The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

Music Lists 1980s
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Camper Van Beethoven Key Lime Pie.jpg 60. Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie (1989)
Cracker was a bright spot on the modern-rock-radio landscape in the early ’90s, but even better was David Lowery’s earlier band, Camper Van Beethoven. The self-described “surrealist absurdist folk” group incorporated world music, psychedelia and Americana into a sound that was completely unique, driven by violins, Greg Lisher’s electric guitar and Lowery’s caustic humor. —Josh Jackson

The Fall Hex.jpg 59. The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
In my alternate universe, The Fall would have the top 12 or so slots on this list. If I could only pick one, though, and if that one can’t be an EP (sorry, Slates!), then Hex Enduction Hour would get the nomination after an unusually rancorous brokered convention. Basically it’s classic second-wave Fall at the peak of the twin-drummer/pre-Brix era, a lumbering rock ’n’ roll juggernaut built on plodding repetition and Mark E. Smith’s caustically hilarious lyrics. In classic Fall fashion, both band and record are entirely indifferent to whatever an audience could theoretically want. —Garrett Martin

midnight oil diesel and dust.jpg 58. Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust (1987)
Peter Garrett had joined the Oils more than a decade before Diesel and Dust made the Australian band a U.S. success, and that decade of playing together paid off in concert. Diesel and Dust showcased a band at its peak, full of righteous fury—packaged in four-minute modern-rock gems. There wasn’t much subtlety in Garrett’s screed, but the vitriol at the way his country—like so many others—had treated its indigenous population was well placed. And no artist arguably had a bigger impact on his government as he later joined it, fighting for native rights and environmental protections. —Josh Jackson

fugazi 13 songs.png 57. Fugazi – 13 Songs (1989)
Fugazi stirred up a movement with the strong-handed sense of integrity with which they toured, recorded and released music throughout their career. But it’s not the group’s ethics that should have been getting them press all the time—it was their gymnasium-filling, intelligent brand of punk rock. Released in 1989, Fugazi’s 13 Songs had a title that would only be self-applied by a group of honest musicians that wanted their tracks taken at face value. The album was a compilation of their first EPs, 1988’s Fugazi and 1989’s Margin Walker. —Tyler Kane

janesaddictionnothingsshocking.jpg 56. Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988)
Jane’s Addiction’s major-label debut, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, helped inspire the alternative rock movement that would put an end to nearly a decade of cheese-metal. The album introduced the world to frontman Perry Farrell’s quirky squawk, Dave Navarro’s hero-level guitar solos, bassist Eric Avery’s raw compositions and drummer Stephen Perkins’ hammering rhythms. Inspiring the likes of Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor, who would blow up in the next decade, the album fused the best parts of punk, funk and metal with with pin-drop-quiet verses and thundering choruses that showed listeners how dynamically volume could be used. It included the super-popular acoustic bit “Jane Says,” but the album’s real shining moment is the epic Ted Bundy-inspired, seven-minute “Ted, Just Admit It. ”—Tyler Kane

David_Bowie_ScaryMonsters.jpg 55. David Bowie – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
“There’s a brand new talk,” David Bowie sings on Scary Monsters’s “Fashion,” “but I don’t know its name.” That sense of being slightly disconnected from the punk crowd of the late ’70s and the nascent New Wave scene echoes throughout the album. It’s Bowie trying to figure out exactly where he fits in at that moment in time, and for that reason it’s one of his most underrated albums. While it didn’t produce any massive hits, it did see the return of his Major Tom character on “Ashes to Ashes,” and Bowie manages to work in a dig at the new kids on “Teenage Wildlife”: “A broken-nosed mogul are you/One of the new wave boys/Same old thing in brand new drag.” In short, it’s a legacy artist reminding us that while fads come and go, he’ll always remain relevant, and in that sense, it’s a roaring success. —Bonnie Stiernberg

Steve_Earle_Guitar_Town.jpg 54. Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986)
If Bruce Springsteen had grown up in Texas, listening to Lefty Frizzell on the radio in a beat-up pick-up truck, he might have sounded a lot like Steve Earle. Earle has the Boss’s ability to tell blue-collar stories with just the right details and just the right guitar licks, but Earle sets his tales in small Texas towns and gives his riffs a tell-tale twang. Earle, who once played bass for Guy Clark, cut some singles for Epic that went nowhere, but 1986’s Guitar Town was his debut album, and he never topped this country-rock evocation of the forgotten kids too small for a football scholarship, too restless to stay home and too tough to give up. Co-producers Emory Gordy and Tony Brown turned four of them (“Hillbilly Highway,” “Guitar Town,” “Someday,” and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”) into Top 40 country hits. —Geoffrey Himes

Los Lobos By The Light.jpg 53. Los Lobos – By the Light of the Moon (1987)
In 1987, Los Lobos released not only the finest album of their career but also their sole top-20 single, the #1 “La Bamba.” The single came from a totally unrelated project, the soundtrack for the Ritchie Valens biopic, and had the unfortunate side effect of eclipsing By the Light of the Moon, the ’80s equivalent of The Band. Here was an album that asked the big questions about the American dream and answered them not with grand slogans but with tightly drawn vignettes about gun-filled streets, unemployed veterans, disappointed immigrants and single mothers, all translated by lovely, stoic singing and impeccable picking. These songs were framed by an old Mexican folk song that echoed the past and a rollicking rock ’n’ roll number, “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” that imagined a better future. —Geoffrey Himes

Squeeze East Side Story.jpg 52. Squeeze – East Side Story (1981)
By 1981, Squeeze had three progressively better-selling albums under their belt, and songwriting partners Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook were building a budding career as New Wave tunesmiths with hits like “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” and “Another Nail in My Heart”—but they chucked all that for their fourth release, adding keyboardist/blue-eyed soul singer Paul Carrack to the lineup and working with Elvis Costello and pub rockers Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe on the sessions for “East Side Story.” The result was one of their most consistent albums—smoothly polished, but not lacking for sonic warmth, and boasting arguably the band’s definitive hit, the Carrack-sung “Tempted.” Unfortunately, “Story” wasn’t quite the gateway to greater success that it sounded like at the time—in fact, it presaged a period of massive turnover and generally declining commercial success—but for fans of Difford and Tilbrook’s indelible melodies and rueful, acerbic humor, it remains a high point. —Jeff Giles

John Hiatt Bring the Family.jpg 51. John Hiatt – Bring the Family (1987)
By 1987, John Hiatt had been on the verge of Next Big Thingdom for over a decade, with seven commercially disappointing albums and a pair of ex-labels to show for it. Without a U.S. deal and on the verge of walking away from the record business, Hiatt took a small advance from his UK label, holed up in the studio for four days with McCabe’s booker John Chelew, and emerged with the album that saved his career: Bring the Family. Recorded with a crack band that included Jim Keltner on drums, Nick Lowe on bass, and Ry Cooder on guitar, Family is a 10-song suite of songs borne of disappointment, loss, and a nagging, persistent belief in a better tomorrow. For anyone who’s ever closed a dark chapter in their past, taken a deep breath and tried to start again, Bring the Family bears the sting of familiar, hard-fought truth—and although he’d go on to record better-selling albums, none of them sound quite as real, raw, or earned as this. —Jeff Giles

Crowded_House_self.jpg 50. Crowded House – Crowded House (1986)
As members of Split Enz, singer/songwriter Neil Finn and drummer Paul Hester enjoyed a commanding presence on the Australian and New Zealand charts, but found lasting American success elusive; it wasn’t until the band broke up—and they hooked up with bassist Nick Seymour, christening themselves Crowded House—that they broke the platinum barrier in the U.S. You no doubt remember the melodies of this album’s two Top 10 hits, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong,” but what you may not have heard is the bittersweet melancholy that pervades Finn’s lyrics, serving as a poignant counterpart to the songs’ barbed hooks and sunny ’80s production. It was music for grown-ups that feckless kids could easily hum along to—and although it proved Crowded House’s commercial high point, it also kicked off a string of critically revered albums that continues through 2010’s Intriguer. —Jeff Giles

The Pogues Run.jpg 49. The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985)
Thirty years on, most albums from the ’80s are starting to sound pretty dated, and not just the flash-in-the-pan stuff. One album that has evaded the death rattle of nostalgia is The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and it seems to have done so by starting with a frame of reference too far back to be tied to a modern era. Rum is The Pogues’ way of paying homage to the sleazebags, scallywags and sods that came before them, an album full of resurrected folk ballads and sea shanties coupled with nearly indistinguishable new ones. On top of it all sits Elvis Costello’s production, which shines through the grime of each track and infuses the album with a heady angst. Whether it’s 1985 or 2012, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash still manages to sound far, far ahead of its time by planting itself firmly in the past. —Jody Amable

Dire Straits Brothers in Arms.jpg 48. Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)
There’s a reason Dire Straits sold 30 million copies of this record. It’s damn near perfect. Douglas Adams said it best in his completely unrelated sci-fi book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish: “Mark Knopfler has an extraordinary ability to make a Schecter Custom Stratocaster hoot and sing like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted from being good all week and needing a stiff drink.” The hits you know, particularly “Money For Nothing” and “Walk of Life” are all happiness and light, but it’s the quieter tracks like “So Far Away,” “Why Worry” and the title track that seem to have every subtle guitar note in the right place. Its mood indeed is perfectly suited for a love scene in one of the funniest sci-fi books of all time in which the couple floats about the ground. And well, why wouldn’t that be good enough for 30 million people? —Josh Jackson

Tears for Fears Songs from the Big Chair.jpg 47. Tears For Fears – Songs From the Big Chair (1985)
Time hasn’t been kind to the earnest pop of the mid ’80s. As synthetic sounds came to dominate the airwaves, producers all toyed with the same tricks, giving songs a shorter shelf life. But get past the pink Polos, pained expressions and punchy drum sounds of Tears For FearsSongs From the Big Chair and you’ll find an epic album that replaced the band’s synth-pop with some jangly guitars and a more mature sound. Packed with hits like “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” “Shout,” “Mothers Talk” and “Head Over Heels,” it’s 1985 in a nutshell. —Josh Jackson

The Clash Sandinista.jpg 46. The Clash – Sandinista (1980)
White people were still trying to figure out exactly what hip-hop was in December of 1980, and here was The Clash, leading off the feverishly anticipated follow-up to instant classic London Calling with “The Magnificent Seven,” one of the first rap songs many rock fans ever heard. And if Joe Strummer wasn’t exactly Big Daddy Kane rhymewise, the gesture showed that The Only Band That Matters were still as curious about the outside world as ever, whether that meant exploring New York street art or South American political movements. Sandanista! doubled-down on the genre exploration of Calling, investigating dub, blues and folk music to see what they could say to punk rock. A triple album, Sandanista! overflowed with musical ideas and outspoken lyrics, finding beauty in information overload. —Michael Tedder

dbs.jpg 45. The dB’s – Stands For Decibels (1981)
Two years before R.E.M. released Murmur and three years after Big Star’s Third/Sister Lover, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey continued the tradition of Southern jangly guitar rock with their Winston/Salem, N.C. outfit The dB’s. Stamey had played bass with Alex Chilton, but the combination of Stamey and Holsapple produced something equally Byrds-influenced with lovely harmonies, tight rhythm and power-pop melodies. —Josh Jackson

The Smiths self titled.png 44. The Smiths – The Smiths (1984)
While some debuts from decade-defining acts are previews for later greatness, The Smiths already mastered their form on their 1984 self-titled album. The signature interplay between Johnny Marr’s sharp Telecaster and Morrissey’s even sharper wit propelled classics like “Hand In Glove” and “This Charming Man,” two of the many tracks that benefited from the naïve energy that would be missed in the band’s later catalog. Twenty-eight years on, The Smiths doesn’t exactly sound fresh, but the dated recording quality gives a nostalgic romance to Morrissey’s old-soul crooning. If The Smiths weren’t the best band of the 1980s, they certainly peaked the earliest. —Ryan Wasoba

Minutemen.jpg 43. Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
The sheer size of Double Nickels can be daunting, with more than 40 short funk-punk yawps spread across its four sides, but time flies unusually fast while listening to this double album. Its message is clear: Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t have to be a fantasyland. It can be about real people living normal lives, from landladies to blue-collar philosophers to three corndogs from San Pedro who dig Blue Oyster Cult and The Clash. It’s egalitarian rock and one of the warmest and most human records you’ll ever hear. —Garrett Martin

marshall_crenshaw.jpg 42. Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
Rock during the early ’80s was all about what was new—new sounds, new fashions, New Wave. But for a moment in the summer of ’82, Marshall Crenshaw proved you could still make magic happen with three guys and a dozen great songs—including the lilting “Someday, Someway,” which grazed the Top 40 and sounded like the opening salvo in what should have been a long list of hits. Alas, Crenshaw’s commercial ship sailed quickly, but his debut still sounds just as fresh as it did 30 years ago. —Jeff Giles

40_ornette.jpg 41. Ornette Coleman – In All Languages (1987)
The title Ornette Coleman chose for his 1987 album, In All Languages, was no less boastful—and no less justified—than the title for his 1959 record, The Shape of Jazz To Come. By recording with both an acoustic quartet and an electric septet, even performing seven of the 16 new compositions with both bands, the saxophonist seemed to declare that he could express himself in all styles, in all languages. He declared that his quest for the emotionally vivid moment would not be limited by instrumentation or jazz factionalism any more than it would be by conventional notions of harmony and swing. —Geoffrey Himes

Also in Music