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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Greatest Videos of the 1980s

Your picks include ‘Sledgehammer,’ ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Hot for Teacher’

Peter Gabriel

Courtesy Photo

When MTV premiered in the summer of 1981, they didn't have many videos in their vault. Most of what they had were cheap-o affairs shot in a couple of hours by superstars like Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones. All that changed very quickly when record labels realized that the new channel had an incredible ability to sell records. Just two years later, Michael Jackson released Thriller and videos were never the same.

We asked our readers to select their favorite videos of the 1980s. Click through to see the results. 


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8. Metallica – ‘One’

It's impossible to say how many 1980s metal fans went out and bought the 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun after seeing the video for Metallica's "One," but it's probably quite a few. Haunting clips from the 1971 film adaptation are sprinkled throughout "One," which was Metallica's very first video. They refused to make one for years, but they saw a huge spike in sales after they relented. It's far from a conventional video, and lines like "If I had arms I could kill myself" are tattooed in the brains of countless Metallica fans. It was also the exact opposite of everything that Mötley Crüe and other metal bands of the era were doing. 

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7. Don Henley – ‘Boys of Summer’

"Boys of Summer" looked like nothing else on MTV in 1985. Don Henley hired French director Jean-Baptiste Mondino to create the work; drawing inspiration from French New Wave movies, he created a stark, black-and-white mini-movie about a man looking back at lost love. (Contrary to appearances, the guy at the desk isn't Glenn Frey.) It won Video of the Year and Best Direction at the 1985 Video Music Awards, and the real Glenn Frey passed out the statue. 

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6. Prince – ‘When Doves Cry’

The video for "When Doves Cry" launched on MTV right as Prince's fame was peaking. It hit the network the exact same time that Purple Rain was arriving in movie theaters, and clips from the movie are sprinkled into the movie. The mirror effect looks a little cheesy today, but it was cutting-edge back in 1984.

This is Prince at his most iconic, and this is the type of outfit Dave Chappelle wears when he dresses up like him. What's more, Prince somehow managed to make getting out of a weird, smoky bathtub in a purple room seem sexy. 

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5. Van Halen – ‘Hot for Teacher’

Van Halen knew exactly what kids wanted to see in music videos: hot chicks, a classroom that turns into a strip club and blistering guitar solos. They delivered all that and more in "Hot for Teacher." It's far from a deep song, and the video is even more wonderfully shallow. Norwegian model Lillian Müller (August 1976's Playmate of the Year) played the teacher, and they shot the thing at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles. It really pissed off Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center, which certainly did nothing but make the thing even more popular.  

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4. Dire Straits – ‘Money for Nothing’

It may not seem all that impressive now, but Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" video was hugely groundbreaking in 1986. Keep in mind, they made it with less computer power than most toasters have these days. Steve Barron, the genius behind the "Billie Jean" and "Take on Me" clips, talked Mark Knopfler into the computer animation idea.

The video was created to go into heavy rotation on MTV. The song even repeatedly says, "I want my MTV," even if it's gently mocking rock stars and their fans. The video helped bring Dire Straits into stadiums all over America and it remains the most famous thing they ever did, even though their involvement was pretty minimal. 

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3. A-ha – ‘Take on Me’

The video for "Take on Me" wasn't created by computer animation, but rather a team that painstakingly rotoscoped sketch drawings frame-by-frame onto film. The entire thing took 16 weeks, but it was all worth it. The video swept the 1986 Video Music Awards and broke Norwegian pop band a-ha in America.

Ever wonder what happened to the guy and the girl after he broke free from the drawings? Check out the sequel video, "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." Hint: Things don't go very well, though the two actors did briefly date in real life. 

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2. Peter Gabriel – ‘Sledgehammer’

Former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel was fairly popular when his "Sledgehammer" video hit the airwaves, but once MTV put it into heavy rotation, his career was never the same. "I think it was the most played video on MTV, and still is today," he told Rolling Stone in 2012. "But I was trying to get some income from it, which is another battle, another story." Stephen R. Johnson directed the video, and was helped along by the same animation team that went on to create Wallace and Gromit. It's endlessly inventive, moving wildly from dancing chickens to flying fruit to a dance party in a room with spinning furniture. He tried a few times to follow it up with even more impressive videos, but they always fell short. 

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1. Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’

What more is there to say about the video for "Thriller?" It's a video so iconic that 30 years later, people all over the world are still recreating the thing, from goofy white people at weddings to hundreds of inmates at a prison in the Philippines. The 13-minute video was directed by Jonathan Landis at a time when Thriller began falling down the charts. That stopped the second the video hit MTV. It captured the attention of the entire country and forever changed music videos. They were never again seen as simple clips meant to promote records: "Thriller" turned them into an art form.