The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

Music Lists 1980s
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39_beastiesILL.jpg 40. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)
If there were ever questions of whether hip-hop could be a perfect storm of wit and fun; whether Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin was a star producer; and whether classic-rock riffs could meld with rap’s rhythm and bombast, it was put to rest in 1986. That year, Licensed to Ill became the first hip-hop album to hit No. 1 on the charts, pushing the genre into the mainstream and setting the bar for modern legends such as Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. And, most importantly, introducing 13 tracks worth repeating for more than 25 years. —Ani Vrabel

38_nin.jpg 39. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
The debut album from former Cleveland studio assistant Trent Reznor was released in October 1989. It didn’t have much impact upon release, but its slow burn success helped shape 1990s alternative music culture. Pretty Hate Machine helped get rock fans to accept that samples and keyboard could thrash like guitars, helped make anguished confessionals the default lyrical outlet for bands and proved that independent labels could compete with the majors, even if Reznor and TVT’s relationship was troubled and short-lived. The video for “Head Like A Hole” juxtaposed images of performance and tribal dance; from punk to goth, raver to metalhead, few albums helped unite the myriad tribes of alternative rock like Pretty Hate Machine. —Michael Tedder

37_u2.jpg 38. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
As preposterous an idea as U2 arriving at the climax of their rock career in 1983 sounds, after releasing the lean single-heavy record War it’s easy to see how some critics and fans may have been let down when they first heard “A Sort of Homecoming,” the first track off the 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. Featuring Brian Eno’s atmospheric soundscapes and an explorative song structure, the song and the album marked a big departure from U2’s hard-hitting post-punk roots. In this new era of MTV and New Wave pop rock, The Unforgettable Fire’s art-rock sensibility and lack of conventional singles sounded like a misguided disaster. Rolling Stone writer Kurt Loder even infamously accused the album of being diluted by a “misconceived production strategy and occasional interludes of soggy, songless self-indulgence.” Now commonly seen as the major turning point for the band, The Unforgettable Fire remains a daring piece of atmospheric rock music—an album whose adventurous production and songwriting would not only completely redefine U2 as a band, but also reshape the direction of rock music in the ’80s. —Luke Larson

36_vanhalen.jpg 37. Van Halen – 1984 (1984)
In 1984, Van Halen didn’t necessarily turn away from party-rock, they just changed the way it was done with the synth-heavy 1984. It was the band’s last album before the whole “Van Hagar” thing, and included some of their most recognized songs. The synth-rocker “Jump” was the album’s biggest single, but it was the single “Hot For Teacher” that had legions of aspiring guitar players locking their bedrooms for hours to try to learn the solo. —Tyler Kane

Jesus and Mary Chain.jpg 36. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy (1985)
What rock ’n’ roll means now is much more complicated, but there was indeed a time where it signified both “electronic noise” (to cite one epithet that amused John Lennon) and catchy songs. Predating Sleigh Bells or Times New Viking or the catchall-turned-festival-name “noise pop” was this journey to the logical extreme. Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut sounded like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Joy Division arm-wrestling in a sheet metal factory, with slabs of white noise guarding candy-toy melodies the Reid Brothers didn’t want you to get sick of too quickly, a trick that Psychocandy mastered. It’s as difficult to memorize as it is to resisting singing along with when it’s on, as if every listen is your first. —Dan Weiss

35_echobunny.jpg 35. Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain (1984)
The introduction of a 35-piece orchestra fortified a new sound for the post-punk Brits on their fourth studio album. Ocean Rain’s expansive string arrangements allowed vocalist Ian McCulloch to sooth his metaphysical melodies into a portrait of lush eroticism. The nine tracks convey a conceptual scale—the initial dark, battering rain morphs into an effervescent sky with sympathetic ease. The result of the ’84 release is a voyage in sonic proportions. Cleverly chaotic, the album capitalizes on the rolling blankets of warmth that soon follow an ocean rain. —Kristen Blanton

34_huskerdu.jpg 34. Hüsker Dü – New Day Rising (1985)
Hüsker Dü are like the Beatles: they have three or four best albums. It doesn’t have the reputation of Zen Arcade, and Bob Mould shits all over the production in his autobiography, but New Day Rising is Hüsker Dü’s best collection of songs, and the most consistent example of the band’s trademark combination of hardcore virility and classic pop hooks. —Garrett Martin

33_xtc.jpg 33. XTC – Skylarking (1986)
With Skylarking, XTC succeeded in creating an album that sounds squarely out of time. Lush and pastoral, it’s a fully realized psych-pop masterpiece, an oddity among an era of all things synths and synthetics. Thematically the band tackles major life issues like love, marriage and even religion with melodic and lyrical acuity. And between all the sounds of summer splendor and rainy day ballets, they even managed to spawn a surprise hit with atheist anthem “Dear God” in the process. —Jessica Gentile

32_stoneroses.jpg 32. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
There was a time when every single day after school I raced upstairs, turned on my boom-box to either the local alt.rock station or the local college station, and popped in a blank tape to wait patiently for songs I liked to come on so I could record them. The first time I heard “Fools Gold” by The Stone Roses was years after it had come out, but it floored me immediately. I had no idea if the radio DJ would ever play it again. When he finally did, late at night on an empty Friday, my last blank Maxwell had clicked full halfway through a Spacehog song an hour ago. The next day I gathered up my Sam Goody gift certificates, got a ride to the mall and bought my very own copy of their self-titled, seminal work, with no idea that I wasn’t buying that one song I loved but an album I pretty much always will. —Jeff Gonick

31_joydivision.jpg 31. Joy Division – Closer (1980)
The second—and sadly, final—effort by these post-punk legends is shrouded in gloom; part of its inherent melancholy stems from the fact that lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide only two months before its release, ending his life just as Joy Division was climbing towards what may have been the group’s creative peak. However, remove Curtis’ death from the equation and you’re still left with a record full of bass-heavy pathos that’s positively haunting and oddly comforting at the same time. —Bonnie Stiernberg

30_rem.jpg 30. R.E.M. – Murmur (1983)
You know about the mumbling, the muttering, the indie success story, the simultaneous conquest of college radio and Rolling Stone—and subsequently, the world. But maybe you don’t know how punk never quite married Rickenbacker arpeggios until “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” made it safe for bands like the dB’s. Maybe in retrospect it’s amazing how “Talk About the Passion” and “Perfect Circle” were such power ballads. And maybe you don’t have to understand a word of “Moral Kiosk,” “Catapult” or “We Walk” to hear how every odd harmony, surf lick and overdubbed billiard ball made perfect sense. — Dan Weiss

29_theboss.jpg 29. Bruce Springsteen – The River (1980)
Bruce Springsteen’s The River falls right in the middle of one of the greatest decade-long runs by any artist, coming after Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town and just before Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. While arguments can be made for any of the five albums recorded from 1975-1984, The River remains my favorite given its ambitious and cohesive message. It was a working-class record made in the height of a recession, chronicling the ups and downs of living in harsh economic conditions. The Boss has been both more triumphant and darker in singular moments, but it’s throughout this sprawling double album that he makes his most honest statements. As we find ourselves in the midst another recession, Springsteen’s message throughout The River no longer simply echoes sentiments of a singular experience but has emerged as a timeless sentiment speaking to the American workingman’s struggle. —Max Blau

28_cowboyjunkies.jpg 28. Cowboy Junkies – The Trinity Sessions (1988)
Twenty-four years ago, the Cowboy Junkies and a few friends went into the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto and in one cold November night recorded The Trinity Sessions, one of the most seminal and ethereal albums of the “alternative” generation. It was, in many ways, the original D.I.Y. album. As Michael Timmons once described, “The entire costs to record were a hundred buck donation for the church and 22 dollars for couple of pizzas. Oh, I forgot, we also gave five bucks to the janitor for him to go away and be quiet for an extra half hour until we finished the recording, so add that to the tally as well.” How long did it take to record? “Seven hours trying to find the sweet spot for the omni-directional mic and five hours of playing.” Those five hours gave the music world some of the most solemnly hypnotic and beguiling beers-and-tears tunes ever captured on tape, and their iconic cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” launched the Cowboy Junkies’ career. —Jay Sweet

27_pgabriel.jpg 27. Peter Gabriel – So (1986)
Few 1980s artists managed to successfully balance art-rock indulgence and unmistakable pop appeal. Even fewer were able to do so on a single album. So, Peter Gabriel’s 1986 masterstroke, made it look easy. Besides including some of the most perfectly written songs of the decade (the gushingly romantic, African-chant-filled “In Your Eyes,” the bass-propelled Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up,” the downright funky “Sledgehammer”), So endures because of that difficult marriage of the strange and the sublime, the complex and the catchy, the ethereal and the immediate. —Ryan Reed

26_prince.jpg 26. Prince – Sign o’ the Times (1987)
After the relative commercial disappointment of Parade (and the outright embarrassment of its accompanying film, Under the Cherry Moon), Prince lost a bit of the creative carte blanche he’d earned at Warner Bros. with Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day. Of course, Prince being Prince, all this really meant was that Sign o’ the Times ended up being a sprawling, robustly eclectic double-disc package instead of the whopping triple album he’d originally planned. Hats off to label interference, at least in this case: While it obviously isn’t Prince’s leanest record, Times boasts 16 prime cuts of his ?ness at his sharpest and most adventurous, from the playful “Starfish and Coffee” to the churnin’ urn of burnin’ Minneapolis funk that is “Housequake. ”—Jeff Giles

ectrust.jpg 25. Elvis Costello – Trust (1981)
It wasn’t quite a massive success like This Year’s Model or My Aim is True, but Trust is Elvis Costello at his most biting and cynical, rattling off social commentary like “the teacher never told you anything but white lies” on “New Lace Sleeves” and demonstrating his trademarked wit with lines like “the long arm of the law slides up the outskirts of town” on “Clubland.” Sonically, it’s all over the place in a good way, as Costello makes his first real attempts to hop from genre to genre, something that would come to be expected from him later in his career. —Bonnie Stiernberg

24_richardlinda.jpg 24. Richard & Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
If the best folk-rock music marries the patience and lessons of the past to the technologies and crises of the present, this is one of the greatest folk-rock albums of all time. Written, recorded and toured as the marriage between the two singers was crumbling, the album seems to teeter on the edge of reconciliation and rupture. In songs like “Walking on a Wire,” “Just the Motion” and “Don’t Renege on Our Love,” relationships are a tightrope high above the crowd, a small boat amid big waves and a faltering promise. On the title track, Richard seems ready to aim his rifle at the overhead lamps rather than confront the problems, but on the majestic “Wall of Death,” he’s willing to climb aboard the most dangerous ride at the carnival if that’s what it takes to stay alive. Richard has always written lovely melodies, but it’s seldom as obvious as it is here when Linda’s gorgeous voice handles the three ballads. —Geoffrey Himes

23_gnr.jpg 23. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)
Guns N’ Roses embodied that coveted spot between the words “hair” (they certainly had that) and “metal” (they rocked) that comprise the now-infamous ’80s genre. Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, succeeded because Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff and Steven played as furiously as they chugged Jack Daniels and scarfed drugs, placing anthems like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” between songs like the law-evading “Out Ta Get Me” and heroin-addled “Mr. Brownstone.” But Appetite For Destruction remained rootsy even in its heaviness, giving the album an air of musical authenticity unmatched by the band’s contemporaries. —Hilary Saunders

22_thepolice.jpeg 22. The Police – Synchronicity (1983)
Most of us who love rhythm and propulsion and striking musical ideas moved on from Sting after his communion with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland imploded, which makes it easy to forget that Synchronicity was a hell of a way to go. Their disparate sonics coalesced like few other ensembles in 1983, short of non-Western masters like King Sunny Adé’s African Beats, who wasn’t lost on them—“Walking in Your Footsteps” reins in Nigerian polyrhythms just after the opener reestablishes their New Wave bona fides. And just when you can’t take another experiment like Summers’ Freudian horror-laughfest “Mother” or the jazz-a-nova “Miss Gradenko,” they intuitively snap back into 1983’s best pop that wasn’t made by a Jackson: “Synchronicity II,” “Every Breath You Take” and the astronomically delicate “King of Pain.” All one after another. —Dan Weiss

21_neworder.jpg 21. New Order – Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)
When Joy Division fell apart with the death of Ian Curtis, the remaining members formed the band New Order and with their second album Power, Corruption and Lies, created a synth-pop album that evolved beyond Joy Division while still being heavily influenced by that band’s trademark sound. Immediately Peter Hook’s bass on album opener “Age of Consent” sounds like JD’s “Transmission,” yet it hides its melancholy deeper down, under the sound of keyboards and bouncy guitars. Power, Corruption and Lies is filled with themes of loneliness, anger and loves lost; it’s easy to see how New Order has influenced everyone from The Smiths to M83. Curtis would have been proud. — Ross Bonaime

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