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

20

Madonna, Like a Prayer

For her fourth album, Madonna went back to her roots. Like a Prayer is decidedly retro, the ultimate genre pastiche of all of singer’s early influences: Sly Stone, Simon & Garfunkel, the Association, the Beatles. More significantly, it found Madonna reflecting on marriage and family, subject matter that bonds her musical influences together into a cohesive—and confessional—collection. For all of her vocal limitations, Madonna often sings with more feeling than many of her more technically gifted peers, and with her voice left shockingly unpolished here, the album offers some of her most soulful, vulnerable performances. Upon revisiting Like a Prayer, I made a new discovery: a whirring synth on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a non-cloying song about her marriage to Sean Penn, that mimics the sound of a car speeding away as the song fades. Likewise, the album begins with a slamming door—the closing of a chapter, if you will, and the beginning of a new one. By the late ’80s, Madonna was already one of the biggest pop stars of all time, but with Like a Prayer, she became one of the most important. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

19

Paul Simon, Graceland

Modern-day indie purveyors like Vampire Weekend, Tanlines, and even the Very Best owe the lifeblood of their mbaqanga-meets-baroque pop sound to Graceland, the album that singlehandedly revived Paul Simon’s career in the ’80s. The album is gorgeous and diverse by way of its quirkiness, a multi-sided gem drawing on a limitless number of styles and influences and combining them with an almost celebratory humor. “You Can Call Me Al” is a prime example of that winning formula, where the typically witty existentialism of Simon’s lyrics is paired South African basslines, worldly percussion, and even a pennywhistle. With Graceland, Simon completed the journey from Garfunkel to funky, and to this day, imitators can’t quite match the record’s blithe mosaic. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

18

N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton

“Do I look like a motherfucking role model?!” You know your debut has truly caught people’s attention when even J. Edgar’s descendant soldiers are wiring you demerits. Given the carnage on display, though, it’s not hard to see why G-Men started getting a little testy when they caught wind of G-funk’s prehistory emerging from speakers everywhere in the form of the metaphor-free “Fuck tha Police.” The juxtaposition of midtempo, Cali-languid grooves and violent wordplay positioned Straight Outta Compton as the sound of the West Coast firing on New York’s Fort Sumpter in what would become ’90s culture’s biggest Uncivil War. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

17

R.E.M., Document

Michael Stipe has said he knew he wanted to play in a rock band when he heard Patti Smith’s Horses at the age of 15. I have to think that Document, made 12 years later, is the R.E.M. album that Smith would be most proud to have inspired. Stipe’s lyrics had never been as political, though with the exception of “Exhuming McCarthy,” he avoids making accusations, instead using desolate midtempo numbers like “Welcome to the Occupation” and “King of Birds,” which paraphrases Reagan’s State of the Union address from the same year in its chorus, to evoke the confusion and frustration of the era. Ironically, it was by rediscovering the power in the original outsider stance, reflected sonically in their step back from the crisp production of Lifes Rich Pageant, that R.E.M. made their breakthrough, not so much crossing over into the mainstream as piercing it with their most focused and intelligent work to date. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

16

The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

There may never again be an indie-rock album as good as The Queen Is Dead. Johhny Marr proves himself to be the consummate indie guitar hero by never allowing his Rickenbacker to jangle quite the same way on nay two songs, and, crucially, never taking a single solo. Even so, bouncing pop numbers like “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” are as much his showcase as they are Morrissey’s, who only really steals the show on “I Know It’s Over.” On that desolate breakup number, he gives the vocal performance of his life, finding a new way to contort his larynx each time he begs his mother for consolation. His lyrics had never been more revealing: By the end of the album, we learn that Morrissey is the type of person who imagines himself burning at the stake on a bad day, and on a good night allows himself to fantasize about dying in an incredibly romantic bus accident. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

15

The Cure, Disintegration

After two albums’ worth of uncharacteristically light-hearted pop, Disintegration might’ve sounded like something of a relapse for the Cure. It’s a dreamlike album that turns nightmarish in places as its icy, imperious pop epics channel Pornography’s atmospheric despondency. Depression is often associated with the inability to feel, but Disintegration proves that sorrow is, as much as love, a many-splendored thing. For all his infamous melodrama, Robert Smith can be a plainspoken and relatable lyricist; this is an album with songs about hungry spider men and hopeless prayers, but its most memorable lines are simple and heartfelt. If not for Smith’s wardrobe, we wouldn’t call this goth. We’d call it sad, pretty pop music. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

14

Tom Waits, Rain Dogs

Early in his transition from post-beatnik piano man to percussive backwoods hobo, the Tom Waits of Rain Dogs still had the residual stink of a boozy poet left on him, which resulted in the snappy rhythms of this big album. At 19 tracks and 53 minutes, it’s the most overstuffed and expansive effort of his long career. From the squealing free jazz of “Midtown” to the jaunty music-hall balladry of “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and off-kilter accordion jangle of the title track, Rain Dogs is a skuzzy, dynamic mural, awash in film-noir-inspired textures and all kinds of detailed color, a sleazeball concept album pickled in cheap gin. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

13

R.E.M., Murmur

For many, this was their first taste of Michael Stipe’s wistfulness, that artful, almost autistic lyricism that would have been completely impenetrable if not for the inviting warmth of his voice. There was also, of course, the playfulness of Peter Buck’s just-shy-of-strident guitar and Mike Mills’s harmonious basslines. There are R.E.M. albums I cherish more, but Buck and Mills never played better than they did on “Radio Free Europe,” “Moral Kiosk,” “Catapult,” “Sitting Still,” and “9-9,” a gorgeous and unexpectedly sexy cacophony of sound and canny wordplay that gives striking expression to Stripe’s social anxiety. Listening to Murmur today is bittersweet, because as the spell of its dreamy melancholy breaks, we realize we must resign ourselves to a world where R.E.M. didn’t stay. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

12

Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill

You can blame them for a lot of things (introducing full-bore misogyny to hip-hop; paving the way for rap-rock with their aggro, guitar-based beats; sticking to the same whiny flow patterns), but the Beastie Boys’ first album also drastically modernized rap. Rife with layer upon layer of sampling, start-stop transitions, and aggressive beats, it helped transform the genre from a direct dialogue between MC and DJ into a piercing, multi-threaded narrative. Making way for the even more complex textures of Paul’s Boutique, it’s a groundbreaking classic that helped set an exciting template for the future. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

11

Prince, Sign o’ the Times

Finding Prince at an all-time high of musical creativity and an all-time low of horniness, Sign o’ the Times is Prince’s most varied album and his most self-consciously auteurish. It collects tracks from a few years’ worth of shelved experiments, which means it lacks the coherent sound of a Purple Rain. But what chance does aesthetic unity stand against such gleefully generative pluralism? The psychedelic stomp of “Play in the Sunshine” and the nervy, obsessive sexuality of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” could be spun off into whole albums. The truth is, 1999 and Purple Rain have been the blueprint for more than a handful of R&B careers, but no one’s quite figured out how to follow Prince’s trail this far. For all of the new musical possibilities that Sign o’ the Times opens up, it also prompts the sobering realization that most of them will only ever be possibilities for one musician. Cole

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