The 5 Most Influential Artists of the 1980s


The 80s were fun. Neon, headbands, Weird Al, Much of the music can be attributed to artists like Baltimora and General Public, who had one Top 10 hit and disappeared from the music scene. It was the era of forgotten acts, like Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys.

Yet there were a few artists that continue to leave their mark on popular music today. Here are the top 5 most influential artists of the 1980s:

U2#1 – U2

At first glance, it’s hard to nail down exactly what U2 has left as a legacy besides multi-platinum records and a reputation for memorable concerts. Then you hear the Edge’s trademark atmospheric guitar, Bono’s impassioned vocals and their simple yet powerful songs.

Then you hear Coldplay, and you say, “Hey, wait a minute…” And Radiohead. And Live. And Elbow. Yada, yada, yada. Pretty much any alternative band from the past 20 years aims to be the next U2, and some try to copy their recipe for success.

Their experimentation with techno notwithstanding (I’ve forgiven them for that), their familiar sound has enabled fans to thumb their noses at what passes for music nowadays and continue to follow Bono faithfully.

#2 – R.E.M.

While U2, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen were selling millions of records, R.E.M. waited patiently, releasing perfect albums throughout the 1980s. In doing so, they brought the Athens, Ga., music scene into the national spotlight, gained thousands of loyal fans in college, and planted the seeds for the alt-rock revolution in the 1990s.

R.E.M. is one of the most influential artists of the 1980s for their do-it-yourself attitude toward music, working their way toward success. It took them eight years to get their first No. 1 album. They were also a little quirky, and with their success, it became cool to be quirky. This trend mostly led to a lot of weird band names, but it also led to some more experimentation with different sounds. Judge for yourself whether that was a good thing.

#3 – Michael Jackson

Most R&B and hip-hop artists nowadays will grudgingly show some respect to Jackson, who at least seemed cool when they were just getting exposed to music. The flash, the dance moves and the overall phenomenon that was the Gloved One was plenty of motivation. That he continued Stevie Wonder’s influence in exposing white audiences to R&B was also important; Jackson did it by introducing hard rock into the R&B sound.

The payoff was huge: 100 million worldwide sales of Thriller. And that is perhaps a more disturbing influence: the idea that one could get really, filthy, stupid rich from the music business. Record labels have always been greedy; but in the 80s (see Madonna below as well), labels began drooling even more.

#4 – Run-DMC

Sure, the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash were first, but the group that really brought this hip-hop mess to the forefront was Run-DMC. And perhaps I’m an old fogey, but this stuff was original. More meter, better rhymes, and some injection of humor into the mix (“Peter Piper,” “My Adidas”) made it more palatable.

Run-DMC may be at the top of the most influential artists of the 1980s because they are the godfathers of what is now close to a total domination of the charts by hip hop (Good or bad? That’s another blog post). What’s more, they took Michael Jackson and Prince’s foray into hard rock and applied it to rap; their monster smash “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith in 1986 paved the way for the Beastie Boys, Eminem, and the nu metal movement of the 1990s.

#5 – Whitney Houston

She inherited the diva image from Patti Labelle and Diana Ross and raised it to new heights. Female artists, regardless of race, continue to flourish despite her tumble from the top. Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Celine Dion and Rihanna all owe a debt of gratitude to Whitney, who unfortunately became a caricature of herself before her untimely death in 2012. We’re still seeing copycats today.

Honorable Mention: Madonna

Yes, before Madonna there were other female icons such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and . . . well, that was it. Madonna became an enterprise, a brand. She was that big. Never mind that her last hit was 2012’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” She’s probably one of the top 5 most popular artists of all time.

Like David Bowie, she has been a musical chameleon, changing looks and genres with the seasons. But I would argue that she’s done more for today’s music, helping resurrect dance music than anything she did in the 80s or 90s, when she drew more attention for her fashion choices.

Omissions: Prince. There never has been nor never will be another Prince. Whether he actually influenced anyone is up for debate. The worst thing anyone wants to be is a Prince sound-alike. He was that good; he broke the mold and no one dared to emulate him.

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  1. phil

    Wow… whoever wrote this was probably born in the 90’s… Madonna was to the 80’s what Facebook is to today… Extemely popular. Now don’t even get me started on how Prince was left off this list. Prince, Michael, and Madonna alone round up the top 3 in any order. I’ll accept U2 on this list but not R.E.M nor Run DMC (even though I’m from the BX). I gotta put Lionel Richie, and the Boss himself on this list. I’m pretty certain your readers would agree with my list more so than yours.

  2. My hmphs

    Hm. First, Bruce was more influential from his Born to Run days, which is why he’s in my Most Influential Artists of the 1970s list. By the 80s he was more commercialized. Second…Lionel Richie??? This is Influential, not Popular artists. Unless you mean he was influential in that no one wants to copy him.

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