The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

Music Lists 1980s
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The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

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.

X-Los-Angeles-cover.jpg 80. 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.jpg 79. 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.jpg 78. 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.jpg 77. 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.jpg 76. 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.jpg 75. 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.jpg 74. 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.jpg 73. 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.jpg 72. 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

70.Dinosaur-Jr.jpg 71. Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me (1987)
Yes, You’re Living All Over Me was final, definitive proof that it was okay for punk or noise bands to dig classic rock. But there’s more to Dinosaur’s second album than the awesome riffs of “The Lung” and the ripping solo of “In A Jar.” In a medium built on the backs of confused teenage boys, few people had spoken to that audience as directly, intimately and monosyllabically as J. Mascis. It’s like he was one of them. Twenty-five years later it’s still the best album Mascis or Lou Barlow ever played on. —Garrett Martin

69.The-Replacements.jpg 70. The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me (1987)
A lot of people prefer The Replacements’ early albums for Twin Tone—which are admittedly impressive—but their mid-career, late-’80s trilogy for Sire holds up a lot better. Best of all is this one, which contains so many of the band’s greatest moments—“Alex Chilton,” “Never Mind,” “Skyway” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”—that it could easily be confused for a best-of compilation. Having fired unreliable guitarist Bob Stinson, singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars and bassist Tommy Stinson followed the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Memphis to record with the legendary Jim Dickinson. Dickinson didn’t try to curb Westerberg’s uninhibited yowl or the band’s careening attack; he merely insisted that they keep time and play in tune, and that made all the difference. There are guest spots by Chilton himself and a teenaged Luther Dickinson, but this is Westerberg’s breakthrough moment, as he stops undermining his striking melodies, galvanizing riffs and mind-twisting aphorisms and lets them cast their spell. —Geoffrey Himes

feelies.jpg 69. The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms (1980)
If I had a musical time machine, one of my first stops would be to visit the post-punk scene of New York right around 1980. I’d go see The Feelies at CBGB right after their debut album Crazy Rhythms and watch the crowd of other young musicians react to the melding of driving bass and drums with experimental guitar, a sound that would help inspire some of the best New Wave, gothic rock and jangly college rock. —Josh Jackson

67.The-Waterboys.jpg 68. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
While folk-rock thrived in the U.S. during the 1970s, The Waterboys’ blending of ’80s rock and the Celtic roots of the Irish, Scottish and English members was refreshing. When Fisherman’s Blues came out in 1988, Mike Scott and his very large band had almost completely shed their arena-rock leanings for a more traditional tour de force that name-checked Hank Williams and quoted William Butler Yeats. —Josh Jackson

66.Indigo-Girls.gif 67. Indigo Girls – Indigo Girls (1989)
A folk duo from Atlanta was an unlikely radio success story, but Emily Saliers and Amy Ray’s major-label debut went platinum thanks to hits like “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears.” With guest appearances from their R.E.M. neighbors up the road in Athens, it recalled times when folk songs from Greenwich Village became anthems across the country. Every kid with an acoustic guitar quickly learned how to play half the album. —Josh Jackson

65.Run-DMC.jpg 66. Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell (1986)
It’s hard to believe there was a time in music where hip-hop wasn’t taken seriously. Now over two decades after the release of Raising Hell, hip-hop is the predominant music of the generation, thanks in no small part to the path laid out by Run-D.M.C. Raising Hell proved that hip-hop was more than a fad, as it became the first hip-hop album to go platinum and made Run-D.M.C. the first rap group on MTV, the cover of Rolling Stone and to make it to the Grammys. Raising Hell influenced everything in hip-hop, from the call-and-response style used in “It’s Tricky” that would also be used by the Beastie Boys, the idea of fashion in hip-hop, with “My Adidas,” to even the unfortunate creation of rap rock after teaming up with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way.” Even though they say it’s “tricky to rap a rhyme, to rap a rhyme that’s right on time, it’s tricky,” on Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C. make it seem effortless. —Ross Bonaime

64.Nirvana.jpg 65. Nirvana – Bleach (1989)
Nirvana’s 1989 debut only reached No. 89 on the Billboard 200 chart, and even then, it wasn’t after its 1992 re-release—and the 1991 success of Nevermind. But charts and popularity be damned. Bleach is grunge personified: a smart, bleak, troubled album from an equally smart, bleak and troubled young man. —Ani Vrabel

2x4.jpg 64. Guadalcanal Diary – 2×4 (1987)
While they never got the attention of fellow Georgians R.E.M., Atlanta’s Guadalcanal Diary quietly had a masterpiece of its own with 2×4, produced by Don Dixon (R.E.M.’s Murmur). Rockabilly guitarist Jeff Walls and the more pop-minded frontman Murray Attaway combined for powerful Southern jangle, dishing one great song after another. —Josh Jackson

62.Bruce-Cockburn.jpg 63. Bruce Cockburn – Humans (1980)
Few songwriters are as keen observers of humanity as Canada’s Bruce Cockburn, and he’s never been better than he is here, in the wake of a failed marriage and a move to inner-city Toronto. Here his writing began to get more political and outward-looking without losing the spiritual underpinnings and openness that made him unique. —Josh Jackson

61.The-Pretenders.jpg 62. The Pretenders – The Pretenders (1980)
Coming from a place that was traditionally the territory of male rock stars, Chrissie
Hynde was sexy, sultry and totally in control when The Pretenders spat onto the
New Wave melee of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Her libidinous lyrics were the fuel for the band’s driving engine of guitars. “Brass in Pocket” remains an infectious classic. —Tim Basham

Talk Talk Spirit of Eden.jpg 61. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden (1988)
Call it post-rock, call it psych-jazz, call it experimental mumbo-jumbo. Whatever your preferred tag, one thing is clear: In the 20-plus years since its 1988 release, there’s never been another album quite like Talk Talk’s infamous masterpiece, Spirit of Eden. Mark Hollis sings enough just to barely sing, quivering out artful melodic squiggles with his radiant chest-cold tone, slinging spiritual poetry drenched in fog. Beneath is a utopian cavern of sonic heaven—double-bass moans, flickers of muted trumpet, sizzling cymbals, violent clashes of electric guitar. —Ryan Reed

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