The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s
The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine

Ever look back at your old junior high school yearbooks and see, with a shock, the last picture the kid voted “Most Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduation” took before encasing himself inside that filthy, black trench coat? The last one he took with his natural hair color? The last one in which his eyes that would later reflect only cataracts of the soul still glinted with the hint of something obscene? That’s what it’s like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, “I’d rather die than give you control!” in “Head Like a Hole.” Before attempting suicide in The Downward Spiral and living with the wrist scars in The Fragile, Pretty Hate Machine sent out sleek, danceable warning shots. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

Both the pop music landscape and political climate of the ’80s were defined by a me-first sense of opulence and entitlement, nearly a full decade of the haves flaunting their wares and promising the have-nots that, someday, those wares would trickle down to them too. Tracy Chapman’s unassuming, self-titled debut laid bare the fundamental injustice and dishonesty behind the prevailing policies of the day; she wasn’t just “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” she aimed to start one. But what makes Tracy Chapman more than just a leftist course-correction or an antidote to hair metal are Chapman’s unabashed sincerity and empathy and the robust quality of her songwriting, which make songs like “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You” no less powerful or moving today. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Michael Jackson, Bad

Michael Jackson’s Bad, perhaps the most highly anticipated album of all time, took the multi-format approach of 1982’s Thriller and magnified it to larger-than-life proportions. The pop was poppier, the rock was rockier, the dance was dancier. (Notably, R&B took the form of carefully placed elements as opposed to the bedrock of the songs.) The album was sonically more adventurous than its predecessor, resulting in more missteps, but perhaps even more rewards. Bad found Jackson taking more creative control, composing the majority of the songs on his own, making the breadth of album’s variety all the more impressive and solidifying many of the artistic and personal quirks and preoccupations that would come to define him in the last two decades of his life. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Eurythmics, Touch

If Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) proved that the Eurhythmics had mastered the new wave genre’s icy detachment and ironic distance better than just about anyone, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s follow-up, Touch, found them ready to move on to greater challenges. The album may not be as song-for-song consistent as Sweet Dreams, but it’s far more diverse in its style, leaning heavily on the soulfulness of Lennox’s performances to keep its synth-pop aesthetic grounded in palpably human emotions. To that end, standout cuts like “Who’s That Girl” and the defiant “Aqua” confirm Lennox’s status as one of pop music’s most gifted, singular vocalists. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Sinéad O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra

The title of Sinéad O’Connor’s debut was culled from Psalm 91, in which God promises to protect his people from the lion and the snake—symbols of bold and sly danger, respectively. O’Connor is more lion than snake, of course; she purrs like a kitten you’re fully aware is capable of lunging for your throat at any moment, and she often does—shrieking at dead lovers, admonishing her country’s leaders. The Lion and the Cobra is regal, majestic, and allegorical, an album rife with images of war, slain dragons, and ghosts, and it’s one of the most electrifying debuts in rock history. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Roxy Music, Avalon

It’s not that the most common criticisms of Roxy Music’s final album, Avalon, don’t have merit: It’s absolutely fair to acknowledge that it’s divorced from the truly progressive aesthetic that made the band’s ’70s-era output so vital and influential, and that the few members of the original lineup who still remained by the early ’80s were so marginalized in the recording that the album plays more like a Bryan Ferry solo project. What those criticisms fail to account for is that the actual music on Avalon, taken on its own merits, is nearly perfect. The meticulous, spit-shined polish of the production can’t mask some of Ferry’s finest pop melodies, nor can it hide the lived-in worldliness that makes Avalon so much cooler and more knowing than the countless New Romantics imitators it spawned. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Laurie Anderson, Big Science

My love affair with Laurie Anderson began with her recent Homeland, an album perfectly and succinctly described by Robert Christgau as a collection of “very scary stories whose endings nobody knows.” But this metropolitan performance artist and borderline cat lady was scaring us as far back as Big Science, on which she asks, “What is behind the curtain?” Then and now, her humor is lacerating, her fondness for BPMs cheekily abstract, but most fetching are her articulations of powerlessness—that even she doesn’t know what’s behind the curtain. Her experiments in syntax and sound eerily echo her concerns with the irreversible tides of change, most spectacularly on her finest song and only sorta-hit, “O Superman,” an attack on American military might that begins almost sensibly with a mother leaving an embarrassing, existentially fraught message on her child’s answering machine. Like progress, Anderson’s music resists resistance. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control’s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits (the final of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released), it was one of the decade’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


New Order, Movement

In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is the intermediate space in between death and rebirth. It would have made an appropriate debut album title for the remaining members of Joy Division, reincarnated as New Order, following the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis. “Movement,” however, works just as well, evoking the fluidity of Bernard Sumner and company’s still-evolving sound. “Dreams Never End” is an apt opener; it’s the only song on the album with a traditional live-rock arrangement, featuring vocals by bassist Peter Hook, whose voice sounds closer in tone and cadence to Curtis’s than Sumner’s does. The rest of Movement exists almost exactly in between Joy Division’s post-punk sound and the synth-pop style that would come to define New Order and influence pop music for decades. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s


Peter Gabriel, So

Home to the colossuses “Red Rain,” “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Big Time,” So is Peter Gabriel’s most accessible yet ambitious work. A chronicle of political, emotional, and artistic exploration, the album finds the Genesis co-founder attempting to balance standard pop orthodoxy with his still-rumbling desire for sonic experimentation. When Gabriel strikes that balance, the results are nothing less than sublime, such as when the untamed vocals of Youssou N’Dour join in on the melodious climax of “In Your Eyes.” Notwithstanding its successful expansion of Gabriel’s sound, So succeeds on quirky offerings alone: What’s not to love about an album that features a duet with Kate Bush and a shakuhachi solo? Liedel