The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s


Cocteau Twins

Blue Bell Knoll

[4AD; 1988]

In 1986, the Cocteau Twins released two albums unlike anything else they’d recorded before: the sparse, guitar-driven Victorialand and a collaboration with avant-garde pianist Harold Budd entitled The Moon and Melodies. In the wake of these experimental, genre-expanding releases, 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll might have seemed like a retread into safe, more conventionally structured material. Indeed, critical consensus dismissed the record for just this reason. But whereas many at the time of its release considered it solid yet unremarkable, Blue Bell Knoll has rightly gained increase prominence in recent years. Rather than backtracking to previously explored territory, the album is the sound of a band doing what they do best: spacey pop-rock with a gorgeous, glassy bent, from the synthy harpsichord elegance of the opening title track to the haunting charm of songs like “For Phoebe Still a Baby.” In light of their follow-up, 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, Blue Bell Knoll can be seen as an important bridge in their discography between the band’s earlier, more ethereal work and their later pop-oriented records. But it should also be seen as a terrific little pop album that hits all the right notes. Blue Bell Knoll may not be the Twins’ most challenging work, but it is certainly among their most satisfying.

Josh Becker


Galaxie 500


[Aurora; 1988]

True, On Fire is the Boston band’s magnum opus, but Today laid the groundwork for that record’s relaxed poignancy; the latter provides the blueprints for the former’s listless architecture. But it’s also beautiful considered in its own right, a quality made all the more remarkable by the fact that Galaxie 500 was but a guitar-bass-drums band at the time. That they manage to make such achingly rich music with such common instruments is a testament to the band’s two biggest nascent strengths: a keen ear for pop hooks (opener “Flowers” is especially indelible) and a knack for the hazy garage-jangle Americana of early R.E.M. (“Parking Lot” and “Oblivious” immediately come to mind, though the whole album could easily fit this description). Indeed, Today is an amalgamation of garage rock, guitar pop, and ambient styles, and this is seen most evidently on “Instrumental,” a brief track that makes up for its lack of vocals with a killer guitar riff that calls to mind the seemingly happy yet ultimately melancholic guitar work on Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.” This is Today’s true thesis: that even ennui can sound beautiful. Plenty of bands have since sought to recreate Galaxie 500’s sound, but few could ever match it.

Josh Becker


Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Imperial Bedroom”

[Columbia; 1982]

One of the most vivid memories I have of my freshman year of college is walking down Central Park West through the pouring rain, tripping on four hits of acid, and watching skyscrapers disintegrate into sand. “Beyond Belief” blared through my headphones. Christ, what a way to start a record. Elvis sings like he’s in a trance, backed up by swirls of guitar chords, a pounding bass drum, and an organ caked in so much reverb it sounds like it’s being played in another dimension and we’re just hearing whatever traces of sound made it into our universe.

Oh, and the rest of the album is pretty damn good, too.

The production is a far cry from the stripped down sound of This Year’s Model and Trust. It’s an 80s album, but if I didn’t know better, I’d guess it was released in 1967. The Sgt. Pepper-esque accompaniment is almost enough to distract from how dark the lyrics are. In “You Little Fool,” Costello stammers out “I suppose that you’re going to stay all night” with such scorn that you can’t help but wonder what the girl did to the poor bastard. The way he sings “To murder my love is a crime,” in “Man Out of Time,” you know he’s spent a lot of time thinking about it.

Still, what makes this album so special is the way Elvis ties these contrasting elements together. A combination of impeccable production and the sincerity Costello brings to his mostly-caustic songwriting makes Imperial Bedroom a complex record that dabbles both in sunshine pop that would make Brian Wilson jealous and scathing assaults that make “Positively Fourth Street” sound like “Love Me Do.”

Jeremy Bunting


Eric B. and Rakim

Paid In Full

[4th & B’way / Island; 1987]

Possibly the most relaxing hip-hop album of all time (yes, that’s high praise), Eric B & Rakim’s classic Paid in Full is the epitome of confidence and soulfulness, with early scratches and cuts from DJ pioneer Eric B. as the canvas. Rakim’s smooth and methodic flow was stark in contrast to MCs like KRS-One or Chuck D who treated the mic like a loudspeaker, the internal rhyme and lyricism on the record became the standard for his contemporaries. The album’s first single, “Eric. B is President,” features one of the most recognizable hooks in rap’s history, “make ‘em clap to this,” and future singles such as “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke” have since become legendary. And the same goes for the popularity of Paid in Full. It took until 1995 for the album to finally go Platinum, and while the original sales and reviews were temperate, Paid in Full is now universally regarded as one of the most influential and popular hip-hop albums of all time.

Erik Burg


Pink Floyd

The Final Cut

[Harvest; 1983]

As far back as 1977’s Animals, Floyd guitarist David Gilmour seemed to be becoming marginalized in the songwriting process. This continued with The Wall, Waters’ highly personal rock opera about the paranoia that comes with rock stardom, and was pushed past its breaking point on this misunderstood 1983 album. The Final Cut was even more personal than The Wall, dealing with the death of his father in World War II. Despite featuring the group’s classic lineup (for the final time), The Final Cut is a Pink Floyd album in name only, but the songs, including “Two Suns in a Sunset” and “When the Tigers Broke Free,” are hauntingly beautiful, foreshadowing the quietly brilliant solo career Waters would go on to have throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Sean Highkin


Young Marble Giants
Colossal Youth

[Rough Trade; 1980]

It’s strange to me that both the band and album names, Young Marble Giants and Colossal Youth, suggest a grandness in scale, but the music held within is actually some of the most purposefully slight ever created. Colossal Youth is often lumped in with the post-punk movement that was at full tilt at the time of its release, and although there are certainly elements of post-punk – notably in Stuart Moxham’s choppy rhythm guitar playing – Young Marble Giants’ music stands firmly apart from any music then or since. Young Marble Giants not only lacked a drummer, they lacked a drum machine, utilising cassette recording instead. The album was recorded in half a week and overdubs were minimal. This leaves the album sounding so organic and intimate that shutting your eyes while listening will make you feel as if you are in the company of the band as they play. The lyrics flit seamlessly from the natural to the abstract, all delivered in Alison Statton’s voice which is as soft and sweet as jelly and ice cream.

In the in the three decades since the album’s release nobody has ever made an album like Colossal Youth. It’s probably because, despite all the hi-tech or lo-fi recording techniques that are prominent today, nobody will ever be able to recreate the perfect combination of subtle elements that this band had for those three days holed up in a North Wales recording studio.

Rob Hakimian


Sonic Youth


[SST; 1986]

EVOL has become known as Sonic Youth’s transitional record. It was the group’s first with SST and their first with drummer Steve Shelley, but more importantly it was the group’s move into more melodic and approachable song craft. Sister and Daydream Nation would follow, continuing the trends set on EVOL (and perhaps focusing them), but EVOL still stands firmly on its own. It combines the darkened, detuned atmospheres of previous outings (namely Bad Moon Rising) with pop-leaning structure and the vocal dynamic the group would settle into for the rest of their career. As ambitious as Bad Moon Rising was, and despite moments of genius on Confusion Is Sex, EVOL is the first album from Sonic Youth worthy of the title.

Will Ryan




[Profile / Arista; 1984]

Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut LP is easily one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. The album opener “Hard Times” introduced the world to the hard hitting, stripped down beats consisting of only drum machines and well-timed cuts & scratches courtesy of Jam Master Jay.

The second track on the album, “Rock Box” was a huge runaway success. The trio utilized heavy guitar reverb and their trademark slapping drums to cement their place as the Elvis of hip-hop. In the decades to follow, artists as diverse as Jay-Z, Slick Rick and De La Soul would sample this track.

Building on Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s model of back-and-forth rhyming, Run-D.M.C. took it a step further by being the first to point out “sucker MCs” and the evils they do. Without Run-D.M.C.’s freshman LP hip-hop as we know it today would be completely different

Marc Heilbrunn


Meat Puppets

Meat Puppets II

[SST; 1984]

It’s not unusual that my path into this album was paved by Nirvana, I’m certain that’s the case for way more than a few of us. While the influence on Nirvana is tangible on the few songs that they exposed to the rest of the world, it becomes easy to overlook the rest of the album which seems to have had as important an effect on an entirely different corner of music. The whole punk/country blend seemed to predict a lot of what was coming with alt country in the ‘90s, and while that influence may not be as desirable as the adoration of a Kurt Cobain, they had at least a small hand in shaping a whole sub-genre of music which is more than most bands can say.

Colin Joyce


The Cure


[Fiction / A&M; 1982]

Pornography must have certainly been a shock for every kid who heard “Lovecats” in 1983 and purchased the band’s latest effort in hope of more danceable, radio-friendly pop. The record may be the bleakest, most depressing statement in the band’s lengthy catalogue; gory lyrical imagery and harsh sound experiments included. Yet, in the gloomy atmosphere and sheer sonic power hides something strangely cathartic and comforting. Not for Smith though – the time following Pornography would be dominated by radio pop and too many drugs.

John Wohlmacher