The 80 Best Albums of the 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 NailsPretty 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. U2The 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 Halen1984 (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 BunnymenOcean 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 DivisionCloser (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

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