Music  |  Lists

The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

February 1, 2012  |  3:24pm

The 1980s might conjure up images of leg warmers, parachute pants, moonwalking, Flock of Seagulls haircuts and any number of John Hughes movies. But looking back at the decade’s best albums, those years were extremely diverse. They saw the last vestiges of a vibrant punk scene and the beginnings of post-punk and New Wave; the rise of hip-hop and an explosion of great college radio; the brief ascension of rootsy singer/songwriters to mainstream country stardom; and the establishment of some almost-universally beloved pop stars. Today we celebrate our favorite albums that arose from the ’80s. There’s a little bit of rap, folk, country, jazz, pop and a lot of rock ’n’ roll in its various incarnations. Here are the 80 best albums of the 1980s.

Note: We included a maximum of two albums per artist so this didn’t just become a list of great R.E.M., Smiths and Springsteen albums.

79.X.jpeg80. X – Los Angeles (1980)
X’s debut Los Angeles set the template for The John Doe and Exene Cervenka Show, the great punk soap opera of the 1980s. Falling in and out of love and hate over every album, they gave us every detail of every booze-fueled breakdown, and always left room for bitchy asides about the rest of the poseurs and degenerates trying to make the scene in the shadow of Hollywood. Billy Zoom’s maximum surf and rockabilly riffs always helped made sure the desperation never felt like a drag.—Michael Tedder

leonard_man.jpg79. Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (1988)
Before the release of I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen was beginning to be discussed in the past tense, something he acknowledges in “Tower of Song.” “I ache in the places where I used to play.” The album’s synth lines and slick chick harmonies, however, gave the revered songwriter a current relevancy. “First We Take Manhattan” and its anti-authority refrain resonates just as firmly today with the Occupy protests in America and Europe. Cohen’s inventive lyrics continue to prove timeless, even as he adds to his legacy with the release this week of his first studio album in eight years.—Tim Basham

78.Eric-B-&Rakim.jpg78. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full (1987)
We all know that Paid in Full was influential, that Rakim impacted everyone from Wu-Tang to Jay-Z, but listening to it again, I’m reminded that it’s also just damn good straight through. The album laid a foundation for lyrical innovation for everything that followed.—Jeff Gonick

77.Lou-Reed.jpg77. Lou Reed – The Blue Mask (1982)
Common threads aren’t easy to find in Lou Reed’s career—this is a point of pride for the man who hired Metallica to stinkbomb 2011 after a seven-year studio sabbatical. But humility underscores the lifelong egotist’s most beloved work, and The Blue Mask focuses on confessions and bareness, not to mention loveliness, which he certainly can’t take full credit for—Robert Quine’s skyscraping guitar and Fernando Saunders’ romantically deployed bass help conjure all the right moods, from languidly rhapsodizing about “Women” (“I think they’re great/ They’re a solace to a world in a terrible state”) to Oedipal raging in the grinding title tune (“I’ve made love to my mother/ Killed my father and my brother/ What am I to do?”). “Average Guy” is played for jest.—Dan Weiss

75.Black-Flag.jpg76. Black Flag – Damaged (1981)
In the ’80s, Black Flag’s cathartic, throat-shredding take on punk rock was unrivaled on the touring circuit. Fronted by the restless newcomer Henry Rollins—the band’s third frontman—the 1981 LP debut laid the ground rules for hardcore punk for decades to come. Bandleader Greg Ginn’s impossibly distorted and speedy guitar work is at its best on “Rise Above” and “Life of Pain.” The album also includes essential tracks like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” and “TV Party.”—Tyler Kane

74.My-Bloody-Valentine.jpg75. My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything (1988)
On its first truly full-length album, shoegaze progenitor My Bloody Valentine set the stage for its 1991 masterpiece Loveless, with its harsh, swirling guitar tones and beautifully dissonant distortion. More importantly, it’s here that Kevin Shields first fine-tunes his experimental pop—creating a distinct style and aesthetic unlike anything else that came beforehand. Shoegaze eventually grew into its own genre thanks to the seed MBV planted on Isn’t Anything.—Max Blau

73.Depeche-Mode.jpg74. Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses (1987)
By 1987, the popularity of synthizer-based pop music was waning. What was not waning was the widely held belief that keyboard-based music wasn’t as real as rock ’n’ roll, man. In response, Depeche Mode released Music For The Masses, a collection of songs that were, if anything, far more epic in scope that any American arena band at the time; “Never Let Me Down Again” alone had a towering low-end that could shame anything on Headbanger’s Ball. Though written off as fey-novelty when they debuted with “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981, the band kept working. Masses was their sixth album and proof that they had perfected a mix of sulk-worthy, no-one-understands lyrics and sensual groove. The title proved accurate, as Masses was Depeche Mode’s biggest worldwide hit yet; they even shocked their detractors by selling out Los Angeles’s gigantic Pasadena Rose Bowl, a feat very few “real” rock bands were capable of.—Michael Tedder

72.Soft-Boys.jpg73. Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight (1980)
Today it’s hard to understand how the lightly psychedelic pop-rock of the Soft Boys was ever considered anything close to punk. Frontman Robyn Hitchcock is basically just Elvis Costello without the need to appear at every all-star jam. Underwater Moonlight sounds like the best bar band in the world playing hits from a world that’s better than our own. “I Wanna Destroy You” and “Queen of Eyes,” especially, should be radio staples.—Garrett Martin

71.The-Blasters.jpg72. The Blasters – Hard Line (1985)
It’s a measure of how highly regarded this L.A. quintet was in the mid ’80s that three of the top roots-rockers of the time contributed to this, the final studio album featuring both Dave and Phil Alvin. John Mellencamp wrote “Colored Lights” for Phil’s voice; X’s John Doe co-wrote two songs with Dave, and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo played mandolin on “Little Honey.” While the Blasters’ debut album, American Music, contained more crowd-pleasers, this one contained Dave’s darkest, richest songwriting. He wrote about false populists, interracial love, young boys looking for trouble and rock ’n’ rollers still stuck in day jobs. Drawing on their longtime affection for American roots music and their union father’s populist vision of America, the two brothers created a masterful combination of tradition and restless impatience.—Geoffrey Himes

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