The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s


The Jesus and Mary Chain

[Blanco y Negro 1985]

Never before and never since has a band captured a certain beauty and ugliness like brothers Jim and William Reid did with the release of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album, Psychocandy. Pop melodies collide with what may very well be the most feedback-ridden guitar work ever put to tape. The result is an album that’s like an artist photographing a car accident – the mangled and horrific made beautiful through presentation.

Psychocandy is so chaotic at times it often feels like the songs are moments away from collapsing in on themselves, as if making it to the end of a song is the equivalent of escaping a burning building. This makes the record feel like a moment in time – impossible to replicate or capture once it’s passed. The Reid brothers probably sensed as much – none of the band’s subsequent albums ventured nearly as deep into the sonic territory traversed here. And over twenty-five years later (and counting), no other band has either.

Cole Zercoe



Purple Rain

[Warner Bros.; 1984]

The notion of a soundtrack being heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time is usually laughable. But, Prince’s Purple Rain was such an incredible album that it eclipsed the film it was originally created for, as the latter now feels like video vignettes for each single instead of a feature film. And whether it be the power-pop style of “Let’s Go Crazy,” the more psychedelic “Darling Nikki,” or the title track’s epic ballad form, Purple Rain was the perfect package of left-field ‘80s experimentation and classic pop bliss. The usual criticism of the album still stands; it’s certainly cheesy at times, but Prince’s impeccable production and dominance behind the mic and on the guitar remain unmatched. And even for its modern popularity, along with going platinum a mere thirteen times, Purple Rain isn’t for everybody. but those with an open mind and the capacity to embrace Prince’s sometimes laughable persona, Purple Rain is one of the finest albums of the ‘80s.

Erik Burg



The Joshua Tree

[Island; 1987]

The first side of U2’s fourth album is what made it one of the biggest-selling albums of the ‘80s. Odds are, the first three songs any given person will identify with Bono and company are “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” These are great songs, some of the most enduring rock anthems of all time, but what elevates The Joshua Tree beyond your average mid-‘80s smash is how good the deep cuts are. Bono truly comes into his own as a vocalist on “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Exit,” and the Edge’s slide playing on “Running to Stand Still” lends emotional heft to the song’s tale of ravaging heroin addiction. When a band like Coldplay or Snow Patrol is accused of ripping off U2, it’s usually because of this album, which built upon Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ advances on The Unforgettable Fire and cemented this sound — delay-drenched guitars and pounding, driving percussion — as “the U2 sound.”

Sean Highkin


Sonic Youth

Daydream Nation

[Enigma; 1988]

With their previous releases, Sonic Youth had made definite rumblings in the ’80s American underground, but it was with their magnum opus, 1988’s Daydream Nation, that they cracked through and into the consciousness of the wider public. No, it didn’t chart in America, but a band who had previously released songs called “Society is a Hole” and “Death To Our Friends”didn’t really expect to (not to mention what those songs actually sound like). Daydream Nation is not immediate. Over its 70 minute run time you’re taken on a trip through the history of hellish caverns of dank American rock clubs by means of brazen power-punk, detours into dissonance and feedback, through gust-like and trecks across wide expanses of breezy instrumental segments. It’s a lot to take in.

Although Sonic Youth is often thought of as a Thurston Moore-led band, it is Kim Gordon’s brutish vocals that make the most impact here. Daydream Nation is an easy album to appreciate in hindsight, but when it was released it was probably received with a chorus of “what the fuck?”s, and it would have been Gordon’s vocals, spouting killer one liners like “Are you for sale? Fuck you! Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?” or “Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me? You’re so soft you make me hard” that they latched on to initially while the textures and tonalities took their time to fully sink in. Of course there are immediate moments of guitar wizardry that feel visceral from the first listen and with every following listen. These moments probably led to their signing to Geffen and going down a much more direct (and forgettable) route on follow up album Goo – but trying to emulate Daydream Nation would have been just as futile as my trying to encapsulate it in words. Just go listen to it and take a trip.

Rob Hakimian




[I.R.S.; 1983]

For American audiences, R.E.M. defined alternative rock during the early eighties. It wasn’t only their sound; R.E.M.’s grassroots business approach of relying on college radio stations forced change on every level of the music industry. Alternative records, once relegated to the back of stores, were now sharing space with Michael Jackson LPs. 1983’s Murmur takes no small part of the credit for that development. What separated Murmur from the rest of the pack was the simple, almost retro production of Mitch Easter. Drums were recorded in a booth, guitars were minimally treated, vocals were almost always cut live, and in stark contrast to contemporary trends, the music was subtle and introspective. This was still a time before frontman Michael Stipe had become comfortable with his celebrity and sexuality, and consequently many of his vocals are mumbled and his lyrics unintelligible. Yet, there are times when an intended meaning peeks through, such as that concerning homelessness and despair on “Talk About The Passion” (“Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion”). Because of this, the album maintains a feeling of mystery that connects all the songs together. In their subsequent releases, R.E.M. moved away from their jangle-pop sound and began to actually write about things. As such, Murmur remains the most fully-developed album by a band not yet fully developed.

Jason Hirschhorn


Joy Division


[Factory; 1980]

The number of releases Joy Division had in relation to their influence is, to put it lightly, disproportionate. They have their second and final statement to thank for that. Closer is a brooding, mesmerizing masterpiece, the perfection of a sound that has inspired countless artists across three decades (not to mention some very successful revival bands). It comes from a very dark place; Ian Curtis took his own life exactly two months before its release. His health and personal issues were well known at the time, and the mind behind the words on this record is clearly an unhealthy one. It’s a little unsettling to think about, but it doesn’t take anything away from the actual product.Closer throbs with frustration, anguish, and twisted majesty, and it still holds up today. Curtis sums it up best on “Twenty Four Hours”: “What once was innocent / Turns on its side”. It may be a swan song, but more than anything else Closer a triumph of mood and atmosphere, venturing far into the dark and doing its best to make sure you can’t find your way back.

Brendan Frank


Talking Heads

Remain In Light

[Sire; 1980]

“Born Under Punches” begins Remain In Light with, like, the grooviest shit I’ve ever heard. David Byrne’s disembodied howl, like the manic side of you that only emerges under very specific circumstances, is concise, literate and fourth-wall destroying. Eno’s watchmaker handling of the band’s rhythms and counter-rhythms, bleepy boop samples and belly-exploding funk is unrivaled. The record’s frantic pacing and schizophrenic instrument gestures, as well as the cultural, historical and mythological makeup of Byrne’s lyrical panorama together enact paranoia on a personal and collective level.

When the lead guitar shows up on “The Great Curve,” practically tearing the song away from itself, I feel like this is the album Pink Floyd wanted to make, and Talking Heads did it with like half the minutes (it’s a spastic but painfully brief 38 minute ride beginning to end). Probably the album’s most famous track, the horrifying “Once In a Lifetime” juxtaposes a very-real terror of arriving at adulthood with one of the highest-flying choruses in rock and roll. Released in late 1980, Remain In Light, in all its neon-cocaine immortality, sounded in the decade and dominated it.

FM Stringer


Michael Jackson


[Epic; 1982]

Being such a mainstream success and an inherent part of the American pop music landscape, it’s easy to forget that Thriller is also an incredibly weird album. Turning away from the happy-go-lucky let-the-good-times-roll vibes of his discofied classic Off the Wall, on Thriller Jackson began to explore the celebrity paranoia that would come to dominate his work (and, arguably, his life). Opener “Wanna Be Starting Something” finds Jackson warning an unnamed “you” (presumably, a more naïve version of himself) that more than a few industry insiders will look to take advantage of his talents: “still they hate you, you’re a vegetable, you’re a buffet, they eat off of you,” while unnamed voices scream and yelp in the background. Speaking of “taking advantage,” let’s take a moment to consider “Billie Jean,” the standout track on an album packed with highlights. The song has since become a dancefloor classic, but in essence it’s a scary track; echoing strings rescued from some crumbling discotheque punctuate an eerie, almost ominous beat and chugging bassline while Jackson sings about a girl attempting to extort child support money (and perhaps attention) from the star himself, despite the fact that “the kid is not my son.” And on “Beat It,” which features perhaps the hardest-rocking guitar work to ever be successfully employed by an R&B track, Jackson says “they’re out to get you, better leave while you can.” Despite these warnings about the trappings of fame, however, the spotlight proved irresistible — maybe as necessary as oxygen — to MJ, and his struggle to come to grips with the glory/shame paradox of the entertainment industry would only grew more difficult in later years. But fortunately for us, before all that — before the trials and the surgeries and the defensiveness and the Martin Bashir documentaries — before his life spun out of control, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones recorded nine pitch-perfect synth-pop songs about fear and love. The fears Jackson expressed on Thriller would eventually consume him, but back in 1982, Jackson still had the presence of mind to combine self-awareness, giddy anticipation (i.e. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and the ridiculous track-ending machismo-infused dialogue between MJ and Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine”), and a creeping realization that fame’s never easy. Thriller might, in retrospect, represent Michael Jackson’s demons, but it’s also his artistic calling card: bizarre, unforgettable, and the result of both hard work and enormous musical talent. The same could be said of Jackson’s career as a whole, and perhaps that’s the point.

Josh Becker




[4AD; 1989]

It’s hard to believe that the Pixies’ first two full-length albums, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, came out a little more than a year apart in the late-’80s. Working with a new producer in Gil Norton, 40K in recording budget brought in by a fat deal with Elektra Records, and a fair amount of attention following the relative underground success of Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was a success in every measurable way, charting highly in the UK and earning a pair of modern rock radio hits. Still, historical context doesn’t begin to explain how fresh the album still sounds more than 20 years after its release. “Debaser” burns with enough intensity to raise the dead as Black Francis recalls an surrealist film experience, the “uh huh uh” duet between Black and Kim Deal on “Tame” is the definition of tension, and “Here Comes Your Man” shows that the Pixies were a ‘60s pop group in another life. And, of course, there is “Hey,” among the sexiest songs ever written. Their loud-quiet-loud formula would be the foundation on which Nirvana would build their sound, and countless others to follow, but Pixies never made like they were doing anything innovative while they were around. They were, through and through, a college band from Massachusetts who disappeared before any backlash could ever form, with Doolittle serving as their crowing achievement.

Philip Cosores


The Smiths

The Queen Is Dead

[Rough Trade; 1986]

On the surface, it would seem unlikely that this would be the quintessential rock album of the 1980s, but it actually isn’t that weird. The audience for early alternative and “college” rock was, in a lot of cases, teens and young adults who were socially awkward, especially around girls. And while this has been one of the most commonly utilized subjects throughout the history of pop music, arguably nobody has portrayed it with more effectiveness and crushing accuracy than one Steven Patrick Morrissey. The Queen is Dead is Morrissey’s peak as a lyricist, including “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “I Know It’s Over,” and especially “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

The Queen is Dead is also Johnny Marr’s high-water mark as a guitarist. Along with R.E.M., Marr’s style more or less laid the groundwork for indie mainstays today from the Shins to the Decemberists. The Smiths’ first two albums suffered either from an overabundance of filler tracks or a lack of cohesion in their sound. On The Queen is Dead, everything coalesced. There isn’t an ounce of fat in its 35 minutes, and even the tracks that aren’t towering classics (“Vicar in a Tutu,” “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others”) are fantastic. Morrissey would have some high points in his solo career, but neither he nor Marr would ever come close to topping this. However, when so few other people have, it’s hard to hold that against them.

Sean Highkin