Ah, the eighties! Whether you experienced this decade first hand, or developed a nostalgia for it through the countless references across pop culture and beyond, there’s no denying it was a very distinctive era. While some might look back and question certain fashion choices, what’s not in doubt is what a creative time it was for music.
This list of the ten best dance tracks of the decade is based on several factors. Not only did we take into consideration the cold, hard data, but we have also given credit to songs that have had a lasting impact on pop culture. While your favourite Italo-disco deep cuts might not have made the grade, or maybe you think we’ve unfairly dismissed Chicago house, what we can guarantee is that the tracks below got feet stomping and units moving. Chart-topping, perhaps even record-breaking, this list is reserved for the big time, the biggest and best dance songs from the ’80s.
Like our lists of the best-selling albums of all time or the best-ever movie scores, we have tried to stay objective and let the numbers do the talking, but talking about music will always leave room for, shall we say, healthy debate? With all that said, get your fishnet gloves and leg warmers at the ready as we take a deep breath and count down the best ’80s dance music.
#10 Freedom – Wham!
Release Date: 1984
Few artists, if any, have a sound that captures the essence of ’80s pop in quite the same way as the duo George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, better known as Wham! With hits including ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘I’m Your Man’, they helped to define the contemporary sound and, though not strictly a dance act, they were undoubtedly responsible for some of the best dance songs of the 80s.
‘Freedom’, to this day, sounds absolutely huge, with instrumentation almost reminiscent of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ technique. It’s guaranteed to get audiences moving wherever they are. A fact proved when, as detailed in the official music video, Wham! were invited to be the first Western act to perform live in China. The official report of the event, from the British Embassy’s first secretary in China, mentioned that the concert ‘seems to have been a success even though the audience wasn’t too sure how to behave.’
Trivia Facts: After Wham!’s dissolution, George Michael returned to the theme and released ‘Freedom! ‘90’ in an attempt to distance himself from his early career with Wham! The track has a significantly updated sound, including a breakbeat sample taken from James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ and an accompanying video directed by none other than David Fincher.
#9 I Feel for You – Chaka Khan
Release Date: 1984
Written and performed by Prince for his self-titled debut album and re-recorded by the Pointer Sisters in 1982, it is perhaps no surprise that disco queen Chaka Khan decided to start her version of this all-time dance classic. And she left no doubt as to who was performing it this time round. Aside from repeating her name several times, this song has
absolutely everything going on, an absolute Hall of Famer of the ‘shouldn’t work but it does’ category, of which Prince was such a notable proponent.
Chaka also brought her friends along to the party, with some guy called Stevie Wonder providing a thrillingly memorable harmonica solo and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s very own Melle Mel rapping his heart out.
Trivia Facts: About that stuttering rap at the start, legendary producer Arif Mardin had wanted to channel the fledgling sound of hip-hop into this dance/pop hit. Insisting that Melle Mel avoid any car/money/bling cliches and focus his rap on his love for Chaka Khan, his hand slipped while producing the sampler, resulting in that distinctive Chaka-Chaka-Chaka intro.
#8 D.I.S.C.O – Ottawan
Release Date: 1980
A French entry to start the decade and the party, this extremely funky club hit and mnemonic for anyone who might struggle to remember how to spell ‘disco’, was released in France in 1979, but makes our list because it didn’t chart until 1980. This song has got it all: Latin percussion breaks, call and response choruses, even some woodwind. It all sounds like it might not work, but over 700,000 people can’t be wrong!
The song has continued to capture the collective imagination and was covered by X-Factor contestant Chico as the B-Side to his #1 (yes, really!) 2006 single ‘It’s Chico Time’ and later sampled by Israeli duo TYP in 2011.
Trivia Facts: One of the members of Ottawan, French musician Daniel Vangarde was not only responsible for faux-Japanese curiosity, Yamasaki Singers, but is also the father to Thomas Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk.
#7 Tainted Love – Soft Cell
Release Date: 1981
Starting the decade off with a certified, stone-cold killer on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ was a colossal hit for the British synthpop grandees. Just over one hundred singles have ever sold over a million units in the UK; ‘Tainted Love’ is one of them. It also played a big part in the controversial second British Invasion, spending a then-record 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released in 1981.
A crossover hit that attracted audiences from the club to the radio, ‘Tainted Love’ continues to find plenty of airtime to this day and was memorably covered by Marilyn Manson in 2001 for the ‘Not Another Teen Movie’ soundtrack.
Trivia Facts: Despite its long association with Soft Cell, the song was actually a cover. Originally written by Ed Cobb and recorded by Gloria Jones (who would later go on to have a relationship with T-Rex’s Marc Bolan) in 1964, the song was a commercial flop before finding a second life in the UK’s Northern Soul scene. It was there that ‘Tainted Love’ found its way to the ears of Marc Almond and Dave Ball, and ’80s dance music history was made.
#6 Ride on Time – Black Box
Release Date: 1989
Sneaking in at the end of the decade ‘Ride-on Time’ is, with absolutely no apologies, an absolute banger. Pitch-shifted vocal samples, an absolute earworm of a chorus and a disco-funk flavored bass line that seems hardwired into your spine are the ingredients for one of the best dance songs of the ’80s. Shrouded in controversy despite its chart success, the song was at the forefront of the emerging sample culture, with the Italian house trio using a vocal without permission from Loleatta Holloway, which led in turn to them being sued by the disco legend.
Caught off guard by their mainstream success, Black Box was invited on to Top of the Pops, where model and friend of the group Katrin Quinol mimed the vocals, causing yet more controversy for the group. Eventually, Holloway, who settled for a fur coat in damages, had her vocal replaced by an anonymous singer at the request of Black Box’s management, although rumors persist to this day that the vocal was, in fact, recorded by M People’s Heather Small.
Trivia Facts: Legendary DJ Paul Oakenfold was amongst a group of DJs that heard the song in Ibiza and immediately became a fan. He traveled to ‘Italian Ibiza’, Rimini, and bought as many copies of the single as he could lay his hands on, Oakenfold later telling the band’s producer Daniele Davoli that he paid for the whole trip by reselling copies of ‘Ride on Time’ on his return to Britain.
#5 Don’t You Want Me – The Human League
Release Date: 1982
A classic tale of love turned sour, set over an absolutely irresistible synthesizer riff and a rattling, insistent drum beat that your foot cannot and simply will not ignore, this is right off the top shelf. With not one but two narrators commenting on the breakdown of a relationship, this is pop music at its most theatrical, and it’s fair to say that transatlantic audiences
definitely did want it, baby!
Finding itself just outside the top twenty when the Official Charts Company compiled their all-time list in the UK, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was a bona fide phenomenon in the States as well, charting in the Top 40 and, propelled in no small part by the fledgling MTV, reaching number one in the summer of 1982.
Trivia Facts: The trademark drum sound of the song is partly due to the LM-1, a drum machine that, unusually for the time, used recordings of real acoustic drums, which were then programmable. The LM-1 was a huge component of the sound of the Human League, which helped to popularize a drum machine that became loved by many other artists, notably his purple highness himself, Prince.
#4 Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Release Date: 1983
Whereas most songs on this list were instant smashes, the story of ‘Relax’, undoubtedly one of the biggest dance songs of the ’80s, is a little more complicated. It was the Liverpool band’s first single and had been climbing the chart steadily since its November release before being denounced by the BBC DJ, Mike Read, for its themes of homosexuality. After
ranting on-air about the song, Read refused to play it, despite it sitting at #6 in the charts. The song was subsequently banned by the network altogether.
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the popularity of the song surged, with many music lovers deliberately seeking it out. Record stores all over the country struggled to meet demand, and several commercial radio stations cashed in, dedicating lots of air time to the song ‘too hot for the BBC’. ‘Relax’ peaked at #1 in the charts, where it stayed for five weeks, eventually spending a total of 52 weeks in the charts. The story of the single in the US was much more straightforward, with the American public decidedly less upset by the song’s innuendo, peaking at #10 in the charts and selling well as part of the aforementioned second British Invasion.
Trivia Facts: The band were so raw, with a general lack of experience and financially enforced line-up changes that their producer, ZTT’s Trevor Horn, took six weeks to record the single. At one point he drafted in Ian Drury’s Blockheads to record a demo, just to try it out with some tighter musicians.
#3 Into the Groove – Madonna
It would be near impossible to make any serious list about the 1980s without mentioning the undisputed Queen of Pop, and we’re certainly not going to start now. ‘Into the Groove’ was taken from the soundtrack for ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, a film starring Madonna herself. The song also helped Madonna complete a UK chart double, keeping the reissue of her own song ‘Holiday’ off the top spot. The only other acts to manage this feat are The Beatles, John Lennon and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Listed at #2 by Rolling Stone on the list of greatest Madonna songs, ‘Into the Groove’ was written in collaboration with her then-boyfriend and ex-punk drummer, Stephen Bray. The raw edge of the production is considered to reflect on Madonna’s difficulties during a time in her life that found her ‘down and out in New York City’ despite its infectious, uplifting, dance energy.
Trivia Facts: ‘Into the Groove’ has recently re-entered the public discourse after comments Madonna made, accusing Canadian Tory Lanez of ‘ripping off’ her song without adequately crediting her. The dispute came to light in, of all places, an Instagram comment on Lanez’s public profile.
#2 Blue Monday – New Order
Release Date: 1983
A watershed moment in ’80s dance music, Blue Monday’s club reputation will always be secured for having famously created the biggest selling 12” of all time because, at over seven minutes long, it was not possible to put it out as a traditional single. Robotic, the song was initially intended to be played as a walk-on/walk-off song at the band’s live shows without any live instrumentation or vocals, even though the band was unable to digitally program the vocal. Its obtuse lyrics and dense title were pored over and theorized by fans but, according to the band themselves, its famous ‘How does it feel?’ opener was simply a retort to journalists who kept asking vocalist Bernard Sumner how he felt.
The name of the song comes from a Kurt Vonnegut illustration, ‘Goodbye Blue Monday’, in his book ‘Breakfast of Champions’, which itself comes from an advert for a fictional anti-depressant. According to the synth player on the recording, Gillian Gilbert, the melody is slightly out of sync with the rhythm because of the mistake of missing a single note when programming the synthesizer.
Trivia Facts: The colored blocks down the side of the 12” vinyl cover contain a code which can be translated as FAC73 BLUE MONDAY AND, in reference to the A-side of the single, while the back cover states THE BEACH NEW ORDER. The key to decoding the mystery is on the cover of the accompanying album, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’, on which legendary designer, Peter Saville, broke down the color palette of the painting on the cover and used it to create a ‘color alphabet’ which in turn corresponded to the shapes on the single.
#1 Let’s Dance – David Bowie
Release Date: 1983
A man never content to rest on his laurels, or let anyone have any fun without him, the ‘Thin White Duke’ was never going to let the club-facing pop style of the time go by without having his say. He took a swing for the fences, and got his skinny hips grooving with 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’. With electronic instrumentation throughout, a heavy dose of funk, and production duties helmed by disco mogul Nile Rogers, Bowie’s 15th (!) studio album was the sound of a man who knew that the real skill at a party is knowing when to arrive. ‘Let’s Dance’ was one of the biggest hits of the year, and has remained popular ever since, re-entering the top forty after his unfortunate death in 2016.
The album’s lead single, which shared the same name, is a masterpiece and, without a doubt, one of the absolute best dance songs from the ’80s. That unmistakable crescendo opening gives way to clubby brass and percussion breaks before the man himself tells you to ‘Put on your red shoes/and dance the blues/ to the song they’re playing on the radio.’ If you say so, David, who are we to argue?
Trivia Facts: Although there was some unmitigated filler on the album, it did have some noteworthy tracks, including a reworked version of ‘Cat People’ (‘Putting out the Fire’), one of Bowie’s own earlier recordings which was memorably used on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds soundtrack.
Honorable Mentions for Best Dance Songs of the ’80s
● Kate Bush – ‘Running Up That Hill’ was a hit when it was released in 1985, but it never claimed the top spot of any record charts, and we decided not to include it in our Top 10. However, its popularity has grown significantly over the years, culminating in June 2022 when it was featured as the soundtrack of the climax of the fourth episode of “Stranger Things” season 4, gaining instant worldwide popularity.
● Frankie Knuckles – ‘I Need Your Love’ was one of the most distinctive dance songs of the ’80s, sampled countless times since its release
● Kraftwerk – ‘The Model’ would have made the list, but missed out due to being initially recorded and released in the ’70s, despite an ’80s reissue
● Sylvester – ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’ is an absolute classic of the genre, but maybe not quite as famous or well-selling as the songs on our list
● Prince – Popping up a couple of times in association with other 80s musicians, he’s never far from the conversation and Prince could have been featured in his own right for songs such as ‘KISS’
● Madonna – As is often the case with Madonna, the hardest bit is making sure your pick is right, while songs such as ‘Like a Virgin’ were bigger, they’re slightly further away from our dance music remit.
Well, there you have it. Whether you need some backup the next time you get into a debate, you’re planning an ’80s dance music party of your own and need some inspiration, or you’ve simply caught yourself reminiscing, we hope this list comes in handy. We’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting some of the finest ’80s dance songs. Now we just need to track down an oversized can of hairspray and we’ll be all set to disco!
If you did enjoy this list, feel free to hang around a while longer, maybe check out the best singers of all time, or maybe it’s time for a change of pace with some of the world’s greatest hip-hop producers. Whatever you find yourself doing, remember to stop every now and again and dance it out.
Top 10 Best 80s Dance Songs (2022)
|Into the Groove
|Frankie Goes to Hollywood
|Don’t You Want Me
|The Human League
|Ride on Time
|I Feel for You