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Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s

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The minor misconception is that the 80s was a wasteland of trashy party rawk, bad pop, worse dance and musical trends that rivaled the fashions as being the most garish monstrosity of the pop culture-intensified decade. But the fact is, there was plenty of great music out there, you just needed to know where to look; more often than not, that meant leaving the mall and seeking out the basement floor music shop nearest to you. Also more often than not, the decade’s big sellers were big busts (or just plain mediocre). Of the one hundred top-selling albums of the decade, only eight were good enough to find room on this list (for those who care to keep count: numbers 2, 17, 18, 24, 36, 42, 45 and 56). But despite vapid trends, novelty curios, image-dominant programming, and a whole lot of flash-in-the-pans, there were some thrillingly great albums to hear, buy and cherish. Here are the hundred best.

Even in a weaker field, there are tragic omissions and defeats, and there are still plenty I wanted to throw a little love to (especially vastly underrated or underground gems that could have used that love). As usual, I begin with a rundown of the last twenty-five that missed the cut, listed in alphabetical order:

Black Celebration by Depeche Mode [1986 / Electronic]
The Blue Mask by Lou Reed [1982 / Rock]
Computer World by Kraftwerk [1981 / Electronic]
Echo & the Bunnymen by Echo & the Bunnymen [1987 / Alternative]
Faith by the Cure [1981 / Rock]
Fire of Love by the Gun Club [1981 / Punk]
Flip Your Wig by Hüsker Dü [1985 / Alternative]
Heartattack and Vine by Tom Waits [1980 / Rock]
Hex Enduction Hour by the Fall [1982 / Punk]
Horse Rotorvator by Coil [1986 / Electronic]
Locust Abortion Technician by Butthole Surfers [1987 / Alternative]
The Mekons Rock n’ Roll by the Mekons [1989 / Rock]
Moving Pictures by Rush [1981 / Rock]
Mudhoney by Mudhoney [1989 / Alternative]
Night Time by the Killing Joke [1985 / Rock]
The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden [1982 / Metal]
Odyshape by the Raincoats [1981 / Punk]
Raising Hell by Run-DMC [1986 / Hip Hop]
Reign in Blood by Slayer [1986 / Metal]
The River by Bruce Springsteen [1980 / Rock]
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash by the Pogues [1985 / Alternative]
Strangeways, Here We Come by the Smiths [1987 / Alternative]
Treasure by Cocteau Twins [1984 / Pop]
War by U2 [1983 / Rock]
What Makes a Man Start Fires? by Minutemen [1983 / Punk]

Now, let’s finish off this decade with a look at the albums strong enough to secure a spot. Enjoy.


100headondoor100. The Head on the Door
by the Cure
1985
Rock


There was no telling where Robert Smith was going in 1985. Following the existential gothic nightmare of Pornography with the sloppy “transition” album of The Top, the Cure seemed wayward, lost; Simon Gallup being M.I.A. had a devastating effect on Smith’s inspiration and focus. But with Gallup’s return and the bolstering of their former minimalist sound by the permanent addition of Porl Thompson, they righted the rocking ship quickly with The Head on the Door, almost inarguably the band’s most centered (and least cluttered) pop record. Despite their popularity in Cure fan circles, I’ve never much cared for “Kyoto Song” and “A Night Like This,” but the minor drawbacks end there; “The Blood”’s mariachi-esque strum, “In Between Days”’s sprightly keyboard melody, “Push”’s fiery and soaring riff, “Close to Me”’s irresistibly frantic dance beat, “Sinking”’s dramatic curtain close…suddenly, the band were on the rise as actual hitmakers. No matter how their “shut-out” fans might have despised the idea that the popular kids were suddenly digging the Cure, there’s no doubt the adulation was deserved.


99followtheleader99. Follow the Leader
by Eric B. & Rakim
1988
Hip Hop


Sure, Paid in Full had “I Know You Got Soul,” but Eric B. & Rakim nearly matched that one no less than five times on their follow-up LP, Follow the Leader. In addition to the astonishingly supple title track and the phenomenal “Lyrics of Fury,” there’s also “Microphone Fiend,” “Eric B. Never Scared,” “The R” and “Put Your Hands Together,” all bonafide classics (or ought to be, anyway). Rakim still brings lyrical venom and flawlessly precise flow, but the most notable development in their technique was the denser and more daring production, making great use of samples, from the obvious (James Brown) to the unexpected (the Eagles), and inviting Stevie Blass Griffin to record instrumental tracks for the compositions. Not a top-to-bottom winner—even stripped-down, old school rap records frequently had filler—but consistency is a virtue while the peaks were the necessity.


98landofrapehoney98. The Land of Rape and Honey
by Ministry
1988
Electronic


In the industrial/electronic/metal marketplace, Ministry wasn’t in the same league as Trent Reznor’s future beast, but they came first, and on occasion, came awfully close. The album might have landed higher, too, if it was even half as stunning all the way through as it is in the early passages—“Deity,” “The Missing” and, especially, “Stigmata.” Later, the band begins to employ cinematic samples, which can be distracting (Eli Wallach laughs simply don’t fit with the music’s tone and style), but even then, the beats are usually pretty solid. Too tuneful to be completely jarring, the bluntness just increases the ecstasy of the jackhammer pulse; and to think that Al Jourgensen cut his teeth on synthpop and New Wave. The album name comes from, believe it or not, the actual motto of a Canadian town (whose economy is based on the export of rapeseed and honey), but methinks Ministry wasn’t too concerned with the agricultural bragging rights of Saskatchewanians when they wrote this.


97talktalktalk97. Talk Talk Talk
by the Psychedelic Furs
1981
Pop


They might not be all winners, but the average is high enough to keep you more than satisfied at length. Of course, “Pretty in Pink” is on here (and rightfully loved), but check out the pop swing of “She Is Mine,” the chiming guitar of “Into You Like a Train” and the frenzied punch of “Dumb Waiters.” Richard Butler can’t seem to decide if he wants to be sincere or sardonic; the fact that you can’t tell song-for-song widens the appeal. And his voice was designed ahead of time by some higher force for college rock—when you hear the deadpan tone, you’re back in a dorm room. They even know how to balance the young innocence of puppy love with the tainted adolescence of sex obsession. Over droning melodies come Vince Ely’s manic drums, an always fine compliment; the guitars are of the jangle-fuzz persuasion, which were still pretty novel in 1981. And no matter how much Butler talks, talks, talks about how bored/fascinated he is with girls, it almost always strikes the right note.


96gethappy96. Get Happy!!
By Elvis Costello & the Attractions
1980
Soul


Only in a decade like the 80s could the best pop soul album come from Elvis Costello; this fact was no doubt infuriating to those still steamed about Costello’s racist remarks during a drunken argument less than a year prior to its release (no matter the excuse, it was a pitiful embarrassment). Whether or not Get Happy!! was some sort of atonement, the songs inside are almost all really good. In much the same way that Ray Charles challenged the walled-off notion of ownership in country and western music, Costello showed Stax-ish R&B a rousing good time without making the whole affair seem like some novelty throwaway. And despite a fonder outlook on the whole love thing, he still keeps his lyrical wit about him, too (“’Til I step on the brake to get out of her clutches/’Til I speak double dutch to a real double duchess”). As a bonus for reissue fanatics, it’s hard to beat the volume of Rhino’s 50-track package (!) of this album.


95freshfruitrottingvegetables95. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
by Dead Kennedys
1980
Punk


Perhaps the definitive LP in the West Coast hardcore explosion at the turn of the decade (sorry, Black Flag), Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables managed a very difficult feat—very few overdubs and a thin production, yet it was loud, fast, aggressive and even intricately dynamic in all of the genre’s best ways. Extremely polemic and not in the least bit subtle, Jello Biafra’s candid and humorously horrific platitudes are perfectly suited to his shrill and sneering spit vocalizing. The song “Stealing People’s Mail” has a title that’s lovably quaint when pressed up against others called “Chemical Warfare,” “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “I Kill Children.” And in case this evidence makes you think they’d be too bilious to have a sense of humor, they close the album with a cover of “Viva Las Vegas.” I’m not a mosher by practice, but this album certainly has the furious authority to give me incentive.


94fegmania94. Fegmania!
by Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians
1985
Pop


With keyboardist Roger Jackson and former Soft Boys Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe on hand as the backing band, the Egyptians, Robyn Hitchcock got a richer sound to accompany his eccentric and surreal songwriting style; as a result, Hitchcock remains unneutered but his tradition of stripped-down productions finally get a kick towards hooky pop melodies. On paper, “My Wife and My Dead Wife” reads disturbing, but amidst sparkling keys and a backbeat bending between British Invasion and dance funk, it winds up being an utterly charming winner. And in case you think that this makes Hitchcock sound “too ordinary” with this face, listen to the scenery-chewing spoken word break on “The Man with the Lightbulb Head.” Including other highlights like “Egyptian Cream,” “Goodnight I Say,” “I’m Only You,” “Strawberry Mind” and “Heaven,” Fegmania! represents the best long player in Hitchcock’s storied post-Boys career.


93document93. Document
by R.E.M.
1987
Rock


Document was the last album of new material for R.E.M. during their now-legendary days on I.R.S. but it doesn’t sound of the same company as their early records. Suddenly, Michael Stipe was starting to make (occasional) sense, the riffs were grittier and more muscular and the rhythms thumped hard (could anyone believe that leadoff “Finest Worksong” came from the same band that released Murmur if not for the vocals?). But R.E.M. never sounded stagnant or generic (even on their bad days) and even added the saxophone and the dulcimer to their growing musical arsenal. Even the popular songs can be grim, whether it’s about heartless betrayal and womanizing (“The One I Love”) or media-bashing tied up in an apocalyptic bow (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”). Plus, they find time to cover a fellow arty group that couldn’t sound further from their roots—Wire. Not a flawless album, but one of their last great full-lengths to date.


92sentimentalhygiene92. Sentimental Hygiene
by Warren Zevon
1987
Rock


After five years out of the game following a fall off the wagon, Zevon returned with renewed energy and purpose in 1987 with Sentimental Hygiene. Most of the album was recorded with Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry (of R.E.M. fame) and debuted the tougher rock sound they’d show off themselves just days after this release on Document. Surprisingly, the singles are among the weaker cuts, though “Reconsider Me” gets a reappraisal in a solitary setting (his dance-friendly number “Leave My Monkey Alone,” though, is as out of place here as “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” was on Excitable Boy). But Zevon never had a better hard rocking showcase, including album highlights “Boom Boom Mancini” and “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands” (later recycled as the title theme of the underappreciated biting satire of the short-lived TV program Action). Add to that the coursing humor of “Detox Mansion” and “Trouble Waiting to Happen” as well the solid title track and you have a typically strong outing from the dark prince of singer/songwriters.


91ifishouldfallgrace91. If I Should Fall from Grace with God
by the Pogues
1987
Alternative


Despite the best efforts of “Bottle of Smoke” and the title track, If I Should Fall from Grace with God lacked the ragged, expeditious fire of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, but this one had better polish, lusher folk ballads and a finer tracklist in all. Their take on the traditional medley “The Recruiting Sergeant/The Rocky Road to Dublin/Galway Races” is properly stirring, “Fiesta” and “Turkish Song of the Damned” add interesting new international aromas, and “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six”’s early segment positively haunts. Tidily labeled as Celtic punk, the Pogues were much more than Rage Against the Irish Tragedy, and while a single album couldn’t contain them either, this one’s their most essential. They even succeed at the near-epic length “Thousands Are Sailing,” proving their mettle beyond speedy pub rockers and hearty laments. Steve Lillywhite’s production is top-notch.


90realthing90. The Real Thing
by Faith No More
1989
Alternative


If you can judge an album on a single side, The Real Thing would have been excellent instead of merely pretty great. On the second half, songs like “Underwater Love” and “The Morning After” simply coast past overworn material (and “coast” should never apply to a group this instinctively adventurous), and while their cover of “War Pigs” is admirable, it’s terribly unnecessary. So much for the mediocre; the rest is stellar. “Woodpecker from Mars” is a bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable instrumental, “Zombie Eaters” puts the style of quiet ballad erupting into jolting metal to good use, the title track is a fittingly elephantine centerpiece, and the first three cuts (all released as singles) haven’t dated a bit in the last twenty years no matter how many times you’ve heard them. There’s no monolith in these metalheads repertoire, and the fact that they’re weird enough to qualify as alternative ensures that, at the very least, you’ll never be bored.


89signallscallsmarches89. Signals, Calls and Marches
by Mission of Burma
1981
Rock


This is not an EP bias, but I wish there was more to Signals, Calls and Marches. They had such a good thing going for six songs that it frustrates me when it disappears prematurely. A complimentary criticism perhaps, but it was also not entirely indicative of what the band was really about, either—too tidy and polished for such brainy but sweat-stained and fiery-hearted young men. But this is about what was pressed, not what was intended, and for that, I’ll freely admit that all six are winners. “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” is the best (and their big hit), but I actually like “Outlaw” and “This Is Not a Photograph” better. Unlike most of the artier punks, they didn’t elect to stylishly avoid the gut-rock in order to ambivalently embrace the abrasive—all of these songs hit like a fist (and the fist isn’t even necessarily holding a book!). I’m not sure which hosanna is more appealing—one of the best debut efforts of the decade or the second best extended player of the 80s—but both are 100% true.


88badmoonrising88. Bad Moon Rising
by Sonic Youth
1985
Alternative


If a concept album about death and madness sounds like something you’d be interested in, have I got a record for you. Up to this point, Sonic Youth didn’t really have any good songs, just a good idea that they didn’t care about writing good songs. But now we’ve got “Death Valley ’69,” which is pretty catchy by early Sonic Youth standards, as well as the eerie and evocative drone of “I Love Her All the Time” and the pent-up experimentalism of the mentally devastating “Ghost Bitch.” They used to sound drunk off their own avant engineering; all tuneful moments sounded accidental, and usually purely of the rhythm variety (check out their debut EP for some of that tasty stuff). Now they seem to have a tangible point. What was once an art-noise bohemian’s wet dream became something willfully enticing in the most arms-distance way imaginable. Even the lyrics, which sound like the sloganeering of the permanently drug-fried or despondent, start to worm their way through the melodic discord. An acquired taste, to be sure, and bitter no matter your preference.


87mylifebushghosts87. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
by David Byrne and Brian Eno
1981
Alternative


David Byrne and Brian Eno rather quietly (and independently) released one of the better albums of 2008 with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Their previous collaboration came twenty-seven years prior with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (named for the 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola). The former was more accessible, but the latter was the one that truly broke ground. Recorded off and on before and during the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light sessions, it persuaded/mimicked the NY band’s embrace of worldbeat and jungle, staggered into a freeform funk style that couldn’t be properly defined or replicated. As an album worth repeating, its worth is varied from listener to listener (the sampling overgrowth can be hit-or-miss), but its influence was both nearly immediate and (thus far) eternal in reach—it was one of those rare records that really did change the game. Often hypnotic and occasionally quite catchy, it might not be an album that begs consistent replays but you only need to hear it once and know it at least approaches masterwork status.


86scarymonsters86. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
by David Bowie
1980
Rock


Always the chameleon, Bowie traded in on singularity with Scary Monsters, combining the raw, tense nerve of his Berlin trilogy with his flair for a blustery pop song from the years before that, and even managed to blow a kiss to the crumbling punk movement as well (Television’s Tom Verlaine even authored a song). Whether or not this should be considered his last benchmark release (and the one to which all future albums will be named “best since…”), there is no refuting the consistently strong results, with three solid or better singles, electrifying bookend compliments in “It’s No Game” (Parts 1 and 2), an almost superior cover version of Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come,” and the over-the-top, near-operatic epic “Teenage Wildlife.” Not nearly as avant-garde as his work with Brian Eno, but still unusual and panicky enough to insist that this wasn’t the artist merely returning to more comfortable pastures—after all, when did Bowie ever look backward?


85discipline85. Discipline
by King Crimson
1981
Rock


King Crimson was out of the game for seven years before Discipline and only guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford remained from the previous lineup. They added Tony Levin and former Bowie-collaborator Adrian Belew, but based on the results, it sounds like they added David Byrne and former Bowie-collaborator Brian Eno. For proof, listen to “Elephant Talk” and “Thela Hun Ginjeet”—you can’t even call it “shades” of Talking Heads; it’s practically the real deal. But that angular tension you hear could have been lifted from any dozen post-punk bands, and since this isn’t a huge leap from Red and Starless and Bible Black, I guess the twitchy New York wavers had a little prog rock in them all along. Belew is also aping Sting and Colin Newman at times, which makes no difference to anyone but the most uptight of Police and Wire purists. And it’s cooler than Beat, too.


84pretenders84. Pretenders
by the Pretenders
1980
Rock


Out of all of the numerous bands in the 80s to be known by most for just one song, the Pretenders is one of the saddest cases; not just because “Brass in Pocket” (a single from ’79) ill-represents the band’s sound, but because it could be found on an album consistently great enough to have no less than four tracks that eclipse it. Compiled of five previously released singles and B-sides as well as seven new tracks, the two spotlight attractions were James Honeyman Scott’s riffs (whether you preferred them post-punk terse or classically rangy) and Chrissie Hynde’s tough grrrl rocker image/performance—and it turned out it wasn’t even shtick! They don’t run out of ideas too quickly either, though efforts to branch out aren’t always well-integrated (the soul-wave clunker “Private Life” is the lone loser no matter how you take it). “Tattooed Love Boys” would influence both college rock and new wave, “The Wait” foresaw the transition in Paul Westerburg’s bones, and songs such as “Precious” no doubt influenced bands like Sleater-Kinney. And, yes, there’s also “Brass in Pocket.”


83prayersonfire83. Prayers on Fire
by the Birthday Party
1981
Punk


With shards of wiry guitar gunk, rhythms that slash like razor blades and the wailing howl of a seemingly demented frontman, the Birthday Party was certainly not all cake and ice cream. Gloomy post-punk born out of frustration and turbulent psychosis, Nick Cave sounded like Leonard Cohen’s demented progeny, alternately slobbering and spitting out his trademark “graveyard poetry” over frightening instrumental squalls (dark humor is there, too, to close off the comparison). The best bits can’t decide on a beat, but can share a tone—whether they’re slowed-down, nightmarish swirls (“King Ink,” “Nick the Stripper”) or furiously percussive spasms (“Cry,” “Zoo Music Girl”), it’s all unsettling but deeply penetrating. The piano that would dominate the mood of Bad Seeds records is here, too, but it’s the sudden appearance of cantankerous horns you remember best; the rest is a frayed, metallic guitar trying to keep scratching astride the hammering bass and drum. It’s a freak out, to be sure, but tautly performed in a way that couldn’t have been artificial.


82anddontkidsloveit82. …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It
by Television Personalities
1981
Pop


Like countless other great formative bands (obvious read: the Velvet Underground), Television Personalities didn’t get a lot of attention in their day, but they inspired famously beloved bands to come, so notice is due. Influence isn’t enough, so we’ve got to go by the songs themselves, which hold up remarkably well even though I (like most) found them after listening to the offspring. The lo-fi aesthetic on display here is now copied intentionally; for Television Personalities, it was a result of low budget and cheap equipment. The performance throughout is one of earnest exuberance, whisking past the punk scene and even reaching a hand towards twee pop, the kind that feels designed for overdubs and mountainous hooks—an accidental masterstroke to keep them out of the picture? Just listen to the gently intrusive bird chirping, the plaintive melody and joyous sighs of “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives.” Or the dizzy but dialed-down mod-punk of “This Angry Silence.” Or the sweet, jangling hooks of the whisper-ache charmer “World of Pauline Lewis.” Or the other eleven; I can’t really see how you could lose.


81threefeethighrising81. 3 Feet High and Rising
by De La Soul
1989
Hip Hop


They didn’t have the Dust Brothers, but De La Soul’s sample-heavy hip hop breakthrough beat out Paul’s Boutique to stores, making them not just one of the princes of hip hop’s Golden Age but also one of the earliest to break real ground in the alt-rap style. At well over an hour, inconsistency is the only drawback issue to 3 Feet High and Rising; at least forty-five minutes of this stuff is exceedingly good, though. And at a time when thug life was the rage and gangsta rap was growing by leaps and bounds, it was refreshing to hear a rap group not only denounce the lifestyle but remain lithe and playful in their commentaries against the Reagan-Bush era and the inner city terrors that plagued it. Posdnuos, Mase and Trugoy were all quality MCs (humorous, lyrical and not inclined to prove how “hard” they were), but the gold star rightfully goes to Prince Paul’s entirely fresh and innovative production. To any who think rap music is too culturally insular, just keep in mind that these guys named their album after a Johnny Cash song.


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Aug
30
2009
Matt Medlock

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