1980s, Music Video, Top 10, List, Decades

Top 10 Music Videos of the 80s

It's always a huge occasion when a well-made music video by a big artist drops on YouTube. But music videos today don't quite have as much experimentation and impact as they did in the 1980s. It's probably because every artist was trying to outdo each other during the golden age of MTV. The concept of the music video was still relatively new during the time. Because of that, we think more joy went into creating them.

Because of their retro aesthetics and sounds, 80s music videos are in a league all their own. Even in the modern digital era, several have managed to crack a billion views on YouTube. Today, we're being as ambitious as music video producers from the decade and creating a Top 10 list of the greatest music videos of the 80s.

Yes: we understand how hard it is to narrow down a full filmography of 80s music video magic into just 10 picks. There's a lot we're missing out on here, so we're sorry if we've skipped over your favorite visual. (Trust us: we most likely watched it.) It's been tough, but after hours of research and replaying clips, we believe we've settled on a fine pair of visuals. Keep in mind: we're not ranking the best 80s songs, but rather the best 80s videos, which is a completely different ballpark.

We've chosen our picks based on their legacy and impact on 1980s culture, how memorable the aesthetics are, MTV and YouTube viewership, how well they hold up today, and of course, how they make us feel inside. We've also given bonus points to videos that have been replicated by modern artists, as well as visuals considered controversial during the 80s but later proved to be way ahead of their time.

Ready? Let's roll the clips!

10. "When Doves Cry" - Prince

The continuous opening shot of this music video alone is enough for it to warrant a spot on our list. It's astounding: the doors, the doves, the mostly-purple set, Prince standing up from his bathtub and staring at us like an ethereal being. It's cinematography perfection, and feels just as revolutionary as Prince's music.

Anyway, we consider "When Doves Cry" an important piece of Prince's video catalogue because it's essentially a precursor to his landmark 1984 film Purple Rain. The video – which was directed by Prince himself – was dropped on MTV in June 1984 and the film was released the following month. Many aesthetics from that movie can be seen in "When Doves Cry," such as Prince standing dramatically by a lake, Prince dramatically riding his motorcycle, and Prince dramatically trying to break up a fight between his parents. Yes: Prince is a very intense dude.

But the video also manages to introduce unique concepts, such as the ending where Prince and his crew dance in a white landscape with frilly outfits. Prince was a hardworking visionary, and this video easily shows why he's revered as one of the greatest artists in history.

9. "Physical" - Olivia Newton-John

Who can forget the 80s fitness craze? Olivia Newton-John certainly kept it alive with her lighthearted video for "Physical." The several radio stations that banned this song had no idea what they were missing out on...especially with this healthy visual! Directed by Brian Grant, it features Newton-John in a tight leotard trying to get several overweight men into shape. The men fail comically until Newton-John leaves the room to take a shower. When she returns, they suddenly transform into hunks. Oh, and did we mention most of them are gay?

With its skimpy costumes, courage to express sexuality, and that iconic butt shot at the 14-second mark, many considered the music video for "Physical" to be just as controversial as the song itself. But that didn't stop the video from making history. The Olivia Physical music video collection, which contained "Physical," won a Grammy Award for Video of the Year in 1983. The video was featured on VH1's Pop-Up Video and was the first video to air on Beavis and Butt-head. And years later, pop star Dua Lipa would pay respect to Olivia's work with the music video to her own song, "Physical."

8. "I Want to Break Free" - Queen

Freddie Mercury as a hot vacuuming housewife will forever be one of the best costumes in a music video, period. If you thought "Physical" was controversial, just hear about the reception to Queen's 1984 visual for "I Want to Break Free." We love a video so polarizing, MTV was too scared to play it.

Following in the tradition of cross-dressing present during ancient British theatre, the music video for "I Want to Break Free" sees the members of Queen in a suburban house dressed as women: a parody of characters from the ITV soap opera Coronation Street. It then transitions to a euphoric atmosphere where Freddie dances with several leotard-clad Royal Ballet members. There's a part of us wishing we could body surf on those people just like he does around the 3-minute mark.

Do we even need to explain why this video deserves a spot on our list? After several serious videos, director David Mallet allowed Queen to have fun and create something truly trailblazing. The two sets act as a perfect juxtaposition for Mercury's housewife character: someone who fantasizes for more while being stuck (and maybe somewhat content?) in their humdrum life. It's a masterful visual accompaniment to a terrific track.

7. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" - Cyndi Lauper

The music video for Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is pure joy. It's Lauper's energy and presence – as she dances through city streets, reprimands her parents, and bobs her head with a chorus of other girls – that really sell this thing. It's a feel-good visual with the best of endings, as Lauper attracts the whole neighborhood to her bedroom for a rowdy party.

Miraculously, this quirky video cost less than $35,000 (equivalent to over $100,000 in 2023), largely due to a volunteer cast and the free loan of the most sophisticated video equipment available at the time. The cast included Lauper's close friend, wrestler/manager "Captain" Lou Albano in the role of Lauper's father. Her real mother, Catrine, played herself. Lauper's attorney, Elliot Hoffman, appeared as her uptight dancing partner. There was also Lauper's manager, David Wolf, her brother, Butch Lauper, fellow musician Steve Forbert, and a bevy of secretaries borrowed from Portrait/CBS, Lauper's record label.

Additionally, legendary SNL creator Lorne Michaels gave Lauper free run of his brand new million-dollar digital editing equipment. She and her producer used it to create several first-time-ever computer-generated images of Lauper dancing with her buttoned-up lawyer. On YouTube, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" crossed 1 billion views in January 2022. And it's no wonder why: it's impossible to watch this video without a smile on your face.

6. "Addicted to Love" - Robert Palmer

Who knew four stoic-faced women playing instruments was enough to make "Addicted to Love" so memorable. With everyone's effortless, out-of-sync choreography and the random sunset-esque backdrop behind them, you would think this video was made in a rush. But at the same time, the simplicity of it all makes it feel...kind of calculated? It's confusing, but all we know is we have no problem replaying this video over and over.

Director Terence Donovan created one of the most notable and – dare we say, addicting – videos of the MTV era with "Addicted to Love." The models were designed to appear mannequin-esque and reference Patrick Nagel paintings. Model Mak Gilchrist (bass guitar) recalled to Q: "I was 21 and got the part on the strength of my modeling book. We were meant to look and "act" like showroom mannequins. Director Terence Donovan got us tipsy on a bottle of wine but as we were having our make-up retouched, I lost balance on my heels and knocked the top of my guitar into the back of Robert's head, and his face then hit the microphone."

Apparently there was also a musician hired to teach the models basic fingering techniques, but gave up after about an hour and left. "Addicted to Love" has left a huge impact on pop culture, inspiring a scene from Love Actually and being referenced in videos by "Weird Al" Yankovic, Stardust, Tone Lōc, Mr Blobby, Bowling for Soup, Shania Twain, Shakira, Kasey Chambers, Paula Abdul, Die Prinzen, and Luca Carboni. Palmer would try the model concept again with three other music videos, but there was no way he could top this masterpiece.

5. "Walk This Way" - Aerosmith & Run-DMC

"Walk This Way" proves that all you need is a compelling story to make a memorable music video. In 1986, the hip hop group Run-DMC covered Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" in collaboration with the band. It marked a major comeback for the rock group, as they'd been out of mainstream pop culture for several years while Steven Tyler battled addiction and Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were out of Aerosmith.

The song was great enough to make big waves in the industry...but no one was prepared for the epic music video, which had some of the heaviest rotation in MTV history and is regarded as a classic. The rock and rap hybrid visual was directed by Jon Small and filmed at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey. Small was approached to direct as he had helmed another video by a Black act that broke into the then predominantly white rock-oriented MTV: Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." Small believed that for "Walk This Way" to gain traction on the channel, it had to feature Tyler and Perry (the other Aerosmith band members were not present in the video). So he developed the concept of the two acts playing on either side of a wall that's eventually broken down by Steven Tyler.

Even today, watching the musical duel between Aerosmith and Run-DMC is such an exciting affair. That crane shot of Tyler scowling up at the Run-DMC boys during the concert sequence is one of the coolest things we've ever seen on film. The wall being broken in the beginning symbolizes more than just Steven Tyler trying to one-up Run-DMC: it's a metaphor for the sonic and racial barriers of the music industry being broken.

4. "Like A Prayer" - Madonna

Madonna was no stranger to controversy during her heyday, and this music video was her most disputed during the 80s. But the joke's on the haters, because the narrative themes in "Like A Prayer" – about racial injustice and mass incarceration – are still painfully relevant decades later. And the religious aesthetics still rock, too.

When it was time to create the video for "Like A Prayer," director Mary Lambert and Madonna set out to intentionally make it the most controversial thing the pop queen had ever done. There were ideas tossed around about the narrative centering on a mixed-race couple being shot by the Ku Klux Klan, but the women felt it didn't quite match the religious undertones of the song. So Lambert proposed an idea that the video should touch on ecstasy, especially sexual ecstasy, and how it relates to religious ecstasy. A subplot with Madonna as a homicide witness was created, and the video was filmed in January 1989 in California.

The video took 4 days to shoot with one day allotted for re-shoots, and actor Leon Robinson, who played the saint idol that comes to life, put a lot of stress on his back as he pretended to be a statue. Despite the Vatican protesting the video hard and Madonna losing a Pepsi campaign over the controversy, the video received great reviews from critics and MTV notably continued to air it. At the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, "Like a Prayer" won the Viewer's Choice category. Coincidentally, the award show was sponsored by Pepsi. So when Madonna received her award, she added, "I would really like to thank Pepsi for causing so much controversy."

3. "Sledgehammer" - Peter Gabriel

The song is a feast for the ears, while the video is a feast for the eyes. "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel may be one of our all-time favorite songs from the 1980s, and the music video for it features stop-motion footage that clearly looks like it was no easy feat to produce. There will never be another music video quite like this one.

"Sledgehammer" was commissioned by Tessa Watts at Virgin Records, directed by Stephen R. Johnson and produced by Adam Whittaker. Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay provided claymation, pixilation, and stop motion animation that gave life to images in the video. Gabriel laid under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video one. frame. at. a. time. "It took a lot of hard work," Gabriel recalled. "I was thinking at the time, 'If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them.'"

But the painstaking work clearly paid off, as "Sledgehammer" won nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987: the most awards a single video has ever won. It ranked #4 on MTV's "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" list, created in 1999. "Sledgehammer" has also been declared MTV's #1 animated video of all time.

2. "Take On Me" - a-ha

Another 80s music video with animation that broke MTV? a-ha's "Take On Me" visual, which was released in 1985. This video, which combines live action and sketch animation, is romantic, adventurous, action-packed, and still looks like something that would be made in today's more technologically advanced age. "Take On Me" was lightyears ahead of its time.

"Take On Me" tells the story of a lonely woman at a café who gets sucked into the comic book she's reading. The video used a pencil-sketch animation and live-action combination called rotoscoping, in which the live-action footage is traced using a frame-by-frame process to give the characters realistic movements. Approximately 3,000 frames were rotoscoped, which took 16 weeks to complete. The idea for the video was suggested by Warner Bros executive Jeff Ayeroff, and "Take On Me" received an incalculably high viewership count from heavy rotation on MTV when it was originally released (as well as other music television channels).

Funny enough, the "Take On Me" video we all know and love was actually the second visual released for the song. The first was just the band performing in front of a blue background. Thank goodness they re-did the aesthetic, because the music video for "Take On Me" reached one billion views on YouTube in 2020. It became the second 80s music video to achieve the feat (just behind Guns 'N Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine"). Prior to the day it hit the milestone, only four other songs from the 20th century had reached 1 billion views: "November Rain" and "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.

1. "Thriller" - Michael Jackson

"Thriller" by Michael Jackson isn't just a cute Halloween song. When it came time to create the music video for his 1982 hit track, Jackson pulled all the stops. He created a 13-minute-long short film with the help of An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, actress Ola Ray, a horde of zombie dancers, and an iconic red jacket. "Thriller" was the first music video of its kind back in 1983. Without it, we would not have modern visual concepts such as Beyoncé's Lemonade, Taylor Swift's All Too Well short film, Daft Punk's Interstella 5555, or any of the The Weeknd's more horrific video creations.

"Thriller" had the highest budget of any Michael Jackson video at the time and was filmed at various locations in Los Angeles, including the Palace Theater. A making-of documentary, Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, was produced to sell to television networks. "Thriller" was launched to heavy anticipation and played regularly on MTV. It doubled sales of Jackson's record Thriller, helping it become the best-selling album in history. The documentary sold over a million copies, becoming the best-selling videotape at the time. Not to mention the Library of Congress described it as the most famous music video of all time. In 2009, they made it the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry.

With its multiple scenes and darkly romantic narrative, "Thriller" transformed music videos into a more serious art form. It broke down racial barriers in popular entertainment and popularized the making-of documentary format. But most importantly, it made following acts of the 1980s realize they needed to step up their music video game if they wanted to obtain the mega success Jackson had.

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Article Image: Michael Jackson in zombie makeup in his "Thriller" music video, Madonna behind metal bars in her "Like A Prayer" video, A shot of the "Take On Me" music video, showing the sketched woman and her live-action lover. (Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a-ha via YouTube.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey