Straight Outta Compton is something of a rarity: a gangster album without morals. Marking the first of its kind, N.W.A. thoroughly embraced the troubled society where gangsters came from – ethical or not. Their debut record didn’t so much provide an entertaining listen but a challenging set of songs that conveyed the harsh realities of urban America. Its re-occurring themes of over-authority and racist environments unified the project as an all-too-rare political record. Instead of opposing the crimes, Ice Cube and co. took part in them within the context of their narratives. While songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” certainly consist of the profanity and sexism that critics lash out against to this very day, the MCs themselves are fascinating protagonists : more in love committing the felonies than enveloping the swagger.
– Ryan Studer
Double Nickels on the Dime
One Thirty BPM ranks this album 29 on its list of the top albums of the 1980s, but I disagree. I submitted a form with this record ranked in all slots 1-100, and I may have even sent more than one. I think Evan threw them out. Really this album deserves the rank of “infinity” because even if it came out today it would be so stupidly ahead of its time. A relentless cross-country tour of experimentation, arrangement and poetry, Double Nickels on the Dime occupies sonic and emotional space new listeners never knew was there. It’s long, but individual highlights reveal themselves like instant friends that see you sitting on the beach by yourself and ask if you want a cigarette and a ride to the party their friends are throwing a town over. “Punk rock changed our lives.” Ours too.
– FM Stringer
Back In Black
[Albert / Atlantic; 1980]
Here’s a question: As a band, how do you cope with the loss of your talismanic frontman, the focal point of the band in every way, shape and form? You craft the second biggest selling album of all time and the yardstick by which any future hard rock album is measured by, of course. How AC/DC could top an album as good as Highway To Hell is beyond me, but they did it, and with style. Almost every aspect of the band’s performance is improved, with the exception of the double entendre that Bon Scott perfected. Back In Black is a different AC/DC for a different time though, one where Angus Young took centre stage and carried the band to superstardom, and the band promptly shifted their focus from lyrics to hard-hitting riffs to back that up. You wouldn’t blame AC/DC if they had called it quits after Bon, but imagine a life without Back In Black. Hard, isn’t it? That’s why it’s on the list.
– Daniel Griffiths
In the catalog of Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska sticks out like a sore thumb, probably because the album is the result of one of the more famous accidents in rock and roll history. Recorded as demos for an E-Street Band album, the Howard Zinn-inspired tales of working-class economic struggle, violence, and clashes with authority ended up sounding better as the four-track, stripped-down, The Boss-alone-with-his-guitar-in-a-basement versions that you now hear on the 1982 album. Yeah, I’m sure one day we’ll hear the fabled ‘Electric Nebraska,’ but for now, let’s appreciate the twelve-bar-blues romp of “Johnny ’99,” the heartbreaking tale of two very different brothers in “Highway Patrolman” (famously turned into the film The Indian Runner by Sean Penn), and the opening title-track of a killing spree that takes its source material from the same story as the films Badlands and Natural Born Killers. And, of course, there is the beloved “Atlantic City,” which is great for many reasons, namely the refrain “maybe some things that die someday come back.” I’m sure it would have sounded wonderful with a saxophone solo, but it sounds perfect as a spare and intimate reflection by a lone Springsteen.
– Philip Cosores
After three records of (mostly) uplifting new-wave pop, Robert Smith decided to return to the baroque songwriting formula of The Cure’s “doom & gloom“-era, and made what could be regarded as the band’s Abbey Road. Disintegration is overflowing with ideas and creative twists, dabbling in ambient, pop and post-punk, alternating between gothic symbolism, romantic daydreams and existential dreamscapes. Although Smith preceded and followed the record with double-albums, Disintegration marks the moment where The Cure achieved all they ever set out to do.
– John Wohlmacher
I must confess that I feel a little bit strange writing about music from the ‘80s. Having been born right after this decade’s conclusion, I have no recollection of what it was like when these records came out. But of all the groups that got their start before 1990, R.E.M. is the one that I identify with the most. Their chemistry is simply unlike any other group that has existed before or since. Reckoning was released less than a year after the game-changing Murmur, and it was nearly as good. Michael Stipe was still singing close to the chest at this point, protecting his words from becoming totally audible, the music is a little more confident, and the artistic growth on display is incredibly satisfying. So before it became a cornerstone of one of the most amazing runs by any band in the last half-century, I’d say it was probably just an excellent album by an exciting and very promising young band.
– Brendan Frank
[Warner Bros.; 1986]
By the time Graceland was released in 1985, Paul Simon had already had multiple careers: as a successful folk act in the 1960s with Simon and Garfunkel, as an acclaimed solo act in the 1970s, and as an artist struggling for inspiration and seeing his commercial appeal dip in the 1980s. But Graceland is more than a comeback album, though it did nab Simon Grammys for both Album Of The year and Record Of The Year for the title track. Like Peter Gabriel around the same time, Simon proved the viability of world music as a commercial commodity, using his time in South Africa to expose an American audience to sounds and rhythms that they might not be wholly familiar with. And its lasting influence seems to just be showing its face, with bands like Vampire Weekend taking the ideas to the logical next step, a generation later. But I go back to the opening song, with the particularly timely lyrics about “lasers in the jungle and the baby with the baboon heart.” Simon’s lyrics about globalization and the rapid modernization of the planet are one of the more underrated aspects of Graceland, something he isn’t totally critical of, concluding that “these are the days of miracles and wonder.”
– Philip Cosores
There are a lot of “bad” words associated with that which exploded from the Dü. Words like “emo” and “sincere” and, most offensive of all, “AMBITIOUS.” They are referenced in more than a few bad songs and the record in question, the completely fantastic Zen Arcade, is a concept album about a boy leaving home and returning even more unfulfilled, more disillusioned. The fucking audacity. Sometimes I think that Hüsker Dü should be punished for being in the MySpace “influenced by” column of all of those bands I went to high school with, but then I remember the bass guitar lines like trains over pennies, the swerving pitchbends on guitars that threaten to gnash out of control, the impossibly effortless hooks. And really, I guess it’s okay that the album existed for new generations of songwriters. A narrator rubber-banded home after hating the world outside? The Monitor. Piano interludes and genre meandering? Source Tags and Codes. Fuck you, Hüsker Dü! You’re all right after all.
– FM Stringer
[Rough Trade; 1989]
On Fire is the very study of refinement. No one is ever going to prop this record up as revolutionary. Basic guitar rock rooted in The Velvet Underground garage slop is both the ends and the means here. Galaxie 500 simply realized the potential promised on Today with ten songs of achingly tender melodies and Dean Wareham’s earnest falsetto guiding the proceedings into unexpectedly affecting territory. At its heart On Fire wants nothing but to be an album of guitar driven pop, but the subject matter, which touches seamlessly on everything from Twinkies to states of longing, and the emotional focus turn the record into something transformative.
– Will Ryan
Master Of Puppets
[Elektra / Music For Nations / Vertigo; 1986]
When Metallica released the eponymous “Black Album” in 1991, hardcore metalheads bristled at the increased attention paid to singable choruses and stadium-sized riffs at the expense of the intricate, acrobatic contributions that had defined the San Francisco thrash pioneers’ first four albums. In truth, however, Metallica’s penchant for hooks existed as far back as their 1986 high-water mark, Master of Puppets. The move away from pure thrash-metal had begun on the group’s sophomore album, Ride the Lightning, but Puppets showcases a more mature Metallica. The thought put into the album’s sequencing and pacing is as much the story here as Kirk Hammett’s shredding pyrotechnics or Lars Ulrich’s machine-gun percussion. Bassist Cliff Burton, who was tragically killed in a bus accident following the release of Master of Puppets, holds down the bottom end in a way that neither of his subsequent replacements have quite managed. Puppets isn’t just Metallica’s best work — it’s the greatest heavy metal album ever made.