The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s

Music Lists 1980s
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20_80sAlbums_BackinBlack.jpg 20. AC/DC – Back in Black
AC/DC  almost never recorded Back in Black. It ultimately became a tribute album to their former lead singer, Bon Scott, after he died unexpectedly. From the all-black cover to the title song, Back in Black is non-stop hard rock without the glam. It’s the highest selling album in the ’80s from a band and continues to expose new generations to the harder classic rock music that has since gone by the wayside. —Adam Vitcavage

19_80sAlbums_SurferRosa.jpeg 19. The Pixies – Surfer Rosa (1988)
Because I was seven and not nearly cool enough a seven-year-old to be aware of it when it came out, I backed into the Pixies’ debut after an obsessively on-repeat month of listening to Doolittle. When I finally decided to expand my experience of the Pixies I figured their first album was as good a place as any to start my planned completion of the oeuvre. On Surfer Rosa producer Steve Albini captures a blend of exuberant rock and noisy pop that is true to everything The Pixies are when they are at their best. “Where is My Mind?” may be the only song non-fans know because of its association in the collective consciousness of my generation with a scene from Fight Club, but it’s the kind of song anyone who hears it can’t help but dig. —Jeff Gonick

18_80sAlbums_3Feet.jpeg 18. De La Soul – Three Feet High and Rising (1989)
Here’s high praise for De La Soul’s 1989 debut: It’s one of the only hip-hop albums in history whose skits are as good as the music. Even 23 years later, who skips over those head-scratching interstitials about rudimentary French, unintelligible game shows, Ludens cough drops, and the silliest orgy ever committed to tape? Singles like “Me Myself & I” and “Potholes in My Lawn” were groundbreaking on MTV and radio, but Three Feet High and Rising works best as an whole album, one that samples liberally (Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan) and explores every corner of the Long Island trio’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age philosophy. There’s something fearless in the way De La rethink rap radicalism as hippie nirvana: playful, lackadaisical, wryly digressive and deeply hilarious. —Stephen M. Deusner

17_80sAlbums_ViolentFemmes.jpeg 17. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes (1983)
Quite simply ,the Violent Femmes’ self-titled album was the quintessential hymnal for the disaffected youth of America in the ’80s. With its jangly folk-punk frustration and venom-spitting lyrics, the debut featured “Blister in The Sun,” “Kiss Off” and “Add it Up,” arguably the three best Anthems of the proudly maladjusted ever penned. Nothing sounded like it before and nothing has since captured the sublime and perverse joy of teenage angst and adolescent anarchy like the Violent Femmes. In fact, just listening to “Add it Up” has been known to cause acne, awkward haircuts and ripped jeans. —Jay Sweet

16_80sAlbums_Disintegration.jpeg 16. The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
Disintegration is a return to goth glory after The Cure’s foray into pop with 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. It’s lush, mournful and gorgeous—in other words, it’s Robert Smith and company at their very best. From the first notes of “Plainsong” to the somber romance of “Lovesong” and the sweeping “Fascination Street,” the album is emotional but never overwrought. Smith surpasses hokey teen angst, instead creating a lasting work that’s entirely relatable. —Bonnie Stiernberg

15_80sAlbums_RainDogs.jpeg 15. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
Jettisoning his old label, his old manager and his old methods of recording, Tom Waits reinvented himself in the early 1980s, morphing from a singer/songwriter with a romantic view of L.A.’s underbelly to the gruff rabble-rouser we know and love today. swordfishtrombones may have introduced Tom Waits 2.0, but his follow-up, Rain Dogs, is arguably the better album, drawing out the weirdness of his lyrics and the clatter of his music. The music rambles and the lyrics paint dark portraits of Gun St. girls and one-eyed dwarves, but Waits never lets the sound eclipse the actual songs. In fact, Rain Dogs is packed with some of his finest tunes, from the conspiratorial “Clap Hands” to the heartbreaker “Downtown Train,” which was strong enough to survive Rod Stewart’s manhandling. —Stephen M. Deusner

replacements-let-it-be-cover.jpg 14. The Replacements – Let It Be (1984)
The Replacements gained attention for their snotty, don’t-give-a-shit attitude: playing shows blind drunk, writing songs called “Fuck School,” stealing titles of hallowed classic rock albums. But on Let It Be the Minneapolis punks made an album that could shoot down any outrage from incredulous Beatles fans. The 11 songs here proved that Paul Westerberg and company weren’t just drunk screw-ups. They were drunk screw-ups with soul. Let It Be has plenty of steal-your-sixpack swagger (“We’re Coming Out,”) but it also showed that Westerberg had developed into a devastatingly acute songwriter. “Answering Machine” and “Unsatisfied,” are two of the finest odes to youthful alienation ever penned. Any Liverpool group would have been proud to call them their own. —Michael Tedder

beastie-boys-pauls-boutique-cover.jpg 13. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Paul’s Boutique changed the game of rap music forever. The trio’s heavy use of sampling and name-dropping soon became industry standard. The Beasties’ lyrics are witty, explosive and explored an array of topics few rappers had touched before them and even fewer since. While many of the samples are from popular artists like The Beatles and The Ramones, there are hundreds of lesser-known riffs that helped make the producers (L.A.-based Dust Brothers) sampling superstars. The album’s sonic backbone alters drastically from beginning to end, proving the range of this enduring trio of rappers. —Adam Vitcavage

12_80sAlbums_ItTakesaNation.jpeg 12. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
With its 1988 sophomore album, Public Enemy rethought hip-hop from the bass up, conceiving it not only as an extension of the black power movement but, more crucially, as the logical conclusion of every popular music form that came before. The group’s legendary production team, fittingly called the Bomb Squad, plumbed rock and funk history for useful loops and fragments to soundtrack their movement, twisting hits by James Brown, Rufus Thomas and even Queen into radical anthems about race, politics, the media and anything else in Chuck D’s crosshairs. On Nation of Millions, he steps up as rap’s most authoritative voice, delivering stinging lyrics with newfound confidence. Likewise, Flavor Flav steps up as rap’s greatest rodeo clown, striking a potent balance between humor and outrage. The album has only gained more power since its release, both as a document of its time and as a reminder of hip-hop’s limitless possibilities. —Stephen M. Deusner

11_80sAlbums_Daydream.jpeg 11. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
When Nancy Reagan was urging kids to just say no, Sonic Youth promoted just the opposite: “Your life is such a mess,” says Thurston Moore. “Forget the past and just say yes.” On the band’s best album, that actually sounds like good advice, if only because detuned guitars and sprawling noise jams make for a better platform than abstinence and trickle-down economics. Opener “Teenage Riot” installs J Mascis in the Oval Office, and “The Sprawl” cops lyrics from crack addicts out-populating rats in Manhattan. It’s the culmination of the city’s noise scene and of the band’s flirtations with pop, but damned if Daydream Nation doesn’t predict the rise of Guiliani and grunge both—a cleaner city and a dirtier rock. —Stephen M. Deusner

10_80sAlbums_PurpleRain.jpeg 10. Prince – Purple Rain (1984)
For many artists, musical vision and rock-star glory happen at different moments within a career. With Purple Rain, Prince’s most brilliant songs came together in grandiose fashion just as he ascended into stardom. Released as the soundtrack for his 1984 film, Prince ran the gamut stylistically from metal-funk-rock (“Let’s Go Crazy”) to synth-soul-pop (“I Would Die 4 U”). Closing with his epic title track, Prince defies description with his near-nine-minute statement, which unquestionably stands as one of the all-time greats. Above all, Purple Rain showcases his ability to seemingly combine any type of music and truly make it his own. It’s an amalgam for a career whereby he’s created a style uniquely “Prince”—one that no one has since managed to replicate, let alone surpass. —Max Blau

9_80sAlbums_JoshuaTree.jpeg 9. U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
Before Bono became the rock icon he is today, he was just a lost twenty-something in a new country, confused and searching. We see this in The Joshua Tree, arguably U2’s greatest and most important album. U2 were heavily influenced after a trip to the United States, and The Joshua Tree feels like a band motivated by “The American Dream” while still having deep appreciation for their roots. Bono is at his most earnest here, especially in the band’s hit songs “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You,” which after 25 years and constant airplay, still haven’t lost their power and impact. The Joshua Tree shows one of the world’s most famous bands at their infancy, struggling to find their place in the world, yet unaware of the greatness that lies in front of them. — Ross Bonaime

8_80sAlbums_RemaininLight.jpeg 8. Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
For their fourth and finest record, the Talking Heads (along with producer/collaborator/all-around musical badass Brian Eno) trotted out their African influences in full force. Polyrhythmic, lyrically cryptic and featuring one of the most awesomely weird guitar solos of all time (Adrien Belew’s blippy genius on “Born Under Punches”), Remain in Light stands as David Byrne and company’s masterpiece. It’s rooted in tradition, yet it sounds delightfully futuristic—even three decades after its initial release. —Bonnie Stiernberg

7_80sAlbums_Graceland.jpeg 7. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
Over the past 25 years, no American album has changed the world-music landscape more than Paul Simon’s Graceland. Initially lauded as the folk singer’s comeback record, it made a cultural impact far greater than anyone could’ve possibly guessed. The album integrated American pop, rock and folk songwriting with traditional South African musical styles. By no means was this the first time that Simon or other Western and non-Western cultures intersected, but Graceland marked a watershed moment where world music began to emerge from being a series of isolated musical pockets to an institutionalized transnational music scene. —Max Blau

6_80sAlbums_LifesRich.jpeg 6. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Despite just two radio singles—“Fall On Me” and a cover of The Cliques’ “Superman” sung by Mike Mills—Lifes Rich Pageant took the Athens band beyond the confines of its college audience. Gone was most of Michael Stipe’s mumbling and the stark Southern gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction. In its place was a return to happy, jangly guitars, but a more fully developed and unique sound. Songs like “Begin the Begin,” “These Days” and “Cuyahoga” would become staples of the live show and a performance of “Swan Swan H” would be immortalized in the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out. It was also the most political album the band had recorded, addressing ecological issues and the disappearances of dissidents in Guatemala, though both are addressed in subtle ways. The album would be certified Gold within a year, a remarkable feat for the uncompromising band, and would do as much to influence the next decade’s best music as anything else on this list. —Josh Jackson

5_80sAlbums_LondonCalling.jpeg 5. The Clash – London Calling (1980)
The first great album of the ’80s was essentially a ’70s record. Indeed, when it was released in the U.S. in January 1980, it had already been out for a few weeks in the UK. But in many ways, The Clash’s eclectic 19-song effort marks the end of punk’s golden years, infusing a brash mix of rock, ska, R&B and reggae throughout its 65-minute run time. It’s a double-record that not only spans a broad array of styles, but ratchets up the political intensity with songs like “Guns of Brixton” and “Spanish Bombs,” demanding listeners to heed its anti-establishment calls, even as it became a commercial success. “Brand New Cadillac” impeccably reworks Vince Taylor’s classic, while the band tackled a meaningless existence within a commercialized world on “Lost In The Supermarket.” On London Calling, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon made quintessential political-minded punk at its finest. —Max Blau

4_80sAlbums_BorninUSA.jpeg 4. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
This is Springsteen’s finest moment. Here are his strongest pop hooks, his most mature lyrics, his most complete vision. At long last, he reconciled the romanticism of his 1973-77 work with the darkness of his 1978-82 work. At long last, he mastered the recording studio to make it an aid to his vision rather than an obstacle, allowing him to finally be as powerful in the studio as he always had been on stage. At long last, he recognized that comedy could be as revealing of human nature as drama, and he allowed his funny songs to stand side by side with his serious ones. At long last, he resolved his ambivalence about pop stardom and went for it with the catchiest choruses, biggest guitar riffs and most evangelical vocals he could muster. —Geoffrey Himes

3_80sAlbums_Thriller.jpeg 3. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
Every now and then, an album comes along that we can all agree upon. It’s impossible to talk about the music of the ’80s without mentioning this watershed record by the King of Pop. The Quincy Jones-produced 1982 classic was able to transcend genre and appeal to fans of all demographics, and it’s not surprising that it remains the best-selling record of all time, with 110 million copies sold. Since its release, countless others have tried to replicate its pop perfection, but no one can touch the killer bassline on “Billie Jean,” Jackson’s impassioned snarl on “Beat It,” the danceability of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” or, yes, even Vincent Price’s campy spoken-word part on the omnipresent title track. It produced a whopping seven Top 10 hits for Jackson, and while that’s obviously not a measure of artistic merit (we’re looking at you, Katy Perry), it’s safe to say that Michael Jackson was pop music in the ’80s and that the legacy of Thriller is one that cannot be ignored. —Bonnie Stiernberg

2_80sAlbums_QueenisDead.jpeg 2. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
If “How Soon Is Now” off The Smiths’ previous album was the starting-pistol shot announcing their intentions to delve into darker territories, then the title track off The Queen Is Dead was rhythmic strafing to the same effect. But the devastating melancholia quickly morphs into the sardonic lyrical meglomania that made vocalist Morrissey the legendary apathetic mope in “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” a terse and not-so-veiled reference to The Smiths’ growing distaste for the music industry in general. But what truly makes this definitive album a benchmark is it marks the fall of the insufferable decade of synth music that preceded it and the second coming of the British Invasion with guitarist Johnny Marr’s penchant for high-timbre guitar riffs and sonic urgency such as in “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others.” The two tracks that elevate The Queen Is Dead into the pantheon of truly classic albums are the literary homage “Cemetary Gates” and the ironic swoon of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Both tracks harness the glorious friction between Morrissey’s incredibly brilliant-but-biting wit and Marr’s desire to simply rock ’n’ roll; a match made in flop-haired heaven. —Jay Sweet

1_80sAlbums_Doolittle.jpeg 1. The Pixies – Doolittle (1989)
At the tail end of the ’80s, an album came out that would continue to influence rock for a couple more decades and counting. The Pixies followed Surfer Rosa with the band’s magnum opus that—although it only reached #98 on the Billboard chart—would eventually get certified Gold in 1995. Doolittle turns on a dime from quiet beautiful melodies to balls-to-the-wall rock with Black Francis screaming his heart out, often within the same song. Gigantic pop hooks delivered with muscular rock chops set the template for the grunge movement that would follow and ensured that Doolittle would sound every bit as good in 2012 as it did in 1989. —Josh Jackson

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