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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
Master of Puppets

90. Metallica, Master of Puppets. In retrospect, Master of Puppets exists as a kind of rapid-fire last hurrah for Metallica's status as L.A.'s favorite underground thrash metal band. For a major-label debut, the album is unapologetically metal, brandishing wave upon wave of knifing guitar, percussion that rattles like tank treads, and nary a fully-formed melody to break through the rage, testosterone, and noise. Lest one thinks it's all speed and mechanics, though, there is substance in the machine: Between the titular reference to drug abuse and swipes at evangelical commercialism, Master of Puppets isn't just Metallica's best album, it's also their most heartfelt. KL

Speaking in Tongues89. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues. If the title of the Talking Heads' sixth album found them embracing their lyrical Dadaism with an almost religious zealotry, and if the title's mission statement is more than fulfilled in the likes of "Moon Rocks" ("I ate a rock from the moon/Got shicked once, shocked twice") and "Girlfriend Is Better" (where "Stop making sense" became a mantra), it's also worth noting that the tunes were counterintuitively accessible like never before, no more so than "Burning Down the House," which set fire to no wave and planted one of the many seeds for new wave. EH

Actually88. Pet Shop Boys, Actually. Actually, it explains nothing, but alludes to everything. Actually, it dances around the outskirts of dance music without ever diving headlong into disco hedonism. Actually, Neil Tennant's yawn could conceivably greet any DJ set that dares to drop "One More Chance" or "Hit Music" alongside, say, "The Pleasure Principle." Actually, Chris Lowe's synth lines make cheap sound posh and vice versa. Actually, you know what you've done to deserve this, but are afraid to admit it. Actually, it isn't a sin, but it's more fun if you think it is. Actually, it's hiding in plain sight. Actually, none of your business. Actually, this is all precisely the point. EH

Tom Tom Club87. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club. Bless Mariah for sampling "Genius of Love" or we may remember Tom Tom Club only as a kookier-than-Taking-Heads offshoot. The band's debut album, which shares a really messy loft in my medulla oblongata with Björk, David Lynch, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, is a smart-alecky cacophony of giddy rhymes, ballsy raps, blissed-out melodies, and lush bells, whistles, beeps, splats, and just about every other sound Moog synthesizers were capable of back in 1981. Not only does Tina Weymouth, on "Wordy Rappinghood," show why humorless white girls like Madonna should never take up the rap mantle, she and hubby Chris Frantz's production proves to the Paul Simons of the '80s how to ebulliently transmute exotic sounds without whitening out their essence. EG

Dare!86. The Human League, Dare! Stoic but danceable, detached but emotionally sincere, Dare! was, at the time of its release, simply the finest set of synth-pop songs ever compiled. The album has lost a lot of its futuristic sheen in subsequent decades, but "Seconds" still sounds sweeping and lush, while "I Am the Law," with its bursts of rumbling bass and off-kilter harmonies, will never be anything but captivating. There's always been something severe, even clinical, about Dare! (the same interplay of coldness and candor that made Joy Division so great), and with its technology dated, it sounds more tragic than ever, imparting a sense of deferred emotional connection akin to finding a breakup letter in a time capsule. MC

Sandinista!85. The Clash, Sandinista! The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an album—36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!—is fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be won't notice. Truly an album without borders. EG

Planet Rock84. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album. For any student of hip-hop or dance music, the first two tracks of electro-funk pioneer Afrika Bambaattaa's Planet Rock alone make this landmark album worth the price of admission, stocked as they are with lessons on both the history and future of the genres. "Looking for the Perfect Beat" is still emulated by hip-hop and dance producers to this day, while the title track, first released as a single in 1982 and constructed from recreated portions of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers" (from the German group's Computer World), singlehandedly fathered both '80s Latin freestyle and the entire hip-hop genre as we know it. SC

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts83. Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A twitching sonic collage that falls somewhere between studio experiment and gonzo pop record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts challenges the often egg-headed nature of its presentation by being sneakily and eminently listenable. These are songs, despite their scrambled nature and lack of traditional vocals, and as a collection they reverberate with nervous energy. Whether it's the voice of an exorcist on "The Jezebel Spirit" or a nervous radio-show caller on "Mea Culpa," Brian Eno and David Byrne harness these disparate voices as the engines for a series of amazingly diverse tracks. JC

EVOL82. Sonic Youth, EVOL. Jittery and eclectic, 1987's EVOL stands far apart from the later, more cohesive Daydream Nation; it's a difficult album that's nonetheless one of the best latter-day invocations of no-wave chaos. Full of sustained bursts of cathartic noise, the album kicks off with the jagged squeal of "In the Kingdom #19," which employs Minuteman bassist Mike Watt over a spoken-word account of a car crash, months after the death of bandmate D. Boon in similar circumstances. Lydia Lunch contributes vocals to the blown-out wasteland "Marilyn Moore," adding to the weird collegial air of one of the group's strangest albums. JC

Reckoning81. R.E.M., Reckoning. There's no way Reckoning could ever have been as revelatory as Murmur, a fact that plays an obvious role in determining their respective legacies in R.E.M.'s catalogue. It's a matter of "importance" versus "quality," and, while Murmur certainly wins in the former category, there's a strong argument to be made that, song for song, Reckoning might be the better album, even if it is rightly overshadowed by its predecessor's greater historical impact. Informed by the death of the band's close friend, photographer Carol Levy, Reckoning is focused on emotions of anger and regret, and it's that focus that makes songs like "Harbourcoat" and "So. Central Rain" some of the most captivating in R.E.M.'s embarrassingly rich catalogue. JK


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