The Top 100 Albums of the 1980s


The Replacements

Let It Be

[Twin/Tone; 1984]

OK, so at this point what else can I really say about Let It Be? We all get it: It’s The Replacements’ best record because you can hear so clearly hear them grappling with their drunk punk rock past and imminent college rock future. So let’s get the whole seriousness-juxtaposed-with-goofiness stuff out of the way, because, duh, if you can write a song called “Gary’s Got A Boner” and then have it transition perfectly into “Sixteen Blue” — a song so honest in its approach to adolescent frustration and confusion — if you can do that not just once, but throughout an entire LP, then yeah, you deserve to be in the pantheon. Let It Be showed that nothing was sacred — punk rock, Beatles albums, sincerity, humor — that anyone, anything, can and should be screwed with because isn’t that what rock and roll is all about? And, yes, in canonizing Let It Be right now we’re certainly guilty of those aforementioned crimes against rock, but I suppose it is about finding a balance. So for a second forget the whole “turning point of a band” narrative, forget the juxtapositions, forget the indie rock oeuvre, and just think about the shuffling guitars of “I Will Dare” or the intoxicated anger of “We’re Coming Out,” or the exhilaratingly stupid joy of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” or the sweet paean of sexual freedom that is “Androgynous,” or the fact that “Black Diamond” is a freaking KISS cover, or Westerberg’s choked-up wail on “Unsatisfied,” or the anthemic titular chant of “Seen Your Video,” or the lonesome, heart-wrenching beauty of “Answering Machine.” Because that’s what makes Let It Be perfect.

Jon Blistein


Kate Bush

Hounds Of Love

[EMI; 1985]

There comes a time in your life when you enter adulthood, and as you find footing, you go and find an incredible artist who makes you feel terrible about yourself. Regardless of whether you’re an artist or a simpleton who simply admires art, you feel as though whatever you do, you absolutely cannot compete with someone so great. Cue Kate Bush.

Hounds Of Love is split up into two sections: “Hounds of Love” and “The Ninth Wave.” The first section consists of upbeat, pop-friendly songs, and the second section is an exploration into Kate’s more left-field sensibilities. It has Celtic folk, songs about witches and drowning, programmed looping and advanced layering — and this was on a major label album by a major female artist. Hounds of Love ushered in a new age of avant-pop that has been carried on by Björk, Tori Amos, and PJ Harvey, among others. Ask yourself: would our modern artists be taking risks, if not for this album and others like it? It’s time to bow down.

Arika Dean


New Order

Power, Corruption & Lies

[Factory; 1983]

They say lightning never strikes twice, but that’s precisely what happened when New Order released their sophomore album, Power, Corruption and Lies, in the summer of 1983. After suffering through the tragic loss of Ian Curtis and the subsequent dissolution of Joy Division, the simple act of regrouping would have been an impressive enough feat for most artists. But as evidenced in this record and the ones that followed, the creation of New Order was much more than just a regroup – it was rebirth.

From the opening notes of “Age of Consent” and onward, Power, Corruption and Lies is the soundtrack of a band taking hold and never letting go. It is here that the group fully developed their signature sonic identity – trading in Joy Division’s post-punk darkness for a synth-led reinvention that would inspire countless acts throughout the decades. It’s incredibly difficult for musicians to create a sound that is vital, unique, and influential. This album proved that Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris could do it twice.

Cole Zercoe


Dinosaur Jr.

You’re Living All Over Me

[SST; 1987]

You’re Living All Over Me isn’t just the best thing rock legends Dinosaur Jr. ever put out, but it’s one of the least heralded catalysts for the so-called grunge movement that would change the face of music in the 1990s. The way the band brought together violent, brain-rattling fuzz-rock and somber dream pop is practically unmatched. Hell, most bands wouldn’t have survived the mere opening seconds of an album like this. When You’re Living All Over Me starts, it’s nothing but a thick barrier of distortion, feedback, piss and vinegar. But somehow, J Mascis even pulls that off. And once the static gets a chance to dissipate, what’s left is one of the seminal records of not just the 1980s, but of a whole genre.

Andrew Bailey



Surfer Rosa

[4AD; 1988]

To understand the impact of Surfer Rosa, one only needs to review the alternative explosion of the nineties. The Pixies’ “soft verse, loud chorus” songcraft was near omnipresent for the first half of the nineties, by which time the Pixies had already burnt out and subsequently disintegrated shortly thereafter. But back in 1987, the band was fresh off the critical success of their debut EP Come On Pilgrim and were being matched up with the still somewhat unknown producer, Steve Albini. The resulting Surfer Rosa had a harder, more menacing edge than anything any other alternative rock band was releasing at the time. On “Bone Machine,” every part of what came to epitomize the Pixies is on display: Black Francis’ offhand remarks left in the final mix, the off-key vocal harmonizing of Francis and Kim Deal, and the sludgy bass and drums that were a breath of fresh air from the overproduced eighties’ rhythm sections. On Surfer Rosa, the band is just having fun and not taking themselves overly seriously. The Pixies were just different, and nowhere is this better exemplified than the moment on “Where Is My Mind?” where all the instruments and voices fall off save Deal’s ghostly howl. Still to this day it’s the most simultaneously haunting and funny moment in popular music.

Jason Hirschhorn


Public Enemy

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

[Def Jam / Columbia; 1988]

More than anything else, especially now in hindsight, the ’80s harbored a great number of artists that served as transitional figures from one decade to the next. While many artists on our lists could be categorized as similarly influential, few had the audacity and tenacity of Public Enemy. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back will forever be memorialized for its stance on race relations and sociology, but musically it was one of a kind. The mix of live performance, bombastic cuts and loops, along with the progressive idea of sampling combined to make an album wholly a product of the time, yet incredibly ahead of the curve.

Erik Burg


The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses

[Silvertone; 1989]

Self-described by singer Ian Brown as “the most important group in the world,” The Stone Roses debut LP kicks off to the tune of a locomotive building steam on “I Wanna Be Adored,” and transitions gradually into the thick, textured foundation of Gary Mounfield’s bass. Bouncy, up-tempo “She Bangs The Drums” features guitarist John Squire’s nimble digits blurring across strings and frets. Atop fuzzy reverb, Brown belts in fervid frenzy: “Have you seen her have you heard/ The way she plays there are no words/ To describe the way I feeeeeel!” Building on this theme of smitten infatuation, “Waterfall” has Brown conceiving his lover as a surging naturalistic force amidst cascading guitar riff. On “Bye Bye Bad Man,” a playful shaker and Squire’s sunshine-laden finger picking clash with Brown’s sprightly lyrics. Channeling John Lennon’s “Run for Your Life,” The Stone Roses’ “Shoot You Down” has the Manchester natives fantasizing about unleashing a barrage of bullets upon a manipulative minx. The instrumental section cuts out abruptly, leaving only a dead silence to complement Brown’s eerie purr of frigid detachment: “I’d love to do it and you’ve known you always had it coming.”

A slew of garish guitar licks and electronic effects set the backdrop for psych-rock ditty “Made of Stone,” as the vocalists’ rhetorical questions reveal a thinly veiled preoccupation with alienation and decay. By far the LP’s longest cut at over eight minutes, “I Am The Resurrection” is an uninhibited guitar-driven rocker that rips into an erstwhile companion with mocking chides.

As trailblazers in the “Madchester” movement that wed dance rhythms with melodic guitar pop, The Stone Roses remain one of Britain’s national treasures.

Henry Hauser


Beastie Boys

Paul’s Boutique

[Capitol; 1989]

Despite having a widely successful debut with Licensed to Ill, the Beasties broke ties with Def Jam and Russell Simmons due to unpaid royalties and parted ways with producer Rick Rubin to avoid being overshadowed artistically. The three Jewish kids from New York soon found themselves in Los Angeles where they signed to Capitol and teamed up with producing duo The Dust Brothers. A stay at director Alex Grasshoff’s house (the “G-Spot”), endless eggings, and a quarter million dollars worth of samples later, the Beastie Boys had one of the most prolific and technically impressive hip-hop albums of all time on their hands.

The multitude of samples (literally hundreds sprawling across the genres of funk, soul, hip-hop, and rock) used by the Dust Brothers was unheard of at the time, and due to changes in sampling law (back in 1989, drum samples didn’t need to be cleared) a commercial release using so many many samples just wouldn’t be viable. Who today is crazy enough to sample five Beatles songs on a single commercial track? (See “The Sounds of Science”).

Take a look a more recent sample-heavy albums: Girl Talk’s releases are released under non-commercial Creative Commons licenses and are made available for free download. 2000’s Since I Left You by Australian group The Avalanches had many of its samples swapped out or removed before it could see wide release.

The Beatles ties don’t end stop at its samples. Due to Paul’s Boutique‘s psychedelic elements and ending medley it can be seen as both rap’s Sgt. Peppers and Abbey Road. Even though Paul’s Boutique has just passed its 20th-anniversary it seems like rap fans will hold it on a very similar echelon. In just 53 minutes, the Beastie Boys — and Dust Brothers — take us on a journey from Los Angeles to New York while paying homage to years of previously recorded music that would be exposed to their listeners for years to come.

Evan Kaloudis


Guns N’ Roses

Appetite For Destruction

[Geffen; 1987]

Appetite for Destruction arose during a time when hair metal was at its peak, and glossy bands like Winger and Poison were dominating MTV. Yet it’s the only album from that era to survive with a strong reputation, mainly because if Motley Crue was the party, Guns N’ Roses provided the hangover: they were dirty, frank and loathed the hedonistic L.A. lifestyle from which they had spawned. They also had immeasurable talent, whether it was the way guitarists Izzy Stradlin and Slash played off each other like the Stones at their height or the raw, irreplaceable voice of singer W. Axl Rose, whose initials spelled “WAR” for a reason. With Appetite, the band collectively took on the pop-metal genre and destroyed it from the inside, creating several smash hit singles in the process; by their next album, the acoustic EP Lies, hair metal was fading, and by 1991, with their heavy and bombastic Illusions records, they had effectively laid the groundwork for the Seattle grunge movement, though Kurt Cobain would perhaps have never admitted it. And to this day it holds up – just try playing the opening riff of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and not doing the air guitar.

John Ulmer


Tom Waits

Rain Dogs

[Island; 1985]

With the assistance of his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and stronger influence from the likes of Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf, Waits adopted his signature sound in the ‘80s. Rain Dogs epitomizes that effort with his best all-around collection of songs. Inhabiting the New York City underground, Rain Dogs acknowledges the existence of folks many turn their back to: drug dealers, drunks, vagrants, prostitutes and, generally speaking, the destitute denizens of the city. Lyrically, “Gun Street Girl” also reaches out to include transvestite guitarist Falling James. Even Rod Stewart’s cover couldn’t derail the force of “Downtown Train”. Keith Richards checks in to lend guitar to a few tracks and his rusty pipes to back “Blind Love,” while Mark Ribot is responsible for the album’s fiercest hook on “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” Waits assembles a crack squad throughout, complimenting bankrupt ballads and seedy street tales with Chinatown percussion, New Orleans brass and the Southern fiddle. “I’ve seen it all through the yellow windows of the evening train,” Waits asserts, but Rain Dogs is the sound of freighthopping countrywide.

Michael Tkach