The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Your Funeral… My Trial

[Mute; 1986]

The volatile bleakness of Nick Cave’s early stint in the Birthday Party be damned, Your Funeral… My Trial is midnight at the morgue. The CD bonus track “Scum” is a vicious attack on a critic and former friend, Mat Snow, that had the nerve to give him a bad review. Or, as Cave articulates, he’s a “miserable shitwringing turd.” Elsewhere, there’s the horror story of a circus catastrophe on “The Carny” and the brooding strength of “Stranger Than Kindness.” The entire album is submerged in despair, and with only one cover to speak of (Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man”), this is the Bad Seeds’ turning point: a significant shift to original, powerful material. Tender Prey would continue this trend, and is likely just as deserving to be on this list. If you’re new to Nick Cave, Your Funeral would be a great introductory point; this and every subsequent album has largely squelched Snow and his ilk.

Michael Tkach


Boogie Down Productions
Criminal Minded

[B-Boy; 1987]

How quickly we forget. Younger heads are fond of the word “dusty” – they use it for albums such as Illmatic, and if that’s dusty, then Criminal Minded must be freakin’ archaic. I’m not fond of the idea, but it’s nearly true: KRS himself surpassed the album with his next two records, and so on. Yet, just about anything you enjoy about hip-hop, thank this album. The foundations of East Coast gangsta, the weapons rakishly displayed on the cover, heavy sampling (as well as the plethora of musical influences to be found), hell, even the first-person crime story was essentially popularized here. As with anything in music history, it’s a tricky business: the late ‘80s saw rise to the great rap revolution, so several individuals can lay claim to the same advancements, however, undisputedly, The Blastmaster and crew ensured their place in history here. It’s easy to call an album like this outdated, but nothing could be further from the truth. Listen to any recent gangsta album worth its salt; they’re still pretty much borrowing leaves from KRS’ rhyme book. Hell, it’d do KRS himself some good to give it another listen; he may recall his own fire and stop his disappointing role as hip-hop’s preacher. An album so influential it was inevitably relegated to memory. Making this mandatory listening would sure clear out the Waka Flacka’s of the world fast, they’d be instantly irrelevant.

Chase McMullen


The Police

Ghost In The Machine

[A&M; 1981]

For their fourth studio album, The Police stepped away from the reggae-punk aesthetic of their first three records and moved in a more overtly pop direction, adding horns and synths to their mix. Sting was already as consistent of a pop songsmith as there was in the new-wave movement, and Ghost in the Machine features some of his best work. The hits “Spirits in the Material World,” “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” and “Invisible Sun” are great, but the best tracks here are the ones where Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland stretch out. The trio’s new, diversified sound would be further refined on their 1983 swan song, Synchronicity, but this transitional work is arguably even more fascinating and worthwhile.

Sean Highkin


They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants

[Restless / Bar/None; 1986]

Two guys named John (Flansburgh and Linnell) stand out as quirky misfits in a decade full of quirky misfits and their self-titled 1986 debut could stand alone as a fair representation of the group that has persisted for more than 25 years. Are there overly-clever throwaways? Look no further than track number three, titled “Number Three.” Are there irreverent exercises in art pop that would leave most audiences shrugging their shoulders? Try “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” or “Toddler Hiway.” But, what They Might Be Giants might be best remembered for, and which would clearly continue on future releases Lincoln and Flood, is that beyond all the clever wordplay and cheap-o drum machine beats are unforgettable, strangely affecting hooks on which their best songs hinge: “Don’t Let’s Start,” “She’s An Angel,” and “Everything Right Is Wrong Again.” They Might Be Giants quickly put any fears to rest that they were nothing more than a novelty act known for recording songs on answering machines, and with a little help from MTV, they were well on their way to becoming one of the more unexpected success stories of the ‘80s.

Philip Cosores


New Order


[Factory; 1981]

New Order’s debut album is one that very much falls between two stools; it tries to continue down a similar direction as Joy Division while simultaneously trying to find a new sound as a new band. Ian Curtis’ shadow looms large over many of the tracks on the album, which sound like they’re almost directly cut ripped off from Closer; the plodding bass and drawn out vocals of “Truth,” the drums of “ICB” are strikingly similar to “Atrocity Exhibition” and the slow doom-like build of “Doubts Even Here,” which seems tailor-made for Curtis’ vocals – though Bernard Sumner gives it a good shot.

Simultaneously there are elements of the avant-dance-rock group that they would go on to be in the bouncy bass and synth of “Chosen Time,” the clamorous drums and guitars of “Denial” and the spacey highlight “The Him.” Every song on this album is an exciting and interesting experience, and while it could be criticised for being stuck between two sounds, half a cup of Closer and a dollop of Power, Corruption and Lies still makes a pretty tasty meal.

Rob Hakimian


Bad Brains
Bad Brains

[ROIR; 1982]

The big yellow lightning bolt on the front of Bad Brains’ self-titled debut was an apt design choice. Not only did it perfectly capture the anarchical “fuck you” message to the Feds in the band’s home base of Washington D.C., it also accurately signaled the lightning-fast pace of the album’s 15 tracks. Bad Brains was one of the first albums to demonstrate, in sonic form, how punk and metal were so intrinsically similar — and continually influencing one another in the early 1980s. Bad Brains used skillful metal guitar work, dub reggae, and the in-your-face energy of hardcore punk to get their message across. Most people didn’t expect them to be a crew of African-American guys, and they were subversive in that way, too. The true spirit of punk — the idea of defying people’s expectations — flourishes in this album, and to this day, I don’t know a single punk who doesn’t consider it a huge influence. Songs that you might consider using as entry points, if you’re unacquainted: “Big Take Over,” “I,” “Attitude,” and the frequently-covered “Right Brigade.”

Arika Dean


Talking Heads

Speaking In Tongues

[Sire; 1983]

From the funk-inflected bassline and moonlit synth dollops of opening track “Burning Down the House,” 1983’s Speaking In Tongues presents itself as a decidedly more eclectic affair than the existentially troubled Remain In Light. On “Making Flippy Floppy,” David Byrne’s typically cryptic lyics are backed by an unexpectedly straightforward and dance-ready musical arrangement that includes (of all things) a cowbell. A cowbell! “Our president’s crazy, did you hear what he said?” Byrne asks, though it doesn’t really matter which particular Reagan soundbyte he’s referring to. “There are no big secrets; don’t believe what you read,” Byrne contradictorily adds. Such is the case with the album as a whole; the Heads didn’t simply retread into familiar art-rock territory following Brian Eno’s departure, though the album is certainly a more accessible affair than most of the Heads’ prior material. No surprise that “Burning Down the House” became the band’s first and only Billboard Top 10 single. On Speaking In Tongues, Byrne and company proved that they could open up their sound without sacrificing their soul. Case in point: that weird gurgling noise on “Girlfriend is Better” (and parts of “Slippery People”) could have been abrasive and unnecessary but instead adds a surreal industrialism to the band’s sound. It’s very weird, but in a way that you’d want to hear again and again.

Josh Becker



Ride The Lightning

[Megaforce / Music for Nations / Elektra / Vertigo; 1984]

Hey, Metallica, you’ve just put out a highly successful, debut thrash-metal record, what are you gonna do next? “We’re gonna play some acoustic guitar!” OK, that’s probably not what the band was thinking when they wrote “Fight Fire With Fire” and made it the first cut on their sophomore release, Ride The Lightning, but talk about setting the tone. Yes, those heavy riffs and apocalyptic lyrics were still there, but Ride The Lighning saw Metallica taking on more complex harmonies and melodies, and willingly pushing themselves in new directions. The thundering “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is a headbanger’s dream, and Kirk Hammet’s solo on “Fade To Black,” the anti-suicide power ballad, is one of the most shred-tastic moments in Metallica’s discography (as is the one in “Creeping Death”). Following up Kill ‘Em All was no easy task, but the intricacies of Ride The Lightning built from the record’s assuredly metal base, proved that Metallica were more than just your run of the mill thrash band.

Jon Blistein



The Unforgettable Fire

[Island; 1984]

Whatever people think of as the “U2 sound” was born here. The Unforgettable Fire marks two crucial transitions for the group: the transformation of Bono’s lyrical sensibilities from largely political to largely personal, and The Edge’s, Adam Clayton’s, and Larry Mullen’s shift in sonic focus from punk energy to the kind of atmospheric chiming that would inform the entire careers of more bands than you could name (you know who they are). This second development is due no doubt to the band’s working for the first time with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, whose production colored the album’s highlights from the epic centerpiece “Bad” to the MLK-celebrating anthem “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which became one of U2’s more enduring hits.

Sean Highkin




[Warner Bros.; 1982]

By 1982 Prince had already established himself as a wunderkind, developed a sexually abrasive and “weird” stage persona, and recorded four albums including masterpiece Dirty Mind. In Prince’s world, this meant it was time for a career-breaking double album, which is exactly what the world received with 1999. The album bursts at the seams with funky dance gems such as the apocalyptic title track and the schizophrenic synth-pop of “Delirious.” Great as those tracks are (they rank with the best of the best of Prince’s entire songbook), the real revelations come on “Little Red Corvette.” The song, Prince’s biggest hit to date, captured a different side of The Purple One. It’s an early example in a long line of Prince double entendres, and provides a preview of the more sexually cautious Prince that would later emerge on Sign O’ The Times. Musically, the track is perfect pop. Synthesizers simulate the slick movement of the song’s namesake vehicle, building to one of the best choruses of the ‘80s. The rest of the album was similarly impressive, setting Prince up for a decade of chart dominance.

Jason Hischhorn