in which the recording act, Simple Minds, deviated significantly from its normal fare to achieve the biggest hit of its career, emblematic of many artists of that decade.

As for Tears for Fears, their tune was similarly angst-ridden, at least thematically, although it was smoother to digest with its simple two-note main synth rift, it’s shuffling 12/8 time signature, and one of the most pleasing melodies of the decade.

What’s more, “Everybody” perfectly captured its era with vague political references about corruption and power and man’s desire to have it all.  Even its references to “holding hands while the walls come crumbling down” purportedly foretold the fall of the Berlin Wall—perhaps the biggest news event of the decade—by roughly four years.

In this blogger’s view, no list of songs that defined or captured the essence of the ‘80s is complete without these two songs on it, even if that list were narrowed down to five tunes.  

And while we’re at it, one could even make a case for another song, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which has been described as the “perfect pop song” by some critics and certainly captures the essence of the resurgent dance-pop genre that dominated much of the second half of the decade and the early 1990s before grunge and hip-hop took over.  (It also happened to come smack dab in the middle of a seven-song No. 1 streak for Houston between 1985-88.)

Given those suggestions, which two (or three) songs would I remove from Kayser’s list?

I’d start with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Come on, admit it, are the 1980s the first thing you think of when you hear that ubiquitous tune?  

Yes it has been one of the two biggest-selling songs during the 21st century to come out of the 20th century (with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” being the other). But the extreme popularity of “Don’t Stop Believin’” has been more of a recent phenomenon than an ‘80s one, one spurred on by its synch with the series finale of the TV drama The Sopranos in the mid-‘00s, and by its Glee Club Cast cover around the same time.

When the 1980s ended, “Don’t Stop Believin’”—only the third-biggest single from Journey’s Escape album—was more a forgotten moment than it was a decade marker. 

Next I’d remove Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

While the song perfectly captures the essence of its singer and, by extension, our fascination with all material things back in the eighties, the problem with “Material Girl” is that it’s not even Madonna’s signature tune. 

That claim belongs to its immediate predecessor, “Like A Virgin,” or perhaps one of her subsequent singles (“Into the Groove,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Like A Prayer,” “Express Yourself”).  

While I’m not suggesting that any one of those be placed on the short list of thirteen, certainly any artist on the list should be represented by the song that is more a reflection of the decade AND the artist than anything else by that singer. “Material Girl” is overshadowed by too many other Madge tunes to be a representative of its decade.  

Another candidate for removal would be Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” a song that is more linked to its Rocky film and character—who was introduced in the 1970s by the way—than it is to ‘80s symbolism.

But these are just my opinions, much like writer Kayser expressed his in the original article.

What say you?  Which songs would you suggest are the quintessential ‘80s tunes that belong on this list of thirteen?  Or would you leave the list intact as-is?

Leave your comments below or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.


DJRob (he/him/his), who came of age during the 1980s, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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2 thoughts on “‘American Songwriter’ Nails the ‘80s Vibe with 13 Essential Hits, But Misses Two”
  1. I’d remove Material Girl, Eye Of The Tiger, and Sweet Child O’ Mine and add:

    I Melt With You – Modern English
    Into The Groove – Madonna
    Girls Just Want To Have Fun – Cyndi

Your thoughts?