The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


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While '80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade's brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. They say all politics is local, and the incisive perspectives of the decade's defining acts were likewise geographical: Released in the U.S. in January of 1980, the Clash's seminal London Calling ushered in a new decade with disgruntled punk rock from across the pond, while U2's early focus was on the violence in their homeland of Ireland. Back in the U.S., Springsteen spoke to the struggles and dreams of the working class, and Michael Stipe began using his increasing rock-star status to react to the rising conservatism in American politics. By the end of the decade, the Reagan era's biggest pop stars (Michael, Janet, Madonna) were transformed into cultural critics too, reflecting on poverty, race relations, and what Prince called “a big disease with a little name.” Though women were entering the workforce in record numbers, the surprising (even to us) lack of female artists on our list points to a music industry that, perhaps, needed a few more years to catch up to the feminist movement, but the women who left the most indelible marks bravely pushed the boundaries of sexuality and gender. And as for the just-burgeoning hip-hop genre, acts like Public Enemy and De La Soul not only had a conscience—they served as ours. Sal Cinquemani


Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One

Less a product of its own decade than a prophecy of the next one, Soul II Soul's debut presaged the development of downtempo and trip-hop by blending the seductive depth of R&B with reggae, funk, and hip-hop, all while remaining firmly planted in the disco-soul aesthetic of U.K. house. Groundbreaking sound design notwithstanding, Club Classics Vol. One also showcases, in the three-headed vamping of Caron Wheeler, Rose Windross, and Doreen Waddell, one of the finest soul-diva lineups ever to grace a dance album. And what's more impressive? That the album's classic singles (“Fairplay,” “Keep On Movin',” and “Back to Life”) don't sound anything like one another, or that, two decades of girl groups later, they still sound totally unique? Matthew Cole


Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Rap's premier storyteller, London-born Richard Walters burst onto the scene in 1988 with The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, an album with such a unique style that it changed hip-hop. Rick weaves compelling narratives from the first and third person, using the Queen's English and a devilish sense of humor to make each of these 12 tracks quirky and utterly irresistible listens. Relishing in whimsical wordplay, Rick adopts a hilarious high-pitched squeal for the dialogue of his female characters, and makes shifts in style when stepping into alter egos like the Ruler and MC Ricky D. Of course, there are times when Rick's tales can fringe on vulgar and misogynistic, but his storytelling prowess is second to none. Huw Jones


X, Los Angeles

A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X's roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album that's both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the album's cover. Jesse Cataldo


George Clinton, Computer Games

George Clinton's solo debut begins, almost oddly, with the former Parliament and Funkadelic frontman putting on his clothes. But the song's message is a naked one: the promise of a throw down—to bring on the funk, the soul, and the psychedelic like no one's business. What follows is an almost spotless blitzkrieg of jams that run the gamut from the rousing (“One Fun at a Time”), to the poignantly metaphoric (“Free Alternations”), to the playfully infantile (“Pot Sharing Tots”). “Loopzilla” is a master class in sampladelic overload, and the title tune suggests Kraftwerk put through a P-Funk filter, but it's the synth-funk “Atomic Dog” that remains the album's triumph, an unbelievably improvised totem to Clinton's own stray cock strut, and one that makes a world without Adina Howard and Snoop Dogg seem impossible. Ed Gonzalez


Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring

For many bands, transitional albums are most valuable for establishing context between distinct phases of a career arc. Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, however, stands as one of the band's most satisfying standalone albums, even though it's a clear bridge between their origins in new wave and the post-rock of their later albums. Songs like “Life's What You Make of It” and “I Don't Believe in You” strike a perfect and often beautiful balance between Talk Talk's extraordinary gifts for memorable pop melodies with a newfound experimental bent that finds them replacing the synths and guitars of the era with flourishes of organ, sax, and even a children's choir. Jonathan Keefe


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