100 rock and metal songs that built the 80s

The songs that built the 80s
(Image credit: Future)

The 80s was the decade in which modern metal was born. Sure, the titans of the 70s drew up the rules of engagement, but virtually every scene that exists today can trace its origins back to those 10 seismic years.

The world beyond the gates of the metal scene was convulsing. The Cold War loomed large, pitting east against west and instilling paranoia, fear and delirium in the population until the Berlin Wall fell at the end of the decade.

Yuppies with brick-sized mobile phones gave themselves a licence to print money. Technological leaps shrank vast computers and put them in the homes of people who could afford them. The advent of the CD changed the way we listened to music. Hey, don’t laugh…

Metal reacted by getting bigger, brasher, faster, harder, more colourful or just crazier. New music burned bright, from the broiling thunderhead of NWOBHM and thrash’s amphetamine fury to genre-disrupting mavericks such as Faith No More, Voivod and Nine Inch Nails, and even hair metal’s last-days-of-Rome abandon. Genres were forged in the white heat of the tape-trading underground: black metal, death metal, industrial, grindcore. It felt like anything was possible. And it was.

The launch of MTV in 1981 was a real revolution, beaming an endless stream of music into living rooms across the planet, producing an army of bands who rapidly became superstars: Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica… Today, they all stand as metal’s eternals, the benchmark to which successive generations aspire.

Not every band would get their own chapters in the history books. There were less-celebrated heroes, too: doom visionaries Trouble and Candlemass, boundary-pushing thrashers Holy Moses, extreme metal pioneers Bathory and Hellhammer… the list is endless.

It was also the decade where metal established itself as a true outsider culture, with its own look, clubs, pubs and language. Even when it did intersect with the mainstream – whether that was via hit movies such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure or MTV’s Headbangers Ball show – it felt like the mainstream didn’t really understand what it was all about. And neither should it.

Thirty years after it ended, it’s easy to look back on the 1980s with rosy nostalgia, but that doesn’t capture just how innovative, thrilling and important it was. A bomb was detonated, and we’re still feeling the aftershocks now.


AC/DC - Back In Black
The death of talismanic singer Bon Scott should have finished AC/DC. Instead, they signed up gravel-throated Geordie Brian Johnson and exploded back with the immense title track to the biggest- selling rock album ever. 

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell
Exit Ozzy, enter Ronnie James Dio – and a new lease of life for heavy metal’s forefathers. The magnificent title track of their first album of the new decade set a new benchmark for them and everyone else. 

Diamond Head - Am I Evil?
Seven minutes and 43 seconds of monstrous riffage from the greatest NWOBHM band never to become superstars, Am I Evil? is a towering monument to the era – as James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich can testify. 

Girlschool - Emergency
Call the cops! Sarf London hellcats Girlschool booted down the door of the NWOBHM sausage factory with their classic debut album, Demolition. This punk- infused banger is one of that scene’s great overlooked classics. 

Iron Maiden - Sanctuary
Iron Maiden were pegged as punks with long hair, to Steve Harris’s annoyance. But their snarling second single suggested it wasn’t that wide of the mark – not least in singer Paul Di’Anno’s football hooligan bellow. 

Judas Priest - Breaking The Law
Judas Priest did the hard yards in the 70s to help put British heavy metal on the map. The success of this immortal leather- clad metal anthem and genius-level parent album British Steel was their much- deserved payback. 

Killing Joke - Wardance
Punk and metal were warring tribes back then, but Wardance’s convulsing rhythms and Jaz Coleman’s distorted bark-at- the-moon howl united both sides. The mohawked masses and the longhairs got it. 

Misfits - Last Caress
Devil-locked New Jersey brats with embalming fluid in their veins and B-movies on the brain, Misfits were the original and greatest horror punks – and this gleefully nihilistic romp would become their calling card. 

Motorhead - Ace Of Spades
The heavy metal classic your granny knows, with Lemmy playing the eternal gambler rolling snake eyes every time and not giving a fuck. All three men who played on it are gone, but Ace Of Spades will live forever. 

Ozzy Osbourne - Crazy Train
Nobody would’ve put money on a washed- up Ozzy becoming the biggest metal star of the decade. But with hotshot guitarist Randy Rhoads beside him, he hit the rails hard with this lunatic anthem and never looked back. 


AC/DC - For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)
Angus and co. serve up one of the greatest salutes to guitar music on the title track to their second Brian Johnson-fronted album. Cannons have never been better deployed. Stunning. 

Anti-Nowhere League - So What?
This masterclass in swearing landed its creators in bother with the Met’s Obscene Publications Squad. Originally an obscure B-side, it was left to Metallica to reveal its potty- mouthed genius to the world. 

Black Flag - Rise Above
Every hardcore band that followed owed a debt to Black Flag. Not least this testosterone-charged call-to-arms, which finds iconic singer Henry Rollins in full vein-bulging mode. Often imitated, but never bettered. 

Joan Jett - Bad Reputation
As a founder of LA punk wildcats The Runaways, immortality was hers anyway. But the take-no-shit title track of Joan’s debut solo album positioned her as the great female rock’n’roll icon of the 80s. Lzzy Hale, for one, was paying attention. 

Minor Threat - I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Washington, DC straight-edge OGs Minor Threat were arguably the most influential hardcore band in history, and this flamethrower blast of a song remains the pinnacle of anti-authoritarian truculence. 

Motley Crue - Live Wire
Eighties hair metal was born here, in an explosion of glitter and attitude. Hard to believe now after all the sex’n’drugs soap operas and cash-grab reunions, but the Crüe were dangerous – and never more so than on their debut single. 

Motorhead/Girlschool - Please Don’t Touch
Johnny Kidd And The Pirates’ 60s rock’n’roll classic gets the beauty and the beast treatment courtesy of Lemmy and Girlschool’s Kelly Johnson. Result: a bone-shaking classic and the greatest duet in heavy metal history. 

Ozzy Osbourne - Over The Mountain
Diary Of A Madman was Ozzy’s second stone-cold classic album on the bounce, and this soaring opener showed that his resurrection was no fluke. Just a tragedy that Randy Rhoads wasn’t around longer to enjoy the success. 

Saxon - Denim And Leather
The celebratory anthem that the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal deserved, by one of the bands that helped build it. Nothing else sums up the euphoria of being in a metal band – or being a metal fan. It brought us all together. 

Venom - In League With Satan
The Geordie bovver boys rampaged out of the north east with their Newky Brown’n’ Hammer Horror- fuelled debut single. The critics hated it, but Cronos and co. had the last laugh – Venom would go on to inspire hundreds of bands. 


Accept - Fast As A Shark
Faster, meaner and uglier than countrymen the Scorpions, Accept’s heart-racing Euro-metal helped usher in the imminent thrash scene – and never more so than on this jagged slab  of Teutonic mayhem. 

Anvil - Metal On Metal
Decades before they became documentary stars, the larger-than- life Canadians were the headbangingest band on the block, and their pounding signature song was one of the great heavy metal anthems about playing heavy metal. 

Bad Brains - Attitude
Washington, DC Rasta-punks with a hotline to Jah, Bad Brains mixed speed- of-lightning hardcore with bursts of spliffed- out reggae. This was the former: a 100mph blast of righteous ire as unique as the band who made it. 

Discharge - Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing
The bastard offspring of the Sex Pistols and Motörhead, Discharge bottled all their punk- metal fury in their debut album’s title track. Everyone from Metallica to Napalm Death took note. 

Iron Maiden - Hallowed Be Thy Name
With new boy Bruce Dickinson on board, Maiden jumped up several gears on The Number Of The Beast. Its titanic closing track sounded like nothing they had written before and pointed towards a world- beating future. 

Judas Priest - Screaming For Vengeance
Ear-shattering, pedal- to-the-metal brilliance that showed these elder statesmen could mix it up with the new kids without breaking a sweat. Rob Halford’s ear-rupturing opening scream remains unmatched by man, woman or beast. 

Kiss - I Love It Loud
America’s most OTT rock’n’roll band of the 70s finally unfurled their heavy metal flag with this love letter to sheer volume. Gene Simmons waggled his tongue and uttered the immortal line: ‘Whiplash, heavy metal accident.’ 

Manowar - Battle Hymn
The closer of the Kings Of Metal’s debut album sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest Game Of Thrones episode never made: seven minutes of grandiosity that soars from tranquillity to mace-wielding power. Into glory ride! 

Mercyful Fate - A Corpse Without A Soul
The Danish diabolists announced their arrival with this slice of hellbound occult metal, with shrieker- in-chief King Diamond ramping up the theatricality to lunatic levels. If Carlsberg did metal bands, they’d sound nothing like this. 

Twisted Sister - Under The Blade
Like powerlifting barbarians back from a raid on the Boots make-up counter, Dee Snider and co. took Kiss’s panto-rock and bulked it up on steroids and attitude – never more so than on the snarling title track of their debut album. 


Def Leppard - Photograph
The pinnacle of early 80s pop-metal and the song that turned the Sheffield oiks
into the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal’s first global superstars, with a little help from MTV. They haven’t looked back since.

Dio - Holy Diver
He’d fronted up stone-cold classic albums with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, but now it was Ronnie’s turn to step into the spotlight. And with the grand-standing title track of his lofty debut album, he did just that.

Hellhammer - Messiah
Proto-black metal so primitive it made Venom sound like the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The press ridiculed them, and Tom G Warrior spent years disowning it,
but its caveman wallop would prove insanely influential.

Iron Maiden - The Trooper
Among the first, and greatest, of Maiden’s Boy’s Own war anthems – close your eyes and you can hear the galloping hooves and waving banners. If the British Army ever need to do a recruitment drive, this is still the perfect soundtrack. 

Metallica - Hit The Lights
The song that kicked off the debut album that launched an entire movement:
Hit The Lights is four minutes and 16 snarling seconds of vodka-fuelled street rat fury. Like a punch in the face to the entire decade.

Motley Crue - Shout At The Devil
Swaggering like stack-heeled drag queens, the Crüe turned everything up to 666 on the fiendishly catchy title track of their second album. Middle America bought into it in their droves, and the Sunset Strip had its new kings.

Quiet Riot - Metal Health (Bang Your Head)
Quiet Who? Easy to say now, but this spandex ’n’ studded wristband pounder helped propel the Metal Health album to No.1 in the US – the very first metal record to achieve that elevated position.

Slayer - Die By The Sword
If Metallica had the speed, Slayer had the malevolence, as the highpoint of debut album Show No Mercy proved. With the King-Hanneman tag-team screeching like their mortal souls depended on it, all the pieces were already in place.

Suicidal Tendencies - Institutionalized
Gabbled spoken-word psychodrama meets breathless teenage fury on landmark skatecore classic courtesy of Venice Beach hardcore brats. Suddenly every suburban malcontent had an anthem to trash their bedroom to. 

ZZ Top - Sharp Dressed Man
The weirdest success story of the decade: three grizzled Texan bluesmen – two
with beards as long as the Rio Grande – discover synths and forge boogie-rock gold. Any dancefloor, any time, this will get you dancing.


Anthrax - Metal Thrashing Mad
They might have been late out of the gate, but this early Anthrax classic signalled their intent. Original singer Neil Turbin would soon be gone, but not before a subgenre had its unofficial national anthem. 

Celtic Frost - Into The Crypts Of Rays
Tom G. Warrior took the bestial template he’d laid down with Hellhammer and refined it with his next band. Inspired by 15th-century childkiller Gilles de Rais, Into The Crypts Of Rays remains a touchstone for psychopathic brutality. 

Iron Maiden - Rime Of The Ancient Mariner
Powerslave was Iron Maiden’s grandest album yet, and this saga of doomed sailors was its audacious capstone. Their first prog-metal epic, and a pointer to the band they are today. 

Killing Joke - Eighties
Swivel-eyed post-punk shaman Jaz Coleman cast his apocalyptic glare over the decade before it was even halfway done and embraced the chaos he saw. Nirvana loved its cavernous pulse so much they ripped it off for Come As You Are

Metallica - Fade To Black
Having invented thrash, Metallica fucked with their own formula and served up a bleak suicide ballad that built from acoustic atmospherics into a heartrending crescendo. They had streaked ahead of the pack, and stayed there. 

Scorpions - Rock You Like A Hurricane
Like Judas Priest, the Scorpions were 70s holdovers who easily adapted to the new decade. The Germans’ most enduring anthem balanced euro-metal cheese with gleeful, fist-banging mania. 

Trouble - The Tempter
If Sabbath invented doom metal in the 70s, then righteous Illinois preachermen Trouble led it down darker paths in the 80s. The opening track of their mighty self-titled debut album raged with Old Testament fire and brimstone. 

Twisted Sister - We’re Not Gonna Take It
Dee Snider played the shock-haired Pied Piper leading The Kids in revolt against their parents, teachers and anyone else who got in the way on his band’s monstrous breakout single. Chest-beating metal bravado, with a killer video to boot. 

Van Halen - Jump
Eddie Van Halen swapped six-string wizardry for synths on his band’s crossover pop hit (and vocalist Dave Lee Roth’s final fling). Within seconds of that keyboard fanfare firing up, any dancefloor will be full. We guarantee it. 

W.A.S.P. - Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)
Sado-masochistic sex anthem from the moral majority’s metal bogeyman. W.A.S.P.’s label wouldn’t release it, and it partly inspired the foundation of infamous censorship cabal the PMRC. 

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.