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Best Albums of the 1980s

The Prince of Pop had his hand in the creation of seven albums on our list.

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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

Club Classics Vol. One

100. 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

The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

99. 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

Los Angeles 98. 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

Computer Games 97. 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

The Colour of Spring 96. 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

Songs from the Big Chair 95. Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair. In which an attempted primal scream ends up coming out as an incredibly pitch-perfect crying jag. (Boy, am I glad the word "emo" wasn't around in 1985, though Richard Kelly's use of the dreamy "Head Over Heels" in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears' follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson

War 94. U2, War. The aptly titled War found U2 not only diving into the jagged terrain of British politics, but likewise, developing a harsher, needle-nosed sound. The album finds the band in attack mode, where on standout tracks like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" an instrument as refined as the violin takes turns playing electrical whip, wailing animal, and battle cry across the song's marching protest beat. This is U2 at their angriest, each piece infused with a sense of dark urgency that reaches a frothy head on "New Year's Day." Bono's resolution, "I will begin again," is perhaps indicative of the spiritual introspection to come on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, but for War, the music is as immediate, violent, and striking as its subject matter. Kevin Liedel

This Nation's Saving Grace 93. The Fall, This Nation's Saving Grace. This Nation's Saving Grace is the most accessible release from a band that can, at times, border on the completely inaccessible. Mark E. Smith makes no attempt to curtail his ominous murmuring, and his bandmates are as prone as ever to prickly songcraft and thrashing, but the grooves and melodies here showcase the Fall at their least abrasive. With "Barmy," "What You Need," and "Spoilt Victorian Child," the group strikes the perfect balance between bilious dirge and subversive pop, while "Paintwork" is a charmingly tongue-in-cheek homage to '60s pop. A little bit of melody goes a long way for the Fall, making this a quintessential album in a unique and strangely interesting canon. HJ

Isn't Anything 92. My Bloody Valentine, Isn't Anything. It's easy to dismiss Isn't Anything as Loveless-lite, but My Bloody Valentine doesn't attempt anything quite as epic or ambitious on their debut as they would just two years later. But even when they're less grandiose, the shoegazing pioneers' music is just as fascinating and hypnotic. Guitarist and songwriter-in-chief Kevin Shields employs reverb, feedback, pitch bending, and heavy distortion throughout, creating music that's capable of simultaneously soundtracking our most ethereal dreams and most violent nightmares. Isn't Anything beautifies all that should be ugly, and deserves a spot as a lo-fi masterpiece in its own right. HJ

Meat Puppets II 91. Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II. Unfortunately for brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood, it took a guest appearance alongside Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged in 1993 to immortalize their legacy, a feat which 1984's Meat Puppets II was fully capable of doing on its own merits. "Plateau," "Oh, Me," and "Lake of Fire"—the three songs that Cobain performed with the band—are especially alluring examples of the group's cowpunk formula, and they strike similar success with the alluring "We're Here" and endlessly infectious "The Whistling Song." And with instrumental tracks "Aurora Borealis" and "I'm A Mindless Idiot," the group is still in excellent form, serving up front-porch psychedelica of the highest order. HJ

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