The 30 Best Albums of 1988

Music Lists Best Albums
The 30 Best Albums of 1988

1988 was a great year for music, and not just because it’s when Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was born in the Tottenham district of London and Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born 4,000 miles southwest in Barbados. The tail end of the post-punk and new-wave movements had given way to the a golden age of college radio and a budding alternative-rock scene. A new era of hip-hop was ascendent, with N.W.A. and Public Enemy unleashing socio-political rage on the coasts. And young African-American stars-in-the-making like Tracy Chapman and Living Colour were breaking barriers in folk and hard rock, bringing new perspective to fading American forms. Our favorite albums from 30 years ago also include recordings from England, Iceland, Australia and three from Ireland. They include metal, rap, folk, pop, funk and whatever you want to call They Might Be Giants.

Read: The 15 Best Albums of 1968

Read: The 30 Best Albums of 1978

Here are the 30 best albums of 1988:

dino-jr-bug.jpg30. Dinosaur Jr: Bug
Dinosaur Jr.’s third album arrived less than a year after their masterpiece, You’re Living All Over Me, so a little bit of a step back would almost be expected—that album’s basically impossible to surpass. And although Bug isn’t the band’s best record, it’s still better than it has any right to be. Bug makes an immediate splash, kicking off with “Freak Scene,” which might be J Mascis’s best song, and is definitely a top-tier indie-rock anthem. That song alone basically earns the album a spot on this list. The rest of Bug doesn’t reach the heights of “Freak Scene” or the previous album, but it’s a strong set of college-radio jams. Songs like “The Post,” “They Always Come” and “Pond Song” are churning, noise-drenched classic-rock riffs played by former hardcore kids, bridging the gap between the mainstream and underground that was still very real and wide in the ‘80s. Bonus points for closing out with “Don’t,” a head-splitting burst of overdriven psychic warfare between Mascis and his soon-to-be-fired bassist/frenemy, Lou Barlow. —Garrett Martin

fishbone-truth-soul.jpg29. Fishbone: Truth and Soul
Call it funk metal or ska punk, but four months after Living Colour reached radio ubiquity with their blend of hard-rock and funk, another band of black musicians fused several genres into their sophomore (and best) album, Truth and Soul. L.A. collective Fishbone adeptly traveled all over the stylistic map, incorporating ska, reggae, funk, jazz, punk, metal and hard rock from one song to the next. Beginning with a funked-up version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” (which helped me learn to play bass), the band ditched most of the sillier vibe of their debut, In Your Face, for more socially conscious songs like “Subliminal Fascism” and “Ghetto Soundwave” decrying the growing split between the haves and have-nots at the end of the Reagan years. It’s an angry, groovy, hard-driving album that underpins much of the music that followed it. —Josh Jackson

tmbg-lincoln.jpg28. They Might Be Giants: Lincoln
The beginning of our culture’s nerd revolution can be traced back to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song answering machine in the mid-1980s. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had developed a cult following with their geeky experimental music, beginning with performances on New York’s Lower East Side before a 1986 self-titled debut and the college-radio hit “Don’t Let’s Start.” The duo’s follow-up, Lincoln, earned them a bigger audience with lead track “Ana Ng” charting on modern-rock radio. There was everything from jazz to polka to funk-backed songs about purple toupees, friendships with cows beneath the sea and imaginary shoehorns with teeth. Every melody was immediate and undeniable. They rejoiced in the bizarre and nonsensical but disguised cleverness and poignancy in the seemingly random lyrics of songs like “They’ll Need a Crane.” —Josh Jackson

boogie-any-means.jpg27. Boogie Down Productions: By Any Means Necessary
The title and album art for Boogie Down Productions’ second album is a direct reference to Malcolm X, with leader KRS-One copying the stance of the firebrand civil-rights leader in a famed photo, albeit with updated weaponry. It’s a startling image that is almost a Trojan horse for the material on the record. Unlike BDP’s debut, Criminal Minded, the rhymes on By Any Means Necessary looked for more thoughtful approaches to fight the inequality, disease, violence and addictions crippling the African-American community. It’s a boastful record, sure, but also filled with messages encouraging safe sex (“Jimmy”), breaking down the multi-level horrors of the drug trade (“Illegal Business”) and simple pleas to “Stop the Violence.” Thirty years later, it’s dismaying to know that so many of these issues persist in the U.S. Great as this album is, it should have aged poorly by now. —Robert Ham

van-morrison-chieftains.jpg26. Van Morrison & The Chieftains: Irish Heartbeat
The emerald undercurrent of Van Morrison’s homeland heritage has always played a role in the music he’s created over the past 60 years. But never has it been as explicitly expressed as it is on “Irish Heartbeat,” a song that debuted on 1983’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. It’s basically an Irish soul song, combining elements of American masters like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke (“This old world is so cold, don’t care nothin’ for your soul…” ) with the quintessentially Celtic sounds of flute and uilleann pipes. This was truly Van Morrison bringing his famed take on black music right back home. He re-created it as the centerpiece and title track of this 1988 collaborative album with fellow countrymen The Chieftains. With eight traditional Irish songs and a few more reworkings of Morrison and Chieftans originals, the album marked a late-’80s peak for the troubadour. —Ron Hart

pogues-grace.jpg25. The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Elsewhere in Ireland, everything was lining up for The Pogues on their third album, which became their biggest hit both commercially and critically. Quite the opposite of Van Morrison, though, they were taking their Celtic roots and expanding them outward. The band widened their punk approach to traditional Irish folk music by introducing sounds from other cultures, including Turkish music in the ghost story “Turkish Song of the Damned” and Spanish music in the riotous “Fiesta.” The best songs here though continued the band’s exploration of the Irish experience both home and abroad; “Fairtayle of New York” remains their best known hit, and an annual Christmas favorite, whereas “Thousands Are Sailing” powerfully captures the pride and pain of the Irish diaspora. —Garrett Martin

michelle-shocked-sss.jpg24. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked
After stints at a community college, the University of Texas and, finally, the Baylor Hospital psych ward (her stage name comes from the electroshock therapy she received there), the woman born Michelle Johnston wound up volunteering at the Kerrville Folk Festival, becoming what she calls, “perhaps the last American to receive the mixed blessing of being field recorded.” Pete Lawrence, an English producer and label owner with a Sony Walkman recorded Shocked and her acoustic guitar among the late-night gatherings and released the set of originals as The Texas Campfire Tapes back in the U.K. Shocked only became aware of the tapes when a friend brought a magazine back from Amsterdam with a flexi-disc inside of “Who Cares?” by Michelle Shocked. After debuting at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, she ended up signing a record deal with Mercury and put out her first genre-hopping album. Short Sharp Shocked is a folk record with a punk-rock heart, beginning with the jazz-folk “When I Grow Up” and ending with the thrashy hidden track “Fogtown,” featuring Austin hardcore outfit MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). —Josh Jackson

bsurfers-hairway.jpg23. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
The Butthole Surfers’ bad-vibes aesthetic took a tentative step into the light with their last record for Touch & Go. It might sound like an unwieldy mess today, but it’s actually fairly cleaned up from their earlier stuff, which is one reason it remains one of their best-known albums. There’s still all manner of dirt piled onto these songs, along with studio trickery that makes Gibby Haynes sound like a hungover demon on some songs and an elf on helium on others. Despite those touches, the underlying songs are pretty straight-forward rock in a traditional vein, with Jeff Pinkus and King Coffey as tight a rhythm section as the band ever got, and Paul Leary’s guitar nailing some classic-rock, radio-caliber solos. The strongest sign of the band’s long commitment to musical bad trips comes from the opener, “Jimi,” a schizophrenic epic where Haynes grunts and groans along to a lurching, stuttering dirge for seven minutes before ceding to a seemingly peaceful acoustic-guitar sound collage. If you ever wished Ween were creepier and more unhinged, this is the album for you. —Garrett Martin

living-colour-vivid.jpg22. Living Colour: Vivid
The hard rock at the heart of Living Colour’s debut album was as muscular as any of their contemporaries, but while their glam-metal peers were living up to Spinal Tap’s cock-rock parody, lead singer Corey Glover’s lyrics were politically charged, from opening mega-riff hit “Cult of Personality” (“I sell the things you need to be / I’m the smiling face on your TV”) to the album’s third single “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” an earnest lament for the decimation of inner-city neighborhoods, to “Funny Vibe,” a frank attack on black male stereotypes featuring Chuck D and Flavor Flav (No, I’m not gonna rob you / No, I’m not gonna beat you / No, I’m not gonna rape you / So why you want to give me that funny vibe?” Muzz Skillings’s steady bass countered Vernon Reid’s speed-metal guitar solos and Will Calhoun’s arena-worthy drumming to create something more interesting than just another ’80s hair-metal band. Outside of hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, there were few black rock musicians having any kind of success when Vivid was released, but it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard charts on the way to going double-platinum and beating out Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and Great White for the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with “Cult of Personality.” —Josh Jackson

sugar-cubes-lifes.jpg21. The Sugarcubes: Life’s Too Good
For many listeners, the debut by The Sugarcubes was an introduction into the singular universe that is the Icelandic music scene. It’s a place where, at the time, the various strains of influence from Europe and North America collided but were jumbled up gloriously in translation. In the hands of this pale quintet from Reykjavik, led by the intoxicating vocals and pixie-ish presence of Bjork Gudmundsdottir, post-punk, jazz and folk were twisted into multi-colored braids of arch pop and seamy revelations about untoward relationships between a bearded gent and a little girl, the joys of sex and gawking at a car crash. Complain all you want about the honking vocals or trumpet intrusions from Einar Orn, the Flavor Flav of The Sugarcubes, but this album would be far less satisfying without them. —Robert Ham

go-betweens-16-ll.jpg20. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane
The Go-Betweens’ last album for almost 20 years featured their best charting single, “Streets of Your Town,” which cracked the bottom reaches of the Top 100 in both Australia and the U.K., but made it all the way to No. 30 in New Zealand. Meanwhile, “Was There Anything I Could Do,” also from this record, was their only song to appear on any American chart, climbing to No. 16 on the U.S. Modern Rock list. The point is, one of the best pop bands of all time couldn’t dent the mainstream charts, despite the backing of various major labels and large indies throughout the ‘80s. Maybe their songs are too stately, their lyrics too literary, to attract a large audience? Whatever the case, 16 Lovers Lane wrapped up the first phase of The Go-Betweens with 10 more beautiful songs that are often tender and sad but never cynical or maudlin. It’s another testament to the songwriting genius of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. —Garrett Martin

smiths-rank.jpg19. The Smiths: Rank
Rank may have been created just to fulfill contractual obligations by a band that had just fallen apart thanks to internal strife, but the live album compiled some of the Smiths’ greatest hits the same year Morrissey headed his own strange way with Viva Hate. The 16 songs here were recorded at the National Ballroom in London in 1986, just before the band broke up, and if the members didn’t like each other, it didn’t come through in the music. Rather, it didn’t hurt the music. A brazen “The Queen Is Dead” opens with the kind of fury that often gets scraped away from great rock bands in the studio, with Johnny Marr’s screaming-psych guitar and Mike Joyce’s drums lurching the band forward. Morrissey, in particular, was flying high on this night in London, leading the group through an aggressive set of fan favorites with an almost unhinged flair that more or less defined the ‘80s in England and gave fans their only official live Smiths album. The only question is how some of The Smiths’ true masterpieces, like “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?,” were left on the editing floor. —Josh Jackson

wilburys-vol1.jpg18. Traveling Wilburys: Volume I
A band like The Traveling Wilburys doesn’t just happen. Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers had toured with Bob Dylan as Dylan’s backing band in 1987. Jeff Lynne had co-produced George Harrison’s successful album of that year, Cloud 9, with its infectious hit “Got My Mind Set on You.” Lynne was also working with Petty on the latter’s first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and the two were busy writing a few songs for Roy Orbison’s 1989 album, Mystery Girl. That, more or less, is how you arrive at what is probably the greatest supergroup in history. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 is an expertly crafted and produced record (how could it not be?), but the genius of the final product is how relaxed and effortless it all sounds. Everyone involved was in one way or another past the peak of his respective glory years, yet instantly winning songs like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line” felt immediate and vital, the rock stars’ rebuke to the prevailing electronic and histrionic sounds of the era. Vol. 1 has a star turn for each Wilbury while packaging all of their signature sounds into one folk-rock artifact. —Matthew Oshinsky

church-starfish.jpg17. The Church: Starfish
The Church’s breakout hit “Under the Milky Way” stands as one of the most beautiful, haunting songs of the 1980s, but the Australian quartet’s fifth album is full of dream-pop gems. “Destination” sets the tone for the album with lyrics like “Draconian winter unforetold/ One solar day, suddenly you’re old/ Your little envelope just makes me cold/ Makes destination start to unfold”; “Blood Money” and “Reptile” are built upon unforgettable guitar licks; and “A New Season” offers a moment of hopefulness amid the melancholy. Steve Kilbey’s lyrics and the band’s spacious, psychedelic new wave just feel expansive, like Carl Sagan reincarnated as a bunch of Aussie rockers. The band never stopped recording, with something like two dozen studio albums to their name, but Starfish was when their star shone the brightest. —Josh Jackson

nick-cave-tender.jpg16. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
Like most of Nick Cave’s oeuvre, Tender Prey is filled with death and grief and sorrow and murder and madness and deals with the devil and re-worked hymns. Perfect, then, that Cave himself famously disliked the album, which was recorded in West Berlin at a very difficult time in his life. Besides showcasing a guy who’s fully comfortable with his hallucinogenic gift for literate terror (not least his own), the silky-black woe-bringer’s fifth album with The Bad Seeds birthed Cave’s seminal dead-man-walking monologue “The Mercy Seat,” the defiant final words of a condemned man, dripping with religious imagery. Cave would rarely play a show after this that didn’t include “The Mercy Seat,” which was later covered by Johnny Cash on American III: Solitary Man. —Jeff Vrabel

bdk-long-live-kane.jpg15. Big Daddy Kane: Long Live the Kane
Emerging from Marley Marl’s Queens-based Juice Crew, Big Daddy Kane immediately stood out for his next-level rap flow and his insistence on making sure everyone knew exactly who he was: “The B-I-G-D-A-Double-D-Y-K-A-N-E,” as he spits on the instant classic “Ain’t No Half-Steppin.” That quick-worded style would go on to be mimicked and emulated by Snoop Dog, Nas, Eminem, and countless others, with many tracing their own rhythmic sensibilities directly back to Long Live the Kane. Kane, who was quickly earning a reputation in New York for his rhymes as well as his flow, showed an immediate facility for wearing several (velour) hats, playing the roles of loverman (“I’ll Take You There”) and political poet (“Word to the Mother (Land)”), but his free-rhyming legacy is built on his ruthless takedowns of sucker MCs, as on the immortal “Set It Off” and “Raw.” —Matthew Oshinsky

tracy-chapman-st.jpg14. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman
When Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut was released in the spring if 1988, it had been some time since an earnest, politically minded folk-pop record had made any kind of cultural dent. But in the waning days of the Reagan presidency, there were plenty of people hungry for the kind of ruminative, heart-on-the-sleeve expressions of underrepresented voices striving for equality and understanding. The surprise came when the album’s iconic lead single, “Fast Car,” connected with a wide audience (thanks in no small part to MTV), pushing the album to the top of the Billboard charts and netting Chapman three Grammy nominations. Heard today, the album has lost none of its power and luster. Opening track “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” remains empowering and rich with musical incident. The love songs scattered throughout ache with longing and lust. And the novelistic details she draws together in “Fast Car” still linger, still urge and still devastate. —Robert Ham

metallica-justice.jpg13. Metallica: …And Justice For All
Metallica’s ambitious third album opens with “Blackened,” which set the tone for a harsh portrait of American decay. The track wastes no time annihilating the planet: “Death of Mother Earth, never a rebirth / Evolution’s end; never will it mend,” James Hetfield shouts rather prophetically. All of the mayhem is underscored by Lars Ulrich’s rapid-fire double-kick. Metallica had held out for years before finally making a music video, but here they unleashed a dark and wonderfully bleak piece of art for “One,” splicing together clips from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun with footage of the band in black-and-white head-bang mode. Of course, “One” is just as intense musically, instilling a sense of dread early on, and raging forth until the machine-gun breakdown and Kirk Hammett’s breakneck outro lead. The combination probably makes it the most theatrical song in the Metallica canon. But the best song on this semi-conceptual album is “Harvester of Sorrow,” a dark and murderous tale brought to life by a bludgeoning yet grooving riff and a particularly menacing bark from Hetfield. —Mark Lore

rem-green.jpg12. R.E.M.: Green
It can be argued that R.E.M. were at the peak of their powers in 1988, and Green stands as one of their finest hours. It was the band’s most diverse record to that point, both musically and lyrically, with subtle politics frolicking with more playful themes, and stripped-down folky numbers bumping up against full-on power pop. The first earful fans got was the booming rollick of “Pop Song 89,” a song whose title says it all. That’s followed up with the equally good-timing “Get Up,” a song with massive guitars and hand claps that was purportedly written by Stipe about Mills, who was known to sleep late during the recording sessions. Those songs, and a song like “Stand,” stand out because they went against most people’s perceptions of R.E.M. The bubblegum singles were countered by the delicate neo-folk numbers “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything,” both of which feature Peter Buck’s mandolin strums. Those contrasts may have been jarring for some at the time, but they’re also part of what has made Green age so well. The record’s centerpiece, of course, is “World Leader Pretend,” a song that will still melt you. —Mark Lore

morrissey-viva-hate.jpg11. Morrissey: Viva Hate
Viva Hate was released just six months after Steven Patrick Morrissey’s final Smiths studio album, Strangeways Here We Come, making one wonder if he just was hiding these songs under his pillow or what. Regardless, Moz’s solo career seamlessly extended from his band career, with iconic singles “Suadehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” pleasing fans that were worried his songwriting magic might be lost without the presence of Johnny Marr and his old band. From the opening bars of “Alsation Cousin,” Morrissey embraced a darker, more confrontational sound than the bouncy tunes that often accompanied his melancholy musings with The Smiths. But his devoted flock had little to fear: the happy-music-sad-vocals returned by Track 3 (“Everyday is like Sunday / Every day is silent and gray”). —Philip Cosores

74.My-Bloody-Valentine.jpg10. My Bloody Valentine: Isn’t Anything
The first great album from Irish shoegaze progenitors My Bloody Valentine was an unexpectedly huge leap forward from their pedestrian 1985 debut and a stepping stone to their 1991 masterwork, Loveless. Isn’t Anything was druggy, time-bending and mercilessly loud, built around songwriter Kevin Shields’s tremolo-crazed guitar assault, a tidal wave of noise through which his and Bilinda Butcher’s breathy voices beckoned like flickers from a lighthouse. Opener “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” set the tone with a disorienting swirl of guitars and huge ‘80s drums, leading many listeners to wonder if there was something wrong with their stereos. They figured it out one song later as Butcher’s sweet ooohing on “Lose My Breath” shoved against a wall of atonal acoustic guitars. This music was challenging, but endlessly rewarding. From 1988 on, “You Made Me Realise”—its 30-second white-noise bridge sometimes expanding to more than half an hour onstage—inevitably served as the finale for their shows. It wasn’t long before an entire scene emerged around the band, including “shoegazer” acts like Ride and Chapterhouse, who emulated MBV’s virtues of dreamy melodicism and blistering guitar noise. —Douglas Wolk

67.The-Waterboys.jpg9. The Waterboys: Fisherman’s Blues
While folk-rock thrived in the U.S. during the 1970s, The Waterboys’ blend of ’80s rock and the Celtic roots of their 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. The opening title track, with its driving bass line, colorful mandolin, Scott’s pleading vocals and the most memorable fiddle solo since the devil went down to Georgia, was a masterful mash-up of old and new. Its ranging influences could be felt in its source material with covers of Woody Guthrie and Van Morrison and an adaptation of Yeats’s “Stolen Child,” fitting in snugly next to the band’s hybrid originals. —Josh Jackson

nwa-soc.jpg8. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” Dr. Dre announces at the beginning of the opening title track, “Straight Outta Compton.” What follows is full of the rage of a million young black men subject to racial profiling before there was a name for it and police violence before Rodney King’s beating was caught on tape. Gangsta rap remains as controversial in hindsight as it was at the time (the album’s misogyny and violent calls to action remain problematic), but it captured an all-too-common American life in the ’80s that was missing from popular music. Songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Something Like That” amounted to a nihilistic response to the more incisively political New York rap of Public Enemy, who preached social revolution as N.W.A. extolled the base virtues of partying and breaking shit. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E put a scare into privileged white America, not least because the album found popularity thanks to its three distinct personalities and its deft uses of funk and R&B. Straight Outta Compton influenced a new generation of West Coast rappers who would eclipse N.W.A. in sales and popularity. —Josh Jackson

leonard_man.jpg7. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
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 new relevancy in the era of worsening poverty, homelessness and AIDS. The mock-fascist “First We Take Manhattan,” with its sly anti-authority refrain, became an sarcastic soundtrack for the trickle-down bullshit of the Reagan-Bush regime, not to mention the Occupy movements more than 20 years later, and the protests against creeping tyranny and authoritarianism infecting America today. Cohen’s particular genius was to point a finger not so much at the perpetrators of social rot and destroyers of compassion, but at those who claimed to oppose it but stood idly by. On the foreboding “Everybody Knows,” propulsive synths collide with flamenco-style guitar in a cynical past-meets-present cautionary tale: It’s not just that the rich are eating the poor and gay men are dying by the thousands, it’s that nobody is doing anything about it. But hey, “that’s how it goes.” Cohen’s cutting narratives and droning voice are now gone from this world, but their legacy can never die. —Tim Basham

Talk Talk Spirit of Eden.jpg6. Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden
Much like their contemporaries My Bloody Valentine over in Ireland, British trio Talk Talk leapt into an entirely new phase of their innovative career with Spirit of Eden. Then again, that’s what they always did, moving from the plastic synth-pop of their 1982 debut into more organic territory with each successive album until they were playing a style of progressive modern pop music that bore little resemblance to their earlier work—or to anyone’s work in 1988. Call it post-rock, call it psych-jazz, call it experimental mumbo-jumbo. Whatever your preferred tag, one thing is clear: In the 30 years since its release, there’s never been another album quite like Talk Talk’s sprawling masterpiece. 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 cavern of sonic heaven—double-bass moans, flickers of muted trumpet, sizzling cymbals, violent clashes of electric guitar. Spirit of Eden slithers through six indefinable songs, if you can even call them songs. Talk Talk were simply playing music in a different universe than their peers. As it turned out, they only had one more album in them. —Ryan Reed

janesaddictionnothingsshocking.jpg5. Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking
Jane’s Addiction’s major-label debut, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, stands as a towering bridge to the alternative rock movement from 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 riffs. And it was a brief introduction: the band members were already at each other’s throats during the recording process, which made for a pent-up, angry record. Inspiring the likes of Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor, who would blow up in the next decade, Nothing’s Shocking fused elements 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.” It also featured one of the most iconic album covers in rock history—one most retailers refused to display. —Tyler Kane

19_80sAlbums_SurferRosa.jpeg4. The Pixies: Surfer Rosa
On Surfer Rosa, producer Steve Albini captured a blend of exuberant rock and noisy pop that was true to everything The Pixies were when they were at their best. In 1988, the band beckoned listeners into their strange world on their masterpiece debut with surreal, cryptic lyrics about such unsavory topics as mutilation and voyeurism, with Black Francis’s frantic repetitions and sharp shrieks acting as siren calls to an esoteric abyss. Throughout the album, you’re never quite sure which way is up, “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground” (as goes the record’s echo-y anthem, “Where Is My Mind?”). Kim Deal’s saccharine background vocals and melodic basslines add distinctive depth, until she fully takes the reigns on the hooky “Gigantic.” Surfer Rosa masterfully showcases the Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamic, with Albini recording vocals in a bathroom and highlighting noisy studio banter. The record’s murky sounds made Kurt Cobain seek out Albini for the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero. The Pixies did dark and twisted like no one else. —Loren DiBlasi

28_cowboyjunkies.jpg3. Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Sessions
On Nov. 15, 1988, the Cowboy Junkies and a few friends went into the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto and in one cold night recorded The Trinity Sessions, one of the most seminal and ethereal albums of the “alternative” generation. It was, in many ways, the original DIY album. As guitarist Michael Timmins 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 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

12_80sAlbums_ItTakesaNation.jpeg2. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
With their 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 stepped up as rap’s most authoritative voice, delivering stinging lyrics with newfound confidence. Likewise, Flavor Flav stepped 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.jpeg1. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
While 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 sounded like good advice, if only because detuned guitars and sprawling noise jams made for a better platform than abstinence and trickle-down economics. Opener “Teenage Riot” installed J Mascis in the Oval Office, and “The Sprawl” copped lyrics from crack addicts out-populating rats in down-and-dirty Manhattan. It was the culmination of the city’s noise scene and of the band’s flirtations with pop, but damned if Daydream Nation didn’tt predict the rise of the anti-fun, anti-culture Guiliani era and grunge both—a cleaner city and a dirtier rock. —Stephen M. Deusner

Share Tweet Submit Pin