The late, great writer of pulp fiction, Jim Thompson, said, “There is only one plot: things are not as they seem.” It could be argued that the same sentiment applies to memory: did things happen the way that we remember them? For kids that came of age in the 1980s, we each have our own recollection of who the musical voices were that defined our generation. But what if the actual voice of the ’80s has been someone different the entire time? And what if this artist sang the most Top 40 hits of the decade? And what if they were the only major artist to have a hit in every single year of the ’80s? Prepare to be surprised.
The Rules: We counted every Billboard Top 40 solo hit, duet, or band/group single on which each singer in question sang lead or a major chorus hook. In terms of entry to the main list, we’ve set the bar at a minimum of 15 Top 40 hits between 1980 and 1989. After we review the stats, we’ll have some conclusions to draw. Got it? Let’s go.
The Close-to-10 Club: A number of acts came close to 10 Top 40 hits in the decade, some of whom are surprising for not having more. Perhaps the most astonishing is Janet Jackson, who notched seven hits from her 1986 album Control, but not any others; her huge run that kicked off from Rhythm Nation 1814 started in 1990. The rest are a mix of music biz veterans who had strong showings in ’70s that carried over, as well as some new faces. They include: Michael McDonald (7 across solo, duet, and Doobie Brothers); Christopher Cross, 38 Special, Survivor, and Juice Newton (8); and David Bowie, Steve Winwood, Foreigner, Donna Summer, Toto, Loverboy, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Jeffrey Osborne, Dan Fogelberg, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi (all with 9). Winwood, Franklin, and Diamond were solidly in their third decades of making hits. It’s also notable that 38 Special and Survivor, bands that featured creative cores who frequently wrote songs together and for each other, ended up with the same number of Top 40 hits.
Team 10 to 14: The next tier of artists contains some of the most recognizable names of the decade. Artists with 10 Top 40 hits include Kim Carnes, Heart, Eurythmics, The Pointer Sisters, Paul McCartney, Belinda Carlisle (five with The Go-Gos, five solo), Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, and . . . Ray Parker, Jr.?! That’s right; the singer best known for Ghostbusters was actually a prolific hitmaker with tunes like “Two Places at the Same Time” and “That Old Song,” even if the rest of his catalog never hit the heights of one of the great movie songs. Kim Carnes is a mild surprise if you didn’t pay a lot of attention to the charts of the decades, but her strong standing and instantly recognizable voice were two reasons that she got featured lines on “We Are the World.”
The illustrious 11s count among their number Olivia Newton-John, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Air Supply, Gloria Estefan + Miami Sound Machine, Culture Club, The Cars, and Billy Ocean. The Cars have a bit of an asterisk, as Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek swapped lead singer duties through the band’s initial run. It should also be noted that Miami Sound Machine had an ongoing name evolution; originally debuting under the band name, they later moved Gloria out front; by the time of their final two hits of the decade, the band simply continued under Gloria’s name. That arrangement was also used by an artist on the upcoming Team 13.
It would seem that 12 Top 40 hits is a sweet spot for rock royalty. That’s where you’ll find Rod Stewart, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Tina Turner. Obviously, all three acts have waaay more than 12 Top 40 hits, given their respective longevities, but it’s a dozen each when confined to the ’80s.
The four acts with 13 ’80s Top 40s definitely weren’t unlucky; they were all performing before the decade started and they’re all still active. Bryan Adams is the performer that shares the unique situation of Gloria Estefan where the band just decided to go by his name. His fellow baker’s dozen entrants are Diana Ross, REO Speedwagon, and Stevie Nicks. During the decade, Nicks had nine solo hits, sang lead on two chart-makers for Fleetwood Mac (“Gypsy” and “Seven Wonders”), and posted hit duets with Tom Petty (“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) and Don Henley (“Leather and Lace”).
For “Team 14,” two singers literally wouldn’t have made it without each other. Sheena Easton and Kenny Rogers share a tune in their duet, “We’ve Got Tonight.” Easton had the distinction of being the original reality TV break-out star when the then-19-year-old burst onto the scene with a documentary about her trying to make it in the record business. Kenny Rogers, of course, found success with The First Edition before becoming a crossover star in both pop and country. The other members of the 14 Club knew a thing or two about duets. Kenny Loggins was part of the duo Loggins and Messina before he became the master of the movie soundtrack hit. And George Michael assembled seven hits with Wham!, six solo tunes, and a duet with Aretha Franklin (“I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”) to secure his spot.
Fabulous 15s: It’s not really a surprise that any of these artists racked up 15 Top 40 hits during the Reagan Era. The list includes Pat Benatar and Bruce Springsteen, who gets the “We Are the World” bump. Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger cemented three decades of hits with their entries. Wonder combined 13 solo hits, his “We Are the World” feature, and his team-up with Dionne Warwick and Friends, “That’s What Friends Are For,” to secure 15. Jagger had 11 Rolling Stones songs, three tunes of his own, and his duet with David Bowie on “Dancing in the Streets.” Another veteran artist who experienced that level of singles success was Peter Cetera of Chicago: he had 11 hits with the band, two solo Top Tens, and major duets with Cher and Amy Grant. The last two at this level both hail from the U.K. and had vocal features on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid. Sting fronted The Police for eight hits, plus six of his own. And Simon Le Bon was the voice of both Duran Duran (13 entries) and spin-off group Arcadia, which scored with “Election Day” and “Goodbye Is Forever.”
Sweet 16s: Rick Springfield recorded a humorous song called “Bruce” in 1980 about how people would mistake him for Springsteen. But this isn’t a joke: TV’s Dr. Noah Drake had one more Top 40 hit in the ’80s than The Boss, proving that he was much more than “Jessie’s Girl.” Joining Springfield at this level are Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and The News (15 with the band plus his “We Are the World” part), David Lee Roth (12 with Van Halen and four solo), and Kool and the Gang, who certainly had a lot of reasons for “Celebration” in that time span.
17 Hurts So Good: Only one artist posted 17 solo Top 40s in the ’80s, and he did so under his evolving name. John Mellencamp originally went by the management-created name of Johnny Cougar. Over time, the artist fought it down to John Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp, and then finally, John Mellencamp. If nothing else, that’s proof that he fought authority and probably always will (as suggested by “Authority Song,” which hit #15 in 1984). Incidentally, Mellencamp is one of only two artists to have a hit in every year of the decade. Who’s the other one? They’re at the top.
18 All Night Long: Way before he took an American Idol judges seat, Lionel Richie was schooling people as one of the best front men, singers, and songwriters to ever do it. He continued his ’70s winning streak with The Commodores for three ’80s hits before going solo. His solo work and “Endless Love” duet with Diana Ross accounted for 14 more chart entries. And not only is his the first voice you hear on “We Are the World,” he co-wrote it with Michael Jackson.
Hey 19: Madonna will always be inextricably linked with the 1980s, and rightfully so. One of the canniest self-promoters and innovative users of the music video form, Madonna rode her metamorphic persona to the top of the charts over and over. It’s worth noting that her first hit was in 1983, meaning that she landed her 19 hits in a span of just seven years. The other proud owner of 19 Top 40 hits as a vocalist is Steve Perry, who was the lead singer of Journey. Perry had three entries outside the band (“Oh Sherry,” his “We Are the World” turn, and “Don’t Fight It” with Kenny Loggins), but he will always be known for Journey’s greatest hits. Just last year, “Don’t Stop Believin’” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
XX: Prince would probably enjoy the fact that we used a symbol for 20. It bears mention that if this list were tracking songwriters and not vocalists, Prince would be hard to beat. He wrote hits for everyone from The Bangles to The Time to Sheila E. to Sheena Easton. He even played the keyboard part on Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.” But in terms of featuring his voice, Prince had a solid 20 in the Top 40 in the 1980s. Prince was also the artist who spent the most weeks in the Hot 100 for the decade, sticking around for 378 weeks across his various songs.
21 for The Piano Man: Though he doesn’t get the credit for it that some of his contemporaries do, Billy Joel was an early adopter of the music video form, and it paid off for him in a big way in the 1980s. Clever clips for the likes of “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl” put him squarely in front of a younger audience, and they liked what they heard.
22’s Still Standing: Billy Joel’s occasional touring partner, Elton John, nudged him by one Top 40 hit. In addition to 20 of his own, Sir Elton appeared on “That’s What Friends Are For” and had a big duet with Jennifer Rush on “Flames of Paradise.” John’s ’80s standing was no doubt bolstered by his own willingness to make a steady stream of videos.
24 Tied: Two artists locked up 24 Top 40 hits during the decade, and one did it as half of one of the most successful duos in pop history. That’s Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates. Hall and Oates posted 21 hits of their own. Before their mid-decade hiatus, they scored a hit with a crossover team-up with Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin of The Temptations. Hall also had time to land a solo hit with his track “Dreamtime.”
The only other member of team 24 was the man they called The King of Pop. There’s no disputing that Michael Jackson owned the ’80s. Jackson’s portfolio of hits started with 18 solo charters in the decade. He also had three with his brothers, The Jacksons (of course), and an additional placement with “State of Shock,” a collaboration between Michael, his brothers, and Mick Jagger. Finally, Michael was the co-writer and a major voice on “We Are the World.” But if Michael Jackson didn’t have the most combined hits as a singer in the ’80 . . . who did?
Mr. 25: With a combined 14 solo Top 40s and 11 as the lead singer of Genesis, Phil Collins was actually the voice of the 1980s. Ironically, he could have picked up one more spot had he taken a vocal turn on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Instead, he played drums on the track and only sang background. Collins was seemingly everywhere in the decade. Between his solo work and his work with Genesis, he squeezed in acting roles and often made appearances with other musicians. During the epic Live Aid concert in July of 1985, Collins played at Wembley Stadium in London, doing solo work and teaming up with Sting. He then hopped the Concorde to the Philadelphia installment of the show where he played with Eric Clapton and sat in for the late John Bonham on drums for a Led Zeppelin reunion. Collins was also the only other artist aside from Mellencamp who had a hit in every single year of the decade.
What Have We Learned?: The two major takeaways are: 1) collective memory can be faulty, and 2) MTV had an outsized impact on both success and the perception of success in the decade. There are memes about Phil Collins that joke about him being every fourth song on the radio in the ’80s, but there’s obviously a grain of truth in it. His work was pervasive and, with at least one hit every year, consistent. It’s also obvious that every artist with 15 hits or more made a major commitment to video. Regular play on MTV translated to radio play and, frequently, sales.
There’s actually surprising diversity in the artists here, given how slow MTV was the play Black artists. Nevertheless, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, Kool and the Gang, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, The Pointer Sisters, Aretha Franklin, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeffrey Osborne all had very strong showings and helped pave the way for more artists breaking through on the channel. Similarly, Cuban-born Gloria Estefan was instrumental in re-introducing Latin influences into mid-’80s pop.
Based on the charts alone, the ’80s were an amazing decade for music. And that doesn’t account for the bands that weren’t necessarily singles machines, but would sell millions of albums, like U2 or Guns ‘N’ Roses or R.E.M. or The Cure. Or the alternative stalwarts that were massively influential, like The Pixies, Depeche Mode, and New Order. That doesn’t even include the amazing breakthroughs made by hip-hop, and the vast metal scene that developed. The charts will never divulge the whole story, but if you listen, they may have a unexpected tale to tell.
 FOOTNOTE: Take Beach Boys great Carl Wilson, for example; had he made the list, his separated vocals in the chorus of “Kokomo” would count, but not his background vocals for David Lee Roth’s cover of “California Girls.” On the other hand, Michael Jackson’s vocals on Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” do count, because he sings the bulk of the chorus. A duet between, let’s say, Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, counted for each artist. An artist like Stevie Nicks racked up duets (with Tom Petty and Don Henley), solo hits, and Fleetwood Mac songs on which she expressly sang lead (“Gypsy” counted, but not “Everywhere,” as that was Christine McVie’s lead).
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now