Top English Artists of the '80s

From synth pop to varying styles of post-punk and alternative music, artists from England were busy on the '80s mainstream as well as its cutting edge. In the process, they released much memorable music that commands rabid fandom still today. Here are 10 English artists - listed in no particular order - that offer some pretty good reasons why that small island country remained so important to pop music during the '80s.

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The Cure

The Cure
The Cure circa 1987. Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Although best known for contributions to a narrow '80s perception of Goth rock music and fashion, this highly versatile group unfortunately and too often escapes proper accolades for its devotion to songcraft. Robert Smith & Co. quite simply produced some of the most enduring tunes of the era, a catalog that often surprises with its diversity and demonstration of stylistic mastery. Alternately lush and spare, songs like "Boys Don't Cry," "In Between Days" and "Close to Me" offer sundry delights. And those titles just really scratch the surface, as any of the band's ardent fans could surely attest.

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Duran Duran

Duran Duran in the 1980's
Chris Walter/Getty Images

One of the most prominent and popular bands of the '80s, this Birmingham-based group rode an MTV-fueled music video wave to massive popularity in the U.S., spotlighting the particularly photogenic qualities of lead singer Simon Le Bon and bassist John Taylor. Although the band's music was often a pleasant diversion at best, it's impossible to deny the central role Duran Duran continues to play as guardians of '80s nostalgia. ​"Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Rio" left indelible visual and aural imprints on the era's music fans.

The Human League
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This underrated New Romantic outfit made some special contributions to '80s culture, from the heavy blush makeup style of its members to the rather forward-looking gender equity exhibited in both vocal duties and the wearing of said makeup. But for me, the main draw for these synth-pop masters was the booming vocal style of Philip Oakey, whose pipes provided singular moments on the monster hits "Don't You Want Me" and "Human."

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Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello live in Amsterdam
Frans Schellekens/Getty Images

Although it's a bit of a misnomer to call Costello an '80s artist or to link him to any one genre, this highly literate and versatile singer-songwriter was nonetheless a major force in the '80s, even if most of the damage he did was off the mainstream charts. Or maybe that's, even more, a reason to admire him, as an artist who pumped out an impressive variety of music and graced us with haunting, unforgettable tracks like ​"Man Out of Time" and "I Want You" on top of an already legendary '70s catalog.

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Phil Collins

Phil Collins
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Love him or hate him (and more music fans than ever may be leaning toward the latter after his somewhat dreadful Disney contributions of the 2000s), Phil Collins was a prototypical '80s superstar. He ruled the decade with his soft rock solo work, but, amazingly, also maintained an incredibly successful side job moonlighting as frontman for progressive-turned-arena rock band Genesis. The number of songs music fans heard during the '80s directly involving Collins was astounding; the number of good ones was even more noteworthy.

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Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel So

Always one to choose the quirkier path than former bandmate Collins, both as the frontman of the early version of Genesis and on his own, Peter Gabriel also got his hands deeply into the '80s musical machinery. And although I've never been a fan of his biggest hits (the overplayed "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time"), other classics of the era such as "Solsbury Hill," "Red Rain" and "In Your Eyes" simply increase their textured majesty through repeated plays. 

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Joe Jackson
David Gans/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 2.0

Along with Costello and Graham Parker, Jackson was one-third of the Three Angry Men on the English post-punk landscape. All were and continue to be vital singer-songwriters, but I think Jackson endures particularly well through his wide span of instrumental prowess as well as his wonderfully crotchety worldview. Even so, his early '80s output has the capacity to stun when Jackson tackles matters of the heart, especially in the beautiful "Breaking Us in Two or "You Can't Get What You Want."

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Billy Idol

Billy Idol
Possan/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

As one of the few bona fide punk rock artists to make an unabashed leap into mainstream pop/rock, Idol exposed himself to plenty of criticism, but the singer's unique brand of fist-pumping arena rock combined with a sneering, peroxide punk image somehow worked surprisingly well. Luckily for Idol, the quality of enduring classics like "White Wedding," "Eyes Without a Face" and "Rebel Yell" was pretty much equal to their popularity. Still, covering "Mony Mony" was not the most artistically sound decision in the world.

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The Fixx
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This unique new wave band has never received the attention and adulation it deserves, so I take it upon myself to put a stop to that nonsense right here. "One Thing Leads to Another" and "Saved by Zero" were deserving pop hits, but the even better "Secret Separation" and "Deeper and Deeper" have always seemed highly underrated and underplayed to me. Cy Curnin was a commanding frontman and passionate vocalist, but the band as a whole combined textured keyboards and power guitars in a way few other '80s artists dared.

Tears For Fears
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The duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith enjoyed plenty of '80s fruits during their prime, but like many other hitmakers of the time, their best work somehow stayed too much in the shadows among pop music fans. ​"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Head Over Heels" still stand as haunting classics, but I wish the darker "Mad World" or "Change" could have supplanted the underwhelming "Shout" on mid-'80s playlists. Ah, but listeners have so much more freedom of choice today, right?