Van Halen’s move to keyboards on 1984 should’ve resulted in a ruined career. Not only did the guitar compliment the hard-partying message as a link to the excesses of the 70s on any early Van Halen record, Eddie Van Halen was one of those very rare, very unique pioneers of his instrument; who else, outside of Hendrix, has done as much for the guitar in terms of what it can achieve? No-one. Why move away from that? Remarkably, the move worked for the band. There’s an added dimension to 1984 because of this, a maturity to songwriting that would allow them to keep going, which spilled over into the guitar-only songs. The keyboard reaction may even seem over the top, but when your album opener and single (and arguably best/most recognisable song) are almost devoid of guitar, that’s going to be remembered. As it is, the synth tracks complimented the guitar tracks perfectly, and Van Halen never sounded better than on 1984.
– Daniel Griffiths
Born In The U.S.A.
Born In The U.S.A. was released in June 1984, but Springsteen had labored on the songs since 1981, with tracks being fully written during the sessions for what became Nebraska – including an early version of the title track. Born In The U.S.A. is in many ways a polar opposite of the sparse and dark Nebraska, with its synths and big, pop-oriented sound. Despite the big and radio-friendly sound the songwriting hadn’t really changed much compared to Springsteen’s previous record with The E Street Band, 1980’s The River, and the lyrics still told the tales of regular, hard-working people, often down on their luck – as exemplified by the often misunderstood title track.
Today Born In The U.S.A. remains one of Springsteen’s most well-known records, and its sound is the one casual fans are most likely to identify with Bruce Springsteen. While a few of the singles may be a bit worn out and the ‘80s production is a bit dated, the strong songwriting throughout makes the record stand the test of time.
– Johan Alm
Long before Rivers Cuomo was perfecting being, ya know, Rivers Cuomo, Violent Femmes mastermind Gordon Gano was synthesizing the art of being oddly solipsistic and colorfully creepy better than just about anybody could want to. Musically, his band’s self-titled debut would employ a punk rock spirit expertly straddling the lines of alternative, folk, and pop (all done with barely any electronics!); but the album’s demeanor is what left its most notable mark. Juxtaposing those world-class hooks with… fucking weird sexual confessions and unabashed self-aggrandizement, Violent Femmes was a unique celebration of feeling completely comfortable with being overtly uncomfortable. It’s not that anything contained within Violent Femmes was particularly offensive, but there is something to be said about the simple art of having little to no tact. Ultimately, it makes for a wildly enjoyable and shockingly affable LP which contains some of the more addictive hooks and songs of the 1980s.
– Daniel Rivera
Songs About Fucking
[Touch & Go; 1987]
Even Steve Albini’s loudmouthed antics can’t overshadow his work as an artist and recording engineer (he’s responsible for everything from Surfer Rosa to Ys). Throughout the ‘80s, Albini offered no apologies for Big Black’s subject matter, and naming his next band Rapeman after the title character in a Japanese comic book didn’t dissuade misogyny claims. On Big Black’s final album, Songs About Fucking, they cram songs about assholes (“Bad Penny”), the unfortunate cure to the “sleepy sickness” epidemic (“L Dopa”), sexual dominance (“Precious Thing”), and humiliating execution methods (“Columbian Necktie”) into a tight half-hour package. And that’s only side one. Working like an efficient lumber mill, the drum machine laid an aggressive backbone to the whirring fury of electric guitars. Side two eases up by their standards, especially on “Tiny, King of the Jews” which features subdued, distant vocals that still manage to be menacing. But on “Fish Fry,” Albini steams as he depicts a murderer hosing the blood from his pickup truck with his “8-track playin’ really fuckin’ loud.” Ah, Albini: always the analog loyalist.
– Michael Tkach
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
David Bowie capped off one of the all-time great stretches of albums in rock history with this one. Scary Monsters used Bowie and Brian Eno’s peerless Berlin Trilogy as a foundation, refining those records’ art-rock experimentation while also hinting at the direction Bowie’s career would take in the rest of the ‘80s. For the first time in his career, Bowie slipped from relevance during this decade with a series of increasingly predictable and overtly radio-baiting records, but on Scary Monsters tracks like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” he proved that “commercial” and “forward-thinking” weren’t meant to be mutually exclusive. He’s made some solid albums in the years since Scary Monsters, but this was his last truly great piece of work, and it ranks as one of his very best.
– Sean Highkin
Meat Is Murder
[Rough Trade; 1985]
Politically charged and loaded with in-your-face sensitivity, Meat Is Murder may not get the same level of love as followup The Queen Is Dead, but is more than worthy. For the self-produced Meat Is Murder, The Smiths took the best ideas from their debut and perfected them, resulting in two of their best and most anthemic songs “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and “The Headmaster Ritual.” Conversely, the band tried out some ones, thus pushing them along the path to becoming one of the most important bands of not just the ‘80s, but ever. Whether adopting a rockabilly style on “Rusholme Ruffians” or going funky on “Barbarism Begins at Home,” the guitar chops of Johnny Marr on Meat Is Murder are never anything less than impeccable, redeeming what would have otherwise been a lachrymose ode to vegetarianism on the title track.
– Frank Mojica
De La Soul
3 Feet High And Rising
[Tommy Boy / Warner Bros.; 1989]
Perhaps best known to the masses for being featured in the recent Tribe Called Quest documentary, De La Soul has a reputation among true hip-hop heads for being the one group there will never be a movie about. Their consistency throughout their 11 albums has been their greatest gift to the music world. They have continued to grow as artists without compromising their integrity. Posdnuos, Dave & Maseo played an instrumental part in the early days of the Gorillaz and have toured with alternative bands like Modest Mouse & Flaming Lips.
It all started with 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising. From the album cover to the music, De La Soul didn’t fit the generic hip-hop mold of the time. They were wearing weird/vintage clothes (before that was a thing) and all about daisies; a stark contrast to popular acts at the time like the Geto Boys & Ice T. My personal favorite song from the LP, “Eye Know” sampled Steely Dan’s “Peg” long before Kanye West had the idea to sample Donald Fagen & Walter Becker.
Today the album is in the National Library of Congress and it was recently paid homage to in a Nike SB campaign. Without 3 Feet High and Rising and the Native Tongues Movement, artists like Kanye West & the Neptunes would never have been possible.
– Marc Heilbrunn
The Replacements’ 1985 major-label leap, Tim, could end any argument about majors versus indies in a band’s creative process, as the album maintained the band’s fierce integrity and commitment to quality that had previously been reached on Let It Be. Containing a fair share of classics, including “Left Of The Dial,” “Bastards Of Young,” and “Hold My Life,” the album portrays a slightly more poppy version of the band, moving further away from their hardcore roots and even containing a hilarious (and particularly ’80s in content) ode to stewardesses on “Waitress In The Sky.” But at their heart, The Replacements had hardly changed at all, seeing very little commercial exposure with their major label debut and even squandering an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1986 by receiving a lifetime ban from the show following their rebellious performance. Luckily people liked, and still do like, writing about The Replacements, who were forever doomed to be little more than critic’s darlings.
– Philip Cosores
New Day Rising
While fellow Minnesotans The Replacements were jumping to the majors, Hüsker Dü was following up their most ambitious album, Zen Arcade, with the more straight-forward and, arguably, more easily enjoyable classic New Day Rising. And, it was released a mere six-months later. Seamlessly blending their hardcore punk roots with a then nameless, later-to-be-called-alternative leaning, New Day Rising showcases Bob Mould’s pop sensibilities (“I Apologize,” “Celebrated Summer”) with Grant Hart’s underrated songwriting successes (“The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill,” “Books About UFOs”). It’s easy to look at New Day Rising and wonder if any of the college rock of the Pixies or the grunge of Nirvana would have been possible without Hüsker Dü, but it is probably better to enjoy the record for what it is: a thesis in the aesthetic of working-class punk and the realization that melody and attitude don’t have to be combative elements. At least, not anymore.
– Philip Cosores
As one of the more consistently active bands to have their roots in the ‘80s, we’ve seen many incarnations of Dinosaur Jr. across the years, and still nothing has beaten the original late ‘80s lineup. Bug, the last before the strife, before the ego and perfectionism that drove Lou Barlow and eventually Murph away, sounds like a young band at their best, and certainly doesn’t seem to predict Barlow’s leaving a short time later. Barlow’s melodic, guitar-like bass lines, Murph’s keen sense of dynamics, and J Mascis’ ever-improving songwriting and guitar playing combine for some outstanding moments. The noisy solo in the outro of “No Bones,” the catharsis of “Pond Song” — it’s just all outstanding. There’s certainly a reason that everyone was excited when Beyond was announced in 2007; this lineup here is amongst the greatest we’ve ever seen, and despite the fact that it was all about to fall apart, they just sound locked-in.