Best-selling bands of the '80s, then and now

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August 23, 2020
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Best-selling bands of the '80s, then and now

Anyone who grew up in the ‘80s remembers seminal events like the debut of the Rubik’s Cube at the International Toy Fair, the murder of John Lennon, the launch of Space Shuttle, the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the release of “Thriller,” the introduction of the Macintosh computer, and Black Monday. It would only make sense that the music of the decade would mirror the times.

What were people tuning into on their radios and Walkmans? Stacker scoured Billboard charts from the '80s and chose 25 of the top bands to give readers a lens into the soundtrack of the decade. We then researched each of the bands to report on their members and give you a sample of their top hits as well as a window into what they are up to now.

A quick scan of the bands reveals an eclectic collection of artists and music types. Whether you like beards and blues, heavy metal, alternative rock, or hard rock, you will find some inspiration here on our list, which includes legends that have sold millions of albums, garnered numerous awards, and earned their place in music history.

Grab your ear buds and blast your favorite ‘80s band while you click through the slideshow. Whether you fancy the Queen soundtrack, the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, or the siren of The Police, take a few minutes to remember or imagine what it felt like to grow up with the music of the ‘80s.

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The Smiths: Then

In their five-year run that began in 1982 the English rock band The Smiths, comprised of vocalist Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce, created four memorable albums and a musical legacy. Hits including “The Queen Is Dead,” “This Charming Man,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and “How Soon Is Now?” rocked the worlds of their cultish fans.

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The Smiths: Now

After the band’s unexpected break up in 1987, the foursome never reunited. They recorded a total of 73 songs.

[Pictured: Morrissey.]

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Run-DMC: Then

Who knew that when Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell founded Run-D.MC in 1983 that the kings of hip-hop would go on to sell 230 million records? Their debut song was “It’s Like That,” with “Sucker MCs” on the B-side of the cassette. Fans remember hits including a rap version of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way,” “King of Rock,” and “Christmas in Hollis.”

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Run-DMC: Now

Run-DMC has had an amazing run. They were the first rap group on MTV, dubbed “The Greatest Hip-Hop Artist of All Time” by VH1, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group had planned a Run-DMC pop-up in New York to celebrate 35 years of DMC music in late May.

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Van Halen: Then

The American hard rock band Van Halen original members included guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and lead singer David Lee Roth. Later members included Sammy Hagar, Gary Cherone, and Wolfgang Van Halen. Their album “1984,” which featured their iconic hit “Jump” and “Panama” sold more than 10 million copies.

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Van Halen: Now

Throughout the years, the band had frequent lineup changes, tours, and albums, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, after which they kicked off their most successful tour ever grossing $93 million. This past Easter Cherone released a cover version of “God Is,” Kayne West’s song from his 2019 album “Jesus Is King.”

[Pictured: David Lee Roth.]

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Rush: Then

Canadian rock band Rush rose to fame thanks to the talented trio comprised of drummer Neil Peart, guitarist Alex Llifeson, and vocalist Geddy Lee. Famous hits include “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” and “Working Men.”

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Rush: Now

Rush released their last album, “Clockwork Angels,” in 2012 and completed their final tour in August of 2015. Hall of Fame drummer Neil Peart died of brain cancer in January 2020.

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Bon Jovi: Then

It’s hard to single out hits of a group as iconic as the Grammy-winning American rock band Bon Jovi. Their 1984 debut album included “Shot Through the Heart,” which did just that, while hits like “You Give Love a Bad Name” is a timeless anthem. Hits including “Livin' on a Prayer,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and “Bed of Roses” showcase their signature steely heartland rock.

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Bon Jovi: Now

Although the band disbanded in 1989 when lead Jon Bon Jovi went solo, they reunited in 1994, touring and releasing albums included the Grammy-nominated “Crush,” “Bounce,” “Lost Highway,” “What About Now” and “Burning Bridges.” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

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Queen: Then

While most people know that the iconic rock band Queen members included Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon, many are not aware that each member was responsible for writing a #1 single for Queen. Songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” "Crazy Little thing Called Love,” "We Will Rock You,” and “Under Pressure” are just a few of the legendary hits that will live on forever.

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Queen: Now

The award-winning movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” put Queen in the spotlight in 2018 giving audiences a reason to celebrate their music. Surviving members of Queen include May, Taylor, and Deacon. While Deacon retired in 1997, Adam Lambert joined May and Taylor to continue the Queen legacy.

[Pictured: John Farnham and Brian May.]

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REO Speedwagon: Then

Band members Kevin Cronin, Dave Amato, Bruce Hall, Neal Doughty, and Bryan Hitt helped REO ride to the top of the charts selling 22 million albums in the United States and 40 million around the world. Gold and platinum records, and worldwide hits, included “Take it on the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

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REO Speedwagon: Now

REO continues to tour. They recently appeared on the Netflix series “Ozark.” Kevin Cronin performed “'Time for Me to Fly” from his home studio to pay tribute to frontline workers fighting COVID-19.

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Journey: Then

Neal Schon remains the sole member of Journey who appears on all band releases. Other original band members include Greg Rolie, Ross Valory, George Tickner, and Prairie Prince. Tops hits include “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Separate Ways,” and “Faithfully.”

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Journey: Now

The band has had numerous lineups throughout the years. Lead singer Steve Perry weaved in and out of the band and returned with a solo album in 2018. They fired Ross Valory and Steve Smith after accusing the duo of trying to take control of one of the band’s entities to fund their retirement.

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The Cure: Then

The Cure, an English rock band that toggled between post-punk to goth to alt-rock to some iteration of all three, produced an eclectic body of work. Hits included “Grinding Halt,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “A Forest,” “Pictures of You,” and “Dressing Up.”

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The Cure: Now

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, lead singer Robert Smith says of the band’s 40-year run, “One of the lovely things about the band is that we’re able to headline Glastonbury, play Hyde Park, and be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we’re still considered to be [a] slightly weird and outsider kind of band.” The band continues to tour and produce music.

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Def Leppard: Then

British rock band Def Leppard pioneered the sounds of heavy-metal music in the 1980s. Original band members include Pete Willis, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, and Tony Kenning. Steve Clark, Phil Collen, Rick Allen, and Vivian Campbell joined the band later. The album “Pyromania”—featuring “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages”—sold more than 10 million copies, securing their spot in rock history.

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Def Leppard: Now

After guitarist Clark died of an overdose in 1991, the band did not continue its prior iconic status. Today Def Leppard focuses on live albums and rereleases along with the studio albums “Def Leppard” and “Songs From the Sparkle Lounge.”

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Talking Heads: Then

Who knew that art school students David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth would unite with Jerry Harrison to form an iconic American rock band called the Talking Heads? Hits including “Burning Down the House,” “Take Me to the River,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “The Great Curve” would earn the band an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

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Talking Heads: Now

The last time the four members of the Talking Heads reunited was at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Byrne has been involved in a number of solo and collaborative works while Harrison has produced albums for No Doubt and others.

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AC/DC: Then

Australian rock band AC/DC is credited with pioneering heavy metal and hard-rock music. “Back in Black” was their biggest album with over 20 million copies sold in the United States. Other great hits included “Thunderstruck,” “Highway to Hell,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

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AC/DC: Now

In 2017 AC/DC announced the death of Malcolm Young who had been suffering from dementia. Angus Young recently celebrated his 65th birthday and fans still adore his signature moves including the duckwalk and the dying bug.

[Pictured: Angus Young.]

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Genesis: Then

Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Steve Hackett were the English quintet known as Genesis. Hit songs included “Mama,” “Carpet Crawlers,” “The Cinema Show,” and “Invisible Touch.”

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Genesis: Now

Members of the band recently confirmed that they will be re-forming and will launch their first tour in 13 years in 2020. Collins, Rutherford, and Banks will be performing shows across the U.K. later in 2020.

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Dire Straits: Then

The British rock band known as Dire Straits originally featured Mark and David Knopfler, John Illsley, and Pick Withers. Their breakout song “Sultans of Swing” was inspired by a mediocre band Mark Knopfler saw in a pub in London. When Dire Straits retired in 1992, their album sales topped 120 million and they also earned a few Grammys.

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Dire Straits: Now

Dire Straits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 sans Mark and David Knopfler. Mark Knopfler went solo and is involved in a myriad of creative endeavors.

[Pictured: Mark Knopfler.]

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Hall & Oates: Then

The top-selling duo in music history, Daryl Hall and John Oates produced six #1 hit singles in the mid-’80s including “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “Maneater.” More Top 40 hits would follow including “Sara Smile,” “One on One,” and "You Make My Dreams."

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Hall & Oates: Now

The duo were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Hall opened a restaurant and music club called Daryl’s House in 2014. Oates penned a memoir called “Change of Seasons” in 2017.

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The Cars: Then

Boston rock band The Cars members included lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek, bassist Benjamin Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboard player Greg Hawkes, and drummer David Robinson. Early hits included "Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," and "You're All I've Got Tonight."

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The Cars: Now

The Cars split in 1988. Ocasek went solo releasing six albums and producing for bands including No Doubt and Bad religion. Orr died in 2000 and The Cars surviving members reunited to release a new album entitled, “Move Like This.” Ocasek passed away in 2019.

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The Police: Then

Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers fused a trifecta of talent in their rock band The Police to deliver a new wave of music in the ‘80s. Hits including “Roxanne,” “So Lonely,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” and “Every Breath You Take” inspired U.S. music listeners to make them the #1 most-played band in the ‘80s.

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The Police: Now

After the band went their separate ways in 1984, their solo careers continued to thrive. Sting released numerous albums, appeared in over 15 films, authored books, and garnered many awards including an additional 11 Grammys, a Golden Globe, and four Oscar nominations. The trio has sold more than 50 million albums around the world.

[Pictured: Sting.]

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Eurythmics: Then

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart are the dynamic duo known as the British Rock band the Eurythmics. Songs like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and "Here Comes the Rain Again," illuminate the band’s revolutionary fusion of pop, rhythm and blues, soul, and avant-garde. Eurythmics has sold over 75 million albums and achieved over 20 international hits across the world.

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Eurythmics: Now

The Eurythmics split in the 1990s to pursue solo careers and reunited at the end of the decade to create a final studio album, “Peace.” They will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year. Lennox has been widely lauded for her music and work for humanitarian causes. Stewart launched Dave Stewart Entertainment where he is involved in a myriad of creative endeavors.

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ZZ Top: Then

ZZ Top pays tribute to their Texas roots with their blues-inspired guitar work and signature facial hair. The band’s talented trio—singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hall, and drummer Frank Beard—were inducted into the Rock and roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Their album “Eliminator”—featuring hits including “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs,”—sold more than 10 million U.S. copies.

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ZZ Top: Now

The trio continued to play throughout the years and performed at President George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001. Fans were happy to learn that a recent hoax announcing Gibbon’s death was false. The band's tour is on hold due to caution about the coronavirus, however the Texas team plans to be back on the road in 2021.

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Guns N' Roses: Then

Hard-rock band Guns ‘N Roses’s team of Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, and Steven Adler, reached the charts with the Top 10 hit “Welcome to the Jungle.” “Sweet Child o’ Mine” followed a year later, skyrocketing to a #1 hit. Other Guns ‘N Roses favorites include “November Rain,” “Estranged,” and “Rocket Queen.”

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Guns N' Roses: Now

Guns ‘N Roses is actively touring. Despite worldwide restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, Guns N’ Roses performed “So Fine” for the first time in 13 years in Mexico City this past March.

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Toto: Then

Toto’s original members David Paich, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, Steve Porcaro, David Hungate, and Jeff Porcaro never could have imagined the band would sell over 40 million albums and earn 225 Grammy nominations. Their prolific roster includes hits such as “Africa,” “Rosanna,” “Hold the Line,” “I Won’t Hold You Back,” “Stop Loving You,” and “Pamela.”

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Toto: Now

Drummer Jeff Porcaro died at age 38 in 1992 and bassist Mike Porcaro died at age 59 in 2015. The band is taking a break after their “40 Trips Around the Sun” tour in 2019.

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Fleetwood Mac: Then

In the late 1970s, “Rumours,” the 11th album of the British-American band Fleetwood Mac topped the charts for 31 weeks and sold over 40 million copies. Fans remember the joy of belting out '80s hits like "Gypsy" and "Big Love."

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Fleetwood Mac: Now

Drama has been at the center of Fleetwood Mac for over five decades. A 2013 reunion brought the band back together, however their hit song “Go Your Own Way” foreshadowed the band’s ultimate destiny.

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Sonic Youth: Then

Sonic Youth introduced the world to experimental forms of rock with their unique brand of music. The band was founded by guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist Kim Gordon, and guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Favorite hits include “Expressway to Yr. Skull” and “I Love Her All the Time.”

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Sonic Youth: Now

The band played their final concert in 2011. Drummer Steve Shelley, who joined the band in 1985, runs the band’s label.

[Pictured: Kim Gordon.]

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De La Soul: Then

The hip-hop trio known as De La Soul includes Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos), David Jude Jolicœur (Trugoy), and Vincent Mason (Maseo), who formed the group when they were in high school. They were nominated for a Grammy for the Best Rap Performance in 1989 for their single, ”Me Myself and I.”

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De La Soul: Now

The trio continues to tour. They cut ties with their record label Tommy Boy Records after a dispute about streaming rights.

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Chicago: Then

Chicago musicians Walter Parazaider, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, and Peter Cetera formed a band to fuse Chicago’s musical diversity into a rock band with horns. Hits include "25 or 6 to 4,” "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," “Saturday in the Park,” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”

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Chicago: Now

Over its 50-plus-year history, Chicago has put out 37 albums and sold over 100,000,000 records. The band continues to tour and delight audiences. Most recently they galvanized to talk about the healing power of music amid the coronavirus pandemic crisis.

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