The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s


Cocteau Twins


[4AD; 1984]

Some albums are quintessential to the time from which they came, but Treasure is not one of these albums. Rather, it manages to sound as something almost existing in its own self-contained state of being almost three decades later. Although Treasure follows two albums and four EPs, it is truly when Cocteau Twins came into their own as a genre-defining band. Along with new bassist Simon Raymonde, Robin Guthrie unleashes layer after layer of effect-laden guitars, while Elizabeth Fraser’s unearthly, ethereal voice soars in all its indecipherable glory, reaching new emotional heights. Although self-produced, the spirit of Phil Spector is ever-present on this collection of pop gems awash in a sea of noise. Treasure is a dream-pop masterpiece full of what would later be called “4AD-isms.”

Frank Mojica



Moving Pictures

[Anthem / Mercury; 1981]

They say that every band has its masterpiece, yet, it’s very rare that the album ranks as just that in wider world. Moving Pictures is an exception to that rule; an album that can be spoke of in the same sentences as Back In Black, IV/Zoso and Exile On Main St. Starting with “Tom Sawyer,” Rush managed to write some killer tunes and flex their musical muscles through “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ” and “Limelight” while keeping their audience engaged, then change the direction of the record until you get to “Vital Signs” which is as far removed from the opener as is possible. The real treat though, is the attention to detail in Moving Pictures. Peart’s lyrics are a step above his previous writings, the drumming is concise and still as brilliant, Geddy Lee is Geddy Lee, but better, and Alex Lifeson quite simply shines – check the guitar out in those first four tracks: Stunning.

Daniel Griffiths


Talk Talk

Spirit of Eden

[Parlophone / EMI; 1988]

Atmospheric, beautiful and always begging to replace the album you’re currently hearing: this is the leap into the unknown that Talk Talk took after vaguely hinting at what was to come on their commercial hit album The Colour of Spring. It’s a bit embarrassing to say an album titled Spirit of Eden is ‘spiritual,’ but that’s how it pans out. These tracks aspire to higher plateaus of enlightenment like John Coltrane’s watershed free jazz album Ascension. There’s a reason Talk Talk never toured after ’86: to do so would undermine the spontaneity and lose sight of its purity, according to Mark Hollis.

Critics peg this masterpiece as a distinct influence for post-rock, yet Tim Friese-Green’s crisp production and Hollis’ vocals remain unmatched by anybody else. On Laughing Stock, they return to this technique once more before turning in. Mark Hollis’ 1998 self-titled debut provides a minimal take on the proceedings, but there’s very little that can top the transcendent final two Talk Talk albums. “The Rainbow” signifying the beginning of a great thing, while Spirit of Eden as a whole draws on ambient flourishes and dynamic shifts to create pure sonic bliss.

Michael Tkach


Black Flag


[SST; 1981]

It’s downright impossible to have a discussion about the early hardcore movement, and not highlight Black Flag’s seminal LP Damaged. A masterpiece of anger and shattered identity, Damaged is one of the boldest debut albums to ever be released; and not just because of its noisy, introspective, aggressive demeanor. A perfect example of the DIY method so prevalent among independent music in the early ’80s, Damaged (released on their own label) found a perfectly invigorated Black Flag essentially redefining what the hardcore sound was. The band notably wrote all of their songs primarily in slower tempos as to add the pertinent melodies or “swing,” before speeding them up to incorporate the cutthroat, smash mouth aura with which they would become synonymous. The result is a uniformly energizing display of military-like precision and discipline set atop a chaotic mess that could not have come from any other band at the time.

Daniel Rivera


My Bloody Valentine

Isn’t Anything

[Creation / Relativity; 1988]

Although the band of elusive (and reclusive) frontman Kevin Shields is best known for their 1991 effort Loveless, it is the band’s debut album that shows their full range and capability. It’s the band’s only effort that fully dabbles in the uncanny and the coarse and where Shields manages to perfectly combine ‘60s pop and punk anthems. Isn’t Anything may include My Bloody Valentine’s most personal material, and proves that a record doesn’t need to be excessive to be perfect.

John Wohlmacher



Lifes Rich Pageant

[I.R.S.; 1986]

The energy and vivacity of Lifes Rich Pageant’s opener “Begin The Begin” help set the scene for the rest of the album. The opener is a statement of intent from R.E.M. and you get the feeling the band are locked-in, focused on crafting something special. They don’t disappoint on Lifes Rich Pageant. While this is still R.E.M., there’s something a little different about them on the album, as if someone served up a little adrenalin with their coffee while they were at the mixing desk. Lifes Rich Pageant is also where Michael Stipe, for me, really comes into his own as a lyricist. There’s an element of activism that creeps up in certain songs, both political and ecological. Stipe’s storytelling also becomes so much more focused and detailed than before. Couple this with Peter Buck’s ever-beautiful chiming chords, you have an album that allows its listener to lose themselves completely in it.

Daniel Griffiths


Brian Eno & David Byrne
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

[Sire; 1981]

As they say, everything is a remix. Sampling is a conduit to artistic influence, and with that in mind, Brian Eno and David Bryne weren’t exactly breaking new ground on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Bryne’s biggest group, Talking Heads, released the Third World trotting, critical darling Remain in Light, only one year prior. Yet recording sessions for Bush of Ghosts began before Remain in Light was recorded. As such, Bush of Ghosts can be viewed as a precursor to the artistic peak of Talking Heads along with Eno’s greatest ambient achievement, Ambient 4: On Land, but it’s certainly not to be overlooked.

The sampling on the album – which ranges from radio hosts to Lebanese mountain singers to evangelists to Egyptian singers to Algerian Muslims chanting the Qur’an (removed by the second edition at the request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain) – is easily the most varied, accomplished work prior to Paul’s Boutique. It is a pioneering effort that dispels superficial notions of ethnocentrism in Western music. That aside, even the percussive layers that pervade this album are praise-worthy, and consequently, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is much more than a footnote within these legendary artists’ careers.

Michael Tkach


Beastie Boys

Licensed to Ill

[Def Jam / Columbia; 1986]

It’s kind of ridiculous how close the Beastie Boys came to spending the rest of their careers as proto-Ali G-esque caricatures minus the self-awareness. It’s ostensibly way easier to criticize Licensed to Ill, because, on the surface, here were three white teenagers adopting these short-sighted ghetto-personas, and reaping the rewards of all the hard work done by hip-hop’s forefathers. You get the sense that Beastie Boys fans, as well as the group itself, should constantly be apologizing for this record, but no one does, and rightly so (amends have been made, but the record’s never been disowned). Because for all its, and their, faults, Licensed to Ill is a hip-hop touchstone, from Rick Rubin’s classic rock-sampling production to the over-the-top rapping. Listening to songs like “Rhymin & Stealin” or “Paul Revere” or “Hold It Now, Hit It,” the masks and branding fall away, and you see three kids who honestly, truly, care about hip-hop, and have the ability to take it somewhere great.

Jon Blistein


Tom Waits


[Island; 1983]

Before Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits was known for his piano ballads and jazzy spoken word pieces. This was the album that formed the eccentric Tom Waits we know today. Tales of suburbanites burning their houses to the ground replaced drunken crooning about hookers in Minneapolis.

Songs like “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six” and “Gin Soaked Boy” emanate Howlin’ Wolf through foot-stomping blues. “Shore Leave” and the title track place the listener in some dark cabaret. Instrumental tracks “Dave The Butcher” and “Just Another Sucker On The Vine” drum up images of gritty carnivals and romantic, cobblestone streets, respectively of course. The album’s closing song, “Rainbirds,” is a jazzy number that’s ripe with emotion, perfect for a rainy day. The title hinted at what Waits’ next album would be called, Rain Dogs.

Swordfishtrombones showed a rejuvenated Waits evolve out of the lounge act he had become known for into an even more brilliant artist.

Nicholas Preciado




[Island; 1983]

War marks a short but very rewarding point in the timeline of U2. In their previously releases, U2 had yet to figure out how to coalesce their message and their music. Later on, the band would resort to slowing down tempos to provide Bono the maximum amount of time at the podium. However, on War, political messages are shot out rapid fire. Opening salvo “Sunday Bloody Sunday” begins with Larry Mullen Jr.’s battlefield drum march, the appropriate segue into the song’s Bloody Sunday massacre lyrical theme. The subject of battle and revolution are omnipresent on War as tracks “Seconds” (“Held to ransom, hell to pay, a revolution everyday”) and “The Refugee” (“Her papa go to war, he gonna fight but he don’t know what for”) attest. Thematically, the album is not just one dimensional; the new wave-y “Two Hearts Beat As One” is one of the band’s most obvious come-ons, and “Red Light” is basically U2’s rewrite of “Roxanne.” When considered in its entirety, War is U2’s first complete statement as well as their most straightforward hard rock album.

Jason Hirschhorn