10 Greatest Albums of the ’80s
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It was a decade of music videos, DeLorean time machines and crack cocaine. The 1980s were an interesting time that produced a lot of music that, at the time, was criticized for being ‘disposable.’ The emergence of MTV seemed to emphasize style over artistry and the dominance of dance pop on the decade can’t be denied; as older soul and rock stars struggled to appeal to audiences enamored with moonwalkers and Material Girls. But even as Members Only jackets and Rubix Cubes lost their appeal, the 80s have refused to die. The current generation of pop stars owe a huge debt to the music and images of the Reagan era, so I decided to list the ten best albums from the Decade of Excess.
In 1989, Janet Jackson was coming off the blockbuster success of her 1986 album Control and was eager to prove that she wasn’t a one-album wonder. No one expected Michael’s li’l sister to release a pseudo-concept album about social ills set against a sonic backdrop of some of the best pop, rock and quiet storm Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had to offer. The result was an amazingly ambitious album that worked–both as a heady socio-political statement and as a collection of gorgeously catchy pop songs that topped Control in almost every way. Its seven singles all peaked in the Billboard Top 5–the only album to ever achieve that feat. Even if you don’t buy into the idealism prevalent throughout the album’s more ‘conceptual’ moments, you can’t deny that virtually every song here is a pop masterpiece.
Essential Tracks: Rhythm Nation, Miss You Much, Alright, Love Will Never Do (Without You)
While he had long been one of the most acclaimed and admired artists in rock–and his live shows had become the stuff of legend since the early 1970s–Bruce Springsteen had never been a pop star. That all changed in 1984, when ‘The Boss’ released this blockbuster of an album. Springsteen and the E Street Band embraced synthesizers for the first time and the pop sheen of singles like “Dancing In the Dark” masked the very real social concerns the album presented. As always, Springsteen told disillusioned-but-hopeful stories that reflected the working class. The title track, an angry protest song, was misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem & “My Hometown” addressed small town racism. Nonetheless, …U.S.A. had seven singles enter the Top 10. For the first (and virtually only) time, Springsteen’s New Jersey, blue-collar idealism crossed over to the MTV generation.
Essential Tracks: Dancing In the Dark, Glory Days, I’m On Fire, Born In the U.S.A.
Though celebrated amongst hip hop fans, P.E.’s 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show failed to make much of an impact and didn’t do much to separate the crew from Long Island from their contemporaries Run-D.M.C. But on their second album, Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad perfected their sonic attack and Chuck D. sharpened his socio-political focus, resulting in an album that stands as a masterpiece of socially-aware music. Chuck emerged as the voice of conscious black rage and his sidekick Flavor Flav proved to be the perfect injection of ironic humor & Chuck’s counterpoint. Addressing everything from racism to television to the crack epidemic, Public Enemy set the standard for what it meant to be a political artist in the notoriously superficial 1980s and also revolutionized the idea of sampling as an artform.
Essential Tracks: Bring the Noise, Don’t Believe the Hype, Rebel Without A Pause, Night of the Living Baseheads
As important a debut album as any in the history of popular music, Eric B. & Rakim’s first album almost single-handedly reinvented the art of emceeing and sampling in hip hop. Coming on the heels of landmark albums by Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Boogie Down Productions, the Long Island-based duo (with help from superproducer Marley Marl) ended the reign of mid-80s synth-dominated hardcore hip hop and introduced beatmakers to James Brown samples–which would become standard for the genre well into the 1990s. Rakim’s wordplay set a new bar for emceeing almost overnight and virtually every song on the album has become a hip hop standard. Even the DJ cuts stand as some of the best scratching of the era. Still hailed as the greatest hip hop album ever made by numerous critics and fans.
Essential Tracks: I Ain’t No Joke, Paid In Full, Eric B. Is President, I Know You Got Soul
By the late 80s, MTV was dominated by cheesy hair bands that looked like metal but were completely devoid of any real edge and who’s hooks were as pop-friendly as Debbie Gibson. Then a band of five misfits from Los Angeles released this monster of an album and reminded everyone that hard rock could still be full of sleazy swagger and menace. A tour de force that marries metallic riffing with the undeniable power of Axl Rose’s voice and persona, Appetite… restored the Stonesy ethos of the-rock-band-as-outlaws; and balanced its metal side with a radio-friendly set of singles that made the album the best-selling debut album of all time. Though the band began its shockingly-fast descent into oblivion shortly after it hit the charts, Appetite… is a record that hasn’t lost an ounce of its power in the 25 years since its release.
Essential Tracks: Paradise City, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome to the Jungle, Mr. Brownstone
An album that spawned a lot of the sound that Appetite for Destruction would eventually rebel against, 1984 divided VH fans upon its initial release. Despite cries of ‘Sellout!’ from die-hard metal fans, the album was a brilliant showcase of everything that made David Lee Roth-era Van Halen great; Eddie Van Halen’s riffing and solos were at their most precise and pristine, the rhythm section of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony were at their most in-synch; and frontman David Lee Roth is in his full, high-kicking, scenery-chewing glory. All of the album’s singles were monster hits–accomponied by era-defining music videos (the band’s first.) The influence of the album’s riffs-and-synths approach stretched to seemingly every mainstream rock band of the 1980s (Hello, Bon Jovi.) But all of the success proved to be a double-edged sword as the band tired of Roth’s ego. He was fired from Van Halen less than a year after the album topped the charts.
Essential Tracks: Panama, Hot For Teacher, I’ll Wait, Jump
Unlike the majority of the other albums on this list, R.E.M.’s debut wasn’t a blockbuster. But, like Paid In Full, it represented a seismic shift in popular music that wasn’t fully appreciated until audiences had the benefit of hindsight. The four-man collective from Athens, GA crafted a sublimely subdued album–so subdued that half of the lyrics are unintelligible–and almost single-handedly birthed what would come to be known as the college rock/indie rock/alternative rock scene. Borrowing the anti-establishment ethos of punk and merging it with an affinity for Byrds-ish rhythm guitar, Murmur sounded like nothing else in 1983; no synthesizers, no macho posing. Michael Stipe’s introverted persona and warbled lyrics made him the unlikeliest of rock icons, and the album’s low-key production sounds timeless (unlike a lot of music from the era.) Its legacy as a watershed moment in rock music remains unchanged.
Essential Tracks: Radio Free Europe, A Perfect Circle, Laughing, Moral Kiosk
The album that still, for many fans, epitomizes U2′s sound and image, the fifth release from the boys from Dublin fully realized their message and sound. Featuring production that emphasizes the ‘wide open spaces’ hinted at in the songs’ lyrics and themes, the album became one of the decade’s defining releases. Bono and Co. wrote the majority of the material in America, and the entire album sounds like a road trip of spiritual awakening. The Edge’s echo-fueled guitar riffing elevates every song, as the band muses on faith, humanity and love. Fans and critics immediately embraced The Joshua Tree; the album has sold nearly 25 million copies and won the 1988 Grammy for Album of the Year. An inspiration for bands like Coldplay, its success was so monumental that U2 spent the majority of the 1990s trying to distance themselves from it.
Essential Tracks: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You, One Tree Hill
‘Blockbuster’ doesn’t even begin to describe the impact this album had–and still has–on pop culture. Immaculately produced and featuring Jackson at his most boldly inventive, this is the album that proved that an album could appeal to seemingly everyone. The best-selling LP of all time, Thriller is a virtual greatest hits all by itself. Seven songs hit the Top Ten, the title track (along with singles like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”) made music videos legitimate and Jackson himself is in top form as a vocalist. Bolstered by the success of his 1979 masterpiece Off the Wall, Jackson reportedly sought to make an album that would take over the world. Oddly enough, he succeeded. Ranging from funky dance tunes to schmaltzy pop to hard rock to quiet storm to a random novelty song about monsters, Thriller did for the music industry what Steven Spielberg did for films.
Essential Tracks: Billie Jean, Wanna Be Starting Something, Beat It, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
Sorry, MJ fans–I know you’re raging at the fact that Thriller could get stuck with the #2 spot. I understand–but you’ve gotta understand…the #1 album is ridiculous–a staggering pop achievement that’s also an artistic masterpiece. And, unlike Thriller–not a single track feels like filler. So…what is this monumental album? You should know already…
A perfect pop album that’s more than just a pop album. It’s a sonic statement. Much like Michael Jackson, Prince designed Purple Rain to be a monster album that made him a megastar. Unlike MJ, Prince hadn’t had the same level of widespread appeal prior to this commercial juggernaut. His previous works were funky-but-idiosyncratic, with explicit lyrics and a musical adventurousness that had kept his appeal limited to funk and new wave circles. 1982s 1999 flirted with mainstream accessibility, but no one expected Prince to deliver an album like this. Every song is a triumph, with the artist and his backing band switching from funk to dance to hard rock to balladry to acoustic pop–sometimes all within the same song. And it never feels calculated–though it most certainly is. Since it’s release, Purple Rain has won an Oscar, sold 13 million copies, was voted the Best Soundtrack of All Time by Vanity Fair and was ranked the Best Album From 1983-2008 by Entertainment Weekly.
Essential Tracks: Let’s Go Crazy, Darling Nikki, Purple Rain, When Doves Cry
So there they are, the Ten Greatest Albums from 1980-1989. Apologies to Bananarama fans…
Honorable Mentions: Raising Hell by Run-D.M.C., Heartbeat City by the Cars, Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., Like A Prayer by Madonna, Sign o’ the Times by Prince, Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, Master of Puppets by Metallica, 3 Feet High & Rising by De La Soul, Doolittle by the Pixies, Ghost In the Machine by The Police, Rapture by Anita Baker, Remain In Light by Talking Heads, Whitney Houston by Whitney Houston, Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Productions, Back In Black by AC/DC, Songs From the Big Chair by Tears For Fears, Control by Janet Jackson, Licensed To Ill by the Beastie Boys, Let It Be by The Replacements, Never Too Much by Luther Vandross, Pyromania by Def Leppard, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick by Slick Rick, Like A Virgin by Madonna, Zen Arcade by Husker Du, Run-D.M.C. by Run-D.M.C., Synchronicity by The Police