The 1980s


The first year of the 80s continues the wild high of the last 3 years of the 70s, topped by the best album from one of the most innovative bands of the era. Remain in Light is a tremendous ride through avant-pop choruses, African and Latin-inspired rhythms, shards of sonar-like electric guitar, and ghostly electronics.  It is one of the most sonically thrilling records of the entire decade. The River is almost its polar opposite - part punch-the-clock bar-band rock and part deep dive into the stark realities of adulthood. It's one of Springsteen's greatest albums. Sure there are some relics of the pre-punk days still making solid albums here, but most of this list is comprised of bands that took the shock wave of punk and the potential of pop and splintered it into really bold and interesting new directions: Joy Division's second and final LP went deeper and darker than their landmark debut. Prince continued his climb to becoming the most cutting-edge pop star of the decade with his first unmitigated classic. And The Clash went all in on triple-album Sandinista in a way that is sloppy and over-the-top but contains at least a single album's worth of great songs. There were debut albums from U2 and The Pretenders, two bands who became incredibly popular over the next 10 years, and great debuts from The Feelies and The Teardrop Explodes which were arguably those bands' career high points. Finally, after being one of the 70's great album artists, David Bowie kicked off the 80s with his final masterpiece.  

1. TALKING HEADS | Remain In Light
3. THE FEELIES | Crazy Rythyms
4. PRINCE | Dirty Mind
5. JOY DIVISION | Closer
6. AC/DC | Back In Black
7. X | Los Angeles
8. DAVID BOWIE | Scary Monsters
10. ELVIS COSTELLO | Get Happy!
11. U2 | Boy
12. PRETENDERS | Pretenders
13. THE JAM | Sound Affects
14. THE ROLLING STONES | Emotional Rescue
15. BAUHAUS | In The Flat Field
16. THE CLASH | Sandinista
17. DIRE STRAITS | Making Movies
18. YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS | Colossal Youth
19. SWELL MAPS | June From Occupied Europe
20. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART | Doc At The Radar Station
21. TOM WAITS | Heart Attack and Vine
22. JUDAS PRIEST | British Steel


1981's best albums list is a truly weird mix of sounds that pushed out against boundaries in a variety of ways. A handful of bands that would later push the boundaries of college rock's popularity were taking baby steps toward those loftier albums:  U2's rather minor October is a bridge between Boy's punk-lite beginnings to the politically minded classic rock moves of War, and The Cure's Faith is a smothered, difficult record that barely hints at the bright classics that would come soon.  Kraftwerk continued their decade-long assimilation of electronic sounds into boundary-pushing song structures in a way that was both futuristic and often oddly beautiful. Gang of Four followed up their provocative 1979 debut with another blast of wiry post-punk in Solid Gold. But other post-punk inspired bands were leaning hard into the avant-garde: This Heat's Deceit is a thoroughly weird and enchanting 41-minute trip, as are Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and The Raincoats Odyshape. The boundaries of what we consider rock music continued to grow wider and wider. But maybe the most exciting trend of 1981 was the back-to-basics punk, power-trash, and hardcore bands emerging from the American underground. The Replacements, Black Flag, Mission Of Burma, Wipers, and X were just regional bands at the time, but it would not be long before they and other like-minded DIY bands would become forces to be reckoned with far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns. 

1. GANG OF FOUR | Solid Gold
2. THIS HEAT | Deceit
3. THE REPLACEMENTS | Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash
4. FELA KUTI | Coffin For Head Of State
5. BRIAN ENO & DAVID BYRNE | My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts
6. BLACK FLAG | Damaged
7. TELEVISION PERSONALITIES | And Don't The Kids Just Love It
8. MISSION OF BURMA | Signals, Calls, and Marches
9. TOM PETTY | Hard Promises
10. PRETENDERS | Pretenders II
11. THE CURE | Faith
14. RAMONES | Pleasant Dreams
15. WIPERS | Youth Of America
16. U2 | October 
17. X | The Wild Gift
18. KRAFTWERK | Computer World
19. THE RAINCOATS | Odyshape
20. THE dbs | Stands For Decibels
21. PUBLIC IMAGE LTD | Flowers of Romance


Thriller was by far the biggest album of 1982, and it was also the first vinyl I ever owned. I was 7 and couldn't get over that this dude was posing with a baby tiger climbing over him. The music I enjoyed too, but that tiger cub really left a mark. Thriller doesn't interest me today - I'm fine hearing the songs in passing but don't need them as regular participants in my life. My loss I'm sure. Looking at the albums that did make this list, the shortest of any I've compiled, the only thread I see is that these are mostly somewhat overlooked and underdog albums. If you added up the sales of these 10 albums you probably wouldn't have a number even close to Thriller.  These are the comeback albums from great artists that previously strayed (The Blue Mask, Shoot Out The Lights, Combat Rock), the early albums from artists whose greatest work was still to come (1999, The Dreaming, Pornography), or, in the case of Nebraska, a stark outlier from the stadium filling rock that came before and would soon come again.  (Side note: It's almost a great irony of rock & roll nicknames that we call him "The Boss" when literally none of his characters even made middle management, if they worked at all.)  Shoot Out The Lights is one of the great albums ever created in the shadow of a crumbling relationship. Tom Petty is often regarded more for his singles than his albums but Long After Dark is his third straight record that hits all the right spots. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, it just keeps spinning. And to tie the whole underdog theme together you have The Days Of Wine & Roses and Vs., two of the decade's most underrated rock albums. Maybe it IS the year of combat rock because so much of this music has been fighting to be heard for almost 40 years. 
2. RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON | Shoot Out The Lights
3. THE CURE | Pornography
4. THE DREAM SYNDICATE | The Days of Wine & Roses
5. LOU REED | The Blue Mask
6. PRINCE | 1999
7. THE CLASH | Combat Rock
9. TOM PETTY | Long After Dark
10. ELVIS COSTELLO | Imperial Bedroom
11. KATE BUSH | The Dreaming
12. MEAT PUPPETS | Meat Puppets


So much of the great music we associate with the 80s begins here. Murmur introduced the world to one of the best band's of the next 2 decades. It truly is one of the greatest debut albums of all time - the difference between this one though and so many other great debuts was that R.E.M. got better. From the ruins of Joy Division came New Order who, along with R.E.M. and U2, were one of the best college rock bands of the decade and quite possibly the best ever "second act". New Order is arguably better than Joy Division, and that is saying a great deal. U2 went big on War - big music, big themes, and bigger audiences. They'd soon be the biggest band in the world. And if you want to talk about 3 great American bands knocking on the door of greatness just before being welcomed in, look no further than The Replacements, Minutemen, and Husker Du. Hootenanny is a sort of wonderful mess that houses some of the Mats greatest early songs ("Color Me Impressed", "Hayday", "Within Your Reach") alongside fun but inconsequential genre experiments. Minutemen and Husker Du were especially prolific here - each with an LP and EP right before both dropping their magnum opuses in 1984. Maybe knocking on the door of greatness wasn't the right turn of phrase. These bands were ready to kick your door down. 

1. R.E.M. | Murmur
2. NEW ORDER | Power, Lies, & Corruption
3. U2 | War
4. VIOLENT FEMMES | Violent Femmes
5. TOM WAITS | Swordfishtrombones
6. THE REPLACEMENTS | Hootenanny
7. TALKING HEADS | Speaking In Tongues
8. MINUTEMEN | What Makes A Man Start Fires
9. BOB DYLAN | Infidels
10. HUSKER DU | Metal Circus EP
11. MINUTEMEN | Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence of Heat EP
12. HUSKER DU | Everything Falls Apart 
13. LOU REED | Legendary Hearts
14. THE ROLLING STONES | Undercover
15. STEVIE RAY VAUGHN | Texas Flood


1984 is the tipping point for many of the decade's best bands and artists. Superstars like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Halen yielded their most commercially successful albums to date, selling a bajillion records and catapulting them into huge tours and constant MTV exposure. It's also here where the early potential of The Replacements, Minutemen, and Meat Puppets was met with their greatest album (or greatest album yet in the case of Husker Du).  Let It Be is the best album to ever have the name; The Mats had been building (stumbling?) towards it since their debut. The absolutely raucous energy of Sorry Ma and Hootenanny is perfected on "Favorite Thing" and "We're Coming Out", but Westerberg was finally allowed to explore his sensitive side and delivered some of the most affecting "ballads" of his life. "Unsatisfied", "Answering Machine", "Sixteen Blue", "Androgynous" are open wounds set to tape. Husker Du wrote a double album's worth of incredible pop songs and buried them in noise, fuzz, and the worst production money could buy - it's amazing! Minutemen then took Zen Arcade as a challenge and were more than up to the task. The idea that "Our Band Could Be Your Life" was getting through - these weren't rock stars making rock music for the masses, these were the kids you used to see in detention making music that spoke to you and for you.  R.E.M. wiped away the murk of their debut and early EP on Reckoning, allowing their garage-pop melodies, jangling guitars, and cryptic Southern imagery to surface with crisp production. Born In The USA turned Springsteen into one the decade's biggest stars even though so many (including Ronald fuckin' Reagan) mistook his disillusionment with post-Vietnam America as jingoistic patriotism. And then there's Prince, one of pop music's most exciting rising stars since the late-70s delivering perhaps the greatest pop album in history. Purple Rain just has to be heard to be believed. It would be my #1 in literally any other year. 

2. PRINCE | Purple Rain
3. R.E.M. | Reckoning
4. COCTEAU TWINS | Treasure
5. MINUTEMEN | Double Nickels On The Dime
6. HUSKER DU | Zen Arcade
7. MEAT PUPPETS | Meat Puppets II
8. U2 | The Unforgettable Fire
9. THE SMITHS | Hatful Of Hallow
10. METALLICA | Ride the Lightning
12. THE SMITHS | The Smiths
13. ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN | Ocean Rain
14. FELT | The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories
15. PRETENDERS | Learning To Crawl
16. VIOLENT FEMMES | Hallowed Ground
17. FELT | The Splendour of Fear
18. VAN HALEN | 1984
19. TALK TALK | It's My Life
20. THE FALL | The Wonderful & Frightening World Of The Fall


Five years into the 80s and we have the second debut to top a year-end list. The Jesus And Mary Chain's first record manages to be abrasive and gorgeous in equal measure.  The perfectly titled Psychocandy (much of it is bubblegum pop drenched in noise, feedback, and reverb) overshadows albums from some of the best artists of the decade. Meanwhile, my favorite band of all time, The Replacements, had jumped ship from their indie label Twin Tone and signed with Sire Records. Recording for a major label was hit or miss for The Mats - Westerberg brought arguably his greatest set of songs to the sessions, but some of the production choices failed to capture the band at their raucous best.  Regardless, Tim is a monumental album for the band and opened them up to much wider audiences (and a disastrous SNL appearance). Kate Bush's Hounds of Love is a perfect mix of avant-garde pop and brilliant songwriting. Husker Du released not one but two perfect albums, and R.E.M. released the most difficult album of their IRS years. Rites of Spring's blistering debut is credited as inventing "emo" but I can forgive them for that because the album absolutely slays.  And one of the more interesting developents I'm noticing about my favorite music here is the way the punks began to look back to more rootsy forms of music to get their points across. This had started for Meat Puppets on Meat Puppets II, but here were Mekons, The Waterboys, and The Pogues each dipping back into acoustic and traditional sounds, proving attitude was more vital to the punk spirit than speed or volume. Sadly, 1985 ended with the loss of D. Boon in a car accident towards the end of December. His work in Minutemen, along with Mike Watt, was an intergral part of the American underground music scene, and his death, to music fans, was the sudden and tragic end of a supremely promising career. 

1. THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN | Psychocandy
3. KATE BUSH | The Hounds of Love 
4. HUSKER DU | New Day Rising
5. RITES OF SPRING | Rites of Spring
6. TOM WAITS | Rain Dogs
7. R.E.M. | Fables of the Reconstruction
8. HUSKER DU | Flip Your Wig
9. NEW ORDER | Low-Life
10. MEAT PUPPETS | Up On The Sun
11. MEKONS | Fear And Whiskey
12. THE FALL | This Nation's Saving Grace
13. THE POGUES | Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash
14. THE POGUES | If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God
15. PRINCE | Around The World In A Day
16. THE SMITHS | Meat Is Murder
17. THE CURE | The Head On The Door


R.E.M. took a giant leap on Life's Rich Pageant, which was produced by Don Gehman (who had worked with John Cougar Mellonhead!). LRP was miles ahead of Fables in terms of production, and the band began a more overt relationship with folk influences. The version of R.E.M. that became stadium rock stars in the 1990s began here. Much of this list looks, to me, like a real hodge-podge of artists and sounds. Perhaps most notably, Licensed to Ill and Raising Hell are the first rap albums to make one of my lists (perhaps because I haven't yet listened to Run-D.M.C.'s King Of Rock or their 1984 debut, shame on me). Rap had been, and would in many cases continue to be, a genre more known for its singles than albums, but Licensed to Ill and Raising Hell made strong cases to blow up that preconception.  And power metal makes it onto my lists as well with both Metallica and Slayer. Both, but Metallica especially, were just pummeling and intense and great in the mid-80s. There is a lot of great music that came in from the U.K. here as well. Established acts like New Order, XTC, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello were still working at high levels, but young guitar-focused bands like The Smiths, Talk Talk, Felt, The Clean, and the entire famous NME comp C86 were ready to jangle right into your heart. And though Paul Simon is a proud New Yawker he reached out to South African musicians to help create one of the boldest and most rewarding pop albums in history with Graceland. And I cannot let this blurb end without mentioning Died Pretty's absolutey stunning Free Dirt. Before 2020 I had never heard of this band, but some listening rabbit hole I fell into back as the pandemic began led me to check out this album. It is truly THE lost classic of the decade - a bright, brilliant (Australian) college rock album that captures everything that was great about bands like R.E.M., The Smiths, and the C86 scene. Truly, get on that!  
1. R.E.M. | Life's Rich Pageant
2. DIED PRETTY | Free Dirt
3. THE SMITHS | The Queen Is Dead
4. METALLICA | Master of Puppets
5. TALK TALK | The Colour of Spring
7. BEASTIE BOYS | Licensed To Ill
8. VAN MORRISON | No Guru, No Method, No Teacher
9. PAUL SIMON | Graceland
10. RUN DMC | Raising Hell
11. C86 COMPILATION | NME Magazine
12. PRINCE | Parade
13. STEVE EARLE | Guitar Town
14. THE CLEAN | Compilation
15. ELVIS COSTELLO | King of America
16. XTC | Skylarking
17. NEW ORDER | Brotherhood
18. FELT | Forever Breathes The Lonely Word
19. HUSKER DU | Candy Apple Grey
20. SLAYER | Reign of Blood
21. ELVIS COSTELLO | Blood & Chocolate
22. WORLD PARTY | Private Revolution


This is a weird one. Besides U2 (and my guilty pleasures from when I was a kid, Guns n' Roses & Def Leppard) every single album on this list was either one that came after that artist's artistic peak or was the one that proceeded it. That's not to say these albums aren't great - I mean the 2nd or 3rd best album of the 80s from Prince, The Replacements, Springsteen, Husker Du, or R.E.M. is still waaaay better than most bands. But this is where we were at, sort of a crossroads. Say what you will about the overt earnestness or the sort of bizarre co-opting of Americana sounds and images, but The Joshua Tree is one of the greatest albums of the 80s, or ever. U2 were working at their absolute peak - that moment when their Irish mystique, world-conquering ambitions, and stadium rousing anthems were in perfect unity. Anyone who tries to deny this album is kidding themselves. Pleased To Meet Me continues Westerberg's incredibe songwriting run, but is also a huge step forward production-wise for the The Replacements. If any of their albums had the ability to break them through to a mainstream audience without actually sacrificing thier badass attitude it's PTMM. And over on the R.E.M. side, Document did just that through hit singles like "The One I Love". Every great artist needed their double album back in the day and Prince was certainly up to the task. Sign O' The Times proved Prince could literally do it all in the course of about 60 minutes. The debut from Eric B. & Rakim helped take rap in a new direction with its infectious, rapid-fire wordplay. And down in the American underground, guitar-shredders Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. each moved closer to their eventual breathroughs.   

1. U2 | The Joshua Tree
2. PRINCE | Sign O' The Times
3. THE REPLACEMENTS | Pleased To Meet Me
4. R.E.M. | Document
5. ERIC B. & RAKIM | Paid In Full
6. SONIC YOUTH | Sister
7. DINOSAUR JR. | You're Living All Over Me
8. HUSKER DU | Warehouse: Songs & Stories
9. GUNS N' ROSES | Appetite for Destruction
10. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN | Tunnel Of Love
11. DEF LEPPARD | Hysteria
12. THE CURE | Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
13. THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN | Darklands
14, PIXIES | Come On Pilgrim
15. SPACEMAN 3 | The Perfect Prescription


There were a lot of really great albums released in 1988.  From Talk Talk's stunning folk-art masterpiece Spirit of Eden to Pixies' fiery, trailblazing debut full-length Surfer Rosa to one of the most influential and important rap albums of all time, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, 1988 did not shy away from landmark records. But '88 is the year of Daydream Nation. Nothing else matches its breathless, exquisite grandeur. "Teen-Age Riot" is arguably the decade's best rock song, while "Total Trash", "The Sprawl", "Candle", "Eric's Trip", and "Trilogy" and others are nearly its equal. The whole album is a perfect synthesis of the art-punk/no wave experiments of the band's early years with the more conventional song structures that the band was always reluctant to fully embrace. Soon Geffen was trying to lump them in as 90s alternative rock, but this is the album with the starpower.  

1. SONIC YOUTH | Daydream Nation
2. TALK TALK | Spirit of Eden
3. PIXIES | Surfer Rosa
4. R.E.M. | Green
5. PUBLIC ENEMY | It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
6. THE WATERBOYS | Fisherman's Blues
8. ERIC B. & RAKIM | Follow The Leader
9. NWA | Straight Outta Compton
10. MY BLOODY VALENTINE | Isn't Anything
11. LUCINDA WILLIAMS | Lucinda Williams
12. JANE'S ADDICTION | Nothing's Shocking
13. THE POGUES | If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God
14. COCTEAU TWINS | Blue Bell Knoll
15. THE HOUSE OF LOVE | House of Love
16. STEVE EARLE | Copperhead Road


Much in the way Daydream Nation towers over 1988, Doolittle does the same in 1989. Pixies burned hard and bright for about a half decade but flickered out before splintering off into a few different directions. Disintegration brings you into its damaged dream-world and dares you not to get lost in its narcotic sway. It's quite possibly the greatest Cure record and probably the one that comes closet to capturing everything made The Cure what they were - monumental gloom coming through as pop songs stretched to their breaking point. Paul's Boutique and 3 Feet High And Rising are two masterfully inventive hip-hop albums that brought sampling to dizzying new heights. There were a few notable debuts in 1989 - The Stone Roses released their self-titled and seemed poised to take the world over. They did not, though the album remains one of the definitive modern rock records to come from the U.K. during the time period. Bleach came out to a comparitively lesser fanfare, but of course it wouldn't be long until Nirvana changed the rock landscape for good (and for better, and for worse). The year is rounded out from solid late-period albums from long running artists - New York was a searing return to form for Lou Reed, Full Moon Fever rejuvenated Petty's career after he stumbled through the back half of the 80s, and the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy was arguably Dylan's best work in over a decade, depending on how much you like Infidels or his Christian trilogy. I'd say it's his best since Desire

1. PIXIES | Doolittle 
2. THE CURE | Disintegration
3. BEASTIE BOYS | Paul's Boutique
4. THE STONE ROSES | The Stone Roses
5. DE LA SOUL | 3 Feet High And Rising
6. MEKONS | The Mekons Rock n' Roll
7. GALAXIE 500 | On Fire
8. FUGAZI | 13 Songs
9. BOB DYLAN | Oh Mercy
10. THE REPLACEMENTS | Don't Tell A Soul
11. TOM PETTY | Full Moon Fever
12. LOU REED | New York
13. NEW ORDER | Technique
14. NIRVANA | Bleach
15. SPACEMAN 3 | Playing With Fire
16. KATE BUSH | The Sensual World

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