The 10 Best Rock Bands of the '80s

Categories: Retro Active

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Photo by Daniel Kramer
Chrissie Hynde (center) and the Pretenders at House of Blues Houston in 2009
Whether you lived through them or not, we can all admit that the '80s were a long time ago. Even a kid born on New Year's Eve 1989 could be most of his or her way through medical school by now. And although that decade refuses to go away in all sorts of ways, one concept that does feel like has been lost is the idea of the no-bullshit, straight-ahead rock and roll band. Guys who wore cuban-heeled boots or sneakers onstage, smoked cigarettes and idolized Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Lennon & McCartney. There was a lot we didn't know back then.

So strictly because one of our personal '80s-rock favorites, Living Colour, is in town Sunday night, not long ago we thought it would be fun to ask a few of our writers to give us a couple of their favorite rock bands of the Reagan/Bush years. And that's it: rock bands. No metal (including G'N'R), no punk, no alternative, nothing too synthy or New Wave. Just pure rock and roll -- a couple of guitars, bass and drums, maybe a piano or saxophone, and an unflagging desire to conquer the stage every single night.

It wasn't easy. Yes, we see you, Springsteen. You'll live. And forgive us, Huey Lewis and the News. Your name did at least come up.


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THE BLASTERS
Steeped in blues and rockabilly, the Blasters were part of the early '80s California trend (X, Beat Farmers) that involved a return to roots-based rock and roll often tinged with aggressive punk attitude. Marked by Dave Alvin's blistering guitar and exquisite songwriting, brother Phil's incomparable jump-blues singing, New Orleans sax king Lee Allen, and Texan Gene Taylor's  propulsive piano, the band left both audiences and themselves sweating. Their 1981 no-bullshit, no-filler album The Blasters still sounds fresh today, and they get extra points for introducing Houston to Dwight Yoakam. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH


CHEAP TRICK
The 1980s may not have been the decade of iconic hits Cheap trick had in the '70s, but it was by far their most successful as a band. The departure of bassist Tom Petersson after the release of 1980's All Shook Up left a void, and though there were some absolute gems on the string of albums in the middle of the decade, it wasn't until his return for 1988's Lap of Luxury that they found real success. Power ballad "The Flame" became their biggest-selling single and their live shows killed, as they always had. JEFF BALKE


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JOE ELY BAND
Ely hit his rock stride in the '80s after playing bills with The Clash in England. During the first half of the decade he was a punk extension of Buddy Holly, so hot he was tapped to open for the Rolling Stones. After a mid-decade personnel shift, he went on to drop one of the most atomic live albums of the '80s, Joe Ely Live in Chicago.

Ely's band was one of only a few capable of opening for Springsteen, who once sat in for an entire set in Dublin, Ireland, or for Merle Haggard, with whom Ely toured England. Fellow Lubbockite Terry Allen aptly described Ely as performing "like his hair is on fire." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH


GENESIS
The greatest rock band of the 1980s? It's got to be Genesis. That's right. Don't let Phil Collins' solo career fool you. There was never a more well-rounded rock and roll band. Slimming to a trio with Collins as singer and ditching prog, the band crafted pop-rock masterpieces like "Invisible Touch," which may be the most instantly gratifying pop song of the entire decade.

But these guys could rock too! Some of the most accomplished musicians on earth, they delivered stunning rock opuses like "Domino" and "Home by the Sea" on even their most pop-oriented records. Not to mention Collins' incredible, soul-shaking scream heard on tracks like "Mama" and "No Son of Mine." These guys were never the pussies you thought they were -- at one point, they were the best damn rock band in the world.  COREY DEITERMAN


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JOAN JETT & THE BLACKHEARTS
Let's face it, the '80s were a lousy decade for lady rockers. Racy pop stars sure, but lacy gloves only go so far. R&B divas of course, but what's love got to do with it? That leaves Joan Jett, who put it right up front in one of the greatest singles in jukebox history, "I Love Rock and Roll": me, yeah me.

But to go with all that attitude, Jett had a terrific ear for rock history -- lurking deep on her '80s albums are choice cuts like "Cherry Bomb" (by her '70s band the Runaways), Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crimson & Clover" and and Gary U.S. Bonds' classic 1960 single "New Orleans." Still, it's those unstoppable songs like "I Hate Myself For Loving You" that made her bad reputation. Jett always sounds like about two feet away from kicking your ass if you step out of line. CHRIS GRAY


JOURNEY
They may have been, for a minute, the kings of the pop ballad, but Journey was also a killer rock outfit. Both Escape and followup Frontiers went multiplatinum primarily behind the ballads "Open Arms" and "Faithfully." But, songs like "Escape," "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)," "Stone in Love" and, of course, "Don't Stop Believin" featured the expertise of guitarist Neal Schon and the soaring vocals of Steve Perry. They were a massive concert draw, including a show at the Summit in 1981 live on MTV. JEFF BALKE



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19 comments
darcymidnight
darcymidnight

Posting her is a pain in the a** - keeps deleting midway through:

Journey

Def Leppard

Police

Michael Jackson

Springsteen

ZZTop

INXS

darcymidnight
darcymidnight

80s were my high school years and these were our favs, no order:

U2

REM

Madonna

Survivor

Genesis/Collins

rcsteamboat
rcsteamboat

Pwned the 80s: 

01 U2

02 Springsteen

03 Queen

04 Police

05 Stones

06 Iron Maiden

07 AC/DC

08 Van Halen

09 Bon Jovi

10 Foreigner  

kejo66
kejo66

Genesis sucked! apparently you didn't go to their concerts, snoooooooozzzzzzzzfest, and you're wrong, they were pussies.

Journey Rockers? please.  

Replace with The Police and Rush

wanna4getu
wanna4getu

With the exception of Journey, the rest of your list is "GARBAGE", you writers dont know what the heck your talking about, maybe yall didnt "live" through the 80's! And please, Stevie Ray is "Blues" not "ROCK-n-Freakin ROLL"!!

HERES "MY OPINION"....

1: VAN HALEN(WITH DAVID LEE AND ALSO SAMMY HAGAR)

2: BILLY IDOL(REBEL YELL)

3: BON JOVI(1ST 3 ALBUMS,AFTER THAT THEY FADED INTO 90'S POP)

4: AEROSMITH(ALONG WITH RUN DMC, WERE ORIGINATORS OF "RAP-ROCK")

5: MOTLEY CRUE(PICK UP 1987'S "GIRLS,GIRLS,GIRLS, ALBUM TO KNOW WHY)

6: JOURNEY( VIEW JOURNEY LIVE IN HOUSTON  ESCAPE TOUR DVD TO SEE WHY)

7: KISS(YES EVEN 50% ORIGINAL KISS UNMASKED PACKED ARENAS)

8: DAVID BOWIE(WITH THE HELP OF TEXAS GUITAR LEGEND STEVIE RAY)

9: DEF LEPPARD(PYROMANIA 80'S)

10:WHITESNAKE("STILL OF THE NIGHT"....ROCKED THE 80'S)

Jey Tullius
Jey Tullius

And no mention of U2 or The Smiths. Wow.

fieldcrow52
fieldcrow52

kool list except - for my 'taste' - Journey (too "Behind The Candelabra" for me) and Genesis (too 'Peter & Gabriel' for me). I'll trade you ACDC for Journey and Dave Edmunds (DE-7th came out in '80) for Genesis.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

All those who actually grew up in the 80's step forward.  Not so fast, William Michael...

WhiteLightning
WhiteLightning

Great quote from Jerry Renshaw: If anybody ever wondered how come punk rock HAD to happen in the 70s, all they need to do is listen to Journey. 

WhiteLightning
WhiteLightning

Petty's Southern Accents was in HEAVY rotation in our house for years.

Johnny Simmons
Johnny Simmons

That Journey concert here was my first show. It's great to have it on CD.

CoreyDeiterman
CoreyDeiterman

@kejo66 For what it's worth, it was a toss up between Genesis and the Police for me on this one. I ultimately decided that the Police were too much of a genre band.

wanna4getu
wanna4getu

BUT REALLY.....1983'S US FESTIVAL IS WHEN "HARD ROCK/HEAVY METAL" BEGAN TO REIGN SUPREME OVER ANY 1980'S "ROCK" CATEGORY, IT RULED ON THE STRENTHS OF NWOBHM(NEW WAVE OF BRITISH HEAVY METAL) SUCH AS IRON MAIDEN, JUDAS PRIEST, AND AUSSIE ROCKERS AC/DC, AND HEAVINESS OF METALLICA AND L.A. ROCKERS LIKE RATT, POISON, GUNS N ROSES, AND THE LIST GOES ON, IT WAS A SPECIAL DECADE DEFINED BY THE "LONG HAIRED ROCKERS IN BLACK LEATHER"

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