9 of the Worst Songs of the 80s

For years, I wrote a weekly syndicated radio show about 80s music. I loved that gig, mainly because I’d been hip-deep in the 80s scene. MTV, spandex, New Wave, questionable hairstyles – I was all in. So, when it comes to picking some of the worst songs of that decade, I have…thoughts.

There have been similar “worst” lists and in truth, some frequent choices like Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” leave me conflicted. For one: George Michael wrote it when he was just 19. Two: the dude could sing. So, I have to give him props for both and can’t bring myself to pile on with the rest.

However, when it comes to THESE songs, launch me right into that pile. They are truly awful.  So in no particular order, here are nine songs we could’ve done without.

KOKOMO/The Beach Boys (1988)

Who doesn’t love The Beach Boys? But, outside of their famed harmonies and ode to a sunny clime, this song is NOT the Beach Boys. Even if it did reach Number One, if you’re stuck on this fictional isle, the only good vibrations will come from several free rounds of Mojitos.

HANGIN’ TOUGH/New Kids On The Block (1988)

I look at this song by New Kids On The Block in the same way I look at the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: a warning of the approaching flood of boy bands that were about to swamp us in the ‘90s. I blame you, Donnie Wahlberg.

SAY YOU SAY ME /Lionel Richie (1986)

The Commodores were great, even if Lionel Richie’s particular contributions like “Easy” weren’t quite my thing (give me “Brick House” any day). When he went solo, Richie’s penchant for the Soft n’ Cheesy took this track to Number One. It combines deeply earnest lyrics (“I had a dream/I had an awesome dream”) with a super-awkward dance break. Say you, say “no thanks.”

EYE OF THE TIGER/Survivor (1982)

Survivor caught a huge break when Sylvester Stallone contacted them to write a song for his movie, Rocky III (they thought his message on the answering machine was someone playing a prank). While the driving rhythm is a musical stand-in for Rocky’s jabs and crosses in the film, that opening “chukka chukka chukka” is a hard punch to the ears.

I’VE NEVER BEEN TO ME/Charlene (1982)

This is the musical equivalent of a really bad Hallmark Channel or Lifetime movie, where a woman living a life of luxury laments that she’s just been a big ol’ slut and needs to take up baking or working with handicapped kids to redeem her choices.

9 to 5 (MORNING TRAIN)/Sheena Easton (1981)

Later in the decade, Sheena Easton would show off her considerable pipes in funky fashion by pairing with Prince on “U Got the Look” and “Sugar Walls.” But it all began with this chirpy ode to being a Trad Wife who stays at home waiting for hubby to return and “take [her] to the movies, to a restaurant.” Girl, at least join a book club.

WE BUILT THIS CITY/Starship (1985)

It was a slow, weird fall from the acid-dipped Jefferson Airplane (and Grace Slick’s defiant vocals on songs like “Volunteers”) to Jefferson Starship and ultimately, the more radio-friendly Starship. What’s even weirder is that this song was co-written by Elton John’s longtime partner, Bernie Taupin. I’m sure I’m not alone in asking, “How did he go from ‘Levon’ to THIS?”

THE GIRL IS MINE/Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney (1982)

Considering how massive Thriller ultimately would be, that THIS was the first single released is just puzzling. In light of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and the title track, you wonder what Michael and Quincy Jones were thinking. Yes, it features Paul McCartney, but damn, is it ever lame.

THE LADY IN RED/Chris de Burgh (1986)

Before James Blunt cornered the market on Mawkish with 2004’s “You’re Beautiful,” this treacly mess was a go-to song for any occasion that included a slow dance. Even though it was his biggest hit, de Burgh admits it’s not the best song he ever wrote. On that, he’s right.

OK, I’ve had my say, so how about you? What 80s songs make you want to leave your body? Share in the comments.

-Cindy Grogan

Photo: Sheena Easton, 1981 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

81 comments on “9 of the Worst Songs of the 80s

  1. You’re wrong about all of these.

    • Would be interested in your take?

    • Uncle Walker* for the ghost who walks

      Saxman is right. While I would agree about the Charlene song, all these others are classic 80’s hits, either in sound or because of the artists.

  2. Gary Theroux

    This is a joke, right? Few if anyone agrees with this tone-deaf list consisting of many of the biggest, best and most requested hit singles of the decade.

    • They’re still pretty cringe-y.

    • “Biggest” and “most requested” doesn’t necessarily equate with “best.”

      • Amen to that. Everyone in the entire world should have this drilled into their heads at school. 🙂 ‘Popular’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘terrible’, but it most definitely doesn’t mean ‘great’. 🙂

    • Pepper P

      I disagree. While I like two of the songs, one just because I like everything Paul McCartney does and who doesn’t like a slow dance to Lady in Red, but the rest are commercial garbage, second-rate songs that the masses inexcusably swallowed up.

    • Richmond Kessie

      Goes to show big doesn’t always mean good.

  3. I figured all 9 songs would be “We Built This City” by Starship.

  4. I read the title of each song, it started playing in my head, and my head went “Boom!” So, good job. Need to find the aspirin.

  5. Harry S

    You are right on target with this list of tripe commercial trash. God bless you for pointing out how did “We Built This City” ever come from the JA family. Journey followed the same path by hiring Steve Perry and playing “lets make money” music. So many bands sold out in the 80s, its no wonder hair metal bands got a toehold.

    • If, in the 60s, Grace Slick could’ve seen this future song, lord knows what she would’ve done.

    • THIS! All of it. Speaking of Journey I’d put all their songs on this list too. (And I used to dig them, back in the 80s — I own it 🙂 What did I know, I was in high school and they were popular. After I heard better music I realized the grave error of my ways, LOL

    • Handsome Clem

      Looking at this list of aural drivel, all I can say is thank the Music Gods for 80’s Hardcore Punk which made that decade considerably more bearable!

  6. >>this tone-deaf list consisting of many of the biggest, best and most requested hit singles of the decade.<<

    And your point is? Because they were big, "requested" hits, this automatically makes them something other than terrible songs?

    Who was it who said you'll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American (and apparently British) public?

  7. David S.

    Great list! Some forgotten rotten earworms here. “We Built This City” is my most hated song of the 80s, while Seger’s “Old Time Rock n Roll“ is my candidate for the 70s. (But that’s another article)

  8. Douglas T.

    I mean, I don’t -love- her, she -did- drop a few good singles here and there, but was there ever more of a corrective to one hit than when Sheena followed up “Morning Train” with “Modern Girl?” I doubt the latter will ever appear on one of Harrison Butker’s playlists!

    • Holly H.

      Morning Train was actually the follow-up. Modern Girl was her debut single, but didn’t peak on the charts until after Morning Train made it big.

  9. https://www.facebook.com/russell.nutt

    “Eye of the Tiger” is mediocre, but the real crime was allowing Survivor to foist a series of cliche-ridden dreck on us through the decade (“High on You”, “The Search Is Over”, “I Can’t Hold Back”, and “Burning Heart” are particularly execrable). “I’ve Never Been to Me” is misogynistic slop. “The Girl Is Mine” proves two enormously talented artists can still write treacle (and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “So Bad” make that case equally well). Phil Collins’ remake of “Groovy Kind of Love”, Michael Damien’s cover of “Rock On” are perfect examples of how not to do a remake. “Coward of the County”, “Elvira”, “Pac-Man Fever”, “Party All the Time”, “Pump Up the Jam’, and “You Spin Me ‘Round (Like a Record”) are all wretched at best. And if I never hear “Don’t Stop Believin'” again (the most overrated/overplayed song ever; and it’s about a one-night hookup, no less), my life will be no less complete.

  10. John Smistad

    Gnarly list, Cindy.

    A couple of common threads running thru your most odorous selections here…

    *Turning the radio station within the first one and 3/4 seconds of hearing the song


    *”Smurfyness” beyond all reason

  11. Obviously you don’t realize that the goal of most music, like the goal of movies is to make money. I went to film school with a bunch of people like that who swore film was art, now 95% of them are broke and unemployed whiLe those that knew film is a business are doing very well. Get off your high horse because everyone of those songs made more money than you will see in your entire life.

    • $$ or no, they’re still awful.

    • A person whose “entire life” and everything in it is defined by only one standard — money — is truly to be pitied.

      • Mike Browning

        As an overripe artist myself, who has no delusions of grandeur about making my fortune in the biz (that ship sailed when the 70s closed), I will offer that the goal of most music is to be heard… at least that’s my hope for myself. Money was a by-product of being heard then, but the model has certainly changed.

    • But couldn’t they make money on music (and film, for that matter) that wasn’t so horrid? In the 80s, popularity depended to a large extent on how hard the label worked your song and how many dollars they gave the radio PDs to play it. Do you really think We Built This City was all over the radio because it was good? Since they were paying anyway, why couldn’t the labels have spent it on something less awful ?

  12. What’s the beef with art? Or money? ;]

  13. E Nealley

    For Sheena Easton I would propose Sugar Walls instead- 9 to 5 had a kind of fun charm, though it was totally overplayed.

    No gripes about the others

  14. “This Girl is Mine” is made even worse with the qualifier, “the doggone” girl is mine! YECH! Though not as bad as this one, their other collaboration “Say, Say, Say” was pretty bad, too.

  15. Wade Brown

    I love every sing on your list! It would be interesting to see a list of your favorites.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. It’s hard to narrow down the “favorites” — there are way too many. For some pesky reason, it’s easier to slag on the worst…and more fun!

  16. Robert Santaniello

    As a music collector since childhood, I own all of these…some were guilty pleasures, some were just “I have to own it…big on the charts.” It’s amazing how some people consider slop “greatness” and vice versa. Some guy here said YOU SPIN ME was dreck. As a dj who spun it when it first came out and many times since, everybody loves that song on the dance floor. Everybody.

  17. Steven Valvano

    Kudos to Cindy for having the insight to call out the emperor’s new clothes!

    There were really two categories of 80s music….stuff with depth that mattered (there’s plenty).
    …..and stuff that was structured to be OVERLY commercialized thanks to that magnet dinosaur platform: MTV.

    • Thanks, Steve. I agree — there was lots of great music made in that decade. But while MTV was fun, it did foist some terrible songs on us.

  18. Eye of the Tiger is fun and has great energy. Play it at the gym or before a big work event. I dont really care for The Lady in Red but its not horrendous. You missed a certain Billy Joel song lacking in anything other than a string of historical events. And, Poison, Winger, Warrant are all bitter about being overlooked. I guess every rose has a thorn.

  19. Joe Cogan

    I thought We Built This City was going to wind up the worst track of the 80s, but Billy Joel, of all people, swooped in at the end of the decade with We Didn’t Start The Fire, which despite its massive popularity, Billy himself doesn’t regard very highly, joking that maybe he should have included a melody…

  20. I was a DJ on my college radio station and had just gotten in trouble for playing “Precious” by Pretenders on the air. I got into my car, turned on the radio, and heard this warbly song about “stumbling out of bed” and “he works so haaarrrrrrddddd” — and in that moment I wondered if the world had somehow reversed itself to the early 1960s. “Morning Train” is just wrong on so many levels.

  21. Suebee Doobee

    I thought Total Eclipse of the Heart would top this list **screee** (sound of fingernails on chalkboard)

  22. Sean Sullivan

    All right, I’m in. Here’s my list.

    1. “Safety Dance” – Men Without Hats: The video alone qualifies it. The song completes its ascension to the top of this list.

    2. “Come on Eileen” – Dexys Midnight Runners: If you told me then that I’d be hearing this song in grocery stores 40 years later, I would have ended it all.

    3. “The Final Countdown” – Europe: ’80s teenagers would spend the rest of their lives tortured by this song at sporting events. Nostalgia would eventually get confusingly mixed in. This blend of nostalgic torture is now referred to as “The Final Countdown Syndrome” by psychologists.

    4. “Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry” – Chicago: “After all the who you’ve been through.” ‘Nuff said.

    5. “The One That You Love” – Air Supply: A whiny soft rock hit from down under. Send it back down.

    6. “Hello” – Lionel Richie: Many years later, memes almost saved this song from this list. Almost.

    7. “Take It On the Run” – REO Speedwagon: This song from the Illinois-ers is both ill-inducing AND annoying.

    8. “Elvira” – Oak Ridge Boys: I’m just here to say “Giddy up, um-poppa-um-poppa, mow, mow!”

    9. “Faithfully” – Journey: One prom classic – “Open Arms” – begets this cookie-cutter, follow up abomination that would usurp its predecessor on the dance floor.

    10. “Africa” – Toto : Here this group of Angelenos grab the ring for ‘80s whiny supremacy.

    • All great choices. I’m conflicted on “Africa,” because Toto are great musicians – but the lyrics are just “meh.” I also need to give props to Steve Perry; he’s not my cup of tea, but he has serious pipes. I think a worse Journey song would be “Separate Ways.” Thanks for weighing in!

      • Sean Sullivan

        I hear you on “Africa.” I owned the single, so I had some reticence putting it at #10. However, what gave it the nod was that whiny chorus. Boy the ’80s where whiny.

        On “Seperate Ways,” that’s DEFINITELY in the Top 10 worst ’80s videos. I think I just gave you your next article pitch. 😉

        Thanks for the fun article!

        • Yeah, all that “air” playing in the video…I’ve read that even the band was embarrassed (as they should’ve been).

  23. Love 1 and 10. 8 seems like the band wished that it be taken as corny.

  24. Excellent list! I’d add “Spies Like Us” (music from McCartney, lyrics from McDonalds), and “I Want You to Want Me” (musical waterboarding).
    Speaking of the 80s..the era of MTV’s 24/7 music videos: may we please have a list of the 9 best (or worst) music videos of the 80s?

    • David S.

      “Musical waterboarding” Lol! That describes how I felt hearing Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” on the lunchroom jukebox every day for a term while I was in college.

    • Scott, it’s like you’re in my head: I’ve had that “worst videos” list on my topics to write about — as well as videos that were absolutely definitive, like “Thriller” and “Sledgehammer.” So much creativity, and yes, so much dreck. But MTV was so much fun.

  25. Wow! Hard to believe, hard to read! I can’t imagine what it takes to impress you, so I won’t even try!

  26. We are living in the worst era of music right NOW. Every single song uses the exact same chord structures, and modulation is verboten. we are literally hearing variations on the exact same song over and over again.
    Today’s awful music makes all these songs on this list look like stone cold masterpieces.

    • I tend to agree with you — however, I’m fairly certain generations before us said the same exact thing about the music that WE liked…!

    • On the contrary. I feel that we are living in one of the best eras for music right now. There is some truly amazing stuff I’ve heard that has come out in the past 10-15 years that I’d put up against anything. And I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. The problem is that very little of it is getting on the radio where the masses can hear it. You have to dig for it, but the effort is well worth it.

  27. Mark Hudson

    I will never understand the stick that “We built this city” gets – regularly turning up in lists like these. I think it’s a rockin’ little tune and was one of my soundtracks for going out and having fun back in the 80’s. You remember fun, right? 🙂

  28. Mark Hudson

    Yes indeed – through Good times bad times.

  29. Why even produce this list. If you don’t like a song just listen to something else? I personally liked almost ALL of these songs, brought back good memories.

  30. Why even produce this list? Why trash songs? If you don’t like a song just move on. I personally liked most of these songs and they brought back fond memories.

  31. To have a list of worst 80s songs and not include “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” feels like a terrible omission. And to be fair, there are multiple novelty songs of the time that could also easily be on the list (“General Hospi-Tale,” “Pac-Man Fever,” “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” “The Curly Shuffle,” and “You Look Marvelous” just to name a handful).

  32. Eoghan Michael Lyng

    It’s not my place to comment on this list – I wasn’t around in the 1980s!


  33. Oh now I understand what people’s problem is with many of these songs – unlike much of the mediocre music of the last decade (or more) by mega pop stars who need need auto tune and often lip sync at award shows, these songs have actually fun hooks and melodies. Anyone who has a problem with any or Survivor’s or Journey’s songs has no clue what makes a great memorable song. Oh and I love how many band’s sold out just because they became popular. Nooo, they learned how to write memorable hooks and melodies which are still remembered decades later. Come talk forty years from now and see how many songs from past 10-15 years are actually remembered the same way….

  34. Oh now I understand what people’s problem is with many of these songs – unlike much of the mediocre music of the last decade (or more) by mega pop stars who need need auto tune and often lip sync at award shows, these songs have actually fun hooks and melodies. Anyone who has a problem with any of Survivor’s or Journey’s songs has no clue what makes a great memorable song. Oh and I love how many band’s sold out just because they became popular. Nooo, they learned how to write memorable hooks and melodies which are still remembered decades later. Come talk forty years from now and see how many songs from past 10-15 years are actually remembered the same way….

  35. michael perkins

    Totally agree with all of your choices, including your reluctance to include Careless Whisper.
    His great vocals, and the smooth production, should be enough,to save it from your hall of shame….

    Pet Sounds, was the apogee of the Beach Boys catalogue…. Kokomo, was their nadir..

    I never understood, what people saw in Chris De Burgh…Lady in Red is a classic…for the all the wrong reasons…

    The Girl is Mine should have an appropriate B side, to truly enter the Pantheon of awful hits.(from any decade)
    May I suggest Ebony & Ivory, as a suitable candidate???

    • Joe Cogan

      I love Careless Whisper for the sheer audacity of the line “And I’m never gonna dance again: guilty feet have got no rhythm”!

  36. Joe Cogan

    Billy Joel’s hideous We Didn’t Start The Fire belongs here. And I normally like Billy Joel!

  37. I think never ending story by Limahl is missing on the list.

  38. Sugar Walls is her worst song

  39. Michael Handorf

    Electric Avenue. You missed the worst song of all time, not just the 80s.

  40. There were so many truly bad songs in the 1980s. Here’s my list in no particular order, and I’ve tried to not rehash others here.
    Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? The answer is obviously yes, for inflicting this one on the world.

    Just Can’t Get ENough,. Depeche Mode would go on to release a string of the best albums of the 80s. I guess you gotta start somewhere.

    Owner of a Lonely Heart, Yes. When the whole reason people buy your records is the virtuoso musicianship and songs that take you on a journey, to suddenly turn your back on everything you’ve done before to become pop stars is a baffling move. You got a number one hit at the cost of most of your existing fan base. Unfortunately, subsequent albums were no better. Fortunately, bands like Marillion and Pendragon were there to pick up where you left off.

    I Ran, Flock of Seagulls. WHen your hairstyle is more important than the music you make.

    I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, U2. It was at this point that a once interesting band became a parody of itself.

    Sweet CHild Of Mine, Guns n Roses. SOme of the worst whining vocals since The Four Seasons. No matter how good the rest of the band is, it’s hard to take them seriously as long as Axel is singing.

    Wanted Dead or ALive, Bon Jovi. ROck stars and truck drivers always claim to be cowboys. Real cowboys never claim to be either. Nuff said.

    Hip to be Square, Huey Lewis. I just picked one at random here. They’re all interchangeable, and all mind numbingly boring.

    Sussudio, Phil Collins. The sound of heavy machinery in a catastrophic breakdown. Drum machines and synths are not inherently bad, and in the right hands they make beautiful music. This is not that music.

    Right Now, Van Halen. How can you take any band seriously when Sammy Hagar is the singer?

  41. Sterling

    “Feel the Impact” from the Aweful Jean Claude Van Damme movie Double Impact where he plays twins. Prepare for a Damme aweful beat.

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