There is no refuting that the 1980s was an extreme time! Big business, big world events, and of course, big hair defined the decade. 80s Rock Bands are one of the biggest things.
The music of the 80s also played a big role in history and greatly influenced rock music styles. The 1980s music helped shape the evolution of music, driving rock songs from the classic rock style of the 60s and 70s to the modern rock styles of the 90s and today.
The 1980s was a decade of rock supremacy, with over-the-top glam/hair rock, thrashing heavy metal, and heart-wrenching power ballads playing a substantial role in that dominance.
And while numerous rock bands originating in the 1980s significantly influenced music culture at the time, we have assembled a list of the best 20 rock bands of the 80s.
Created in 1985, Guns N’ Roses is the epitome of 1980s heavy metal rock bands. The band initially featured Axl Rose as the lead singer, lead guitarist Slash, Izzy Stradlin as the rhythm guitarist, bassist Duff McKagan, and Steven Adler on drums.
Guns N’ Roses formed out of the remains of two other groups—L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose—. Guns N’ Roses stormed onto the rock scene with all the rebellion of Elvis Presley in the 50s and the immorality of Led Zeppelin in the 70s, earning them the nickname “the most dangerous band in the world .”
Guns N’ Roses’s first album, Appetite for Destruction, featured hit songs such as “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child of Mine.” They toured considerably on the “Appetite for Destruction Tour” and released their second album, G N’ R Lies, in 1988.
Whether the thought of by fans as hardcore rockers, sexy heartthrobs, or rebellious scoundrels, Guns N’ Roses secured their place in 1980s rock band history.
In 1981 the infamous thrash heavy metal band Metallica joined the scene. Lars Ulrich published an advertisement that read, “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden,” and the rest is rock band history.
Teaming up with James Hetfield, Metallica drew upon a punk rock and early 1980s British metal techniques to assemble one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
In 1986 Metallica released the definitive heavy metal album Master Of Puppets, and the title track is the absolute pinnacle of the band’s talent.
And thanks to Stranger Things, people are still thrashing at it today.
At the dawn of the 80s decade, Van Halen was already one of the most successful rock bands on the scene.
Even though they made quite a splash in the late 1970s when they debuted, Van Halen created its legacy through fantastic work during the 1980s, creating a definite classic rock legacy that is difficult to deny.
Up until 1984 Van Halen consisted of Eddie Van Halen and his brother, Alex Van Halen. David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony were also part of the group. However, in 1985, David Lee Roth quit the band, and Sammy Hagar jumped in.
And while David Lee Roth brought an absurd, animated attitude to the band, Sammy Hagar, also known as “The Red Rocker,” brought his own style of punch and tone to make Van Halen a legend in 1980s rock bands and today.
Initiated in 1984 in Hollywood, California, Warrant evolved into one of America’s greatest glam metal bands, also known as “hair bands .”
Even with their good looks and big hair, Warrant knew how to rock! During the majority of the 1980s, Warrant acquired fame on the Los Angeles club scene and even added the song “Game of War” to the movie soundtrack to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
In 1988 Columbia records ultimately signed Warrant, and in 1989, they released their debut album Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich.
With power ballads such as “Heaven” and “Sometimes She Cries,” Warrant showed fans they could bring the rock and the love.
In New Jersey in 1983, singer Jon Bon Jovi, David Bryan, Tico Torres, Phil X, and Hugh McDonald created the rock band Bon Jovi.
And while in 1984 and 1985, they released two albums and began to make a name for themselves, the 1986’s classic Slippery When Wet bombarded Bon Jovi into rock band history.
Songs like “Living on a Prayer” and “Raise Your Hands” are why “Slippery When Wet” ultimately became platinum and are still rocked out on radio stations today.
Between the hair, the scarves, and the occasional short shorts, what was there not to love about Bon Jovi?
Although Aerosmith appears on practically any decade’s list of top rock bands, in the 1980s, Aerosmith had to battle back to be the icons they are today.
In the 1970s, Aerosmith ran the rock music game but took a bit of a dip in the early 1980s. However, in 1986 Aerosmith partnered up with hip-hop stars Run-D.M.C. to remake the classic “Walk This Way.”
Once the video hit MTV, Aerosmith seized an entirely new audience. With the release of Permanent Vacation in 1987, Aerosmith was back to being prime Aerosmith.
Featuring hits such as “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Rag Doll,” Aerosmith staked their claim on the rock music of the 1980s.
Like many other incredible rock bands in the 1980s, Mötley Crüe came together in Los Angeles in 1981.
As one of the quintessential glam metal/hair metal bands of their time, Mötley Crüe flourished off of the MTV generation. With lead singer Vince Neil and drummer Tommy Lee propelling the band to stardom, Mötley Crüe’s album Dr. Feelgood became an anthem for revolutionary rockers worldwide.
Mötley Crüe exemplifies the 1980s lifestyle with their pleasure-seeking playboy attitudes. Esquire magazine once wrote about them, “The only thing louder than Mötley Crüe’s music was the band’s partying.”
Formed in London in 1978, Whitesnake original members David Coverdale, Micky Moody, Bernie Marsden, Neil Murray, Dave Dowle, and Brian Johnston understood how to seize hold of possibilities and make the most of them.
Their self-titled album, released in 1987, was deemed their most noteworthy success, with hits such as “Here I Go Again” and “Is This Love” making moves on the Billboard charts.
But their hair might hold some of the reasons for their success. With their textured, teased, and moussed locks backed by trashing energetic music, Whitesnake had a lock on the rock scene and the sex symbol scene of the 1980s.
If rock bands in the 1980s are known for their flowing locks, ZZ Top had that, just in beard style. Recognized by their iconic whiskers since 1969, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill (until Hill died in 2021) comprised the iconic rock band Z Z Top.
ZZ Top hit its prime in the 1980s. In 1983 they released their eighth album, Eliminator, which featured “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Legs.”
Eliminator seamlessly blended ZZ Top’s blues-rock origins with the more prevalent music stylings of the time. Like many of their contemporaries, Z.Z. Top realized the tremendous potential of MTV and used it to their benefit.
Dubbed the “Eliminator classic video trilogy,” the songs “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs,” ZZ Top helped to define what a music video should be and secured ZZ Top’s standing in rock history.
In 1977 in Boston, Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, and David Robinson created the rock band The Cars. The Cars hit their stride in the 1980s.
The mixture of vocals and synthesizer keyboards embedded their influence with fans throughout the 1980s.
When their album Shake it Up was released, The Cars were getting some airplay on radio stations; however, MTV propelled them to stardom like several other bands on our list.
The Cars put as much time and energy into their music videos as they did their albums and songs. Notably, the song “You Might Think” won video of the year at MTV’s first Video Music Awards in 1984.
Thrash/heavy metal band Slayer was formed in Huntington Park, California, in 1981 by Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Dave Lombardo, and Tom Araya.
Their legacy as one of the most prominent and significant metal bands still stands today. Compared to other metal bands of the 1980s, Slayer’s music was more frantic, overtly satanic, and downright scary.
Anointed as part of the “Big Four” of 80s thrash metal bands, Slayer seemed to flourish on terrifying parents and igniting rowdy teenagers.
They were created in 1983 in (where else) Los Angeles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are so much more than a 1980s rock band. Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith, and John Frusciante blend hard rock, punk rock, funk, and hip hop to make musical mayhem.
In 1984, the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their self-titled debut album and began constructing a substantial fan base. Even though the Red Hot Chili Peppers may not have attained commercial success until later decades, music lovers cannot deny their impact on music in the 1980s.
Some consider them impetuous and offensive, while others consider them the essence of what a rocker should embody; no one can dispute that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are icons in 1980s rock band history.
In the 1980s, Ratt came into the heavy metal scene of Los Angeles like several other bands on our list.
In 1981, the original members of Ratt, Stephen Pearcy, Chris Hager, Tim Garcia, and Bob Eisenberg, abbreviated the band’s initial name of Mickey Ratt to Ratt and started recording.
In the early years of the 1980s, Ratt released several albums; Ratt E.P., Out of the Cellar, and Invasion of Your Privacy. Invasion of Your Privacy was the more retail hit, including the hit song “Round & Round,” working their way onto airways and fans’ favorites lists.
Defined as heavy metal with a tune, Ratt became one of the definitive rock acts of the1980s.
Established in New York City in 1981 by Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth cut its teeth on the gritty NYC underground rock scene before acquiring popularity by the decade’s end.
In 1986 Sonic Youth released their album EVOL and the album Sister in 1987. Both albums enabled Sonic Youth to smash onto a national stage. Sonic Youth earns their spot on this list for their groundbreaking rock music and undeniable influence on music.
They brought the sounds of the underground scene to a national stage and kept their uniqueness alive without relying on significant labels to play a role.
Described as “redefining what rock guitar can do,” You can not overstate the influence of Sonic Youth on music.
In 1973 Neal Schon, Ross Valory, George Tickner, Prairie Prince, and Gregg Rolie formed the rock band Journey, but it was not until the 1980s, when lead singer Steve Perry entered, that the band achieved icon status.
In July 1981, Journey released their album Escape which featured iconic hits such as “Who’s Crying Now” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Journey understood how to capitalize on their success, even releasing an arcade game in 1983 featuring all of the band’s members. Journey’s capacity to transition from the traditional style of rock to the unique 1980s style is what earns them a spot on our top 20 list.
The flowing-haired boys were not the only ones rocking out in the 1980s. Rockstar girl band The Bangles hit their peak in the late 80s.
Established in Los Angeles, California, in 1981 by Susanna Hoffs and the power sister duo Vicki and Debbi Peters, The Bangles added some much-needed estrogen to the testosterone party of the 80s.
The original ladies tinkered with names such as Colors and The Bangs before agreeing on The Bangles. Once the hit single “Manic Monday” hit the airwaves, The Bangles settled into their success.
Their hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” has the extraordinary distinction of being the first song by an all-female group that plays all of their own instruments to top the Billboard singles chart.
Formed in 1986 in New Jersey by Rachel Bolan and Dave Sabo, Skid Row rocked with the best of them in the 1980s. However, in early 1987, when Sebastian Bach joined the group, the band erupted into superstardom.
Classified as a heavy metal/glam metal band, Skid Row’s self-titled album released in 1989 rocketed them to instant success.
With rocking singles such as “18 and Life” and “I Remember You,” Skid Row molded a fan base that would follow them through the next decade.
Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Stan Lynch, and Ron Blair, 1976, created the iconic American rock band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
In 1985, they released their sixth album, Southern Accents featuring the hit song “Don’t Come Around Here No More .” Considered trippy, to say the least; the MTV video of that song impacted virtually everyone who saw it.
With its Alice in Wonderland theme and bizarre cake-eating scene, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ingrained themselves in the minds of 1980s rock fans.
Billed as “the most successful female rock band of all time” on their website, The Go-Go’s were revolutionary rock stars during the 1980s.
Founding members Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Margot Olavarria, and Elissa Bello made rock history.
Even with hits like “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed, ” The Go-Go’s only rode the celebrity wheel for a brief period. However, the novel concept of an all-female band that played their instruments helped push The Go-Go’s into rock and roll history.
And their album Beauty and the Beat remains the first and only album penned and performed by an all-female band to hit # on the charts.
Created in 1983, originally named Paris in Pennsylvania by Bret Michaels, Matt Smith, Bobby Dall, and Rikki Rockett, Poison had tremendous success in the 1980s.
Characterized as a glam rock metal band with messes and messes of hair, Poison released their album Look What the Cat Dragged In 1986.
And while at the time, some critics thought of Poison as a makeup-wearing, big-haired rock band with little to no talent, American youth disagreed.
Thanks again to airplay from MTV for the hits “Talk Dirty to Me” and “I Won’t Forget You,” Poison was able to seize the fandom they so rightfully deserved.
Love it or hate it, there is no denying that the 1980s played an enormous part in shaping the world we know today.
Many people consider the 1980s the best decade for the music industry, and we will not argue with them.
The decade created some of the best products, best sitcoms, and best bands in rock history. Narrowing a list down to a manageable number is a tricky thing to do.
We have picked our top 20; what do you think?