Thirty years ago, the world fell in love with an upbeat empowerment ballad called “You’re the Best Around.” Like most ’80s movie anthems, “Best” is a song you can’t listen to without immediately thinking of the film or scene it accompanied – in this case, the teen martial arts classic The Karate Kid and its climactic tournament montage. The ’80s was a decade full of movie-song symbiosis, with tracks that may have only been modest hits (if that) but achieved immortality by creating perfect harmony with films. Here are 15 ’80s songs that transport us back to some of our favorite ’80s movie moments.
1. Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger” (Rocky III, 1983)
For the third Rocky film — a.k.a. “the one with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan” —Sylvester Stallone commissioned Survivor to write and record “Eye of the Tiger” after failing to get the rights to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Training rooms haven’t been the same since.
2. Michael Sembello, “Maniac” (Flashdance, 1983)
Flashdance’s greatest contribution to the zeitgeist is undoubtedly the popularization of breakdancing, which made its mainstream debut in Adrian Lyne’s 1983 fan favorite. But it’s Sembello’s uptempo “Maniac” — and Jennifer Beals’ accompanying hip-sliding dance-moves — that still inspires Flashdance fans to get on the dance floor.
3. Harold Faltermeyer, “Axel F” (Beverly Hills Cop, 1984)
Has an instrumental movie score ever sounded so cool? Faltermeyer’s synthesized soundtrack gem managed the unthinkable by soaring to the Billboard Hot 100 without a single lyric (even though we always imagine Axel Foley’s laugh reverberating over it while listening).
4. Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters” (Ghostbusters, 1984)
While crafting movie-specific tunes was all the rage in the ’80s, not all titular tracks made their way to Hitsville (like, say, Eddy Grant’s “Romancing the Stone”). Parker’s “Ghostbusters” theme (which ’80s soundtrack star Huey Lewis sued over) worked on every level, adding a sonic boost of energy to the film’s climax, featuring a can’t-miss catchphrase (“I ain’t afraid of no ghost”) and adding an equally as fun music video that featured Tron-like fluorescents and a Chevy Chase cameo.
5. Joe Esposito, “You’re the Best Around” (The Karate Kid, 1984)
Need to get amped up for that softball game or sales presentation? Fire up Esposito’s motivational face-kicking anthem (originally recorded for Rocky III, but replaced by “Eye of the Tiger”). It worked for Daniel-san in a montage as he worked his way through various Cobra Kai opponents at the All Valley Karate Tournament, and it’ll work for you.
6. Kenny Loggins, “Footloose” (Footloose, 1984)
There are arguably three songs you can’t hear without immediately flashing back to Kevin Bacon’s country-fried dance-fest: Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” (that Chris Penn rhythm tutorial!); Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” (that tractor scene!); and most memorably, Loggins’ title track, which accompanies the sheer euphoria that came with a town of high schoolers finally being able to cut loose on prom night.
7. Huey Lewis and the News, “The Power of Love” (Back to the Future, 1985)
Huey Lewis was a ubiquitous presence in ’80s pop music, but the full Power of Lewis reached a peak when Marty McFly skated to the tunes of the News in this time travel classic. The song’s inclusion made for a great in-joke, too, with Lewis showing up in the film as a Battle of the Bands judge who deems McFly’s hard rock cover of the song, “just too darn loud.”
8. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (The Breakfast Club, 1985)
This track from the Scottish rock band Simple Minds was so perfect for The Breakfast Club that John Hughes used it for the opening and closing credits. Of course it packs much more punch when Judd Nelson fist-pumps his way through the football field just before the credits roll; by then we’ve gotten to know the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal, and we’re not going to forget about them.
9. Robert Tepper, “No Easy Way Out” (Rocky IV, 1985)
Sly strikes again. Like Footloose, Rocky IV was another all-around formidable soundtrack, with tunes like Survivor’s “Burning Heart” and James Brown’s “Living in America.” But the song that instantly takes us back in time is Tepper’s gun-ho anthem, which set up Rock’s climactic bout with Ivan Drago.
10. Kenny Loggins, “Danger Zone” (Top Gun, 1986)
Something tells us you couldn’t get away with writing a hook with such obliquely goofy lyrics as “Highway to the Danger Zone!” in 2014. It’s a phrase that’s gloriously ’80s, like an awkward high-five between Goose and Maverick.
11. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, “If You Leave” (Pretty in Pink, 1986)
If you’re in the camp that would’ve preferred to see Andie (Molly Ringwald) end up with Duckie (Jon Cryer), as John Hughes had originally planned (and filmed) before it tested badly with preview audiences, take solace in this: Had the film ended that way, we would’ve never gotten “If You Leave,” which OMD wrote and recorded in 24 hours to replace their own “Goddess of Love” for the film’s reshot climax.
12. Real Life, “Send Me an Angel”(Rad, 1986)
Rad never reached the level of success of Goonies or The Karate Kid, but for some Gen Xers it holds equally nostalgic importance. At the center of the racing drama is one-hit wonder Real Life’s power ballad, which plays over the movie’s famous BMX boogie scene. The song got around a bit in the ‘80s, with appearances in Teen Wolf Too (1987) and The Wizard (1989).
13. Bill Medley & Jennifer Warner, “(I’ve Had) Time of My Life” (Dirty Dancing, 1987)
It was choreographer Kenny Ortega — the future director of the High School Musical movies — who picked this duet for Johnny and Baby to dance all dirty to in the film’s seminal finale. Would it have even made a bleep had we not always equated it with all those twirls and lifts? Probably, but there’s no way it would’ve been such a huge hit.
14. Starship, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” (Mannequin, 1987)
Try to listen to this song without picturing Andrew McCarthy pushing a motorcyle through the rain, a department store mannequin turning into Kim Cattrall, and that guy Hollywood doing something hilarious. Impossible.
15. Carly Simon, “Let the River Run” (Working Girl, 1988)
Simon won a Best Original Song Oscar for her choir-backed, hymn-like pop hit. Let the feeling of inspiration run after thinking back to this crowd-pleaser about a secretary (Melanie Griffith) who upseats her horrible boss and steals her boyfriend, too.
Photo: Everett Collection