Bestselling bands of the ’80s, then and now

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June 22, 2022
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Bestselling bands of the ’80s, then and now

Anyone who grew up in the ’80s remembers its seminal events—the murder of John Lennon, the launch of the Space Shuttle, the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the release of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and the introduction of the Macintosh computer, are just a few that instantly come to mind.

It only makes sense that the music of the decade would mirror the times. To that end, Stacker scoured Billboard charts from the ’80s and chose 25 of the top bands whose music soundtracked the decade. We then researched each of the bands, reporting on their members, flashing back to their top hits, and sharing what they’re up to today.

A quick scan of the bands listed here reveals an eclectic cluster of artists and genres. Whether you like beards and blues, heavy metal, alternative rock, or hard rock, you will find some inspiration on this list, which comprises legends who have sold millions of albums, won myriad awards, and earned their place in music history.

Keep reading to get a taste of 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 beginning in 1982, English rock band the Smiths turned out four memorable albums and a musical legacy. Comprised of vocalist Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce, the group’s hits include “The Queen Is Dead,” “This Charming Man,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and “How Soon Is Now?”

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The Smiths: Now

After the band’s unexpected breakup in 1987, the foursome never reunited. The Smiths recorded a total of 74 songs, including 70 original tracks and four covers.

[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-DMC in 1983 that the group would go on to become kings of hip-hop and sell 230 million records? The group released their debut track, “It’s Like That,” with “Sucker M.C.’s” appearing 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. The rap group was the first to appear on MTV, dubbed “The Greatest Hip-Hop Artist of All Time” by VH1, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jam Master Jay tragically lost his life in October 2002 when he was gunned down in his studio.

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Van Halen: Then

Among the original members of American hard rock band Van Halen 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 the band kicked off its most successful tour ever, grossing $93 million. Eddie lost his battle with cancer in October 2020 at age 65.

[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 Lifeson, and vocalist Geddy Lee. Among their 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 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. The band’s 1984 debut album included “Shot Through the Heart,” as well as the timeless anthem “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Other hits like “Livin’ On a Prayer,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and “Bed of Roses” also showcase Bon Jovi’s signature steely heartland rock.

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Bon Jovi: Now

Although they disbanded in 1989 when frontman Jon Bon Jovi went solo, the group reunited in 1994. Tours and albums followed, including the Grammy-nominated “Crush” and “Lost Highway.” The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

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Queen: Then

While most people know the iconic rock band Queen included members 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. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “We Will Rock You,” and “Under Pressure” are just a few of their legendary hits that will live on forever.

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Queen: Now

Many decades after Freddie Mercury’s passing, the award-winning movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” put Queen back in the spotlight in 2018, giving audiences a reason to celebrate their music. In fact, Rami Malek’s stellar portrayal of Mercury won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2019. While Deacon retired in 1997, Adam Lambert joined May and Taylor to continue Queen’s 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 worldwide. Among the group’s gold and platinum records and global hits include “Take It On the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

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REO Speedwagon: Now

REO continues to tour and has appeared on the Netflix series “Ozark.” Cronin also performed “Time for Me to Fly” from his home studio to pay tribute to the health care workers on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

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Journey: Then

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

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Journey: Now

Journey 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. The group 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 from post-punk to goth to alt-rock to some iteration of all three, produced an eclectic body of work. Their 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 said 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.”

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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 the band’s spot in rock history.

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Def Leppard: Now

After 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 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? Their 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.

[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. Among their hit songs include “Mama,” “Carpet Crawlers,” “The Cinema Show,” and “Invisible Touch.”

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Genesis: Now

Members of the band launched their first tour in 13 years in 2020. Collins, Rutherford, and Banks performed shows across the U.K. 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. The group’s 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, the group’s 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. Mark 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 was 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

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. Their early hits include “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, “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 bandmates 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 behind 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.” 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. The band was announced among the inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2022.

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ZZ Top: Then

ZZ Top pays tribute to their Texas roots, both 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.

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Guns N’ Roses: Then

Hard-rock band Guns N’ Roses’ roster 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 still actively touring. Despite worldwide restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Guns N’ Roses performed “So Fine” for the first time in 13 years in Mexico City.

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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 more than 40 million albums and earn six Grammy Awards. Their prolific roster includes such hits 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 took a break after its “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 more than five decades. A 2013 reunion brought the band back together, however, the 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. Among their beloved hits include “Expressway to Yr. Skull” and “I Love Her All the Time.”

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Sonic Youth: Now

The band played its 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 Jolicoeur (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 song “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. The group’s 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 million records. The band continues to tour and delight audiences. Most recently, bandmates galvanized to talk about the healing power of music amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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