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Most Influential Musicians of the 1980s

By Edited Jul 3, 2016 2 4
Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins exhibition of Michael Jackson's Wardrobe collection 2012
Credit: Abi Skipp/CC BY 2.0 with Attribution

Michael Jackson's famous glove

The most memorable and/or influential musicians from the 1980s represent many of the over the top characteristics associated with this decade.  When people think of the this decade, typically visions of fluorescents, oversized t-shirts, and big hair come to mind. Everything was either bright or large, and the musical artists that emerged forefront during the '80s were no exception.

Most, if not all, of the musical artists I list below have remained pretty active in some form or another many years after their initial successes. Grabbing headlines, maintaining longevity or simply working hard to be the biggest and the most outrageous are what many of these popular musicians accomplished. Others just pushed until they made it "big".

Creating a Splash

Several artists created a splash during the 1980s. Perhaps one of the most prominent of the musicians to do this was Prince. Prince was quietly making noise on the R&B scene in the late 70s, then got a little louder as that decade came to an end. In 1982 he hit stardom with the hit album "1999" which catapulted him and his band the Revolution into fame. The follow-up smash album "Purple Rain" made Prince one of the most recognized musicians of the 1980s. His influence would continue to carry on for years to come. Sadly, the world lost Prince in April 2016. The news surrounding his death is still unfolding with more details undoubtedly to come, but officials have ruled it as an accidental drug overdose (unknown if it was prescription or not). There will most likely be details that won't be released according to news reports. 8

Run DMC brought rap music into the forefront by successfully bringing hip-hop to the mainstream. In 1986, the band also successfully "crossed over" as it broke down walls with the rock 'n roll scene with its cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" featuring lead singer Steven Tyler in the band's video. In the video, walls were literally broken down.

With multiple awards and "firsts" for rap, not to mention multi-platinum albums, Run DMC was undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of this wild and wacky decade. Sadly, the band's DJ, Jason Mizell, AKA Jam Master Jay, was killed in 2002 in a shooting. His legend lives on today. The band is also still pretty active, having been on the tour circuit in recent years.

George Michael made his claim to fame as half of the Wham! duo. With a unique and quirky style, Wham! landed three straight number one hits. When Wham! disbanded in 1986, George Michael enjoyed a successful solo career.

The Police's string of immediate hits made them memorable, but the band's lifespan was short because they broke up following its "Synchronicity" album in 1983; however the Police's splash was noteworthy enough to be considered as one of the top most important artists of the decade. The band's music is still played quite often on both classic rock and pop stations.


The versatility and longevity of U2, Bon Jovi, Metallica and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers make them four more of the most remembered and influential bands from the decade of "big".

U2 came on the early 1980s scene with a few hit songs, but in 1987 really landed on the map with "The Joshua Tree" album. The band also made headlines in 2014 when its new music was automatically downloaded on Apple devices. And the music keeps on coming; a new album is possibly going to be released sometime in 2016. 

Around the same time as U2, Tom Petty landed on the charts with the hit "The Waiting", and Petty subsequently maintained a prominent presence throughout the decade. Petty, who turned 64 in Oct. 2014, was still touring with the band earlier this year.5

Getting a start as an underground band in the early 1980s, Metallica quickly gained a huge following. When they released 1986's "Master of Puppets" and went on tour with Ozzy Osbourne, the band secured its legendary status and became one of the few bands to successfully bring heavy metal (note, not hair band metal) into the mainstream. Today the band is still making  music and currently on tour.

Bon Jovi made a name when the band quickly became popular with its smash album "Slippery when Wet".  With big hair and big hits, Bon Jovi left a big impression in the 80s and the band's popularity still continues on especially with the recent rejuvenation of the 80s being "retro" and in style. The group released its 13th album in 2013.

 James Hetfield (of Metallica) in concert 1989
Credit: Jockerre/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported w/Attribution and Share Alike

James Hetfield, of Metallica, during 1989 concert

Bright, Big and Outrageous

Michael Jackson and Madonna, in the eyes of many, lay claim to being the top influential music artists from the 1980s.  Music aside, it is hard to leave these two off any '80s list because of the tremendous impression they'd made on pop culture, music and style. Love them or hate them, there's no denying the momentous impact each one had on this decade.

Madonna hit New York City's dance scene in the early '80s, and by the mid-late '80s she'd firmly planted herself as a part of musical history. Throughout the decade Madonna immersed herself in all kinds of controversy as she pumped out several hit albums and starred in a number of movies. While she no longer dominates headlines the way she used to, she's still pretty active and fetches them on a routine basis. With a new album and tour in 2012, Madonna's energy continues as she is still touring in 2016. As an aside, her clothing fetched quite a bit of money ($3.2 million) at a celebrity auction in Nov. 2014.6

Madonna in concert 2004
Credit: Adi24/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported/accessed from Wikimedia Commons

Madonna, aka "The Material Girl", in concert

MJ was already famous as the 1970s came to a close and, in just two years, the later proclaimed "The King of Pop" began to release hits dominating the charts throughout the '80s. Coupled with his videos, which contained amazing special effects, his choreography made his clips some of the most memorable ones produced. Even while Jackson's personal life dominated the media's front pages, he still pumped out hit after hit song. Even after the decade was over, Jackson would be well-respected as a musician and dancer, albeit there were many headlines not related to his music that continued to overshadow his musical success. Jackson passed away in 2009, but his music lives on.

Michael Jackson and Madonna can perhaps be considered the perfect image of the outrageous and over the top attributes that are generally associated with the 1980s. Both of them sure knew how to make a headline.

Although, the most influential musicians of the '80s were all big or bright in their own way, there were a number of others (remember Boy George and Duran Duran?) that each made a pretty good dent in this wacky and crazy decade. 

100 Hits-Ultimate 80s (6 cd collection)
Amazon Price: $31.06 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 3, 2016)
Other hits from the 1980s found on Amazon


Dec 19, 2014 11:23pm
Music during the 80's are absolutely the best.
Dec 20, 2014 2:45am
Hi Asereht1970, thanks for commenting! Did you have a particular favorite of the 80s?
(For me there was a lot I liked, but admittedly, I'm more of a 70s (and 60s) kinda gal for music. what I do remember fondly are some of the concerts I went to).
Feb 24, 2015 3:49am
Great article.
Feb 24, 2015 9:47am
Thanks for reading! Welcome to IB :)
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  1. "Run DMC History." The Official Website of Run-DMC. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "Prince (Biography section)." Rolling Stone. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "10 years later, murder of Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC still unsolved." NY Daily News. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  4. "Wham!." ClassicBands.com. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  5. "Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (tour page)." TomPetty.com. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  6. "Madonna's clothes sell for millions at celebrity auction." BBC . 09/11/2014. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  7. "Metallica tour dates." Metallica. 10/11/2014 <Web >
  8. "Prince died of accidental overdose of opioid fentanyl." CNM. 2/06/2016. 3/07/2016 <Web >

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