Every era has its defining R&B songs, but nothing quite compares to the classics of the 1980s. From an age when Micheal Jackson and Prince reigned supreme, to the birth of hip-hop and new jack swing, the 80s R&B scene was truly groundbreaking.
Come relive the magic of this unforgettable era with our list of the 25 best R&B songs of the 1980s.
From sensual ballads to Dancefloor anthems, these hits defined a decade and continue to hold a special place in our hearts.
1. “When Doves Cry” – Prince
Wholesome and pure on the surface, with a dirty underside, “When Doves Cry” gets number one on our list for its unforgettable opening guitar solo, iconic music video, and lyrics that still resonate today. Prince wrote the song for his film “Purple Rain” and played all the instruments by himself. And the most interesting part? There is no bass in this song. He had the bass track removed at the last minute although he hated it.
Besides, it’s a song that epitomizes the excess of the 80s and is the perfect introduction to the enigmatic world of Prince. That universally recognizable opening guitar riff is sure to send chills down your spine every time.
2. “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson never shied away from tackling personal issues in his music, and “Billie Jean” is perhaps his most famous example. A poignant look at celebrity culture, the song’s bassline is as iconic as the singer himself. The track was released as part of Jackson’s sixth studio album, Thriller, and went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. The song’s video is credited with breaking the color barrier on MTV, which debuted on August 1, 1981.
3. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” – Whitney Houston
An unapologetic ode to the joys of Dancefloor romance, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is the perfect pick-me-up song. With its instantly catchy chorus and feel-good vibes, the track became one of the singer’s most successful singles, topping the charts in more than 20 countries.
4. “Straight Up” – Paula Abdul
This song is proof that Paula Abdul was much more than just a pretty face. “Straight Up” is a timeless pop classic with a memorable melody and catchy hook.
It’s also a song with a message, as Abdul sings about being careful when you give your heart away.
5. “Sexual Healing” – Marvin Gaye
The classiest song ever made about getting down? We think so. Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is a sultry ballad with a smooth groove and sensual lyrics. It’s the perfect song to set the mood, and it’s sure to get you in the mood, too. Unfortunately, the song was released just a few years before Gaye’s untimely death, but its legacy has lived on.
6. “How Will I Know” – Whitney Houston
The backing vocals of this song are recorded by Whitney’s own mother, Cissy Houston. Written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, this song was first offered to Janet Jackson but she turned it down. But now we’re glad that it ended up in Whitney’s hands as she made this song her own.
The song is about the feelings you experience when you start dating someone new and you’re not sure if they feel the same way about you. It’s a relatable topic that we’ve all experienced at one point or another and Houston does a great job of conveying the emotions that come with it.
7. “I Want to Be Your Man” – Roger Troutman
A phenomenal talent, Roger Troutman was a master of the talk box, an instrument that he popularized in the ’80s. If you’re not familiar with the talk box, it’s an instrument that allows the player to modify the sound of their voice by shaping the words with their mouth.
Troutman used the talk box to great effect on “I Want to Be Your Man”, creating a unique sound that perfectly complemented the song’s sensual lyrics. The track is the perfect example of Troutman’s impressive musicality and served as a great introduction to his talk box skills for those who were unfamiliar with his work.
Unfortunately, Troutman was killed in a tragic shooting accident in 1999, but his music lives on.
8. “Let’s Get It On” – Marvin Gaye
Another Marvin Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On” is a sexy and soulful ode to making love. The song’s sleek production and sensual lyrics helped it become one of the best-selling singles of all time, and its status as a bedroom staple is well deserved.
9. “Cool It Now” – New Edition
As the decade passes by, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal New Edition was in the 1980s. “Cool It Now” is a perfect example of why this boy band was so popular, with its catchy hook and danceable beat. The song is about teenage love, but it’s also a warning to take things slow.
10. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” – Tina Turner
A song about the complications of love, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” is a timeless classic. And its message is as relevant today as it was when it was released. Turner’s performance on this track is so convincing, that it’s hard to believe she wasn’t feeling the love herself.
11. “Let’s Groove” – Earth, Wind & Fire
I don’t think we need to explain why this one made the list. It’s Earth, Wind & Fire. ‘Nuff said. “Let’s Groove” is a timeless party anthem with a message we can all get behind. It’s the perfect song to get you on your feet, and it’s sure to put a smile on your face. If you don’t know it, go ahead and educate yourself.
12. “Don’t Disturb This Groove” – The System
A classic 80s club track, “Don’t Disturb This Groove” is all about getting down on the dancefloor. The song’s catchy bassline and hypnotic synth melody are impossible to resist, and its positive message is a piece of feel-good escapism that we all need. Take a break from your troubles and let loose on this one.
13. “Right And A Wrong Way” – Keith Sweat
Keith Sweat’s “Right and a Wrong Way” is a classic example of new jack swing. The song’s production is sleek and polished, and Sweat’s smooth vocals are the perfect compliment. The track is about a relationship on the rocks, but it’s also a warning to be careful who you give your heart to.
14. “Rock Wit’cha” – Bobby Brown
Bobby brings us the heat with this one. Although he didn’t get enough credit for his influence in the R&B industry, Bobby’s “Rock Wit’cha” is a certified bop. It’s a song that’s all about the physical pleasures of love, but it’s also a reminder that love is about so much more than just sex.
15. “Slow Hand” – Pointer Sisters
A curve ball in Pointer Sisters catalog, “Slow Hand” slithers and seduces its way into your heart. It’s a classic slow jam about the joys of taking things slow, and it’s guaranteed to get you in the mood. Some say the song is about masturbation, but we’ll let you be the judge of that.
16. “Freeway of Love” – Aretha Franklin
A high-octane ode to young love, Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” is a joyous track that celebrates the thrill of the open road. Featuring a guest appearance from none other than Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist) on saxophone, the song was a massive success, winning Franklin a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
17. ” Careless Whisper” – George Michael
Drenched with longing and regret, George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” is a heart-wrenching ballad about a love affair gone wrong. When the song first came out in 1984, it thrashed all expectations, reaching number one in more than 25 countries and selling over 6 million copies worldwide. Today, it remains one of Michael’s most popular and well-loved songs. Give it a listen if you’re in the mood for a good cry.
18. “Kiss” – Prince
Another gem from the Purple One, “Kiss” is a sultry track about the power of love and physical attraction. The song’s minimalistic instrumentation and Prince’s sensual vocals make for a hypnotic listening experience. It’s no wonder the track has gone on to become one of his most iconic and well-loved songs. Everything from his singing, dancing, musicality, timing and even the facial expressions he makes are perfect in this song.
19. “Every Little Step” – Bobby Brown
L.A. Reid, the co-writer of this song, said his then-girlfriend inspired a part of the lyrics of this track. “I was driving to see her when inspiration struck,” Reid said. He pulled over and wrote the first few lines: “I can’t sleep at night, I toss and turn, listening for the telephone…”.
Besides being an ode to new love, the song is also a great example of New Jack Swing, a genre that Bobby Brown helped pioneer. This was one of the first songs to bring New Jack Swing to the mainstream and it quickly became one of Brown’s signature tracks.
20. “Sweet Love” – Anita Baker
One of the greatest voices of the ’80s, Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” is a sensual ballad about the power of love. Featuring Baker’s signature powerhouse vocals, the song is a masterclass in soulful singing. It’s no wonder the track quickly became one of Baker’s most iconic songs and has been covered by numerous artists over the years.
21. “Give Me the Night” – George Benson
Written by Rod Temperton, who also wrote Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, “Give Me the Night” is a smooth track about the power of music to lift your spirits.
Benson’s silky vocals and laid-back guitar playing in this song make for a truly relaxing listening experience. This is Benson’s biggest track to date which also bagged him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
22. “Juicy Fruit” – Mtume
A mid-tempo track with a catchy hook, “Juicy Fruit” is a fun track about the pleasures of the physical world. The song has simple instrumentation, soft melody, captivating lyrics, and over-the-top Mtume’s laid-back vocals, making it an easy and enjoyable listen. Go check out now if you haven’t heard this one yet.
23. “Love Come Down” – Evelyn “Champagne” King
Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Love Come Down” is a dance floor classic that perfectly encapsulates the sound of early ’80s disco. Driven by a thumping bassline and catchy keyboard melody, the track is immensely danceable and impossible to resist.
King’s sensual vocals add an extra layer of uniqueness to the track, making it one of the most iconic songs of her career. This song was also sampled by rapper Rick Ross on his track “All I Really want”.
24. “Can You Stand the Rain” – New Edition
Another New Edition track on our list, “Can You Stand the Rain” is a ballad about weathering the storms of life with your loved ones. The song features the smooth harmonies that the group is known for, as well as lead vocals from Johnny Gill.
The lyrics were inspired by the group’s struggles on-road and the effect they had on their personal relationships. Despite the sad subject matter, the track is an uplifting listen that will leave you feeling hopeful.
25. “Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott
Last but not least, we have Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down”. This Abbott’s only big hit but it’s a great track that deserves its place on our list.
A smooth and sensual ballad, “Shake You Down” is a perfect example of ’80s R&B. According to SongFacts, this track received one million US radio plays faster than any other song in history at that time. Amazing!
So, there you have it, our list of the 20 best R&B songs of the ’80s. These are just a few of the many great tracks that were released during this decade. If you’re looking for more great ’80s music, be sure to check out our list of the 100+ Popular Songs of the 80s. And if you’re a fan of ’80s Country music, you might also enjoy our list of the 100+ Best Country Singers from the 80s.