The 80s were fun. Neon, headbands, Weird Al…Yet there were a few influential artists that continue to leave their mark on popular music today. Here are the top 5:
- U2 – At first glance, it’s hard to nail down exactly what U2 has left as a legacy besides multi-platinum records and a reputation for memorable concerts. Then you hear the Edge’s trademark atmospheric guitar, Bono’s impassioned vocals and their simple yet powerful songs. Then you hear Coldplay, and you say, “Hey, wait a minute…” And Radiohead. And Live. And Elbow. Yada, yada, yada. Pretty much any alternative band from the past 20 years aims to be the next U2, and some try to copy their recipe for success. Their experimentation with techno notwithstanding (I’ve forgiven them for that), their familiar sound has enabled fans to thumb their noses at what passes for music nowadays and continue to follow Bono faithfully.
- R.E.M. – While U2, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen were selling millions of records, R.E.M. waited patiently, releasing perfect albums throughout the 1980s. In doing so, they brought the Athens, Ga., music scene into the national spotlight, gained thousands of loyal fans in college, and planted the seeds for the alt-rock revolution in the 1990s. R.E.M. was also a little quirky, and with their success, it became cool to be quirky. This trend mostly led to a lot of weird band names, but it also led to some more experimentation with different sounds. Judge for yourself whether that was a good thing.
- Michael Jackson – Most R&B and hip-hop artists nowadays will grudgingly show some respect to Jackson, who at least seemed cool when they were just getting exposed to music. The flash, the dance moves and the overall phenomenon that was the Gloved One was plenty of motivation. That he continued Stevie Wonder’s influence in exposing white audiences to R&B was also important; Jackson did it by introducing hard rock into the R&B sound. The payoff was huge: 35 million copies of Thriller.And that is perhaps a more disturbing influence: the idea that one could get really, filthy, stupid rich from the music business. Record labels have always been greedy; but in the 80s (see Madonna below as well), labels began drooling even more.
- Run-DMC – Sure, the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash was first, but the group that really brought this hip-hop mess to the forefront was Run-DMC. And perhaps I’m an old fogey, but this stuff was original. More meter, better rhymes, and some injection of humor into the mix (“Peter Piper,” “My Adidas”) made it more palatable. What’s more, they took Michael Jackson and Prince’s foray into hard rock and applied it to hip-hop; their monster smash “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith in 1986 paved the way for The Beastie Boys, Eminem, and the nu metal movement of the 1990s.
- Guns N’ Roses – In 1987, classic rock was dead, and hard rock and heavy metal were on life support. Then along came GN’R and breathed new life into it, taking the attitude and wild abandonment of punk rock, the swagger of The Rolling Stones, and the classic rock riffs from most hair bands to create their own sound and image. They kept hard rock alive until grunge took over. Twenty years later, people are still looking forward to hearing the finished version of Chinese Democracy, an unreleased album first begun in 1994.
Honorable Mention: Whitney Houston. She inherited the Diva image from Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross and raised it to new heights, and female African American artists continue to flourish despite her tumble from the top. Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Rihanna all owe a debt of gratitude to Whitney, who unfortunately has become a caricature of herself.
Omissions: Madonna. Madonna is huge – well, not literally. She’s probably one of the top 5 most popular artists of all time. She has been a musical chameleon, changing looks and genres with the seasons. But I would argue that she’s done more for today’s music (2000s), helping resurrect dance music than anything she did in the 80s or 90s, when she drew more attention for her fashion choices.