The Very Best Female and Male Rock & Roll Songs of the 80s are…Drum Roll…

Today let’s decide to dip into perilous waters to make bold controversial claims about an art form that are going to be supremely subjective in nature, bordering on capricious. Choosing the best song in any given category, or the best Hollywood film ever made (which I’ve courageously, convincingly done here if I do say so myself), the best dance number, or the best painting of any era may seem a fool’s errand, especially when the pantheon of possibilities of selecting the very, very best female and male rock songs of the 1980s present millions of possibilities from multiple countries, most of which none of us could have possibly heard. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges!” you may be shouting at your screen. That’s fair. Add on the fact that the mammoth body of original 80s rock music work itself had so many sub-genres ranging from soft to hard, light to heavy, fast to slow, instrumental-only to lyrics-laden each of which please different types of audiences. How to sort through this gargantuan mess of work to proclaim anything credible about what’s the best?

It can be done because very few rock songs transcend the proclivities of all different types of people, and approach universal adulation. I believe it’s worth a try. We are entering a frightening era where artificial intelligence (AI) chillingly threatens to make obsolete human artist ingenuity and creativity utilizing cold mathematical algorithms designed to inform us what good writing, music, or fine art is supposed to be, and even what we should ever want to like as consumers. Planting a historical record of artistic greatness humans have created without the help of giant computer brains has become more urgent than ever. It’s quite likely that before we realize what happened, Skynet will gamely be dictating what’s good music for us, possibly with rock bands made entirely of free-thinking droids with musical instruments integrated into their metallic bodies and neural networks. Future generations of youth may only ever hear the music made by Mr. Roboto… damo arigato!! Terrified of this future? I know I am. So right here, right now let’s make a final, last stand athwart history, plant the flag on behalf of humanity, and proclaim that we the people at some point did indeed create stuff that was worth a damn. I decided to use the 1980s as our worthy backdrop, because it’s the very pinnacle decade in history for Western popular rock music that took the entire world by storm and brought us all together for a time.

Isolating this decade is the way to go, although in future I may make similar forays into the 1960s, 1970s, or 1990s for you, dear reader. But first, here goes nothing. Drum roll please…


The specific goal here is recognizing the very best rock song with a female lead singer, with all due respect to female instrumentalists or the male instrumentalists who backed the female singers. Though there were many great female rock stars in the 1980s, the candidate pool is far smaller as the industry was dominated by males for the entire decade- as with all other decades of rock history. This makes the successful women who went platinum in 80s rock, or the rock music of any era, that much more impressive and worthy of special recognition. And so we shall start here.

To me, there is simply no contest, and no close second worth considering. Welcome to the best cover song ever made, from 1981:

Every millisecond of this Rock ‘n Roll museum Hall-of-Famer Joan Jett mega-hit features from wire to wire all the very best of what makes rock music achieve the status of celestial listening.

Raw sexual energy, unapologetic female agency and empowerment, and the ultimate lyrical and instrumental homage to rock n roll itself and the 1970s original by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker, a great song in its own right. Joan takes things to the next level. I Love Rock ‘N Roll is AMERICA, people and I pity those that disagree. Lead singer Joan is a beautiful woman who steps onto the stage, grabs the mic and rocks you, screaming at the top of her lungs about crushing hard on an underage male stranger at a bar. This song screams freedom, youth and endless summer from the rooftops. The appeal to men, women, and all other genders alike is undeniable. Her outfit and hair are peak 1980s culture and style. The song is short, sweet and catchy while the first few notes alone reveal the mystery of musical greatness. Joan’s cocksure attitude is the epitome of cool, edgy, young, rebellious, disorderly, anarchic, and way ahead of its time. The number is heavy and hard but approachable, grungy yet clean, with lyrics both crass and poetic. Critically, the very few notes of wailing guitar riffs, bass lines, and drum beat are all exceedingly simple, perfectly designed to sound great live, and form the acoustic backbone of pure masterpiece when paired with Joan’s voice. That’s a mouthful of superlatives. Joan was like an angel who came down to our earth to sing for us. I Love Rock ‘N Roll is also the coming together of yin and yang, male and female, and 70s and 80s pop thanks to Alan and Jake’s original with Arrows, which Joan answered with a mighty roar.


This decision was a bit more challenging. The 1980s overflowed with great rock song choices from beginning to end, most of it with highly talented and sexually charged male singers fronting bands and spazzing on stage for arenas teeming with thousands of sweaty adolescents. It was a special time, especially for those who like their coffee strong and their rock hard. Picking a viable winner requires a song that is on top of the world in every single one of these categories: vocal range, lyrics, lead guitar, backup guitar, bass, drums, and finally how it all comes together in unison. It has to be completely original, with no sampling, evoking both thought and inspiration for the listeners, with just a tinge of sadness. I first heard exactly the right song for this award as an 8 year old in Saudi Arabia, once again courtesy of my older sister’s tape player in our 6th floor Yahya Building bedroom looking out over the town of Abha and the gorgeous Asir Mountain range surrounding it. For a time we both just could not play the song enough, and neither could many of our schoolmates from countries around the world. I shall never forget that first mind-blowing moment from 4th or 5th grade, till my demise.

Sweet Child ‘O Mine starts with arguably the greatest riff to emerge from a guitar before or since 1988. It defies categorization. It’s not soft rock, but neither can it be classified exclusively as hard rock, although Guns ‘N Roses forayed into both successfully. I’d stack up Slash’s riff in Sweet Child ‘O Mine against any other set of lead guitar notes, from any era of rock. The first thing to hit you with a bang is how unique the sound is, nothing the likes of which you’d ever heard before in your life in any genre of music. There was just none else like it before and there still isn’t since. It becomes immediately clear that this music is being served up by absolute madmen at the height of their drug-addled insanity, and though widely copied, Guns ‘N Roses was never to be successfully imitated by any other band in the last 35 years.

When Slash’s guitar is soon enough abruptly married with that melodious and unmistakably high-pitched voice of the one and only Axl Rose, it’s an assault of sheer pleasure on your eardrums that punches you in the gut. Either of these two transcendental pieces of the artistic journey on its own would be enough to rock your world. But melding the two pieces together into a single song? It sounds so incredible that we can only do justice in describing this union of notes in terms I choose not to publish here, with one exception: orgasmic.

No surprise then that Guns ‘N Roses and other 80s hair bands rocked the foundations of our very culture forever with songs like this one and the innovative new sartorial styles they rolled out while doing it. What the heck was masculine and what was feminine in coiffures or in coutures? Was there even a meaningful difference any more anyway? Why couldn’t men prance around a stage in tights and dye their curly long hair too? Why did we have to follow the way older people had always done things? What was macho, where did that end and feminine begin, and who was allowed to be sensitive?

Who cares? If a hardish rock ballad could be a romantic love song and appeal to all ages around the world all at once, our world could change for good, and for the better. Sweet Child ‘O Mine is the stuff of revolution.

As if the song didn’t start out with a combination of notes fit for a feast of the Gods, the band then effortlessly transitions into some filthy solo segments by Slash and Axl Rose going back and forth that abruptly destroy any credible argument about the best 80s male rock song.

I predict that if Skynet does not manage to take over and erase the musical heritage of human beings, kids in the year 2123 will still be bobbing their heads regularly to Sweet Child ‘O Mine, right along with their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents on Earth as it shall be on Mars. We cannot say this so confidently about most of the music humans have made so far.

However, I’d love to hear from you! Comments welcome on your own picks for the best female and male rock songs of the 1980s, if your views somehow (unforgivably) differ from mine.

Mahanth is Editor

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