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The 10 Best Albums of 1986

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Beastie Boys
Photo: Columbia Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, 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. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: The Bangles, Different Light; Afrika Bamabaataa & Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock: The Album; Metallica, Master of Puppets; Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring; New Order, Brotherhood; Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.; The Robert Cray Band, Strong Persuader; Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses; Randy Travis, Storms of Life; The Go-Betweens, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express



EVOL

10. 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. Jesse Cataldo



Skylarking

9. XTC, Skylarking

The story behind the recording of XTC’s Skylarking is that the band absolutely hated working with producer Todd Rundgren, whom they found overbearing and snide, but none of that behind-the-scenes tension translated into the finished product, as joyous and buoyant a pop album as has ever been recorded. The songwriting is balanced between Andy Partidge’s more twee impulses and Colin Moulding’s grounded, dry wit, while Rundgren’s on-point production splits the difference between the band’s Pet Sounds inspiration and new wave’s bounce. Even when the band explores headier themes, such as the working-class disaffect on standout “Earn Enough for Us” and the potent defense of atheism on minor-hit single “Dear God,” their melodies are outsized and sunny. Skylarking might not have been fun to record, but it’s still a blast to listen to. Jonathan Keefe



Raising Hell

8. Run-DMC, Raising Hell

It wasn’t the album that made hip-hop “safe” to white, middle American audiences (that didn’t come along until M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em), but Run-D.M.C.’s landmark Raising Hell was the album that truly gave a broader pop audience an entry point into hip-hop music. That Run-D.M.C. were able to break through on such a massive scale without sacrificing their aggressive sampling of harder-edged rock music or their inimitable lyrical flow speaks to the skill, unrivaled at the time, that they displayed on Raising Hell. Thanks to producers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the fans who were initially hooked by the group’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” discovered the depth of sound, purposeful use of samples, and razor-sharp wordplay that made the mid-’80s rap music’s golden age. Keefe



True Blue

7. Madonna, True Blue

Sure, some of the production choices on True Blue sound chintzy and dated in comparison to those on Madonna’s other ‘80s releases, but there’s no getting around the fact that five of the album’s nine tracks are among the strongest individual singles of her career. More importantly, though, True Blue was the album on which it became readily apparent that Madonna was more than just a flash-in-the-pan pop star. It’s when she began manipulating her image—and her audience—with a real sense of clarity and purpose and made sure she had quality songs to back up her world-dominating ambition. Keefe



Lifes Rich Pageant

6. R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant

In which the college (rock) kids graduate and head into the real world, ready to take over. And, in R.E.M.’s case, they came pretty close to doing just that. Lifes Rich Pageant stands as a nearly seamless transition between the band’s formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.’s early work is captured on “Just a Touch” and “These Days,” while “Fall On Me” and their cover of the Clique’s “Superman” showcase a newfound emphasis on pop hooks. In striking that balance, Lifes Rich Pageant is a template for how the “alternative” music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. Keefe

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